New Year ruminations

Winter can often be a time of contemplation. If, like your author, you’re having an ‘Italian winter’ (waiting for the rain to stop before getting on your bike), you’ll be finding other ways to get your cycling fix. Recently, for example, your author has become somewhat fixated on interrogating his current choice of gear ratios in the quest for the perfect combination of climbing gears. It has also been a time of thinking about pro cycling – basically the question: given that pro cycling is so sordid and tawdry, why bother following it? A short rumination on the virtues of the sport henceforth follows.

Pro cycling is somewhat unique as a sport in that its history is less driven by teams and individuals as it is by events. Races and racers are always on the move, not to separate pitches and fields in fixed locations but to new courses actually in cities and the countryside. And there is no season-long trophy competition of any note, but each race itself has its own history and stories. An analogy might be if professional hockey was played (like it used to be at the dawn of the sport) on frozen ponds around the wintry parts of North America and there was no Stanley Cup, just the trophy for each tournament. The teams came together to play the Minnesota Classic or the Tour de Laurentians, with each of those events having a unique and continuous history. Cycling’s structure means that it has a rich history and detailed traditions that can be tapped into; it means that there is a deep well of fascinating stories for fans to draw on to sustain their interest. And, with its European roots, it also has the touch of the exotic.

Pro cycling’s history is also a sordid one. It can be read as a series of magnificent and uplifting physical exploits, or it can be read more like an ongoing crime family saga, more like The Sopranos and The Wire. Like an onion, the more you peel back the layers the more it seems to make your eyes water. The cast of dubious characters is a large one, and the stories of double-dealing, backroom fixes, and racketeering are endless. Teams – and indeed the whole sport – have been run like old boys’ clubs of Mafia dons as opposed professional sporting organizations. And it has only been in recent years that this seems to be changing. Again, from the perspective of the inquisitive fan, this makes for a fascinating spectacle.

We are now entering into an unprecedented new era where doping will not be part of le metier of pro cycling. This will be a first in the hundred plus years of its history. Which is why, for some, the Armstrong story has not provoked universal outrage – he was doing what many great champions before him did. Doping, bullying, intimidation, absolute team control, crushing victories? All been done before. And there are always new revelations that suggest, even in the pre-EPO era, that doping played a larger role in tilting the balance than many have previously argued (Joop Zoetemelk using blood transfusions in the 1975(!) Tour de France, for example). We thus have more intrigue to keep us titillated, as well as much fodder for ongoing debates about the role of doping in determining race results. We have all become ‘group ride experts’ on the intricacies of pharmacological enhancements and relish the discussions over the controversies surrounding them.

The literary tradition

It is perhaps for the above reasons that cycling has proved such a rich subject for journalistic treatment, a large sub-set of which has transcended simple reportage and had its own literary aspirations. Cycling is not unique as a sport in this sense and many other sports have such a tradition. But cycling has not disappointed. Geoffrey Nicholson, Samuel Abt and Graeme Fife can all be read for the pleasure of the text, as can more recent arrivals Matt Rendell, William Fotheringham, Daniel Friebe, and Richard Moore (to name just four). If you are a reader for the sake of reading, then cycling books will not disappoint. The passion for research and writing that many such authors have brought to their work has produced a treasure trove of writing for fans to enjoy – particularly during their Italian winters.

Perhaps much of this work benefits from the fascinating cast of characters in cycling’s history. Given the rather cut-throat nature of the pro cycling business, those who have excelled have had to have been robust physically and psychologically to survive. Which is perhaps why cycling seems to have a surfeit of larger-than-life personalities in its history – their exploits off the bike as interesting as those on it. Now, one wonders about a new generation. With more support from teams, coaches and managers, and the sport being run more like a legitimate business than a criminal syndicate, and with structures in place so that packing your bike bag and heading to the Continent to try your luck has been replaced by a more forgiving feeder programme, and with better media management to placate sponsor images, will this change the personalities involved? Will cycling continue to have out-sized characters to provide the fodder for fascinating forays into the machinations of the peloton? Will a slick and professional, ready-for-the-big-time global sport hold as much interest as a series of small town European intrigues? One can only hope so.

On the road

Ultimately, there is something about cycle racing itself that grabs one’s attention and interest. The spectacular backdrops, the battle against nature as well as other riders, the speed and the flashes of colour, its simplicity of principle juxtaposed against the complexity of its tactics, the intersection of the individual and the team, the poetic stirring of seeing a racer in full flight. Watching and enjoying bike racing is about surrendering to one’s passions, letting the mask of reason slip for the sake of spectacle.

Pro cycling doesn’t need a complicated back story to be entertaining. New races can be just as thrilling as old, women’s cycling is just as dramatic as men’s racing on the road. We don’t need to be in Belgium or France or Italy to experience the thrill of watching exciting and compelling racing. And with the increasing popularity of bike racing around the world, many top-class races are now coming to those of us not easily able to see the traditional events. We can immerse ourselves in the history of European pro cycling, the myths and their making, the legends and the half-lies, the triumphant and the tawdry, the spectacular and the sordid, the mystical and the Machiavellian, the politics and the personalities. There is a rich vein to be tapped (pardon the pun) and will be – with luck – for many seasons to come.

But it is the action on the road that will continue to thrill us, as we throw aside all reason and seek escapism amidst the whir of the wheels, as we throw ourselves into the spectacle as deeply as those participating in it, as we throw aside all questions as to its purpose and meaning – becoming simply fans of a sport we love (although we know not the reasons why, despite our attempts to provide rational explanations). Perhaps, when we ourselves are out on our bikes, we feel – despite our own mediocrity – some connection to those whose talent and hard work allows them to ride as professionals. In some small way, we are more than just spectators.

A spectator's tradition: standing on the side of a mountain to watch the racing.
A spectator’s tradition: standing on the side of a mountain to watch the racing.