An A-Z of What Cycling Means to Me
Let me set the scene for a moment, if I may. The past couple of months have been pretty tough; university work has taken on a new level, my part-time job has been busy and the hunt for a placement job has been demoralising. As a consequence, the cycling miles have slowed down and I have been lucky to venture out once every couple of weeks. Combined with the loss of socialising throughout yet another lockdown, it meant that last weekend's ride sparked an idea for a short 'article'. Prior to Strade Bianche, I managed to squeeze in a ride with a good friend of mine, Jack, and it reminded me of everything that I loved about cycling. It reminded me of what I had been missing. For that reason, I decided to sit down on this Thursday evening and put my thoughts to paper, so to speak. Below you will find an A-Z of what cycling means to me. I did not use a dictionary, these words will certainly vary from what you would surmise- but this is what cycling means to me. I hope you enjoy.
Cycling is Alaphilippe
Quite simply, one of my favourite cyclists in the world. I am penning these thoughts following his stage 2 victory at Tirreno-Adriatico, where the win was simply a small snapshot of what makes this man so appealing. Besides a triumphant sprint to the line that we have come to expect (despite what Strade Bianche may intend us to feel), we were treated to the bedazzling show of glee as 'Loulou' outstretched his tongue in the wake of Mathieu van der Poel's frustrated exclamations. The recent UCI rules meant nothing to Alaphilippe, with the Frenchman throwing his arms around all staff members that approached him- Julian was too happy to contain his emotions. Emotion, possibly the one word that sums Alaphilippe up better than any other. It is displayed through his win or die racing, but it is equally displayed through his joyful grooving to Depeche Mode in the car following victory. This is just one day in the life of Julian Alaphilippe, and it is nothing out of the ordinary for this most wonderful World Champion. He is a superstar that cycling needs, and boy am I glad we have him.
Cycling is Beauty
Be it the beauty of suffering, the beauty of the landscape, or the beauty of a steel frame, cycling is a visual experience like no other. We have so much visual stimulation that sometimes it can be all too much. But there are moments amongst the madness that stand the test of time and leave an imprint on us for years to come. I shall succinctly recount only a single day in my life of a cyclist, the day I climbed Col du Galibier. It was a day full of beauty, as I hauled my magnificent steel Condor frame up one of Europe's highest peaks. It was an ode to the stars of days yore, but there was a beautiful suffering along the way. Whether it was the altitude, the miles in the legs, the fight against the clock, Col du Galibier provided the deepest suffering I have ever felt on a bike, but it was transcendent. Somewhere between the Marco Pantani memorial and the Tunnel du Galibier, my mind entered the state of being that in hindsight I would call, 'joyful suffering'. I had never dug so deep, but there was a true beauty in the pain, ah, cyclists and masochism eh. The views from the summit of Col du Galibier stretched for miles upon miles, as if the whole world had been conquered in that one ride. Only one word was sufficient to describe that climb to me, beauty.
Cycling is Cobbles
There is not much to say here, the cobbles are ingrained into our being as cyclists. We all have our local Arenberg Trench, we all tackle our local Kapelmuur. The cobbles serve as the ultimate test of a person's grit, as we bump and grind our way along these fabled villains. Bike racing would not be the same without them, and neither would our cyclists. I don't care much for the 'rules of cycling', but here's one for you: if you see a cobbled street, tackle it immediately, tackle it as if you were Fabian Cancellara in his pomp.
Cycling is Determination
The low points of cycling, we have all been there, they happen on every ride. Suffering is never far from the agenda as we turn our pedals. When the moment comes, it is time to ignore the pleas that the legs may exclaim, for now is the moment in which we transition from citizens to cyclists, now is the moment in which we get our heads down and ride, regardless of the pain. Every cyclist has determination, because without it, we would not turn the pedals.
