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Spectator sport

The beauty of the Tour de France

14 July 2012

6:00 AM

14 July 2012

6:00 AM

Amid the weeping in SW19 last weekend, Andy Murray essayed what was a clunky if well-meaning compliment to his opponent’s longevity. ‘Not bad for a 30-year-old,’ he said. Shortly after, Roger Federer opined that he thought Murray might indeed win a Grand Slam one day. Probably deserved it, too. Unspoken seemed to be the thought, ‘Listen sonny, I might be 30 but I’ve got 17 of these buggers. Don’t talk to me about how old I am.’ Moral: never ever make jokes about people’s age, no matter how friendly you’re trying to be.

No one can understand the joy of being Roger Federer better than Federer himself. The great are given the gift of time, and with that they can display elegance. Seen from the other side of the net — the Andy Murray view — Rog must be a nightmare, but from anywhere else — sofa, the Royal Box or Henman Hill — he is poetry. Even if he was picking his nose, Federer would make it look like an act of class.

However, during Wimbledon fortnight, the greatest display of Swiss suavity came not on Centre Court, but between Visé and Tournai in northern France. Wearing the yellow jersey of the leader of the Tour de France, Fabian Cancellara slipped out of the pack and drew alongside his team car to collect his lunch. Through the window were passed energy bars and isotonic liquids, which were placed on the bike and in pockets, but last came a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water. Fabian sat up, reached over his shoulder and tucked the bottle of ‘con gas’ down back of his jersey. After a quick smile to the camera he accelerated away to enjoy a light lunch with his mates in the peloton, who were pedalling along at the far side of 30mph. Even ‘no sweat’ Federer would have been impressed by that dollop of panache.


It is hard to get far away from the Tour de France’s murky past, but there is so much to enjoy about it. The riders in the Tour de France aren’t the holier-than-thou eco-cyclists whose every turn of the pedal is extending the life of the planet. Nor are they the Sunday-morning time-triallists who create mobile chicanes on the A-roads of middle England. Cancellara and the like operate at such a level of brilliance it is hard to look away.

In what other sport do competitors eat, drink, change their clothes and have running repairs while riding up an Alp under a blazing sun? At the speeds they travel a nut, bolt or screw falling off a bicycle can be fatal. Watching car and bike, inches apart and at speed, with a mechanic leaning out of the window armed with an Allen key to keep bicycle in full working order, is both beautiful and terrifying.

In Britain, an appreciation of professional cycling is young — though it should go to volume 11 due to the efforts of Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish — but in France it has deep roots. When the Tour de France comes to town, the town stops to welcome it. Cornfields are cut to replicate the spokes on a wheel, flowerbeds are planted in the colours of the riders’ jerseys, farm machinery is parked to create the shape of a bicycle.

The Tour de France inspires as well. For every youngster hammering along a ‘route nationale’ in colourful Lycra, there is an octogenarian making steady progress up an Alp. He’s probably chasing an old schoolfriend, having been inspired by Fausto Coppi.

A popular view of the Tour is that it is an event without ethics, but it has many unwritten rules, such as never taking advantage of a rival’s mechanical misfortune. Another is that no one attacks the leader on the final stage into Paris. On Sunday week the man in the yellow jersey and his team will pop a bottle of fine champagne and raise a glass to their success. And they’ll do it on the move. I’m not sure even Roger Federer is capable of that.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.


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