Reflections: can’t beat the real thing

It’s easy to feel dejected about bike racing. It’s OK, you can admit it. We all feel it sometimes. That sense that this relationship we have with cycling goes through its tough moments, where it is all demanding and all-consuming but somehow gives very little back in return.

It’s a bit like a long-distance love affair, maintained by social media, internet race reports, Eurosport and ITV4 coverage or by the occasional shonky feed of Sporza television tucked away on an internet browser window ready to be minimised whenever your boss looks over your shoulder in the office.

Information technology makes keeping up a doddle, but you can’t help feeling that Twitter is too cynical, Instagram is a hyper-real Pixar animation, and Facebook… what’s that again? Print media is at least like getting a handwritten love letter; a thing of beauty to be cherished, sure, but no substitute for hearing someone’s voice.

Every now and again you actually sit down and spend an afternoon together. A special anniversary. The first or second weekend in April are a popular ones. But sometimes TV coverage still just feels too soft, too woolly, too intangible. The experience is dulled by the sponginess of the TV motorbike’s suspension. The zoom lenses make everything seem a bit flat. The long-distance perspective of the TV helicopter seems to send everything into slow motion. Sometimes the picture gives out altogether.

Still, you keep trying. But then cycling throws you something like the Abu Dhabi Tour. A plate of semi-reheated mashed potato has more soul. Or the Chris Froome salbutamol case. Or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport telling you that this thing that you admire and respect is worth dirt. You feel like a bit of a fool. A lovefool. One way or another, you’re always left picking up the phone bill.

Spring break: images from Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Sometimes you question why you bother with it all, why you don’t call it a day and go look for something else. Another sport, another thing to throw your affection at. You toy with the idea of breaking it off.

Somehow, you find yourself standing in a field in northern Europe once again.

You know the drill. Cars pass. People arrive. A tinny radio commentary, though you can’t pick up the words and wouldn’t understand them if you could. The wind picks up and you shiver.

Then the helicopters, the sound of their blades carried on the chill breeze. The tension builds. Your heart pumps faster and louder, even though you’re just standing there and standing there is all you’re going to do. You’re not racing, but somehow your body is convinced that it soon will be.

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Perhaps this is what cavemen felt, when they closed in on whichever animal was about to be their dinner. A primeval, hunter-gatherer kind of thing. Lungs full of fresh air. There’s an animal charging towards you, although now the pressure isn’t to kill it but simply to try to take it all in, to make the effort worthwhile.

It’s probably not going to kill you, but it is dangerous. Less dangerous than a mammoth. But dangerous.

When it arrives, it’s all animal. The speed, the energy, the fluidity. The straining sinews and pointy teeth, all 53-11 of them. The clicking of gears and chains and the clanking of freewheels jamming into action and vibrating through taught spokes and onto hollow carbon rims. The whoosh of the air.

This is a pulsing, writhing creature, the peloton. Its collective propulsion is suddenly the most intense thing you’ve ever seen, yet it seems almost effortless. And so much faster. This is no vehicle, no static, shapeless object battering the air out of its way. This creature slinks and slithers with the terrain.


Don’t take a picture. Never take pictures. Leave that to the professionals. Stand there and get walloped by this jolt of energy, your heart pounding away. Take the hit of adrenalin. Feel alive in a way that the modern world, with all its desensitised, risk-assessed, hypoallergenic instant gratification seems hell bent on extinguishing.

This is raw. This drills into some source of childlike enthusiasm that is still there, just about, buried deep in your inner psychological bedrock. It’s like eating steak tartare. Like driving without the seatbelt on. Like holding a sparkler without gloves.

You remember why you love it. Love can make you a bit crazy. There’s nothing like the real thing.

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