It was November 1, 2016, and cyclist Marco Haller and his brother were in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia to watch their beloved football team, Arsenal, in the Champions League group stages. They were playing European minnows Ludogorets but fell two goals behind after just 15 minutes. In the 87th minute, Mesut Özil scored a delightful goal to complete a thrilling comeback for Arsenal that set in motion a night that Haller will never forget.
"We were defending a corner and we scored from a counter-attack," remembers Haller, who now rides for Bora-Hansgrohe. "Özil came over to 2,000 fans and we were all going nuts. Because of security reasons they kept us in the stadium for two hours afterwards and we were all dancing and shouting the entire time.
"It was a day after Halloween and there was an Irish pub in Sofia that had planned a Halloween party, but in the end it was this huge football party. It was the off season so I'd definitely had one or two pints.
"We weren't staying in a hotel, but a hostel with rooms spread out all over the place. At 6am, doping control arrived to the hostel to test me. They had a hard time finding me because of the hostel's layout, but there I was sleeping, just back from a night out, and having to do a test."
Haller is among a minority of professional cyclists who are also dedicated football fans - a peculiar ratio given football's place in wider European society. Go on his Twitter page and you'll be greeted with the bio: cyclist, Austrian, Arsenal fan. But despite subscribing to watch every Arsenal game on his computer and watching The Gunners at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, after the 2019 Worlds in Yorkshire, he stops short of calling himself a "hardcore fan".
proper night out here in sofia. enjoyed a nice off-season, but now soon back to work #goonerontheroad @Arsenal pic.twitter.com/O64OJbw9i9November 1, 2016
But don't be fooled by his proclamation: it's football that dictates his downtime. "A few years ago when I was teammates with Alexander Kristoff [at Katusha-Alpecin], we used to play Football Manager together," Haller reflects. "I had some very good times managing Accrington Stanley because my brother had showed me the TV commercial from back in the day that said that if you don't drink milk, you can't even play for Accrington Stanley.
"It's a good game because you're not playing the football, but instead basically sifting through Excel sheets, negotiating, calculating, trying to do managerial stuff, so it's something I certainly enjoy. It's an upside of football, all the analysis, and something we don't have in cycling. I won the league with Arsenal, but I also played with a third division French team once before and, well, it was a pretty tough period. It's hard starting with a club so low."
Haller chats frequently in the peloton with Ineos Grenadiers' Tao Geoghegan Hart, whose partner Lotte Wubben-Moy plays for Arsenal and England Women. Haller describes it as "very sad" that he never made it to the London club's old stadium, Highbury, but Geoghegan Hart played on the famous turf right before it's demolition as a 10-year-old in the London Cup finals between Hackney and Camden.
"It was one of, if not the last, ever FA-sanctioned game on the pitch," Geoghegan Hart, who played in goal, says. "The stands were full of Hackney and Camden school kids, and we beat Camden 5-1. I preferred to be outfield, but I wasn't good enough. It was a massive deal for us."
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Remco's alternative career
Before Remco Evenepoel attracted comparisons to Eddy Merckx and became one of Belgium's most recognised figures, the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider was, infamously, a footballer with his boyhood team RSC Anderlecht who also played nine times for the Belgian national team at youth level.
Football, and supporting Anderlecht, was his life. "I'd play on the Saturday or Sunday morning, and then in the afternoon I'd go to watch the game with my father or friends," he remembers. "I didn't have posters on my wall, but I was always saving YouTube videos on my iPad to watch. I was so busy with football. A bit of school, but more football.
"I try to go [to matches] as much as possible but it's hard now with racing and camps, but I'm always following the games, always supporting Anderlecht. I'd go more with my dad in the past, but nowadays it's more with my friends. We park up, walk to the stadium, buy a bag of candy, watch the game, buy a coke, go take a piss at half time in the big restrooms and then take another drink. When we score a goal we go nuts."
He pauses, and then laughs, when asked if he's one for singing the club's chants. "I used to!" he chuckles. "But the problem now is that when you're more known, everybody is looking at you, so it's going to be strange when you're there and singing like a mad man! But when we score I jump and cheer, but I don't sing anymore. The last time I was at a game I was sitting with the CEOs of Anderlecht so it would have been strange to behave like a superfan!"
Evenepoel - who points out that he'll be watching the Belgian Cup final on April 18 between Anderlecht and Gent, a competition his club haven't won since 2008 - has multiple former teammates who have gone onto become professional footballers, many of them even playing for Belgium in their recent friendly game against Burkina Faso.
