pro cycling

Pro-cycling explained: the Valverde metaphor


Against my better judgement, I often find myself explaining pro-cycling to non-cycling fans.

You can’t fault me for effort.

Explaining the actual racing usually ends with a nonchalant “…but then you wouldn’t really understand” shrug. This is fine, and suits us cyclists perfectly. We like to maintain a small air of mystery.

Once we reach “…so, tell me again why Mark Cavendish can’t win the Tour de France” we’re done.

Call me a snob, but non-cyclists will just have to un-weave the complexity like the rest of us. If you can’t pick it up from my series of cryptic shrugs and grunts then maybe you just aren’t cut out for it.

But beyond the technicalities of rules, tactics and racing, are the grey areas. And the contradictions.

This is where it gets tricky.

The honour and the cheating. The modern and the archaic. The beauty and the horror. The way that you can emotionally attach yourself to a random rider, from a foreign team, who never wins any races, who pops up visibly on your TV screen four times a season, simply because you like his pedalling style.

That’s hard to explain.

But mostly, the problem is the cheating. The doping. The line, both moral and medical.

Its Pantani and Armstrong, Contador and Valverde, Millar and Basso. And dare we say that maybe, just maybe, the racing back in the days when they were all juiced was a better spectacle. Not in hindsight, but in the moment.

And when I talk about this stuff I start with “…of course the sport is cleaner than it’s ever been.”

Then I slowly back away from that position. And then I talk about Alejandro Valverde,  and I disappear down a rabbit hole of ambiguity.

He’s the hardest working cyclist in the world. He’s a contender in every race he rides. He’s got a certain style. He wins in the frozen sideways rain of a Belgian spring and the scorching blaze of a Spanish summer. He’s not in the very top echelon of riders but he’s not far off. And he never shirks a hard day on the bike.

But he has a doping past, which he won’t acknowledge properly. And he’s a wheel sucker. And he’s been known to shaft a teammate or a fellow countryman mid-race, in the manner of a cold business decision. And he looks like the bad guy in a western. And he’s a pantomime villain. And he just can’t be trusted.

Recently, I went a step further. I found myself trying to explain Alejandro Valverde to my six-year-old son.

This was a mistake.

Luckily, Twitter (in the shape of @red_end69) provided me with the perfect metaphor for Valverde, and for pro-cycling in general.

And that’s it.

It gives, it takes away, it thrills, it disgusts, it delights, it despairs, it makes you proud, then makes a mug of you.

It is what it is, and it might never change, and once you can live with that it’s all worth it.

(Image: tonan111 via

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