If you are watching elite sport at the minute, you are watching it on television. You can either opt for the piped-in crowd effects – which are eerily a step behind the pictures, like soft thunder after a flash of lightning – or you can go for the thrill of hearing the curses between the shouts of “Time! Time!” at every throw-in. “It’s just not the same without the fans,” is the constant lament of fans. It’s true – football, cricket and rugby are not the same. Neither is cycling. But here’s the thing – cycling is better.
In the sorry parade of sports governing bodies, professional cycling’s UCI has a record that stands with the most dismal, but it declared that all three grand tours would go ahead and they have – chapeau! Putting on a bike race is not easy at the best of times. At the worst, it’s a leap of faith that had many cycling fans shaking their heads and speculating on which day the broom wagon would come along to sweep up the whole peloton. Chins were stroked when Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme tested positive for Covid-19 and left the race for seven days. Paris looked a long way off.
Across the three tours, we lost some riders, even some teams, and we saw stages cancelled and shortened, strikes called and truces arranged when the weather got too much. There is nothing too out of the ordinary in any of that; the travelling circus of a grand tour has never been short of clowns, highwire acts and ringmasters with wobbling authority. Grand tours usually reach the finishing line, even if there are casualties en route.
What has been missing in recent years is a real sense of jeopardy. The big teams have used their big money to develop specialised squads with clear objectives. A team of riders are employed to close down breaks for their sprinter and then deliver their fastest man to the front at the perfect moment for him to hit 80km/h for 80 metres and sail over the line, his teammates safe in the peloton and ready to go through the same thing the next day. So too, the top general classification riders benefit from the effort of super-domestiques, riders who would be fast enough to take the lead role in all but a couple of rival teams but instead control the race for their man’s effort, ensuring he gathers the few vital seconds on the line. Marginal gains for the directeurs sportifs; pretty big losses for us.
Not in 2020. Partly due to the lack of precise preparation, partly due to the absence of some old favourites on the start line but, I venture, mainly due to the sheer 2020ness of it all, stage after stage has been crazily unpredictable. The old certainties have been hammered on the anvil of contradiction and the only answer that anyone in the know could honestly give was: “I don’t know.”
At the Tour de France, 21-year-old Tadej Pogačar returned to Slovenia with the Merckxian haul of yellow, polka dot and white jerseys after a penultimate-stage time-trial that ripped the maillot jaune from the back of his friend and compatriot, Primoz Roglic. The older man was so shattered, both physically and mentally by the shock of it, that all he could do was go across and congratulate the kid. Both men and the sport itself soared in the hearts of those of us who value decency in a world where there is less of it every day.
At the Giro, the favourite, Geraint Thomas, hit a loose water bottle and was out before the race had reached the mainland. So, just as the chorus girl steps forward to become a star, his domestique, Hackney lad Tao Geoghegan Hart, led his Ineos Grenadiers team to the maglia rosa. Again, there was tremendous sporting courage on display, especially from two Aussies: the stone-faced Rohan Dennis, who gave everything to his erstwhile co-water carrier, and Jai Hindley, the youngster from Perth who rode with one eye on his team leader, the brave but outclassed Wilco Kelderman, until he wilted at the lead. Fairytales sometimes do happen.
The Vuelta has been a duel between our man Roglic and a foe from France, Richard Carapaz, but heroism on the hills from Lancashire lad Hugh Carthy and Irishman (sort of) Dan Martin kept them in range as the race entered its third week. It’s gripping stuff with all to play for.
None of these riders are household names and, while excellent competitors, they are unlikely to become all-time greats – but that doesn’t matter. Sport is about competition, spirit and joy and it’s hard to imagine future grand tours matching this year’s races on those criteria.
And there’s more.
We’re all stuck inside as the nights close in and the news becomes grimmer and grimmer. The awesome television coverage has brought the outdoors indoors. Asphalt snaking through the valleys following the path carved over millennia by bluest rivers; roads rearing up towards snow-tipped peaks, glowering as they await their winter whiteness; waves breaking on cliffs as a helicopter yaws, pitches and rolls the better to capture the sheer majesty of the scenery through which the riders pass, barely noticing. But we do – and it makes us happy.
Best of all, the absence of fans on the high passes has brought unobstructed pictures that we may never see again. Rain teeming onto roads, rubber gripping and slipping, lycra no protection, as races are ended in the cold and the pain. Riders minuscule against the background of the Stelvio Pass – cycling as imagined by Werner Herzog, sport at its most epic. On the brutal L’Angliru, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich swam into my thoughts, men alone in a barren untamed landscape, in it but not of it.
I had fallen out of love with cycling. I was in Paris for the conclusion of the Tour in 1998, the year of the Festina Affair, and thought: “Well, at least it can’t get any worse.” Little did I know what the next decade would bring. I had returned to the sport a little, as the racing looked more real and the absurd EPO-boosted days faded in the memory, the cyclists betraying their real efforts on their contorted faces. But this year, I’m smitten again, ready to forgive unconditionally, as fools in love do. When I needed my four walls to fade to grey, cycling’s grand tours brought the preposterously beautiful roads of France, Italy and Spain and all that sky to me. I’m grateful.