As a father, I’ve never quite got around to leading by sporting example. It probably doesn’t help that my own father is the least sport-oriented man I know: I literally cannot remember him even once engaging me or my siblings in a competitive pastime that didn’t involve mime, anagrams or Mr Bun the Baker. My son Kristjan was six when I set off to cycle the route of the 2000 Tour de France, but the splendid impression I fancied I must be making upon him in doing so was melted down as I pedalled up to meet the family at Avignon station, half-way through the endeavour. ‘But Daddy,’ he asked in a crestfallen whisper, ‘where are all the other racers?’
Kristjan is 17 now, and a chip off the old sporting block – keenly competitive, but tantalisingly shy of brilliance. For him, as for me, the allure of cycling is that riding a bike is a universal skill, in a way that keepy-uppy or the backhand down the line is not. To be fair, as a two-wheeled technician Kristjan is inestimably more accomplished than his father – he has mastered the skid-turn stop, and can ride hands-off all the way down our road in a manner that would have me repeatedly introducing my face to the street furniture. Anyway, the boy’s got enough school-commuting miles in his legs to have served out a cycling apprenticeship, and like me, or like the old me, he’s capable of pulling out the occasional feat of iron-willed stamina from a standing start. I sense my first-born is now ready to be inducted into the slim-tyred, long-distance fellowship of bonks and bidons, cleats and carbon fibre, of bikes that cost more than £49. There’s an agenda, obviously: this isn’t just about stoking the fire in his belly, but rekindling my own.
Pencil and paper ready? We’re going to plot the graph of my cycling career. Age along the X-axis, daily mileage up the Y. A little ramp up from three-wheeled infancy to my daily pre-teen patrols, pedalling the Ealing badlands in a moody, flappy-trousered phalanx with my brother and a few of our friends: my Reservoir Cogs period. Now a steeper rise to a pretty impressive plateau as I begin riding to school and back, a round trip of 9 miles that Google Maps has just informed me could have been 7.8 (probably for the best, as I’d only have devoted the several hundred miles-worth of additional spare time to blowing even more stuff up in the back garden). Steadily downwards as I acquire a moped, then a Vespa, then a car, cycling only when alcoholic impairment made it the responsible transport option (feel free to draw an asterisk here). A modest bell curve covering the year I spent commuting to work on a pink girl’s mountain bike, rounded off with a tasty spike when I somehow wind up cycling right across Iceland: land of fire, ice and my in-laws. A bit of flat-lining in the early years of parenthood, then – hold on to your Staedtler HBs – the monumental London Shard that describes my Big French Ride. Admire it. In fact, take a moment to sketch a few clouds round the pinnacle, and maybe a dog-fighting Spitfire and Messerschmitt. Anything to detract from the long moribund line that bumps along the bottom thereafter, and in particular the sorry little pimple in the middle of 2007. In fact I’d rather you just drew a cat on your face. Whose stupid idea was this anyway?
By then my Tour bike was sleeping rough under a tarpaulin by the guinea-pig hutch. But one dawn at the start of that summer, in over-excited homage to London hosting the Tour’s grand départ, I hosed it down, lubed it up and set off with my friend Matthew to pedal the route of stage 1.
In my enthusiasm, I somehow forgot that Matthew did more cycling in a month than I’d managed in the previous seven years. Despite prolonged and bitter first-hand experience, I also failed to remember that when the Tour de France goes from A to B, it goes there via F, P and Z. London to Canterbury is 60 miles as the crow flies, but 138 as the man dies, a dilatory expedition up and down every notable eminence across a generous swathe of the south-east.
As an act of charity – or, as I later understood it, one of show-boating, nose-rubbing, vindictive evil – Matthew had handicapped himself by turning up on his fixie. It made no odds. I was failing to hold his wheel before we even got to our nominal start line on The Mall, and on a hill out of Gravesend the elastic snapped (curse you, Liggett, with your bottomless vocabulary of pain and failure). A route that the official website had dismissed as ‘a fast, flat ride through the English countryside’ morphed horribly into a compendium of all the drawn-out agonies I’d endured creaking up alp after alp after alp. The whole ordeal was a wake-up call, or rather it wasn’t – on the twilit final approach to Canterbury I actually fell fast asleep face-down in a lay by.
On the train home I fumbled chips between my bloodless lips in dead-eyed silence; after Matthew cycled off from Victoria I clumsily wedged ZR into the back of a black cab and expelled that last millwatt of energy grunting out my address. Seven years of laptop-propping, sofa-centric sloth had come home to roost. Something had to be done. It’s taken me half a decade to do it.
‘His legs have gone’: there’s a brutal, off-to-the-glue-plant finality of the words that herald the end of a sporting career. At least the cyclist soldiers on longer than most of his peers. The inspiration for my Tour de France trip was Firmin Lambot, the ‘Lucky Belgian’ who won the 1922 event race at the age of 36. Jens Voigt has just turned 40 and is still hauling the peloton and his huge, gurning head up Tour climbs. Jason Queally is making a velodrome comeback at 42. And what about Fred Rompelberg? In 1995, a fortnight shy of his fiftieth birthday, Fred set two records that still stand: one as the oldest pro cyclist in history, and the other as the fastest, riding at 167mph behind a dragster across Bonneville Salt Flats. And let’s not forget cycling’s unrivalled heritage of go-faster, feel-younger chemical solutions. At 47 I can still do it, even if that means doing it off my man-tits on crystal meth and goat plasma. I can beat my son up Box Hill. Failing that, I can beat my son up.
