Cars of various types, price range, and colour. They’re pulling in slowly, their drivers stretching their necks out to find a spot among the many who’ve already done so on the freshly paved road of a new industrial park.
Bodies emerge, unfolding, most of them wearing anonymous work attire. Pants. Jeans. Shirts. T-shirts. Sunglasses. A few jackets here and there. Others, hidden behind their vehicles or badly hidden behind an open car door display various degrees of nudity while they slip into their Lycra-based second skin. All that Lycra is sponsored and bears their membership in a club. As soon as they’re on, their colours give a new identity to its bearer. A minute ago, they were accountants, actuaries, engineers, journalists, plumbers, soldiers, students, unemployed. Now they are all racing cyclists.
The organizers’ tent stands in the distance. There it is, blue among the wild grass of a vacant lot. The photo-finish camera is set-up on its uneven tripod and a few racers are already gathering around the registration table. Behind it, the highway connecting East and West. Its constant hum almost feels like you’re experiencing the early stage of tinnitus.
Then you hear gears clicking. The wheels grumbling when someone stands on their pedals. Animated discussions, familiar faces that pop out of nowhere to say hi. The polite rivalries of amateur racers. How’s it going? How’s the health? You look sharp. You’ve lost weight, haven’t you? The cyclist is an elusive animal. He always feels too fat, too slow, like he hasn’t trained enough. At least that what he says. He’s lying, but believes his lie.
The race track is a tw kilometre long rectangle. They will race around it for an hour. As fast as they can. Depending on the week, there are between 30 and 50 of them. They come here for a variety of reasons. For fun, for the thrill of speed, to win, to help someone else win, for the intense training it gives them, allowing them to be that much sharper during next weekend’s competition. The one thing they all share is the unique taste of adrenalin. They love danger, power surges, displays of bravery. They crave the restlessness that also characterizes flings and devouring passions alike. They figuratively take a huge bite out of life while using their mouths, the actual one, to breathe in a little oxygen which, however little, will help appease the burning sensation in their leg muscles.
And then it’s on. Sometimes, things take a while to get going. Sometimes, the race is frenetic right from the get go. Seen from within, everything feels both in slow motion and full speed ahead. Attacks behind you can be heard from the sound of the wheels and bodies breaking the wind while they attempt to escape forward. Whistles and screams fill the air. Oh! A breakaway!
The pursuit gets organized. Or not. Breakaways of two, three, five racers start happening. There are rarely solo breakaways. One needs to be really strong and a little crazy to try that. Or devoured by an appetite for reckless challenges.
For those who’ve decided to breakaway, it’s torture time. Minutes stretch out seemingly endlessly because of the sustained effort and the constant fear of being caught by the hunters before the end of the race. Breakaways also organize, collaborate, and, sometimes, fight. But it’s never personal. Unless you know there’s a rat in the pack, a racer that is there to preserve their energy in order to beat you to the finish and keep all the glory to themselves, even though this glory is always a little tarnished by their own cunning.
And yet, that too is part of cycling. That calculation we all love to hate, the best way to beat the others. Even though it might mean faking fatigue, looking out of resources. Even if it means bullying the racer in front of you a little so that they put in all the effort for you, just for a few more meters. All that makes racers both gambling and weary men.
For onlookers on the side of the road, they look like a multicoloured mass of hyperactive locusts, a bunch of strange elements following their hive mind and are engaged in a bizarre coopetition. It’s a multiplayer game of chess whose onlookers are trying to figure out the subtleties despite only seeing a few of the moves being played.
That is why winning is so important. Because acts of bravery and hard work aren’t always perceptible from the outside. For the crowd, the only thing that counts are those arms stretched out to the sky when they cross the finish line for the last time in that race.
And even though within the multicellular organism called the peloton everyone holds THEIR truth, their interpretation of the facts, more often than not a consensus is created. All recognize this one’s hard work and that’s one’s stupidity. We celebrate clean victories and shun the miscreant ones.
At the end of the day, a criterium is a social club. It has its characters, it’s gossip and a story that does not necessarily show up in the rankings. That’s the collective story. And for the members of that collectivity, that story is what becomes their narrative. For some it’ll be on the way back home. For others it will be at one of the boys’ place, knocking back a few beers.
The “crit” is an adventure whose intensity prevents anyone from forgetting it and, actually, requires all participants to include it as one of the most important things in their lives.
A text by David Desjardins.