This weekend, after a year and a half of waiting, I finally said goodbye to my Dad. He died in April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic (not from covid, I might add) and it’s taken this long for us to able to gather the family and friends who would have wanted to celebrate his life with us, together in one place.
How does this fit in with cycling? You are well within your right to ask. I’ll try to explain.
Remember the World Championships? It wasn’t so long ago, yet as a result of the stress and anxiety I’ve been carrying, time has warped out of its usual shape and it feels more like months ago than just a couple of weeks. I laughed out loud at the notion of trying to write about that epic road race, grateful for my status as a freelance writer as I tried, without success, to recall the order of events as they unfolded in Flanders for a podcast. An unenviable task, to write comprehensively about a race that was contested so hard, and in such incredible circumstances, that any word count would be like a restraining order. I exercised my right to pass on that one, given that I had other things on my mind.
It flew in the face of everything that makes me who I am though, not to channel my emotions about a race through my fingers onto the screen. I started trying to summarise the key moments; to keep it brief; a series of snapshots of arguably the most memorable race of the season, perhaps of the century so far. I didn’t get beyond 100 words then, frustrated that I wasn’t telling the whole story. To write snatches of the middle without a beginning or an end felt incomplete. So, it remained unwritten.
Then came Paris-Roubaix weekend. The sheer weight of history, with the first women’s race, the hallowed deluge that fans had dreamed of producing the most horrific conditions in almost 20 years, and the titanic battles that ensued across the famous cobbles. I couldn’t watch either race live as I was travelling back to my birthplace, where the majority of my Dad’s family live, for the aforementioned gathering.
The week prior to the memorial, I agonised over writing a speech, and spent anxious nights awake wondering whether or not I would be able to deliver it. In the end it was a fitting tribute to him that we all got together to celebrate his life (and I read the speech, and it was fine). Torrential rain poured outside as the first guests drifted in, and throughout the celebration I shared my own memories and savoured the fond recollections of others; accounts from his friends and family that gave me a whole new insight into his life. I left feeling recharged, and as though I had some kind of closure. Yet there are so many memories, and fragments of his life, that remain untold.
In a Premier Inn next to a service station in Hemel Hempstead tears ran down my cheeks as I watched Lizzie Deignan become the first woman to win Paris-Roubaix, and marvelled at the extent to which I project my emotional state onto cycling, as the iconic photo of her in the famous showers at the Roubaix velodrome prompted further tears over the momentous nature of her achievement, and I shed the burden that I’d been carrying ever since my Dad passed. The two things completely unconnected, and yet strangely intertwined in the way that emotions can become, when you’re feeling vulnerable.
Sunday we travelled home, the weather brisk and breezy, the torrents of the previous day dried up, in the UK at least. I sat in the passenger seat of the car, juggling phones, chargers and headsets to try and follow along with the men’s race on the journey. Gasping at the conditions, evident despite the small screen as we hurtled back up the M1 to try and make it home in time to take in some of the racing live (it didn’t happen, and I endured a late night as I caught up on the action).
It was all too much to take in; the treacherous cobblestones, the dirt-caked faces of the battle-hardened warriors who somehow kept going through indescribable hardship. The inability to distinguish one from the next as the mud coated their kits, their faces, their helmets; blocking their vision and obliterating their identities. They became one mass of driving, grimacing, relentless misery. The euphoric screams of the eventual winner, Sonny Colbrelli, as he collapsed dramatically to the ground, a physical manifestation of the momentous nature of the victory. The last man to stagger across the line, Emils Liepins, his identity concealed behind inches of crusted mud.
I didn’t sleep that night, despite the weight that I thought I had shed. The race played over in my head, and the words from my speech echoed as I regretted all the things I hadn’t said. It was a long night.
Another day, another race I couldn’t begin to express in words. Impostor syndrome ate away at me. What sort of cycling writer can’t write about THAT? It had been such a long, long weekend. Both races were so incredibly nuanced, with so many intricacies, missed moments and conflicting narratives, how could I possibly hope to tell them, when I hadn’t even watched them properly, or been emotionally invested as I so often am with cycling?
