It started with a sweepstake.
Until last summer I’d never paid much attention to professional cycling. All I could have told you really was there’s a Tour de France, the leader wears a yellow jersey and it had been won several times by someone called Lance Armstrong. In fact, I knew about as much as Ned Boulting did when he started covering it for ITV (for more on that, see this earlier post). But last summer I took part in a sweepstake for the Tour de France, and having an investment in the outcome, I started to pay attention. I was hooked almost immediately. It wasn’t long before I was recording the 2-3 hour-long live programme while I was at work and the highlights show in the evening just wasn’t telling me enough. Some of the credit must go to the commentary team, who talk knowledgeably (or so it seems to me at least) and interestingly about what’s going on, as well as throwing in my favourite bits – the little snippets of history of the towns and regions they’re travelling through. But I was also caught up in the sheer scale of it all – the amazing feats of athleticism, endurance, dedication and ‘race craft’ of the riders, set against beautiful and, at times, ludicrous scenery. How on earth do they get up those mountains, or indeed down them without breaking their necks, at those speeds? And then do it all again the next day and the one after that? It’s all seriously impressive.
I like to think that I’ve been soaking up information like a sponge. I’m not an expert of course but I certainly know a lot more than I did this time last year; the terminology, the skills involved, some of the tactics. I’m getting to know the riders, so even if I don’t know all his strengths or what I’ve seen him in before, I at least know I’ve seen him somewhere, which is a start. The team sponsorship even works, sort of. I don’t see a Europcar rider and decide I need to hire a van from them, but see a Europcar van and I think of Thomas Voeckler holding off the competition for the yellow jersey for half the race. Or when I see an HTC advert, a company I’d never heard of before, I now remember the almost military precision of HTC-Highroad’s lead-out train for Mark Cavendish and think what a shame it was that the team was broken up for lack of a sponsor. But maybe we’ll see even better things from the Sky team instead.
I missed most of the Vuelta a Espana, but caught up with the Tour of Britain, a very different beast from the Tour de France. Relatively young in its current incarnation (returning in 2004) and obviously on a much smaller scale, it nevertheless attracts top teams and riders. And yet because it isn’t that well known to the Brits, it has a very different feel to it. In France, it’s obvious that the entire area around a stage shuts down for the day, whereas over here, it’s more a case of a queue forming at traffic lights as junctions are closed for a few minutes while the race goes by.
The pinnacle of 2011 was, of course, our very own Mark Cavendish winning the World Championship. What’s surprised me, given how recently I’ve come to the sport, is how much I’ve enjoyed seeing him wearing the Champion’s rainbow jersey this year. I can only imagine how he feels about it.
So, 2012. Another year brings another little competition for some friends as they follow the season – this time it’s a fantasy league (loser buys the drinks), featuring the big races of the year. This brings a whole new dimension to things and quite frankly it would be easier if I knew more about the world of cycling than I’ve managed to pick up so far. You select a new team for every race (there’s the option of making changes between the stages but we haven’t taken it), so a lot of thought (or guesswork) needs to go into which riders are most likely to do well on that course, and whether you can fit it into the budget allowed. Each rider has a different value and it’s not difficult to quickly find yourself over budget. I didn’t have a good start, mainly because I misread the instructions and limited my options. Things were a bit better at the Giro d’Italia, and I developed a taste for actually picking up points. With inspired selection, I then won the Criterium du Dauphine, with our very own Bradley Wiggins doing the business. The big challenge now is selecting a team for the Tour de France, which starts this week. Just how much information about riders, teams and tactics have I absorbed during my first year of cycling? We shall soon see. I really can’t wait to become absorbed in it once again. Roll on 30th June.
For the record, I won that sweepstake.