Cycling is Enjoyment
Amongst the suffering and the grinding, at the heart of every rider is the nostalgia for their first experience on the bike. As one puts their leg over a top tube for the first time as a youngster, there is both fear and trepidation. But there is also a pining for adventure. With movement comes adventure and more, delivering the freedom that only a bike can bring. As the years pass and the equipment changes, one thing remains ever-present, the enjoyment that comes from riding a bike. It has never left me, and I hope it never does.
Cycling is Friendship
The catalyst for this article, the pleasure that can come from riding with others. We did not cycle far last weekend, we did not cycle fast, but we did have a blast. From cobbles to gravel, from Clitheroe Castle to Pendle Hill, this ride had it all. But those things were not the be all and end all, in fact I could do the same route tomorrow and have half the fun. Because at the end of the day, there is something special about riding with a mate, especially in these challenging times. If your restrictions allow, go out and hit the road with your friend, it will brighten up your day, just like it did mine.
Cycling is Gravel
There is something very special about gravel and for me, it is probably something different from most cyclists. Of course there is incredible fun to be had in pitting your skills against the uneven and unpredictable terrain, but my pleasure comes in the nod to the past. By seeking out gravel, we are almost harkening back to a bygone era, where roads were unpaved and cyclists were held up as trailblazers. The likes of Octave Lapize and Alfredo Binda, through to Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, they tackled the giant European peaks that were often treacherous and unpredictable in their nature. We are a sport that celebrates innovation and is constantly looking for the next technological breakthrough, and yet our headline-grabbing race is Strade Bianche, an event in which riders pit themselves against the white gravel roads that defined races over half a century ago. When we seek out these challenging terrains, in my mind we are walking a mile in the moccasins of those who have ridden before us. It is a special connection that bridges the gap between the generations. And once again, yes, gravel is also darn fun to ride!
Cycling is Heroes
Admit it, we all pretend to be certain riders from time to time. These are the men and women who inspire us and give us that extra 1% when times are tough. For me, it is often Geraint Thomas, I ride up hills and invoke a memory of the Welshman conquering Alpe d'Huez. The heroes are what draw people to bicycle racing, it is not the tactics, it is probably not even the scenery. Instead, stars are what make our sport (on the professional side at least). Without them, cycling would not be the same, and I would certainly ride a whole lot slower. I'd hope you are all picturing your own special riders right now, but rather than whittle on about mine all day, I shall briefly mention a few names of my heroes: Bradley Wiggins; Fausto Coppi; Marco Pantani; Louis Ellner; Tom Simpson. Feel free to reply with some of your own, these men and women deserve to be celebrated.
Cycling is Imperative
For us to prevent the oncoming ecological collapse, we must transition to a carbon neutral world. For this to be achieved, we must transition away from cars and towards sustainable modes of transport. Electric cars play their role, but they are not sustainable in and of themselves, we must encourage millions more to introduce cycling to their everyday habits. I believe in the power of the bicycle, not only to create enjoyment, but to change the world. It is mostly for this reason that I founded this website, as a means of celebration. For us to allow future generations to enjoy the bicycle (and all the intricacies of our lives) in the same ways that we have been able to, it is imperative that cycling becomes the dominant form of transport. Let us all hope that we are not too late.
Cycling is January
Can you tell I struggled for a word beginning with a J? But in all seriousness, January exists as a stage of renewal for our sport, a stage that never fails to excite. With January comes the end of the off-season, as riders make fresh starts and teams unveil new kits, equipment and even sponsors! Acting as a form of reset button on not only the cycling eco chamber, but the whole world, January is a welcome sign to better days ahead- unless the year is 2021, of course.
I cannot end this note without mentioning the Tour Down Under, which always comes as a welcome return from the winter. We may still be suffering through bone cold frosts and biblical downpours throughout January, but Australia allows us a glimpse into a brighter world and brings with it the long anticipated return of bike racing.
Cycling is Kindness
I'd like to think with have a kindred bond amongst us cyclists. We are a community that is often targeted for abuse and so we stick together. Be it a polite wave as we pass, a spare tube for a rider in need, or a simple kudos on Strava, we have each other's backs. Long may that continue.
