30 December 2010

One: Nothing happens

Part one of two (plus appendix!). Part two here. Appendix here.
                     Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

― T. S. Eliot, 'Burnt Norton'
The long-time reader of this blog — such a creature exists, our market research department has determined — will understand how fraudulent the first word of its title is. It hints at a sporting polymathy the site fails to display — the last substantial post here addressing something other than football is well over a year old. I sometimes worry, in between the times I don't worry, whether my appreciation of sport is heading the way of my language skills: practical monolingualism, in which sparks of utterances in other languages sometimes catch fire, but which I still need basic aid to grasp, even then leaving me with the lurking notion that the true sense eludes me.

It is some way from that fate yet, for which I'm thankful. Nonetheless, I sometimes can't shake the feeling, when I visit strange parts — if I may switch metaphorical horses for a mo' — of being a tourist. (Or should that be a travellah?) I can amble through soccer's back streets, getting lost without getting lost, because it's my home city. Cycling, on the contrary, is a city I usually only visit for three weeks every July. When it comes to football, I know who Dražan Jerković was, only having to look him up to find out whether he is an "is" or a "was", and to ensure I have the correct diacritics in place in his name. (I've also discovered that no-one seems to be sure his first name wasn't actually Dražen. This interests me. Please, ladies, one at a time...) In matters cycling, I'm not completely ignorant — I know my Hinault from my EPO, my Poupou from my B-sample — but its equivalent arcana is largely foreign to me, where it is instinctive for those who live the sport. Even some of the more prominent historical points need refreshing in my mind, and this I tend to do before and during the Tour de France. But there is much else in sport I would readily give up sooner than I would the time I spend with the race.

"But" may be the wrong word, because I suspect part of its attraction lies in its unfamiliarity, or at least in the way in which that unfamiliarity highlights the familiar, the sporting universal. I'm a proponent of the idea that if you really get one sport, you at least have the key to all sports; the question is whether you want to open any doors with it, even if some of what lies behind them seems dauntingly esoteric. Sports fans are prone to framing their passion for one discipline in terms of disparagement of others, as if said passion arose by a process of elimination. It's a cousin of the more intemperate forms of nationalism: my country is the greatest because it's not yours. It's well to bear this in mind whenever someone tries to convince you how uniquely wonderful their chosen sport is. Should you notice the phrase "the beautiful game" galumphing into earshot as if set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, look very deeply into your companion's eyes before deciding whether to pursue the conversation. Should you hear the words "jogo bonito" or, Lord preserve us, "Joga Bonito", run. (I once quoted hereabouts the Half Man Half Biscuit line about the man "found guilty of wearing a Brazilian shirt with a number 10 on the back...", and I've just done so again.) But maybe I was unusual in growing up in an environment where checking rugby league scores on Ceefax wasn't a prelude to a lifetime of shame and ridicule. Or maybe I'm just rationalising my promiscuity. I come not to judge the world.

The King of the Mountains competition in the Tour de France has almost become irrelevant, as befitting something won seven times by Richard Virenque. (This is Ma Vérité — tell me yours.) But just because the Best Climber is rarely the best climber doesn't mean there isn't plenty else to pay attention to: Will this be the 150km break that actually succeeds? Just how big will Mark Cavendish's winning margin be? Just how much is Mark Cavendish like Usain Bolt? Just why the bloody hell doesn't Mark Cavendish go for some intermediate sprints? (Because it's no fun, I suspect.) Will someone fall down a ravine on a descent? Will a cyclist one day snap, get off his bike and fling it at one of those gobshites running alongside him? Who's been a naughty boy this time?

The latter question has not had to be asked much — relatively speaking — during the race itself since the 2007 brouhahas (though positive drugs tests given during Tours de France have have come to light weeks and months after the final stage). Here I make a confession: there is a small part of me — a charred, barren, quite possibly evil part of me — that misses these episodes. Ideally, it's a pure sporting contest I'm after. But my partiality to a bit of Tour scandal is not an "oh, fuck it" response to the inevitable triumph of the dastards; nor am I chasing ambulances from my sofa. It's not that I wish for these things to happen, exactly; it's just ... well, take the case of Floyd Landis in 2006. It was hilarious in its implausibility — Landis cracking in magnificent style in yellow on the final climb of stage 16, losing over eight minutes to second-placed Óscar Pereiro; recovering within a day to make up almost all of that time, before taking yellow, seemingly for keeps, in the final time trial. (Said then-WADA chief Dick Pound after Landis' testosterone-saturated dope test: "You’d think he’d be violating every virgin within 100 miles. How does he even get on his bicycle?") Or look at Michael Rasmussen a year later: the drip-drip of revelations about his, ahem, administrative carelessness in keeping the doping authorities in touch with his whereabouts in previous months; and then, on the very day Rasmussen had all but wrapped up overall victory, the bombshell of further, ahem, administrative carelessness which finally made his position untenable. Whatever else it was, it was deliciously dramatic.

