by Tom Southam | 10/07/09

A little bit of home right here in Europe. on Twitpic

I’ve never had to try too hard to not like Lance, it has always come pretty easily to me seeing as he was, in my mind, the complete embodiment of what I hoped cycling would never be. I grew up loving the European flair of cycling. Cycling was, through my dad’s decade-spanning collection of foreign cycling magazines, my window to the world.

Not a window to the entire world, if I wanted to know about the big wide world (police chases, people living in New York apartment blocks, eating disorders; in short, about America), I could just switch on the TV. But I liked burying myself in images of Europe, images of the French on their summer holidays in mid-July watching the Tour go by, Italians hidden behind dark shades sipping espresso, views of Andalucian orange groves, fat Belgians smoking and drinking at the time of day when most people are eating cornflakes.

This was a time gone by, when cycling was a very much a European affair; a closed shop. Hein Verbruggen’s brainchild that was ‘Mondialisation’ was just a pipe dream, widely ignored by the real cycling elite. Cycling was tight and strictly European, and I aspired to that exclusivity and exotica.

Cycling had style, it was different, it reflected through its sponsors, riders and the arenas it was played out in, a sport that was almost otherworldly to me. It made me want to assimilate myself with this world, to learn French, to learn how to live in Italy, to learn why and when you shouldn’t drink milky coffees, to learn as much as possible from this huge cultural fiesta. This was something as a foreigner you had to do to be part of it, there were a few nations who owned cycling and the only real way in was their way.

Then Lance showed. He trod on everything, kicked down the castles made of sand and refused, despite spending seven long summer holidays in France, to speak the language. He practically brought a ringing cell phone into the Louvre and answered it loudly enough to make Dom Joly shirk. Things would never be the same again.

Shimano won the Tour, Trek became a high-end bicycle, Giant took over every bike firm in the world, and Nike turned up to the party. What had been archaic and quirky European cottage industry was now a glistening and corporate monster. In short, Lance opened the door for the cycling world to be swamped by gawping, clamouring, wrestling fans, and has indirectly led to that really bad tacky celebration that Cav pulled off a couple of days ago.

And yet, while Lance has become the Manchester United of cycling, (real fans of the sport hate him, the floating fans love him); I have found myself drawn to him of late. Firstly let me get this straight, Twitter is the enemy, sorry but peoples’ need for validation has gone completely berserk of late. But when a good mate of mine rang me from the team car telling me how good Lance’s iPod selection looked I have to confess that I just had to know.

On the one page, Lance mentioned that he was listening to Ryan Adams and The Cardinals while getting a rub, told vandals to stop ruining the Banksys, and had a photo of him having dinner with his good mate Bono. These are all things that I would do myself given that I could. That and I think I’d really like to hang out with Presidents, you know you’d always be on a good chair smoking a fine cigar if you were shooting the breeze with El Prez.

Then it got worse as I watched the Tour after Lance slipped away in the front echelon as the crosswinds took everyone by surprise, I was not only amused by Lance’s post race interview, “There was corners, a crosswind, it doesn’t take a genius to work out where to be” but I wholeheartedly agreed with what he said. He made good points and I clearly understood them as they were, of course, in English. A new found respect and admiration was born when he quipped “well, I have won this race SEVEN times so feel I deserve a little respect”.

I started to think that he may be easy to criticise but I have barely won the Tour at all, let alone seven. Can this be right? Can I be so forgiving to someone who ruined all that I held sacred? Can I really be thinking in such terms about Lance, the Wal-mart of bike riders?

I think to be honest it may just be the fact that he could be about to lose; I used to bemoan how boring Indurain was, I was desperate for anyone, anyhow to topple the dull tester. Then Bjarne Riis took cheating to new heights and actually did, I instantly became a huge fan of the quietly spoken time trialling god. It looks like due to the fickle nature of us cycling fans, Lance’s success could well be in his failure or indeed vice versa.