This is the time of year when I start following the cycling press. It’s the run-up to the classics of Belgium, Holland and Northern France, and it’s the first chance we get to run the rule over the runners and riders of this year’s Tour de France.I know lots of Chain Gang cyclists who follow Le Tour, and on all our bike tours in France throughout July we get to see what a spectacle it is, but I am often reminded how little is understood in the wider world about this incredible race.
The average crowd for the Tour de France is 1 million people. Every day for 3 weeks! It is so spectacular. More people watch the Tour de France every year than every single World Cup and Olympics ever held, added up together. Football is my first sporting love, but I do love the Tour de France.
One thing that intrigues me is the often-held view that Lance Armstrong is widely derided in France as a drug cheat, and is not popular. In my experience, he is an absolute hero in France.
When you are cycling up a hill, and a French driver shouts out of a car window (which they will often do), what they shout is “Armstrong”. Obviously they can hardly pronounce it, so it’s sometimes difficult to understand, but if you speak to a French cycling fan, they want to talk about Lance.
One of my favourite stories about Lance was his quote about Jan Ullrich – Fat Jan, as he’s known among cycling fans. I can’t remember which Tour it was, and I can’t remember exactly the quote, but basically the gist was this: “Where was Jan on New Year’s Day when I was training in the pissing rain?”.
Lance always maintained that Ullrich had the greater natural talent, but in the most famous of all cycle races, his record was seven to nil. This blog isn’t meant to be a measured view of the merits of one cyclist or another, it’s just about what I think, and I think Lance was a wonderful racing cyclist.
The French media might not like Lance, and of course I might be wrong, but in my experience he is revered in France as an extraordinary cyclist, and a wonderful champion. Not the best ever – that accolade surely must go to Eddy ‘The Cannibal’ Merckx, for reasons we can discuss another day. But for me, after Eddy, it’s Lance.
And after Lance I was completely convinced it would be Ivan Basso, who subsequently got banned in the fall out from the Puerto affair. So who will it be this year? I’d love to talk in more detail about the merits of each of the riders, but again, that’s for another day. If it’s possible that Ivan rides, he’ll win. If not, I’d put money on Contador to win again.
I feel fairly certain that if Cadel Evans had known how close he would be at the end of 2007, he could have stuck 21 seconds closer to Contador and Rasmussen in those amazing tussles in the Pyrenees. And now he’d be the champion. But he never attacks, never. And Contador, having won, will be able to exert an authority on his team that will enable him to wring more advantage from his incredible climbing.
Unless, of course, there’s an Eddy or a Lance just waiting there. And the Spring classics are our first clue.