Over time, a cyclist will start to talk like a cyclist. Meaning they’ll pronounce Bernard Hinault’s name like “Eno”, not “Hainault” and express distances in kilometres (which we should all do; The Rules aren’t just for fun, you know). They’ll begin to use expressions picked up from TV commentary and post-race interviews (as documented by GCN, whose valuable work in this field demonstrates how all pros eventually start to shound a liddle bit Belgian, you know? As well as including “for sure” or “it’s normal”, or both, in every sentence).
Two other examples of telltale peloton-speak:
“He did a good sprint”
Even native English speakers in the sport seem to have adopted this rather clumsy formulation, in favour of the more natural “he sprinted well”. “Do” has become mandatory. “I knew I wanted to do a good ride/sprint/effort …” etc.
“I had good sensations”
For some reason, this is the traditional way to describe feeling good on the bike. We all know we have to refer to The Legs in the non-possessive, as in “The Legs were good today”, but for some reason it seems more Euro and more Pro also to talk about your sensations.
Cyclists looked cooler in the old days. It’s just a fact. For confirmation, please refer to Velominati.com where our colleague Frank has done the science on this.
And so did cricketers. And in both cases, it’s headwear that’s the issue. Back before helmets emerged in the late 70s, a cricketer might wear his neat little county cap, or an absurd multi-coloured club number (the notorious “jazz-hat”), or even, if they were an Australian Test player, the “baggy green”, which has been getting a bit less fetishistic attention from the Australian Test squad of late, so seems bearable to refer to.
And cyclists wore casquettes. Peak up, peak down, backwards if they thought they could style it out. Ideally with some luft, so it’s perched just so. See the Brian Holm/Gianni Bugno masterclass for more on this topic.
This situation was cool for two reasons: firstly the – generally speaking – fine proportions of these athletes weren’t distorted by any mushroom-like additions up top. Secondly you could see what your heroes looked like, damn it. David Gower’s schoolboy smirk, Brian Close’s frankly intimidating combover (no, really), Jacques Anqeutil’s time trial face, Hugo Koblet’s hairdo, Marco Pantani’s bandana.
Flash forward to now, and you’re relying on chin shape, beards and mullets to distinguish one athlete from another. Cricket commentators have plenty of time to ID the players for us, but I bet their cycling counterparts find it a nightmare. Skilled though they are at recognising a rider from their style (e.g. Peter Sagan’s notoriously BMX-style posizione, which will come in handy again next time he’s not World Champion), they’re probably very grateful for a bit of Extreme Hair. Did Daniel Oss grow his out because he’s a free spirit, or because his agent thought he needed to tweak his brand, hm? Dani King’s plait? Same thing; her ‘do is her logo.
The one difference seems to be the effect of protective headwear on the actual sport. Many riders objected to the introduction of compulsory helmets in 2003 (and had successfully rebelled against previous attempts at imposition) on the basis that people would take more risks. In fact, the pros seem to take roughly the same risks and crash about the same amount. Sadly very occasional fatalities still occur, but there must surely be fewer concussions and head wounds than their used to be.
In cricket, though, the difference seems quite clear. In the heyday of the West Indies pace quartet, opposing tail-end batsmen, bareheaded against 90mph+ bouncers, would back away from their stumps like someone was pissing on their shoes. Since helmets (and, to be fair, Twenty20 and actual batting practice for bowlers) everybody tries to hook the bouncers. Sure, sometimes they catch one in the grille, and we have the spectre of the horrifying death of Phil Hughes to contend with, but it’s inarguable that the perceived risk has fallen and play has changed as a result. For the better? Not sure. I just wish both groups of sportspeople would spare a thought for the punters and take off their headwear (and their MASSIVE FUCKING OAKLEYS) as often as they can.
The relationship between cycling and music is a slightly peculiar one. As a broadcast sport, the closest it has to the emblematic tunes of F1 (The Chain), cricket (Soul Limbo) and snooker (Drag Racer – who knew?) is either the Channel 4 theme, inexplicably written by Pete Shelley from The Buzzcocks or Kraftwerk’s slinky Tour de France.
But, for the vast number of cyclists who train at least some of the time indoors on a stationary bike, music is crucial. Crucial because cycling indoors on a stationary bike is ultra-dullsville and your motivational options are basically:
Computerised virtual racing (Zwift, Trainer Road etc)
I do an interval session on a Wattbike at least once a week and the thought of doing it music-less is horrifying. I have a Spotify playlist, called “Intervals“, which contains music which is between 90 and 110 beats per minute, broadly matching my ideal cycling cadence, and – just as importantly – aggressive or at least very energetic.
Invaders Must Die by The Prodigy – I always find an extra few watts for ver Prodg’. Hence the three mixes of this track on the playlist.
Bloodsport for All by Carter – helpfully activates moshpit muscle-memory from college days.
On a Ragga Tip by SL2 – not least because its refrain reminds us of celebrated French road cyclist Romain Bardet (…Bardet, ba-waddla-dahn-det).
