Glimpses at WRITING

RONNY GÜNL:

Ein einfacher Zettel, geschrieben in der bekannten Schrift des Leibkalligraphen der Firma Pathé, meldete ganz einfach: ‚Und so setzen tagaus tagein die Islandfischer ihr gefährliches Handwerk fort, unbekümmert um usw.‘ O, ein paar sehr gute Zeilen, die mein Schriftstellerherz höher schlagen machten, denn endlich sehe ich der Sprache, meinem Liebling, den bloßen Worten, offensichtlich den Oberrang über Photographieren und alle modernen Techniken zuerkannt.“ – Max Brod, Kinomatograph in Paris

Es ließe sich denken, für das Schreiben sei im Film kein Platz. Bilder und Töne drängen darauf hin etwas zu vereindeutigen, anstatt beschreibend zu umfassen. Gleichzeitig scheint ein geschriebener Satz unumstößlich, der Film aber beweglich. Den Schreibenden im Kino kommt dabei die Rolle ihrer Person zu und weniger ihrer Tätigkeit. In Le Magnifique von Philippe de Broca ist der Autor François Merlin wie gefangen an seinem Ort des Schreibens, von dem er sich in seinen rauschartigen, zügellosen Fantasien entzieht. Der Film übergeht die Grenzen der eigenen Vorstellungskraft und versetzt ihn in einen Zustand aller Möglichkeiten. Es ist nicht viel von Nöten, sich vorzustellen, dass dies auch einen heimlichen Traum des Filmemachens selbst darstellen könnte.

Dann verkörpert sich das Schreiben aber doch in Form einer Sehnsucht wie etwa in Claude Sautet Les Choses de la vie. Ohne seine Hinwendung für sie zu verstecken, zeigt er Romy Schneiders Rücken sowie ihr umgewendetes Gesicht. Sie erwidert den Blick, der sich in Michel Piccoli personifizierte. Während sie nach den richtigen Worten einer Übersetzung sucht, bleibt der Text, den sie in ihre Schreibmaschine tippt, ungesehen – ungelesen. Für einen Moment erinnert der Film so vielleicht auch an die Texte, die nie geschrieben oder nie veröffentlicht wurden, weil sie sich nur an einem einzelnen Blick festhielten: Was hätte wohl Antoine Doinel aus François Truffauts Les Quatre Cents Coups in seine gestohlene Schreibmaschine getippt?

Womöglich kommt gerade dort, wo sich der Film durch die Schreibenden seine eigene Fiktion begreift, einen Augenblick lang das Wirkliche zum Vorschein. Etwas, das Georg Stefan Troller in seinen zahlreichen Personenbeschreibungen aufsuchte, sei es bei Thomas Brasch, Peter Handke oder Leonard Cohen. Diese Filme sind den Personen zugewandt, aber letztlich dem Schreiben verpflichtet. Jedoch zu zeigen, was das abstrakte Schreiben für das konkrete Leben bedeutet, hat vielleicht nur Georg Brintrup mit seiner Arbeit Ich räume auf über Elsa Lasker-Schüler verstanden. Gisela Stein spielt und zitiert Lasker-Schülers Streitschrift: „Ich räume auf! Meine Anklage gegen meinen Verleger“. Statt zu schreiben, streift sie durch die Straßen Berlins, von dessen Mauern im Hintergrund die Parolen prangen. Schreiben als eine Minimalform, das Unglaubliche zu bewältigen?

IVANA MILOŠ: The trouble with artists depicted in cinema is manifold. To my mind, however, it mostly centers around the portrayal of the unportrayable – trying to lend form to that which evades form, instead swishing around edges, flowing in daunting, meandering directions, careening off the charts, off the map, moving off the known world. This, in a manner of speaking, can be called creation. But I am not sure as to how much of it can be shown, recorded, reproduced – especially not when it comes to an art as abstract and solitary as writing. Still, there are enough examples of biopics focused on artists, or films where the main characters are supposed to be visual artists, where we find ourselves looking away with embarrassment once their “art” is actually shown (it seems as easy enough solution, not showing the artist’s work, but apparently it is hard for film directors to resist the temptation) or the process of making is played out by actors. This is one of many reasons why poet-filmmaker Margaret Tait occupies such a unique position. Her depictions of writing are simple, yet unswervingly nuanced, not shying away from the action itself, but also never crossing the line towards the awkward. She is, after all, a writer herself, and well aware of the pitfalls of creation in words as well as images, seeing as she is a filmmaker too. Her film poems are perfect vessels of plurality, a bringing together of layers, an unearthing of the visible and invisible all at once. In Where I Am Is Here, her stunningly beautiful film poem made up of stanzas/parts/chapters, there are several instances in which the act of writing comes to the fore. Experienced in all their intricacy, these communicate the truest feeling of writing in cinema that I am aware of. The first arrives in the part simply called “Complex,” where a hand is poised at the edge of a page, about to write. The hand is unmoving – all movement is reserved for the camera trying to capture the scene. In the very moment the hand begins to write, the shot ends, shifting to the motion of drops creating rings on the surface of water. Here is the motion beyond all motions, words and images conjoined seamlessly, the invisible shifting into the visible, calling to the viewer as well as the writer, the reader, the dreamer: Here is your world, don’t shy away.

