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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Going downhill

By Paul Bannister
Cyril Jones was my first news editor, at the Eccles Journal, and he nagged a reporter’s education of sorts into the likes of John Stapleton of TV fame, the late Peter Hollinson (Western Mail editor, if memory serves) and tabloid titan Brian Wesley.

Jones of Eccles was an unlikely candidate for cycling’s hall of fame, but he deserves a pedestal there because he comprehended what riding a bicycle was about.

Bless you and your large Family Ales, Mr Jones. I forgive the year’s miserly payoff of 7s 6d for calling in copy to the Manchester Evening News almost every day, because now, I understand.

Cyril tutored us in the information business but he knew when to stop. He didn’t inform his juniors about the linage fees we’d get, and matters went smoothly (at least until Christmas, and the three half-crowns each.)

In similar fashion, too much info has wrecked my sport.

In 1962, I was a teenager obsessed with bicycle racing. I rode several hundred miles a week, (14,200 that year, my diary tells me) ate three extra, donated, breakfasts daily as I did the rounds of police, fire and ambulance stations en route to the office and was as lean and hungry as Cassius.

A bicycle was an instrument of speed, poise and glamour, I felt.

Cyril, on his rod-braked Rudge, belted and generously insulated in sub-editor Maurice Brown’s camelhair demob overcoat (bought from him for ten shillings in a moment of Maurice’s weakness, then dyed navy) seemed to have none of these qualities. He would pedal to town hall or magistrates’ court, upright and trouser-clipped in horseshoe-shaped spring steel, as the very image of stately motion.

I’d sigh, ease my Campagnolo gear lever forward and stamp my Stallard up Church Street.

I left Eccles for London, where today’s Tour de France voice Phil Liggett was my colleague at Cycling magazine, was my team mate on the squad sponsored by Witcomb Cycles and was my flatmate in an orange-and-black-painted Palmer’s Green lodging that brought people out in a rash when they saw the decor.

We lived within earshot of the North Circular, and trained in the evenings across Hertfordshire with a chain gang of 60 or so Londoners who had no clue what we Northerners were saying.

And I loved cycling.

Today, from the Pacific coast of America, I look sourly at Le Tour and wonder where my sport went wrong.

I’m not addressing the issue of cheating through doping, which seems to have permeated almost all sport. I’m talking technical and informational advantages.
Ranters use the phrase ‘In My Day’ a lot, and I gladly employ it here. IMD, we wore wool shorts and shirts, and leather shoes with slotted shoe plates. Our Brooks Professional saddles of leather, steel and brass rivets weighed about the same as a modern bicycle’s entire frame.

It was essentially the equipment used 40 years earlier, and only Bri-Nylon was our concession to modernity.

We didn’t have aero helmets and skin suits with bootees, and we didn’t ride in Superman-style tucks to slice more easily through the air on our non-cavitating, solid disc rear wheels and tri-spoked carbon fibre front hoops, with their ultra-slippery ceramic bearings. We thought if we just kept our elbows in, that was enough aero concession.

Of course, airflow had its advantages. Cycling to work in a suit can be a sweaty business, and a brisk, Lancashire-damp breeze had fine cooling effects.

I kept regular shoes at the office, because Cyril taught us that people checked your tie and shoes first to see what kind of clown the local rag had sent round to report the chip pan fire, and it made for difficulties if ‘lad from t’Journal’ clattered up in metal-cleated cycling shoes.

I devised a means of fastening my briefcase around the crossbar of the bicycle frame, and this allowed me advantages because I could hide the bike and stroll up like a somewhat odiferous insurance agent.

Once or twice a month, I’d have the duty of covering council meetings in a steelworks town a few miles away and for that respectable duty I’d use my brother’s orange-painted Mobylette moped.

This allowed me not only to arrive in unsweated if seriously windblown state, but allowed me to claim mileage, a privilege not given to mere pedal-pushers.

The disadvantage, I found on the night the councillors celebrated the free bar at the opening of a new social club, was that the moped was much harder to push when one was too inebriated to ride.

This might be too much information, but it brings me back to my rant: Tour de France riders get too much info.

I’m talking about the ear-piece wireless devices the professionals use to communicate with the team manager in the following car.

With them, he can tell the rider up the road what’s happening as he monitors matters, and it’s infuriating.

Time was, you broke away from the front end of the bunch and slipped out of sight. Maybe you’d be joined by a few others and would work together to stay away. Maybe the bunch would catch you. Maybe an escaper would sneak off before the catch and the main group might not realise there was still the One That Got Away somewhere up the road.

Enterprise, effort and cunning could pay off, just as it does in the world of doorsteps and stakeouts.

When the sport is controlled by a manager who has half of French television telling him who’s where by their bike-mounted GPS, individual effort is undermined.

The manager knows his équipe, working together, can cut X seconds per kilo from the gap. A bit of maths to calculate distance to the finish and he can tell his boys (whose heart rate monitors he can also read remotely) exactly how hard to work to bring back the escapee.

What a cheat, and what a bore. Forget the drugs, the sport’s busy cleaning itself up (and don’t get me ranting about steroid-loaded US baseball players who are stealing records fuelled by hot dogs and beer).

Just take away the damn radios, which already bedevil other arenas.

American ‘football’ – a game where the only foot to touch the ball belongs to the smallest man on the squad – has drugs, technology and radios.

The quarterback is told what to do by a squadron of advisors who call in every play. The receivers run planned routes, the blockers step into scripted gaps, the running backs follow designed pathways.

It’s a radio-controlled spectacle, and I hate it. I want my two-wheeled heroes battling it out elbow to elbow, on empty roads unscripted and on their own initiative.

There are times to remain silent, as policemen have advised me. It’s bad enough that mobile phones can keep you in constant touch with the office, especially when you want to hide for an hour or two.

Let’s resist an in-your-ear stream of instructions, let’s have some quiet.

If Cyril Jones could traverse Eccles radio-less on a Rudge, surely the professional entertainers who roll around France can manage without hints.

Cyril knew that a bike was for transportation. I knew it was for sport. We each did our thing unimpeded by instruction. Maybe we can’t stop tech fiddlers ‘improving’ sports equipment from tennis racquets to pole vaulters’ springy poles.

Maybe we can’t stop drugs in sport, or halt the development of jumbo cricket bats and carbon fibre canoes, but please, please, let’s have radio silence.