Monday, 13 August 2012

Commuting, Racing - and the French col climb in our heads

For a week of the Invisible Visible Family’s recently-completed family holiday in France, I had the task every morning of going to fetch supplies of bread, croissants and other ingredients for a continental breakfast. Jumping aboard my bike, I’d sweep down a hill and around the series of turns that took the road through the nearby village. Hunched down on my drop handlebars, I was, of course, in my head leading some audacious breakaway on an etape of the Tour de France. I could almost see the smiles on the faces of the gap-toothed peasantry of Dampierre sur Boutonne lining the roads to cheer me on.
The chateau at Dampierre sur Boutonne: its townspeople
would have cheered the Invisible Visible Man on,
except that the race was only in his head.

But the illusion would quickly break down on the return journey as I ground my way back up the hill. A baguette would be protruding from a pannier bag and a load of jus d’orange and pains au raisin would be slowing me down. I felt again what I truly am – a person who gets about by bike, rather than a sportsman.

Following this year’s Tour de France and Olympics, there has been no shortage of opportunities for British cyclists to reflect on the links between our day-to-day cycling and how Bradley Wiggins rides a time trial or Chris Hoy attacks a track sprint. We’re engaged in many senses in entirely different activities. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy shave their legs to achieve maximum aerodynamic efficiency. I cart around 10 kilos of spare weight just because I won’t lay off the beer in the evenings. It has nevertheless made me happier than perhaps any previous sporting result to see Bradley Wiggins – a cyclist intimately familiar with some of the same London roads that I have ridden so often – control so comprehensively the Tour de France. I couldn’t quite speak for choking up as I described to the Invisible Visible Woman how Chris Hoy from Edinburgh – a city whose streets I have cycled hundreds of times – had won the Olympic keirin.

The question is whether my reaction to British cyclists’ victories reflects anything at all in common between what we both do. Is cycling mainly a sport or just a way of getting about? Should it be mainly a sport or a way of getting about?

It’s worth stressing quite how miserably humiliating my efforts to coax my big, lumbering body into sporting activity have generally proved. I recall, for example, 30 years ago entering the back stroke at a Glasgow Boys’ Brigade swimming gala. It took my fellow competitors the same time to complete both lengths of the race as I did for my first. The difficulty in telling my back stroke from the thrashings of a drowning boy led one of the organisers to inquire after my wellbeing.

The Invisible Visible Man at play: does this honestly look to you
like a body that should be undertaking triathlons?
The swimming gala came back vividly to me when, a few years ago, a chirpy public relations man suggested that, since I was a keen cyclist, I should undoubtedly compete in triathlons, as he did. I also recalled how I had often accompanied my asthmatic and chronically obese classmates in the trailing group on my school year’s annual cross-country run. The run – which was sponsored - was perenially used to raise funding for a desperately-needed new drainage system for the school’s sports fields. Since the event was run mostly round said sports fields in the midst of a Glasgow winter, my group consisted predominantly of overweight, mud-spattered boys, many reaching for their asthma inhalers amid the gathering mid-afternoon gloom.

My automatic reaction when asked to participate in a sporting event is, in fact, to start feeling humiliated. That stems in part from an incident when a PE teacher taught me and my 12-year-old classmates how to throw a discus. We then each had a go to see which would go forward to the school sports day. Ever the optimist, I was convinced I could improve after my initial, laughable effort and put my hand up when the teacher asked if anyone wanted a second go. “Don’t waste your own and everyone else’s time,” he replied. I focused attention on the school choir and public speaking instead.

I should, in other words, be easy prey for the view - which I’ve seen expressed in the British Cyclists’ Touring Club magazine but which could equally apply to American cycling - that the focus on sport has been bad for cycling more widely. Visit a bike shop in Britain, so the argument goes, and most of the options on dipslay will have been designed primarily – with fancy gears, lightweight frames and no mudguards – to help people finish races more quickly than their rivals. According to this argument, there’d be more people cycling to work in Britain – or America – if the average bike shop resembled one in the Netherlands. They should be full of heavy, practical bikes with mudguards, upright riding positions and the gears hidden neatly inside the wheel hub. Cycling should be just a faster form of walking, proponents of this position sometimes suggest.

That view has the substantial merit that it explains why some sights I encounter as a commuter cyclist seem so absurd. Along the Hudson River Greenway in my new home in New York, I encounter many commuter cyclists engaging in the rough equivalent of driving a Formula 1 or Indy racing car to work. Perched on high-end road bikes costing thousands of dollars, they must end up splattered with muddy water when it rains and the bikes must suffer appalling damage from New York’s streets. It would be no surprise, after all, if it some New York road surfaces turned out to have been deliberately maintained by Nasa as test beds for new rovers destined for distant, crater-pocked planets.

The Invisible Visible Man's bike, in France.
Sure, Bradley Wiggins, you can win the Tour de France.
But could you manage a load of four panniers,
a trailer bike and a four-year-old?
Yet, even for an ill-co-ordinated incompetent such as me, there remains far too much fun in riding a bike fast to reject the link with sport altogether. I can, after all, coax my touring bike into managing journeys in the countryside at an average of around 16mph (26kph) and can get up to around 50kph in favourable conditions. It’s not, I admit, much compared with Bradley Wiggins’ 49kph average for the whole Olympic time trial, but it gives me a sense of achievement. I even, in a moment to counterbalance the snarling of my school PE teachers, had the satisfaction four years ago of being complimented on my speed by a fellow cyclist. After I held off his efforts to overtake me for several miles of our joint commute home, he found me at some traffic lights and advised I try riding at the local velodrome. “You’ve got a fair turn of speed,” he said. If I can manage that, it seems sad to tell the many others with real sporting talent that they should be riding bikes incapable of a decent pace.

I’m sometimes baffled too by the idea that slow, Dutch-style bikes are a realistic option in the biggest cities. My new commute to work is around nine miles each way. Treat that as an opportunity for a slightly faster form of walking and I’ll be turning round to head home as soon as I arrive – for the few times I make the trip before they sack me.

Bikes in Copenhagen: they're sensible, practical
- and barely any fun to ride at all
There isn’t, as far as I can see, much link between a country’s cycling sport success and its people’s propensity to use bikes for transport. Three of the countries with the most glittering records in the Tour de France – France, Italy and Spain – all have lower or similar proportions of journeys by bicycle than the scarcely cyclist-mobbed United Kingdom. The two countries with the highest cycling levels – Denmark and the Netherlands – have both produced distinguished riders in the Tour de France but have generally enjoyed less success in cycling sport than might be expected from the numbers riding a bike every day.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that British cycling’s sporting success has to bring at least a small dividend for the country’s commuter cyclists. A few drivers may, perhaps, briefly regard cyclists not as worrisome obstacles to get past but future Victoria Pendletons or Laura Trotts whom they should respect instead of despising. I, like I suspect many other British cyclists, am holding my head a little higher – or perhaps lower, given the position’s superior aerodynamics – when cycling. I’m deeply proud to come from a country with such a powerful cycling sporting position.

It’s not, I suspect, the kind of benefit that many of Britain’s victorious cyclists were seeking when they underwent their years of painful training and conditioning. It is, however, one of many pleasures their achievements have given me. On behalf of every commuter who’s scaled an imaginary Col du Tourmalet while cycling to work, I salute them.