I became a fan of professional cycling in the early 90’s and being from Britain this meant watching Tour de France highlights on Channel 4 at home or occasionally Eurosport if I was at a sports club. The Tour was the gateway drug and it was only later that I hit the harder stuff like the Giro or the classics. So watching cycling in this restricted manner at that particular time meant witnessing Miguel Indurain’s dominance. It was very impressive and as I enjoyed a Time Trial I didn’t find the era as boring as others. There were also more flamboyant riders such as Claudio Chiappucci to add some colour to the race but when his team mate Marco Pantani came on the scene my enjoyment of the sport reached a new level. He was different from everyone else, everything about him was striking from his looks to his climbing style, out of his saddle but still in the drops. He quickly became my favourite rider. I was so fond of him I even liked his Carrera Jeans kit with the denim cycling shorts.
He turned pro in 1992 and completed his first Grand Tours in 19994, he was 2nd at the Giro and finished 3rd and won the White Jersy in his Tour debut. During that Tour he had beat the record for the ascent of Alpe d’Huez but missed out on the stage victory as Roberto Conti had triumphed from a break. The climb was to be used again in 1995 and he wasn’t going to let the opportunity of a stage win slip him by again.
Approaching the mountain there was a break just like the previous year but Miguel Indurain’s Banesto team were racing well and keeping those ahead at a manageable gap. The riders in the break were of a good caliber (Richard Virenque and Ivan Gotti among others) but it looked like they would be caught. On the lower slopes of the Alpe Banesto start riding hard but Gerard Rue tells them to slow down, has he concerns about the form of his leader Indurain? Pantani decides to find out and flies off. He passes by members of the break one by one and after passing Gotti he has the lead. After that his victory is never in doubt and the top riders of a generation such as Indurain, Riis and Zuelle are left fighting for second.
All sports have hero’s and villains. Their presence adds to the spectacle of what you’re watching and changes it into theatre. Unfortunately in cycling many of the heros are actually villains and when you find out you realise that you’ve been watching a tragedy.
David Millar was one such hero of mine. Being Scottish I had always been a fan of his namesake Robert but never really had a chance to watch him race. I nearly saw him race. I remember the sense of anticipation before the 1995 Tour after hearing he would be making a return with his new Le Groupememt team, then the disappointment after they folded days before the start. So when David Millar came on the scene at the start of the 2000’s I was loving being able to watch someone from my own country race in the Tour de France. (Many have questioned his Scottishness but Millar had a similar life to me. I was brought up abroad, I considered another country home for years and I didn’t sound particularly like ‘a jock’ but I feel Scottish. I am Scottish). When he started winning stages and wearing the yellow jersey I was delighted. So when he was popped in 2004 I couldn’t believe it. I felt cheated. All his success which I had celebrated was actually worthless, it was a lie. He wasn’t my hero anymore, he was an embarrassment.
Roll forward to the 2009 Tour and the stage finish in Barcelona. I’d been to Barcelona before and it’s always enjoyable watching a race and seeing the peloton go through areas you recognise but there was added interest that day. David Millar had attacked from the days breakaway with about 30 km to go and had been holding a steady lead over the pack. But with about 5 km to go he arrived at Montjuic with its steep slopes and his advantage was starting to look shaky. I had a dilemma at this point where his fate was unknown. Should I be wanting him to win or fail? I still felt a little betrayed by him but it was 5 years since he was caught cheating and this was already his third Tour since coming back from suspension. Had he done his time for the crime? I decided to just try and enjoy the moment and see it as a brave attack from a cyclist in the Tour de France. It’s the way I often need to watch cycling these days. Enjoy the moment rather than let an individuals doping past spoil things.
In the end Millar was caught with only 1 km to go. While I didn’t celebrate I thought it was a fair outcome. For me, Millar still hadn’t suffered enough to earn forgiveness and glory, but now with this agonising defeat could his redemption could perhaps be complete?
Looking over the editions of the Tour de France which I have followed has shown me that stage 4 is the most dull stage of each Tour, though yesterday was very much the exception to the rule. Hardly anything has happened on a stage 4, which have either been flat sprinters stages or some form of time trial. No significant crashes or abandons, no drugs violations, they are the type of snooze fests which leave you having to listen to Carlton Kirby witter on about different types of sheet metal for hours.
2011’s stage from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne was thankfully slightly different though as it was in one of the editions in which the organisers tried to spice things up in the first week. Stage 1 had already seen an exciting hilly finish won by Philippe Gilbert and he was hoping to be in contention on a similar end climb up ‘The Wall of Brittany’.
He would though be up against a strong GC field trying to steal time over their rivals. Contador, Evans, the Schlecks, Wiggins and Jurgen Van Den Broeck were all at the race and all in with a shout of winning.
The day played out in much the same way as a sprint stage would only the dash was up a hill. Contador and Evans were the two fasted at the finale. The Spaniard thought he had it and performed a semi celebration but the photo finish showed that ‘cuddles’ had won.
Just a routine stage, only 8 seconds separated the top 40 riders in the end but the significant thing was it showed that Evans was ready to win the Tour. He had two 2nd place finishes in 2007 and 2008 where he gained a reputation as a bit of a wheel sucker. After then he started riding more aggressively, trying to animate the race rather than follow others, and became more in control of his own destiny. He won the World Championships in 2009 and whilst in the rainbow jersey added La Fleche Wallonne to his palmares then won the epic ‘White Road’ stage at the Giro. This stage, his first road stage at the Tour, was the final piece of the jigsaw which revealed him to be someone ready to win the Tour de France.