It is the soon-to-be iconic Stage 18 of the 2013 Tour de France – double Alpe d’Huez – and Tejay van Garderen makes his bid for glory. After breaking away and building an impressive lead on the first ascent the BMC man suffers a mechanical failure and drops back. Undeterred, and bike fixed, he rejoins the breakaway and again forges clear up the second ascent of the legendary col. As he nears the peak, and what looks like an historic victory, the American begins to slow. Frenchman Christophe Riblon is now in demonic pursuit. To those watching it becomes clear that van Garderen has hit the wall. As Riblon sweeps past he has nothing left, no response to give, apparently riding through treacle just two kilometres from the finish. Riblon claims the sole French stage win of the 2013 Tour, but van Garderen’s bold and brave double attack shares the glory. This is sport for sport’s sake.
It’s easy to feel like we live in a world where winning is all and second is nowhere. We hear that sport is a results business, but where does that leave the entertainment, the struggle and the sacrifice? Are we saying that the result itself is entertainment enough? That what happens in the sporting arena is just a means to an end? Call me naïve, but the result is just one small part of a sporting contest. A win at all costs mentality leaves me cold, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Of course there are plenty of examples of this mentality in cycling. Bernard Hinault, the tough Frenchman who dominated much of cycling in the late 70’s and early 80’s, once famously said ‘I am not here to make people happy, I am here to win.’ What was at the root of the drug fuelled racing of the 1990’s and early 2000’s if not a win at all costs mentality?
Even casual observers know that cycling has more skeletons, both in and out of it’s closet, than it cares to dwell on. But away from the murky corners of the sport; the drugs, betrayal, cheating and all the rest, you will find much joy, and a celebration and appreciation of sport for sport’s sake.
Take the 2013 Tour de France. The race was won impressively by the dominant Chris Froome, and most observers who know about these things seemed pretty happy that what he did, he did cleanly – celebrations all round and rightly so. But during those three weeks of racing there were moments of pure sport – such as van Garderen’s thrilling double attack – that will linger at least as long in the memory.
It is the final stage of the 2013 Tour, the so called ‘procession’ into Paris and onto the Champs Elysees. The TV pictures show the grimacing faces of the riders as they negotiate the cobbled and uneven city streets, the racing is anything but a procession as the peloton barrels along at a jarring pace. Mini breaks appear, riders testing their legs and those of their opponents, and suddenly David Millar is clear; 20 seconds, then 30. He’s riding in the gutter (the quickest and smoothest bit) but looking at the stars. Three weeks of punishing racing, a week in the Alps behind them, and Millar has decided he’s not done with this Tour yet. Through gritted teeth and with legs begging for mercy, he holds off the baying bunch, the roar of the crowd fills the Paris air, it’s visceral and spine tingling…..but……alas……the sun is going down……the breakaway is doomed to failure, as it always was, and Millar is swept up by the field. He threw down the gauntlet and had his moment; for the thrill, for the glory. This is sport for sport’s sake.