Why is it that British success at the Tour de France (or anywhere on the Continent) seems so dissonant? Why is it such a shock to many of my fellow British that it might be built on deceit and immorality? Is it that “foreign” cyclists and cycling tap into a rich British desire to both lust after the exotic, yet believe it to be dangerous and disreputable? There is nothing new about the ITV coverage of the Tour de France focusing on British riders, but once upon a time you knew none of them would win, and that somehow made it all right.
In these days of explicit and horrid racism, of insane and pathological isolationism, it is hard to remember the curious relationship Britain had with Europe in 1980s when I first started watching cycling. I can still remember the huge cultural shift signalled by the disappearance of duty on the ferries and the sudden feeling that we were European (oh happy days). But we never were: cycling was yet another sport that signalled our deep otherness: don’t race on the Continent you’ll end up on drugs, or worse liking foreign food or speaking Flemish. And of course, the Tour de France IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT FRANCE (see Roland Barthes). If there is nothing more foreign than fritjes with mayonnaise (and cyclocross racing being popular) there is nothing more spectacularly French than le Tour. British riders can compete, but must fail tragically to win or even finish. They must decry foreign practices like race-fixing and doping.
Of course this is all fantasy. The domination of that race by Belgian, Italians, Spanish, Germans and even Americans (not forgettig bit parts played by Swiss, Dutch, Luxembourgeois, Danish… and an Australian) developed its internationalisation over a long period. But we still think we are better, have no real sense of our connection with continental Europe, and retain a false belief in our post-Imperial exceptionalism. That’s why Wiggins, Froome and Co freak us out so much. And why Chris Boardman’s epic failure does not. To win the Tour de France is demostrably un-British, and removes a necessary distance from our exotic object of desire.
Hilariously placed off-route TdF sign at top of Cragg Vale
20 years ago I was knocked off my bike in central London riding home to watch the highlights of the Tour de France, which visited that year for the first time since 1974. I also met my partner. I am delighted to say that only two of these events are having anniversary celebrations this year. I last wrote about 2014 in January, having started the year with more kilometrage than I have ever gathered in Winter, and some high hopes for the year.
I did complete a 600km Brevet de Randonneur this year, but won’t manage a Super Randonneur Series. I have really enjoyed my riding this year, and will ride just one more event I think, in August. The Tour did come, and I am still reeling from having this slice of French spectacle rushing past the end of my road, slowly. But most of all I am delighted to say that I am still together with @accidentobizaro. Our relationship isn’t about cycling, but it is interwoven within our lives both as an intermittently shared activity, but also as a topic of conversation and as a jumping-off point for many seemingly irrelevant features of our lives. We have climbed Pyrennean and Alpine Cols together, but it is the climbs of the Vosges which the Tour de France visits this year on stages 9 and 10 which I think are most apt – our last big cycling holiday before starting a family was an extraordinary experience. Hair-dryer winds on the flat, and the cool at the top of the mountains; birthday cakes; anniversaries; Cremant…
BMC, Katusha and FdJ get stuck
So, let’s aim for a return to these shores for the Tour in 2034, I’m waiting… if it comes before, all well and good, but it’s something to aim at.
Addendum: as I was taking the photo of the rather misleading TdF sign at the beginning of this post I talked with and photographed a rider from London who had grown up in Hebden Bridge. His son had the same name as me, and lives in Stoke Newington, where I was living in 1994. Jung would like this very much.
Chalk on the road, Stage 2
Paul Fournel is one of my favourite writers. ‘Need for the bike’ ranks alongside ‘The Rider’ as a paradigm of attentive, illuminating observation: that its topic (like that of Krabbé’s masterpiece) is cycling, is a bonus.
I wrote previously that although I respected and understood Fournel’s essay on doping in ‘Need’ I did not share his conclusions. He has a longer and more embedded understanding of the European tradition of competitive cycling than I, and a healthy dislike of false oppositions and hypocrisy. However, I fear the acceptance of doping as normative, however rational this might be: maybe my Anglo-Saxon lust for fairness and ‘truth’ is too deep, however hard I try to be more philosophical on such matters.
In the most recent edition of Rouleur (Dec. 2012: 86-7), Fournel responds predictably to recent revelations about Armstrong, and their place in our developing understand of doping in sport. He calls for us to ‘welcome’ doping, noting that perhaps only this will enable us to rationally control and assess its impact.
I am not yet ready to welcome doping. However, I welcome Fournel’s critique of the often hypocritical approach to anti-doping we are in danger of adopting. We have a choice: either sign up to legalisation and control, or properly fund and support a huge and multi-faceted prohibition, with the attendant complexities: ethical, legal, psychological, medical and scientific.
The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race
When Alfred Jarry wrote his interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion it must have seemed a neat metaphor: the self-imposed yet stage-managed torture of the hill-climb is an apposite image to evoke self-sacrifice. Jarry also accentuates the technical and media-saturated aspect of this crucifixion: the crown of thorns becomes an advert for a puncture proof tire.
Of course, what with Lady Gaga, Madonna and Lloyd-Webber, the representation and artistic co-option of religious themes has become so commonplace as to evoke ennui; although of course some can still get overheated by a Piss Christ or Jerry Springer the Opera. As the juggernaut reaches ever closer to Armstrong and his cohorts and facilitators we seem to desire a quasi-religious cleansing (or stoning). Jarry’s essay serves to remind us that we should recognise the absurdity of such reactions, their atavism. Cheats and dopers deserve to be punished. But we deserve the same (oh, yes) if we don’t recognise our own complicity in this spectacle of the absurd.
For an antidote visit the wonderful world of Rainer Ganahl, such as this gem of mountain performance (with cowbells): The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race or I wanna be Alfred Jarry, 1903 / 2011 or if you don’t have 16 minutes, ALFRED JARRY’S CALL OF NATURE.
Altigraph, a name that still makes my hairs stand on end.
la Berarde – col de Spandelles – Grand Ballon – col de la Schlucht
How would you plan a cycling holiday in France? Perhaps you would plan it around gastronomy or viticulture; possibly around pragmatic considerations such as the availability of airports, campsites or gites; maybe you want to visit historical or cultural centres; or the Tour de France climbs. Given that France is such wonderful cycling destination one can easily succumb to the paralysis associated with a proliferation of uncontrolled and interacting variables. Continue reading