Read an exclusive extract of Ned Boulting's new book on cycling, 'On the Road Bike: The Search For a Nation's Cycling Soul'. In this chapter, 'Afterthought', Ned recalls the magical moment when Brit Bradley Wiggins – pre-knighthood – stood in yellow on the top of the podium in Paris at the end of the 2012 Tour de France…
The heat had blown in from the south, sweeping the race along with it. It had been cooked up over the Pyrenees, piling isobars high into the air, over the heads of the circling eagles keeping watch on the riders toiling up the mountains.
The hot air rushed on, spreading out across France, further north, through the Tarn valley, skirting the Haute-Vienne, swallowing Châteauroux and Chartres whole before its assault on Paris.
Here it slowed its pace and held steady. Warmth engulfed the city, turning the stone of the old capital white. The golden tip of the towering obelisk in the Place de la Concorde burnt so keenly you could hardly look at it without squinting. Far below, in the oily fetid dark of the subterranean car park, a thousand official Tour de France vehicles stood in long rows, their engines ticking as they cooled. The race had roared into Paris. It was done.
At street level, the dust and grime baked, despite the shade of a hundred mathematically manicured plane trees whose precise rows marked the edges of the road. Gendarmes on overtime, freighted in from outlying provinces, stood cheerlessly guarding every side street. The people who had come to see the spectacle fanned themselves with whatever merchandising tat had been flung their way by the passing publicity caravan. They were held back from the road by not one, but two sets of barriers.
Over their heads huge French tricolour flags had been unfurled to catch an absent breeze, but were adrift in the doldrums. The Tour was going nowhere today. Paris, its painterly sky alive with the criss-crossing of helicopters, was falling deeply in love with itself. Just as its residents, bored by the annual invasion of this astonishing race, profess a world-weary indifference, so the rest of us non-Parisians are subject to our own Pavlovian responses to its beauty. What a city!
This was the place: the Champs-Elysées on 22 July 2012. The Tour de France in its ninety-ninth incarnation.
And in the middle of it, on a huge podium, stood a gangly bloke from Kilburn with an unlikely name: Bradley Wiggins. His hair had grown over the month he had been away, and brightened at the fringes in the sun. His sideburns, uncared for during three weeks on a bike, had thickened and spread. This was quaint enough, but he was also spectacularly thin. As a result, he looked like a character from a Victorian children’s cautionary story. There he stood, saluting the crowd, a half-smile decorating his cautious face.
From this point, facing east, he would have seen, at the end of the avenue the wrought-iron gates of the Jardin des Tuileries and behind that the Louvre. He would have gazed back at the temporary stands filled with the great and good of the corporate world, sitting in cushioned rows in the Tribune Présidentielle, the Tribune Marigny and Tribune Concorde. And in front of him, held back by a rope that spread across the whole width of the boulevard, hundreds of lenses, catching the late-afternoon sun and winking at him.
I was familiar with this pageant. Ten times, each year since 2003 when I first started to follow the Tour, I had stood to the side of the podium watching on as Armstrong, Landis, Sastre, Contador and Evans had all thrown their arms aloft in victory. Wiggins would have watched it, too, sometimes in the flesh a little further down that cobbled road, half dismounted from his bike, ignored by everyone: a finisher, not a winner.
I had seen the moment repeated, when from nowhere a microphone appears, thrust at the champion by one of the Tour’s army of green-shirted roadies. I had seen each different winner right himself, pause, and level some carefully scripted words in the general direction of the Tour de France, France Itself, The World and History.
‘Mesdames et Messieurs…’ or ‘Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great honour…’ or ‘I am highly honoured to be standing here…’
‘Merci au Tour de France…’ Applause.
Except on this day that’s not what happened. Firstly, there was some confusion over the order of events. Instead of going straight to the speech, the French nation were first treated to a surprisingly unpleasant rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’ by a middle-aged lady clad in a sparkly red blouse and a floor- length, Union-Jack wrap/skirt so puzzlingly awful that it left most of us frowning at our iPhones and conducting a Google Images search on Lesley Garrett, just to check this lady wasn’t an imposter.
Then, when she’d finally relented, Wiggins was handed his microphone, even though he was already juggling a glass vase, a bouquet and a cuddly toy, like a serial winner of the Generation Game. He first had to deposit all of these items at his feet without them falling off the podium, then he cleared his throat, and smartly turned his back on France.
Now he faced west, looking down the length of the avenue towards the Arc de Triomphe. Here, the British had gathered in huge numbers. Manx flags with their Masonic-looking three-legged star, poking up like tall poppies in a field of Union Jacks. The ferries from Dover had been booked up for days. They stood ten deep, from the Avenue de Marigny right up the length of the boulevard.
It was to these people that Wiggins turned. From their patient, sweaty ranks, a great cheer went up. And without so much as a nod to his hosts, who were now treated only to a view of his yellow-clad bony spine, he delivered the most exquisitely judged line I have ever heard.
‘Right. We’re just going to draw the raffle numbers…’
Paris shivered, as if someone had just tapped it on the back. He’d just turned the Champs-Elysées into a village hall. It was perfect.
Extracted from 'On the Road Bike: The Search for a Nation's Cycling Soul' by Ned Boulting, published by Yellow Jersey Press priced at £14.99
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