SIMON WIENER:

…through all of this
you’re knowing that I’m here
while you’re there…

In Joseph Bernards Film for Untitled Viewer wendet sich der Filmemacher direkt an mich, den Zuschauer. Er schreibt mir eine Nachricht, Wörter, Satzfragmente, die auf dem Bildschirm aufflackern. Es gibt nur uns zwei; die Nachricht bahnt sich einen Weg, nicht nur durch Zeit und Raum, sondern auch durch den Film selbst. Wie ein Flussbett trägt der Film die Worte, transportiert und präsentiert sie, hält sie zusammen; zugleich aber setzt er ihnen etwas entgegen; stört sie, die sie Wasser sind, unmittelbar alles zu durchträufeln, in all Erde einzudringen, überall einzusickern.In Kurven, Umwegen, sich zuweilen spaltend, um Binneninseln zu umsäumen, lässt es das Wasser dem Meer entgegenschlingern, hindert es daran, geschwind, geradlinigst dem Meer zuzuströmen. Das Flussbett: einerseits das Film-Material, zwangsläufig mit der Zeit sich abnützend; andererseits ein Arsenal filmsprachlicher Effekte und Eigenheiten, die uns das Gefilmte, oder hier: Geschriebene aufbereiten, die ihm dienen oder es konterkarieren. Die Unterlage formt das Geschriebene, bestimmt dessen Textur und Schärfe. Wie Tinte auf Gestein wirken auf uns die Worte in Bernards Film; zerklüftet durch den Film, durch dessen Flickern, Auf- und Abblenden, Schärfenverschiebungen. Der filmische Rahmen, den gitterartige Strukturen im Bild nochmals echoen, zerschneidet die Worte in Fragmente. through all of this, lesen wir immer wieder. Das Geschriebene behauptet sich, bohrt sich durch all Filmisches hindurch. Die Tinte behauptet sich bei aller Härte und Schroffheit des Gesteins; mäandernd durchfliesst das Wasser die Erde.

SEBASTIAN BOBIK

Victor Erice’s Sea Mail is part of a series of short films called “Correspondences”. This series consists of 10 filmic letters, that Abbas Kiarostami & Victor Erice sent each other from April 2005 – May 2007. Over the course of this exchange we see amongst other things: children drawing a tree, a quince streaming down a river until it’s found by a shepherd and a rainy day photographed through several windshields. In Sea Mail however we see only a simple scene. It is the 6th film in the series. Erice sends it to Kiarostami on the 10th of August 2007. In the film we see Erice sitting at the seaside, reading poetry and writing a letter to Kiarostami. The film is only 4 minutes long, yet it seems to tell about the length, care & time it takes to write a letter. It only shows us some steps in this progress: Erice sits at a table reading a book of poetry by a 12th century Persian poet (on the cover of the book he is spelled as Omar Jayyam, though in the English language one seems to mostly finds the spelling Omar Khayyám). In the background we see another book, this one with poems by Forough Farrokhzad. After drinking a glass of water Erice starts writing. We can only make out the opening words of the letter before the film cuts into wider shot again, showing us Erice writing against the backdrop of the sea and a mountain. After finishing the letter he carefully rolls it together and puts the paper into a glass bottle, which is then thrown into the ocean, where the waves will take it to unknown shores.

ANNA BABOS: Sonia in Ernst Lubitsch’ The Merry Widow is a great diarist. Her desires are deep and conflicted, which makes for a meaningful subject to write about. Nevertheless, the typical hardship of isolated writers casts a shadow over her as well. She encloses herself in her bedroom and has no experience of life, she cannot relate her lovesickness to impressions that could be formulated into thoughts. The great object of writing, pain, becomes the obstacle itself. Thus Sonia’s sentences get shorter and shorter, simple, unexpressive, and unnecessary. Then – without any apparent external change –, she gets out of bed, frees herself from the space of self-pity, sits down at the table, and starts to write; in fact she writes as much as a glass of ink, as suggested by Lubitsch’s elegant dissolve. From the synchronized rhythm of her singing and writing, it seems that what she puts on paper is the lyrics of her song. This song contains imagination, speculation, introspection, conditional sentences. What changes is the extent of her unhappiness. Lubitsch asks the question: how can one write about the sentiment if the endurance of it is so tiring and uninspiring. As he answers, he depicts time and the process of Sonia distancing herself enough from the disappointment to be able to write self-reflectively.

JAMES WATERS:

There is a scene in the final part of C.W. Winter’s and Anders Edström’s The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) in which an elderly man describes his process of writing postcards. He emphasises the fact, multiple times, that he writes them by hand at the encouragement of his calligraphy teacher. He began this ritual many years ago, writing to various friends and family members – likely among the 48 people in total among the Shiotani community, up in the mountains of Kyoto prefecture. We’ve seen some of these people earlier in the film, sharing a land that doesn’t seem demarcated by neighbouring sections or designated housing. He describes the process of writing these postcards – when he began many years ago – as somewhat difficult, initially struggling to write more than one a day.

