Pro cycling is the self-styled ‘toughest sport in the world.’
Depending on who you ask there are plenty of other contenders for that particular title – boxing, mixed martial-arts, cross-country skiing, gymnastics, rugby league – but few who know anything about cycling could argue that it’s not for the faint hearted.
Also I’m a cyclist…so it gets my vote!
Take the 2015 version of Gent-Wevelgem, a prestigious one-day classic of around 200 kilometres which featured 40mph winds, driving rain, low temperatures, slippery cobbles, and dozens of the best cyclists on the world fighting for the same narrow stretch of the same road.
These kind of conditions are not unusual for bike racing in Belgium in the spring, but this year’s edition of this classic one day race was even more epic than most; the fact that the race had just 39 finishers of the 200 or so who took the start line tells it’s own tale.
Toughest sport in the world?
At the other end of the spectrum, consider the behaviour of your average Premier League footballer (or those of most other top leagues in Europe, for that matter). I’m not saying that being a top footballer is easy, but lets be honest, they don’t help themselves do they? There seems to be no shame in writhing around in agony following anything even resembling physical contact.
Now compare and contrast that with this picture of Team Sky man Geraint Thomas and his unfortunate encounter with a particularly strong gust of wind at Gent-Wevelgem, and then a roadside ditch:
Rather than writhe around in that muddy ditch holding his face, spitting indignation towards his fellow competitors, and demanding a stretcher, Thomas got back on his bike and went on to finish 3rd.
He’d make a terrible footballer!
The winner of the race was Luca Paolini, the 38 year old Italian who normally plays the role of the toughest team player in the peloton, and earns his money imperiously delivering his Katusha team-mates into race winning positions; a suffer-fest like Gent-Weveglem 2015 was just made for this grizzly rider with the beard like a U-boat captain and the tactical nous of a Roman general. He duly conquered the elements to take the win.
Hard men, these cyclists, eh?
Well, yes, but I’m starting to spot signs that perhaps the sport is a bit more cuddly, and a tad more touchy feely than it appears – it turns out some of these guys are just big softies.
As old mates Ben Swift (Team Sky) and Alex Dowsett (Movistar) met for a chat at the start line of Gent-Wevelgem, having suffered a right royal soaking just pedalling there from the team bus, Dowsett admitted he wasn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of wind, rain, and fighting for position on wet cobblestones: “he (Swift) loves this kind of thing and I don’t like it that much!”
As Swift explained, “I went to shake Alex’s hand and he said he wanted a hug, so a friend in need is a friend indeed, so if he wants a hug I’ll give him a hug.”
Ahhh, how lovely.
To be honest, if I was faced with 200 odd kilometres in those conditions, I might need a pre-race cuddle too.