Lifestyle doping and the rise of the no-fessional

August 19, 2015

Here’s a true story. An accomplished amateur cyclist went round to a similarly high-achieving rider’s home for dinner. During the course of the evening, the guest confided to the host that work and family life had got in the way of bike racing. The host was unimpressed as they too had children and other responsibilities yet still found time to train and race. “Isn’t that right?” the host said, turning to their spouse for support.

Mentally noting that the accomplished amateur cyclist was aided by a personal trainer, a nutritionist, support for their family and ultra high-end kit, not to mention a complete lack of paid work, the long-suffering spouse coolly responded with the admirably Salteresque aversion: “Up to a point, dear.”

This anecdote, which I stumbled across a couple of years ago, popped into my head when I saw the Daily Telegraph’s John Critchlow provide a breakdown of the eye-popping £25,000 he had spent to compete in top-level amateur races. It was the first in a planned series of missives which will detail his racing progress, and I suppose it’s in the nature of these sorts of serial blog posts to inspire others who would like to take up a similar challenge (although I can’t seem to find any follow-up posts in the intervening four months). In any case, more knowledgeable people than myself have done a good job of ridiculing the idea it is necessary to spend the equivalent of the average UK salary just to ride the Surrey League and other events that no normal person gives a flying toss about, so I’m not going to throw another log onto that particular bonfire of hilarities. What interests me is how Critchlow, like the nameless dinner party host I’ve mentioned, seems unable to acknowledge a simple truth: that in the pursuit of sporting excellence, emptying your wallet and your schedule may give you an unfair advantage.

This isn’t about harvesting results. The High-Achieving Dinner Party Host has a considerable list of wins to their name, whereas a comment on Critchlow’s post points out he had yet to score a single BCF point this season. The advantage I’m talking about is psychological. Would the dinner party guest be quite as demotivated if they too had a paid backup crew? And be honest: aren’t there bleak moments when you wished you had the pro-level of support that the Telegraph’s Mr Mid-Life Crisis has afforded himself?

I’d call this sort of thing lifestyle doping – injecting litres of dosh and keeping a secret stash of expendable time, both of which enable you to be competitive at a high level. In truth, a form of lifestyle doping was around when I started riding semi-seriously around a dozen years ago. I remember my amused clubmate Chris Chapman telling me after a chipper race that our Dynamo chum Sam Humpheson had “won the race for people with jobs” by taking the bunch sprint after a break had already crossed the line, led by a particularly unloved crit racer who did practically nothing else at the time except train and race. It was a few years later that we entered into The Era Of The Golden Parachute, a period immediately after the global financial crisis which saw some high-earners of my acquaintance suddenly finding themselves with no paid employment, bags of cash from a redundancy settlement and even bigger bags of free time, which they filled up by punishing themselves on a bicycle for months on end. Then another job would come along, and living the pro dream came to an abrupt halt.

These Golden Parachutists, or at least the ones I knew, quietly went about getting into the form of their lives without drawing too much attention to themselves. But now lifestyle doping has bred an altogether less modest cyclist: the No-fessional, the sort of rider who will never have a professional contract but behaves a bit like they do. Like a professional cyclist, the no-fessional revels in the attention and admiration that comes with a life spent in the saddle, which in their case is attained by blogging and tweeting about every ruddy mile they ride. But unlike professional cyclists, the riding no-fessionals do isn’t exactly racing, even though they like to give the impression it is. I know of one no-fessional who boasted of completing a Grand Tour when it was actually just the route they were riding (and – whisper it quietly – they didn’t complete all the stages). Another no-fessional, my chum Chris Ward, recently qualified for a glorified sportive called the UCI Vets World Championship Road Race where every rider is lifestyle doped up to the eyeballs – which, as another friend who took part in a previous edition noted, consequently means the quality of the field isn’t the highest that it could be. There are probably faster guys on your club run.

I should pause here to say I am not knocking Chris (or, indeed, anyone else I’ve mentioned) for becoming fitter, faster and healthier. But Chris’s aim was to prove that it’s possible to work more than 40 hours a week and still conquer an extraordinary challenge, to which I would say: up to a point, dear. One of the reasons he’s able to train when he wants is because he has a number of factotums who are willing to work antisocial hours to get his projects completed on time. And I would know, because I was one of them.

Which brings us back to that dinner party and Critchlow’s blogging for the Telegraph. Because that’s the common theme of the high-profile lifestyle doper: tell your audience you can do what I do while glossing over the advantage they have over the schmucks. To quote the great American philosopher S. Twain, that don’t impress me much. Riding with riders who are wiser or fitter than you and learning from them will help you reach your goals. Listening to hollow bragging probably won’t.

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