I like pop. Big pop. Enormopop. The type of pop it’s usually not OK to like – the synthetic, bright, ebullient kind which sounds as if it could’ve been assembled on the sort of machine you are reading these words from, because it usually is. I like voices – typically, women’s voices – that sound as if they have rocketed across oceans to reach your heart, and in an age where a song could have been recorded anywhere, they probably did. I like Sia, Robyn, Scherzinger, Gaga, the Aloud, that sort of thing. And as a committed bicycleperson, that puts me in a very small minority. Possibly a minority of one.
One of the shortest conversations I had in the Rouleur office was about the 2009 Eurovision song contest, even though I was raving about the spiralling, doomed romanticism of Patricia Kaas’s Et S’il Fallait Le Faire, which I thought would be right up their rue. A few years later at a Dynamo Christmas do, a fellow member asked me, in a manner which suggested he wanted reassuring that this was the case, if my frequent tweets about the X Factor were meant ironically (they weren’t). I can understand his concern: cycling, at least the type of cycling I enjoy, has more in common with the appreciation of rock, which hardly makes it the ideal environment for a TV-talent-show-loving nincompoop like myself. There’s an old belief, the lead singer of the Kaiser Chiefs recently noted, that you’re not in a bona fide band until you’ve gone “up the M1 500 times”; similarly, there are those who believe that you’re not a proper cyclist until you’ve got a few thousand miles in your legs (which, of course, have to be hard miles, up hills and mountains). Road cycling is about paying your dues and observing tradition: drop handlebars, 700c wheels and a diamond-shaped frame are its guitar, bass and drums. Cycling wears a serious face in monochrome, often amid a remote, enveloping natural landscape, like Joshua Tree-era U2 (a sullen aesthetic which, Raphaistas should note, even the world’s most ludicrously earnest band eventually had to abandon). The message, as crushing as a powerchord, is clear: cycling has a deep, inscrutable meaning; cycling is tough; cycling is 4 Real.
Or is it? Throughout my musical life, I’ve often felt excluded from the seriousness of being a rock fan – its various modes of rebellion, the accumulation of arcane knowledge, the penetration of the obligatory veil of mystery. The world of club cycling, on the other hand, I’ve found to be welcoming and jolly, despite – or maybe to mitigate – the physical pain you have to endure to be any good at it. And whereas rock can often feel like an exclusive club in which its members are obliged to venerate the ‘right’ artists and the ‘right’ albums, cycling won’t show you the door if you can’t tell your Coppi from your Bartoli, although it might point you in the direction of a detailed, hardback tome.
Watching a key moment in a race, such as Froome attacking Quintana on Mont Ventoux, gives me the same rush I get from pop. How could it not? Because, at its very core, cycling has a throbbing pop heart.
For a start, cycling, like pop, is a bastard form. Pop is a magpie nicking ideas – sounds, melodies, riffs, looks – from whatever genre it can find and repurposing them in a new form. Cycling did this when it pinched the downhill tuck from skiing and came up with the aerobar. The manufacturing know-how that produces many of the groupsets in the peloton came from golf and fishing equipment. Some of the training principles that put the current champion of the Tour de France on the top of the podium in Paris originated in swimming. Pop is manufactured, and so to is the constantly-evolving object at the core of cycling, the bicycle. There is no room for a blues-like purity in such a modern, inquisitive sport.
On an immediate, visual level, cycling is also identifiably pop. The rush of colours that constitute the pro peloton has an unabashed, gaudy, Roy Lichtenstein look about it. From a less artistic standpoint, the Tour’s post-stage shows became the inspiration for the Radio 1 Roadshow after station controller Johnny Beerling stumbled across them while on holiday in France. And, fundamentally, cycling shares pop’s commercial instincts: even though a race can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, it nevertheless exists primarily as a sponsors’ billboard.
Pop’s message, if it has one, is that the most thrilling place to be is the present. And is that not the feeling you experience when you’re completely immersed in a race – any race? Whenever I come across enthusiasm for a relatively obscure non-European event, I’m struck by how the more committed type of cycling fan exists at an emotional frequency as high as their pop counterparts. Compare this to football, where pre-season friendlies – the equivalent of the tour of Oman or Dubai – are considered so uninteresting that the great Danny Baker recently suggested that they should be held behind closed doors.
So let’s abandon the mythologising, tradition-heavy, rock-like paradigm we use to frame our perception of cycling. Pop is unhip. Pop requires no chin-stroking expert’s permission to exist. And those, to me, are the qualities that are at the very root of why we love cycling.