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Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity


The joy of pro cycling is the way it rewards the viewer: the more you watch, the more you get it. Most intriguingly, you begin to understand its social complexity. In 2006, Fortune magazine offered a metaphor its readers could understand: "A stage race is less a sporting event than a commodities exchange on wheels. What appears to be a random mass of bicycles is really an orderly, complex web of shifting alliances, crossed with brutal competition, designed to keep or acquire the market's most valued currency: energy."

Communication on the trading floor road can be coded or silent. And this unifying language of sorts – cyclish perhaps – can bind riders when the stakes are low, too. During a recent solo ride, I covered a good 10 miles in the Surrey Hills with a stranger, not sharing a word as we drafted behind each other in turn.

When a driver catapulted my companion into the air, we were forced into a new dynamic. I stopped and supported his head. The car was heavily dented, the rider's helmet crushed. Paramedics and police arrived. One asked how long we'd known each other. "About 20 minutes," I replied.

Remarkably, Adam, a local Polish mechanic, was just well enough to ride home. We continued our alliance for a further 10 minutes – me drafting him more slowly than before – and then parted ways with a wave. And that was it.