How did you spend lockdown Saturday? For me it was a glorious 184 kilometres crossing the Crete Sinesi on the dusty off-roads of the Tuscan province of Siena. Of course I wasn’t actually there, it was the spectacular Strade Bianche – Italian for ‘White Road’ – another season-opener of the cycling calendar brought to my sofa by Eurosport and one of the most glamorous with eleven off-road sections where the dust flies and only the best survive.
The riders wound through stunning Tuscan scenery all day as they darted out and back to Siena with a tight pack of the world’s elite steadily breaking away. The cream rose as the race came to a thunderous climax on the narrow, unreal gradient of the roughly-paved Via Santa Caterina, an artery into the heart of the medieval city of Siena leading to the finish at the stunning, yet deserted, Piazza del Campo. Mathew van der Poel, the Dutch genius who is set for great things in the road cycling discipline having previously been world champion in cyclocross, lit the afterburners, laying down a million watts to pull away on the vertiginous final climb to put France’s favourite cycling son, and current World Champion, Julian Alaphilippe and 2019 Tour de France champion, Egan Bernal, to the sword and win.
Absolutely riveting sport with almost as much intrigue as the America’s Cup but at the very heart of it, it’s a team game converted by star riders who take all the ultimate glory. Team members expend themselves in order that their main man is in a position to win. They go deep within themselves to the limits of physical exhaustion to drive into the wind (or dust) and protect their leader whilst orders are shouted down microphones from the team car. The life of a ‘domestique’ is not glamorous. You are cannon fodder for a cause and although you’ll share the glory and a miserly part of the prize money, the best you can really hope for is an acknowledgement on the team’s website and social media that you were even there. Digital recognition for nigh on killing yourself – something to perhaps show the grandchildren, along with a few tatty jerseys and the odd old bike that sits in the shed for decades after your retirement way before you are 30. Brutal game in the main.
But team sports are brutal when truth be known. We remember the heroes and quickly forget the rest. The only World Cup success in my lifetime in a sport that mattered to me was in the rugby and it’s hard to etch from the memory Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal. You quickly forget the darting run of Matt Dawson followed by the dummy drive of Martin Johnson sucking in the pack when the Aussies were expecting the drop goal. Those two moves gained the crucial ground to give Wilkinson the opportunity of a shot at the sticks but it’s the glory that matters.
John Bertrand was the first in the Cup to write at length about his crew individually, picturing them in ‘Born to Win’ so the names Hugh Treharne, Grant Simmer, Colin Beashel, Scoop Judge, Chink Longley, Skippy Lissiman, Damian Fewster, Splash Richardson, Robbie Brown, Will Bailleu, Major Peter Costello and Ya Smidmore became as acknowledged for winning as he did. But it was Bertrand that really took the glory.
Looking back over modern day Cups and it’s hard to go beyond the skippers and tacticians. The Kiwi Black Magic team was the closest thing to a Harlem Globetrotters of household names: Butterworth, Fleury, Daubney, Jones, Dodson, Phipps, Monk, Allen, Mason, Scantlebury, Taylor, Naismith and Halcrow became, and still are today, legends of the sport but it’s the big guns in Russell Coutts and Sir Peter Blake that you really hang those memories on.
Win this time and it will all be about the Burling / Tuke / Ashby axis whilst the ‘domestiques’ on duty will have the glory and bragging rights for years to come – the likes of Josh Junior, Guy Endean, Steve Ferguson, Marcus Hansen, Finn Henry, Carlo Huisman, Mike Lee, Andy Maloney, Louis Sinclair, Joe Sullivan, Marius van der Pol and Simon van Velthooven will be dead certs on the speaker tour at sailing clubs up and down the country with beers bought wherever they go but will fade from public recognition. The glory is with the man on the stick and his lieutenants.
Win for Italy and Jimmy Spithill may as well move there. He will be a national hero, celebrated in every bar in every town from Ragusa to Vipiteno. Remember how Diego Maradona was celebrated when he brought success to Napoli? It would be that huge. And whilst Patrizio Bertelli would be heralded and Francesco Bruni, Max Sirena and Pietro Sibello rightly lauded, the Italians would adopt Spithill like their own.
Never again would the Aussie need to open his wallet in a restaurant, the morning espresso is on the house, membership of every yacht club in the land (and there are some nice ones in Italy) would be a given. It would be momentous, overwhelming almost, and can you imagine what the ticker-tape tour of the country would be like? Forget sitting on an open top Maserati, Spithill would need the Pope-mobile such would be the baying crowds celebrating his victory in a way we’ve never seen before in the Cup. Conner down Fifth Avenue times a thousand. Rome would be rocking. Palermo would be pandemonium. Milan would be mad. It would be something else to see.
Three days to go now. Just three days until we start to have answers. Luna Rossa has a new stern. Te Rehutai has some new moves. Glory awaits whilst abject misery stalks as some say it’s too close to call. The champagne is on ice. Seven wins to score. It’s time for the superstars to convert.