The sport of cycling has never been more popular in Britain. There are many people who have been turned on to the sport in recent weeks thanks to the success and widespread media coverage of British riders at the Tour de France and at the Olympic Games.
They have heard the names of Wiggins, Armitstead, Pooley and Cavendish and they know that they pedal quickly and may or may not have ginger sideburns. However, the subtleties of road racing are lost even on some long-term cycling fans, let alone those recently joining in the fun.
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This has led to widespread confusion over exactly what was going on during the weekend’s Olympic road races, perhaps not helped by the inadequate information passed on during live television broadcasts of the events.
Mark Cavendish ‘lost’ the road race despite being BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011 and bestowed with an almost unbearable sense of expectation of having a dinner-plate sized gold disc hanging around his neck on The Mall. After the race, the Mail on Sunday bluntly termed Cavendish ‘Nowhere Man’ having lost out to ‘unknown’ Alexandre Vinokourov.
Perhaps the general confusion of why Cavendish didn’t win gold hinges on the peculiarity of road racing: it’s largely a team sport with an individual winner.
This is a very hard concept to grasp, and when explaining cycling tactics to a non-cycling fan you usually have to end up using a football analogy. The uphill struggle that Team GB faced in the men’s road race wasn’t the nine ascents of Box Hill, it was the equivalent of turning up for the World Cup final only to be faced by Spain, Italy, France, Germany and every other team, all of them constantly tackling, passing and wearing you down. The winner of the road race may be the ultimate ‘goal scorer’, but someone had to pass the ball in the first place, even if it was a fluffed pass from the opposition.
During one of Cycling Weekly’s live text commentaries on the Tour de France, where readers are encouraged to join in with their own comments, a thread of conversation cropped up where several readers said they were genuinely dismayed that ‘their sport’ had turned mainstream. It was likened to having a favourite underground band, who everyone else suddenly discovered ten years after you did. Or a coachload of people turning up and occupying your living room, and probably breaking wind in the hallway and not wiping their feet on the way in.
This just seems plain wrong. Why shouldn’t everyone find out just how good cycling is?
We, as cycling fans – fanatics, even – have a duty not to shut out our new-found friends but welcome them and help them understand the sport as best we can. The fascinating team tactics, the commitment, the terminology, the history, the equipment, the unrivalled sporting backdrop of beautiful countryside. At last we have the opportunity to spread the word and swell the ranks of cycling fans.
And just be thankful that the Madison is no longer on the Olympic menu. Cycling’s equivalent of explaining the off-side rule.