How do you tell your Martijn Tusveld from your Mike Teunissen? Just who is up there for the bunch sprint? How the hell can cycling make it easier to work out who is who?
Firstly, Eurosport was showing a stage from last year. It was on in the background with the sound turned down but I knew I was watching Chris Froome battling with Alberto Contador.
I recognised Froome’s spindly frame, his head tilted forward as if his front wheel is the most fascinating thing ever. His arms were out wide and his legs were rotating faster than a child’s windmill on a breezy beach.
Meanwhile, Contador was out of the saddle, shoulders flowing up and down like a sine wave. As usual, he appeared to be floating up the climb.
Familiarity made the riders instantly recognisable.
Fast-forward a few days and I was watching the final moments of this year’s second stage. A Quick-Step rider jumped off the lead group, making what could have been a stage-winning move.Embed from Getty Images
The commentators tentatively identified him first as Pieter Serry, then as Enric Mas. It wasn’t until the riders crossed the line that we knew it was actually Laurens De Plus. Definitely a case of Mas-confusion.
But there’s no blame here for the commentary team. All the camera shots were head-on. All they, and we, could see was a rider in a Quick-Step kit. Face obscured by sunglasses and head covered by a helmet. Unless we are intimately familiar with the riding style of all 176 riders in the race, how are we supposed to tell the difference between them?
Currently, there are only a few clues as to who is who in the heat of the racing. Obviously, the race numbers, but you’d need to have the startlist at the ready if you catch sight of them. National champions jerseys, race leader jerseys, white Oakleys, help. A few have distinctive riding styles – you wouldn’t mistake Fabio Aru for Dan Martin or Nairo Quintana for Mikel Landa, say. But otherwise, you can spend a big portion of the race wondering who the rider is …
So how the hell can we make it easier to work out who is who?
Have more numbers – don’t restrict them to that small area only visible from the back. It might be old-fashioned and clunky but stick a big number on the front of the handlebars. It might make road cycling look more like mountain biking but it’s one simple thing that would have avoided the Serry/Mas/De Plus confusion above.
Have huge numbers – in many sports, the player’s numbers are the most prominent decoration on their kit. In cycling, we use some little paper squares and a bit of clipped-on cardboard. Ok, sponsors might not like this one but there’s sure to be ways around this.
Forget numbers altogether – athletics learned this a while back. Instead of having athletes pin on different numbers at different events they now display their names on their vests. I watch, at most, one athletics event a year so I’m really no expert. But at the recent European Championships, I had no difficulties telling Laura Muir and Laura Weightman apart.
I concede that this would mean the likes of Tao Geoghegan Hart would need something more akin to an advertising billboard than a dossard. So how about each rider has a unique three-letter code that derives from their name? It’s far easier to work out who VIV, KIT and BOU are in a sprint than 33, 165 and 94.
Force each rider to have a visual clue – give each rider on a team a different coloured helmet or make them have a sleeve that’s coloured uniquely to the rider. We’d still need a list of which rider goes with which colour but some we’d get used to and the commentators could fill us in on the rest.
Some of these ideas are basic and not the prettiest, but is cycling in a place where it can be aesthetically snobbish? Besides, some individual colours and the name codes could lead to branding and marketing ideas that teams and riders could exploit.
It would take just a little effort and imagination to make the sport more accessible instantly. It would also allow the De Plus family to enjoy their boy’s next moment in the spotlight.