From the Alps to Box Hill, cycling hits summit of success
As Wiggins powers ahead in the Tour de France, plucky amateur Simon Usborne tackles the Olympic road race course to examine the sport's explosion in popularity
Just six days after Bradley Wiggins does or doesn’t roll into the Champs Elysees - and the history books - as the first British man to win the Tour de France, the focus of a summer in which cycling fever has gripped the country like never before will be a 10-mile loop of winding road in the green hills of Surrey.
Box Hill, 15 miles east of Guildford, has for decades been a magnet for amateur cyclists drawn to the hairpin bends of its Zig Zag road. In exactly two weeks, they will give way and watch as a five-man British team, including Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, takes on the hill in their bid to win Britain’s first gold medal at the the Olympic road race.
Fans of Andy Murray will never swing a racket on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Amateur footballers will never miss a penalty on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium. But on a rare sunny morning last week, I pedalled my bike from London to Box Hill and back to pave the way for the pros.
What they may not appreciate as they whizz round the loop nine times on their way to to the finish line on The Mall, where Cavendish is favourite to win, is what this peaceful corner of the home counties symbolises for a sport that has risen from niche to national obsession - and what all sports can learn from its triumph.
The good news: The Zig Zag road will be a ride in the park after Wiggins’ Alpine exploits during the Tour. The newly-laid Tarmac takes in two hairpin bends but soon flattens out to offer breathtaking views. I was panting rather more than the pros will. Two years ago, I was cycling almost 200 miles a week. Today I consume almost that figure in biscuits.
But cycling offers a sporting stage for players of all abilities and shapes. And in the weeks in the run-up to the 156-mile road race, on 28 July, and the 87-mile women’s race the next day, vast amateur pelotons have come to what will be one of the most picturesque venues at the Games.
Tony Scott is, like me, wearing Sky kit, in honour of the team for whom Wiggins and Cavendish ride. The youthful 53-year-old, a Box Hill regular for 30 years, is typical of a free-wheeling demographic that has grown to such proportions in the past five years it has a name. They are the Mamils, or middle-aged men in Lycra, who have £4,000 to burn on a bike and Sunday mornings to kill on rural roads like these all over the country.
“I’ve always come out here once a week,” says Scott, who has climbed the Zig Zag road twice before work. “When I heard the Olympics were going to be on my doorstep, it was brilliant and now I’m riding more often because it’s so lively.”
Dave Fleming owns Cycles Dauphin, a bike shop in the village of Box Hill that has benefited lately from the increase in traffic. “There are hundreds if not thousands of riders going past at weekends,” he says. “Just yesterday we had a guy with his son who’d come down from Aberdeen just to check out the course.”
Fleming will welcome spectators outside his shop on race day, some of the millions expected to line the route. Many will be cyclists like me and Scott, but the unprecedented success of British riders - first in the velodrome, and now on the road - has threatened to steer the sport into the mainstream.
Ned Boulting is a cycling commentator for ITV, and has worked at the Tour de France for ten years. This year, everything’s different. “I’m finding it quite hard to adjust”, he says from France. “The Brits have gone from being a fringe party - interested onlookers or unwanted guests at someone else’s party - to centre stage.
“Ten years ago if you spotted a union jack you made a point of stopping for a chat. Now we’re swamped with British fans. It’s all gone a bit Henman Hill, but instead of watching Murray fall at the last hurdle, they’re watching a British team strangling the life out of everybody else.”
Chris Boardman can take some of the credit for the gold and yellow rush. No British rider had topped the Olympic podium for 72 years before he won the 4km pursuit on the track at the 1992 Games. He went on to become one of only five Brits to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey, inspiring new riders to take up the sport. Since retirement, he has leant his technical expertise to Team GB, continuing a virtuous circle of success.
Domination today can be traced to the work of David Brailsford. The Welsh coach guided Team GB to track triumph at the Athens and Beijing Games in 2004 and 2008. He’s in charge again in London and is also manager of Team Sky. He has credited his drive with a very un-British hatred of losing but it’s about more than one man.
Boulting says: “The whole coaching staff are approaching the sport in an entirely new way in their forensic analysis of what it takes to get a performance, providing riders with every possible assistance to a level never seen in this sport.”
Success quickly boosts participation on roads more than, say, Wimbledon inspires people to dust off their tennis rackets. British Cycling, the sport’s governing body, announced its 50,000th member last week, double the number it had only four years ago. Meanwhile, demand is soaring for mass weekend rides against the clock, known as sportives. Cycling fans don’t only want to wear the pro kits, they want to buy the bike and ride the same roads.
Lewis Blackwell is a cycling friend of mine and sportive regular. “You’re perhaps better able than in many sports to combine your own personal quest for fitness with the interest in the professional sport,” he says. “And it’s very easy to get hooked because, whatever your level, you can have your own goals which are as meaningful to you as Wiggins’ are to him.”
Yellow jerseys don’t come cheap but wins for Team Sky and the exposure the broadcaster is enjoying are a return on its initial £30m investment, announced in 2009, and a rare bit of good publicity for its biggest stakeholder, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. From the boardroom to the rural shop, the bike industry is riding high, giving the UK economy a £3bn boost in 2010 alone, according to the London School of Economics.
Simon Mottram is the boss at Rapha, London-based purveyors of Lycra and more to thousands of style-conscious Mamils (and Mawils: cyling remains a male-dominated sport but that’s beginning to change, too). “Our goal is to get more people in love with road racing and you’ve got to be happy at the moment,” he says. “It’s absolutely amazing how much things have accelerated in the past five years.”
Rapha is sending a van full of gear and coffee to the Surrey Hills Road Race Festival, a free event near Box Hill, where dozens of brands will be hoping to cash in during the Olympic weekend. Before that, Mottram is opening a cycling cafe in Soho, where big screens will be switched on in time, hopefully, for fans to watch Wiggins make history in Paris. Neither a British win at the Tour nor a cycling cafe in central London would have been thinkable 10 years ago.
My goal after a couple of laps of Box Hill is to cycle back to work in London along the Olympic route before my legs pack up. I’ve clocked up about 40 miles so far this morning, leaving another 30 to go until I reach the Mall. I wind north from Box Hill through Leatherheadand Hampton Court before taking in half a lap of Richmond Park in south-west London, another cycling haven that throngs with riders on weekends.
After negotiating an increasingly clogged West London (one thing we mortal cyclists rarely enjoy is car-free roads) I reach what will be the finish line. Nobody cares, of course, but there’ll be thousands of fans here in a fortnight, hopefully to watch Cavendish win. If he does pave the streets of London with gold, it will be the perfect start for the county’s assault on the medals table. For cycling, the effects could roll on much further.
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