Pro-cycling, with its inherent European-ness, throws up all kinds of testing pronunciations for the average English speaker.
Southern Europe is straightforward, and we’ve largely got the hang of that. Names like Scarponi, Pirazzi, Cardoso, and Sabatini cause little problem; just relax into them, follow the letters, and add a spot of continental flourish if the mood takes you. Job done.
Head north, or east, however, and it can be a minefield of mispronunciation and poor spelling.
When I first started writing about cycling it took me a good couple of months to feel confident about Merckx. Not as a cyclist, of course; to question his status as a bike rider is to question your own relationship with reality. I’m talking about that strange and clunky ‘ckx’.
To an Englishman, it never seems right. No matter how sure you are that you’ve spelt it right there is always a nagging doubt. Admittedly, for your average Belgian it’s probably up there with cat, pot, and sit, among the first words in the Belgian edition of ‘How To Read: Level One’ at primary school.
De Vlaeminck is another one, with its squished together ‘ae’ and it’s pleasingly percussive ‘inck’ at the end. Again, a simple little story about the time Roger De Vlaeminck and Eddy Merckx made the ‘cat sit on the mat’ is probably a fundamental part of the Belgian national curriculum.
Since the 1980’s, as more and more English speakers have infiltrated the previously closed shop of pro-cycling we’ve had this pool of linguistics diluted by some bog-standard names, which lack the lyricism and spelling challenge of our Euro-neighbours.
Take Lance Armstrong. My main issue with Lance is still the sheer tedium of that surname when held up alongside his contemporaries; Pantani, Cipollini, Chiapucci, Virenque, Jalabert…Armstrong (snooze).
Maybe it’s because he shares a surname with the first man on the moon and so, through repetition, it’s become familiar to the point of apathy. It’s a leap of imagination (and geography) admittedly, but suppose he shared a surname with the first man in space instead: Yuri Gagarin.
I would struggle to find a bad word to say about a guy called Lance Gagarin.
It’s one thing for the sport to prioritise the fight against doping, mechanical fraud, and all those other weighty issues, but is it time for a restriction on English speaking pro-cyclists? In the good old days even the best ‘British’ cyclists had names like Max Sciandri and Charley Wegelius but in a pro-peloton awash with Thomas’, Boswell’s, and Clarke’s, surely the authorities need to take steps.
Maintaining a high ratio of Brambilla’s, Valverde’s, Hesjedal’s, Terpstra’s, and Fuglsang’s will help preserve both the integrity of the sport, and that intellectual rigour that all those weird spellings demand.
Who knows; perhaps as we speak there are descendants of Djamolidine Abdoujaparov training hard, and primed to bring some good old fashioned confusion back to the sport.