It’s spring. Or at least, spring-ish. The warm, wet winter around our way makes the segue into the season something of a technicality. This in no way diminishes my friend Bernard’s dislike of it.
Excuses to harangue younger club members with his mudguard lecture are fewer and further between.
The same goes for his (perplexing) warnings about the need to alternate layers wool and “spandex”, the malt-loaf address, and the dire threats about what will happen to anyone who tries to do anything fast on a group ride, namely that they’ll get all damp and sweaty, then freeze to death fixing a puncture in a Siberian wind on a forgotten fenland dyke.
Most of all, though, he dislikes what happens on his television over the coming few weeks. It’s Classics season.
“Apparently the Classics are ‘real’ bike racing,” Bernard complained on a recent ride. “And all the stuff I know about, all the stuff I used to watch like the Tour de France and, um, well stuff like that, is ‘commercialised’.”
I made a sympathetic noise, and wondered if I could derail him on to whether I ought to wrap my malt loaf in cling film or in tin foil before it was too late.
“Used to be that all you needed to know to be a proper cycling fan was that Alpe d’Huez has 21 hairpins, who had won the jerseys in the previous Tour, and who the best British finisher had been, if there even was one. Now you need to know how to spell that bloody thing that Ian Stannard won a couple of years back.”
“Omloop Het Nieuwsblad?” I said (or at any rate, that’s what I tried to say). “What do you think cut-and-paste is for? I do the same for Roger de Vlaeminck, and I don’t think it makes me any less of a cycling fan.”
“Roger de who?”
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”
“I want my cycling to be glamorous,” he said. “I want sunflowers, alpine vistas. Have you seen Belgium? Maybe it’s lovely in person, but from a TV helicopter it looks like a giant suburban industrial estate.
“And in the last couple of years, as far as I can tell, the major Classics talking points were riders getting knocked off by official cars, riders who crashed because they couldn’t decide between the bike path and the road and compromised by hitting a spectator standing on the pavement between the two, and riders who didn’t stop at level crossings.
“If I wanted to watch a race that kept going wrong, round a bunch of factory access roads in persistent drizzle, I’d organise one myself.”
I think this is probably the ‘real’ part of the Classics, but I didn’t say that. I very slightly agreed with him, although it’s more some of the fans than the races themselves. Because the Classics happen so close to southern England, there are a lot of people we both know who go to see them every year, and are in danger of being Classic bores.
Watch: Cobbled Classics – essential guide
Their conversation is peppered with references to all manner of “bergs” and they usually insist on calling the Tour of Flanders the “Ronde van Vlaanderen” in an accent that sounds like they learned it off a man from Birmingham whose only training in the language was from ordering Grolsch.
And they’re horrified if you can’t instantly distinguish Liège-Bastogne-Liège from Ghent-Wevelgem based on any random five-second bit of YouTube footage.
We were riding along a dull, straight road. It was drizzling. It didn’t have much going for it.
“Hey,” I said. “Doesn’t this bit of road always remind you of that stretch before the Mur de Huy where Eddy Merckx got a plastic bag in his chain back in ’72?”
He didn’t reply.