Will Frischkorn offers a not-entirely-PC view of the countries he races in.
Generalities — I’m heading deep into them here in the coming paragraphs. That said, the differences in racing styles from one country to another are pretty entertaining. Racing styles differ dramatically, and while some countries have an “international” feel, most manage to retain their individuality pretty well, even with a chunk of the field from afar. I’ve also noticed a little parallel between racing style, and the mentality of the country behind it (Warning: BIG GENERALITIES HERE). So, hitting up a few of the major cycling countries in Europe, top to bottom, left to right, and then wrapping up back home, here goes:
The day starts listening to the wind trying to rip the windows out of the hotel wall. Likely the patter of rain will add a bit of rhythm to the soundtrack. After hiding out in the bus until the last moment you bolt for the line and it’s instantly on. Racing starts flat out and you fight like hell all day. The bunch might take a chill moment from time to time when the cow path, aka: road you’re racing down, is so narrow that nobody could move anyways, and then we get back to smashing one and other until blood is flowing from ears and we’re all seeing triple. After the finish everybody drags themselves to the showers for the first of the two that will be required to rid your body of all the mixed up mud, manure and fertilizers that covered the roads. Eat a bland meal for dinner and do it again the next day.
How does this relate to the culture? Well — Belgians are TOUGH. They’re hard people. They suffer, and often look like they’ve suffered for the long time. A scan of most crowds confirms this. And they LOVE their bike racing, seemingly more than any other country in the world. I think this has to do with the fact that they relate to the suffering and probably enjoy watching people out there suffering more than they are. Racing in Holland is similar, but a bit more relaxed and with a skotche of “gentlemanliness” to it; this is reflected in a somewhat more picturesque countryside, and that of the people watching the race go by.
Best put by Jonathan Vaughters as “sucker-punch” racing, French racing is a constant little series of whack, whack, cruise, big whack, cruise, whack, smash, cruise, go like hell for a few, and then be done. Nobody wants to commit to the whole hearted Belgian slug fest (and the associated workload and suffering), but everybody wants a little shot at it, liking to share in the pain dispersement, just surfing the 29.9-hour work week level.
People here also love cycling, as a race is a great opportunity to get out, have a picnic, take the day off work, enjoy a few glasses of red, and socialize. Unless the weather is a bit rough, where if you were one country to the north the crowds would be that much larger. Here, instead, not many show up, preferring to enjoy that day off in the comfort of home.
Despite the sarcasm and facts there, I do love racing in France and probably spend more time here than any other country. The hotels are generally hurting, either old, dark, and small, or new, smaller, and uninspired; the food, for a country known internationally for its culinary pride (and where I’ve had some of the best meals of my life), is generally awful and served with attitude. But despite all that there is something about racing in France that just feels right — I cat put a finger on it, but it’s there. Maybe it’s the history and knowledge that epic battles have gone down on the very same roads since well before I was born.
“Ok guys — let’s pick a speed — how about 39kph? — and do that all day — sound good?”
I’m pretty sure that discussion goes down before the stage somewhere and then we roll out at a nice cruisy pace with everybody enjoying the day for a while. When the first hill looms on the horizon, a brief battle ensues for the front, and then, whatever the gradient of the climb, the leaders stay at 39kph. Somehow they still do this speed; 2%, 12%, it doesn’t matter. Then comes the descent where the leaders stay at 39kph, and the rest of us descend like madmen to get back in touch. Then the flats, 39 … and another hill at 39, and repeat.
I have yet to figure out how so many Spanish guys go uphill so silly fast, yet descend like juniors. In the rain, it’s even worse. Obviously they’re training up the hills, and as such would be required to come back down afterwards, but, well, yeah … I’m obviously missing something here.
Other than this one inconceivable, and the fact that the guys go uphill like moto GP bikes, racing in Spain is hard to beat. The weather is nice, the hotels are generally pretty solid and fans, while enthusiastic, aren’t like the crazed photo-stalkers from the north. Riders are happy to relax and take things easy when it fits in the big picture and enjoy the day a bit. If one can’t take the normal afternoon siesta why try to kill one and other all day long — right?
The land of real coffee, properly cooked pastas, overly done-up women and free-flowing expletives in the bunch. The racing’s controlled, almost gentlemanly, and generally pretty predictable, other than the descents where everybody IS a moto GP driver, only faster. As I write from the hotel in the middle of Tirreno-Adriatico, looking out on the water of the Adriatic Sea, life isn’t all-bad. I’ll go down for dinner at the hotel restaurant, obviously nothing special, but will be pleased with a plate of yet another different shape of pasta, cooked crunchily al dente — a dramatic change from just about every other country we frequent.
Racing here normally starts out chill; the bunch rolls for a few easy Ks and then there’s a flurry of attacks until the perfect little controllable combo rolls off the front. Afterwards everybody settles back in for a chat, a few teams toss some guys up front to keep things steady, and we all roll along, with most of the Italians comparing their newest scent (Italy being the only country where half the peloton races bathed in cologne).
At some point there’s a hill, or a sprint, or something that requires attention, and everybody groups up seamlessly with teammates, throws down for a bit and gets the job done. After a brief chat — arms flapping every which way — riders disappear to the shower or bus, emerging moments later in something pushing the edge fashion-wise, hair slicked-back, with massive glasses allowing gratuitous ogling, and drenched in cologne. Later, if under 35, they’ll go home and let mom make dinner.
Here it’s pretty easy to analogize racing with the real world: Haul ass when on wheels, be overly dramatic, get things done when you have to and try to look good while doing it. Fans are just as flamboyant as the top riders and the people-watching here is second to none. No matter a person’s socio-economic background, and with absolute disregard for the, er, natural material, they’ve been given to work with, everybody puts on the act that they just stepped out of the Ferrari that the top rider’s wife just rolled up in, not the Fiat Punto parked around the corner.
And the great US of A:
There are a number of different styles back home, reflecting a pretty diverse population with views all across the map. Crits are balls-out start to finish with wild risks taken at any opportunity, and while the results are often pretty easy to call, a good solid crash or two (look at the Nats last year for an example) can turn things any which way. Road races are normally well-controlled numbers games in which the dominant couple of teams play around until the right guys get up the road, then manage the race from behind. With a pretty small group of guys at the top it’s generally possible to guess what will happen, normally right down to a pretty solid stab at the entire podium.
Even at the larger international races it’s fairly similar, but with some different names in the pot to pick from. These days with the amazing organization (great hotels, good food, easy transfers, good roads … ) of the big races in the US, I love racing at home. But I probably won’t end up doing much this year; for now I’m on the list for for Philly week, Nats and Missouri, but with cycling schedules being notoriously “fluid” I don’t count on anything until the gun goes off and the wheels are turning.
Wow that ran long — congrats if you’re still reading. Hopefully now when taking a look through results and reading the race reports it’ll be a bit easier to imagine what’s going on in the moments not mentioned and why events transpired as they did. A long season lies ahead for us on the bikes; thank you, the fans, for your support out on the roads. Hopefully we can keep it entertaining!