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The column: We do like to be beside the roadside

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The absence of racing from our screens has left many of us experiencing withdrawal, but it’s the live stuff we’re really missing

Photographs: Offside/L'Equipe
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Rouleur should have been at Liège-Bastogne-Liège today. 


As journalists we opt in to the press accreditation because we might as well, but that’s not the actual reason we hire a car and head for the Eurotunnel. Although it’s somewhat convenient to have so many riders and all the teams in the same place at the same time, a race is rarely the ideal occasion to gather meaningful material, or collar riders for deep, extended interviews. It’s always easier to get them on the phone, or visit them at home.


One of the great misconceptions many non-sports fans hold about people who attend live sport is that we do so in order to watch the event itself. Even in football, with its state-of-the-art arenas, designed to ensure there’s no such thing as a bad seat, you’re always going to have a better view of the action on your HD flatscreen from the comfort of your couch. At smaller arena-activities like basketball and even track cycling you might fare a bit better.


Road racing, though? Forget about it.

If it’s a flat day, whether a classic or a stage race, it’s all over in a flash. Maybe two flashes, if you’re lucky and there’s a decent break. Being there imparts next to no information about what’s happening. On a climb the riders are obviously going a lot slower and will likely be split up into multiple groups so you might be able to get some idea of what’s going on, but still not much.


So it’s not for a close-up of the competition that we go, either. 


No, we go to experience the occasion; to immerse ourselves in it; to be touched by the electricity of the best bike riders in the world at full flight. 160 athletes putting 400-odd watts through their pedals is… a lot of watts. If I’d paid more attention in Physics I might be able to convert it into lightbulbs or fridges but I didn’t so I can’t. Besides, that’s not the point. 


For as much as anything, if not more, we go to experience all of that with others.


Whether you pitched up the night before to guarantee a great spot, or turned up just in time, the knowledge that everyone around you shares that same sense of anticipation for the race is the same. That there are hundreds or thousands of people stationed in either direction validates your decision to have spent however many hours and Euros on getting there.

Like watching the headliner on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, that shared “I’m here” experience that makes you feel like nothing going on outside your own sensory intake matters. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world and nor would your neighbour. You don’t need to know them to know that they’re feeling the same things you are.


It’s one of the reasons the big races are better, even if you’re further back from the barriers. Have you ever watched a race on your own, perhaps in the Middle East or somewhere where spectators are hard to come by? It’s a bizarre experience. The riders go past carrying the same energy but for some reason, instead of disseminating, it’s completely contained. It’s why the idea of behind-closed-doors bike racing holds little to no appeal. It might technically be a solution but it wouldn’t be the same.


Before this global crisis hit, how many of us knew, or truly appreciated, how much we needed to spend time with each other, and strangers, en masse? Theatre, festivals, cinema, pubs, live sport. They all nourish us in similar ways.


Read: The secret to great bike racing


We would have parked up and positioned ourselves on La Redoute, the same as everyone else, and waited for the race to arrive. Ever the consummate professionals, we would have maintained stoic, impartial gazes as Julian Alaphilippe or Philippe Gilbert flew past, but we would have savoured the jubilant roar like nectar. 


It’s why the first bike race, whether it’s the Tour de France or the London-Surrey Classic, or any other race this year or next, will be the greatest coming together our sport has ever known. Wherever it is, we’ll be there with you. For exactly the same reasons. 

 


 
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