Where are the characters and personalities?

Bernard Hinault, a man with a big personality (or a personality disorder?)

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?

King of Self Publicity

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.

44 thoughts on “Where are the characters and personalities?”

  1. I suspect that one’s age and the tricks of memory assists in the creation of these image myths. I never saw them race but Eddie “The Cannibal” Merckx and Miguel “Big Mig” Indurain loom large in my memory as characters and champions. Armstrong, by contrast remains a cypher, a mystery, despite the fact that I saw almost all of his victories (on the boob-tube). There is no denying his achievements and I personally was in raptures watching the “Blue Train” ride with uncanny discipline and grace to blow away their TTT competition, but I cannot get excited about him as a bloke or a champion. Perhaps it is a combination of personality and achievement that creates legends of the sport? Voeckler is a case in point; to me he frequently parlays modest talent into quite exceptional achievements, but I cannot warm to him, at best he garners my grudging respect. Cadel “Cuddles” Evans is another for whom his character does not make him easy to warm to (despite the fact that he is a fellow Aussie). Perhaps your thesis is correct, that the modern champions appear to lack character because they suppress it in order to win. (Lastly yes “The Badger” was a strange, scary beast.)

  2. There were plenty of characters in the time I grew up watching them, form about 86. Hinault of course but Lemond, Fignon, Kelly were all larger than life characters. I thought Indurain was terribly boring but those that chose to take him on like Chiappucci were terrific. Voeckler I’d argue has way more than modest talent, one of the most consistent winners in the sport and top 10 in the tour is no fluke. Let’s also not mix up character and achievement – we remember compelling riding more than personalities. Boonen is a character, though he’s just been off this year; his rivalry with Cancellara is fantastic and compelling. We might not have liked him but Vino was also larger than life. I don’t think there’s a shortage of characters, we’re just too close to it all. If we think back we’re not remembering the Ronan Pensecs and a 100 other good but not memorable riders but the Jeff Bernard’s. Give our current crop another 10-15 years to filter through the sands of time and I’m sure we’ll remember some towering riders (pHil’s domination this year will be epic).

  3. No one has mentioned Mark Cavendish yet, flamboyant on and off the bike – have any of you seen any of his interviews around the Tour ?

    The other one that springs to mind is Jens Voigt. I still remember that interview of him where he explained how he’d crashed heavily at the Tour and had to use a kid’s bike to finish the stage!

  4. Nico: I love Jens Voight! (well, I like him a lot). But he is not a front rank champion. If you include him you must include his mate Stuey O’Grady, another legendary character, but not a Grand Tour winner.

  5. I agree but must add also medias changed and now if you are not a little ‘shy’ or reserved you find yourself 24/24 in an invasive spot light: no internet in old good times and even no tv when Il Diavolo Rosso (Gerbi) became a legend, just to throw there a name… Finally: cyclists are different people now and a 24 yo in 2011 isn’t a 24 yo in 1920 or 50: the most of them are still ‘kids’ – no offences intended. At that time at 24 you were probably a dad and already worked hard – not only as a racer. Character is also ‘nature’: Ocana, Indurain too weren’t like Cipollini. 😀

  6. Have to agree with Nico that Cav is THE one to follow – on and off the bike – these days. He’s not of the Cipollini calibre, but his tweets are always worth reading.

    More generally, I figured that Twitter would be the perfect vehicle for the extroverted members of the pro peloton to strut their stuff. Yet the tweets from pro cyclists that I read tend be rather hum-drum, with a few notable exceptions – Cav & Jens for example, and Greg Henderson is also quite funny.

    Great photo of Hinault by the way. I would have loved to have seen him riding – from all reports he rode like he was the angriest man in the world!

  7. I reckon the media arent reporting such circuses as much anymore.
    You just need to take a look at Matty Lloyd. The guy is a clown. A damned entertaining one at that too. I wonder how many times he just starts singing in the peleton for no reason or talking about how good he is at his wrestling moves after the race.
    However this is hard to find reported anywhere.

  8. I would add Pantani to the list of characters. ‘Il Pirata’ didn’t just seem to be an expty nickname (like Pistolero), but rang true with his mannerisms, dress, attitude, etc.

    Fans/press will always be drawn to those with character, but perhaps as you say, those kind of personalities don’t fit into the day-to-day life of a cyclist driven to win.

