At a cycling club dinner the winter before last, there was a disco. It was not exactly crowded – like I said, it was a cycling club dinner. Nonetheless, in the middle of the dance floor was my friend Bernard, standing pretty much still.
‘Not dancing?’ I shouted over the music.
‘I am dancing!’ he shouted back.
‘What, like inside?’
‘No! Like outside! I’m dancing. Look!’
He continued to stand still. I’ve seen this before. Cyclists dance so very, very badly that often their peripheral nervous system, acting from a sense of public duty, tells them they’re dancing when they’re not.
The alcohol-soused brain sends the once-a-year command, ‘Boogie!’ down to the engine room, and gets the reply, ‘Yup, doing that John Travolta thing. You’re looking pretty good. Oh, yeah!’ while the body in fact just stands there. Bernard thinks he’s dancing, so he’s happy, none of the rest of us actually have to watch him dance, so we’re happy too.
Why do I mention dancing just now? Well, Victoria Pendleton is doing Strictly Come Dancing. And given cyclists’ dancing, I worry that moment for this column might pass quite quickly.
Cyclists cannot dance because dancing is about a graceful and fluid interpretation of music using a wide variety of movements. Cycling is about maintaining a rigid chassis for the effective application of large amounts of raw power though a very specific range of movement.
The range of movement in question is not transferable to any known dance, from the allemande to the zapateado. (Zapateado: Native Mexican tap-dancing. More popular than it deserves to be. Dancing equivalent of the elimination race.)
Psychologically, dancing requires considerable artistic sensibility. Psychologically, cycling demands various fine gradations of anger, aggression, ruthlessness, and not a lot else. Most cyclists confronted with music not primarily selected for its ability to make a turbo-training session pass a little more quickly are as baffled as a dog presented with a chess set.
(Try turbo-training to a Strauss waltz, and don’t complain to me when your usual 30-minute session takes four months.) No, dancing is the polar opposite of cycling.
Cyclists who disregard their nature will rapidly run into another problem, injuries. Show me a team sprinter doing the bunny hug and I’ll show you what all the symptoms of Achilles’ tendonitis look like.
It’s interesting that the incompatibility seems to work the other way too. Those who are familiar with the world of Strictly seem to struggle somewhat with the idea of cycling. I commend to you the entertainment provided by showbiz reporters trying to talk about Victoria’s cycling career.
‘Plucky Victoria gamely pedaled her way to Gold…’, ‘The lovely Victoria, more used to pumping than jiving…’, ‘She may be more used to bicycle bells than belles of the ball, but Victoria…’ and so on. It usually sounds like her Olympic titles were won in some sort of 1930s treasure hunt, perhaps performed wearing a Dorothy outfit as part of one of Noel Coward’s less well-remembered plays.
I hope, in Victoria’s case, that the normal rules don’t apply. I hope that having retired from cycling, all the essential characteristics of a bike-rider fade quickly, her hamstrings lengthen, and her back falls into an elegant shape that is more Viennese Waltz than Japanese Keirin.
She does have some advantages. She knows how to put on Lycra so it doesn’t wrinkle, and will have mastery of waterproof mascara. And there is one precedent – Mark Cavendish was a teenage dancing star. Granted, he gave it up when he became a cyclist. But it does suggest there is hope.
If all else fails, like Bernard, she can just try standing there. After all, it worked for Ann Widdecombe and John Sergeant.
Great Inventions of Cycling 1878: Six-Day Racing
The six-day race is a real old cycling curiosity. The first one was in 1878 at the Agricultural Hall in Islington. It was (inevitably in Victorian London) the result of a wager, about whether a rider could cover 1000 miles over six days, and simply took the form of an individual time-trial on a very small track.
Six days, incidentally, because that was as long as the poor sod could ride for without racing on the Sabbath. The 1000 miles was covered in just 73 hours on an Ordinary. In an attempt to stop spectators immolating themselves through boredom, subsequent events had multiple riders, seeing who could cover the most laps.
The format really took off in the US. Initially riders took time to sleep, while the race continued, but quickly the urge to win meant that they raced for six days straight. The authorities were happy to confirm that the riders were stimulated by nothing more than boyish enthusiasm.
When US law required that riders race for no more than 12 hours in any 24, the response was the Madison (invented in Madison Square Garden) where a team of two alternated.
The races continued the 24 hour-a-day format until after WW2, with the early hours informally neutralized. Riders would read newspapers, or even shave as they trundled round. But in 1967, at the London Six, the racing was reduced to just an afternoon and evening session. Others followed.
Now, the handful of surviving sixes are usually just run from 6pm to 2am or so each evening. They’re still based on the Madison, but include other events as well, like sprints and elimination races.
Acts of Cycling Stupidity
Word reaches us of a family who drove their campervan down to the Dolomites last August. They took their bikes. Nice ones, for they were a family of Serious Cyclists who planned some Proper Riding. They had a lovely time, and clocked up over 1000 miles between them. They stayed an extra couple of days, and compensated by driving home non-stop.
In the middle of the night, at a service station in Kent, Mrs Serious Cyclist, puzzled, asked where the bikes were. There was a long pause. It lengthened into a very long pause. The realisation dawned that they were still locked to a tree at the campsite.
Mr Serious Cyclist ended up going back to get them.
This article was first published in the October 11 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can also read our magazines on Zinio and download from the Apple store.