What might become the greatest summer in the sports history of Great Britain – admittedly not the most difficult distinction to achieve – continued Sunday in Paris when Bradley Wiggins stepped from his bicycle on the Champs Elysees as the first Brit to ever win the Tour de France.
Combine Wiggins’ landmark victory in merely the 99th edition of the Tour with the delirium that attended Andy Murray’s advancement to the Wimbledon championship round, and even the continuing disappointment that is the English soccer team – a listless quarterfinal departee from Euro 2012 – can’t diminish local excitement. Forget being a habitual bridesmaid. England and the home nations that form the British Olympic delegation aren't usually even invited to the wedding. So this is heady stuff.
The London Olympics is set to begin Friday amid the unusual holiday spirit. There are dire predictions about dreadful weather, hopeless traffic snarls and assorted security botches, which is pretty much the norm leading up to any Olympics. The Brits may be a dour lot, but in this case, they choose to believe the good times will just keep rolling along for British sports. They might even be right. Great Britain finished fourth in the medal count in Beijing four years ago, the best showing since 1924. The Brit team is loaded again and aiming for its first top-three finish since the judges all wore bowler hats.
If an example that anything is possible was needed, there is always Wiggins. He made history and won the most difficult bike race in the world without needing to do a single spectacular thing. It made for a Tour that failed to generate a lot of drama and unforgettable moments, but it also hardened the suspicion that rigorous doping controls have mostly transformed the winners from supermen on rocket ships to mortals working hard to turn the cranks on their machines.
Everything is perception, though, and this Tour went about its business while the perceptions concerning the past were stirred up by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The USADA charged Lance Armstrong with systematic doping during a cycling career that included seven straight Tour de France victories and seeks to ban him from future competition. (Although Armstrong is retired as a cyclist, he has been competing in professional triathlons and was in training for the Ironman world championship.)
Armstrong is fighting the USADA, accusing the agency of conducting a “vendetta” against him, and he filed a lawsuit to challenge the agency's jurisdiction. If that fails, an arbitration will follow during which the USADA will parade in a bunch of former riders and other insiders – who cut deals in exchange for testimony – and the he-said won’t be that much different from the trials of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
The science of it will be interesting, but only if you are keen on learning about micro-dosing, and the percentage of reticulocytes that should be present among red blood cells, and whether the years of tests administered to Armstrong – all of which he passed – actually form a telling gallery of what the doping chasers sigh and call “false negatives.”
That’s for another time and its only bearing on the 2012 Tour came when Wiggins, with his team having firmly taken control of the race, was asked if one could win the race and not be a doper. He got angry and called the press some vulgar names and that was good if only because Wiggins rarely shows emotion on the bike or even appears fully conscious.
A former track cyclist with a pronounced nose and chin, and mod sideburns that extend to his jowl line, Wiggins is what Pete Townshend might have looked like in 1970 if he pitched all that rock and roll nonsense and tried to win the Tour de France. Townshend would have been a longshot, for sure, but there was little in Wiggins’ career – which includes six Olympic medals, all on the track – that made it seem he was heading for the top step, either. He finished fourth in the 2009 Tour, but wasn't considered a strong enough climber to hang with the big boys.
Wiggins is an excellent time-trialer, however, and opportunity collided with fate when the Tour organizers set out a route that rewarded the time trials and didn’t lean too heavily on the mountain stages that can undo a precarious leader. Wiggins had a good set of helpers on Team Sky, including a former mountain biker and fellow Brit named Chris Froome, who shepherded Wiggins on the climbs and waited for him when necessary, which was more often than one would hope for the eventual Tour winner. Froome did his job well enough that he became as rooted into second place as Wiggins was into first.
There was some competition in the mountains from Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian leader of the Liquigas team, and, for a much shorter period, from BMC’s Cadel Evans, the 2011 Tour winner. It was moot by then, however. Wiggins established a two-minute-plus lead on the field in the first time trial and as long as Froome and his other escorts held out – and he didn’t crack himself, mind you – there wasn’t much danger.
