2011 – 2012 And So We Come To The End – Or A New Beginning…

2011 THE TOUR OF THE UNDERDOGS

He comes from Alsace by way of Martinique where he earned the nickname ‘Ti Blanc’ for his small stature and pale complexion. He’s taller than 2 apples but not by much – at 5′ 10” he is towered over by his 6 ft Europcar teammate Pierre Rolland. He is the French darling, their chouchou for his remarkable performances holding the Maillot Jaune at the Tour de France – the first in 2004, the 2nd a repeat in 2011.

Both the Frenchman’s raids on Yellow have been almost identical:

2004: he gets in a break on stage 5 and rides himself into the Yellow Jersey which he holds for 10 days, riding with grit and determination through the Pyrenees to fend off Armstrong and the might of his Discovery team and only surrendering on stage 15 in the Alps.

2011: takes the Jersey after a breakaway on stage 9 (of which more anon) and holds through the Pyrenees before surrendering on the etape reine to Alpe d’Huez on stage 19.

20 days in the Maillot Jaune is an extraordinary achievement but it’s the way Vockler rides that has won him an army of devotees – in him there are shades of the good old days, the days of the baroudeurs, the great escapes, the grand exploits. Riders like Voeckler are the closest we have to the Giants of old, now that the race for the GC is so finely calculated and the elite riders so risk averse – efforts are carefully packaged and meted out, matches burned sparingly if at all, numbers calculated, pored over, decisions made on SRM data. The exploits of the Voecklers of this world – who race on feel and guts and panache – are now firmly relegated to being a sideshow. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a Coppi or a Merckx riding the race off their wheel for a hundred kilometres again. Modern wisdom says you can’t do what they did in the good old/bad old days without doping – I’m with Fignon: I’d rather the ad hoc doping and the grand exploits of the pre Armstrong era than what came after.

Give Andy Schleck his due – he gave us one of the great rides of the modern era on stage 18 when he attacked on the ascent of the Izoard. The list of winners on that fearsome climb – one of the highest passes in the Alps – reads like a who’s who of the greats of the Tour de France. There are 2 steles amongst the broken rocks of the Caisse Deserte to commemorate the exploits of Fausto Coppi and Lousin Bobet, the masters of the col. It was Bobet who said that reputations were made on the Izoard and that the mark of a true Tour de France champion was to lead the race from the front in the Maillot Jaune across that broiling rocky wilderness. Bobet did it himself 3 times, most notably on stage 18 in the 1953 Tour de France. Bobet simply took wing and flew up the mountain and finished in Briancon 5′ ahead of his rivals. As he crossed the boulder strewn wilderness of the Caisse Deserte he thanked a roadside spectator and his pretty partner. It was Fausto Coppi and la dame blanche Guilia Locatelli. ‘Beautiful’ responded il Campianissimo.

Schleck rode for 60 kms alone – across the Izoard and then to the mighty heights of the Galibier and within touching distance of Voeckler’s Yellow Jersey. A certain 5 time Tour winner was roaring encouragement from the team car and Eddy Merckx was full of praise at the stage finish: “He rode with great courage, gave a cycling lesson to everybody.” High praise indeed from the author of one of the Tour’s grandest exploits.

Schleck himself was more modest, as befits his personality, yet proud of his extraordianry achievement: “So far we have seen a race that’s been waiting for a decisive moment and I decided to take matters into my hands and that’s why I started my attack from a long way out…It was a dream for me to win here. When I looked at the course when it was unveiled, I knew I wanted to win this one….But already the win is history, now I’m ready for the yellow jersey. What I did today shows that I can take it.”

He took it the next day, ending Voeckler’s Yellow adventure. The colective will of the French people couldn’t keep Voeckler in the race lead but it could ensure a stage win as Tommy’s trusty lieutenant Pierre Rolland rode away from Sanchez and Contador to take an enthralling win. Rolland had shepherded his teammate faithfully through his sojourn in the Maillot Jaune and it was just recompense for his efforts. Europcar used one of the many photos of the 2 riders embracing after another successful defence of the Jersey in an ad campaign with the strapline “3450 kms on 1 tank of courage”. I have it printed out and stuck on the fridge amongst my son’s drawing of a lizard and the ticket stubs from the time I finally saw Patti Smith. It makes me smile every time I see them, Rolland’s arm around a grinning Voeckler’s shoulders.

