With the release of yet another “strategic vision” promising to save cycling by turning its professional ranks into a closed club fashioned after Formula-One, the “experts” might stop to consider the sport as it is in the only countries in which bike-racing can claim any considerable place in the public consciousness. In Belgium and Italy, France, the Netherlands and Spain, cycling is, for the most part, run by beer-swilling bureaucrats and small-time businessmen. Teams are, by and large, podunk passion projects sponsored by local construction companies, while the racing calendar is filled with lesser kermesses and lower-tiered UCI events. Nevertheless, people love the sport.
Is the attraction of the Ronde van Vlaanderen rooted in made-for-TV production values or do all of the mothers and fathers, neighbours and friends, stand there at the race, with their picnic baskets and portable radios, because small-time bike racing has filled their summers, springs, winters and falls for as long as they can remember? Do a million fans line the route of De Ronde because of this or that corporation’s advertising agenda or because generation after generation of Flemish schoolboys grew up eating shit in little races on those very same roads with hopes of becoming the next Merckx, Museeuw or Boonen?
The reason that cycling is such a part of these cultures is that such dreams are within reach. The young farm boy has seen professionals racing in his local kermesse, he has seen them suffer, seen the empty look on their grime covered faces and seen the sheer joy of the winner crossing the line. That boy knows that, with hard work, he too can be a part of that race and, with talent, he too might throw his arms in the air. It is not distant, not glossy; it is right there in front of him and a whole network of clubs and teams with threadbare budgets exists for him to rise upwards if he wills. At each step, a community will be there to support him. This is how it is in Belgium, in Italy, in France, in the Netherlands, and in Spain, and our friends from the Fortune 500 want to kill it.
Professional cycling’s open, flexible hierarchy allows this organic structure to exist. That a team like Topsport Vlaanderen can one day ride De Ronde and another day compete in a small-town criterium is the spark for all of those local business bosses to put money aside to support the local hopefuls at the club and continental level. If their boys succeed, they become a part of something great. This time-honoured model has already been put on its knees by the World-Tour; classic races are disappearing and being replaced by sparsely-attended television events in all corners of the globe. Is it any wonder that nobody cares about bike races in countries without a racing culture? If the globalization of cycling is truly the goal, invest in cycling clubs around the world; otherwise, cycling will be turned into a hollow shell that is only profitable to the few.
For those at the top, the traditional structure is, without a doubt, bad for business. We have all heard the arguments; teams have no security, no guarantee of riding the biggest races, no certainty to sell to the big corporations; but, De Ronde, Le Tour, San Remo and the others are bigger than the teams that make up their start lists. These races are the pinnacle of the living culture that makes them what they are. The Tour de France does not need super-teams or million euro athletes, it matters by itself; packaged hours of television coverage are only valuable because people care.
Shouldn’t the teams get a bigger piece of the pie? At what cost? A fixed hierarchy will do nothing but concentrate investment at the top. Will the construction boss still sponsor local talents if the only access to the highest echelons of the sport is set within a closed, academy system? Where will those academies race? It is not without reason that the fledgling feeder teams of today hone their craft in the rough-and-tumble worlds of amateur French, Italian, and Belgian bike racing.
What about doping? Ever the bane of professional cycling, is it not easier to control a closed-off league of franchised teams? In theory, yes. But to contend that more powerful teams will better discourage doping goes against history. Every sophisticated method of doping has been introduced by the biggest, most-sophisticated organizations. It is quite simple; the higher the stakes, the higher the incentive to seek out illegal gains. Can all doping be monitored? No. Is there doping at the continental and amateur levels? Of course. But the truly insidious forms of doping trickle down from the top. A clean athlete can compete against the small-time doper; he hasn’t a chance against a rider on a program worth tens of thousands of euros.
In every case, the sport’s popularity has proven most resilient in those countries in which cycling is a part of the everyday culture, where the sport is bigger than the biggest of teams. In the model of super-teams, one doping scandal can kill the entire sport. German cycling is still recovering from Telekom’s demise. With a more flexible structure, there are always more teams to keep racing alive.
By starving the bottom, bike racing will become a product instead of an activity; it will be pulled out of the culture and put on TV. The “experts” want to model cycling after professional sports in America, but how many Americans play football after graduating from high school? Filling in fantasy forms doesn’t count. Like professional American sports, watching professional cycling is, for most, an excuse to drink beer. The difference is that as the football fan reaches for another hotdog, the cycling fan hops on his bike. Long past their prime, aging pelotons of all shapes and sizes fill roads. Some are very serious, others are not. But they ride bikes right through their lives. Where does this life-long participation come from? For those who raced as youths, surely a system that allowed for high level racing into adulthood played a formative role. For those who came to the sport late, any racing they might have experienced likely rested on the back of a lesser elite or professional race. At the very least, being a part of a culture in which bike racing is ingrained, surely breeds cyclists, whatever their age.
The interests of a few team owners should not take precedence over the interests of the sport as a whole. A vibrant, viable sport begins at the bottom. Money speaks and big-money speaks loudly, but little-money is cycling’s lifeblood as a sport.
I float through the silence, watching falling water droplets explode into the ditch by my side. The greenery is smothered. I shiver. Thick steam condenses on my jacket, seaps through and saturates the wool shirt I wear underneath. My skin prickles. A rhythm plays in my head. Nerve-dead, unsure, my limbs respond. Outside, it’s fucking miserable but inside I’m alive.
