a journal - cycling, sociology, social media

Sunday 15 January 2017

Need to escape? Go ride your bike - or read a book.

I talked in an earlier blog Changingsports about how I changed sports (and social worlds) and took up bike racing when my triathlon career was brought to an end after an accident. I was partly inspired to do this by a cycling book that I had read some years earlier called The Escape Artist. The author, Mathew Seaton describes with great insight and in considerable depth the intricacies of the social world of racing cycling in this non-academic but critically acclaimed book.Toptencycyclingbooks

The Escape Artist also provided me with part of the inspiration to do my PhD research - I wanted to do what Seaton had done, but in an academic way. Of course there is a BIG difference between DESCRIBING something (which is what Seaton does) and EXPLAINING something (which is what I try to do) which is why some of my research findings reveal a social world that is very different from that which Seaton entered. We need to remember however, that Seaton's account is of his experiences during the early 90s which was a very different time to be a racing cyclist: no Facebook; ;no Strava; no Wiggle; no Sportives; no Training Peaks: no heart rate monitors; no power meters; no Olympic Golds; no TDF winners etc etc etc. Nevertheless this is a brilliant book about amateur cycling which stands the test of time and one that I would highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in cycling (not just racing). TheEscapeArtist

Matt Seaton is a former journalist at The Guardian  who is now a staff writer on the New York Times. He is also a writes a regular column in the excellent (but expensive) Rouleur Magazine. MattSTwitter The Escape Artist is divided in to stages rather than chapters and in it Seaton describes his first experiences of racing, the first time he was dropped in a race and the first time that he crashed. 

Because it is so well written, rather than just do a review of The Escape Artist I have included some extracts from the book and related them to my own experiences in my first season of bike racing during the summer of 2012, some of which were pretty similar to Seaton's. 

The title The Escape Artist relates in part to the way that a rider will try to break away from a group or bunch in order to make a solo attempt to reach the finish line first. The title also alludes to the way that cycling allowed Seaton to escape from his everyday life and significantly, his wife's fight against terminal cancer.

This book is a sporting anthropology of Seaton’s own experiences of socialisation in to the social world of racing cycling and his ten-year involvement in the sport. In The Escape Artist Seaton provides a keyhole view of amateur racing cycling in both the training and racing settings and he very accurately captures that which is taken for granted, the unspoken knowledge and the unwritten rules of participation which he describes below:

“All racing cyclists, including amateurs as I was, may be addicted to the opiates which the brain releases to tamp down the discomfort of exertion, but more they are junkies for the subculture of their sport, its secret knowledge and fraternal spirit. Much more than endorphins, cycling’s myths are what they cannot give up. They are not looking to recruit or convert anyone else. Why are they doing it? The answer is the desire to be different, to excel at something very difficult, and to belong.” (Mathew Seaton, 2003. Prologue - page 7)

Seaton had formerly been a member of the British Communist Party and he was left organisationally homeless after its demise in 1989 (following the fall of the Berlin wall). This was the catalyst for him to take up cycling and the small social world of racing cyclists offered him a new cause and sense of direction to fill the void that was left when the Communist Party imploded. For Seaton, cycling replaced Marxism by offering him another group to belong to and allowing him to feel part of something larger, cycling not only provided him with a community, but also with a way to distinguish himself. Seaton carefully recounts his racing experiences and his writing contains details of the the sensations experienced during racing. Experiences that many racing cyclist blog readers will be able to relate too, I certainly can.

“In a bike race, there is an unpredictable cycle of brief periods of extreme intensity and moments of respite when nothing much is happening at all and you might even exchange a fleeting comment with another rider; periods of recovery when you hide in the bunch, praying that your legs will feel better by the time the hammer goes down again; intense short spurts followed by effortless freewheeling when some rider who is being closely marked feints an attack then backs off; then long spells at a steady, high pace, when there is a chase being organised at the front which you merely follow.” (Mathew Seaton, 2003. Stage 4 - page 100)

In the pic above I am the rider in green on the left racing at Topcliffe RAF base in North Yorkshire during my first racing season. I like to think this picture must have been taken during an "intense short spurt" it certainly doesn't look like "effortless freewheeling" to me, either way if the expression on my face is anything to go by everybody else was a lot more comfortable than I was at this point. However, despite my apparent discomfort, on this particular day I had good legs and was very happy to finish in the bunch in a hard race on very windy and exposed circuit - no great surprise there mind, it is an airfield after all. 

Topcliffe was a good day but regularly in my first season the fairly modest objective of finishing in the bunch was beyond my capabilities. Seaton too, in his early racing career endured the dissapointing experience of being  'out the back.'

“I just couldn’t keep pace. It was much harder than anything I had encountered on the weekly club runs. In racing it seemed a whole other level of performance was demanded. In a matter of seconds, I slipped backwards through the bunch and then, suddenly, there was no one left around me. Before I could even taste the disappointment and ignominy, I was out the back. I lurched out of the saddle one more time and tried to spur my bike on, but my legs were in pieces. I had been dropped.” (Mathew Seaton, 2003. Stage 3 - page 66)

Above - not my finest hour, Stockton Riverside Criteriums - my home town race and I was 'out the back' on the first lap! just as it was for Seaton - "in  a matter of seconds, I slipped backwards through the bunch". I have so many excuses and explanations why this happened: poor positioning on the starting grid; a big and very competitive field; a tight circuit that didn't suit me; a crash at the first corner - truth of the matter is I didn't have the legs - end of.  "I had been dropped.”

Along with being dropped, crashes are another one of my least favourite things about bike racing, but unfortunately they happen and always will, although little bit more regularly than I or anyone else would like. If you can't accept this then you are in the wrong sport and it is probably best to find something else to do - that will cost you a fortune and take over your life! Seaton experienced his first crash riding on the track at Herne Hill in London, this is how he describes it. 

“Right in front of me two riders seemed to wobble and veer into each other. Before I could change direction or react at all there was a blur of bodies and rider-less bikes rolling and skating on the floor in front of me. There was no way through. I felt my front wheel hit something hard. Then all I knew was that I was off. There was nothing to be done now: I tried to relax. The world turned upside down. Light and colour blurred and everything went quiet. Then I landed. The ground jumped up and mugged me, punching me on the back of my head and kicking me on the shoulder and hip.” (Mathew Seaton, 2003. Stage 3 – page 45)

My first season was quite eventful, I had several near misses and crashed twice, this was my first 'get down'. As Seaton also experienced: "There was no way through. I felt my front wheel hit soemething hard"  That 'something' was a rider having a little lie down on the track right in front of me. Here I am just at that moment that Seaton describes as when "the world turned upside down" after that it was all a blur. I did ask myself more than once during that first season, is this really for you? I must have decided at some point that it was, as over 200 races later my 2017 campaign starts in a couple of weeks - wish me luck.

Hopefully, I will have a good day and a bit of luck on Tuesday too as I have the final examination of my Ph.D which is called called the viva voce (a Latin phrase meaning the living voice). I have to orally defend my thesis against two distinguished academics who have been examining it in detail for the last three months. The 'viva' could last up to four hours, which would be grim - but I am hoping it doesn't!  I will let you know how it goes in next week's blog.


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