By Danny Jin, Williams College Class of 2020
On stage 16 of this year’s Tour de France, Belgian cyclist Philippe Gilbert rode 60 kilometers to the finish line with a broken kneecap. While leading the race, the rider from Team QuickStep misjudged a sharp bend, crashed into a stone wall and fell into a ravine. His legs bloodied by the rocks beneath, Gilbert climbed back up to the road and got back on his bike. He would learn the extent of his injuries only after summiting two steep climbs that few sensible humans would attempt even when fully healthy.
Part of the draw of cycling is that athletes perform such astonishing physical feats, battling through pain for a chance at fleeting glory. Gilbert didn’t win the race. He abandoned the tour the following day. But, he became a sort of absurd hero in the process. It’s that Sisyphean struggle,—knowing all too well that triumph is unlikely but striving for it regardless.
Given the duration of each race and the scarcity of conspicuously exhilarating moments, many people would not consider cycling an exciting sport. Yet with British dominance in professional racing is at an all-time high, the sport has cultivated a sizable following in the U.K. Still, while most Brits might know about Chris Froome’s recent grand tour victories, they might not be able to tell you about Simon Yates’ recent Vuelta a España win or newly-christened mother Lizzie Deignan’s impending return to racing next summer.
I caught one of the U.K.’s races, the OVO Energy Tour of Britain, when it came through London for its eighth and final stage on Sept. 9. For one Sunday afternoon, the city put itself on pause for a bike race. Although I arrived nearly two hours before the race start, the final 200 meters of the home stretch were already crowded with fans.
Some who passed by, however, showed less interest in the race than in the size of the crowd that it attracted. So incredulous that such a mass would congregate, passers-by snapped photos to send for friends to gawk at.
Even when I asked other spectators about their motivation to watch the race, many had difficulty answering. So, please excuse me as I offer my own uninformed musings.
For me, the allure of cycling is that it offers opportunities for growth and redemption each day—for both professionals and for amateurs. I’m purely a recreational rider, but cycling still holds the potential for consistent self-improvement. A bicycle is a promise that taller mountains can be climbed tomorrow. It’s a vehicle pointed toward the best possible version of oneself.
Professional cycling, too, derives its beauty from its humanity. What fun would it be to watch robots power over the cobbles of Roubaix? With riders pedaling furiously on two-wheeled structures for hours at a time, it can be easy to forget that they aren’t machines. The sport naturally draws introverts, and it rewards a stoicism captured by the words of French legend Bernard Hinault, who once said, “When I was suffering, I would attack. That way, they didn’t know I was suffering.” In the midst of grueling 21-stage races, however, the little bits of emotion are what make them worthwhile for spectators.
German sprinter John Degenkolb of team Trek-Segafredo took stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France, his biggest victory since a 2016 crash nearly cost him a finger and seemingly stalled his career. In a tearful post-race interview—his jersey glazed with mud, his voice trembling—Degenkolb dedicated the win to a close friend and “second father,” who had passed away last winter. “Everybody said I’m done—after this accident I will never come back,” he told the press. “I said, ‘No I’m not done. I have to make at least one really big victory for this guy.’”
Degenkolb’s story captured the hearts and minds of the cycling world. Just two days later, however, Cervélo–Bigla’s Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig stole the show at La Course, Tour de France’s counterpart for women (La Course is only a one-day race compared to the Tour’s three weeks; Uttrup Ludwig herself explores the professional cycling’s gender disparity for Voxwomen here). The Danish rider launched a brilliantly courageous attack up a difficult climb, taking the Queen of the Mountains distinction while finishing fourth on the day. Although Dutch powerhouses Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen unsurprisingly took the top two spots, the story of the race was Uttrup Ludwig and her team’s success.
Laughing and crying while surrounded by journalists, Uttrup Ludwig struggled to vocalize her visible joy and immense love for the sport. Just two years ago, she was working in Føtex, a Danish supermarket, training afterhours in pursuit of a professional contract. And here she was, a catalyst in one of cycling’s biggest races.
Admittedly, cycling is not the most action-packed sport to watch. To a lot of people, a bike race can never be more than a blur of Lycra and carbon that causes temporary road closures. But there’s more to it, and it lies in the riders’ rich stories.
I could go on about the stories that fascinate me. Thibaut Pinot’s remarkable return from illness this season, becoming the talk of the cycling world following his Milano-Torino and il’Lombardia victories. van Vleuten’s ascension to world-beating form following a devastating crash at the 2016 Olympics. Michael Woods’ rebirth as a cyclist after a disappointing end to a promising running career.
Cycling as a sport has its share of problems, among them a terrible lack of diversity and a great divide in the relative sizes of men’s and women’s racing industries. An ineffectual sponsorship system has crippled teams, and the sport has endured countless doping scandals. But the simple things—the breakaway’s lionhearted escape and the peloton’s tireless chase—will always remain.
I’ve raced a couple of times in Cambridge, although the results have been quite mediocre. But there’s still an indescribable joy of being on the road and pushing myself to the limit. And, of course, there’s always the opportunity to get back out and ride again tomorrow.