Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A Wheel Success Story: The Trials and Triumphs of the Tour de France

Image by:  monkeywing
The Tour de France is now recognised as the ultimate event on the cycling calendar. For months, men practise, pedal and persevere in their unrelenting quest to be the best and don the conquering yellow jersey.
It represents the most persistent and dedicated of men on two wheels across the globe in their unflinching attempts to step on to the podium and bask in the victorious glow of cycling glory.

But it wasn't always that way – at least not when the Tour first came to the UK.  In fact, the first Tour de France got off to a rather inauspicious start, marred by hostility, bureaucracy, and a less-than-practical location for the actual event. 

Location Matters
It was forty years ago that the event crossed the channel for the first time – bizarrely selecting Plymouth as the centre stage for the tour. And it didn't make a comeback for another 20 years.

Many of the cyclists – according to former professional Barry Hoban – were treated like illegal immigrants, corralled into a locked room in which he had to repeatedly kick the door to be let out.

The event's organisers had originally planned to use the Dartmoor hills for the event, but instead turned to the rather more inappropriate A38 to host the Tour.

The race had kicked off two days previously in Brest, the yellow jersey being carried by Eddy Merckx en route to what would be his record-equalling fifth and final win of the event. 

Everything was ticking along nicely – until the event took a detour outside its usual mainland Europe for the first time.

Blame the Artichokes

The artichoke growers of Brittany had come up with the somewhat novel idea the best way to promote their product in the UK would be to fund the Tour de France on its initial visit to the UK. Part of the publicity campaign would also incorporate the Roscoff-Plymouth ferry route which had opened the previous year.

British customs, however, had other ideas, letting the British side down and setting back Anglo-Franco relations back 20 years.

Council officials and customs had been advised the riders would be extremely tired on the day having already have raced 200km, and should therefore allow the cyclists a swift passage through customs.

It was, however, a request that was met with a stony, uncooperative response. Customs officials even threatened council workers if they interfered with the rather heavy-handed way the new arrivals were being handled, with matters further exacerbated when the cyclists were delayed trying to leave the country – made to fill out endless forms and being held for hours.    

A Unique Opportunity

Despite the discouraging events that unfolded before, during and after the event, the Tour de France did give cycling fans the opportunity to see their heroes in the flesh – cyclists such as Raymond Poulidor.
The customs officials' rather brusque and uncooperative approach to the riders did, inadvertently, highlight the convenience and efficacy of the new cross-channel ferry route.

The transport to and from England, however, was only one part of the exasperating jigsaw. The route itself was ill-conceived and not exciting enough for a race as adrenaline-pumping as the Tour de France – effectively a short stretch up and down the recently-opened A38 Plympton bypass.

Some sources still suggest the French organisers were all partly responsible for and in favour of this route.
It was a choice that was also supremely unpopular with the cyclists, spanning five miles with people at the start and finish but nobody in between – and the anti-climactic finish line catching riders off-guard by ending abruptly just around the final roundabout.

To snatch an oft-quoted phrase from another revered sporting event, it was strangely a game of two halves. 
The treatment of the riders had been far from warm and hospitable, and yet the arrival of the event on these shores was a real adrenaline shot for the country which – before the arrival of Bradley Wiggins and Lance Armstrong – had really had no fervent interest in the sport at all.

The winner of the stage was Dutch cyclist, Henk Poppe, who retired a year later after being a professional rider for only two years.  

Eddy Merckx (in white) went on to win the Tour for a record-equalling fifth time.

How Times Change: 2014 Cycling Fever

The 2014 Tour de France was a completely different event, with an estimated six million cycling supporters lined the streets to cheer on the riders.

Of course, the face of cycling in general has changed dramatically over a relatively short period of time.  Cycling has not only become big business but fashionable. 

People are ditching their cars for two-wheels in an attempt to live a more eco-conscious, environmentally friendly lifestyle. Bristol has been awarded the status of the UK's first official Cycling City.  The government and countrywide council officials are relentlessly launching campaigns and hammering home the health benefits of jumping in the saddle. Families can be spotted on weekends cycling along country lanes and in parks.

Cycling in 2014 has become something of an all-consuming phenomenon on these shores, almost to the point of obsession.

And the success of the Yorkshire-to-London Grand Depart has left tongues wagging that the event could return to these shores sooner than anyone might have thought.

In fact, as Marcel Kittel added a stage three victory to his opening day triumph, talks were already well under way to bring the event back to this Sceptred Isle in a few years' time. The Lake District and Wales have also been mooted as potential bidder for the opening stage of the next event.   

…And the Crowd went Wild

There was a palpable excitement and buzz as the fervent crowds packed the streets between Cambridge and London to get a peek at Peloton. 

And the multitudes put paid to the notion that the UK is a more football than cycling enthused nation, with more people turning out to watch the second coming of Le Tour in the UK than attended all four professional football leagues each weekend.

Fans had been whipped up to such an extent some of them had been waiting six hours to see the riders flash past – and official estimates stating around one million to add to the five million that had already engulfed the streets of Yorkshire that weekend.

The Tour de France truly has become the leading road race in the world and the cause of much celebration by cyclists and fans alike.

A Very Different Picture

Compared to the initial antagonism and bad feeling of the 1974 race, today presents a very different picture, with the salivating hordes clamouring for the event to return – and riders now more than happy to come back.

Like cycling itself, the Tour de France has entered into the minds and seeped into the collective consciousness like never before. It's an essential part of the country, and one that represents much of its modern beating heart.

In fact, not since the 2012 Summer Olympics has there been such a hotly and widely anticipated sporting event, with that event's director, movie maker Danny Boyle, on hand at the finish line on Monday to give his seal of approval for the Tour's staging.   

Cycling continues to sweep the nation and the Tour de France remains the exhilarating encapsulation of all that's great and good about the sport.