Tour de France
Another Tour de France has been comprehensively wrapped-up but, having just arrived back in Australia myself after spending the three weeks by the roadside in France, I’ve a few takeaways to report from the ground.
I mentioned in a mid-tour article that I believed Nibali to be a worthy winner based on ability, and I certainly hope he’s worthy by virtue of remaining clean of doping allegations as well. As has become standard in recent years, he came under intense scrutiny by the press during the race, but also remained composed and stood up well.
Much focus was given to his alleged past involvement with Michelle Ferrari, as well as the history of his now notorious team manager, Alexander Vinokurov and the associated blight this has put on Team Astana’s reputation. It’s still difficult today for a rider to get as far as Nibali has without having come into contact with a doctor, director, coach, or teammate who has been known to break the rules.
But Nibali remains believable and gave straight answers to those who questioned his legitimacy. Many have made the same show in the past, but each year the absolute expectation grows that this show is authentic.
For me the real show occurred just below the top step of the podium, though. A slew of young riders who’ve showed promise in the past took the next step into the limelight this year.
Leopold Konig, Rafael Majka, Richie Porte, Tejay Van Garderan, Bauke Mollema, Romain Bardet, and Thibaut Pinot are all fresh-faced and of a new generation of riders who showed that even if they can’t win yet, they have what it takes to be competitive.
They wouldn’t have had quite the same opportunities to shine had not Froome and Contador crashed out, but that couldn’t repress a real buzz that I felt watching from the roadside this year that we were witnessing a new generation of people who really do believe in clean cycling.
Since completing fourteen Tours de France in my own career, I’ve followed another fifteen from the roadside with fellow fans that travel from Australia. This year felt markedly different in a good way to me than many past editions, and I wasn’t alone in feeling that way.
But even on top of this, I was pleased to see that among the new faces at the pointy end of the results were a number of Frenchman: Bardet, Pinot, and also Jean-Christophe Péraud.
France has long had some of the strongest criminal law with which to prosecute those guilty of administering, supplying, and overseeing the use of banned doping products in sport.
The Festina and TVM affairs of 1998 proved to both the cycling community and the world at large that they were willing to put them to use. The events of that year sent a shock wave through the sport, and while we’ve subsequently learned that it by no means marked the end of the doping era, it did usher in a new period for French cycling.
It’s well known that the French professional riders subsequently fell into obscurity and, until this year, haven’t featured seriously in their home tour for fifteen years. The situation became so dire that it became something of a sport to deride France for falling so far as to have become something of a national joke.
Former champions such as Laurant Jalabert and Richard Virenque are always on hand to speculate as to why this might be the case.
Unsurprisingly, given that both these men were embroiled in those events of 1998, they’ve never mentioned that it could be as simple as a generation of French riders having had to race clean again in a peloton that was still widely using PEDs.
A nation with the historical cycling strength that France possessed does not just suddenly lose the ability to produce champions.
This has been something of an unsaid truth known among those who follow cycling seriously: the sudden loss of French form was quite likely related to French team personnel and riders being forced to ride clean for fear of criminal prosecution and the threat of jail time.
This fear became real for French teams in 1998 for the first time, and that case remains the only serious case of criminal doping charges being applied in both a broad and serious way.
Bans and fines within the sport are good, but the threat of completely ruined career and life prospects and a criminal record appear, unsurprisingly, to be better.
Of course, there can be nothing at all concrete about this analysis, but I think that the return of French success is a good indicator of broad trends in the peloton; a litmus test, if you like, and the results suggest a positive development.
The fact that this year we saw two Frenchman on the podium, one very young, the other at the end of his career but having spent his early years in mountain biking, suggested to me that the playing field is finally levelling out.
The last fifteen years has led to a pervading cynicism among both fans and the general public that makes every Tour winner a suspect, perhaps unfairly. Time will tell if we are right to believe in Nibali as a true winner, but my big takeaway from this year’s Tour is that the bigger picture is looking bright.
Written by Phil Anderson