Standing at the roadside of a race as the peloton speeds by is only part of the experience of watching professional cycling.
Whether it be on top of a mountain, in the noisy confines of a velodrome, or even in the centre of a city during a criterium, it is spectators that can make the day memorable, regardless of how many photos can be taken of their heroes.
CW has spoken to some of the most dedicated – and most crazy – fans from around the world to hear their stories of life as a cycling fanatic.
The Beefeaters: ‘It was a high-pitched scream but we were too scared to turn it off’
They’re a viral sensation who have won a UCI fans’ award and they’re even penning a book. The Beefeaters need little introduction. Wherever the group of six Brits congregates at a race, usually playing their adopted Dutch anthem ‘Links Rechts’, that means it is the go-to spot to sing, dance and laugh.
On top of the Col d’Izoard in 2017, within 30 minutes of blasting music they had 300 people with glowsticks dancing with them. “It was a weird Tour rave that went on for ages. A bizarre night,” member Jay Guarnieri tells us.
It hasn’t always been Twitter videos and hundreds of fans though. Realising the booked campsite wasn’t appropriate in 2016 at the foot of the Côte de Domancy, the six and their rented van paid €10 a night to park in someone’s garden. “They had no idea what was going to happen,” Jay laughs. “The night before we all dressed up in our dinner jackets and shorts. We bought an electric BBQ in the supermarket but realised we didn’t have the right adaptor for the generator.
“Rather than find one, one of the lads tried to make one from my electric razor and tin foil. It worked – until suddenly the generator made a noise like I have never heard before. It was a high-pitched screaming but we were too scared to turn it off so we just sat there while people came out of their houses. We backed away from it and then it seized up and broke.”
The next day, they remained in place and the locals joined the party. “The house owner mysteriously disappeared at 2pm and we later found him on the living room floor. It could have been a disaster but it was our best Tour.”
Robert Reis: ‘The dream of any fan is to go for a ride with their heroes’
Robert Reis knew more about the Euskaltel-Euskadi team than its staff. The American, who has resided in Italy since 1986, was once told by a team DS that he “was collapsing their email system”. He would send good luck emails, congratulatory messages after a top-10, and even birthday wishes to the children of the Basque team’s riders.
“At Tirreno-Adriatico in 2010, I brought a bottle of wine for the bus driver’s birthday. He was so surprised. ‘How do you know it’s my birthday?’ he asked me. ‘I do my homework,’ I replied.”
At the Italian race four years prior, Reis was asked by the team to take the riders out on a pre-race ride. “The team said they trusted me so I put on my team kit and we did a quick 60km ride. “They said: ‘Robert, you lead the way, it’s your city, your roads, you know where to go.” At the only hill of the day, two riders in front pulled over so here I was at the front of the group going uphill, thinking, ‘This is not the time for me to die. I need to keep a good rhythm.’ The riders said without they would have been lost. The dream of any fan is to go for a ride with their heroes.”
Dore Holte: ‘Lance Armstrong once turned to me and said: “Ha, you’re crazy, man”‘
Sure, a lot of us have customised flags and banners for races, but few fans have got as inventive and as creative as Dore Holte. Or, as the American is better known: Antler Man. Inspired by Lance Armstrong’s ‘Cinderella story’ in the 1990s, the Seattle-born Holte has commissioned local sculptors to create six unique helmets, all featuring replica horns of American animals.
Holte counts a helmet of horns from elk, bighorn sheep and moose, while he also boasts headwear of an eagle wing and a kudu. Easily noticeable on the most punishing of climbs, Antler Man became a sensation within the sport.
“I can’t resist running with the lead group, quickly reset, get back down to my sweet spot and fire up again,” he tells CW via Zoom while sporting one of his helmets. “I sometimes run up to 20 to 25 reps on the steepest pitch. I know that my heart is hitting the wall, but I get a supernatural kick that doesn’t subside.
“My attempt is to bring comedy to a gruelling moment because that is the best medication. People crack a smile and riders give me a shout even though they are suffering. Armstrong once turned to me and said: ‘Ha, you’re crazy, man.’”
Holte attended each Tour de France between 2002 and 2005, every time breaking down his helmet into three parts: “I worked in the aviation industry and used my contacts to help get this stuff through the airport. But it’s amazing how I got suspicious headgear on planes.”
There was even one flight that the elk helmet was given priority. “One time I carried it onto the plane and I was trying to get it in the luggage compartment above the chairs but it wouldn’t fit. A nice flight attendant said that she had an idea where it could go. Lo and behold, it flew in the cockpit with the pilots, who put a seatbelt around it.”
Dennis Jansen: ‘I’ve spent €100,000 in five years’
One August morning in 2016, Dennis Jansen was sat in a cafe in his home country of the Netherlands when he saw the Ladies Tour of Norway on television and decided, on a whim, to make the journey there as he wanted to see the country. After that, his life changed. “I now go to almost every women’s race in Europe,” he says, and he has even driven cars for teams in time trials.
