On Saturday one of the finest athletes of our time took one step closer to being dubbed the one of the greatest ever, and no, I’m not talking about Serena (what did you expect, this is a blog about cycling…) Mark Cavendish took his 26th stage win at the Tour de France, 2 more wins and he’ll equal the great Bernard Hinault.
That second name probably means nothing to most people, but the Tour de France is one of the most popular annual sporting events and easily has the largest live audience (obviously it doesn’t hurt being spread over three weeks, across thousands of km’s of road and being completely free to watch). This year in particular, it was expected to be incredibly spectacular and the first week hasn’t been a disappointment. Usually the first week of the Tour is seen as quite easy (relatively), however this year the organisers wanted to keep things interesting and after the first week, there’s already time gaps between the main contenders.
This year’s also special because the four best cyclists of this generation have lined up against each other. Most of the time the best riders don’t necessarily race each other at the same time due to injuries, different race calendars (riders often target different races) or simply to avoid each other if they’re not in good form.
The defending champion is Nibali, known as the Shark due to his ruthless ability to attack, when it’s too late for anyone to catch up (his other nickname is Nibbles…) Many people feel he had no real competitors last year and so had an ‘easy’ race, as two of the three men in this list crashed out last year, while the other didn’t take part. Although he has lost a few minutes already and may not be as good in the mountains as the other three, don’t write him off, he’s only one of six men in history to win all three grand tours (the other two being the Giro d’Italia, the Tour of Italy and the Vuelta a Espana, the Tour of Spain).
The kid from Columbia, he’s only 25 (the other three are in their 30s) was born and brought up at an altitude of 3,000m. He’s small and light, the epitome of a climber, he’s happiest in the mountains. Quintana came 2nd in the Tour in 2013, but missed the race last year to ride the Giro, which he won. He’s surprisingly not lost much time in the first week on the flat stages and as the Tour goes up into the mountains Quintana has a real chance of becoming the first ever Colombian to win the Tour.
Arguably the best cyclist of this generation, the Spaniard has won all three Grand Tours on multiple occasions. Contador’s reputation is slightly tarnished due to failing a doping test in 2010, which stripped him of his 2010 Tour win, however he’s adamant that the clenbuterol found in his system was due to contaminated meat he’d eaten. Contador’s already won the Giro earlier this year (the other three didn’t take part to focus on the Tour), so it’ll be interesting to see how much that’s taken out of him as looks to becomes the first man to win both the Giro and Tour in the same year since the late Marco Pantani back in 1999. One three week grand tour is brutal enough, let alone two in the space of a couple of months.
Froome was the second man from Great Britain (well he was born in Kenya, but he’s still one of our own…) to win the Tour de France, back in 2013, having supported Bradley Wiggins to his win in 2012 (where he also finished second). Froome crashed out in the first week last year (along with Contador). If only he stopped staring at his stem and paid more attention to the road. He’s survived the first week and currently wears the famous yellow jersey (the leader’s jersey). He was just about favourite at the start of the race and is in an even stronger position a week later. You know he’ll be celebrating with Froomecat if he wins.
As brilliant as these guys may be, cycling isn’t an individual sport, as many people think. You can be as a high as Lance (he wasn’t actually high, but you know what I mean), but without a good team around you, you’ve got no chance of winning. Just a few basic examples of why team mates are crucial to being successful: keeping the leaders out of the wind so they don’t waste valuable energy fighting air resistance, going back to the team car to bring them food and drink, and even sacrificing their chances by handing over their bikes if the leader’s in a crash or has a mechanical issue (that’s how the German powerhouse Tony Martin won stage 4 this year and took the yellow jersey).
That’s one of the special things about cycling, the camaraderie between the riders. Sadly Tony Martin actually crashed out of the race on stage 6 close to the finish line and suffered a broken collarbone, however the image of three of his team mates supporting him up the hill to the finish line (including the current world champion) is something special. And it’s not just between team mates either. Earlier this year at the Giro, after Richie Porte had suffered a puncture, Simon Clarke, a fellow Australian, but on a rival team, took off his wheel and handed it to Porte, who was a race favourite at the time. Infamously they were both docked time and fined, as teams aren’t allowed to help each other.
You might be wondering after I mentioned Mark Cavendish as one of the greatest, I haven’t actually mentioned him as a favourite. That’s because Cav (yeah we’re mates… I wish) is a sprinter. That’s as opposed to the GC (General Classification) boys, who look to complete the three week race in the shortest time possible. On the other hand, if all the cyclists are still together close to the finish line, predominantly on the flat stages, Cav has the raw power to sprint to finish ahead of everyone else and win the stage.
Or so he did, until a few years ago, when he seemingly lost his crown to the German beasts, Marcel Kittel and this year Andre Greipel. After losing the first two flat stages to Greipel this year, Cav took the win on the third. He now sits third on the list of all-time stage wins at the Tour with 26 wins, 2 behind Hinault and 8 behind the legendary Eddy Merckx. Merckx and Hinault were both GC contenders though (both 5 time overall winners of the Tour), and so many of their wins came from time trialling stages. Cav has only won sprints so is considered the greatest sprinter ever.
Cavendish splits most people’s opinions though (a bit like Bradley Wiggins), you either love him or you hate him: he’s brutally honest, wears his heart on his sleeve and his wife’s Peta Todd! I think it’s quite obvious what I think of him…
Cycling has a long history of drug use, which has damaged the sport in recent years. I don’t want to go into too much detail (so much has been written on it), but the fact is there is a real incentive to use performance enhancing drugs as they can have a massive impact on a cyclist’s ability. The use of drugs, for example Erythoprotein, to increase the ability of blood to carry oxygen around the body is going to be far more beneficial to a cyclist where endurance is key, compared to a footballer, who may only see a marginal benefit.
The level of testing around drug usage is also extremely high these days. In a recent interview Froome stated he’d been tested 60 times in one year (I doubt any other sports are tested so heavily, even in athletics). It’s a bit of a vicious cycle though, because more stringent testing means more cyclists are caught, even though the overall number and proportion of cyclists doping may be falling (I hope). However there are plenty of critics who claim that drug testing is always playing catch up when it comes to detecting the latest drugs.
At this point I’ve got to believe that 99% of cyclists are clean and that I am watching a fair race. I’m not sure I’d continue following the sport if it now came to light that there was still widespread use of drugs. You’re always going to have those stupid individuals who’ll try. The Tour’s already seen one incident of drug use: this genius thought it’d be fine to do some cocaine… even though he’s at the biggest cycling race of the year… under mass loads of media scrutiny… where he knew he’d be tested at some point… (not that it’s OK to use any sort of drugs even if he knew he wasn’t going to be tested).
Regardless of whether they’re on drugs, the Tour is still easily one of the toughest sporting events to compete in. Just crossing the finish line on the Champs-Élysées after 3 weeks of cycling totalling 3,360km, let alone winning it, is in itself a massive achievement.
Ride Across Britain is nothing compared to what these guys put themselves through, but hopefully this will inspire me as I try and emulate these phenomenal athletes. As the Tour reaches the first mountains, the real racing begins, I can’t wait.
Edited to add:
Having just watched the highlights for today’s first day in the Pyrenees, just after I’d posted this, Froome has destroyed all his competitors and now has a lead of nearly 3 minutes over his closest rival in the ‘big 4’, Quintana (Nibali is nearly 7 minutes behind). I’m not going to complain if Froome dominates though, it’s just more of this.