“I just don’t understand, there isn’t really anything to see until they’re going for the finish line,” my housemate said, after I’d commandeered the television to stick Tirreno-Adriatico on, Paris-Nice warming up on the laptop perched on the coffee table – the sort of decadence cycling fans of decades past couldn’t have imagined.
They’re half right of course, my housemates, and they enjoy teasing me in this fashion based on my inability to conjure a convincing argument as to why cycling doesn’t have a broader appeal. The scenery, I suggest, is often worth it alone, but this gets laughed out of the room on account of the dim gloom setting over the stage five route from Castellalto to Castelfidardo.
‘It’s like how in test cricket you’re not just trying to hit a six off every ball,’ I add. It’s what lies underneath, the whole canvas, only seen and understood if explained to you by someone who knows the secrets already.
I could have saved my energy had I known what was to come, figured out a way to Paypal it over to any one of Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogacar or Wout van Aert. They needed it more than I did.
The housemates occasionally drifted past throughout the afternoon, in the listless sort of way that’s become an effortless skill in the endless days of lockdown. And each time they passed they asked questions.
‘What’s he doing out there on his own?’
‘That’s Mathieu van der Poel, they’re kind of letting him win today. He purposefully lost 20 minutes yesterday so he can try and win today.’
‘That’s weird. What’s the guy in the blue jersey doing now?’
‘Well…he’s also trying to win, but the entire race.’
And if that wasn’t enough, Tadej Pogacar then began to close in on Van der Poel. The Dutchman admitted afterwards that he’d hit out with 50km to go because he was sick of the cold. Easier to sprint forwards than go back to the team car for a rain jacket. What he hadn’t expected, however, is that the Tour de France champion would try and chase him down.
The housemates sat there, agog, for the first time in their lives doing the mental calculation we’ve all done a million times in our heads of the distance to the finish line and the gap between two groups on the road.
‘He’s going to catch him…no he’s not…is he going to make it or be caught? Is this supposed to be happening??’
Well, no, technically it’s not. But while the coronavirus pandemic delivers unexpectedness in the worst sort of way, cycling has risen up in unequivocal opposition. Utterly mesmerising in the unforeseen ways the usual scripts are being up-ended, and the fact we haven’t got used to the supreme talent of these new cast members means we are currently living in the sweet spot before them winning everything gets boring. But ask yourself: do you think it’s ever going to get boring?
Look along the list of stage winners this week in Italy and it reads: Wout van Aert, Julian Alaphilippe, Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogacar, Mathieu van der Poel, Mad Wurtz Schmidt, Wout van Aert. That is bonkers.
For once, this sport so attached to its history and topography, can afford for these aspects to take a back seat and hand over fully to the racing, the superstars not simply lining up on the start line but with a burning desire to win regardless of the day or occasion.
The fact that world champion Julian Alaphilippe, who it’s already easy to forget won stage two, is cast into a supporting role, means you know the racing’s not just been good, but great. That Filippo Ganna didn’t win the time trial tells us all we need to know about the level on display.
Sorry for using another cricket analogy, but the peloton is currently doing the equivalent of smashing a T20 and test match together, putting your grandma in a Tesla and just letting her have at it.
And if you think this burgeoning soap opera of Pogs, Rogs, vans Aert and der Poel (and let’s also not forget Julian Alaphilippe) this last week was good, just you wait until the Tour de France.