    Cav comes across much better on Twitter than in interview. I usually cringe when he’s talking on-screen. He doesn’t seem to be able to get the mix right for me. I preferred him prickly, petulant and dismissive to this new media-friendly mix.

  9. I have seen that photo of Hinault any number of times. I believe the route was blocked by a strike (these and road blocks by french farmers were frequent in the 70s and 80s). Hinault took the forced stop as a slight on the race and the sport and took out his frustration with his fists.

    Perhaps today’s riders live in a different atmosphere or join a community that isn’t quite like the old days, where personalities are not on show for journalists to ‘wax lyrical’ about as they used to be. Are they advised not to say anything inappropriate to avoid offending sponsors? Cavendish is certainly one exception, and while sometimes controversial, he’s a fascinating character and someone who is hugely passionate about his job. Actors, personalities and showmen are good for sport, even when they appear to let their ego take over; it’s all part of the story.

  10. One of my favorite things about Mario was when he deliberately wore kit that was (at the time) not legal by UCI standards and then publicly stated his willingness to pay the fines so he could “look good”. It occurs to me that RadioShack did the same thing at the end of the 2009 Tour, but I didn’t find that nearly as entertaining. I think the problem was that Lance & company always took things so seriously. As you point out, it is a job, but at the same time, it’s riding a bike for a job! I always appreciate the riders who seem to take joy in that fact, even though it certainly is a tough job. I would say Jens Voigt definitely fits in that category.

  11. Do you think Mario and Ochocinco follow each other on twitter?
    My current favorites are ‘Tenacious V” and “Sniffy Tom”. Maybe I’m listening to too much Scottish podcasting.

  12. Part of the problem for me is that I watch a lot of cycling on Eurosport and whilst I find the commentary excellent and the race coverage good there are few if any interviews on the highlights programmes meaning that you never get to see the personal side of the riders. ITV is a bit better in this respect but you have to suffer shorter coverage and more adverts so you can see the major incidents but don’t really have a feel for the race / stage.
    I like Cav – some people find him obnoxious – but I like his passion and emotion. I wish Wiggins was more of a charachter but sense he likes his privacy. Cancellara always seems to come across as someone with a sense of humour. I believe his tweets are sometimes amusing?
    There is a trend towards the sanitising of professional sport. The demands on the modern day sportsman leave less time for horse-play than for those of previous generations.

  13. in today’s world of social media, the balance in the media has switched from glorifying the good to blowing the bad completely out of proportion. No matter what one says, there is always a splinter group out there who takes offense and calls for your head. Cycling has a habit of eating its own anyway, and it is probably safer for most riders to fit in with the crowd as much as possible to avoid being singled out.

    Having said that, Voight, Cavendish, and Zabriskie do stand out for their willingness to be who they are, and not worry about it. More power to ’em!

  14. I find Armstrong to be an intriguing character. He built this heroic narrative around his beating cancer and going on to win the Tour and all of that. It is a great fairy tale story and captured the imagination of so many people. What was interesting was the contrast between his uplifting and somewhat sappy Livestrong message and the fact that the guy was a stone cold killer on the bike. He would absolutely rip people’s legs off in a primal show of strength and will and then give the most bland press conference imaginable afterwards as if to trying to hide just how ferocious of a competitor he really was.

  15. Zabriskie for sure: love his outtake from Beyond the Peloton:

    Anyone recall his Guns & Roses tribute prior to stage 16 during the ’09 Giro? Might not have been dressed up like Cipo but definitely not worrying what the traditional establishment might say.

    Or, the 2008 Paris-Tours when he showed up in TT skinsuit and bridged solo up to the break?

    On the lighter side of the cast of cycling characters for sure, but he’s good for a laugh and no slouch in the TT either.

  16. Seriously? Riders are not allowed anymore to freely express their mind, how do you suppose we will see some personality? Man, the interviews have been getting more boring over the past few years, there is really no excitement to them anymore. The young guys are especially annoying and directors are worse. Cav is and always will be the exception however he is roped in every now and then which is entertaining in itself. I’m sure Wiggins listens to Armstrong interviews on his ipod regularly, he is starting to sound like him.

  17. @TotheBillyoh

    Jens might not be a Grand Tour winner, but his larger than life personality makes him the equal to any other “character” in modern cycling. Stuart O’Grady is a phenomenal cyclist, but he’s no Jens; not by a long shot.

