The recent explosion in popularity of cycling in the UK has led to much office debate about cycling – with football fans…for whom the sport has only recently popped up on their radar. Much of this is usually along the lines of the relative merits of Froome as apposed to Wiggins, why Cavendish will never win the Tour de France, and just how does Chris Hoy find trousers to fit around those vast Scottish thighs?
All important arguments of course, but get beyond all that and try and explain how a British cycling fan can be pleased that Joaquim Rodriguez, a Spaniard riding for a Russian team, won the Tour of Lombardy, or why it is acceptable to cheer for Thor Hushovd in a race containing Team Sky and half a dozen British riders, and it begins to get confusing.
To a football fan this strange lack of allegiance to a rider or a team doesn’t quite add up; football is subjective and tribal, it’s about taking pride in your club and broadcasting that fact. Once you’ve picked a team (however you do that) you stick with them – even a lapsed fan, when pushed, will stick with the same team when questioned.
As a football fan it’s difficult to enjoy a match if your team has lost – as the cliché goes, it’s a results business – but cycling can be less about winners and losers and more about the spectacle and narrative of a race. It’s possible to become a dedicated fan of a particular rider for the flimsiest of reasons; a doomed attack in a Spring Classic, an epic failed breakaway in the mountains of a Grand Tour, or simply because you like their pedalling style on the bike.
Your favourite rider can finish a race unremarkably in the middle of the peloton, but if they do this with a bit if style – having initiated a couple of bold attacks, chased down a breakaway or two, or dragged their team leader to the front of the peloton at a crucial stage – this can capture the imagination more readily than a clinical winning machine. Of course winning is important to the riders, but I’m coming from a fans perspective.
Despite all this, there are signs of a new breed of fan in the UK (perhaps the result of the Wiggo effect) who are dedicated fans of Team Sky; they wear the kit, support the team come what may, and hold up Dave Brailsford as a kind of demi-god. Marginal gains is their mantra and Rapha is their brand of choice.
Nothing wrong with this of course, but cycling teams are traditionally much more ephemeral than football teams – what happens when Rupert Murdoch’s mighty media corporation decide that cycling doesn’t pay anymore and they withdraw? Perhaps Dave Brailsford moves on to pastures new, and the team morphs into a different entity supporting a team leader from France, Italy or America. Suddenly you’re supporting a different team, because your old one has gone.
Cycling is not for everyone, hence it’s status in the UK as (still) a minority sport. The raw simplicity and tribal nature of football captures the imagination of hundreds of millions of people across the world; it is simple, easy to watch, and cheap to play…
…but give me a three week slow burning storyline every time.