The end of something.

As I write the Lance Armstrong saga is still twirling away; revelation and statement, bombshell and rumour. Today’s news again included collateral – the departure of Bobby Julich from Team Sky, following his confessions over doping in the Armstrong posse of the 70’s. Fascinatingly, despite the sport’s genuinely low profile, this Lancething has become a fully-fledged sporting monster, substantially outgrowing the cycling hinterland. In its black and whiteness, its moral and dope-linked certainties, this is one Recognisably Juicy Story – something for everyone to hang a prejudice or molten opinion upon – even though only six of us in Britain watched Armstrong win all this stuff. In France; whenever he won it. On Channel 4.

Yup, suddenly, we all want to spout polemically on the Tour – you do call it just like ‘the Tour’, right? – something we knew nothing about until wooh, last Wednesday? Because it’s a pearler, this; a truly striking and intoxicating fable where the appalling quality of the breach of honesty at its devilish heart cries out for reaction from honest folks like us. Downing again our Doritos, we rise magnificently to bawl in outrage ’til the thing splatters exponentially across the screens of lives normally blissfully immune from interest in U.S freakin’ Postal. And the guy himself goes from being a cancer-defying god to a hollow cheat and liar. Who goes on lying, woodyabelieveit?!?

Who goes on lying… about drugs. Because it’s presumably just too big a deal to row back from this very biggest of porkies; the one that was SO big he felt (in his kingly arrogance) unimpeachable, unassailable, unapproachably clear of exposure as the blood-doped fraud he was. He who bullied and led; he who made blood transfusion an essential part of his winning process. (Yes, that’s er… blood transfusion – lying in the back of a bus – I picture him in some zonked-out cruciform, arms splayed – with ‘fresh’ blood coursing in like some scarlet, performance-enhancing elixir.) See? It’s beyond mere sporting crime and well, we-ell into symbol. And that’s properly big, right?

The fact that Armstrong is an American Icon does surely add some spice to all this. Witness the outbreak of world class wallowing amongst lefty Europeans as another absurd empire falls. Rarely, surely, has there been a clearer or better confirmation in the eyes of the liberal Old World of the essential unchristian hypocrisy of that same Great Nation – Lance’s – the one that gave us U.S. Postal. It’s right up there with Evangelical Frauds and Preacher Paedophiles; it has the quintessential grossness, the lies, the money, the betrayal. We’re loving it, aren’t we?

Armstrong won the Tour 7 times and yes he did fight off cancer. (I’m hoping nobody discovers some link between EPO and surviving cancer, by the way; that could just get too weird.) But given the serial extravagances here, surely, for this All-American Sinner, there must be an appropriately massive revenge of the masses. Some distant Asphixiatingly Brutal Punishment Planet we could send him to? Where they wear bright orange overalls, maybe? Imagine please the amount of labo(u)r – the amount of galactic rock – Lance Armstrong might un-zip, at peak physical condition in a 12 hour sesh. He could supply the Alpe D’huez Freeway Project with enough stone to cobble a way back to Paris, (ma’an).

That may or may not be funny. Certainly most of this story isn’t. Not in terms of what it says about the sport of cycling (we hope to god just) at that time and about fairness and honesty generally in the competitive situation. People, it seems, cheat in order to win? (Who knew?) The implications for cycling in terms of the likes of Rabo-bank pulling out as major sponsors and likely further and broader allegations arising, are seriously serious. As a slightly more than part-time supporter of the sport, I have gone fulsomely on record to argue for greater and wider acknowledgement of the magnificent levels of courage and athleticism and generosity found in the peloton. And – in defence of cycling, perhaps – I want to re-state some of this. Sadly, with certain qualifications.

If cyclists are clean then they are amongst the finest of athletes because;

  • It takes rare courage and belief to race in a pro road race. Injury through crashes or wear and tear of weary limbs are likely. You descend mountains at around 60 miles an hour, in a racing group – which is phenomenally scary. Every fibre must be brilliantly, twitchily engaged for every moment.
  • Stages in the Tour de France (for example) last typically for about 6 or 7 hours, or 120-odd kilometres. Even when these are not mountain stages, there are climbs; it hurts. Levels of fitness are astonishing. They ride 20 stages – 2,500 miles.
  • Despite the intensity of the physical effort, top riders must be race-aware/tactically cute/ready to cover ‘attacks’. So there is little or no rest. In one of the truly great, possibly unique facets of the sport, ‘domestiques’ dedicate themselves day after day to enable success for a team leader they know has the best chance for an overall win. They ‘chase down’ opponents whilst their leader preserves energy; they ‘carry him’ through agonising climbs or periods of tiredness. And the ‘domestiques’ rarely win – not themselves. It’s about sacrifice; how wonderful is that?

