Professional cyclists these days are tough. Maybe too tough. We are used to seeing them crash at high speed, then get back on their bikes in seconds, with nary a grimace.
Clad in wraparound sunglasses, it’s even harder to spot how they are feeling. The contenders ride uphill wearing neutral Terminaitor expressions – they are obliged to, as showing any suffering is a red rag to a rival – occasionally guided by race radio or their power data.
Even the delight of victory can seem fleeting: a case of arms in the air, a smile for a few seconds, then a bingo of team-thanking and positive watchwords in the umpteen TV interviews they must do.
Stages 9 and 10 of the 2018 Tour de France were different to that status quo. The day from Arras to Roubaix, a summery Sunday in Hell, was dripping with drama and emotion: most notably, we witnessed Richie Porte’s agony (above) and Romain Bardet’s silent scream as he chased back on for the final time after misfortune.
Then, we had joyful John. Degenkolb’s victory was poetic justice after his 2016 career-threatening crash, loss of a close friend and the adversity he has endured in recent years. He didn’t hide his emotion afterwards. He couldn’t.
Post-race interviewer Seb Piquet asked: what’s going on in your mind? His face red with effort, the German began a two-minute unburdening, his voice trembling: “Pure happiness.”
I struggle to remember a Tour stage winner who said so much in these short, usually-perfunctory post-race interviews.
And then at La Course by Le Tour de France, Cervélo-Bigla’s boisterous Danish climber Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig somewhat stole the show. What a performance on the bike, attacking over the Romme and most of the Colombière, let alone off it, laughing and crying through her interviews.
One of the most beautiful moments – an incredibly emotional @CUttrupLudwig on the finish line after being out in front.
— La Course by Le Tour (@LaCoursebyTDF) July 17, 2018
As a kid, Ludwig wanted to be an actor. Give her the Oscar now, I say. Here was a visceral show of happiness, how much work had been invested and how much it meant. It shouldn’t be refreshing to see a rider express all that, but it was. And the Dane didn’t even win – she finished fourth and the Queen of the Mountains.
Caging the inner chimp
Often, the excitement a spectator experiences watching events unfold on TV is not matched by the riders in their post-race reactions. It can be tempting to wonder how can they be so impassive after going through all that?
It’s not their fault. Many top riders are taught by sport psychologists to control their thoughts, to keep their inner chimps caged, to use logic over emotion. That certainly helps when flying down a mountain pass or smashing over the cobbles of northern France. Letting down that guard immediately after crossing the finish line, to voice innermost feelings like Degenkolb or immediately realise the context like Ludwig, is often not natural. Besides, exhaustion can often be the overriding feeling.
Cycling is a macho sport (probably surprisingly so to outsiders who see skinny folk pedalling around in Lycra) in which emotion can be seen as a weakness. But harnessed in a positive way, it really is the opposite.
It is powerful and humanising, it endears those watching at home to bike riders even more. Some of the most memorable moments in sport have been lachrymose too, such as Paul Gascoigne at the 1990 World Cup or Andy Murray’s reaction to winning Wimbledon. Occasionally, when they cry, it makes the public cry too:
Saw this live on ITV4 and haven’t really stopped sobbing since! Watching cycling is amazing!
— Elizabeth Piner-Francis (@SweatyBetty1976) July 15, 2018
Lump? Tears rolling down my cheeks. No-one can begrudge him that. He's back! 💪
— Graham Potter🔴⚪⚫🇾🇪🏴 (@GPotter_MUFC) July 15, 2018
Degenkolb’s victory and reaction turned a great day on the Tour into a classic one. It was the ending that stage 9 deserved. Meanwhile, Uttrup Ludwig walked the walk on the bike and talked the talk. This matters, women’s cycling matters, she said in words and actions.
It was a reminder that professional cycling takes its competitors on an emotional journey, as well as a geographical one. Seeing toughness and tenderness together at the Tour de France was beautiful.