Psychogeography is a concept designed to let people explore places with a new look on things, to view the land and environment afresh. There are books on the subject but no rules, it is up to you to mix landscapes with what’s on your mind. Writer Will Self said it can be described as

the study of how geography, or a particular place on Earth, affects the behaviour and emotional climate of the humans who live there

It’s apparent in cycling. Through the year we learn of places across Europe and beyond and form associations in our mind thanks to races, training camps and more. Some of this is deliberate. Marketing executives of corporate-owned ski resorts high in the Alps want to reach you to say they are open for business all year round. Some is by accident. Paris-Nice has to finish in the right place, so you hear about Nice.

It creates a new mind map of Europe. Flanders is a land of muddy fields and brick houses where the wind always blows sideways, no matter what direction a race takes. The fields of France contain rural artwork of stacked hay bales for the benefit of passing air traffic. The mountain passes of the Pyrenees are lined by people in orange t-shirts.

Towns and cities take on new meanings. Many French citizens know Bordeaux for its elegant architecture. The vineyards are world famous. But keen followers of the Tour de France might say “sprinters’ finish” instead. Roubaix is a place for the hardmen, on and off the bike. Your ears might prick up at the mention of this town and cyclists think of a tough race across cobbles and the velodrome that awaits. A town that flourished thanks to weaving, mines and railways, such industry has gone, leaving unemployment and what the French euphemistically call “social problems”.

Villages become capital cities. Ravascletto and its ski slopes could mean nothing, even to most skiers. It is a commune of about 600 people. But it sits in the shadow of Mount Zoncolan. The dead end road towards its upper slopes is a winding path to glory, fame and wealth for a professional cyclist, a theatre of gladiatorial proportions for television fans and a sadistic pilgrimage for amateurs. Even so Zoncolan is no Everest, it is a modest peak in the Carnic Alps that tops at 1,750 metres, almost a kilometre lower than nearby Monte Peralba. It is not the mountain but the road that is steep.

Other places have their meanings. Perhaps Balen rhymes with Boonen. Have you ever heard of Fuenlabrada, do you know the suburbs of Madrid? Probably not, but you might know of Pinto because it’s the home of Contador. Go back in time and riders borrowed from their home town. Federico Bahamontes was “the Eagle of Toledo”. Rik Van Looy was the “Emperor of Herentals” even if there’s not much to be imperial about in Herentals, a modest town.

As well as places we see Europe through the prism of the seasons. In Flanders fields are forever brown because of early spring rain and the leaves have yet to burst from their buds. We know the Alps for their green pastures and mountain passes, most people probably think of snow and rocky peaks. In more simple form, April means Belgium. July = France.

Follow the sport for long enough and you’ll build up a map of Europe in your mind, associating places via their races. We learn the terrain of countries and their regions just by TV footage and race profiles. Even if you have never visited a country you might have hundreds of ideas about it thanks to its races. But is it the same as reality?

23 thoughts on “Psychogeography”

  1. Great stuff, the ability of cycling to create legends of it cyclists and races I feel is one of its unique properties that other sports might have had but have lost (football, cricket and motor sport come to mind).

  2. Wonderful lateral view on cycling, thoroughly brilliant read with my espresso.

    I used to travel Europe alot as a musician and visited towns and cities with a strong cycling history. Sadly, I never had the time or the chance to do any cycling in those days and invariably I’d pass local Sunday club runs on my way for an early flight from the airport. Now that the music is second to the cycling I wish I could go back to all those places as a cyclist, but unfortunately no-one is going to pay for me to come to their town to ride like they did for the music!

  3. What a unique way to look at the sport. As I read, I could picture each image you mentioned from having seen it on TV. It was like geograTV. Great read!

  4. Great read again Inrng

    Similarly, cycling fans with limited UK knowledge will probably be a lot more aware of the Isle of Man now than they were a few years ago.

  5. Brilliant post, my France exists in places such as Luz St Saveur, Argeles Gazost, Bedoin, St Marie de Campan, St Michel Du Maurienne, Valloire………not the tops but the little towns and villages that you pass through on the way to the tops. My wife always complains that our touristy type spots are not the big cities, I’d never ever thought that it was that obvious

  6. Good reading. Any chance you could expand on this and put more places we know from the sport in their real context. Like what goes on in Pau, Sanremo and Liege.

  7. Indeed – what Daniel says. Maybe something for next spring – little stories about Liege, Sanremo, Roubaix, the small town that hosts (hosted?) the end of Flanders (Whatsitsname…), Wevelgem, Tours, Kerne and so on. We (rightly!) consider them to be places of pilgrimage but actually know very little of them.

    So, what does happen in these places the other 51 weeks of the year?

  8. I’ll say that any fan of cycling in the past 15 years should at least recognize Fuenlabrada, as the city/township has been an active sponsor of pro cycling. Relax-GAM-Fuenlabrada was the most recent I believe.

    Sometimes the iconic images of a certain region are pretty accurate in its portrayal. For example, I saw a Vuelta stage in 2007 finishing in Avila. The city’s medieval walls were etched in my mind before going there, from seeing images over the years of stages finishing there. The city looked ancient and the terrain around it looked parched and rugged. Lo and behold, we arrived and the city was old, the terrain was rugged and dry. Obviously there was much more to Avila than I had conceived before going there, but to be honest the images from bike racing over the years had prepared me quite well for what I was about to see.

  9. Sometimes this works in reverse, places we know becoming altered in our minds, as an example, a favourite Costa Brava holiday coastal road for a bike ride, becoming part of an epic David Miller TDF ride, so next time (fingers crossed) I ride there, my thoughts during the ride will be of Millers ride as well as mine own.

  10. On the other hand I find it kinda sad to think that my awareness of such places is solely related to cycling! Kinda justifies my wife’s comment that I am a little obssessed with cycling! Why can’t I be a ‘normal’ person and enjoy the places for their conventional tourist value other than cycling-related?!

    Maybe because I am not a normal person! What kind of normal person delights in hurtling down a descent on a light carbon framework, connected to the surface by two 23mm rubber circular bits at speeds that would make my mothers heart jump into her throat!!! Or spending hours in cold, rain & 50-70km winds, just to get ‘a few km’s in the legs’! Not normal!

    I’m not obssessed with road cycling, just dedicated to maintaining good taste!!!! Couldn’t give a butt-sucking-monkeys earwax what wine comes from the region, so long as I can flatten it’s roads!!!!!!

    Thanks for another thought-provoking, heart-poking article!

  11. Interesting, and true.
    In 2007, I rode from Gent to Deinze – to see the start – and further to Wevelgem – to see the finish of that year’s race (in more or less a straight line, without the North Sea and Kemmel detours, mind you).
    To this day I’m not sure whether I crossed the Nokereberg or not. Without a GPS device and with only a basic map I may have, but I can’t be sure. I guess Nokere isn’t much on 364 days of the year.
    And even on race day, Wevelgem (what I saw of it) wasn’t much more than one straight road through the town, with mostly residential housing at both sides.
    Yet both places carry sentimental, possibly even mythological, value for cyclists.

    And when I’m (rarely enough) on a hill or other well-known feature from a bike race, however small that race may be, I’m far more motivated than on any other hill that otherwise has the exact same measures. Climbing the Oude Kwaremont or Côte de Wanne feels more rewarding than climbing Hallandsåsen – even though the latter is actually the tougher climb…

  12. On a recent trip to Europe I focused on going to places only associated with big cycling races, thus I created my own map of Europe through cycling.

    One of your finest pieces Inrng! Top stuff!

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