"AN INHUMAN SPORT" - NED BOULTING
I don’t think I’m breaking any ground here, when I say that the shape and form of a bike race is not entirely human. Sometimes it’s a snake. Sometimes a burrowing rodent. Occasionally a raptor (if you’re a Cofidis rider, and you look over your shoulder with 8k to go for example). But mostly, and for good reasons it’s a fish, or a bird. You see, it’s all about fluid dynamics.
I recently read a wonderful book; a meditation on the rather prosaic job of flying an airliner across oceans, called Skyfaring by a chap with the distinctly Wanty-Groupe Gobert name of Mark vanhoenacker. Himself an airline pilot, he devotes considerable amount of time comparing the skeleton, skin and nerves of a bird to the fuselage, body and cables of a Boeing. He also likens the thin blue atmosphere through which he slices the wings of his craft to the ocean below. Air and water, water and air: Moving through both is not so dissimilar. And both are, at a certain level, an intuitive act of magic.
Which brings us back to the peloton. It was only with the advent of TV cameras attached to helicopters that this unconscious, sinuous beast became visible to man. The first seventy-odd years of road racing had only offered a partial glimpse of what was the true shape and nature of a bike race; a kind of head on, or side on, glimpse of something dynamic yet uncontainable. That was if there were any moving images at all.
But, viewed from above, in hi-def, on our end-of-days plasma screens, its lithe shape-shifting splendour is revealed, as it swells and contracts, splits and re-forms, like a CGI virus, or a particularly imaginative and flexible octopus. I could watch it for hours, just doing its thing.
But let’s get real: It’s only cycling. Actually, sod that. It is astonishing. It is a bit David Attenborough. As you were.
Perhaps you should think of the peloton simply as a massive mammalian underwater creature; something whaleish, ploughing its way through oceans too grand in scope to conceive of in the human mind. Each fibre in the massive body has only a dim understanding of the purpose, the destination to which it is powering itself. Yet the totality of effort is irresistible.
Thus the tail fin, the engine room, is staffed by the Super Domestiques, the Imanol Ervitis, the Julien Vermotes, the Ian Stannards of the world. Then there are the eyes, gimlet and alert, whose job is to scout the surroundings for danger and opportunity. These are the Road Captains, such as my co-commentator David Millar was in his day, now superseded by Bernie Eisel, Simon Clarke, Stef Clement. The teeth (and here my whale has suddenly become a shark) are the executive branch; the sprinters, the puncheurs, the GC riders, the winners. It’s their job to finish the thing the beast had started and to sustain it from one meal to the next.
Small wonder they are all such ruthless, cold-blooded individuals. For, if there is one commonality in all these men that I can identify, it’s their sheer single-mindedness. There was a (probably apocryphal) story that did the rounds a few years ago about Matt White, the DS of Orica Greenedge (as was) at the Tour of Turkey. It was perhaps the first time (Cillian will tell me if I’m wrong, no doubt) that the Yates twins had competed as pros in the same race. Simon crashed early in the stage, broke a collarbone, and abandoned. A little later, White drove the car alongside Adam to tell him about his brother.
‘Mate, bad news, I’m afraid. Simon’s crashed out.’
Adam, without even looking at him, replied, from behind his shaded glasses, ‘Just do your fucking job, will you.’
Anyway, back to fish. If you’re not a tail fin, an eye, or a tooth, what are you? The answer is, “You are a professional cyclist.” This is the fate of almost all the constituent parts of the beast – there to be there. Without the bulk, the heft, the weight of numbers, there is no spectacle. There is no beast, and there is no extended metaphor.
Look at any page of results in the Road Book, scroll down to, let’s say, number 87. Who finished 87th? Read her or his name.
The answer is: A human being.