The make-pretend races of Etten-Leur

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I wonder what one of the Tour de France’s founders and cycling’s greatest writers, Henri Desgrange, would think about the make-pretend time-trial and criterium, hosting the top riders in the world, held in the small Dutch town of Etten-Leur in the weeks after the Tour de France.

Would Desgrange channel Emile Zola, his working-class hero whose masterpiece novel Germinal was about the devastating socio-economic impact of a mining company, and deconstruct the extravagance of an industrial pipe-fitting company forking tens of thousands of dollars to pluck Egan Bernal from the frenzied crowds of Colombia and fly him to Northern Europe to take selfies with staid Dutch provincials?

Or would Desgrange savage the money-managers who hired a single-engine plane to fly Peter Sagan, Steven Kruijswijk, and Elia Viviani from Monaco to Etten-Leur, but when an oil-line leaked, were forced to make an emergency landing in Luxembourg? The three stars bravely spent the rest of the day grinning, taking photographs, and dining with their sponsors.

Or would Desgrange adopt the liberalism of his avant-garde artist lover, Jane Deley, and condemn the two drunken Dutchmen I overheard confusing a lost-looking wanderer for a suspicious immigrant until the sole two Colombian fans pointed out it that the stranger was, in fact, an Ecuadorian and Giro winner Richard Carapaz?

How would Desgrange, a man who hated the derailleur because it made racers weak, respond to this quote from the Etten-Leur race director, Ronnie Buiks: “We could have let them race 120 kilometers, but why not have them race 40 kilometers and spend the rest of the day doing meet-and-greets?”

Ultimately, how would Desgrange feel about a race, whose winner is predetermined, and which was created with the sole intention of capitalizing and monetizing off his creation, and professional cycling in general, to the point that, unless you had a VIP pass or bought a ticket which cost more than a Broadway show, it was impossible to even see or get close to the finish line, much less the podium. Desgrange was a notoriously hypocritical curmudgeon who obviously did not shun promotion (matching the yellow jersey to the yellow pages of the L’Auto magazine), but at what point does crass commercialism cross over into wholesale purchasing of something which was once heralded as an “everyman’s sport”?

There was a time-trial, won by Sagan who gave his signature finish, and a road-race for both men and women (although judging by the line-up, only a drop of the sponsor money had gone to the women’s race). Both saw brief breakaways that, to nobody’s surprise, closed quickly. Kruijswijk won the criterium. There was little cheering since the winners were predetermined and all and any risk had been edited out of their contracts. Bernal, Carapaz, Mollema, Sagan, Kruijswijk, and Viviani appeared detached and robotic, as if reenacting their celebrity image. This was criterium as Kabuki, cycling’s version of the highly-stylized form of drama, where the moves were rehearsed, and each gesture was symbolic.

To be fair, Etten-Leur is not the only pay-per-view event. In the weeks following the Tour, these one-day races occur in small Dutch and Belgian towns with names like Boxmeer, Surhuisterveen, and Heerlen. This year, there were twenty-two mock races in all, bringing in stars like Bauke Mollema, Wout Poels, Dylan Groenewegen, Marianne Vos, Vincenzo Nibali, Mathieu van der Poel, and Annemiek van Vleuten. The riders are paid handsomely for racing a dozen laps and later, mingling and dining with the small-town bourgeois. In this respect, hardworking cyclists get extra, easy money to compensate for the drain of the racing season.

The local sponsors, who sell everything from furniture, toilets, tiles, safety products, insurance, mortgages, and party supplies, pay a few hundred euros, eat with men and women they cheer every weekend on television, and leave with selfies of the best road racers. Even non-local companies come to Etten-Leur. A Belgian strip-club had parked its double-decker promotional bus between the Campagnolo stand and the Happy Dog Children’s Bounce House (Happy Dog was Bauke Mollema’s sponsor this year). Next to 5,000 euro BMC gravel bikes, evangelical Ethiopian refugees passed out religious literature for a mega-church in Amsterdam. Buiks claimed that there were 224 Etten-Leur sponsors in all, most donating money while a handful contributed supplies and services.

Jeroen, a retired chauffeur, and Roland, a brass-fitting store owner, both attended the cycling event for the last thirteen years. While they grumbled about the finish line and podium being the exclusive terrain of the VIP, they had seen all the biggest cyclists of the last decade from Froome to Sagan ride down their street. Yes, they admitted, they could easily drive forty-five minutes into Belgium and stand, for free, at the finish line and in front of the podium of the great one-day cobbled classics, but it was not the same as having the stars pretend-race in your hometown.

Etten-Leur had all the sensations of a celebratory Dutch event: wet grass, stale beer, hot fries, and Dutch folk mashed with electronic music. My son enjoyed the children’s race where kids on pedal-less bikes jostled their way to the finish line. The competition between Joop Zoetemelk, Peter Winnen, Steven Rooks, and Jean-Paul van Poppel was leisurely, to say the least, and when it was announced that Zoetemelk had a flat tire their average lap-time seemed to be wholly unaffected. After the race, while ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blared from the speakers, a seventy-year-old Zoetemelk, who still holds the endurance record for finishing the most Tours de France, had to be carried over the VIP gates, by burly security guards. The organizers had sealed the perimeter from the occasional commoners sneaking for a better look so well that it had become impossible to let anyone in (a dozen non-VIP spectators in wheelchairs were forced to detour as well).

I emailed the promoters hoping to understand who exactly the event was intended for, but they did not respond. The VIP area was closed to the press and therefore so was the podium and the finish line. The entire experience brought me back to Desgrange, a journalist and autocratic editor, a megalomaniac who some have accused of having stolen the idea of the Tour de France from Geo Lefevre for personal gain. What would he think of Etten-Leur, a gated cycling event created, designed and reserved for the highest bidder? Desgrange might think it a deviant corruption or a natural evolution of a sport that has, since his own time, needed cash.

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