With no goals for the near future, the pro peloton struggled to cope with an undefined period of idleness at a time when they should have qualified for the classics. They did what any sane cyclist would do to deal with the boredom: they went horse riding.
The virus appeared to be spreading similarly to influenza, and health officials around the world warned people to practice “social distancing”. What better way to find distance than by bike? However, in the early days of the pandemic, residents of Italy and Spain were ordered to stay in their homes unless they were given essentials. Although professional athletes were technically exempt from these rules, abuse by locals who were not informed of the exemption propelled professional cyclists indoors in these countries. Even where outdoor cycling was allowed, people withdrew for fear of exposure to the virus, and professionals and enthusiasts alike flocked to indoor cycling and escaping into the virtual worlds of platforms like Zwift, Bkool, and Rouvy.
Movement was the first bright spot for cycling. The entire stocks of intelligent trainers were deleted and people signed up in record numbers on virtual racing platforms. A strange trend soon emerged: riders weren’t just trying to stay in shape; They logged insane long solo rides – on the coach or, if local regulations allowed, on the road.
Some took on challenges to raise money for hospitals or protective equipment for vulnerable key workers. Cyclo-cross racer Molly Weaver drove 130km of 100m in her parents’ backyard, and Geraint Thomas did three 12-hour shifts on Zwift in his garage for the NHS. Oliver Naesen logged a 365 km recreational drive through East Flanders to ease the stress of worries about the pandemic. “I really needed it. When you look at your mobile phone or watch TV, all you hear or see is things about the coronavirus. That’s not nice, ”he said to Sporza.
Robert Gesink spent seven hours riding 250 km on Zwift. Thomas De Gendt and Jasper de Buyst drove 300 km over 10 hours in honor of Milan – Sanremo and to “let go of some frustration” – the longest drive of his career for De Gendt. Laurens De Vreese spent 11 hours with the trainer and drove 370 km on a virtual Yorkshire circuit. Willie Smit rode them all 1,000km on Zwift in a 37-hour marathon session.
Other drivers found a different form of self-torture during the Covid-19 days following the Hells 500 Club’s “Everesting” challenge in Australia. The concept is simple: ride up and down on a single ascent and reach the vertical climbing equivalent of Mount Everest, or 8,848 meters. Record your ride with a GPS and upload it to Strava. The club reviews and records all records.
It started with Giulio Ciccone, who was Everested on Zwift, before his efforts were followed by a similar one by Mark Cavendish and Luke Rowe. Then the records began to fall. The American mountain biker Keegan Swenson prevailed against the retired professional Phil Gaimon. Swenson’s time was later surpassed by EF Pro Cycling’s Lachlan Morton, who, after the Hells 500 thought his efforts were shy, turned around and did it again a week later, cutting Swenson’s time of 7 hours and 29 minutes of suffering from his instep by 11 minutes Canyon in Colorado. In order not to be left out of the fun, retiree Alberto Contador hit another two minutes before Morton’s time a few weeks later.
The women were also there: Katie Hall, Lauren De Crescenzo, Hannah Rhodes and finally Emma Pooley took their time for the ranking. When the race came back to life, Pooley’s 8 hours and 53 minutes were the record, a full 15 minutes faster than Rhodes.
During the Covid-19 era, today’s peloton seemed interested in regaining the sport’s original ethos, and the question arose: was this original desire to explore the depths of human endurance what has always been to professional cycling was missing?
The Grand Tours began as a way to capture the public’s imagination and inspire people with superhuman achievements of perseverance and great tolerance for suffering. The founder of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange, banned the motor speed that was common for professional cycling at the time and sent the first tour participants on massive stages. In those early days the drivers were self-employed and mostly drove alone. The first Tour de France stage in 1903 – a 467 km stretch from Montgeron to Lyon – took 17 hours and 45 minutes to finish Maurice Garin. The longest race in 1926 covered a massive 5,745 km over 17 stages, including drives over the then unpaved high peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees. This year’s riders, who tested the limits of their endurance with long hours on the bike, recalled the early days of the Tour when Desgrange envisioned a race so tough that only one rider could finish – when professional cycling a lonely one That was brutal punishment of the body and Desgrange told the drivers, “Suffering is the full development of will”.
With Covid-19 out of control, the original Tour format seemed like the perfect way to race and stay away from others, and it could even be a blueprint for cycling while the virus is around. For all its might, ASO showed weakness as the pandemic ended the race and focused on postponing its race to late August and September in hopes the disease would have gone. What began as a pure pursuit of athletic performance and an opportunity to sell newspapers has become more of a sports spectacle aimed at promoting tourism. But when there is a pandemic, there is no tourism. With restaurants closed, hotels empty, and planes full of ghosts, the OSA seemed to have run out of ideas.
During the sad month of March, Flanders Classics, led by former basketball player Tomas Van Den Spiegel, filled the vacuum with a number of behind-the-scenes films they produced with Sporza during the off-season and released these entertaining films online for free with English subtitles.
They also hosted the first virtual race during the lockdown: a Flanders tour on Bkool. In just ten days, they put together a list of top drivers, including eventual race winner Greg Van Avermaet, a world-class production and broadcast team, and a free live stream for a simulated race across Kruisberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. The event was complete with pre-race trash talking, gun attacks, and live feeds of riders on their exercise bikes, so viewers could see both the race avatars in action and the pain in the riders’ faces as they watch each watt wrestled from their intelligent trainers.
This Barrier Ronde was an unexpected success and, according to Van Den Spiegel, a success that attracted a younger demographic than traditional races – partly because of the gamification aspect and also because the race was condensed into a shorter time frame without a single break from the action. It was a rare moment of innovation, quick thinking and teamwork that should give hope for the future of professional cycling. These riders, race organizers, broadcasters, announcers and producers in Belgium did something previously unthinkable and beautiful for professional cycling when it was at its lowest: they worked together and sacrificed for the good of the sport.
When the ASO followed suit in July with a virtual Tour de France to replace the original tour dates, the riders were already on their way to real races at the end of the month and were holding high altitude camps, so the virtual Grand Tour seemed a little afterthought .
Covid-19 may have compounded Pro Cycling’s flaws, but it has also highlighted its strengths. The lock cleared so many cars from the streets that it was suddenly safer to get out and drive. Bicycle sales rose, pop-up bike lanes were an attractive alternative to public transport, and more people were cycling than ever before. Car traffic decreased so much under closure that the change in harmful emissions was visible from space.
If anything, this increase in people using bicycles indicated that there should be a stronger connection between professional cyclists and cyclists, as well as a stronger advocacy of cycling by the power brokers in the sport. More body on bikes means a healthier sport, a safer training environment for riders and a deeper talent pool on the road. It also revealed that the sport requires more innovation and imagination and perhaps an easier understanding of tradition.
Until Covid-19 is eradicated, races, teams and drivers can no longer work as before. But the spirit of Henri Desgrange still lives in the veins of sport. Perhaps the future of professional cycling lies in its past, celebrating the vast beauty of our planet – virtual or otherwise – while the solitary pursuit of volition is fueled through suffering.
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