Monday, 11 June 2007
Can Pro-cycling ever hit the big time in Britain...?
Before I’m accused of spending too much time dwelling on cycling’s bad news stories, and let’s face it there are a lot of them about at the moment, it’s nice to be able to write about some racing for a change. Even better, some might say, that I can write about a notable British success, less than a month before the Tour De France’s historic Grand Depart in London.
British track specialist turned road racer Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis) scored the biggest result of his pro career on Sunday when he beat race favourite Levi Leipheimer (Discovery) in the prologue time trial of the Dauphiné Libere. The eight day race is the traditional dress rehearsal for the Tour De France, condensing all of its most exciting stages into little more than a week. Riders hoping to do well in July have used it to test their form for many years now - even Lance Armstrong, notoriously sparing in the number of days he’d race in any given season, made a point of rarely missing this race.
If the first yellow jersey of the Dauphiné wasn’t enough, Wiggins went on to defend the jersey over hilly terrain on Monday. I’m sure he won’t be wearing the jersey next Sunday, but as an indicator of who may be likely to win the prologue in London it is an undeniably good omen.
The coveted prologue will be high on David Millar’s list of priorities too, the Saunier Duval rider pretty much building his form for the season around this one stage. Of course Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Fabian Cancellara (CSC) will be doing their utmost to disappoint the home crowd, but British interests should be well represented come July.
While most of the British media are rightly celebrating the motor powered speed of Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, Wiggins’ achievements have barely registered on the radar. So cycling has an image problem, nobody can deny that, but with British riders starting to score results in big races and the imminent arrival of the Tour on these shores, it is to be hoped that the traditional British reticence towards the sport will soon begin to lift.
I wrote on these pages in April about young Mark Cavendish (T-Mobile) and his first professional victory, and since then he’s added another four wins to his palmarés. Cavendish is already creating the sort of buzz in the peleton that Hamilton must be creating at the racetrack, but are significant numbers of the British public aware of his feats?
Cycling just isn’t sufficiently rooted in the British psyche to generate that kind of excitement. Then again, the same could be said of cycling in Germany or Denmark until Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis came along and started winning. Both riders have since fallen from grace in doping scandals, but the basic point that success breeds success shouldn’t be lost.
Assuming that the sport doesn’t first rip itself apart and further lose public confidence, this great spectacle of human endurance that is currently the traditional preserve of Europeans may just get its chance. It would be nice to think that riders on the road would get the kind of respect enjoyed in mainland Europe as they go about their training and racing, but there is a long way to go before we arrive at such a point. Perhaps a victory for Wiggins or Millar in London on July 7th could be just the boost that is needed?