This is of no concern after enough time, however, as he now finds an immense pleasure in picking up a pen and exerting part of his days’ time and effort into these postcards and can write up to ten of them a day (spending one minute on each). Having received an expression of concern, a question or compliment, the recipient has been reminded that someone nearby is thinking of them. Regardless of a response, the writer will have already engaged in the now decades-long ritual of stimulating his mind; asking questions and making observations that – with the years – have become increasingly succinct. The man’s own articulation and clarity of perspective will no longer be so hard to reach.

ANDREW CHRISTOPHER GREEN: It took six years for Rita Azevedo Gomes to secure funding for the production of her first film, O Som da Terra a Tremer. You get the sense watching it that the script was written and unwritten and rewritten many times during those six years. The film is about a writer named Alberto (played by José Mário Branco, though originally intended to be Antonio Orlando, who died just days before shooting began). It begins with him narrating a story he’s writing (the namesake of the film), and one gathers that this narration is Alberto’s inner-monologue, indulging in a stream of thoughts about his life, his personal philosophy, what he sees through his window, and so on. We don’t assume it to be the content of a fictional story he’s writing. The camera’s movement over his shoulder out through the window above his desk seems to further establish our assumption that the voice is dictating the present, but then there is a cut and pictures of the blue ocean flood the screen, and the narrator begins talking about his life in the marshlands, far away from the location we just saw him in. This schism isn’t merely a disjunctive introduction but becomes the core dynamic sustained throughout the film: many layers of stories are compounded on top of and interwoven into one another. One of the plot lines deals with the character in the story Alberto is writing, a sailor, who has a missed encounter with a woman while on leave. This is the sailors backstory, though. We get a glimpse of his life before he is stationed in the marshlands where he’s taken up in Alberto’s story. Alberto’s writing is taking a toll on his life. He’s insecure about it. He tries talking to his friends, who are mildly supportive, but he claims he can’t explain his intentions for writing without them loosing their meaning. He ends up renting a hotel room across the street to see if anyone will come check in on him, and also to get a bit of distance from himself and his process. “I don’t know how to invent, all of this was already written by many others, long ago,” Alberto confesses. He claims to be searching for the unconscious, which he calls the “part of God”, and for it to narrate all this written by many others, long ago. Gomes’s script, too, was already written by others; it’s a loose collage made up of parts of André Gide’s “Paludes” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield.” There was already a great deal of resistance and fragmentation written into the patchwork script, but Gomes’s direction of it into a film became another opportunity to unwrite it all over again. She places a lot of value in the possibility of a chance encounter between speaking and seeing, between whats been written and whats being shown. There’s the hope, most acutely felt in the overlays and dissolves between scenes, that new associations might be unearthed in this interaction. “I like my epoch, for it is an epoch where everything is missing, and for this very reason maybe it’s the true epoch of fairy tales,” the narrator of her A Colecção Invisível begins the film saying. Similarly, Alberto insists that his character isn’t unhappy despite the loneliness of his situation surrounded by the swamps; he tries to make peace with his situation and wouldn’t trade places with anyone else. I sense Gomes doesn’t resent her situation either; the six years of dreaming and writing in an epoch where everything is missing lead to the creation of a beautiful film that feels like a half-remembered fairy tale, one that writes and unwrites itself on us through iridescent celluloid.


DAVID PERRIN: Denke ich an die ersten Bilder meiner Kindheit, fällt mir jenes von Jack Nicholson aus dem Film The Shining ein, auf dem er an einem riesengroßen Tisch sitzt und auf einer Schreibmaschine wieder und wieder den selben Satz herunterhämmert: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Das Geräusch der Schreibmaschine, ein stetiges Rattern, das gespenstisch durch die leeren Räume des Overlook Hotels hallt.

Die Schreibmaschine des Großvaters hatte ich auf dem Teppichboden des Wohnzimmers vor dem Fernseher gestellt, auf dessen Bildschirm Jack Nicholson seinen Satz endlos weitertippte, während ich als achtjähriges Kind versuchte, den Schauspieler nachzuahmen; ein ungeschicktes Stottern und Stolpern, ohne jene schöne Regelmäßigkeit der Bewegung im Film. Die kleinen Finger verpassen die Buchstaben, die Typenhebel der Tasten klemmen zusammen, die Wörter auf dem Papier bilden ein sinnloses Wirrwarr.

Jahre später: Der Großvater längst verstorben und die Schreibmaschine liegt verstaubt als Erbstück in einer vergessenen Ecke der Wohnung. Inzwischen wurde das Filmschauen auch zu einer Art Schreiben. Doch ab und zu lasse ich die Finger über die Tasten streifen, deren Buchstaben mit der Zeit verblichen sind, und erzeuge damit eine Musik, die durch die überfüllten Räume meiner Erinnerung ihren Nachhall findet.

