Soup of This Day #205: Just Outside, The Freedom River Runs
‘Haymaking on the Thames’, around the end of the 19th century. You can imagine Rat (Technically a water vole) lazily rowing his boat down this stretch – Image: John Clayton Adams, c1900. John Clayton Adams is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.
Most nights of late (and some weekend lunchtimes too) I’ve been reading The Wind in the Willows to The Noah before he goes to sleep.
Actually, it’s fairer to say that I’ve been reading that book as he goes to sleep rather than before, since the little tacker rarely can survive more than 5 pages before drifting off to the land of nod.
That’s not to say that Kenneth Grahame’s collection of stories based around a group of animal friends are boring or poorly written – They are far from both. The Noah might not entirely grasp the detail in the stories of Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger but the language and pacing transcend understanding of simple things like plot and character. Which are both brilliant anyway.
The other day I was reading a passage which struck a chord for me – In truth, The Noah was dozing by this point and snoring just a bit too, so I was carrying on more for insurance. Since the copy I was reading from was 1 gifted my brother and I in 1982 it’s safe to assume that I know it back-to-front and as such I was thinking about an upcoming sporting event while I recited the words pretty much on autopilot.
The section of note has Badger explaining about how his extensive burrow is actually the ruins of some ancient city. Now those ruins are buried under the Wild Wood and Badger turns to talking about the modern denizen’s of that occasionally fearsome place:
‘The Wild Wood is pretty well populated by now; with all the usual lot, good, bad, and indifferent – I name no names. It takes all sorts to make a world.’
Which made a whole lot of sense to me in that moment because the sporting contest I’d been mulling over was the Tour de France. It’s a bike race to be sure and far removed from the Thames Valley idyll that supposedly inspired The Wind in the Willows, however, like the Wild Wood and it’s animal inhabitants it is a community with all the usual lot, good, bad, and indifferent – I’ll name some names now in explanation. You see, it takes all sorts to make that famous race around France what it is.
In fact you can find all sorts within each of the 22 teams that will start the 99th running of this monumental endurance test.
Within a team there is a nominal leader, most often having a number on his back that ends in 1, as in 201 for Simon Gerrans of Orica GreenEdge (OGE). Gerrans is less the leader and more 1 of the team’s champions – There are 4 jerseys up for grabs: The yellow, for the best-placed rider in the General Classification (GC), i.e. in terms of time; The green, for the holder of the most sprinter’s points; The polka-dot, for the mountain goat who has earned the most climber’s points; and the white, for the best-placed young rider under 25 in the GC.
Gerrans, like every other team No.1 is the rider best deemed by his team to have a shot at winning 1 of those jerseys or the lesser but still worthy prize of a stage win.
So a team’s No.1 is a leader only in so much that they can win. That does not necessarily make them a true leader in the spiritual or emotional sense – That role is most likely fulfilled by 1 of the older and more experienced riders. In the case of the afore-mentioned OGE that role falls to Stuart O’Grady, a 38-year old veteran of 14 previous Tours. He has 4 times finished 2nd in the pursuit of the green jersey and has stood atop the podium on 3 Tour stages.
Gerrans will not realistically contend for the yellow so stage wins are his aim. He will share that goal with others in OGE colours, most notably the team’s primary sprinter Matthew Goss. Goss is a decent shot at snatching a stage in a bunch sprint to the line – He has already won a stage in a Grand Tour this season, having taken out Stage 1 of the 2012 Giro d’Italia.
To win Goss will need to be heavily reliant upon a team within the team – His lead-out men. These guys will form a train, setting a cracking pace and insulating their sprinter from the other riders and the taxing head-winds. If they get it right they will launch their chosen warhead at just the right moment for him to make it across the line before all of the other elite sprinters. For OGE these steeley-eyed missile men will be Daryl Impey and Brett Lancaster.
The remaining 4 riders will function as domestiques and outside hopes to snatch a stage win, or at the very least take up some TV time as part of a breakaway. Michael Albasini, Baden Cooke, Sebastian Langeveld and Pieter Weening are well suited to being the extras in this show. Any glory will be fleeting, mostly they will be collecting water and food for Goss and Gerrans, as well as shielding the 2 principals from the wind and the less-than-tender ministrations of the pack, aka the peleton.
I’ve focused on OGE for a bit of a patriotic reason – They are the 1st ever Australian team to compete in the Tour – 5 of their 9 participants are from Down Under and if you watch the race you’ll see enough Aussie flags along the route to know that they are well-supported. They do cause a bit of a divide in most Australian fan’s loyalties – Defending champion Cadel Evans, Australia’s 1st ever Tour winner and a real contender again this year, races for Team BMC. Across 4 other teams, a further 5 of Cadel’s countrymen will take part. 2 of them, Michael Rogers and Richie Porte will race for Team Sky, whose principal hope Bradley Wiggins, is expected to be Evan’s big rival in the GC.
So those are the riders. While on the road they ride at the whim of the team’s Sporting Director. Commonly a former rider himself, this guy will spend each stage riding in the comparative comfort of a team car while trying to stay in touch with all of his riders via radio, serving as their master tactician. For OGE this is Matt White.
I haven’t talked about the supporting cast who do not feature in lycra throughout the 3 week Tour – These are the coaches, mechanics, medical staff, cooks, drivers and assorted others. Off the road and it’s down to the General Manager to marshall these forces so as to maintain his 9 riding charges in peak condition.
Sometimes he will be drawn into strange circumstances.
Jonathan Vaughters is the General Manager for Garmin-Sharp. In 2010 he had to watch as 1 of his riders, David Zabriskie had his bike x-rayed. A rumour had gone around that some top riders had tiny motors secreted into their bike frames and were using them to gain an extra edge, particularly in individual time-trial stages. The Tour has long suffered from cheats and liars so credibility is a precious commodity – In this light it was deemed necessary to check some bikes, regardless of how laughable the suggestion of tiny motors might be. After all the 1st man to win the Tour, Maurice Garin, was disqualified in the 2nd edition after he was found to have done at least part of that race on a train.
Let’s be clear – He was riding an actual steam train as a passenger.
Vaughters didn’t have that kind of problem to deal with but he did have to stand by and watch Tour officials x-ray Zabriskie’s machine. They found no tiny motors but Vaughters found something funny instead, tweeting:
‘Zab’s bike is the first to go through the bike scanner. They didn’t find a motor, but they did find an old 8 track of the Eagles.’
The Eagles won’t rock me to sleep so I may resort to a few pages of The Wind in the Willows. That book does have some connections to the Tour so perhaps it’s fitting: In 2007 the prologue and 1st Stage of that year’s Tour de France occurred in England, principally around London and then along the same River Thames that inspired the book.
The 2nd and last connection is that the book was written in 1908. Just 5 years earlier the 1st edition of the Tour was staged. Both the book then and the race are of a time.
As such I figured I’d confusingly end this with 2 prologues. In the 1st, Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara has posted the best time in the opening contest of the 2012 Tour de France. Brett Lancaster of OGE was good enough for 6th, while David Zabriskie could have used some of those tiny motors – He finished down in 69th.
And for the 2nd prologue?
‘The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously…’