It’s Christmas Eve Day,* a quiet moment at home until a house full of boys wake up from a slumber party happening for my youngest son’s birthday. The holiday season has finally arrived at the part I can fully appreciate, where the commercial cycle gives way at last to the human one as people gather together in so many uncountable formations — nuclear families, extended families, groups of friends scattered from their old homes or returning to them to congregate, and so forth — to celebrate Christmas. Or Kwanzaa, Annandag Jul, Festivus, and a litany of other holidays that have aligned themselves with the Christian calendar because it’s the end of another year and we could all use a break and some good cheer.
[* Not in the New York drunk tank.]
We don’t follow the Christian calendar in my home, and Hanukkah is in the books as of Wednesday, but it’s still a peaceful time. A rare snowfall is in the forecast, its own small miracle, and kids all around us are being asked to believe that Santa Claus is coming to shower them with gifts. Belief is everywhere, even (in past years) in my home that Santa purportedly wasn’t scheduled to visit. That belief has long since given way here, as it will everywhere someday, to the grudging acknowledgement that the world is full of loving parents instead of flying reindeer. What a ripoff!
But while it lasts, belief is magic.
This is a fascinating subject to me as I get older. Belief and reality are locked in a desperate political struggle in America, one so grim I have to skirt by it for now, for the sake of a column I am writing at 5am since the disquiet of this struggle has ruined another night’s sleep. You can read all about that somewhere else, though I don’t recommend it. But belief in Cycling is another fascinating subject, similar in some ways to the “bigger picture” but with stakes far less monumental.
This subject was triggered in my brain yesterday while reading a book about Cyclocross, which I will review shortly, called Rainbows in the Mud, by Paul Maunder. Cyclocross is, of course, a thoroughly Belgian affair, even when it’s being raced in Spain or Los Angeles or (gulp) the Netherlands. (Sorry.) And Belgium, as discussed in one chapter of the book, is one of the most potent beating hearts of road racing, thanks to the Classics and people’s response to them. This is illustrated by how all over Flanders people celebrate the Ronde van Vlaanderen, rushing outside as it passes through their village, regardless of the sport’s worldwide standing. The Tour de France has this same effect in a more transient way, changing courses as it does, so I don’t want to exaggerate the connection of Belgians above all others to cycling. It’s merely a matter of degree.
But whether it’s the Tour of Flanders or Duinencross, people in Belgium come to cycling with perhaps a bit more willingness to believe, or at least a bit less concern about whether they should or not, and just enjoy the show. That’s a gross generalization and I wouldn’t want to downplay the extent to which Belgian fans are part of the worldwide movement, still very much afoot, to hold cycling to a higher standard and to shun those cheaters who would ruin it by loading their bodies with chemicals. In Belgium people are still people and prone to caring about the same threats to the sport that people fret over in France or England. But crowning champions is not the sport’s only function, and thanks in large part to ‘Cross, in Belgium the show must go on.
The magic of Cyclocross is to give the insatiable fans who form a quorum in Flanders but are plugging in electronically from all over the world something to soothe their undying belief in the sport of cycling. I don’t mean the World Tour or the athletes whose names clog my Twitter feed, I am talking about the act of taking a bike and racing it over landscapes that cause spectators to shout and laugh and forget about everything else for a moment.
This magic is, in part, the beauty of cycling set to fixed courses: the courses themselves and the challenges they present to anyone with a bike become the story. In the Tour de France and many of the other big races, particularly stage races, the athletes are the story every day, even as they stop by the occasionally iconic landscape. Yes, we can ride the Alpe on a random Tuesday in May, but only the most magnificent, maniacally trained athletes can ride around France for three weeks, or Colorado for one week, or what have you. But 25,000 people can ride the Ronde or Paris-Roubaix, or yeah, the Strade Bianche, in a single day.
The magical connection of bikes and landscapes is best driven home, however, by ‘Cross. Literally anyone with a bike can challenge themselves with a lap or three over the great courses of the sport. After every major international cyclocross race local kids jump on the now-open course to try their hand at the mud of Zolder or the sand of Koksijde or the steep winding climbs of Namur. It’s the completion of the cycle, which starts with the world’s top junior boys and girls racing over the landscape with breathtaking skill, speed, and nerve. Then the “beloften,” a lovely word for young adults that translates to “promises” in English, elevate the racing even further, and then finally the truly elite of our species show the world what is possible to do with a bike. All in the space of a few hours, before 10,000 or more fans who shout for Wout or Mathieu or Sanne or Tom or Eli or Thalita, whoever they root for most.
But when the fans aren’t shouting at their favorite athlete, they are shouting for everyone else. Again, Cross does this better than de Ronde, better than any other road event. As the athletes separate out from one another, fans get the chance to behold not just the top rider but the middle class and the guys in the back too. The nature of the champions (and whether they deserve to be called champions) becomes a smaller and smaller part of the event as one rider after another traverses a diabolical off-camber slab of mud. By the time the course is opened and the kids go by on their mountain bikes, the point is driven home thoroughly: Cycling is a sport so broadly applicable to us all that, at some level, we can all believe in and celebrate it with no regrets. Whoever passes by, even in the back end of the juniors race, is doing something wonderful on their bike, something that makes us celebrate and shout for. In this season of belief, in a sport that has treated belief so recklessly, our belief can’t ever be defeated. It just attaches itself to something more deserving.
A week after Seattle’s famous Woodland Park race my 11-year-old and I ran a couple laps of what was left there from race day, when I and my 14-year-old both competed more formally. Gone were the crowds and the soapy slip-n-slide (I know), but otherwise nothing had changed. The fearsome (cough) run-up and the succession of hills remained, as did a few bumpy, greasy turns and the alluring rhythm of the course. He groaned and struggled and fought and laughed a bit, particularly afterward when we finally got out of the driving rain, satisfied that we had done something slightly more than ordinary. The same act we just performed was one he saw people doing a week earlier, albeit faster. The gap between spectacle and experience shrunk to almost nothing, and the magic of experience fully took hold.
For Andrew and Conor and the rest of us at the Podium Cafe, happy holidays!