Rolland rode himself into the White Jersey for best young rider in the Tour and instantly into the consciousness of millions of French people awaiting a successor to Fignon and Hinault. Will it be the gangly lad from Gien? Rolland is currently embroiled in a row over his low cortisol levels recorded in the Dauphine-Libere in June 2013. Put simply, like the old 50% haematocrit level and EPO, low cortisol levels can be indicative of cortisone doping. Europcar have already been investigated for cortisone use after the 2011 Tour de France, though the investigation was dropped for lack of evidence. When the infamous ‘Index of Suspicion’ was released by l’Equipe in 2010, an accompanying article by the Francaise des Jeux team doctor spoke of a peloton not just at 2 speeds but at trois vitesses and indicated that cortisone had become the dope of choice amongst French teams. It’s interesting to note that, post Festina, French riders became subject to quarterly longitudinal health tests that prefigured the biological passport. The decline in French cycling hopes can be pinpointed to the moment those tests came in. The recent renaissance of French riders was seen as an indication that the sport was cleaning up its act. Rolland’s cortisol levels indicate this might not be the case.

The 2011 Tour also gave us one of the most resonant images of modern bike racing – Johnny Hoogerland flying through the air and landing tangled in a barbed wire fence like a stricken soldier in No Man’s Land or a contemporary Jesus bedecked in metal thorns, a forcat de la route trapped in a tangle of metal. A France TV car had swerved into Juan Antonio Flecha, knocking him sideways and Hoogerland had flown over the top of him. Voeckler earned brickbats for not slowing the pace and allowing the break to reform. The photos were horrific – Hoogerland’s ripped flesh requiring 33 stitches, his shorts torn beyond repair. He fought on bravely, crossing the finish line 16′ behind stage winner Luis-Leon Sanchez and painfully ascending the podium to receive his Polka Dot Jersey before going to hospital. His subsequent podium appearances to receive the King of the Mountains Jersey were met with the sort of acclaim usually reserved for homegrown riders. Hoogerland had dreamed of taking the Polka Dots to Paris but it was not to be – Samuel Sanchez took that prize whilst the Dutchman limped home in 74th place. But Hoogerland won the hearts of every cycling fan that day on stage 9 and was commemorated by a Stomach of Anger T-shirt with the legend “Welcome to Hoogerland: Population Heroes” against a design of barbed wire and bleeding polka dots. In February 2013 Hoogerland crashed again, this time suffering 5 fractured ribs, a bruised liver and spinal fractures wiping out his Classics campaign. But nothing stops the indestructible Dutchman – on 23rd June, against all odds, he became the Dutch National Road Race champion earning the right to wear the red, white and blue bands on his jerseys forever more.

That stage is a tale in itself – there had already been a mass pile up on the descent of the Col du Puy Mary that saw Vinokourov and Van den Broeck abandon with broken bones. The fact that Contador crashed again and banged an already sore knee went almost unremarked, but that was almost certainly the day the Spaniard lost the 2011 Tour. Crashes took their toll on the race – there’d already been a huge pile up on stage 1 that left Contador, Wiggins, Schleck and Basso with over a minute’s deficit. Interestingly, Cancellara decided against an in race rider protest and instead battled for the line where the peloton was outsprinted by Philippe Gilbert. Also in that front group and taking a useful 2nd place on the stage was a now veteran campaigner, 34 year old Australian Cadel Evans.

Evans came from mountain biking and had first shone on the road in the 2002 Giro d’Italia where he wore the Maglia Rosa after stage 16. What happened next seemed to mark the young rider for years afterwards. On stage 17 he promptly lost the Jersey on the final, brutally steep climb to Folgaria. Never the prettiest of riders to watch, Evans hunched further and further over his bike, his familiar crab like style ever more accentuated, the weat dripping down his face. Shepherded to the line by Noe and Cioni, he eventually grovelled over the line in 41st place, having lost a massive 17′ 11”. It semed like the stuffing got knocked out of him and for years after he was always a follower, never an attacker – a world class cyclist but one who seemed afraid to take a race by the scruff of its neck for fear of trailing home miserably having chanced his arm for nothing.

All that changed one September day in Switzerland. Attacking on the last climb of the race with 3 kms between him and the Rainbow Jersey, Evans soloed to a famous and astonishing victory. It gave the Australian a new lease of life, a new hope, a new energy. He won the Fleche Wallonne in the Rainbow Jersey and recorded a string of other decent placings and arrived on the start line at les Barres de Monts as the winner of the ‘Race Between the Seas’ Tirenno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie. Would this be his year?

