I’m a Cycling fanDonovan van Gelder
Let me begin by writing that I am a triathlete. My first competitive ride was between a swim and a run in 1986. I did my first bicycle race in 1988 to improve my cycling for triathlon at the insistence of my mentors at the time. I have done many one day and stage races since then and I am proud to say that I have won a few. I have even had a few periods in my sporting career where I was a specialist roadie but I always come back to triathlon as my main athletic focus. I love the clinical, controlled nature of a non-drafting triathlon. In triathlon, the best athlete on the day, barring mishap, will always win. But… I don’t really like watching triathlon. I would be hard-pressed to tell you who the best triathletes in the World are at this moment in time. The same things that draw me to racing and training for a triathlon, make it boring for me to watch. The results are too predictable. I appreciate the performances and what went in to achieving them but I am not a ‘fan’ of triathlon as a spectator.
Bike racing is a completely different story. In cycling, the strongest rider hardly ever wins…
I can still remember the first time I saw a European professional race on TV. It was in 1986 at the ‘Home and Garden Expo’ in Durban where my father was working for a kitchen company. A local bike shop had a stand and I spent a whole evening rivetted to their small TV, watching a recording of Robert Millar riding to victory in a Pyrenean stage of the 1984 Tour de France to Guzet-Neige. Later that year we got the CBS coverage of the 1986 duel between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond and I became a fan for life.
I have watched some of the World’s biggest one day classics at the roadside but I prefer to follow a race on TV. You can see so much more and there is a lot to see. I can watch a six hour race from the roll-out to the podium presentation. As the race travels through souring mountain-scapes or over ancient, rutted and cobbled tracks. Under a blazing sun on a four-lane highway in the UAE or lashed by rain, driven sideways into the bunch, forcing echelons in Brittany. Road cycling’s arenas are always spectacular. Whether it be a five-star, luxury ski resort in Andalucía or a run-down, red brick Walloon village in the East of Belgium. Each has it’s place and contributes to the race that flows through it.
Cycling culture is so rich and full of lore. Unwritten rules, dos and don’ts which need to be followed if you are going to make your way in the bunch. A rider can sit on a break and sprint to the win at the end. There is nothing in the rules that says he can’t but he will only be allowed to do that once. You can ride dangerously and put cyclists around you at risk for only a short time before you find there are no gaps to move up in the bunch anymore. If a rider, high up on the ‘general classification; moves into the breakaway, he will politely asked to drop back to the bunch because he will doom the attack’s chances of succeeding. If he chooses not to, the others stop working with him or attack him. Cycling is a sport where what goes around comes around and there is so much more than the eye can see. This means you have to watch cycling as a season, not just the occasional race. The richness of the spectacle is much greater when you know why a rider, who hasn’t gotten the results he expected this season, is more nervous in the finale. Or the rider who goes long range because he hasn’t been sprinting well this year. You need to have watched the build up races to the Spring Classics or the Grande Tours to know who is showing top form and who still has work to do in order to be a contender.
Road racing is considerably more than a sport. There are so many factors and nuances that make it fascinating for a fan but at the same time hard for an outsider to comprehend. It has been called ‘high speed chess on wheels’ but it is substantially more than that. It has politics, intrigue and collusion. There are personality clashes in the season, in the bunch and in each team. You think your average corporate boardroom sees a lot of wheeling and dealing, you need to get into a breakaway group that is going to go all the way to the line – A move starts out with riders wanting to get away from the peloton but who play their cards close to their chest, without giving too much effort in case this attack doesn’t work and they need to go again. This morphs into a more cooperative situation as the gap grows and a camaraderie develops as it becomes ‘us against them’. As the line approaches and the peloton has been defeated, comrades become foes where ruthlessness and a gambler’s instinct are often more valuable than strong legs.
Then there are the race situations where the ‘road decides’ the team’s tactics. Where a champion sits tight and does no work because his lesser teammate is up the road in a move. Or, the rider who makes it into the decisive move of the race, only to have it chased down by his own team because they are not sure he can beat the riders he is with. Or the rider who ‘sits on’ in the run to the line because he is sure that he can’t win the sprint and would rather risk everything for the win, than settle for a safe second.
What other sport has events that last for twenty-one consecutive days? Where a one-day classic has riders giving everything and riding each other into the tar, a stage race is all about conservation of energy until the right moment where everything is unleashed. It is a gradual building of suspense that can result in withdrawals for the fan when the race is finally over and the result decided. There is always one eye on the next day, and the next one. What you give today you may need tomorrow. Contemplate the logistics of an event like this. Different hotels every night, vast amounts of equipment and supplies ferried from one start to the next finish so that every morning the riders climb on a perfectly tuned machine in a fresh and recovered state, so that they can enter the fray once again.
Cycling is also a business, a marketing business. Pro-Tour teams have budgets in the multi-millions of Euros and this is paid by sponsors who want to place their products or services in front of the millions of viewers who sit glued to the hours and hours of TV, online and print coverage that cycle races get. Riders are employees as much as sportsmen. They all have jobs and different roles in the ‘company’. Some are there to win, others are there to help them win. Some are there to get TV time in the early breakaway and garner that valuable exposure for the team and their sponsors, even if the chance of a win is remote. Roles do change in a season and even in a race though. There are always opportunities that present themselves that go against the designated roles. Often these can provide riders with career altering prospects if seized upon, just as they would in the corporate world.
Then there is the cutting-edge technology – Modern bicycles are high-tech, composite marvels. Riders’ physical data is monitored by scientists and doctors using state-of-the-art measuring devices and software. Every minute detail is scrutinized, analysed and assimilated so that nothing is left to chance. Riders spend weeks in training camps at remote, high-altitude locations to change and improve their physiology. They use races to develop ‘race-rhythm’ in order to improve their condition for their target races, but keeping to set outputs in order to peak at precisely the correct time. At the races, out on the road, team managers watch live TV coverage in the team car and instruct their riders on the race situation, route information and the situation of their rivals via sophisticated two-way radios. Race routes are previewed and planned for. Post-race the results are scrutinised and discussed. Performances are analysed and criticized or praised and plans and tactics are formulated for the next day.
But… in the heat of the moment, at the critical instant, a rider must make the decision which will decide between victory and defeat. When the plan was to wait but the rival is showing weakness, it is time for a risk. Do they take it or follow the plan? This is what makes cycling mesmerising for me. For all the control and the technology. The numbers and the planning. It is the passion that makes cycling. The passion of the people standing on the roadside in blazing heat or freezing rain. The passion of the Director Sportif who has seen all his neatly layed plans shot to ribbons but who bursts into tears when his rider grabs the unexpected victory. The passion of that rider who crosses the line, arms aloft with joy, elation and also relief on his face because there is so much more to this victory than just coming first on this day. Then there is the passion of the rider who falls at speed ripping his already frail looking body to shreds but who’s first thought is to get back on his bike and the manager who understands and lets him try because he too was a rider once. And again, the fans who will push him up a mountain to help him finish, despite the fact that they support another team because they appreciate that this is what makes cycling what it is.