  18. Generally speaking, tough conditions tend to build character, and the riders of yesteryear grew up in tougher conditions than most riders in todays Western world! Consider how over the ast few decades there has been a significant growth in the developmetn and use of sport science, and how this runs the risk of reducing everything to numbers. How about a scientific test to determine a riders passion for the bike, on a scale from 1 – 10, and how this compares to riders from 10, 20 or 50 yrs ago!!! Jens & O’ Grady m

  19. LAST POST ‘ENTERED’ 2 SOON: Generally speaking, tough conditions tend to build character, and the riders of yesteryear grew up in tougher conditions than most riders in todays Western world! Consider how over the past few decades there has been a significant growth in the development and use of sport science, and how this runs the risk of reducing everything to numbers. How about a scientific test to determine a riders passion for the bike, on a scale from 1 – 10, and how this compares to riders from 10, 20 or 50 yrs ago!!! Jens & O’ Grady may not have great wins to their names, but from what other riders say, and from what I have seen in interviews and docu’s, they have tons of passion for their sport, and after all their yrs in the peloton have not lost that sparkle!

    I grew up in South Africa, partly during the Apartheid yrs, in what was mostly a macho ‘bushwacker’ culture, with Rugby as our national religion! That environment shaped us into tough cookies! I have more than once faced death in the face as someone with a gun pointed at me ,unkindly requesting my car, and instead of crying/wetting myself/begging for my life I angrily told them to fuck off! Coming back to Europe at the age of 29 I was shocked to see how many Europeans of the same age range still tend to ‘hang’ onto their parents, and how their tough guy act is simply just that – an act!

    Recently a Belgian cycling coach referred to young up-and-coming riders as too weak and lacking in character!!!

    Personally, I am not content to just watch the ‘hard men of cycling’ tearing up the roads in the Classics, but feel the need to get out there on my flying machine and add some ‘tearing’ to the same roads, albeit without the roadside crowds, laughing to myself at the thought of van Lerberghe in the Tour of Flanders (1919) when he stopped at a cafe a few km’s before the finish for a few beers, rode to the finish and shouted to the crowd telling them to go home as the “rest of the peloton are still a half day away”!!! Or the recent Belgian tv show Pedaalridders (pedal knights) about a group of sunday riders who are coached to race each other up Mt Ventoux, and how during a training ride over sections of Paris-Roubaix one rider, Cedric, lost his saddle, but chose to ride out the last 35 km of cobbles standing in the pedals!!!

    So, yeah, there are still some people out there who do have plenty of character, and while others refer to them as mad, I celebrate them!!!

  20. I think what the sport has lost in recent years is panache. My favourite, Pantani, had it in tonnes. Especially when he would throw away his bandana, which was the signal he was about to attack, and brutally accelerate up a mountain. I know Contador, Evans, Basso and Schleck are great climbers but they just don’t have panache. When they attack it’s all very clinical, but watching Pantani attack sent chills down your spine. And I’m sure Contador’s nickname, “Il Pistolero” was created by some market research company hired by his management. Pantani was unpredictable and his style was so unique. I know he was up to his eyeballs in EPO (but so was everyone else during that period), and in the end was a very tragic figure, but he really provided good old fashioned entertainment when he was in his prime.

  21. Ted King of Liquigas is a good example of a fairly invisible domestique that has done a great job promoting himself via the internet. With his website and twitter he has raised his value as a rider and maybe even making the difference between being on a protour team or not?

  22. @jass

    “Only the highest two ranks automatically cause an individual to become a knight or dame, an honour allowing the recipient to use the title “Sir” (male) or “Dame” (female) before their first name (though men can be knighted separately from this and other Orders of Chivalry).”

    And those two higher ranks are:
    – Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (GBE) or Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (GBE)[3]
    – Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) or Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE)

    (source: Wikipedia)

  23. Pretty fascinating. I agree with Zabriskie as one of the great contemporary characters — have you all seen his singing at the 2012 Team Garmin presentation? Here’s a video I took, my apologies for the shameless self-promotion. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztDWZiAAgC4&feature=channel_video_title
    Then there is Sam Johnson, on Team Exergy. His Krogg alter-ego never fails at providing a good laugh. Here’s Sam’s blog: http://gliderbison.blogspot.com/
    Christian Vande Velde shoots some of the best quotes in cycling.
    Danny Summerhill’s wheelie during the Tour of Utah was great self-expression.

    But all that said, it’s interesting to read that folks find recent interviews boring. What would you like to hear from pro-cyclists?

