Gods of The Classics
Fantasy, Myths, and the Future of Pro Cycling
Words: Adam Phelan
Images: Twila Federica Muzzi
As the edge of winter slowly softens in Europe, the eyes of the cycling world open wide. Ears prick up. Spring is coming, and that can only mean one thing. The Classics.
Cycling folklore thrives in these months. Stories of heroes, the makings of legends, the triumph of underdogs, the plight of broken 'warriors'. The mud, blood, and tears, and the analogies to war (however disingenuous, or even disrespectful this may be).
The maddened crowd possessed by a drunken passion, barking like dogs clawing at their prize. The dust, it's thick dark mask drifting through an ancient countryside, before gently settling once again when the circus moves town.
These are the Spring Classics. A tale of beautiful brutality, where the real racers come to play.
Or, at least that’s how we – the audience, the fans, and even the riders themselves – view them.
But, it's all really a fiction. Construction within our minds. Once the romanticism and mysticism are stripped away from our view, things change. If we analyse these races by the physical reality of them, that is, a group of men or women riding bikes through old roads that are largely no longer in use, the story becomes less appealing.
Personally, I never raced a 'proper' classic. Brabantse Pijl is as close as I got. This perhaps dampens my opinion on the matter. However, given I did race several pro races along the same roads, I am fairly confident in saying this: riding and racing on cobbles is a shit experience. Absolutely horrible.
If Paris-Roubaix wasn't the ‘Paris-Roubaix’, you'd struggle to find as many (if any) eager faces ready to thrash their bodies and bikes for hours on end. Least of all on a Sunday.
Riders tell tales of how it takes weeks for your body to recover afterward, the aches pulsating to the bone. This pain is only reserved to lucky ones too, the ones that don't crash. For the others, and there are usually many, the pain can be far worse. Crashes there can be season-ending.
So why are these races loved so much? Why do riders dream about hitting the cobbles of the Arenberg forest? Or one day owning a trophy that is regarded (almost) as more valuable than gold, when really it's just a stone?
What's the point of it all?
You would be forgiven to think this is a Spring Classics bashing article. An opinion piece attempting to lift away the romantic veil of The Classics, to show the brutish stupidity that lays underneath.
But, this is far from that. In fact, it's a celebration of the power of The Classics. And how, if cycling wants a strong future, it's within these races that an answer may be found.
In his best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari outlines in breathtaking clarity how it was that our species, Homo sapiens, managed to outlast our other human cousins and eventually come to dominate the planet.
Harari’s general thesis was this: our evolution, and therefore our survival as a species, is due to our ability to believe in shared fictions. Nations, money, religions. Institutions, financial markets, even human rights. These are all, Harari argues, human fictions conjured from our minds, enabling us to collaborate, organise, and communicate on a massive scale never before possible.
Whilst Harari's book was broad, ambitious, and sweeping in its intellectual argument, its core proposition, that of our human ability (that is, Homo sapiens exclusively, and not say Neanderthals) to imagine the non-existent, to believe in shared myths and tales, is a profound and insightful point. A point, I believe, that the sport of cycling would do well to remember.
Professional cycling, and The Classics specifically, are often compared to religion. Although I would once dismiss these suggestions as hyperbole, or simply marketing hype, I am beginning to think that perhaps it's true. Or, at least, the sport should play into this myth-making more often.
What motivates a person to follow professional cycling? What leads to an audience member to become a fan of particular rider, to cheer for them like a manic preacher, as if they too will share in the victory and its spoils? Why do people make pro cyclists out to be God-like, when really they are just like you or I (but can ride a bike well)?
What, perhaps most importantly, motivates a sponsor to pour money into the sport?
I believe it all has to do with the romanticism and fiction of professional cycling. There is a reason why the last placed rider in the 2018 Tour de France gained a huge following and received extensive media coverage. Or why professional cycling's most winning team in 2018 struggled to find a sponsor.
There is also a reason why promotional videos for The Classics can be like a tear-inducing war cry. Or why riders choose to take showers in old run-down bathrooms at a mediocre velodrome in Roubaix when they have far better showers in their team buses.
“Fictions, romanticism, and myth-making around the lore of the sport itself, and it's characters, is where cycling’s sustainability and growth can be found.”
It's largely, I would argue, all to do with storytelling. The creation and maintenance of professional cycling's fiction. This sense of fiction, however, shouldn't be regarded as a negative.
It must be said, I am not referring to a fiction created by deceit, fraud, and cheating. Given professional cycling's checkered past (and given recent news, checkered present) with performance-enhancing drugs, it’s easy it think of this idea in that context. But, those fictions are lies and untruths, and not what I am talking about. The players in this type of fakery can piss off. Instead, the fiction, romanticism, and myth-making around the lore of the sport itself, and it's diverse characters, is where cycling’s sustainability and growth can be found.
The Classics would just be the same as any other set of races without this element. I will stay up into the early hours of the morning in the coming weeks, not because I get off on the number of watts a human can produce through bike for five minute periods over and over again.
It's because of the drama, the madness in the riders eyes, the heroes that came before and will be born again on those roads; it's the fight and the plight. It's the long history of the races. The stories that mark the cobbles from decades past. It's the intangible, non-physical, imagined reality that inspires us all, from the fans on the side of the road to the riders themselves.
