When everything is ‘iconic’ nothing is iconic

The classic European cycling tours this summer have been great to watch, mainly because a new generation of young bike riders have come through and they have brought unpredictability into the equation. Gone are the days when companies run by billionaires could open their wallets and throw an eye-watering amount of sponsorship at a cycle team that ensured their product was 1st on the podium in every great race every year.

Jay Vine – stage 6 Bilbao (Photo: Luis Angel Gomez © 2022)

The other reason this summer’s cycling has been great to watch is because it is not the news. Since I finished teaching four years ago and have more time on my hands in retirement, I was an easy victim for the people who manufacture the ‘news’, particularly as my first two years of retirement were spent actively fighting Brexit, in the futile attempt to get a second referendum. So I got into the lazy rut of listening to all the daily news I could absorb. It was hard to kick the habit, even long after we lost the battle. I carried on listening to the news long after I could see it was bad for my mental health…

That all began to change earlier this year with the 24-hour news cycle of the pointless war in Ukraine. At some point I asked myself, when did they ever tell me in headlines that it was ‘Day 29’ of the war in Syria? Because they decide what is important, and Syrian civilians weren’t important but Ukrainians were because they looked more like us. I began to reject the news at that point. The final straw was the ‘leadership contest’ to run the UK. (Didn’t that used to be called a General Election?) That is when they really lost me.

I took out a subscription to GCN+ – Global Cycling Network – and watched every live cycle race they broadcast, from the grand tours to the slippery races around the arctic regions of Scandinavia. I’m now watching La Vuelta a España. I used to watch that in the local bars on Spanish television but I rarely spend money on beer in bars these days. If I still followed the news, I could worry myself silly about how much higher prices are likely to go! But I don’t. Instead, I buy my beer in the supermarket and sit comfortably at home on my sofa, watching La Vuelta on GCN+ and listening all afternoon to the retired bike racers and commentators waffling on about the finer points of life in the professional peloton. If you are looking for a harmless substitute for the news (or smoking, or Catholicism) I highly recommend a subscription to GCN+.

Naturally, since I am plagued with a lifetime’s training in noticing things and asking questions about them, I am not an uncritical listener to sports commentaries, so it was probably inevitable that the honeymoon period of enjoying bike races rather than suffering the news would eventually come to an end. It just did. I am now sitting on the edge of my sofa, waiting for them to say that word again. Please don’t! Please don’t say it again!

I began to notice it during the Tour de France. “And as he starts his ascent of the mountain, Tom Piddock goes round the first of the many hairpin bends of this iconic climb…” Even sunflowers were iconic.

“We are now waiting for the riders to enter the Champs-Élysées…” and I am waiting to count the number of times the word iconic will be used for the next two hours. Everything is ‘iconic’, from the Arc de Triomphe to the cobblestones under the riders’ wheels. The Tour de France commentary ends on a count of seventeen iconics.

The eight-day Tour de France Femenin followed on from the men’s race and it was now the turn of the women’s race commentators to expand the range of cycling imagery, geographical highlights and cultural sights which were pronounced unquestionably iconic.

The dictionary definition of the word iconic is “widely recognized and well-established” (Merriam-Webster). Ergo it simply doesn’t need mentioning, as everyone should recognize it and its presence ought to be obvious! But here is the reason why commentators need to tell us all the things they think are iconic: the TV medium infantilises its audience. In a bizarre contradiction in terms, it assumes the audience to be ignorant of the things that only it knows are ‘widely-recognized and well-established’. The viewers must be informed of the iconic-ness, otherwise they will simply miss it.

I need to calm down… This is too distressing. I pour myself another glass of Albali crianza – made with the iconic Tempranillo grapes of Valdepeñas – and watch the peloton snaking through the olive groves of Andalucia. Any moment now the commentator Carlton Kirby is going to say these olive groves are iconic and I cannot bear the agony of waiting.

“What are these trees?” he says, finally. “They look like lemon trees to me…”