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Philippa York: saints, desire and religion

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An emerald-green Colnago bike can be the object of desire and the ultimate betrayal. Philippa York’s Rouleur column on growing up in Glasgow’s Presbyterian society

Photographs: Offside - L'Equipe
1/5/1985 Tour of Spain (Vuelta). Robert Millar. Photo: Offside / L'Equipe.

It’s a bold step indeed for Rouleur to mention religion and desire in the same edition. Maybe it’s some kind of resolution that involved alcohol. I considered the trouble I could get into on either subject and then decided: why not deal with both in one fell swoop?

 

You see, being born into Glasgow’s anguish with religion and a Presbyterian schooling that considered any desire as undesirable gives unique insight into the human condition.

 

Having stood on the blue side of the Ibrox terraces at Auld Firm football games as a youngster and listened to the abuse from Protestants directed at Catholics and vice versa could well have been all the education one needs in understanding belief, but luckily I had more – namely a great-grandmother who, despite not reaching the giddy height of five feet, was easily the fiercest woman I knew.

 

Read: Rough love – the Giro and the Colle delle Finestre

 

She was also a hallowed member of the Orange Order and was frequently seen marching the streets wearing a purple sash and carrying a great big shiny mace. These two items, I was told, meant she was important and got to be at the front of said marches. Apparently it meant she had faith too.

 

The thing with faith is it’s personal, as well as communal, and mine was removed at the age of seven by an all too common – to my life story anyway – questioning of authority.

 

Yes, I disgraced myself by asking the Sunday school teacher about the loaves and the fishes story, to which he took great offence. Since his explanations didn’t make sense to me, I persisted and was ejected from the premises. When the senior female members of the family found me unrepentant outside the gates at the end of play, they were not impressed. I had added extra insult to injury by spending my collection money on sweets.

 

That episode marked them more than when I told them I was going to be a bike rider. The only thing that could have trumped it would have been if I had a secret fetish for the colour green, which was, of course, banned from all aspects of our existence. Oh, the shame.

With that background of repression, cycling on a Sunday wasn’t just competition, it was proper freedom. Unlike the rest of Europe, UK races don’t tend to be based around places of worship, and no one donates bikes, jerseys, socks or memorabilia to be sacrificed around altars or archways. So the cultural shock that awaits the innocent cyclist when going to events somewhere like Italy, Spain or anywhere else that has deep religious conviction, is immense.

 

Every hill seemingly has a church, chapel, cross or statue on it, usually at the most-exposed point. The mountains have their saints who survived a blizzard or lived in a mud hut for 40 years without speaking. Even if there are no tall topographical features, there’ll be a pilgrims’ way to celebrate some disciple or biblical reference.

 

It has to be something to do with suffering and sacrifice, the fascinating way in which religion and bike competitions are drawn to each other. It’s as if the faithful fan or rider can count on some help from above.

 

Personally, I never caught the belief bug, so I used to watch my fellow competitors go through their ritual prayers, blessings and kissing of medallions before, during and after races with a withering scepticism. Were they asking for good fortune for themselves and bad luck for me? Surely not. Surely they wished me neighbourly love, or peace, or something pleasant. I guessed it wasn’t the latter and tried not to take my lack of religion as an indication of poor moral fibre which the whole palaver seemed to want to put on my faithless soul.

 

One of the most remarkable facts of all the bike rides or races I’ve been on: I’ve never had a discussion with someone else about religion. Not once. Is there another rule that needs to be added to the Velominati list? No politics or religion shall be discussed whilst riding. It’s easier to stick to pleasurable subjects when you have the chance.

 

Desire: Pro rides & dreamy bikes from the Colnago Owners Day

 

Which is where desire comes in. I was riding through town one Sunday morning (note: not at church) delivering a letter which needed to be there the day before, when I noticed in the window of a charity shop a half-complete bicycle. My attention was drawn to this machine by the stunning colours and craftsmanship. The wheels and saddle were missing and most of the drivetrain was kaput, but I wanted it anyway.

 

And the coveted object was? An emerald-green Colnago, probably from the late ‘70s, with chrome front forks and yellow decals. The rear stays were chromed too and all those little inky-dinky cloverleaf cutouts had been carefully filled in a similar hue to the stickers. It was the very antithesis of my Presbyterian education and if I had to speculate on who chose the paint scheme, I would have said an Italian priest on secondment in Ireland.

 

Next day, I got up early and went scuttling back, credit card in pocket to secure the deal, only to discover it was gone already. Blaspheming occurred, my scandalous desire unfulfilled, but at least great-gran’s honour was safe.

 

This column was first published in Rouleur 18.1