WHEN the Tour of Britain was revived in 2004 it got off to an inauspicious start. It was low-rent – unlike previous incarnations there was no title sponsor – and low-key, and it was almost over before it began.
On stage one, from Manchester back to Manchester via Blackpool, the volume of non-race traffic – parked cars, and vehicles that took exception to being told to pull over to let a bike race pass, and crept back on to the course – upset continental professionals used to racing on fully closed roads, usually lined with spectators. They staged a protest by neutralising the race until the outskirts of Manchester.
Nobody was too shocked. It was an episode that only underlined cycling’s status as a minority sport in Britain, occupying a tiny niche in which it seemed set to languish.
How times change. When the ninth Tour of Britain departs from Ipswich today it will boast a field that includes, for the first time, the Tour de France champion and the world champion. Even more remarkably, both are British.
The following eight days, with the race due to finish in Guildford next Sunday after a day in Scotland on Tuesday (stage three goes from Jedburgh to Dumfries), could resemble an extended lap of honour for Mark Cavendish, the world champion, and more especially for man-of-the-moment Bradley Wiggins, the Tour winner and Olympic time trial gold medallist. Riding his national Tour means that Wiggins will miss tomorrow’s Olympic parade in central London, but his alternative parade will last eight days, cover 838 miles, visit Nottingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Blackpool, Wales and Scotland, and is likely to be witnessed by even more people than are expected tomorrow for the 21 floats carrying 700 Olympians and Paralympians from Mansion House to Trafalgar Square.
The contrast with that first Tour of Britain is likely to be stark. A tide of goodwill and enthusiasm for all things cycling seems to have engulfed the country, building throughout July with Wiggins’ two-week defence of the yellow jersey at the Tour, then culminating with the cyclists’ haul of eight gold medals at the Olympics.
As long as those people who will turn out to cheer Wiggins this week are not expecting him to win – because he almost certainly won’t. In fact, he was not originally scheduled to ride at all and his form is a mystery, mainly because his world has altered completely in the last month.
The positive side to his new status as sporting royalty was underlined by his role in the opening ceremony to London 2012, when he rang the bell to get the Games under way – an extraordinary moment of recognition for Britain’s first Tour winner – and by his invitations to various post-Games events, including this week’s GQ Awards, where he received a lifetime achievement gong. The negative side was highlighted during a brief holiday in Majorca, where Wiggins was photographed by paparazzi apparently puffing on a cigarette.
He has withdrawn from the world championships in Holland later this month. “I haven’t done the training I need to do to win the world championships,” he said this week, when he also reflected briefly on the Tour. “When I look back at it I have bad memories of the Tour,” he said. “I enjoyed the last weekend, winning the time trial and going to Paris, but the rest of the race, and everything that goes with the race, wasn’t an enjoyable experience.”
He didn’t elaborate, but he was presumably referring to, among other sources of stress and hassle, the daily ritual of questions about doping. In which case, he will not welcome questions about the latest saga, emanating from Lance Armstrong’s refusal to answer the US Anti-Doping Agency’s charges, and the consequent loss of his seven Tour de France titles. The revelations that have poured out since then, mainly from The Secret Race, an exposé published last week by one of Armstrong’s former team-mates, Tyler Hamilton, have once again cast cycling and the Tour in the dimmest of lights. And they have finally confirmed for all but a dwindling band of Armstrong loyalists that doping was as prevalent in the early 2000s as it was throughout the 1990s, when the then-undetectable EPO was the wonder drug. When a test was developed, Hamilton and, he claims, his US Postal team-mates, including Armstrong, began blood-doping instead.
Wiggins has a point when he says that all this has nothing to do with him, and that he enjoyed the Olympics so much more than the Tour because there were no questions about drugs – a curious fact, given the Olympics’ own sordid history.
But, as he is discovering, being Tour champion brings benefits and disadvantages, responsibilities and catches, the least of which might be the dangers of smoking, or being pictured smoking. No doubt he will be asked about Armstrong this week. He will also enjoy a level of adulation absolutely unprecedented for a cyclist in Britain.