Is there anything crapshootier than the start of a cyclocross race? Sure, you know about the battle for the hole shot, which can get testy, but I can tell you from experience that the back end of the start is even wackier, and if the Seattle Old and Mediocre Guy field makes it a full thirty seconds without a crash, it's a blessing. But we have excuses: we're old, we suck, we don't really care. Quite unlike Clement L'hotellerie. Scroll to 15:32 (or use this link to the Sporza mini-clip):
L'hotellerie, former French CX champion-turned-roadie-turned persona non grata has resumed his CX career, and now we can all notice him. What's more difficult to say is why exactly he hung a right turn into the barriers with seemingly no prompting. At least the old guy wiping out in front of me this week could point to the wet pavement and say "See?". Where L'Hotellerie can take solace after his start in the Niel JaarmarktCross is another matter entirely. Let's break it down!
15:22 -- L'hotellerie sits in the far left upper corner of our picture, white jersey, black helmet, sunglasses, staring straight ahead. Some would argue this is where he lost the race. Sure, they were getting the ten seconds to go call, but if you can't relax and joke around with your CX combatants, chances are you are in no frame of mind for the cruel jokes about to be inflicted upon you by the course. Lighten up, roadie.
15:31 -- the light turns green, and Clem mounts up, but immediately his shoulder takes a noticeable dip toward the barriers. Is this indicative of Clem swaying the bike too liberally, and perhaps the point where the glue starts to say "that's it, I'm out of here"?
15:32 -- A cameraman moves into position, Zapruder-like, behind the field as they pull away.
15:33 -- Sven Nys does not yet lead by a minute. This is due solely to the fact that the race is only three seconds old, an oversight which will be cleared up shortly.
15:34 -- Making the holeshot, in the absence of Lars van der Holeshot, who has not made the start today, is one of the race's few foreigners, Philip Walsleben, reigning CX champion of Germany. Mind you, this is Armistice Day, and Walsleben's move puts him half a length ahead of Nys, the Belgian champion. Did fate put the two iconic jersey wearers side by side, a bobbing clash of flags to remind us of the somewhat more violent clashes that begat the holiday? Is Walsleben's aggressiveness meant to signal his dissatisfaction with the terms of the World War I cease-fire? Surely Walsleben knows that the real trouble didn't start til the Treaty of Versaille. Maybe he just didn't approve of Germany having to give up all its submarines. Who would?
15:35 -- L'Hotellerie's day is over. He has inexplicably appeared on the left margin of the screen, veering into the barriers like an enraged bull trying to bust out of his corral. Only the corral and the bull are arguably a fair fight; L'hotellerie is no match for the fence, or his fate.
15:36-40 -- L'Hotellerie lies prone on the ground. Maybe he's hurt. Maybe he's staring angrily at his bike. More likely he's sitting there thinking, "Please let me wake up in bed now. I'll do anything..."
15:41 -- With the front of the field safely off the tarmac, it's time to throw the feed to the guy behind the pack, who has Clem in his sights. Immediately the explanation starts to emerge: his front tire is no longer attached to his wheel, at least not all the way around. Dames en herren, we have a scapegoat!
15:43 -- A soigneur comes running up with a backpack. The camera feed will cut away before she administers whatever solution she carries with her in that backpack, and until she or L'hotellerie come forward, we can only speculate what it contained. A veil? An ice pack? I like to think she had a couple of those instant smoke bombs that magicians or cartoon villains throw in order to make their escape through a cloud of smoke and confusion. Wasn't there someone on the ground? I could've sworn I saw a guy hit the barriers. Did I just dream that?
15:46 -- A fan, an older man, has stepped over the barriers and grabbed the bike by the front wheel. You can almost read in his casual body language the mix of pity and disgust he is projecting toward this roadie, a Frenchman no less. Being Belgian, most likely, he's glued more tires in a year than L'hotellerie has been given by every service course he's accessed in his entire career. "You gotta put it on the entire rim, son. You can't worry about getting a little extra on the sidewalls."
17:00 -- The race arrives at the pits for the initial time. Pit helpers hold out bikes for riders that may or may not arrive, without notice, but in most cases your guy either grabs a bike from you or passes behind just you on the main trail. Sometimes, in the chaotic first lap, your guy may slip by unnoticed, but you have to wonder here, when did the realization set in for L'hotellerie's pit crew that he wasn't coming? Is this more like a waiting for Godot thing, an existential crisis, or like a widow's walk thing, a pure tragedy?
-- Fade to black --
The real winner here, of course, was L'hotellerie, who will now be invited to every race with start money paid out to have him lined up at the back of the field. This is (roughly) the same sport that kept paying Rene Haselbacher to start the Tour de France, if only to see him blow up a sprint or two. Better still, Clem avoided having to actually ride the ugliest course in Cyclocross. Apart from his pride, which was separated from his soul like a poorly glued tire, he's the real victor.