All cyclists look the same. Yet, to enjoy le Tour more than I am already, I feel I need to start learning who the big names are, who is going to be good when, who has made a surprise move, who causes upsets, who is likely to win. Sure, I’ve heard of Lance Armstrong, apparently he had cancer or something and made an amazing comeback?! But as for the rest of them, well they’re just a heterogeneous mass.
There’s two basic camera views on ITV4’s coverage of le Tour: straight on at a groupe from the back of a motorbike, or the peloton from above. Neither of them makes for easy identification of individuals. From the front, we see nothing but white men with ripped hamstrings, skinny arms, sunglasses, unshaven faces and impressive bulges augmented with padding, that shan’t be dwelt on any longer but cannot be ignored. And from the sky, backs down like a shoal of fish, a multitude of faceless colours and out of focus brand names, shifting as though psychically linked to the contours of the road and expectations of good cyclemanship. Like fish, their individuality doesn’t touch the impact of the totality.
Still, after Stage Two, certain characters begin to emerge. How could Chavanel be ignored, riding three minutes from the peloton, a grin spread all over his face even as he races up the final ascent, buck toothed, plucky and from the excitement of the commentators, truly remarkable? Cavendish, Britain’s great hope from the Isle of Man, terrifyingly taciturn, constantly looking shell shocked into the middle distance as he’s interviewed in his strange accent, blamed for crashes, potentially violent. Cancellara, exacting a princely control over the rest of the field in le maillot jaune as he prevents them sprinting over the line as the peloton glides steadily down a Spa boulevard. Schleck, jumping on a team mate’s bicycle despite seeming to be in shock after a nasty crash on a slick corner.
I began to realise though that individuals aren’t particularly important at this stage of the competition. Instead it seems to be about the team’s ability to support each other and not lose too many members too early. This sense of it being an endurance event rather than a competition really came to a head at the finish in Spa when the peloton crossed the line together rather than take advantage of crashes to sprint to the finish. I can’t say I fully understood Cancellara’s decision and the commentators were suggesting that there would be some dissent about it, but it help me to recognise that le Tour is something far more than a competitive race. It’s a spectacle of endurance that just needs to be sat back and enjoyed for that: the personalities will emerge as events unfold.
The scenery of the stage was, in itself, worth tuning in for. Roads winding through little villages with tumbledown farm buildings, the elegant streets of Spa, rolling hills and wooded valleys. I can understand why people follow le Tour just to drive through this same countryside, regardless of the split seconds in which the cyclists whiz past. It was not without its human drama though. The big crash of the stage occurred as a damp corner where both of the Schleck brothers were felled. Andy Schleck seemed in considerable pain and shock, though was off again with remarkable rapidity, his face a mask of suffering for the rest of the stage, the sort of suffering a Renaissance artist would pay good money to paint.
Chavanel’s breakout showed real verve but despite the treacherous conditions and assents, he seemed the picture of enjoyment as he cruised over the finish. It was difficult to tell whether he was high on adrenaline at his first achievement of the yellow jersey or whether he’s just as fresh as a daisy. I’ll be keeping an eye on him to see if he continues to show that sort of stamina, though a lead of a minute and a half will apparently keep him at the head of the generale classement for a few days yet.
It was the peloton’s finish that most interested this novice, with a seemingly pointless protest lead by a headteacherly Cancellara even though the peloton had slowed earlier to allow stragglers to catch up. Apparently this was in reaction to the danger of the roads. The South African Robbie Hunter has been reported as saying, “no Grand Tour has any business in these northern countries and fuck anybody who says different. See how much you guys like hitting the deck at 60kph.” Exactly what is wrong with the Netherlands and Belgium is something of a mystery to me, since last time I checked, dangerous roads and the occasional wet day exist pretty much anywhere during the summer. I hope the organisers continue to plot the course outside of France, because it makes me smile, the idea that for three weeks of the summer France lays some sort of territorial claim to swathes of western Europe.
Would you have protested if you’d been in the peloton?
Will the protest have lasting ramifications?
Do you agree with Robbie Hunter?
Why are there so few ethnic minority cyclists?
Is your cyclist’s bulge as impressive as these guys?
Stage Three Wanze – Arenberg-Porte de Hainaut, the cyclists ride of the cobbles and I have a go at watching the coverage live.