Throughout a large chunk of the recent history of the Tour de France – taking in the might of French and Spanish cyclists, Lance Armstrong’s years of dominance and beyond – it’s been a knee-jerk reaction to wonder how much of the near-superhuman ability to withstand its gruesome daily punishment comes naturally.
Does it matter? The persistence of niggling suspicions that, for some aspirants to the yellow jersey, surviving the world’s greatest cycle race is facilitated by and even dependent on laboratory products is strangely unable to detract from its compelling spectacle. Le Tour, which begins tomorrow, not with the traditional prologue but a 191.5km road stage starting in the Vendée, is still one of the most gripping events in the sporting summer.
For a start, we Brits can engage with Mark Cavendish’s long quest for the green jersey, the one that all sprinters dream about. The 26-year-old Manxman is the world’s best at this game and is likely to be a regular at every stage finish that counts. This is his fifth Tour and he already has 15 stage wins to his credit. Six of them were notched up in 2009, but the points contentiously docked on stage 14 for dangerous sprinting deprived him of the green jersey. That went to arch rival Thor Hushovd.
Last year, he had five wins, still not enough to prevent him being out-manoeuvred for the ultimate sprinting prize by Alessandro Petacchi. Even so, no other British rider has achieved so much.
The first sprint is likely to round off the opening day, the stage culminating in an extenuated shallow climb of the Mont des Alouettes. It’s a finish for strong men rather than the classic backdrop for the king-of-the-jungle pounce with which Cavendish, a pure sprinter, habitually exterminates the competition. But he has won in more testing circumstances.
The strong likelihood exists that next year Cavendish will be wearing the colours of Team Sky, where he will be joining triple Olympic track gold medallist Bradley Wiggins and two other bright young home-grown talents, Geraint Thomas (one quarter of the gold-winning team pursuit foursome in Beijing) and 23-year-old Ben Swift, who picked up two stage wins in January’s Tour Down Under.
Wiggins, though not quite as eminent as Cavendish, finished fourth in the 2009 Tour and last year was widely tipped (not least by himself) to go even higher. But having encouraged us to dream that a podium finish was his for the taking, he looked almost ordinary as he toiled through the mountain stages while in front of him Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck waged their epic battle. He ended up with a 24th-place finish, a position he himself described as a “public humiliation”.
Since then Wiggins has been working full-time with the sports scientist Tim Kerrison and Shane Sutton, the Australian coach who supervised his three Olympic golds on the track. Victory in the recent Dauphiné Libéré, his biggest ever, gives weight to his claim that he is in better shape than he has ever been.
The great talking point of the Tour is of course that Contador, the defending champion, tested positive during last year’s Tour for the steroid clenbuterol yet will still be at the Grand Depart tomorrow, having been exonerated by the Spanish Cycling Federation. He is awaiting the result of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s appeal against the verdict but, controversially, this will not be announced until after the Tour.
Even so, those heart-pounding, body-wrecking climbs, the recklessly courageous risking of bones and flesh down precipitously corkscrewing descents and the scarcely believable bursts of power on the final sprint will as ever transcend cynicism. These men remain heroes.