I’ve just got back from a mini tour of France. For a cycling journalist, that is something of a busman’s holiday, but there were parties to attend and good friends to catch up with. And, of course, some fantastic riding to be had. The country does have its up sides.
Starting in the Loire and a three-day residency at a salle des fêtes on the banks of the river downstream from lovely Saumur, we partied as only a bunch of alcohol-hardened 50-year-olds can, before tumbling into bed and resuming celebrations a few hours later.
Unusually, people wanted to talk to me about cycling; how exciting the Tour must have been for someone in the business; a British winner after all these years; magazine sales must be going through the roof. Jane, who lives near Cognac, told me that the French media and public had taken to Bradley ‘Le Gentleman’ Wiggins after a slightly rocky start to relations in the opening week. Entente cordiale had broken out once again, which was good to hear.
We headed south to the Drôme, on the edge of the Vercors, quiet enough to feel totally relaxing and with enough traffic-free climbs and winding lanes to keep any cyclist happy for a week or two.
Joel, the next-door-neighbour, said it had been a tedious Tour. Sky had strangled the race, killed off any enjoyment for spectators. He said they had raced like a team (yes, I know; struggled to get my head round that one as well). He also believed they were doping. That was the only possible explanation he could find for the complete domination he had witnessed during the previous three weeks.
Next stop Versailles. If you have not been, the palace is of such ludicrous dimensions and grandiosity that its very existence lends an air of inevitability to the French Revolution. If the peasants were wavering in 1789 then one glimpse of Versailles would have provided sufficient incentive to tool up and storm the Bastille.
By this time the Olympics were in full swing and Team GB were hoovering up the medals, especially on the track. French TV, much like any other nation, showed mostly sports its own athletes were performing well in. I got to watch lots of handball but not a lot of cycling.
I did, however, see a French journalist interview David Cameron in the garden of Number 10. How, the journalist wondered, could Team GB possibly win so many gold medals in cycling? What was going on? (Why he thought David Cameron would have the answer to this, God only knows.)
It was an intentionally loaded question, the inference clear: they must be doping. Cameron batted it away with the usual ‘hard work and dedication’ line, and did not take the bait, unlike Wiggins in that infamous press conference on the Tour.
I had exchanged emails with two Americans towards the tail end of the Tour, both in the cycling business, both knowledgeable of the racing game, both having serious doubts that what they were witnessing on this race was possible without chemical assistance.
American fans have been badly burned by the US Postal revelations and the realisation that the Blue Train they had been hollering for all those years was not altogether clean, to say the least. Now the Sky blue train had taken its place with equally devastating results, why should they not draw the same conclusion?
These anecdotal snapshots are what the sport is up against the world over. It is not sufficient to think that, because we are British, we are clean, play fair, and the rest of the cycling world should be happy with that explanation. It has to be shouted from the rooftops, over and over; proved beyond doubt; made public and challenged, not avoided and brushed under the carpet.
Say it loud: I’m clean and I’m proud.