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