We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Price of Progress? Anonymity.

This image from last weekend's Milano-Sanremo caused a bit of flutter on Twitter, as fans such as @Plastic_Peloton adopted the role of the young boy in the Emperor's New Clothes to point out how ridiculously poor Fabian Wegmann's choice of clothing for the wet and cold race made him look. Functionally perfect garb perhaps, but surely no-one can dispute that sartorially this represents a backward step. A big one too.

For me it's even more fundamental than simply kit that just looks naff: at first hand more large corporations coming into cycling, investing large sums of money in teams in order to market their products to an increasingly large audience might seem like a positive development. However, more insidious in my mind is the increasing human disconnect we're witnessing in our sport brought by this shift, where once-accessible riders are increasingly isolated from their public - either by ill-advised egotistical behaviour fitting of superstar pop divas, privacy windows on Tour buses, burley minders keeping fans at arms' length - or through 'technical' accessories that disguise them completely like these. So many of the Milano-Sanremo riders out there that day were barely recognisable: is this anonymity the price we're paying for supposed progress?

Fabian Wegmann Looks Ridiculous in his POC helmet and glasses
Oh dear.
Admittedly the peloton was well wrapped-up against the elements for La Primavera, but this trend - more sponsors products like glasses and helmets contractually foisted on the riders, identikit jerseys à la Rapha and bland, black plastic 'stealth' bicycles - means riders are virtually indistinguishable one from the other. Riders increasingly resemble corporate billboards, employees rather than riders, reduced to anonymous Robocop automata in a cycling video game rather than individuals with their own style, characters and visual reference points. Interviews too, are, for the most part, simply distilled down to PR opportunities where riders must not stray one iota from sponsors' messaging. In the same way Formula One lost its mojo, cycling risks becoming souless ... thank goodness when Brit-pop bad-boys Cav and Wiggo go off script.

Compare and contrast the above with this image taken during the 1984 Tour de France. Now I've been a fan of the bike for longer than the 30 years since this picture was taken (and I know that the eagle-eyed amongst you will know just from glimpsing Laurent Fignon's Super Record front brake calliper arm being on the 'wrong' side that the image is flopped), but I can still name them all without too much trouble. Next season, 1985, the big money arrived: Bernard Tapie lured Greg from Renault for a million-dollar contract, the American started sporting Oakley Factory Pilots, and arguably this started the downward spiral, as cycling became more commercially confident and moved on from its almost quaint, parochial European roots.

1984 Tour de France 80s heroes, instantly recognisable
Name them. Not too hard, is it? 
Even after 30 years, all of these riders are instantly recognisable. Fignon, Hinault, Angel Arroyo with the white shoes [Miroir du Cyclisme poetically described him at the time as "l'homme aux souliers blancs"; the Tour de France organisation fined him for the transgression], his Reynolds team-mate Pedro Delgado on the wheel of his compatriot's red Pinarello Treviso, Skil's Eric Caritoux just behind, World Champ Greg LeMond, Claude Criquielion and Patrocinio Jiménez riding for Teka - the guy Robert Millar dropped at the top of Peyresourde in the Tour the year before to take victory on Stage 10 to Bagnères-de-Luchon. OK, so I'm renowned as a bit of a 'Statto' when it comes to bikes, but I feel that most cyclists out there 'of a certain age' with a keen interest in the sport would be able to name most of the riders here, the event and the year due to the kit, the sponsors and equipment, but most of all the human features of the personalities. I think it's why I'm a big fan of the Facebook groups "80s Cycling Remembered" and "Real 80s Cycling": simply put, it was cycling at its apotheosis.

The modern-day peloton: Can't name even one. Oh - Simon Gerrans.
Name them. Bit of a challenge, eh? Cyclists? They all look the same to me.
Being a commentator must have been so much easier back then: the opportunity to mix amongst the riders either before or in the aftermath of a race, easy access around team hotels and vehicles, with riders on the road much easier to identify. Forget the small black-and-white screens Liggett and Sherwen often used as an excuse for their constant identification errors, I happen to think that the Stateside-adored 'Phil and Paul' duo were just a little bit crap as correspondents, for both their stilted, overly-excited, permanently intense delivery and the numerous mistakes; let's not even talk about David Duffield here, since his unrelenting 'Colemanballs' deserve a whole post on their own. I'm amazed, conversely, that their modern-day peers like David Harmon, Declan Quigley, Matthew Stephens, Brian Smith, Carlton Kirby and Magnus Backstedt manage to do such an excellent job given the conditions they work under. Better research and preparation? More competition? Who knows.

And finally, if you want to argue that I've been disingenuous by picking a Tour de France summer pic from the past, with riders in short sleeves in the optimum riding conditions rather than the rain and mist of Milano-Sanremo, have a look at the image above and tell me how many of the riders you can name. Yeah, there's some guys from Orica-Greenedge and Garmin-Sharp, on their black Scott and Cervélo bikes for sure, but who are they? And will you be able to name them in 30 years' time?