Cycling is Limitless
There are no boundaries to a man or woman on a bike, with enough fuel and energy, we can scale the world- just ask Mark Beaumont. I don't own a car, the insurance is too expensive and it isn't necessary whilst at university. Therefore, the bike is my one tool of freedom. With two wheels under me, I can go anywhere.
Cycling is Merckx
The best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be.
Cycling is Nature
I don't partake in indoor cycling, it isn't for me. Partly because I can't afford a good trainer, but mostly because cycling is not about training to me. It is about getting into the wild and exploring the world, whilst forgetting the worries of everyday life. In my recent article on the Col du Solude, one of my everlasting memories of that ride were the butterflies floating amongst through the forest, it was everything that is great about cycling. Exploring the wild and venturing to parts unknown is what makes exercising outside so wonderful. Walking is great, but the slow pace means that exploration is often somewhat limited, whereas on a bike you have got the world at your feet as you leave the driveway. In the Ribble Valley we are blessed by rabbits, squirrels, foxes and more, who are all willing to entertain as we pedal through the rolling terrain that we call home. Situated between many a big hill, the viewpoints are close at hand, albeit at the end of a tough climb. Waddington Fell, Pendle Hill, Longridge Fell, Cross o Greet, Trough of Bowland- they are all within touching distance and offer an incredible platform to see across Lancashire and beyond. You can keep your Zwift throughout winter, cycling for me is about getting into the country!
Cycling is Orientation
I am yet to fully get my head around Bath and the South West, but the act of cycling provides a wonderful opportunity to get to know your local area, better than you could by simply living in the same place for a decade. By venturing out and taken the less-trodden path, one gets to explore roads that they would otherwise not visit. Be it an old farm path, a sketchy looking descent or a terrifying little climb- I'm looking at you Whalley Nab- we cycle into parts of our local area that open up our horizons and shed further light on the places we live. Over the course of a year of doing as such, we slowly but surely begin to understand the geography and history of our home better than ever before. With experience comes more knowledge, and with more knowledge comes more belief and confidence that you can venture further into the unknown. Once you start linking different routes together, the world truly does fall at your feet, with nothing holding you back and no fear of getting lost. Do me a favour, next time you go on a ride, do not turn out of your street the usual way, take the alternative route and go explore, it will open up your eyes to a world previously unknown.
Cycling is Power
No, not the power of Mathieu van der Poel to propel himself to Piazza del Campo, though that was mesmerising in itself,. Instead, cycling is the power to change the world, as I have already alluded to. This does not relate simply to the change to a more sustainable way of living, rather, the bike can serve as a tool of resistance. In 1890, the British National Cycling Union banned road racing in the country. This was an attack on the working class, who had used the bike as a means of escapism from their brutal lives of servitude. The bike had carried them from the inner cities of industrial capitalism, into the beautiful green of lands less-trodden. Of course, the elites in the country did not take kindly to seeing the power manifested in the hands (or feet in this case) of the working classes, and resorted to banning road racing as a result. This was the start of the time trial revolution that would make a mark on British cycling to this very day. Either side of the war, the bike was the tool for workers to travel on, opening up the world to those previously destined to remain in similar abodes.
Taking in a more recent context, I was recently reading the fantastic Rouleur Issue 101, which was dedicated to women's cycling and provided a remarkable tale of how the bike has been invoked as a means to battle oppression in Pakistan. Written by Florence Derrick, the article told the tale of the Lyari Girls Café in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. Were women to ride their bikes alone through the city that acts as a spotlight for Pakistan's post-colonial turn to traditionalism and social control, they would be attacked with stones on occasion, and verbally abused if not physically. Lyari is situated in an area of the Kutchi community, who are very conservative regarding women and in particular, young girls. Prior to 2014, the area was a no-go zone due to gang violence. Look ahead to the modern day and a social revolution is underway as the Lyari Girls Café supports young women to ride their bikes, be it as a means of transport to work or education, or as a way of exercising and enjoying social contact on the weekend. Holding indoor cycling lessons for girls prior to venturing out onto the streets, the time is just as focused on mental education as it is on physically riding the bike. Girls are taught how to react and ignore the verbal onslaught that they may suffer as they simply ride their bikes outside. When they do cycle, it is in a group environment. Whilst from our perspective, this seems so unusual, this is an immensely powerful tool of social activism in Pakistan and long may it continue. One only needs to look at the work of Qhubeka in Africa to see that the bicycle still holds a powerful tool to change the world, one pedal stroke at a time.
Cycling is Quick-Step
I don't want to hear anything about that not being one word, please! Q was a tricky one...
Since I first began watching road racing in the days of Quickstep-Innergetic, they have been the dominant team in taking victories and have produced the most incredible cyclists on the planet. The list is endless, but the riders that have stood out to me over the past decade have been: Tom Boonen; Mark Cavendish; Niki Terpstra; Eli Viviani; Fernando Gaviria; Rigoberto Urán and more recently, Julian Alaphilippe. It has been a production line of talent and success, often through the use of exciting and ingenious tactics. I remember being in the Roubaix velodrome for the 2015 Paris-Roubaix, it was to be the last year at Quick-Step for Mark Cavendish, not that I knew that at the time. His success had transferred from the days of HTC-Columbia, through to Team Sky and onto the road with Quick-Step. It was solely in support of 'Cav' that I asked my Dad to buy me an Etixx-Quick Step jersey whilst we were in the velodrome. I still wear it to this day. And the answer is no, I have not grown since I was 14, not much anyway!
Cycling is (Paris-) Roubaix
It is the most beautiful mixture of pain, suffering, sacrifice and potential glory. The barbaric nature of the cobbles sections offer a throwback to days of yore, where it really was man vs nature. The Spring Classics are the best couple of months in cycling, with the racing delivering time and time again with frenetic and unpredictable action. Add in the passionate crowds that follow these races like a religion, you get the greatest experience as a cycling fan. Whichever rider has won Paris-Roubaix, no matter the weather, you know they have been in an incredible battle, not only against their fellow competitors, but against the fabled cobbles. Incidentally, I have an Arenberg cobble on my doorstep as I type this, don't worry though, it was discarded in the forest and did not require the sacreligious removal from the ground!
I think the reason this race stands out for me, other than its exciting nature as a race, is that it is the event I have most first-hand experience with. It is a truly brilliant weekend, with the in-the-know fan being able to see the race at three different moments. On the Saturday prior, there is the chance to go and ride the cobbles yourself (bring spares...), before taking in the criterium in Compiegne the night before the race. After wandering around the team buses (another uniquely brilliant aspect of cycling) and watching the race start in Compiegne, one can drive to the Arenberg Trench and take in the deafening atmosphere as the riders descend into hell. It is a barmy experience! Finally, there is enough time to drive to Roubaix and find a spot on the grass bankings of the velodrome, where I distinctly remember Bradley Wiggins entering on his final Roubaix as a rider. It was a magical experience and despite not quite being able to take the long-desired victory, he gave it a bloody good go! Up next comes a mad scramble to make it back to the Channel Tunnel for the last crossing and the long drive home to Lancashire. Home in the early hours of the morning, at school at 9am, Bob's your uncle!
The memories I have from attending the race, and seeing stars like Fabian Cancellara up close and personal, are why I love this race so much. It is an incredible spectacle to take in on the television, but to follow the race on the ground is something else and an experience I can't wait to relive once these crazy times are behind us.
Cycling is Speed
Admit it, going fast is fun. Going fast is a quintessential element of cycling, as you plummet down a descent and feel the wind blowing through your hair- albeit I imagine this was a more enjoyable feeling prior to the onset of helmets!
