Mr FtW rides the track

First, some background. Four years ago I couldn’t ride a bike. Inspired by a trip to the velodrome during the 2012 Paralympics I resolved, at the age of 32, to learn. Not only that, I set myself the challenge of getting good enough at cycling to ride in a velodrome and set a time for the ‘Kilo’ event. Mr FtW said he’d come along and do it as well. The fool.

I duly learnt to ride a bike, but nearly four years on I’m simply not confident enough to go anywhere near a velodrome track. The problem is that we live in London (#firstworldproblems) and the thought of riding on the road absolutely terrifies me. That limits my bike riding to parks and there’s a limited amount of time in my life for me to get to the park and….you get the idea.

Mr FtW learnt to ride a bike as a child, as most normal non-clumsy people do. He could be very, very, very good at cycling but he doesn’t have the a. Interest, b. Time and c. Money. He uses an exercise bike at home as part of his workout routine and very occasionally cycles to work, but his road bike is ancient and was gifted to him by a friend after his (admittedly quite cheap) bike was stolen a few years ago. In short, it ain’t exactly a Pinarello.

A couple of months ago we popped into the Lee Valley Velodrome to grab a drink and snack with the FtW juniors during a trip to the Olympic Park. I said I’d buy him a taster session as part of his wedding anniversary present. He *may* have rolled his eyes at this point…it’s not like I’m living my dreams through him or pretending like he’s a pro or anything to fulfill some kind of twisted fantasy of mine *ahem*.

So, last Sunday afternoon Mr FtW lined up with 11 other nervous-looking novices and took to the track. The taster session was an hour long and introduced the participants to the concept of riding the track without falling off, with the aim of going progressively higher up the banking so that the braver people could get near the top by the end. We were sitting on the seats adjacent to the back straight and (admittedly from a distance) he certainly looked the part despite refusing to wear Lycra and not hiring cleats (you can do the taster session in trainers.)

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The group did a couple of laps of the bottom of the track (the pale blue section) first, followed by the dark blue line, then up onto the boards between the black and red lines. At this stage the more confident participants were told they could overtake. Most managed to do this successfully but one person misjudged a manoeuvre and clattered down onto the track, ripping his shorts and denting his pride.

Mr FtW’s progress was more serene. He wasn’t exactly ripping past people (he’s too naturally cautious to do that) but he didn’t ever look like he was struggling. He even managed to give us a couple of cheeky waves as he sped along. Towards the end of the session the instructor (who was brilliant) encouraged the group to ride near the top of the track. We were delighted to see Mr FtW rise higher and higher until he was riding over the advertisements. Junior FtW no. 1 pointed out excitedly that he was higher up the track than anyone else. They might have been faster but they weren’t as brave…

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Every time Mr FtW passed us his grin got bigger and bigger. He’d been nervous beforehand but it didn’t show. At the end of the session each participant got a certificate and it was only right that we got a photo of him proudly holding it with the track in the background. We felt insanely proud of how far he had come in an hour-long session. I think he should go back and do the accreditation course but he has to *want* to do that and I’m not sure he does….

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I’ve watched A LOT of cycling at the Velopark but seeing my husband, the father of my children, the sun to my moon (etc etc etc) ride the track was really special. I felt oddly emotional at one point. He did so well and I felt very proud.

Apparently if you’re thinking of doing a track session you absolutely should as its great fun. Also the bikes are ‘Really light and really cool’. Mr FtW is now trying to get me to sign up…maybe not for a while yet…

 

The beginning (Part 2)

In Part 1 I learnt that the BBC is sometimes wrong, the breakaway rarely stays away and I had much to learn about cycling.

Extremes

Throughout 2013 I watched, listened and learned. From the TDU I mostly learnt about the wine growing regions of South Australia and how lovely they were to visit, but I also absorbed information about riders, teams and tactics. My next encounter with road cycling was watching Paris-Roubaix on Eurosport with an unwell daughter by my side. It looked utterly brutal. The screen was a dreary palate of grey: sky, road, mud, cobbles. My god, the cobbles. It was like the peloton had travelled back in time. I feared that they would be held up by highwaymen at any moment. Broadly, this was the same sport I had watched back in January but played out in entirely different circumstances. It was then that I began to understand that cycling was both an extreme sport and a sport of extremes

Giro

Then, the Giro. We had honeymooned in Italy (Rome to be precise) during a hot, bright August nine years before. The version of Italy that provided the setting for the first Grand Tour of the season was something else. It was hilly, cold and forbidding. Skinny cyclists wearing tights, thin rain jackets and gloves battled the elements and themselves. Bradley Wiggins came down ‘sketchy’ (now added to my lexicon of cycling) descents like a giraffe on a Brompton, fell off, chucked his bike against a wall, got ill and went home.

The moment that did it for me though, was Alex Dowsett winning the time trial, unexpectedly beating Wiggins in the process. Dowsett’s start time was so early that the Eurosport coverage hadn’t started when he set his benchmark. The TV pictures joined the stage later, when the faster men and GC contenders were due to take each other on. As each rider attempted (and failed) to beat Dowsett’s time, the screen flashed over to a close-up of his face. He looked terribly nervous mixed with ‘What the actual eff have I done?’ accompanied by a dash of ‘I’ve nicked some pick n mix from the shop and I might get found out by the grown-ups’. It was bizarrely brilliant.

So brilliant that I watched it twice. Once live and subsequently in the evening when my husband had gone to work and the children were in bed. A young British rider on a foreign team winning a time trial stage of a grand tour? Definitely worth watching again.

