The smell of cycling

I don't think that my olfactory sense is stronger than anyone else's. But my ability to dwell upon memories tied into certain smells borders on obsessive. While most everyone I know has fond memories about smells like suntan lotion, or the stale air in their grandmother's attic, the associations I have with smells encompass entire nations, and they are ones I think about often.

Consider the fact that in my mind, there's an absolutely definitive smell for the United States as a whole. It's one that's taken me a few years to figure out with the help of my wife, who was born and raised here. The United States smell is that of a highly air conditioned drug store or supermarket late at night during the summer. It's probably the humidity in the air, the cleaning solutions used in the store...I'm not sure. But it's a smell that, even after years of living here, stops me dead on my tracks and has an overwhelming visceral effect on me. It's one that my wife has to hear about often, much like Elaine did on Seinfeld, as her boyfriend became transfixed every time the Eagles' "Desperado" played on the radio. 

Many other smells, have the same effect on me, and I enjoy trying to figure out exactly what they are...since they are seldom as easy to figure out as "suntan lotion that my mom used to put on me during our summer trips to Virginia Beach." Chief among these is the smell of professional cycling. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not some seasoned veteran who has been to every Paris Roubaix since 1976, or anything like that. But due to the fact most of the races I've seen in person happen during the early spring or fall, I've come to equate a distinctive smell with professional cycling. It's one that I was only able to figure out last year after the end of the Amstel Gold Race. As it turns out, it's not actually one single smell, but a mix of two primary ingredients.

The first one is obvious enough. It's embrocation, likely a mix of the different brands used by different riders and teams. But the second part took me a bit longer to figure out.

After Amstel Gold, I was walking around the parking lot of a hotel where three teams were staying, and the mechanic's trucks were all doing loads of laundry for the riders. Hoses from the trucks went to nearby drains, emptying out the water/soap mixture from the machines. The smell was potent, and unmistakable. It was the second ingredient in the smell I've come to equate with pro cycling...likely either:

a) the European equivalent of Tide, a ubiquitous brand that everyone seems to use, or

b) some generic Costco-style brand of detergent that teams can buy in containers the size of tanker trucks to keep in their service courses

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what professional cycling smells like (at least to me). It's the smell of the freshly washed kit riders are wearing, along with whatever goop they've put on their legs before a cold day of racing.

Do any of you have similar associations with cycling-related things? I can tell you, for example, that mountain biking smells like banana peels to me, though I have yet to figure out why (probably a plant that grows around here in the woods). Bogota smells like wet concrete. Road riding in Colombia, to me, smells like small fires burning and corn on the cob (mazorca specifically) roasting.

Feel free to share in the comments section.



I'm no wordsmith, but I can tell you that the difference between singular and plural is important. For example, see the line below from this article in Cyclingnews (thanks to Christian for the heads up)


Speaking of general journalistic mishaps, Colombian journalist Yamid Amat recently interviewed Nairo Quintana on TV. When I was growing up, Amat was considered a giant in the sports world*. My brother and I listened to his nightly radio show often as we went to sleep. Today, watching his interview with Quintana, I felt ashamed on his behalf. While most of Colombia found the interview to be interesting because Quintana spoke very openly about the general lack of professionalism, support and knowledge that is commonplace in Colombian cycling, I concentrated on Amat. Obviously, he knows very little about cycling, which is not a crime. But how insanely insulting is it that he fails to see Quintana as a significant figure in the sport, and a real contender in grand tours, by continuously asking him if he's met ever met Contador, talked to him, or if Contador has talked to him?

Imagine if (in American terms) you get to be a quarterback in the NFL. You get to play in the Superbowl, and you win, and it's not a fluke. You then do an interview after the game, and you are asked the following questions by a local reporter, who seems as enthusiastic as a small child to hear your answers:

"Did Tom Brady say hello to you when you played him at the Superbowl? What's he like, did he say anything to you?"

The internet is littered with angry diatribes about how clueless broadcasters are...but in Colombia, this type of thing is so common (specifically being star-struck by proxy, when an actual star is in front of you) that I'm willing to say it's indicative of how many Colombians see themselves. So if you're into that sort of thing, Yamid, go ask Contador if Quintana has ever talked to him.

*Though Colombians older than me likely remember Amat as the man responsible for the now-infamous headline in the tabloid newspaper El Bogotano, where he declared that Bolivia (a landlocked country) had been hit by a tsunami.