It is one of life’s increasingly regular disappointments that the recorded facts of any given event do not often match the lived experience. They seem only to have tangential relationship with the way that certain occasions are remembered. And in no one is this more true than in the rheumy-eyed sports nostalgist.
If you want proof of this deflating phenomenon, then close your eyes and imagine Stephen Roche appearing through the dank Alpine air, pushing through vast crowds to haunt Pedro Delgado like a lycra-clad Banquo to the Spaniard’s yellow jersey-wearing Macbeth. Set this scene to the accompaniment of Liggett’s bewildered shrieks of delight drowning out the chop of rotor blades and roar of the crowd.
Got it? Sniffed the mountain air? Caught the euphoric wave? Now check out what it was really like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQojh-wqL04
Good. Very good, I’d even suggest. But not quite as good as your sentimental memory had led you to believe, I’d warrant. Not quite up to the overblown status it enjoys in the Anglophone cycling world.
And now I too have a personalised and growing bank of iconic cycling “memories” which are forever being churned and refined and revisited until their remembered reality takes leave of the facts and becomes Cycling Myth (with capitals). The most recent of these? Paris Roubaix 2013.
It was my first visit. And it just thrilled me, from start to finish. From my trip to see the cobbles of the Arenberg the day before (and the mischievous delight I felt at just how unpleasant the sportive riders were finding the experience), to the grandeur of the départ at Compiègne. From my fruitless fumblings with the FM dial on my car radio as I drove to Roubaix, in search of race reports, to my careless parking (sideways across a pavement) somewhere near the velodrome.
It lived up to all my expectations, and then offered quite simply the best finish I have ever seen to a bike race.
For a start, the setting. The old concrete institution is every bit as Roubaix-ish as you might wish for. Like the Berlin Wall made pre-stressed concrete slabs poetic, so the linear façade of the Centre Sportif de Roubaix, with its two-bob mosaics and its rotten window frames, is a pure hit of winsome retro crack. I stopped to take a badly framed, slightly out of focus picture of it, then Photoshopped it into black and white (this being Rouleur and all that).
I reckon that ASO must bribe the steering committee that administrates the institution NOT to give it a lick of paint. Such crumbling heritage needs preserving, and the best way of doing that is NOT preserving it. And it’s cheap.
But what a place to watch the race! There was just about enough warmth in the spring sky to allow for a constant taking off then pulling on of coats among the gathering masses. There were burgers for sale. And there was NO ENTRY FEE. I capitalise this, in order, subtly, to stress its significance.
Here was one of sport’s most idiosyncratic and glorious pageants free at the point of use, as they say when they talk about the NHS. People just showed up, sat down, and watched the big screen as the kilometres ticked by, and the rumbling arrowhead of riders drew ever closer to the finish.
What was approaching us, through dust and drama, was totally enthralling. And if the printed accounts of the 2013 race do not bear out what I am about to tell you, then to hell with the reports! The facts are of secondary importance. Because this is what I saw…
…I saw Fabian Cancellara as a fish.
Not just any fish, mind. I mean a Fish (caps again). He rode the race as if he were the mythical beast from The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s macho angling yarn, which talks of the great, unplumbed, animal depths of the human condition.
Time and time again, he, and he alone, summoned up the spirit, screwed together the courage, to ride across, to tear into the growing gaps alone. And each time he did it, it cost a little of his life. And each time he did it, he pulled with him his tormentors. Just as the Great Fish takes the Old Man and his boat way out into the deep ocean, so Cancellara had to endure the dead weight of those who had harpooned him, those whom he was dragging along for the ultimate showdown.
‘I'll kill him though.’ That’s what Hemingway’s Man says to himself. ‘In all his greatness and his glory.’
I bit deeply into my burger.
Young Belgian Sep Vanmarcke was almost certainly unaware of his starring role in my Hemingway based fish/cycling narrative. But he knew what he had to do. He’d wait until the track, then he’d go for Cancellara’s heart.
A drop of ketchup fell from my clasp.
Until then, he whispered to himself, ‘He is working. Work as little as you can.’ The Belkin-sponsored fisherman stood on his notional boat, dagger in hand, waiting for the beast to tire. And when the two men finally reached the track, then Time properly, genuinely, warped a little. All that hell-for-leather, gone. Now only a curious quiet; and almost stationary, a duel to the death.
I dropped what remained of my burger in the grass.
And if you can’t remember the result, then click on this link (Liggett again), and don’t read on.
Or, for those of you who don’t want to be disappointed by the facts, here’s a more accurate summary of the greatest finish to a race I have ever seen:
Sep Vanmarcke shed tears, while Cancellara gasped for air, lying on his back.
Like a fish. Told you.