Last summer, we travelled to the Alps and went cycling for two weeks; looking back upon the Go Pro footage is quite funny in hindsight. At the beginning of the trip, my descending was pretty shoddy and racked with a lack of confidence. Advance throughout the week and in my head, I turn from Ilnur Zakarin to Julian Alaphilippe, flying down Col du Galibier as if I too was fighting to protect my maillot jejune. Over the course of the 10 days of riding, I threw myself into getting better downhill and by the end of the trip, I was comfortable descending, resulting in a full-throttled burst down Mont Ventoux on the final day. It was bliss.
There is a line at which you cross from the safe side of maintaining a regular speed, to the dangerous side where you are not in full control. Living on that edge is often part of cycling, and it is a reward for the hard work that has gone into climbing up a hill. What goes up, must come down, and the speed of descending is a brilliant experience that once again, harkens back to your early days of cycling when this freedom was first discovered. Of course, speed is not limited to simply descending, but it does help!
Cycling is Therapeutic
Cycling transports you to another world whilst out on the road, leaving behind all the toils of everyday life. Once out on the open road, your mind is relaxed and the air is clean. There are little worries whilst cycling, that is all saved for normal life. Cycling, whether that be for half an hour or six hours, is a fantastic way to lay your mind at ease and simply enjoy all that is beautiful with the world. Exercise is proven to improve your mood and your mental health, add in the exploration of nature that we have already discussed, and you get a transcendent experience that is rich in its rewards. I feel happy whilst out cycling, I feel free. On the occasions where I don't feel like going out, I tell myself one thing- I have never regretted a ride in my entire life. Not once have I got back from a bike ride and regretted it, no matter what troubles occurred out on the road. I have been frozen cold and dripping in rainwater, but still I did not regret it. I have come home after half a mile with two punctures, but still I did not regret it- it was a learning experience, ok? I have toiled away on the Yorkshire Dales for 6 hours on a mountain bike, reducing me to tears, but still I did not regret it. It is always an experience and it is always a rewarding one.
I recently watched the fantastic film that Rapha commissioned on Ron Bartle, a pioneering gentlemen from the Rough Stuff Fellowship who made the first unsupported ride across the Iceland interior (amongst a group of four). Whilst watching the video, one little segment stood out- I believe it perfectly sums up the beauty of riding and leaving everyday worries behind:
"If you go out on the bike, you may have a few problems in your mind, but once you get out on the bike, you forget all these things and it's only when you come home that you worry about them. But when you're out, you know, there's no problem. I always enjoyed cycling, it built a bit of character and toughened you up, maybe. It's a grand way to spend a life."
A grand way indeed.
Cycling is Unifying
There is a real camaraderie amongst us cyclists. I touched upon this before, but cycling really develops a shared experience amongst us all. We all know the suffering that we experience out on the road, equally we all know the abuse that is often levied our way. We each share an experience that is fundamental to our lives, that raises us up when we feel down. Whether it be a mutual greeting as we pass on the roads, or a spare tube for a cyclist in need, we look out for each other. As we pass each other going up a hill, we offer each other encouragement, "it will get better" we say, knowing full well the pain ahead.
I believe our professional sport is very much unique in that we cheer on all the riders in generally the same- there is no opposition in cycling. Instead we cheer on the man or woman out of the back, in the same way that we cheer on Julian Alaphilippe or Anna van der Breggen attacking off the front. We understand what the riders are going through, what they are putting their bodies through in order to provide us with entertainment. As a result, we will them all on. Whilst I do love the tribal element of football, and I loathe Blackburn Rovers, it is equally as enjoyable to see everybody pulling together on a climb to offer support to each and every one of the riders.
As we travel across the world to cycle and to watch our wonderful sport, we are welcomed into new communities and different cultures, providing experiences that will last a lifetime. Although rooted in European history, our sport is truly international, and I'd like to think the majority of our fans are tolerant of others. The thing that unifies us is a simple machine- two wheels, a frame, a set of handlebars- but the experience it brings us can unify the world.
