Tuesdays with Wilcockson: A race without fans is no race at all

Imagine that the Olympic Games happened—or next week’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge took place—and no one came to watch. There’d be no applause as the racers came through the towns, no camper vans massed on the climbs, and no one banging the billboards along the finish straight. You might say, so what? Ninety percent of the world’s racers don’t have crowds watching them; they just ride for fun. But at the elite pro level, it’s the synergy between the riders and the spectators that creates the event. Without the fans, a race would lack the energy and excitement that we tend to take for granted.

Take the Olympic men’s cross-country race last Sunday at Hadleigh Farm in the Essex countryside east of London. A capacity crowd of some 20,000 spectators lined the challenging course that gave rise to one of the best mountain-bike races in the sport’s history. As with every other event at the London games, the home fans were hoping that a British athlete would be on the podium, but when their best hope, Liam Killeen, crashed out with a broken ankle they warmed to a superb race between pre-race favorite Nico Schurter of Switzerland, world champion Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic and Italian dark horse Marco Fonda.

The roar of the crowds all around the course undoubtedly inspired the three Europeans to ride harder than they’ve ever ridden before. The faster they raced, the louder the cheers. And the louder the cheers, the faster they raced. Without such great support, Fonda may not have been so doggedly brave, after he lost his seatpost, to ride the whole final lap out of the saddle to hang on to the bronze medal. And Kulhavy may not have kept chasing back when Schurter kept on accelerating and the Czech may not have been ready to jump past the Swiss in the dying seconds to take gold.

That was the perfect example of how a crowd can both make racing more thrilling and influence an event’s outcome. Other crowds, including the wall-to-wall mob that lined the barriers from start to finish of the Olympic time trial two weeks ago, can add tremendous enthusiasm to an event and increase the enjoyment level for both themselves and the riders. Top time trialists normally operate in a world of their own, focusing totally on their pedal cadence and power output, the next bend in the road and the rider they’re catching. But having crowds urging you on adds a major element to your performance.

Around the Hampton Court Palace course on August 1, the constant encouragement of the hundreds of thousands spectators was an element that transcended a rider’s internal forces. Gold medalist Brad Wiggins said, “The noise was incredible. I’m never, ever going to experience anything like that again in my sporting career.” And his British teammate Chris Froome, who claimed the bronze medal, said the crowds “weren’t just cheering, they were screaming our names.”

There was an informal comparison of sound levels at the various Olympic venues. Not surprisingly, the decibel counts were loudest at the indoor arenas, with one or two bouts at the 10,000-capacity boxing arena just out-scoring the most exciting races at the 6,000-seat Olympic Velodrome. Judging by the huge popularity of the track cycling in London—despite the lack of the individual pursuit and the often harsh application of arcane sprinting rules—this branch of the sport is making a strong comeback. Indeed, world road champion Mark Cavendish, who was on the BBC television commentary team at the velodrome, was so enthused by the racing that he said he will make an actual comeback to the track with a view to contesting the team pursuit and six-race omnium for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

It was instructive that the track racing in London lasted for six days, the same as traditional six-day races, which may have lost much of their luster in recent decades but remain one the most potentially popular branches of bike racing. Anyone who has attended a European six-day race (including London’s Skol Six that introduced many British fans to track racing during the 1980s) knows that a well-staged “six” that’s contested by a variety of two-man teams, including sprinters and stars of the Tour de France, can be more entertaining than any other form of racing.

Today, few remember that road riders such as Eddy Merckx gained a lot of their finishing speed by racing on the six-day velodromes, while both Wiggins and Cavendish won Belgium’s prestigious Ghent Six in an early phase of the pro careers. So, following the track’s massive popularity at the Olympics, six-day races could be added to the track racers’ still-limited annual schedule of World Cup races, world and continental championships, and the occasional specialty events such as the Revolution races held at British velodromes.

The interplay between the racers and the fans is a vital part of track racing—no one would want to race in any empty arena! Everyone wants the crowds to be as big as those that watched the London Olympic road races and the ones that we’ll likely see on Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain and Denver’s time-trial circuit at the USA Pro Challenge in a few days’ time.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: Padraig

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6 comments

  1. Jesus from Cancun

    True. As an example, a memorable picture of a Classic or a Grand Tour will undoubtely have more spectators than racers in the shot. What makes those shots of the Koppenberg, the Arenberg forest, or L’Alpe d’Huez so spectacular? Well, the crowds. The crazynes one watches on TV and would dream to be a part of. Except the Basque loonies and the Antler Dude types, of course.

    It is kind of sad that so few people understand track racing. There is so much they are missing.
    Some of the best track racers have converted to the road successfully, but it is rare to hear about a roadie converted to a full time trackie, except temprarily, for a special event like the Olympics.

    That is one reason for me to look forward to the Olympics. Track cycling shown live on TV!

  2. Dave Lettieri

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I think the last two Olympic road races were severly restricted to spectators and there was little to no spectators.

  3. vectorbug

    I hear the roar of the crowds, throwing water on me, pushing me up these bastard 15% grades when I’m out riding alone in the twilight barely eeking 250 watts. I hear Phil and Paul describing the chateau I just passed (when really its just a McMansion or a farm) at mile 60. I look over my shoulder and I can almost see Evans and Basso covered in Bianchi Strada when I decide to take the unpaved route home, wondering when they’re going to finally take their pull.

  4. BradO

    Great piece–the XC race was fantastic. One correction to note–I believe the Italian XC racer’s name was Marco Fontana, not Fonda.

  5. Sam J

    I have to disagree. Well, not necessarily disagree. I do concur that in today’s modern racing environment, the crowd plays a huge role, both for the riders and from the television viewer’s perspective. It’s why I detest Tommy Voeckler’s war on the crowd, or why I wince whenever Ligget and Sherwen express their disdain for anyone who leans in and runs alongside the rider. As long as it’s being watched, it makes the race better.

    However, there is something about the Nietzschean origins of cycling that still appeal to me. I do understand that follow cars, teammates, the peloton, etc., are here to stay, and are a fundamental part of what cycling now is. But I can’t help but read stories such as that of Eugene Christophe and feel like something is missing from the sport. Cycling is a sport of men conquering mountains. Professional Cycling is a sport of men conquering men on mountains, and the mountains don’t seem so sublimely impressive when a guy dressed in a Borat suit is running up it. If a balance could be struck, I’d appreciate it immensely. Maybe if the organizers could take a couple kms of each climb and make it spectator free, not so much to focus on the race as the relationship between the riders and the terrain itself. I recall watching Thomas de Gendt work his way up the deserted lower slopes of the Stelvio in the Giro this year, and finding myself imagining it’s what it would have been like to be Maurice Garin, slowly churning his way up a mountainside on a gravel road with nary a soul in sight. It’ll never happen, but one can hope.

  6. tiny tim

    I know it’s funny, but I think it’s the fans that harden the riders up. How hard-core and dedicated is it for a working class man/woman to call in sick to work, pull the kids out of school (for a doctors appointment of course) to hike 3 hours up a major col or line six deep in the rain to watch the finish of a race flash by in a matter of seconds? This makes me wonder why track racing isn’t more popular (in the us). The six days in euroland look awesome. They are inside, have a seating/dining area, have mid-race circus style events, and you can watch the riders ride for hours instead of a the usual glance that you get at road races. If I became an elected public offical I would reclaim all of the lame nascar tracks and convert them into some sweet indoor/outdoor velodromes.

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