Tuesday, 8 July 2014


Welcome to the society of the bicycle spectacle!  It's total cyclomania out there, as Britain hosts the opening stages of the Tour de France (that's "Tour of France", for non-linguists).  At least, it was until yesterday, when the whole thing relocated to yer actual France (do they cycle endlessly round the deck of the ferry on the way there?) and will now all quickly be forgotten.

I don't know about you, but I have always found people behaving as a mass both quite frightening and rather puzzling.  Ever since I was quite small I have preferred the way of the "lone wolf" to that of the pack.  I have never once been a spectator in a football stadium -- I support no football team -- and only with great reluctance have I even attended concerts in large venues.  I did go to a couple of open-air festivals in the 1970s, mainly to sample the ambience (that's code for "drugs"), but didn't really enjoy the experience of a crowd oo-ing and aah-ing to the sort of broad-brush spectacle that alone can command the attention of that many people in  that big a space.  "Look!  Jagger has just blown himself up with a landmine...  What a showman!!"

The most bizarre kind of crowd behaviour, I find, is the temporary intense enthusiasm that a Big Sporting Event will trigger.  Suddenly, people who spend most of the year doing nothing more sporty than wrestling open a family-sized bag of crisps on the sofa seem to know everything about athletics, or international football, or tennis, or, in this most recent outbreak, road cycling.  A few may go the extra yard and buy a pair of jogging pants (very comfy on the sofa), or even a bike, but most will simply enjoy the illusion of being part of it for as long as whatever it is lasts -- maybe even turning up to cheer on a fleeting glimpse of lycra and helium-filled titanium flashing past -- and then revert, forgetting their new fund of knowledge as quckly and as thoroughly as a student after taking finals.  The praiseworthy but pious hope of the organisers of such Big Sporting Events is always that increased participation will be the pay-off, with the associated benefits to their sport (bigger numbers means more funding which means more success) and to the nation's health (generally quantified as savings to the NHS).  Well, lots of luck with that.

As to cycling, I used to cycle everywhere as a mode of transport, but never truly enjoyed it: you need longer legs than mine to derive any actual pleasure from pedalling.  But I have several friends for whom cycling is a way of life, and always has been.  I blogged a few years ago about the untimely death of John Wilson, proprietor of Walton Street Cycles in Oxford.  I met John and his older brother Phil at university, where they managed to arrange adjacent rooms in college.  We would often converge on those rooms of an evening to sample the ambience, so to speak.  Which could be awkward, as there were often several semi-dismantled bike frames hanging from the ceiling, like stuffed crocodiles in an alchemist's laboratory, or inverted wheel-less on the floor.  If the ambience was particularly good that night, you had to be careful not to stumble into the dishes of meths on the floor (where disassembled derailleur gear parts were degreasing), or you might skid, fall, and impale yourself on a menacing pair of wheel-forks.

So, although I could not share their particular passion, I have always been engaged by any true enthusiasts, as typified by those two.  That is, people who participate, rather than merely spectate; people who are in for the long-term, not just for the temporary buzz of a fad.  It can be anything: metal detectorists, book collectors, cake bakers, flash-mob knitters, boxers, sea anglers; I'm sure I could even find some sort of common ground with train-spotters and body-builders, if I had to.  But I loathe mass-media-fed pseudo-enthusiasms, the sort that pass through the population like a mild virus, leaving no trace beyond the trail of consumer-goods that marks serial failed attempts to buy health and happiness -- all those exercise machines, tennis rackets, electric guitars, unused recipe books, blenders and non-stick baking trays.

Although, as an inveterate buyer of second-hand cameras and lenses, I suppose I should be grudgingly grateful to those whose attention span will last no further than the next hype, and whose wallets will have absorbed that first wave of depreciation.  "As new, boxed" -- music to my ears...

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