Rapha - Spring The Hell of it All

Spring, The Hell of it All

Spring is a challenge not to be faced lightly.

10 April 2015

The start line is a good place to begin. In races later in the year it can be an easy place, where a mixture of chatter, excitement and nerves builds gently to a casual roll through the neutral, but in spring the start line is different. Tense and crowded, riders push and jostle, no-one talks to anyone they don’t trust, no one can shake that strange unspeakable strain that feels like a giant block of ice sat square on their shoulders.

The start line in spring is a threshold where marshals have to hold riders back, like nervous racehorses waiting for the starting gun. Everyone is on guard, because for all riders – even the select few who evolution has equipped for these nervous first races – spring is a challenge not to be faced lightly.

There is no other time on the cycling calendar quite like it. It is either the best, or the worst, and you won’t know until it comes. Over the winter all riders create a burden of expectation that they will carry into spring. Everyone has been asking themselves questions every day through the off-season; what can I do this time round to be there when it counts? What can I win? Who can stop me winning? Will it finally be my year?

The numbers you pore over all winter will tell you about yourself – they can seemingly serve to reduce the odds. But your rivals you will only know about when spring arrives and they are faced for real. Even those who don’t need to think about winning until summer comes look for answers in spring.

And then, on the first start lines of the new season; what has for a long time seemed so far away suddenly arrives like an oncoming train. At first the races were a distant object on the horizon, but before you know it your shivering there, more nervous than you remember, looking at the trees to see the way the wind is blowing and glancing at the half covered legs of your rivals. Narrowing your eyes to see if you can spot any excess layers of fat wrapped around their muscles, desperate to see signs of weakness.

There is the weather too, that old thing.

At no other time of year does it seem to play such a part in making a bike race. Spring has so many elements it can play with, sun, wind, rain, sleet, the kitchen sink. These are all factors that can turn up throughout the year, but in spring they seem more potent. Spring weather plays into the hands of the races and the racers like at no other time. It’s elemental.

The Strong look to use the weather at any opportunity. It is a smart choice, like the terrain and a faithful teammate, it is there to be used, but only by those who are good enough. No one hides in a crosswind, and lack of form and poor preparation becomes apparent much faster when the conditions become difficult.

The moral-dousing effect of the rain, that eternal spirit-breaker, is never more evident than in spring. There is no rider in the world who hasn’t been told that ‘half the field are already beaten’ when the rain falls, but in spring, with uncertain form, nervous minds and unprepared bodies, the percentages become higher: odds that go in your favour, or against.

The roads themselves take on a new shape after freezing in the winter’s frosts and soaking under rivers of rain and slush. Familiar routes can become unpredictable and damaged; cobbles, those absurd stones that organisers love to include with such abandon in spring, become wet and ridiculous: pathways of deception. Crashes that should never happen, just do. Excited, nervous riders brake late in the wet, hoping that they can just get that inch ahead, and slide instead, on hips and knees, down greasy surfaces that have been ruptured and worn by winter’s frosty disdain.

But the real hardness to the races in spring is the newness of it all: new bikes, new kit, new shoes, and new teammates to impress, and to impress yourself upon. Those new bikes won’t seem as fast in four months time, that new jersey and those new shoes will never quite be as fresh again. But in spring, there is something extra hidden in them all, before they’ve been caked in mud and sweat and washed a hundred times.

It is the extra percentage found in all these things in spring that means no one wants to let go, and so no one does, and instead everyone keeps pushing and pushing, looking to prove themselves as quickly as they can.

The truth is, racing in spring is just a start line, like those first moments of unwrapping a new present and still not knowing what it is. We all want to be great in spring; we all want to be Sean Kelly – oozing strength with a face covered in mud and dust. We all want to excel on shitty roads, and still be brave when we’re soaked to the bone. But we can’t all be cowboys, some have to be clowns, and spring will make one or the other of you as soon as you step to the start line. You just won’t know which until you get going.

Ah, spring: the hell of it all.

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