Tour de France: and the real star of the show is … France

Monsieur Salut writes: it’s early July so that means, after an exhilarating Women’s World Cup (can we please sign Rose Lavelle and Janine Beckie?), it’s Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

A while back, we had a series about ‘another team I like’ which evolved into ‘my other sporting passion’. Before petering out, it produced one or two decent entries (and some some intriguing promises of entries, not in the end fulfilled).

Watching French TV as the peloton was winding its way through the lush Marne countryside reminded me of Pete Sixsmith‘s splendid piece about why he loved this competition. Martin Emmerson, when not commentating for BBC Newcastle on Durham County Cricket Club, is another fan. Here, from 2010, is how Sixer saw it then …

When I lived in Paris, (says M Salut, again), part of the finale of the Tour de France took place in the street five floors beneath my front window. It left me cold. All it meant was that it was a lot harder to get around. Pete Sixsmith begs to differ, and just loves those scrawny, “Steroids .. me?” beanpoles and their pelotons. Not strictly speaking ‘another team’, but it seems to fit the spirit of the series ….

The team known as Sunderland AFC have taken off for Portugal without me. Had they gone a week later, I would have been sitting in the sun in the Algarve, sipping a glass of Sagres and deciding which members of the crustacean family I would be devouring.

As it is, I am stuck in a damp County Durham with a pleasant enough bunch of hormonal teenagers and a list of Northern League friendlies to choose from. It could be Esh Winning v Cornforth United or Annfield Plain v North Shields, but I think that I will give both a miss and watch the wonderfully exciting Tour de France on ITV 4.

As someone who has never mastered the skill of riding a bike without stabilisers, I have a slightly more than passing interest in cycling. The Greek brother (all donations to his survival fund can be sent to me – I will make sure that he gets it – honest!!) is a very, very keen one and has been since he frequented Gus MacDonalds shop on St Johns Road many, many years ago.

In our infrequent telephone conversations (Greeks are only allowed to use the phone for five minutes per week as part of their austerity programme) I pass on titbits about SAFC, the state of the Northern League and who has passed on recently while he regales me with stories of the latest island he has been whizzing round on his Claud Butler or whatever £3,000 machine he now has.

He is fanatical about the Tour, and over the last few years, some of that has transferred itself to me. I usually watch the highlights programme on ITV 4 at 7.00p.m. It is an excellent production, fronted by Gary Imlach,(author of a cracking book on his dad, 50s pro Stuart) with commentary from Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin.

Imlach has an understated, hangdog look about him and a sardonic turn of phrase, ideally suited to the race, while the commentators frequently disagree with one another and offer valuable insights into what is going on – so nothing like Clive Tyldesley and Jim Beglin.

However, the real star of the show is France and the Great Interior known as la France Profonde. The race takes you through empty flatlands, sleepy towns and dozing villages and field after field of 10 foot high sunflowers. Then, it smacks you in the face with the mountain stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees. As one spectacular mountain pass is succeeded by another, you begin to have an understanding of how big and how magnificent France really is.

At the moment, they are riding through the Pyrenees. It’s a fantastic area, all hairpin bends, steep climbs and amazingly fast descents. They can reach 100kph as they come down the mountain – and this on roads where there are no safety barriers at the sides.

The riders are as fit and as strong as any sportsman you will come across. The Tour appears to have chased out the drug cheats, blood dopers and steroid junkies and what we see now is a combination of strength, courage and tactical acumen that would put a master tactician like Mick McCarthy to shame.

I have followed it religiously this year and have marvelled at the ability of Mark Cavendish to time his final sprint to a tee. The one day he failed miserably to get it right, he was in tears, not for himself, but for his team mates who had set up the situation where he should have won.

I have shook my head in admiration for the Aussie Cadel Evans who has rode for eight days with a broken arm and been amazed that 39 year old Christophe Moreau is still pedaling round France as part of the peloton.

It’s a world with a language all of its own. Peloton is a brilliant word – it describes the group of riders who stick together behind the leaders. It’s almost a living organism and I love to see it in the superb aerial shots when they come to a roundabout. Half of them flow to the right and half of them flow to the left before they come back together again, like quicksilver on a wooden desk.

The race is really between two men and has been for a week or so. Andy Schleck is on course to becoming the best known Luxembourgois ever, while Alberto Contador is looking to add the Tour to the National Teams World Cup and Rafael Nadals Wimbledon title. It’s a real battle with Contador going ahead when Schleck’s chain slipped off while they were nip and tuck on a mountain side. Some said bad form by the Spaniard, while others said Schleck should have checked his chain. I thought it made great TV.

They have a couple of days left in the mountains before a time trial which should be a shoo-in for Contador, followed by the ceremonial ride in to Paris and up the Champs Elysees on Saturday. If you can drag yourself away from wondering whether we can beat the mighty Hull City or those legends of the game that are Brighton and Hove Albion, it may be well worth a look.

Next; my flirtation with synchronized swimming – or not.

And what it was like to see the Tour set off from Yorkshire:

1 thought on “Tour de France: and the real star of the show is … France”

  1. Nice summary. This is an annual must for Mrs Wrinkly and I, bringing back many memories of happy holidays spent in fabulous gites paying a pittance for rent for a fortnight. Not only the scenery are we reminded of but also the friendliness of the people, especially if you tried to speak their language – however badly. Then there is the food. No wonder they spend hours eating it but what on earth are they doing allowing Macdonalds into the country? Good to hear the mention of channel 4 too. Strange that M Salut’s old employer this last weekend could tell its readers that there was coverage on Eurosport but not channel 4.

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