A conversation on cycling with a football-loving friend

Filthy front mech“Cycling? That’s a boring sport.”
“Boring? I don’t think so.”
“It’s just a bunch of blokes riding bikes as fast as they can and the first one over the line wins. It’s boring.”
“Far from it. It’s Dallas on wheels. It’s the most Machiavellian sport on the planet.”
“Er.. yeah. Blokes on bikes. Right.”
“Seriously. It’s devastatingly cruel and utterly compelling.”
“Go on then, convince me.”
“Look, you’re Juan Antonion Flecha…”
“Juan Antonion Flecha. He’s a Spanish cyclist.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Well, you have now. You’re Juan Antonio Flecha and you’re in the lead group in the finale of Paris-Roubaix. That’s a bike race. Actually, no, it’s more than just a bike race. It’s THE bike race – it’s epic, an event, it’s the one that only the greatest riders win. And you want it so much. But you’re already racing for second because Cancellara’s gone, he’s up the road, and this guy’s a beast. No-one’s going to catch him. But second is good. Second is worth racing for. So you look at the faces of the riders around you. You see how drained they are. And you wait for the moment.”

“Blokes. Riding. Bikes. Boring – doesn’t matter how you dress it up.”

“No. Let me finish. You don’t understand. It’s not always the strongest or the fastest guy who wins. It’s the most calculating. It’s like a game of chess played in a state of extreme physical stress.”
“Garry Kasparov panting on a bike. Big fucking deal.”
“You jump. You pull and pull and pull in your biggest gear. It’s agony, but you have to get away. You pull and you pull until the invisible sinew attaching you to the group behind snaps. And you’re free. Second place is yours.”
“That’s it? That’s ‘Dallas on wheels’?”
“No. But this is: you’re not quite free, because Thor Hushovd jumped with you and he’s riding in your slipstream. You’re practically towing him. You’re killing yourself to plough along at 28, 29 miles an hour and this guy’s cruising behind you with virtually no effort at all. And you know – you know, because he’s a sprinter – that’s  he’s just going to sit there and make you do all the work until you’re so close to the finish line that you can spit on it. Then he’s going to push his pedals a little harder, ease past you and take second place on the line. Your second place. So what do you do?”
“If you keep pedalling, you lose. If you stop pedalling, you lose. What do you do?”
“Give up, go home and watch the footie.”
“Football? Pampered morons kicking a bladder around a field. This is on a different plane altogether. It’s exquisitely cruel. Think about it: if you carry on, you lose, but you get a place on the podium. You’re humiliated by Hushovd, but you’re on the podium . If you stop, you lose – only you lose worse. But there’s no humiliation either, only regrets. And there ‘s nothing – nothing – you can do about the guy on your wheel. He’s a burden you’re condemned to carry. Psychologists probably have a name for this kind of dilemma. I call it the ‘sprinter’s bind’.”

“Yeah, well, you would…”
“Happens all the time. So does bribery. Not common bribery, like football clubs paying off referees. But one cyclist paying off a rival during a race. In the middle of the fucking race. Where else do you see that in sport? And when you see the peloton…”
“The what?”
 Racing at Hillingdon, May 2010

“The peloton. It’s French for…oh, never mind. When you see the peloton rolling through the French countryside, it’s not just a bunch of guys out for a sunny ride. It’s a seething, snaking mass of calculation and opportunism, deals, backstabbing, loyalty, betrayal. There are teams who ride for their opponents – whole teams – just to stitch someone up. This isn’t sport, it’s politics. No, it’s survival. These guys don’t employ tactics like your crummy, half-witted  footballers. There’s no 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. These guys employ survival strategies – it’s brutal and it’s callous, and they’re desperate.”

“Mate, this isn’t Life on Earth. It’s blokes on bikes.”

“No, but it is. It really is. Look, it’s a team sport won by individuals. That means it’s innately feudal – everyone serving the alpha male. But if you want to win, you’ve got to co-operate with your rivals. So there’s a kind of subtle, deceptive interdependence.  And it’s parasitic, too, because if you get someone in a sprinter’s bind you’re feeding off their strength and there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s completely self-serving. These are survival basics. Look around you – they’re everywhere, except on a football pitch. And it’s raw. These guys suffer like you wouldn’t believe. Just surviving the race is a victory for most of them.”

“Don’t glamourise it! You’re talking about a bunch of dopers. Anyone can ride a frigging bike. Dope yourself up and you’re laughing.”

“Look, cyclists don’t just race with tainted blood in their veins; they race with the spirit of Machiavelli in their bones. It’s incorrigible, irresistible, endlessly corruptible. And that, my football-loving friend, makes cycling far from boring.”
“Yeah, whatever.”


7 thoughts on “A conversation on cycling with a football-loving friend

  1. I thought this was a great post and it really framed the “why i love pro cycling as a spectator” speech in a dynamic, revealing way. I “knew” I loved cycling for all of these “reasons” but I never tried to articulate the reasons and it’s neat-o to actually read them and realize how intriguing and engaging our sport is – it’s like a mexican telenovela!

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