The streets are empty, and an eerie calm has descended on cities and towns everywhere. This weekend would have been the 118th running of the Hell of The North – the legendary Paris-Roubaix. The cobbles of the Arenberg forest didn’t get their chance to decimate wheels and tires, as the race has been cancelled. COVID-19 has led us all to face some dramatic changes. It is impacting our lives on every level, and in times like this, bicycle racing is relegated to a lesser importance. How we race, how we ride, how we work, how we socialize; all of this has changed. In this time of great uncertainty, there will be sacrifices aplenty. And there will be hope and opportunity as well. And, with hope and empathy foremost in our minds, our wheels will keep rolling.
The European spring classics – Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, Paris Roubaix, Milan-San Remo, Amstel Gold, Fleche-Wallone, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege – are races that we here at Roval consider to be some of the most dramatic and brutally beautiful events on the pro cycling calendar. They are old, some as old as cycling itself, and monumental. We enter each spring with a sense of anticipation, eager to see our riders, riding our wheels, putting their early season fitness on the line in the most grueling one-day race conditions on the planet. These are legendary races; big distances, punchy climbs, often psychotic weather, and in several instances, kilometer after kilometer of wheel and tire eating cobbles.
We anticipate these races as restlessly and impatiently as kids awaiting Christmas. Last year, Philippe Gilbert won in a dramatic sprint finish, putting our wheels on the top of the podium. The year prior, our beloved perennial danger man Peter Sagan did the honors. This year, however, everyone got lumps of coal in their compression stockings. Instead of looking forward to seeing if our favorite riders were showing the grit required to prevail in the velodrome at Roubaix, we have instead been transfixed by the infection and mortality rates of this year’s biggest news; COVID-19. As this virus has swung into a full-blown pandemic, Europe has prudently locked itself down in order to try and come to grips with the contagion. As a result, the races we look forward to have one by one been forced to make some hard decisions. Tirreno-Adriatico, cancelled. Milan-Sanremo, cancelled. Gent-Wevelgem, cancelled. Paris-Roubaix, cancelled. Amstel Gold, cancelled. Tour of Flanders, postponed. Fleche Wallone, postponed. L-B-L, postponed.
Beyond the spring classics, the Giro D’Italia, has been postponed. There’s talk about racing the Tour De France without spectators. On the mountain bike side of things, a slew of cancellations from the Cape Epic to the opening rounds of the World Cup have been cancelled, and events scheduled after mid-May are in an uncertain holding pattern.
This is in no way an attempt to bemoan these cancellations and postponements. The impacts of this virus are being felt in profoundly painful ways around the globe. It is taking lives; people are losing family members at the same time they are losing their jobs. It is ravaging healthcare systems. It is cratering economies. And people are doing what they can to try and come to terms with how to slow (and hopefully at some point try to contain) its spread. In light of the magnitude of this, not being able to watch a few races doesn’t seem like too much of a price to pay.
There will be a price beyond race fans though. There will be pro racers, people we follow and cheer for, who will fall ill. There will be all the other racers, no longer training in teams, without specific goals for the year, trying to stay fit and motivated for a job that no longer has defined parameters. There will be teams that can’t afford to continue racing as sponsors tighten budgets and pull their resources as they navigate their own crises. Bike manufacturers and component suppliers, distributors and retailers are all facing an unstable and potentially disastrous year or more ahead.
So what do we do in this time of great uncertainty? What do we encourage you to do?
Indoors, outdoors, on-road or off. Following all applicable guidelines for social distancing and being respectful of mandated closures, of course. But ride. Turn the cranks, spin the wheels, sweat, breathe, channel the angst and fear and uncertainty into watts, feel the daily burden of worry lift for a few precious moments. Pedal until you feel peace inside. Try to hold onto that feeling, let it shore up your aching heart, your frayed nerves. This will pass. Bikes didn’t cause this mess, and bikes won’t end this mess, but bikes sure as heck can help ease most of us back from the edge of crazy for the duration of this mess. And that is a gift. So, we say again, ride.
There’s a whole peloton of riders out there, who’ve trained their whole lives to become the racers they are. They may not know what the future holds, when they’ll next battle for podiums, if their teams will even exist next year. They’re out there riding, solo, carefully, patiently waiting for the day when they can be forcing the break as the rest of the peloton stretches behind them. There are mountain bikers who can’t travel to the mountains they crave to climb and descend, the mountains that define them as mountain bikers. They’re riding alone in their own silent neighborhoods, returning to their families, caring for their children, and dreaming of the spindrift dust of summer. There are virtual pelotons of us racing each other on Zwift, from basement to garage to living room to front porch. Ride, for the sake of your own peace of mind, so that you can make it to the other side of this with your life and your family intact and healthy.
We are riding right there with you, doing what we can to cope.
And meanwhile, for those many quiet and contemplative moments at home, while we wait this out, it’s a perfect time to get reacquainted with a film that is foundational for many of us; Jurgen Leth’s 1976 classic, “A Sunday in Hell.” Keep the faith, people. We will ride together one day again soon.