The statues of cycling

What can the memorial statues of cycling tell us about the sport?

Video: Dr Chris Stride from the Sporting Statues project discusses the statues of cycling

An introduction to the Sporting Statues project

The Sporting Statues project has been running for four years now, and it is investigating statues of different sports people around the world. We’ve been looking both at what statues they are out there and perhaps more interestingly why they exist and what they say about the particular sport and also the people who created the statue.

The project has previously covered all UK sports statues, and then we looked at US baseball, world cricket and then the biggest database of all – world football.

With the Tour de France coming to the UK and Sheffield in particular it made sense to have a look to see which statues of cyclists there are, both in the UK and also in Europe where cycling is traditionally a more popular sport.

Where are statues of cyclists?

Full body statues of cyclists tend to be found in the nations who have been successful in road cycling and who stage the grand tours and classic one day races – France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland.

In terms of micro location, they almost all have roadside locations. Road race cycling doesn’t have a permanent stadium: it’s a sport that takes place in public area, so that’s where we would expect to find them. But because road races are typically annual events at best, and the grand tours (like the Tour de France) will visit certain locations only once in a lifetime, these statues are often about the place as much as the subject.

There are more statues in the mountain stages of the tour, and the statues themselves bring that out in their design. A number show the cyclist on a sloping plinth, and many involve rough rock or stone in the plinth… a material that connects the statue to the locality

A good example of this is the statue of Octave Lapize at Col de Tourmalet.

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What do they say about cycling?

I think these statues speak mainly about the suffering of the sport and that in turn reflects that it is the suffering that cyclists can endure that is what the fans prize.

Sports statues honour heroes – fans, sports organisations and civic organisations want to erect statues of people who are seen as heroes, and the statues of cyclists tend to show them suffering and grimacing as they are depicted riding up a steep mountain.

I think that reflects that it is their ability to endure suffering that makes them a hero. After all, if you compare cycling to football for example, a statue of a footballer tends to depict them executing a great piece of skill or playing with a particular style and this is something that the mere mortal cannot do.

If you think of cycling, nearly anyone can get on a bike and have a go at cycling so it has to be something about cyclists beyond just riding the bike that makes them great and I think it is the ability to keep going when mere mortals would have given up that makes the greatest heroes in cycling.

The statue of great Italian climber Marco Pantani, at Colle Della Fauniera in Italy, is a great example of this. He is held in high regard by cycling fans because of his very determined and attacking style – one that would see him attacking on the steepest climbs to take on his rivals. He is probably the cyclist with the most statues but this particular one shows him leaning forward and grimacing reflecting his attacking style in the mountains.

How do cycling statues differ from other sporting statues?

Cycling statues are more artistic than typical sports statues, which tend to be strictly realist and traditional figurative sculpture. A great example of this is the statue of Belgian cyclist Eddie Merckx in Stavelot.

I think a corollary of this is that generally sport statues are a hammer wielded by the man to promote brand loyalty, where in France they are more of a folk song written to commemorate great deeds but also express eternal truths.

Whereas many sport statues around the world are typically used to brand sports teams, their stadia, or even cities through nostalgia, authenticity, etc, cyclist statues have typically been instigated by fans or artists themselves.

Given the lack of other sport statues in France and Italy especially, this suggests that cycling is seen as more than a sport, and is a cultural, rather than purely sporting event. It is also perhaps more community than corporate (it’s free to watch) and might be seen more worthy of art and artists.

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This ties in also with monuments erected by fans, and their placement on public land (mountains) (guessing now) rather than private property (stadium). Events take place on public roads, so more ‘of the people’ than other sports.

Are there any cycling statues in the UK?

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There are no full body statues of cyclists in the UK and I think that reflects the fact that within the UK we’ve had very few great road-race cyclists. The nearest we have is a monument to Tommy Simpson, who before the current crop of Wiggins, Froome etc was probably our greatest competitor at the Tour de France. He, of course, tragically died while competing on the Tour in 1967 after taking amphetamines and collapsing of exhaustion while climbing the Mont Ventoux.

After he died a memorial was put in place where he passed away to honour him. The memorial is not a full body statue of Simpson but rather a stone with Simpson on his bike carved into it.

A few years back the cyclists in Simpson’s home village of Harworth, near Worksop, got together and created a replica of the statue from the Mont Ventoux.

Although the Simpson tribute is the only current statue in the UK, I would expect Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome to be honoured with statues at some point in the future – along with some of our great cycling Olympians such as Chris Hoy, for example.

Photo Credits:

Octave Lapize at Col de Tourmalet – thanks to Charlie Gordon on Flickr
Marco Pantani Memorial at Colle Della Fauniera – thanks to Giacomo Losio on Panoramio
Madonna Del Ghisallo – thanks to Alison Graves on Flickr
Eddy Merckx at Stavelot – thanks to Patrick Lienne

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