I am no stranger to national allegiance in sport. In my teens I would even troop off to Wembley to watch Ron Greenwood or Bobby Robson’s England Teams draw or lose to the likes of Greece and Denmark. I would watch in wrapped agony on TV as Viv Richards humbled the English Bowling before the Windies bowlers put our batsmen to the sword. I sat through every Olympics since Brendan Foster fell short in 1976 rooting for our girls and boys. With tear filled eyes turning and asking that question 'Father, is there a sport we aren't completely crap at?'
It was the Tour de France when Lance was set to break the record number of wins that I got interested in cycle sport. I had just bought a Ridgeback Hybrid and was congratulating myself on completing a 16 mile ride to Bromley and back. Feeling like a proper cyclist I bought a copy of Cycling Weekly. It was the pre Tour Edition full of the stories of the previous riders who had managed five wins, and a review of the teams.
With the help of ITV2’s coverage, always nicely aimed at the uninitiated, for the first time I started to understand how the race worked. How the teams worked, that is was not just a mob of blokes hammering up the road seeing who could get to the end first. Well it is and it isn’t. I started to understand the difference between the GC contenders and the Sprinters. Lance was an easy pantomime villain, Tommy Voeckler battling away, Jan Ullrich sliding away. All wonderfully free from any national pride issues. There were no British riders. Not even a humble domestique. There was no British hope, I was completely free to get behind the riders I liked and wish ill up those I did not.
It was Cav who started spoiling this, but it was easy enough, Cav is the kind of rider I would have enjoyed even if he was Belgian, Spanish or French. The flamboyance in Victory and defeat. Still there was no threat to the GC, Millar and Wiggo were visible but not contenders, the sharp end of the race was in the hands of others. Then it wasn’t. Wiggo came 4th. Then Sky appear, planning to win with a Brit. It started to feel like every other fucking sport again. My ability to enjoy the simple beauty of the racing being undermined by national sympathies. Then Wiggo wins, then Froome is the favourite and I’m standing on Mount Ventoux holding a flag.
I had always found the throng of nationalities on the mountains part of the thrill, those strange Basque flags, the Lion of Flanders. While I suspect those regional flags probably have some political significance I am not required to acknowledge this. Its just part of the spectacle.
But standing on Alp d’Huez I found myself opposite a man wearing a bikini because he had lost a bet. Wearing in a Union Jack like a Sarong he wiggled his arse around while his girlfriend, in a Ginger Spice dress asked the men in Orange where they were from. Their friends enthusiastically engaged with (harassed, annoyed, intimidated) anyone passing while tackling bottles of beer and red wine. A club mate suggested we should have pretended to be German. I concluded that national allegiance is much more appealing in a language one does not understand.