Why on earth are you doing this?
WORDS BY MARK TEARLE
PHOTOS BY GAVIN PEACOCK & MARK TEARLE
There’s always at least one point in a race where my brain asks ‘what on earth are you doing?’. I doubt I am alone in this. The ridiculousness of the situation always brings out a stupid smile and an asthmatic laugh that tends to get supressed in the mucus at the back of the throat. We’re three laps in, and the pace has settled as the field strings out and riders jostle for position.
When I think about that ‘what on earth are you doing’ question, my facial expression will turn from a smile to a furrowed brow, troubled by my own vanity, my lust, my greed. It’s enough to stay on the bike and finish a race when this happens. Look at me, what a privileged ninny. It’s a conceit and I paid money to do it.
It’s not really about the money. For the most part, the organiser and the league are just about breaking even. The thing is that it is completely pointless, gratuitous even, and it is hard to reconcile all that effort – not out of necessity, not for survival, not even for money. I think about the suffering currently going on in Syrian cities like Aleppo, versus my own relatively fat contentment and comfort and I shake my head with embarrassment.
But look up: volunteers, community, people of all ages, sizes and ability… a perfect demographic slice of humanity at that time, in that place, in it together (not in that vulgar Tory rhetorical ‘sound bite’ kind of way – that rhetoric is a lie anyway, just in case you hadn’t realised), and all there for the purposes of doing something for the pleasure of others, with the knock-on benefit of improved health and fitness for those taking part, tradition and community cohesion; not for profit, not for the financial benefit of a few, but open, honest and done with true love.
Yeah, we’re not being bombed by our own government, or used as human shields by a fractious rebellion and others in a scramble for power or some misguided ideal, and, no, we aren’t chasing after our own food in order to survive. That furrowed brow expression turns into a smile again. I have made it round the next lap; I am still on the bike, my lungs are burning and my cheeks are flushed with colour from the effort, sweat drips off the peak of my cap, I can feel the blood coursing through my veins and I feel positively alive. There’s a heckle from the left that I don’t quite catch, but – insult or encouragement – it has that spurring effect to try to catch the rider in front. Lingering in mid-pack obscurity, my race is within the race and mostly with my own mental anguish – this is my Corinthian spirit.
I don’t mind the physical stresses my body is going through, that one hour is preferable to one hour sitting at a desk in a stuffy office. And I know I can balance my own selfish vanity by getting involved myself – stand on a corner and marshal or organise a race, and I do and I will continue to do so until I can no longer.
Cyclocross participation levels are steadily rising; the youth categories, populated by eager boys and girls, and numbers of women taking part are increasing year on year, as cyclocross is seen as a more encouraging and less dangerous pursuit in comparison to road riding – the community and friendly spirit at local league races is also well documented. But I can’t help thinking that more can be done.
The cost of a bicycle and kit can be expensive and for many cases quite prohibitive for those younger people who could show promise if only they were provided with the opportunity. The cost of races, due to venue costs, insurance and race levies, is increasing still further.
Sometimes it is very difficult to see where the levy money goes and whether there is any benefit returned to developing the sport at the grass roots, especially for younger people. As far as I can see the increased participation has come from the ground up – cyclocross at an amateur level is in and of itself self–perpetuating and self-sustaining, but for how much longer? It is still reliant on a just a handful of people willing to put in the effort and make something happen.
I must admit that I became slightly disillusioned with British Cycling after the Jess Varnish/Shane Sutton business – I didn’t necessarily make any judgements about it, just that it left a bad taste in the mouth. And the ‘D’ word still lingers over the professional sport like some sort of Sword of Damocles.
I’m digressing into murky areas with this… The bell lap has arrived – only eight minutes left of this pain and then I can go and have a beer. My personal challenge is nearly over and I can cross the line with a smile on my face, knowing that I made the effort, I gave it a try, I finished.
I don’t have the answers to those questions I have posed, not least of all that initial question ‘just what on earth are you doing’, but I know I like the effort and I know I like being around those people and I know it is just fantastic fun, and it is still considered just that little bit weird. It is vain and it is utterly pointless and this, I think, is what I like most of all.
My friend opens a bottle of local IPA and hands it to me with a ‘well done’ – I take the first gulp, and then another. I earned it.