The first thing that hit me when I walked into Glasgow’s brand new Sir Chris Hoy velodrome? A kid. It was an accident, you understand. He was scuttling around with 25-odd of his classmates, their collective excitement creating a blur in which both they and I became temporarily lost. It made some gentle jostling as inevitable as the multiple Scotch malts I pictured his teacher downing the second she got home.
When I finally made it to my seat and had a chance to look around the entire (impressive) facility, I realised that the school group I had encountered was far from the only one around. Loads of uniformed youngsters watched the Scottish leg of the 2012/13 UCI Track World Cup and – by cheering all riders but going ballistic for any member of Team GB – they proved very vocal members of the audience.
A little too vocal, in fact. Their enthusiasm getting the better of them, some disregarded the big screen command to be silent during the final countdown before races – a request which was charmingly worded as the Scottish ‘Wheesht’ as opposed to the southerly ‘Ssshh’.
I enjoyed the kids’ exuberance but couldn’t help but find the whole situation bemusing. Could there really be children in front of me who, for their school trip, were watching cycling? Who were going crazy for each and every race? Who felt comfortable to demonstrate their support for this sport?
When I was younger, to love cycling was more than enough to instantly render you the weirdest of the weird – more so if you insisted on wearing your Team Z jersey for non-uniform day. Yet these days, the kids who wear their cycling garb are probably the coolest in school.
For me one of the most fascinating revelations in Rouleur’s interview with Cath Wiggins (issue 35) is that, like me and many others, she has mixed feelings about the sport’s shift to the British mainstream – a move for which, let’s face it, her husband is in large part responsible. “The more the merrier, right, because I absolutely love the sport,” she says. “Come in, enjoy it, fall in love with it but if you’re not going to do that, then…” Then go away, frankly.
Over the summer, my friends – in between asking me about a sport in which I had never managed to get them to express any curiosity – comforted me with the idea that British interest in cycling wouldn’t last forever. The new fans would soon fall away. I confess I hoped they were right.
What I’ve come to realise though – what my four days in Glasgow crystallised – is that there is one group of new cycling supporters who I really hope stay. The kids. Because for them this isn’t an insincere jumping on the bandwagon. No, for these kids it’s like it was for me in 1987: they’re seeing pro cycling for the first time and some of them are falling in love. They’re just happening to do it at a time when some of their countrymen are doing well.
So while I shudder at the notion that adults who previously ignored cycling now keenly discuss it, I quite like the idea that school kids are talking about it. I think I would like a situation where British youngsters can chat with some of their class-mates about Brad and Cav – and, dare I hope, Cancellara and Evans and Voeckler – and not be ostracised. Such conversations may be the roots of a real love of the sport.
On Sunday, the final day of competition in Glasgow, I was sitting next to a family. Late in the afternoon, Shane Sutton happened to wander over to our section of seating and the kid – who was maybe about ten – plucked up his courage and went to ask for an autograph. When he reached Sutton, he realised with panic that he didn’t have a pen.
I reached over and lent one of mine. Problem solved. Stuff was signed and photos taken. As soon as the kid got back to his seat, he gently opened up his programme and stared with excitement at the personalised autograph. He smiled and turned to his father. “Who was he?” he asked.
“He works for Team Sky,” replied dad delightedly, sharing the childish grin of his son. As I thrilled in the idea that Shane Sutton HAD USED MY PEN I remembered that a true love of cycling makes us all kids.
So how could I possibly object to welcoming a few more? Just whees’d during the countdown.