who do you think you are?

Someone asked:- “Do you think Wiggins’ victory will make more people cycle?” The best answer I could manage is that it may not increase the quantity but it might have some impact on the quality?
Can any readers confirm that Germans don’t understand the concept of a  charity bike ride? It would make sense, they don’t all want to ride bikes for a hundred kilometres but they certainly all know that riding a bike at a comfortable pace, for a few hours, is no big deal.

Anything is easy when you can do it. The hard part isn’t doing it, the difficulty is in becoming a person who knows how to do it. Learning to ride a bike is not a big problem, the more you do it the easier it gets, especially if you get some guidance – or spend time riding with good role-models – to avoid practising doing it wrong. Years of search-and-peck at a keyboard don’t make it easier to become a touch-typist.

Lately a problem for English people – isolated from the heroic role-models of cycle-sport and the practicalities of everyday cycle travel – has been the misapprehension that there’s nothing to learn. Becoming a person who can exploit the potential of a bike is not a big problem but you have to understand that there’s stuff to discover and to practice. Bicycling is young. In historical terms a hundred and twenty years is quite a short time. In evolutionary terms it’s a blink. It’s hard to say much about cycling in this pioneer era but one thing’s for sure… Riding a bike is not natural. Nothing in nature prepared us for floating on compressed air, in a state of perpetual falling where only the forces are balanced.

If you can ride a horse, paddle a kayak or ski, these activities are easy, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if someone without experience, taking them up, sought instruction, or at least the company of expert companions? The idea that everyone knows how to ride a bike, the ‘as-easy-as’ cliche, can be interpreted as another manifestation of mainstream culture’s disdain for bicycle travel. It doesn’t cost anything so it can’t be worth anything. The adjective ‘humble’ sometimes seems compulsory.

The mistaken assumption that everybody can ride a bike – as opposed to the truth that almost everybody has the potential to ride a bike – is encouraged by the fact that, in societies where cycling is an unremarkable part of everyday life, a lot of subtle knowledge is passed on in infancy. One of the best things about riding in the Netherlands is watching tiny children take their mother’s wheel, or the weaker member of a middle-aged couple – dressed for town and riding roadsters – changing their position, as the road zig-zags across the polders, to always hold the spot where they get the best shelter from their companion, crafty as Joop Zoetemelk.

There’s usually been room for one racing champion in British culture. As in…

“Who do you think you are…?”

  • …Reg Harris? (1955)
  • …Beryl Burton? (1965)
  • …Eddy Merckx? (1975)
  • …Chris Boardman? (1995)

Now that the sports-literate person-in-the-street has to engage with at least two, they also have to consider some of the apparently simple activity’s subtleties. What makes Cavendish different from Wiggins? Wiggins different from Froome? How does Wiggins go so fast and look so smooth?

Can Nicole

and Elizabeth

really get along, really combine successfully?

The quality goes up, the satisfaction goes up and then the quantity goes up.

It might work?

time to buy the yellow paint

When modern cycling – safety bikes with air tyres and chain-drives – began, Britain was the workshop of the World, unique in having a large urban working class. In agricultural societies bicycles made the workforce more mobile, more productive, a bicycle was something for a landless labourer to aim at. Bicycles promoted social cohesion. In a nation of industrial cities bikes were more likely to be considered a threat to social order, because they allowed working people easy access to the countryside.

When modern cycling – safety bikes with air tyres and chain-drives – began, Britain was the workshop of the World, unique in having a large urban working class. In agricultural societies bicycles made the workforce more mobile, more productive, a bicycle was something for a landless labourer to aim at. Bicycles promoted social cohesion. In a nation of industrial cities bikes were more likely to be considered a threat to social order, because they allowed working people easy access to the countryside.
In 1894 bicycle-road racing was banned in Britain following an incident on the Great North Road in which a carriage-horse bolted. Semi-clandestine time-trials were tolerated, but mass-start road-racing wasn’t re-established for half a century. One interpretation of Wiggins’ triumph, is that the outspoken Londoner with Irish-Australian roots is finally healing a wound that has delayed the development of bicycling in this country.

Wiggins is a ‘Mod’. The Mod(ernist) cult began in the post-war boom. The Beatles went to Hamburg in 1960, as Rockers….

rockers

…- Rockers like leather jackets, long hair, big motor-cycles and American music – and came back as Mods.

mods

Modism persisted through related flavours – skinheads, soul-boys, casuals – and enjoyed a revival around 1978. Wiggins is too young to have participated in either of these booms. He’s not a Mod by accident. It’s a choice.

Mods like tailoring, haircuts, American music, motor-scooters, coffee bars, anything Italian. Modism’s affinity for Italian style overlaps nicely with just-like-Eddy…

Italianate mod-chic just like Eddy

…retro coureur-chic; woollen jerseys, leather-mitts, cotton caps. It makes sense that – Fred Perry, a sportswear brand that became a classic ‘soul-boy’ label – would want to team up with Wiggins. They must have noticed the rapid growth of Rapha-ism. Here’s Bradley looking moody in the doorway of a new shop, selling old bikes to young people in Mountgrove Road N5.

1964?

The great fixed-gear boom of the early Twenty-first Century is probably over, but if – and it seems only lightning-strike can stop it – the Maida-Vale track-star, hipster wins the Tour de France the idea that studying to ride a bike is an aspirational activity for dandies will get another mighty hand-sling down the grand boulevard of human progress.

During the Beijing Olympics I had to ride out into the Outer Eastern Suburbs to make an important delivery. Floating through the afternoon snarl of Leyton and Wanstead I felt love coming from the disappointed wage slaves in the white vans:- ‘There’s one of those people we’re proud of.’

Hurrying to appointments during the last fortnight, taking pace off the motor-traffic on the Kingsland Road like I was pushing back through the convoy with a jersey full of bidons, I’ve felt the same delusion.

the politeness of champions

So the answer to last week’s question… “Will Cav be willing to carry bottles and close gaps for Wiggo?” …is ‘yes’. Heartwarming and humbling to see the Manx phenomenon back in the convoy stuffing his arc-en-ciel World Champion’s jersey with bottles. Presumably he’ll get his reward in Surrey and the South Western suburbs on July 28th?

So the answer to last week‘s question…

“Will Cav be willing to carry bottles and close gaps for Wiggo?”

 

…is ‘yes‘. Heartwarming and humbling to see the Manx phenomenon back in the convoy stuffing his arc-en-ciel World Champion’s jersey with bottles. Presumably he’ll get his reward in Surrey and the South Western suburbs on July 28th?

Anonymous suggestions that Wiggins and his dominant team are beginning to look like Lance Armstrong and US Postal, against whom evidence of – to use the traditional euphemism – scientific preparation has been building for years, led to a sweary outburst from the lanky lad from the Edgware Road.

“I say they’re just fucking wankers. I cannot be doing with people like that.

“It justifies their own bone-idleness because they can’t ever imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives.

“It’s easy for them to sit under a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of shit, rather than get off their arses in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something and achieve something. And that’s ultimately it. Cunts.”

Reaction to Wiggins’ tirade – which provided a refreshing contrast to the customary platitudes of elite sport-stars – illustrates the particular status of the top rank of road-racers.
When a soccer player mouths off or throws a punch it’s a scandal leading to disgrace and suspension. Uncouth behaviour is not encouraged among bike racers, it may even attract nominal fines, but there’s a general climate of tolerance. These are not normal people and it’s unfair to apply normal standards to them.
Take, for example, Oscar Freire, who fell in the massive high-speed chute 25 kilometres from the end of Stage Six. He got up and rode to the finish and thus retained the right to start stage Seven. Once over the line it turned out Freire had raced fifteen miles with a punctured lung.
If you or I fell off our bikes and put a rib through a lung we’d be glad to take the ambulance and morphine option and probably not ride for a month. Oscar’s first thought was avoiding elimination.
The rash of crashes in the first week clarified the Wiggins/Cavendish situation by removing any realistic possibility of Mark contesting the Green Jersey. Wiggins succeeded in – not only battering the opposition in Monday’s time trial – but also put a little time into his strongest team-mate Froome, thus winning continued, loyal support from the whole squad.

