What Does National Identity Mean to Cycling?

Chris Fontecchio

We talk a lot about each other's nationalities, and about those of the riders. How do we separate the kidding around from something more relevant to cycling?

We at the Cafe like to joke with each other about our respective national identities a lot. It seems like a kind of universal guilty pleasure, one I personally honed to an annoying pitch during my 20s traveling in Asia. Let's talk with those German women about... German stuff. Let's joke with the Aussies about drinking and penal colonies. Let's get the Canadian guys to say aboot. Let's... get our asses kicked in soccer by those British guys. It was fun then and it's kind of fun still. But it has its limits.

For starters, we are all individuals, and while stereotypes start out with a kernel of truth, they don't get you very far. To wit, Jens went to Belgium with no herring, as far as I know. Will J is unfailingly polite, unlike Toronto city politicians and those pushy bus drivers in Vancouver. Ant1 does have an outrrrrageous accent -- but it's not the one you'd expect. R Mc is from Texas but doesn't act like wherever he is, he owns the place. tgsgirl may be Belgian but she's not obsessed with cyclocross and excellent beer. OK, that last part I made up.

Seriously, though, it may be fun to joke around with each other in this way, but when we talk about the riders, I think it's not uncommon for us to apply these filters of national identity to them. And I think it's time to separate out the wheat from the chaff in this regard, so to speak. Yes, a rider's national identity will probably affect his personality, since experience and culture tend to contribute to who we are. Ryder Hesjedal is unfailingly polite and Lance Armstrong acted like he owned the place. Wiggo, Cav and Millar flash their tart-tongued humor, Bjarne Riis is quiet and reserved, and Jens! Voigt is almost aggressively outgoing (in a good way). Tejay van Garderen is the friendly, easygoing semi-rural American kid while Taylor Phinney is another American archetype, the ultra-confident, brash media star. You can make these connections. But I'm not sure they mean a whole lot.

It goes without saying that all of these guys are individuals with personality quirks and private affairs that are unknown and unknowable to us. Apart from these casual labels and a moment of amusement, any attempt to square a person with cliches about their home country is pretty superficial.

Moreover, accentuating these differences is fruitless, because the reality is that all of these guys have a great deal in common with each other. They all get up in the morning, eat a carefully calculated breakfast, rest, eat and drink some more, eventually get on their bike to perform a workout (or race) that would reduce most mortals to a puddle of screaming jelly, then rest, get a massage, eat some more carefully calculated food, and go to sleep. They are all stars of the cardio-vascular universe, as well as guys with heightened ambition and some mechanism for either embracing or forgetting about the unacceptable dangers that define their career. They all travel a lot, congregate in the same places, share hotels with each other, and probably wind up talking shop/gear/family/etc with each other. In the end, to put it more succinctly, Ryder Hesjedal has way more in common with Darwin Atapuma or Elia Viviani than with the bus drivers in Vancouver.

Having said all that, I would like to do a little half-baked exercise here to discern the regional differences that actually do matter. And I would like your help, because I don't know that I can tease too many of these out on my own. I do think national identity can tell us a thing or two about a rider and his abilities on the bike, from time to time, as long as we don't let ourselves get carried away. Let me start with a few examples.

Flanders/Belgium

I'll start with something I know a little bit about: Flanders and Flemish cycling. But I will say Belgians because I don't think it's terribly different in Wallonia, though feel free to enlighten me otherwise.

Belgians can handle their bikes pretty OK. A country with cobblestones and Kermis races and cyclocross in its blood simply limits the chances for a rider to advance without these skills. The exception to this is handling one's bike on a long, steep alpine descent. Hitting sharp turns on muddy farm roads will get you halfway there, but the speeds are different. My guess is, the Belgian grand tour hopefuls have some good fundamentals in place for slick descending but need to broaden that skill a bit on the big Alpine drops.

Belgians are also programmed to attack. That's not to say that Jurgen Vandenbroucke will light up the Galibier -- again, when Belgians get far enough out of their comfort zone, they're presumably like everyone else and have to acquire new skills or pay the price. But it's been said often enough that the way up through the ranks in Flanders is by attacking that it must be at least partially true. Certainly the results support this. Just as they say that American riders really don't attack much.

