Cycling’s afternoon of worship and wonder

The Tour de France Prudential Singapore Criterium was a contest but mainly a celebration. PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Cycles lean on barriers, fans mill around, riders cool down. The criterium is over and Weisley Hong, 27, bends in worship before Mark Cavendish’s bike with his phone in hand.

Why are you photographing the bike?

“Why?,” he and Daniel Wong, 43, both amateur riders, reply in astonishment. “Because he’s a legend.” The photograph is a memento to keep, a souvenir to have, like carrying a picture of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello.

Welcome to an afternoon of worship and wonder in Singapore as hunched, low-calorie gods in lycra flew through the city.

Legends on cycles are usually found late at night on TV as they conquer Europe, but now they are here in the Tour de France Prudential Singapore Criterium. Wong says “you can feel their energy”. Hong is dazzled by their “sheer strength”. The cyclists don’t look like they’re exerting and yet their average kilometre speed is in the mid-40s.

All sports need refreshing days like this, where the centre of everything is something we often forget – Fun. This was partly a contest but mostly a celebration. It was cold beer and awe spilled over. It was how you spark cultures and build a tribe.

Despite the sun’s interrogation, 80 minutes work on Sunday was a snack for riders who prefer the suffering of endurance. The 2023 Tour de France is 3,404km, with eight mountain stages. This Criterium was 64km with no great title at stake and yet going fast is their daily bread. Some riders flew in on Saturday morning but competition is their addiction.

At the start, helmets and dark glasses on, the 44 riders resembled an army of cyborgs. Their faces show little but the knees of some, covered with a map of scar tissue, tell us how hard they push. A Singaporean raced to the front early on and the peloton stretched out like a long, hissing snake. Cycling is a waiting game.

This is a lovely, relatable sport which belongs to everyone. Postmen, the physicist Albert Einstein, Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw and you. In ancient times there was a cycle known as the “boneshaker”. It was an uncomfortable contraption, not like these aerodynamic machines which deserve their own exhibit in the ArtScience Museum.

These bikes, as Aaron Wong, a manager at Shimano Singapore says, are 12-speed, customised pieces, whose minimum weight is 6.8kg and whose gears are shifted via buttons. Even Calvin Sim, the Singapore cyclist who competed, is in awe of some of the machines. “The latest, updated stuff,” he grins.

Sim uses a word which defines the afternoon. Inspiration. It’s always a privilege when talent come to town, whether it’s writers who talk about words or dancers who pirouette. Greatness is always best shared.

Sim talked to other riders, asked about training, discovering what he was doing well and what he wasn’t. Everyone was learning. As Johan Berghs, a Belgian amateur who took part in the charity race, said: “You appreciate how a pro rides a course after you have been on it. From technique, to taking the corners, to riding against the wind, you appreciate how good they are.”

Kids leaned against barriers, just feet from riders who have won 64 Tour de France stages between them. These are prophets of the pursuit and seen from close up they have an effect television never can. My god, kids might think, one day I could be them, they’re human.

Yes, they could, though the human part is debatable. The winner yesterday was Jonas Vingegaard, who minutes after a race in hard humidity was barely breathing hard. Was this man or machine? Actually just an introvert who is sparklingly expressive when he rides. One might say, his talent talks sufficiently.

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