Editor’s note: As we ring out 2013, we look at 13 of our favorite stories of the year. Ryan Newill’s reflection on the olfactory experience that is the classics originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Velo magazine.
The spring classics open with a cold, damp smell, not because the classics and cold rain are nearly synonymous, but because with a five- or six-hour brawl ahead, the classics start early in the morning. Early enough that, for the first arrivals, the dew still wets public squares like the Sint Pietersplein and the Place du Général de Gaulle and the Piazza Castello, mixing with the air of fresh pastries baking, and diesel exhaust to create the smell of a European spring morning.
The first arrivals to the start, before the crowds and the teams, tend to be the old men, with a few arriving on sooty and scarred Flandrias and Bianchis and other now-nameless relics of their glory days as cycling’s young hopes. Yesterday’s beloften or espoirs or dilettante, depending. Exertion and the heavy air mingle in their jerseys, flocked with the names of clubs and cafes and tire stores that may or may not exist anymore, lending a wooly old smell to the wooly old men who can recite the winners going back to when they were schoolboys.
When they finally emerge from curtained bus doorways, the modern racers smell different, but also the same as they always have, like the sinus-clearing, leg-burning mix of cajeput, herbs, and oil. The embrocation, the signature perfume of bike racers, lends a time-honored shine to that bit of stubble on the legs, because this is bike racing, not the prom, and nobody shaves the morning of this sort of dance.
But somehow, the pros on a classics morning never smell quite the same as the tubs and tubes of embrocation on the bike shop shelves. Much of their product doesn’t come from for-retail-sale packaging with neatly listed ingredients, but from grimy, unlabeled bottles whose contents are mixed in bulk according to some recipe alternately guarded and passed down among soigneurs.
You can buy it sometimes, if you know where to look. Places like the back counter of Walter Godefroot’s Deinze bike shop, back when he still ran T-Mobile and Vino won his first Liége. But even if you can find some small-batch pro embro, when you get it home and on your legs, it never smells the same as it did at a late-March sign-in under a spitting rain.
The rain comes to the classics with glorious regularity. When it does, spring-classics rain has terroir. It smells different on the mossy stones of Arenberg than it does on the rolling tarmac of La Redoute, and different again on the flat roads out west towards Gistel and Oostend, where the inch-wide valley of death between the poured concrete slabs waits to trap a tire and trade the dull pain of the crosswinds for the sharp agony of impact and abrasion. (Those abrasions have their own smell, one you have to be very close, if not involved, to catch — the acrid scent of burning fabric, rubber, and skin.)
Eight hundred miles south, the rain mixes differently with the limestone gravel and dust of the strade bianche in Tuscany, where it is, at first, the blessing that keeps the choking dust glued down and then a menace when it later turns the same dust to a grainy paste.
And it smells different still when it hits the clean 600-meter high air over the Turchino pass or the salt air of the Mediterranean, where it bounces off the hothouse roofs that mark the frenzied descent from the Poggio.
And the rain has a distinct smell when it hits the flat farm roads of Flanders, because bike racing in Flanders in the spring smells like shit.
If northern Belgium is a notoriously inhospitable place to race bicycles, it’s also a notoriously inhospitable place to grow crops. To pull it off, Belgian farmers have, for centuries, coated their fields with layers upon layers of nature’s finest fertilizer, coaxing cereals, feed crops, and vegetables from a few parts naturally poor soil and many parts horse, cow, and pig excrement.
Carefully gathered, stored, aged, mixed, and liquefied, manure is sprayed with high-velocity abandon over the fields for the spring planting, just in time for races like the E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen (Across Flanders) to plow through the overspray as they traverse the country’s dense network of farm roads. With a little rain, those thousands of gallons of plant nutrition are liquefied anew, kicked up by car, moto, and bicycle wheels and sprayed again with abandon, this time over the legs, teeth, and eyes of some of the world’s best cyclists. Maybe it helps them grow, too?
But the smell (for spectators, anyway) is not intolerable, because the classics also smell like beer. Truckloads of it. At first, it’s the stale beer that lingers in the streets outside last night’s student bars and clubs that gives way, briefly, to the smell of espresso and pan au chocolate before fresher notes of today’s beer take over. From midmorning, it flows in cafés and bars and in temporary, taped-off pens outside, each pour preceded by the whoosh of steam cleansing the brand-correct glassware, at least until the crowd picks up and plastic cups are deployed to meet demand.
The beer means the classics also smell like piss, cigars, and cigarettes. Outside, you still catch a smoky whiff of how things used to be, but new indoor smoking bans have helped disperse the kind of blue clouds that could limit visibility inside the cavernous Kuurne Sporthalle to 15 feet on race day.
Public urination, however, remains Belgium’s third most popular sport behind soccer and cycling, and despite innovations like the four-stall, open porta-pissoir, the battle has been in vain. Gent and other municipalities roll out signs complete with gender-specific pictograms for an international audience, trying to cut down on the scourge of “wild plassen” during events, but to little avail. Beyond the town limit signs, though, few seem to mind. What’s a little extra soil enrichment?
Out in the fields, where “wild plassen” reigns, the lack of plumbing is matched by the lack of tap heads, and so crates of canned pils are the rule. Drinking the celebrated Trappist beers like Orval or Westmalle with your toes in a windswept gutter would be like drinking Dom Perignon in the bleachers at Fenway. This context, this landscape, demands the all-day, volume-friendly lightness of Jupiler, Maes, and Bavik. Unless you score a table at Restaurant L’Arbre and get to enjoy the heady aroma of Michelin-starred truffled scrambled eggs as Cancellara and Boonen barrel past the window and into the Carrefour’s climactic 2.1 kilometers of jumbled stones. Then, by all means, order the good stuff.
For most of the crowd though, it’ll be hamburgers, sausages, and god-awful fish-on-a-stick sold from thin-walled trailers with “frituur” emblazoned on them, their wind-dispersed aromas the only advertising needed. But, as well as street meat sells on a long afternoon, the smell of Vlaamse frites cooking in beef tallow still reigns supreme, in both olfactory appeal and cultural significance, though once the races hit the Ardennes hills of Wallonia and Limburg, the classic Liége waffle competes admirably in both categories
Culture, and the history that drives it, provide a strong undercurrent that runs underneath the classics, which feel more rooted in their regions than the more mobile, flexible grand tours.
It’s in the tilled spring dirt and flowers, surrounding acres of foreign military cemeteries at the base of the Kemmelberg, and in the decaying leaves and second-growth forests that envelope the war memorials at the top. It’s in every stone and every berg, cote, capo, and town, in the food and drink and the people themselves, layer upon layer built up over a hundred years of tragedy and triumph.
And at the end of a classic, all of it — the rain, sweat, diesel, embro, cow shit, piss, and history — at the finish, all of it is layered on the bodies and bicycles of a hundred or so competitors, blended together into the story of one race, on one day, in one place.
And for one rider, once the soigneur has scrubbed away the black slurry from his legs and face and handed him a clean, fresh jersey, the enduring smell of that particular classic will be of flowers, lipstick, perfume, and victory.