Off Piste - Vicious cycle

With cycling enjoying huge popularity after the successes of Bradley Wiggins and other Olympians, Thomas Docherty explores how the pain, endurance and concentration demanded by the sport’s premier event, the Tour de France, find parallels in academic life

August 23, 2012

Academic life can be relentless at times, a bit of an endurance test. Just when you think it safe to lift your head above the parapet at the end of a year’s teaching, the examining arrives. Then there are the exam boards and the end-of-year admin. Next, you find quality time to attend to the doctoral students, all of them submitting 10,000-word chapters, before turning to the MA supervisions that go on all summer. You realise that the students are under tremendous and relentless pressure, too. Somewhere along the way, your research has to be prioritised; but it’s time for the MA examining and exam boards in September, and also for that PhD viva that you need to conduct. September also means preparation for the start of the next academic year; and so the cycle begins all over again.

Endurance in these circumstances is a necessary virtue; and we can learn something of it from sport. Fortunately, for me at least, there is a point in this rigmarole where the cycle turns into a bicycle and sets off romantically in pursuit of the Grande Boucle of the Tour de France.

My cycling affair began more prosaically, however, as the tour of a housing estate. I got my first bike when I was 11: a Raleigh 21-inch, with gold frame, blue mudguards, whitewall tyres (bling-bling) but, bringing me back to earth, no gears. It was a beauty. Until then, I had followed my friends around, they on their bikes, me on a hand-me-down ancient kiddie’s trike that was too small for me. I used to stand on the rails between the back wheels and hold the handlebars, bent double, while pushing myself about. It was the cycling version of Fred Flintstone.

But the arrival of my proper bike changed everything. Once I had mastered the balancing I was off, all round the council estate where I lived. My friends had outgrown the pleasures of cycling by then; so my rides were largely solo. Our estate was arranged like a large square, with a couple of culs-de-sac into and out of which I would dart. It was the perfect kind of circuit for a time trial, with me riding against my own constantly changing personal best. As I got better and more consistent, I extended the circuit and took myself off into the zigzag warren of roads in the nearby industrial estate, whose streets were ghostly empty and where I could lose myself in speed, with the hum of the working factories in the background.

All this while, and totally unbeknown to me, across the water in exotic and far-away France, real cyclists were pursuing a real challenge in the Tour. Jacques Anquetil, five-times winner of the event in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was about to cede his historic place to Eddy Merckx, a man characterised by a spirit of relentless endurance. Though I knew nothing of them then, they were kindred spirits to the romantic and imaginative child delighting in the freedom that comes from prolonged and painful trying, essaying of the self.

Cycling became a physical escape into a world of spirit. There were childhood comic-book characters called the Q-bikes: five youngsters who were like a cross between detectives and spies. Inspired by them and the TV police series Z-Cars, I made a crude cardboard “Z” for my own bike and became the founding (and only) member of the Z-bikes. I would cycle around, skidding at speed, fighting (imaginary) crime and (real) injustices. It was all wonderful, but totally improbable.

My cycling took a different shape when, many years later, I found myself - even more improbably - in Oxford for my DPhil. There, everyone cycled, and I enthusiastically joined in, now entirely sans bling: the Raleigh had been passed on to a younger neighbour back in Glasgow. My Oxford machine was dismal-black, battered, fifth-hand. It was undesirable enough to ensure that no one would want to steal it: insurance by ugliness. Yet it was on this bike that I took off with a friend to “tour the Cotswolds”. We only managed about 20 miles a day (still no gears), but I found that nothing stirs my heart more than turning a bend in the road and seeing a long and steep ascent before me. It was the start of a big adventure, now thankfully pursued on better bikes - with gears.

This summer, I went to Paris for the final day of the Tour. For years, I had been trying to tame a passion for this mad thing.

In 1992, British television started to broadcast daily highlights and, on 18 July that year, on stage 13, I watched entranced as Claudio Chiappucci mounted a sustained attack through the Alps, culminating in a solo ascent of the final climb at Sestriere. The Italian was not only staking a heroic claim on the stage, he was also finishing on home soil, urged on by thousands at the roadside running alongside him but unable to keep up as he cycled heroically. As I watched, amazed, I realised that this was what the romanticism of nostalgia meant: a pain associated with the return to home. It was euphoric - and I was hooked.

Famously, of course, these riders push themselves often beyond the limits of endurance. Whenever the Tour climbs Mont Ventoux, the riders pause at the spot where Tom Simpson died on 13 July 1967, his body pushed beyond living by a deadly combination of heat- and brandy-induced dehydration and amphetamine abuse. Others have died since, although not as a result of drug abuse. This is a race haunted by the necessity of facing one’s limits.