It took a day or two and the clarity that a lack of sleep sometimes casts to realise that sometimes, a story is too big to be told in one go; like my imperfect memory and incomplete picture of my Dad’s life, supplemented on the day of his memorial by photographs, anecdotes, tales told by others who knew him in a different way to me. That everyone’s experience – whether it be of a race, a person, or a life, is equally valid, yet every one incomplete. That it’s OK to recount the parts that stand out in your memory and leave the rest, to rest. These stories are a patchwork, after all: neither a legendary one-day bike race nor a person’s entire life span can be adequately summarised by one individual, no matter their expertise. I can’t tell the story of the riders who crashed, those who surrendered everything for their team mates, and those who reached but did not quite attain their goals, no more than I can recollect every detail of my Dad’s life. Instead, stories will be pieced together based on the experiences, perceptions, perspectives and memories of the collective. Be it fans, journalists or the riders themselves. Or for my Dad, all his family and friends, gathering together, sharing their memories. Together, perhaps, these accounts can come somewhere close to recreating a sense of a life, or the life of a race such as this.
After my speech, My Dad’s best friend of around 40 years spoke too. He and my Dad shared many things I can never begin to comprehend. Like the riders in the peloton, on any given race day; some are team mates, working for one another. Some are thrown together as a result of the vagaries of chance, conditions or good legs, forced to become an awkward unit for an hour or two. They share something on the day of a race that we as fans, or even in an official capacity, as the media, can never be a party to. My Dad’s friend and I were both inextricably connected to him, and our memories can never map onto one another’s, due to time and perspective and lived experience. Yet by some strange coincidence, because of our shared love for the man, we ended up speaking on similar themes, his stories complementing mine in a way we didn’t discuss or plan beforehand. They shared one unified cause: a man loved by many, and known so well by us. The narrative of a race, then, can be told; imperfectly, severally, and these varying plotlines add up to a beautiful, fractured whole.
So here are the snapshots. The bits I remember. The bits that stood out. My imperfect memories of two weekends that I experienced in fragments, and that can never be repeated. They can stand alongside, correlate with and merge into the accounts from riders, journalists and fans who experienced the same race from myriad different angles, creating a bigger picture of the life of a race. Just as the stories collated at my Dad’s memorial were collected, and treasured, to tell part of the story of his life. And that it’s OK to hold onto just that, for now. It’s enough.
World Championships road races…
There are stories of the spine-tingling atmosphere as crowds gathered in the city of Leuven, singing and chanting like a football crowd, flags fluttering from windows and draped across the barriers. Multiple passes of the short, sharp climbs of the city circuit before the race headed into the more expansive Flandrian circuit, with its longer more unforgiving uphill slogs, characteristic of the spring classics, and wide open stretches where crosswinds threatened. The women experienced it all on the Saturday; the weather glorious, the peloton huddled together. Demi Vollering suffering multiple mechanical issues and running up the Flandrian cobbles with her bike like a cyclocrosser; the Dutch women controlling the race, making up for their mistakes in Tokyo. The hectic cornering of Kasia Niewiadoma on the Leuven circuit, and the incredible leadout of Elisa Longo Borghini to ensure yet another Italian winner, as Marianne Vos was beaten across the line by Elisa Balsamo, her shock and jubilation starkly contrasting with Vos’ distress at having lost. The continuation of Italy’s incredible year of sporting success, and the class of Vos, straightening Balsamo’s socks before she took to the podium to be crowned World Champion.
Next day, the action in the men’s race kicked off so early as to be almost unprecedented. The breakaway comprising representatives from the nations that were expected to battle all the way to the line, with the exception of Italy, who were forced to work in the bunch. Tim Declercq remonstrating with Remco Evenepoel, over riding too hard, or too soon; speculation abounded but we’d never know the truth, unless they chose to tell it. Pressure from repeated French attacks; Benoit Cosnefroy with Remco, and later, Valentin Madouas. The coming together and attacking again. The selfless sacrifice of the likes of Tim Declercq, Giacomo Nizzolo and Matteo Trentin. Many more, who threw themselves into the race in service of their leaders and then left once their part had been played. The Italians caught short, and then the British. Remco pulling as hard as he could and then bowing out in Leuven, waving to the fans who sang his name. The heroic individual efforts of Tom Pidcock, Neilson Powless, Dylan van Baarle and the grim determination of Wout van Aert and Yves Lampaert to try and regain contact with the leaders. Mathieu van der Poel the quietest we’ve ever seen him, riding in the wheels and hoping he had the legs. Julian Alaphilippe hitting form just at the right time, putting on the show we have come to expect from him, light-footed as he bounced on the pedals yet contorting his face in pain, shaking his head as if in disbelief at his own audacity; coming within 8 seconds of letting it all go. Then clawing it back again, his self-belief eclipsing the doubts of all the others.
