With the final third of the Giro and the entirety of the Vuelta still to come, it wouldn’t be entirely correct to characterise Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen as our end-of-season finale.
Nevertheless, as Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and Wout van Aert pulled away from the pack, it sure did feel that.
The trio have been, arguably the three most prominent protagonists of this bizarro men’s season. Less Van der Poel, perhaps, than the two WorldTour stars; the Dutch rider having been a bit below his best in the early August classics, and then not figured in the Tour de France at all. Nonetheless, he has loomed large in the background, showing the odd flash of brilliance, giving us the occasional glimpse of what he can do. It’s as if he were saving his best for this weekend’s Monumental showdown with the Belgian rider whose two-wheeled career his own has been tied to for so long.
Cycling is often accused of lacking a season-long narrative. As compelling as the sport can be - and frequently is - this compulsion rises and falls with each race in turn. Even as they might contain a number of the same actors, every one is its own discrete thing, with little to meaningfully link the last from the next. That means our experience of the sport more closely resembles a set of two hour feature films from the same director than it does a twelve episode, multi-series box set.
For all that people’s attention spans are said to have been dulled by changes to the media landscape in recent decades, when it comes to the entertainment we consume, all the evidence is that we are still perfectly capable of following a thread across a number of weeks, months and years. If Netflix’s success is anything to go by, we prefer it.
And that seems to be at least as true, if not moreso, of our sporting proclivities, from football to Formula 1, and all those silly gazillion dollar American sports in between.
It would almost certainly be better if cycling had the same, but it doesn’t. Which is not anyone’s fault. You could name any number of interconnected reasons why this might be so: the race calendar would be one, the range of different disciplines another; the absence of a single institution, capable of knocking heads together and getting the different teams to work towards their mutual self-interest doesn’t help, either. Increased professionalisation resulting in greater specialization should be in there too, if not spanning the whole lot.
Of course, we would also not have had this gripping season-long storyline were it not for the emergence, in recent years, of a set of astonishingly talented riders, capable of performing and producing excitement practically anywhere.
That Mathieu van der Poel was the rider standing atop the podium following one of the most thrilling Tours of Flanders in memory doesn’t mean that he “won” the season. It means he, Alaphilippe and Wout van Aert each have taken one massive win each this year. And it means we can’t wait to see where this story goes, when it resumes, in 2021.