As the excitement of the Tour de France fades into a distant summer memory of four days ago, don’t despair. We are poised on the threshold of the Olympic Games. It’s essentially the same as the Tour, except that the advertising caravan will be replaced by other sports.
It’s hard to say whether this is an improvement – you might want to ask which is more interesting, five Frenchmen dressed as baguettes dancing on the back of a speeding truck, or two men in white romper suits waving épées at each other? I’m aware that a new audience is flocking to cycling at the moment, so I thought it would be helpful to offer a new-fan’s guide to what we can expect to see over the next couple of weeks, if we can tear ourselves away from the dressage.
The Road Race. This is exactly the same as a stage of the Tour, except that instead of racing up one or two big hills, they’re going make up the altitude by riding up a really small one lots of times. Box Hill nine times (for the men) is almost the same as the Col de Tourmalet once, so in practice it’s going to be hard for a non-expert to tell the difference. Incidentally, Box Hill was chosen specifically to annoy the National Trust and to decimate the last remaining wild population of elephant-nosed shrews in Surrey. Or something.
While the Tour plays out across some frankly rather monotonous mountains, this race is going to go round the majestic suburbs of South London, taking in the picturesque Dorking bypass and passing three different branches of B&Q. Mark Cavendish is certain to win, because all the other teams have agreed to wait for him on the hill should that be necessary, make sure that the race finishes in a sprint, and have guaranteed that no one will get in his way at the finish, especially Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan.
The women’s race is similar, but shorter, with only two laps of the Box Hill circuit, about the same climb as the Eiffel Tower, but considerably less steep. There is every chance you won’t notice the race happening via the UK press unless a British woman (Lizzie Armitstead, most likely) wins it, or there is some way of interpreting failure as being the product of a bitchy squabble, since the only thing the press likes better than a British winner is a catfight. (Women, eh?) Victoria Pendleton is unlikely to win, what with not being a road rider, but expect someone to have written her name on the road anyway.
The Time Trial. Oddly, this hasn’t been organised by the UK’s time trial specialists, Cycling Time Trials. Consequently, the course has no mysterious course code, it’s not a standard distance, it neglects the attractions of the A3 dual carriageway in favour of more suburban noodling, and it’s not starting at 5am.
The race will almost certainly have the lowest competitor average age of any time trial in the UK this year. Probably by at least a decade. In the men’s race, Bradley Wiggins will have a significant advantage over Fabian Cancellara in that he’ll know that in order to avoid disqualification at any UK time trial you need to return your number afterwards in exchange for a cup of tea. The men’s race is 44km (what kind of crazy random distance is that, we cry) and the women’s is 29km (just as weird).
Next week, we’ll be previewing the track events, and investigating the suggestion that the reason no one any of us knows has a ticket to them is that the whole thing is going to be simulated via a Wii, and mocked up using CGI budget left over from the opening ceremony.
How to… Wheel Suck
If this is an unfamiliar term, you may wish to reflect on the fact that the verb ‘to sprint’ is irregular. It declines, ‘I sprint, you sprint, that bastard over there wheel-sucks’. Wheel sucking is the noble art of not doing any work in a bunch or a break, to conserve energy for a finishing sprint. For a top professional wheel-sucker, like Mark Cavendish, it is all relatively easy, since he can normally enjoy the shelter of his team, who are being paid to let him sit there before they selflessly lead him out for the finish.
Life for the amateur wheel-sucker is rather harder. You will encounter considerable hostility from those who regard you as a work-shy parasite. You have a number of options. You can pretend to work. Unfortunately, it requires a great deal of skill to get on and off the front of the group without expending at least some energy, and if you’re an instinctive wheel-sucker, you’ll never spend enough time up there to perfect it.
You can tell lies. ‘I’m under the doctor for my back’, ‘I have chronically fallen arches’, ‘I have a mal-formed team-work gland’, or the often highly effective, ‘I’ve got the most dreadful digestive upset, old bean, I’m not really sure you want me on the front.’ Finally, you can just develop a thick skin. They shout abuse, you still get across the line first, and history only remembers the winners. Except in cycling. Here, no one forgets a wheel-sucker.
Acts of Cycling Stupidity
Coming back from Geneva during the Tour, on the flight I was seated beside a cyclist from Berkshire, who’d followed the early stages of the ride by bike. As the plane was being loaded, he explained how he was going home for a few days, then coming back out with his bike to ride some of the Pyrenean stages.
Then he looked out of the window. ‘NO!’ he suddenly shouted. ‘NOOOO!’ He beat the window, and shouted some more. Outside on the tarmac, two baggage handlers were dropping bike boxes off a truck, considerately cushioning them from damage by landing them on my new friend’s (soft) bike bag. His mistake. He should have asked for an aisle seat.