Have you ever shaken hands with a farmer?
Let me guess: Hands like buckets? Grip like a silverback gorilla? Your pathetic, non-farming fingers crushed like day-old breadsticks? There is no strength like that of a farmer. It’s elemental. Chiselled through generations, through bending the very earth to its will, and trained daily through the wrangling of cattle and the honest toil of shit and soil.
No surprise, perhaps, that pro cycling has a heritage of drawing tough riders from farming stock. Indurain, Hinault, Poulidor, to name but three. Pro cycling, like farming, requires a deep physical strength and the mental resolve to work hard, often unrewarded, for a far from guaranteed prize.
To work the farm, or the peloton, is surely not that different.
A shaved leg here, a dollop of chamois cream there, that’s all.
Arnaud De Lie, of Belgium and team Lotto Dstny, is the latest slab of farming stock to find himself unhooked from the milking machine and thrust out through a big iron gate and into the dazzling light as his country’s next big thing.
One look at those ruddy, carefree features, and the impression of a strong boy with a cavernous appetite for competition shows itself. Think the animal muscularity of Dutch superhero Mathieu Van Der Poel crossed with the taut, sinuous silhouette of Norwegian Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard.
In Belgium, of course, they’re all in.
The hype machine is cranked up and the column inches are flowing. The ‘next Eddy Merckx™’ has always been the standard epithet bestowed on a quick young starlet – Remco was the most recent, of course – but with De Lie we’re hearing different reference points.Embed from Getty Images
Not for them a Merckxian reincarnation or a Van der Poel/Vingegaard mash-up.
Picture, if you will, a cross between Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert. These are the hilariously lofty expectations on the shoulders of our young farmhand.
A comparison with one of the greatest Belgians ever to throw a leg across a bike is not enough, it seems. No, Arnaud, you are required to crush the cobbles of Roubaix and Flanders in the style of Mr Boonen and then, in your spare time, punch your way up every steep slope from the Ardennes to northern Italy, a la Gilbert, and continue doing this until you hit forty.
We will accept nothing less.
Imagine the equivalent in another sport. A Nadal-Federer cross breed competing across the tennis courts of Europe? The sperm of Christiano Ronaldo introduced to the eggs (weird thought, but go with me on this, pretty sure the science checks out) of Lionel Messi to produce a chisel-jawed, ego-driven footballer with the lank hair and little-boy-lost demeanour of the mystical Argentinian.
You get the picture.
There is a lot of expectation.
At time of writing, and with twelve pro wins to his name, including two stages at the early season Etoile de Besseges of 2023, some sage cycling wits are tipping him to win a debut monument at Milan San Remo in March.
Which would be quite the statement.
I just have one small concern.
As revealed on The Cycling Podcast, young Arnaud has a habit of naming his favourite cattle. Surely breaking rule one on the opening page of the Big Book o’ Farming? Last thing you want to do is create an emotional bond and transform them from hard financial asset into cute pet.
Is this cuddly approach to animal husbandry the so-far unnoticed weakness of De Lie?
The first sign of a soft underbelly?
We know that Thibaut Pinot, for example, farming small holder and part time cyclist, has goats called Kim and Quentine, a hen called Chanel, and a shed full of donkeys who, rumour has it, he cares for with an affection most of us would reserve for our own offspring. And while Pinot is exactly the kind of gifted yet flawed and deeply human sportsman that I love, he is not the cold, hard killer that De Lie is required to be.
I am very happy that this young Belgian owns cows called Simone, Waschalt, Sidolie and Noisette. Nothing could make me happier. But does that sound like the behaviour of a man about to deliver two decades of utter domination in the one-day classics?
(Top Image: Arnaud de Lie of Lotto Dstny via Wikimedia CC)
Weight of Belgian expectation
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