FOR THREE WEEKS EVERY JULY the Tour de France weaves it’s way through France, often dipping into and out of neighbouring countries but always ending up on the final Sunday of the Tour in the Champs Elysées.
This year was the 99th edition of the Tour de France. It began on Saturday, 30th June with a Prologue in Liège in Belgium with 198 riders comprising 22 teams representing 12 countries. 3,488 km later, after nine flat stages, four medium mountain stages including one with a summit finish, five mountain stages including two with a summit finish, two individual time-trial stages and two rest days, 153 riders arrived in the Champs Elysées. The winner spent a total of 87 hours 34 minutes and 47 seconds in the saddle whilst the last man, affectionately call the ‘lantern rouge’ or red light, was almost 4 hours behind on accumulated time.
It was back in 1985 when Bernard Hinault won the Tour for the fifth time. That was the last time a French rider won the Tour but this subsequent lack of success has not dampened the French enthusiasm for le Tour. It’s an important part of French life and culture. Each year, thousands of people line the route and millions watch on television as the Tour weaves it’s way into the remotest corners of this country.
The Tour this year was very special for the Brits many of whom were lining the Champs Elysées. It seemed that Britain was about to produce a winner of the Tour de France for the first time ever.
I was in the Champs Elysées on Sunday and the atmosphere was electric. This final stage of the Tour was a short stage, just 120 km from Rambouillet to Paris, including eight laps around la plus belle avenue du monde, but the anticipation and the excitement started long before the riders arrived. Some two hours ahead of the riders came the raucous publicity caravan.
The caravan has been a feature of the Tour since 1930 and it’s a chance for the Tour’s sponsors to show off their names and their wares. It’s made up of decorated vehicles and it’s colourful, loud and lots of fun.
The final stage of le Tour is considered to be a rather ceremonial affair, the overall winner has usually been decided already and providing he can stay on his bike until the finish his win will be confirmed. However, the race to win the final stage itself is far from ceremonial, it is just as aggressive, testosterone-fueled and exciting as any other stage finish.
Team Sky was particularly strong this year. Managed by Dave Brailsford, the mastermind behind their success, the team included Bradley Wiggins, the favourite to win this year, the current World Champion, Mark Cavendish, the brilliant Christopher Froome and the domestiques, the gallant and selfless team members led by Michael Rogers, whose job is to keep the team leader safe and out of trouble and to launch Mark Cavendish to the finish line when it really matters. This year, they did it in style.
The Final Lap:
Team Sky after the race
The excitement was palpable as Mark Cavendish crossed the line to win in the Champs Elysées for the fourth year in a row. Bradley Wiggins finished in 53rd place as part of the group that was nine seconds behind Cavendish but it was enough for Wiggins, the 32 year old, three times Olympic Champion to become the first British winner of the Tour de France.
Bradley Wiggins and his son after the race
The Tour de France is one of the world’s toughest sporting events so not surprisingly, the win by Bradley Wiggins is being hailed by some as perhaps the greatest British sporting achievement of all time. And I was there to see it happen.