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The Tour

by Bernie Bostik

What will have left Strasbourg on the 1st of July?, and right about know should be making it's way around the rest of France finally ending up in Paris,  taking in visits to  Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Spain along the way? For those of you  who don't have a shammy leather and Lycra fetish, I will have to tell you. It is of course the Tour De France. The biggest spectator sport in the World (Between 12-15 million people watch this thing whizz past, road side). The Tour is HUGE. For the 189 riders (21 teams of 9 riders) it consists of 20 stages and will cover a total distance of 3,600 kilometres. This year the stages are broke down into  9 flat stages, 4 medium mountain stages( the mountains being bigger than anything in the UK), 5 proper mountain stages( the Alps and Pyrenees...say no more) and  2 individual time-trial stages, but it isn't just the riders who do the course. The 'peloton' as the bunch of riders is known is just the heart beating in the middle of this corporate anaconda that snakes it's way across Europe.


The gargantuan snake is made up of 4,500 people and 2,200 vehicles which include 200 following the riders (team cars, media, race officials, doctors etc.) 135 trucks that go the day before the race to set up the Technical Zone at the finish, 45 Republican Guard motorcyclist  encircle the riders and  the 180 vehicle strong publicity caravan,  that proceeds the peloton by a couple of hours. All the main sponsors are represented in the convoy, as they drive along in their  logo'd up trucks handing out 10 to 11 million pieces of free tat.

 
 

A mad Media scrum representing 33 countries swarms the riders each day including 1,900 journalists, photographers, consultants, cameramen and production staff, 1,400 technicians, 311 press agencies, 45 photo agencies, 103 radio stations. The monster gets broadcast to 184 countries by 76 TV channels (43 broadcast the race live) all over the globe, 2,965 hours of TV programmes will be beamed out onto the screens over the duration. Even the cyber saddle sniffers are catered for as 200 million webpages get viewed during the tour. Like I was saying this thing is HUGE!

The riders will be competing for the coveted Malliot Jaune (that's yellow jersey for those of you who use to bunk off double French) and it is awarded to the highest place rider on time classification, but this isn't the only jersey that is up for grabs. You also have the green jersey or points jersey (points are awarded depending on your daily finish) this jersey is usually contested by the sprinters of the pack. The red polka-dotted jersey for the best climber (points are awarded on a first over the top of the mountains basis) .And  The white jersey for best placed young rider (under 25). There is also the matter of 3.2 million euros in prize money to get shared out, 450,000 going to the winner. Well not all of it, because all  the prize money a team wins goes into a kitty to be shared out amongst every one. This is because any one man cannot win the race on his own, he needs a good team around him. 'Domestiques ' or 'water carriers' as they are affectionately known. These 'Jamie Carragher' types do all the proper hard graft, fetching food and water for the team leader, closing down break aways, giving up his bike for ' Steven Gerrard'  if need be and basically making sure that 'Gerrard' gets round the course hassle free, so it is only fair that they get a slice of the pie.

I have a healthy appetite for the tour thanks to my cycling nut of a father . As much of my child hood was spent stood on the side of  a by-pass or dual carriageway  in Wales or other such similar nondescript roads in deepest darkest Cheshire watching him plod past on his Lilac Harry Quinn (he actually had one that colour!). And holidays were booked around the Isle of Man cycling week and someother cyclingfest in Harrogate were we always use to end up in a tent. I even dabbled in a bit of pedal pushing myself and won a kids race at Harrogate one year , when the favourite (some little gobshite who had the best bike and a pair of sidi racing shoes on-they were very hard to get in kids sizes unless you had been abroad) fell off on the last corner and I swerved past on my Puch in a pair of polyveldts to cross the line first. A few years after I succumbed to wine women and song and the bike career got put on hold until just recently were I have purchased a mountain bike -Alp D'Huez here I come!!.

I enjoyed watching the tour with my old man, well the 20 minute clip World of Sport use to show in the early days and I fondly remember my old man going all loco in the front room when the tenacious wee Scot Robert Millar was descending down into Pau for a stage victory in  the Pyrenees in 83. These days I still enjoy watching the tour with my dad and it's fun to hear him berate his anger at that plum commentator on Eurosport  (David Duffield) who is to busy telling you about his lovely evening  the night before quaffing Chateauneuf du Pape and goats cheese in some traditional French restaurant,  to notice  an all important move by one of the race leaders.(just listen to him , this fellow talks pure toffee). Eurosport should get my old man on the case, he'd do a better job than that knobhead. My old man can spot an attack, tell you who is in the attack, tell you what bikes they are riding, what gear ratio and sprocket they are using, where abouts in general classification each rider in the break away is and he will even tell you that Ivan Basso has a skid mark in his shammy leathers due to not wiping his rusty key hole properly that morning, all that while silly bollocks is discussing the finer points of his creme brullee he secreted the night before.

