Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Racing Hard at the LRB Bookshop

It was one of those little coincidences that make you believe the world can be a neater place than it really is. Yesterday I was in London and, as usual, visited the LRB Bookshop, where I saw there was going to be an event that evening. William Fotheringham would be in conversation with Richard Moore about his new book ‘Racing Hard’, which was the very book I had in my bag and was half way through. How could I not go?

For those who don’t know, William Fotheringham has been the cycling correspondent of the Guardian for the past 20 years and the book is a collection of his articles, with additional commentaries to put them into context. The shift of perspective of knowing what we know now and seeing how it was reported at the time is always interesting and for cycling probably more so than any other sport.

Initially I had been reluctant to buy the book as I knew I would have read most of the pieces when they were first published. Even if I could not longer remember the details, I argued, I knew the bones and the general take. But I should not have worried because as I began reading the book proved to me yet again that I can never underestimate my capacity to forget. I lost count of the times I was grateful to be reminded of things I thought had been quite well embedded. Aside from that, reading pieces side by side gave them a continuity that helped certain themes emerge more clearly. For example the development of the British Cycling programme, the application of science to performance, building professional and supportive structures and the development of talent, is the subject of a number of the best essays. They often seem to have been written with more enthusiasm and enjoyment, whilst some of the pieces on the Tour de France (where to be fair there is more of a pressure to get something out) were a little more guarded.

Nevertheless the big story of cycling as sport is always the Tour de France and it is a large part of the book and a large part of the evening was spent talking about it. Nothing wrong with that and I would have been disappointed if it was not the case. I never tire of listening to stories about the race, learning a little more about some of the characters, and hearing about the direct experience of being there. Aside from the theatre of a great sporting event one of the more interesting questions though was about something completely different: the shift of cycling from a working class to a middle class activity/sport.

Once you start thinking about this topic there are so many threads to unpick. At the activity level there is the development of cycle chic, to the number of people in the City using Boris bikes,  the expense and stylishness of equipment so that bikes become objects of desire, and the fact that, proportionately more middle class people take up exercise for health reasons. It would be interesting to back this up with knowledge of how the social make-up of grass-roots clubs has changed and how that relates to the use of bikes for transport. Perhaps i will have to see what I can find out. But there is other evidence of our changing attitudes, not the least being the fact that there was a literary event hosted by the LRB Bookshop.

At the sport level the background of new riders will be interesting to watch. It will be influenced, like other sports, by general social trends. The lessening in the amount of unstructured outdoors play and keeping kids in a physically undemanding school environment until they are older has to be compensated for by formal coaching and training. Organisations are moving towards being top down rather than relying on a talent bubbling up from local clubs. It is hard to find so many people physically hardened through manual labour as well as sport and the days of whistling down the pits to find the next Yorkshire fast bowler are long gone. Work and childhood have changed. Now it is middle class children who have  access to best facilities combined with an incentive as a career in sport is now seen as desirable across all classes. That is not saying sport has gone totally middle class just that the distribution has shifted.

Different sports have different profiles and traditionally cycling has been more working class than most but I think the success of British Cycling and Team Sky represents something outside of that, outside of class. It is the triumph of managerialism (or professionalism if you think that sounds better). It is about structure and goals, made possible by state funding and totally distinct from the pre-existing culture. Traditional assumptions have been questioned and many thrown out, coaches have been recruited from outside sports and athletes with the right physical and mental attributes, whether or not that had previously done much cycling, have been actively scouted. It is rather like a greenfield development compared to the brownfield site of traditional continental teams. 

All in all it was a stimulating evening and I was very glad I went to that bookshop on that day to find everything perfectly aligned.

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