My friend Bernard has recently returned from a holiday. Not having taken his bike with him, he suffered badly from a familiar problem: the more difficult it is to go for a ride, the more desperately you want to. (The converse of this is also true.)
He was forced into an extreme measure. “I went to a spinning class,” he said. “It was horrific. And do you want to know the most horrific thing about it?”
“The music? The instructor? The saddle? Every other rider in the room? The heat? The humidity? The relentless bloody enthusiasm?”
“Worse than all of that. I looked like a moron. All these years I’ve spent perfecting my riding, developing my stylish souplesse, yet I had no idea what was going on, couldn’t do half the weird things the instructor wanted even when I could understand them, and I got pitying looks from half the middle-aged women in the class. But I’m better at riding a bike than all of them put together. I might as well have gone to the pole-dancing class next-door.”
Setting aside the pole-dancing bit, he has a good point. I worry that even when he and I are out on our bikes together, the casual observer may confuse us with a pair of random blokes just out for a ride. Obviously to the skilled eye we are experienced racing men, with a balanced posture and a smooth pedalling action forged over many tens of thousands of miles. But it’s not the skilled eye that I’m interested in. I want my greatness to be obvious to all. It’s the only greatness I have. I can’t afford for it to be overlooked.
For instance, on a holiday in France a few years ago, I joined a cycling tour of the local vineyards. I got issued with a cheap mountain bike for the day, but even on that I was clearly the class rider of the random group. Yet the only admiring gasps I heard all afternoon were directed at a show-off from Australia who rode his bike like C3PO, but who could distinguish cabernet sauvignon from merlot by colour alone.
The problem is that my sole cycling skill is for covering long-ish distances very quickly. This impresses no one who only sees you at an intermediate point — they just think you’re an idiot trying to show off how fast they can cover the length of the High Street. (See also “Strava-w****r”.)
The only people who see me for enough time to process my achievement are those sitting behind me in a car trying to get past on a narrow road. And very, very few of them shout compliments about my VO2 max out of the window when they finally get a gap in the oncoming traffic.
It’s the same with urban riding. How do you stand out from the crowd in the city? No one will appreciate your elegant cadence. No one will slide up beside you at the lights and murmur, “Mmm. You have incredible thighs,” or at least not in a good way. There’s not even any point in keeping your bike scrupulously clean as only a proper bikie knows how to do it — it just makes it look as if you only bought it yesterday. Anything you can think of to demonstrate your pro credentials can be effortlessly upstaged by a teenager doing a track-stand.
Cycling is just too universal. We shouldn’t teach the skill to children. We should save it as something to acquire expensively and dangerously as an adult. Then, and only then, will it impress people.
In the meantime I’m having to do the only thing I can. And that’s ride with Bernard and hope that people can at least spot the difference.
How to… knock other people off
Knocking other people off their bikes is very bad form. Just how bad you can judge by a friend of this column, who knocked Sean Kelly off his bike at the Scottish Milk Race in about 1978 and has been carefully covering up the evidence of this offence ever since.
In that case, he knocked Kelly off by riding straight into the back of him. This is remarkably easy to do in a group ride or race if you’re not concentrating and, especially, looking ahead through the peloton. It has the special disadvantage that you and your victim will usually end up in a tangled heap on the floor together. The best way around this is to bring down sufficient others to disguise your culpability.
You can knock off the rider behind with a sudden braking manoeuvre, as, for example when a pothole appears out of nowhere. This is also frowned upon, and your guilt will be very obvious. So a better tactic is to bunny-hop the hole, which the unsighted rider behind will now ride into, and fall over all on their own.
Perhaps the most common means of knocking others off is with a sudden swerve. Take a quick glance over your shoulder to see who’s behind you and exactly where they are, so that you can time it just right. What you want to do is just nip their front wheel from under them — anything more than that and you risk being brought down too. And you don’t want that. Falling off your bike really hurts.
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Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. As a rider he won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland and competed at the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. He was a three-time Brompton folding-bike World Champion, and once hit 73 mph riding down a hill in Wales.
As a writer, he wrote the award winning The Hour about his attempt on the sport’s most famous and sought-after record. He followed that up with Faster, about the training, the science the genetics and the luck behind the world’s fastest riders, and Re:Cyclists, a history of cyclists from 1816 to the present day.
He’s written for outlets ranging from Cycling Weekly to the New York Times, and has presented and and commentated for the BBC, Eurosport, Channel 4, and Sky Sports.
Before he did any of that he was a legal academic at Cambridge and Sussex universities. He now lives with far too many bicycles in London and Cambridgeshire.
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