And the winner is…
There was a depressing inevitability to the suspicions of doping that dogged Chris Froome’s performance in this year’s Tour. In France the twitosphère was alive with allegations following the ‘hacking’ of data from Team Sky’s records, most of which centre on Froome’s ability to ride away from his rivals as he did on Ventoux in 2013, when he stole nearly 3 minutes or more over his main rivals on stage 10.
Froome’s acceleration readily reminds many of Lance Armstrong powering up L’Alpe d’Huez in 2001. Team Sky by extension became in the minds of sceptics a reincarnation of the US Postal Service team with Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas and, retrospectively, Brad Wiggins all named as drug cheats with no evidence offered. Sky’s dominance, the argument (if we can call it that) goes, can only be the product of systematic substance abuse of the type perfected by Armstrong’s team.
The leap from US Postal Service to Sky and from Armstrong to Froome is in part possible because, for many Frenchmen, Brits, Americans, Ausies, indeed all English speakers, can be lumped together as Les Anglo-saxons, a collective term first deployed to great effect by General de Gaulle to suggest that Britain’s primary allegiance was to the USA and not Europe. Admittedly, British politicians seem to have been feeding this cliché ever since. But the term has stuck and is readily used by France’s political and intellectual elite as well as much of the population at large.
More importantly, though, French suspicions against Froome suggest a deep-seated disappointment with the Tour which has been corrupted by commercialism and cheating, both foreign imports. And behind this lies the regret (rarely expressed) that the internationalisation of the Tour has in some way altered its very character for the worse.
The Tour was in fact first conceived as a way of marking out French national territory at a time when few Frenchmen left their village, let alone their province. The first Tour to take place after the First World War, for example, took in Alsace, newly reconquered from Germany, as a means of laying claim to this disputed territory where German had been the first language for nearly 50 years. German riders were not welcome in 1919, but in 1930 the Tour’s organisers replaced manufacturers’ teams with national teams in the ultimately vain attempt to slow, if not halt the sport’s commercial exploitation. The Tour gradually became less a competition between French regional riders and more an international event, usually fought out between French and Belgian national teams until the arrival of the Italian great Gino Bartali in 1937.
Bartali had already won the Giro d’Italia that spring when he attempted his first Tour. He withdrew a few days in, though, after falling into a river and nearly drowning.
By now, Mussolini had his eyes on the Tour. Italy had won the football World Cup in 1934 and 1938. The fascist authorities had successfully promoted both wins as the triumph of a new type of individual: fascist man.
Bartali was no fascist, however: he was a highly conservative Catholic and the son of a socialist who would in fact go on to save Italian Jews during the Second World War. But he was Italy’s best hope of winning the Tour for the first time since 1925 and so Mussolini ‘persuaded’ him not to enter the Giro in 1938 so as to concentrate on the Tour. Bartali, a skilled climber, took the yellow jersey and a momentous 17-minute lead in one spectacular stage in the Alps with more than 10 stages of the Tour remaining and would go on adding to his lead. Despite his refusal to endorse the fascist regime, Bartali nevertheless remained unpopular with sections of the French press. He appeared distant, too impassive, while the communist press in particular constantly suggested that Bartali and the Italian team built around him were benefiting from a combination of underhand tactics and good fortune.
If Bartali could take such a lead, it was because he never punctured on the poorly maintained Alpine passes where French and Belgian riders so regularly came to grief. At one point he was accused of pushing a rival off his bike while the Italian team as a whole was attacked for being lazy, constantly drafting and never taking its turn at the front of the peloton. Indeed, the communist press in true Stalinist fashion practically purged Bartali from its coverage of the final stage in order to focus on the largely symbolic victory of two retiring French riders.
The subtext of all of this was that, because it was so spectacular, Bartali’s victory was in some way suspect. How, then, could mere Frenchmen compete with Italians whose team was governed by the fascist principle of riders sacrificing their chances in the name of their leader, the left-wing press complained, not realising that the Italians were in fact racing more effectively?
It might be tempting to see in this and the whispering campaign against Froome a persistent form of French xenophobia, the product of a desperate longing for a first French Tour winner since 1985, a longing only surpassed by English football fans’ wait for another 1966 moment. But the crowds that still line the routes of the Tour suggest a continued appreciation of riders’ efforts. And, in fact, many genuine, well-informed French fans of cycling still see the individual and not his nationality. Tom Simpson, for example, who couldn’t pull away on the mountain, is revered and remembered in France to this day (and not just by cycling fans) in a way he is not in the UK.