Few sports can quite encapsulate heroism as well as cycling canBert Verhoeff

For Belgians, recent footballing talent notwithstanding, nothing can ever rival the spectacle which takes place on the badly paved Flemish cart tracks every year around Easter Sunday. To the outsider, the sight might be something baffling; for seven hours, stick-thin young men, crammed into Lyrca akin to a full-body condom, puff away at mind-bogglingly slow speeds over the worst-paved roads in Europe.

For many hours, little happens. A large swarming mass of cyclists wearing suitably dragon-fly-like sunglasses and helmets which look like they have been flattened in a trash compactor cruise through the Flemish countryside. The Belgian fans hang out of their caravans which they dragged to Oudenaarde from across the country, shout support and swig from plastic cups of Belgian Jupiler beer. Despite my bafflement, as the English visitor from across the Channel, the Ronde van Vlaanderen remains the greatest sporting event of the year.

Rumours that cycling has found a mainstream audience in Britain, have, to paraphrase Mark Twain, been greatly exaggerated. Beyond a minor sub-section of middle-aged, high-earning men who admire shiny objects in their garage, cycling has yet to be adopted as a popular, youthful sport. And beyond a minor sub-section of European immigrants, ex-pros, and journalists who need to carve themselves a new niche after being dropped from Europa League highlights on ITV4, there are few who settle down over April to watch the seven-hour long spring classics.

In these times when polemics seem to be more popular than ever before, it seems fitting that, disregarding those subsidiary debates on EU membership or the American presidency, a suitable polemic be proclaimed for the adoption of and heightened general regard for the magnificent sport of professional road cycling among the British sporting and non-sporting public.

There are few sports which have the history of pro-cycling; where do minor football matches appear in Hemingway, as the Tour of the Basque country does in The Sun Also Rises? When did tennis help political and religious refugees during the Second World War? It was none other than former Tour de France winner Gino Bartali who used to ferry top-secret anti-Mussolini documents in his jersey during supposed training rides in the 1940s.

Few sports can quite summon up the nostalgia that cycling does, be it the grimy black-and-white photos of the two great French cyclists of the 1960s, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, shoulder to shoulder upon the Puy de Dôme, or the grime-splattered face of Maurice Garin who had won the French 24-hour cycle race by riding 701km non-stop in the 1890s.

Cycling, for all its (sometime justifiable) Lycra-based derision, used to be cool, or chic. Eddy Merckx, Jan Janssen, and Jacques Anquetil were the definition of Sixties and Seventies cool: black polo-necks, tailored blazers, Perrier for lunch and espressos in Parisian cafes. These men were the heroes of the French, Belgian and Italian publics. The cyclist as a devil-may-care, hell-raising force of nature went on well into the Nineties; whereas Freddy Maertens was known for drinking champagne during races, it was his Belgian successor, Frank Vandenbroucke, who pushed the limits of cycling, and lifestyle, into the extremes. In the day, he would crush the competition with effortless ease, gliding away from his flailing rivals as if gliding on ice. But at night, he was found in the Belgian night-clubs, eyes wide, splutteringly incoherently, the cocaine pumping through his blood. Vandenbroucke’s rapid rise as the darling of Belgian cycling was almost inevitably followed by an even more precipitous fall: failed drug tests, declining performances – three separate retirements and death from pulmonary embolism at 34.

Cycling has always bred the exceptional, and the extraordinary; but as Frank Vandenbroucke, or Marco Pantani, dead from a cocaine overdose five years after his Tour de France victory, proved, extraordinary was a word which could be applied both positively and negatively.

Few sports, then, quite fitted into the Zeitgeist as well as cycling did; from the daring, near-suicidal feats of the first cyclists, battling for more than 20 hours over the Alps on fixed gears, to the swooning cool of the Sixties, to the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the Nineties. What happened on the bike deserves just as much attention. From tragedy, to tension and ecstasy, few sports can quite encapsulate heroism as well as cycling can; the football match is limited to 90 minutes; the cricket match to the whims of the weather; golf to a general lack of movement.

In other sports there is no Charly Gaul, who, 15 minutes behind his rivals, attacked the rest of the group with six hours left, or raced to win by half an hour after searing across the Alps in the pouring rain. There is no battle between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon, where over 3,000 kilometres of the racing across France boiled down to eight seconds on the Champs Élysées, as Laurent Fignon’s less than aerodynamic pony tail saw victory snatched from him on the final day. What other sport can boast the epic Liège-Bastogne-Liège of 1980, when Bernard Hinault rode away from his competitors in the falling snow, wearing no gloves but Ray-Ban aviators to protect his eyes? It took two weeks for the feeling to return to his fingers.

Triumph and tragedy have never been so close as they are in cycling; witness Tom Simpson, fighting up Mont Ventoux and dying just two kilometres from the finish after a deadly cocktail of amphetamines and alcohol. Or take Lance Armstrong’s tears as he pointed to the skies to dedicate his stage win to the recently deceased Fabio Casartelli, dead after a crash on the descent the previous week. That is not to say that death and heroic racing are inextricably linked. Controls on drugs, safety procedures, and better fitness checks have meant that the sport is finally getting safer. Its excitement remains undiminished. Its heroes live on.

Cycling has always struggled to catch on, not only because it has failed to ingrain itself into the British sporting psyche, but because of its relative complexity. Simply put, the more you understand about racing tactics, the more exciting the race becomes.

Time, space, and effort prevent me from explaining the nature of a pro-cycling race. I would hope that this brief taster might persuade you to turn on Eurosport on Sunday to watch Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Although if you don’t, it won’t diminish my enthusiasm. In fact, I’m watching La Flèche Wallonne right now.

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