Why Cycling is Like Cricket #2 – Young Guns and Old Hands

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.

 

Cycling’s “Learning” Curve

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

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/6hfar2ctocY/hqdefault.jpg
(image: i.ytimg.com)

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

http://www.thewashingmachinepost.net/rapha/glove_system/review.html
Do I have enough gloves yet? (no) (image: The Washing Machine Post)

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

Even Johan only just carries it off ... Image Offside /L'Equipe
Even Johan only just carries it off …
(Image Offside /L’Equipe)

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.

Website: Sporza

Heroes: Magni, Gaul, RDV

Riding: Etape or Eroica.

Have I missed any stages? Comments welcome …

*No.

The Beater

 

fixed

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.

Whacky Races

 

dragster

I love the traditional format of Grand Tour stage races, but I also agree with Lionel Birnie and others that a bit of experimentation would bring freshness to the sport. He’s spoken on The Cycling Podcast about ideas like two-up time trials, split stages, smaller teams etc, and I think those are all worth trying, particularly on shorter stage races. But is also there scope for something really radical and crowd pleasing?

So much of cycling’s appeal is context-dependent and therefore opaque to the uninitiated. As with Test Cricket and Formula 1, anyone coming fresh to the sport half way through a race would be bewildered. And bored. Boredwildered. Track cycling championships are a bit more accessible – they’re short races with clear rules and the racing is easily understood. (Except for Madison races, which are mental). But, as anyone who’s schlepped to Lee Valley will know, velodromes aren’t always handy venues to get to.

So: a road racing format that works for a big crowd and doesn’t need a special venue, is simple, exciting and short? The Twenty20 of road cycling, in other words.

Here’s my best shot: The drag sprint. Teams of four riders race over a kilometre (or less? – the classic quarter mile?) from a standing start.

You could do this race along any straight town centre road, or out of town at an airfield or closable highway.

If the riders started line abreast (unlike in track team sprints) it would put a premium on judgement of starting pace and positioning. Being outdoors, assessment of wind conditions would also be vital. The dragster racing “tree” light system at the start would be dramatic, and a big screen showing speeds and times would make the event easy to follow and, y’know, fun.

It’s a crowd pleaser, no?

Why Cycling is Like Cricket #1 Misshapes/Mistakes/Misfits

At first glance, similarities between the world’s two finest sports – road cycling and cricket – are few. But, dig deeper and you’ll find that they share plenty, as I will try to demonstrate in an occasional series of posts on this vital topic.

Similarity Number One: their resistance to a physiological ideal.

The perfect physique for a cyclist is in theory straightforward: short, with a slight upper body (albeit with room for “lungs like wheelie bins”, as Ned Boulting described Chris Boardman’s) and arms like breadsticks. But legs like siege cannons, all resulting in a favourable power to weight ratio.

miguel
Big Mig.

And yet, while there are plenty of champion riders who match that profile (Coppi, Anquetil, Pantani) there are many who don’t. Edwig van Hoydonck, Bradley Wiggins and Miguel Indurain all dragged more than their share of body-length (and therefore weight) up the slopes. Eddy Merckx weighed a distinctly normal 74kg. And when we turn our attention to the sprinters, we may remember the sight of Karl Drogo body-alike Marcel Kittel, his body apparently factory-constructed to win sprints, being repeatedly beaten by Mark “the munchkin” (his own term) Cavendish, modestly muscled with short legs for his (short) height.

cav-kittel
The Munchkin and the robot

Compare, then, their range of physiques with that of the great West Indian fast bowlers of the 1980s. Michael Holding looked every inch the athlete; tall, broad shouldered, flowing to the crease and unfurling his perfectly proportioned limbs to propel a cricket ball at 90mph, from an arms-length height of some ten feet, at the terrified batsman at the other end. Usually at their head, in fact. But he and his fellow giants (Garner, Croft and others) were frequently outbowled by a player many think was the best ever to take the field. Malcolm Marshall was a mere 5′ 11″, skinny and unthreatening looking … but what he did put the fear of god into the opposition. He was just as fast as his genetically more fortunate colleagues, but had even more skill.

