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Dear Remco Evenepoel,
I never know how to begin this kind of thing. If I come on too strong, the tabloids will spin it as ‘a manifesto’. If I come on too gently, it will be cast aside with all the other fan mail sent to you by cycling event mascots. So, I’ll start at the beginning.
My name is Pascal, and I am a cycling fan. I live in Switzerland, the famously neutral home of fondue and the UCI. I became a fan of the sport through the exploits of the articulate and speedy Fabian Cancellara, and ever since he retired I have been chasing that same kind of high. And then, along came you, and I knew immediately what I had been waiting for.
The world knows you from the Pizza Hut ads, but I know you for your cycling – because you, Remco Evenepoel, have won many bike races, both before and after crashing off a bridge at Il Lombardia and landing on a dead chicken. I see in you someone that is keenly aware they look like an off-brand Tom Holland, but rather than being defeated by that jagged reality you have spent your young career pouring passion into the pedals.
You are such a good bicyclist that you can win at the Tour of Norway even after stopping to urinate “10 to 15 times along the way”, which is a quote that I expect you thought would be forgotten soon after you said it, without realising how medically curious and objectively funny it was.
So when the Tour de Suisse was coming to my canton and the usual mascot – my housemate, Christoph – got COVID, I knew it was my moment to shine. It was my chance to meet you, Remco, and tell you how much I liked your ride at 2019’s Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa.
First I needed to get the costume, though.
Christoph is – how can I put this? – born to be a mascot. Big hand gestures, very few words, lives to dress up as an enormous fox. He’s been doing it since the fox mascot, Tourli, was introduced to the Tour de Suisse back in 2016:
Christoph quickly lost himself in the unbridled potential of the role. You can see him on page 129 of the official 2018 Tour de Suisse fan magazine, giving a roguish thumbs up to the camera.
“The Tourli tours in the Kids World and makes Children’s Hearts beat faster,” promises the copy, capital letters scattered about seemingly at random. “Two years ago, the Organisers of the Tour de Suisse launched a special Attraction for Children and Families. Tourli is the Mascot of Kids World and will encourage the Young Cyclists to Watch and Try Out the various Cycling Activities that are available free of charge.”
The announcement ends with a soberly punctuated “Viel Spass mit Tourli.” (“Have fun with Tourli.”)
Christoph hated that. He wanted an exclamation mark, because he always said that was how being Tourli made him feel.
Christoph didn’t want to give up Tourli, even though he had a high fever and was spluttering antigens all over our two-bedroom apartment in Bern. I pleaded with him to think about the safety of the riders. I begged him to let me be Tourli, just this year, so that I could get closer to you, Remco.
We argued. We wrestled over the suit. At one point, he coughed directly in my open mouth and I felt a hot saliva mist on my tongue. But finally I prised Tourli’s head from his weak grip. Christoph lay there, dewy, gasping for breath with venom in his eyes. We haven’t spoken since.
The Tour de Suisse began the next day, and so did my time as Tourli. Dutifully I turned up at each stage start, handed out cursory fist bumps, got some kids’ hearts beating faster. Luke Rowe and Tom Pidcock thought I was there for their amusement, and I suppose on one level everyone was having fun with Tourli, but my mind was elsewhere. I was watching and waiting for you, Remco.
On stage 4, I pulled on my Tourli outfit and there you were. It was a hot day, and in my suit I felt positively feverish. Outside the hockey stadium, you walked over towards me, a throng of photographers in your wake.
“Remco,” I called through my little mesh peephole. “Big fan.” You reached into my mouth and for a moment I was a god, but you were just hamming it up for the cameras and Fausto Masnada was laughing and James Knox was laughing and social media was laughing and I was not. I felt hot and cold and sick inside. I never thought it was anything serious, though, I promise you that. I just thought it was embarrassment.
The next day, Jumbo-Visma pulled out of the race and I remembered sneezing on Rohan Dennis on stage one. Alexander Vlasov followed suit, and I remembered how I’d wheezed on him as he’d pulled on his yellow jersey.