PATRICK HOLZAPFEL: Ich war einmal im Kino mit einer Frau, die mich an Marguerite Duras erinnerte. Sie sprach schnell und langsam zugleich. Es war, als wollte sie vergessen, aber mir mitteilen, was sie vergisst. Kaum hatten wir uns gesetzt, es war irgendein belangloser Film über die Liebe, wurde der Saal abgedunkelt. Ich sah, wie ihre blasse Hand in ihrer goldenen Handtasche nestelte, um ein schönes altes Notizbuch mit ledernem Einband hervorzuholen. Es war, als leuchteten ihre Bewegungen in der Dunkelheit, ihre Hand, ihre Tasche, das Büchlein. Der Film begann und mit ihm das Schreiben. Diese Frau schrieb beinahe ohne Unterbrechung während des gesamten Films in ihr Notizbuch. Manchmal blickte sie auf, zum Beispiel, als auf der Leinwand geschluchzt wurde, so als wollte sie sehen, wer da weinte und dann schrieb sie weiter. Noch während des Abspanns ließ sie das Buch zurück in ihre goldene Handtasche gleiten. Sobald das grelle, ernüchternde Licht angestellt wurde, schenkte sie mir einen müde lächelnden Blick, als wäre nichts gewesen, als wäre nichts geschehen, als hätte sie nicht eben in ihr schönes Notizbuch geschrieben. Wir spazierten etwas in der angebrochenen Nacht, aber ich traute mich nicht, sie nach dem zu fragen, was sie geschrieben hatte. Erst als wir nach einiger Zeit in einer Bar saßen und sie sich kurz entschuldigte, wagte ich, in ihre goldene Handtasche zu greifen, um das Notizbuch mit dem ledernen Einband hervorzuholen. Ich schlug es auf. Als sie zurückkam, weinte ich. Das Notizbuch hatte ich zurück in der goldenen Handtasche verstaut. Sie sah mich verdutzt an. Warum ich weinen würde, fragte sie mich. Weil der Film so schön gewesen wäre, entgegnete ich.

There Is No Sea In Roubaix: Paris-Roubaix 2022

(Text: Victor Morozov)

“The success of the race was so, that the organisers announced by megaphone that Paris-Roubaix would be held annually, and would take place at Easter, on a fixed date”. Quite a lot has happened in the period separating us from the moment when these words were spoken, some 130 years back. Most of it is now lost in the dust of the cobbles, or treasured in the shaded memories of our fathers and grandfathers. Some of it can still be found in a series of literary works on sport, such as Pierre Chany’s magnificent La fabuleuse histoire du cyclisme, where I stumbled upon this idealistic quotation. As time goes by, causing the dust to be lifted year after year by the stampede of wheels rushing towards a small town in the North, it is these few books that become the passeurs, in the sense that Serge Daney envisioned it – they pass memory, history, and some of the joys, sorrows, and passions that those times were composed of, on to the next generations, hoping someone will still be there to receive the message and keep the flame alight.

There’s a sense of bittersweet melancholy in the town of Roubaix. It is the kind of melancholy that each post-industrial settlement is familiar with, once it is left to feed off its working-class past, as fleeting as the smoke of the last furnace to close. It surrounds you early on, as soon as you get off the subway at the Eurotéléport station. This name has fascinated me since I first discovered Roubaix by foot, some six months ago, during the most epic race edition in recent memory. As if the city administration had merged several nostalgic meanings into a barbaric word that needs to be experienced like a televised clip from the nineties about a European harbour nowhere to be found. Could this feeling of having finally reached the end of the world be encompassed in this strange name, with its resonance of faraway dreams? There is no sea in Roubaix, and the town, for all its centrality on the continent, seems somehow disconnected from the massive flows of goods operating all around, starting in the neighbouring Lille and the Belgian lande that lies, flat and devoid of a recent past, right beyond the margins of the town.

Roubaix is so heavy with memories belonging to the last century – from factories to organised crime – that this acceleration of History, to the point where it becomes invisible for the human eye, left the town in awe, scrambling for its glorious days, when Émile Zola could sit at the railway station and write down the train schedule… I arrived in Roubaix knowing what everybody knows – that it is a frontrunner of sorts as far as French urban poverty is concerned –, and was willing to discover what everybody seemed to forget. I knew Roubaix from when I used to watch, during high school, Arnaud Desplechin’s autobiographic films: back then, “Roubaix” felt like a silky texture, which quite inevitably alluded to a place where dawns are mellow and youth is free. (Since then I revised my enthusiastic judgment on Desplechin’s Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, but this vintage aura of his still gets me as soon as I begin to remember.)

Paris-Roubaix is more than a cycling event: it’s common knowledge. It stems from the story of accelerated economic growth, when a town like Roubaix could only go on the up and up, boosted, among other things, by the great inventions of the fin-de-siècle: the bicycle and the cinema, which could only appeal, for their different practicalities, to the worker. It comes as no surprise, then, that the first movie in history should present the vignette of workers leaving the factory, some of them accompanied by their cheap and efficient two-wheel means of transport.

