this article originally appeared in the April edition of Spin Magazine
by Lee Rodgers
“Tell how at the first gods and earth came to be, and rivers, and the boundless sea with its raging swell, and the gleaming stars, and the wide heaven above, and the gods who were born of them.”
Hesiod, 4th Century B.C
Say those two words and the mind of any devoted cyclist floods with images of gods, of raging, Biblical storms and droughts, Greek tragedies and tales that might well have come right out of the tomes laid down by ancient scribes on papyrus depicting Herculean battles between rough-hewn men and the terrifying creatures of the Under World.
The early Greek works concerned themselves with attempting to explain the beginnings of our universe in a human language, one of the first coming from Hesiod who, in his treatise Theogony, grappled with man’s emergence from a ‘yawning nothingness’ that he defined as Chaos. Out of this blackness, according to the Greek, came the earth and its primary divine beings, riding two-wheeled, human powered vehicles over giant cobbles, laid down by the Devil in a fitful rage of hitherto unknown fury set amongst a bleak, Flandrian landscape that bore witness to some of the most vicious wars ever devised from the minds of men.
Humans create stories, fables, such as the one I ‘cobbled’ together in the preceding paragraph, to explain things that are barely understood even by the storyteller but which resonate with all who hear them. In storytelling, as clearly evidenced in the great religious texts of antiquity, we attempt to communicate that which is essentially unknowable through myth.
For thousands of years it was thus. These days, with our wi-fi connections, our technological interconnectivity and our culture of instant gratification, we are more out of touch with the great art of storytelling than at any other time in our history.
Yet we yearn for heroes and villians still, for narratives that carry our minds to the limits of comprehension and present us, finally, exhausted and with eyes wide, to some kind of truth, however fleeting and innately ungraspable that may be. Films attempt to do this but the fare we are fed at the multiplexes fails invariably to lift us from the humdrum. Books remain but how many read, these days? And who ever sits by a fire to listen to a great storyteller thread a tale that traces its lineage back in time whilst he or she imbues it expertly, beautifully, artistically, with their own vision and quirks of personality?
So what remains? Where can we see these battles in the modern age, where can we witness the unfolding of a narrative upon a stage that we are familiar with, but of which we cannot know the ending until it has come to its end?
Only one arena remains, and that is sport. And the greatest sport of all? Why, cycling of course.
We have the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, grand spectacles that unfurl over weeks to deliver one man to the top of the podium. These multi-stage races are akin to a marathon of theater, and whilst great in their own way, the action is in a sense diluted, specific to singular moments of action amongst the often bland and repetitive effort required of their participants just to reach their destination each day.
The Classics, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely. The 5 Monuments – Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia – define, for me, all that is great and wonderful about this mad sport of ours.
There’s no doubt that these are the five greatest one-day races in the cycling calendar, and each has their own character, their own devilish features that test the peloton and leave it scattered over the road. That, essentially I think is why people love the Classics so, and why their appeal is so enduring. Over the course of five or six hours, the participants fight it out over a route that rarely changes and is so hard that the big team tactics that are a feature of the stage races rarely come into play.
It’s mano a mano, as well as mano against the elements.
The Giro di Lombardia has its leaves, it’s rolling hills, its distance. It’s the Old Dame of The Classics, somewhat more genteel than the others but with a bottle of arsenic in its pocket, like an evil, sociopathic Great Aunt.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the oldest of the Monuments having first been run in 1894, puts the riders into a sleeper hold and slowly knocks them out. It’s a real test of stamina this one, with its long climbs that grind the rider down. It’s trial by elimination, and a true test of cycling ability.
Milan-San Remo is the first of The Classics to be held each year and the one most likely (these days at least, thanks to the improved training techniques of the sprinters) to end in a mass gallop. Yet it’s also the longest of the Monuments at close to 300km and features the famous Poggio climb towards the end that often witnesses the race-winning move. As an aperitif to the season of the Classics, it is a cracking one.
However, it’s the last two Classics that I will mention last that most sane cycling fans (a bit of a misnomer I know) see as the greatest of the Monuments: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. It is here, in these two great races, that those who look on as the action unfurls truly witness the emergence of the gods from Chaos.
It is here, for rider and spectator alike, where myth becomes reality – though always at a price.
Flanders, or the Ronde van Vlaanderen as it is known in the local language, takes part in a place that saw the some of the heaviest fighting of the two World Wars, and is a race that is as central to the Flandrian consciousness as any religious procession or historical festival. In fact, it is just that – religious in the sense of the esteem it is held and historical in the depth of the suffering it demands from its winners.
We are not talking about a race here. This is a trial.
The names of the hills that make up the event mean nothing to anyone not living in Belgium nor to anyone that is not a cycling fan. The Mollenberg, the Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont and the Valkenberg, they are to anyone outside our two-wheeled cult nothing less than non-descript geololgical formations depicted on a map – but to us? These are the sites of great battles, of gargantuan tussles between men and the angry specters of the Other World. The great Bernard Hinault had this to say after one edition of the race:
“I told the organisers it wasn’t a race but a war game. It’s hard to explain what the Koppenberg means to a racing cyclist. Instead of being a race, it’s a lottery. Only the first five or six riders have any chance: the rest fall off or scramble up as best they can. What on earth have we done to send us to hell now?”
In recent years however, due to the avarice of the organisers, the race route has been altered and some of the dirty, gritty romance of the Tour of Flanders has been lost, perhaps forever. It is one of the great shames of our sport.
And so, for me, the greatest of the Monuments, and indeed the greatest of all races, whether they be one-day events or the Grand Tours, is Paris-Roubaix.
This race – and it’s a disservice almost to call it merely ‘a race’ – has no hills, no steep climbs to separate the boys from the men. Instead, the riders toil over rock laid down by the ancients over which no local even would ever dream of driving a car, such is the havoc the wreak on suspension systems, tires and bone.
The great Dutch rider, Leon Van Bon, a man who came close to winning in Roubaix on several occasions in his illustrious career, knows only too well the true nature of Paris-Roubaix and the demands it puts on those who dare to race it.
“How can somebody be in love with Hell?” he wrote. “It’s a contradiction. Makes no sense. Most would call it madness…
In a religious context, Hell is a place of punishment in the afterlife, an endless realm of suffering for the transgressors, the evil. But not in cycling. In cycling Hell is a place for the brave and the heroes. Survive a day in the Hell of the North and you are a hero.
Win or lose.
For me this is the biggest, most prestigious race on the calendar. It’s made for heroes and only won by heroes. This is the race you have to have a passion for just to be able to finish, and to win it – well, you have to truly love it.
Amidst so much suffering, such beauty. This is Hell.
This is Paris – Roubaix.”
This is where Chaos reigns, where men are made, cast by the furnace of Hell to emerge as legends. They are truly gods, those who win here, for they are never forgotten. Their names, etched onto plaques in the cold, dank shower room at the velodrome in Roubaix where the race finishes, join the ranks of the greats and become part of the greatest story in sport.