Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Yer Bike! What the Tour de France Teaches Us

The Champs Elysees is suddenly a boulevard without pavement, as thousands gather to welcome the riders of the Tour de France as they enter Paris on the last day of their gruelling three weeks.
I have managed to bag what was, literally, the very last ticket in a grandstand seat, and I am excited beyond belief. Unless he crashes, Bradley Wiggins will be the first British man to win the race, and I will be able to say ‘I was there.’
I have been coming to Paris for the end of the Tour de France for ten years, and I love it. I am not, however, what you would call a keen cyclist. The mountain bike I bought five years ago, after a particularly enjoyable end of July day in Paris, hasn’t even seen the hill at the end of my road, much less thought about the Pyranees. I have put three cycle helmets in the bin, each rotten with lack of use and old age. I shout at inconsiderate cyclists from my car as they take up half the road and ignore the Highway Code to which car engines are slavishly subjected.
But the Tour de France. Oh, yes. Every year, these extraordinary athletes take my breath away with their stamina and determination, and it is an unbelievably beautiful, moving moment, when they arrive in this great city. The riders’ emotional as well as physical stamina, permeates the air; you feel their sense of achievement at the very core of your being; your heart soars. This is it. They have made it. Relief. Celebration. Joy. Every time, I cry.
And now, here I am, for the first time, not five deep on the Champs Elysees, straining for a glimpse of the yellow jersey, but with a ringside seat, and I am already crying.
The Tour de France is, for me, not only a magnificent spectacle, but a great sporting metaphor; a narrative that spells out how we would all, ideally, like our lives to pan out - honing a skill to perfection, developing the discipline with which to achieve that, working hard to fulfil your individual potential, while also recognising the importance of being part of a team and supporting your fellow man. It is a sublime example of the importance of competitive sport in character building.
Political correctness has all but wiped the importance of competitive sport from our psyche. Every child must now be regarded as good as the next, part of a team at the expense of individual glory. But while our sports men and women achieve great things on the world stage, there is still, in our British DNA, something that celebrates losing more than success. Andy Murray. English football. Rugby tests against southern hemisphere teams. We lack a fundamental belief that is down to the fact that we have lost our competitive spirit.
Most of us have memories about standing in a line on the school playing field, as the “in” crowd, during games lessons, chose teams. I was never selected as one of the choosers and, being small and never part of any clique, was always at the bottom of the barrel when it came to selection. The horror of being among the final three, and then, the relief at my name being called out and knowing that I was not the very last dreg lives with me to this day. Every time, I would try to prove myself, by running faster, scoring more goals, jumping more hurdles – yet it made no difference to selection next time around. I just wasn’t one of the gang. Even Mrs Davies, head of Games, pulled me aside one day after I had scored three goals in a hockey game and said: “You are too competitive.” I avoided every single games lesson after that.
I am, and always have been, very competitive. What’s the point of being any different? Yet I was brought up with the adage “Don’t hang your hat higher than you can reach”. I never wanted to be that kind of person. Hang it high and, if you can’t reach it, find the means by which you will be able to, has always been my philosophy. Jump. Stand on a box. Ask someone to give you a leg up. Nothing is ever too high, or too out of reach: you just have to find the means of getting there.
Friday sees the start of the Olympics in London, when athletes from around the world come together to try to prove themselves better than their competitors. It’s what they do every day of their lives, but, every four years, they have the chance to really rub everyone’s noses in their superior sporting prowess.
Never has there been a better moment to celebrate the importance of competition. We win some, we lose some; we laugh and we cry; sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re bad. As Shakespeare said: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Sport is about the achievement of greatness. It invariably comes at a cost, but pushing yourself to the best of your ability is something to encourage.
We are, sadly, living in the golden age of mediocrity, where cheap reality television can make stars of people whose only achievement is their ability to pander to the lowest common denominator.
The Tour de France is the very antithesis of that: it not only a great event, it is inspirational, compelling television that takes your breath away as you watch people at the very top of their game, striving with every fibre of their being to be even better. Hanging their hat high, reaching for it, and hanging it higher again. For the Sky team that gave ultimate glory to Bradley Wiggins, there was never any limit.
The power of the individual, the importance of teamwork; strength, stamina, determination, hard work. I am sitting on the Champs Elysees as the yellow jersey of Wiggins grows from a spec in the distance to a perfect manifestation of truly great human achievement. 

And I can only weep in awe.      

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