March 29, 2021 0 Comments
Journalists often like to say that their work is the first rough draft of history. But nowadays, with the rise of “sponsored content”, journalism is often the second draft of an advertiser’s press release. With sports journalism in particular it is sometimes hard to tell where the content ends and the marketing begins.
This is not a complaint. I don’t mind being marketed to. And everybody has to eat. But suddenly it matters in a way it didn’t before.
To explain. There is a theory, popular (in rather different ways) among both theoretical physicists and stoned podcasters, that there are an infinite number of universes, meaning that every possible event and combination of events will happen at least once. This idea is offered – admittedly, more frequently by the podcasters than the physicists – as an explanation of all sorts of curious and discomfiting phenomena. The most famous is the time when a large number of people simultaneously “remembered” Nelson Mandela’s funeral taking place in the 1980s, even though he lived until 2013. According to the theory, this is because over time we somehow drop in and out of different universes, where things are different than in the universe we had inhabited previously.
More sober reflection suggests that the proponents of such ontologically extravagant theories simply do not understand what modal auxiliaries are (to say something might happen in this universe is not to say it will happen in one universe or another). But, thanks to Covid-19, in 2020 everything changed, and it really did feel like we had fallen through a wormhole and into a different, altogether alien version of reality. The switch to working from home meant the evaporation of normal barriers between parts of life that used to be distinct. Home schooling brought new and unexpected challenges to pupils and parents alike. With reduced revenues, employers sought to cut costs, putting already-struggling employees under additional pressure. And so when the present author found himself doing the jobs of three people from his kitchen table, in a house where his two children were attempting to learn, respectively, Chinese and quadratic equations via Microsoft Teams, he felt he had indeed slid into an alternative reality – one in which the very fabric of space-time consisted entirely of spreadsheets and tantrums. Perhaps I should start a podcast.
More to the point, there was also, for a while, no live professional sport, and in particular, no cycling. Then, when it restarted, it was all . . . wrong. Cycling’s sacred calendar was blown to pieces. Spring classics in October? No Paris-Roubaix at all? A Grand Tour running into November? And it wasn’t only the dates that were unprecedented. The Tour de France was won by a Slovenian, dramatically beating . . . another Slovenian, who went on to win the Vuelta. What’s more, the Tour was decided by something previously almost unheard of, namely, an exciting time trial. To cap it all off, the Giro was won by a ginger lad from Hackney with a name that no Italian person can pronounce.
Cycling has always had its own version of the “multiple worlds” problem. The omerta around doping is not the only case where cycling coverage appeared to come from a parallel universe. The educated reader will be aware that almost all great bicycle races began as a means to sell newspapers, both by advertising them and supplying punter-pleasing content. It has long been suspected that some of the more colourful stories of the early riders’ exploits were not in fact eye-witness accounts written by a daring reporter dangling from a rocky crag on a windswept Alp, but were actually fabrications composed in an agreeable sea-level saloon with an eye to shifting units. And the prevalence of content marketing is the latest example. If you know that, say, your favourite publication’s gushing tribute to a new, £250 pair of bib shorts is – shall we say – less than entirely objective, how much store will you put by the rest of what it says, however entertaining?
So, here’s the danger. If we aren’t careful, when we tell our grandchildren what happened in 2020, they won’t believe a word of it.
Fortunately, into this credibility gap sails the 2020 edition of what has immediately become cycling’s annual record – the Road Book. And it’s all here: now matter how many universes your favourite stoned podcaster might think the peloton might have ridden through last year, in this world all the implausible things we vaguely sort of half-remember really did happen, in one long, unpredictably unspooling ribbon of non sequiturs.
When we reviewed the 2018 edition we said it was “the definitive record of the season just past: not necessarily complete, but certainly authoritative, in the sense it is the place to come if you want to settle (or start) an argument.”
All of this applies to 2020’s edition, but more so, because it is essential that there will in future be a reliable means of settling arguments about 2020 in particular with disbelieving descendants. Already it seems impossible to accept it, but there really was almost no racing at all between March and August. Then, all the races really did crash into each other over what was left of the year. For example: the Ronde was held on 18th October, during the Giro and two days before both day one of the Vuelta and – my personal favourite – the Three Days of Bruges-De Panne, which took place over one day instead of its usual two. And, if you don’t think there are future arguments to be settled over the contents of the previous sentence, I have a £250 pair of bib shorts to sell you.
Something else we said in 2018, and which also still applies, was that there is much more to the Road Book than facts and figures. And in 2020 too, we approve not just of its statistics but also of its stories, because again they are like postcards from another world, and their strangeness too is starting to vanish from memory.
A tiny but wistful example is found in Tao Geoghegan Hart’s excellent account of his Giro victory. In any year it would be extraordinary that the winner did not get to wear the maglia rosa until after the final stage, but I had forgotten that – because of Covid-19 – he had to put it on himself, instead of having it ceremonially bestowed on him. Richard Williams’s season review mentions something that seems to me so truly bizarre it is hard to recall, let alone appreciate, when you look back from today – namely, that when the Tour de France started the riders had no idea whether the race would continue the next day, let alone get to Paris. And there are some things that have nothing to do with Covid-19 but which the tidal wave of the pandemic (and its spreadsheets and tantrums) had simply washed from my mind. Will Fotheringham’s essay on Remco Evenepoel is, among other things, a jarring reminder of the cruel injury he suffered as well as his staggering potential. Williams’s piece includes a mention of the police raid on Arkéa-Samsic during the Tour, when they reported finding things ‘that could be qualified as doping’. The book brims with such moments.
Finally: please note that Road Book does not “do” sponsored content or advertisements (unlike Conquista – and, in the interests of full disclosure, although this review is not really sponsored content, we did get a free copy of the 2020 edition for review purposes). Its producers rely on sales to support their work. That is one reason why, for all the reasons set out above, we can rely on them to maintain domestic harmony for many years to come. So – you know what to do.
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