I was recently rewatching the 2008 Ronde van Vlaanderen (shocking, I know) when I caught sight of riders doing something seemingly ridiculous. And professional cyclists, however sane, do ridiculous things sometimes, but this seemed to repeat itself a fair amount, and seemed almost impossibly silly.
The scene: as the holiest day in Flemish cycling entered its final 100km, the race was going through some preambulatory segments of secondary highway, these smooth, two-lane roads with wide shoulders that connect places like Oudenaarde to places like Ronse or Brakel. I don't recall exactly where -- maybe they were leaving Ronse after the Oude Kwaremont? -- but it was before the meaty stretch of climbs (Koppenberg, Taaienberg, etc.) that starts shaping the race. A small group was up the road, but they were losing time as the peloton surged. Suddenly the TV cameras focus on the outer edge of the peloton, as a few riders who had gone deep into the shoulder now realize that there are fans along the side of the road... between them and the race.
In the ensuing seconds, which unfold at high speed and are over before anyone had time to feel shock, nothing bad happens. Riders pass through the spectators who flinch and dodge the speeding projectiles. There are some very very close calls, and you can practically hear in your mind the whine of brake pads being slammed on, but the cyclists make it back to the pack and carnage is avoided. This time. In the Ronde van Vlaanderen's history, plenty of other people haven't been as lucky.
Why does this happen? Why do riders hop sidewalks and do other things that put them behind the fans, in such obvious jeopardy? The answer is much less ridiculous than you'd think...
Part of the answer is found in a few brief statistics from the race. At this moment the breakaway started watching its advantage erode quickly, from two minutes to less than one in very little time. The break does not appear to have slowed, which means the chase is ramping up. But strangely enough, no team seems like it's doing anything on the front of the peloton. It's simply a matter of a large group of guys deciding independently to pick up the pace.
From above the peloton looks like it's being slowly whipped by egg beaters: riders overlap from the outside and accelerate to the front as quickly as possible, while at least some of the riders in the middle drift backward. [Like the egg beater metaphor, there is a pocket of guys front and center who seem buffeted against the chaos, holding their ground. In baking circles this is called the Boonen Effect. OK, maybe not, but it could be.]
The intense battles for position are commonplace in the sport, but Flanders is unique in certain ways. First, by monument standards (excluding MSR) there are often BIG pelotons. In a sense the race is trickier and crazier than even Paris-Roubaix, but it's not as selective. You don't often see groups of 40 or more riders in contention late in the race in the Hell of the North. Not having experienced all of this I can only guess, and it seems odd that cobbled hills could be less selective than cobbled flats. But I suspect the answer lies in what comes after a lot of those hills: paved descents. After the Bernard Hinault pave secteur, you've got nothing but windy flats on which to claw back that gap you let out -- but you let that gap out for a reason (pain) and that problem hasn't gone away. Whereas after the Paterberg, if you take a chance or two on the descent, you can get right back in the race. With each climb there are a few riders dropped for good, and the peloton continually shrinks as the race progresses. But at km150 it's still pretty large.
Another part of Flanders are the endless twists and turns, a maze of 90-degree corners and road furniture. When you aren't on cobbles or climbs or cobbled climbs, you may still be on roads where it is hard to move up. The opportunities to realistically go from 75th to the front are limited. But on a wide highway, suddenly that shoulder looks like a golden invitation.
This is a classic Tour of Flanders moment in the making. Yes, we have discussed the nature of the classics before. The roads are small, so as the peloton approaches a small road, guys who don't want to see themselves choked out of the peloton by mere position dynamics have to squeeze into the front, and 50 guys fighting for 10 positions is nasty, nasty business. And by fighting, we mean everyone. Cycling is a zero-sum game in such moments: if 50 guys want to be in the top ten, well, for every guy moving up, someone is moving down. If five guys overlap the group and race up to the front, that means the guy in 32nd is now sitting 37th. A steady stream of overlappers means your seemingly comfy placement is gone in about 30 seconds, and next thing you know you're the guy looking to sprint from the back to the front.
In de Ronde, all of this plays out in larger proportions than a typical race. The big group exacerbates the urgency of moving up on the highway, because you simply have no chance of moving up that far under any other circumstances. Not on the climbs, not on the cobbles, not on the tiny roads, not even on the medium-sized country tracks. On a shoulderless two-lane road, if you're sitting 75th, you can probably move up to 60th if you're lucky. Chances are, when you hit the highway, you've been stuck pretty far back for a while, and if that's the case, there's probably a DS in your ear suggesting you might want to do something about it.
So the race turns on the highway. Suddenly, briefly, there isn't merely space but unoccupied space. Go vollgas for thirty seconds and all your problems are solved. You don't see spectators standing in the bike lanes or shoulder space; it's just empty, inviting you, daring you NOT to make a move. Of course you jump; with a wet Koppenberg approaching you need to move up now or your day is over. It all makes sense. So you go.
And then, with your head down as you hammer out a full-on sprint, for nothing less will catapult you that far past an entire, hungry pack, only then do you see that up ahead, there are some fans by the roadside. In it, actually, like soigneurs leaning into the travel lanes to hand up musette bags. They see the pack and inch forward just enough to give the pack space to pass. You are now coming up behind them. Will they flinch or stay still? Should you assume the latter and stay behind them? Or should you look for them to jump back instinctively (wouldn't you?) and veer back to the center through the space they just created?
There is no good answer besides hope.