It is Saturday afternoon. Nigel has ridden round to Clifford’s to watch Strade Bianche - but with plenty of kilometres left to ride, Clifford seems to have lost interest . . .
Nigel: Clifford! Clifford! You’re missing this! It’s awesome!
Clifford: [Emits a silent puff of pipe smoke from behind the newspaper]
Nigel: Aren’t you going to watch it? It’s incredible! The peloton is smashed to pieces! There are tiny groups all over the road! The riders are covered in mud! They’ve even had to take their Oakleys off! It’s the Roubaix of the south!
Clifford: [Splutters] Right! That’s it! I’ve heard enough! I’m going out on my bike!
Nigel: What? What’s wrong?
Clifford: What’s wrong? This race is everything that’s wrong with modern cycling, that’s what’s wrong!
Nigel: Elegantly put. But I thought it would be right up your street. Look at Tiesj Benoot. He’s like something from another age. No gloves, no arm warmers, no leg warmers, covered in mud and with a face like Mr Punch. A proper old-fashioned Belgian rider.
Clifford: A proper old-fashioned twit more like. Wait until he’s my age. He’ll have no end of trouble with his joints.
Nigel: He’s not having any trouble with them today. Look how quickly he caught Bardet and Van Aert.
Clifford: Not surprising given the tow he got from that Moto Guzzi. He might as well have been sitting on the pillion.
Nigel: But Bardet is a revelation. He’s supposed to be a Grand Tour rider, but here he is mixing it up with the one-day guys! And what about Wout Van Aert? What a performance from a cyclo-crosser!
Clifford: [Gives Nigel an Armstrong-style “look”]
Nigel: What? What have I done now?
Clifford: Nigel, do you know nothing about racing? It’s very simple.
Nigel: Educate me.
Clifford: [Relighting his pipe and reclining] The strongest rider in the race is Peter Sagan. He’s in a group with the rest of the strongest riders. So by definition he can’t win.
Nigel: What are you talking about?
Clifford: If he rides across to the guys in front he tows the rest of his group with him and wears himself out in the process. So he can’t win that way. Conversely, none of the strong riders in his group wants to give him any help, so they won’t try to reach the front group in case they tow Sagan. So he can’t win that way either. That’s why weak riders like Bardet and Van Aert are ahead: because the strong riders are behind.
Nigel: Er – OK. But what about Benoot then?
Clifford: Elementary my dear Nigel. Only he can win, because he’s the only one who is not strong but not weak either. So the strong group can let him get away – because he’s not strong – and he’s able to catch the weak group – because he’s not weak. See?
Nigel: But I don’t understand. Why didn’t the strong group take a tow from Benoot? And Sagan has a teammate with him. Why doesn’t he just . . .
Clifford: [Envelopes the conversation in a huge cloud of pipe smoke]
Nigel: [After a minute or two of coughing and wiping his eyes] What were we talking about? Whatever, you can’t deny that it’s a great event. Look at the scenery! Toscano, mi amor!
Clifford: Where you and your pretentious mates go on holiday for the bloody wine and pork chops.
Nigel: Not pork chops, porchetta. It’s to die for.
Clifford: What’s wrong with a pint and a packet of pork scratchings? And what has Tuscany got to do with cycling? Real Italian cycling happens in the real North, in Lombardy!
Nigel: Oh you and your Spiritual Homes of Cycling. Well I like it. It’s an instant classic. They should make it a Monument.
Clifford: “They”? Who’s “they”? It’s not decided by committee! Anyway, this race is nowhere near long enough or hard enough to be a Monument - a bit of muddy gravel is nothing like real cobbles, and it's barely 100 miles long. And there is no such thing as an “instant classic” in cycling. It’s a contradiction in terms. These things take decades Nigel, decades! This race has only been going five minutes.
Nigel: Twelve years actually. And it started as a . . .
Clifford: Don’t say it! Don’t say it!
Nigel: . . . as a gran fondo, yes! Actually I must get my name down for next year. I can bring back some Chianti while I’m at it. I know a charming little enoteca near Siena. You should come.
Clifford: There you go! It’s just an overgrown bloody soft group ride in a holiday camp for wine-swilling middle-class ponces. It’s the Center Parcs of cycling!
Nigel: Come on Clifford, you’re not being fair. Think about it.
Clifford: No! I refuse to think about it!
Nigel: It’s true it’s not in the spiritual home of Italian Cycling. But Gino Bartali was from Florence: so he was Tuscan, and he’s about as spiritual as Italian cycling gets. It’s also true that the locals sell fancy meat products to middle-class softies like me. But the real speciality of the region is lampredotto – which is tripe. Your favourite, Clifford! It’s true that it isn’t really like Roubaix. But it’s also true that it is a very tough race with a character all its own, where they ride on gravel tracks, like they did years ago.
Clifford: So what?
Nigel: So is it new cycling or old cycling?
Clifford: [Disappearing behind newspaper again] I have no idea. I only know I don’t approve of it. I could kill a tripe butty though.
Nigel: I thought you were going out on your bike.
Clifford: [Outraged] I can’t go now! I’ll miss the end of the race!