Postal lands

Feb 14th, 2012 | By | Category: International

Pedalling hard on a rural Irish road on a Tuesday morning in February, he must have been a serious racing cyclist; wearing the colours of the former United States Postal cycle racing team, he declared he believed himself a serious rider.

The US Postals dominated the television coverage of the Tour de France in the early-2000s; they carried Lance Armstrong to seven wins in a row, the eight riders in the familiar blue escorting the yellow jersey of the race leader.

Evening after evening we would watch the highlights of the three weeks of the most gruelling sporting event in the world, not so much to watch the cycling, but to journey through the French countryside in views provided by cameras carried by motor cycle, car and helicopter. The race promoters seemed to know what tourism potential there was in presenting their country to the world when bathed in July sunshine. The commentators had notes on each town and village and helicopters would pick out each chateau, each hilltop hamlet, each gorge and mountain, each lake and river valley.

The Tour would be a prelude to August summer holidays spent on French campsites, but was also an annual reminder that a different world was possible. Whatever our Taoiseach told us about our wealth and standard of living, anyone who went to Europe could enjoy countless places that gave a lie to the statistics fed to us by the Irish government – there was hardly a place in Ireland that would match the most anonymous village in the French Midi for the quality of life.

The French were bad, we were told, they charge high taxes. Indeed, they did, and provided beautiful environments and fine civic facilities and wonderful sportsgrounds, and towns unscarred by graffiti or grim new developments. Their markets seemed strangely unregulated by the European Union edicts with which the Irish government equipped itself to forbid such inoffensive activities as church cakestalls. Their health authorities recognized that alcohol problems were about far more complex issues than price and allowed people to enjoy a bottle of wine for a couple of Euro. Their tax officials realized that commercial life depended upon diesel-engined vehicles and ensured its price was kept at levels where tradesmen were not crippled by the cost of running their van (and of course allowed millions of privately owned Peugeots, Citroens and Renaults to be driven at modest expense).

The passage of the US Postal riders across the plains and up the mountainsides of France provided an annual meditation on what a wealthy country was like compared with what it was like for us to live in a land run by gombeen men, where we paid taxes at over 40% and still had to pay for everything. Of course, to have said so at the time invited scorn and derision, the Taoiseach suggesting on one occasion that anyone who criticized the utopia he had created should commit suicide.

The Postal team was disbanded a few years ago and our former Taoiseach lives on a fat pension. The gombeen men are still around, being bailed out by taxpayers, but, mercifully, so also is the prospect, at some future date, of retreating into the French Midi.

Perhaps, one day, the man in the US Postal jersey will pass us by.

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