Cycling is a foreign country: exoticism, skulduggery and the British.

July 2, 2017

Why is it that British success at the Tour de France (or anywhere on the Continent) seems so dissonant? Why is it such a shock to many of my fellow British that it might be built on deceit and immorality? Is it that “foreign” cyclists and cycling tap into a rich British desire to both lust after the exotic, yet believe it to be dangerous and disreputable? There is nothing new about the ITV coverage of the Tour de France focusing on British riders, but once upon a time you knew none of them would win, and that somehow made it all right.


In these days of explicit and horrid racism, of insane and pathological isolationism, it is hard to remember the curious relationship Britain had with Europe in 1980s when I first started watching cycling. I can still remember the huge cultural shift signalled by the disappearance of duty on the ferries and the sudden feeling that we were European (oh happy days). But we never were: cycling was yet another sport that signalled our deep otherness: don’t race on the Continent you’ll end up on drugs, or worse liking foreign food or speaking Flemish. And of course, the Tour de France IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT FRANCE (see Roland Barthes). If there is nothing more foreign than fritjes with mayonnaise (and cyclocross racing being popular) there is nothing more spectacularly French than le Tour. British riders can compete, but must fail tragically to win or even finish. They must decry foreign practices like race-fixing and doping.

Of course this is all fantasy. The domination of that race by Belgian, Italians, Spanish, Germans and even Americans (not forgettig bit parts played by Swiss, Dutch, Luxembourgeois, Danish… and an Australian) developed its internationalisation over a long period. But we still think we are better, have no real sense of our connection with continental Europe, and retain a false belief in our post-Imperial exceptionalism. That’s why Wiggins, Froome and Co freak us out so much. And why Chris Boardman’s epic failure does not. To win the Tour de France is demostrably un-British, and removes a necessary distance from our exotic object of desire.


Dead Souls (long-distance cycling is not a death cult)

April 27, 2017

I experienced the death of Diana Spencer in a rather bizarre manner: in a taxi to catch a plane to a new life before most had heard the news, the black-bordered rush newspapers in the airport shops, and then in the series of bizarre and intimate condolence emails I received due to my name (which I only wish I had kept). I never mixed with royalty, although my father once received a rather lovely letter from Diana’s then husband. And I experienced the huge and bewildering outpouring of Elton John-shaped collective grief that ensued from afar. I was asked by one of my housemates in Nijmegen what I thought about it at the time and I was… nonplussed.

I have never really understood death, and public death even less. When my father died it had a lengthy and distressing impact on my well-being and was a major factor in my nervous breakdown of 2006. The public celebration we had of his life was an important event (and reading Tennyson there more so). Although it has became clear to me that such events are distinctly odd, and construct and relive sometimes false memories, they are important sites for setting the dead in context (as I write this Spotify serves up Dead Souls, and I’ll return to music in good time).

I had never found the death of public figures affecting to me until the last few weeks: despite my sometimes fragile emotional state I can’t remember a single public death making me cry until this year. Two events changed that enviable record: the sudden deaths, both to traffic, of two people I have never met. Both were cyclists, and although that might seem an obvious factor in explaining my feelings, I never cried when Marco Pantani died, although this was a similarly sudden shock. One was Steve Tilford, the other Mike Hall – I do not intend here to pay tribute to either, I would rather leave that to such as Juliana Buhring, Seth Davidson or indeed Bill Strickland (sometimes the best tributes are written when the subject still lives).

My strong reaction to these two deaths has challenged my view of public grief, but has also after reflection impacted on my understanding of why I continue to ride long distances. On many of my rides, completed or otherwise, I have had major physical or emotional crises which although not life-threatening, have felt pretty awful: I have sat on the grass in pouring rain in Bowland, tears streaming down my face (finished); I have experienced the despair of simultaneous navigational and lighting failure in the middle of the night (finished); more recently I’ve found motivation hard to come by due to nutritional collapse (vomiting and exhaustion; emergency bus shelter bivvying; DNF). Perhaps most distressingly I remember the sense of desolation at oversleeping on my final PBP qualifier and losing out on a four-year goal. Being close to disaster is a common feature in my riding. Even on my last 300 which was surprisingly trouble-free I ended up dazed with cold in a bus shelter chewing an energy bar held with senseless hands.

Is there a false equivalence here that makes me feel simultaneously moved by Mike Hall’s death yet uncomfortable? I don’t race, and I never think of what I do as actually dangerous (statistically speaking it isn’t). Do I fear that the next step in the epification of long distance riding is for it to become a death cult? Overcoming (and managing) a certain level of risk is one thing, but cycling does not have the relationship with risk of motor racing (although not quite as risky as Lauda claimed) or mountaineering (read Joe Simpson) . In the field I work in, music, the sanctification of musical martyrs is an object of study, one which I first experienced as a music fan, writing as a teen about Joy Division and the reasons why the suicide of Ian Curtis were both relevant and irrelevant to their music.

