Now the racing season’s all but over, we can get talking about the serious issues that modern cycling has failed to address.
This one has been on my mind since this year’s Tour de France, what with G’s pelvis-smashing crash, the Tourminator dominating the points competition and Froomey winning the whole thing. See the problem? What’s in a nickname anymore? Not much, and that’s a shame.
Back in the day, lone scribes would conjure up (often) fictional accounts of riders battering through the dark on rutted roads, regularly telling a story lent by their style, background or personality. The original purpose wasn’t on the reality – how could they catch the riders passing? – but on getting readers interested and laying on the poetic license, picking favourites and eulogising.
Nicknames have become a part of cycling’s rich heritage. They are instant, pleasant entry points to a sport for the novice, or provide a rich image for the fan. Physical or personal characteristics become accentuated, mortals on bicycles lent a violence or beauty. We had a bunch of locomotives and cannibals; phantasmagoric battles where a heron could swoop above lions and leopards. Charly Gaul, a slight man who worked in a Luxembourg slaughterhouse before turning professional, became the Angel of the Mountains.
Sometimes they were sillier or downright rude. Three-time Giro winner Carlo Galetti was the Squirrel of the Canals, in reference to his birth by the Milan waterways, scrunched-up facial features and conservative racing style. Henry Anglade acquired the sobriquet of Napoleon for his (lack of) height and bossy manner. Appropriately, he didn’t mind the association. The bunch of the ‘50s and ‘60s was a caricaturist’s dream, and the fans lapped it up.
Now I feel like we’ve reached an impasse, cycling lolling into the lazy territory owned by football’s dressing room. The –y or –o (Froomey and Wiggo, tut, tut) is more readily tacked on at the end as an afterthought, a vague attempt at familiarity. They used to be anointed by journalists; now you’re as likely to have executives thinking up new sobriquets as a way of making money.
The elephants and other animals – the menagerie is close to being exhausted – have been caged. New nicknames are either forced or cliché. It doesn’t take much imagination so it doesn’t capture the collective one.
Vincenzo Nibali is the Shark of Messina, but as a well-brought up bambino, he’s got about as much bite as a goldfish. As for Sagan’s Tourminaitor… we can do better.
Maybe it’s me erringly romanticising the past; maybe it’s a malaise relating to the present day. With coverage exploding in the last decade, everyone can see the action, give an opinion and try to be an Antoine Blondin; the myriad platforms are available at the click of a button.
Social media and the availability of action is a joyful advance, but it means we rapidly take on the water of rapid information and opinions, and struggle to float. No one person is a key outlet like the scribes of yore being read by millions. Cycling is sharing a smaller piece of the popularity pie too. Whole nations aren’t enthralled by a race or a rider anymore.
Perhaps the last man to gain such a heady national fervour was Marco Pantani. Or rather Il Pirata, Elefantino, Nosferatu… he had nicknames aplenty.
I feel this particular cycling lyrical tradition is slipping away. It’s a little sad (though not a lot sad because, let’s face it, getting better nicknames is somewhere low alongside ‘make team kits more fashionable’ on the sport’s never-ending to-do list).
As it’s annoying to moan without offering solutions, here’s a few suggestions. Feel free to add your own – or dismiss mine.
Ian Stannard: the Iron Man of Milton Keynes.
Matt Goss: the Tasmanian Devil, for his tactical slyness and propensity to fly into an occasional rage at a sprint going awry.
Gerald Ciolek: The Iceman, a nod to his sangfroid and winning ways in wild weather.
John Degenkolb: the Flying Moustache, part-dependent on whether he keeps his facial topiary.