Fabian Cancellara is one hell of a bike rider, but Sartacus blundered today. That’s him on the left and in the Yellow Jersey reminding the peloton that they wouldn’t race one another on the approach to the finish of Stage Two yesterday. This is what had happened: it was cold and wet and on the descent of the Stockeu some 30km from Spa there were multiple crashes. Armstrong and Contador both fell. So, most dramatically, did both Schleck Brothers. Conditions were, apparently, made still worse by petrol spilled from a motorbike that had itself fallen.
The race was blown apart. Up ahead Sylvain Chavanel cycled on, oblivious to the carnage behind him, but Cancellara organised the peloton and sat up, allowing the Armstrong and Contador group to rejoin the field before they all waited the Schlecks (who had lost more than three minutes) to catch-up.
All this, you might say, was justifiable. Some people would disagree but you can understand what the riders were thinking. Less comprehensible was their decision to neutralise the finish too. Even though the roads were drying and could have been built for sprinting. No wonder some of the spectators, who had been waiting at the finish for hours, could be seen heckling Cancellara.
Lord knows what will happen if it rains today. There are rumours that the riders are unhappy that the final stages of today’s stage include sections of the pavé normally only encountered in Paris-Roubaix. It’s fair to say many riders don’t like the cobblestones. But if the fans were cheated by the peloton on Monday – and they were – that’s not wholly surprising either. In few other sports are the interests of spectators so far removed from those of the participants. In few others could the competitors consider themselves enslaved by fans and team-owners alike.
That is, the relationship between cycling fans and cyclists is complicated and frequently ethically dubious. It’s a divide between Romantics and Cynics in which, thanks to the nature of the business, the Romantics impose enormous suffering upon the Cynics who, while well-paid, are more or less disposable.
Sure, we have our favourite riders and, some of us, favourite teams too but I think most cycliing fans are attracted by the sport itself, its challenges and the monstrous demands it makes. The identity of the riders may matter but it’s less important. This year’s Giro d’Italia, for instance, was supposed to be missing many stars but it was an extraordinary race anyway and no-one missed the absentees.The riders come and go but the mountains remain.
(Most sports have something of this, but cycling unusually so I think. It was noticeable that both Stephen Roche and Magnus Backstedt, analysing the race for Eurosport, condemned Monday’s neutralisation. They had no sympathy for the riders, so perhaps Sean Kelly was right when he argued that ex-riders start thinking like fans or race commisioners, not as former members of the peloton mafia. The Media Old Boys Club isn’t as powerful in cycling as, say, football?)
Anyway, for fans, cycling is a quest for the epic. The road is the venue for heroism and tilting at impossible targets. For riders, it’s a matter of survival. Worse still, glory is dependent upon suffering and the greater the sacrifice the greater the glory.
When Octave Lapize became the first man to cross the Tourmalet (in 1910 – hence honouring the mountain this year) he cursed the "assassins" responsible for putting the riders through such purgatory. He might have cursed the fans too, since we’re complict in the cyclists’ suffering too. Worse than complicit, really, since we demand it. There’s a disturbing element of sadism involved.
If it’s too easy, however, then it’s not remarkable enough and the point of the Grand Tours is that they’re supposed to be ridiculous and, consequently, extraordinary. We might not go quite so far as Henri Desgrange’s observation that a "perfect Tour" would end with only one man finishing the course but many of us might agree that bad weather and challenging courses make the racing harder and more interesting. I’ve not met many cycling fans who ever complained that a race was too mountainous.
If there’s a compensation to this, it’s that honour is generously spread around. Winning is not the only thing. Indeed it’s often not the most important thing at all. Remember René Vietto? For that matter, most of us have our favourite domestiques whom one can wait years to see have their long-overdue day in the sun. The Knights of the Road get most of the press, but the serfs and yeomen are heroic too and even at the professional level the taking part and completing the course are cause for reward and celebration themselves.
On any given day it’s not the stage winner or the race leader who necessarily receives the palm. It could be the man who has lost the leader’s jersey but battled heroically to retain it, or it could be the selflessness of a subordinate who wins our admiration or a rider revealing hitherto unsuspected depths of character and couraage or someone simply riding with glorious panache who becomes the day’s "real" winner. That is, the actual race standings tell only part of the story and not always even the most interesting part.
Which, as so often, brings us to the drugs and, again, a distinction that makes cycling different. There’s every difference between taking drugs to survive a contest and taking them to thrive within it. Drugs in cycling are just different from drugs in athletics.
Even here, however, things become complicated when the drugs become too sophisticated or, if you like, too good. This might seem an arbitrary distinction but I think it’s one many people feel. If the drugs turn cyclists into machines then the value of their suffering may be diminished and, consequently, the cycling becomes less interesting because, somehow, it seems less noble. The drug-taking is not the problem – it’s a rational response to an entirely irrational challenge – but the nature of the drugs does. But only a little perhaps: most of the time most cyclists will be forgiven their transgressions.
The fans play the role of the old Greek Gods, tormenting their victims and asking more of them than is reasonable. But knowing this, we’re also quick to forgive them their sins and offer a second chance. In the circumstances, it seems the least we could do. In return, however, we ask that they race with boldness and with courage and make a virtue of their pain.
It’s an awkward, perhaps questionable, bargain but one whose part Spartacus and the others failed to honour on Monday. Still, as fans, we should have our revenge today…