100 years, One Yellow Jersey
Harare – For the majority in Africa, the Tour de France is just a big European cycling race, pregnant with high-profile scandals featuring as many cheaters as honest professional athletes.
It’s a race from another world – a world of cheats like Lance Armstrong who held the globe spell-bound for more than a decade and yet he was busy orchestrating one of the biggest sporting frauds in the history of mankind.
It’s largely the sub-plots that make it interesting for us: like how Irish journalist David Walsh pursued Armstrong for more than a decade in a bitter and lengthy investigative journalism mission that cost The Sunday Times of Britain US$1.6 million in legal costs, just to unmask the American as an unabashed cheat.
The fact that until just two years ago not even one black rider had competed at the Tour de France didn’t help in selling this iconic cycling competition to the African continent.
Instead, we remained glued to the FIFA World Soccer Cup.
Yohann Gène, of Team Europcar, was the first black rider to compete in the Tour de France in 2011, but the fact that he was from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe meant that the connection between him and us wasn’t as pronounced as it should have been.
Like Thierry Henry, another high-profile athlete who traced his roots from Guadeloupe, the trailblazing Gène considered himself French and not African.
“I am French, so the Tour de France is something special,” Gène once said. “It gives me wings.”
Phil Liggett, a veteran commentator who has covered the race for more than four decades, described Gène as a “coloured cyclist”. This might have bordered on racism and predictably drew an avalanche of protests – but it captured the spirit of a sport that has built itself as a white establishment over 100 years.
Given that we haven’t expected a Tour de France winner on this continent all this time, it probably explains why we have been so indifferent to what happens on its slopes, climbs and sprints.
Naturally then, we tend to focus on the scandals that have littered the race.
Last year, as the Tour de France prepared for its centenary race, what fascinated us wasn’t the 99 times it had been held, but rather the questions that were stalking it in the wake of the Armstrong scandal.
So, we listened to 2011 Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, swallowed every word that he spoke on his blog, and struggled to believe what he meant.
“Behind the news, hysteria and sensationalism, I hope that people remember that the events being uncovered mostly occurred seven or more years ago, amongst a minority of those involved in a sport which has already changed and moved on,” Evans wrote on his website.
“Whilst these events are difficult and confronting to deal with now, both for those directly involved in the sport and for many around the world who follow cycling, let's commend the authorities who are succeeding in the battle against doping; learn from these events which are the driving forces behind major changes and clean-ups in cycling, and have bought the sport to where it is today – not on the front page of tabloid newspaper -but to a level playing field where the hard work, meticulous equipment preparation and natural ability are winning the big beautiful prestigious races.”
* Enter Africa’s Yellow Jersey
But, life – like sport – is dynamic.
Today we understand what Evans was trying to say and for perhaps the first time we are more interested in the race than in the scandals.
And so just in case you didn’t know it, South African cyclist Daryl Impey made history in the past week when he became the first African athlete to wear the famous Yellow Jersey, given to the race leader in the Tour de France.
Yes, after 100 years of the Tour de France, we finally had an African cyclist wearing the iconic yellow jersey.
“I can't believe it still, to lead the Tour de France is a dream come true,” Impey tweeted. “Thanks to the amazing @Orica GreenEDGE boys.”
Orica GreenEDGE is the team the 28-year-old Impey, who is from Johannesburg, joined recently and it was their stripe he wore when he took the Yellow Jersey on stages 6-8 of the Tour de France.
“It'll sink in tomorrow but I think it's going to be amazing to ride in the Tour de France as the leader,” he told the race's official website.
“I'm going to be on a high the whole way to the finish and hopefully I'll feel like I'm floating.”
He soon surrendered it to Chris Froome, who incidentally went to school in Johannesburg but is now riding for Team Sky as a British cyclist.
“No regrets today, rode as hard as I could but a big congrats to @chrisfroome on his win and taking yellow,” tweeted Impey after he lost the Yellow Jersey. “Being in yellow was so special 2day.”
Froome, who was born in Kenya, noted that the mere fact that Impey had worn that Yellow Jersey was a special moment for Africa.
“I know there'll be many people back in Africa who’ll be happy to see him in Yellow,” said Froome.
For once, for us in Africa, the Tour de France wasn’t only about doping and scandals.
It was about holding the Yellow Jersey.