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8 May 2016


Démare‘s French armada swings rightwards. Kittel‘s men fight their way through, before the German giant chooses his moment and unleashes the full, devastating force of his sprint. It is his twelfth win of the season.

War minus the shooting, indeed, and in a setting – yesterday’s finish town, Nijmegen – famous for bridges and peace agreements. Over 18 months in 1678 and 1679, treaties were signed between an astonishing number of squabbling nations – France and Spain, Sweden and Denmark, Brandenburg, the Prince-Bishopric of Münster, the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire – putting an end to an equally an astonishing number of wars: the Franco-Dutch War, the Scanian War, the Third Anglo-Dutch War, several of the Northern Wars… so many wars within wars within wars that they are almost impossible to unpick.

Nothing compared with a modern bike race! 34 nationalities started this Giro d’Italia, putting, well, Frenchman against Spaniard, Swede against Dane, but also Kazakh against Colombian and Norwegian against Kiwi. And that’s not even the start of it: in the sprints alone, a Marcel and an André, neither of them French, take on a Sacha and a Sonny, with not a Russian or an American between them, not to mention an Australian with a Korean mother (Caleb Ewan), a Polish-speaking Italian (Jakub Mareczko), and a Dutchman called Moreno (Hofland – whose brother is called Fausto), all without a shot being fired.

Flyweight climbers take on heavyweight puncheurs, nations with their own traditions and racing styles compete on the same roads. Differences of physique, temperament and culture shape the racing and give the peloton, the sport itself, its peculiar character.
Even the Giro d’Italia is not entirely Italian. These days in the Netherlands account for 390 of the Giro’s 3,463 kilometres. Stages 19 and 20 take the peloton into France for 168 kilometres. Today saw another border crossing, this time almost unnoticed, between the intermediate sprint at Berg An Dal at km 146.8 (won by local boy Maarten Tjallingii, who retires, after a career as a swashbuckling baroudeur, on 30 June) and the Category 4 climb, also at Berg An Dal (won by Omar Fraile, King of the Mountains in last year’s Vuelta). The two points are a couple of hundred yards apart as the crow flies but 3.4 km along the race route, which detoured into Germany for about 1800m, really only to make it possible to include both scenic points in the stage.

Cycling sees borders not as limits but as lines to be crossed. Border crossing lies at the very heart of its mystique. The sport’s mesmeric quality surely lies in the completion, to scenes of great celebration, the release of psychic energy, of a journey across some sort of threshold: the scaling of a mountain pass, the passage between rival cities, the transition from one valley, one region, one language or dialect area to the next.

One of history’s greatest paradoxes is the way confrontation and conflict eventually weave sworn enemies into shared stories and identities. At a time where borders are becoming walls of exclusion and differences press in on us as never before, the world may need its Nijmegens, its border crossings, its cycling, more than ever.