“Hey, you reminded me of Jan Ullrich, you know, when you were climbing back there.”
Flattery might get you nowhere, but it can get you thinking. If you’re reading this and you ride a bike, you’re almost certainly never going to ride the Tour de France. You are never going to generate over six watts per kilogram. Turn up in Belgium tomorrow and Eddy Merckx would probably still drop you. He is 72.
Attaining parity with the world’s best is all but impossible, the exception being experiencing the realities of life as a professional rider. Trade in your office chair for a saddle and a cramped budget airline seat, your comfortable home for a badly sprung bed in a French motel, and your leisurely Sunday run for crosswind combat on the thud-thud-thud of Belgian concrete betonweg and live like the true professional cyclist.
Except it is when it comes to class. Ullrich had class; look at the picture and try and argue that he didn’t. And when it comes to class, the humble amateur can emulate the very best. No matter what your ability or power-to-weight, you can still be a classy rider. The bike industry will still try to sell you the latest pro-tested, disc brake equipped, aerodynamic watt-saving jiggery-pokery, but class doesn’t come down to spending cash. Class is intangible, class doesn’t sit on a shelf, and class must be earned.
Ullrich didn’t always have it. The latter-day Jan who turned up at early season races pretending that it was just all that baggy winter clothing, not the session-drinking in the Bierkeller, that accounted for the spare tyres: he didn’t have class. The Jan that got in his car while over the limit one May evening in 2014 and sent two other drivers to hospital: he didn’t have class. Jan in his prime had class. He oozed it. It dripped out of his pores and down the aluminium tubes of his pink and white Pinarello in his first seasons on Telekom. His placement on the bike, his rangy limbs, the efforts that looked effortless; whatever it was, however you get it, he had it. Ullrich didn’t suffer, he smouldered.
“That’s what a film star does, isn’t it? They don’t actually ‘do’ anything, they just smoulder…”
Those are the words of John Herety, racer turned team manager with JLT-Condor, widely recognised as one of the best turned out teams plying the Continental level circuit, known for a decade as the ‘men in black’ due to their lycra equivalent of sharp suits. Herety attributes the quote to one of his former riders, Tom Southam, about his old teammate, Australian racer Darren Lapthorne. ‘Lappers’ spent more time smouldering than winning, but it doesn’t matter: class doesn’t have to come with palmares. Classy riders simply look like they were meant to ride bikes — think of Bradley Wiggins’s straight-backed suppleness over the cranks or Vasil Kiryienka’s rock solid core and steely grimace. Herety remembers lesser-known British road man Graham Jones, GB team pursuit Olympian Paul Manning and classics legend Roger De Vlaeminck. Class is aesthetic; its beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“What links all those guys to say they’ve got class?” Herety ponders. “They just sit on the bike, and it looks as if they’re one with the bike.”
To become a classy bicycle rider in the eyes of one of the cycling industry’s gatekeepers of style — Rapha founder Simon Mottram — a rider must meet three criteria: effortlessness, stillness and style.
“In the saddle or out of the saddle, the classy rider is unmoved by the effort,” he says. “The classy rider looks absolutely at one with their bike and the only thing that should move is the legs, in smooth circles. The upper body is absolutely still, regardless of the cadence or difficulty of the terrain.”
“A perfectly turned out rider oozes class even before a pedal is turned. Fresh white socks, just the right length, and white shoes, well-chosen sunglasses and other accessories, can add up to class. It can be hard to look good in team kit. Classy riders manage it; riders with no class generally look like a dog’s dinner.”
Mottram would get on well with Maxime Bouet, a rider who makes a habit of taking his stage race socks into the shower with him every evening and carefully scrubbing them clean, avoiding the dreaded grimy grey-wash of the collective team laundry run. Herety would like him too: he admits to once having brought a stash of over 40 pairs of fresh white socks to the Tour of Britain, his team’s biggest annual race, so that he could give a clean pair to each rider every morning.
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“Never sacrifice style for speed,” Herety says. “It was kind of meant jokingly to begin with, about somebody who was riding very slowly, but it’s synonymous with a type of classy rider. They would never sacrifice that style for speed.”
