Panache: An Open Letter

Every year, Paris-Nice marks the true start of the season for me, when proper racing finally hits the roads of Europe and arm warmers are symbolically discarded over a week of racing to the sunny Med. No doubt there will be lots of great racing this season and I will be gripped until the Tour of Lombardy. But, as I do every year, I’ll also be looking for more from road racing than amazing feats of endurance and power, more than great teamwork or cagey duels in the mountains. I’ll also be looking for the quality that elevates road racing from just a sport to something more profound, more meaningful and more uplifting. That quality is panache.

Dictionaries define panache as a grand or flamboyant manner. Someone who acts with panache shows verve, style or flair. The word was first used in Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac and originates from the French term for a plume of feathers. Not much to do with bike racing, you might think. And yet, the history of road racing is littered with moments of panache and it is precisely those moments that touch us most and give us not just a human but an almost spiritual connection to the greatest bike racers. You know panache when you see it: Marco Pantani throwing down his diamond stud before attacking Indurain on the Montecampione; Jalabert, a sprinter, riding off the front in the mountains on an all-day escape to become an unlikely winner of the King of the Mountains; and David Millar attacking into Barcelona, the screams of thousands of his adopted home crowd ringing in his ears. These are exploits that surprise us with their courage, skill and daring. And the riders with panache are often dashing, charismatic individuals who embrace risk and enjoy pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. For me, Apple’s famous ad campaign of the 1990s sums them up:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

More often than not, riders with panache are winners. After all, lone crazy attacks (échappées bidon) quickly lose their appeal if they are always doomed to failure. And yet panache also involves a high degree of risk. Exceptional demonstrations of power on the bike are certainly impressive but they rarely touch us. True panache walks a fine line between success and failure, and it’s precisely that uncertainty and tension that touches us and connects the racer’s exploits with our own experience.

Sadly, panache has been in short supply in recent years. Road racing today is increasingly professional, with bigger budgets, more scientific training and expert coaching. It is the era of marginal gains, where riders hide behind helmets and sunglasses, coaches and media advisors, watching their watts and lactate thresholds and rarely taking matters into their own hands. The pro peloton and biggest races seem suffocating and it takes ever more self-confidence and spirit for a rider to stamp his will on important races. It makes for less interesting racing and puts the sport in danger of losing its connection with its fans. I suppose it’s the price of progress. In the so-called ‘glory days’ of road racing there was less to gain but also less to lose.

Yet there are flickers of hope, rare moments of panache that occasionally break through. My highlights of last year’s racing? Cancellera riding away from Boonen at Flanders without once looking back, Nibali braking on a descent in the Giro to wait for team leader Basso as he struggled to keep pace. Or rain-soaked Gilbert, taking on all comers in Lombardy.

You can call me unrealistic or an old romantic if you like but this is my call to all pro riders this season: Show some panache. Think for yourself. Assert your own personality on a race, or a moment. Surprise us and give us something to cheer. Stand up for yourself and stand out from the crowd. Honour yourself and honour the sport. Ultimately, you’ll gain more from chancing your arm than from grinding out yet another respectable result. And we will love you all the more for it.

To paraphrase Apple, let’s celebrate the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels and the troublemakers. Let’s celebrate the riders with panache who make us love the sport of road racing.