When Dylan van Baarle from Team Ineos Grenadiers entered the Roubaix velodrome – the sports venue that prompted entrepreneurs Théodore Vienne and Maurice Perez to initiate the famous race –, it’s fair to assume he wasn’t carrying the burden of these melancholic thoughts on his lightweight Pinarello model. I believe that, if he – or anybody else, really – had the time to ponder the inner musicality and contradiction of the word “Eurotéléport”, he wouldn’t feel like racing on the cobbles, for their harshness is nothing like a Western Europe elegy. He would probably just want to take a walk on the quiet streets of Roubaix, in the light of dusk, which happens to be particularly heartbreaking out there, with its cityscape opening up on to nothing. But then I also believe that no one at all – from the spectators to the team staff – really had time to think those thoughts at that moment. The noise of the velodrome – an impetuous wave of shouting and applause and emotion – was simply too powerful. Unlike the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which works its way into your heart like a smooth wavelength of enthusiasm diffused generously through the landscape, on fields and in Flemish cafés, Paris-Roubaix has something of a hot core. What else could this giant TV screen installed by the velodrome – with its live broadcast and its desire to monopolize all attention – scream in our ears, if not the indisputable fact that the true action was taking place right then and there?

Inside the Velodrome (Photo: Victor Morozov)

Taking everything into account, however, Paris-Roubaix does seem like the most beautiful race in the world. Its truth is more simple, more transparent, than any other: some 250 kilometres of racing on flat terrain, and that’s it. No artifice – just the sun and the dust, or (if luckier) the rain and the mud. The legs decide who will win. Yet for all this apparent rawness of the mise en scène, no other race has ever embraced so eagerly the myth of the leader, the heroization of the contenders, the epic challenge of the itinerary. The race is hellish, and looking at Pauline Ballet’s or James Startt’s photos from the finish area – faces worn out by physical effort, relieved that it is over –, it does look like the perfect setting for the most basic and universal form of art: one that emphasizes suffering, shattered boundaries of the human body, and the virtue of never ending battle, as if Homer’s heroes were suddenly alive again.

I had been waiting for six months, since that wet, slippery, dangerous edition of Paris-Roubaix, to attain once again that kind of intensity. This Easter edition – the French presidential election oblige – did not disappoint. Never had a plain stage caused more trouble – accidents, innumerable punctures, folded wheels, as if they suddenly became liquid (Wout Van Aert and Christophe Laporte). Yves Lampaert’s mishap, following a slight touch with the arm of a spectator, less than seven kilometres before the finish line, proved once again how cruel cycling can be. I kept rewinding the footage of his acrobatic fall, as he was in second place, watching it in slow motion, decomposing the movement like I was some kind of a cinema pioneer. That body of his suddenly felt very vulnerable as it touched the ground in a fraction of a second, after maintaining the posture of the half-human-half-machine creature for hours on end.

And there he was, reaching vainly for balance, then hitting the ground in the most spectacular of manner, with a gesture so fluid, so helpless, only capable of leaving me in breathless admiration and deep regret. When he finally entered the velodrome (in tenth place), the crowd kept cheering: “Yves! Yves! Yves!”, as a sign of deep recognition: it was a human body that had been put to the test, while up until that point in the race it was the machine, with its more-than-perfect mechanisms, that kept failing.

A final word of appreciation for van Baarle’s deserved win. As Lampaert’s fall summarized a catastrophic spring campaign for Patrick Lefevere’s Wolfpack, so van Baarle, placing almost two minutes between him and Van Aert’s second place, was crowned after a brilliant stint of results at the Classics for his team. As the French say, van Baarle comes from afar – a revenant of sorts. Before taking second in De Ronde two weeks ago, he had been present at the start in Compiègne last October. Yet he reached the finish line outside the time limit, the last one to do so.

I left the Centre de sport municipal, the venue where the velodrome is located. I sat down on a bench on a square, watching kids play football. Paris-Roubaix already belonged to the past. It was unclear whether the melancholy was indeed mine, because the town was now a witness of what the 20th century had been, or ours, because the paved classics season had once again come to an end. The dust had covered the cobbles. It was all quiet on the old country roads.

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2022: Flemish at Heart

(Text: Victor Morozov)

The absurdity of watching a cycling race by the road can only be grasped after the passage of the last rider. How long did it take? Twenty seconds, maybe. Then they are gone: a moving tapestry of flashy colours, lines, and dots disappearing around the corner. All you have left – for evidence – is perhaps a shaky video or a blurry photo and, in any case, the sensation of being sandwiched against the protection fence by those whom you suddenly feel a kinship with. The crowd quickly disperses, each one going his or her way. What was that all about? A question not to be asked on such occasions; for with road cycling, as with love, we tend to be driven by passion, acting irrationally in search of the mythical precise moment.

I once read a wonderful essay of “cinephile semiology” by film theorist Patrice Blouin, where he stated, in regards to the Tour de France, that “[t]he open field spectator pays for his amateurism with the high price of frustration: hours of waiting for a lightning passage.” This is certainly true in most cases of professional road cycling – as opposed to the “mountain spectator”, who “benefits from a natural effect of slow-motion” –, but not for the Ronde van Vlaanderen. As I was quick to discover by myself, the appeal of the Flemish sea level, with its picturesque small towns and crowded pubs and this well-known desire for cycling – as spectacle, praxis, topic of conversation – is not something you can shrug off without an effort. That’s how I ended up spending the afternoon in Oudenaarde, the finishing location of the race, although I originally meant to reach Koppenberg, one of the decisive climbs of the course. But the prospect of a Kwaremont (6,6%) – the beer, obviously, not the homonymous climb – to be sipped amongst the locals, and the shiny showcase of the De ronde store – a Parthenope of sorts for cycling consumerism – took the better of my intentions to head uphill.

