what we talk about when we talk about cycling

words & images anna weber

“They’re coming,” someone with a radio yelled, racing back to his position while others picked up the call and passed it along the famous Kapelmurr. “They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming,” it echoed in four or five different languages, zigzagging up the road. I leaped to my feet, wobbling a little on the uneven turf of the hillside, the upper corners of my Belgian heart flag in both hands.

Down the road on the outskirts of the town, I could hear a cheer swell, rippling in and out of the brick houses, careening along the track of the narrow one-car street, crescendo-ing across the cobblestones. Flags began to swirl overhead—Belgian and Flemish for Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert; Luxembourgish for the Schlecks; Swiss for world and Olympic champion time trialist Fabian Cancellara; and American for Tyler Farrar and George Hincapie. Cowbells were clanking, drums were humming, and whistles and shrieks were splintering skywards only to crash against the leaden April sky and come tumbling down.

The peloton would be here in a matter of minutes, every cyclist pounding his way up the worn, cracked pavé, fighting to be the first one to the top and to have better odds of crossing the finish line first, twenty kilometers later.

“Does anyone know who’s leading?” I called to no one in particular, repeating in French. A group of drunken British boys at the foot of the hill turned to me, tall cans of Jupiler in hand. One held a radio; I could just make out sound of the British announcer, chattering nervously.

“It’s Cancellara and Boonen in the front of the peloton!” they called back, words slurring together underneath a thick accent and weak beer.

“Shit,” I muttered, clenching my flag tighter. A Flemish girl I’d met a few hours earlier groaned.

“Now what?” she asked me, twisting the end of her long braid in one hand.

“Guess we’ll wait to see who looks sharpest?” I said uncertainly.  We looked at each other, the same dilemma mirrored on our faces—Boonen was the national champion of Belgium, but Cancellara was our favorite cyclist in the peloton, so who were we going to cheer for?

It was a decisive race for both men: They were the same age and had been professionals for roughly the same amount of time, trading off wins in the same races, finding themselves in the same elite groups of riders at the front of the peloton, or on opposite sides of analyses and op-eds in newspapers of several languages and countries. They were, roundly, the favorites for today’s win. They were, decidedly, our favorites.

It wasn’t a matter of cheering for the wrong person and angering the crowd. The beauty of being a cycling fan is that love for the sport tends to overcome love for a particular rider, team, or country. No matter what colors they’re wearing or flags they’re waving, the frenzied spectators on the side of the road express unadulterated enthusiasm for, above all, cycling and its tremendous feats of strength, endurance, and selfless teamwork. I’d be just as thrilled if Argentine Juan Antonio Flecha, Norwegian Thor Hushvold, or Dutch Lars Boom pulled ahead to win.

Instead, this was a matter of efficiently directing the majority of my positive vibes to a single cyclist. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but for someone who took an early train to an unfamiliar town and hiked several kilometers from the station to sit for a couple of hours on a hillside waiting to catch a seconds-long glimpse of the peloton—well, it was the most important decision I’d made in a week. A month.

I fidgeted with the zipper on my tri-colored, Belgian national champion’s jersey, sporting the Quick Step logo. The hollers were coming closer, looping around the bottom of the hill and rolling around the corner, hitting their high notes where a tavern opened out onto the street. The masses heaved against the metal barriers along the road. Photographers in neon reflective vests took their positions in the gutter, crouching on their heels, eyes on their objectives.

There wasn’t time to think about it. I began to wave my flag, snapping it in the breeze. Allez after allez ripped their ways out of my throat, punctuated by sheer vocal white noise. The drunken Brits went wild. Everyone’s hands were in the air. Up the slope came the pair, bikes thrashing, fast cadences pumping on high gears.

Allez Cancellara!” escaped my throat at top volume, again, and again, and again while the red and white jersey of the Swiss national champion accelerated smoothly from the black, yellow, and red of his Belgian counterpart. The words in my throat fused together and came out in a jumbled roar, joining the crashing hysterical chorus splitting my ears.

He was gaining ten feet, then twenty

Pure animal noises clawed and raced each other out of my mouth.

and he popped over the top of the hill and flew down its other side.

Cancellara went on to win, commanding a minute and fifteen second lead over second-place finisher Tom Boonen. The face of a cyclist coming in solo over the finish line after a superhuman effort is as pure as I’ve ever seen joy, flush with the potent emotional cocktail of work come to fruition: the triumph over difficulty; pushing the body past normal physical boundaries; achieving dreams; adrenaline. No matter how many times a rider wins, it’s the same face.

Lance Armstrong, returned from retirement, was riding in that Ronde vaan Vlaanderen, content to be a domestique for his team’s race leader, Flecha. I remember the excitement that fluttered through the crowd as we saw him pass, his distinctive style and hulk smack in the middle of the peloton. The unspoken sentiment was that we were watching history, watching a living legend do precisely what had made him so famous.

***

I don’t bike competitively. I bike to commute, and, occasionally, I bike to explore a city or a countryside. I enjoy how easy it is to slip into a meditative space on a bike, nothing but you and the pedals. Life, be it rural or urban, chatters around you, hums steadily under the rush of wind and mechanical sounds of your machine, your face flushed with the effort and the pleasure of being physically, sensorally, engaged with your transit and environment. But I’ve never owned a road bike, never trained for a race, never joined a team.

