Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Le Tour

It seems a bit perverse to get obsessed with the Tour de France just because I ride a bike everyday. Like if I became really interested in the socio-cultural implications of the design of change-pockets, just because I keep my money in them sometimes. It's an almost incidental connection that I could make with thousands of things. (Obviously our interests have to come from somewhere. This is just the conceit for allowing me to think aloud about why I like the race. Hello, journalistic conventions!)

So why do I get so into the Tour?

I know that what these riders do on a bike is not what I do on a bike. I cannot cycle at an average speed of 25 mph consistently for up to five hours. I do not strip the frame of my bike of non-essential components to make it as light as possible. I don't have a car following me everywhere I go to provide me with food, water, and a spare bike if mine gets a puncture at an inopportune moment.

I'm not a hardcore cyclist. I don't have a track bike, or even a road bike. I've got a Ridgeback Hybrid (ugly and inelegant, but at least it's lighter than the Dutch cruisers I rode in Amsterdam last week). I don't have any interest in doing what the Tour racers do. I don't wear lycra. I use my bike for getting from place to place. Which is what they do, too, but they make this travelling into an occupation, into the definition of their existence. But there's something about this vicarious experience that persists. It's a fundamental part of our experience with sport. We enjoy watching it because we imagine we could do it. To make a somewhat obvious point.

I ride my bike everyday. The start of the summer season combined with mounting financial pressures (insert "there's a recession?" gag here) has made me into a bit of a fascist on this front. I'll only use public transport in London now in certain drunken situations (and I have to be close to blindingly so for this to happen). Combined with watching the ITV4 highlights of the previous day of the Tour with my breakfast, this means that whenever I cycle I'm doing some imaginative recreation of yesterday's events.

When I'm having a good day on my bike (read: two breakfasts, not carrying my laptop, and none of this insane wind we've been having this week) I do a lot of over-taking. The day after Alberto Contador's attack on Stage 7, when he accelerated away from the rest of the race favourites to become the virtual maillot jaune, every time I put in a burst of speed to get round a fellow commuter, I was Contador. Lifting myself out of the saddle and powering up hill, leaving that cocky Yank, the upstart Brit, and those lookalike Luxembourgians behind.

Going round corners downhill becomes much more fun with the psychic context of the Tour. Cycling through a corner is one of the most exhilarating things you can do on a bike. Head down, the wind rushing past you, bending close the road but not quite hitting it. It's like being on a rollercoaster! Just don't do it like Jens Voigt, who skidded 50m after a high-speed crash over a bump in the road. I've wrecked a couple of pedals in the past with these antics, but that's all so far.

If I was more patriotic, I'd be Mark Cavendish whenever I stand out of the saddle to sprint through a traffic light that's about to change to red. I've got fuck-all stamina, but when it comes to raw speed, I'm one of the best you'll see trundling through the lights at Kings Cross when I probably should've just slowed down and waited.

When I'm having a bad day, going up Camden New Road and down to my lowest gear, people walking past me faster than I'm cycling, I'm Lance Armstrong's struggling 37-year-old body, just physically incapable of matching the freakish acceleration of Contador. I'm wondering why I ever got back on this bike. Why didn't I take the Tube? And I always forget my rain cape, too.

What's going to happen to me after Sunday? Start looking forward to next July, I guess. I mean, it's not like there's any other bike races going on, is there?

(Photo by Joe Shlabotnik)


  1. haha! i'm glad i'm not the only one that does this! i have that great little hill on university avenue in glasgow on which to power past people and imagine myself in le tour...