The world over, fans of every sport must find themselves asking the same question at some point in the lives. Namely; why on earth do I bother? Following your sport of choice can sometimes seem like one of those bizarre psychological disorders that BBC3 seem compelled to document where the sufferer repeatedly pokes them self in the ear with a knitting needle. And sometimes it’s less fun even than that.
We bother, of course, because every now and then there is a breath-takingly beautiful moment that we know is going to stay with us for ever. Fignon and Lemond in ‘89. Lemond dropping Hinault in ‘86. Armstrong’s “Look” to Ulrich on Alpe d’Huez in 2001. Or for those of a slightly more mature vintage the Anquetil/Poulidor duel on Puy de Dôme in 1964 (wasn’t around at that point myself, but I’m told it was exhilarating).
We all have our favourites and, love or loathe the characters involved, these moments are indelibly inked in our memory.
But looking from the other side of the fence, what are the fans to the riders, the teams and those who run professional cycling itself? I’m sure that some riders would say that the fans are a bloody nuisance, especially when you’re breathing out your backside, struggling up a Pyrenean climb. And, let’s face it, they do have a point. Who really wants to ride through an endless tunnel of lunatics in ‘Mankinis’, who’ve had nothing to do for three days while camping on a mountain but get absolutely rat-arsed on cheap booze from the Supermarche down in the valley. The sight of a mad German dressed as the Devil bouncing around like a 6 year old on a trampoline must appear like the seventh circle of hell when you’re in oxygen debt.
If you haven’t felt an uncontrollable desire to shout at the television “GET OUT OF THE FUCKING WAY!” whilst watching a mountain stage of the Tour then I suggest you seek some counseling and a course of suitably mood altering drugs from your doctor. This denotes a lack of empathy, my friend. Having said that, I’m sure if I was lucky enough to be one of the tens of thousands who line the route of mountain stages of grand tours every year I would be shouting “ALLEZ, ALLEZ, ALLEZ” with the best of them.
However, a recent conversation with a friend has led me to ask what is the role of the cycling fan? Is it simply our job to line the route or slouch on the sofa and just watch? To quote the New York band The Strokes; Is This It? Is this all we are; slack-jawed, duo-syllabic simpletons gawking at an endless magical spectacle while wearing the collective Mankini of passive voyeur?
Let’s turn the world on its head for a moment and look at things the other way round. What if we didn’t exist? What if there was no such thing as a fan of road cycling? Imagine a binary world where you either raced a bike or you didn’t. And if there were no fans of cycling it would be highly unlikely that there would be any teams as we know them today. The traditional method of funding a cycling team is through sponsorship. Companies sponsor cycling teams to draw attention to their brand and associate it with sporting prowess.
With no sponsorship to fund the sport and no professional teams to pay wages then there are no professional riders.
With no professional teams or riders, the UCI would be reduced to nothing more than a few blokes with a flag and stopwatch (actually this is starting to look rather appealing!)
So getting back to the world as we know it now. The teams and the riders must act, or lobby for, their best interests - which is only right and proper. However, those that govern our sport - and given how we have seen how the world would look without us, it is our sport - should act in a way that not only is best for the sport itself, but also in a way that is best for us, the fans. Those that make decisions will do well to remember that they should not make decisions based on what is best for them, but what is best for us.
There is plenty that is wrong in cycling. There is plenty that needs changing or requires a re-think. On that I’m sure we all agree. But the next time you learn of some new daft law or edict that the UCI has laid down from on high, remember that they do it in your name. The UCI themselves may not even realise this. Maybe its high time they were reminded.