I also knew what I’m like, though. If I get interested in something, I get REALLY interested in it. I never find a Formula 1 race particularly boring, even if it’s not exciting as a single spectacle, because I watch every session all season, competitive or otherwise, so I have an idea about what’s going on, and the nuance and dynamic behind it. If I switched on at 12.55, and off as the champagne started flying, I wouldn’t understand any of that, and would probably find it boring.
As it is with F1, so it is with Test cricket. I can’t dip in and out, because no matter how Boycottesque the innings, I might miss THE controversial moment of the summer. Or the sparkling interview with a legend of the game. Or the painfully contrived innuendo which finally displaces 1991’s “leg over” comment as the cause of the longest giggling fit in radio.
You can see why this completism might be a problem. Test cricket, if it’s reasonably competitive, takes up maybe 60 days a year. F1 consumes at least half of another 60. And here I was, approaching my mid-thirties, sitting down to see if I could drum up a passing interest in something that lasts three weeks at a time.
At the time, I only knew what anyone who listens to the sports news on Radio 5 knew. Lance Armstrong won everything. Before that, Miguel Indurain won everything. (Don’t forget that as far as the sports news on Radio 5 went, the Tour de France was “everything”.) Sometimes everyone got caught taking drugs, and pretended to stop.
So that first Tour was only ever going to be a learning experience. I vaguely remember some fuss near the start about riding over some cobbles, and one of the favourites for the race fell off and broke something. They wouldn’t repeat THAT mistake, I probably thought.
And then The Thing happened. Two of the other leading contenders were riding up a hill when one’s chain fell off. (It turned out he was the brother of the chap who fell off on the cobbles.) What happened next will shock and horrify you. The other leading contender, chain still attached – wait for it – TRIED TO WIN.
This single incident was probably responsible for hooking me in to cycling for life. Why was there such a reaction? What kind of unwritten code made someone try their hardest to beat everyone else for three weeks, until it looked like they might have a chance to do so? Why, if this was not the correct thing to do, did Michael Schumacher never pull up at the side of the circuit and wait until Fernando Alonso’s engine was fixed? And just how bloody good was the little stroppy bloke who kept winning the sprint stages?
I haven’t stopped learning since. And I never will. I feel like I have known cycling for about four minutes, not four years – and yet this weekend, I felt like a diehard. Last year, in Tours and in Saint-Amand-Montrond, where I achieved a short but burning ambition to see Cavendish win in the flesh, I was an outsider in a land of pompiers and gendarmes, organisers in smart blazers and old ladies wilting in the heat, and the previously unknown hazard of projectile packets of Haribo.
Earlier this year, I was a novice, in awe of the Belgians thronging the Arenberg trench, shouting good-natured abuse at each other just because of which side of the road they were standing, wondering whether I would get in trouble for parking on the hard shoulder to scramble down a bank at the start of the Orchies secteur, wandering into the Roubaix velodrome with half an hour or so to spare until Niki Terpstra charged in alone and elbowing my way as near to the front as possible.
And then suddenly I was a veteran. On Saturday in Harrogate, standing for hours opposite the podium in an ever-decreasing personal space, almost nobody else seemed to recognise the red-haired middle-aged man fetching the coffees for his Eurosport commentary partner. Almost all the “why do they do that?” “who is he?” “why do they keep saying Shut Up Legs?” questions from the crowd were ones that I knew the answer to (not that I chipped in and answered them, of course. There’s only one thing worse than not knowing the answer, and that’s having a smart arse tell you it).
I couldn’t be in York, Sheffield or Last Of The Summer Wine on Sunday, for no other reason than the fact that F1 still takes precedence, but by 10:15 on Monday I was in the centre of Cambridge, and five hours later in east London, surrounded only by a smattering of internal auditors and maintenance workers from the adjacent Excel conference centre. While everyone else speculated about the time the riders would arrive and looked nervously at the approaching rain cloud, I compared the time schedule in the road book with the Eurosport feed on my phone, noticed a helicopter high in the sky to the north, and got my camera ready.
And I knew that a short walk to London City Airport, followed by a nice cup of tea and a cake, would yield not only an opportunity to dry out, but also a pleasing array of cyclists in varying sizes of headphones wandering through on their way to one of four flights chartered to whisk them beyond the Eurotunnel chaos to a place that calls itself “Paris Plage” like Luton Airport claims to be in London.
As they came through, in their teams as in the race, I watched a wiry chap moving between them with an autograph book, and it hit me. Out of all the eighty-seven million reported spectators for “Le Tour De Yorkshire et un peu de Derbyshire avec Les Departements du Maison” ™, only three were in the airport. Him, me, and the long-suffering (but secretly moderately interested) Mrs Q. Cycling, it seemed, had achieved the same level of interest/completism/obsessiveness in my psyche as the other sports I’ve known for so long.
I should say several things in mitigation. I wouldn’t have gone to the airport if I’d been watching in The Mall, but I didn’t fancy a third enormous crowd and I guessed that the Beckton Badlands would be relatively quiet. I needed to marvel at the genius of an organisation that could route its race DELIBERATELY to have the roads closed from the finish to the airport, so everyone could get back quickly. If I’m going to spend time following a sport obsessively, my taste for croissants and artisan markets means I’m better off in Chateauroux than Chesterfield. I have yet, after four Tour stages, a Tour of Britain and a Paris-Roubaix, to pay a single penny for entry to a cycling event. And best of all, my wife, who I’d do more or less anything to make happy, actually appears to enjoy coming along (or at least doesn’t fall asleep, as she spent most of the late 90s doing in various football grounds).
In short, cycling has the potential to be the most civilised, exciting, pleasurable obsession I’ve yet found. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to book a hotel in Compiègne for next April.