This is the moment you’ve been dreaming of.
The moment that makes all those sacrifices worthwhile. All those hours in the hills, all the sweat that has stained the garage floor. A victory. You’re alone and triumphant, with the television cameras rolling. Into the final kilometre, you can’t be caught now. This is your moment, so what the hell are you going to do with it?
2017 was a year of great innovation in cycle racing, and I’m not talking about disc brakes, lumpy skinsuits or any of that boring stuff. I’m talking about Greg Van Avermaet’s new victory salute. Van Avermaet has finally, after what seems like an eternally long period of development, become a superstar of the sport.
In 2015 and 2016, his victory celebrations were in the classic mould, but last year, the Belgian introduced a new trademark salute. We saw it during his remarkable Spring Classics campaign, at Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.
It starts with the right arm pointed to the heavens with a single finger extended, followed by a vigourous under-arm fist pump on the left. Further celebrations follow, but no one cares about what you do once you’ve flashed past the photographers.
The beauty of this unique salute is that it combines messaging (the single finger points out that he is numero uno) with emotion, all whilst demonstrating to his rivals that he is in control of the situation. No panicky jabbing of a hand into the air for Greg Van Avermaet.
In contrast, Peter Sagan, once famous for his gimmicky celebrations, has become so uber-famous that he no longer needs a trademark. Well, one could argue his trademark is now the rainbow jersey. Now, when he wins, his victory salutes are casual, almost desultory. You’re lucky I bothered to turn up, he seems to be saying, but seeing as I did, I may as well win the bike race. Sagan is becoming the Liam Gallagher of the cycling world.
Cool is hard. Cool comes naturally, or not at all. Sagan’s early career victory salutes were funny, endearing and often baffling. He was engaged in a brand-building exercise, but no one minded because he did it all with good humour.
Anyone who wins a bike race with enough time, energy and presence of mind to do a cute salute has to be very careful. It’s easy to look like an arsehole. There are some classic ways to deliver a pre-planned celebration. First, there is the illustration of a nickname, like Nibali’s Shark of Messina, or Contador’s Pistolero. Two stylish, attacking riders and who would begrudge them some self-promotion at the finish line? Yet Alberto’s firing gesture always looked so casually aggressive, cruel even. In contrast, Juan Antonio Flecha’s mime of firing an arrow in 2003, when he became the first Argentinean-born rider to win a Tour de France stage, was charming and genuine.
The second type of pre-planned salute is the homage to a sponsor. Common in professional cycling, predictable and boring, it’s the equivalent of taking chocolate into the office for your boss in the hope of getting a pay rise. It never works and just looks obsequious. But there is a nuance here. For the rider who points to the sponsor’s name on his jersey may claim that he is in fact celebrating his team, rather than the company that bankrolls the team.
Given that cycling is a team sport, this of course would be highly commendable. Pride in one’s team is to be encouraged. Pride in the obscure Italian ceramic floor manufacturer whose marketing director once met Felice Gimondi and has managed to persuade his colleagues that professional cycling delivers a beautiful return on investment – well, that’s just weird.
The final, and rarest, type of pre-planned salute involves the use of props. Indeed, it’s so rare that I can only think of one example – Carlos Sastre’s surreal production of a baby’s dummy from his back pocket when he won a Tour de France stage at Ax-3 Domaines in 2003.
After the stage, Sastre told journalists that he always carried something belonging to his two-year-old daughter Claudia in his jersey to remind him that there are more important things in life than bike racing. Putting it into his mouth at the finish was a spontaneous act in acknowledgement of all his friends and family who’d come to the final climb to watch that day.
Some scoffed at such sentimentality – Sastre’s salute epitomised a gentle man of integrity, who stood in contrast to his more testosterone-drenched opponents. It was a unique and memorable act because it showed the human side of a professional cyclist.
And this is what we want to see – real emotion. Before the advent of ubiquitous sunglasses, it was possible for photographers to capture, mid-race, a look of despair or confidence or surprise on a rider’s face. Not any more. The camera’s gaze is reflected, literally, right back at itself. We look for other, more nuanced, clues but in the main we’re left guessing. Only at the finish line does the true emotion come through.
