The Road Book presents “The Red Line” An alternative to a simple race report, bringing you regular impressions and musings to complement the racing calendar. This week Jonny Long looks back at the Amstel Gold Race 2021.
After the finish line came…confusion. Wout van Aert pumped his fist in celebration, but the celebrating soon stopped. Had he beaten Tom Pidcock? Exacted his revenge for Brabantse Pijl four days earlier, adding another big win to his burgeoning palmarès? He didn’t know.
Pidcock thought maybe he had won, saying one of the few spectators on the sideline had shouted after him as he whizzed past the finish line.
Both riders came to a halt, collecting refreshment from their soigneurs, exchanging a brief word, asking whether the other knew the result. But no fist bump, no pat of respect for the ride, the race wasn’t over.
It was refreshing, the TV commentators rightly pointed out, the lack of camaraderie between the rivals. Desperately wanting to win, pre-pissed off if they’d lost out by the smallest of margins. Pidcock wiped his face down, a support staff attempting to engage him in conversation, but the 21-year-old’s gaze was fixed back down the road, still lost in the bike race.
While spectator-less stadiums have all but neutered football of any hostility, 4-0 thumpings administered before opponents walk off arm-in-arm, laughing behind hand-covered mouths so no-one can lip-read them into the morning’s papers.
While VAR has become a mere punchline rather than state-of-the-art technology, on Sunday cycling said hold my beer as riders, teams, television broadcasts and fans waited for the official result of the 2021 Amstel Gold Race for what felt like an age.
Actually, the television broadcasts didn’t wait, the coverage ended before Wout van Aert had been confirmed the victor, fading into adverts with a UCI commissaire getting the last word, showing the photo finish to a cameraman and then offering up a shrug. We didn’t even see the podium, and with no fans around to watch either, it begs the question of who was actually watching as Max Schachmann improved on his third place by downing his half pint of Amstel the quickest. Only in cycling do you actually get to drown your sorrows.
The prolonged uncertainty over the result was a perfect cycling moment, beautifully encapsulating the sport. The utter confusion and melee followed by the scientific adjudication that Van Aert had beaten Pidcock by 0.004 seconds. 0.004!
Of course, Twitter had a field day as various lines were photoshopped across images of the photo finish to prove where the line actually was, others pointing out Pidcock’s supposed ‘rookie’ mistake of keeping his bottle for the final sprint, which maybe cost him that tiny bit extra he needed to turn his 2nd to a 1st. Maybe he missed the last of the new, specified litter zones and didn’t want to risk being disqualified? This is cycling in 2021.
What we do know is Pidcock slept on the disappointment, woke up on Monday morning still confused and then tweeted out that the photo finish had created more questions that answers, before an Ineos PR person presumably told him to delete it. Meanwhile, a UCI commissaire released a statement saying finals this close it can’t really be seen, only measured.
The whole episode was everything sport should be. Professional yet raw enough to throw up surprises. Excitement, anguish, unpredictability.
Pidcock’s disappointment will fade, he will win the Amstel Gold at some point, as well as pretty much anything else he wants to. His professional, not just WorldTour, career is only two months old yet he’s already picked up his first pro win, podiums and top performances at Monuments. Everyone knew Pidcock was good, but no-one, presumably apart from Pidcock that is, knew he was this good. At points on Sunday it barely seemed like he was trying as he effortlessly peddled away from rivals.
The story of the 2021 Amstel Gold Race was soon superseded, however, by the Super League story erupting from the world of football. Cycling has its own Super League already, of course, the likes of Pidcock, Van Aert, Van der Poel and Pogacar absent-mindedly erecting their own closed shop of competition through the sheer otherworldly-ness of their performances.
We often complain at the backwardness of cycling – sorry JP Morgan could you hold onto that $6 billion a sec, we’ve just got to figure out who won the bike race first – but how beautiful that it seems almost inconceivable that this sport could suffer a similar fate to football.