He stayed out of trouble, he avoided the crashes and bad luck that beset his rivals – and had often seen him fail in the past. He took an uphill sprint finish on stage 4 and bided his time in the Alps and Pyrenees letting his rivals burn themselves out attacking each other. Once again content to follow, the way he constructed his win wasn’t spectacular but he battled for it – particularly on Alp d’Huez when, a la Stephen Roche on La Plagne, he did the ride of his life to reduce the gap between himself and Andy Schleck to 57” and keep his Tour hopes alive. Then it was all down to the Grenoble time trial – there were 42.5 kms between the Australian and the Yellow Jersey with 1 stage left to race. Evans didn’t win the contre la montre but he easily swept aside the challenge of the Schleck brothers, both notoriously poor at the discipline of riding against the clock, despite Andy having been Luxembourg national TT champion.

The Schlecks realised their dream of both standing on the podium of the Tour de France – unfortunately, neither was on the top step. That belonged to the 34 year old Cadel Evans who became the oldest Tour winner since Henri Pelissier in 1923.

There was only one blot on his copybook. Evans has been passionately outspoken about global and social issues like Tibet, and was sarcastically nicknamed ‘Cuddles’ for being notoriously difficult with the press – once screaming at a reporter “step on my dog and I’ll cut your head off”. In his Yellow Jersey press conference, when asked if his success meant that the Tour was finally cleaner, he responded: “I don’t think I’m in the best position to comment on that, sorry.” It was a strangely missed opportunity for a rider widely considered ‘clean’ to make a bold and straightforward statement on the issue. Instead we were left scratching our heads, pondering just why he might not be in a position to comment.

After the Armstrong years and a series of doping marred follow ups, 2011 was a genuinely entertaining, surprising, enjoyable race. But I’m giving the last word to Jeremy Roy. The 29 year old from Tours spent over 700kms in front of the race in a series of do or die attacks – he tried on stage 1, stage 4 and came agonisingly close to taking a stage win on stage 13 into Lourdes only being caught 2.5 kms from the line by a charging, bullish Hushovd. He walked away with the Super Combativity award but no stage wins, tweeting “Cavendish 1km leading in the #TDF and 5 victories. Euh.. I’ve done 750…and still no victory.. 😉 lol”.

2012 HISTORY IS MADE – AND REPEATED

How to write about the 2013 Tour de France? A British rider won it in the year London hosted the Olympics and the bunting flew as history was made (nice, patriotic)? Chris Froome dragged his teammate Bradley Wiggins round France to a dour but well constructed historic Tour de France win (prosaic, to the point)? Tour de Bore made me snore (short and sour, not sweet)? There’s an element of truth in all of them.

First, the parcours. Christian Prudhomme was quite candid that he had designed the course for a ‘rider like Wiggins’. He outlined his vision for the 2012 Tour to Bicycling: “Personally, I dream of cycling like back in the day of Jacques Anquetil or Raymond Poulidor, when time-trialers were really time-trialers and climbers really climbers. My dream for the 2012 Tour is to have a rider like Tony Martin, Bradley Wiggins, or Fabian Cancellara take the yellow jersey in Besançon with a healthy lead that forces the climbers to go on the attack. If I had to pick between the Andy Schleck who waited to attack until the last kilometre on the climb Avoriaz in 2010 and the Andy Schleck who attacked 60 kilometres from the finish on the Galibier in 2012, well the choice is easy. I much prefer the 2011 version who inspired the passions of bicycle racing. And we design race routes to inspire such racing.” In reality there were several reasons why Prudhomme’s grand vision was never going to come to fruition – the risk averse nature of the modern sport, the lack of really challenging mountain stages and the way that the race of truth has come to dominate modern stage racing.

Gone are the days when the race was truly won in the mountains – a top 10 placing on GC is more financially rewarding than risking everything on playing Icarus. The UCI ‘voodoo points system’ (thank you Mr Vaughters) must take a lot of the blame – better to simply follow the wheels and collect your hatful of points at the end of the stage than to risk failing and losing. Rider’s just don’t launch those kinds of attacks anymore. The USPS model showed teams how to win with maximum ruthlessness and efficiency. Who cares if you write your name in the history books? History books don’t write the big fat cheques.

