Le Velo

I tried to like football. It was a long time ago and I was very young. I wore a Leeds United jersey that my dad bought me from Billy Bremner's shop. At least I think it was Billy Bremner's shop. My memory might be playing tricks on me.

In South West Scotland no-one liked Leeds United. Even in Primary School you had to be either Rangers or Celtic and nothing else was tolerated. I always seemed to answer wrong when asked who I supported so ended up taking a kicking. But I did try.

I also tried when I was in High School and forced to choose something for Games lessons. Rugby was for the rich boys from the posh houses, so there wasn't really much choice at all. I played football. And I really tried. I wasn't any good though, and Jimmy McFarlane kicked me in the stomach because of it. After that, trying didn't seem to be worth it.

Then my parents bought me a bike and my world changed.

At first it was just a great vehicle for getting out of town, for getting away from the numbers. I'd ride five miles or so over the hill to a village called Dundonald, and there discovered girls that would actually talk to me. I don't remember their names now, but they were real. I do remember my bike though: it was a gold Halfords International. It weighed a ton.

Then I got a better bike (a red second hand Roberts) and discovered racing. I was never any better at cycle racing than I was at playing football, but no-one ever kicked me in the stomach for being crap. Instead the older riders shouted encouragement and occasionally pushed me up the hills. A bunch of us formed an informal club that we rather grandly called Troon Velo and devoted a lot of effort to looking as good on our bikes as possible. In 1984 I went to Paris and came back with a Mondrian inspired jersey of the La Vie Clair team. It looked terrific and I wore it all the time. I still have it. I still love it.

Troon Velo changed my life too; these were friends with whom I shared important years, important times of growth and change. We experienced the thrill of New together. We rode thousands of miles together. We were a close-knit small team, and it was important that we rode bikes, that we shaved our legs and that we didn't play football. It all mattered. It made us feel special, and everyone needs to feel special sometimes.

Of course cycling is a crap spectator sport. It's an exercise in futility: standing at the side of the road watching a big bunch of cyclists flash past in the blink of an eye isn't exactly thrilling. Even on the telly it's a bit boring, and understanding the tactics at play helps only marginally. Le Tour always looks better than most races, but even then it's often down to the scenery and the pained look on the faces as the riders struggle over endless mountain passes. But then who just wants to be a spectator anyway?

I ride more than ever now, and I still shave my legs in summer. I ride alone now, and whilst I no longer have the experience of cycling as a gang activity, there's still the secret camaraderie of the cyclist breed; the raised hand or the nod as you pass another rider going in the opposite direction. It's a subtle gesture of solidarity, and thankfully far from the testosterone soaked crowd mentality of the football supporter. Mercifully there are no chants in cycling.

It still makes me feel special.

© 2003 Alistair Fitchett