Tour de France

 

Chris Froome got his final yellow jersey with the Arc de Triomphe lit up
Chris Froome got his final yellow jersey with the Arc de Triomphe lit up against the night sky

A spectacular success: the hundredth Tour de France 

‘This is a beautiful country with the finest sporting event on the planet. To win the hundredth event is an honour beyond any’ — Chris Froome

 Our sports editor Roger Childs looks back at what’s become probably the ‘Greatest Sports Show on Earth’

Finished in style

By Roger Childs

The jets roared overhead billowing red, white and blue smoke; multi-coloured electronic patterns played on the Arc de Triomphe; and the illusion of billowing yellow silk layered the upper slope of the Champs Elysees. The French were celebrating the completion of the hundredth tour in style. It was early evening and the hundreds of thousands who lined the 7km circuit for the final stage in central Paris were treated to a magical experience.

The four best sprinters in the field of 169 raced down the Champs Elysees at speeds in excess of 60kph for the honour of winning the last race. The Manx Missile Mark Cavendish, winner for the last four years, was the favourite, but was beaten into third by Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel. 

However the big winner was Chris Froome, who led the general classification for the last fourteen of the twenty one stages and collected copious kisses from the podium girls, rafts of flowers and a sackful of toy lions.

Off to a bad start 

Le Tour started as a publicity stunt for the Parisian sports magazine L’Auto in 1903. Commercial interests were involved from the start and prize money and bonuses were on offer. There were six stages in this first tour which covered 2428km. 

There were seven much needed rest days; the rest was an odyssey of suffocating dust, blinding sun, buffeting mistral winds, bone-breaking vibrations, not to mention punctures falls and losing the way.(Serge Laget)

Out of 60 starters, the winner was chimneysweep Maurice Garin, also known as The White Bulldog because of his white coat and aggressive riding style. Over 30 riders were disqualified for cheating and two simply disappeared during the race!

Race rules evolved as time went on, especially after the 1904 tour when a bizarre range of tactics were used by riders and their supporters, anxious to win the prizes. The nefarious strategies included

  • catching trains on the longer stages
  • booby traps made of nails
  • abuse and debris thrown at rival cyclists
  • even a plot by the supporters of Faure to knife his opponents!

In 1905 new rules and closer surveillance by race referees resulted in a cleaner and more peaceful tour, even though an estimated 125 kg of tacks and nails were strewn on the largely unsealed roads! 

Hugely popular but soaked in drugs 

The race attracted enormous spectator interest from the start and in this year’s race tens of millions lined the route to watch the cyclists go by. Over the years, unfortunately, the desire of teams, managers and individuals to win at all costs, led to drugs becoming a huge problem and, inevitably, there were casualties and fatalities. 

In 1967 English cyclist, Tom Simpson, tragically died after coming off his bike on the gruelling 21km Mont Ventoux climb. A combination of amphetamines and alcohol, on top of exhaustion, caused his death. Many other cyclists in this and other European races were involved in systematic drug talking, injections and blood doping, and many would die later from health complications. 

Sadly the cycling community and the tour organisation turned a blind eye to much of the doping. However, after the 1998 tour, when police and customs seized large quantities of illegal substances, serious efforts were made to clean up the sport.

Armstrong’s demise – a catalyst for change

However the problems continuedand a number of tour winners subsequently lost their titles after testing positive for drugs. In the end, the much publicised disgrace in 2012 of seven times winner, Lance Armstrong, highlighted the need to make the tour clean once and for all.

Armstrong was brought down by testimony from more than a dozen fellow cyclists, many of whom had been his friends. US Anti-Doping Agency chief executive, Travis Tygart, stated that ‘the evidence shows beyond doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling team ran the most sophisticated and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen.’ 

Armstrong had not only used EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids and cortisone to beat his rivals, but had also put considerable pressure on team mates to do the same. 

2013 : clean at last?

The French government and the tour organisers were determined to make the hundredth tour drug free. But when last year’s second place getter, Chris Froome, built up a commanding lead after the first week, some of the journalists thought they could smell dope on his breath.

Armstrong did not help matters shortly before this year’s event began, saying that no-one could win without drugs. Froome, a quietly spoken, unassuming Englishman was furious: ‘Lance cheated. I’m not cheating. End of story.’ Fellow cyclists and managers, as well as many journalists, leapt to his defence.

Ben Carter, BBC journalist: ‘There is no evidence that Chris Froome is doping. He has been tested 19 times in this Tour de France alone. Nothing in his performance data shows he is doping. But he is a victim of Lance Armstrong and the other proven drug takers who haunt the Tour de France.’

In the absence of any evidence, the story died.

A triumph for world sport

The fantastic finale on the Champs Elysees in The City of Light brought down the curtain on a magnificent event. It had seen

  • over 3400km of cycling in 21 stages from Corsica to the English Channel and from the Loire Valley to the French Alps
  • superb coverage with aerial filming that would make a dozen spectacular France from the Air documentaries
  • many closely contested sprint finishes
  • some amazing hill stages where the lead kept changing
  • 170+ riders battling the elements, varied terrain and each other with courage and commitment
  • a superbly fit, highly motivated and humble winner.

Christopher Froome, born in Kenya, educated in South Africa and representing Great Britain, has given the tour some much needed respectability. His success is a great triumph in the history of sport on the planet. 

To reinforce the 2013 attitude to the critical doping issue that has dogged the event for so long, Froome spoke for his fellow cyclists on the tour. Shortly before stepping on to the dais to receive the winner’s accolades, he said… ‘the sport has moved on. And we as a peloton are standing together against it and we will not stand for it any longer.’