When we look back at the 2014 Tour de France and debate the outcome a couple of things should be kept well to the front of the mind: Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali extended his lead over his rivals on every single significant stage. On the cobbles, in the Vosges on Bastille Day, in the Alps & Pyrenees and in the time trial. That fact alone should mark him out as a champion of some distinction. His win also completes his set of all three Grand Tours and allows him to join a select group of some of the greatest names in cycling. He won more road stages than any champion since Eddy Merckx, elevating the achievement further. The side-note that he did it in his national champions jersey will have pleased his home fans and cycling history aficionados in equal measure. He focused his season entirely on these two weeks and utterly dominated the race – appearing serene even when coolly dispatching the podium pretenders with stage winning attacks. The words ‘worthy champion’ should not even be being debated.
When I was a kid watching the Tour de France in the late Eighties, my rider allegiances often switched with whichever was my favourite jersey design. I would find myself supporting Renault one year, PDM the next, Z-Peugeot the year after that. As with football a few years earlier (and in the very same way as my young children today) I was something of a itinerant fan. I would pick a jersey, a haircut or a battle between two big stars and plump for one of them. The following year I could very well pick the other guy and have him as my favourite. This certainly happened in 1990 when my support switched from Laurent Fignon the year before to Lemond. Even though my football allegiance had very quickly solidified into one team over the others (mainly due to the fact I that I outgrew the Tottenham shirt – and the associated desire to be Steve Archibald – that I had been given and which caused much confusion in my Manchester-leaning mind) cycling remained ever thus. Unbiased. Unencumbered. Un-tribalised.
The inaugural Dubai Tour was deemed a success by many commentators and journalists attending the event, and if they meant a triumph of style over substance then they would be entirely correct. We saw many, many pictures of the Burj Khalifa – the worlds tallest building – and almost as many of the Dubai Police Force’s utterly ridiculous fleet of supercars, which include a Bugatti Veyron, Ferrari FF and a Lamborghini Aventador. There were a few of camels, lots of sand and even a couple – hidden in amongst the rest – of cyclists in action.
Taylor Phinney won the opening day Time Trial and never looked in danger of relinquishing his overall lead across the 4 day event. Marcel Kittel, obviously concerned about having his much-talked about hair upstaged by Phinney’s own remarkably idiosyncratic barnet, proceeded to wrestle back the headlines by winning three sprint stages on the bounce. The long awaited resumption of battle between the German Giant and our own Manx Missile never got going, with Cav variously misfiring, miscueing and mishapping in the desert. It’s very early days in the season of course but that doesn’t seem to be affecting Giant Shimano who have started in majestic form. Cav, and reunited lead-out man Renshaw, clearly have some ground to make up.
Taylor Phinney doing the important stuff: looking good in Dubai.
It’s been a hard week to follow the start of the cycling season from the UK. Races in Australia and Argentina are not so easy to watch live; it either involves getting up at 4.30am and disturbing the rest of your non-cycling life with sleep deprivation to watch the Tour Down Under; or risking your eyesight squinting at a fuzzy web-cam whilst trying to follow fast-speaking Spanish commentary at the Tour de San Luis. But the very fact that there are these options speaks volumes about the proliferation of coverage. We’ve become so used to coverage of almost everything that this, in fact, makes for a pleasant (and nostalgic) change. Not so long ago watching short highlights programmes used to be the only option for even the biggest races and anything else would not even get that. Now live TV of entire stages of the bigger races plus legal (and illegal) streams and Youtube channels bring us even the most minor events in some form. Saturation levels are fast approaching
So it’s been refreshing this week to catch up the Tour Down Under in written and highlights form. I haven’t quite kicked the need for ‘live’ updates so have settled into a pattern of reading back my Twitter timeline after waking up to get the chronology of the race as it unfolds. By following a few teams and a few journalists you get the story of the whole race – early breaks and all – which highlight shows often skim over. Then, pre-armed with a bit of race knowledge, watching even a brief highlights package becomes more rewarding in the sense that you learn to watch the moves develop rather than witness the result and then try and work out how it came to be.
“Chris Horner’s recent victory at La Vuelta has made him the oldest winner of a Grand Tour stage ever. At 41 years and 307 days he eclipsed the previous record by some margin to win Stage 3. Horner is one of a few Grand Old Men still riding hard in the hardest of races at what should be long past the dusk of their careers.”
I wrote these words a couple of weeks ago on holiday thinking that I could return home and finish it off to create a piece about the wonderful remarkableness of a couple of older guys winning the odd stage in Grand Tours. The trouble is Horner has kept winning and at this moment – the morning of the last real racing day of La Vuelta – he leads by 3 seconds having distanced his younger rivals on a number of occasions to claw back the time he lost in the Individual Time Trial. Eyebrows are being raised so far they are falling off the back of some correspondents heads, and tongues are wagging so furiously that they are danger of giving their owners whiplash. Whatever the truth is about how Horner is managing such a performance, the cycling community seems desperate to avoid looking naive again.
“This years Tour de France”, I wrote “was illuminated on multiple occasions by Jens Voigt attacking from the get-go and then attacking the break again in an age-defying attempt to solo to a victory. One month older than Horner he fell just short of a win in France although he did manage a solo victory in the Tour of California earlier in the year. So what are Horner and Voigt doing still riding off the front at the wrong side of 40? What on earth keeps them going? And at what cost?”
Each day that has passed has made the implied assumption that Horner would fade and fall down the GC as the race progressed more ridiculous. But what else would have been a reasonable assumption to have made? I wrote elsewhere that Horner’s “few days in red” at the beginning of the race might even complicate his team leader Cancellara’s plans.. I did not contemplate for a second that we would still be writing about him now.