Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Cycling Arena: Beauty and Tragedy

One of the beautiful and unique things about cycling is the arena in which it takes place. The roads offer up a plethora of kilometres, variously winding, climbing, familiar, snaking, rough, windswept, exhilarating, lung-busting, calming, unknown, inspiring, descending, beautiful, relaxing, smooth, shaded...

The cycling arena knows no numbered seats, or any seats for that matter, save for the ground or the camping chair you bring along with you. There are no turnstiles or hotdog vendors. If it rains, you get wet. If you want to touch your heroes, there are no security guards or barriers to stop you. If you stand close enough, you will be sprayed with their sweat.

You don't pay to see cycling.  There is no one to pay.  No one owns the roads any more than you.  In this way, cycling is more a part of its fans, and fans more a part of cycling, than any other sport.

After World War II, the cities and roads of Europe were in a serious state of disrepair. People were poor and had little to eat. The wind had well and truly been taken out of everyone's sails, "winners" and "losers" alike. One thing that gave people hope was cycling. While most racing was halted during the war, it very quickly resumed soon after. Cyclists such as Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, whose careers straddled the war, picked up where they left off and gave people a show. And it was a show people could enjoy without paying a penny, or a lire, or a franc. The very stars whose exploits were described in excited tones over the wireless were riding on the same bombed, cracked, shelled roads that everyone else had to use.

These men inspired. Sure, they didn't rebuild Europe, but they helped and they gave people some entertainment along the way.

Cycling has changed little since those halcyon days. Of course bikes are lighter, there are helmets and race radios. Training and nutrition have advanced. Average speeds have increased slightly. But, for all intents and purposes, the essence of the sport has endured. Fans still line the roads in their hundreds and thousands. And if they can't make it, they watch on the modern day equivalent of the wireless.  Cyclists still train more than most of us could imagine. Racing is still frantic, nationalistic and political.

The arena of cycling is still the open roads that belong to us all and it is these roads that make cycling everything that it is. Instead of being cocooned in a familiar environment that can be mastered, memorised and tamed, cyclists are forced to adapt to their ever-changing arena. They must make split-second decisions that require skill and bravery.

For them, their field, their pitch, their court, their ground is almost always completely new and unfamiliar. This is what makes cycling beautiful. It is also what makes cycling dangerous and why, every so often, cyclists tragically die.

This morning I woke to the sad and shocking news of the death of two cyclists. One, a young Australian I had never heard of succumbed to injuries he sustained four years ago. The other, a Belgian entering the prime of his career as a professional. These deaths remind us that with the beauty of cycling comes inherent risks. Indeed, this beauty and these risks come hand-in-hand, both originating from the same thing.

The sad truth is, as long as there is cycling there will always, occasionally, be death. That is the nature of the environment that we choose as our arena. I didn't know Shamus Liptrot and I didn't know Wouter Weylandt. Nonetheless, I was struck by a deep sadness at the news that they had both died at the hands of this beautiful sport.

If you'd like to make a donation to Wouter Weylandt's family, you can do so by purchasing a t-shirt here.

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