6 August 2012

Cycle Mad

Last Wednesday afternoon, I stood with my humble bicycle at Hampton Court Bridge at the finishing line for the men cyclists’ Olympic Time Trial, and could not help but think of American President John Kennedy’s words when he addressed the citizens of Berlin in 1963. His purpose was to show solidarity, to indicate that he understood the current circumstances in that city by asserting that he too was a Berliner

And as flags waved, cheers arose and the crowd at Hampton Court went bananas when the sideburned hero, British cyclist Bradley Wiggins, came in first place to receive the gold medal, I also wanted to express fellowship in the moment.  I wanted to state that I too was part of a fraternity, the two-wheeled one surrounding me, with a vehement: ich bin ein Radfahrer.

But in the absence of anything resembling the megaphone required for such a declaration, I headed instead for a celebratory cappuccino at a café facing the gift shop Bradley + Brown  which, for the occasion, had changed its name to Bradley + Wiggins.

“What a great result for Wiggo,” said one of a group of three cyclists who joined my table.  Of course, we agreed, things hadn’t quite gone Wiggo’s way – nor for Mark Cavendish, nor any of the British team - in the previous Saturday’s road race.  We scratched our heads in bewilderment at how our sporting greats had on that day seemingly fallen foul of two cycling truths: one, that a peloton is a cosy and sociable hangout, but a place to pedal hell-for-leather out of if you want to make your mark.  And, two, that not only should you sweet-talk your own team-mates in order to decide which of you has the best chance of victory, but you also have to get to work in the locker-room beforehand, distributing devastatingly yummy gels and energy bars to your competitors.  Only then might any of them be persuaded to take the strain in turn, by cycling at the head so that you can, for a while, tuck comfortably into their slipstream. The Brits last Saturday had got themselves snagged at the front of the peloton, a mistake avoided by the women the next day when Lizzie Armitstead romped home to a silver. 

Even before my tablemates had sat down with me to share such insider information, I could tell they were serious cyclists – not just because of the hungry and over-exercised look, not just because of the body-clenching clobber they were wearing, but because they knew these routes like the back of their hand.  This was their patch, they said, here, round Hampton Court, and out to the Surrey Hills - an Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty (note the capital letters), which always comes as a surprise to any visitor who thinks that London sprawls unchecked until it hits the English Channel.  But an Area, apparently, with more than its allocated share of bicycle-chewing motorists who are inclined to stick heads out of windows of four-by-fours and shout: “So who pays road tax, then?”

It’s not the kind of reception that the current crop of international competitors had been receiving.  As they flew past, all cyclists were loudly cheered.  Indeed, anything on wheels was cheered.  Support vehicles.  Cameramen on motorbikes.  White vans containing members of the press.  Policemen on motorbikes who did high fives with spectators or posed with hands on hips to whip up the throng. 

And even me, on my way back along the Thames path from Hampton Court.

Riding into the teeth of the same warm wind that had kept blowing the uneaten half of my blueberry muffin on to the ground back at the café, I wove through prams, children on scooters, entire shoals of cycling families.  Ich bin ein Radfahrer I kept reminding myself.  Suddenly, up ahead, two young energetic cyclists were in my sights.  “Go on!” cried a smiling woman who stepped back into the bushes as I passed her.  “You can beat them!”

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