x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The British news cycle is hard to fathom

Bradley Wiggins is set be the first Brit to win Le Tour in 109 years but he is faced with indifference at home.

There have been fans on the side of the road, but the support back home in the UK has been minimal according to our columnist. Bradley Wiggins looks set to win the Tour de France and be the first Briton in more than a century to take the Yellow Jersey home.
There have been fans on the side of the road, but the support back home in the UK has been minimal according to our columnist. Bradley Wiggins looks set to win the Tour de France and be the first Briton in more than a century to take the Yellow Jersey home.

Britain's biggest tabloid newspaper printed a pair of cut-out-and-keep Bradley Wiggins sideburns this week, urging readers to wear them as a symbol of their support.

While it is always refreshing to read about some Tour de France "chops" not laced with Clenbuterol, it struck me as a rather half-hearted gesture, buried deep on page 20. Needless to say, I have yet to see anyone sporting them.

Britain's apparent resistance to Wiggins Fever is hard to fathom. Here we have a Londoner (albeit with an Australian father) about to win one of sport's great prizes - nicking it from the French, of all people! - and the "delirium" is nothing that half an aspirin could not cure. When our football, cricket, rugby, boxing or tennis stars give even the faintest glimmer of hope, the British nation is overcome by anticipation, with acres of newsprint devoted to the cause.

In a nation starved of success, even minority pursuits are readily embraced if they look like we might actually win something. In the 2002 Winter Olympics, for example, 60 million people became overnight converts to women's curling, earnestly discussing "draw weights" and "hog lines" in the earnest tones normally reserved for 4-4-2 versus the diamond.

What makes our ignorance of cycling even more baffling is that it seems a sport tailor-made for the British palate, in that it is more about industry than artistry, more guts than garters.

In addition, cycling can be a cruel spectacle - as anyone who saw the reigning champion Cadel Evans's legs go on Col de Peyresourde will testify - and it comes with its own complex class system of domestics and masters. If that does not sound like a pursuit dreamed up in the great public schools of Britain, I do not know what does.

So why has the looming victory of Wiggins failed to fire the imagination back home? Why are grown men not squeezing their bellies into Team Sky jerseys, singing about "109 years of hurt"?

The easy answer is the shadow of doping. Of course more people would be prepared to invest three weeks of their life in a sporting contest if they could be surer that the winner will not be stripped of his title further down the line.

This is certainly true, to some extent. Yet another sports have withstood high-profile doping scandals and retained popularity. Try getting tickets for any athletics event at the London Olympics and tell me the fans cannot forgive a doping scandal.

The other knee-jerk answer is nationalism: British riders have so rarely troubled the leader board that the Tour de France has about as much relevance in Wiggins's home nation as the Grand Sumo Tournament in Nagoya (which also finishes this Sunday.)

Again, this must be true to some extent, but there are obvious exceptions to the rule. Tennis remains very popular in Britain, despite the nation failing to bag any men's singles grand slam title since 1936. Besides, British cycling has enjoyed much high-profile success in recent years, albeit mainly in the velodrome.

So what is holding road racing back? Perhaps it is the "road" element itself. British drivers tend to dislike cyclists for, as they see it, adding to the pressure on already overcrowded roads.

Perhaps it is the clunky trade team names, which lack the panache of traditional club names. "Omega Pharma-Quick-Step" does not have quite the same ring as Manchester United, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.

Perhaps it is the riders themselves, whose monastic dedication often makes them hard to relate to on a human level. Their rigour makes them seem aloof, cold, arrogant. I have huge respect for the achievements of Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Lance Armstrong, but am not sure I would enjoy going for a drink with any of them.

Perhaps it is plain old Francophobe jealousy. Le Tour boasts drama, intrigue, ravishing beauty (the scenery, not the competitors), and what looks like a carnival atmosphere along every inch of its 2,000-mile route. The British may simply be sour they did not think of it first.

Whatever the reason, Britain must wake up and smell the coffee, or risk snoozing through one of the greatest moments in their sporting history on Sunday. For an Englishman to win Le Tour at all is a splendid achievement. To win it by such a margin (which seems likely, unless injury or illness strikes) is astonishing.

Fittingly for a man known mainly back home for his trademark whiskers, there will be no close shave for Wiggins in Paris.


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