No one would ever pick Marshall or Cavendish out of a line-up and say “there’s the world beating pro”. But doesn’t that make us love them, and their respective, unexpectedly heterogenous sports all the more? Our heroes may be freaks of nature, but they’re no clones.

Celebrations

A cycling moment that has really stuck in my brain is Rebecca Romero winning gold in the pursuit at the Beijing Olympics. The Brits won masses of medals in that Games, but hers was a singular celebration.

I’m sure whole theses have been written on the body language of sporting celebrations. Most seem to include a version of “Pride” (see Amy Cuddy’s TED talk), an expansive, arms high and wide “LOOK AT ME! DIDN’T I KICK ASS?!” pose.

Rebecca Romero’s victory spoke volumes, mainly about a personality far removed from such uncomplicated delight. I remember Chris Cleave, who found Romero fascinating, telling me she’d had to give up eights rowing because she had ultra high standards and “didn’t play nicely with others”.

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 19.21.23

For her, after what must have been an epically tough conversion to track cycling, this gold medal must have been an enormous personal validation.

Her celebration started with a Sebastian Coe-like, vindicated “number one” finger in the air, a couple of absolutely huge roars and then – the bit I remembered most clearly – an exaggerated clenching of fingers into a fist, like a pantomime baddie’s “we will crush them!” gesture or some evil high priest rehearsing the seizure of a sacrificial victim’s still-beating heart. Take a look, starting about 1:20

The intensity of her celebration (the word is too light, actually) is startling and oddly intimate. She is not inviting us to witness her glory or share it. It is hers, and, while it might look a bit unhinged, we can be quite certain she earned it.

 

Ghent 6 Days

My 2016 as a cycling spectator was bookended by two iconic Belgian events: January’s cyclocross Worlds in Zolder and the legendary Six Days of Ghent in November, scene of what was billed as Bradley Wiggins’ last race, alongside Mark Cavendish.

Having just re-found my rather random notes (blame the beer), here are a few nice moments from the velodrome …

img_5629
We mostly stood track centre, next to the leftmost “Lotto” sign

1. A typically chunky Dutch sprinter who, having finished his own race hurried to get off his bike to go help his mate start the next one, as though he’d promised to do so and was determined to oblige. Trouble was, he was in cleats, so slipped all over the track, like a pig on an ice rink (which sounds harsh, but … bulky body, tiny hooves …) and then had himself to be held up by the actual starter, so he could hold his mate up, at the start.

img_5680
Dutch sprinter, momentarily upright.

2. Mark Stewart and teammate Olly Wood had their bikes on stands mere inches from me and my son, in our position at the edge of the finishing straight, track-centre. When Stewart returned rather sooner than he wanted, having been knocked out first in the elimination race, he gave a perfectly Wallace & Grommit sheepish grin and mouthed “sorry!” to his friends and family nearby, before scuttling off to his cabin.

3. Brad and Cav’s helmets were hung up to dry on a tiny washing line strung between two cabins. The rudimentary nature of the riders’ cabins – half way between beach hut and dog kennel, with tiny curtains across the front – was an eye opener. And there was a right old clutter of bike parts and kit. And miniature washing machines.

4. Cav emerged from his cabin to dance along to  YMCA, including the little boogieing bit between the chorus actions, which he really worked. Excellently camp. Big grin.

5. Seeing the rainbow bands of the World Champions was genuinely exhilarating, in a way I wouldn’t have believed a few years ago. The heraldry of cycling has really got under my skin.

6. The underside of the track was held up with pneumatic pistons, which you walked behind/underneath, hearing the rumbling of riders going overhead.

img_5610
Back of the track

7. We bumped into the lovely Maurice Burton, who was there “to see the boys”. He had once held the baby Brad in his arms, in his cabin, when he raced the Ghent Six with Gary Wiggins.

8. The ridiculous commentator (same one as Zolder??) bollocked on at top volume, about such things as THE BUSINESS END of the race. His finest moment: “SIR BRADLEY WIGGINS HAS. ONE. CHAMBERED!!!”