As previously mentioned, I write for a cycling publication, The Competitive Cyclist, for which this was originally published. At the urging of my adviser, Mrs. Kim Robinson, it is also being published here. Though it focuses on cycling, I find the desire and dedication explored similarly applicable to other sports. -Dylan Allen
To preface: I have not ridden my bike since November 21. I snapped my chain, and, despite owning the parts and the knowledge required to repair it, I haven’t. I’ve taken a break from riding at a time when most are hopping back on their saddles, popping their rear wheels in trainers, paying dues on rollers, or working on form in the gym. Instead of these things, I’ve been running. And, for the first time all year, drought-stricken Southern California, where I live, has actually seen some rain.
This is where Belgium comes to my mind.
The grey sun, the cool temperature, the rain that brings to the already dim day to a quick and dark night. All of these things come to me in what I think of Belgium as (and if you doubt me, go ahead and look at my colleague Bavo’s picture, the sky says it all). I know, I’m missing the culture, the people, the frites. But today made me reminisce upon The Classics, The ‘Hardmen’, dreaming of the chance to see a rainy classic other than Milano – San Remo. I thought of the pulling of rain capes over arm warmers, leg warmers soaked and gritty from the road, sopping Belgian Suntans and shivering bodies, mostly, I thought of the sport and why we love it so.
Since I, blessed with Southern California “winters” and talents unworthy of the World Tour, did not have to contend with the freezing sleet that rain often turns into during European winters and early springs, nor the pain of cobblestones, bergs, the blistering pace of modern ‘Classic Specialists’ like Boom, Boonen, and Cancellara hold in these races, I simply relish this weather.
It is then, with a bike out of commission and my running shoes nearby, that I trade the ratchets-and-velcro for laces, and run. It is during my run, as I ascend a particularly steep hill, as the rain darkens my jacket and my shorts begin to hold the road grime, that I think of Belgium, that I think of the Ardennes, and the tremendous sacrifices that these Hardmen and their teammates make over similar hills. These men are nearly gods.
I do not think that fans appreciate enough the effort of the riders. While fans might have fun on early spring mornings, pretending to be Boonen or Cancellara attacking over the Koppenberg, I feel the true value of racing and the effort of the riders is lost until seen in person. They might seriously follow the Velominati’s “rules“, shouting at Froome to “Rule number 5!” as he climbs into his team car with a broken wrist, they might laud the accomplishments of their favourite rider as he breaks away, then quickly and harshly criticize him for not making the move stick – at one point have any of us ever been in a similar position? Too few, especially for the supposed “experts” on Twitter.
I summit the climb, and as I begin my descent down the backside, and for lack of better words, I pull my head out of the clouds, and reflect on Michał Kwiatkowski’s “panache”, his “gusto” in his attack to win the World Championships in Ponferrada. A man who put everything on the line for 7 kilometers, passing a group of four favourites, including Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde, and, after six-and-a-half-hours of tactical and hard racing, earned the honour of wearing the Rainbow Stripes. However, Gerrans fans, just as quickly as they had praised him for his UCI wins in Canada and his ability to make it into the decisive breakaway, damned him for not chasing Kwiatkowski when he attacked the group.
Why is there such disappointment and hatred for our heros? We are more disappointed in them when they do not win a race or make the winning selection than we are when riders test positive. I feel that this is a disgrace, not only to the sport’s diversity and its honest direction, but also to the riders themselves, whose job it is to be in the best possible form, make the best possible moves at the best possible time to win the biggest races for their teams. All of the aforementioned are not easy at an amateur level, let alone in the World Tour.
The rain begins to pour, and I lose my footing and slide a bit on the road. I think of crashes, Classics horrors like Giant-Shimano’s Koen de Kort crashing in E3 Harelbeke. I, like almost all other cyclists, have crashed, and my arms, legs, hips, and even my left hand all show evidence of them. I do not like watching crashes, I feel for the riders and I know what it’s like to hit the ground at 50km/h. I know how easily lycra and flesh tear, how easily dirt, rock, and god knows what other unimaginable substances quickly find their way into open wounds. Yet some enjoy and celebrate crashes. Unimaginable to me. With all the action and unpredictability and pain that cycling races bring, some still choose to enjoy the crashes the most. Thankfully, skin scabs and heals, and for the most part, all that remains are scars. A great metaphor for the sport as it moves on from the doping era.
I regain my stride, though I am now running through a corner and, in the darkness, fail to see a large puddle. My foot sinks into it, and I am thrown back into Belgium, but alas, there is no Gabba jacket for my feet. I think of the soaking and the freezing that riders not only go through in the winter training, but also during early season races, where the peloton dons Gabba jackets with sharpied-out logos simultaneously, where the ability to suffer is immediately doubled. If nothing else about the professional peloton amazes you, it should be this: the ability to navigate a sub-7kg bike running 24mm tires up climbs, down switchbacked descents, through cobblestoned sectors, dodging traffic furniture at 60km/h, sometimes gunning in crosswinds, all with one-hundred and fifty other riders. Somehow, despite all of these atrocities, the best riders of the day all emerge at the front of the peloton, or, rather, its remnants, and use every last bit of energy, every precious watt, every liter of oxygen they can possibly use in an attempt to cross the line first.
That’s not something most of us can relate to, and those of us who can, we respect that.
As I reach the closing kilometers of my run, I forget about the pain in my legs, my eyes stinging with the mixture of rain and sweat, my numb hands, and I think romantically of the grupetto. “This is foolish”, I tell myself, well aware of the suffering in the grupetto, but I shift my thoughts to the camaraderie, and specifically to riders like Garmin’s Jack Bauer, and Lotto’s Adam Hansen, who still put on a show for the fans. Riders don’t get paid for wheelies, for taking beer handups, riders have no reason to do anything more than ride their bikes the way their leaders and directeurs sportifs tell them to. But some do, and they show a love from the sport that has all but been lost by a world of power meters, TwitterTwitter, and a culture trying to distance itself from its dirty past.
But, inspired by the love of sport shared by Bauer and Hanson, the panache of Kwiatkowski and Tony Martin, the strength of Cancellara and Boonen, the tactics of Froome, the humility of Quintana, the legend of Merckx, and the overall beauty of this sport, a smile broke upon my face, I soaked up the cold, the wet, the dark, and I sought out all the puddles I could find, running through them, splashing water both back onto the road, and all over myself. To passersby, much like the nuances of wheelies and beer handups to the distanced observer, I probably looked crazy.
But beyond the physical appearances, I began to understand the things that make this sport so lovable. I began to understand how something so simple as cycling can transfix us, how the subtle nuances of the sport shape races and influence their finales, the hard work and the dedication that make the best riders their absolute bests, the stories that unfold through the years, told of the rivalries, friendly and not, the races, won and lost… all of these things are secondary to our common desire to hop in the saddle and spend some time on our bikes, whether we find ourselves attacking over the Koppenberg in Flanders, or riding to a cafe in Sydney on an easy Sunday morning.