One of the pleasures of writing a column such as this one is that it occasionally gives you the privilege of speaking, as it were, on behalf of cycling.
A major cycling-related news story breaks, and the call comes to explain or to advocate, perhaps even to defend, the sport, the hobby, and the glory that is bike riding.
Perhaps the phone rings in the early hours. You roll over, still half dreaming, to answer it, hear a BBC producer apologising for waking you, and sleepily wonder what that loveable scamp Lance Armstrong has done now.
Or maybe you have to dash to a radio studio, to explain that Bradley Wiggins wasn’t knocked off his bike in an act of god’s divine equilibrium to atone for someone somewhere running a red light, but because some dozy driver wasn’t paying attention.
Where is the love?
So it was a pleasure to get a call from a producer of a lifestyle programme that wanted to do an upbeat piece about cycling, now that spring is finally here. No crashes, injuries, drugs, just wall-to-wall bike love.
“What we’d like you to do for our listeners is just explain what it is that’s so great about cycling, why you love it, and why you think that everyone who doesn’t ride a bike is missing out,” she said. “If you just want to run me through the key points so I can pass them to the presenter?”
“No problemo,” I said. “Cycling is great because, well, it’s a superb way to get some fresh air. Aaaand… um, it’s a justification for spending money on a nice bike… though I suppose that’s only an attraction if you’re a cyclist already.
Actually, that’s a bit circular, isn’t it? What else is there…? It gets you out of the house, which is terrific if you’re trying to escape a domestically tense situation. Though I suppose that most of my friends’ domestic tensions do tend to start off with cycling in the first place. Did I mention the fresh air?”
“Tell you what, why don’t you tell me what it’s like on a day when you’re planning to go for a nice, long ride, just how you look forward to it, from the alarm going off, and the excitement of getting out there to get away from all the stresses of everyday life?” she said.
“I get up, obviously. If it’s raining, I… well I’m probably quite pleased if it’s raining, because that’s an excuse to bump the riding back till the afternoon, if it dries up. If the weather’s all right, I probably hang around the house for a few hours, getting ready, deciding what pair of gloves to wear, what sunglasses are best-suited to the light conditions.
In the meantime, I’ll keep checking the forecast every so often just in case rain suddenly appears. Eventually, when I can’t put it off any longer, I go for a ride. It’s often a bit late by then, so I have to cut it short. But I don’t really mind. A bit of fresh air before dinner is always nice.”
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Voyage of discovery
“OK,” she said. “We’ll try this a different way. Would you agree that one of cycling’s greatest pleasures is seeing the countryside, discovering unknown views, exploring tiny villages?”
“Oh, yes. Absolutely. Though I just ride up and down the B1383, because it’s really good for interval training. But it’s nice. It’s got an industrial estate.”
“You must get pleasure from the companionship of going for a ride with a friend?” “You haven’t met Bernard.” “Is it the fresh air?” “I do like the fresh air, yes.” “Look,” she said eventually, “maybe we should try to find someone else. Just as a matter of interest, are you planning on going for a ride today?” “Yes.” “In that case, you have my deepest sympathies.”
Acts of Cycling Stupidity
Word reaches us of a rider who, frustrated with the current weather, has been reduced to doing much of his training on the rollers. For those of you unfamiliar with roller riding, one of the dangers is a build-up of static charge as you ride, which earths itself with an electric shock when you stop and, say, grab the edge of a table for support.
This rider was buzzing away happily in the kitchen, when his wife walked in, dressed to kill, hair done, ready for a girls’ night out. She said goodbye, then, as he was still riding, went to give him a peck on the cheek. A bright blue spark arced between his cheek and her lips. She spent the rest of the night explaining to her incredulous friends exactly what had happened to her hair.
Great inventions of cycling – The cobbles of Paris Roubaix
Cobblestones have been used to construct roads for centuries. The smooth, round stones provided a permeable surface, one which was resistant to cracking and potholing, reduced the amount of dust and mud, and were so difficult to walk, ride or cycle on that they avoided suffering serious wear because everyone used the verges instead.
In the 18th century most traditional, round cobbles in Europe were replaced with setts – same concept, but squarer. This is what most of the cobbled Classics run over. Originally the cobbles were not thought of as anything special – that was how French roads were made.
Indeed, a lot of the time riders tried to use the pavements instead. Many crashes were caused by tired riders misjudging the sideways bunny-hop and falling over.
It wasn’t till after World War Two that the cobbles on race routes like Paris-Roubaix began to disappear. Local mayors were embarrassed that they would make their areas look backward, so they replaced them with asphalt.
The grand-old men of the sport couldn’t bear to see life being made easier for the riders. Tour de France boss Jacques Goddet described the Paris-Roubaix cobbles as the “last great madness of cycling” – and he meant that as a compliment.
Finally in the 1970s, serious efforts got under way to preserve the remaining stretches of cobbles. The maintenance of the route is now funded by a special society, and performed by students from agricultural colleges as training.