"There were five or six guys in that team who I've played with," he reveals. "[Alexis] Saelemaekers, [Sebastiaan] Bornauw, [Albert Sambi] Lokonga from Arsenal. Actually, Sambi is in the team I dreamed of being in, so he's actually making my dream come true!
"I used to train sometimes with [Leicester's Youri] Tielemans and [Chelsea's Michy] Batshuayi in private training sessions on a Sunday with a private coach. We tried to improve together with some fun training. There's quite a lot of good guys [he played with] all from the area of Brussels that I am from, but they're a bit older than me. I am a cyclist now, but it's nice to have another sport that I love and follow on the side. It keeps my mind fresh."
'I stand in the corners with the ultras'
Who takes the title as cycling's biggest football nerd is probably Bora-Hansgrohe's DS and former German pro Jens Zemke. Tall with white hair, it's not his stature that stands out but the ring on his right hand that is dominated by the eagle that adorns the badge of Eintracht Frankfurt.
"Before I was even born my father made me a member of the club," Zemke says. "I was born in Frankfurt, grew up near the stadium and still have a membership card and have a season ticket. I am so crazy that I named one of my son's after one of the most famous Frankfurt players."
His love for the Bundesliga club knows no limits. "The house where I live now, I bought it because it was the nearest one to the stadium. On a match day I invite my friends to my garden because it's a five minute walk to the stadium. The stadium is in a forest, and my house is the last one. Sometimes seven or eight come, sometimes 25, and I put sausages on the grill, buy two kegs of beers, and then we go to the game together. If the match was good and emotional, we'll have a drink afterwards.
"I have a season ticket and I watch the game from the corners with the ultras. I am crazy about football, but I'm not a hooligan! It's not just the football: it's friendship, doing something together."
Zemke fondly remembers his team beating Bayern Munich 3-1 in the German Cup in 2018 in front of almost 80,000 spectators, but he thinks that experience could be surpassed next week when he drives to Barcelona to watch the second leg of the Europa League quarter-final tie between his beloved side and the European giants; the first game finished 1-1.
"The chances of getting into the next round are very, very little," he says, "but this event alone comes once in a lifetime. A small club like Frankfurt playing in Europe against Barcelona... I have to go. Normally they are in the Champions League, and every second or third year we make it into the Europa League. It's therefore a once-in-a-life event. In Bordeaux a few years ago [in 2013 - ed] we took 12,000 fans. It was crazy. We're taking between 15,000 and 20,000 to Barcelona next week."
Steve Cummings' away days
Zemke is not the only sports director preparing to go to a European fixture in the coming days: Ineos Grenadiers' Steve Cummings comes from a family obsessed by Liverpool, the former pro describing his nan "as a mad Red, and my dad is just as mad."
Cummings has been to a few European games involving the Reds in recent seasons, and on Wednesday he's going to Anfield to watch Jürgen Klopp's team take on Benfica in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final tie, with Liverpool holding a 3-1 lead. "I go as often as I can, maybe 10 times a year, but it's so hard to get a ticket," he says. "I'm asking my neighbour to come with on Wednesday: we'll get down there, meet some of the lads, get to a pub but nothing crazy, sing some songs and have a bit of a laugh."
"I prefer going to away games, to be honest," he adds, in touch with the parlance of a dedicated football fan. "I went to West Ham away on my own before. I got the train there, and then rode a Boris bike from Euston to the stadium and back in the dark down some canal. Away is... it's good craic, you know. Good supporters, they are more hardcore, the away fans. I like that."
Siempre en mi equipo y cuando digo siempre es SIEMPRE!💚 https://t.co/4hogv6rLDbMarch 4, 2022
Scroll through the Twitter feed of Trek-Segafredo's Juan Pedro López and the cycling chat is dwarfed by his love of Real Betis. His family come from the green and white barrios of Sevilla, and the Spaniard speaks like a true partisan fan in professing his support by his team by disparaging the team he is ought to hate.
"Where I'm from in Sevilla, you're either Betis or the rival Sevilla. Every day I am happier than the last that I am Betis," he says. "We're three points behind Sevilla [in La Liga in fifth position] and hopefully we can prevent them from being in the Champions League. When the derby is on between us and Sevilla, this is a day to live for football."
On April 23 Betis will play Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey, the premier domestic cup competition in Spain that Betis have only ever won twice, the last in 2005. When we speak, López says affirmatively, "it's in 16 days", as if the date is imprinted on his mind: "I will be at a team training camp, but I'll be watching it from there. I catch almost all of the games away from home on my computer, but when I'm home I'll go to the stadium."
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