The Olympics – and specifically the sensational and ongoing dominance of GB Cycling in the velodrome – gave us a further, more widely-appreciated reminder of the appeal of haring around on wheels. In fact one of the most anticipated events at London 2012, for die-hard fans and more recent converts was the Olympic Road Race, where a certain Manxman (Cavendish – one of the greatest currently-active champions in any sport, in my view) was challenging for gold. That didn’t work out. But cycling went big anyway, for that short period. Offering the hope that perhaps the most significant Olympic legacy may yet be the health/environmental benefit accruing from people getting off their arses… and onto their bikes. How wonderful is that?

‘Midst the genuinely shocking revelations from former team members/masseuse/(any-time-now?) Lance Groupie, the story of the (actual) action itself is subsumed. Racing action that included the most monumental effort from both Armstrong and his team. Sprinting and climbing; thousands of miles. Effort we now dismiss, if we can, from our memories. As we try to dismiss the inevitable daft questions; could he/they have won without doping? How good was he, really, without that stuff? And what about Indurain?

If we wanted to trawl back through (and beyond?) the major records we might be able to gather some picture of how good Armstrong was before; how good
he honestly might have been.
But that’s irrelevant now.

Today Bobby Julich- who coughed – became a former coach to the mighty Sky Professional Road Racing Team. Because as a team they have sworn to have no truck with cheating. And aeons ago, alongside and quite possibly for his team-mate Lance Armstrong, Julich cheated by doping. Whether this is the end of his career in the sport, who knows? But it is the end of something.

Golden yellow?

On the best day of the year – whatever that means – it feels, in that sun-induced schmaltzy-lazy kindofaway, good. Everything does, prettymuch. I just know the sea is fabulous and sparkling; I know the sand is warming and occasionally spiky with heat. I can feel a gentle enough but breathy buzz from visitors and from horses and from yeh – summerstuff. So it’s good. Like the knowledge, the specific knowledge that soon enough I will be jumping off a ledge, with a gang of kids, like some kamikaze or maybe just pleasingly renegade fulmar. Bombing not gracefully gliding or wheeling. Because the sea is fabulous and it’s just crazy not to get deeply in. Now.

Bizarrely or entirely not, this deliriously loopy immersion in a real/ideal goodlife feels spooned or churned from the same golden palette as that which delivered a Parisian ‘Promenade des Anglais’ last week. In particular the moments when a certain B Wiggins majestically (but generously) led the peloton back to foolishly impudent strays. Then, in his leader’s yellow jersey, with his absurdly fluent style, not so much dictating as displaying, the Team SKY leader surfed that quiet ecstasy – his utter confidence – in himself, his team, their invincible combination, to the front, to lead out, symbolically and in fact, the undeniable charge. Whilst the relentlessly awesome Cavendish may have hoiked his frame with short-term, violent brilliance, Wiggo oozed serenely to victory.

That bloke Hoy said afterwards it may be the greatest individual sporting achievement by any Brit ever. (Wiggo’s.) Meaning probably it’s worthy of some serious consideration.

An immediate difficulty may be the shared nature of this; how to – or whether to – meaningfully unfurl say, the mountain stages without some inevitable division of the ultimate glory, out from the yellow-gold centre to the domestiques, the drones, the Froome! Or elsewhere ( maybe even in them thar hills!) to Cavendish, himself a freakishly achieving sprinter in this Anglaisfest… and what’s more – a star, a Cycling Personality! How to calibrate What Bradley Did in these extraordinary folds?