  24. Stepping fully into the role of FAN of professional cycling, I admit to finding Vino to be a wonderfully-entertaining rider who possesses a compelling mix of qualities as a sporting personality (insert your doping-related snark here). I think it’s his very nature as an ex-Soviet living a rich lifestyle but with a family on the Cote d’Azur, racing the bike, fighting political battles in his team (and seemingly coming out on top), now running for office, etc that makes him such a personality. He’s not flamboyant like Cipo’ or brash like Cav’ or an icey-assassin like Armstrong, but he is a unique character whose riding is full of panache and emotion and cunning – even if he might seem quiet off-the-bike. He’s like a cycling Vladimir Putin! (lol yeah right…)

  25. I’d love to see someone like Heino reach general notoriety in Australia. He’s talented, good looking, funny and down to earth. Its a pity that the Tour is the only bike race known to 99% of Australians because he has the likeability to be more than just another cyclist. The same can be said for quite a lot of classics riders that generally seem to appear ‘cooler’ than the super scientific, super disciplined GC riders (eg. Cancellara, Boonen, Pozzato, Gilbert).

  26. Thor, the God of Thunder….goodness gracious. I had to leave the room in sympathetic embarassment when Cervelo was presented prior to the 2011 TdF. I like Thor, he rides well, seems like a nice guy and knows how much a bottle of milk weighs, but that presentation was a classic example of a media / PR company forcing a rider (and many fans) into an uncomfortable situation. Trying to “force” personality and branding onto a rider. Please may that never happen again. Please.

  27. Can I say how much I am enjoying reading all the comments on this topic? I am learning heaps from the different points of view. I am much enamoured of the comments that suggest that in the “old days” the printed newspapers were free to make up romanticised views of participants. Similarly since LeMond or maybe even Indurain, riders realised that TDF success came from dosing ones efforts smartly, the antithesis to legend-building rides. Combine the 24-7 glare of the cameras with the “scientific method” and you have relatively boring rides and riders, yes, including Lance.

  28. ‘Once you get to 40 you realise you have met every kind of person there is’.

    This is a great piece.
    Most of these guys in the pro peloton are just kids, even at 30 when you have lived a sheltered existence as a professional athlete you are still just a kid really, with a talent you work at.
    Back in the seventies people used to believe in music too, look where that ended up. See if you can find someone who really believes in what they listen to now, see if you can find someone who believes in what they are singing.
    We’ve made it harder on ourselves by being so invasive into the lives and process of what happens that there is no mystery anymore. The enchanting French girl we saw across a bar one night is now picking up the laundry in the bedroom in ‘comfortable’ pants while shouting at the kids.
    We turned inside out what mystery there was and now its hard to see much more than a bunch of blokes on bikes.
    If you look up any of Herbie Sykes work, where he interviews riders when they have become men, many years later – then you will find some good stuff, because the guys tell tales, they embellish, they create a fiction, and fiction and suggestion is often much better than the truth.

  29. @PJ
    Yeah, I thought it looked like Phil Anderson too!

    If you look closely, It looks like one of the protesters is grabing what I think is Phil Anderson’s arm, and juging by his facial expression he looks like he’s about to try to pull his way out all while Hinault comes to his rescue by, you know, pushing the protester in the face.

    Maybe the protester, if he reads Inrng, could tell us his side of the story? That would be interesting!

  30. @ TotheBillyoh – Miguel Indurain larger than life, a character!?
    Large? Yes, Alive? Yes. Interesting? No!
    Without doubt he was the dominant rider of his time but the one thing I remember about him is that he was very VERY quiet and reserved, he makes “Cuddles” look like a party animal.

  31. I completely agree w/ the post. I occasionally find myself thumbing through old Cycle Sport magazines to reminisce upon the ‘Rare Groove’ series they used to do.

    I can’t imagine there are any less than there were in the 1970’s-2000’s – Zabriskie is certainly one, seems Matt Lloyd might be another… I’d love to hear more about them…

    Maybe we just start w/ more of a focus as fan’s on creating nicknames? I’m even OK w/ racers making nicknames for themselves (cough, Italians, cough). It’s a start…

  32. I suspect many of the outsize characters in recent years have been a result of doping…..Pantani was a prime example, as was Bjarne’s ride in the TdF caught on video riding up and down the leading group of climbers before taking off, Ricco’s magnificent rides, the Mapei 1-2-3 in a classic, the list goes on.

Comments are closed.