Rapha Mondial 2018 - Cycling historian Herbie Sykes' new piece.

Rapha Mondial: The Second Coming?

Cycling historian and author Herbie Sykes is at his forthright and expansive best in this new long read from Mondial magazine. Are you sitting comfortably?

17 August 2018

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

A Tour de France.

A powerful, obscenely rich foreign team, by turns callous, gratuitous and bumptious. Headed up by a serial, unlovable winner, it will flaunt its riches and its superiority complex and will attempt, yet again, to denude the Tour of its identity. Once more it will bludgeon the life from it as a context, once more defile and then disfigure its age-old precepts and methodologies. The vanquished will lament the sport’s loss of romance, loss of heart, loss of feeling for and proximity to its public. Of course, they will whinny, this lot are unpopular. They are new-moneyed, stand-offish and entitled, a pariah state-within-a-state. In their arrogance and hubris they insult the intelligence of the cycling public, bite the hand that feeds them. They must be stopped at whatever cost, because the future of cycling is at stake.

"The vanquished will lament the sport’s loss of romance, loss of heart, loss of feeling for and proximity to its public."

A doping scandal attaches itself to the champion, yet another crisis despoiling yet another summer. The superannuated legal nit-pickers sharpen their metaphorical pencils whilst amongst the poor, put-upon fans, the atmosphere is “febrile”. This time they really have had enough, and they will stand for it no longer. There are concerns, apparently well-founded, around his security in the first instance, the very trajectory of the sport in the second. There are just too many by the roadside now, and it’s likely to turn ugly. There’s too much alcohol and too much fury, and too little airspace between it and the riders.

The modern cycling fan, we’re told, is less tolerant. He or she is less inhibited by tradition, and has access to all the information. He’s a “football fan”, but without the filters and the censure. All that being the case, how can the tenets of the Tour survive? How, in practical terms, can calamity be avoided, and what can this of all sports do to mitigate it? How, to paraphrase Yeats, can the centre hold when cycling has become so polarised?

The problem, it seems, is that this sport of ours has run away from itself. Predicated upon speed and power, it has mutated into a corporate juggernaut, and now the proles are demanding it be derailed. It need be stopped at all costs, and if Sky’s gilded heads must roll then so much the better. For the Tour to survive, it must be remade according to age-old values.

The mob demands revolution, but like all French revolutionaries, its constituents’ objectives are entirely inverse to their stated demands. They may not know it – they never do – but what they actually want isn’t revolution at all. What they are braying for is its polar opposite, regression. The mob, as always, is counter-revolutionary, conservative, nostalgic for some ill-defined status quo.

Fortified and emboldened by the invective of the press, it finds an unlikely ally in the ancien regime. The UCI, the sport’s “governing body” has a (callous, gratuitous, bumptious) new leader. He’s been swept to power on a populist wave, and like all career politicians he’s an opportunist. Casting himself as the living embodiment of the cyclisme traditionnel, he lays claim to the moral high ground with promises of – you’ve guessed it – substantive and far-reaching change. Tit-for-tat with the bloated, flatulent Rosbifs. Who’d have guessed it?

"He, too, understands the game they are playing, and they both understand that he has the better lawyers."

Next the ring master race organiser enters the fray. Viewing figures are the business he’s in, and he’s extremely skilled in their procurement. In the weeks preceding the race he first derides and then denounces this perfidious Albion. It’s juicy, headline-grabbing stuff, but little more than a prelude to the main event. On the Sunday preceding the Grand Départ he moves, judiciously, to deselect the champion. He very well understands that Sunday is a no-news day, and so his timing is perfect. (The champion, sub-judice for a positive-non positive at the previous year’s Vuelta, carries on regardless. He, too, understands the game they are playing, and they both understand that he has the better lawyers).

