According to Wikipedia: “The Tour de France is an annual road bicycle race held over 23 days in July. Established in 1903 by newspaper L’Auto, the tour is the most well-known and prestigious of cycling’s three “Grand Tours”; the others are the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España. The race usually covers approximately 3,500 kilometres (2,200 mi), passing through France and neighbouring countries such as Belgium (and more recently the UK – ed) The race is broken into day-long segments, called stages. Individual finishing times for each stage are totalled to determine the overall winner at the end of the race. The course changes every year, but has always finished in Paris; since 1975 it has finished along the Champs-Élysées. The rider with the lowest aggregate time at the end of each day wears the yellow jersey, representing the leader of the general classification.”
Excuse any sense of jingoism, but the 2015 race has just been won by Britain’s own Chris Froome, and this is the third time in the past four years a British person has won it. Intriguingly, as I survey all the past winners, these were the only times a British rider has won the Tour. I can go back to when I was a boy when the race fascinated me despite the limited coverage. I recall it was one ploy used by my teacher to teach us French. One of the things that fascinated me was after approaching 100 hours of riding, often at the end it was still a matter of mere seconds that separated the top riders. The idea of competitive cyclists whizzing through some remote French village held its own romance. While cycling traditionally does not feature highly as a sport British people are interested in, there is a magic about the Tour that almost puts it on par with the Olympics and the Football World Cup in terms of sporting interest.
As a young boy until my early twenties, after which I acquired a car, I regularly cycled (I recently found my certificate as having passed my Cycling Proficiency Test as a twelve year old, still a proud achievement) and it was often my main means of transport. I regret not cycling any more as the benefits (health, economy, environment) of doing so are obvious. It strikes me that as a country we have missed more than one trick by not encouraging enough people to cycle, with something like the Tour de France (along with recent Olympic cycling victories) being something that could be used, along with practical incentives like cycle paths, to get people cycling.
As with virtually every other sport, cycling has been overtaken by professional domination and commercial interests coming more to the fore. As an old romantic, I find this more than a little sad yet recognize the day when gifted, heroic amateurs, who might well hold down a full time job, has now passed. Sadly, along with money taking more prominence, so has less savoury aspects come to the fore. In recent years, seven times winner of the Tour, Lance Armstrong (1999 – 2005), has been exposed as a drugs cheat, and that cloud has been over cycling ever since, including the present Tour where some rather than congratulating the winner have accused him of cheating. I like to believe, and I do because there is no evidence to the contrary, that Chris Froome won this year’s Tour because he was the best rider. He deserves to be congratulated, along with his team (Team Sky) for his magnificent victory.