Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps

Let every cyclist join the Tour de France. Then we pedestrians will only have buses and juggernauts to worry about in town

Howard Jacobson
Saturday 12 July 2014 12:32
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside

Of bicyclists and buffoons I sing. I don’t yoke the two by violence together. They yoke themselves.

Together they appeared, night after night on the news last week – sometimes separated by a story about football or the latest brutality in the Middle East, but never so far apart that we could miss the vital connection between them. That connection is boredom. Only boredom on a near universal scale could explain the attraction of either. So it isn’t only of bicyclists and buffoons I sing. I sing of bicyclists, buffoons and boredom.

Let’s start with the buffoons. The popular culture paedophile buffoons I’m talking about, who hoodwinked us, in the course of their predations – indeed, as a necessary preliminary to their predations – into finding them diverting. The degree to which buffoonery links them only occurred to me while watching old clips of Cyril Smith hamming it up.

A politician, it’s true, but he made of politics a popular culture plaything, just as he made of himself a joker, never off our screens, cropping up in order to mouth fridge-magnet platitudes on chat shows, interposing his bulk between entertainment and the serious business of politics – and how frightening that bulk must have been if you were the unfortunate child who had to cower from it – deploying his lovable Rochdale accent to put an end to nonsense, and laughing all the way to the boys’ lavatories like the clown in a fun palace.

We all knew there was something not right about him. All that public doting on his mother. Who else was it who did that? Oh yes, Jimmy Savile. Was it code, I now wonder? Was doting on your mother an earnest of shared interests, a sort of Masonic handshake (meaning no disrespect to Masons), a perverts’ Polari for paedophilia? My mother’s fine, thank you, nudge nudge. How’s yours?

But shouldn’t we have been able to do better than just feel something wasn’t quite right? You can forgive a child thinking that mirth is always innocent, but it is not forgivable in an adult. Men whose shtick is a rollicking, avuncular, ma-mad incorrigibility, who are more children than adults themselves, men who pull silly faces, emit foolish noises and make themselves friends of the family – isn’t it time we woke up to what all that is likely to denote?

I recall a television adaptation of Stephen King’s It that played with our deep-seated terror of clowns, and I often confuse it with Killer Klowns from Outer Space, a film which attributes that terror to the fact that clowns are aliens who long ago invaded and brutalised our planet.

Forgive me if I’m confusing both those films with a third that might not even have been made but which plays only in my head. In that one it’s the devil who’s the clown. Things aren’t as they seem with clowns, anyway. We know in the depths of our psychologies that the impulse to make people laugh is close to the impulse to laugh at people, and that both are sadistic. Was Jimmy Savile laughing at us? Was Rolf Harris? Was Cyril Smith?

We will never know, but it’s enough to be going on with that they footled with the nation’s attention and we let them. Did we have nothing better to do? No. We were bored and so we laughed at Jimmy Savile who wasn’t funny and smirked when Rolf Harris swung his extra leg and nodded in amused agreement at the chucklesome Cyril’s Smith’s sinister sagacity. Life was dull. They brightened it.

That there is no end to what people will do to relieve their boredom was proved by the millions who came out from their cottages in the Yorkshire Dales to watch cyclists in horrible clothes whizz past. It would be easier to understand why people would line the roads to watch a swarm of wasps.

I’m told the Yorkshire tourist board is rubbing its hands in anticipation of next year’s invasion of visitors who, thanks to the Tour de France, have now seen how beautiful the Dales are. Rivers, valleys, scars, stone cottages, carbon cycling helmets, luminous bib shorts, Oakley Jawbone goggles with scarlet lenses – ah, reader, the loveliness of nature, where every aspect pleases and only pedestrians are vile.

Cyclists think I have it in for them, but I don’t. I love cyclists – in their place. That place being France. If every cyclist were to join Le Tour de France, foot soldiers like me would have only buses and juggernauts to worry about in town. No more being told to “Fuck off!” when you remind a cyclist that red lights are for stopping at and pavements are for walkers. I would make it compulsory: whoever would ride a bike must spend half of every year riding it from Besançon to Pau.

None of which, however, solves the mystery of spectators. More people lined the roads of Yorkshire to see the Tour de France than live there. Cambridge to London the same. And along the Mall the crowds were denser than on VE Day. I don’t complain that you could barely move in London if you had other business. I’m used to it. And it would be churlish to put one’s own idle interests as a compulsive non-participant before those of athletes who are said to add to the nation’s gaiety.

But here’s my question: where exactly, if you aren’t competing, is the gaiety? Reader, there is little enough to see in a marathon, but in a cycle race there is nothing to see at all. A thousand men indistinguishable except for the colour of their helmets and the tautness of their lycra speed past, and if you happen to blow your nose they’ve gone.

But still the crowds gather, wave flags, point phones and cheer. So what are they cheering? There can be only one answer to that. Themselves. They have secured an unrivalled view of something not worth seeing simply for the sake of securing it. They can tweet they were there. At the event. What event? Any event. Because being at an event beats not being at an event.

Oh boredom, boredom, you old tyrant!

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