Failure, redemption, life at the top

Is it lady luck or the onlookers who are fickle?

Tom Boonen

Unsinkable Sports Idol?

This month’s Procycling magazine fanfares the return of Tom Boonen, or as they put it

The revival of Belgium’s unsinkable sports idol.

Quite some sub headline for a rider who in recent seasons has been dogged by poor form (both on and on the bike), injury and who the very same magazine and its sister website, amongst others, had seemingly written off. But like they say, this guy is unsinkable, right?

Sure, Boonen has had a stellar spring. He picked up his second Flanders-Roubaix double as well as a double in the E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. Merely riding both of these last two races together is little done today – a fact bemoaned by Roger De Vlaeminck in Daniel Friebe’s Eddy Merckx The Cannibal – let alone win them both. For a guy whose spring has been better than his last 2 seasons combined this is certainly a resurgence and one built on his strengths in the one day classics of the spring.

Yet Boonen’s purple spring is very similar to the rich vein of form shown by another Belgian last year. Remember a rider called Gilbert who won all four Ardennes races in the space of two weeks (10 days if you are really counting)? I am not the first to note the stark contrast in fortunes – the see-saw as one commentator has quite aptly put it – and I doubt I will be the last. But what made me stop and write this piece was a reflection on the reporting of Gilbert’s seemingly terminal decline or as they say “looking like a cycling god stripped of his powers”. These turns of phrase used to be reserved for the autumn years of cycling greats yet today are bandied around with ease at the slightest whiff of an off spell.

Philippe Gilbert

Our expectations?

If you were expecting insightful reportage then the more you read the more disappointing an article it becomes: is it Gilbert’s own excesses or the demands of the team – “the truth clearly lies somewhere in between”. Maybe the reason is fatigue? “I’ve learned that John Lelangue [Gilbert’s BMC Directeur Sportif] really put them all through it in Spain,” says a source in the article, “For Lelangue, only one date matters: 30 June and the Tour.” A little more insightful, possibly, except this source is “One member of Gilbert’s fan-club. It’s like asking a Brosette from Stourbridge where Matt and Luke Goss went wrong in 1990 and any chance of them reforming.

Perhaps what is most disappointing about the coverage of both Boonen and Gilbert is the level of expectation which creates the see-saw. As viewers we revel in the short terms domination of riders (though we seem to bemoan anything longer term). And the cycling media put on a papier-mache pedestal these new kings only for them to crumble under crocodile tears. But whose tears are they? If Procycling is to be believed, Gilbert is in the pits of despair. So how about looking at it another way: April 2011 was a uniquely fantastic spell of good form for Gilbert, April 2012 just didn’t quite go to plan. That’s all, he wasn’t quite there. But that’s bike racing.

So why is it an issue? Reflecting on this from personal perspective it is fair to say that  expectations drive life both from the inside looking out and the outside looking in. At times they create a perfect storm and the inside and outside are hard to distinguish. By this I mean our expectations, the expectations others have of us and the expectation we think they have of us can blend into one. And when one or more of these expectations is not met someone feels let down. In the case of Gilbert it is clear that the media and, possibly, some fans have not had their expectations met. Yet the flip side to this is to ask whether our expectations are realistic? In the case of Gilbert our expectations were artificially inflated by a superb yet extraordinary Ardennes campaign the previous year on top of which we all know how many variables can change in bike racing, its like cracking the Enigma code.

Rather than hailing the return of a dethroned emperor or over analysing the bad patch of another, over analysis fails to help, especially when it is misplaced. There will be another spring classics campaign next year and no doubt the see-saw will tip again. Therefore instead of rasing them, maybe we need to lower our expectations just slightly. It’s not just a lesson for watching cycle sport but one to heed in our everyday lives.


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