A journalist, confused in Yorkshire
The sea waves shine in the bright midday light. It’s a late summer day in Cantabria, one of those September days that seems like a disguised day from another month, when the sun’s rays gently caress your skin. It’s 27 degrees and there’s barely a breath of wind. I smile. It’s delightful.
A few hours later.
The wind blows my rucksack from side to side and blasts raindrops in my face. Fat drops, like marbles. It’s cold. I’m wearing layers and layers of clothes, afraid of falling ill away from home (one of the most miserable experiences you can have). I pick up the car and drive for an hour. At one point I pass a huge poster. It’s white and criss-crossed by the colours of the rainbow. “Harrogate says hello to the Worlds!” I have arrived.
Welcome to the World Championships in Yorkshire.
These Familiar Roads
My trip starts in Ithaca. I like to be original. What can I say?
Actually ‘Ithaca’ is the name of a bar next to the bus stop where I am waiting for a ride to the airport. The thing is, saying my journey starts in a bar is much less symbolic (and let’s not kid ourselves, less ‘cycling’), so I permit myself a little poetic licence. I am about to leave for Manchester to cover the UCI Road World Championships. It’s being held in Yorkshire and will take in almost the entire county. This will be the third time the Worlds have been held in the United Kingdom. The first was in 1970. Leicester, won by the tragic Jean-Pierre Monseré. The next was twelve years later. Goodwood Autodrome, West Sussex. Locals say that on a winter’s night you can sometimes still hear Giuseppe Saronni’s cranks spinning as if he had dropped his chain. Perhaps the most spectacular attack of all time.
Surely this year the race would be less tough. After all, these days the cyclists are different, the range of talents in the peloton much narrower, so that everything is much more controlled. Everything, or almost everything. One of those things that can’t be measured (unlike speed, watts and calories) is the weather. And it played a transcendental role in Yorkshire. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves . . .
Where were we? Oh yes, boarding the plane. Or almost. A nice delay, just to intensify the experience (how we cyclists love to suffer). I’m on the same flight as some of the riders. You can tell at a single glance they have no chance. The fit of those modern shirts isn’t fooling anyone. Fate has embedded me in an army of babies (all bearing a strong resemblance to Winston Churchill, ca. 1948) who never stop crying for the entire flight, taking turns in precise relays so that silence becomes a distant memory. All of which does wonders for the misanthropy I’ve been sharpening over the years. And how funny it will be for my friends when I tell them about it. I ask the stewardess whether she has a sedative so I can escape the howling, but she doesn’t seem to think much of my request (another of my characteristics, this lack of graciousness). A young couple, barely three metres apart, talk to each other on their mobile phones. They’re excited. You can tell from their voices.
As we are landing, I think about how the lights at night are different everywhere I go, as if the orange and yellow had shades that change as you pass from one country to another. Of course it isn’t true, but I won’t stop feeling it throughout my trip.
This (Slight) Sensation of Familiarity
I’m not going to lie to you: arriving in Britain is pretty scary when you come from a different culture. Especially if you come from one where they drive on the right, for a start. You start slowly – very slowly. And somewhat anxiously. Just in case.
But I needn’t have worried, because the trip from Manchester, where the plane dropped me off, to Yorkshire is a true delight. A familiar one, by the way. Narrow roads, well-surfaced, lined by low stone walls that frame the farms, reminiscent of the enclosures that filled the cities with cheap labour during the Industrial Revolution. At any rate, it looks a lot like my home. Here and there, sheep of different colours dot the landscape. The colours are not an invention. In reality they are all white, but someone has painted their bellies blue, pink, green, yellow. I have no idea what it means, but it makes for an odd landscape, as if someone had scattered the moors with a children’s breakfast cereal, all sugar and colouring.
I pass through the Forest of Bowland and think how riding a bike through it would be as exhausting as it would be entertaining. Not a flat metre, ramps here and there of up to 20 per cent, small plateaus exposed to the wind (which always blows in a cyclist’s face, of course). A (sweet) agony. It’s lovely.
Our progress is accompanied by a noisy stream. Pheasants cross the road with much greater equanimity than is advisable, and in the ditches there are hedgehogs disguised as mossy stones and ferns that look like giant spiders (I find these rather disturbing but I do my best not to notice them). In many places what there is not is mobile reception, creating an ideal opportunity to get lost and enjoy the silence. Or our puffing and panting. Don’t take a chance on unprepared legs.
(Two triangular road signs in particular caught my attention. These signal danger. One announced the presence of ducks in the road, which I found charming. The other showed the unmistakeable outline of an evil witch stirring a cauldron full of magic potion. I supposed it was a joke, but in that place, with no one around for miles, it was rather disturbing.)
We come here for the atmosphere, not the weather. A good thing, too, the bit about not coming looking for sun and warmth. Because if one thing characterised the Yorkshire Worlds it was bad weather. Rain, wind, cold. All these left memorable images. Flushed faces, riders falling apart, races won by process of elimination.