All sitting uncomfortably? Then welcome to the 2018 Tour de France. Welcome to the death of cycling and welcome, one and all, to the here we go again…

Welcome to Exhibit A, the death of cycling which was the 1950 Tour. Successive Italian wins, by Fausto Coppi and the old curmudgeon Gino Bartali, had unleashed a wave of you-know-what amongst the natives. Achille Joinard, the (new, French) president of the UCI, had inherited a “sport in crisis”, and promised to upend the applecart. Before the race a meeting had been convened, with all eleven teams and a gaggle of influential journalists invited to attend. The teams were advised that riding as… well… teams was no longer permissible. Instead they were to compete, unfathomably, as single entities. There would be no tactics, no domestiques and, with the exception of trying to win the thing, no common purpose. Rather they would conduct themselves as men who just happened to be taking part in the same race and who happened to have nationality, off-the-bike fellowship and a jersey in common. The Italians saw it for what it was – infantile sloganeering. They helped themselves (and one another) to stages two, three, five, seven, nine and eleven.

When they installed one of their own, Fiorenzo Magni, into yellow, the dam of French hauteur broke spectacularly and definitively. A fanatic assaulted Bartali near the summit of the Aspin, whereupon he, a double Tour winner, cut expertly off his countrymen’s noses to spite French faces. The Italians left the race forthwith, the Swiss Ferdi Kübler galloped into Paris with the maillot jaune, and the Tour was left looking not a little ridiculous.

(In the event the sport didn’t die, and the mob never quite managed to reinvent it. What they did reinvent, over time, was Gino Bartali, public enemy number one. That, in case you missed it, is entirely the point. He was the blueprint for Froome, and these days he’s Righteous Amongst the Nations. He’s the saviour of Italian Jewry, because history will have its way).

Welcome to the 1964 Tour de France, won by another of the Froomes. The mob had Jacques Anquetil down as a thoroughgoing wrong ‘un; arrogant, greedy, almost completely devoid of feeling. He so ran the gauntlet in defeating Raymond Poulidor, the housewives’ choice, that he felt it necessary to recluse himself from the 1965 edition. To Jacques’ immense delight Felice Gimondi won that Tour, with Poulidor second. Jacques is long gone now, but the utter tedium of the Tours he won has long been reimagined. It transpires his reign of terror wasn’t so abject after all, but rather the high watermark of the French pastoral. Jacques was the greatest, and the venom of the roadside public nought but playful jousting.

Welcome to the 1931 Giro, Alfredo Binda and the unidentified flying chair leg. Then to 1968, and the heresy that was Vincenzo Giacotto’s FAEMA. Here was an Italian team deploying an Italian champion, Vittorio Adorni, as a gregario in the service of the Belgian automaton Merckx. Adorni, a former maglia rosa at the height of his power, selling himself to a foreign insurgent? Colluding against Gimondi and Motta, Zilioli and Bitossi? Working against the Giro d’Italia? What treachery was this, and what sedition from Marino Vigna, his direttore sportivo? He, an Olympic gold medallist, had the temerity to assert that FAEMA were “so strong that not even the flies can escape”.

"If so, what are we to make of the ‘journalists’ who inform us that Froome’s eleventh hour salvage job at this year’s race was (wait for it… ) the death of the Giro?"

Does any of this sound familiar? Are not Bernal, Kwiatkowski and Poels simply the Adorni, Spruyt and Van den Bossche of our time? Was not that 1968 race the death of the Giro in precisely the same way the 1929, 1954 and 1956 editions had been the death of the Giro? If so, what are we to make of the ‘journalists’ who inform us that Froome’s eleventh hour salvage job at this year’s race was (wait for it… ) the death of the Giro? Wasn’t it in point of fact a facsimile of Valetti’s 1939 miracle, Coppi’s masterpiece Cuneo-Pinerolo ten years later, Gaul’s astonishing 298 kilometre odyssey to Courmayeur? Wasn’t it a return to the golden age of man-on-man racing, a great champion finding a way to win in extremis? Was it cycling coming home or, as the know-alls, crackpots and conspiracy theorists would have us believe, the second coming of Landis?

