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Thoughts on the Women's Road Race and the 'super-worlds'
There was a fire sale in the George Square fan zone yesterday, merchandise on final display before it began a final march into gradual irrelevance. It proved effective though, aisles clearing of printed t-shirts and embroidered baseball caps. The women’s road race was the long goodbye, closing a fortnight of organised chaos. Every day was a multidisciplinary drama, each race more climactic than the last. For once there would be no shortage of information on Montrose Street, phone signals finally relenting for racing streams to coexist alongside delayed text commentary. Yet there’s no fun in regurgitating what was seen over shoulders, all relayed and signalled into our understanding of the race. Through Montrose Street, there exists an image of the race distinct from the erratic racing pictures. On the ground was a new perspective through which the race could be perceived. There, riders grimaced, yet almost smiled.
On the first ascent of seven, the elusive gap was forged ahead by Reusser and Henderson, riders frustrated by Thursday’s Time Trial, seeking redemption for the fine margins of their respective shortcomings – one chronological, the other immeasurable. Behind, the riders forced themselves into contention, heaving to bridge across and form the ‘breakaway’ of the race destined to contest victory. Quickly, riders fell away on the opening lap, most not worthy of attention, some with the palmarès to suggest they maybe were. The course’s difficulty soon indicated that the day would not have a fast finish - Lorena Wiebes’ soon abandoned, Marianne Vos resigned herself to the gruppetto. Selected in hope and pride rather than victory, many riders abandoned at the feed zone atop the ‘Mur’, subsequently braking their way down through the crowds, becoming someone among the masses. Blanketed in a towel or jacket, it was a cloak of normality for the elite athletes, back among us in the real world, albeit with race numbers proudly adorning their machines.
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By the third ascent, there appeared a ceasefire up front, as Annemiek van Vleuten dared to catch up after her mechanical, dropping Mavi Garcia in the process. Not that Garcia appeared deterred, riding her own race trapped between favourites, under-23s, and other mere finishers in pursuit of a targeted result. Behind, Alison Jackson was similarly lodged ahead of the gruppetto, smiling in acknowledgement of the moment, delighting in her visible, physical joy of riding a bike. By the following ascent, she was joined by compatriot Baril until the finish, holding a minute’s lead over the gruppetto, sharing their private isolation with one another. There was joy in their personal motivation, joy in our acknowledgement of their perseverance.
Less joyous appeared Elise Chabbey, her appearance arriving far sooner than many expected, her gap ahead of the chase enough to invite suggestions of victory. Attacking in the same vein as Alberto Bettiol a week prior, she was proactive, anticipatory, hope strong in her legs. She was dreaming beyond imagination for a breakdown of collaboration behind, a collapsing of egos unwilling to risk the self-sacrifice of any activity too intensive. Unfortunately for Chabbey, Van Vleuten had returned. Recognising her supposed weaknesses to Demi Vollering before the race, Van Vleuten had written positively of her former rival, before her technical misfortune further exacerbated the energy differential between them. In recent years, it has been the failure of Dutch unity that has nearly denied the strongest team repeated victory, yet Van Vlueten’s sacrifice attempted to prevent such an event. Besides, the best form of defence is often attack.
By the following lap, Chabbey was rocking, her shoulders slaloming over the handlebars, a smile impossible to discern from her increasingly worn face. Behind, Van Vleuten had a gap over the chase, forcing the remaining six to burn themselves in pursuit. Retrospectively, it was an excellent coda to her career. The reigning world champion, an expert at long-range solo breakaways, again testing her rivals’ capabilities. She was uninhibited by the difficulty of such a move, instead relishing the freedom she was reclaiming in her final fight for rainbows. The liberation that comes with retirement will be cherished, but at least not yet.
By the race’s conclusion, Van Vleuten hadn’t broken away but instead punctured, unable to follow the wheels of those she had led to this point, literally and metaphorically. On Montrose Street for the final time, there was a genuine smile. Her legs no longer with the impetus of a race climax, they gave way to the crowd’s admiration, reverberating off the walls. She reciprocated such love with a kiss over the finish line, appreciative of everything the sport has become, the crowd appreciative of everything Annemiek has made the sport become.
With Chabbey finally within sight, Vollering attacked on Montrose Street on the penultimate lap. Only she was marked by the presumptive favourite Kopecky, unable to break the Flandrian over the short punchy efforts that defined Kopecky’s success in the velodrome earlier in the week. In the time between, the race was torn apart, groups forming and reforming in several configurations. By the final lap, Kopecky ascended ahead of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, and far ahead of the others, tactics mattering less than any vague remnant of strength. Kopecky’s attack lacked the explosivity she was associated with, yet her relentless tempo made a comeback by Ludwig unthinkable. On the winding Glasgow streets, gaps preceded seconds, the distance on the road far more indicative than any motorbike.
Where Ludwig rocked, her face contorted, Vollering and Reusser sat grinding away behind, their upper body seemingly oblivious to the gap they were opening between each other, and on the British-Austrian duo who had tried to engage in pursuit, spurred on by white roadside roses. Across the road, and into the final kilometre, gaps continued to spasm and extend, Vollering’s cadence carrying greater weight than Reusser’s, her final sprint carrying greater potency than Ludwig’s, the Dutch rider edging a silver medal behind the uncatchable Kopecky.
As champions raised arms, Mavi Garcia ascended the Mur alone again. Her lead over the under-23 chasers behind steadily diminished, yet her purpose seemingly didn’t waver. Without race radio, she was oblivious to races ahead or behind, only driven by the motivation of her own estimations and her strong sense of prestige. It was more than enough to hold of the competition behind, resolved in its own battles of proxy accelerations and tomfoolery on the final ascent. An eventual 10th place for Garcia suggested her grimace on Montrose Street may have also been a smile.
As the gruppetto approached its own ending, finished riders passed the street at its base. Towelled and re-sugared in the immediate aftermath, they were applauded by the gaggle of curious spectators, some knowing names, but few recognising faces. Some riders smiled, nodded, even making brief eye contact with the callers of thanks. Others had already started sinking into their post-race rationalisation, attempting to recalibrate and reflect on the entire spectacle to which they had , like a spectator, bore only partial witness to. Alison Jackson’s applause was deservedly loud, her post-race conversations outside Canada’s team bus loud enough for passers-by to savour, her laughter distinctly undimmed.
This was the ending of a championship of happenings, of athletes flooding our attention span through new means of attention, the binding of road into its sister disciplines offering rounded understandings of riders otherwise caricatured by the normal crafts or duties in service of others. Attempting to keep up with all is impossible, a grimace inducing burden that few should even attempt and, mercifully, few have. These ‘super-worlds’ have been not so much a sporting festival, as a spectacle, one that has been absorbed and adored by a local population accustomed to these sorts of events. For all the burdens of trying to understand everything that is encompassed, to simply spectate, to be passive, is a joy – one that makes the grimace a smile.