A sporting view
It’s about pitting yourself against nearly 200 of the finest road riders in the world and the agonising climbs up notorious mountain roads, of course, but there is also something else vital to the Tour de France’s essence.
It isn’t the sometimes bitter rivalry and verbal spats between the main players, nor the escalation that leads to something more physical (such as the Barredo and Costa punch-up last week). And it certainly isn’t the headbutting, however impressive the achievement of the Australian cyclist who aimed no less than three blows on a New Zealand rival while maintaining a speed of over 40mph. Nor are we talking about the drugs, which have dogged all recent Tours.
No, the other point of the Tour de France is the scenery. From flat coasting past fields of sunflowers in Provence to the towering peaks of the Pyrenees. No one mentions it, and since the demise of coverage on terrestrial TV most of us cannot see it for ourselves. We are left to the daily stage maps in the newspapers and our imaginations. No rider seems to sing the praises of the countryside when he talks about the challenges in pre-race interviews. Former track cyclist Mark Cavendish, who has won three stages so far, might just as well be back in England going round and round an indoor circuit.
Non-competitive exercise enthusiasts on two legs don’t always appreciate their natural environment either. The publication of the Long Distance Walkers Association, Strider, is full of breathless articles by Challenge Event participants, who may have walked anything from 20 to 100 miles. It’s all about my muscle fatigue, my blisters and how quickly I was able to complete the hike. Nothing about the upland landscape, the shifting patterns of light on the hills as daylight turns to dusk, or the mackerel cloudscapes and quickening breezes hinting at a change in the weather.
Walking and cycling are activities with low carbon footprints (OK, we’ll forget about the convoy of vehicles following the Tour’s peloton), so in contrast to the high-octane world of Formula 1 it seems fitting that players and spectators should try forging a bond with their surroundings.