One of the first professional races that I ever rode was the now defunct Giro di Lucca in September 2003. As you can imagine, as a stagiaire I was fairly enthusiastic about being there and fairly nervous about the speed of the professional peloton. Each lap when we’d hit the climb, I’d sprint up as hard as I could, only to be amazed that I was almost always the leading rider. On about the fourth lap of eight, a Rabobank rider rode alongside me and did the decent thing, pointing out in the nicest possible way that I should probably calm down. “But I want to race!” I enthused, thinking that was what we were all there for. “Listen, kid. I started racing in February, I rode the Tour and I’ve already done ninety days of racing – we all have. There are only so many race days we can do – you charging up here isn’t good for my heart, man!” Of course, I was grateful that it had been someone with a sense of humour who’d stopped me from humiliating myself further, rather than a grumpy Italian like Andrea Noè. It was then that I started to understand just how different the end of the season is inside the professional peloton. It should have been no surprise to me that, in a result-driven sport, once people start to achieve the goals that they set out with at the start of the year, they begin to switch off a little. As an amateur, there was always still something to gain by going well and getting results, even after you’d achieved those ambitions. As a professional though, there was a clinical cut-off whereby once results were gained, anything more wasn’t just a waste of energy, it was deemed totally unnecessary. If I had been a little surprised by how keen the peloton was to avoid racing until they had to, what I saw in the evenings stunned me further. It began to dawn on me that the cycling season is long, professional races are hard, and the life around them harder. The rigours of life on the road, going from hotel to hotel and race to race are quite something, and there comes a time in every racing season when this all starts to unravel. The apathetic, or at least divided, atmosphere in the peloton is reflected by attendance at the hotel bars each night. If the start of the cycling season was like a cold war where each team lives in a world of frigid mistrust of their opposition and each rider spends day and night trying to look for any sign of weakness in his rivals, then the end of the cycling season is like Woodstock. All of a sudden it seems that sixty per cent of the peloton just lay down their arms and decide that enough is enough. The hostilities of the early season are forgotten, and riders start to socialise with one another. Rivalries are left behind, and one by one the riders of the pro peloton start to fill up the bars of race hotels the world over. At first it is just a few bold riders who go for a drink, while others hang around nervously in the lobby with half an eye on the surroundings to make sure it is safe, that team managers aren’t going to start taking note. In most cases though the directeur sportifs turn a blind eye and even occasionally get the odd round in. Having a beer and relaxing with colleagues is a fairly reasonable response to the harshness of the performance environment that bike riders live in. Remember, these are men who don’t go to the pub on a Friday night, men who have said ‘I’d better not’ at Christmas dinner and have been used to denying themselves throughout the year. Cyclists can be a lot like children, and what they are not allowed, they really want. Be it pouches of chewing tobacco shoved under bulging top lips, alcohol, cigarettes or sleeping tablets, or a combination of all of the above, cyclists are always willing to do something to take the edge off. There are the occasional nights, too, when things get a little out of hand. Alcohol, excitement and podium girls can be a heady mix, after all. By September they know that in the following day’s race, there will be a significant enough number of riders who don’t really want to go for it - and in cycling, safety comes in numbers. But partying at a race is a serious business, and there is no option to just not ride the next day, as the cycling world is too small. Room bills, rumours and gossip would soon find you out. So, no matter how late the riders stay up, how much they drink, how late it is in the season, or how easy the racing might be for the masses the following day, all bike riders live by the old adage: ‘If you’re a man by night, you’ve got to be a man in the morning’.
The current generation? Overpaid, underarchieving and wrongly-trained. As frank as ever, Bernard Hinault discusses cycling with Graeme Fife.