I have been lucky enough to go and see the tour twice, once when I was a kid with my dad,  2 uncles, 3 cousins and  Grandad (a proper salty old sea dog/Uncle Albert type character who at the age of 73 hitchhiked to France the year before too see the tour, without telling anyone) . We watched the stage finish on the Roubaix track from the main-stand and we all got on the front page of Lequipe (French sports newspaper). The next day we were up early to see the riders depart Roubaix and us kids took great pleasure in jumping over the fences and begging the riders for any souvenirs. It was funny to see my father the second time I went to see the tour in 95, acting like a kid who had just put a full sachet of space dust on his tongue then swilled it around his mouth aided by a coca cola chaser. He was jumping over the fences, on and off the team buses, basically hassling all unsundry for souvenirs. In 95 me and the old man stationed ourselves in Brussels and we took in one stage finish in Leige, and a full days time trials near Huy. The stage finish we got as close to the line as possible,  about 750 m away. With the peloton a kilometre away and the crowd started to buzz, I pointed out a gang of Moroccan dippers to my father and watched as they skilfully got to work on some unfortunate American. Within a couple of minutes the riders had zoomed past and disappeared into the distance along with the dippers.




You cannot do a piece on the tour without mentioning the drug scandals that have been a part of the tour heritage since the late great Tom Simpson was left gasping for air on the top of Mt. Ventoux  due to the rather large in-take of amphetamines back in the 60's. The tour then said it had to 'clean up it's act' and it has been trying to 'clean up its act' ever since, but the drug stories kept appearing year in year out. Until finally coming to an ugly head in the infamous 98 tour, which kicked off when a car belonging to the Festina team was found to contain huge quantities of performance enhancing drugs. Six of the team admitted taking them and dropped out. What followed was night-time raids by the French drug squad on the teams hotels. The riders got the hump and went on strike, complaining of being treated like cattle. Six teams pulled out in protest or was it guilt? Less than 100 finished that year and people seem to forget that the Italian Pantani 'the pirate' won the yellow jersey.(Pantani retired from the sport early after allegations of substance abuse and was found dead a few years back in some hotel room coked out of his nut)





 

     

 


Stephen Roche on the right




My all time favourite rider Stephen Roche was caught up in a drug scandal in his hey-day  when he was only the second person in History to win the big three - The Tour, the Giro (tour of Italy) and the World Champs all in the same year 1987. His one time friend and team mate Paul Kimmage who has gone on to be a rather successful sports writer (check out his tour diary in the Sunday Times) published a powerful and frank account of life in the peloton called 'Rough Ride' in it he exposed the drug usage in the peloton, but spoke very highly about his boyhood idol Roche. When the book hit the shelves it got an aggressive and visceral reaction from Roche and a threat of litigation, even though no suggestion of drug use by Roche was ever made by Kimmage in the book. But after seeing with my own eyes (be it only on TV) Roche chase Delgado down , when Delgado attacked on the last climb of a gruelling  Alpine stage that had already taken in the Col-de-Galibier and the Col-de Madeleine in the 87 tour. Roche looked as though he was done for when Delgado - the better climber - turned the screw and shot off like a mountain goat. When Delgado crossed the line at the top of La Plagne everybody thought Roche would loose to much time to the Spaniard and forfeit the golden fleece. But Roche rode like a man possessed and appeared from the mist at the top of the Col only a few seconds down on Delgado. On crossing the line Roche collapsed and lost consciousness and was given oxygen, everybody feared the worst and thought we had another Tom Simpson on our hands. He finally came round and was asked if he was OK, to which he replied 'Oui, mais pas de femme toute suite'. After witnessing all that,  it pains me to say this but Roche was deffo on something the day he flew up that mountain. Roche has always stood firm and kept to the cycling omerta and denied everything. 'I have never taken performance enhancing drugs whether banned or unbanned, on or off the list, at any time. In fact, I underwent hundreds of tests during my career and all were negative.'

I am sorry Stephen as one of your biggest fans I don't believe you. My take on the drug issue is, if everyone is doing it and you have serious aspirations of reaching the Champs Ellysee with the Yellow jersey on ones back, you better go and find one of these dodgy sports quacks who administer EPO, like the one in Spain who has hundreds of sporting clients (including some of cyclings top names) on his books and has just been busted. Thus being the reason for all the top riders to pull out of this years tour, because if you haven't got any EPO in your system you don't have a cat-in -hells chance of wining it.




 

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Robert Millar



What about the British riders are they going to win it? Well seen as though the Scottish cyclist  Robert Millar with his fourth place in the tour of 1984 is the highest finish by a British cyclist ever and the King of The Mountains' polka-dot jersey he won in the same year is the only jersey won by a Cyclist from this country in the hundred year history of cycling premier event. So thats a no then?. A few Brits have worn the yellow jersey (Sean Yates and Chris Boardman) for a few days before the proper bigboys take over the race in the Mountains. David Millar is our main hope this year, who is back to his best after just coming back after a two year ban after being caught using EPO,  but only lump on for a stage win, probably one of the time trials as thats his speciality.


So If you are a bit bored after all the excitement of the world cup and you need something else on the goggle-box to stare at in your stoned state, you cannot go far wrong tuning into Eurosport daily from about 2 o'clock onwards for live coverage (the flat stages can be somewhat tedious to non bike heads but the mountain stages are truly awesome) and I believe ITV4 are doing a daily highlights show in the Evening.

I will leave the last word to Stephen Roche although these words  could have came from my old mans gob......"While it is a very hard and sometimes very cruel profession, my love for the bike remains as strong now as it was in the days when I first discovered it. I am convinced that long after I have stopped riding as a professional I will be riding my bicycle. I never want to abandon my bike. I see my grandfather, now in his seventies and riding around everywhere. To me that is beautiful. And the bike must always remain a part of my life."


Stephen Roche

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
   
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