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In praise of Grand Tours

Grand Tour leaders jerseys
Trevor Ward
27 Jul 2018

No other sporting event even comes close to the drama and punishment of a Grand Tour, for which us cycling fans should be grateful

Apologies in advance, but this column includes the F-word. Now, only by considering the ‘sacrifices’ made by footballers at an event such as a European Championships or the recent World Cup can we truly appreciate the dedication of professional cyclists taking part in the three-week long festivals of pain and suffering known as Grand Tours.

The footballers will be closeted in a luxury resort where they will have exclusive use of the golf course, spas and pools – for practising their diving – during the five or six days they will have to recover between each 90-minute session of actual competitive activity. 

Eddy Merckx holds all three jerseys at the 1969 Tour de France

Compare that with the lot of the cyclists taking part in a Grand Tour - the Giro d’Italia, the current Tour de France or the Vuelta a Espana (football’s premier events may come around only once every four years, but cycling’s equivalent – the Grand Tour – takes place three times every year).

Riders will rarely sleep in the same bed on consecutive nights and more often than not will be crashing out in a chain hotel on the side of a motorway.

The event organisers are responsible for allocating hotels so that differences in quality are evened out across all teams during the three weeks.

Even Lance Armstrong’s Team Radioshack ended up spending a night in a hotel with bunk beds during the 2010 Tour de France.

But even if it had been a five-star venue, Fabian Cancellara’s Twitter review was likely to be less than glowing: ‘Arrived late because of traffic and expensive motorway tolls.

'Poor wi-fi during massage. Got down to dinner and Team Sky had taken all the best seats.

'Air-con noisy but fell asleep reading my favourite book, the UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol. Woken by Chris Froome screaming in the shower next door (he’d crashed again).’

Ah yes, in between the bus transfers, the packing and unpacking, the lengthy physio sessions and massages, the carb-loading and rehydration, the dodgy Skype connections, the studying of the road book each night, the snoring roommate, the daily tactical briefing and the media scrums, there’s the small matter of having to actually ride your bike for up to six hours each day through rain, wind, heat and cold, across a variety of terrains and at an average speed often nudging 45kmh. 

Daily potential hazards include, but are not limited to: exhaustion, heatstroke, sunburn, dehydration, saddle sores, hypothermia, bronchial infection, muscle damage, gastric problems and broken bones. 

There is quite simply no other professional sporting contest like a Grand Tour, and not just because, in the words of Bradley Wiggins, it is ‘the only sporting event where you can get a haircut halfway through’.

We can never hope to experience what a Grand Tour rider goes through. All-singing, all-dancing multi-stage sportives like the Haute Route come close to offering a taster, but for something truly authentic you might as well lock yourself and your bike in an industrial spin dryer and switch to ‘Fast’ for three weeks.

Wiggins also described it as ‘the ultimate reality TV’. Incidents of leather-clad femme fatales luring riders away from their hotels to secret assignations with rival teams (as happened to Greg LeMond on Alpe d’Huez during the 1984 Tour – ‘it was like a Bond movie’) may be rare now, but there’s still enough gossip to keep Carlton Kirby topped up with innuendo – and Sean Kelly awake – during their Eurosport TV commentary each day.

In his hugely entertaining diary of the 2010 Tour de France, On Tour, Wiggins writes: ‘Individuals are on edge and there can be a lot of unpredictable and erratic behaviour.

'The Tour is a massive media event that gets reported around the world with arguments and incidents – sometimes unbelievably petty – getting blown out of proportion.

'But that only adds to the drama and the feeling that, for three weeks, we are at the centre of the universe.’

The Grand Tours were born from the whims of sales-hungry newspaper editors. France and Italy already had their epic bike races – Paris-Roubaix, Bordeaux-Paris, Milan-San Remo, Tour of Lombardy – when, within six years of each other, Henri Desgrange and Tullo Morgagni came up with blueprints for the Tour and Giro to boost the circulations of their respective publications, L’Auto-Vélo and La Gazzetta dello Sport.

(The editor of Diario Informaciones in Spain, meanwhile, didn’t get around to launching the Vuelta a Espana until 1935.)

The early editions of all three were preposterously cruel, a tradition recently revived by the organisers of the Vuelta and Giro – only a sadist could scour a country’s topography and find climbs as remote and merciless as the Angliru and Zoncolan.

alfonsini strada

Each Grand Tour tried to outdo its rivals by attracting the best riders with the biggest prizes. When the top riders striked over cash at the 1924 Giro, La Gazetta still stole the headlines by recruiting Italy’s best female rider, Alfonsina Strada, who remains the only woman to have competed in a Grand Tour.

Readers couldn’t get enough of this daily soap opera. Tales of riders scaling the Alps, Pyrenees or Dolomites, or resorting to the treachery of taking trains or taxis, were recounted in lurid detail by journalists who had to rely on the protagonists’ own accounts rather than the luxury of a live TV feed.

For readers living in an age of telegrams rather than tweets, it must have felt like the equivalent of binge-watching Breaking Bad.

Little wonder that in the yellow-and-pink pages of the sponsoring newspapers, the F-word barely rated a mention.