Now, I have to say that back in October 2021, when I watched the Paris-Roubaix finale on the famous velodrome, soaking wet as I was from hours spent in the stubborn rain of the Nord, I realized that these on-site experiences could serve – if certain conditions were met – as pipes filled with sheer emotion flowing in your direction. These conditions, of course, come together under the ideal of a beautiful race, whatever that means. Beautiful, this year’s Ronde surely was. I could already see it coming some hours earlier when, overlooking the fully packed Grote Markt in Antwerp, Florian Vermeersch of Lotto-Soudal blew a ram horn (!) and was answered by his teammates’ haka-like celebration, quickly adopted by the crowd. Yet it’s not the entertainment sequence per se that interests me, nor its charismatic host, Victor Campenaerts, whom I hoped to see up front at the end but didn’t; it’s this simple gesture by which Vermeersch put his horn into his back pocket with a matter-of-fact pose, as if the textile feature had been conceived for this purpose all along.

With the horn placed where gels and bars are usually kept, Vermeersch drove his team off-stage, concluding a moment of interactivity which otherwise contrasted with a monotonous series of riders taking a smooth right turn, waving their hand, then going away. For all its resemblance of principle with televised cycling – the same landscape (open field), gesture (pedaling) and visual shape (peloton) for hours – this presentation could only underline the massive, almost shocking dichotomy between the rider as showman (or, in any case, homme de parole) and the rider as athlete. It was not these fundamental platitudes – “amazing spectators”, “I love this race”, “glad to be here” – which everyone kept saying over and over, amounting to a hypnotizing show of excess, that ultimately intrigued me. It was the superimposition between, say, Pogačar receiving a huge bottle of champagne, and the same Pogačar dominating all the climbs that did, as it lingered in my mind throughout the day in the form of an irreducible montage.

The presentation was more than just glamorous show – it was also a ghostly ceremony, as the name of Wout van Aert, the absent VIP of the race, landed on everyone’s lips, either in dismay or in relief. Yet the men contending for the cobble prize this year seemed determined to outlive his shadow. They rode with particular generosity towards energy waste. Pogačar – who else? – proved capable of changing the rules of the game by himself, storming past the peloton as if on an electric bike. Only Kasper Asgreen, for a brief period, and Mathieu Van der Poel, the revenant, were able to respond. Yet it all got out of hand in the last few hundred meters, after what looked like a perfect collaboration between the two leaders, who controlled the last 30 kilometers at a steady pace. But after all this effort, so intense it made everyone in Oudenaarde’s central square keep silent in awe, Pogačar tried to play it safe: the gratuitous gesture turned into selfishness. It doesn’t take more to invoke the wrath of the gods of cycling. There was this incredible moment when, thanks to the frontal video camera, all notions of perspective became ineffective, and it was suddenly unclear whether the two in front were within reach for the two men who set off in pursuit. As it turned out, the gap had indeed closed in – so much so that Pogačar found himself in the unlikely position of losing both a massive sprint and a tight breakaway. De Ronde was actually testing hybrid vehicles in its own way.

The image of the day was not, however, the one with Pogačar raising his arms in deep frustration, although it did occur almost simultaneously. Indeed, one could make out the silhouette of a man jumping beyond the protection fence and advancing down the road just as the remaining carré des as was sprinting for victory. And if this act became an image, it was not by means of recklessness – what’s this compared to the woman who caused the crash of the entire peloton on the last Tour de France? – but through a sort of poetic reverse shot to the actual race. Of course, the message that was displayed in big capital letters on this man’s chest – CLIMATE JUSTICE NOW – was no news in itself, and it would have probably gone unnoticed in the vicinity of a Formula 1 pit-stop. Yet demanding climate change awareness behind the non-motorized wheels of Van der Poel and the likes suddenly seemed to call for an in-depth examination. This person clearly belonged to another scenario of De Ronde. But he somehow participated in the same global movement of discarding utopias that we experience everywhere now. His message alluded to the end of the dream: we were to go back into the real world, with its wars and its diseases. It was painful, like light bursting into the movie theater at the end of an old classic. Eating a cone of French fries on a pub terrace in Oudenaarde, trying to catch a glimpse of the action as it unfolded on a small TV screen that was obstructed by fans moving all around, I suddenly had the vision of a fleeting moment of beauty that blossomed in the midst of chaos.

Paris-Nice 2022 in a bouquet of highlights (and a bonus)

Text: Victor Morozov

The medium

Cycling was not made for Video on demand. The temptation to skim through the race is too strong, as if denying, through a click, half a century of efforts to take hold of the spectator. Yet perhaps, by diving through the images of races as freely as possible, as I did in the course of the last week, we somehow reach the essence of the cycling event as it was when it all started: loose impressions, bits and pieces. Some glimpses you picked from the newspaper, via majestic thrills that only the purest literature – the one written by storytellers dreaming of epic heroes – can ever produce. Others you glimpsed by the road – the dusty, sloppy road that cut through the fields–, but only if you had it in you, this understanding of the inhuman pain that cycling seemed to stem from. With the arrival of VoD, one no longer depends – as far as cycling matters go – on the unique truth of television (the live broadcast), nor on the unique truth of old-school journalism (the sports column of the morning after). Following years and years of relevance achieved by maintaining an insurmountable gap between those who had access to the race itself, and those who didn’t, is this sport about to lose its media soul, after losing its popular one? Caution is advised. For ultimately, what the erratic mode of VoD watching has to teach us is hardly news: namely, that the fragment, taken out of context, is for show, while the essence of this sport, its unflinching capacity to amaze us, comes from duration. Montage interdit, as a famous film critic wrote.

