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.

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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.


Change Cycling Now: observations

December 4, 2012

In response to a call from @cyclingfansvox, a twitter account set up to develop and channel the views of cycling fans, I made some brief comments on twitter about the output of the recent Change Cycling Now meeting in London. The document in question is downloadable as a PDF at the bottom of this post.

Here I expand on these comments, and welcome some constructive discussion. The thoughts are a bit raw and immediate, but that seems to be the spirit of the times.

Zero tolerance

The charter strongly opposes a zero tolerance, punitive approach to doping, and advocates a truth and reconciliation approach. I have argued here that anti-doping is not served by punitive scapegoating of individual riders, and the proposals might fit with this position. However, no amount of truth-telling by past perpetrators will improve detection of doping infractions unless it improves detection, education or deterrence. I am surprised that the charter does not explicitly link a measured approach to sanctions with steps towards improved detection, although one might argue that outsourcing anti-doping might improve detection if one believes that the UCI actively or passively fails to meet its obligations in this regard.

I have also argued that although disproportionate penalties for doping, especially where they dissuade openness, should be avoided, that the threat of criminal prosecution for doping or trafficking acts as a necessary component in deterrence, and that a criminal law enforcement approach has proved much more successful in bringing doping to light than traditional sporting law. The charter does not touch on these issues.

Independent approach to anti-doping

The approach to improving anti-doping proposed is a separation of investigation and enforcement from governance and promotion. This seems eminently sensible, and is in line with many national anti-doping approaches. However, given such a separation, it is interesting to consider where educational approaches might sit, or more importantly how to develop a joined up strategy to control doping that takes into account structural issues of reward. Points systems, remuneration policies, volume of racing and other drivers for doping would not be controlled by such an external body and there is a danger of the two entities running at loggerheads. The separation of USADA from USOC and USA Cycling has brought many benefits, but also much divided and arguably negative conflict.

Representation

The charter will stand or fall not just on its content but on perceptions of how well it represents the views of many stakeholders. It was pleasing to see two familiar stakeholders from the parallel world of twitter, and a mix of commercial, scientific, academic and sporting interests represented. It was also good to see two ex-riders, with rather different experiences of doping involved. However, the lack of current rider representation, and the bias towards riders who have doped was really puzzling, and will provide a serious barrier to any positive ideas being accepted by a crucial group. In relation to spectators too, neither of @velocast or @festinagirl (despite the initial press release) purported to represent fans: I would argue that for any real representation to happen a properly constituted fan body would need to first be created.

Focus on doping

As mentioned above, one cannot really tackle doping simply through testing and enforcement. Similarly, a focus on doping as opposed to taking a holistic approach to a sport might be hugely counterproductive. Moreover, this focus seems to assume that anti-doping is the major ill that faces competitive cycling. Many would disagree with this, perhaps selecting gender inequality or the professional focus. I would contend that to build a better sport attention to the whole journey from junior to masters competitor needs attention, across the sexes, amateur and professional.

Interests

A charter like this needs a clear and transparent declaration of interests from its authors. Here are mine: I hold no racing license and gain no financial or other benefit from cycling. Other members of my family race on an amateur basis. If you wish to take issue with my anonymity, then do read this and this. One of the fan delegates posted a useful positioning statement (the open letter below), but it is all too easy to portray some of the delegates as having revenge, or some other selfish motive behind their actions. I cannot judge this as I was not there, and cannot read minds, but this will always be a tricky issue to address.

open-letter (Scott O’Raw)

Charter-of-the-Willing (Cycling Change Now)


Doping scandals: lessons learnt?

September 7, 2012

Ben Johnson, BALCO, Festina: sport often learns the wrong lessons from doping scandals. It learnt that coming clean about your doping when caught screws you and leaves others just as dirty to win; that if you have the right drugs and advice you will only get caught if someone gives you up; and that all sporting entities learn from a scandal is that a repetition must be avoided at all costs.
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Who will profit from the Tour of Beijing: what does the I Ching say?

October 3, 2011

Many learned minds have been debating the implications for professional cycling of the of the forthcoming Tour of Beijing. David Millar (@millarmind) suggested on twitter that some of the discussion was lacking Asian context:

@TheRaceRadio @Vaughters This discussion is very western.

Some discussion with @accidentobizaro led us to attempt to divine who will profit using the ancient Chinese oracle, the I Ching, and hence redress this ethnocentrism.  I stroke my long white beard of wisdom… Read the rest of this entry »


Percy Stallard and Beryl Burton: bikes to remember them by

April 17, 2011

I am off the bike at the moment due to post-viral syndrome: hence, by car, a visit to the 10th Annual Classic Bike Display, in Shelf, West Yorks today. The show was put on by the Bygone Bykes Club, and included a short ride (not for me, sadly) on period bikes, around the British League of Racing Cyclists’ ‘Beacon Grand Prix’ circuit.

The centrepiece was a lovely Percy Stallard mass start road bike:

Percy Stallard massed start road bike

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