Despite Britain's triumph in Manchester, cycling remains an overlooked sport in this country. Yet many things are more important than sport, as a sad event reminds meby / May 24, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Britain’s cycling triumph
As winter turned into what passes for an English spring, sports lovers here had little to celebrate. Our footballers had already failed to qualify for the European Championship, our rugby team struggled and blundered through the Six Nations, our cricketers just about recovered after a pitiful start against the not very formidable New Zealanders.
Then came March, and the miracle of Manchester. I can’t remember the last time anything elated me so much as the magnificent performance of the British cyclists in the World Track Championships, with a haul of nine gold medals. Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, winning the madison with an impossibly daring final burst! Chris Hoy, caught napping by Theo Bos in one heat of the men’s sprint quarter-final, and then coming back to collar him in the next! Shanaze Reade and Victoria Pendleton in the women’s team sprint—what a pair of babes! And Rebecca Romero! When England managed to win the Ashes, the team blearily toured London in an an open bus and were fêted at Downing Street. The cyclists should have been taken to Windsor and garlanded with gongs.
Maybe we should think ourselves lucky that we were able to follow that triumph at all. Although cycling, including competitive racing, is actually one of the most popular participation sports in the country, cycle sport is treated by the media as if it were as recondite as croquet. Sheer national pride meant that Manchester was given the billing it deserved, but the cycling fan often looks in vain for basic information, as with the Ronde van Vlaanderen on the first Sunday in April.
One of the great one-day classics and an enthralling spectacle, this Tour of Flanders zigzags across what look deceptively like the plains of northern Belgium until the riders hit the “walls”—a succession of pretty villages where narrow cobbled streets run uphill at horrifyingly steep gradients. The race was won by the Stijn Devolder, the Belgian champion, a fine attacking ride in the course of an exhilarating afternoon of thrills and spills, if you could follow it at all.
For the London papers, the Ronde barely existed. Eurosport promised us a modest session in mid-afternoon, but then, in a way that was capricious even by the standards of satellite television, forgot all about it and showed motorbikes instead. They managed to show the highlights later, so at least we addicts got a small fix. The Paris-Roubaix a week later, the “Hell of the north,” fared a little better, Eurosport trailing it with the slogan “If you like to see people suffer, watch this,” although that might seem to be catering for the Ritter von Sacher-Masoch sporting tendency.
May will see modest coverage of the Giro d’Italia, and commentary from the glorious treble act of David Harmon, David Duffield and Sean “majorly big” Kelly. Then comes the Tour de France, whose existence even the London media recognises, and if the Beijing Olympics go ahead unscathed, about which we all have mixed feelings, there’s every reason to hope that the British riders will harvest another rich crop and be properly treated as heroes. And yet bike racing as a whole languishes in public consciousness, to a degree which is really puzzling.
Of course, cycling partly has itself to blame. Each new season brings exciting prospects, and agonised prayers that there won’t be another doping scandal. There is scarcely a big race which doesn’t have a performance-enhancing subtext. We tifosi (as Italians call bike-racing fans) start the season as usual with bated breath, and crossed fingers.
More important than sport
Anyone writing about sport should send a constant memo to himself: “There are more important things.” I don’t just mean that Tibet is more important than the Olympics, though that as well. Even within the world of sports we need a sense of proportion. A career-threatening injury to a footballer or steeplechase jockey, such as Eduardo da Silva and Mick Fitzgerald both recently endured, matters more than any silverware, and for a horse, a broken leg means something grimmer than a long spell watching from the stands.
On the Monday before Aintree, my old friend Eamon Dunphy (who has ascended to higher things from the Millwall midfield of long ago) was in London and interviewed me for his Dublin radio programme. Between studio and dinner I bought him a drink at the Garrick, and while at the bar I entered the club sweepstake on the Grand National, thinking maybe that Eamon would lend me some of the proverbial luck of the Irish.
On Thursday I heard that I had indeed drawn an Irish horse, In the High Grass, though he was an outsider at the bottom of the handicap, who would only run as a substitute. Instead he ran on Friday in the Topham, the “consolation National” over the same big fences. I watched, and sighed when he fell at the eighth. It wasn’t until I opened the Racing Post the next day that I learned he had been killed.
I’m sure he was loved by his owner and trainer, and especially by the lad or lass who looked after him, who went back to an empty box. There are more important things than sport, and worse things than losing your money.