on the corinthian spirit vs the consumerist ideal

I’ve spent a bit of time recently thinking about the Corinthian nature of cycling as a sport. In part it’s an ongoing reaction against the relentless consumerism of the cycling leisure market, the over-marketing of over-engineered machinery and a shift away from the egalitarian origins of cycling towards a more elitist and expensive realm. It’s not a simplistic paradigm, as evidenced by some of the recent comments on this blog, and it’s a difficult argument to present. On the one hand, I’m hankering after a more niche and narrow definition of cycling, one driven by a fellowship of participants, less prone to flawed notions of epic grandeur, more accepting of the past and tradition as a good thing. On the other hand, I’m completely welcoming of new entrants into the sport, and the more lowly and unpretentious their beginnings, the  more welcoming I am. It leaves a middle ground, defined by high-end leisure wear, beyond the wallet of all but the most affluent wearer, of high end erotica straddled by low-end riders, of cash cows and the unspoken tenet that somehow an explosion of cyclists is somehow an unambiguously good thing (the ‘more cyclists is always good’ mantra).

Cycling Weekly has had a bit of face-lift recently. It looks a lot better and seems to have stronger content, less sportive-related guff or completely bogus advice (shocking news: train more and you go faster), more acknowledgement of the identity and roots of  cycling in the UK. It’s not the finished article though (no pun intended). One of the things they have resurrected is a weekly feature on clubs. This is a good thing, but it’s interesting that the two clubs featured thus far are clear examples of ‘bike boom’ clubs. These typically consist of a group of individuals banding together, deciding that the current world of bike clubs is unwelcoming, somehow symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with everything, run by petit-bourgeois mittel-englanders as some kind of labyrinthine bureaucracy designed to crush the soul of anyone who wants to join. They then knock up a kit that looks suspiciously like a knock-off of Team Sky, declare loudly that they are going ‘to do things differently’ and ‘shake up the sport’ and point to the five billion members they’ve signed up in 5 minutes as proof of their evangelical and revolutionary power and the defining mark of success, as well as the definitive statement that somehow other clubs were doing it wrong all along.

It’s some way wide of the mark. It’s interesting how few events the new clubs organise compared to the amount of races run by other clubs, including the weekly TT series run by the local club, usually since time immemorial, by volunteers giving freely of their time. It’s also interesting how many events the new clubs and their legions sign up for, run by the luddite and monstrously outmoded Yesteryear Wheelers. The bike boom CC is a shaky model, one rooted in the superficial, the here and now, the mode, the representation of what they think cycling should be. It would be nice to see the Comic focus on one of the established clubs, document the warm welcome given to members, the support for the community, the roots established over a hundred years, the change in jersey design, the significance of the colours, the unbroken lineation back to the founder members seeking time and space away via the emancipatory power of the bicycle. The club as a corinthian institution, not a willing reflection of consumerist mores or the grubby power of professionalism which has the Astana debacle at its zenith. The myth of an unwelcoming cycling club is exactly that.

There is no greater representation of the Corinthian ideal at present than Steven Abrahams. I can wholeheartedly recommend the recent bike show interview with Jack Thurston.

This is not big money professional cycling. Steve has quit his job and cashed in his life savings to better the record of the man he regards as the greatest cyclist of all time. He’s assembled a small team of volunteers who will organise his routes and overnight stays, fix his bike, feed him, wash his clothes and upload his ride data to the Ultra-Marathon Cycling Association which is validating the record attempt.

Steve’s shortest ride this week was 187 miles. Thats 60 miles further than my longest rider ever. He’s managed 10,000 miles so far this year, twice my annual distance.

7 thoughts on “on the corinthian spirit vs the consumerist ideal

Add yours

  1. I really appreciate this piece. It says much about how I feel and what I experience as a member of ‘traditional’ club and a cyclist on and off for 45 years, yet I find myself conflicted.

    My brother and friends started one of the ‘new’ clubs a small number of years ago. It started as a vehicle for undertaking enjoyable, charitable sponsorship, European rides. The club members have raised many hundreds of thousands of pounds (seriously) for a mental health charity.

    At the same time, the club has grown significantly on the back of the post-olympic boom. It has also turned to organising fun time trials, which in two years have become much more serious in intent, run on a local TT course, advertised on CTT website and openly welcoming riders of all abilities.

    So, whilst this is a club with, admittedly a kit that does look quite like Sky’s (and didn’t British Cycling give them serious grief about that), it is also a great mix of keen newbies, grizzled old-and-bold lads and families who love a good day out at their event. That sounds suspiciously like my own, trad club!

    I do occasionally abhor the burdgeoning three-abreast, litter louting, day-glow yellow jacketed groups who populate my local training roads and sit on my wheel into a block headwind as I churn out a Level 2 effort, cheerily waving me on as they turn-off after sucking my wheel for miles, but, long-standing, trad club, should-know-better riders do that too.

    I guess my bottom line is, more cyclists are a good thing if we can all learn from each other, create welcoming, diverse clubs and help protect each other from the common enemy – the knowingly attacking motorists who think THEY own the roads.

    I love your site by the way and the breadth of the blogs.


  2. I’m in one of the clubs featured (in fact I’m in the magazine), Oxted CC, and should say that whilst I am a new (well, born again) cyclist, around 60% of our riders are joiners from other, less geographically convenient clubs and are very much old hands. They’re great for the rest of us, teaching us the rules and signing us up for things like team time trials. We also run races in the Surrey league and support East Grinstead running their evening TTs during the summer. Every great old club had a ‘day one’ at some point, thankfully we’ve quickly grown to be respected by our other local clubs, though the initial snobbery was high.

    1. Sounds great, and all the best. The kit looked very nice in the Comic 😉

      I think the initial snobbery is probably diffidence, replaced by mutual respect once it’s apparent that it’s not one way traffic.

  3. You are spot on P.J. I joined a triathlon club when starting cycling 5 yrs ago, fancy kit and equipment, there meeting place was only 10 mins from my house, the fast riders had no patience for the slow ones, so didn’t turn up and they in turn stopped going out on the Sunday ride because of being too slow. I was accepted to a degree, even though I do not run or swim, because I agreed to take a shorter ride 30 – 40 miles for the weak and lame. The hierarchy ruled and what they decreed happened, no questions asked. One Sunday as I waited in a monsoon, no one turned up but one of the top boys was driving by and told me that they had all rung around the night before, apart from me and decided not to bother because of the weather.

    I left and joined an old established cycling club, what a difference, all welcome regardless of ability or equipment, some of the old 1970’s steel bikes look fantastic, kit partially subsidised by the club, 4 groups on a Sunday all led by a competent cyclist, T.T’s, Pathfinders, Audaxes and they come from all over to do the Audaxes, plus mid week rides. A totally different scene.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: