Coming around to the Classics 

Learning to love cycling beyond the Tour de France

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Like countless others before me, my introduction to cycling was through the Tour de France. My dad faithfully watches the race every year whilst happily ignoring the rest of the pro cycling calendar entirely. The Classics do not feature on his radar, Paris-Roubaix means little or nothing to him and the word ‘Flanders’ is more likely to conjure a character from The Simpsons.

As such, given that I first developed an interest in the sport through him, the Classics meant almost nothing to me, too. Somewhere along the line, however, I got the sense that these were the races that ‘proper’ cycling fans lived for and duly began to pay attention. I bought a copy of La Course en Tête’s very own Peter Cossins’ book The Monuments, I got a Eurosport subscription, and I sat for hours across a series of Sunday afternoons — after a bike ride with dad — trying to figure out what was going on and wondering when I’d start to get excited about it all.

My lack of tactical knowledge contributed to my difficulty getting to grips with it, but there was something else. While I may have started my foray into this world by watching the Tour, it didn’t take me long to seek out the women’s side of the sport in search of idols and inspiration. This was Lizzie Deignan’s heyday, and having a female British rider to look up to drew me in even further. The problem was, I couldn’t watch the races. I became very good at navigating obscure Twitter hashtags and searching out grainy videos uploaded by roadside fans. 

I got through the Classics with a sense that I had, in fact, watched some races but that if I was honest I didn’t really understand the fuss. Bring on the summer and the technicolour peloton in the bright sunshine snaking their way up Alpine climbs. Give me The Women’s Tour, with my idols racing through the village I live in and with a one-hour highlights package to enjoy, and one of the few televised women’s races, La Course. 

With every passing year since then I have developed a deeper interest in the Classics. This year in particular, having spent time in Belgium and seen some of the hallowed cobbles first-hand (although I haven’t ridden over them, yet) I have a new appreciation for what, indeed, the fuss is all about. It helps now that the women’s peloton have since been able to start constructing their own history and narratives at these races, with a good few years of live coverage to add to the archives and new races being added every year. 

The phrase ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ needs an equivalent with regards to those following with no intention – or in my case hope –  of ‘being’ it. It’s no coincidence that my trajectory of interest in these races grew in tandem with the increased amount of live coverage and the addition of more women’s events. I am sure I am not alone. 

Incidentally, my dad and his Tour de France-centric approach to following pro cycling is probably the exact target audience for Netflix’s new documentary on the men’s race. It will most likely be designed for a layperson’s perspective, a casual fan drawn in by the lure of a three-week spectacle that stretches the limits of what is humanly possible in sport. Anyone reading this is likely plugged into the heart of the sport, aware of the minutiae of what goes into the race and the teams, already familiar with the dynamics and therefore able to spot a manufactured drama a mile away. 

The casual fan, or the person who may watch the series simply because they enjoy sports documentaries, will likely take what they see at face value. That includes the omission of the women’s race. It’s a huge shame that, in the first year of the re-vamped Tour de France Femmes, a high-profile documentary that will likely bring new eyes to the sport won’t showcase the women’s race too. 

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