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February 21, 2012
Many of us are nostalgic for the golden years of cycling and we love to romanticise its forgotten blue-collar past. Those who love to boast about their history knowledge will tell you about the days back in the 50’s when Coppi and Bartali had epic battles in the high mountains of the Giro d’Italia as if they were there to see it for themselves. That was back when cyclists were real men and the sport was tougher than ever. Or was it?
Generation of The Storytellers
I had an interesting chat with this 75 year old gentleman I bumped into during a ride and we got talking about how things were back in his day of racing. He had been riding his whole life and came by it honestly. No embellishments, no grandeur of the glory days.
“Those guys love to talk it up. The older they get, the tougher they were,” he told me. Back when he was racing in the 60’s most of the races in Australia were handicaps. “The fields weren’t deep enough to have graded races. There was no attacking and solo breakaways. If you attacked the working bunch you’d be given a mouthful and put back in your place.”
He went on to say, “There were only 25 riders in the Sun Tour back then. They were races of attrition and there were really only a small few who could actually win it. The bikes were too heavy to attack so it basically came down to the last man standing. There was nothing exciting about it, but I suppose the stories that came out of it were magnificent.”
Angelo Catalano riding in the lead during the Sixth Stage of the Sun Tour in 1954, from Beechworth to Omeo (103 miles) at Mt Hotham
The written word has traditionally told cycling’s stories and it wasn’t that long ago when we’d need to wait weeks for the magazines to arrive before we found out what happened in the Spring Classics. Going back even further, I get the feeling there was a fair amount of embellishment in these stories and reality may have been far less enticing. Many races such as the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, the Sun Tour were created by newspapers to provide content thus increasing sales. What better way to bring out real life suffering, courage, passion, alliances, victory, cheating, disappointment, and drama? The better the story, the better the sales. This is what’s recorded in history.
At the first Tour de France started outside the Café Reveil-Matin in the village of Montgeron L’Auto eloquently reported:
“The men waved their hats, the ladies their umbrellas. One felt they would have liked to touch the steel muscles of the most courageous champions since antiquity. Who will carry off the first prize, entering the pantheon where only supermen may go?”
I truly love speaking with our grandfathers of cycling and hearing a good tale. They’re fantastic storytellers and I mean no disrespect by saying that. They can make a Saturday night track race sound like it was more grand than the Tour de France. In order to eat for the week they’d need to ride their guts out and sprint for 30th place just to get £2 of prize money. The roads were much tougher back then and it was uphill in every direction. Is it 100% reality? Ahh…never let the facts get in the way of a good story I say.
The ‘Meh’ Generation Gone Soft?
These days the youngsters in the sport often have no interest in telling a good story. If it can’t be articulated in less than 140 characters, then it’s probably not going to get told. You don’t have to look far to see how riders communicate these days:
Mark Cavendish. Current World Champion with 250,000 twitter followers.
Cycling lags behind other sports with regards to its sophistication of media coverage, but with all the methods of communication at our disposal these days there’s not much left to the imagination anymore. There’s no room to fill in the gaps with tales of courage, suffering and magnificent physical feats. We have the ability to cover nearly every moment of a race via television, race radio, photographs, and social media. It’s almost immediate. Where is there room for a good story now?
Just because these guys don’t talk up a good story the same way that past generations did doesn’t mean they’ve gone soft. There’s a much more direct development path for the youngsters these days and they don’t necessarily have to go to Europe to live in a barn and live off crusty bread to get a ride. But that’s a good thing. It’s progression. It allows them to be better athletes. Those who don’t put in the effort simply don’t make it. I know many riders from the Charlie Walsh and Heiko Salzwedel era where East German training regimes were adopted for the AIS. Yes they were tough, but they may have unnecessarily broke a lot of talented riders. The talent ID programs that the AIS now have in place can identify the physical and character traits of what will make a successful cyclists without needing to smash them down and see who’s left standing.
In 20 years time, who will history remember from the current era? With more racing being document than ever, every generation will have it’s own tales of hardship, suffering, courage and glory.
Ten Dam after crashing on Stage 14 of the 2011 TdF. This photo will tell the story of his courage for carrying on and finishing the TdF instead of the actual act of over-cooking a corner and crashing out. Photo: ANP Koen Van Weel