Aussies helping the Brits overcome their handicaps
If, as anticipated, Bradley Wiggins becomes the first Brit to win the Tour de France, his success will have been achieved with significant Australian assistance. And he will have finally reversed the curious path that road cycling had followed for decades in the United Kingdom.
Many Australians will be disappointed that Cadel Evans was unable to defend his yellow jersey. It was always going to be difficult for the Australian. At 34 years of age, he was the oldest winner of the Tour since the Second World War. Only 13 riders have won back-to-back Tours, although six of them - Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong - did it more than once.
Evans also had an interrupted season and some bad luck during the three-week race.
Although Evans knew he was marked by the Sky team of Wiggins, he launched a number of attacks to try to wrestle the race from the British rider. As he confessed later, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least he had a go in the mountain stages, knowing that the Beijing gold medallist would outpace him in the time trials.
It was the result of one of these attempts that Cadel dropped from second position to fourth. Then a stomach bug hit on the 16th stage over the Col d’Aspin. He struggled to get back to the yellow jersey group on the descent, but couldn’t stay with them up the final climb of the Peyresourde.
Wiggins’ victory was built on the performances of a number of Aussies. Much of the dominance of the Sky team was provided by Michael Rogers and Richie Porte, who for kilometre after kilometre regulated the pace at the front of the peloton, or helped to chase down attempted breaks for their race leader. The two Aussies, along with the talented Kenyan-born, Chris Froome, have been the lynchpins in Wiggins’ success.
Sky has not only had the benefit of experienced riders like Rogers, but other team personnel from down under. Sky’s coach, Shane Sutton, was an Australian track champion, winner of the Sun Tour, and a gold medallist at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in the team’s pursuit. He had also won Britain’s major tour, the Milk Race, in 1990. Aussie sports scientist, Tim Kerrison, is also part of the British outfit.
Even the funding for Sky Team is connected with Australia. Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB and News Corporation are major sponsors of the team, with the broadcaster providing £30 million for sponsorship and naming rights until the end of 2013.
Wiggins’ personal connections with Australia run deeper. His late father, Gary, from Yallourn in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley, was a national track champion before racing in Europe where he became a six-day race specialist. He won the prestigious six-day event at the Bremen velodrome in 1985. It was while his father was competing in Europe that Bradley was born, at Ghent, Belgium.
With a little Aussie assistance, British cycling has finally overcome the handicap it imposed upon itself more than a century ago.
Despite the fact that the great European one-day races and tours were conducted just across the English Channel, few Brits ventured beyond the white cliffs of Dover. An Englishman, James Moore, had won the first recorded cycle race in France. Riding an ironed wheeled, wooden framed machine with solid rubber tyres over 1,200 metres, Moore defeated a field of Frenchmen at the Parc de Saint Cloud, Paris, in 1868.
Moore was unofficially recognised as the first world champion of the new sport. The following year, Moore won the first recorded city-to-city event, from Paris to Rouen, covering the 123 kilometres in 10 hours and 40 minutes. In 1873, at Wolverhampton in England, he rode an amazing 14.4 miles (23.33 kilometres) in an hour on his heavy iron and wooden machine.
In 1881, the first six-day race was held on a cinder track in England. Racing for almost a week, the riders fought to overcome pain, hunger, and tiredness to outlast their rivals.
A few years later, in 1890, the first governing body of the sport in the UK, the National Cyclists’ Union, banned racing on open roads. Why the ban occurred – and how it lasted for sixty years while road racing boomed in Europe is surprising.
Some historians of the sport suggest it was a consequence of the nation’s class structure. As the bicycle became a means of mass transport for the lower classes from the 1880s, wealthy, country landholders simply decided that they didn’t want bike races spoiling the tranquillity of their manors and estates! And a compliant public acceded to their ban.
In 1895, a racing cyclist, Frederick Bidlake, found a way to circumvent the ban by conducting time trials on open roads. Riders would start at one minute intervals, and be timed over a set course. For the next half century, this became Britain’s only form of road racing.
It was this world of secretive meeting points, few spectators, ‘dark clothing from neck to ankle’, and disguised officials that the Australian cyclist, Hubert Opperman, encountered in 1934 when he raced the length of the British Isles from Lands End to John O’Groats in his pursuit of both the world 24 hours and 1,000 miles records:
I commenced from Land’s End at 7 am on July 16th. English cycling’s clandestine formula gave it the drama of a postman pushing off on his daily round. Some 10 officials, mechanics and drivers, the hotel-keeper and his wife comprised the gathering. Accustomed to the emotion of the crowded boulevards and the unconcealed assembling of Australians on arterial roads . . . the departure had all the inspiration of a Bankruptcy Court.
Little changed in the next two decades.
Following the Second World War, a breakaway group formed which began to stage road races. But enmity and distrust prevailed until 1959 when the warring groups finally merged. Even then, the in-fighting continued for a decade. The Milk Race, sponsored by the Milk Board of England and Wales, commenced in 1959, and later morphed into the Tour of Britain.
A British team had contested the Tour de France in 1955, with Brian Robinson winning a stage. But few British riders joined the European ranks. Britain still lagged behind as the Australians, Irish and Americans began to make their mark in the Mecca of world cycling.
Sean Yates, now the sporting director of Sky Team, emerged with a group of talented British road cyclists in the 1990s, winning a series of major events, and wearing the maillot jeune during the 1994 Tour de France. Their experience and influence, plus some significant colonial assistance, is now paying off for the British national team.
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