The roar of the fans, thunderous clapping of the boards, the final stretch as the champion once again became champion.
The celebrations, dancing Frenchmen, Benoit Cosnefroy with the rainbow jersey in his teeth as the French relished the team success. The still ongoing fallout from the Wout/Remco debate. The memories…
The calm before the storm. The storm before the storm. The iconic photos of Marianne Vos in the showers. The women heading onto the battleground for the first time, yet their fans unable to witness the event because of the network’s reluctance to commit to showing the full race. The frustration and disappointment.
The reported crashes, taking out key contenders, Annemiek van Vleuten fracturing her pelvis. The very real and present danger presented by this crazy, foolhardy pursuit dressed up as sport. The warriors battling on. Lizzie Deignan striking out alone as the women hit the first cobbled sector with over 80km to go, and never being seen again. Her back wheel slipping around on the slick cobbles as the conditions deteriorated, safe to pick her own line as the women in the groups behind her clattered haphazardly to the ground like technicolour skittles. Marianne Vos attacking on the pave, the bitter defeat the previous weekend presumably driving her forward. Her incredible power and control, looking as though she were born on the cobbles. Elisa Longho Borghini doggedly pursuing her wheel.
Lizzie Deignan’s grimace as she neared the end of the race. Her gloveless hands raw on the handlebars. The smile that lit up the stadium as the bell rang in Roubaix velodrome. The first female winner of Paris-Roubaix, her name to be etched on a plaque and into history.
Sunday; chaos. The men rolling out in grim conditions. Slick roads and mists hanging low, the skies, when they were visible, slate grey and expressionless. The peloton lively, attacking on the kilometres they rode in anticipation of the pave to come. The crashes – too many to mention, some even before they hit the cobbled sectors. Peter Sagan, Groupama FDJ’s Stefan Kung crashing once, twice, then the third time, standing painted from head to toe in mud at the roadside, dejected.
The sectors approaching, then ticking down one by one, star ratings displaying the levels of endurance required, and signalling the dreaded names of legend: ‘Trouee d’Arenberg’; ‘Carrefour de l’Arbre’…
The image of Wout van Aert, stoic as he rode through the pain, face caked in mud and streaked with muddy tears, a visceral representation of the grim stoicism of the cobbled classic specialist. Complemented by the pure desolation on the face of Greg van Avermaet, his expression seeming to suggest ‘I’m too old for this shit.’
Vermeesch and Eekhoff leading into the Arenberg forest. Van Aert expertly steering around as Simon Clarke crashes out, only to see his greatest rival accelerate away from him across the most infamous cobbled sector in cycling. As if he would do it any other way. Luke Rowe and Mads Pedersen clattering onto the unforgiving pave. MVDP’s rain jacket flapping in the wind, then his knowing look as Wout reaches his wheel and the pair are reunited once more. He sits up and twists his back first one way, then the other, limbering up for the next phase of battle. Marvelling at how these two rivals draw the eye even as they are amongst many other strong contenders. Mathieu attacking again on the cobbles with 70km to go, because of course he does. Wout caught out of position and losing sight of him.
The breakaway riders prevailing at first, then succumbing one by one to disaster. Gianni Moscon the last man standing, and riding confidently, taking care of the cobbles with the assured dominance of a man on a Very Good Day. Yet the cycling gods see fit to punish him with first a puncture, then a crash as he teeters inelegantly across the cobbles on the too-hard tyres of his replacement bike.
The anticipation of what’s to come, the writing on the wall for Moscon as the chasing group of three bear down on him. MVDP doing what he does, riding hard, not smart, Colbrelli and Vermeesch on his wheel. Mathieu scooting too close to the bollards as he rides the edge of the second last cobbled sector; my knuckles in my mouth as I’m unable to watch.
And the eventual entry into the velodrome, the three last men standing locked together ready to battle to the line. All watching Mathieu, waiting for him to make the first move. He does, true to form, and just like at Flanders, he’s not strong enough to hold on for the win. Colbrelli powers over the line, his powder dry after a long day sitting in the wheels, and collapses to the ground, a dirt-gilded heap prostrate on the ground, paroxysms of joy and disbelief rocking through him.
It’s over. It’s finally over.