Timing

These days, Slovenian Primož Roglič is a familiar view in yellow (or red), yet he doesn’t seem to be made from the same implacable material as some older (Coppi, Merckx) or younger (Pogačar) champions we’ve seen. Indeed, you never know with Roglič, and this doubt, this permanent possibility of fallacy, is what makes him so likeable. Roglič does not compete often – few ticks on his calendar –, and, of course, he always sets out to win. But he still gives the impression that each race is a stage too long. (Or too short: perhaps one of the finest moments in cycling from last year was the Olympic time trial race in Tokyo, when he maintained his maddening pace well beyond the finish line – he had won gold –, in a trancelike pose.) This last-minute improvisation from Roglič turns him not only into a sympathetic character – somehow similar to you and me –, but also into a finer showman than average. It’s as if, unlike Pogačar, who has already made it clear he has no regards for the notion of suspense, Roglič was there to make sure it all comes down to the last kilometer.

Bibliophile intermezzo

In the past few years, Guillaume Martin from Cofidis became famous not only as the highest ranking Frenchman on the general classification of the Tour de France (9th of the last edition), but also because he seems particularly adroit with words. At the end of the ITT stage in Paris-Nice this year, he found himself on the podium. Not in his cyclist capacity though, since he only took 57th – “a performance within the usual standards of the discipline”, as he said –, but as a writer for his (already!) second book, „La Société du peloton“.

A man of his words

Back to sport and, to our man Roglič. Because unlike Martin, who has been nicknamed “le vélosophe du peloton”, the Slovenian is much less a spender with his ideas. Understandably, not everyone can match Patrick Lefevere, the ultra-charismatic cycling manager. Yet watching this man talk – and keeping in mind that English might be a barrier –, one cannot help but remember those brilliant athletes whose craft, and indeed artistry, were so intense that they bore no possibility of being put into words. After taking the yellow jersey from Wout van Aert during stage 5, Roglič praised teammate Rohan Dennis as “half human, half motor”. Cut to three days later, after he secured the overall lead in Paris-Nice, and there he is again, describing van Aert with the exact same words about a motorized centaur. He should, however, pay closer attention to his metaphors: there have to be better ways to describe such wonderful a team play than this quasi-Freudian slip. The UCI is known for taking things literally.

From Roglič & Co. to BikeExchange-Jayco

All in all, it was a strange race. There lay an emptiness at its core, with the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine and the not-so-distant horizon of death being inscribed directly into its course of events. The roads felt ghostly as only 59 riders got to the finish line, and the Course au soleil turned into a rainy battle towards the closest hot shower. The flu took out many riders. For the AG2R-Citroën Team alone, Ben O’Connor, Clément Champoussin, Stan Dewulf, Oliver Naesen and Damien Touzé had to abandon, turning the remaining crew into a fragile duo. This only reduced the stakes to around a handful of contenders. After two full stage podiums for Jumbo-Visma, finishing in yellow was still no formality for Roglič, as he barely dodged a well-coordinated attack from Simon Yates on the last climb. It all got quite emotional after Wout van Aert, the homme à tout faire, dragged his struggling team leader beyond the Col d’Èze and onto the finish line. As always with van Aert, cycling’s tension between the individual and the collective was once more put to the test.

Bonus from the Tirreno-Adriatico

At the same time, on the sunnier and more populated Italian roads, another battle was being fought, with perplexing results. It concerned the most impressive young riders out there: Remco Evenepoel, Jonas Vingegaard, and, of course, Tadej Pogačar. They were on the attack. They were cruising past everyone else. And then they missed a turn and found themselves off track. A rare moment of truth, reminiscent of an era of unmarked roads, so unbelievable it happened off-camera. For Evenepoel, the last one from the trio to realize the mistake, it was a fatal blow. He was going so fast all landmarks disappeared into a blur.

Somersault on the Moon – Notes on Strade Bianche 2022

(Text: Patrick Holzapfel)

The fancy signs of wineries – tellingly written in perfect English – on the side of the eponymous white roads across the Crete Senesi, a beautiful landscape in Tuscany transformed by humans over centuries, must have looked as if they were put up in defiance of the dust covered bodies and bicycles racing past them in what has become the most attractive one-day race in professional cycling next to Paris-Roubaix. No wine in the world, not even the famous Chianti produced alongside the route, could ease the pain of the riders participating in Strade Bianche. However, their reward is a narration embedded as thickly in myth as the modern world can possibly accept. The word hero grows as close to these roads as the rows of cypress trees – the race was even founded as a L’Eroica. The reporters there refer to the natural elements as if they were some Homeric mischief brought to the mortals by gods; they speak and write of eternity as if that’s all we aim for when pedaling towards our own exhaustion; their sounds of awe are accompanied by the frenzied excitement of the people standing on the side of the road like lost markers of forgotten civilizations. Those visitors from the real world – some of them looking surprised as if the race passed their gardens without warning – wear jackets and sunglasses to protect themselves from the dust whirling through the air (we know the metaphoric of dust), and even a frightened horse has to watch in panic as the caravan thunders past its once-so-quiet refugio at the foot of a rolling clay hill.

