Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tour de France

Oh, dear. The start in London was such fun, wasn't it? Now all the latest doping shite. If you regard the Tour as a pure sporting spectacle then it's probably all too much. I'm more in the Tour as poetic spectacle camp. You know the sort of thing: the suffering, the tragedy (literal in some cases), the suspense, the villainy, the greed, the corruption, more suffering and, just occasionally, glory and triumph. You've probably heard it all before: it doesn't make it less true and, if this light, the doping just adds an appropriately dramatic twist to the whole thing.

In fact, and I am aware this is the sort of pretentiousness that goes down better in France, there is something truly Dantean about this year's proceedings. I'm thinking about Purgatoria in particular: the slow, painful ascent of the mountain – encompassing almost all varieties of human folly and suffering along the way – before the glorious redemption at the end. Only, you'll remember it isn't quite that simple: Dante's reunion with Beatrice is only accomplished after shedding Virgil (a sort of domestique who has to run himself into the ground to get his leader in the Yellow Jersey). The sort of bitter sweet triumph the tour specialises in.

Virgilio a cui per mia salute die'mi;
né quantunque perdeo l'antica matre,
valse a le guance nette di rugiada
che, lagrimando, non tornasser atre.
"Dante, perché Virgilio se ne vada,
non pianger anco, non piangere ancora;
ché pianger ti conven per altra spada."

(Virgil, to whom I gave myself for my salvation.
And not all our ancient mother lost could save my cheeks, washed in the dew, from being stained again with tears. "Dante, because Virgil has departed, do not weep, do not weep yet--there is another sword to make you weep.")

Medieval Catholicism was, even for a religion, an exceptionally silly and dangerous one. (You could probably say the same about the Tour and sporting events.) And yet. And yet. You can't dismiss stuff like that as worthless.

If you prefer, there's another poetry in the Tour. Is there another sporting event which attracts competitors with such fantastic names? (US racing driver Dick Trickle wins the puerile comedic name prize).

This year, Britain could hold its head up in this regard thanks to Bradley Wiggins and Charly Wegelius. But others who've taken part in this year's race, many of them unregarded journeymen, include: Ludovic Turpin (best name ever?), Dimitry Fofonov, Amets Txurruka, Christian Knees (that genuflecting must be murder on them), Staf Scheirlinckx, Geoffroy Lequatre – plus a few Frenchmen (and a Kiwi) with comically unhard names such as Sebastien, Cederic, Cyril and Julian. Yet they are, most of them, still in there after hundreds of miles of unimaginable hardship. Chapeau, messieurs.

PS: A couple of personal favourites from this year. High comedy from a dopey (hah) if resilient dog and, via L'Equipe, this French metaphor: "c'était la goutte d'eau qui a fait déborder le vase". Slightly softer than it's English counterpart about straws and camels backs.

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