Emphasis. Moser at Roubaix, 1979


Identifying bona fide brazen cycling heroes in the muddy cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix requires some precision, unless you are reporting on that behemoth variously known as The Cannibal or Eddy Merckx. In 1970, Merckx put 5’21’’ between himself and Roger De Vlaeminck, the largest winning margin in the annals of the race, and synchronized even the howling wind with his march—the legs drumming and pumping a breathlike accordion growl, inhaling and exhaling as only a squeezebox can. (It is a peculiar irony of history that the Belgian champion, who was always in search of a thematic vamp, as though to release the pressure soaked while brewing, would be sponsored at that time by the Italian team of Faema, a company whose success was linked to lever piston boilers, mechanical pumps, and the smoother extraction of espresso machines.) The beats and cadences of other riders, however, are different compared to what Merckx had in mind. At its best, the Paris-Roubaix does more than break free. It makes you think of possibilities, because each edition reverses the past trends. It recharges the eclectic impulse of cycling as a discipline and mandates a follow-up.

Environmental issues in what has been called “A Sunday in Hell” are often prophetic, literally pathbreaking, and unjustly neglected. What Henri Pélissier achieved by winning in 1919 was to effectively underscore the devastation of World War I over roads that barely survived years of shelling and trenches. With its jagged street-melodies or heightened isolated intervals, Pélissier’s performance was a distortion of regulated rhythm; it was as if the Paris-Roubaix were trying to find a stark placement of sound in space. While the materials and the aggregate syntax of the other cobbled classics had still-recognizable racing contexts—neat tricks of the sprinters, top-of-the-line solos, teams that figure out an original harmonic plan and then sweat on the head tube to bridge the average speed of the pack—the interests of this April path quickly moved toward atonality and non-chordal progression of cycling figures.

Running a Paris-Roubaix, in this light, is a bit like worrying at the conservatory about the Debussy or the Bartók exam, when you have to think so hard about inheritance that you can’t rely on the kind of distractions which, in cycling as in music, helps you to climb. Or, perhaps, it is a bit like entering into a DeKooning drawing, where each line is questioning the tyranny of diametrically opposed solutions. Arriving at Roubaix, for those who make it, must feel like entering an old Odeon with a squalid roof but still glowing at dusk with Ellingtonian tremolos.

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These break-ups in time make of cycling at the Paris-Roubaix a piece of improvised chamber music. And they also make all the more remarkable that somebody would manage to win three times in a row, between 1978 and 1980, this Impressionistic, often nasty affair, where sometimes only a few dozen riders reach the end. That somebody was Francesco Moser, a classically-oriented athlete who excelled on grounds of absolute control of the bicycle and tried to combine his burgeoning speed with team-work, free phrasing with strict counterpoint. When the Italian started competing in the race, the starting point of the Paris-Roubaix had been routinely placed in the town of Compiègne for a while, but there was a high degree of variation in the selection of the twenty-seven, mandatory cobbled areas. Moser was aware of the toughness of the ground conditions, and tried to experiment by wrapping his handlebars with strips of foam. He also knew that the winner was likely to be identified as the lone wolf who could brave a breakaway at some crucial juncture and be the first to leave the cobbles, and on each occasion (like Sean Kelly after him) he won by attacking Mons-en-Pévèle.

By the time his victories in this Northern classic resonated in the media, the 1979 race dropping out for its big cadenza and being the archetypal performance of the three because of its tangible spontaneity, Francesco Moser had already become an increasingly introverted rider, understating phrases and reducing the harmony of his work on the bike to a succession of discrete ports, at each of which he ruminates with protracted—sometimes silken, sometimes wooly—arpeggios.

While perfectly capable of chills and thrills of technique, and that ‘solo breakaway’ about which Patrick Brady writes so beautifully as “the most mythic of ambitions” and “the most suicidal too” [1], Moser is less remarkable for jubilant melodic expositions than for etching his cycling canvas with assured narrative logic. He rides the way he looks: lean and deliberative; imperial, when in full form, unlike the specialized climbers, who burst into raw power—scattering ripe trumpetlike sounds directly into the mike—and then stock up on calories on the same day. A tug-of-war between reticence and generosity, as it is characteristic of Northern Italians, and a man you can imagine sipping white wine and relaying the spotlight to his wheels with equal deliberation, Moser makes you sit forward in your chair rather than blowing you black. His cycling pieces accelerated and decelerated according to such limpid rhythmic cohesion that they almost seemed stillborn—a call-and-response routine or a stop-and-go concentration which is not dampened by familiarity, unerringly emphatic.

A number of journalists would go on to write that the 1979 Paris-Roubaix was one of the most exciting stages of the entire season. It reminded fans of the drama that was to come from a future Giro winner. Francesco Moser ran it without a false step. In the hall inside his helmet, sound was always bright and clear. And yet, interestingly, the Paris-Roubaix tends to blur: it is like walking through a dark room, feeling your way to the light, then slipping into the dark for good. (The darkness of the mud drains from the consciousness of the spectators like reciding water after high tide.) From the womb of the cobbles—from which so many cycling boomers were brought to life—comes a melody that is very retro and very lush, and can be alternatively reclusive, enigmatic, alluring. It’s arguable that Moser’s style and its basic orientation toward abstraction is a perfect match for the complex harmonic conceptions of the Paris-Roubaix. Only a restless experimenter, shrouded in studiousness and philosophical calm [2], can figure out the race’s fiery scrabbles and sharply plucked single-notes. For the best way to win this pointillistic ritual is probably to keep an eye on the next step—a step which will come deeply shadowed, as through evocatively focused black and white photography. ♦

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Notes.

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[1] P. Brady, ‘The Lone Wolf,’ Peloton 9 (2012): 74-78.

[2] In musical terms, Moser at Roubaix is similar to ECM’s familiar aesthetics of great precision and limpid sound, compared to the reissues of older sets of jazz music.

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Comments

  1. Sir, what is this text? I am simply overwhelmed with such a beautiful – and definitive – sport chronicle masterpiece. The most sincere congratulations, from this humble new fan. (And pardon for my poor english – in fact, beyond being brazillian, I’m feeling truly ashamed for writing something after this text…)

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