It is no secret that the sport of cycling is a favourite of this correspondent and that the pain inflicted by Pantani’s, and, especially, Miller’s and Hamilton’s drug abuse (amongst many others) is still keenly felt. Over the last twenty years, first with the brilliant pairing of Sherwen and Liggett on Channel 4 (now ITV 4), then with the acquired taste of the eccentric, sometimes overweening, occasionally deeply moving David Duffield of Eurosport, I had come to treasure these three weeks as a highlight of the sporting year (indeed in odd years, the highlight). Add to that the Classics (especially the Belgian “Hard Man” races (Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Rund van Vlandareen), a crazy world championship race and a smattering of true characters (Chippollini, Pantani, Chiapucci, Durand, LeMond, Fignon, Lance, McEwan, mad Frankie Vandenbroucke, lately Boonen), the sport had a lot going for it. To top it off, pro cycling isn’t an easy watch – it takes years to learn the jargon, understand the tactics, judge the players – so you became part of a secret brotherhood who knew the difference between hunger knock and choosing 39 21 instead of 42 19. Even the drugs I accepted as part of the absurd denial of human frailty pro cycling demands – so long as it wasn’t too much…
And then a vulnerable genius (Pantani) and two educated, articulate, cosmopolitan cynics (Hamilton and Miller), allied to team managements deeply implicated in systematic drug use, turned me away from the sport, and I cancelled my subscriptions to both “Cycle Sport” and “Procycling” (for years I literally couldn’t get enough!)But the last two days, Stages 16 and 17, reminded me of what I’m missing.
Wednesday saw Floyd Landis blow in a manner that a Formula 1 car blows when the smoke pours from the gearbox and the driver coasts to the pits off the racing line. 11 minutes went, as well as morale and belief (more important in a Grand Tour than any other sporting event). I was heartened, as this was racing as it was in the mid-Eighties, when a bad day was a disaster, rather than losing twenty seconds in the last kilometre and when riders yo-yoed on an off the groups on the climbs as they put in efforts and recoveries, rather then just efforts and more efforts – it seems the clean-up at last is working. Rasmussen, a pure climber, won the Reine Etage in the grand style and reminded me of Luchio Herrera, my first great stick-like hero in the mountains. Floyd suffered horribly.
As I settled at 7.00pm for the ITV 4 highlights package tonight, I smirked as Landis claimed that he would go for the stage – “You’re for the broom wagon mate” I inwardly said. Once underway, I, in common with Phil and Paul, couldn’t understand what Landis was doing as he set off alone on the first mountain of five brutal climbs in the cauldron of a French July. I thought that even a Yank would know that the live television coverage would only really start on the second last climb, so it wasn’t even worth doing for the publicity.
The gap widened and the bunch bickered about who would work – even the dreaded earpieces failed to sort out an alliance to chase, and my jaw dropped lower and lower. Floyd was going on a epic ride and pulling it off. And, the other side of the beast that is the Joux-Plane (the only mountain to trouble post-cancer Lance), Floyd, afloat on a sea of adrenaline, rode over the line and into favouritism for the Maillot Jaune on Sunday. At 9.00pm, I watched the whole lot again on Eurosport just to be sure it happened.
It’s almost certainly my sporting highlight of the year even if Landis falls off tomorrow: but if he wins on Sunday, it’ll be one of the all-time great sporting comebacks.
And I’m falling in love again…
(Written in the immediate aftermath of Landis’ extraordinary ride in July 2006 – I wasn’t in love for long).