It’s an early evening in July in the mid late 80s. I’ve had my tea and now I’m sitting in front of the TV tuned to Channel 4. The ad break finishes and the first notes of an iconic tune ring out through the speakers. Written by the sublime Pete Shelley, with whom I will years later share a table at Chartiers and be too awestruck to talk to. It references Frere Jacques and is the soundtrack to my summer evenings as, for 30 glorious minutes, I watch C4s highlight coverage of the Tour de France
Half an hour of Indurain attacking on a Classics type stage with Bruyneel clinging to his wheel like a limpet, Chiapucci busting every muscle in his compact climber’s body to take that most famous victory at Sestriere, Roche going into oxygen debt at La Plagne to keep his Tour hopes alive, Poli hauling his gigantic frame over the fearsome Ventoux ahead of the chasing peloton, Delgado’s ‘did he, didn’t he’ failed test, the Tashkent TGV taking out the barriers on the Champs Elysees and on and on – the exploits, the climbs, the drama, the indelible memories coloured Yellow and Green and Polka Dot.
Those few precious minutes every July evening were my first proper glimpse into the extraordinary world of professional cycling. A world that continues to fascinate and repel in almost equal measure. Romantic, certainly. Tawdry, definitely. It had the appeal of tinsel left too long in the Christmas box – shiny and glamorous but just a little brittle and tarnished round the edges. But somehow I couldn’t help but fall in love with it, tainted as I knew it was – and, really, you only have to scratch a little way below the surface to know that all was not exactly as it seemed: all of the riders mentioned above have been caught up in the soap opera of doping. But I kept coming back, rotten as it was. I just loved the whole culture of it, loved that Barthes had written about it and later, when I graduated to standing on the roadside, loved the caravan and the bonhomie and the feeling of France en fete.
I try and write about cycling here and have written over the years, even podcasted – but my love affair really ignites when I’m standing on a French roadside and I hear the helicopters in the distance and feel the rumble and the roar as the peloton approaches. It’s the reason it has to be France – to get my fix.
I remember when I was at La Croix Haute, my neighbour Pierrette would wear something yellow every day of the race. She had started when at school and had kept her personal tradition going. We would watch key stages together and, if the result was to her liking, she would run up and down the lane clanging her huge cowbell before we dissected the day’s events over rose. It’s that kind of love for the sport – and of course talking wine soaked wisdom laced with downright wonderful bollocks – that I’m looking forward to sharing with new neighbours.
And it’s why our new venture has to be cycling themed – because I love this beautiful, dirty, wonderful sport of cycling with a passion and I love to share my passion for it. I remember once during a family holiday years ago stopping at a little rundown cafe on a dusty road in the plateau of the massif central that turned out to be a shrine to every edition of the Tour de France. The proprietor made filthy coffee on the stove and spoke to me in his gauloise stained voice of riders whose names I knew but had never seen. He bought them all to life for me as he pointed out their stained and faded photographs. I was completely, helplessly enchanted then and have been ever since.