When a Belgian Pro Tour cycling team fails to win a Spring Classic, the Belgian media lays down harsh criticisms. When Richie Porte lost time due to a rule violation penalty at the Giro d’Italia, the media criticized his team for not knowing the rules.
Porte told Cyclingnews, “It’s easy to sit there in front of the TV or the computer and criticize us riders.” And it is. What’s hard is waking up early in the morning the day after racing over 100 miles to do it all over again. It doesn’t matter if you have an injury, an allergy, or a lack of sleep; if you are a pro bicycle racer, you have to get up, eat as much as you can handle, sign in, and go do the whole thing all over again. It’s hard work.
Of course, it’s also riding your bike for a living, which I have to imagine can’t really be beat.
As average bike riders, most of us are lucky there is a bicycle industry and team sponsors to fund professional bicycle racing. Otherwise, there would be no spectacle, no inspiring imagery, no races to watch in the wee hours.
Bicycle touring can give you an idea of what it’s like to rise with the sun, get on your bike regardless of the weather, and pedal for eight hours over mountain passes and through flowering fields (or deserts). It will make you incredibly fit. What touring will not do is help you understand the intricacies and difficulties of professional bike racing.
Granted, a big team will theoretically take care of your every need, but still, while it is living the dream, bike racing all year long is incredibly taxing on both mind and body.
Imagine your working days being spent in a veritable centrifuge comprised of wind and riders, where one wrong move or even a sneeze could spell disaster. Imagine training your body and mind for ten months to be ready for three weeks of racing, only to have all that work’s benefit erased by a crash.
Some riders get the respect and accompanying salary they deserve (Bradley Wiggins), while others not so much (Chris Horner). Some riders get blasted in the media, while others are ignored. The media rarely speaks highly of a rider not winning bike races, even though there are boundless legitimate reasons why a racer might be in a slump. Imagine racing 140 miles at top speed while nursing a sore knee or fighting a dying tooth. That’s what pros have to do.
Philippe Gilbert and Mark Cavendish have both had to deal with major dental issues during the bike racing season, and their performance inevitably suffered for it. The media attacked them for not getting results, while not mentioning their toothache issues. Chris Horner raced the 2014 Tour de France with a respiratory infection and managed to finish 17th, yet he still could not land a contract. Cycling can be cruel, but fans don’t have to be.
Some riders can roll with the pain, while others may not. Alberto Contador managed to nurse a sore knee through a week at the Giro d’Italia, while Richie Porte tried and failed to do the same. Our bodies are not built to universally handle injuries in precisely the same manner. (If we were all built the same, how boring would that be?)
Bicycle racing is a joy to watch because the speeds to which the riders power themselves are awe-inspiring. They provide us the imagery to conjure during our own rides, to imagine rocking the bike up long climbs. The feeling is universally great because regardless of respective speed, we know the efforts are essentially the same. We are, us and them, human beings riding one of the greatest human inventions ever, the bicycle.
Winning, then, is hardly significant in bicycle racing. Joy, support, and the sensations are what matter. As racers, winning seems important while we are doing it (likely because of adrenalin), yet in the greater scheme of life, there are few ways in which winning a bike race (or any sporting event) will change much of anything. As racing fans, we manage to get behind virtually any winning bicycle racer with half a personality. When they crash or have a bad day, we ought to be able to leave the cruel comments off Twitter, and do what they do: chalk it up to luck. Send them a note of encouragement. Then go ride our bikes, recover, and do it again.