Le Maillot Gallois: Tour de France 2018
Wednesday, 15 August 2018 23:10

Le Maillot Gallois: Tour de France 2018

Published in Sport

C’est magnifique, Geraint! declares cycling fan Mark Perryman, and calls on Labour to develop a socialist culture policy to encourage popular, grassroots cycling.

Britain took 109 years to achieve its very first Tour de France winner in 2012. And now we can hardly stop winning it, with the single exception of Italy’s Nibali in 2014 (when Chris Froome crashed and was unable to continue) every year since. The French aren’t best pleased mind: ‘Boring, Boring Team Sky’ is one of their less impolite responses.

Each of our winners has been different. Wiggins in 2012 was impeccably English, complete with RAF roundels mod-style on his helmet and a fondness for The Jam (the band, not what we spread on our toast). His victory was immediately followed by the London 2012 Olympics where he also triumphed in the Time Trial, to win a Gold Medal to add to his Yellow Jersey.

Pictured astride a throne at Hampton Court, where the race ended, Bradley with Wiggomania in tow was rampant with the Union Jack enjoying a late Cool Britannia renaissance. It was a moment when most of us thought Wiggo could do no wrong, until we found out via a jiffy bag that maybe he could.    

Then along came Chris Froome, Wiggins’ number two in 2012 who didn’t much fancy playing second fiddle to anyone, least of all Wiggo. Born in Kenya, educated in South Africa, Froome pays (or rather doesn’t pay) his taxes in Monaco. Never mind, he could climb a mountain on a bike like nobody else, never out of his saddle, twig-like arms outstretched with hands ‘on the hoods’ staring into the distance as if the gradient barely existed.

Four wins in five years 2013- 2017, a legend in the making. The idea that in order to be a world-beating sports superstar an athlete needs the ‘personality’ to go with it is an unwelcome product of our celebritified era, but there’s not much doubt it helps. Froome’s achievements dwarf Wiggins but he was never a hit with the great British sporting public in the same way, most of whom don’t have much more than a passing interest in watching cycling. And so his near downfall via the over use of an asthma inhaler didn’t have quite the big hit of Wiggo and his dodgy jiffy bag full of we know not what. All it did was confirm those deep seated suspicions that the superhuman qualities of Grand Tour cyclists aren’t as naturally-produced as they might appear.

And now we have Geraint Thomas. Previously a super-domestique, always happy and willing to help his leader, as the cliché goes – road cycling is an individual sport played by teams. His emergence first to lead Le Tour and finally win it shocked just about everyone, not least himself.

Yes undoubtedly the suspicions linger, cycling will never entirely be rid of these, but Geraint’s is a homespun story of a Cardiff kid who joined his local cycling club, went to a secondary school with superlative sports facilities, and was talent-spotted at an early age. His is a rare ability, that took him first to Olympic glory and then on to the road, grinding out the hundreds of kilometres mainly in the cause of more-celebrated others. He is in this regard the perfect combination of Wiggins’ personality and Froome’s athleticism on a bike.

So are we about to witness ‘Geraintmania’? If back, and in most cases front, pages are anything to go by on the Monday morning after the Champs Élysées triumph the afternoon before, we might like to think so. Handily sandwiched after World Cup 2018, Wimbledon and the British Open, before England’s test series against India and the start of the football season, a British Tour de France win now receives the kind of blanket media coverage that before Wiggins barely existed. But somehow I doubt the scale of any ‘mania’.

Thomas’s backstory, and particularly his Welshness, adds something to the mix, however. He’s more understated than Wiggins, but someone to warm to in a way Froome never quite manages. Yet short of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, it is hard to imagine Thomas will be much in the news in the interim. Despite that, as he revelled in his victory all the media-talk was of how he would inspire others to follow him in the same way he’d been inspired to get on a bike by Le Tour as a kid. 

 This is the cruel myth-making of any sporting triumph. It’s not being a killjoy to point to the social construction of sport, rather it is the only means of understanding how to change participation from sofa-watching to getting off that sofa. 

Cycling in this regard has a lot going for it. It is a means of transport and freedom for children, a way to spend time together as a family, a means to get to work or to do the shopping for adults. And all the while we can dream we are Geraint Thomas.  

Yet each of these opportunities are shaped by the socio-economic circumstances of the world we live in. Fewer children cycle to school than ever before. Safe cycling routes to enjoy for parents and children ambling together on two wheels remain few and far between. Towns and cities are ill-equipped to cope with expanding demand to cycle to work, and we have a rail system that actively deters the carriage of cycles.

Don’t believe me? Visit any other European country and both the much better participation statistics and vastly more positive lived experience of cycling put Britain to shame. Yes there’s been a post-Wiggins increase in cycling but mostly it has been those who have given up one sport, anecdotally marathon-running and golf are often cited, for another.

There’s been next to no overall reversal in ever-declining physical activity participation rates. So well done Geraint, but I’m afraid to change all this its going to be down to another cyclist. Over to you, Jeremy Corbyn!

Thomas Tour Win 2018 s s rev1

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy FootballTheir Maillot Gallois T-shirt is available from here. 

Nothing to lose but our chains
Wednesday, 15 August 2018 23:10

Nothing to lose but our chains

Published in Sport

Looking for a communistic sports event to take part in? As the annual cycling spectacle of the Tour De France begins, Mark Perryman argues the case for advancing to communism on two wheels.

