Human, flesh and blood, made to make mistakes

“Once we saw that Nibali had cracked at the top of the Peyresourde, we knew we didn’t have the danger of him attacking in the final so it was at that point that I knew it was pretty much over. We rode away from the rest of the field and I lost concentration. I was thinking of lots of different things at that time. Chris wanted more but the fight had gone from me at that point…All the way up the last climb I almost had tears in my eyes.”

And so explained why after accelerating up the final climb of stage 17 of the 2012 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins looked weak, Chris Froome looked frustrated and the Twiteratti exploded largely with the British disease of knocking a guy on the verge of history. The fact of the matter is Bradley Wiggins once again showed he is human. Thank goodness for that.

For many years cycling fans have grown used to the infallable, imperial march of Tour champions. Last year’s race together with this have thrown up leaders who have differed from this script. In comparison to a certain American, Cadel Evans and Bradley wiggins have looked strong but fallable. They have not treated winning the Tour as their right, they have looked and been seen to have their weaknesses yet they have ridden through them, battled and shown courage, determination, dignity and respect. Above it all, they have not only looked human, their interviews have been human too. Witness Wiggins’ interview last week.

Last year’s winner Cadel Evans looked fragile in his win then and this year has seen his fair share of misfortune. At the end of stage 16 he sat on the steps of his BMC team bus and spoke candidly to the reports crammed outside:

I had a few stomach issues just before the race … when it’s an hour or two hours before the race there is not a lot you can do. I didn’t think it would affect me in the race, but obviously that’s not my normal level and it’s pretty much Tour de France over for me.

Anybody who has ever had “stomach issues” – and you know what we mean by that –  knows what Evans must be going through. To ride a bike any distance let alone up 4 Pyrenean climbs in the heat of a French summer doesn’t bare contemplation when you are in that state. Fallable? Foolish? Probably both but that’s what makes him human.

For Wiggins there has been a genuine humility when interviewed, shown in his respect for the race traditions, for the racing and especially for his tea. Anybody who has read In Pursuit of Glory will understand that for Wiggins the team environment matters. In the past, being in the wrong team has exposed Wiggins’ weaknesses and put him in his comfort zone on the track. Now in Team Sky he recognises the value of his team and the team ethos that has developed over time,

We are a close group and we have been all year. That’s why we’re in this position now. We’ve gone out there each day and proved on the road that there isn’t a problem.

And on Monday he praised the team for their collective efforts.

This is a star team, not a team of stars. What we do well is we race as a team. We’ve done that all year. I am surrounded by incredibly talented bike riders… We are a close group and we have been all year. We’ve proved on the road that there isn’t a problem.

Brian Clough would be proud. And in particular he singled out Mark Cavendish who has put aside his usual haul of stage wins and been a dedicated team mate for Wiggins’ pursuit of the Yellow jersey.

Mark has been fantastic these last two and a half weeks. He’s been so committed to my cause – to the yellow jersey – and he’s a great champion and a great friend.

And of the man who according to some tried to drop him on stage 11 and on stage 17 was accused both of making his leader look like a fool and of being held back unfairly from a second stage win?

Chris was super strong again today. He’s super excited. He’s been a fantastic team-mate during this Tour de France. For sure, one day, he’ll win the Tour and I’ll be there beside him to do it.

Watch the video of this interview, those do not come across as hollow words said because he should. Though the heat of the moment can sometimes suggest otherwise, there is a genuine respect by Wiggins for others – teammates, opponents and officials.

But Wiggins is a much more complex character, a man who I have identified with in the past and still do today. He’s a rider who has reached great heights already but who has a tendancy to knock himself down. A rider on who there are great expectations but who often thinks he has let people down. Sound familiar? It does to me. Here is a man on the verge of making history and who has quite understandably had a moment of shock and realisation. It’s not the invincibility we’ve seen from past Tour winners and to me that is a good sign for the sport.

One clear message from this year’s Tour is that, in the words of the late Roy Castle, dedication’s what you need. His outburst last weekend is borne of frustration at the lack of recognition of just how hard he has worked and the sacrifices he has made to achieve this. Wiggins’ quite rightly criticised the cult of empty celebrity,

It’s nice to be recognised for achieving something in life because so much of British culture is built on people being famous for not achieving anything. It’s nice in sport when people stop you in the street and respect you for something you have achieved.

These are the things that endear him to me. These make him a champion. Wiggins is human, he has faults but he is determined to succeed. He’s a family man, a dad who looks forward to taking his son to rugby camp after winning a Tour de France. A man who doesn’t mind if people don’t recognise him in Wigan. He wants recognition but he values his space.