Matt Hayman's 2016 Paris-Roubaix victory highlights this point. Whilst it was an impressive win in a physical sense (I am sure the power file would have made sports scientists across the world have a collective wet dream), the physicality and athleticism of his win, isn't necessarily what made it so incredible. Hundreds of people didn't cry watching the Backstage Pass video of the victory, because of power records, or fatigue scores.
Instead, it was the story. It was Hayman's long love affair with Paris-Roubaix. His crash only months before. His broken body. The determination to get back to fitness. The impossibility of the victory. The super domestique status of Hayman's career, his unwavering service to others all those years, without the spotlight on himself. And, of course, the myth of the race itself. It was this that inspired the world, and still creates – upon recalling that moment – a swell of emotion bubble up from deep within.
Hayman’s story was so powerful, that it made the denial of another fairytale story – Tom Boonen’s fifth Roubaix victory – digestible even by the most passionate Belgian cycling fan.
The incredible impassioned fan loyalty towards football clubs, often to the unhealthy point of violence, isn't created just because a few people kick around a circular object on a grassy field.
The power of sport, broadly, is characterised by this type of story. The global success and fan insanity that is seen in professional football (a.k.a soccer), is a testament to this. The incredible impassioned fan loyalty towards football clubs, often to the unhealthy point of violence, isn't created just because a few people kick around a circular object on a grassy field.
In this way, a sport is more than the physical actions its athletes perform (although, that too is, obviously, a key element). Without Homo sapiens' ability to believe in shared fictions, professional sports wouldn't exist.
For football fans, football is their religion, the clubs and stadiums are their church, and the players are their prophets. Few sports have the same level of global mysticism as this. The money speaks for itself.
Professional cycling needs to remember this fact. The marketing of the sport, the generation of money and infrastructure, the long term sustainability, and the progression – internally and externally – of cycling, relies on a recognition that sport is more than just physical athleticism, majesty, and performance.
The problems professional cycling faces cannot be improved by simply gaining more race wins, or just by the removal of cheating, or even breaking more world records. Going faster and being better physically is a very narrow view. A view, if held too strongly by those in power, will lead to the slow death a magnificent sport.
EF-Education First seems to understand this. Their pivot to storytelling (yes, a disgustingly overused buzzword in marketing and business these days) of its riders, the countries, the fans, the struggles, and successes, instead of just focusing on the pure performance of the team is smart. Having pro riders do small gravel races? Why not?
Whilst I do think this particular team can, at times, come off as trying too hard to be interesting — with every rider seemingly trying outdo each other's alternative quirkiness — it's a step that too few teams are making.
Mitchelton-SCOTT nailed this largely with their Backstage Pass series, pioneered by Dan Jones. Although the overtly ‘Aussie larrikin’ vibe of the short films wasn’t for everyone, the heart of each episode centered on a sense of humanity and story that anyone could get behind.
This all drives home a point alluded to earlier. If the most successful (per victories) WorldTour team of 2018 struggles to land a sponsor, there may be something amiss. Winning may not hold all the answers.
Perhaps the boss of the said team could spend less time justifying sexist gestures of his riders and, instead, think to how the team could reshape their view of success; or, to how they can be the architects of a much more powerful narrative than that of a simple ‘race winning dominance’ story. Perhaps then, those these problems would occur less often. If the business world understands this notion, the professional teams asking for their money, should too.
To be successful in creating, sustaining, and monetising this aspirational story of professional cycling, you cannot act in silos. The UCI, the race organisers, broadcasters, the teams, and riders all need to work collectively to capitalise on this power within the sport.
A more shared model in cycling, dare I say, may yield a far better outcome than the current status quo. The sport needs to stop its self-strangulation due to the fear that different parties will lose their territory, dominance, or power to others.
This notion isn’t a one-stop solution to the issues in pro cycling, but it sure as hell beats burying your head deeper in the sand. With a sport stuck in old ways, old thinking, and unimaginative solutions, a step beyond the threshold of convention could be the distributing factor needed to get the ball moving forward.
Sports like the NBA, who are embracing the modern media and technological landscape (with a close partnership with teams and players to share, invest, and innovate in this area), can act as road-map, or at least inspirational case study, for our sport.
The future of professional cycling depends on this new kind of thinking.
Growing up, I have memories of watching Tom Boonen become the hero of the North. A Spring Classics king. As a young teenage rider, watching these races from the other side of the world, I saw him wield his bike like a weapon, gliding over the rough surfaces beneath him as if he was walking on water.
He became a God to me. My imagination had created a character of 'Tom Boonen' in my mind, without knowing the man at all. The fictional construct was set in place.
Many years later, I finally raced him. On those roads in Belgium, I quickly realised he was, in fact, a normal human. Yes, an incredibly talented and impressive rider. But human all the same.
Yet, it was the fiction: that he was something other than human, that the sport was about more than just physical performance, which drew me into cycling and made me love the sport.
It was what lay beyond my own reality that made cycling exciting. The fantasy of one day racing Paris-Roubaix, or Ronde van Vlaanderen – which nowadays I could think of million other things I'd rather do – captured my imagination and created a sense of desire that meant I'd pursue a career in cycling for many years. It's what, in many ways, keeps my interest in professional cycling alive today.
That is the power of myths in the sport. That there is something to believe in, to dream about, to strive towards. Something to help pull yourself out of your every day and into a different world. It’s something inspire you and take your breath away.
And as the dust begins to kick up once again in Northern Europe, I am ready. Ready to be swept up in the fantasy all over again.
Till next time,