Picture if you will the early 1970’s – a period fashion forgot and replete with my own personal fashion faux pas (as if it was a competition.) I’m a skinny teen with a bad haircut in bad clothes. A minimally successful County level swimmer, training on both Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday mornings and evenings, then Friday nights and Sunday mornings, with Saturday set aside for competing. Phew! Training is a dull, monotonous and soul-destroying routine with marginal gains so small even Dave Brailsford would turn his nose up at them – and I’m still living up to the family nickname of “Tin Ribs.”
It wouldn’t be so bad, but at the older age groups swimming is becoming a power game. All my counterparts have to turn sideways to walk through doors (even the girls) and have the massive shoulders and narrow hips of a cartoon cat in a Zoot Suit. Then there’s me and I’m still resolutely straight up and down, like an anorexic pipe-cleaner on hunger strike.
Then a friend, starts dabbling in the black arts of cycle racing. And it’s bright, foreign and exotic and fun. The peloton is a mass of colours, the bikes all shiny and chrome plated and the riders all have strange, alluring names with indecipherable spellings, vowels and consonants fighting for position and appearing in strange juxtapositions just to trip your tongue up; Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Knetemann, Zoetemelk, Van Looy.
I slowly start riding more and swimming less, and it’s fun and it’s free, and every grizzled veteran in the peloton is now my coach. I’m not very fast, but I’m a better fit in terms of body type. Swimming has given me enormous stamina and I can pretty much hold on to a rear wheel all day. Some of the younger, more aggresive club riders try to work me over and soon realise I’m “a reet buggar” to drop.
Cycling is at the time different, but the same as it is today. Then, like now, you could easily spend a small fortune (roughly equivalent to the amount Elton John spends on trichologists each year) getting all the gear. Back then though the difference was a lot of the cheaper stuff just wasn’t very good, and for a young kid on a tight budget it was hard. Today I’m perfectly happy tootling along on a Shimano 105 groupset, back then Weinmann brakes and Sun Tour derailleurs were at the top end of what I could afford, and nothing like what I aspired to.
We didn’t have sports drinks, or energy gels. It’s a wonder we ever made it out the door, but maybe Mars Bars and Marathon’s, sorry Snickers, were a suitable alternative? I do remember the following conversation with one of my mates:
Mate: “It says here the pros have a breakfast of steak and pasta before a big stage.”
SLJ: “Pasta? What’s that then?”
Mate: “Dunno, wish I could try some. Oh well, I’ll just have a tin of spaghetti hoops instead!”
We didn’t have Merino baselayers – any old T-shirt or string vest would do. I even remember wearing my jersey over an old school jumper in winter.
There was no carbon. Or titanium. Or aluminium. Only steel.
Wheels were silver. Spokes were silver. Hubs were silver. Groupsets (yes, you’ve got it) were silver.
Saddles were black. Tyres were black. Shoes were black. Unpadded. Super thin leather with all the thermal properties of wet tissue. They had laces. And big holes perforating the uppers for ventilation!
Socks were white. Always and without exception. Ever.
There were no clipless pedals – toe-clips and straps were de rigeur and both a literal and figurative pain – compounded by the fact they just weren’t very effective and a nightmare to release in an emergency.
Cleats had to be nailed onto the bottom of your cycling shoes with what I can only describe as panel pins, much akin to how you would shoe a horse.
There were no helmets, although we had to wear strips of padded leather to race in. I doubt they were terribly effective, and they certainly weren’t stylish.
There were no light-weight clinchers – tubular tyres (tubs) were the order of the day, glued to the rim with “Tub Tack”. As well as being damned expensive these were a complete and utter bastard to repair. I even remember a time when quick release wheel skewers were at the upper end of exotic, and my first bike had big butterfly nuts on the axles so I could take the wheels off without a spanner.
Cotter pins were the bane of my life before I could afford the ultra-chic and exotic cotterless cranks.
We had no overshoes – but polythene bags would often suffice, or cling film, when it finally became popular, could be used under socks to keep feet marginally warmer and a little drier. As an aside, in my school cling film was also quite popular as an alternative to condoms. Kids, don’t try this at home!
We had no synthetic pads in our shorts, just a good old fashioned “shammy” (chammy? ) – chamois leather insert that became as stiff as cardboard and abrasive as sandpaper when the shorts were washed.
We had no mini-pumps or C02 cartridges, but full length frame mounted pumps. Useful, according to the bible of the day “Richards Bicycle Book” (1972) for fending off the odd pack of wild dogs. The book also suggested, in extremis, ramming your fist down an attacking dogs throat to choke it to death, or if it was a particularly small dog picking it up by the hind legs and dashing its brains out on the kerb! Hard times.
There were fewer motorists, but it seemed pedestrians were especially abusive. I must admit to uncontrollable, uproarious laughter every single time some completely original wit shouted “Can you ride tandem?” or “Get off and milk it.” It never got old. Ever. Honest. The first of these quips I could vaguely understand, a PG Tips tea ad which featured monkeys on bikes enjoying day release from the vivisection lab was quite popular on TV at the time, but “get off and milk it?” No idea.
Most importantly there was no wall-to-wall media coverage of cycling. No internet, video streaming, satellite coverage, Eurosport or YouTube. That stalwart of the British club scene, Cycling Weekly, “the comic” as it’s somewhat affectionately known, was quite literally a comic, badly printed on cheap newspaper stock. The only cycling on TV – if we were lucky – was a 15 minute slot for 3 weeks of the year on that stalwart of British staidness, The World of Sport. This summarised “all” the action from the previous week in the Tour de France.
Think about it – one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world, 21 stages, completed in the quickest time of 91 hours, 32 minutes and 16 seconds, (a supercharged Lance Armstrong in 1999), boiled down to just three 15 minute segments of the previous weeks action, and sandwiched between horse racing, truly dire British wrestling and a feature on competitive barrel rolling, tree felling or dyke vaulting. (To be fair though some of these lesser known, esoteric “sports” were remarkably entertaining.)
That’s, at best, just 0.8% of the worlds longest, most exciting, gruelling, endurance sporting event available to the great British public. Try reading and enjoying a book from just 0.8% of the pages – or understand and explain the plot after watching 0.8% of a film.
To add insult to injury, we didn’t even deserve the World of Sport’s frontline, “star presenter,” as Dicky Davis always dicked off on his holidays about this time and we had to endure the decidely second rate Fred Dinnage. How!
Oh, and Phil Liggett. Always Phil bleedin’ Liggett, even back then.
We had to resort to books describing the action stage by stage. And it was in one of these I found my first cycling hero – but that’s a story for another day.