There are also other, less pleasant matters. The crashes during the junior TT, for example. Or the tears of Germán Gómez, the young Colombian who cried in dismay when he suffered a mechanical and his support car took an age to reach him over the moors. The bad weather also eliminated one of the favourites before he had even started. The champion in pectore, the defender of the crown. Alejandro Valverde doesn’t like the rain. All the Spanish journalists were thinking the same thing, though no one wanted to say it out loud just in case they had got it wrong. Valverde didn’t even finish.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. No, we were still talking about the weather. But the Yorkshire Worlds was wonderful despite what I said about the wind and rain. Would you like a good metaphor for it? Among the Worlds merchandise was a flat cap: one of those hats that look like a hunter’s and suit the inhabitants of lost valleys of the north of England so well. I’m sure you know the sort of thing. Well, it was lined in all the colours of the rainbow jersey. Very tasteful of the UCI, very cheerful, very modern. But on the outside . . . on the outside it was brown, sober, elegant. And it worked, it certainly worked. I saw many being worn, mainly because they were necessary. It was that kind of a week.
Of course, there was also lots of fun to be had. There were lots of fans. Who felt like partying. Some of them drunk. Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian, even Spanish. The Nordics wore Viking helmets with horns and everything. In honour of York, I imagine, as this whole area was a Norman kingdom at one time. The fact that Vikings didn’t wear horns on their helmets is neither here nor there. After all, they didn’t get here by longship either. It’s the thought that counts.
And Brits too, of course. In the Elite race the locals didn’t seem to have much of a chance, but they decided to support Tom Pidcock, the under-23 rider who looks like being the next star to come from the islands. He finished fourth after trying to break the race in every possible way (in the end he would be awarded third place after the disqualification of the Dutch rider Nils Eekhoff). With the mentality of a winner, his gestures after finishing the race said it all. Thick tears rolled down his face, lips cerulean with rage. He was comforted by his mother, his girlfriend, his support staff. You were fourth, you gave everything you had, you have no reason to reproach yourself. Pidcock did not answer. His socks, white at the start of the race, were now a mixture of dirt, mud and blood from a fall. His arms hanging limply, he looked lost. “I just wanted to win. Just to win.” The mentality of a champion, and a tremendously versatile one. Remember his name.
This all happened right at the finish line, the liveliest ever. About 70 metres before the white line there was a pub that had been renamed for the occasion. ‘The Finish Line’, it was called. Some journalist joked: I hope the riders don’t get confused . . .
If I had to describe the Worlds I would use two words: rainbows and bicycles. The first is clear, right? The symbol of the jersey everyone covets, and which appears in various places in Harrogate. In hairdressers (including ones where you can get your beard retouched), restaurants, the places I went for coffee in the mornings, the decorator’s shop, the antique dealer. Everything is a huge marketplace, adorned with the colours that every cyclist wants to wear at least once in their lives. Or live in them full time, like Peter Sagan.
The other thing is the bikes. And we’re in England, friends, so what can I tell you? Well, there was style, style everywhere. I saw beautiful machines, the latest models but also some classics that really made an impact on me. Clothing with a retro air. Many jerseys of the seventies and eighties, leather shoes with hard soles and laces. Casquettes. Molteni, Bic. High socks, mid-leg. A paradise for cool cyclists. The clap, clap, clap of cleats walking carefully on asphalt fills the streets instead of the backfiring of exhaust pipes (mind you don’t slip in the wet). Oh, and there are people in cycling jerseys and culottes in every shop, in every part of town. From bars to banks, to supermarkets, to more or less elegant restaurants and bookshops. It’s as if the aliens had arrived in Harrogate one night and replaced all its inhabitants with cyclists (more or less fit, more or less flabby). Just for fun, the aliens think. Just to see it . . .
A Quiet Spa Town Full of Cowbells
Harrogate is a tiny little town. Venerable and restful, with serene architecture, wide streets, everything within walking distance. A spa town designed to accommodate discreet elderly people who spend their mornings taking baths and their afternoons reading the newspaper or playing bridge. More or less. I mean, we’re not in Jane Austen’s time now. But you know what I mean.
This is Harrogate. Or that’s how it was.
Because the Worlds changes everything. It brings with it, for example, bells other than the serious, solemn pealing of the churches. No, here many of the fans wore cowbells around their necks, making metallic, sharp music that even drowned out the screams of the nearest fans. All is excitement. At the middle of everything was the Fan Centre, located in the heart of Harrogate Park. Full of stands, music, laughs, and vans selling food and drink. Or at least that was the theory. In practice it became a huge quagmire, a Woodstock of the bicycle, where everyone looked as if they had recently finished Paris-Roubaix. Here the children stood out, of course. A few of them were totally uninhibited, and I watched them cover themselves in mud from head to toe before the eyes of their worried but resigned parents. But they looked so happy . . .
