the season begins
Last week I set an alarm for the first time in forever. Coffee in hand, I rose around eight-thirty to watch the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, a five-day stage race in the orange-growing region of Spain. This race, like its fellow european counterpart Etoile des Bessèges, is fickle and unpredictable — the parcours isn’t difficult enough to separate the pure climbers from everyone else and most teams aren’t ready to ship out their biggest powerhouses just yet. Indeed, I personally did not predict that the aging, Intermarche Circus Wanty rider Rui Costa would show up Trek-Segafredo’s punchier Giulio Ciccone in the final stage, thus taking the overall. Nor did I predict, in Besseges, EF Education EasyPost’s Nielson Powless winning the General Classification over Trek’s Matthais Skjelmose by a single second.
Now, I don’t attempt to bet on or predict what happens in cycling so “pleasantly surprised” and “entertained” are two states I frequently find myself in. Thus I am not sure what either of these victories imply about any of these riders, much less their teams, and even less so, the rest of their seasons. Almost always, it’s too early to set up expectations from results gleaned in Februrary — one recent notable exception being Jonas Vingegaard’s crushing 2021 stage win in the UAE Tour. All that can truly be said is that cycling is warming up again like a pan on the stove.
Personally, I find February an enjoyable part of the cycling season as nothing is too serious yet. The February races also give us a chance to build up our (sometimes vast) reserves of hope. They are question-asking races, talking points for the rest of the season simply by way of being the first precedents set. (For example, nearly every time Jan Hirt was mentioned in commentary last year, it was in conjunction with the Tour of Oman, which he won.)
Debates rage on Twitter. If a rider shows their stuff this soon in the calendar, they are either “early peaking” or dropping hints at a yet-uncovered strength. Hence, the hope, and its counterpart, disparagement. In Bessèges, Lotto-Dstny’s hotshot sprinter Arnaud De Lie went on a rampage, winning two stages, cementing his place as both the future and the way out of relegation for his beleaguered team. Nielson Powless continued to not-so-quietly build up his more than respectable palmarès — the American seems to come into his own more and more every year. In Valenciana, Ruí Costa, brandishing his new team’s livery, silenced all criticisms of being “washed.” Jumbo Visma’s young Thomas Gloag made a strong debut, prompting whispers around the press corps and UK fans. Ineos Grenadiers’ Tao Geoghegan Hart jaunted his way through the Spanish orchards, capturing Stage 4 with an almost spiteful (and refreshing) desire to make his name heard again as anything, anything other than the once-winner of that surreal 2020 Giro d’Italia which seems like ages ago.
Fans log on to ask: is Tao back???? Is American cycling entering a new golden era???? Will Thomas Gloag be the next Jonas Vingegaard??? Those who watched an eventful cyclocross season join in the chorus, salivating at the imminent grafting of the van der Poel/van Aert super-rivalry onto the road calendar. Questions asked at the end of last season come closer and closer to being answered: Will Primož Roglič fare better at the more low-key Giro d’Italia after his catastrophic grand tour showing last season? Is Julian Alaphillippe on his way out (frown emoji)? How will Jonas Vingegaard tackle a wizened Tadej Pogačar at the Tour de France? Will Peter Sagan or Thibaut Pinot have a few more tricks up their sleeves in their final seasons before retirement? Is cycling really in the midst of an unprecedented era of child prodigies? In these early races, we seek, as though reading tea leaves, early signs and signals confirming either our staunch beliefs or worst nightmares. This is both exhilirating and torturous, as we will never know anything for sure. Fortunately, cycling fans are expert waiters — our sport, after all, is one of the few that spans five hours, five days, or three weeks long.
Coming back to cycling after the off-season is a kind of reacclimating to ritual. Keeping certain hours, reinstalling old apps, starting a new notebook. Unlike some cycling journalists, I take a real off-season. I focus on my other work as an architecture critic and don’t keep track of every little thing that’s published save for the transfers and the long profiles. This is necessary for me mentally and emotionally. I need a palate cleanser to avoid terminal burnout year after year.
In my third season as a cycling journalist, I find myself in a completely different scenario than I did in my first. I have enemies now. (I hate this because I am nice.) I’ve stuck up for myself in press conferences and have asked difficult questions. I’m not as naive or as starry-eyed. In addition, the landscape of cycling writing itself has been decimated — publications have folded, abandoned, or have been consolidated by mega-publishers. These days, it seems like half my colleagues are out of work. There were a couple of months where I couldn’t pitch because I no longer knew who was working where. A looming recession has hit the bike industry particularly hard after its pandemic-era growth spurt, including derailleur.
In trying to run derailleur like an incubator, I became vulnerable to these same market and industry forces. While I am thankful to everyone who contributed to derailleur last year and still plan on commissioning a few writers, I was in no way prepared to assume editorial and business responsibilities while juggling covering the sport myself. In short, I learned the hard way that it’s not feasible to run an entire publication as one person and despite being a Substack bestseller (thank you!) derailleur doesn’t make enough cash to bring on someone else in any kind of equitably funded capacity. Hence, I must regretfully tell you that derailleur will return to its initial status as a closed shop at least until the funds are procured to expand editorially.
However, that’s not to say that investment isn’t still being made. This year, derailleur will get a full redesign — a new logo and visual language inspired by one of cycling’s greatest visual eras, the late 70s. We will also be releasing a line of totes and cycling caps available for purchase and as gifts for our Founding Members. Coverage will expand more into women’s road cycling and paid content will take the shape of additional articles and exclusive and fun interviews. (This is your hint to subscribe and renew your subscription!)
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Back to actual cycling (apologies for the housekeeping and bad news), when I woke up last week and sat down to watch cycling for the first time this season, I tried searching for that same eagerness that once felt so restless and insatiable. Too much has happened between when I started and where I am now for this to ever be the same — like all great loves, this one, too, evolved with time. I started to think about all that had changed in the last three years, about how many of the stories promised never came to fruition. Pinot became catastrophically injured. The reign of Roglič was cut short by Pogačar, whose reign might very well be cut off by someone even younger. Remco Evenepoel grew from an arrogant footballer into a noble and silently-weeping grand tour winner. Alaphilippe disappeared from public consciousness last season one mishap at a time. We have still never gotten a real grand tour face off between many of cycling’s protagonists — Bernal, Roglič, Pogačar, Vingegaard, Evenepoel — as they scheme and avoid each other in the pre- and post-Tour races, or, in Roglič’s case, crash out.
With cycling, just as one gets a grip on the landscape of our sport, the ground beneath our feet shifts seismically. We spectators are forced to memorize new names, abandon old hopes. It happens so fast. A contender, once spoken of cloyingly, edges closer to retirement. A rider not much older than a child stares with defiance into the interviewer’s camera as his predecessors look on with envy. Attitudes and rivalries develop. Personalities mature as old panache fades into obscurity. Epochs end or never come to fruition. Transfers refresh lineups and highlight forgotten talents. Just as often, they stifle good cyclists and coddle bad ones. Sponsors change and one has to forget team names learned only last year. Someone becomes a protagonist, an antagonist, suspicious, distraught, ascendant, redeemed. And the thing is, at the beginning of February, at the start of the season, you’ll never know who, out of the peloton’s army of hundreds, will become what or how.
All you can do is brew a cup of coffee, sit back, and watch.
Whew and whee! Katy is back and derailleur is in my inbox.
A favourite in all the cycling I absorb from home in Canada. Always been a sucker for the long form about cycling.
Looking forward to a new season
“Closed shop”? We’re still going to get periodic essays, right?