Just because you’ve done it often before doesn’t mean you’ll do it again. Just ask Mark Cavendish. The Tour has been part of his annual routine since he was a pro pup in 2007.
I’m in transit, in Dubai. It’s just gone midnight and, on the shuttle to the terminal for my transfer flight to Paris, I saw the news. Who’d have thunk it? No ‘Cav’, not this year. His Dimension Data team announced the news while I was flying and, frankly, it’s not a huge surprise.
In time, I’ll speak with Doug Ryder and listen to his logic; the manager has enjoyed sweet success at the Tour thanks to the Manxman, but 2019 hasn’t exactly been a stellar season for the winner of 30 stages from his 12 starts. And last year, his best result in a stage was eighth. Then there was the DNF and he exited the Tour and, who knows, it may be for the last time. Now, at the start of July 2019, Cav is a WNS – Will Not Start.
For a little while that’s how it was shaping up for me. And it was a difficult concept to come to terms with. Since 1997, I’ve packed my bags and set off: one Grand Départ after another for 21 years.
A lot has changed in that time. Duh! Sorry to state the obvious but this is the longest routine I’ve had in my life and it’s difficult to set off to cover a bike race in 2019 and not consider what it was like way back when...
All those years ago it was so glossy and new and exciting. It was intoxicating and it lured me in.
I’d seen it pass by as a seven-year-old on a family campervan holiday in Europe in 1977. I didn’t know anything about the Tour then, other than that it was a bike race and that it slowed down our trip to the next campsite.
I’d return in 1992 as a 22-year-old backpacker and sit on the roadside near St-Gervais and see Roche and Delgado lead a break up a climb. In all, the peak of that experience – ie. the moment when the race passed me by – lasted a sum total of around 90 seconds. But it was a pivotal moment for me.
I had seen The Tour!
In real life.
It was fun and it was the culmination of a mission I’d set myself after leaving high school a few years earlier. Little did I know that it would steer me on a path that had me returning to France every year for over two decades.
When I close my eyes and try to catch sleep on the flight, I can reel off the sites of the start locations for the Tours I’ve worked on in my mind; these places help define my year and allow me to remember the events of the racing season. The Grand Départ cities and towns from 1997 until this year come to mind easily: Rouen, Puy de Fou, Futuroscope, Dunkirk, Luxembourg, Paris, Liège, Noirmoutier, Strasbourg, London, Brest, Monaco, Rotterdam, Vendée (again), Liège (again), Porto Vecchio, Leeds, Utrecht, Mont-Saint-Michel, Düsseldorf, Vendée (again)… and, on the weekend, Brussels.
Google it for me, I’m tired and didn’t double-check that list while waiting for the flight to France… but I’m confident in my memory.
The Tour has helped define my year. It evokes such a wealth of emotions that trying to summarise all that’s transpired over that time – over many thousands of kilometres in and around France – that it’s easy to become distracted.
At the core of it all is a bike race, a bloody big bike race… but a bike race just the same. And, eventually – inevitably – the time must come when it stops being part of an annual tradition.
In music, there’s the cliché about ‘The Difficult 2nd Album’; make a good one and that’s great, you’re a star! But backing up and doing it again is often an enormous challenge. Inspiration can be hard to come by, motivation could be at a low ebb… and it can all add up to something of a struggle.
For me, the Tour hasn’t lost its lustre. It’s still got a magnetic appeal that I find difficult to resist. Over the years, when the race is on and it’s hot and I’m exhausted and hungry and there’s a few more features to write ahead of another couple of hundred kilometres to drive before getting to the hotel in the wee-small hours of the morning, I’ve been known to make some bold statements. At times the words “never” and “again” have emerged… but it’s a fickle moment that tends to pass after a few hours of sleep.
By the end of July, when we wake for the struggle of what Rupert Guinness and I have long called “stage 22” (aka. The Monday After), I’m already thinking of where the next Grand Départ is.
It is just a bike race but, even after all these years, it still does inspire me and motivate me.
I’m used to going to the Tour now, but that doesn’t translate to an escape from the nerves and anxiety that come with attending an event of this nature. It’s logical to be anxious. It is, in fact, almost encouraged because the moment you become complacent about the Tour de France, you’re missing the point.
It is exciting. It is addictive. It is silly at times and easily able to frustrate us all… but I’d be confident to say that, deep down, Cavendish and the others who won’t be there will miss it. That time will come for me too… but not this year.
I’m looking forward to whatever comes in the next few weeks and hope it’s anything but a difficult 22nd Tour. I’ll be sure to have a proper debrief during stage 22 and I’ll get back to you and let you know if plans have emerged for a 23rd.