The indomitable English

Everyone had great respect for this English bike. It would leave people speechless. It exerted a unique charm. We are talking about the Brooks. It featured a leather saddle with striking and always perfectly polished copper studs. Everyone liked it because it was always faithful. When Van Steenbergen, the Belgian who became world champion for the first time in Copenhagen in 1949, had one stolen from him he got so angry that his technicians from Girardengo, the team that brought him to the Giro, feared he may want to give up racing altogether. To calm him down they had to force him on his bike and convince him to continue, which was no easy task given his size (1.86 m tall and weighing 83 kg). He would sigh for days in remembrance of the many hours spent together with his beloved bike which he had been robbed of. He would dream of it at night because its replacement, also a Brooks, initially so stiff and riotous, was giving him trouble. It looked like nothing had changed. The new bike was actually nicer, and newer with its pristine leather and sparkling studs. Rik had to put up with it; he had been forced to. He took it as his bike but nothing compared with the comfort of his old Brooks he had shared happy and sad moments with. It was a whole different ball game. Since he had had to accept it (or retire – it was the 1951 edition of the Giro d’Italia), the pain in his perineal region had increased exponentially. His masseur had assisted him with abundant doses of zinc oxide and pig fat. The former for him and the latter for the leathery English saddle, just to try and soften it up. The zinc oxide was the basic ingredient of the dense, tenacious and hard to apply greyish ointment. Spread profusely between the folds of the buttocks it limited the reddening and would soothe the pain due to the long time sitting on the saddle.

Van Steenbergen was using up the team’s stocks, although the other teams had seen their reserves grow thinner stage after stage. Clerici, the masseur for Wilier, had developed his own personal technique. “When dealing with a Brooks – he would smirk – it is advisable to take the necessary precautions. You never know with these foreigners”. The ritual would start immediately after lunch. It was useless talking about breakfast because at six am, and even five sometimes, when the alarm clock would wake the whole troop, the sleepy riders, with half closed eyes and still recovering from the efforts of the day before, would gorge on spaghetti, rice, steaks, vegetables, cakes and fruit as if at a wedding feast. Clerici would wait for them near the exit with the pot of ointment clearly visible. With a natural move, he would block the first in line. With his left hand he would pull down their pants as much as needed while diving two fingers into the pot and fishing out a thick dose of cream that he would rapidly apply between the cheeks. The racer had to finish off because Clerici had already rapidly and precisely moved on to the next in line. In the morning the young men from Wilier would race to be the first to receive the meticulous cream application. It was easy to understand why. In the evening Clerici, after the massaging session was over, having applied the zinc oxide between the folds and spread the Sloan easement on those backs massacred by up to ten hours of pedalling, would give the mechanics a hand. He would meticulously check the Brooks, applying pig fat if they looked a bit tense and stressed: a coat on the shiny leather would make them soft and docile to face the race the next day.
God only knows how much Van Steenbergen’s masseur had to suffer to tame the champion’s new saddle.

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3rd September 2013