The scope and stature of the Tour de France reveals itself to even the casual observer. The scenery; the geography; the half-heard or remembered stories. Cruel distances and just a sense, a TV-muffled or maladjusted sense of the alarming, near death-defying descents; at sixty miles an hour. We all get that I think. Perhaps if we weigh in the breadth of physical demands – from downhill sprinter-racer to uphill marathon man via or plus lung-bursting time-triallist – these are rare, these are special. Wiggins has simply been world-class throughout; all of these ludicrously disparate challenges being met with a uniform, even-tempered authority.

The scale and the breadth and the historic nature of the accomplishment are surely general knowledge then. Unfortunately however they are undermined in the minds of many by concerns about doping. Not necessarily doping by Wiggins or by SKY but by doping in the sport.

Cycling is not alone in being a manifestly ‘unclean’ sport but its profile is more seriously buffeted rather than buffed by disproportionate news stories – cases of drug use, typically – than almost any other sport. From the early days (when amphetamines were blatantly used) to today’s combination of performance enhancement and masking combo’s a steady trickle of often disappointingly major players have taken stimulants. To the extent that some feel cyclists – like sprinters? – are not to be trusted in this. Wiggins himself had to – or opted to? – put out a staunch and aggressive denial of any abuse of this sort early in this tour. I hope to god he was being truthful. Otherwise my colourific bliss washes dismally out.

But today the sun has shined. And I did and I do return to those golden moments; two in particular. Stages 18 and 20 were drawing to their final few kilometres. Team SKY had gathered at the arrowhead of the peloton to raise speed and haul in foolish outliers. With crowds now massing around the streets towards the finish (one of these streets incidentally name of Champs Elysees) a striking figure appeared, his cadence high and smooth, at the very point of the broiling. Wiggins. And the crowd… the crowd roared.

Wiggins the tour leader/winner, fearlessly blasting his team and his sprinter towards two late wins. Exposing himself on the one hand, expressing himself on the other. Following a plan agreed on the team bus? Yes. Having said he was ‘in’ when Cavendish asked for a crack at the stage? Yes – as did the others. But the essence of both moments was braver and greater than the mere execution of another plan – brilliant though they have been. (Don’t get me started now on the seamlessly outstanding work of Dave Brailsford, Team Coach!) These were golden moments, great moments in sport which I dare not hope to see bettered even in a London 2012 summer. Wiggins was flying, in concentrated joy, in the knowledge and full expression of his genius and control. It was only right and appropriate that such emphatic brilliance was underlined and even temporarily overshadowed by the irresistible surge of the Manx Missile – Cavendish – to acclaim the line.

Like many Brit sports fans I ‘naturally(!)’ shy away from nationalistic fervour but do do worthwhile fervour. That is, spontaneous and genuine fervour devoid(ish) of racial or political stimulants. The sight of Wiggins – and then Cavendish – so gloriously and big-heartedly achieving as individuals for their team (and for us?) was, I may have to mutter with a little embarrassment, both roar-inducing and weirdly conducive to a sort of… pride.

Days later, I put this down to several things, including the truth of the uniqueness of both athletes in terms of their historic significance (now) and their sheer quality. (For Cav to have won 4 Champs Elysees on the bounce is beyond remarkable/for Wiggo to top the Classification speaks for itself.) Essentially though and in terms of sentiment, they have brought a special kind of summer. A jumping-off point.

But has he got talent?

I’m not a big fan of what we might call the celebritization of our lives. In fact the notion that we should prostitute ourselves for fame – or more exactly TV fame – offends me deeply. So why all these auditions? Why am I, without any ironic context, being invited to the ritual humiliation of poor misguided singer A, or frankly delusional comic B?

I flash on the telly in all innocence – and generally some degree of mindlessness – to be confronted by another clodhoppingly tension-pregnant drumroll-heavy PAUSE… and my tired heart sinks. Everywhere there’s somebody awaiting a VERDICT. Was their singing ‘good’ enough? Was their dancing good enough? In the tabloid-stoked view of the great British public, do they look too fat/dodgy/chippy/chavvy/pervy? In the shlockingly coiffured opinionated opinion of The Judges are they, do they look The Part? Oh and can they sing or dance?

The faux meritocracy of these brutally engineered scenarios is the family fodder of our time; begging the question “What does that say about us?” Well (Oh Martian god of Universal Anthropology) it says we are (in an appropriately inappropriate word) mental.

