Cyclists are obsessed by weight. It wasn’t until I had entered this crazy sport that my slight physique had ever put fear into the hearts of grown men. Previously, being so skinny was only ever a curse.
One summer when I was a young lad, I was playing in the paddling pool of my friend who lived across the road. His mother, observing me in my little swimming shorts, said she’d never seen such a skinny child; “I was worried there might be a gust of wind and he’d be swept off the ground and blown away like a leaf”. Not much has changed in the intervening years.
The impression given by the media is that every woman is, and should be, obsessed with their weight – every magazine is filled with celebrity stories of losing it, then gaining it, missery at being fat, misery at being too skinny. There are diets, exercise programmes, quick-fix solutions for beach bodies and party dresses. In every page and on every cover is a horror, a depressing fear of the body – a terrible longing to fulfill a particular skinny silhouette. Sometimes I count myself lucky I was born a boy – and a skinny boy at that, free to fill his face as much as he chooses.
Cycling keeps us trim, there are very few extra pounds to be found in the peloton. Yet when the road turns upwards, those labouring will curse their extra weight. Rarely will a sprinter turn to a climber and compliment them on the endurance or power they’ve developed in order to make lighter work of hills and climbs; they’ll turn their attention to weight, to their own excess and to your lack of it.
But any jealousy they have is worn lightly; to be a man and to be skinny is still to be not much of a man at all. A cyclist of more robust construction knows that it is only while turning the pedals on a climb that their physique is to their detriment. I’ve yet to overhear a woman professing a penchant for the pigeon-chested gentleman. Suits are not made in sizes suitable for the grimpeur. Boonen and Cancellara are the housewife’s favourites, not Contador or the Schlecks. Skinny men do not advertise aftershaves, or Calvin Klein underwear, only ‘Mr Muscle’ cleaning products. We’re a joke.
All this exercise and training that eschews the expectations of social norms, also keeps me healthy and strong. I am fitter than almost any other person I know (fellow cyclists excluded), yet often I wonder if life wouldn’t be easier spent on the sofa, or in the kebab shop at the end of a night out drinking. Or maybe if I suffered the intolerable boredom of a gym, with its mirrors and treadmills, and flexed my biceps for no other purpose than to watch them grow bloated with untapped potential.
But I’ve chosen cycling. When I line up with my fellow racing whippets on a Sunday morning – facing down the hills laid out ahead, to exploit one of the few natural advantages handed to us – I feel like I belong.