Who would have guessed it? Karl Marx was clearly a bike mechanic when he wasn’t plotting the downfall of capitalism. ‘Nothing to lose but your chains’ is handy advice when the derailleur slips and furious pedalling propels bike and rider precisely nowhere.

OK Marx was more interested in liberating the workers of the world than the freedom of the road, though with committed cycle-commuter Jeremy Corbyn quite possibly in need of a Downing Street bike rack soon, there doesn’t seem a better time to make the case for cycling as the people’s sport.

For those who take an interest in the competitive side Le Tour will be on television for the next three weeks as it weaves its way from the Grand Départ in Germany, through Belgium, a quick detour to Luxembourg  and across France to the traditional finish on the Champs Élysées.

That’s two boxes ticked straightaway in my case for a people’s sport. Firstly, despite Sky’s sponsorship of the premier British team competing, the race is broadcast on terrestrial TV – both live and highlights packages are free to air on ITV4.

And secondly this is a genuinely internationalist event. Fundamentally French of course but shared with all manner of other European countries too in terms of where it may start – the stages too – but never the ending, that will always be Paris.  Not quite the proletarian internationalism of our Marxist dreams but not a bad model for a sporting culture beyond borders! And of course lined up along the route in their hundreds of thousands are the fans, none paying even a cent – or nowadays a Euro – for the privilege.

Nor is there any significant infrastructure to waste huge amounts of money on, leaving stadia and other facilities behind never to be filled again. Instead just about the only spend is to improve the road surface, for the benefit of all. It’s a sporting event not for the few but for the many – pedestrians, cyclists and car-drivers alike.

Of course like previous Tours this one will be mired in an unfolding drugs controversy. It’s particularly  awkward for British cycling fans because the spotlight will fall mainly on Team Sky, on rider and race favourite Chris Froome and Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford.  Allied with both the unresolved drug allegations against Bradley Wiggins and the prolonged furore over sexism and bullying in and around the Olympic Team GB track cycling squad, this has all threatened to dim the golden glow of Britain’s single most successful sport over the past decade.  Cycling has taken a knock, there’s not much doubt about that. But the roots of its appeal are now so deep all the signs are that it will not only survive but continue to flourish too.

MP Cycling chain for tweet

Marx, notwithstanding my spurious claims for his contribution to the art of bicycle maintenance (famously, similar claims have been made for Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance too) is at least partially responsible for the answer. Cycling, like all sport, is socially constructed. It is a leisure activity we can take part in without scarcely even noticing. What other sport can double up as a means of getting to work, to do the shopping, to pop down the pub?  A bike can provide the basis for a family day out too, perhaps best of all it’s a habit we can pick up as children and once we’ve learned not to fall over it’s a skill we never lose. 

It’s true that at the upper end of cycling culture, particularly among men suffering from a midlife cycling crisis, the bikes cost the proverbial arm and a leg. Many observers suggest that this in part explains the decline in golf, and maybe it’s true that middle-aged men who should know better are investing in handbuilt carbon frames with all the gear to go with it, rather than ever-escalating green fees to tee off at the most expensive 18 holes. Yes the recession hurts even the most highly paid, so there’s almost certainly something in this. Still the class enemy on two wheels represents only a tiny fraction of cycling’s growing popularity. 

Likewise with the impact of the drug, bullying and sexism scandals. Elite success, Wiggins and Froome winning Le Tour, bucketloads of Olympic Cycling Gold medals certainly contributed something to cycling’s appeal. It was a bit like Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott’s success on the track coinciding with the late 1970s to early 1980s running boom.

It may be a a factor, but it’s not the total explanation that the media-boosters would like to claim for their coverage. Other more important reasons are implementation of socialist and green policies like increasing investment in safer cycling routes and paths, sunnier summers, and austerity staycation culture. These things help explain cycling’s growing and enduring popularity, not to mention the likelihood of it growing more popular under a genuinely cycle-loving socialist PM. There’s a durability to this appeal which is unlikely to be materially affected by news of dodgy medicines or bullying coaches.

Sport’s core attraction is always assumed to be competition. Wrong. For most this only applies to the spectators, those who watch but don’t do. Being on the losing side bringing up the rear does more to deter the young from sport than virtually anything else. And once deterred, regardless of the presence of compulsory sport lessons, hardly anything else proves effective in reconnecting the inactive with participation.

I think it was Jose Antonio Viera-Gallo, Undersecretary of Justice in Allende's Marxist government, who said this: 'Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.' So I’ll conclude with a quick mention of just about the most communistic sports event I’ve ever taken part in – the increasingly popular cycling sportive. No, the organisers aren’t planning revolution via long rides through the countryside, but to my mind the format unwittingly subverts the competitive instinct, via equalising participation.  There are staggered starts over varying distances, so nobody knows who the winners are – or crucially, the losers either.

For some people, it’s racing against their own individual clock, but for everyone it’s a collective race against the shared distance and terrain. And more often than not, participants are raising money for a good cause. The same prize, wherever you finish – what could be more politically progressive than that?

Not that I’ve ever seen Marx on one mind, he must be back in his bike shed working on unfettering those chains……

Thanks to Hugh Tisdale for both images. The ‘Nothing to Lose but Your Chains’ Cycling T-shirt is now available from Philosophy Football.