In her last blog post on Total Women's Cycling, Collyn Ahart focused on body image in cycling, a rather divisive topic.
Will it be the same for this personal look at the types of friendships formed through riding?
I spent Saturday night at Smithfield, watching the IG London Nocturne, which every year seems to become more and more like London’s cycling social equivalent of Ascot. Except there’s more beer, coffee and fried street food on offer. By the time the Penny Farthings were racing pell mell around the course, I’d already had a few pints of cider and a chicken doner in me and found my way into a red hospitality wrist band courtesy of a certain Pro Tour team boss.
It’s the kind of event you can’t walk more than five feet without bumping into someone you know. Old riding buddies and team mates, work colleagues, random acquaintances from the last big party, journalists, editors, photographers, not to mention the pros, the managers and the full spectrum of SWAG (that’s Sisters, Wives and Girlfriends). Add to the numbers the general population of London who come out in droves to get their yearly taste of bike racing. And it got me thinking about cycling and friendship.
There are many people in the world of cycling I’m friends with only because we ride together. It’s nothing personal, but cycling is the main - and often only - thing we have in common.
I don’t take offence to being left off the wedding invite list, the birthday party list, even the weekend-away-riding list.
Frankly - these people are people who are good for a smashfest, perhaps even a coffee afterwards, but very often that’s where it stops.
London (perhaps the whole of the UK) has a fairly unique, dominant culture of club riding, which just doesn’t exist in the same way in other parts of the world. Perhaps rivaled only by Melbourne, where I’ve been told the Club is the primary gravitational force. It seems to serve the purpose of introducing and organising people into a quasi-social entity with whom people spend all their time.
They dress the same, they often end up riding the same bikes, going to the same events, and inevitably forming teams if so inclined. For some, the Club is everything. Their social life and cycling (sometimes even professional worlds) rolled into one neat little package. It’s a great big warm, protective blanket.
I’ve never been one for the Club. It certainly provided the structure I needed when I wanted to start riding more seriously, but I struggled with the social framework. I was dating a guy in the Club and it seemed every social occasion was somehow cycling related. Weekends away turned into unofficial training camps, parties were just club socials on a smaller scale, even my social media was dominated by the Club (and inevitably other Clubs) and its veritable mix of personalities and opinions.
There are even places which do Cycle Speed Dating. And apparently it works. The reason being: if you have nothing else to talk about, you talk about each other’s bikes.
So that painful moment of having nothing to say to one another is almost non-existent.
And that’s one great thing about the Club culture: if you’ve got nothing to say to each other, you always have cycling. You don’t even have the pressure of looking in each other’s eyes - focused on the road ahead, you can keep your emotional distance while vaguely getting to know one another. By the time you’ve established any minor insight, your time has come to take a turn and all talking comes to an end. Safe.
I’ve also found some of my greatest friendships through cycling. There’s nothing like spending day after day riding with someone to build what is often an unspoken bond of understanding and filial affection. It’s sometimes hard to find women (particularly in London, not sure about the rest of the world), who understand what it means to be competitive and yet let that competition become support, and the support become understanding, and that understanding become actual friendship.
Perhaps it’s something about cycling that just attracts us obsessives, as we cyclists can be a very strange, awkward bunch. So the rare occasion cycling turns into real friendship is something to celebrate. Cycling is very often the glue that holds people together, but I’ve found that the people I talk the least about cycling with, are often the people I’m closest to. It’s a backdrop to a friendship, but we’ve moved beyond it to other things. Perhaps I just like people more when they have varied interests and stories to tell; when it stops being about cycling and starts being about the person.
It seems many people hide behind cycling because it gives them (us) a sense of identity and community. I have a couple very close friends I’ve met through cycling who seem uncomfortable whenever the conversation moves away from gear, races, pros, or politics and cycling gossip. And it drives me crazy. One in particular is one of the most extraordinary women I’ve ever met. She has a fascinating life and stories, a million opinions on the state of the world, but she has crafted her entire personality lately around cycling. She is at her worst in big groups of people when she becomes Cycling Girl, cracking jokes and playing to the hype; this is her wall.
Cycling is the moat protecting her from her vulnerabilities and insecurities.
I count her among my dearest friends, but I get depressed how she hides behind two wheels. And my resentment of this, I hate to admit, has formed a bit of a wedge between us at times.
I’ve lost friends and had bitter tension with people because of cycling, too. A few months ago I asked a few women I knew if they wanted to ride the Milan San Remo with me, one of Europe’s tougher sportive challenges, and one very aptly (but cheerfully) responded,
That might be pushing the friendship a bit too far.
And she was right. Last summer I’d convinced her and a handful of friends to ride around Italy with me, doing day after 100km day in the saddle in 40 degree heat. There were tears. Boy oh boy there were tears. And I felt guilty, convincing them to do this, for me, for my work, not out of the purest of friendships. And when someone thinks you’re more than just a cycling buddy, but you only find this out when you neglect to show up for the party... that’s a horrible feeling.
All that being said, one of the main reasons I ride is because of the people. Ultimately, it's about having fun; not taking it all too seriously. So if we meet out on the road or trail, let that be the start, not the totality, of a friendship.