And now, we have the announcement of candidates for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Is that the same cheap trick I wonder? Arguably not; witness a kind of historical precedent sentimentally loaded with some authentic respect, going back (I think) to my black-and-white childhood. Or so it feels.

For aeons the trusty Beeb has backslapped the testosteroned ones, fulfilling dutifully the role of foot-bather for footballers. Or, given the comparative lack of Brit footballing worldbeaters, athletes more generally. I think I remember David Hemery being coronated. Likewise Henry Cooper, Daley Thompson/Alan Pascoe? And surely George Best.

There’s a realness to these characters and to the tribal banter they so modestly – so black-and-whitedly? – exchanged with Coleman/Carpenter etc. that somehow legitimises the thing. They were proper sportsmen (and occasionally women) and I don’t remember the wholescale devaluation of human dignity being a pre-requisite for the evening’s viewing. There were bad speeches – do I recall a nervy Paul Gascoigne? – and bad choices – none of which included any members of the royal family. It wasn’t perfect but it seemed like perfectly good (sporting) family fare and we watched it religiously, year after year.

More recently I have to say the smarminess factor seems to have increased; or at least there’s been an upshift in the image-consciousness of a) the event b) the protagonists c) the guests. It’s not so much innocent Sunday Best suits and “I ran as hard as I could” as designer-sharp, platitudinous billowing. Does this mean the essential decency of the affair has been twothousandandelevened? Possibly. I’ve found myself avoiding the programme in much the same way as I swerve a broad swathe of Awards Shows. But the quality of my (mild) distaste for Gary Lineker’s sports-chic uber-grooming doesn’t compare with typical feelings against Cowell’s ouevre. Simply put Sports Personality does have some of what it says on the tin and is markedly less intrusive, less exploitative than the Got Talent/X-factor genre, in which personality seems to be largely confused for profile.

This year’s candidates for the unchallenged Pretty Much Most Singular And Respected Sporting Wotnot include – unlike most years – several genuine contenders. The full list is as follows;

Mark Cavendish – cyclist

Darren Clarke – golfer

Alistair Cook – cricketer

Luke Donald – golfer

Mo Farrah – athlete

Dai Greene – athlete

Amir Khan – boxer

Rory McIlroy – golfer

Andy Murray – tennis player

Andrew Strauss – cricketer.

Meaning there are no women. Which is almost certainly a disgrace but I’m not exactly sure … who might…

Easier by far is the whittling down from the seriously good but outflanked by the others (Strauss/Khan/Murray/Donald); to the second rankers, who might have won in a lean year but… (Farrah/Greene/McIlroy(?); and finally the real contenders – Cavendish, Clarke and Cook. It’s a good line-up. I favour the alphabetically advantaged trio particularly because it has felt like their year this year.

Clarke may be the housewife’s favourite, his extraordinary Open triumph being submerged in a vat of deliciously beery poignancy. He may even win it if the papers fill again with his ‘story’. Alistair Cook, by contrast, is a less demonstrative sort with only his genius with the willow to declare. He lacks perzazz but the boy is an opening bat! Frankly, I can’t see him winning it but he has shown a historically significant mix of quality and temperament to reach totals amongst and beyond the immortals of the game. However for me Cavendish should top the poll.

‘Cav’ is a god amongst cyclists. He is the torpedo after the exhausting stalk. As a sprinter in the wheelers union it’s his job to grab glory at the death, meaning that after a typical 80 miles in the saddle, he must burst through the very notion of hyper jadedness (after many hundreds of miles on the major tours) and then sprint away from the cursing pack.

Cavendish has done precisely this again this last year – better than anyone in the history of cycling. His record-breaking tour de France was an almost literally staggering tribute to his utterly exceptional wheeling-power and indeed his willpower. The proud Manxman knows that as the premier force in professional sprinting he is targeted race after race; he is proudly and hugely generously aware of the responsibility he has to his domestiques or support riders to ‘finish the job’. He is that special thing the monster sportsman (though gregarious) and indisputably the pack leader.

Cycling is a minority sport. It may be that because comparatively few understand the tactical resources expended or even the extent of the raw bravery necessary – particularly during the rampage that is the bunched sprint – the serial Green Jersey Man is overlooked. But he is different class, a true icon; loved and worshipped for his talent, his affability and his titanic shouldering of the burden. The winner, really, has to be Cavendish.