Try to explain a professional cycling team’s hierarchy to a non-cyclist, and the reaction will always be bemusement. There is nothing else in sport quite like the relationship between domestique and star. It was Geoffrey Nicholson who best summed up the great paradox, that in cycling the stars need the watercarriers, but the bottle-fetchers don’t get the same money or status. “In any team game,” wrote Nicholson, “sacrifices have to be made and the attackers can get more than the defenders. But it’s an odd team game in which those who score the goals get the major prizes.”
Time flies. It is all of seventeen years since I went for a memorable mountain bike ride in a wild, chilly wood in easternFrance. My guide was Robert Millar, who had promised to take me to a few muddy places, get me covered in mud and, he was clearly hoping to watch me fall off, all in the interest of a good story. It was in the hoary old days when mountain biking was something new, and a road racing star who rode a mountain bike was a radical.
“The Tour de France is finished. It has been killed by its own success, by the passions it has released, the injuries and filthy suspicions caused by the ignorant and the wicked.” Not a lament over this year’s tarnished edition, but the reflection of the organiser Henri Desgrange after the 1904 race, ruined by widespread cheating, with the first three finishers disqualified and victory awarded to Henri Cornet. Desgrange was wrong, but his words may ring true 103 years on.
Phil and Paul. You can’t help but think of the double act as the Murray Walker and James Hunt of our sports, and for me, as for so many others, Liggett and Sherwen are the voices that fuelled my passion once the Tour de France and Kellogg’s Tour of Britain hit terrestrial television in the 1980s. But on my side, I suspect it all runs a little deeper and longer than for many.
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.