“I never take holidays. I see cycling as a holiday,” he says. “I would never go to Spain to sit on a beach but I’d go to Spain to stand on top of a mountain in the rain and watch the races go by, or stand on point B in the snow. When I am at a cycling race, I am relaxed.
“An average weekend costs me about €2,000. Most of the money goes on flights, and then I rent a car when I land. It’s €100 for a good hotel. I could pay half the money and sleep in a barn but I don’t want to do that.
“It’s an expensive hobby. Last season I spent maybe €15,000 only on travelling, and probably €100,000 in five years.”
The Corné van Kessel fan club: ‘Everyone knows us in the cyclo-cross world’
Cycling fandom has few similarities with that of football – until you encounter the Corné van Kessel fan club in Belgium. Already unique for being a Belgian-based club for a Dutch cyclo-cross rider, the club of 250 members (the youngest is six) takes 10 buses to races throughout the winter, sporting customised hats, jackets and other merchandise.
Founding member Jonas Renders says: “Before we board the bus, we offer bacon, eggs and pies, and the party starts before we leave.
“When we get on the bus we sing Flemish songs and it’s really fun. Everyone stays together so we can have a drink around the speaker before we go to the party tent. It’s pretty crazy in there.
“I try to keep out of it as people know who I am and I get a beer from right and left and don’t end up seeing the race as I get stuck in there. But some people spend the entire day in there and take the microphone from the DJ.
“Everyone knows us in the cross world. Sometimes the riders join in the dancing after the races.”
Jamie Wasley: ‘I was right there at one of the moments that defined the Tour’
Briton Jamie Wasley spends his Julys riding around France chasing the Tour. Teams have begun to recognise him and he’s been able to exploit the ‘it’s who you know’ adage.
UAE Team Emirates soigneurs have invited him to shower in the team bus; and FDJ mechanic insisted on deep cleaning his bike; and he was invited on Lotto-Soudal’s rest day ride in 2019, riding alongside Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk.
His best memory, though, was last year’s stage 10 when he got to ride in the Mavic neutral service support vehicle.
“I received a random message from them saying I had to be at the stage start at 10.30am,” he recounts. “Nothing happened in the first 100km but then there were crosswinds and we got to see it all, things you don’t see on TV. The hammer went down, riders were left, right and centre.
“Thibaut Pinot got dropped and the final hour was awesome, it was one of the moments that defined the Tour. I will never have that situation again – it was just amazing.”
Wout Poels fan club: ‘We bought a lucky cushion for his dog’
One of the most committed fan clubs at races across Europe is the one dedicated to Wout Poels. It has over 300 members, who pay an annual €10. The costs of merchandise? Paid for by 20 sponsors, who also cover half of the costs of going to races.
“Wout meets his fans once a year on a club ride and he’s so good to us all. People push their babies to Wout for him to kiss them,” club chairman Jos Waals says. Last autumn, Poels and his girlfriend bought a small dog. Upon returning to their Monaco apartment, a package awaited: “The club had chipped in and bought him a cushion for the dog – a lucky one. It was the red and black of Bahrain-Merida so that the dog knows.”
Benny Van Calster: ‘Sven Nys’s son asked me how much pressure should be in his tyres’
Belgium is where young riders from across the globe move to try and make a career for themselves – and upon arriving, many of them have stumbled into the open, welcoming arms of former pro Benny Van Calster.
The Belgian helps international riders settle into their new country, arranging rooms for many of them, including Simon and Adam Yates, and doubling up as their soigneur and motor-pacer.
Most recently, Sven Nys asked Van Calster to assist his highly-rated son, Thibau: “I was so surprised. I take Thibau out a lot. In one of his first races, the son of the biggest cyclo-cross riders of the last 20 years asked me how much pressure should be in his tyres. I wanted to laugh, but I had to be serious. I knew, told him and he won the race.
“I am not a trainer, but I am there to make sure everything is OK in the mind. The cycling community is a big family and a way of life.”
Mickaël Bernini: ‘They expected to see five people singing but it was only me’
When Mickaël Bernini is at a race, you’d better hope your eardrums can withstand the Frenchman. Since 2015 he has been attending road, track and cyclo-cross races clad in the red, white and blue of his motherlands and signing adapted French songs to incorporate the names of the riders he is supporting.
“I sing a lot,” laughs the man known as MacFly. “People cheer for five seconds but I’ll try to sing from the start to the end of the peloton, which can be more than a minute. People think, ‘Wow’. Sometimes other fans cheer for me.
“At the European Track Championships in 2019, the person behind me said that they expected to see a group of give people singing but it was only me. The national team once told me that they were amazed at my support and said: “We don’t hear anyone who sings French songs.’”
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.