Rouleur Classic


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Photographs: Ben Ingham

Spring, finally something to look forward to. It’s Classics season and you have a good excuse to dig out your collection of black-and-white race photographs and not appear a complete nerd.
You can honestly say it’s part of preparing yourself for the excitement when caught watching old videos on YouTube of a Brooklyn-clad Roger De Vlaeminck on a blue Gios resisting the onslaught of Eddy Merckx in a muddy Paris-Roubaix.
Or Hinault in the snow at Liège, King Kelly, Moser, Maertens, Museeuw and now, without the shaky film of old, Boonen and Cancellera kicking the crap out of each other. That’s your basic homework.
You can’t beat a good Classic for nervous tension and brutality, and the great thing about the Spring Classics is that everyone feeds off the drama: spectators, journalists, team staff, race personnel. And if there’s thoroughly miserable weather, it just makes it all the more epic.
Of course, some people take it more seriously than others, a prime example being the Belgians. The northern Classics are their races, even though Paris-Roubaix actually takes place in France. Mere details like geography don’t stop them from believing that it’s their national pride at stake.
The sheer amount of knowledge the average Belgian Classics spectator possesses is astonishing, and makes me think that cycling history and culture is a core topic in their schools.
For example, the lowest-ranked rider turns up to his first Classic and someone at the start will know everything about him: where he was born, his middle name, where he raced as a junior and when he last fell off. That someone will, nine times out of ten, be from Belgium. When they ask the rider for a photo card and an autograph, it’s the lowly pro rider’s chance to make a friend for life. By simply asking the enquirer if they are from Flanders or Wallonia, the fan’s day will be made.
Of course, they could be from Brussels, and then things get slightly political, but a little knowledge of local identity goes a long way.
Go further up the rider rankings and there’ll be more watchers hanging around the team car and even more arbitrary knowledge. By the time you get to Cancellera and Boonen level, it’s bizarre stuff like shoe size, who they went on holiday with and how much milk went on their morning cornflakes before last Thursday’s kermesse.
There’ll be an expert from the fan club counting spokes or analysing which seat their idol occupies on the team bus. Overly obsessive people will be debating for weeks how the number got pinned on, or whether they used some secret adhesive to stop bidons bouncing out of the bottle cages.
Is it stalking, or just excessive appreciation? Maybe neither, maybe both, but it is slightly scary that someone is noting which of your hands holds the fork when you eat your pre-race spaghetti.
Nosy or not, the Belgian spectators miss nothing and judge everything, and without them the Classics would be an altogether duller place. As a rider, the big one-day races have a different atmosphere to the Grand Tours. There’s more tension, more drama and – dare I say it – more excitement, and that’s something you feel when you turn up at the start.
In stage racing, it’s all too often about recovery and calculating for the next day, but a Classic is a place where you can throw everything you’ve got into the pot – and if you can’t walk properly for the following three days, then so be it.
That’s the price of success and one of the reasons why there’s such a buzz about the Spring Classics. If you can be in front, influence the outcome and be competitive when everyone is trying their hardest, then your status in Belgium is seriously elevated.
If you win a Classic, then you become cycling royalty, and who wouldn’t want to be regal, even if it is Belgium and they are all nosy?
For me, as a fan, the Classics are more than just a day out at the races. They are to be savoured for their history and passion.
I imagine living on the course, seeing the greats ride past and then rushing inside to see the rest on TV.  Even better, I could take some photographs and, in 20 years’ time, dig them out of a dust-covered box in the loft and say: “I saw that live.”
41 was King of the Mountains in the 1984 Tour de France and is a columnist for 1.

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