Then it all came rushing back to me. I’d coughed all over Team DSM, and Adam Yates, and I’d even given Marc Hirschi’s bottle a patriotic lick when he was busy signing on.
I’d done this. I’d done this all. But I couldn’t walk away now, could I? How could I? I was Tourli.
And so we went into the hockey stadium, with the Tour de Suisse on the brink of collapse. You rolled toward me, smiling, and I extended a paw for a high five. The crowd roared as I sweated inside my costume. I tried to cut through the din, to tell you how much your 2020 Tour de Pologne GC win meant to me, but my throat felt like it was being sliced by knives.
Christoph always talks about the Mascot Code – neutrality above all else, he says. Whether you’re a fox or a bear or a dog, you’re supposed to encourage all athletes equally.
I don’t know how Christoph does it. This little fox couldn’t help playing favourites with the Wolf Pack.
As your team rolled in, I gave you my most earnest clap:
The effort ruined me. I sank to my knees, gasping for air, breath sawing in and out of my lungs. I gave a weak thumbs up, but all eyes were on you:
The announcer worked his way through the team names, slowly, methodically, right to left. And then it was you, Remco Evenepoel. I sprang to my feet with a ragged roar, imploring Ticino to lift the roof. Black dots swam across my vision. I was transcendentally unwell.
The last time I saw you was on a stage, the Swiss sun beating down upon us. Nobody questions the guy in the fox costume, especially when you look like you know what you’re doing.
I wanted to say thank you, and then I wanted to go to the hospital.
So I slipped into the marquee and up the black, carpeted stairs. I walked calmly up to you, placed my hands gently on your shoulders right next to the Safety Jogger logos, and started talking.
“You’re my favourite cyclist, Remco. I couldn’t sleep for three days after the way you won the Tønder to Vejle stage of the 2021 Tour of Denmark. It was like the skies parted and the sun poured liquid gold down my throat and into my soul. I had felt nothing like it since stage 2 of the 2020 Volta ao Algarve em Bicicleta. You remember that one, don’t you, Remco?”
“Don’t be alarmed, Remco. I’m a cool guy. My name is Pascal. I’m just a cycling fan in a fox costume. The fox is called Tourli, and it’s been the mascot since 2016. Pretty cool, huh? I stole it off my housemate Christoph. He’s alright but he can be pretty stubborn. He’s home with COVID at the moment. Can’t stop coughing. It’s pretty bad.”
I could feel you pulling away from me, your shoulders becoming tenser under my paws. I tried to hold your attention a little longer.
“That Pizza Hut ad was brilliant, you know. I think you could be an actor. Has anyone ever told you you look like the new Spiderman guy? Anyway, that pizza ad, that was so funny, the way that you were flirting with an 80-year-old lady over a Remco Edition pizza. We can’t get them in Switzerland, you know – they just sell them in Belgium and they won’t deliver internationally, and I don’t know if I’ve got the quantities quite right but I tried to make one at home the other day. Pretty tasty, man. The Beyond Meat® Italian Style Sausage, the spinach, the red onion, Violife vegan cheese, the crushed black pepper, the tomatoes … did you get to choose the recipe? Did you? Did Pizza Hut let you into their test kitchen? Remco?”
You broke loose from my grasp, the tap of your cleats down the steps like daggers through my heart.
I watched as you pulled your helmet on, its straps a perfect fit over your tanlines. Your sunglasses followed suit. Your guard was back up and I realised I’d blown it. Still, with a wheeze, I leant over the railing and roared throatily after you:
“Can we get a beer sometime? Remco? Remco?!”
And then you were gone.
It’s been a week now. Half the peloton went home with COVID and it’s probably going to make a mess of the Tour de France too – and I guess at some level I feel bad about that, of course, but do I regret any of it? I can’t say I do. I met you, Remco, and you met me. Tourli and Remco, immortalised in photos forever. Nothing can top that moment.
See, even your team agrees.