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The Tour de France and the lost art of being an Heroic Failure

Winning the Tour de France is one way of earning cycling immortality. But there is another path, possibly even a harder path - never winning the Tour.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Eugène Christophe fills page after page after page in the millions of squillions of histories of the Tour de France that fill the shelves of bookshops the world over. Where one-time winners like René Pottier and François Faber get glossed over in a couple of paragraphs (if they’re lucky) this no-time winner of the Tour is guaranteed at least a couple of pages. In eleven Tour starts Christophe finished eight times, twice on the podium, 1912 being his best performance with three stage wins to add to his second-place over all. Beyond the world of the Tour the old Gaul won an epic Milan-San Remo in 1910, when foul weather saw most of the field abandon. His palmarès also included Paris-Tours and Bordeaux-Paris. For these victories though he is not renowned. His renown is almost all down to his inability to win the Tour de France.

Everyone who knows anything of the Tour’s history knows of the old Gaul’s misfortune in 1913, when – having just become the race’s leader on the road – he broke his fork and lost hours and hours to his nearest rival. Equally, they’ll know of his 1919 misfortune, when wearing the maillot jaune and practically within spitting distance of Paris, Cricri again suffered a fork failure and again lost hours and hours. And the race to boot. And they’ll know of his 1922 misfortune, when for a third time he broke his forks and slipped out of contention for overall victory.

Christophe is not unique in never winning the Tour de France. Nor is he unique in grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory – in the same year that Cricri suffered the first of his famous fork failures Odile Defraye abandoned the race while leading and Christophe’s Peugeot team-mate, Marcel Buysse, lost the race lead after also suffering mechanical failure and losing hours to his rivals carrying out the necessary repairs. But Defraye and Buysse don’t rate a place in the ranks of the Tour’s heroic failures – oftentimes they don’t even rate a mention when Christophe’s story is being retold.

Skip forward half a century and there’s the story of Raymond Poulidor. The eternal second, the myth-makers call him. Out of fourteen Tour starts he finished twelve times, podiuming seven times. Compared to Joop Zoetemelk though this is nothing – he started sixteen Tours, finished sixteen Tours and podiumed seven times, all bar one of those podiums being the second step. Sadly though Zoetemelk was not very successful at being an heroic failure – the one time he stood on the podium without filling the second step he was on the big step, having won the race overall. Victory is a total no-no if you want to be a failure, which is why Poupou is far more famous than Joop.

Which, I guess, brings us to the current era and the question that’s been on my mind recently: we may have no more heroes any more, not ones like Bernard Hinault, but do we have any failures to compare to Cricri or Poupou? And before you scream out the name of Lance Armstrong’s perpetual bridesmaid just remember, he won the race once before losing it so many times – even at being an heroic failure, Jan Ullrich was a failure.

Top of any list of possible contenders for the title of this era’s heroic failure has to be Cadel Evans. He’s got a pretty impressive set of palmarès: stage wins here and there, a couple or three minor stage races, and then in the last twelve months he’s won the Rainbow Jersey and a Classic. Five Tour starts have seen him standing on the podium twice – once in the shadow of Carlos Sastre and once in the shadow of Alberto Contador. Could 2010 be the year to embellish his status as a potential heroic failure or will Cuddles blow it and win the race at last?

Then there’s the Schlecks. Andy’s probably too young yet to be thought of as a potential heroic failure, but what of big brother Fränk? He hasn’t exactly set the Tour afire – four starts, four finishes but he’s yet to podium. What could add to his heroic failure status though would be the success of wee Andy: the Tour needs a new René Vietto, a rider not without the ability to do the business himself but who’s willing to sacrifice his own chances for another. And what better other can you get than your lil’ bro? (I know, David Miliband may disagree with this but I'm right, he's wrong so ya-boo sucks to him.)

Or there’s Ivan Basso and Alexander Vinokourov. Anonymous defeat this year won’t add to their grandeur as nearly-men of the Tour but a visit to the podium come the end of July could be seen by some as adding to their splendour as heroic failures. But there’s a Puritan part of me that figures there’s nothing heroic about having missed out on victory through doping bans.

Which I guess leaves us with Bradley Wiggins. One swallow doesn’t make a summer but Wiggins does have the makings of a true heroic failure, with so many Tours sacrificed for the greater good of national pride and Olympic glory. What greater sacrifice can a man make than to lay down his personal ambition for his country and then discover after all those years that he coulda been a contenda in the biggest bike race on Earth? And with the way the wheels have been falling off the Team Sky juggernaut at the most inopportune moments this year, Wiggins could yet be the true heir to the sprit of Cricri, foiled not just by better riders but by mechanical failure at the most inappropriate time.

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