Popularity: the peloton vs. the public

A rider fell down, a hero got up

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.

Monsieur Poker Face

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.

Poo-poohing Pou-Pou
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.

25 thoughts on “Popularity: the peloton vs. the public”

  1. Or Johnny Hoogerland might have a bigger name for himself by racing in July when the crash did not happen. I think for him the polka jersey is lost now and that was his real goal.

    And I don’t think you can compare Voeckler en Hoogerland. I have never heard a rider “complaining” about Hoogerland, while Voeckler is often the centre of the slander of the peloton.

  2. We need characters in the peloton. Thomas will be lucky to hold on to yellow tomorrow. If he does it will be because he has been secretly training to become a competitive climber & will surprise everyone in the Alps or the real contenders do not want it just yet.

  3. OK, so a few more people might know Johnny Hoogerland’s name now, but the way you’ve written your sentence suggest that he contrived to go head over heels into a barbed wire fence in order to enhance his value. I suggest that’s nonsense.

  4. John Bidon: I’ve heard complaints about Hoogerland, but they’re mild. Some appreciate his energy, some don’t.

    LeonG: yes, and a rider who can create a character can become popular… and valuable too.

    HGJohn: yes, that’s nonsense! One point was that random events can conspire to make a rider popular, whether Eugene Christophe and his broken forks or Hoogerland’s freak crash. But you have to be in contention at the same time.

  5. Johnny Hoogerland didn’t need the car incident to become famous for the cycling fans; he was famous already between us. Maybe he has become famous for “July’s cycling fans”.

    About Voeckler and Hoogerland, I agree with the riders in Voeckler’s case: he’s more a showman than a cyclist and sometimes can be annoying but I prefer a thousand Voecklers than a million of bunch riders whom don’t do anything. About the case of Hoogerland I can’t respect the opinion of the others, I just can say them “Catch him if you can”; I also prefer 1000 offensive riders as Hoogerland than a defensive rider with good results.

    Today is a good day to defend the riders as Hoogerland or Voeckler: riders as Arroyo, Zubeldia, Paulinho, Karpets, Coppel had today a good chance to show something of their skills and they didn’t try. I prefer a crazy Hoogerland attacking 2kms for 1 point of the polka jersey than riders whom defend a top-20 keeping into the bunch.

  6. Dany: yes, I mean the wider public. The average cycling fan does not read cycling blogs and news sites, they just tune in during July. Millions watch the Tour, far more than other races.

  7. Luis Leon Sanchez is another of rider who has an Actor’s Guild card. For the past three years on almost the exact same stage number, he’s gone away with a small group of riders. He starts skipping pulls, hanging his head and shaking his head and the commentators believe he’s done for the day. Then, on the finishing straight, he sprints to take the win with all the energy he’s saved. After three years I’m starting to believe Paul, Phil, and the rest of the commentators remember his game but talk up the acting for the fans watching at home, but I’m not fooled anymore!

  8. I’m generally willing to take the peloton’s verdict about certain riders; they know a lot more about it than most of us. I am still learning how to watch these races with a more sophistocated understanding of all that is going on. But last year, even I could figure out what the real deal was with Thomas Voeckler. All that panache gets the ratings up and thrills the French viewers, but I don’t admire him AT ALL. He seems like a damned good rider-he probably doesn’t even need to do all that stuff.

  9. This is why I enjoy this blog – I had no idea about the way Hoogie and Little Tommy were perceived in the peloton and as for Raymond, wow! Next you’ll be telling me that injured riders *don’t* queue up for Jens Voigt to heal them with a single touch. 😉

    For most fans, the likes of Tommy and Hoog are big favourites, precisely because they don’t sit back and play the percentages.

    Keep the good stuff coming!

  10. I used to really admire vockler but what really annoyed me is how he attacks straight after the France2/3 car took out Flecha and Hoogerland. I know its all racing but even if he didnt see the car hitting flecha he must have heard it as he nearly got knocked off himself. At the very least waiting to see if Flecha or Hoogerland werent seriously injured/ able to get back on would have been the sporting thing to do. Though a protest of were not racing today as this is too dangerous would have been the bravest thing to do.

  11. I don’t remember any cyclists waiting around to see if Wouter was OK. What exactly is Voeckler supposed to do when Flecha gets hit by a car? Just stand around and ask him if he’s all right? That accomplishes nothing at all. Flecha wasn’t going to be able to ride a break after crashing like that and there were obviously officials around to deal with Hoogerland and Flecha.

  12. why is everybody glossing over and/or ignoring hoogerland’s positive testosterone test at 18… yes he’s brave for riding on, and he has some panache, but he’s a convicted doper with the nickname johnny testeroney and he gets tested massively because of his odd blood values but just hasn’t been caught yet… it sucks but the information is out there (sucks even more because he’s actually interesting to watch unlike most)

  13. Thanks for another very interesting article.

    Reading it (late) made me think about Contador’s performance on stage 12, so my question is: Is Contador becoming an actor or was it a real bad day ??? … That is the question indeed…

    Anyway, I sent him a postcard through Dynapost… maybe that’ll give him some more energy.

  14. @ Simma, you were a fully mature adult capable of making well informed life choices at 18, were you? I hope that kids who get caught doping are showed the error of their ways, receive the appropriate sanction and then given a second chance. I have confidence in the blood passport.

  15. ‘Whisper it, Johnny Hoogerland’s might have made a bigger name for himself thanks to the crash than by racing this July’.

    I think he has made a name for himself at this tour not because of the fact he crashed but in the way he conducted himself in front of the media afterwards and the fact he is still riding with 30 odd stitches. Plus the pics of his bum helped too.

  16. van Loenen: yes, as I wrote above “Whether these moments create or reveal the star that the public adores is perhaps something for another day” but he couldn’t display the courage and conduct himself in the media like that without the crash. Not that he’ll be happy with things, he’ll be wondering what could have been for the stage win and holding the mountains jersey for longer.

  17. Agreed Inner Ring – I have always enjoyed the characters in the peloton. In fact, if they were all anonymous I wouldn’t bother to watch.

  18. Poulidor was the main reason Eddy Merckx won the World Championship in Montreal in 1974. I was a boy and I could not understand why Poulidor helped Merckx to come back on Mariano Martinez. Not popular indeed. I also remember that Merckx came with 8 bikes for the race and that he rode back to his hotel (60K) after the podium…

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