Didn’t that imbecile punch Merckx in the guts on the Puy de Dôme in 1975, and wasn’t that the very final straw? Wasn’t Magni compelled to curtail his lap of honour at the Vigorelli in 1948? Wasn’t the abuse so caustic that he, the hardest man in cycling, was reduced to tears? Didn’t they spit at Baronchelli in ’77, Roche in ’87, Gotti in ’99? Didn’t they fear for Armstrong’s wellbeing on Alpe d’Huez in 2004, and weren’t the partisans hurling much more than insults?

Isn’t it true, when all’s said and done, that cycling isn’t the new football at all? Isn’t it rather the case that football is the new cycling, and that bike racing fans have been behaving appallingly for over a century?

Many would have us believe that the enmity directed at Sky in general and Froome in particular is in some way new, unprecedented. It goes without saying that this is utter nonsense, because history tells us it goes with the turf. Sport is show business, and show business needs its ugly sisters. It needs its Goliaths just as it needs its Davids, for every Froome a Bardet. Without them we wouldn’t invest, and the man in the French street would cease to tune in. That being the case Froome’s AAF for Salbutamol was a handy construct, but only a moron would believe he set out to cheat anti-doping during a Vuelta he was only ever going to win. What’s more, do you really believe that ASO were minded to unilaterally ban him from their race? That The Court of Arbitration for Sport wouldn’t intercede on his behalf? Really? Isn’t it just the Tour being the Tour, reminding the great unwashed of its imminence as it has for decades?

That’s not to say that Froome wasn’t the author, to some degree at least, of his own misfortune. He was extremely unprofessional in producing an AAF, and it cracked the veneer of Sky’s anodyne, rather-too-corporate image. Dave Brailsford, his boss, seems possessed of an unerring ability to make enemies, and Gianni Moscon gives a passable impression of a moron. That, however, is peripheral, and besides how can any right-minded person actively dislike Bernal, Kwiatkowski and Thomas? They’re nice, polite, decent young men who race bikes brilliantly well, and it costs nothing to watch them. The broader point – perhaps the only point - is that cycling’s rabble needs to be roused.

Many of the sport’s opinion formers either fail to understand or choose to ignore the fact that the bluster around this year’s Tour was simply history repeating. Most of the rest, the part-timers and hangers-on, simply parrot what they read in L’Équipe, La Gazzetta et al. Their job is to generate copy, and what better copy than sanctimony, intrigue and alleged malfeasance. That’s the stuff that puts bums on seats, and so what better, with Bardet knocking at the door, than an ogre in yellow? What better than a gutsy French underdog four-square against the twister Bartali, the playground bully Merckx, the anti-hero Froome?

"The good news for the mob is that renewal, not revolution, is at hand."

The point is that there’s nothing really new, or revelatory, about Froome, or Team Sky, or indeed about the hostility directed at them. Quite the opposite in fact; he’s simply a 21st century Merckx, his team is a 21st century FAEMA, and mob is just the mob. The catalysts for its ire – a hostile press, nationalism, a serial winner backed by a powerful team and an imagined loss of romance – remain more or less constant. What changes isn’t the context but the pretext, the stick with which they’re beaten. With Bartali it was his perceived duplicity, with Anquetil his detachment and defensive riding style. Ostensibly Merckx’ problem was his voracity, Armstrong’s his arrogance. Froome’s is his methodology, but even that is illustrative. Many of those chittering about the stalemate imposed by Sky’s domestiques declared themselves outraged when Froome attacked 80 kilometres from home on the Finestre, ludicrously comparing it to Floyd Landis’ exploit in 2006.

When push comes to shove the detail is largely semantics. In the final analysis cycling fans are analogous to football fans (and indeed to all sports fans) in one fundamental respect. They want Froome to lose for the same reason they want Real Madrid and Manchester United to lose, because they want someone else to win. They look forward to the Tour each July, and then Sky come along and remind them of their own quotidian sameness.

The good news for the mob is that renewal, not revolution, is at hand. Froome’s masterpiece was realised at the Giro, on the very roads which immortalised Coppi in 1949. History suggests we’ve seen the very best of him now, and as ever the centre just about held.

It always just about does and, because people love this sport, it always just about will.

Vive le Tour…

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