I’m not ashamed to admit, I used to pretend to be Chris Boardman. In the midst of a time trial, I would morph into the man who rode that event like no one else.
Physically it was easy. I looked exactly like him in every important aspect, and I still do. To this day I can stride into the finest of Savile Row establishments and demand “The Full Boardman, and hurry,” and can be confident I will leave looking immaculate, and breathing like the victim of a boa constrictor.
Mentally it was harder. I had absolutely no idea what was going on in his head. During races, his face rarely gave any hint of internal struggle. He might have been processing a giant spreadsheet – drag factors, frontal areas, power outputs, times. It might have been pure rage. It might have been – and I confess I have no idea where this came from – a mental image of a tin of tomato soup. Maybe I felt that he was so good that it didn’t matter what he thought about.
You will detect a general air of admiration. You get a lot of that with hero worship. Despite my total ignorance of the man, when I hunkered down on my bike and thundered along a long, straight road, I tried to imagine what Boardman would have felt, and then imagined that I felt it too. I might have been better just riding my bike, of course, but I think I would have enjoyed that less. My moments of Chrisness were some of my best.
It is interesting that I only entered into the Chrisness spirit when things were going well. My loyalty meant that when I was suffering, I didn’t insult the man by associating him with it. I took responsibility for that sort of bike riding personally. When I was good I was Chris, when I was bad I was me. The Chris only had good days. Pros only have good days.
Let us now cut away from this introspection, to the top of the Ventoux on stage 15 of this year’s Tour de France. The place is bizarre – a rubble field, essentially. There is nothing but small, flat, sharp rocks and about 50 per cent of the world’s gravel. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that the gravel goes down forever, and that if you stood in one place you’d slowly sink into it and never be seen again.
Had you been with me at the finish a few minutes after Chris Froome won the stage, and not far from where Nairo Quintana was lying in a heap, you’d have found Dan Martin. Martin looked – and I do not exaggerate – like the victim of a mugging.
He was standing against a barrier gasping, just trying to catch some thin air. “It was so, so… hard,” he said. “So fast… hard.” There was nothing behind his eyes. His face, his jersey and his shorts were covered in salt. He’s one of the best climbers there is, but all the same, even on his own terrain, you had only to look to see he’d been to a world of suffering that none of us have ever sampled.
Television really only picks up discomfort. It does not transmit true suffering. It’s easy to get caught up in the tactics and the excitement, and forget the physical toll taken by some races. The riders are not just faster, fitter, and lighter than us, they will give more as well.
Next time I’m falling into the abyss, I’m going to think about Dan Martin. I’m going to pretend to be Dan Martin. And it will make me feel a little better about life, because I will remember there’s a whole fresh world of agony I’ll never see.
Given the critical importance of the wind to cycle racing tactics, the fact that you can’t actually see it on TV makes the racing much too hard to understand. I think it would be a great idea if there was a motorbike that drove along in front of the race trailing smoke, like the Red Arrows. That way you’d be able to see what was happening.
Simon Bing, email
Simon – don’t be daft. It’s perfectly obvious that a much better system would be for all the riders to have a stick attached to their helmet with a flag on the top. Simpler, more environmentally friendly, and you could use the flag for providing information about the riders, like how far down on GC everyone was, or their haematocrit level that day.
Sometime in the 1910s. Probably – Echelons
Echelons were the inevitable result of two things. Firstly, riding speeds increasing to the point where drafting became an essential tactic, and secondly, wind, the availability of which increased dramatically in the early 20th century as the number of sailing ships declined.
An echelon forms when a crosswind means that the sweet spot behind the rider in front is off to one side. A whole string of riders then form a diagonal across the road, until some poor sod at the downwind end finds that he can’t get to the ideal position, because there’s no road left.
Instead he bashes along in the wind in the gutter, with a line of equally unhappy riders behind him. Eventually one of them loses the wheel in front, the front of the race rides off, and everyone behind him shouts at him. Then they resignedly form another group on the road, and try to catch the first group.
The main use of echelons, though, is that their prospect, however remote, gives race commentators something to talk about every time they’re faced with a flat, boring stage. Every time a flag limply flaps, the echelon cry goes up, but the echelon rarely appears. A watched echelon never happens. It’s like the hope that a dull game of football (ie most of them) will be enlivened by two copulating dogs.
Just occasionally, though, all hell breaks loose and a sprinters’ benefit of a stage turns into a total free-for-all, with group after group trying to catch one race in front, while leaving another one behind.
This article was first published in the July 25 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!