It’s worth mentioning that the smells in the enclosure were of fried food, of kebabs, even of churros. British cuisine was notable only by its absence. There was some in the press centre, yes, but it didn’t go over so well (in fact this was the first time I had ever seen food left uneaten by journalists, normally so fond of local delicacies). I prefer not to draw hasty conclusions or accuse anyone of anything. But the atmosphere, the atmosphere was unbeatable.
The day before the men’s Elite race there was a concert by a Foo Fighters tribute band (or maybe it was the real Foo Fighters, I didn’t get close enough to be sure). In the mosh pit people were wearing rubber boots. Of course the British knew what might await them in Yorkshire at the end of September. I regarded them with envy as I tried not to get any more mud on my only pair of trousers. Without success, obviously.
I enjoyed the live music but I missed the Delgados. That would have been nice. Although, to be honest, there wouldn’t have been much point, because, sung by drunken fans in the outdoor discos, pubs and bars, every song sounds the same. Something like “Lolololo lalalala”. Sing loudly with a pint glass in your hand and it’s as if you were there.
My congratulations to those who covered the pubs full of cycling iconography and even organised bike-related activities. My favourite was the stand with the rollers. It was a real pleasure to watch people try to generate hundreds of watts while sinking a few pints of beer. (Of course I didn’t join them: I am a serious journalist and I was there to work. Ahem.)
A World Championship Elimination Race
And on Sunday the big race. The one everyone was waiting for. A dog of a day. Cold, rain, wind. The ditches covered with dead leaves, huge puddles in the road, a row of umbrellas greeting the riders on their way through the north of the county. Utterly autumnal. From their faces it was obvious that some of the fans were even keener to end the suffering than the riders were.
Of course I was in the press centre most of the time. I’m a gentleman and I value comfort. And because I could work better, too. I was able to take much better notes from there. Yes, that was the reason. And the press centre was a unique place in Harrogate because it was so hellishly hot in there. The journalists came in swathed in coats and scarves and quickly abandoned them, so the place looked like a great big jumble sale.
You know something? A press centre is a perfect metaphor for a bike race. To begin with nothing happens. For the first few hours you hang around talking to people, greeting old acquaintances, sketching out some ideas on your computer or in your notebook. Some even watch TV on their laptops (there was one writer totally immersed in the final episode of Game of Thrones). But as the riders start to get serious the room fills up with exclamations, applause, nerves. In the end we are just fans, and the Worlds is one of the biggest days of the year.
The Spanish riders? Good, thanks. But seriously, what a mess. The leader was Alejandro Valverde, who didn’t finish. His distant deputy, Ivan García Cortina, fared no better, suffering from the skitters. Yes, I use the Yorkshire term for it, which sounds finer than the Spanish equivalent.
In fairness, the race was a really hard one. Because of the crashes, because of the bad weather. It became an unbelievably tough elimination race. Over the course of the season few others had been this demanding. And then there he was. He did it all. Absolutely everything. The Worlds danced to his tune. His name is Mathieu van der Poel and he was everyone’s favourite for the win.
He was as predictable as only those who always attack can be. No one was in any doubt that van der Poel would force a selection from a long way out, and he did. There are 32.4 km to the finish line. He attacks on a piece of road graffiti that reproduces his face. Supreme boldness. Believe me, all eyes were on him.
The problem is that even when you know he is going to attack there’s nothing you can do unless you have the legs to go with him. In the end he is joined by two Italians, a Swiss and a Dane. Everything seems ready for the Dutchman to proclaim himself world champion. How good he’ll look in the rainbow jersey.
And then: boom.
Some thought he had broken his mech, or had a puncture, or perhaps snapped a spoke and his tyre was rubbing on the frame. He lost ground on the leaders, then other riders started passing him as if he was a junior, riding barely above touring pace. So unlikely was it that some asked whether he’d fallen down a ‘shake hole’, those circular sinkholes that appear over the Yorkshire moors. He had the grace to finish. I’m not sure it was much consolation, but the public recognised his efforts with sincere applause. In near silence – no banging on the barriers, no wild cheers. Just that.
Tributes to the brave.
Up ahead, Matteo Trentin is about to become world champion, because he is the fastest of the leaders. No doubt about it. But the thing is, in the end it’s not enough to be the fastest in theory – you have to do it. In the sprint Trentin meets Mads Petersen, a young Danish boy with a ruddy face full of hope. Third was Stefan Küng. The Italian’s face on the podium was one you could never forget. I will dream of his resolve.
Fourth was Sagan, who placed his bets too late. But it didn’t matter, the Slovak won again, leading his group across the line in front of hundreds of people who sang, danced and had fun following his directions. It’s all about charisma.
Because – oh, didn’t I say? The hours after the Worlds are almost as much fun as the race itself. There’s a party, there’s music, there’s a lot of people who want to hug each other and talk about cycling and discuss that corner, yes the one where Küng almost went alone. All that. It’s still cold. Very. It’s still raining. But I don’t want to go home.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 24.