Can cycling capture the British imagination?

A view on cycling here in the UK from my colleague here in London, Charlie Almond:

In years to come, Sunday 24th July 2011 should be noted as one of the most successful in British sporting history; where we witnessed one of the most incredible achievements on one of sport’s most demanding and challenging stages.   It was certainly one for the headline writers, the triple success of Khan, England cricket & Lewis Hamilton was impressive enough and something to celebrate:

But it was the feat of a 25 year old Manx man on the Champs-Élysées that was the most remarkable, but possibly less appreciated.

Over the past 20 years, British cycling has had much success, particularly on the track.  The titanic battles between Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree in the 90’s saw them swapping the World hour record then in the 00’s Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins came to the fore, along with Nicole Cooke, Rebecca Romero & Vicky Pendleton in 2008.  But while gold medals briefly sparkle in the eyes of the public, the true measure of cycling success in the eyes of cycling purists is measured on tarmac, or to be precise, the cobblestones of Paris.

The Tour de France is one of the toughest events any athlete can compete in, both physically and mentally.  The first 10 days of riding see them maintain impressive speeds of around 45km/h over distances of around 175km.  Each day.  And that’s before the mountain stages kick in.  Visits to the Pyrennes and then the Alps have riders grinding out over two or three climbs on each stage, with climbs of around 12 – 20km long at gradients of around 8%.  It’s hard to comprehend the pain these guys go through, the lactic acid building in their legs particularly when climbing, but imagine walking to the top of the Empire State Building twice a day (without stopping)…and then you’re beginning to get close.

Only once before has a British rider ever won a jersey on the tour (Robert Millar was King of the Mountains in 1984).  Before Mark Cavendish, proud wearer of this year’s “maillot vert” (green jersey, awarded for sprinting) no British rider had been able to endure the pain and exhuastion of completing on these stages, day after day for three weeks and be there at the very end to sprint to victory on the final day on the Champs-Élysées.  Cav has done it three times now.

Now despite appearances, road racing is not just an individual sport.  You cannot reach the end of the race and be fresh enough for a sprint finish unless you have an exceptionally disciplined and supportive team.  They protect their lead rider: conserve his energy, keep him out of crashes, keep him fed and watered.  And in HTC-Highroad, Cav has one of the best teams out there.  And boy does he know it.  After every stage victory, one of the first things the Manx Missile will do is thank his team.  His best friend Bernie Eisel and the Australian Mark Renshaw are particularly important to him, both going beyond the call of duty to support his sprints to the finish line.

Unlike in France, Italy and to a lesser extent Spain (where cycling is a way of life and the main protagonists are treated like Demigods):

…here in the UK they are very much second fiddle to the stars of football, rugby, cricket, golf and even tennis (albiet for 2 weeks a year).  And that’s understandable, but perhaps that’s about to change.  One guy who will be looking on ruefully at Cav’s picture on the front pages will be Bradley Wiggins.  Riding for Team Sky (which for all intents and purposes is the Team GB Cyling team) he started the Tour in the form of his life and was looking to eclipse his 4th place finish of 2009 and challenge for the overall victory.  Sadly a innocuous looking crash on stage 7 saw Bradley break his collarbone, forcing him out of the race.  It was a cruel blow, both for Wiggins and for Team Sky who had prepared to support him all the way to Paris.  But he will be back – seeing the 34 year old Cadel Evans claim overall victory will encourage Wiggins that he still has time on his side while his absence allowed two younger Brits, Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift to shine and they have a bright future.

The question is will cycling now take a bigger place in the hearts of us Brits?  The heroics of Cavenidsh will certainly help.  So too will the major investment by Sky and hopefully other sponsors will follow suit.  Potential brands must have looked on enviously at HTC being plastered across the pages over the past few weeks – and Cav certainly knows the score when it comes to keeping sponsors happy…

With the likes of Cav, Wiggins, Thomas & Swift set to command the front of the peloton and hopefully keep their faces and jersey’s front of mind, this could be the ideal time for brands to invest in British cycling and take advantage of a golden generation.

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