What will I do if I win on Sunday? I will concentrate on the time trial of the Olympic Games and when all is over, I go back to my home, come back to reality and go and buy bread and milk.

Long may the humanisation of cycling continue. I can’t imagine some recent Tour winners even knowing where to buy bread. With 3 stages still to go I do not want to tempt fate but despite (and probably because of) his human traits Wiggins is looking good for the win in Paris. Whilst it will be great to have a British winner of the Tour it will be even better to have a champion who is an ordinary guy that most of us can identify with in some way. Allez Wiggo.

The true professional.

Professional: n. 1. A person following a profession, especially a learned profession. 2. One who earns a living in a given or implied occupation: hired a professional to decorate the house. 3. A skilled practitioner; an expert.

What does it take to be a real professional. The last week of the Tour de France has been somewhat of an eye opener for that and question over the just what it means to be a professional, let alone a cyclist who is paid to ride his bike.

Much of the focus of this debate has been the allegedly simmering tensions in the Team Sky camp. First the focus was on the lack of protection given to Mark Cavendish and the miscommunication between him and Edvald Boason-Hagen in the early flat stages but this has subsequently swung to the growing tension between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Or so we are led to believe. Nobody on the inside of the team has confirmed any tensions as would be expected and so the analysis has really involved reading between the lines from the outside.

Take for example Velonews’ take on the Wiggins-Froome rift. On Sunday L’Equipe published a an interview with Froome in which he stated that his riding for Wiggins was a “a very, very great sacrifice.” There is no denying that: Froome is in a purple patch of form which sees him lying in second place overall. But equally he is acknowledging that he, as a professional cyclist, has to sacrifice his own desires for the good of his employers. It may make things tense but it is the professional way of doing your job. He went on to say in the interview:

“If I feel that the Tour can be lost I will follow the best riders, be that [Cadel] Evans or [Vincenzo] Nibali, to preserve our chance and be sure of Sky’s presence.”

Velonews (shared by others implicitly if not quite as explicitly, was:

Imagine that. A top domestique hoping his leader gets dropped.

Slightly disingenuous I feel. Chris Froome’s comment could be read in that way. Equally, however, it is stating the facts of Sky’s strong position in the race: if something were to happen to Wiggins then Froome is ideally placed to ensure that the team takes the win. Again, a professional way of doing your job.  As he says, “I cannot lie to you, it’s difficult, but it’s my job.”

Which brings us onto what seems to be a vexed issue for some: that professional cycling is a job. During yesterday’s stage I spotted an exchange of tweets between various journalist during which Richard Moore – a journalist and author whose writing I have a lot of respect for – tweeted the following:

Exactly what do we want from sport? People to do job, or to pursue dreams & ambitions? #pragmatismorpanache

In some respects I am behind Moore’s statement. I despise video referees in sport: they slow the game, referees duck the decisions and importantly it removes the idea that all sports are refereed the same no matter which sports field they are played on.  However, the reason for introducing these kinds of measures is simple: money.  As more money comes into sport so the interestys of the investor need to be protected.  Sports stars benefit from this with increased salaries therefore making it possible to make a more than reasonable living as a domestique. Panache in the romantic sense was lost a long time ago, order has been increasingly placed on sport to make the outcome more controlled and palatable to the external funders.

All this talk about people doing jobs in a workplace. Really? Is that what we’re watching?

Yes, that is precisley what we are watching. At the end of the day this is precisely what professional cycling is, and it is no different from any other job. Some if the people can Chase some of their dreams some of the time. The rest are rewarded with a pay packet. The mark of a true professional is one who gets on with this. I have my doubts about some of the inferences that have made into Chris Froome’s actions and statements. Motives and explanations have been suggested where no concrete evidence exists to back them up. It is pure speculation and is disrespectful of a professional. That is the want of the press and many of its consumers. If Froome ultimately breaks from his role, decides to steal glory for himself and undermine his teammates in so doing then we can question his professionalism, For the time being is is making sacrifices and if not entirely happy he is being professional.

But for me there is one image from yesterday that encapsulates the true professional: Mark Cavendish, world champion and sent back to collect water bottles and rain jackets. Whilst he may not have liked it, he did it and his day of dreams will come around again. A professional is paid to do a job, but the true professional gets on with the job he is given.  Some who work in so-called professions would do well to consider this.