Nibali tried him on the first mountain stage in the Alps, but couldn’t get away from the sky-blue train that tracked him down. He complained afterward that Wiggins stared at him with disrespect after they crossed the finish line of the stage.
“He also gestured with his hand in an unpleasant way,” Nibali said.
If Nibali had his delicate feelings chafed by that, whatever it was, he should have been around when Armstrong crushed his rivals – other supermen on rocket ships, by the way – and then asked them how they liked it. The times may have changed, and the perceptions, too, but the strongest teams still reel in the weaker ones like wriggling perch.
“They always catch you at the end,” said Ivan Basso, one of the aging ghosts of cycling’s past who still haunt the peleton but at a farther remove than before. In the pack behind Wiggins were a bunch who once stood on the Tour’s final podium, including Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, Andreas Kloden, Denis Menchov, Levi Leipheimer and, of course, Evans, whose legs failed him this time. The new podium of Wiggins, Froome and Nibali were all first-timers and the breeze was refreshing
That was pretty much it. Wiggins did show his sportsmanship when some clown threw tacks in the road and dozens of riders suffered flat tires, including Evans. He ordered the peleton to wait for the unfortunates and the British press hailed him as if he had pulled the sword from the damn stone. As noted cycling expert Oscar Wilde once observed, playing fairly is the right thing to do when one holds the winning cards.
There was one notable drug bust and one notable injury marring the view of the countryside. Frank Schleck, the third-place finisher in 2011, tested positive for a banned masking agent, but it was nothing like the good, old days of gendarmes breaking down the doors of team hotels. Defending Olympic road champion Sammy Sanchez broke his left hand in a crash and had to withdraw from the Spanish team headed for London. That’s just more good news Great Britain’s road team, which will try to set up sprinter Mark Cavendish for the gold medal. Cavendish is primed for it, having won three sprint stages of the Tour, including his fourth straight win on the Champs
As for the French, they didn’t have the Tour winner for the 27th straight year, but did have five stage wins by Frenchmen, including two in the climbs from King of the Mountains winner Thomas Voeckler, so it wasn’t all bad, even if the wankers from across the Channel did finish 1-2, of all the indignities.
American racing wasn’t very much in evidence, aside from 23-year-old Tejay Van Garderen, who finished fifth and won the Best Young Rider Award for BMC, possibly supplanting Evans as the team leader for future Grand Tours. Chris Horner, at 40, rode without any discernible help from his teammates to finish 13th. It was either a high-five or an arched-eyebrow performance, again depending on one's perspective.
There were only two U.S-licensed teams in the race, Garmin-Sharp and BMC, half as many as a year ago. The pro license held by the management group that put together Armstrong's teams through their U.S Postal Service, Discovery Channel and Radio Shack incarnations was turned in quietly at the end of 2011, and the shop also closed for HTC-Highroad, a team of lofty ideals and light financing that formed from the ashes of the old Deutsche Telekom and T-Mobile brigades. Those two cycling franchises won an awful lot of races and cut across more than a few ethical pastures to do so at various times in their past, but that was another era. At least, that's what cycling keeps saying.
Something must have changed, because an Englishman won the Tour de France in this summer of the blue snow. And another Brit, the Scot Murray, made it to the Wimbledon men’s final as the first British representative since the redoubtable Bunny Austin in 1938. Wiggins had no precedent to match. He's the first and only. Boring or not, he got the stuffed Credit Lyonnais lion on the last day and that’s how they keep score.
Wiggins will be on the Olympic team now, competing in the road race and the time trial. Even though he won the time-trial silver medal at the most recent world championships, he might still be more useful in the velodrome. But if you finally have the Tour de France winner after 98 misfires, you might as well trot him out, eh?
This summer, after all those summers, the Brits are rife with such giddy choices. So this is what it feels like?
Yes, and enjoy it while it lasts. Those centuries can roll past slowly.