The infinite ways in which a road race can play out almost always coalesce into something cycling fans recognise – a predictable outcome even where the variables (the riders, the parcours, dogs off their leads) are unpredictable. It can be as binary as the breakaway vs the pack; a sprint vs a lone attacker; the favourites vs the underdogs.
But for this preview, I have taken the liberty of imagining some of the possible outcomes as familiar movie plots. Because nothing lends itself to a story quite like an elite bike race. But which story will play out on the roads of Flanders, come Sunday? Will it be a familiar story, or an unexpected ending? Who’s the lone wolf, who’s the tragic hero and who’s the Hollywood star? Read on to find out… (sensible star ratings at the bottom for anyone who does not buy into this narrative!)
The Kid, they called him. He came from a lawless place, a place in the North. (Leeds. The place was Leeds). He was a lone wolf, didn’t need no-one else to ride with, but they sent him a few amigos so he figured he may as well do the right thing and stick with the guys for a while.
On through the lowlands they travelled, the plaintive twang of a guitar accompanying their rhythm as they rode in silence, the wind in their hair, the scent of other men on the air. The scent of the enemy.
Like I said, the Kid didn’t play well with others. He liked to go it alone. All day in the saddle gives a guy itchy feet, so he tips his helmet to his amigos and takes his leave. Slips through the pack and heads up the road into the sunset, ready to deploy his weapon if there’s any trouble.
Riding into town he expects the worst. The sheriff’s there with his deputies and the local militia. They all want their pound of flesh and they ain’t going down without a fight.
The Kid takes a drink from his canteen, spits into the dirt, and kicks his steed into a higher gear. He’ll go down fighting, of that there is no doubt.
It’s a straight fight for the line. The firepower all on show, the weak falling into the dirt. It’s down to the Kid, and one final rival. The one he’s been waiting to face again all this time. They cross the line together, both spending their final bullets to try and vanquish one another. Both fall in slow motion from their steeds, and the victor is announced. The Kid is beaten on the line once more, his trigger finger a fraction of a second too slow.
Bloody photo finishes.
The Coming of Age
Our intrepid hero is the young, feisty Belgian Remco Evenepoel. In his comeback season, he’s done everything that’s been asked of him, including surviving an ill-fated trip to Italy, winning in a glorious Belgian homecoming and even that dramatic brush with fire on one of his legendary solos.
He is the hero of his own story now, but he’s been asked to work for someone else. Tired of being told what to do by his evil Grandad, he follows orders and strikes out alone with 50km to go, under the pretence of pulling some of his leader’s rivals along with him.
It’s a long and lonely road and he has adults screaming in his ear, so he tears out his radio and solos to victory, proving to everyone it’s time to take him seriously. Wout van Aert is disappointed but proud of his refusal to submit to the will of his elders. He pats him on the back and says ‘well played’: with his acceptance, Remco becomes a man.
There’s also a dog. (After befriending it en route using a chunk of sausage he was keeping in his pocket for a snack, it chases Remco all the way home).
After his accident in the Olympic mountain biking, it’s been a tough road back to fitness for Mathieu van der Poel. But he cannot rest knowing he let this one slip away, when he’s so close; so, despite knowing his form is not what it could be, he agrees to lead the Dutch team. His arch-nemesis lines up alongside him. The favourite to win, Mathieu knows he has broken Wout’s heart before: can he do it again, on the biggest stage of all?
When Wout goes with a small group Mathieu tries to stay with him but the pain is too much and he loses touch. In a last ditch effort he spends his final resources of energy to call to his rival. For old times sake, perhaps he can convince him to work with him, and help him make it back.
Wout turns and flips Mathieu the bird before powering away, leaving him in his dust. At the denouement, we see Mathieu bent and broken at the roadside, his tears absorbed into the Belgian soil as he realises that his rampant ambition was his tragic flaw all along.
He vows that one day, the rainbow jersey will be his. And that he’ll make van Aert suffer come cyclocross season.
The team have been gathered. Each a vital cog in the success of the plan. No-one’s looking at them as all focus rests on the Belgians and the Danes. They are masters of disguise., wearing blue when the colour doesn’t even appear on their country’s flag.
The getaway vehicle is deployed with 60km to go. Matteo Trentin drives it like he stole it (because he did, obviously) to gap the rest of the group. He’s soon joined up with the hapless breakaway group who realise their day is done.
The getaway driver sets a relentless pace, forcing the patrolling teams to follow his wheel. A frenzied chase across the Flanders countryside ensues, with the brains of the operation buried deep inside enemy lines relaying information to the getaway driver. And some suitably car chase-y music.
Through a combination of brute force and fiendish tactics, the ragtag bunch are able to bring their key man, Sonny Cobrelli, to the final attack. The getaway driver drops him off and he sprints for safety and snatches the loot, sharing the spoils with his loyal crew in the form of a few Peronis in the pub. They won’t be caught until this time next year.
The Hollywood Blockbuster
It begins in media res. The camera zooms in on the eyes of the protagonist: his intense, hazel eyes stare down the lens, his focus unwavering. He can see the finish line in his mind’s eye. He has played out this moment a thousand times. His supporting cast are positioned around him, and they play their parts without fault; they are well trained and loyal (even the boy, who can sometimes be a loose cannon).
Cut to the final 10km. He’s up front with a small group of big hitters. He’s dropped the young upstart Slovenian, all but one of the dastardly Danes, and has even vanquished his greatest rival, and now it’s down to him to bring it home.
A rousing 80’s power ballad plays in the background as the king-in-waiting winds up for the sprint. Alongside him Sonny Colbrelli, Magnus Cort and the plucky young Brit who dogged his wheel in his homeland. They will all soon be trembling in his wake.
They open up the sprint. Vocals soar and guitars crash as the man himself, in the centre of the shot, crosses the line first, and raises his arms. The King of Belgium finally claims his rainbow crown: Wout van Aert is now King of the World.
(bonus plot): The Revenge
Sam Bennett changes his mind and turns up after all. Despite vomiting up the final climb he’s able to make it back across to the lead group and sprints for the win. Tears off his jersey to reveal a ‘SCREW YOU PATRICK’ slogan underneath. Grabs the jersey, drops the mic and rides back to Monaco laughing all the way.
5 stars: Wout van Aert, Sonny Colbrelli, Magnus Cort
4 stars: Michael Valgren, Matej Mohoric, Kasper Asgreen
3 stars: Tadej Pogacar, Ethan Hayter, Mathieu van der Poel, Remco Evenepoel
2 stars: Tom Pidcock, Julian Alaphillippe, Mads Pedersen, Primož Roglič
1 star: Caleb Ewan, Alex Aranburu, Peter Sagan, Nils Pollitt, Jasper Stuyven