Think of Lizzie Deignan (then Armitstead) winning the 2015 Worlds in Richmond, USA. An experienced rider, one of the favourites, and yet the feeling of crossing the line first was so overwhelming that she could only put her hand to her mouth. We knew that behind those Oakleys, the tears were springing into her eyes.
Some riders, winning alone, will remove their sunglasses and slot them into their helmet. I’ve always been curious about this move. Perhaps it is a way to draw attention to their sunglasses sponsor, but I’d like to think it’s more about unmasking, connecting with the spectators and the cameras.
Sastre’s career collided with that of Lance Armstrong, and while the American isn’t noted for his interesting victory salutes, there are two moments in his career that stand out in my memory.
A few days after the death of team-mate Fabio Casartelli in a Pyrenean stage of the 1995 Tour de France, Armstrong won alone in Limoges. Approaching the line, he pointed to the sky and then blew a double kiss to the heavens. Bike racing is a dangerous and intense business, and perhaps only the professionals truly understand the narrow margin between life and death. A victory salute can be an opportunity to convey a public message, to tell a story.
The other significant Armstrong moment came two years earlier, at the rain-soaked World Championships in Oslo. The Texan’s lone win propelled him to the front of the European cycling stage, and his salute told us that this guy wasn’t necessarily going to follow all the rules. From three hundred metres out he pumped his arms, shook his head, sprinted, looked back in disbelief, pointed to the skies, and because he wore neither helmet nor sunglasses, we saw the emotion flooding his body. Second place went to Miguel Indurain that day. One wonders how different Big Mig’s victory salute would have been.
Because the World Championships is such an important race, and usually a war of attrition, it often gives us psychological insight into its winners. By the finish the riders are exhausted, and because they’re riding for their country rather than their sponsors, there are no marketing histrionics in the finishing straight. Of course, most Worlds winners simply throw their hands in the air in delight. But if Armstrong’s Oslo performance is at one end of the scale, then surely Cadel Evans’ win in Mendrisio in 2009 is at the other.
By then, Evans was beginning to look like a nearly man. Having left behind a successful career in cross-country mountain biking, the Australian’s early road performances pointed towards Grand Tour success. In 2002, riding for Mapei, he enjoyed a surprisingly long spell in the lead of the Giro d’Italia. In 2005, now with Davitamon-Lotto, he finished eighth in the Tour de France. By the end of summer 2009, he had twice finished second at the Tour, but had won neither a Grand Tour nor a major one-day race. He was 32 and it was beginning to look like he would not fulfill his immense potential.
On a challenging course, under hazy early autumn sunshine, the peloton played out a fascinating tactical battle. The Spanish and the Australians got the better of the Belgians and the Italians, and on the final lap a 22-man group was clear.
With six kilometres to go, as the group eased back and looked at each other, Evans attacked. The others hesitated and the Aussie was gone. With Damiano Cunego, Philippe Gilbert and Alexandr Kolobnev chasing, his gap was never huge so he had to keep pressing all the way to the line. And when he got there? For this quiet, enigmatic man there was no bicep-pumping or yelling. He just took one hand off the bars and gave a little wave to the crowd beside the finish line. Then he rolled to a stop, kissed his wedding ring, hanging on a chain around his neck, and began to cry.
Still, such moments of raw emotion are rare. Let us be professional about this. Cycling is a rough, tough, macho sport, all wrapped up in shiny images. This is the age of Instagram. A successful rider needs to be a brand. Successful brands need ambassadors. Riders need their victory salutes to be their trademarks. It’s all terribly confusing.
Anyway, I’m not scared of the future. I’ve been inspired by Van Avermaet’s innovation. Assuming that he sticks with the extended-finger-slash-under-arm-fist-pump (I know – it really needs a more snappy name, answers on a postcard please) I think there is an opportunity for fresh thinking in this field. Over the winter I’ve been wobbling up and down the lanes of Kent, throwing shapes, trying out ideas. Mostly I’ve been able to keep my work secret, but some well-informed photographers have been sneaking about the hedgerows, looking for a scoop. Fortunately I was able to distract them with some YMCA moves.
Now my work is finished. The new salute is complete and has been ratified by the UCI. Being a born loser, of course, I need a professional cyclist to take my salute into the public realm. For the moment, there is a strict press embargo, but when the time comes, you’ll know about it.
Boy, will you know about it.
From issue 18.2 of Rouleur magazine