Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Where Have All the Great French Champions Gone?

Florence
 This is the city of Florence in Italy, a picture taken by myself in September last year and I thought it was notable and appropriate to include it as my "photo of the day" today in honour of the Giro d'Italia, the Tour of Italy cycling race which is being conducted at the moment.

 The Giro, as they call it in the cycling game, is being led at the moment by our own champion, Cadel Evans who has a special connection with Italy through his wife who is of course, Italian!

 The Giro, for those not in the know, is basically the Italian version of the Tour de France. In some ways it's a better race. More pure. Lacks the international hype which surrounds it's French counterpart and the Italians like to make it harder than the Tour although Italy is a better build for such a race. It is three weeks long, as is the Tour de France and makes up the troika of races which have become known as the "Grand Tours". The Tour de France, the Tour of Italy and the Tour of Spain. All three weeks long. All structured similarly and they are the major highlights of the cycling season although the Vuelta d'Espagna, the Tour of Spain is less valued outside it's homeland than it's counterparts.
  Most of the great champions whose names are known worldwide for their feats in the Tour de France have also won the Giro and to do the Giro/Tour double is a rare and prestigious feat although it is not attempted seriously nowadays. Marco Pantani, the ill-feted Italian was the last to do it in those drug addled days of the late 1990's.

 My trip to Florence was notable as the World Cycling Championships were being run in the city that week and the World Under 23 Time Trial Championship was being conducted on the particular day the photo was taken.

 If you look at the bottom of the picture you can see a blue strip, barriers, running along a retaining wall. This was part of the race route and the time trial that day was very appropriately won by an Australian, Damien Howson, a fact I tried to promote to my very disinterested travelling companions.

 When I was growing up I believed that cycling was the greatest and toughest sport in the world and I still do. The stories of its great champions I devoured in cycling magazines which arrived in Australia months after they had been published in Europe and in those pre-internet days it was much harder to follow the kings of the road from a distance. Cycling fans today don't know how good they have it!

 I think trying to follow the sport in such a way when I was on the other side of the world made it look and feel more romantic than it really was. The heroes of today's peloton just don't seem to hold the gravitas of the legends of the past and Contador, Froome and Wiggins just don't seem a match for Merckx, Coppi and Hinault.

 Of course the sport is much more international now, not the closed European shop it was for so many decades but with modernity comes the downside. Sports scientists with their computers. Power metres and a much more calculated approach to racing than there ever was in the past. It's not unusual to see fifty riders arrive at the bottom of a big climb and only race seriously the last four or five kilometres. The sport has changed and although it is still beautiful I think it has lost something from the days when the French and Belgians ruled the Tour de France. Which brings me to a point. Is cycling still a major sport in Europe?  

 I had been in Rome for a few days before I arrived in Florence and had been scanning the local newspapers for any news or, more correctly as I don't speak Italian, photo spreads promoting the Titles. I figured there would have to be great interest with an Italian, Vincenzo Nibali, last year's Giro winner among the favourites for the Professional Road Title. Alas, I was disappointed.

 Buried under five pages of soccer news I finally came across a small article which seemed to be about reigning World Champion Phillipe Gilbert, a Belgian and seemingly no interest in the race at all from the local sporting press! I was bewildered.

 Walking about Florence itself there seemed to be no fanfare, no fuss, as if nothing was happening of any great consequence. To say I was surprised was an understatement. Italy. The hotbed of cycling. And no one seemed interested!

 A few days later I was ensconced in Paris after jumping off my Tour. On the day of the World Professional Championship, a brutal affair run in the pouring rain around Florence I ventured past a sports bar which was very well populated with the young and the hip, large screen televisions protruding from every wall and was dismayed to see, rather than the world's toughest athletes straining to be World Champion, replays of soccer matches being shown! How was it that in the city which is very much the spiritual home of cycling there is such a lackadaisical attitude toward a sport which was once great in their country? The Tour de France finishes just a few kilometres away!

 I was asked last night at work by a fellow is an avid sports nut and has taken some interest in the nightly telecast of the Giro, just where were the traditional cycling nations? An Australian was leading the race. A Colombian was second and another Colombian is the big favourite. Not a Frenchman or Italian or Spaniard in sight of the lead. And that really shows where cycling is at in Europe I think.  

 A Frenchman has not won the Tour de France since 1985. Italian cycling is at a low ebb and no one is putting money into racing in Spain and the current crop of champions aren't being followed by likely candidates on the Iberian peninsula. Holland hasn't had a great champion for years and, although the Belgians still produce some solid professionals there is no one of the ilk of past greats who look likely to take on the mantle of Eddy Merckx. Sad days indeed.

 I daresay a coterie of circumstances has conspired to put cycling on the back foot in it's heartland. Doping scandals, the scourge of monied-up sports like soccer and changing demographics of the countries of western Europe I am sure have all conspired to knock cycling off if it's once towering perch.

 The Tour de France is still the greatest annual sporting event in the world and I am sure the French themselves see it as a great cultural icon for their country and something they want to protect. But surely they are tired of seeing it dominated by English speakers. Where have all the great French Champions gone? Playing soccer or tennis methinks.

 I have read recently that a brand new state of the art velodrome has opened in the suburbs of Paris. It has accommodation for the French Track Cycling Team and every latest luxury any athlete could wish to have. It appears money is being spent on cycling again in the home of the sport. Will this lead to a renaissance of the sport in Europe? I don't know but one can only hope. For all the advantages the globalization of cycling brings I think the Tour de France is crying out for a native champion. Let's hope the new wave of French cyclists can deliver.

 Have a nice day.

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