Alfred Hitchcock would be a good director of this race.
-1988 winner Pedro Delgado on the 2011 Tour de France
Honestly, the scariest part of my job is riding on the Great Ocean Road, which I live on, between Christmas and New Year..I’ve cycled in every continent in the world, other than Antarctica, and it’s incredible. Drivers in America and Australia just have attitudes.
-Cadel Evans, 2008
[To read the French version, click here]
The Tour de France, like a moon landing or shuttle mission, is a kind of performance art. The route is predetermined, but the scenario which plays out on the roads of France is always unpredictable. The majority of the Tours since I started paying attention in 1989 have been dominated by the likes of five time winner Miguel Indurain and seven time winner Lance Armstrong, interspersed with brief interregnums. If we are lucky, the 2011 edition, the greatest I have seen without a doubt, will be remembered as the Tour which broke this “star-system.” It is certainly the first truly post-Armstrong, and post-Armstrongian, race.
Due perhaps to the superior engineering of French roads, the Tour de France’s parcours is not necessarily the hardest of the three Grand Tours (of France, Italy and Spain). If the Giro d’Italia, which has been extravagantly hard in recent years (two times up Mount Etna in one day!?) is a kind of free jazz, then the Tour is a Glenn Miller big band: structured, popular, with familiar conventions and subtle variations which have big effects as they play out on the road. The route and the ambitions of 198 riders overlap and conflict to create big, small and strange stories, especially this year.
First we need to talk about doping, not to sour our enjoyment, but because in shaping the dynamic of many recent editions of the race, it came to color our expectations. The 2011 edition took place in the midst of the ongoing and, if press reports are to be believed, increasingly grave investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration into alleged doping by Lance Armstrong and his teammates on the US Postal Service Team. As it tends to, the truth will come out, but for fans of the race those seven Tours and the raggedy bunch which followed now seem like exceptions, or rather mutations of what the Tour ought to be. Compared to the suspense of this year’s race, Lance’s dominance was pretty boring. The details of his wins blend together into a kind of coronation set to the synthesized adagio of a TV sports theme. Where or against whom Lance attacked seems irrelevant. Under his wheels, Morzine, Sestriere, Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux, n’importe où lost their specificity and became mere strips of asphalt under his wheels. The Lance era was characterized by the violent accelerations which he could sustain long enough to put however many minutes he needed between himself and his competitors. Depending on what the grand jury unearths, it may have all been a sham, perhaps the greatest of all time, but what is relevant to any discussion of this year’s race is the way that this compulsive dominance — Lance pedaling metronomically, Lance coasting around uphill hairpin bends as though they were flat, Lance beating known dopers by minutes — came to seem natural. We awaited the moment of his attack like a CNN cameraman scanning the Baghdad skyline.
This year’s Tour showed what we were missing all those years — racing. Racing is struggle, not coronation. This year, our bidons overflowed, not with Gatorade but with heros and their dramas:
- Defending champ Alberto Contador losing big time on the opening stage,
- Cadel Evans beating him by three inches the next day into a headwind up the Mur de Bretagne,
- A particularly beautiful parcours,
- Mark Cavendish’s 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th stage wins,
- Norway’s four stage wins, and none for the French until Pierre Roland’s win on Alpe d’Huez, the most prestigious climb of all,
- Vendéen Thomas Voeckler, who held on to the yellow jersey for ten days, many of which began with his own predictions of his own demise,
- The Schelcks, Andy and Frank, first brothers on the podium,
- And of course Cadel Evans, the first Australian winner and the oldest winner since 1923.
Though the Schlecks and Voeckler deserved victory as much as he, Evans is surely the most appropriate champion for this particular Tour. He is an athlete very much in the mold of Andre Agassi, or the pre-championship Boston Red Sox. Any triumph comes after bad luck, unexpected défaillances and many second places. The Red Soxian Evans is the opposite of the NYankeesque Lance Armstrong; because he can’t accelerate fast enough to drop the best climbers in the mountains, Evans must scrap for victory, gaining a few seconds here, limiting his losses there. Every time Contador or Andy or Frank Schleck danced away from him in the Pyrenees or Alps, Cadel (why does it seem natural to call certain champions by their first name?) came back to them gradually, crushing a huge gear. Cadel doesn’t dance on his pedals, he punishes them.
The decisive moment was undoubtedly Stage 18 between Pinerolo and the 2600 meter summit of the Col du Galibier (climbed twice this year to celebrate the hundreth anniversary of the Tour in the Alps). Andy Schleck’s heroic and very early attack on the Col d’Izoard caught Evans off guard. Evans sat in the pack as sleep-deprived antipodeans screamed at their televisions and Schleck’s lead grew to over four minutes. Then on the last climb, the 2600 metre Col du Galibier, Evans chased like crazy, dragging behind him competitors unable or unwilling to help. He didn’t quite catch Schleck — who, unlike the suspiciously invincible champions of yore, became very very tired toward the top of the climb — but limiting his losses with such élan was what won him the Tour. This struggle supports the argument that this was a cleaner Tour. It’s impossible to prove, but the lack of superheros is encouraging. In any case, the 2011 Tour showed that human beings are more interesting that superheros.
Australians like winning and “our” Cadel is the man of the moment. For cycling in Australia it is an exciting and slightly unstable moment. If art is long, sport is ephemeral unless one participates. It was Cadel who rode 3430.5 kilometers around France, not his fans. The initial car-honking, flag-waving thrill of victory will fade as fast as it always does (and it faded all the faster during the massacred version of “Advance Australia Fair sung on the Champs Elyssés), but Cadel’s win could have lasting consequences if it puts more “bums on bike seats” as Phil Anderson, the first non-European to wear the yellow jersey, predicted after the race. It’s about time. As Mike Rubbo of situp-cycle.com wrote that Australia is “now first in the world in sports cycling, and last, or near last, in utility cycling.” To my mind, it’s no accident that Europe is number one in both. We’re all cyclists: Cadel’s victory will inspire new riders and that is a good thing. For those who find they love the bike, whether for racing or riding, this moment is life-changing. Greg Lemond’s famous eight second victory in the 1989 Tour encouraged my own bike addiction (and a very patchy racing “career” which began in the same year as Cadel’s). The entertaining differences between types of cyclists are interesting but less important than the fact that we, and Cadel too, ride the same roads.
In celebration of the 100th Tour de France in 2013, there are rumors that the organizers are considering some radical changes to the race (such as allowing only 100 competitors, 20 teams of five men each). In this spirit, here are my own suggestions, serious and improbable, some Glenn Miller and others Ornette Coleman, to celebrate this momentous occasion:
Only start and finish in towns which have never hosted the Tour before,
- Include some dirt roads, such as these in Brittany,
- Include more short, very hard mountain stages like the one to Alpe d’Huez this year,
- Include an individual time trial of over 100km, as in the old days (in 1947 there was a TT of 139km!),
- Include more teams with fewer riders per team,
- Conduct the final stage into Paris on Vélibs,
- Ban gears and
- Do what needs to be done to ensure there is a French winner (it’s been 26 years, that’s Andy Schleck’s whole lifetime!)