It’s a good question. Mark Cavendish threw it back at a reporter after the Olympic road race. That it was rhetorical was shown the following day when tabloids branded him a “nowhere man” and suggested that Alexandre Vinokourov was an “unknown”. But that’s tabloid journalists for you.
“Do you know anything about cycling?”
Nigel Wynn suggested in his blog for Cycling Weekly that now is a great time for experienced cyclists to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport with ‘new fans’. I’m all for that. What I’m not so sure about is the idea that we should try and make analogies with football to do so. Quite apart from the fact that I chose cycling (or that it chose me) as a teenager precisely because it wasn’t football, I’m not even sure that the comparisons make much sense. Certainly the one Nigel makes in his blog went right over my head. Of course I’m prepared to admit that’s down to my (peculiar?) vacuum of knowledge about football, but still....
I always assumed that all the people I heard talking about football, rugby or whatever actually knew what they were on about. I thought it was just my determination to disengage from those parts of mainstream sporting culture that led to my ignorance. In recent years though, as those same people have talked in a similar way about cycling, it has dawned on me that the chances are they don’t really have anything more than a rudimentary knowledge of any of those other sports either. In other words, they are not really fans of sport at all; merely fans of watching sport and of pontificating blandly about it in the pub. And I’m not knocking that, because I realise that it’s pointless to insist that people should love something in the same way you do yourself. I realised that years ago with music: for many people it’s simply not that important. And why should it be?
For many people the sport itself isn’t really that important at all: every four years the notion of success for their nation trumps everything. For many people the ‘failure’ of Team GB and Cavendish to bring home an Olympic gold medal was a personal affront. These kind of people deserve no respect. No amount of explanation of the subtleties and complexities of road cycling would change their minds. Why waste the energy?
“My national pride is a personal pride” sang Kevin Rowland back in 1985, and I wonder to what extent athletes, as opposed to fans, identify with that sentiment. I know I always have. And pride is a powerful emotion. I thought David Millar was spot on when he exhaustedly expressed pride at the way the team rode on Saturday. Because for all the hype about Cavendish being nailed on for the win, anyone with any knowledge of cycling always knew what a monumental task it actually was.
And really, this is what it comes down to: knowledge of cycling as a sport carried out by others is all but impossible without knowledge of some vaguely-serious cycling yourself. I’m sure it’s the same with swimming, gymnastics, rowing, athletics. Football, even. If you want to truly understand something, you’ve got to try and do it yourself.
So let’s not dumb down a beautifully complex sport to sound-bite banalities for the tabloids. Let’s not ignore the long, rich and colourful history of road cycling simply because our country chose to all but ignore it for the best part of a century. And above all, let’s get out on our bikes (Police permission pending, of course).
Well it's been some week for cycling hasn't it? Sun shining and a chance to get some proper miles in the legs. Magic. Oh, and even if Mark Cavendish didn’t win the Olympic gold, wasn't there something about another British cyclist winning a much more important bicycle race?
I have to admit I have found it difficult to comprehend what has happened. For like so many other ‘old school’ cyclists I grew up with the idea of cycling being the quirky unusual sport that no-one in the 'mainstream' either understood or liked. Cycling as Lawrence to the Oasis of football. I said as much in a fanzine article I scribbled back in the late 1980s. Illustrated by a scrappy photocopied picture of Jeff Bernard time trialling up Mont Ventoux, it sat amongst articles on The Sea Urchins and Rodney Allen, and that seemed perfectly suitable. These days you flip open a tabloid and there's something about Bradley Wiggins (I refuse to lower myself to using that godawful nickname that makes it sound like he is my best mate or, worse, that I am some Australian sports commentator) and his Mod style.
It would be so easy to take the Mod thing to task. It would be so easy to sneer about interminably regurgitated references to Oasis and Ocean Colour scene. It would be too easy to raise an eyebrow and say something withering about tattoos. But to do so would be churlish and to miss the point. For aren't those just the easily identified reference points of a mainstream (mis)understanding of Mod? And isn't that the fault of the media and not Wiggins?
From what I have read over the years Bradley Wiggins seems to be an intelligent enough chap. Certainly for a cyclist. What's impressed me most, apart from his riding, is the way he honours the history of the sport. Like Cadel Evans he understands and celebrates the essentially European foundations of the sport whilst simultaneously bringing his own spiky individualism to it. There is an understanding of, and a respect for the sport's traditions that underlines his own successes. To therefore suggest that he is not similarly informed about Mod culture would, I think, be unwise. I would guess there are records by The Action and The Eyes alongside those by The Small Faces and The Who in his collection. Perhaps too he even has a copy of ‘Something Beginning With 'O'’ in his library. And if he doesn't then I have a feeling he would very much appreciate one.
Besides which, didn't he look just magic ringing that big gold Olympic bell? Skinny and sharp. Underplayed. Just so.
Inevitably there has been much talk on the cycling forums about what Wiggins’ success will mean for cycling in the UK. My favourite comment was by some wag who suggested it will mean only that now, when White Van Man cuts you up on the road he will give you an earful of "who do you think you are? Barry Wiggins?" This tickled me for a few reasons: for some of a certain age there are the echoes of the Barry Sheen reference; for others there is also the the nod to the story of Reg Harris jumping the red light. But mostly it amused me because it could so easily be true. Right down to getting the name only half right.
Admittedly it has not happened to me (yet). What has happened is a noticeable increase in the numbers of people out on bicycles. How many will still be out when the sun has gone again remains to be seen, but regardless it is a glorious sight. Yesterday a chap I would once have disparagingly called a Hippie honked the horn on his old steel boneshaker and waved as we passed each other outside Ottery St Mary. Last Sunday a young man raised an arm and cheerfully called out ‘Alright Bradley!’ as I pedaled up the hill into Exeter. I admit it almost brought a tear to my eye.
Sadly though, what has also happened is an alarming increase in the regularity of other non-bicycle road users remonstrating with me for daring to choose to ride on the road instead of in a cycle lane. Shockingly, it happened on every ride I took this week.
I feel I should mention at this point that, despite the fact I have never learned to drive and have been cycling for over 30 years, I have never felt much aggrieved about other road users. I have said to many people who ask that I find 95% of vehicle drivers to be courteous and sensible. I admit this week has seen me downgrading that number slightly, but nevertheless I hold by it.
The cycle lane issue is crucial though. I have no problem with those people who campaign for more of them. I’m sure they are a great thing for many people on bicycles. I just don’t want to use them myself. I feel much safer riding at 30-40km/h (with a bit of a tailwind!) on a relatively wide road shared with cars and trucks than trying to do so on a much narrower path shared with kiddies on tricycles and grandmothers on Raleigh 20’s. Not to mention the pedestrians who might wander aimlessly into my path (and I’m talking specifically here about cycle lanes that are physically part of the pavement, not the sections painted on the inside of the road). No, on the whole I’ll trust in my own confidence and experience, and in the confidence and experience of my fellow road users. Is trust such an awful thing to show others?
It’s important because if I don’t; if I give in and choose those pavement/cycle lanes instead of the road then the car lobbyists, those bigots who suggest bicycles have no place on the open road will have won. And if that happens; if we create a culture that says bicycles belong only on specified narrow pathways, where do you think the next generations of Barry Wiggins’ will come from?