The Thrill of Watching a Bicycle Race

When I share that I intend to follow the Tour de France 2014 from start to finish, some people look at me like “why?” No one in the US questions if you are an avid baseball or football fan, or rugby in New Zealand; but especially since the Lance Armstrong scandal blew up, people just do not get why I am still enthusiastic about bike racing.  So imagine how thrilled I was to find a passage in A Moveable Feast on the allure of bike racing by none other than Ernest Hemingway.

(In a conversation with his friend Mike about the difficulty of giving up betting on horses)

“What do you see that’s better?”

“Bicycle racing.”


“You don’t have to bet on it. You’ll see.”

Belgian cyclist called "the Sioux"
Belgian cyclist called “the Sioux”

(A little further down)

I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the roads. But I will get the Velodrome d’Hiver with the smoky light of the afternoon and the high-banked wooden track and the whirring noise the tires made on the wood as the riders passed, the effort and the tactics as the riders climbed and plunged, each one a part of his machine; I will get the magic of the demi-fond, the noise of the motors with the rollers set out behind them that the entraineurs rode, wearing their heavy crash helmets and leaning backward in their ponderous heavy leather suits, to shelter the riders that followed them from the air resistance, the riders in their lighter helmets bent low over their handlebars their legs turning the huge gear sprockets and the small front wheels touching the roller behind the machine that gave them shelter to ride in, and the duels that were more exciting than anything, the put-putting of the motorcycles, and the riders elbow to elbow and wheel to wheel up and down and around at deadly speed until one man could not hold the pace and broke away and the solid wall of air he had been sheltered against hit him.

There were so many kinds of racing. The straight sprints raced in heats or in match races where the two riders would balance for long seconds on their machines for the advantage of making the other rider take the lead and then the slow circling and the final plunge into the driving purity of speed. There were the programs of the team races of two hours, with a series of pure sprints in their heats to fill the afternoon, the lonely absolute speed events of one man racing an hour against the clock, the terribly dangerous and beautiful races of one hundred kilometers on the big-banked wooden five-hundred-meter bowl of the Stade Buffalo, the outdoor stadium at Montrouge where they raced behind big motorcycles, Linart, the great Belgian champion that they called “the Sioux” for  his profile, dropping his head to suck up cherry brandy from a rubber tube that connected with a hot water bottle under his racing shirt when he needed it toward the end as he increased his savage speed, and the championships of France behind big motors of the six-hundred-and-sixty-meter cement track of the Parc du Prince near Auteuil, the wickedest track of all where we saw that great rider Ganay fall and heard his skull crumple under the crash helmet as you crack a hard-boiled egg against a stone to peel it on a picnic. I must write the strange world of the six-day races and the marvels of road-racing in the mountains. French is the only language it has been written in properly and the terms are all French which makes it hard to write. Mike was right about it, there was no need to bet…

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