In the great wardrobe in the sky where iconic cycling kit is stored, the Peugeot “chessboard” has a special little coathanger all to itself. For those who like to describe cycling as chess on wheels, there is a happy symmetry in the fact that Bernard Thevenet, Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx et al raced in a jersey that bore a chessboard’s chequered design, “les damiers” as the French called it.
It was an Italian sprinter, most probably Mario Cipollini, who drew the inevitable paralell between bunch sprints and sex. The point was that the gradual build-up in intensity in the final 50 kilometres of a major race that was ‘destined for the sprinters’ corresponds to foreplay before the adrenalin rush of the finale, with the moment of crossing the line first equalling orgasm. And, clearly, the moment when the sprinter stands proudly on the podium with a sponsor’s damsel on either arm is the two-wheeled equivalent of the cigarette savoured languorously on rumpled pillows.
Picture if you will the most rock-solidly traditional bastion of the sporting establishment, with a history going back over a century embedded in the very roots of this sport. Our team wears colours that go back more than 20 years and have been worn by the greatest athletes in this sport, to win the greatest events. The design is instantly recognisable because the colours are also are worn by amateurs the nation over as they compete. Our team is sponsored by a company that is a national institution, one that has probably provided every family in the country with locomotion of some kind, either car or bike or moped.
There is much that is unique about Kazakhstan, but it must be the only country in the world where the coach of the national football team has been heard to complain that the nation’s cyclists enjoy a higher profile and greater financial resources are available to the athletes pedalling on two wheels than their counterparts kicking round balls.
Court report, Alf Engers v establishment, 1959-present day
Milords, I present to you the case for the prosecution. The aforesaid Engers was a nuisance and his influence remains pernicious. His crimes include the following: bringing into the daylight that sport which we love to keep hidden from the public eye. Riding at high speed down the middle of the road with ever-lengthening tailbacks of cursing motorists behind him. Inspiring generations of promising British junior riders to knacker their knees, by using the biggest chainring known to mankind. Drilling said item of equipment and other associated componentry until they resemble bits of wood that have had a nasty encounter with a plague of worms. Popularising what the road racing establishment dismisses as “dragstrips”, main roads used for time trialling which are not only dangerous but focus the mind unhealthily on pure speed. Making it possible for said road racing establishment to dismiss we time triallists as “bloody testers.” Being a personality in a sport that curdles up in disgust at the very use of the term. Wearing a fur coat to race starts rather than black alpaca.
So how lucky do you have to be to win Paris-Roubaix, or any bike race? Look at those cobbles, gasp at those crashes, and you could jump to the conclusion that you have to be pretty damn lucky, with the degree of good fortune depending on the degree of danger and the number of riders in the mix: more luck required for Paris-Roubaix or the Dengie Marshes, or any race ending with a bunch sprint; less luck for something hilly and decent surfaced where a strong rider will make a difference.
It is something of an annual rite at the end of the cycling spring. The three week Tours hove into view when the Giro d’Italia starts on the second weekend of May, and without fail doping scandals past and present bubble up to form a murky background during the build-up to the Tour de France, centerpiece of the cycling year. This year is the same, with a new twist: the Giro looks harder and more mountainous than ever, and the drugs issues are more worrying.
Let the cameras roll, and quickly. The news that British film maker Shane Meadows – of This England fame – is interested in the tale of Major Tom prompted headlines and made waves on Twitter, but that’s no surprise. The surprise is that it has not already happened. A few years ago one such project fell foul of that old villain, budgetary issues, but this time round, perhaps the involvement of a major figure such as Meadows will tip the balance or perhaps one of the other projects that are bubbling under may get the go-ahead. Let’s hope so.
To be among the Great Britain cycling team on three nights in Manchester in late March was to share a single feeling: can it really be this good? For once, the term gold rush was not overblown: this was a collective surge of emotion that mounted steadily as each lump of the precious metal was put in the bag, as each vignette of victory was stored in the memory.
Rebecca Romero’s yell of triumph on taking the women’s pursuit race; Chris Hoy’s incredulous look on taking the men’s sprint; Victoria Pendleton’s burst round the final banking to defend her sprint title; Bradley Wiggins, three gold medals in the endurance disciplines to his name, showing his son how to raise his arms on the podium after the crowds had gone.
British specialists in the art of single-day Classic racing have always been rare creatures. Compared to the number of Britons who have shone in the Tour de France, there have been few successful English scholars in the Belgian school of racing on dirty cobbles through spring snow showers in a northerly gale.