Jesus Built My Hotrod by Ministry – requires no explanation IMO. Oddly, one of three (all distinctly ungodly) “Jesus” songs on the playlist.
Sheena is a Punk Rocker by The Ramones – who helpfully wrote almost exclusively 90-10bpm songs full of bouncy, dumb energy. God bless ’em (though not the Republican, NRA one; screw him).
I’m always on the lookout for new tunes to keep me going, hence the random recent drum n’bass inclusions, and I’m slightly embarrassed at how few contemporary tracks there are on there to counterbalance the student-in-the-90s vibe, but, you know, the legs want what the legs want (or whatever).
In September we publish our third Pursuit book: the fabulous Anquetil, Alone, written by Paul Fournel and translated from the French by Nicholas Caistor. It’s an absolute gem, combining Paul’s memories of idolising Anquetil as a child with sections of imagined autobiography, written from Anquetil’s own point of view.
Cycling is not my sport. I didn’t choose it; the bike chose me. I don’t love the bike, the bike loves me. It’s going to pay for it.
I’m very proud of this book’s cover, so what follows is the story of how it came to be.
I wrote a brief for Pete Dyer, the ridiculously accomplished Art Director of Profile Books, the home of Pursuit. It included this general aspiration:
I think this shouldn’t look like a conventional biography. It should look original and intriguing. It’s a literary book and, I think, a modern classic.
I included comparisons to The Rider – probably the most widely renowned cycling classic – and the French edition of Anquetil, Tout Seul. Although I liked the almost art-cinema feel of the French book (and we did use this photo within the pages of our edition) it didn’t communicate “cycling” clearly enough to use in the UK.
The Rider – a key comparison
French cover. C’est cool, non?
I said the market was
… knowledgable cycling fans, both those who remember Anquetil (who was active in the 50s and 60s) and a newer generation, who are reading up on the legends of the sport. An educated, aesthetically inclined group of readers.
I knew I didn’t want just an archive photo of Anquetil. This is an unconventional book, so it should look different to “straight” sporting biography.
Pete’s immediate suggestion was to ask Will Webb to design something. This was music to my ears. While I was at Bloomsbury, Will had firstly designed the cover for The Rider (above) and later became an exceptional lino print artist. Though I sometimes disagreed with his use of lino on book covers, I was inspired by his work and ended up dablling in the craft myself (he was good enough to overlook our past spats when I sheepishly asked him for guidance on printing some years later). I enjoy my lino, and even did my own rather shonky first version of the Pursuit logo but Will is the real deal.
Pete’s brief to Will hadn’t specified a print, and in fact the first roughs were photographic.
I loved them, but the composition of one of them in particular reminded me of one of my favourite pieces of Will’s lino work. It’s a “reduction print” he did of the great Eddy Merckx which I liked so much I clubbed together with my sister to buy one for our dad’s 70th birthday.
(Reduction printing – a digression)
Reduction printing is dead cool, not least because its invention is credited to Pablo Picasso. The idea is, you gouge your lino to leave a raised area that you take a print from, typically in a pale colour (in this example, the background on everything bar the white bits). You print an edition of – say – twelve. You then gouge away more lino, to leave a smaller area, which you then ink with a stronger colour (e.g. skin tone), which goes over the top of the pale layer. The tecnique is practical, because you don’t have to worry about registration between layers; it’s all using the same block, so they match up naturally. It’s also risky and rather thrilling because of course you’re destroying your previous work with each new layer you do, and the thing can’t therefore be reprinted. Your twelve are your twelve, and god help you if you make a mistake.
The cover takes shape
Anyway, we suggested that Will appropriate his own style and render the Anquetil image in the lino style. I think he’s done it with clever design work, rather than spending hundreds of hours printing it by hand, but the result is stunning and I think Will has probably earned the right to do what he likes, frankly.
The final cover
Since we’ve agreed this cover, I have heard nothing but admiring comments. I think it’s an absolute stunner; as elegant as the book and its subject.
Dispiriting though it is to find yourself older than the oldest elite competitor in both of your favourite sports, at least it gives you a broad perspective on those sports; a perspective enriched by witnessing the full career of several competitors. Careers whose narrative arc starts at “naive, raw talent” peaks with ability and experience in concert, then reaches its most interesting phase as declining physical prowess is compensated for with guile.
Simon Wilde’s biography of Shane Warne, Portrait of a Flawed Genius, describes this process superbly, with Warne’s age and shoulder injuries impairing the ability to spin the ball which had been so prodigious in his youth. What compensates is a sort of “total bowling”, where Warne uses every element within his control – field placements, sledging (at which he was a master; who can forget his casual “best to try to hit the ball, champ” to Andy Caddick, which drew predictable results – caught in the deep”), chat with the umpires (“oh are we not playing LBWs?”) and manipulation of the pace of the game. It was theatrical; stage management. And it worked a treat.
