"ALGARVE - ANDALUCIA - WHATEVER" - NED BOULTING
I painted a bedroom today. Not very well, obviously. I dribbled paint on floorboards. Plus, my ceiling and skirting board lines were far from crisp. I bodged it.
But, hang on. This is a cycling blog.
So the bike racing’s coming at us thick and fast, isn’t it? Just as my painting arm was flagging at about 2pm, the Ruta del Sol, or Andalucia, or whatever it’s called, and then the Tour of the Algarve kept me going right to the end of the fourth and final wall. As I painted, I had the laptop open, balanced on a 5 litre paint pot, and after every emptying of the brush, I turned to look.
I was streaming the wonderful Eurosport Player. I adore the Eurosport Player semi-fictional “Schedule” every bit as much as I adore other great works of imagination and invention like A Passage To India, Madame Bovary or The Idiot. Click on Snooker, and it’ll be skiing, and vice versa. Finding the cycling, with commentary, on the race you think you’re watching, is like panning for gold. But I love listening to my friends and colleagues, who do such an admirable job across the year. I’d be lost without Rob, Matt, Carlton, Brian, Simon, the other Rob, Declan and….all the others…
By the time that Matteo Trentin, who’s one of road racing’s most endearingly straightforward chaps, had won in Spain and then Tadej Pogocar had outpaced both Wout Poels and Enric Mas to take victory in Portugal I had done the whole room. Skirting boards and all.
This is great, I thought, and continued to think.
There is SO much cycling on the box, especially if you include the Tour of Oman (the Tour de Lutsenko), which is not broadcast live for various reasons. February has afforded us a glimpse of almost all of the big names in action so far; from Sagan to Alapahilippe, Froome to Thomas, Kruijswijk to Gaviria and Someone Else to Someone Else. Sorry, I gave up on that list out of laziness, personal torpor and the fact that I had just compared a GC rider to a sprinter. I simply couldn’t go on.
But I am, as is happens, genuinely interested in how Pascal Ackerman compares to Arnaud Démare, or how well Riccardo Zoidl (up the road today) is doing. And I love watching them ride through olive groves, as the late afternoon sun pushes the mercury in un-Brexity (apart from Gibralta?) Southern Europe.
How do you judge these February stage races, though? I mean, really? I don’t know whether I like this about road racing, or hate it. But SO many races, every year, are kind of written off by the biggest names.
If Cavendish fails in Argentina or the UAE, so what? July is all that matters. The same applies to most of the principal sprinters and climbers and GC men and time-triallists (less so). Yes, riders like Tim Wellens can thrive on such races, as he has proven again – but there remains that nagging doubt that you’d never express if you were having a beer with Wellens: did you get that win because we didn’t really give a shit? Look at what happened, Tim, before your attack. Simon Yates, who, by the way, was the most recent Grand Tour winner, rode ALL DAY on the front for Jack Haig. That’s how much he wanted it. Sarcasm emoji.
Of course, I’ve over-simplified everything horribly. It’s so much more nuanced than that imaginary bar room brawl with Lotto Soudal (or whatever). There were plenty of Tim Wellenses in the peloton in Andalucia who would have given everything to be Tim Wellens for a day, but weren’t as good, or as Tim Wellensey, as Tim Wellens. So fair play. But the fact remains – I doubt Wellens will do that on the Tour de France, when it suddenly, really matters. If he does, he can come and find me and fight me. He’ll win that, too.
There are so few races on the calendar that completely matter. Soon we will have the start of the great one day races, many of which are considered to be preparation for other one day races: Don’t win Het Nieuwsblad? Who cares? Go and win Flanders.
Fail in the Brabançonne? Doesn’t matter. For me it was all about the Wallonne anyway….etc.
Then come the Grand Tours, with their Francocentric heirarchy, built on TV ratings and media exposure. The Giro is often treated as a thing which shouldn’t compromise a tilt at the Tour. The Vuelta? Well, you know – if you win, great. If you don’t, hey it’s September, and the Worlds are round the corner.
The Tour matters because it’s the Tour. Like it, or loathe it (and you don’t really loathe it – you just pretend to because it’s hipster to dislike it) it’s the BIG RACE. Everything else must doff its cap.
I enjoy this madness in the calendar for a variety of reasons. It enables riders who might otherwise not a get a chance, to learn about leadership at a stage race. It invariably throws up an opportunity for hitherto unknown riders to shine.
But mostly I like it because the best riders don’t always win, which is why cycling is glorious, human and better than any other sport.