The Art of Noise

The Thriller in Manila it was not. And though some “correspondents” would like to make it out to be it was far from being Anatoly Karpov versus Garry Kasparov. I’m talking about the last 5 km of yesterday’s stage of the Tour de France. In particular the “attack” made by Chris Froome which put his teammate Bradley Wiggins into trouble off the back of the leading group of contenders. A lot has been made of this move, the subsequent pressing of earpiece by Froome and the interview he gave immediately after the stage. Gripping and intriguing it certainly was, but there seems to be an appetite to turn every twist and turn into a Machiavellian subplot.

Of course differences within teams is nothing new. The 2009 Tour saw the Contador and Armstrong destroy the Astana team. 1997 witnessed Jan Ullrich dethrone his teammate Bjarne Riis whilst also chasing the green jersey for Eric Zabel which, as an article in Procycling magazine illustrates, created 3 teams of 3 under one banner. And of course there is the ultimate internecine battle between Lemond and Hinault which Richard Moore covers beautifully in Slaying the Badger.  Whilst this has the makings of such a battle, from the events of this Tour so far it still lacks much of the background which those others had.

Some argue this was Froome putting his marker down for leadership of the team.  Despite stating that he riding for Wiggins following his own stage 7 win and reiterating this yesterday correspondents – both professional and amateur – have taken to reading into his words and body language to suggest that there is frustration at having to play second fiddle. A second place in last year’s Vuelta is somehow the justification for the conspiracy theories. But one Vuelta does not a Tour winner make. Take into account Wiggin’s return to racing from a broken collarbone in that race and his superb form this season combined with Froome’s own fragile health since Spain and the equation being posed by some starts to look slightly lopsided. The most astute observation I have seen so far comes from my friend and Real Peloton’s Steve Trice in a Twitter conversation with Matt Rendell:

We don’t know how much Froome benefits from Wiggo bearing leader’s responsibility & attention. Stepping up to no. 1 is a big step…Being team leader is like in a sprint – you don’t know how strong your legs are until you leave the slipstream and take the wind.

I’ve not seen that in the reports I’ve read so far.

Over exuberance by the younger teammate? A coup d’etat at La Toussuire? A simple error of judgement in the heat of the race? Only Froome will know for sure. But I have a small theory of my own and it is all based on noise.

Anybody who has ever been to or ridden in a race will know how it is an assault on all the senses. Stand by the side of the road when the Tour of Britain whizzes past and the sights, the sounds, the smells all collide. So imagine being in the midst of that, on the other end of a thousand shouting spectators, pursued by mankini wearing self-publicists, dodging motorbikes and cars whilst trying to do your job. Workplace communications are never perfect at the best of times but this office is open plan to the extreme and instructions can be misheard and missed. When the boss can’t be heard and/or doesn’t respond you make what you think is the best decision and deal with the consequences later. This is the art of living with the noise. Maybe this is what happened, but as I said, none of us will ever really know.

The second part of my theory revolves around the reliance on race radios. As the riders are more accustomed to the input from the radio, so perhaps they adapt their behaviour and in so doing become more complacent? It is another noise and one which takes over (some of) the riders. Froome’s attack yesterday might well have been to help not hinder Wiggins, a response to earlier attacks from Wiggins’ rivals. And maybe he was waiting to be told what to do? Based on the pictures we saw of him alternating between earpiece and mic did the remote control not work? Not that this is the only time radios might actually be to blame. Whilst the first week crashes were blamed on various causes from climbers to road furniture and finally over-enthusiastic amateur photographers, I wonder if the ability of the professional peloton to work together and warn each other of dangers has been lost. Ride with your local club and there are shouts within the bunch to warn of imminent dangers. My theory is that riders have become to reliant on someone telling them what to do, when and how that the basics of racing are possibly dying. I’d be interested in the thoughts of others about this.

Whilst we are on the topic of noise, the external cacophony of armchair experts has been added to by so-called “Sky WAGs” Twitter-spat. Of course I am excited that there is a British rider with a real chance of winning the Tour de France, I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But these posts are trying to be as objective as is possible in commenting on these events. Earlier in the week I indicated the discomfort I have with some of the noise on Twitter and unfortunately the exchanges between Cath Wiggins and Michelle Cound take this to a new level. It is quite understandable for both to have intense feelings when watching the action but many is the time MrsAB has returned home from work, told me what has happened and I have wanted to vent my spleen to someone. I don’t, however. Please Cath and Michelle, you are intelligent people, let’s keep this “in house” if we must, you’re not Coleen and Victoria and I’m sure you’ll never want to be.

The story is so familiar: a potential British success undermined by both British fans and from those within. Could we not avoid the mistakes that other sports have made in this respect?