Imagine the scene: it’s hard stage with several climbs and you’ve made the breakaway. There are strong riders with you and the gap to the bunch is steady. Watching each rider take their turn you’ve kept some energy in reserve and suspect the others have too and with some luck you might be able to hold off the chasing bunch. You’re 70km from the finish. Then – BAM! – suddenly one of the riders attacks, going clear in a solo bid. It’s surely futile but his attack disrupts your group, instead of a harmonious group of seven, there’s now one up the road and two trying to get across and four of you left cursing the madman. The breakaway is blown to pieces and in time everyone is caught, including the attacker who cramps up.
Alternatively imagine the move keeps going but with about 30km to go one of the riders starts missing his turn. The gap is coming down and now’s not the time to play poker. Yet this rider is wincing, his face a picture of agony as he takes a pull but oddly his pedalling is as smooth as ever. 20km to go and several are now aware of this Oscar-winning performance as the grimacing rider is taking ever shorter turns. 10km to go and the breakaway has a slender lead but its possible. With 6km to go the final hill of the day and as you crest the top – KAPOW! – the actor/rider takes off and solos to the win as the rest of you are caught with 2km to go.
That’s racing, no? But the first example is a Johnny Hoogerland move and the second is pure Thomas Voeckler. The disruptive riding and the energetic attacking might make for exciting viewing but many in the peloton resent it and the likes of Hoogerland and Voeckler are not universally popular in the bunch to put it mildly.
Hoogerland’s past means some have been wary of him but that’s a long time ago and his status with some is more down to the way he might blow a breakaway apart. Dynamiting the race is good viewing for those at home but on the road it takes a lot of effort to get into a breakaway. A strong rider, the Dutchman can be both an asset and a liability to an escape move.
Similarly some Spanish riders call Voeckler “Hollywood” because he does so much acting in the final of a race; Sky’s Juan-Antonio Flecha criticised Voeckler a bit the other day, saying he “sows chaos”. These are just two high profile examples who are obvious at the moment. But what makes for exciting racing, the swashbuckling rider who throws down more gauntlets than waterbottles, is just the sort of guy you don’t want to find in a move with you.
It’s not new. Probably the most popular ever in France is Raymond Poulidor, adored for his simple ways and nicknamed “the eternal second” he benefitted from a big underdog status. But in reality he won many races, only the public didn’t watch the Tour of Spain, the Dauphiné or Milan-San Remo as closely as the Tour de France. Here’s Dutch writer Benjo Maso in “The Sweat of Gods”:
Poulidor stood out by being stingy… he had a reputation of being a man who always sought to profit from the labour of others and who complained to the press about the most trivial matters. The latter was especially held against him, because it was a breach of the peloton’s oath of secrecy.
In Paris-Nice in 1966 the other riders decided to teach him a lesson. At the start of the last stage Poulidor was first overall. He seemed to have victory in his pocket, except that almost the entire peloton, including part of his own team, turned against him and gave Anquetil room to take a big enough lead to win the race… … Poulidor’s growing unpopularity among the riders also cost him the Tour de France that year.
All the same Poulidor’s bad reputation among riders did nothing to diminish his popularity with the public. Of course many sportswriters were well aware of the real state of affairs, but they too knew that the Poulidor legend was too beautiful to attack.
Again, this is just one example of a rider who is wildly popular in public but much less so in the bunch. But don’t see this as a black and white thing of heroes and villains, nor a matter of hatred. Far from it, some riders might be cautious of certain riders but that’s it, it’s more caution rather than hate.
But that said, like any large group there are some who stand out. For an example look no further than Riccardo Riccò. The Italian has gone from scandal to scandal but worse, he’s annoyed a lot of riders because of a “lack of respect” but all whilst keeping a substantial fan base. That said he also has many detractors.
Fans can acclaim some riders but inside the bunch these riders are not always so popular. Voeckler and Hoogerland are current examples but there are many more. Their might be some jealousy but there can be more reasonable factors, that “exciting” riders often frustrate the work of others. For many years the public has long saluted the bold riders and celebrated “moral winners” ahead of those who win in a more calculating manner.
Racing isn’t a popularity contest but the sport gives rise to moments where a rider can get catapulted into stardom. Whisper it, Johnny Hoogerland’s might have made a bigger name for himself thanks to the crash than by racing this July.
Whether these moments create or reveal the star that the public adores is perhaps something for another day but sport is entertainment and a little bit of theatre can go a long way.