All sport is romantic, but cycling is more romantic than most, I think. Baseball is obsessed with figures, cricket with figures and style. Football has the promise of the intrinsic beauty of a team working perfectly in co-ordination, engineered by individual excellence. And these are wonderful things – there is reason to love all of sport. But cycling stands outside of all of this. Cycling makes the achievements of other sports seem almost childish by comparison. Cycling is epic in a way that few, if any, other sports can consistently match. It’s the elements, the landscape, the awful suffering it induces in its protagonists, the heroism that is so often involved in just completing a race, let alone winning it. Even the sly Machiavellianism that is buried in the mechanics of the sport itself adds to its romance.
Cycling is a beautiful, terrible sport, that has spun its seductive mythology through incredible tales of man against the elements, man against the mountain, man against man. It has a narrative that defies simple analysis: there is a bold simplicity in its premise – the fastest man (or woman) from A to B wins; yet in practice, the narrative plays itself out through subtle maneouvres, complex calculations, the grim pragmatism of survival and the urgent desire to escape the chains of the peloton.
In no other sport that I can think of are such subtle tactics created by the essential need to preserve enough energy to minimise the suffering required to win – or even to finish. In no other sport are so many of the protagonists discarded so selfishly and left to fend for themselves by the wayside. They are truly the slaves of the road. No other sport creates such invitations for breathtaking displays of sacrifice, heroism and monumental ambition, so frequently belittled by the sheer physical limits of the human body.
It’s a beautiful and terrible sport, and it lost its way for years through the joyless calculations of the EPO generation. But in the last two days, our sport seems to have recovered its essential spirit. There were glimmers in last year’s Giro – that was such an evocative race; but when we look back with our romantic imaginations, we’ll say that this Tour came close to fulfilling in every breath, every fall, every tired turn of the pedals, in every grim facial rictus as the road kicks up again, the insane and brutal ambition of Desgrange: “The perfect Tour is one in which only one man finishes.” It’s felt like that at times.
The Tour is built of madness. Only men who are on the edge would attempt what Evans, Voeckler, Schleck, Contador et al have tried to achieve these two astonishing days. Welcome back, real cycling – we missed you. We really, really missed you.