Road Racing and Back Slapping

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September 11, 2012 by secretcyclist

It’s been a week or so since my last post, and I’ve got a lot to jam in, so this post is going to be relatively brief, just so I can get everything up to speed. Well, I say that now. Brief is a concept I struggle with on an almost daily basis.

Last Thursday, I went to the Paralympic road cycling at Brands Hatch. I booked my ticket on a whim, and such was my eagerness to get my hands on one before they sold out, I didn’t see fit to call and see if anyone wanted to come with. So, I booked just one ticket, and went out all on my lonesome.

There were a few travelling debacles, which really aren’t entertaining enough to go into (they mostly involved the ticket collection office forgetting to include my Games travelcard in the envelope with my ticket, resulting in many stressful, though I emphasise *respectful*, arguments with train staff. See. Boring) but the two and a half hour journey to get to Brands Hatch was surprisingly enjoyable, mostly thanks to some very efficient and friendly staff at the stations telling you where to go and what to do. All terrible control was taken out of my hands. Like Brave New World, without the drug dependency and terrible cinema.

Getting into the site went nice and smoothly, and much quicker than the size of queue would indicate, though thanks to a metal hairclip I did have to endure one of those famous contemporary “pat-downs” complete with boob rub. But the real stuff started when I got inside.

The atmosphere really was glorious. There’s not much point me harping on about it too much as every single tweet, article, presenter or athlete remotely linked to the Paralympics has already sought to do exactly that, at length, but yes, everyone was happy, the Sun was beaming down at us and for a few hours that day, all seemed right with the world.

Men’s C1-3 Riders line up for their start

And to the cycling. I managed to find myself a position about 30-40 metres from the finishing line, so got to enjoy all the riders as they prepared themselves at the start, then furious sprints to the finish, the waves of joy at victory, and the rather more subdued smiles of the people lagging at the back. The best reaction was from the Canadian cyclist at the end of the day, who was a pretty resounding last, but who reacted to the enthused cheers from the crowd as she approached the line by high fiving every single person she could reach on her way there. Nice.

I have to admit, at the start of the day, I questioned my ability to stand for the entirety of the road races, besides an hour’s sit down between the morning and afternoon session. Apparently not being able to stand for a long time is a part of dyspraxia and it’s certainly something I’ve always struggled with, but so high was the entertainment value, and so informative the commentary when the cyclists weren’t in sight, that not even a hint of exhaustion hit me until I finally arrived home in the evening and saw that my eyes were encircled with red.

I also discovered, just before the start of the C4-5 women’s race, that I was standing next to, in fact surrounded by, what seemed like the entirety of Crystal Lane’s extended family. It was a strange experience, actually. The lot of them were startlingly normal, sporting strong Essex accents, screaming their support amidst berating the children for fighting. Pretty much the same as my family behave when they come and see me in a play. For a moment it was hard to reconcile that with the image of superhuman endeavour we’ve been fed over the course of the games. But not for long. Once you see the cyclists take off anything relatable about them falls away as your mouth falls open and you find yourself asking “how the hell do they do that?”

And of course, there was Sarah Storey. The glorious Sarah Storey. As much of an incredible feat it was for her to pull away from the pack so early, pass the men and come very close to lapping her competitors, it also brings home one rather unfortunate fact. There were only about 15 female cyclists in the C4-5 category. It’s just not enough. And their skill and endurance level wasn’t as high as it could be.

Similar to the Channel 4 commentators’ discussion of Oscar Pistorius’ victory in the 400m, as impressive as it is, you can’t help but feel that at an international elite competition it shouldn’t be that easy. The competition shouldn’t drop away as quickly as it does. That’s not to say Storey hasn’t put in hours of painful and dedicated training to get to the level she’s at, of course she has, but it’s a real shame that, for whatever reason, other female paracyclists haven’t yet been able to do the same. I look forward to the time when a Paralympic women’s road race carries all the same exhilarating drama and punishing tactical manoevring as the women’s road race at the Olympics. With the inspiration that Storey’s win has no doubt engendered, I’m sure that time isn’t very far away at all. With one win, she’s said to them all “yes, you’re good, but look how much better you could be.”

One thing you will also notice at a road race – hand soreness. From repeated banging on the cardboard sidings every time a cyclist passes by, wherever they happen to stand in the rankings, for the entire 2 hour duration of the race.

Probably the greatest thing about London 2012 is how it revealed the considerable emotional intelligence of the Great British Public. In many countries the chance to host the games is a way to demonstrate the country’s emerging or continuing economic pre-eminence, and from a governmental point of view, this one was probably no different. I can’t speak for the mentality of home crowds at previous Olympics/Paralympics, in other parts of the world, but the general attitude of the crowds in London was certainly “yeah, we’re gonna make you so bloody glad you’re at a London games. We’re going to give you the best damn reception you could have anywhere in the world. We’re going to make you repeatedly tell us how amazing we are, how great the atmosphere is and, if we’re lucky, squeeze a few tears out of you while we’re at it.”

They took up the challenge to get these athletes excited and happy to be here, to have an experience to remember, and ran with it beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Yes, we cried out desperately for approval, but it paid off. We got it. We made the Games.

The commentator at the site probably summed it up as the final racer pulled in in the afternoon. “Right, I want everyone to start banging those boards. For the next two minutes, every one of you is Canadian. Now treat her to a home crowd!” And everyone did. In spades.

One of my new colleagues, from Latvia, has criticised the British for their exhausting self-consciousness. The fact that they always want to compare their culture to others, to understand the differences and similarities. The fact that they find everything about themselves so very fascinating. As if any of it matters, as if anyone outside of this country could possibly care.

Well, she’s right on one level. No one else probably does care, much, but it’s exactly that self-awareness that allowed Londoners, and the British spectators in general, to think, to a man, about what sort of image they wanted to convey to the rest of the world. And it wasn’t a competitive one. It was a welcoming one, a hospitable one. We kept our domestics domestic. The last thing we wanted was people going away and talking about unfriendliness on the tube, or aggressiveness, or xenophobia, or overbearing competitiveness. British people took on that challenge, and took it seriously. And for all that I grumble about patriotism and the Union Jack waving all over the shop, as if that’s what this is really about, or how politicians are taking advantage of this wave of good feeling to serve their own ends and to distract from the disaster that is hitting our public services and welfare system, a large part of me has also found itself swelling with pride and a genuine affection for all my fellow countrymen and women. They’ve all just acquitted themselves so very, very well.

So granted, I doubt that a year from now many of the visitors to London will be back in the home country savouring the marvellous atmosphere and thinking about how wonderful we all are as people. They’ve got their own lives to get on with, after all. But I won’t pretend to be sorry for the enormous self esteem boost this Games has provided us. We needed it.

So much for brief.

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