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Ned is sorry to see the sun set on the racing season

BERGAMO, ITALY - OCTOBER 09: Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia and UAE Team Emirates competes in the breakaway while fans cheer during the 115th Il Lombardia 2021 a 239km race from Como to Bergamo / #ilombardia / #UCIWT / on October 09, 2021 in Bergamo, Italy. (Photo by Luca Bettini - Pool/Getty Images)

This article appears in issue 385 (November 2021) of Cycling Plus, out now. To buy the magazine or subscribe for regular copies, head here. By subscribing now, you will also get a Lezyne front or rear light that’s worth more than the subscription itself!

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Image: Getty. Tadej Pogačar on his way to victory at October’s Il Lombardia, the final Monument of the season

Words: Ned Boulting

Simon and Garfunkel are a guilty pleasure. I don’t know how the open-collared, satin-shirted duo came into my life. It’s possible I discovered them when I watched The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman walking around looking gormless to a soundtrack of Garfunkel warbling his falsetto of such heart-rending sincerity it made his giant stack of curly hair wobble. Anyway, there they are: part of the playlist of my life, yet seldom admitted to. I mean, they are in no conceivable way cool. Not even when they were playing their famous concert in Central Park did they come across as anything much more charismatic than a pair of mildly unorthodox sixth formers at a school summer camp.

I certainly never foisted their syrupy poetry set to tinkly folk guitar on any of my family members when they might have been of an age to take my musical tastes seriously. And yet just recently, an adult offspring of mine came downstairs to make some toast, and casually put April Come She Will onto the smart speaker. I was so bowled over by this that I very slowly put down my cup of tea and listened with great nostalgia and intensity to Art Garfunkel mournfully intoning: ‘April, come she will. When streams are ripe and swelled with rain.’

Now, here’s the admission: I adore this song. The fact that another generation, younger than me by 30 years, had made the same discovery only seemed to add to the deep melancholia this tune inspires in me. As Garfunkel ticks off the months, he tells the brief story of a short-lasting love. By August, ‘The autumn winds blow chilly and cold’. What is notable about this calendar of infatuation and desertion is its brevity. Based either side of summer’s height, it excludes the darkness of winter, the misery of late autumn or the bitter cradle of early spring. It is the story of flickering warmth and then its extinction.

And that, dear reader, is the road-racing calendar. I write this column during an unseasonable cold snap in London. I will be tuning in again this afternoon to watch the Vuelta; a race which, although swelteringly hot, also betrays the tilt of the Earth’s axis as it proceeds on its annual path around the sun. The shadows are long by the time the racers hit the final kilometre. And, after the Vuelta, there are no more Grand Tours. There’s Lombardia, of course, and the Worlds. But they are simply the emphatically hammered-in nails to the coffin of the season. It is beautiful, but it is brief.

And yet, in April the promise of all the months of racing seems endless. While we’re in the throws of Holy Week in Flanders, even the distant Giro in May seems impossibly remote and endless in scope. Let alone the Tour de France with its blue-sky blazing July presence. The Vuelta might as well not exist in our thoughts. Not until it’s suddenly upon us with its melancholic ‘last orders before closing time’ vibe. No one targets the Vuelta, except possibly Ángel Madrazo, who hides in a vault beneath some Asturian cathedral between editions. People just end up there because they screwed up the Giro or the Tour. Once they’ve started, they often quite enjoy it, but no one of note ever announces at the start of the year, ‘I’m targeting the Vuelta this year.’

Perhaps it’s simply a function of ageing that I find it increasingly difficult to let go of things. I dislike goodbyes. I fret when the day’s hours appear to be slipping away and there are things that still need doing. Even when the sun is shining, I worry that the next day might be cloudy. So, I find that I am able to focus most clearly on the races of late spring and early summer. They have my attention because I am not worried about the imminent end. The season feels interminable, in the best sense of the word. But by the time we get to late summer and last throws of the dice, I am conscious of what is to come; a barren, dark hunk of time in which we try to divert ourselves with cyclocross and other such mutations. Art Garfunkel might have been a folksy oddball. But he knew his cycling: ‘September, I’ll remember. A love once new has now grown old.’

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Ned Boulting is the main commentator for ITV’s Tour de France coverage and editor of The Road Book, now in its third edition. His Cycling Plus columns feature in each and every issue