The question “Are Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky too much like Lance Armstrong and US Postal?” is foolish. It’s certain that any team-mate who out-shone Armstrong – in the way that Froome bested Wiggins in last years Tour of Spain, would have been out. And the idea of Armstrong allowing a World Champion sprint specialist in his team is unimaginable. Wiggins is a bike-racer not an old school Patron like Hinnault or Merckx.

when the excrement impacts the enthusiast

The early Bee Gees were – to my child self –  comical, with their goofy looks and emotional ballad style.

The early Bee Gees were – to my child self –  comical, with their goofy looks and emotional ballad style. I recall a briefly popular playground parody which turned ‘Massachusetts‘ into ‘massive chew sets’.

Robin Gibb with Isle of Man teeth

In December 2009 Mark Cavendish had some new teeth fitted, then resumed training earlier than his medical advisors wanted. His gums became infected, he fell ill and his early season schedule was delayed. The episode led to harsh speculation that he was more interested in stardom than winning bike races.

Mark Cavendish with Isle of Man teeth

The publicity following Robin Gibb’s death made me wonder about Celtic teeth, and whether Cavendish – in trying to look more ‘Monaco’ – had succeeded in looking less Manx.

Cav MBE with Hollywood teeth

Usually the more you find out about people the more interesting they become, celebrations of his life reminded us Robin was a co-writer of this great song.

Great songs from unlikely sources include this from…

…West End boy Yusuf Islam, and all those great standards by Chris Kristofferson who isn’t much of a singer and couldn’t act his way out of a paper-bag.

One of the unwritten rules of bike racing is there must be blood.

Yesterday’s unfortunate abandonment – broken tibia – by Kanstantsin Siutsou from Belarus will tell us something new about the Manx lad with little legs and explosive acceleration. In the aftermath of the stage David Brailsford described TeamSky rider Siutsou as “versatile” by which we may understand he does what he’s told.

Bicycle road racing is – like life – a team endeavour with individual winners. Any worthwhile achievement is the result of collective action but very often one person gets all the credit. Road racing produces recurring narratives of loyalty, honour, trust and betrayal.

As a team with a strong G.C. favourite – in Bradley Wiggins from Maida Vale – was it rash to include in their squad for the Tour de France both Cavendish – a super-star with his own agenda – and Austrian Bernhard Eisel who came with Cavendish from his previous team as personal domestique-deluxe?

Will Wiggins find himself short of team-mates when the shit hits the fan? Is Cavendish willing to allow his place-man Eisel to ride for Wiggins? Will Cav be willing to carry bottles and close gaps for Wiggo, fine-tuning for Box Hill in the big mountains?

Cavendish’s enthusiastic contention of interim sprints suggests he has ambitions to lead, maybe win, the points competition this year. His spectacular crash – in which Eisel also took a taste of tarmac – today in Rouen, shows the added risk of contesting bunch sprints early in the race without a full team to maintain some control at the front end.

Cavendish is also targeting the Olympic road race.  An event prestigious enough to bump the Dunwich Dynamo up the calendar. Cavendish and Wiggins have history, winning the Madison World Championship as the perfect sprinter/stayer combination then flopping at the same event when heavily marked at the Beijing Olympics.

In last year’s World Championship Road Race Wiggins dominated the elite field in the closing stages to set up Cavendish’s biggest win so far. Wiggins’ awesome display of sustained power and control in that event might easily end up being the greatest performance of his life. It would be interesting to know what agreement has been struck between the two for the next month’s busy programme.

The compelling uncertainty of sport means nobody knows whether Team Sky/GB are spreading their resources too thin, whether the experiment will end with domination, Yellow Jersey, Green Jersey and Gold Medals all round, or in embarrassing fiasco?

When Bjarne Riis toppled Miguel Indurain in 1996 they say the factories, shops and offices of Denmark were deserted in the afternoons as everyone stayed glued to live TV images of the bald Eagle becoming the first Dane to win Le Grand Boucle.

If Wiggins wins the Tour the achievement will raise the profile of cycle-sport in Britain to new heights. If Cavendish emulates the World’s greatest living Welsh person and takes Gold on the first weekend of the Olympic Games his global profile will get even bigger.

Super-champions don’t just win they are also noble. Win or lose, how these two handle the pressure, and conduct their relationship will tell us something more about their characters and begin to define their enduring reputations.

Bring it on.