It is difficult to take in the Tour live, for this is a sport where the teams are before you only fleetingly. The route on the final day this year would take them through Sevres; and I found a spot on a bend and on a hill where I could watch them arrive from below, and where I would also still get a good look at them as they went up the hill beyond. The hill would slow them down so that I could get a decent view, I thought. But these are real cyclists: hills don’t slow them much. As I should have remembered from that day in 1992, even the Sestriere mountains don’t delay them long. Bradley Wiggins and the rest passed me very quickly but also deliciously closely. I now understand why you see all those people running alongside their favourite riders in the mountain stages, urging them on and failing to keep up: it’s partly for greater intimacy with the Tour, to feel that you are there.

You might think that those people get in the way, and sometimes they do, as when someone’s dog this year ran into the middle of the peloton. But it’s part of the magic of the Tour that spectators can get close enough to the riders to talk directly to them, to cheer them on and become part of their effort. Nowhere else in modern sport does the spectator get so close. You can actually cycle a stage after the riders have passed, and the mad possibility of doing that still fires the imagination of that 11-year-old boy on an industrial estate in Glasgow.

Those watching on the roadsides are sometimes tourists on holiday but they are also, equally often, local people. Watching the Tour is like watching a road movie, but this one celebrates the road and the country across which it travels. Each stage marks the heterogeneity, the differences, the unique patrimoine of each region or town, addressing a history every bit as much as a geography. Importantly, since the mid-1960s, it often starts in another country. The opening stage is a demonstration of hospitality, of a hosting and guesting of the Tour. The Tour symbolically unites France through its various different regions - celebrating unity amidst and through diversity - but also extends that spirit beyond its borders. Like the riders going beyond their limits, the Tour itself goes beyond France. Each day, there is a new part to enjoy: it is all difference, all a reminder of how airy nothings can become real local habitations and names. This is no homogenised thing.

Like cricket, the Tour de France is an event where you sometimes know the outcome long before the end. That changes the nature of competition within it and replaces it with an odd sense of collaboration, with even fierce rivals sometimes working together as they combat the exacting difficulties of those almost 3,500 kilometres (more than 2,000 miles). The presiding spirit is that of concentration over the three-week period.

Ed Smith, the former cricketer turned author, has said that sometimes people mistake “relentless hard work” for concentration, but he prefers a definition of concentration as “the absence of irrelevant thought”. That phrase has shaped my recent thinking on academic endurance, and what comes to mind is my 1978 final exams for my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow. In those days, with no coursework grades already in place, degrees were decided entirely on the basis of about three weeks of formal examinations, a tour d’horizon of literature. We railed against it; but the late Glasgow Poet Laureate, Edwin Morgan, who taught us, urged us to rethink our opposition to this endurance test. You will never again, he argued, have a time in your life when you are so concentrated, so intellectually alert. And he was right.

In that three-week period, everything came together. All thought became relevant to the work; like the Tour’s cyclists, everything, even ostensibly irrelevant things, becomes centred on the intensity of the act itself. We began with a three-day takeaway paper on Shakespeare. After that, it was more or less one paper per day (“History of English literature, 1130-1400”; “History of French literature 1660-1870”; “Neo-classical French Theatre”). Each evening, after sitting another paper, I’d come home, put the folders for that paper on one side, massage my head before easing it with a little music, then pick up a batch of folders in preparation for the next day’s stage.

Such concentration is also something you see in the Tour. You see it especially in the time trial, the contre-la-montre. In those stages, the cyclists ride solo: they are racing each other but not in the peloton. Such racing requires a specific focus and concentration. The Scottish road racing cyclist David Millar has written of how he has to get his body into exactly the right position, right down to the intricate placing of his fingers on his handlebars. In this stage, there is little or no distinction between rider and bike: both are concentred - working in perfect concert - towards the one goal. It is a race against time itself. This, of course, is the essence of great tragedy: all classic tragedies have some kind of temporal difficulty at their centre, and all involve a race against the approach of death, of fate. Tragedy embodies the spirit of endurance in pure form.

The comparison of the Tour to great tragedy is appropriate. The peloton, following behind the breakaway leading group or individual, acts as the chorus. It decides whether to endorse the individual hero making the break or whether to leave him to his fate knowing that a fall will come. The choral peloton determines the value and meaning of the race.

In the 18th century, across Europe, scores of gentlemen and some ladies set off on their Grand Tour, that peculiar combination of pleasure and education. At a time when cultural capital was making some stand against the primacy of financial capital, the Grand Tour became an interesting arena for a kind of critical tension, a struggle for values. And that struggle still requires endurance today, in the Tour de France - but also in the academy.

What goes around comes around; but maybe, just maybe, the increasingly tragic cycles into which the academy is in danger of falling can be redirected by the academic peloton next year. After all, the Tour takes a different route each cycle. And we can reassert our own directions, our own values, too.

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