Reflections: the fellowship of the big ring

I’ve often told myself that among the main pleasures of bike racing is the camaraderie of the sport.

The nods and handshakes and fist bumps that occur when you arrive at the sign-in for a race. The nervous, blokeish chit-chat beforehand about the weather, the course, last week’s race, a new bike. The self-deprecating, excuse-making sharing about your health and your fitness, when you last raced, and how your training’s been going.

And then afterwards, the post-mortem conversation: who did what when, which move looked promising but why it failed, when the split happened and the reason you missed it, what happened in the sprint. The debrief, we have to have it.

And sometimes, there’s also an adjournment for coffee, tea, a beer, depending on time of day and location. And then there’ll be more trash-talk and ribaldry and humourous hazing, followed by some dissection of what’s been happening in the Tour or the Giro or the Vuelta.

Read: Rouleur’s 2018 Tour de France Top Banana 

And after that, the conversation might finally turn to work, and family, and children, and marriage or relationship—and always with that ruefulness that everyone recognises as an allusion to the real, but which is also a way of keeping the real at bay, just for this period of respite, this bike-life timeout from responsibility and adulthood and the cares of the world.

That, to me, is the camaraderie of cycling. But really of any sport, since most sports are sustained, in large part, by men’s will to remain boys at heart. I was brought up to this. Not in cycling, but by my father and his enthusiasm for golf. The game replaced cricket, his first sport, at which he had excelled (playing for his university, the Army, and the Royal Engineers). 

The camaraderie of golf was a big part of it. After he aged out of cricket, he achieved a continuity of clubbability by rising through the societies of cricketers turned golfers: the Sussex Martlets, the County Cricketers’ Golf Society, and so on. He captained teams, ran events, gave after-lunch speeches—apparently, dad jokes go a long way with audiences of dads. 

Read: Cycling dads and their able offspring

As a result, I was a boy golfer. I know: the shame. To my father’s disappointment, I dropped out of that world, his world, by the time I was 17. The Corinthian tradition of gentlemen sportsmen was not mine, and the golf club culture of southern England is peculiarly hidebound and snobbish.

I eventually discovered and made a place for myself in the more déclassé milieu of South London cycle sport: the track meets at Herne Hill, the summer evening racing at Crystal Palace, the reliability trials and road races in Kent and Surrey.

But the underlying architecture of camaraderie was not so different—just different enough, perhaps, for me to feel I’d rebelled appropriately against the bourgeois stuffiness of golf club society, but not so different as to have given up something familiar and sustaining about belonging to a community, mainly of men, united in a common devotion to an athletic pursuit. 

And what is so terribly wrong with that sort of camaraderie, after all? Nothing, perhaps, yet I worry at this question. My mother was a classic case of a stalwart woman who refused to be a golf widow and thus took up a game, and all its concomitant social obligations, that she was not much interested in and was ultimately glad enough to give up. Nevertheless, for a decade or two, she gamely participated in golf in a spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” 

Read: When the cross worlds came to Crystal Palace 

She plays bridge now, not golf. And she recently observed—carpingly, but not wrongly—that of all the legion of my father’s golf friends, not more than two or three had ever visited him since he, suffering from dementia, went to live in a care home a couple of years ago. To be fair, a good many of them must be demented, or deceased, themselves. (My father is 92.) But her observation brought me up short: how many of the scores, perhaps hundreds, of the bike racing buddies I’ve known through the years would visit me in a care home? Or I, them? Probably not more than two or three.

time trial

Does this mean that our camaraderie is a thin and empty thing? Is this circle of acquaintance so broad yet shallow as to mean almost nothing? I am not sure, but I think it may be a category error to ask these questions: all friendships are not alike, and the friends we have in cycling we make because we share this single, consuming, yet discrete passion. Otherwise, our experiences and interests probably overlap little (though it’s gratifying, as a base-line, to have never yet met a cyclist who was a Trump fan).

Read: Larry & Conor’s NoGo Tour day 3 – friends for life, or at least for now

The surprising thing should be that we find even two or three who transcend this casual connection and come to mean more, outside of cycling.

Perhaps the real lesson is that, though we often feel we move through life as part of a group, surrounded and pulled along by a multitude of associations, the final reality is rather different. It might be more accurate to think of life as an individual time trial. 


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