Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Recognising Cyclists & Stage 2 Brussels – Spa


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?

The Guardian’s round-up of Stage Two’s action

Next time:

Stage Three Wanze – Arenberg-Porte de Hainaut, the cyclists ride of the cobbles and I have a go at watching the coverage live.


Tags: , , ,

3 Responses to “Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Recognising Cyclists & Stage 2 Brussels – Spa”

  1. Graeme Says:

    It’s ridic what happened yesterday Cancellara pulled off a neat trick to persuade the whole peloton to get the Schlecks back on and not loose time on the GC.

    Robbie Hunter is a big Jessie, what does he think the same roads are like for Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April? Not only that the last 20k the roads were almost dry so they could have raced properly and awarded the sprint jersey to the deserved winner rather than giving a token version of the jersey to Chavanel. If they aren’t going to award points at the end of a stage they shouldn’t be handing out the jersey.

    I remember Lance Armstrong winning a stage of the Giro in horrendous conditions the peloton didn’t cave in that day and Lance earned his win. Bernard Hinault to this day has no sensation in two of his fingers having won Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He went on that year to win Paris Roubaix despite hating riding the cobbles yet he did it because he felt he had to do it as a proper Champion.

    Cycle racing is about dealing with the elements it’s not about sitting on a turbo trainer and seeing who can produce the greatest power output.

    I have raced in August in Scotland for 12 hours solid in torrential rain that lasted all day and for my efforts won my club championship and the handicap prize. If the other riders that day had all protested to the organiser and got him to cancel the race I would have been furious.

    It’s bike racing, it’s what makes it epic it’s why we love it. When we pit ourselves against each other and the elements it’s what it’s all about. This notion that we can sanitise cycling in some kind of mad health and safety gone mad kind of way will kill cycle racing.

    K I’m off for a lie down in a darkened room to calm down I’m still so furious!

    They better not pull the same stunt today or that’s it I’m no watching Le Tour and watch my recording of Stage 7 of this years Giro on the Strada Bianche which was proper epic and even will bring a tear to the eye when you see Cuddles / The Bag o’ Washin try to wipe the mud from his World Champ rainbow stripes on his jersey as he crosses the finish line.

  2. ed Says:

    came across this from twitter.
    I started watching the tour years ago.
    It gets a lot more interesting trust me.
    although having the Versus coverage with Phil Liggett really helps.
    he is the best commentator for sure.
    it really gets good as they go into the mountains of course.
    also, be sure to pick up a VeloNews Tour de france preview mag each year.
    it is so cool to look at the maps of each days stage.
    a must for serious Tour de France viewing imo.

  3. Tim Says:

    Was the protest right? It’s a difficult call. Personally, I think they should have raced to the finish once the peloton had regrouped – not least for the thousands of fans waiting patiently on the streets of Spa. Crashes happen. That’s the life of a pro cyclist.

    But I do have some sympathies for the riders, although I think Robbie Hunter’s choice of words is a tad unfortunate. As Graeme says, these were roads and hills used in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, just as yesterday’s treacherous cobbles are part of Paris-Roubaix. But the wider issue is that these are both isolated one-day races. The Tour is a three-week race, and it is this accumulation of dangers that is troublesome. Big names crashing out in the first week is a big risk, and no one wants a decimated, battered peloton turning up in Paris. It’s just a matter of balance.

    Personally, I like this year’s route – in most years, week one of the Tour is quite predictable and dull – but I do understand the riders who worry about the risks when their livelihood depends on it. And remember, many cyclists are paid less in a year than top footballers are in a week.

    For every Robbie Hunter, there is a Cadel Evans, who thrives in torrid conditions. That Giro stage Graeme describes was magnificent – as was yesterday’s cobbles – and it was no coincidence that Cadel featured at the sharp end of both.

    Ed, in the UK we also get the commentary duo of Liggett and Sherwen. The best announcers in the sport, bar none.

    Here’s my round-up of yesterday’s stage, if anyone is interested:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: