As a group, cyclists have remarkably few character flaws. I say this with confidence, because we have so effortlessly shrugged off the attacks of tabloid papers, the massed ranks of Twitter and (depressingly often) members of our own families.
However, there is one area of life where we do underperform. If you watch a football match (or most other spectator sports) there is a degree of organised cheering, singing and chanting that we’ve never mastered. There have been a few creditable attempts (the Beefeaters on Alpe d’Huez, for example), but generally we’re terrible.
We’re cyclists, so we have an excuse. Most of cycle racing is remarkable primarily for its failure to take place in a self-contained venue where you can face in the right direction and sing at it.
There are a few sports that are actually worse – I’ve spectated at sailing, which consists in its entirety of staring out to sea like you’re an art installation. I have a friend who’s a sky-diving fan – same thing, but standing in a field looking up, and remembering to always have your hard hat to hand. But, critically, with those there’s no pressure on you to say anything. In cycling, there is.
If you’re cheering at a bike race you’re rarely part of a great swell of noise. While there may be thousands of fans along a route, much of the time they’re pretty spread out. So unless you’re on a Grand Tour climb or the Arenberg Trench you’re probably an individual, self-consciously trying to say something, at close range to a group of people you’ve never met who will be well able to hear that it’s you.
“Um… keep going! Yay! Keep it up! Go Primoz! Oh, sorry Jonas.”
Over the years I’ve heard “Put your back into it,” “Looking good buddy!” “Pull out a big one!” and “Just whack it!” the latter screamed at a pitch that could crack Oakleys. There have been many, many more utterances that were similarly unplanned and, I’d imagine, instantly regretted. (It’s easier in French – “Allez, allez” is easy to shout, more or less meaningless, and if you do it quickly enough it becomes quite a satisfactory sort of siren wail.)
Even on a track, unless you’re in a packed venue, the encouragement follows the riders round the track in a wave, as if the spectators think they’re still outside. You’d think it would work just like football – all noise, all the time, but if you’re a pursuiter, you can tell where your opponent is by listening to where his or her crowd noise is coming from. Never mind the venues, sometimes the racing itself is difficult to interact with. Bike racing has more lulls than it has storms, and that’s another problem.
For example, imagine the confusion of my family on the first (and only) occasion they watched me in a bike race. It was the final stage, and by the closing kilometres where they were watching, the break had been caught, the GC settled and I was done for the week. I was trying to have a nice quiet chat at the back of the bunch, and my family’s enthusiasm was very, very intrusive. It was like being cheered at while having a nice cup of tea.
It was the same when the Tour de France came to Cambridge – even during the neutralised roll-out, the roadsides were full of frantically cheering non-fans, who were certainly expending more energy than any of the riders.
But the worst cheer I’ve ever heard was directed at me, personally. It was meant well, but it was more of a heckle. I was clambering up a hill in an international time trial, quite a long way off the pace, between two long lines of bored spectators. (Time trials are not boring, in this instance the boring was all me.) A woman in red flip flops just said: