Recent Olympic golds in cycling, rowing and equestrianism would seem to confirm the theory that Britain does best in sports that are undertaken while sitting down. Or even lying down….Lizzy Yarnold retained her gold in the skeleton at Pyeong Chang, sliding face-first down the ice at over 80mph, a feat of nerves that makes the descending of VIncenzo Nibali look like a ride around the park on a bike with a shopping basket.
Standing up on the ice, or, at any rate, remaining upright while moving, again proved somewhat more troublesome for the luckless Elise “Bambi” Christie. I watched the short-track skating on the BBC – had I known that Eurosport’s commentator was none other than our very own Carlton Kirby I would have tuned in more diligently, though it was surreal to hear his unmistakable tones while not watching cycling; a bit like having John Arlott commentate on the British Grand Prix. The new massed start skating events on the big track were an enthralling innovation. For years all we have had are pairs of skaters zooming around in lanes or the ridiculous short track stuff which always reminds me of one of those cosy British comedies of the 50s where a bunch of snotty kids are chased around the kitchen table by a fag-smoking woman wielding a broom. Perhaps this is a training regime which Elise Christie’s coach should consider before 2022.
Fresh from his stint at the Olympics, Kirby was back on more familiar ground for the final stage of the Tour of Abu Dhabi. Three inevitable sprint finishes (one nearly won by Marcel Kittel, who is slowly coming into form) had been followed by a 10km time trial around a building site – there were anxious moments when Tom Dumoulin was seen stopping at the roadside, rekindling unpleasant memories of his unscheduled pit stop in last year’s Giro, but it was thankfully only a mechanical problem. He suffered more problems in the final stage, culminating in a long slog of a climb to Jebel Hafeet, but he had already been dropped when the resurgent Alejandro Valverde overhauled Miguel Lopez to take the stage and the overall.
While the Tours of Dubai, Oman and Abu Dhabi provide some interesting moments, it is still hard to get away from the view that the season proper doesn’t start until the last weekend of February, with the first Belgian races, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Enough boring Middle-Eastern sunshine; bring on the mud, the bergs, and the cobbles. We want to see suffering. We want to see the best riders in the world grovelling their way up the Kwaremont and the Mur, their faces unrecognisable under layers of “Belgian toothpaste”. Except it didn’t work out that way. The sun shone all weekend. There was no mud. Give it time.
Some of cycling’s great races take place in spectacular surroundings – the iconic finishing circuit of the Tour in Paris, the epic grandeur of Mont Ventoux, the finish of next week’s Strade Bianche in Siena’s Piazza del Campo (or any race in Italy) – but the appeal of Belgian racing is different. It is the races that make the places famous. Most of southern Belgium is not an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are squat farmhouses, boring little towns and large steel barns which are probably facilities for turning the local farm animals into a variety of sausages. It is a bit like East Anglia, only hillier and with better beer and road surfaces (even allowing for the cobbles) and the Flemish speakers are probably easier to understand. Apart from the Paris-Nice, the Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-San Remo, Belgium is the focus of cycling’s attention for the next month (it is even possible to argue that the Paris-Roubaix is a Belgian race run in France) and many of the races include the same cobbled climbs and loop around the same towns. The name of the towns and the bergs – Geraardsbergen, Oudenaarde, Kwaremont, Koppenburg, Molenberg – summon up memories of great races and great riders, but, with modern television coverage, the whole landscape becomes almost as well known as the villages I pass through on my cycle rides here. It has been said that Dublin was so well-described by James Joyce that it would have been possible to recreate it from a reading of Ulysses and I am sure that I could find my way around Belgium, even though I have never been there, simply through having watched the races on TV for the past 20 years.
One landmark that I greeted like an old friend today was the Giant Toadstool of Tiegem, an otherwise nondescript village at the foot of the unexceptional Tiegemberg. For years one of the locals has had a giant toadstool in his garden. It’s huge, red with white spots. I don’t know what it’s made from, I don’t know what on earth possessed the man to have it in his front garden, and I haven’t got the slightest idea what his neighbours must think of it, but it will feature several more times this spring as other races wend their meandering way around the landscape. Welcome to Belgium.