Read up on the history of the sport and larger than life characters appear. You don’t just have names, you have nicknames. The “Cannibal”, the “Eagle of Toledo”, the “Butcher of Sens“. Bernard Hinault scared, Mario Cipollini wowed. Nowadays pro cycling just doesn’t seem to have these references and personalities. Today the “The Butcher of Irun” is the man who supposedly supplied contaminated meat to Alberto Contador, not a charismatic racer.
Today’s riders still have nicknames. Contador himself is El Pistolero (“the gunman”) but Contador is Spanish for accountant and the Spaniard’s polite personality is more like that of a bookkeeper than a Clint Eastwood cowboy.
The past was a different place. When one rider dropped another on a mountain pass it was probably just because the better rider just had a marginally superior power to weight ratio. But back in the day journalists had creative licence, after all there was nobody standing on the side of a mountain pass and no TV cameras to report the event. So our “eagle” soars amongst the high peaks of the Pyrenees and our butcher cleaves through the air and makes mincemeat of his rivals. Had TV existed back then it would have reported on many illiterate riders who were out of their heads on stimulants. The reality was probably less enticing than the legend.
Still, I can’t help wonder if a touch of artifice could go a long way. I’ve written before how Mario Cipollini played up his image, that he worked as hard as the next rider in training too. A top sprinter, Cipollini became a lot more than this, a personality and a media phenomenon. If a rider wanted, perhaps a few stunts here and a few quotes there and they could go from top rider to celebrity, boosting their income in the process substantially?
Of course many don’t want this. It’s hard enough finishing a bike race and after a long day putting on some theatre in a press conference isn’t just artificial, it’s tiresome. I suspect many just want respect for the job they are doing without having to clown around in a toga.
Gimmicks aside, teams exist to publicise their sponsors and when the cycling media is pretty quite over winter I’m surprised we’ve not heard more interviews with some riders who are knocking of the door. We all know who Contador is and Evans has given plenty of interviews. But don’t forget Damiano Cunego finished seventh in the 2011 Tour, we’ve not seen much of him. Or what about Pierre Rolland and his plans for 2012? It’s not just about playing the star, some big names don’t really seem to grab media attention.
It’s a tricky game balancing publicity and celebrity with sporting success and personal achievement. These days it seems Mark Cavendish’s and Cadel Evans’s names ring out well beyond the sport and it can’t be easy when everyone wants five minutes of your time. In days of old the sport created its characters and I wonder if the media would play this game today. Cipollini’s case suggests that if a rider gives good quotes and plays to the camera then there is still a role for this.
Most would settle just to be born with the DNA to win races, expecting riders to have wit and charisma after a six hour race is pushing it. A few riders do manage this but the relentless training and ensuing fatigue doesn’t allow for much self-expression.
The sport seems to have had larger than life characters in the past but I wonder if these were inventions and exaggerations from the media? Still, it does seem some riders and teams are almost publicity-shy over the winter months.