Driven on by the spectre of mortality and the dumbfounding achievements of our native professionals – in a world where Chris Froome can finish second in the Vuelta, anything seems possible – over the last six months I’ve begun to rediscover my love of proper cycling. It’s been a family affair. In May, we all pedalled right across Sardinia, which is a lot bigger than it looks on a globe. In August, we did the same on the Ile de Re, which isn’t. These trips taught me that although cycling with two teenage girls and a wife is winsome family fun, in a yoghurt-advert kind of way, it lacks a certain something. Kristjan and I instinctively knew what it was, and binged on it with sundown thrashes around the piazzas and promenades: sustained speed, lactic burn, pushing the manly envelope, that slightly worrisome overlap between pain and pleasure. To enjoy to endure, in the words of my Viking father-in-law as he waved me off on that trans-Icelandic ride. So out of retirement come the Lance-style Oakleys and an old jersey whose generous cut neatly disguises my thickening midriff, or so I thought before I saw the photos.
As Kristjan and I point our spanking new Carreras up the dappled lower reaches of Surrey’s most fabled incline, I’m soon extremely glad of those painlessly accrued holiday miles. My legs feel good: no Canterbury collapse today. The machinery is a different matter. My Tour bike will always have a place in my heart, and – in his corroded dotage – at the back of my garden shed. But I haven’t wedged his tiny saddle between my buttocks since that terrible ride through Kent. I haven’t been unfaithful either, so it’s now an awfully long time since I cocked my leg over a lightweight crossbar, or bullied my stupid feet into a toeclip or pedal cleat. But rusty as it is, at least the experience is there. As the son of a career skinflint reared in a bike-theft hotspot, Kristjan has always ridden around on brutish lumps of Chinese pig iron. Brake levers that double as gear shifters, the eerie silence of progress and the abrupt efficiency of halting it: it’s all new to him. Though he soon gets the hang of the toeclips, and I don’t.
The contemporary road bike is a bona fide wonder of our age, the heavenly union of spartan simplicity and rocket science. Riding a good one ranks high amongst life’s great pleasures, though they’re flighty wee things that need careful handling. Kristjan stands up in the saddle and darts past me on a flat stretch, then briefly loses his rear wheel on a greasy patch at the next hairpin. At a blackberry stop I give him a few pointers: don’t snatch at the brakes, keep that inside knee up when you lean into a bend, watch the white lines and drain covers. Shift down before corners, keep a straight chain line, push your legs round and round really hard…
For a while we’re wheel to wheel, mano a mano, dado a sono. Then he goes shooting off again, and with an indulgent shake of my wise old head I let him go. I’m the hard-bitten road captain, watching an eager young buck charge off on a plainly unsustainable breakaway. I settle into a sensible tempo that I can hear Sean Kelly incoherently approving of. Raw green speed is no match for wily road craft, I think, before finding out that it I’m badly wrong. Ten minutes later I find Kristjan leaning against a five-bar gate, finishing off a flapjack and looking bored.
The trouble with teaching a loved one to ride a road bike fast is that doing so usually involves taking more risks. Particularly once you throw oncoming traffic into the mix: as Zig Zag Road coils upwards through the oaks and beeches, all my over-the-shoulder shouts about clipping apexes and using the full width of the tarmac begin to sound dangerously irresponsible. But then the gradient rises, and suddenly I’m not quite up to shouting. My planned in-saddle seminar on climbing techniques is reduced to a huffing rasp: ‘Jan… Ullrich… big… gear…’ I’m hanging on to Kristjan’s back wheel by the skin of my gritted teeth, and still doing so when the road flattens and the trees make way for the summit vista. In one of the less glorious moments of my parental career, I ponder not telling my son about the benefits of drafting. But this is a boy whose heroes are dead physicists. ‘You’re probably using about 15 per cent less energy back there,’ he calls out breezily.
Dorking from the top of Box Hill isn’t quite Briancon from the col d’Izoard, but it still packs that special satisfaction of a nice view earned the hard way. We admire it in male-pattern silence, or what passes for it above my noisy attempts to keep breathing through my nose. ‘So the Olympic road race is coming up here?’ asks Kristjan at length, flinty gaze on the horizon. ‘Nine times,’ I reply, when I’m able to. It’s good to be back in the saddle, and even better to have an in-house training partner. But Fred Rompelberg can probably rest easy.
- Cycling numbers shift through the gears inspired by the Tour De France
- Self Guided Cycling Holidays in France, Spain and Sardinia
- Sardinia Day 6: The jet set look on enviously as the Moore family complete their cycling adventure
- A cycle tour of the London Bridges to see the great divide
- Sardinia Day 4: Pushing inland Tim Moore + family take on the mountains and triumph .