It’s not as if road cycling is a particular mass phenomenon in the UK, but a fourth place in the form of Bradley Wiggins and with six stage victories to the name of Mark Cavendish – the last coming on the final showpiece stage on the Champs Elysées – should be seen as a huge achievement in a country where most people are too busy at this time of year watching cricket or tendering to the allotment to care about the Tour de France.
Le Tour has been through hell and back in the last decade, with previous winners being stripped of their achievements after being revealed as drug cheats. Alberto Contador, this year’s victor, has been dogged by allegations for many years but has so far never faced any individual sanctions.
His victory has detracted from the return of 37-year old Lance Armstrong, looking for a record eighth victory ten years after his first. Armstrong claims not to be fazed by his third place and admitted to being genuinely surprised by how good Contador was, but says he will be back next year with a new team – possibly containing both Cavendish and Wiggins.
Beyond the headliners of the Spaniards and the Brits, two brothers from the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg – Andy and Fränk Schleck – came 2nd and 5th respectively. Andy – the younger by 5 years – also won the coveted white jersey for the best young rider on the tour.
So is Le Tour back to its best? Almost certainly yes. A number of young cyclists are coming through, we have a young and talented champion who looks to be a major force for the next few years, and the sport is growing in popularity all over the world.
But the issue of drugs continues to be a frequent irritant, as readers of Paul Kimmage’s excellent book Rough Ride will know all too well. The reputation of Le Tour rests on the Contadors, the Cavendishes, the Armstrongs, and the Schlecks being clean – no, better still, whiter than white. For any blemish could threaten to permanently stain an event which enraptures the majority of Europe for three weeks of every year.