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Roger Alton

Is any sporting event more brutal than the Tour de France?

Is any sporting event more brutal than the Tour de France?
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That great Frenchman the Marquis de Sade would have been justly proud of the Tour de France had he lived to see the day. Should we deduce that sado-masochism is a French trait? No question. Has there ever been a more brutal event in world sport? This year’s race kicks off in Denmark (yes, really) at the weekend on its way to more than 3,500km of lung-busting effort.

The question is: can anyone stop Tadej Pogacar, the 23-year-old Slovenian prodigy and winner of the last two Tours? He is in staggering form this year, having minced his home Tour and a series of other races. A brilliant climber and time trialist, he is also a fearsome attacker: in other words, the complete Grand Tour cyclist.

His greatest rivals probably come from the Jumbo-Visma team, his fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic, and the brilliant young Dane Jonas Vingegaard. Perfectly built for climbing, Vingegaard weighs in at a compact 60kg, light for his 5ft 9in. He was second in the Tour last year, and this could be his moment.

The torture showpiece will be the 12th stage, from Briançon to Alpe d’Huez, an almost mystical place of pilgrimage for cyclists, pro and amateur, via the Col du Galibier (over 2,600m) and the Croix de Fer (2,000m). But these are just the warm-up for the final leg-shredding climb up the 21 hairpins and 14km, at an average gradient of 8 per cent, to the finish at Alpe d’Huez. In total the competitors climb 4,750m, the equivalent of riding up Mont Blanc from sea level, and travel 165km. The record for the ascent, a little over 37 minutes, was set in 1997 by Marco Pantani, the Italian who died in a hotel room in Rimini in 2004. The inquest revealed acute cocaine poisoning.

Of the five fastest Tour ascents of the Alpe d’Huez climb, three were by Pantani and two by Lance Armstrong. Which tells you something about what you need to compete through those savage hairpins. It also tells you something about the success of the anti-doping campaign in cycling: no one in the past 20 years has come anywhere near Pantani’s times. Or his speed: he averaged 14mph up the ascent, almost unimaginable at such a gradient. Still, that’s EPO for you.

Are England’s rugby team heading for a whitewash Down Under? The bookies seem to think so, and the Aussies are odds-on favourites for the first Test this weekend. Which raises the question: if England do get walloped 3-0, will the RFU ditch coach Eddie Jones? Well, almost certainly not, with the World Cup looming and rugby’s general caution. But is there a lesson to be drawn from two other very quick turnarounds in fortune after some decisive action at the top?

First: South Africa appointed Rassie Erasmus to coach the Springboks just months before the 2019 World Cup. That didn’t work out too badly, as England discovered to its cost. Second, there’s the England cricket team, who have gone from zeros to heroes in days. The decisive brilliance of Ben Stokes’s captaincy continues to astound. I loved Jack Leach’s comment when he suggested to Stokes that mid-on might stand a tiny bit further back in a mildly defensive move to save runs. ‘Nope,’ replied Stokes instantly. ‘I’ve never experienced anything like the atmosphere in that dressing room,’ said Leach, ‘this positive way of doing things.’ Something for Eddie Jones to chew on maybe: fortune favours the brave and all that.

As for Erasmus, the world’s best-paid water-carrier, his spirit lives on in a brilliant new documentary about the 2021 Lions tour of South Africa, played out in Covid-empty stadiums. The film, shown recently on ITV at some unfeasibly late hour, presumably because of the epic swearing throughout, is called Two Sides and shouldn’t be missed.

Written byRoger Alton

Roger Alton is a former editor of the Observer and the Independent. He writes the Spectator Sport column.

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