In the end, it’s not about the virus, not really. It’s about us.
What is tormenting about COVID-19 and its coded desire to self-replicate and co-exist with humanity, is how it has exposed to plain sight the undeniable fragility of the world we’ve built for ourselves. All seems suddenly sickly.
All seems dizzyingly uncertain, and though on the surface today looks very much like yesterday, there is a nauseating dislocation from the surety of the past, and from the hidden assumption anchored within it; the path that we thought the future was going to take. I can’t dress it up any way other than to admit I am finding it sad in the extreme.
Many lives have been lost already, often elderly and infirm folk innocently caught up in this outbreak. And tragically it seems impossible not to conclude that many thousands more will follow. This is the kernel of the drama sweeping us up in its net.
But alongside this tragedy, the virus is unwittingly committing everyday vandalism to the structures we have put in place to keep us happy and content, to make life into a reward, rather than a punishment. There will be people feeling just this way from the all corners of the earth, representing all spheres of human endeavour, from education and healthcare, to music and science. Our world is being rattled.
This is true: Our little realm of racing bicycles scarcely seems worth bothering about. Yet, for those of us who love the sport, a world without it, is like a value-brand ersatz experience. Road racing shouldn’t matter so much, but it does.
When we, at The Road Book set about this mammoth task in 2018, and sat down to work out how to catalogue, record and document a cycling year, we understood that no two years would ever be alike. This was a given; part of the evolution of the sport. First came the Tour, then came the Giro, the Vuelta is the baby. One day there might be a fourth. Or one of the others might fall away. Who knows?
Races come and go. Some, very rarely, get cancelled when the wind blows with such ferocity that it would be unsafe to woman, man, beast and fowl to let them happen. It happened in Dubai not so long ago, when the riders stood in huddles at the start line, feeling their shaved calves being sandblasted by a venomous desert storm. They jumped back into minibuses and fled for the air-conditioned safety of their waterfront hotels, and took a dusty day off.
I remember something much wetter happening on a stage of the Tour of Britain, back when I used to present the race for ITV. Instead of watching a bike race, we sheltered in various cafés along the Blackpool seafront, hands wrapped around mugs of sweetened tea. Mark Cavendish dropped into the Winter Gardens to remember his days as a ballroom dancer. But no one raced, as the Atlantic roared at the English coast, raising waves in violent rows and hurling them at the seawall. And the next day, the wind subsided, and they raced again.
Cancellations are few and far between.
But now, this.
The UAE Tour this year, abandoned after five stages was just an opening salvo, as the virus broke free from Far East and took root everywhere. As I write, it has just been announced that Strade Bianche has fallen, for both the men and the women. It is not the first race to go. The Women’s WorldTour race the Tour of Chongming Island, scheduled for May, has already been indefinitely postponed. It seems unlikely that Tirreno-Adriatico can possibly escape the fate of Strade Bianche, and next to impossible to make a case for Milan Sanremo, whose iconic start outside the Milan duomo is close to epicentre of Italian contagion.
Teams are pulling out of Paris Nice, while the French authorities consider ever more stringent limitations and curtailments. Beyond March, the classics season is imperilled. The Tour de Romandie organisers have already made all their staff redundant. The Giro is in grave danger. And if that goes, the Tour could surely follow, at which point, the season loses its backbone and collapses entirely. Any other subsequent cancellations would have little heft if the big one goes.
All this is happening for good reasons, though it has been unedifying to see how vulnerable and impotent race organiser RCS has been in the teeth of the force majeure of hard cash. For legal reasons, RCS had to avoid being the ones to call their races off, or else they’d have been liable for all the expense incurred. That burden might have killed off the Giro before the virus even got a chance. Instead the teams have been taking the lead by withdrawing, forcing the hand of the races. Someone has to do the right thing, however painful it may be. Bike races are just about the most perfect breeding ground for an ambitious virus that it is possible to imagine.
So, we stare reality in the face. 2020 could well be over, already; before the Poggio, the Velodrome of Roubaix, the climb of the Redoute; before the Appennines, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Champs Elysées.
For me, it is hard to picture a year without races. How will it feel? What texture will it have? How will we know whether it is May (snow-flanked Dolomites), June (Suffolk villages), July (sunflower fields), August (olive groves and hot wind), September (rainbow bands) or October (lake Como lapping gently at its shores)?
When I was a kid, I used to think the days of the week had colours. Monday was a reddish-brown, Tuesday a light blue, Thursday gun-metal grey etc. This is how I feel about the cycling year, having not been at home for 17 consecutive Julys. Without the braille-like feel of bike races starting and finishing and posting their results, I am simply gazing into a wash of formless light. I won’t know how to get through it.
These are my fears.
Rest assured that The Road Book 2020 will document this trial by non-existence with all the clarity and thought you’d expect from us. If this coming volume is thinner, then the story could hardly be more clearly told. It will sit on your shelves as a mute reminder of the year they stopped.
That’s all. Outside, on my London street, it has been raining now, uninterrupted for seven hours. 2021 cannot start soon enough.