Le Tour is now as much a fixture of the Great British Sporting Summer as Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, a flutter on the Derby, England’s bi-annual early exit from a Euro or a World Cup and the five-day drama of an Ashes Test, weather permitting.
It wasn’t always thus. Not so long ago cycling up mountains was only something those pesky continentals were daft enough to attempt, domestic interest was less than zero. Olympic success dating back to Chris Boardman’s track gold at Barcelona ‘92 began to change this but it took another decade and and a bit with the Gold Rush that began at Athens ‘2004 to accelerate the interest. Beijing 2008 and London 2012 firmly established track cycling as amongst Team GB’s number one Olympian sports aided by the mega-personalities of Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott and Paralympian Sarah Storey too.
While the gap between the first visit of Le Tour to Britain was twenty years, 1974 to 1994, the huge popularity of the 2007 British Le Tour stages meant a return visit this time round took place just seven years later in 2014. Mark Cavendish’s success as a sprint finisher helped the growing popularity of Le Tour, topped by his winning of the World Championship road race in 2011, a feat given popular recognition by Mark being voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year too. Wiggomania a year later was of an entirely new level of impact when this supremely gifted sportsman combined becoming the first British winner of Le Tour with Olympic Gold in the Time Trial. These achievements together with Chris Froome’s repeat British winning of the Yellow Jersey in 2013 almost guaranteed the success of the 2014 Le Tour's two days in Yorkshire. But few would have predicted the sheer size, passion and interest of the crowds almost every kilometre of the way.
Elite success, a global sporting event which is as likely to start in Leeds, Sheffield or York as London, and next to no wasteful capital investment either, free to watch, on free-to-air TV too. A sporting occasion that is consumed as a social occasion with eating and drinking thrown in, camping, and cycling the route yourself before and after the pros have raced by. A European sporting culture whose vocabulary and traditions are both embraced by and adapted to British tastes.
But perhaps most importantly a sport we can do as a means to get to work, as a family, for a holiday. Competitive for the most serious, recreational for most of us, no binary opposition required. On road or off, so many different ways to explore our own physical capacity as well as the natural environment, Green, carbon-free, and once the investment in the bike accounted for, relatively cheap too.
Last week the latest figures were published to reveal next to no fulfilment of London 2012's boat to 'inspire a generation'. Participation levels instead of rising are plummeting with those sports most dependent on local authority facilities suffering the worst. Austerity bites, whether its council-run swimming polls, playing pitches or gymnasiums.
Cycling has the potential to buck that trend. But nobody should lose sight of how this sport like all others is socially constructed. Richard Williams wrote a great column contrasting the rising middle-class affection for cycling and the comparable disaffection with golf.
"Instead of dropping a few grand on a country club subscription and a set of Wilson irons and TaylorMade woods, a young investment banker or hedge fund manager is now more likely to spend the cash on a Campagnolo-equipped carbon-fibre frame from Cervélo or Colnago. The couple of hundred quid that once went on a new driver is spent shaving a few grams with a pair of ultra-lightweight aerodynamic bottle cages. "Much of the sport's rising popularity rests with those who already have the socio-economic access to the time, money and facilities needed to take part.
But that shouldn't prevent sport, cycling or any other sport, being part of a progressive vision of human liberation. And that vision should be centred not on the functional purpose of sport, in most cases this will only serve to disappoint. It is a well-worn fiction that most sport will make you lose weight. The more sport you do the more viruses and niggling injuries you are likely to pock up, resistance to the common cold the lowers the fitter you get. Precious few of us will ever be on the winning side either. Rather the point of sport is it has no point, this is the core of its liberatory potential. For cyclists this lies in the rediscovery of the freedom of childhood. For many the ‘cycle of life’ will have begun with a scooter or balance bike, perhaps stabilisers, the first discovery of the thrill of brakes and gears but most of all a speed our parents could neither match nor control. Years, decades even, later in adulthood we have our bikes once more and that precious opportunity to revert to type. The Liberté, Égalité, Vélocité of cycling. Vive La Révolution, on two wheels s'il vous plait.
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