Talking Sport : Tour de France

Can the Tour de France teach us how to run the Rugby World Cup?

by Lamont Russell

Watching the last competitive stage of the Tour de France on Mt Ventoux was like watching Frodo and Sam biking all the way up the side of Mt Doom in Mordor – and with Andy Schleck looking eerily like Elijah Wood, if Frodo had chosen to wear bike shorts and white goggles. It seemed like a climb of never ending pain, in front of a crowd estimated at around 700,000 people, most of whom appeared to be going out of their Gallic minds.

In my book, this year’s finale clinched the case that the Tour de France is the greatest sporting event on earth. It is definitely the most beautiful. Instead of staring for a fortnight at a red clay tennis court, or for 90 minutes at 30 men running up and down a field, you have the amazing spectacle of La Belle France ( and chunks of Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Monaco and Andorra) flashing before your eyes, for three weeks on end.

Face it, it is pretty hard for a crowd-shot at Eden Park to compete with a helicopter view of say, the observatory atop Pic du Midi de Bigorre…or any number of fine chateaux, 11th century churches and bucolic scenes of the French countryside – the lavender fields of Vaucluse ! – that served as a backdrop to the television coverage, as the peloton streamed on by.

More to the point, Le Tour de France rules because it has such an unbeatable structure. The race offers an almost perfect balance between the individual and team effort, in ways that only test cricket comes close to matching. Every day, the contests for each individual stage need to be set against the hive mind of the peloton and the long term tactical plans of its chieftains – Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, Christian Vande Velde and so on.

The crucial supporting acts in this process are the domestique riders, who are on the team to conserve the energy of the team leaders and shield them from harm. These guys get all the fun of pacemaking, so that the stars can ride the slipstream and eventually launch themselves off the platform that the domestiques have so carefully created. It is like a medieval game of sacrifice.

Le Tour rewards those riders with epic reserves of stamina, but it finds room for the specialists, too. Thanks again to the structure of the race, rewards are built in for the sprinters who can’t climb ( hello, Mark Cavendish) and for the climbers who can’t sprint, and for the precious few who can manage both to climb and to excel at solo time trials as well – such as Contador and Andy Schleck. Did I mention the separate battles for the jerseys, each colour coded for maximum mystique and visibility ? Yellow for tour leader, green for sprint champion, polka dot for the King of the Mountains, and the jersey in virginal white for the leading young rider.

All that aside, the most striking thing about Le Tour de France is the completely batshit behaviour by the crowds along the route, and the extreme tolerance the Tour organizers show towards the fans. This is a race, remember, where personal and national honour ( and oodles of sponsorship money) is at stake. In New Zealand, the fans would be penned away behind steel barriers. Yet what is permitted to happen in the bike race ?

Hopelessly excited and drunken fans are allowed to run alongside the riders, take flash pictures, clap them on the back and shake national flags in their faces. During the tough climbing stages in particular, the fans would often be only a metre away from athletes grimly trying to conserve energy, and pedal at speed. During the final stages of what proved to be a decisive climb into Verbier, Alberto Contador could be seen lashing out at the fans he was being forced to ride between. In the Pyrenees as well, it was complete anarchy on the ride to the summit of Col du Tourmalet. Yet an interesting comment about this craziness came from Sally Jenkins, Lance Armstrong’s biographer, in the Washington Post :

It’s awful to watch, isn’t it? But it’s part of the culture of the Tour. That roadside intimacy is one of the things that makes it unique — and dangerous. It’s not designed to be an especially safe race, physically or psychically. Bad luck and human nature are supposed to be a part of it all.

In other words, get used to it. Le Tour is not some grim Anglo Saxon contest run by control freaks, on behalf of bubble-wrapped gladiators. Risks of all kinds are a conscious part of the equation. In 2003, the most famous example of such things getting out of hand came when Lance Armstrong crashed after coming too close to the crowd. ( Ever the politician, he later blamed himself, and not the crowd.) The etiquette involved when the yellow jersey crashes is pretty revealing as well:

With little less than ten kilometres left in the stage, Lance Armstrong countered a move by Iban Mayo and charged up the road, close to the spectators on the right side. In an unfortunate accident, a feeding bag caught Lance’s right handlebar and sent him straight over the handlebars. Iban Mayo, following closely behind Armstrong, toppled right over him.

The unwritten law in the peloton is that you do not attack the yellow jersey if he has to answer a nature call or suffers a mechanical problem, and you most certainly do not attack him if he crashes. Jan Ullrich could easily have jumped ahead to take the jersey, but he showed that he believes in sportsmanship, and that he also remembered Lance paying the same respect to him when he crashed while descending Col de Peyresourde two years ago. No matter how badly Ullrich wanted the jersey, he would not go after it at any price, and his choice to remain one podium step below the jersey harmed his ambition, but not his reputation.