The Giro remains my favourite tour. Naturally, I watched the (Le) THE Tour in 2013, screaming at the telly as Froome rode up Mont Ventoux, admiring the teamwork of Team Sky, marvelling at the sheer feat of a British team with a (mostly) British rider winning for the second year in a row. However, my stupid romantic heart has a special place for the Giro. I don’t recall whether I watched any other races that year. I’m sure I did. I probably watched the Tour of California and may have flitted in and out of the Vuelta. I can’t warm to it as a Grand Tour for reasons that I’m unable to explain.

*Swirling leaves. Time passes. Etc.*

Now

That was three years ago. I’ve watched an awful lot more cycling since then. I went to the London stages of the Tour de France and the Tour of Britain. I was actually in the velodrome when Bradley Wiggins broke the hour record in London last June. I’ve been to so many Revolution meetings that I subscribe to their official playlist on Spotify and actually enjoy it. For our wedding anniversary last year my husband bought me a subscription to Rouleur Magazine. My evolution from cycling moron to someone that knows a bit about cycling and can hold her own in a conversation with an aficionado is ongoing, but progressing well.

Although I was an ignoramus at the start of all of this, at least I didn’t (and I promise I have not made either of these examples up) think the following:

  1. There is a cyclist called Peloton (first name Pierre, possibly.)
  2. Individual cyclists could enter Grand Tours without a team. This was said in relation to Vincenzo Nibali during the 2014 Tour when he was in the yellow jersey.

So, on this blog I’ll be writing about my impressions of cycling. Upcoming topics may or may not include (but are not limited to): Sky, track, Richie, books, crashes, the Hour, the Cycling Podcast, the Classics, the Giro, standing on the roadside, and anything else that comes to mind.

The beginning (Part 1)

My love affair with cycling…no. My love affair with road cycling (I’ve had a relationship with track cycling for a while now) began during the 2013 Tour Down Under.

No. Wait. Start again. I started watching road cycling during the 2013 Tour Down Under but I actually fell in love with it during the Giro d’Italia.

That explains the when but it doesn’t explain the why.

Olympics

For the why, we have to go back to the Olympics. London 2012. The Saturday morning after the Opening Ceremony the night before. The BBC were telling everyone that all Mark Cavendish had to do was turn up, pedal a bit, win the road race and TEAM GB’s FIRST GOLD MEDAL IN LONDON in the process. Or so it felt. There were words of caution from the ex-professional cyclists turned pundits and commentators but they were swept away by a tidal wave of patriotic confidence. Of course Cav was going to win! Mark World Road Race Champion and BBC Sports Personality of the Year Cavendish! That afternoon I took the children to a party absolutely certain that Cav would win because Sue Barker said so. There was a ripple of surprise among the parents at the party when someone looked on their phone and announced that Cav had finished 29th. This meant that the BBC and Sue Barker were wrong and that’s akin to the ravens leaving the tower or a plague of locusts. Heads would surely have to roll.

I, naively, took to Twitter to ask what happened. I got a couple of replies from proper cycling fans. Their subtext was that I was a moron. What they actually said was that it was impossible to control a race with 5-man teams. I still didn’t understand. Why did *that* matter? I left it and got on with the terribly important business of being completely and utterly consumed by the Olympics. Lizzie Armitstead won the silver medal in the women’s road race the following day and apologised on national television for coming second. I wondered if the apology was an attempt to prevent a crazed member of the BBC presenting team hitting her over the head with a Wenlock statue. I now understand it slightly differently.

The rest is so well known it is barely worth repeating. Bradley Wiggins won the time trial a week after winning the Tour which was a surprise to this particular idiot because I thought he was predominantly a track cyclist. A sort-of British person called Chris Froome took the silver medal in the same event. Then the track cycling events started and I essentially forgot all about the road variation as everyone in a Team GB skinsuit essentially won everything.

*Leaves swirls across the screen, marking the passing of time*

January

There are two things that are important to know about me:

  1. I HATE January
  2. I HATE not knowing things

To borrow a phrase from David Millar’s book The Racer, I f*****g hate January. Flicking around for something to watch in January 2013, I noticed that Sky Sports were showing something called the Tour Down Under. Inconveniently, it was being shown during the middle of the night (because that’s how the earth works) but we set the TiVo and decided to watch the previous days’ stage the following evening.

I decided that I wanted to understand road cycling and I didn’t like the fact that this sport was alien to me. My first image of cycling was of a peloton of approximately 150 men in tight, brightly-coloured clothing cycling really very fast along a very long, very straight road in front of a background of bright blue sky and yellowish-brown land. Apparently there was a ‘breakaway up the road’. This phrase meant nothing to me. They had ‘a sizeable gap’. No, nothing there either.

Breakaway

I read somewhere that one of the first questions that people ask when they first watch cycling is: Why doesn’t the breakaway stay away? I quickly learnt that it doesn’t. Well, unless Tony Martin is in it. Everyone fears Tony. I subsequently found out that the breakaway is controlled by the peloton and is normally reeled back in when it suits the purposes of the larger group. This sort of thing isn’t explained to the casual idiot who happens to put the cycling on. It’s just assumed that you know this stuff. It’s like sitting in the pub with a gang of people who are significantly cleverer than you and hoping that by keeping quiet and absorbing everything they say they won’t notice your presence and laugh at you for being infinitely more stupid than they are.

Growing up, I had no frame of reference for cycling. We were a family of avid sport watchers – football, cricket, rugby, athletics, anything on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon, any major multi-sport event – but cycling didn’t cross our radar. Moreover I only learnt to ride a bike in 2012 based on the rationale that if a bloke with one arm and one leg could do it and compete in the Paralympics, I could too. So, powered by the twin drivers of loathing the month of January and not wanting to be an idiot I shut up and started the process of understanding a new sport.

To be continued in Part 2….