Photograph of the 2010 Catford Hill Climb by Martin Godwin
“The hardest part about going training is putting on your socks”, so says Simon Gerrans’ coach Dave Sanders. However, for me, the hardest part is actually finding my socks in the first place. And then trying to remember where I put the strap for my heart rate monitor, and then realising I forgot to lube my chain or fill my drinks bottles… and then, before you know it, I’m already late.
So prevalent is the habit of cyclists to run behind schedule that Rapha deemed it necessary to create an iPhone app to help more punctual riders cope with the problems lateness causes. “Where the hell is Fausto?” is their tagline. Now I’m not sufficiently sophisticated and Euro to actually know anyone called Fausto, but I imagine many of my club mates have uttered similar queries that curse my name. The ‘Five Minute Wait’ is the traditional feature to the start of any group ride, and beyond the usual banter (“Been out on the bike much?”, “Are they new wheels?”, etc, etc), is the familiar “Did anyone else say they were coming?”. Or at least I imagine this is what people say – I generally only arrive, sweating and panting, as everyone else is clipping in and about to set off.
At this time of year it’s particularly important to choose your riding companions carefully. Those long steady winter miles tend to drag when your ears are being chewed off by someone reliving in the tiniest detail every race of the previous twelve months. It’s like spending too much time with an elderly relative over Christmas who reminisces over the same few anecdotes over and over again.
And so it is with your club mate who would have made the winning break if only they hadn’t dropped their chain at the crucial moment, or sprinted to victory if they hadn’t befallen the misfortune of pulling their shoe from the pedal. Those pesky worn cleats! Or stormed through the Etape if only for an ill-timed mechanical, or befalling the unfortunate effects of the local cuisine, or choosing the wrong gearing, or, or… A full year’s worth of could-have-beens and should-have-beens is just waiting to be endured – I for one can’t wait for the new season so these tales of regret can be put to bed for another year.
It’s Friday night and I’m looking forward to my dirty weekend ahead. In fact it’s going to be filthy. Lots of panting, sweating. Even a little groaning. Plenty of tight revealing clothing (kinky!). Pushing it harder, for longer…
…it’s Friday night, and of course, I’m at home cleaning my bike.
Cycling is not a sexy sport. Perhaps occasionally it is, during a picturesque sun-drenched stage of the Tour de France, the camera dwelling on riders pouring water suggestively over their gasping faces… the hot steaming tarmac, tanned skin and toned thighs bulging beneath lycra, a flicker of the erotic, a flutter of the housewife’s heart… But on the whole, and especially in the winter off-season, cycling is mostly unglamorous drudgery undertaken beneath grey skies and on grimy roads.
As a racing cyclist the outside world views you with, at best, indifference, at worst suspicion. Lust doesn’t even come into it. As the weekend rolls around and the normal world embarks upon its escape from the working week - drinking, pubs, clubs, bars, dancing, flirting, falling over – us lot are packing in the carbs and heading to bed with a warm milky drink. The pursuits of hedonism and of peak athletic condition mix about as well as a heavily laced house party sangria – it’s fun at first, but before you know it you’re cowering under your duvet praying that Monday morning never arrives.
As a young single male, forgoing such social activities precludes most opportunities for finding a suitable (or even unsuitable, I’m not fussy) female companion to befriend and copulate with and to do all the stuff that normal couples would do. Which probably doesn’t include riding bikes, or at least any kind of cycling that isn’t on dorky rental bikes through Center Parcs in matching cagoules (when any female refers to cycling as ’biking’ it is this vision of holiday catalogue activities to which they are referring).
Photography by Jordan Clark Haggard/The Blue and Red
Ask a non-cyclist the reasons why they are reluctant to cycle through the city to work – after all it’s cheap and quick – they’ll cite the accepted vision of London’s roads. Impatient van drivers leaning on their horns, resentful of the cyclists’ very existence on the road. Swerving, U-turning taxis, diving towards the curb at any unexpected moment. Posh mums on the school run, towering above traffic in their 4x4s, one ear to their phone, one eye on the kids squabbling in the back seats.
