Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Club life here - and there

I've just returned from Meet Greg LeMond Day at River City Bicycles in Portland. The LeMond appearance went well, and we had a surprise guest, Lance Armstrong, who was in Portland on entirely different business.

Between Lance and Greg, we had winners of four Tours de France there (note: at that time, in 1999, Greg had won three and Lance his first) at River City. And two of the greatest comeback stories in any sport: LeMond from his accidental shooting, Armstrong from testicular cancer.

They hadn't seen each other since Armstrong's Ride for the Roses in Austin in April. So it was historic, both American Tour winners together in Dave Guettler's River City bike shop. Ya shoulda been there.

After Greg's talk, I chatted with an English couple living in Portland, Jon Walpole and his wife Kirti. In '96, I'd ridden in England, in Leistershire, not far from where they grew up. While there, I rode with the Coventry Road Club, to my mind a typical (terrific) UK bike club.

We talked about clubs in the UK and US and agreed: Club life THERE is superior, so superior that John and Kirti have been trying to replicate British rides in Portland. I'll try to explain why.

English people generally are joiners -- not just the cyclists. Hobbyists of all types form clubs there, happy for like-minded company. Often, British cyclists stay in one club their entire cycling lives, 50 years or more. Clubs meet often, the entire club, not just the board of directors. Lots of clubs rent or own a clubhouse.

Many British cyclists hang out with riding friends OFF the bike, too. In England, your bike club may be a vital part of your social life. Few US riders would call their club membership a major social benefit.

A club ride in England starts at a pub or cafe, same one every time. The ride goes rain or shine. If it's raining and there are no mudguards (fenders) on your bike, you will be asked to stay at the back so you won't pelt others with road grime and water.

The ride proceeds in a side-by-side paceline at a pace most people can sustain. Seasoned riders teach newer ones how to follow a wheel and ride in formation. Veterans pass along helpful information, not barked criticism. Everyone speaks softly, is my impression.

Mid-ride, the group stops at a cafe for tea and a biscuit, some sort of cookie or pastry. More information and cordiality circulate at the cafe. New riders are encouraged to feel welcome -- they ARE welcome.

Jon Walpole became thoughtful as we spoke of that comradeship. He said he felt that Brits were more willing to sacrifice their own needs for those of the group. Americans, we agreed, focus on themselves, on their own fitness or training. We're more individual, somehow.

"It's in the constitution, after all," he said.

Club rides as described above have been happening in England since bicycles became common. Many British cyclists (and Europeans from the continent) have been riding for decades. They've gotten over their Olympic dreams, if they ever had them. The urgency is gone. They enjoy getting out on the bike with their mates.

If they compete, they ride time trials, competing against themselves, trying to beat their best-ever times on some course or other.

Brits ride lots of time trials -- races against the clock over measured courses. Sometimes the course is 10 miles; sometimes it's 25. Sometimes it's 12 or 24 hours. We hold very few time trials here; they do hundreds or thousands annually in the UK.

I mentioned to Jon and Kirti that when I was in England four or five years ago, I rode a "10," a 10-mile time trial. What fun, I said. They said they loved time trials too, and had done many of them.

In all but the most sparsely populated areas in England, a cyclist can ride two or three evening time trials a week. Many RIDE their bikes to and from the events. No car necessary.

In spring and fall, when days are shorter, you may need clip-on lights for the trip home. You need a little money for your entry fee and you need a helmet, but that's it.

You certainly don't need a special bike or even a new bike. Some of the Coventry clubbers had been riding the same old bike for years and years; it didn't seem to slow them down or dampen their enthusiasm.

In these club time trials, you show up at the start/finish, just a place along some highway somewhere. All your riding friends are there. You pay your entry fee and swap pre-ride lies.

When your number is called and someone says GO, you ride 10 miles or 25 miles by yourself. You aren't allowed to draft, so you won't ride close to other racers. You don't take big risks. Crashes are rare.

You merely put your head down and ride fast as you can for the distance. If you want to suffer, go as hard as you can; if you don't, don't.

At the finish, someone will have set up a table with urns of tea and coffee and trays of biscuits. A biscuit tastes really good after 25 miles with your nose on your stem. You swap post-ride lies with your mates. Eventually you pedal home or rack your bike and drive home.

You ride the same courses often; it's easy to gauge your fitness compared to last week, last month or 10 years ago.

We prefer road racing in the States. Road racers must have courage and pack-riding ability. Promoters must organize and prepare, plus arrange permits, corner marshals, portapotties, on and on. Time trialing is one rider at a time; road racing is traffic-blocking packs.

In a road race, if you are five percent weaker than the others, you're dropped. You finish all alone, perhaps feeling defeated. No such risk in time trialing. Everyone finishes alone. No one looks like a "loser."

Here in the US, many riders like their cycling tough and without frills. They don't need cycling friends; It's a workout, not a dating service. They don't need to learn about technique or tradition; They learned all they need to in Spinning (tm) class.

They love training with faster riders, limping home alone, fried and hungry. They're motivated by being yelled at, dropped, snubbed and ignored. Our clubs provide plenty of inspiring masochistic rides for those people.

Me? I miss my friends in the Coventry Road Club.

1 comment:

Frenchy aka Bike Boy said...

Great post...I always wonder why the game face of bike racing/clubs stays on even after the races. We are kindred spirit worshipping at the alter of the round wheel...so why is there not the same culture? That dissconect has always perplexed me.

Anyway, great post.