After years of failure in football, cricket and tennis, the British have finally given up and chosen a new national sport: cycling. It is, it transpires, the only discipline in which we can consistently win. And not only that, we can use the success to indulge in a more traditional pastime: annoying the French.
And my word, are they annoyed. The old hatred between France and England has been reawaken in the cycling world this week, as L’Equipe described British dominance as “insolent”, while French Cyclings Technical Director went so far as to imply that there might be foul play.
“We’re not saying they’re breaking the rules,” said Gautheron “but they hide their wheels at the end of each race. We’re looking very closely at their equipment.”
For a British satirist, it was too good to be true. The French, so bitter in defeat, can only come to the conclusion that the British have magic bicycles. Even David Cameron, himself a walking stereotype of the British upper middle class, has waded into the fun: “perhaps they found the sight of so many Union Jacks on the Champs-Elysees a bit hard to take” he said, referring to Bradley Wiggins’ victory in the Tour de France last month.
Olympic Fever in London
He was joking. An act of revenge for Francois Hollande’s quip about Britain’s slow start to the Olympics last week. But the British should be careful. While the accusations may remain, for the moment, cautious, the French are not laughing when they question British superiority.
Not for half a century has Britain been so dominant in a single sport. Cycling is the pride of the country, and Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins are national heroes in the sense that David Beckham and Wayne Rooney never were or will be. They represent a more old fashioned brand of sporting hero, closer to the likes of Bobby Moore or Fritz Walter than the celebrities of the modern era and the British, being a sentimental bunch, absolutely love it.
If the integrity of these heroes were to be seriously questioned, the jokes would be over very quickly. If the French were to uncover any truly incriminating evidence to suggest that the British Cycling Association has, in some way, been cheating its opponents, the consequences for British sport would be severe. The London Olympics, far from being a success, would forever be linked with the British having sacrificed their prized sense of honour. And then the French would be able to laugh.