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It's a Sorry Year for British Sports, and Not Just at the World Cup

God may still save the Queen, but Britannia has not ruled in 2014

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

“And the best of British luck,” goes the sardonic expression, as Americans might say “Good luck with that” about some forlorn hope or lost cause. Well, British luck has not been of the best this summer. You already know about the abject early departure of our imitation of a soccer team from the World Cup.

You may not know that it coincided with the rout of the England rugby team in New Zealand, swept in a three-game series, and with the defeat of the England cricket team at home by Sri Lanka, in a close and exciting series, but still, winning is winning and losing is losing. Then Andy Murray, who twelve months ago became the first British player since Fred Perry in 1936 to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon, crashed out this year while splattering the Center Court with his Tourettish cascade of obscenities. And so we’ve been desperately looking around for a sport—water polo? pelota?—at which we might manage to beat someone.

Actually (a word James Bond was advised not to use in America as it sounded so parodically English), we’ve done very well at some sports of late. Two years ago, Mitt Romney turned up in London and, with a curious idea of how to win friends and influence people, said that the British were obviously incapable of running the Olympic Games. Soon thereafter, the London Olympics were a triumphant success as an event.

What’s more, after nerve-wracking days of medal drought, there was a “gold rush” for the British team, in all manner of sports, but notably cycling. Bradley Wiggins won yet another gold medal to add to his own horde, and this just after he became the first Englishman ever to win the Tour de France. A year later, Christopher Froome—British by citizenship if Kenyan by birth and South African by upbringing—won the Tour.

Almost more impressive in its way has been the achievement of Mark Cavendish, who has dominated the sprint finishes in the Tour for years. His 25 stage wins in the race put him in third place among all-time Tour winners. He needs only four more to overtake Bernard Hinault in second place and then six more to replace the immortal Eddy Merckx at the top. Indeed, L’Équipe, the great French sports paper, never a hotbed of Anglophilia, has called “Cav” the greatest of all sprinters.

Better still, this year’s Tour began in Yorkshire—yes, I know it’s called “de France”, but the Grand Départ has before now been what was then West Berlin and Rotterdam, and bids for it have been made lately by Venice and, ahem, Qatar. On Saturday they rode from Harewood House (said har-wood, by the way, not hare-wood as the BBC has it) to Harrogate, in a 118-mile loop through the Dales and over a few climbs, modest by Alpine standards, though who could not love watching the cyclists go up what the Tour called la Côte de Buttertubs?

The very first stage is the one that gives a sprinter the chance to wear the hallowed maillot jaune: if he crosses the line first then, the yellow jersey will be his for a day. Cav has never won the yellow jersey, and this was another opportunity. He comes from the Isle of Man, but Harrogate, a really delightful small town, is his mother’s birthplace. This was where Cav should wear yellow if there is any justice at all. (I should explain that I love bike racing and the Tour, which I’ve written a book about in addition to covering it for publications as diverse as the Financial Times, the Daily Mail and the New Republic.)

And so I went to Yorkshire, hoping to see a great start to the great race, and to Harrogate, hoping to see Cav in yellow. The great start we got. The first three stages of this year’s Tour were in England. Saturday’s was followed on Sunday by a stage from York to Leeds, and on Monday they raced from Cambridge to London. All three days were a triumph for the Tour itself.

There may have been five million spectators lining the roads of Yorkshire, which would mean eight times as many people as attend all professional football matches in England each week, and double the total who have attended all of the World Cup matches in Brazil combined. Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour, said that Yorkshire had been “beyond our wildest expectations” and promised to come back.

Even L’Équipe praised the Yorkshire Grand Départ as “without equal in the modern history of the tour,” although the paper had to moan—snooty French!—about the local cuisine, in particular the fish and chips purveyed near the Holme Moss climb. After saying that he could hum “God Save the Queen,” this Gallic cynic said that “God may well save the Queen, but French tourists are on their own. The fish tasted as if it had dragged itself up the slope on its fins.”

At Harewood House the Duchess of Cambridge, the charming Kate, had cut the tape to start the race, and then she and the Duke and some riff-raff like David Cameron were at the Arrivé in Harrogate. A couple of kilometres from the finish, Cavendish’s Omega-Pharma team took command at the front of the field and looked to have the race under control, but then there was some jostling as they neared the line, and Cavendish is no mean jostler.

This time he got in wrong. They were 250 meters out when he bumped the Australian Simon Gerrans and they both crashed. Although Cavendish managed to get up and limp over the line, he looked as if he might have broke his collarbone, and was rushed to hospital. It turned out to be dislocation rather than fracture, but he’s out of the race all the same.

He remains a really likable bloke, unlike some footballers one can think of. Cav apologized to Gerrans, and even showed a little perspective: “My friend Josh is a double amputee on his legs and missing his right arm. He just sent me a message joking: ‘I’ve got a spare arm for you.’ Things could be worse. It was my fault at the end of the day.”

As to the race, Duchess Kate presented the yellow jersey to Marcel Kittel (a German, shades of all those English defeats in the World Cup), and the next day it passed to Vincenzo Nibali. On Monday they raced past Buckingham Palace, with no sign of any royals this time but with the rain lifting for the moment, even if the tone was lowered by the presence of José Mourinho. And Kittel won again.

There are now just three British riders left in the field. Froome is one of them, and is still favourite—or was until he crashed, a moment ago as I write this. No, God may still save the Queen, but this isn’t the year for “Rule Britannia.”

Wednesday, July 9’s fifth stage of the Tour de France was from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, across a part of the country all too full of grim memories at this centenary of the Great War. It included several stretches of pavé, the dreaded cobblestones of north-eastern France and Flanders which make the spring classic bike races so scary, and was run in heavy rain, to ensure that the cobbles were even more treacherous.
As gamblers like to say, Chris Froome had been a nailed-on winner, the sure-fire favourite to repeat his victory in last year’s Tour. Today he fell once, and then twice. His team doctors then told him his wrist was too badly damaged to continue, and at around 1:45 pm French time, the reigning champion, one of only three remaining British cyclists in the race, was forced to withdraw. 
After last night’s baroque horror in Belo Horizonte, the whole Brazilian nation is numb with despair. They might like to know that, here in our damp little island, we share the feeling, several times over.