This morning, I witnessed the sun’s rise. In itself, this means nothing, but to me, there, small on the polder, as the day’s first light dropped down through the dark clouds and morning mist, it affirmed my own gentle defiance in the harsh glare of an evermore illuminated world.
In swim trunks, battered toms, and a t-shirt, I had one of my best rides in memory. I don’t know how long I rode, except that I was out all day, and I don’t know how hard I went, save for the aches that lingered that night, but I will never forget the smell of the sea or the feel of the sun, warming my neck, or the sight of the surf rolling in on the beach in the hazy light of evening.
In a race, one can, for a time, escape the restrictions of normal life and enter a world where possibility is limited only by ability and bravery. Nothing could be more fun. One does things in a race that can hardly be comprehended; it all happens beyond reason, at ridiculous speeds, in fractions of seconds. There is nothing like it.
Riding a bike is a pleasure; the experience is relatively measured and there is time for contemplation. Racing takes that experience, speeds it up, and condenses it into a purer, more instinctive form.
Winning, losing, these things matter but what really matters is losing one’s self in the unknown. Go beyond the edge and find out what is possible and you will soon find yourself looking back on some of the most profound experiences of your life.
In the heat, I shiver and struggle to breathe. My skin is covered in goosebumps. The hot air and pain close in on me. My pulls are ragged. Each time, I save just enough strength to get back into the draft. I feel as if I need to throw up. I tell myself to spin but need the bigger gear. The others are pissed; I’ve been shirking for the past hundred kilometres but I am not playing games. I am fucked. Our gap has shrunk to 45 seconds. The minimum is beyond me. I try to sit on. One attacks, the other goes, I am dropped. Fuck. Keep pedalling. Another is coming across. I accelerate onto his wheel, barely. He tows me back. I sit on, suffering. They won’t have it. Recovered, a little, I pull through. Clack, clack, clack; gears drop behind me and they are gone. I struggle, slam my bars, then let relief wash over me. I am caught, they are caught. I can hardly turn my legs.
"The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him, while the sun that burned his back, his head, and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave a vigour and dogged energy to his labour; and more and more often now came those moments of unconsciousness, when it was possible not to think what one was doing. These were happy moments"
Cycling is a form of escapism. Originally, riding bikes was a way to evade the drudgery of life in Europe’s factories, while, today, the sport provides relief to many who feel overcome by the abstract nature of their endeavours.
Usually, escapism is assumed to be fanciful and meaningless, and is treated as an aside from serious life. Yet, as we read the words above, from a passage about cutting grass that understand the attraction of cycling better than anything ever written about the sport, we begin to realize that cycling, and other similar pursuits, might not be an escape from the real but an escape back to the core of who we really are.
I was able to stop just in time. In front of me, a gaggle of riders lay strewn across the pavement; their bodies separated from their bikes. I looked back; fortunately, my rear wheel still spun true despite being clipped by a rider on his way into the mess. With a foot on the ground, I scrambled desperately to find a way through the ruckus. Ahead, the race was speeding away. Suddenly, I felt two friendly hands on my back. His cleats clattered on the cement as he stutter-stepped forward and slung me back up to speed. I fumbled with my pedal for a second, then stomped on the gear to make it, just barely, back onto the wheels. It all happened in seconds, unthinkingly, but without that hand from my team-mate, our race might have been done.
I don’t possess the vocabulary to speak intelligently about music, yet, as I try to translate my cycling experiences to the page, it is words about music that first come to my mind. Rhythm, tempo, beat; as in music, these are the elements that form the foundation of a ride. However, more and more, I realize that it is melody that I am seeking. On my bike, I am searching for those fleeting moments of beauty that rise, occasionally, out of the pattern of the ordinary and bring me, if only for a second, to a more pristine place.
Rising from the Rhine, the path pitches up, cutting back and forth through a terraced hillside decked in vines. I sit on the tip of my saddle, arms flexed, awkwardly trying to maintain a rhythm and keep my front wheel on the ground. A hawk circles lazily above, swooping ‘round against the backdrop of the burning sun. Sweat drips down my forehead, covering my glasses in a crust of salt. Each pedal stroke is a violent effort, my feet punching slowly downwards against the defiant gear. I slide back on my seat and drop my heels further, trying to stretch the acid out of my legs. I don’t have an easier cog. I weave slightly then stand and dance, my heart beating twice as quickly as the staccato of my shoes. I reach the ridge and coast. Below, past the grapes, the river is but a tiny trickle. The hawk has soared away.
On grey ribbons of cracked asphalt, through dark green pine forests and rocky valleys and, up, above, on wind-blasted plateaus, all of one’s skills and strength as a cyclist are tested in the Ardennes.
One after another, the hills hit, the next always coming before one can catch one’s breath. Rarely is there a moment of relief. The descents are tricky; they switch back and forth through grey-stone villages and countryside; the corners, off-camber as often as not. There is no time to recover; the landscape is relentless; in a race one must remain concentrated from the first moment to the last.
Cycling has specialists on every terrain, climbers in the high mountains, sprinters on the flatlands, but only the very best succeed in the Ardennes.
I wake to aching in my upper arms. I sit, round my shoulders and feel the stiffness in my spine. The room is hazy and my throat is parched. I clench and unclench my fingers, trying to relieve the tension in my throbbing knuckles. Lethargically, I make coffee. The first sip brings the world back into focus and wakens the knot of hunger in my hollow stomach. On Mondays, I take my sabbath.