The dirty water turned opaque hours ago, a contrast to the hotel bathtub’s bright white. The rider grimaces as he swirls the water, as if recognizing a particular grain of grit for its direct link to the suffering during the swirling cauldron of the day’s race. He says he is rinsing his kit to help the team soigneurs but it is clear he wants nothing more than to wash away the day’s defeat.
He holds up his base layer shirt and it looks like it was used to clean a horse stall. It started the day white, he says, as he lets it drop. The rest of his kit stews in the turbid water like riverside trash that you try to ignore lest it spoil an otherwise beautiful moment. His improbably white racing shoes are lodged toes down in the soap rack next to the bathtub.
It is a scene we are not supposed to see but we are the richer for witnessing it. This is human. This is imperfection. This is what a loss looks like.
“I had good legs … after a hard race like this, you never know on the finish line,” said Niki Terpstra, one of the sharper classics weapons in the Omega Pharma Quick-Step quiver, of his 5th place at the 2014 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Watch the OPQS team interview with Terpstra.
Riders on the start line of a spring classic are pristine and almost indistinguishable from one another. All logos, sharp edges and mirrored gazes. After hundreds of kilometers of hardship their true character is revealed when they cross the line finish. Dirtied. Exhausted. Exalted.
For the riders on the classics super teams such as Omega Pharma Quick-Step, the stakes are even higher during the run up to the Holy Week of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. There are so many champions on the roster, actual and potential and only a handful of opportunities for each of them. We may not have the same competition when we ride but the questions we try to answer on the road are the same. Who do you ride for? Will a chance flat ruin your career? How will you stand out? One way is to win.
We feel we know the victors best because of how we partake in their triumph. An arm raised upwards, finger pointing to the sky. They blink grit, sweat and tears to see the world anew when they cross the line first. We were there with them during the race, just a screen away from their glory.
For the rest of us, our spring seems nothing like theirs. Our stage is smaller. Our bodies take longer to answer the call of our ambition. Our sense of possibility is bounded. Yet March and April are the months when we redefine ourselves too.
In the Northeast, this is the transition between the devotional training during darkest winter to the energetic frenzy of the first days back riding above freezing. Tendons whine like a hungry three year-old but we push on because for too long we lacked any touchstones to summer’s joy.
We had to ride blind in the dark, if at all, bodies wrapped and covered against the elements. We worked in silence, usually alone, with the hope that our effort will be met with reward some far day off.
The impossible compression of carbon, flesh and ambition into the narrow farm tracks of Northern Europe is everything the peloton’s protagonists need to reveal their true selves. Flanders. Roubaix. Gent-Wevelgem.
We have our chances too this spring, on the bike and off. We will decide who we are, what we are made of, who we measure ourselves against. Whom we want to ride with. Those we need to drop. All will be decided soon.
After a long ride, soaking in a hot shower still clothed in the day’s sand-flecked shorts and legwarmers watching the dirt swirl down the drain, we hold ourselves to account. Yet we are already thinking about the next ride.
Terpstra was no different. His team had plans for victory that day that did not pan out. “Now, it’s nothing,” he said after his fifth place. “Tomorrow, we’re going to try it again.”
Soon after he said this, he won Dwars door Vlaanderen for a second time and became a new rider in our eyes, and, almost certainly, in his own.