The Great Italian takes us back to the era of heroic cycling
In three weeks I will celebrate my 49th birthday (please don't send any gifts) which makes at least two things true; firstly, my best riding form is almost certainly behind me and secondly, I am easily old enough to remember an era when cycling was both a minority sport (Tour de bloody what?) and gloriously unpredictable.
Last night I reluctantly left the comfort of my pillow top mattress to flick on the TV for another night of sleep deprivation and hot Milo. Almost 24 hours later I am still buzzing at the spectacle of stage 5 in this years Tour de France and here's why:
My first experiences of watching the Tour were in the mid eighties and despite the grainy images, ignorant sports-show hosts and 2 week delay, I was transfixed by the heroic riding from names like Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon (RIP great man) and our own Phil Anderson. Cycling is and always has been a team sport but in those halcyon days a rider like Hinault would attack (alone) anywhere and everywhere. Any time he spotted the slightest opportunity, the badger would rip the race apart. Crowds loved him and his brash manner of riding a bike, he was (and probably still is) my hero. Fignon, similarly raced in stomping style at the Tour de France, most notably attacking relentlessly in 1984, beating Hinault by almost 11 minutes and again in the epic battle with Greg LeMond in 1989. In fact the race widely lauded as one of the best tours ever is only so regarded because of the panache of Fignon.
Somewhere after the zenith of 1989, the sport of cycling begun an incremental slide into a more predictable, maybe sterile shadow of it's former self. Riders and team managers figured out that technology, calculated training regimes and carefully scripted race strategies produced results (I have intentionally left out the gorilla in the room). As a consequence the flair, once a defining feature of cycling, was smothered out of the sport. Each year I watched the Tour hoping for just a tiny look back at 1985, but I was swimming hopelessly against the current. Don't get me wrong I still love the tour, but I find myself gravitating towards the more dramatic racing at the Giro and the Vuelta (thank you SBS).
Vincenzo Nibali is my new hero and there were times last night where I felt like a 20 year old watching a Tour re-run from 30 years ago. The great Italian has "channeled the Badger" twice already this year (remember stage 2?) and has set the scene for one of the best tours in many years, others now have no choice but to rip in and I for one cannot wait. This is not Vincenzo's first "dash of panache", last year he battled freezing temperatures, snow and our own Cadel Evans to win a monumental stage to Tre Cime Di Lavaredo, attacking the race and everyone in it, even though (or perhaps because) he already held the Maglia Rosa.
I make my living these days from testing cyclists and writing training programs based on the numbers, so I may be part of my own problem? But I can't help but think that "riding to the numbers" belongs in the realm of training and that race day is a time to set the instincts free. So today I rode with no technology attached to my bike, thought of Vincenzo and went "freestyle".......what a liberating experience it turned out to be, just like ripping around Akuna Bay in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park when I was 22.
Thank you Vincenzo and thank you Bernard. And to the ASO (Tour de France race organisers), don't listen to all the pissing and moaning about how cobbled stages don't belong at the Tour. Last night, along with shorter punchy mountain stages, was part of the devolution of cycling and the buzz around the story is the ultimate validation of a brilliant decision. I have often heard it said that racing in the manner of Hinault was not possible anymore without drugs, well I disagree and if we are to believe that our sport has exited the dark era of EPO, then last night was exhibit A.
The Tour is "BACK" and I am so happy......now where is my Milo?
Brian Bubba Cooke
Exercise Physiologist, coach & cycling tragic for 30 years. Love the freedom, reward and sense of achievement that one can only experience in our amazing sport.