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WILCOCKSON: “Rule Britannia!”

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July 11, 2016 – With the 103rd Tour de France half over in terms of time and distance—though there are still 12 of the 21 stages remaining—the race reached a remarkable milestone in Andorra Sunday when France Télévision flashed up this result just before 5:30 p.m. local time:

VIELHA VAL D’ARAN > ANDORRE ARCALIS Etape 9
Classement générale dimanche 10 juillet 2016
1 C. Froome SKY 44h36’03”
2 A. Yates OBE à 16”
3 D. Martin EQS à 19”

Preceding the names of Froome and Yates was Britain’s Union Jack flag; before Martin’s was the green-white-orange tricolor of Ireland. Seeing that image on his monitor, former British Tour rider and current ITV commentator David Millar tweeted: “This is bonkers.” It could also be described with another typically British adjective: “Brilliant!” And had the late, pioneering English journalist J. B. “Jock” Wadley, up in his heavenly home, heard about this astonishing news—the first time that riders from the British Isles have occupied the first three places at the Tour—he’d likely let out a startled cry, do a little jig and say…but he’d probably be lost for words.

When Wadley first saw the Tour in 1934, no Britons had ever ridden the Tour; that didn’t happen until three years later, when neither of the two starters finished the race. It’d be almost 20 years before the country had its next Tour riders, when in 1955 the organizers invited a 10-man Great Britain national team. Two of them finished, Brian Robinson in 29th place, two hours behind French winner Louison Bobet, and Tony Hoar in 69th (and last) place, some six hours back. Wadley recounted their vivid stories in his new cycling magazine, Coureur, which would become Sporting Cyclist, in which he eventually wrote about the first Briton to win a Tour stage: Robinson in 1958. And Wadley was there in 1962 when Tom Simpson became the first Brit to wear the yellow jersey (just for a day)—and he was there when Simpson died on Mont Ventoux in 1967.

Mostly, Wadley excitedly reported on British riders taking stage wins at the Tour. In his 1974 book, “My Nineteenth Tour de France,” which he wrote about while riding his bike around France, there’s this passage in which Wadley describes his reactions (as a cyclotouriste) to hearing on his transistor radio the news that Michael Wright had just taken his third career stage win. He writes it from the perspective of “an old lady standing at her front door,” who “thinks the cyclotouriste has gone mad.”

“The poor fellow is throwing both arms in the air. There’s a silly thing to do even on a flat road. My house is on a steep hill and he almost falls off his bicycle. He’s yelling things, too, like mad people do. Perhaps the gendarme will stop him in the village, although he looks harmless enough.”

Wadley continued: “Yes, I almost took a header into the ditch, and what I was yelling was Good Old Mick.”

Had he heard that after the toughest mountain stage of the 2016 Tour de France that Froome was leading the race by 16 seconds from fellow Brit Yates, with English-born Martin another three seconds back in third place, a speechless Wadley would thought more than “Good Old Chris, Good Old Adam, Good Old Dan!” He most likely would have screamed like a madman and truly fallen off of his bike!

Wadley, who died in 1981, years before Froome, Yates or Martin were born, would be astonished how British cycling has emerged as a world power in the 21st century—particularly since Team Sky was founded in 2009 and how in 2012 Brad Wiggins would fulfill team boss Dave Brailsford’s prediction that a Brit would win the Tour within five years. Wadley would be even prouder if he learned how the three men on the current Tour podium reached this lofty status in the sport.

Thirty-one-year-old Froome, as we all know, was born in Kenya and took up bike racing after he moved to South Africa in his mid-teens to attend a private school. Both countries are in the Commonwealth—the global successor to the British Empire. Froome has always held a British passport because his father grew up in London before emigrating to start a farm in Kenya, where he married his Kenyan-born wife—whose parents came from Tetbury, a small, prototypical English town in the Cotswolds—which is known as an Area of Outstanding Beauty.

Yates, 23, and his twin brother Simon, come from Bury, a traditional textile town just north of Manchester, one of England’s leading industrial center. Their dad, who was a club cyclist with the Bury Clarion, introduced the twins to racing at the Manchester Velodrome. While Simon stayed with the British Olympic Academy program in 2013, the 20-year-old Adam went to France to race with the Club Cycliste d’Étupes in eastern France. There, he developed the climbing skills that earned him second place at that year’s Tour de l’Avenir. Adam’s now in his third pro season with Orica-BikeExchange, his biggest victories being the 2014 Tour of Turkey and 2015 Clásica San Sebastián.

As for Martin, he was born in England’s second-largest city, Birmingham, and grew up in the nearby, medium-sized market town of Tamworth. His father, Neil Martin, was an Olympic cyclist for Britain and won the national amateur road title in 1984. His mother, Maria, is the sister of 1987 Tour champion Stephen Roche. Dan Martin, after racing with the local CC Giro team, becoming British junior road champ in 2004 and joining the French club team La Pomme-Marseille in 2005, decided to take his mother’s Irish nationality in 2006. Now 29, Martin has been highly successful as a pro, with overall victories at the Route du Sud, Tour of Poland and Volta a Catalunya, classic wins in Lombardia and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and mountain stage wins at the Tour and Vuelta a España.

Monday was a day of rest at the Tour, but also a day for British (and Irish) cycling to bask in the glory of three young men standing atop the standings at the world’s biggest bike race. Of course, Colombia’s Nairo Quintana is sitting in fourth place, only four seconds behind Martin, and Australia’s Richie Porte, though still two minutes back after his badly timed puncture on stage 2, is also vying for the Tour’s final podium in Paris. But the future can never take away Sunday’s glorious classement générale of Froome, Yates and Martin. Whatever position they hold at the finish of this Tour, Jock Wadley would be ready to heap the highest praise on their achievements, probably headlining his story as “Rule Britannia!”

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Written by John Wilcockson. Image by Yuzuru Sunada.

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