It’s easy to be blasé about things when they’re abundant. By the time the curtain came down on the professional cycling season last October, we’d easily had our fill. 181 days of WorldTour racing spread across the three Grand Tours and five Monuments; week-long races and one-day classics; flat finishes, summits and everything in between; fifteen countries, four continents, and let’s not even get into the timezones. Not as global as it should be, but getting there.
It’s not like we limited our consumption to the top tier, either. Goodness knows how much HC (now Pro) and point one racing we devoured. It’s no wonder that by the time the Tour of Guangxi course came around even we found ourselves saying “no thanks, we’re full.” Alright, maybe a couple of crumbs on a cracker.
The winter was a welcome respite. A few months to digest the season gone and build our anticipation for the next. We weren’t quite ready by the time of the tours Down Under and San Juan came around. Five minutes of highlights each morning was enough.
Somewhat taking us somewhat by surprise, it seemed to have been the UAE Tour that lit the touchpaper or, to continue the gastronomic metaphor, whet our appetites for racing. Adam Yates’ solo surge to victory on Jebel Hefeet was an early season amuse bouche. Two days later the race delivered a showdown on the same mountain. The battle might have only been between Yates, Tadej Pogacar, Andrey Lutsenko and David Gaudu, on a spectator-less climb in the Middle East, but squint and it could have been Geraint Thomas, Romain Bardet, Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome on Alpe d’Huez.
Then there was “opening weekend.” Whether or not you buy into that relatively recently realised notion, it’s difficult to dispute the sense that Omloop Het Nieuwsblad felt like the curtain-raiser. Hour upon wonderful hour of televised racing, taking place at a time when most of us, those who were so inclined, could recline and revel in it.
Helicopter shots of neat Flandrien towns brought the hunger back. All those familiar high gabled roofs, and countryside that really isn’t countryside, but is beautiful for its familiar and the memories it evokes of sportives and grand races that are cycling’s history. If it didn’t get you excited maybe this is not the sport you’re looking for. The racing was good too.
“Every single section, every corner, every point where there could be some action, whether it’s with a crosswind, a cobbled sector or a narrow road, it’s a fight,” said Bahrain-McLaren’s Fred Wright. It was his first ever WorldTour race. He finished 69th and last, but he damn well finished.
The cycling was then supposed to come thick and fast. Even as we were watching, few can have missed the other kind of dark cloud looming over the action. While Alexander Kristoff was battling against wind, rain and cobbles, several of his team-mates and a hotel-full of journalists were confined to luxury quarters in Abu Dhabi. There are worse places to be quarantined than Yas Island’s 4 star, Crowne Royal Plaza, but even the swankiest hotel will become a cage if you’re kept there long enough.
Going into last week we just about held onto hopes that the 14th edition of Strade Bianche would not be a COVID-19 casualty. With the majority of the cases of the virus having been diagnosed in the Lombardy region of Italy, we were less optimistic that the satisfyingly palindromic 111th Milan-Sanremo would be going ahead as scheduled.
We can only imagine the racing we were deprived of yesterday. Who would have emerged into the Piazza del Campo from each of the races? Another Annemiek van Vleuten solo star turn? A fifth podium for Kasia Niewiadoma – perhaps the top step this time? Might Wout van Aert have come good, rendering his crash of last summer a distant memory?
The conditions in Tuscany were conducive to producing some sparkling racing. Cloudy, so perhaps not picture perfect, but dry, so the strade would have at least stayed bianche, unlike in 2018 (although even then we were treated to a classic of a classic, with a gloveless Tiesj Benoot earning his tough guy stripes.) Eleven degrees meant cold legs would have offered no excuse.
It’s just bike racing. No-one would be crass enough to argue that sport should have come ahead of people’s lives. Business as usual was not an option. Except it’s not just bike racing, is it? Sport, like music, theatre and art, is one of the public squares where people come together. Not physically, but through shared experience that creates and cultivates communities. That’s what we miss. Without it we are less.
We are happy to settle for Paris-Nice, grateful that it is going ahead even in drastically diminished form. We must be prepared, however, to accept that 2020 may turn out to be a lost year.
It’s not the most important thing. Not life or death no. But these things add colour to our lives and colour is still important. You’re allowed to feel like cycling matters.