Join respected author & journalist Herbie Sykes who explains how Florent Vanvaerenbergh’s Safir Cycling Team got to ride the 64th edition of the Giro D'Italia.
Just so as you know, it probably went something like this…
Florent Vanvaerenbergh, the 55-year-old boss of the Safir Cycling Team, had been at it for the thick end of twenty years. He knew the arse had pretty much gone out of it, but what else was he supposed to do? He loved cycling, all his friends were at the races, and he couldn’t be doing with kicking his heels at home.
Like everyone who’d lived through the Merckx years, Florent was a realist. It’s tempting to say that he was deluding himself, but as he saw it he’d no choice in the matter. At first, he’d been worried that he might be deluding the brewery as well, but by now he realised that there was a sort of tacit understanding between them. Besides, it wasn’t as if they weren’t getting what they paid for. What they were getting was next to nothing results-wise, but sponsoring a third-rate cycling team was a drop in the marketing ocean. They’d more money than they knew what to do with, their customers liked cycling, and they very much liked Herman Van Springel. The reason for that was Herman was a very big, very popular rider, a champion. When he’d started out Van Steenbergen had still been riding, and he’d seen of Van Looy and Eddy Merckx. People liked all that nostalgia stuff…
The way it worked was that each year while everyone else was off riding the Tour, Florent would go the brewery in Aalst and get the money. He’d take along a briefcase, and in it would be a bunch of letters and a couple of lists.
The letters were the ones he’d written (and sometimes posted) to the race organizers asking to be invited. The lists would be the races he was pretending they were going to be invited to, and the rider’s names. Herman would always be on top of that one. Putting him there was the key to their metaphysical understanding, so he always took extra care with that. In truth that was all they were really bothered about, but he’d also take pains to drip on for a few minutes about the others as well. He’d pretend one of them was going to be the next big thing, that he was a Ronde winner in the making. Of course, they knew that was all nonsense because they weren’t paying enough to get a rider like that. He knew they knew it was just part of the game they were playing, and they knew that he knew that they knew it wasn’t true. They’d been playing this game for a number of years now, and they all greatly enjoyed it. He was a very likeable man, Florent Vanvaerenbergh.
Having taken care of the list of riders, Florent would pull out the other list, the races one. That would always have the Tour and the Giro at the top, and the kermesses in Rummen and Aalst at the bottom. They liked the ones at the top because they put them in mind of Tuscany and Provence, of a life less ordinary. They all knew they wouldn’t actually be invited to either, but it didn’t matter because it rained a lot in Aalst and they couldn’t have cared less about Rummen.
Anyway by the end of it all they’d all open a bottle of Safir beer, eat cake and kid themselves that the Safir Professional Cycling Team represented a good investment and a winning strategy. Herman’s annual Bordeaux-Paris aside they wouldn’t be winning many actual races but, as everyone who’d survived Merckxism knew, in cycling, there was a lot more to winning than actually winning.
Next Florent would take their money, give half of it to Herman, keep a chunk for himself, and then buy the clobber. With whatever was left over he’d cobble together a 16-man roster because that was the minimum you could get away these days. There’d be a couple of track sorts, two or three washed-up domestiques, the odd misfit and a bunch of young blokes who really, really liked cycling. Some of them were reasonably good at it, but some weren’t terribly good at all. Some were worse than useless, but that wasn’t so important. What was important – and what they had in common – was that they could afford to be bike riders in Belgium in the early eighties. Which is to say they still lived with their mums and dads, so they’d ride for peanuts.
Most of them could be convinced they’d make a fortune in the kermesses, which was just as well. Herman would help to sort out the combines out for those, but even Florent couldn’t truly figure them out. He sometimes contemplated the idea that Safir was just stringing him along. Maybe they carried on paying because they knew something he didn’t because they understood that there was some sort of subliminal kermesse-coding going on. Maybe they really were the key to everything, because they gave blokes an excuse to get stociously drunk, shout a lot and wave their arms around during the week. Maybe, in their drunken stupor, the Flemish had developed some sort of Darwinian indebtedness to Safir beer, and maybe that’s all his life amounted to. Maybe that was it, and he alone hadn’t understood it.
Get a grip Florent – it’s only a story about a cycling jersey.
Anyway things rolled along as normal. Herman took himself off for his 600 kilometre training rides, they won a grand total of zero races, and it rained a lot in Aalst.
Then, just before Easter, something not at all normal happened. We’re not entirely sure how it happened, but we’re imagining that Florent came down one morning in his green striped pyjamas. He put the kettle on, then bent down to open the cat flap and pick up the mail. There were four envelopes, the first three of which were white, cheap and full of meaningless gumph.
The fourth, however, was pink and expensive and textured. It had an Italian postmark and a lovely font, and on the back were written the words “La Gazzetta dello Sport”.
And so now Florent Vanvaerenbergh, chief cook and bottle washer of the Safir Professional Cycling Team, started to panic…
Safir’s Giro invitation presented Florent Vanvaerenbergh with two elemental problems. The first was that he didn’t have enough riders, the second that the ones he did have didn’t want to go. Van Springel had an appointment with Bordeaux-Paris, and elsewhere there were criteriums - a lot of them - to be raced in May. There was money to be made at those, but there was precisely nothing to be gained by getting their backsides kicked in the Dolomites. They had no stage racing experience, half of them had never actually seen a mountain, and they very well understood that they’d be out of their depth.
Somehow they got themselves some extra budget thanks to Maillard and scraped a team together, but only just. Three of them were neo-pros, and when Eddy Van Hoof celebrated his 22nd birthday by rolling out of Trieste, he’d been a professional cyclist for precisely twelve days. He and three of his teammates abandoned on stage eight, an absolute snorter in the mountains of Calabria.
To their eternal credit, however, five of them got round.