Cycling is Ventoux
The Giant of Provence, the windy mountain, the death climb- call it what you want, this mountain is the most infamous in all of cycling, drawing thousands in pilgrimage each year. I have written an extended piece of Mont Ventoux, but I will surmise my adoration for this mountain here. There are many things that drew me to Ventoux- Tom Simpson, the white scree, the myths, the fear- and it lived up to its reputation and more. Posing a tough challenge for all who dare to tackle the Giant of Provence, Ventoux offers both beauty and suffering in equal measure, as you rise above the plateau and open views that stretch for hundreds of miles. As you reach the upper slopes of Ventoux, the beauty of the Provence region unfolds before your eyes. You have reached the top of the world, glancing out to the Alps in one direction, and to Italy in another.
Alongside the beauty of this climb, you have the history of those who have travelled this road before you. No man will sit larger in the minds of British fans than Tom Simpson, who unfortunately lost his life on Ventoux in 1967. To travel to Provence and lumber your body to his memorial, sitting only around a kilometre from the summit, you pay homage to one of Britain's greatest sport stars. Winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1965, following his victory at the World Championships, Simpson was the man who put British Cycling on the map. He blazed the trail for all who followed after him, and in doing so, he inspired multiple generations to come. As I wore my Peugeot cap and cycled past Tom's final resting spot, to say the experience was transcendent would be to put it lightly. There are thousands of climbs in Europe, but I would not say any come close to Mont Ventoux in terms of its allure.
Cycling is Wiggins
Bradley Wiggins, my first cycling hero. Growing up through the summer of 2012, I was not alone in being swept up in the splendour. From the victories in the stage races that built to June, to the Tour de France victory, to the Olympic glory, 2012 inspired a generation. I was lucky enough to meet Bradley in the wake of his Tour victory and he was lovely, spending time with my Dad and I at the launch of his Opus book. People can say what they like about Bradley, every time I have met him he has been a joy. Towards the end of his career, his tilt towards Paris-Roubaix was delightful and the passion for the race shone through as 'Wiggo' give it his all. It never came off in the end, but the 2016 Olympics and Six Days of Ghent provided a fitting end to a remarkable career. Transitioning into life out of the direct public eye, Wiggins has become a brilliant voice on the media and 'Brad on the Bike' is a delightful addition to the TV coverage. When asked who my favourite cyclists of all time are, the name Bradley Wiggins will always spring first into the mind. He inspired out generation and transformed cycling in Britain, for that he will always be appreciated.
Cycling is X-rays
Broken bones, part of cycling aren't they? I have yet to have one!
Cycling is Yellow
The maillot jeune, the most iconic jersey in sport. Worn by tens of icons of our sport, including Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Louison Bobet. The yellow jersey represents cycling to the outside world, serving as the epitome of sporting success, earned over the course of three weeks of tough competition. Yellow is not reserved just for the leader's jersey at the Tour, also providing two of the more iconic images of our sport. Located in the heat of July, the sun often basks down onto the peloton and sheds a mesmerising light across the picture. Often adding to this scene, the yellow sunflowers exist as the epitome of cycling in the Tour de France, acting as a terrific backdrop as the riders sail by. Yellow is the colour of the summer of cycling, just thinking of it whisks me back to better days and nicer weather. This year's Tour should be another barnstormer, with the sequel to Roglič vs Pogačar gracing the roads of France. Let us hope that fans can return and the sun basks down once more, it truly is one of cycling's greatest sights. A Geraint Thomas victory wouldn't go amiss as well, tah.
Cycling is Zigzag
The obvious, and perhaps only alternative choice here, would be Z Team. But to be frank with you, I was born in 2000 and thus their impact was not great on me. However, when I think of the term zigzag, I envisage a steep uphill climb that reduces us all to mere mortals. As the gradient sharpens and the legs burn, there is but one option to avoid stopping altogether- zigzagging across the road in a last-ditch attempt to stay upright. As we divert back and forth across the road, the gradient eases and relief is found. Zigzagging is the picture of a cyclist battling against the impossible, refusing to be beaten and digging deep to crest a climb.
Now I know my ABC's, next time won't you sing with me? Enjoy riding folks.