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Few sports expose their stars to the heady cocktail of pressure experienced by pro road racers. The 24/7 media circus riders negotiate in their everyday lives comes with the territory but in what other sport does the pressure ratchet up to such intense levels when an athlete is at the limit of his endurance? In what other sporting arena do baying crowds and banks of photographers press in so closely in the moments when you are fighting for every breath?
The greatest riders flourish in those when lesser rivals are at their most vulnerable, the end of a time trial or the top of a climb, because that is when they show themselves at their most powerful. It is one of the reasons we, as fans, love them.
Another is national allegiance. In some sports, F1 for example, all-powerful trade teams make the relationship between fans and competitors an oblique one. And yet in road racing the opposite is true. The ever-shifting alliances that characterise the pro peloton make a rider’s nationality crucial. From the historic passion of the tifosi, imploring their beloved Campionissimo (or Bartali), to the febrile support for Iban Mayo or Joseba Beloki when the Vuelta enters Spain’s Basque region, a sense of national heritage is part of a rider’s competitive DNA.
The revolving wardrobe of trade team kits means the opportunity for pro riders to wear their hearts on their sleeves, in the form of national colours, are few and far between; the World Championships come round every year, the Olympic Games only every four. It wasn’t ever thus. From 1930 until 1961, riders in the Tour turned out for both a national team and in national colours. It was a move instigated by Henri Desgrange, as he sought to eradicate the underhand tactics of early trade teams who regularly plotted to get their man on the podium at any price. National teams in the Tour were as problematic as they were unpopular. The fact riders spent the rest of the season riding for trade teams meant loyalty - or the lack of - was a real issue. Another was the tiny sponsor logos on national jerseys that caused sponsorship revenues to decline dramatically.
Rapha look to celebrate Europe’s leading riding nations in all their glory, not just their illustrious history but those characteristics and idiosyncrasies that distinguish one nation from another, and which are best summed up by the riders themselves.