Modern racing in the mountains has been characterised, at least since Indurain’s day, by the mountain train that matches on the climbs what the sprint train achieves on the flat – to control the race, keep the temp high to inhibit attacks and to deliver their GC candidate to the final rendezvous in a position to either win the stage or at least limit their losses. Schleck’s 2010 ride was remarkable partly for its rarity value. There are no longer the huge time gaps that once characterised a successful mountain raid. To win the modern Tour, you need first and foremost to ride well against the clock – that’s where the real time gaps are now forged, where Tours are won and most often lost.

More cleverly, by designing a parcours suited to the talents of an Evans or a Wiggins, Prudhomme was introducting globalisation by stealth, prising a way into the lucrative English speaking markets packed full of MAMILS (middle aged men in lycra) for whom cycling in the wake of Armstrong is the new golf.

Second, the weakness of the field. Andy Schleck sat out 2012 with a fractured pelvis. Contador was serving a doping ban. Cadel Evans was there, but on a relatively weak BMC team and he wasn’t getting any younger. Nor was 40 year old Chris Horner, an outside shot at the title. He wasn’t the only putative ageing favourite from the Armstrong cohort – Leipheimer was also talked about. Rider Hesjedal was going for a Giro-Tour Double but the quiet Canadian, at 31, was no spring chicken either. Cobo (31), Valverde (32), Sanchez (34) and Menchov (34) made up an ageing roster of stars. 32 year old Wiggins, looking for a first ever Tour win – and an historic first British win – fitted right in. Only Vincenzo Nibali – at 27 – offered any hope for the young guns.

There are a couple of moments when this Tour loops back to the earliest days of the Tour – one was the tack attack on stage 14 that caused multiple punctures and recalled the 1904 race, another is the age of the elite group of GC favourites reminiscent of the post World War I years. At 34 and 32 respectively, Evans and Wiggins are way over the average age of a Tour de France winner, which stands at 28.7 years. Whilst the race post 1918 lost an entire generation to the carnage of the trenches, the modern race has lost a generation to oxygen vector doping.

The race was over by the time Chris Froome had been released by his team to raise his arms in an inverted V on the Planche des Belles Filles. Sky were quite simply the strongest team in the race by a healthy margin. The numbers had been calculated, the riders rode to their SRMs on the limit of what was considered ‘human’. Brailsford’s had plotted and calculated on his famous graph and inner chimps been vanquished. Never since the days of US Postal in all their pomp had one team been quite so dominant. Is the time ripe for a salary cap, or a cap on sponsorship income? The UCI points system is surely due an overhaul. Most radical of all, perhaps the time is right to look at racing with 6-7 man teams.

But with the Tour killed stone dead by the first time trial, the 51 kms to Besancon and the race for the Yellow Jersey stillborn, there was excitement elsewhere – Thibaut Pinot (the youngest rider in the race at 22) winning a stage, the mergence of BMC’s Tejay Van Garderen as a real GC threat, Pierre Rolland’s late stage winning attack on stage 11 and Tommy ‘the Tongue’ Voeckler snatching a brace of wins in the mountains and taking the Polka Dot Jersey to Paris where he finally stood on the podium. The only credible threat to Wiggins came from his own team – Chris Froome was arguably the stronger rider when the road went up – but Dave Brailsford had decided and the numbers had spoken. It was to be Wiggins who stood on the top step of the Paris podium to the lugubrious strains of the national anthem.

That the subject of doping should raise its head was inevitable. From 1996 to 2010 not a Tour winner had been untouched by doping scandal – Riis, Ullrich, Pantani, Armstrong, Landis, Contador. Even Evans had question marks against him – his evasion on the question of a ‘clean’ Tour, his links to Rominger and Mapei. So what of Wiggins? What turned the outspoken young Cofidis rider into Lance Armstrong’s Best Friend Forever and a rider whose performances have been called into question by Festina’s old trainer, Antoine Vayer, the originator of the VAM equation for calculating whether a rider’s feats are normal or not normal?

Unfortunately for Wiggins and Sky you can’t prove a negative – but you can be genuinely open and transparent. The lack of transparency about Dr Leinders – an alleged doping doctor that Brailsford was happy to say he’d gone out of his way to hire for his expertise – didn’t play well to a press made newly cynical by their almost collective failure to ask tough questions about Armstrong. Then there was zero tolerance 2.0 and the discreet removal of a swathe of support staff – this was trumpeted as a strong move towards proving how clean the team was whilst conveniently ignoring the fact that those same team and staff members had been hired under the original zero tolerance policy. Rumour had it that Rupert Murdoch had imposed the policy on the team in the first place as a condition of the team receiving considerable sums in sponsorship money. That Sky’s sponsorship comes from the same provenance as a stable of newspapers deeply implicated in the UK phone hacking scandal is perhaps reason enough to dislike them.