Of course, like any thing worth doing, long distance riding can become pathological – like crack or heroin (or indeed the prescription painkillers I know so many have become addicted to) – first it giveth, then it taketh away, so to speak. I’m still learning about this, as are we all I hope. My last ride (revisiting the Plains 300) was close to the edge, but I finished, and despite a dip 48 hours after finishing, I’m still OK.


Land of My Fathers (what do you want to go back to that shit hole for boyo…)

April 21, 2015

My first foray into cycle camping was a mixed experience: a week of scorching weather, fine company and challenging terrain followed by the twin insults of biblical weather and a stupid crash. Mix in a heroic rescue and a comic British Rail cameo and it sounds a story worth retelling one day. Caersws plays a minor role, a tiny settlement close to the route of the Plains 300 Audax: site of our dishevelled rail-transported return to London. Having arrived by bike, crossing into Wales via the Forest of Dean and having traversed Wales via Brecon, returning by train felt quite deflating. Not that we could have been much more punctured by fate. Read the rest of this entry »


20 years on (part 2)

July 7, 2014
TdF sign

Hilariously placed off-route TdF sign at top of Cragg Vale

20 years ago I was knocked off my bike in central London riding home to watch the highlights of the Tour de France, which visited that year for the first time since 1974. I also met my partner. I am delighted to say that only two of these events are having anniversary celebrations this year. I last wrote about 2014 in January, having started the year with more kilometrage than I have ever gathered in Winter, and some high hopes for the year.

I did complete a 600km Brevet de Randonneur this year, but won’t manage a Super Randonneur Series. I have really enjoyed my riding this year, and will ride just one more event I think, in August. The Tour did come, and I am still reeling from having this slice of French spectacle rushing past the end of my road, slowly. But most of all I am delighted to say that I am still together with @accidentobizaro. Our relationship isn’t about cycling, but it is interwoven within our lives both as an intermittently shared activity, but also as a topic of conversation and as a jumping-off point for many seemingly irrelevant features of our lives. We have climbed Pyrennean and Alpine Cols together, but it is the climbs of the Vosges which the Tour de France visits this year on stages 9 and 10 which I think are most apt – our last big cycling holiday before starting a family was an extraordinary experience. Hair-dryer winds on the flat, and the cool at the top of the mountains; birthday cakes; anniversaries; Cremant…

buses

BMC, Katusha and FdJ get stuck

So, let’s aim for a return to these shores for the Tour in 2034, I’m waiting… if it comes before, all well and good, but it’s something to aim at.

Addendum: as I was taking the photo of the rather misleading TdF sign at the beginning of this post I talked with and photographed a rider from London who had grown up in Hebden Bridge. His son had the same name as me, and lives in Stoke Newington, where I was living in 1994. Jung would like this very much.

heart

Chalk on the road, Stage 2


Addendum to 5 & 9

June 6, 2014

It’s a long while since I rode the North-West Passage in biblical weather. Look what just arrived! Maybe I’ll do another…


20 years on (part 1)

January 17, 2014

Last year I rode for 3 hours in January, having been ill after Christmas, but also because life is, well… busy. 2014 is special though. Amongst many changes I have found the time and motivation to ride, partly driven by the probably foolish intention of completing my first Super Randonneur series: my longest completed brevet thus far is 400km, and only twice, with a ten year gap between rides. Last year I only rode a 200 and a 400, and I did not really prepare sufficiently. A long ride with Emma and Rich in April went some way towards preparation for these but I suffered in both, unhelped by some poor navigation and ridiculous weather.

This year is indeed special. It’s a special anniversary for me and @accidentobizaro and fortuitously linked to the Yorkshire hosting of the Grand Départ of the Tour de France. I also need to prepare myself mentally for next year’s big challenge, the 2015 Paris Brest Paris randonnée, all 1200km of it. Forcing myself to ride more, and to finally risk a 600km ride (weather and health permitting), is all part of something bigger, quite what time will tell. Part of this has been riding more with others, although I still favour solitude. 23 hours and 500km into 2014 feels a good place to be, a base to build on, and I hope the next weeks will be as kind to me. For those of you that have read my other more personal posts on this blog, you will know that cycling is an integral and yet somewhat problematic part of my life, and I hope I may have succeeded in laying to rest some demons in the last few weeks.

I’ll write more on this special year…


Performance for 25 Passing Vehicles – John Reid

December 14, 2013

A naked body lies beside the side of a desolate highway, close to a road sign, next to the carcass of a kangaroo. 25 cars pass…

I met John Reid, the Australian artist, at a conference in Bavaria in 2001. His ‘paper’ turned from an account of his early work into a live performance of The fishman of SE Australia. The transition between the two halves was disturbingly subtle, and left me, how shall I put it, freaked out.

Just a man talking, and a slide projector showing some photographs of the wilderness, with something in it…

The earlier work (Performance for 25 Passing Vehicles) of his came to mind when I was considering the effect getting into a car has on our relationship with the environment, with people, with wildlife.


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