There’s hope for the everyday rider yet; perhaps you can help class along the way with a fresh pair of white socks. But class is fickle and fleeting; as soon as you try to reach out for it, it disappears. A classy rider shows humility, letting their class find its own way out. And so simply pulling on a pair of white socks can be a bit like putting lipstick on a pig; Bouet is no pig on the bike, but genuinely classy? Socks aren’t enough. You have to be born with something a little bit more.
Graham Watson has seen his fair share of classy riders over his four decades shooting the professional peloton. Reflecting on class from his well-earned retirement in New Zealand, the photographer puts class down to character — something a little more subjective than aesthetic. His much-deliberated champion of class was Francesco Moser because ultimately, no matter how prolific a winner, many of the sport’s greatest riders have been taken off the list of class after being found guilty of one or more of Watson’s Seven Deadly Sins. Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Tom Dumoulin, Miguel Indurain, Stephen Roche, Stuart O’Grady and Bradley Wiggins: forgive them, Graham, for they have sinned. They let their flaws sully their sparkle; they let greed, misbehaviour, arrogance, timidity, inconsistency, wastefulness or ruthlessness taint their class (though not in that particular order, it should be said).
“Frank Vandenbroucke was, initially, the greatest class I ever photographed. He was a ballet dancer on a bicycle: graceful, strong, energetic, good-looking and extremely exciting to watch,” Watson adds. But ‘VDB’ was dragged off the list by his flaws off the bike. He was a talent gone to waste, who “let his fans, family and colleagues down,” a heavenly cycling being who fell from grace.
Often it’s a person’s obvious shortcomings that accentuate their precious ability. Today we can put Vandenbroucke alongside the likes of musicians Nick Drake and Amy Winehouse, or footballer Paul Gascoigne, because cycling seemed effortless when life evidently was not. A flawed genius greater than the sum of his victories, he was dragged down into the murky underworld of cycling and celebrity in the 1990s; his struggles with addiction, depression, injury, volatile relationships and suicide attempts came to an end with his death from a pulmonary embolism in 2009 at the age of 34.
Brian Holm, who saw Vandenbroucke’s panache first hand at the beginning of the Belgian’s career, speaks from the velodrome in Copenhagen where he is sheltering from the autumnal weather and watching his son ride round in circles. Class for him, as a father, comes down to good behaviour as well as style and grace.
“It’s a bit like being Dr Jekylll and Mr Hyde,” he says. “On the bike you can be a crazy fuck but off the bike, you have to behave. You need a ‘soldier button’ you have to push; you’re a nice guy but as soon as you push that button, then you turn into Mr Hyde.”
Holm recalls his former teammate Erik Zabel cleaning out a deep cut on his hip one evening in his hotel room post-race, “scrubbing into the wound, onto the bone, just staring the doctor in the eye, like a madman.” His current pick of classy rider is Dan Martin. Yes really. The guy who probably falls into Simon Mottram’s category of ‘looking like a dog’s dinner’ on the bike. “Whatever happens, Dan is always a gentleman,” he says. “He finished the 2017 Tour with a broken back, and the funny thing was he never really complained. You saw him getting off the bike like someone who was 96 years old… but he never ever said a word, even behind the scenes. He just said to me in Paris, ‘Brian, it’s probably broken, you cannot believe how much pain I’m in’.”
When it comes to the aesthetic stakes between Dan Martin and Jan Ullrich, there’s only going to be one winner. But when Holm remembers his teammate for two years on Telekom, one of the “nicest guys” he rode with, he remembers a man who succumbed to the pressures of talent and success.
“He was fantastic; to see everyone in the last 10 km when everyone was down on their handlebars and Jan was just sitting on his brake hoods, like it was a coffee ride on a Sunday. He was a piece of art. He was a piece of art on the bicycle. But a role model for how he lived his life? I wouldn’t say so.”
Perhaps class is being a smouldering, white-socked, spotless paragon of still style on the bike, with a ‘soldier button’ that can turn you back into a nice guy off it. Perhaps you just know it when you see it. Either way, it’s one of the greatest compliments you can pay a rider, and that’s what I’ll cling on to: looking like a piece of art on a bicycle.
“So you really think I look like Jan, do you?”
“Yeah, sure you do.”
“In a good way?”
“Yeah, you know, the climbing style, sitting in the saddle…
… or it could just be that you’re wearing a yellow jersey today.”
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 18 where it was first printed.