Compare that with the mastery of Alberto Contador, embarrassing Chris Froome in the ’16 Tour through nous and the confidence of years, rather than superior condition. Or Mark Cavendish using what we could call “sprint-craft”, surfing his opponents’ wheels, predicting their tactics and positioning himself using his photographic memory for run-ins. By all accounts, Eddy Merckx became a master of tactical subtlety when the need eventually arose; his engine was faltering but his appetite remained.
Having enjoyed Peter Sagan’s naive early period; always outnumbered, never outgunned, usually second, and feeling extremely fortunate to be witnessing his mature phase, I almost can’t wait to see how he ages. Even as his legs go, I suspect he will win races with his mind.
Within weeks of getting my first road bike, cycling equipment had displaced all other goods on my personal wishlist, like grey squirrels booting out red or those narky-yet-delicious American crayfish eating all of the other seafood out of house and, er, river.
Before long, I’d acquired all the inexpensive stuff and started coveting shinier, pricier versions of exactly the same stuff. All the while, other aspects of my cycling life, from reading material to actual riding, were “developing” at the same pace.
I don’t know if it’s progress, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. In fact I think we’re all moving along The Cycling Learning Curve.
Stage one: Newbie
Bike: aluminium with bits of carbon and loud graphics. You like it, but you quite fancy full carbon and louder graphics, including wheels with writing on.
Helmet, shoes, eyewear: inexpensive. How can people spend hundreds on this stuff?
Clothing: bib shorts make you anxious. How are you supposed to wee?
Workshop: do you really have to? Bit boring, isn’t it? You buy a handful of cheap tools.
Literature: you devour Cycling Plus like a bride-to-be devours ELLE Wedding.
Website: Cycling News, even though the ads make you want to punch it.
Heroes: Wiggo, Cav, Trotty, Lizzy.
Riding: You just signed up for your first sportive. You are nervous, particularly about the weeing.
Stage two: Established Cycling Bore Enthusiast
Bike: high spec full carbon, bought direct from manufacturer online. Stealth black because loud graphics are tacky. Oh, except for the huge ZIPP decals on your wheels.
Helmet, shoes, eyewear: you’ve dropped hundreds on these and many other bits besides. But it’s ok because of the Cycling Exchange Rate, which dictates that bike-related prices are actually 50% less expensive than other consumer goods at the same price. Think I’m wrong? Would you spend £30 on … a fucking vest in any other context?
Clothing: somehow your bibs have bred, as have your jerseys. Specialist items (“of course I need a hardshell and a softshell”) are added all the time. You’d rather not be seen in dhb any more. Your relationship with Rapha is equivocal yet expensive.
Workshop: you covet a machined aluminium track pump the way a younger you coveted a Walkman. Single-purpose torque wrenches make complete sense to you.
Literature: French Revolutions, The Hour, Put Me Back on My Bike, The Rider, subscription to Rouleur.
Website: Velominati, which you pretend not to take too seriously.
Heroes: Merckx, Coppi, Simpson
Riding: Bored of sportives, bit scared of racing. Hm … club run?
Stage three: Vet
Bike: there will be several, but your favourite will be custom steel or titanium and feature some extremely novel ways to spend money invisibly. Will your club mates know your hubs were milled from single billets of titanium? Only if you tell them quite often.
Helmet, shoes, eyewear: A difficult stage. You are trying to look pro without looking like you are trying to look pro. Also: POC angst.
Clothing: Also tricky. Immersion in vintage cycling photography online has somehow made you covet the very Mapei kit you once declared inhumanly ugly not so long ago. Can you carry it off?*
Workshop: You’re buying upgrades for your upgrades. In fact you’re having a special new track pump head unit shipped over from Japan.
Literature: One More Kilometre and We’re In the Showers, Tomorrow we Ride, Dog in a Hat. Obscure old volumes, regardless of quality (Champion Cycliste par Louison Bobet, pour instance), Rouleur back issues.
I honestly don’t know if I love or hate my commuting bike.
On the plus side, it’s so simple, being fixed gear, that it barely needs maintaining. In fact it barely ever even gets a clean. And it’s so cheap – it cost £200, four years ago – and so obviously so, that I can park it with the cheapest lock available and know it won’t get nicked.
Also, as a fixed, it offers a lovely smooth pedalling experience. That sounds wanky but, genuinely, it feels different; fluid and smooth.
On the minus side, the thing is heeeeeeavy and crudely made and sometimes the fixed gear can be a pain; a sudden stop in traffic or on a hill … will often end up a bit scrappy.
My love of cycling aesthetics makes me yearn for a prettier, lighter, lovelier version of what I’ve got; a steel track bike with deep handlebars … but the damn thing would get stolen, wouldn’t it? And I’d feel obliged to clean it and keep it nice, wouldn’t I?
My “beater”, as the chaps in the bike shop call such bikes, is like a donkey jacket; stubbornly utilitarian and not totally without charm, but not genuinely loveable either. One thing it is, though, is cheap. I’ve done thousands of miles on it at a number of pence per mile somewhere between one and two. So while I don’t love it, I can’t help but be grateful for it.