As Cole Porter meant to say, “And sportsmen, too, who once used better words, now only use four-letter words ...” Let alone little old ladies, even the tougher sort of New Yorker who was present at Flushing Meadows for the U.S. Open last September and within earshot of the baseline was startled by what one embarrassed tennis correspondent called the stevedore profanities screamed by Andy Murray on his way to his epic five-set victory over Novak Djokovic. English soccer journalists attending press conferences at Manchester United likewise got used to Sir Alex Ferguson’s “hairdryer”, a barrage of what used to be called unprintable words. Or one word in particular which, since it can be tedious when used repetitiously in speech or print, I shall render “flip”.
At another press conference, after the eighth stage of last year’s Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins, the eventual winner, was asked about doping. Even hardened cynics believed that he and his Sky team were clean, but he was enduring that new misery, persecution by Twitter, and he exploded: “I say they’re just flipping wankers. I cannot be doing with people like that ... It’s easy for them to sit under a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of shit, rather than get off their own arses in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something and achieve something.” Although he had a point about the malicious Twitterati, he might have found slightly more decorous language in public.
This year Wiggins isn’t defending his Tour title, but that other hero Mark Cavendish is here representing England—and the English language at its bluntest. “Cav” is one of the greatest sprinters of all time, but he doesn’t always button his lip. Two months ago on the Giro, the Italian Tour, he was interviewed on television, but his earpiece kept slipping out, and he reinserted it with a loud “Oh flip!”, before he said sheepishly, “Is this live?” Yes Mark, it was!
What Cavendish said after the first-day fiasco in this Tour, when that bus stuck at the finish ruined his chances, doesn’t bear thinking about. He was all smiles and respectable vocabulary when he won in Marseilles last Wednesday, taking his tally of Tour stages won to 24. Two more and he will overtake the prewar hero André Leducq, five more and he will surpass Bernard Hinault’s 28 and he’ll be in striking distance of the all-time record of 34 set by Eddy Merckx from 1969 to 1975.
But on Thursday, the 25th was not to be. Cavendish crashed, switched bikes, struggled to catch up, did so, but couldn’t match André Greipel at the line. A few minutes later Cavendish could be heard his team bus heard howling, "There's something wrong with the flipping bike." Brian Holm, his sagacious directeur sportif (as a cycling coach is called in all languages), ignored the tirade, as he does: "No one can understand him when he's yelling.” Having heard it before, he lets Cav boil over and keeps out of his way until the temperature drops: “We always end up laughing at it.”
Not that the story is amusing for their Omega-Quick Step team, which has now been outplayed by several other sprinting teams. On Thursday, it was Greipel’s Lotto: “We have to admit that Lotto kicked us in the balls,” Holm said. “What they did was perfect. Omega ran out of gasoline." And so Cav did on Friday, when he fell behind on modest climbs, and the Cannondale team rode a faultless race, “a 160-kilometre lead-out train,” in the words of the Slovak rider Peter Sagan, their main man. He duly won the stage, to leave Cavendish a long way behind in the table for the sprinters’ green jersey.
Now they come to the fleas that tease in the Pyrenees, or at least the teasingly high passes including the awesome Col de Pailhères at 2,001 metres. Chris Froome has struck his first blows, while poor Cavendish will sweated and struggled to get over the mountains at all. But he’s still the same incorrigible, amiable bloke.
One of those silly fillers on television asked some riders who their heroes were, “the person you would like to be ‘the next’ of”. Hinault said Jacques Anquetil and Mercx, which is fair enough, but Pierre Roland said Richard Virenque—Virenque! one of the most notorious dopers of his time!—while Alberto Contador said Lance Armstrong, which makes exclamation marks superfluous. And Mark Cavendish? “I didn’t want to be the next anyone, I wanted to be the first me.” No, really, you have to like the guy.