Think of a punishing distance for a bike race. Double it, multiply by ten, throw in two of the world’s great mountain ranges — and now you have the course for that epic examination of man’s very being known as the Tour de France, a ruthless appraisal of his heart, mind and soul. Not to mention body. Trying to dominate such a mighty beast is extraordinarily difficult. There are men who have subdued it multiple times to finish in the yellow jersey. But dominate it? That’s another story.
On Saturday, while England’s footballers were limbering up for a mere 90 minutes of kickabout against a modest Ukraine side, Tadej Pogacar, a young Slovenian who won the Tour last year, fearlessly took the beast by the scruff of the neck with a ride up and over the mountains that was described as a once-in-a-generation achievement. He shot past his rivals like a grown-up taking on kids, though in reality he is the kid. In a few minutes Pogacar put the Tour to bed. It is now almost impossible for anyone to catch him. He would be the sporting star of the summer if his brilliance wasn’t being drowned out by the sheer weight of sport right now.
Still only 22, Pogacar is already being talked about in the same breath as Eddy Merckx, who for decades has been regarded as a rider beyond compare. Pogacar has the perfect weight and build for a bike rider, his body an aerobic machine with a seemingly unique ability to use the oxygen his heart pumps round. His and Merckx’s versatility is the equivalent of a runner who could compete for Olympic medals at 400m, 1,500m and 10,000m.
Merckx was 24 when he won his first Tour in 1969 and went on to win four on the trot (and five in total). Could Pogacar follow in his footsteps? Or will he be more like Laurent Fignon (‘Le Professeur’) who won in 1983, and again in 1984 by the almost inconceivable margin of ten and a half minutes — and then never won again? Pogacar could easily take the yellow jersey this year by another historic margin. We must all hope that we see him again and he doesn’t fade like Le Professeur.
And if you like buckets of emotion, epic feats and a magnificently high-achieving Brit, watch the Manx missile Mark Cavendish as he tries to overhaul Eddy Merckx’s record of stage wins (Cav is one behind). The floods of tears as Cav hits the line first would make a dead man weep. Everyone loves Cav — he’s 36, an age when most sprinters should be settling down in front of some daytime telly rather than starring in it, and he’s fought back from the Epstein-Barr virus, as well as handling depression. He’s only in this tour as a last-minute replacement — but he loves the race. For Cav there is nothing better than being right there, blasting through to the line and making the green (points) jersey his own. And in turn the Tour loves Cavendish. We should too.
If there’s one big lesson to take from England’s skilful, harmonious and heartwarming progress through these European Championships, it is that the country’s national football team must always have English managers from now on. The foreign experiment is over, discredited. Fabio Capello and Sven-Göran Eriksson had their good points no doubt — and Sven has landed a new career as an amiable analyst. Why do we court mercenaries — in a club context, men like José Mourinho who all but ruin careers (Dele Alli, Luke Shaw, almost) — when there are guys like Sir Alf, Sir Bobby and (it’s only a matter of time) Sir Gareth, who understand at a profound level English culture, psychology and football history? And who can, when needed, help to prick the absurdly over-inflated bubble of expectation that surrounds any national success.