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Applaud the Effort

Hard as nails. That's what they say about pro cyclists. And in general, it's true. So woe betide those prone to displays of weakness, writes Jeremy Whittle.

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You might remember Fabio Aru. He’s the Italian who finished on the Giro d’Italia podium twice, won a Tour stage to La Planche des Belles Filles and also went on to win the Vuelta a Espana.

By Jeremy Whittle | Image: Chris Auld

Turns out that it’s easy to mock the hapless once-great Italian climber whose career has nose-dived again after he quit this year’s Tour de France. I’ve done it myself in the past, even though I don’t know much about him beyond his struggle to rediscover what he once was, a grand tour winner, beaming with joy and once among the brightest stars on the world scene.

He’s not that any more.

Fabio Aru on stage 6 of the 2020 Tour de France. Image: Chris Auld

If anything he’s become a bit of a joke, the butt of sarcastic punditry and bitter and public criticism from his own team. The gurning face, the abuse of motorbike cameramen as they hover like vultures, the absurd attacks that defy logic. It’s easy to kick him now that he’s down. Even his own team has turned on him, with Giuseppe Saronni on Sunday berating Aru for “collapsing mentally” and for disappointing them for “the umpteenth time.”

“Man up,” said Saronni, as if a grand tour winner, any grand tour winner, ever lacked steel.

Such public criticism must surely spell the end of the road for his time with the UAE Emirates team, as a teammate of Tadej Pogacar. Once Aru was seen as Pogacar is now: exciting, devilry on his mind, unpredictable, thrilling to watch. Not now, now he’s damaged goods, a failed rider whose battles for fitness, and lack of self-belief are of little interest to World Tour team managers, already under pressure to cut their cloth and get results with the resources they have.

But then Dave Brailsford said something interesting today, during a rest day conversation. The peloton he said, of that first chaotic stage to Nice, punctuated by a series of bone-crunching crashes, were “scared.”

“It did something to the race,” he said of the endless crashes that characterized the Tour’s opening day. “It was an unsettling experience for the riders. It was so dangerous, it was so chaotic, that it shook everybody.”

“Scared….”? Bike riders?

It’s not a word that you often associate with grand tour riders, and not a word that would ever fall from Saronni’s old-school lips. In fact, it wasn’t a good weekend for “woke” politics in the peloton, what with the hugely crass, witless and dumb cartoon run by one French newspaper, depicting French TV journalist Marion Rousse topless in bed interviewing Julian Alaphilippe. Rightly, the cartoon was condemned and promptly withdrawn.

But the notion that cyclists must never show weakness, physical or mental, runs through the sport, like veins through marble. Aru and Thibaut Pinot, another regular whipping boy, were lambasted over the weekend for a failing of their mental strength, a perceived display of weakness and a lack of resilience that allowed their injuries to get the best of them.

Meanwhile, Wout Poels, his rib broken and suffering constant pain, rides on, as does Pavel Sivakov, despite being reduced to tears after crashing three times on that first stage to Nice. Richie Porte, meanwhile, having his best Tour for years, missed the birth of his second child to carry on racing.

That’s what we have all been brought up on, and primed to expect, not Fabio Aru, dropped after only 20 kilometers and deserted by his team.

I don’t know the detail of what Aru’s struggles are, what private dramas are played out in his life, or how hard it has been for him to get back to the level at which he felt able to take on grand tour racing. Obviously, at times, he may have felt like giving up.

None of us really know what it’s taken to come back, not even Saronni, so ready to write his rider off, rather than shield him from brickbats and mockery. But in a world in which divisive and often cruel politics have polarized opinion, maybe we should not be so quick to characterize those who fall short in a brutal bicycle race as weak or lacking in character, but instead applaud the effort, guts and courage that got them there in the first place.

To read more long-form features, please visit lacourseentete.com