Cycling’s hunger for legend and archaic experiences is almost ridiculous, but it is also the most romantic justification for the absurd task of trying to ride your bike faster than everybody else. In the case of Strade Bianche, make no mistake about it, this hunger is a calculation. As opposed to other great races, this one comes with next to no history. It was only in 2007 that the race became a fixture in the international calendar of professional cyclists, and though there have been some remarkable editions in those fifteen years, it’s hard to compare them to the century old stories of steel bikes other races come along with. The race is built on nostalgia for a certain type of racing which is very hard to find in modern cycling; racing without being able to calculate. It leads uphill and downhill over kilometers of gravel roads (which make up more than a third of the total route), small streets and finishes after a narrow and steep climb up Via Santa Caterina on Piazza del Campo in picturesque Siena.

In this sense the Strade Bianche might be one of the few events in public sports in which we can see a successful attempt at historical preservation. While the interests of money and power subvert most attempts in other occasions (for example in football or the Tour de France), the rather naive and passionate desire for legend gives Strade Bianche an air of history in the making. It helps when the riders are reminiscent of what was once referred to as heroes, like in the edition of 2022.

It’s true that observing cycling races on television comes with a lot of patience, which is a euphemism for boredom. This is not the case with Strade Bianche. The first image of the men’s race we could see this year was a somersault on the moon. In a horrible crash caused by gusting winds, almost half of the riders fell down on the grey-blue, lunar-like soil. One of the them was World Champion Julian Alaphilippe, a favourite who loves the cameras and didn’t disappoint them with a spectacular salto off his bike. Later, he would pay the price for his crash as he strained to catch up to the other favourites through heavy headwind. He couldn’t keep up with the best rider on that day but then, nobody could.

Right behind Alaphilippe, a certain Tadej Pogačar fell less spectacularly but – undoubtedly – with a smile on his lips. This smile is hard to explain. There is a lot that is hard to explain. In cycling, we’ve learned that whenever something is hard to explain, it’s probably a cause for doubt. Pogačar is a 23 year old, two time winner of the Tour de France. He also won the Il Lombardia and Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 2021. Actually, it seems as if he wins whenever he wants to on whatever terrain. The only rider comparable to him in the history of cycling is Eddy Merckx, the cannibal, who is referred to as the greatest of all time. Pogačar, who looks like an enthusiastic schoolboy, is a force of nature, and the perfect winner for this race. He didn’t only win it, he attacked around 50 (!) kilometres before the finish line and managed to go all the way without any help, leaving the bunch of world-class chasers no chance. Such an effort is what journalists refer to as epic.

In the past couple of years five riders and three teams have taken control in the world of cycling and released it from the cold, data-driven, robot-like bureaucracy dominating the sport for a decade with champions like Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins or Geraint Thomas. These riders are Pogačar, Wout Van Aert, Mathieu Van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and Primož Roglič. All of them risk losing in order to win. They ride not only for records but for glory. Four of those five have now won the Strade Bianche in the last four years. That’s no coincidence. In them glows the very same desire and nostalgia as in the race itself. Their style is more daring, wilder, more erratic than anything we’ve seen in this sport in the last thirty years (with honourable exceptions like Marco Pantani or Alberto Contador). Embedded in tradition as they are (Van der Poel is even the grandchild of the great Raymond Poulidor) we basically already know – because such is the history of this sport – that they will fall at some point. However, they will fall in style just as Alaphilippe demonstrated, and to witness their fall and possible resurrection might just be another cause for beautiful legends carrying eternity across time.

Further remark: There is another type of a long fallen hero resurrected. His name is Alejandro Valverde. He will turn 42 years in April. It’s his last season. One should write a book about his career. He finished second. It’s not an overstatement that he is the real hero of this race. Like Pogačar he seemed to smile throughout the whole race. It’s sort of his trademark.

Smiling in pain. I find it hard to imagine that despite the pressure and the fierce competition involved these smiles do not display a love for the sport.

1 Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates 4:47:49
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:37
3 Kasper Asgreen (Den) Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team 0:00:46
4 Attila Valter (Hun) Groupama-FDJ 0:01:07
5 Pello Bilbao Lopez De Armentia (Spa) Bahrain Victorious 0:01:09
6 Jhonatan Narvaez Prado (Ecu) Ineos Grenadiers
7 Quinn Simmons (USA) Trek-Segafredo 0:01:21
8 Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal 0:01:25
9 Simone Petilli (Ita) Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux 0:01:35
10 Sergio Higuita Garcia (Col) Bora-Hansgrohe 0:01:53

Last hero to arrive in Siena:

87 Marijn van den Berg (Ned) EF Education-EasyPost 0:18:31