Middle-age has not been kind to James Murdoch. The forty-four-year-old prince who once had his own hip-hop label, has had to defend his inheritance, the FOX and SKY empire, against the politically-charged winds of a phone-hacking scandal, the death of spin-master Roger Ailes, sexually-harrassed Megyn Kelly and serial harasser Bill O’Reilly, and now, of all things, a Tasmanian Devil, a native Australian marsupial as wily and ambitious as his father’s own Melbournian genus.
Usually solitary, the Tasmanian Devil is known to hunt in pairs and it is a common belief Down-Under that it willingly eats humans, ripping out the digestive track and residing inside the corpse while it dines. James Murdoch must have watched in horror as the Tasmanian Devil, Richie Porte and team-mate/BFF Nicholas Roche, dined on SKY in this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, only to be ultimately outdone by the Danish delight, Jacob Fuglsang.
Porte, the Tasmanian Devil who dominated the Tour Down Under and Romandie (and who came in fourth last year’s Dauphiné and second in 2013), has risen from super-domestique to superstar, leading Jim Ochowitz and his BMC team for fresh flesh at this year’s Dauphine.
The Dauphiné is a gentle race through the Rhone Alps, a spar-partner for the Tour de France contenders, an unfurling of frames and components and team leaders test of their legs, a prelude to the grandest Tour of all. But this year, it turned out to be an ugly combat of thirty-something team leaders, Porte, Froome, Fuglsang, and, at least symbolically, Contador. Fuglsang, who is the same age as Froome (32), worked tirelessly for years for Nibali and Aru and was only hired this year as the Tour de France leader due to budget cuts. The Dane’s a slow up-and-comer, his silver Olympic medal win immortalized in the brilliant book, Praat Maar Vol, Jongens! by Michel Wuyts and José De Cauwer, a poetic transcript of the Men’s Olympic Road Race in Rio.
Froome, the reigning Tour cyclist of the last decade has won the Dauphine and then the Tour three times, one victory leading to the other. If Froome had won he would have been the first cyclist to win four times, become a minor cycling immortal. But Froome paced himself from the start, and was, in the end, pounded by Porte in the puny time-trial, forcing the Skyman to descend in fury on stage six. He was eventually dropped permanently on L’Alp d’Huez, a fitting end to a man who has battled drug rumors and whose team is often referred to as British Postal, dropped on the legendary Alpine climb whose speed record holders are dope-legends, Pantini, Armstrong, Ullrich, Landis.
Like James Murdoch’s family fortune, Porte’s BMC is owned by the Swiss multi-millionaire, Andy Rihs. Andy’s father, Ernst Rihs, took over a hearing-aid manufacturer in the sixties which became Phonak and then Sonovo. He eventually gave a controlling share to his sons Andy and Hans-Ueli, ensuring the family fortune. In March of 2011, Andy sold $41 million dollars worth of shares (as BMC was reaching UCI Pro Team status), just before the company gave a profit warning, thus leading regulators to investigate him for inside trading. Rihs funds far more than what BMC cycling team can possibly earn racing, thus making the Swiss businessman on par to Kazakhstan’s president and complacent oligarch, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who funds Fuglsang’s aging Astana.
For hundreds of years, Froome was a family name that once ruled Dorset, but in the new millennium gave up its power to the white, conservative geriatric pro-Brexit crowd that is the key SKY demographic. “Froomey,” a nick-name which sounds much like a gooey Dorset cheddar smells, was often sulking and defensive when confronted of rumors that he might jettison the Pinnarello Imperial Tie-fighters for BMC’s beloved X-wings and join his Porte prodigy at BMC. He seemed to hate his position as leader, frustrated to be dragged down in the muck that professional cycling can become.
It is as hard to dislike Froome as it is to like him. The three-time Dauphiné/Tour de France winner had the winter of discontent as he spent news conference after news conference, stone-faced next to the unrepentant dark knight Sir David Brailsford, explaining away a silly-sounding Jiffy package, seething the entire time as his characterless Kenyon character was called as a character witness to a knighted man who had aged the team to an age that Christopher dreamed was hopefully behind them. The Ides of Marsh whispered while Froome no-doubt envisioned the merciless knife-stabs from his old friend Brutus Porte.
Contador the Wise, freshly shined from training camp at Tenerife, refrained from his trademark attacks so as to closely monitor his rivals, harkening back to 2009 when the aged Armstrong spied el pistolero’s antics from behind sunglasses, refracting the Spaniard’s energy, tai-chi-style, back onto himself. For this year’s Dauphiné, Contador was omnipresent, passing Froome every chance, gazing at Porte curiously, but never making a statement, never threatening. It was glory in refrainment.
Thomas de Gendt is the same age as Richie Porte, but with far less the accolades. He wore the jersey through much of the race, but his history is sparse, a third in the 2012 Giro and climbing stages here and there. It was his sympathetic character and friendly demeanor that made him stand out amongst these devilish team leaders.
There are two myths of how the most renowned symbol in cycling, the yellow jersey, came into being. The first story was that the winner wore a green arm-band, but in 1913, the Tour de France organizer, legendary Henri Desgrange, asked race leader Philippe Thys to wear a yellow jersey. At first, Thys said no, but Peugeot eventually convinced him that it would be good for advertising. The second story is simpler, in 1919 Desgrange’s newspaper, L’Auto magazine, one of the main sponsors of the race, used yellow newsprint. Whatever the truth, yellow made the rider stand out and gave light to the sponsor’s name. The Dauphiné Libéré came centuries later, but it is still a reflection of the past, hesitantly yellow.
But while the Dauphiné was a mere precursor to the Tour and the future of cycling, it was, in the end, a beautiful, enigmatic race, following the glorious Giro centennial. It was Froome’s last gasp to command a team that has dominated cycling, but which is inherently tied to the Murdoch fortune, a fortune which has been under pernicious attack. Froome is as sympathetic as he is awkward, a genial fellow who has won the most prestigious race bearing the armor of a magnificent team. What this year’s Dauphiné showed was that Froome was not destined for greatness, but that he had a good, kind character. And as for Porte, Fuglsang, Martin, and Aru, be damned… This was Murdoch’s race just as much as the rest of the owners. This was what cycling was all about, the empire taking a hit, taking a fall, and watching the enemies rise in their own way, with their own talents, to make their own, magnificent mark.