I have, however, been watching cycling since the beginning of Lance Armstrong’s seven-year reign of the sport. My older sister brought it home, figuratively speaking, from a friend’s older brother who was an amateur cyclist. We’d spend three, four, five hours in front of the television on most July mornings, volume on high, the voices of longtime commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin booming from the speakers, actively listening to the information they shared about specific riders and teams, strategy, written rules or unspoken etiquette, historical facts about the regions passed through, and major cycling events and riders from the past.

If we missed a morning, we recorded it to watch for the evening on a cycle of VHS cassettes; tragedy struck when we forgot to hit record and were left with the prior day’s stage, or when we didn’t prep enough space for the last five or ten kilometers of the race. It became nearly unbearable to wait in anticipation of those three weeks in July. We began to fill our TV time through the spring and fall with the one-day classic races, like the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, or Milan-San Remo, as well as the two other grand tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta d’Espana.

Cycling became more of a priority than any other summer sport for my family, especially as Lance and his teams continued their takeover. It was never any less exciting to see Lance win, summer after summer. We celebrated his last Tour stage with the rest of the biking world, raising invisible glasses of champagne as per the tradition to the greatest cyclist who’d ever lived.

Doping scandals were disappointing, but didn’t, for us, define the sport. After all, baseball players doped, and nobody was roundly condemning the entire world of baseball. Accusations against Lance, in particular, struck us as ridiculous—the only way they could be true was if a doping ring reaching up through the highest echelons of the sport had been in control. And how could that be true?

When I found out I was going to Belgium on Rotary Youth Exchange, I initially thought I’d landed in Geraardsbergen—a small Flemish town on the linguistic border in the west, and home to the Muur van Geraardsbergen, an iconic staple of the Tour of Flanders. Narrow, winding, cobbled, 3,500 feet long, average gradient of 9.3%, reaching a maximum gradient of 19.3%, it strikes dread in the hearts of riders.

As it turned out, I was in Lessines, a Wallonian town just a few kilometers south of the border, but the thrill of being in a country known for its great love of cycling hadn’t been diminished. After all, it hosted seven major classics races, two of which—Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège—were universally regarded as important monuments.

***

I insist that it is planned, the most cruel kind of conspiracy: Every year that I am not in Belgium, the Tour passes through Belgium. Favorite cities, favorite monuments, even regions where I’ve lived. In the past six years since I first set foot in the Brussels National Airport, the Tour has gone through “the flat country” three times.

Every time there is a Belgian stage, I watch it live—waking up early, turning off my phone so I’m not disturbed, so I’m paying attention when, six hours in the future, the peloton goes through Liège, Namur, Ath, Tournai, Brussels, Ypres—places I’ve been, places I wish I was in that second, places I wish I’d never left. I listen to the live radio commentary of the Eurosport announcers for the classics races in the spring, obsessively refreshing the web tracker every thirty seconds to see who is where.

Cycling went from a sport I watched from a distance to one that connected me, directly, to a country I’d lived in and loved. I knew what the landscape looked like beyond the TV camera, knew what the hollering fans did when they left the sides of the road and went back to their daily business, could almost hear the clamorous mix of Flemish and French as they moved in packs to the train station. I knew, now, how the sport existed in the context of the country where it happened.

***

Three years after Cancellara’s win, I was back in Belgium, back on a hillside at an important spring classic, back among the sky-high energy, elaborate costumes, and handmade flags of the jittery fans. I was on the Mur de Huy, steeper and longer than the Kapelmuur but covered in pavement instead of cobblestones, and the peloton of the Flèche Wallonne was passing through in an hour.

A family in front of me tilted their folding chairs towards their portable television, squinting at the blur and static and calling to the rest of us where the leaders were and how they looked. A man in a full Luxembourgish kit, carrying a towering flag, paced the ridgeline, peering up at the helicopters overhead—the copters meant they were close.

A house across the street had planted their barbecue in the front yard, cooking street meat and toasting rolls, selling water bottles for two euros cheaper than the commercial stands on the top of the hill. My Belgian heart flag, draped over a tree branch behind me, fluttered and flapped. Recuperating from the hike up the hill from the train station, I sipped a Jupiler and tried to read the paper, but I couldn’t focus—my eyes kept drifting to the road, where kids were chalking out the names of their favorite riders.

A few months earlier, the USADA and Lance himself had confirmed my family’s worst fears. Overnight, he went from world’s best cyclist to world’s most notorious doper. We weren’t sad. We hadn’t turned against cycling. We were furious—not at ourselves for being taken in, not at other cyclists whose careers had tanked because of doping scandals related to Lance’s teams, but at Lance—for the lives he’d ruined, for the races he’d sullied, for the stain that we now knew covered the decades when he was a professional.

Every now and then, I’d jump in a conversation about the controversy with another fan on the hillside, and the consensus was always the same—what a disgusting human. But the fervor we had for the sport was such that we were all still here, our voices louder and our numbers bigger than what felt like ever before. A single, terrible person couldn’t take this away from us, this moment when the red car leading the race cruised up the hill, leading the front of the thundering peloton, screams ringing shrilly in my ears, my own voice joining the allez-lujahs of the international community that had come out from all corners of Europe and the world to support the athletes who toiled on.

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