Netherlands

Can we say the same about Dutch cycling, given that they're really part of the same neighborhood as Flanders? It sure doesn't seem that way. My understanding is that Dutch cycling is a bit in the category of the non-traditional countries -- which is to say, tendencies aren't dictated by tradition as much as more recent program developments. Yes, Dutch cycling goes back very far, but for a country that's far larger than Belgium it's had much less influence, presumably because cycling doesn't have the intensive focus that it has in Belgium, Italy and Spain (and formerly France). So the Dutch riders at the top level, while I'm sure they do well in crosswinds and around tricky road furniture, have really been bred more by the Rabobank program to be American-style pure athletes, honed in Spain and other locales geared toward a modern program. In other words, they aren't really shaped by their home country very much. Except that they're kind of tall.

Italy

Here I am at a bit of a loss. I shouldn't be (ahem, last name check please?) but I am. I can say that Italian-style racing is like what we see in the Giro: emphasizing an array of skills and cleverness, with an emphasis on climbers who can sprint or sprinters who can climb. Because of that prevalent style, guys who adhere to it or graduate from it aren't necessarily equipped for the Tour de France or the northern classics. At the same time, however, Italy does tend to churn out a second breed of cyclists who are good up north, thanks to the endless punchy hills, twisty roads and varying pavement. And for whatever reason, perhaps just by omission, they can't seem to ride their crono bikes too well.

As to mentality, I think we might have a debate about whether Filippo Pozzato and his calculating ways are more "Italian," or whether you think Paolo Bettini (or even Alessandro Ballan) and their aggression is more emblematic. I suspect some of the cultural stereotypes carry a bit more weight -- the endless clothes and Ferraris suggest a devotion to style, and maybe there's a relevant point to be made about parenting methods that's unique. But how much of that carries over into actual cycling, I'm a bit dubious.

Britain

Continuing what I said earlier, the countries with less of a tradition produce riders with tendencies dicated more by recent events. Nobody shows that more clearly than the Brits, who largely came through a British Cycling program that emphasized track so heavily. Yes, the top riders found ways to spend plenty of time on the road, and some of them (more than others) learned the subtler skills of road cycling. But it's hard to separate them when it comes to the clinical Brailsford approach that jibes so well with track cycling.

Despite that, the athletes themselves are quite diverse, at the top level. Wiggins is the classic ex-track engine who can pump out the same sustainable wattage on the boards, in a crono, or on a long climb. Cavendish took his crazy track bunch thingy skills to the road where he wins ten-second sprints. Thomas and Stannard seem to have adapted to rain and cobbles. Etc. Maybe the real lesson is that when the sample size is so small, you shouldn't try to learn anything from it.

Spain

Everyone, up the mountain. Have I got that right?

France

France, to me, seems like the international language of cycling. Their traditions run very deep in all respects, even if the traditions aren't quite as powerful as they once were. You can say that certain riders are attuned to the roads of their region, like the Bouygues guys were around the Vendee, but I'm not so sure about that. Perhaps the riders from the south have some ingrained tendencies owing to a career spent in the Alps or Pyrenees. Mostly, though, my suspicion is that France is where so many of cycling's traditions grew up that they've exported them (and the influence of their races) so widely that French traditions just look like the sport's fundamentals.

USA?

Again, no idea. I'm told that Americans love to sit on each others' wheels, thanks to an emphasis on crits or something. Our top athletes come in a certain variety that says nothing about wheel-sucking, but maybe the most you can say about our top athletes is that they weren't really shaped by American cycling. They went to France or Spain or Belgium as soon as they could and learned their craft in that way.

OK, as you can all see, this is a pretty rough effort. It also is far short of a comprehensive look, and I know there are more stories. If Irishpeloton or fmk are around, surely the history of the Ras can tell us a thing or two about Irish riders? Aussies, Canadians, jump in too -- even if your stories are like the US, which is that we're good at importing athletes and not much more. Wherever you are, if you're interested in this subject, please do jump in and contribute what you can. Thanks!

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