Barriers line the street and every
hundred yards or so a wooden pole protrudes skyward, a speaker cable tied to
the top. Infact everything seems to be cable tied; the sponsor banners, the wires
running up and down the road, even the awning across the finish line. This is a
travelling circus and the humble cable tie is the perfect metaphor for it’s
shoestring nature; cheap, no fuss and ultimately, just as quick to tear down as
it is to construct.
Riders, each engrossed in their own
routine, linger around cars and vans in their strips. Folding chairs and the eye-watering
odour of leg rub hanging in the air completes the obscure scene.
This isn’t the type of race with a
PR drive. Nor a race you will have ever heard of. But there is no doubt plenty
of the young men fidgeting with safety pins, as they take advice from old men
with no idea what they are on about, will have been dreaming of this day for
months. Through the now long gone rides of November and December it will have
occupied the mind constantly. So too in January, however rather than jubilation
and motivation, the thought now provides stone cold fear, the doubt of form and
preparation creeping in. It’s all irrelevant now, the race has arrived, the
start-finish line been painted, by the local blindman it would appear, and it
is time for some pain.
The crowd is mainly made up of local
punters. Stood with mild anticipation, their manner reflects the strangity of
the sport for spectators. For the race will take most of the day to unfold and
only involve, at best, fleeting glances of the athletes for those stood around.
Most likely with as many wrinkles as the race has kilometres, these dedicated
souls come back every year on this day, the second Sunday of the month. The
remaining few hanging over the barriers, instantaneously recognisable as
non-locals, are most likely parents and other family members of those racing.
There is no glamour at this level. No screaming fans or autograph hunters.
These races are almost completely self-consuming; for the reality is that knowone
outside of the bubble really gives a shit what happens here. It's the start of
the season and an ambiguous race in cowboy country, but for the riders, at this
moment in time it is everything.
It’s their raison d'etre and as such
it doesn't matter that first prize is a leg of ham, that the numbers they pin
on their backs have been used a hundred times before, that nobody is watching.
I once looked up, bullock naked bar
a small towel in yet another cold sports hall, to see a pretty girl, sister I
would hope, giving a rider just yards away a pre race massage. It was a strange
sight in a room full of two hundred members of the opposite sex, mostly stark
naked or in some stage of. It made me realise once again, like I do so often, just
how deeply ingrained the sport is in the culture around these parts. In today’s
race there is no such sister or cheering family members for our man #146. He scribes his sole autograph of the day atop the sign-in ‘stage’ – to
vastly over glamorize it, to a deafening cacophony of silence.
Stood on the start line, our man
tightens his shoes one last time, adjusts his helmet and tries to zone out from
the rabbiting foreign language bouncing all around him. It reminds him how far
he is from home and how little he knows of what lays ahead. He looks down at
his stem as the commissarie screams instructions out infront of the bunch, it
doesn't matter he cant hear, the unfamiliar words would go through one ear and
out the other. Euro pop, synonymous with these races and most likely released before
he was even born, blares out from the speakers dotted around. Merely background
noise, it does little to mask the lack of rapturous fans and the doubts that
lay ahead, and is soon drowned out itself by a loud bang from over the
otherside of the barriers. Riders clip in ahead and it’s time to go to work…
And then it’s over before it even
really started. Fifty uneventful kilometres later he buckles both his wheels on
a larger than life pothole. The brakepads rub, the spokes tinkle, and the life
falls out of his race. Of course there is a chance of swapping them out,
drafting the car and getting back in to the melee. But that quickly evaporates
as he pulls to the right hand side of the road, hand in the air, only to watch
his team car go sailing by. And before he knows it, so too has every other team
in the convoy. No favours in this cut throat peloton. And so he is left standing
by the side of the road, the silence, escape from it all, strangely reassuring.
146 climbs off and looks around. His
heart slowly starts to return to a more humane level and it dawns on him how screwed
he is. Lest I remind you this is cowboy country and 146 is almost completely
surrounded by nothing, with no idea of the way home. He stands there for a
minute, a boy lost in a world fit for no man and takes in the shit-show of the
last five minutes. He roots around in his pockets, scoffing his race food as
his Director’s damning words regarding his eating habits bounce around his
head. Fuck it.
And then he climbs on the bike and
starts to pedal again. His only option, to follow the race route, seems
ludicrous, but there is no alternative. For twenty kilometres he saunters
along, his moral dampened and his head reminded of his misfortune every blasted
turn of the wheels, as his rims rub away on already fully loosened brakes.