I should have known that people who spend hours hanging out on an Internet forum arguing about cycling arcana (people like - ahem - me) would never just placidly post a photo and go back to lurking. Heaven forfend!
To be fair, as the thread gained steam, it became clear that this beautiful, slightly mysterious French term is as hard to illustrate as it is to define. What ended up happening was more like a debate crossed with a lecture in cycling history, complete with audiovisual aids.
Instead of choosing one example and attaching it to the original post, I feel compelled to share with you some of my favorite answers. Time constraints prohibit me from thanking everybody who posted. Even the condescending or cantankerous answers offered wisdom. Go to the thread (linked in first paragraph) if you're interested in more.
First credit goes to those who were brave enough to actually fulfill my request by posting a photo. There were pix of Jens Voigt at full throttle; of Jacques Anquetil looking suave; of Lance Armstrong in his inimitable, sleek time trial position inside a wind tunnel; one brave soul even posted a pic of himself on his time trial bike, doing trainer time in the basement. He wrote "lol" at the bottom of his post. Good man!
Others expressed frustration that they couldn't find a good photo of someone they thought exemplified the term. Francesco Moser was one example, put forth by QueerPunk. I Googled some photos of him, and boy, he could look beautiful on a bike:
Though citing a trackie as an example of souplesse is a slight breach of etiquette, I have to confess, this is about as close as a photo came to embodying the idea. It makes you catch your breath.
Then, the conversation deepened. CreakyKnees was the first to open Pandora's Box:
I dunno man, to me, souplesse is about motion; it's hard for a photo to capture that.
I pooh-poohed this at first (call it a knee-jerk reaction) until folks starting jumping on his bandwagon, and some of those posted links to video. CreakyKnees, you were right as rain.
So, the ultimate winner of the thread contest was – ta-DAAA! – dmb2786, who posted a link to a YouTube video covering the history of the Tour de France. From about 5:40 on, you can watch Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, the closest thing the Italians have had to a national saint, certifiably embodying cycling elegance:
Do not miss watching this poetry in motion. In it, another famous racer is quoted remarking on Coppi, making as good a definition of that squirrely term souplesse as I've ever heard:
He caresses rather than grips the handlebars. At the end of each pedal stroke, his ankles flex gracefully. All the moving parts turn in oil. His long face appears like the blade of knife as he climbs without apparent effort, like a great artist painting a watercolor.Finally, to prove that souplesse is so mysterious that the best carry it with them wherever they go, I post my own contribution -- Coppi off the bike:
If you are elegant, you are elegant everywhere, and you never look like you're trying. And this is why so few Americans were proposed as examples in the thread. Souplesse is mysterious and elegant in a way that Americans are not, no matter how graceful they get. Perhaps Coppi would have called it sprezzatura. Souplesse, sprezzatura... Go find a similar word in the American English lexicon. It ain't there. And that's another reason I love cycling: We all link ourselves back and back to that ancient and mystical continental essence -- or we want to.
Viva Il Campionissimo!