Cricket and rugby, while less plagued with scandal, have all but forgotten such rules. Even in the tiniest of towns and villages, the crowds turn out to embrace the event – with many of the public having camped out on a mountainside all night for the chance to watch the leaders and the peloton sweep on by, in a matter of seconds. The crazy fandom culminated in those 700, 000 spectators strung along the route to Mt Ventoux this year. As one British writer dryly pointed out, three weeks wandering along the roadsides of France in a caravan with a bunch of young and exuberant people is not such a bad way to spend the summer.

Sure, Le Tour has its dark side. The sponsorship is a circus. The convoluted reasons why Lance Armstrong came to be riding this year for Kazahkstan, and for its Team Astana are a story in themselves. Cycling = drugs certainly has been a fair equation in the past, and the riders concerned and the race have paid a price for it. Entire teams were banned. That’s one reason why several of the teams in this year’s race were sponsored by relatively tiny players. ( For the record, Agritubel makes farm equipment, Rabobank lends money in the Netherlands and Milram is a line of flavoured drinks in Germany.) Past sponsors like Deutsche Telekom and Adidas have decided that being linked to a sport noted for drug scandals isn’t such a good marketing plan. That effect lingers. That’s one reason why next year, Lance Armstrong will be riding for Radio Shack, and not say, for a Microsoft team, or for the US Postal Service.

Arguably, such attitudes should change. Drugs have not been entirely eliminated from any form of professional sport. Yet nowadays, cycling can lay claim to being one of the more rigorous and transparent sporting codes when it comes to drug testing. Reportedly, Armstrong and the rest of the Astana team were being tested morning, noon and night, on every day. Even during the bad old days of the Festina and Operacion Puerto drug and blood doping scandals that made top cycling a synonym for drug cheating, it should be remembered that there were allegedly 200 athletes involved in the Puerto investigation – including prominent athletes from track and field, and from tennis.

Only about 30 of the alleged offenders were cyclists, yet cyclists were the only ones named by the authorities. Contrast this with the laughable regime in tennis. In Grand Slams and minor tournaments, top tennis players are tested less than rigorously – if at all – and rarely with major consequences.

Last month for instance, in a well publicized incident, the French tennis player Richard Gasquet was absolved for returning a positive test for cocaine, solely because the tennis authorities accepted his story that he had ‘accidentally’ taken cocaine while kissing a girl at a night club. And how do we know the girl that he kissed was doing drugs ? Because she had just spent an inordinately long time in the ladies loo. Always a sign of the hardened coke-head.

Tolerance is not always a bad thing. It should be repeated that the high level of public support for Le Tour de France is partly due to the intelligent way the organizers tolerate the up close and personal exuberance of the fans. Such a contrast to our own Rugby World Cup, where the New Zealand Parliament has passed a ridiculous law that anyone who runs onto the field – regardless of their impact on the game – can get sentenced to three months in jail, and fined thousands of dollars.

Talk about overkill. That level of control freak response can only stifle the enthusiasm that yes, drunk and excited fans do bring to a sporting spectacle. Giving people room to be idiots is part of what makes sport a collective experience, rather than a couch potato one. The French have got that sussed on Le Tour de France. The uptight Anglo-Saxons running the NZRFU – who are busily running rugby into the ground – could learn a lot from them. The Mardi Gras atmosphere of the Sevens is what we should be aiming for. If people run onto the field and get carted off, that won’t be the end of the world, and it shouldn’t be a reason to call in the gendarmes.

The scenery, the scenery…Yes, the Rugby World Cup will be a showcase for New Zealand, and our own jaw-dropping landscapes. Again, Le Tour can offer a template on how to sell the scenery, but without sounding like an infomercial. The commentary by Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett was chattily full of relevant information about the cyclists and the likely race tactics, yet somehow managed to be just as offhandedly well briefed about the towns and villages passing in front of the cameras.

Having a helicopter or two on hand did help. On the run into Colmar in the Alsace for instance, we were not only served up a brilliant copter shot of a rare and endangered local stork caught nesting on top of the local cathedral. Somehow, Liggett/Sherwin managed to add a low-key bulletin about how many breeding pairs there had been and now were, and also summed up the species’ migratory patterns to Africa – with a coda about the distinctive Vosges sandstone used in making the cathedral on which the bird was sitting. It was stork overkill, but it was great. So was Le Tour. by Lamont Russell


Lamont Russell is a writer based in Wellington.