But ask the downtrodden commuter, the veterans of London’s packed narrow roads and confused street designs, and they’ll point not towards the motorist as the rivals to their little patch on the road, but to their fellow cyclist.
During the recent tube strikes, space on that thin strip of tarmac – you know, that half a metre between curb and traffic – was at a premium. It was worse than the elbows out argy bargy of a 4th cat sprint at Hillingdon, and no less dangerous. A constant battle to get to the front. Except there was no ‘front’ – beyond each shoal of cyclists and cars lay another, and another. There was no getting ahead and away from the pack because the pack stretched from the first pedal revolutions of the journey right to the last (I think there’s a metaphor for the futility of life in there somewhere).
So there were two options. The first, acceptance and patience. The second, to go berserk, weaving in and out, jumping curbs, swerving past pedestrians, blazing through red lights, pushing grannies out of your path… the cyclists of London chose the latter.
A glance around the start line reveals several types of rider; those that will win only in their fantastical daydreams, those that are capable of winning but lack the mental fortitude, and those that are out to win, seriously, at whatever cost, and anything less would be a painful disappointment.
The real contenders in a given race will often only be split by a few percentage points in ability. In fact, it is often not the most able that crosses the line first. So what is the deciding factor? Luck plays its part, as does tactics. But I’m guessing that most races are won by the guy who simply wants it the most, who is most willing to step further into the cave of pain and who rummages around the deepest into their suitcase of courage.
One of the achievements of Dave Brailsford and his coaching staff behind the track successes of Team GB in the Beijing Olympics was that he was able to instil the idea of being a winner into the British riders. For too long it had been acceptable to turn up to an Olympics and be happy to walk away with a medal of any colour. Now only gold would do. In recent years Britain has embraced winners once again – once a nation that lavished affection on the plucky underdog, it is now a nation that expects results, and asks questions when performances fall short.
There is no sin in winning of course. But in our modern world where taking part isn’t all that matters, where more is more, and the winner takes it all, the uglier face of success can emerge: greed. If the only goal in sport is to win, then it seems obvious that the inevitable consequence will be a bending of the rules, and the exploration of every avenue of advantage over your rivals. When your ambition becomes dishonest, then it becomes a form of greed – no longer satisfied with what can be achieved by honest means, the cheating athlete (and the team and management surrounding that athlete) excessively pursuing success and wealth is a greedy one.
With their first season drawing to a close, Dave Brailsford admitted that there was a “closing of ranks” amongst other teams after Team Sky’s bombastic debut. “It’s always going to be hard to come in at this level, a lot of people have been in this small world for a long time.” To many observers this comes as no surprise – not only was there the hype and swagger of these new kids on the block with their ambitious aims and big talk of marginal gains, but there was also the ostentatious flaunting of the teams big budget. That massive team bus, the Jaguars, the bullish pursuit of Wiggins – little wonder it provoked envy from the rest of the cycling world, and no small amount of resentment.
Closer to home, there’s a similar divide when it comes to those who can afford the latest gizmos and those who make do without. Back in the eighties mobile phones were considered a derided ostentation favoured by hotshot yuppie types, until a decade later when a critical mass caused their cost to tumble and become an essential accessory for the masses. Power meters are our current cycling equivalent; still too costly as to only be affordable to a minority and causing a divide between those who talk of watts and power data, and those still measuring heart rates, or simply not measuring anything at all.
It is no surprise that the male mid-life crisis has become associated with cycling – middle-aged men in lycra (‘Mamils’) are really not far from the classic stereotype we’re all familiar with. Simply swap the convertible sports car for a Cervelo R3; the leather jacket for the technical fabrics of Assos; swap Just For Men dyed hair for their hairless legs.
Mamils are in search of the shiny elixir of youth (which isn’t, by the way, an expensive brand of organic chamois cream), and cycling can provide that boost for the sagging male ego. It’s a peculiar phenomenon; the man in crisis looks in the mirror and admires his renewed youthful vigour. Meanwhile all those around him find the sports car and sartorial regressions plainly ridiculous. The pot bellies of Mamils squeezed into bib shorts attract similar sniggers of derision.