Project yourself back in time as long as necessary until you reach that point at which you first decided what you wanted to be when you grew up. I have to go back nearly thirty years and look down upon a young lad sat in one of the chemistry labs in Wootton Bassett Comprehensive. He’d just placed a small grain of sodium into a test tube half full of water which had subsequently exploded. Projecting myself into this young lad’s brain I can remember his thoughts at the time.
“Bloody hell, this is brilliant. I love chemistry, it’s all explosions and funny smells, this is what I want to do when I’m older”
And so at the tender age of fifteen I decided that I would become a research chemist. Two years later I deliberately failed chemistry A level in protest after disillusionment had set in. I hadn’t realised that chemistry was not as easy or interesting as first impressions had implied. Firstly the explosions had been replaced with slightly tedious experiments. Mixing resin with colours and stabilisers and then observing it is like watching paint dry. Additionally I found out that the ‘O’ level chemistry syllabus was all lies. Those nice diagrams of atoms with electrons neatly orbiting around protons turned out to be an over simplification. The truth involved charge clouds and all sorts of complexity that I struggled to cope with.
In the end I chose to study maths and aspired to become a BBC cameraman. The BBC firmly rejected me in 1989 on the basis of no photographic experience whatsoever and the fact that my Dad bought the Daily Telegraph once.
A number of things happened recently to remind me of these youthful aspirations, all of them cycling related. Firstly Britain suddenly ruled the world at cycling. Paul Weller’s brother, Bradley Wiggins, held off a skinny Italian to win the Tour de France. The first time a Lambretta rider had made the transition from scooter to bicycle successfully. Bradley achieved this despite suffering from a reverse form of alopecia that seriously affects his cheekbones. Wind tunnel testing clearly showed that Brad would lose two watts per decade to his bumfluff, yet he continued unbowed to destroy his rivals and win by several minutes. Then our olympic athletes took up the mantle and won everything else. Mark Cavendish did a splendid job of lulling all of the other nations into a false sense of security by letting Borat’s uncle win the road race. The track riders then turned up and carved “Britain woz ‘ere” into the boards of the Velodrome with their cruel cycling knives.
Secondly I received an email from one of the youngest readers of my book Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder. He’d actually enjoyed it, despite a complete lack of references to bitches, bling or the X-Factor. His email ended with this paragraph:-
“Finally, I have very big dreams as a cyclist that are laughed off by everybody. These are to ride the tour and be world road race champion and wear the rainbow jersey as well as representing my country in the Olympic games”
That’s a pretty big aspiration for a fifteen year old lad. However, I very much doubt that he’s the only youngster in the UK thinking along these lines. In fact I can imagine that at this moment in time countless dusty bikes are re-emerging from garages as their owners reacquaint themselves with this cycling lark. I bet there is a large vein of parents who’ve dragged their kids screaming away from the computer and shoved them on two wheels demanding they become the next “Hoy”. I’ll also wager that bike shop door hinges will need an extra drop of oil as an influx of portly men struggle to open them in a quest for a new carbon bike.
Now let’s be clear. This is a very very good thing. It’s always easy to deride fat blokes buying carbon bikes, but they are one step ahead of the fat blokes not buying bikes at all. By owning a carbon bike they’ve increased their probability of riding it and therefore potentially decreased their longevity as a fat bloke. There’ s always a slim chance that a child thrown off Facebook and onto the bike will remain seated and pedalling, as they realise that whilst country lanes don’t come with “Like” buttons they do create experiences worth socially networking about.
What scares me is that the nation will return to cycling and then rapidly retreat again in a similar manner to my experience with chemistry. The reason being that they’re drawn in by iconic images of British cyclists winning (the explosions) without realising just what was required to make it to that point (the charge clouds). It all looks so easy. Shave off all hair below the waist, look good in some skin tight clothes then mount an assembly of space age materials and all that’s needed is to practise the no hands celebration for the victory at the end.
