July, 1986, July 2012
My cycling life started accidentally, with my old Maths teacher, Mr Broad. I was 15, and my school was doing the equivalent of a rag week – raising money to build a new state-of-the-art music centre. Myself and a small peloton of friends, encouraged by Mr Broad, decided to ride a marathon – 26 miles at the time seemed mind blowing; a Roger Bannisteresque feat of endurance would be required. I might even have to pack Kendal Mint Cake, just in case. Needless to say, for a group of highly sporty and active 15 year old lads it was no problem, and I really enjoyed it. What I now recognise as my nascent sprinter kept appearing, dashing out from small groups, slipstreaming the group and flinging my Elswick ‘Turbo 12’ ahead of me to beat someone to the agreed lamp post or mile stone. When we got back to the school though, Mr Broad collared me and asked whether I cycled. I told him I did, in the way that any lad in the 1980s did – it was my only mode of transport other than pestering the folks, so, yes, of course I did. I misunderstood him; he misunderstood me, assuming I was actually serious. ‘Racing or touring?’ He asked.
‘Racing or touring?’
There, writ large, was the generational attitude of Brits towards cycling. Racing was for Belgians, Italians and the French. Touring, wearing tweed plus fours and a flat cap, no doubt, was what the Brits did. Racing was vulgar. Touring was healthy, vital, ours. Mr Broad was a tourer. He approved of the small pannier I had between my handlebars, but he disapproved of me un-sportingly slip streaming by peers….and celebrating.
The strange effect, which I have a small regret over, was that it made me rebel. My biking roots deepened through mountain biking – only without a steed worthy of such a name. I inherited my older brother’s Raleigh Rebel as a 10 year old (single speed, fixie, burnt orange paint scheme, white saddle, ineffective breaks) and because I wasn’t allowed a BMX, decided to ‘man up’ my wheels. Mudguard, off. Handle bars, changed. Tyres. Stolen from old bike. Despair all round parental quarters, but it makes me smile thinking of it today. In fact, one event has a strange circularity with Bradley Wiggins’ Tour victory and his proclivity for bowl haircuts, scooters and Parka jackets. Just opposite my mate Sean’s house was a bank on the edge of Poggles Wood where a large pipe emerged out of the ground and then ran on suspended brick pillars towards town. Of course, it became an integral part of our unofficial off-road cycling route. Trying to avoid the pipe, I learnt the lesson about which sequence you should apply breaks when descending by yanking on the front break, heartily pitching myself into a forward pirouette and face-planting in a bed of nettles. As I rolled over, groaning, I looked up at the pipe which was now four foot above my head. ‘MOD WANKERS’ it proudly declared.
So whilst I was at the bleeding edge of British mountain biking, road racing avoided my gaze until 1989….or 1987, which ever was the first year that Channel 4 screened it. Bizarrely, I think it was 1989, but I remember 1987’s race as if I had watched it all, now that I am a fully immersed cycling bibliophone. It doesn’t help that Adrian Timmis, who I first encountered within the pages of mountain bike magazines, rode the Tour that year and now runs a bike shop in our village. Memory and reality have merged and befuddled my aging cerebral cortex. The coverage was fantastic – without coming over as rose tinted, it was from another world. The colour; the scenery; the history; the characters; Paris. The soothing tones of Phil Liggett even back then. At University our whole house became Le Tour fixated, peering into our microscopic TV with its bulging glass screen like Pig Face’s glasses from Lord of the Flies.
Indurain cemented my love of the mystique and beauty of cycling in place. Between those years of 1991 and 1995 it was though no one else would ever win the Tour again. Today he tends to be labelled merely as a great time triallist, but he was so much more than that. He was the most professional leader the race had seen to that point. He climbed with relentless power, rarely alone as his Banesto team around orbited, protecting him, bullying others.
But it was Landis who brought tears to my eyes for the first time (excluding face plants). This geeky, Amish rider, who had broken away to challenge Armstrong; riding with an eroded hip joint that needed to be replaced when the race was over. Who blew up on one climb only to stage the most incredible, audacious, pant-wettingly exciting attack the next day. It was the stuff of dreams. The rest of course, we know. But I believed him for a while. I thought it was a conspiracy by the organising body to ensure that anyone but an American would win. Gosh, how that would turn out.
Now of course, there is Bradley. His victory, and the incredible discipline and professionalism of the Sky team, is not just a monumental sporting achievement. It is the event that re-weaves the strands of British cycling. The sport is now in our cultural context as a sporting pursuit, one that we can do, what that we can excel at, one that we can teach lessons to others about. But it also buries the old demon that racing isn’t British and allows us to see the humble bike for what it most truly is: one of the most staggering of man’s inventions. An affordable formula one vehicle you can pop to the shops on.
© David Preston, original post in The Speed of Bike, July 2012