Over the past six or seven years, my love for the Tour de France has grown, while simultaneously my interest in Formula 1 has waned somewhat.
It has only just occurred to me that the one is very much intertwined with the other.
On the face of it, cycling and F1 are in many ways very similar:
- Speed is at the heart of both sports, with the difference between winning and losing frequently measured in a handful of seconds after several hours of racing
- Man and machine must work in harmony
- While races are won (and lost) by individuals, they are also highly dependent on support and tactical assistance from their teams
- Team sponsorship is critical, to the extent where teams are frequently named after their primary sponsor (Red Bull Racing, CSC Saxo Bank) or at the very least have cars/riders effectively adding as moving billboards prominently displaying sponsor logos and corporate colours
- You cannot compete in either at the highest level without near-superhuman levels of fitness
- Each has a huge element of soap opera which enhances the racing itself: F1 is all about back-room politics, technical secrets and exploiting grey areas in the rule-book; cycling is about organisational politics and the never-ending battle against doping.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
So how is it that my interest in two such similar sports has become so polarised in recent years?
Well, for me the single biggest difference is also the most important one. In Formula 1, an average driver in a great car will always beat a great driver in a poor car - put Lewis Hamilton or Kimi Raikkonen in a Force India, and even they will be down at the wrong end of the grid. In cycling, however, it is the ability of the rider which is the overwhelming factor. Swap Cadel Evans’ bike with Johnny Domestique’s, and you will see little if no difference in performance. For sure, it is possible to eke out small advantages in terms of bike and helmet design, and it’s certainly true that the best riders rely heavily on the support and protection of a strong team, but the balance is nonetheless crucially tipped in favour of man rather than machine.
And that’s a big part of the human drama which makes cycling such a compelling sport to watch. For while F1 dominates in terms of speed, glamour and outright physical danger, the sport has become increasingly inaccessible over the years. Grand prix tickets are exorbitantly expensive for many, the views and facilities at Silverstone are dire compared to other sports arenas, and there is a general lack of accessibility of the drivers for the average race-going fan.
Cycling, on the other hand, is a far more democratic sport. Whereas 90,000 people attend the British grand prix, estimates put the number of spectators over the two days that the Tour de France was in the UK last year at between three and four million. And not one of them had to pay a penny for the privilege of doing so; indeed, for some, they had to do little more than venture outside their front door as the race sped towards Canterbury.
And if anyone had wanted to emulate Fabian Cancellara or Alberto Contador, all they had to do was hop on their bike and pedal away. Fundamentally, a bike is a bike is a bike, and a few hundred pounds will grant anyone access to competitive equipment near enough what the Tour riders race on. Somehow, jumping into your car isn’t quite the same as being behind the wheel of a multi-million pound F1 racer (the steering wheel of which, incidentally, costs more than the average car).
Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter. Sport is at its most engaging when you can relate to it. I can watch Cesc Fabregas running the Arsenal midfield, and then go out to the park for a kick-around. I can watch Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson, and then pick up my badminton racquet. Cricket, tennis, swimming, cycling – all are similarly accessible. But in practical terms, Formula 1 is as accessible to the man in the street as one-of-a-kind designer clothes are to the average punter.
And that’s a real shame, because the skill and bravery regularly demonstrated by F1 drivers are worthy of great passion and admiration. But it’s hard to truly love and relate to a sport when you can only experience it from outside the glass bubble. And I guess that’s why I like Formula 1, but I love the Tour de France.
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