"Whatever else it was" is key. Football appears to have collectively and tacitly decided that doping not only is not a problem for the sport, but cannot be a problem, at least not on the epically systematic scale on which Festina were but a plague of sores. But indulge my doubts on this consensus for a moment and imagine something similar happening in soccer. The response, among people who actually care, is unlikely to be one of shrugged shoulders, let alone smacked lips. For cycling fans, their sport's problems are a source of fundamental angst. For me, they are a site of quaint dilapidation which gives the area what the legalised hustler might call "character"; it's the scene of a violent and glamorous crime which held me spellbound thousands of miles away, whose sole purpose may as well have been to await being photographed in my gurning, thumbs-up presence. "Whatever else it was" — whatever else it is — is the detritus that remains when the likes of me pack up and return home to where nobody tells because nobody asks because nobody wants to know. The difference between the cycling fan's attitude to the Tour de France and mine lies somewhere in the distance between a life and a story, a trauma and a plot twist.

A great story can't be a great story without at least one great episode. For this dilettante, the 2010 Tour had two, both involving the competition between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador. Schleck held yellow from Contador by 31 seconds as the race headed into the Pyrenees. By the final climb of stage 14, just before the finish at Ax-3 Domaines, the pair were part of a group containing most of the overall Tour leaders, including third-placed Samuel Sánchez and fourth-placed Denis Menchov. Schleck's approach was purely defensive: his aim was to keep Contador constantly in front of him, always in his sight. Contador's consequent reluctance to attack raised the question as to what was going to happen, for something surely had to. The answer was nothing — and did this nothing ever happen. Contador slowed down, daring Schleck to have a go. Schleck wouldn't bite. Contador slowed down some more. Schleck wouldn't bite. At times, the two riders looked like they were about to come to a halt on this category 1 climb. They played this game seemingly oblivious to the fact that the rest of the group, including Sánchez and Menchov, were now fast disappearing up the mountain. Perhaps the confidence Schleck would display in a post-stage interview about the two-man nature of the Tour was genuinely felt during the stage itself; nonetheless, this was brinkmanship on the part of himself and Contador, both in relation to Sánchez and Menchov, and to their own personal battle. Eventually, Schleck did accelerate, too late in the day for Contador to do anything but accompany him to the finish line. Sánchez and Menchov wound up taking little time from the top two, and the status quo was more or less intact for another day. Still, that moment in which time — much like Schleck's chain on stage 15 — slipped from its cog would have been worth the price of admission, had there been one.

By stage 17, Contador led by eight seconds, owing to Schleck's mishap. This was Schleck's last chance. He burned the rest of the field away with a series of attacks beginning ten kilometres from the finish — the rest of the field, that is, except Alberto Contador. For the last eight kilometres, it would be between Schleck and Contador alone, up the monstrous Col du Tourmalet. (The word "Tourmalet" always reminds me of "Torquemada".) Now it was Contador's turn to take second wheel and stalk Schleck.

What played out was, amongst other things, an example of the active role television can play in shaping our perception of sport. The Tour de France remains a extraordinarily popular spectator event, and you doubtless miss much sat in your armchair rather than stood behind a barrier. But stood behind a barrier, you miss everything else. In this case, that meant the kind of contest that usually gets called "epic" with convenient casualness, except that this time, it fitted. Schleck led Contador into the fog, the likes of which would have made watching a football game an exercise in piecing together an overall picture from distant crowd noises. But it served to perfectly capture this bike race, as if to shroud the rest of the riders and leave these two alone on a stage that moved with them. Schleck kicked as necessary — that is to say, several times, because Contador refused to be shaken off. Contador even had a go himself, as if to reproach Schleck for his insolence. Schleck stuck to Contador; they were never more than a few metres apart until the finish. Schleck took a win of which he was justifiably proud, even if it was accompanied by the extinction of his hopes of riding to Paris in yellow. (Just about: he gave Contador a fright in the first sector of the stage 19 time trial, but soon faded.)

And then there was what lay in the grikes between the facts of a bare account, in the pauses between the notes. The physical manifestation of this was in the occasional glances between Schleck and Contador; as Schleck was in front for most of the climb, they were usually instigated by him. There aren't many opportunities in sport for meaningful eye contact. In racing sports like cycling, the competitors usually face the same direction, for one thing. The haka of the All Blacks® may, in the context of international sport, verge on being a worn catchphrase — a sporting Lumberjack Song — but when the opposition responds by staring right back into it, it can power the floodlights all by itself. Ireland did it in 1989, though rather spoiled the effect by looking like kids whose giddiness was about to alert the teacher to the toothpaste on the duster; they were duly handed their customary defeat. Wales did it better in 2008, though they too lost. France in 2007, in their tricoloured garb and hard-faced impassivity and 20-18 win, did it best of all. But the haka takes place before the contest. It's a ritual; however powerful it may be, it's a formulated happening. To eyeball, or try to eyeball, an opponent in the throes of combat is different to this; different, too, to when it happens in a lull in play. On the Tourmalet, there was no real lull. Shortly after Contador's acceleration, as Schleck drew back alongside his antagonist, he took a long look at Contador. By a stroke of luck on the part of the host broadcaster, a pillion cameraman managed to get a long look at the long look. Happening when it did, the effect on the viewer watching live was akin to taking a deep breath just as a gust of wind blows down your throat. It was reminiscent of the almost invasive crosscut close-ups of Juan Román Riquelme and Jens Lehmann before the former's penalty for Villarreal against Arsenal in the 2006 Champions League semi-final, except that this time, the element of chance involved in getting the shot seemed to lend the portrayal of the moment a particular acuity. On this climb, it was clear, was sport stripped of ceremony and artifice, where the most important context was that which the battle was generating by itself. This was the rawness beneath the skin.

Next time: part two, duh.

Top image by Nadja Bournonville.



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