There are a raft of measures that might help to prove that negative: generalised information on the number of TUEs a team hold and the medications involved, publication of a team’s complete medical manifest, the release of SRM data which Greg Lemond claims to be a clear indicator of genuine performance. Maybe the race needs another Dr Dumas with an army of dirigeants capable of visiting each rider’s hotel room every morning and evening. Are even more draconian measures necessary? Riders are already chaperoned between the end of a stage and doping control – what if that surveillance were extended? Because this is a bike race, not 1984. Because riders have the right to privacy and civil liberties, due process and the presumption of innocence. If we truly crave transparency then perhaps the only possible way forward is to relax our intolerance to doping, to let riders dope under medical supervision and be honest about the products and methods they’ve used to prepare for a race. Or maybe we should just go back to the 80s…

Wiggins is a fascinating character – a fragile talent from a chaotic family background. His father Gary was a pro in Belgium where Wiggins was born. The story goes that pere would smuggle his PEDs in his fils’ nappies. His father was a drug user and alcoholic who was beaten to death in 2008 in Australia. Wiggins has had his own issues with alcohol, claiming to have gone through a period of drinking 12 pints a day. He’s been photographed smoking since his Tour triumph and has spoken publicly about his bouts of depression. Once outspoken about doping in the sport, his ascent into the bubble of elite cycling seems to have tempered his views. He had an annus mirabilis in 2012 achieving an unprecedented trble of the Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie and the Dauphine-Libere plus his Tour title. He finished off his season by becoming Olympic time trial champion on the streets of his home town London. However the Kid from Kilburn achieved it, his success has brought an unprecedentedly high profile to the sport in the UK. Wiggins may not be the most charismatic rider ever to grace the roads of France and his win may have lacked the panache of the real greats but its sad to think that Wiggins may not be given the opportunity to achieve such success again – he has become surplus to requirements at Sky and it’s doubtful another team could provide the support and resources to shepherd him to another GT success. With characteristic cool calculation, Brailsford has thrown the weight of the team behind the Kenyan born ‘Brit’ Chris Froome. Next year it may be Froome who needs to be careful what he wishes for.

I met Wiggins at the Tour de Poitou-Charentes once – I remember he was sporting a gaudy Olympic Rings knuckleduster and was standing in the way of my taking photographs of riders like Andrea Tafi. I politely asked him if he wouldn’t mind moving so I could get a better shot. I still have an image somewhere of his bemused face. But it was 2002 and riders like Chavanel, Vandenbroucke and Hushovd were at the race and it was them I had come to see, not some skinny trackie.

But like every rider who has ever stood on the start line with dreams of Tour de France glory you can only beat the riders who align with you at the depart fictif and you can only ride the parcours the race organisers have designed. Let the film of memory spool back across the years freeze framing Fignon’s empty eyed stare, Hinault’s black eyes behind his Raybans, Chiapucci fighting his way through the surging crowds on the climb to Sestriere. And further back to riders frozen in memory and monochrome – Merckx casting a respectful glance towards the memorial for his teammmate Tom Simpson on the Mont Ventoux, Vietto sitting alone on a wall as the race passes him by, Coppi and Bartali sharing the most famous bidon in cycling, Bobet crossing the broken desert alone. A plane crashes into the Tourmalet. The peloton frolic in the cooling waters of the Mediterranean.

All the way back to a Parisian afternoon in 1903 outside the Reveil Matin. We’re standing amidst a group of 60 riders. There’s Maurice Garin, the bouldogue blanc. Josef Fischer is smoking a fat cigar. Marcel Kerff is resplendent in his white safari suit. Hippolyte Auticouturier’s striped jersey makes him stand out from the crowd. Before them stretches the 467 km to Lyon. They mount their machines, turning the pedals softly, moving away in a ragged group a million miles from the modern peloton. They are moving away from us now, rolling down the road and into history. The road stretches off into the distance, the dusty ribbon of memory tying the then to the now. 

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2 thoughts on “2011 – 2012 And So We Come To The End – Or A New Beginning…

  1. I’ve read many books on the Tour de France but none as enjoyable or as evocative as your series. I do hope you’re going to get these published. Another thing, when you do get back to France to open your B&B, please don’t stop writing!

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