Happiness and the peloton.
Though I’ve followed the Tour de France since Robert Millar was bombing up hills in the eighties, my first experience of watching cycling live came in the pouring rain at Albi, in 2007. Soaked to the skin, surrounded by accents French, Welsh and Australian, watching the riders time-trail through torrential rain, negotiating an impromptu river across a tight bend close to our vantage point.
What was really striking for this particular football fan was the sensation in Albi of just how much the crowd was with the riders, encouraging them all, rather than the partisan taking of sides, regardless of our favourites. Maybe in part because so many of us watching were riders, we cheered every wheel that stayed upright that day. I was back at the Tour this year, this time near the Pyrenees to see the peloton tear through the village of Chalabre, all glistening tanned skin and focussed faces, leaning into bends and onwards to deafening cheers.
Over the last two years, I’ve made the inexorable, inevitable, transition from football fan to cycling fan. I’ve been a lucky football fan, seen a Champions League final, many FA Cup finals, and last-day deciders. Seen my home-town team led by their returning hero, promoted beyond their dreams; seen my adopted team achieve the greatest sustained period of success in their history. And yet, it’s worn off. In recent years, I found attending a burden, those surrounding me an irritation, the players difficult to have any empathy with. This wasn’t about being a spoiled middle class football fan, or the distance between players and fans as the common narrative would have it, but the slow dawning realisation that football doesn’t make me happy. Immense highs, yes; happy, no.
Cycling and football are such different sports - in nature and intensity, in cultural significance and place in the public imagination. Football takes much of its energy from its in-built antagonism - from what you’re against as much as what you’re for. Cycling, it seems to me, gets its energy from a collective appreciation, of the sheer scale of effort involved, the bravery, suffering and beauty that make it so compelling. More collective and celebratory, perhaps.
I really surprised myself this year watching Cadel Evans, a cyclist I’ve never particularly warmed to, and desperately wanted Bradley Wiggins to beat. But I couldn’t bear to see Cadel suffer in the way he obviously did at points, or lose dignity as a defending champion. These are not the instincts of a football fan. Of course, cycling’s not exempt from this, but the crowd’s treatment of, say, Roche at the Giro, Millar at the Vuelta, or Armstrong at the Tour are notable because they are exceptions. Nobody’s shouting they hope Cav gets cancer as he crosses the finishing line.
This isn’t intended to be about whether one sport is better than another, but a reflection that as we walked down the hill from Chalabre, grinning at the euro-disco insanity (and inanity) of the Tour caravan, and that fleeting, glorious sight of the peloton, that everyone who came to watch that day left with a shared sense of happiness. Everyone.