However, cycling holds a dark secret that’s rarely mentioned in bike shops or displayed upon healthy living posters. Cycling success is down to mastery of a simple equation:-
Winning potential = [ power] x [ability to suffer] x [tactics]
Power and tactics are the same as in many other sports. The strongest and wiliest will more than likely become the winner. It’s the “suffer” bit that is so important to the cycling equation. For example, a casual observer of the Olympic time trial will have wondered what all the fuss was about. Bradley spun his legs up to “fast” and stayed there for twenty seven miles. He sweated a bit and produced the odd gurn but made it all look quiet easy. Compare this to a premier league footballer who’s received a small tap to the knee in the penalty area. He’ll be rolling around on the floor wailing in pain as if a leg based Chinese burn has been administered by Geoff Capes.
The contrast is down to the fact that Bradley has learned to suffer properly. Riding at 30 miles an hour for an extended period hurts no matter how strong you are. Your body is designed that way as it’s not really meant to do it. So the legs pass a few quick notes to the brain along the lines of “I don’t think she’ll take any more captain” but the elite cyclists brain is trained to tear up these notes and demand warp factor eleven instead. These special brains know how to eke every single watt out of the dilithium crystal as they’ve trained that way for years.
Commentators mislead us when they talk about suffering as they only ever seem to apply it to the cyclists going out the back. All cyclists in all races suffer. It’s necessary to do well and the more suffering you can put up with the greater advantage you will have over your rivals. In football this only applies to the fans. As a Swindon Town supporter I’ve suffered greatly over the years whilst my team have ambled about the pitch casually letting goals in and then recovering in nightclubs.
Competitive cycling and suffering go hand in hand. Yet its one of the upgrades that is not sold on the shelf or reviewed in the cycling mags. I propose that this should change and bike shops could offer a new service to aspiring Tour de France winners.
“Hello, I’d like to upgrade my bike and win the Tour de France”
“Certainly sir. Just squeeze through the door and we’ll see what we can do. Now how about this Pinarello that weighs less than your wallet and costs more than your neighbour’s extension?”
“Yes please, can I have a saddlebag as well?”
“Certainly sir. Now you’ll be needing some Team Sky kit and a Rapha man bag. Would that be XXXXXXXL or XXXXXL?”
“XXXXL please as I need to get some sun on the muffins”
“No problem. Now this week we are recommending suffer pack five, which consists of ten rapid smacks to the bollocks with a pedal spanner. Or you could go for the subscription suffer pack where we ship a weekly Bargain Hunt DVD to your house along with a bouncer to ensure you watch it”
“Hmmm, I think I’ll start easy and go with the iPod that only loads Mark Knopfler songs”
You can see where I’m coming from can’t you (I hope). It’s wonderful that competitive success is inspiring many to take to cycling but will quickly become tragic if the reality of competition bites those who turn up at the door of the sport. My fifteen year old reader is an exception of course, he suffered thirty of my chapters and clearly shows he can take the pain. I’ve filed his email for ten years time when he stands on the Champs and I can wave it about whilst claiming that I inspired him on the way.
But what about the others? What they need is a book extolling the virtues of cycling in the UK without the need to compete. A list of “must do” rides with suffering set to “Knopfler” rather than “spanner-to-bollocks”. This tome can lie in wait for those who decide that growing sideburns whilst suffering like a dog is just not for them. Hopefully it will act as a net to catch some of the inevitable fallers making their way back to the TV with pizza and beer in hand.
Fortunately I’m still making progress towards this goal. A recent hiatus in book writing will shortly be ended as my publisher has been in touch to say “Dave, where’s this book then and can we start printing it”. The weather/photography excuse has now faded as the sun’s come out and the roads are tourist free with the kids returned to school. I’ve finished writing it and just have to read the words again and make sure they’re correct. This is particularly important given the recent review I received from Chris. It was mostly nice and I particularly liked:-
“This book is probably not for you if you are a tricyclist responsible for tourism in the Grimsby area and are easily offended by Anglo-Saxon expletives”
It made me wonder what book WOULD be for you if you sat in this niche? But more importantly Chris rightly pulled me up on my grammar and proof-reading. I appear to be a Homophonic criminal, something I am determined to put right.
Dave, 7th September 2012