In a previous post I mentioned how, when I was a student, riding on a shabby old mountain bike, I would take a lot of pleasure in overtaking lycra-clad road cyclists. I would take equal amounts of pleasure in dropping these people. Dropping, for anyone not familiar with the term, means overtaking, and overtaking so comprehensively that they have no chance of catching you. It’s a psychological weapon of sports warfare, and, executed well, can be devastating. Having been both dropper and dropped on occasion, I can testify that when it happens, you feel so outclassed and beaten down that it’s hard not to give up; this is especially true if you are giving everything you can. This is not cycling exclusive, of course. I’ve both dropped and been dropped back when I rowed, and memories of cross country runs back at school still haunt me to this day – I am not a good runner, and probably never will be, and plodding my slow way through a hilly, muddy park and watching an endless parade of my classmates pass me was not my idea of fun.
So as a student cyclist, I had a lot of fun. I discovered the joys of Silly Commuter Racing, and raced as many other cyclists as I could. This was five years ago in London, and there were nowhere near as many cyclists as there are today, but there were more than enough glorious races to be found. And because I was young and impetuous, and because there was no shame in being beaten by a lycra-clad road boy, as well as endless glory in beating one, I never worried much about being caught. That’s not to say I never was; I remember an excellent race with a guy on a fixie, each of us staring dead ahead and refusing to acknowledge the other, even as we spun it faster and faster trying to edge ahead. Eventually we diverged, and by this time I was so exhausted I could barely speak even if I’d wanted to. And on another occasion I was cycling home with my housemate at the time – it was in the small hours of the morning, and I remember tearing along the roads of West London, trying to shake a random cyclist who had fallen in behind us – not because we minded him forming an impromptu peloton with us, but because we wanted to see if he would keep up (he could!).
I suppose what all this is leading up to is the point that cycling is – or can be – a very snobbish sport, and very style-driven. And if I climb on top of an expensive road bike, wearing lycra kit and clip on shoes, and making sure that the arms of my sunglasses go over the straps of my helmet, then I had damn well better be able to back that up on the road. It’s why I was so shocked when I eased past a guy on a Pinarello Dogma on my ride to Brighton, as mentioned in my last post – if you spend ten grand on a bike then you’d better be leading the pack from the front, not overtaken by a guy on a too-small rental bike.
I get annoyed sometimes at fair weather cyclists. Obviously it’s always great to see a road packed with bikes, but when I’m on the tail end of a beast of a ride and I’m struggling the last few miles home, some version of me in a past life always tries it on. I’ve not been dropped by anyone on a mountain bike yet, but that day will come, and when Mister Student Cyclist gets home, he’ll brag to his girlfriend about it, and write all about it in some kind of blog. “Totally scalped a guy on a road bike today, fnar fnar”. I’ll hate that guy, whoever he ends up being. I’ll want to chase him down and wave my bike computer in his face and make him realise that he only beat me because I’ve been chewing up the miles all morning, and that in a straight race he’d be the dust under my wheels.
I won’t be able to do any of those things, but I’ll want to, because that’s the statement I choose to make by riding the bike I want to ride.
Taken to its logical conclusion, it’s easy to look at people wearing team kit as a higher form of brag. There’s some debate over this in the cycling community – it’s easy to look at wearing a Team Sky jersey on your local club run as equivalent to pulling on a Manchester United top for a kickabout in the park with your mates – no one actually thinks you play for Man U.
But cycling is not football.
For me, I don’t mind team kit. I sometimes wear the kit for the now sadly defunct HTC Highroad, but given that the HTC kit has ‘Specialized’ scrawled all over it I do feel a bit silly. But it’s well made, and comfortable, and besides, they’re not a team any more anyway, so I don’t need to concern myself with those sorts of really big questions. There is, however, a line that I won’t cross, and that line is wearing a race leader jersey.
Wearing a race leader’s jersey makes a huge statement about how good you are, and makes you a massive target for anyone wanting to race you. It’s like the old stereotype from Western films – being the fastest gun in the West means that everyone comes gunning for you; pull that jersey over your head and you are declaring yourself the undisputed master of the road. Or the sprint. Or the mountains.
And more than that, it’s about respect.
Haven’t earned that jersey? Then you have no right to wear it. There’s a blood price that needs to be paid for one of those, and it involves cycling thousands of kilometres a week, through rain, snow, and hail. It’s about conquering mountains. It’s about suffering through some of the toughest feats performed by man. What it isn’t, is £125 + P&P.
But if you really, really have to wear it, make sure you can live up to it. A few months ago I was cycling in the hills around my parents house. It was a sunny day, and I got some good work done on my tan lines, as well as appreciating the opportunity to climb some hills. I took a long downhill at a point towards the tail end of the ride, all the way down into Aylesbury. Towards the bottom of the hill I saw a guy struggling up the other way. He was a middle aged guy on a beaten up steel framed roadie. His face was a rictus of pain, and he still had the best part of the climb ahead of him. And his polka-dot jersey proclaimed him King of the Mountains. And that looked really rather silly.