Like a crowd of thousands surging for a door, which has just opened into a stadium the riders in the peloton push, shove and panic as we near the cobbles. We all know that our position will determine whether or not we make it through the race.
Riders use every inch of the four-lane road on which we ride as they race for the head of the peloton. Some jump up on the sidewalks at 50kph, weaving through the spectators, skipping ahead of the chaos on the somewhat clear sidewalk. After weeks of racing in Belgian and French Classics we become accustomed to the surge. Risk is calculated and accepted. We become immune to the shocking sound of riders crashing and carbon snapping with each race.
The cameras shooting us from the helicopters above, or the motorcycles up front, can’t capture the intensity of the peloton. From their perspectives we appear to be flowing as one, like stream down a canyon. Several directeurs sportif have told me that only in a team car following the peloton you can feel the speed and witness the technical madness.
As the European cities have grown, towns have become increasingly congested making bike races harder to orchestrate. Twenty years ago there were few roundabouts, speed bumps or traffic islands. Now, as we enter towns, policemen’s whistles blast to warn us of the concrete islands sticking into the road with their short concrete stumps. We swerve around the parked cars but occasionally hear the terrifying thud of a rider slamming into the metal.
The races in northern Europe have a different intensity to those ridden later in the season. In northern European Classics, the racing demands constant focus.
Sometimes we are like rally car drivers as we wind our way through narrow farm roads dodging sign posts, spectators and cars. While later in the year we’re like alpine touring cars, flying through the countryside at a steady speed.
The Giro d’Italia, which I will start this week, will perhaps be a hybrid of both types of racing. This year we begin in Amsterdam and race south towards Italy. In Italy, we’ll race on the white gravel roads, which lie like a ribbon on the lush green Tuscan hills. In the Netherlands the peloton will face similar wind swept maze-like courses to those we rode on during the Classics.
Every rider knows that the three week race could be lost in a short few kilometers and every team director will remind his riders to be in front as we near the dangerous bits of road. In the weeks prior to the race teams were already planning for those moments. Races are won or lost in the panicked surge.
In 2005, after an early season Belgian Semi-Classic, a Discovery Channel teammate asked me, “How was that? A little grass cutting, today eh?”
I laughed, as I had never heard racing put that way. When the peloton is in a long single line, and the wind is blowing at our side, we use every inch of the tarmac to find even the tiniest bit of shelter behind the rider in front. The line of riders we are following is moving at over 50kph and, every now and then, it snakes away from the curb as riders yell courteously to those behind that a parked car is sticking out in the road.
When the line is tight on the edge of the tarmac our shoes thwack the grass in the ditch. “Grass cutting.” The insanity of it all is somehow summed up in the phrase.
As I watch my two year old son, Ashlin, learn to pedal and ride a two wheeler without training wheels I can see something in him that is common in most professional cyclists: the fear of falling is overwhelmed by the thrill and the love of riding. He falls and bounces back up, brushing off his scrapes because he wants to get back on the bike to try again and do better. The pain dissipates, as he keeps moving towards his goal. And, like most of us, he doesn’t relent until he is completely tired out. But unlike us, who have slowly accepted the risks, he has yet to see the damage.
Michael Barry is a member of Team Sky, husband of Olympic medalist Dede Barry and author of VeloPress’ “Inside the Postal Bus” and “Fitness Cycling” with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.