I walk under ladders. I cross the paths of black cats. I pay no heed to Friday 13ths. I’ve broken plenty of mirrors. I have no “knock on wood” fear that speaking of ill-fortune will bring it to pass.
I am not only not superstitious, but philosophically I don’t believe in superstition. I believe in reason, and superstition is a symptom of contagion by the enemy, unreason. If religion, as Marx said, is the opium of the masses, then superstition, with its inchoate, pre-deist phantasmagoria of fears and omens, is the cheapest, most adulterated form of street-corner smack.
But when I’m packing my kit to go to a bike race, do I have to have my pair of lucky socks? Of course, I do. Who doesn’t? You can’t ask a racing cyclist to ride without his lucky socks. You might as well take away his bidon and forbid him from changing gear. And are my lucky socks lucky, you ask; how do you know they’re lucky? Well, it’s true that I don’t have any scientific proof positive. But I have such a strong feeling about them that it’s simply unthinkable to test whether not wearing my lucky socks would bring me bad luck.
So I am superstitious, after all. It’s true: in this one discrete corner of my life, I am. I believe devoutly that a pair of black and white polyester Assos socks, with a slim red line of trim, and a hole in one toe, bring me luck when I race. What kind of luck I couldn’t tell you. Do they help me get results? Do they help me make a break? Or do they just keep me rubber-side down and out of trouble? Do my lucky socks have a positive or a negative capability: promotion of good fortune or protection from bad luck? Can’t say. But what I’ll do when they finally wear out, I do not know. I will probably have to find another favourite pair, keep them next to each other in the drawer and hope that the lucky power transmigrates.
“I am Chav” Uh?
I am not alone in this matter of cyclists’ superstition. In the professional peloton, it is rife. In Catholic countries, the overlap with genuine religious observance is commonplace, as riders ritually make the sign of the cross over their chests before clipping in and starting a stage. Many riders hate to wear a dossard numbered 13. If they must, it is customary to wear it upside down, to fool the evil spirits who monitor these things – a practice apparently tolerated by race commissaires.
In a few cases, a rider’s aversion to 13 is more entrenched. Viatcheslav Ekimov, erstwhile super-domestique for Lance Armstrong, simply refused to wear the number, or even stay in a hotel room numbered 13. In 1993, Belgian Lotto rider Peter De Clercq would not board a plane for a transfer on Friday 13th. Such sentiments are not just allowed, but are so normal in the pro peloton and even respected that the race director gave him special dispensation to travel by car instead.
Issues with lucky socks, mitts and undergarments are also ordinary. Racing kit is already special and must be kept separate from training gear. But for some, it is also important not to interfere with the natural course of chance: undergarments must be worn whichever way they come out of the washing machine, inside out or right way round. That’s if they are entrusted to the laundry at all. Nico Mattan had a lucky undershirt, which he would wear every day of an important stage race. Whether he hand washed it in his hotel room or just doused himself in cologne is not reported. Although, possibly, he got lucky in races just because nobody could stand to ride in his slipstream.
Tour veteran and 1988 Giro champion Andy Hampsten always tried to use only odd-numbered sprockets for the big climbs: “For a mountain stage, I would do 23, 21, 19, 17 etc. or 25, 23, 21, 19, 17. If there was something nuts in Italy like the Tre Cime di Lavaredo or the Mortirolo, then I would go to a 28. I never used even-numbered climbing cogs other than the 28. Never. Not that I am superstitious; I just hate how every time I looked at even numbers for climbing cogs, my palms would get sweaty. Odd only.”
Andy Hampsten in the 21 sprocket, or the 23, maybe. Odd…
It may seem a little perverse, on reflection, that I’ve never met a cyclist who had a problem using the (sprinter’s favourite) 13 sprocket. But, as I said before, we are in the realm not of the rational, but of the numinous. Forget logic.
Many riders wear not just crucifixes but charms and lockets of all varieties, some around their necks, others in pockets – and, in the case of former Discovery Channel pro Chechu Rubiera, a tiny Virgin of Asturias attached to the cable housing on his bike. In 2010, Fabian Cancellara’s girlfriend gave him a perfectly hideous little gold figurine of an angel, which he carried in his back pocket to his back-to-back wins in Flanders and Roubaix. Perhaps the UCI should have it checked for any mysterious locomotive force…
Why do they do it? Once upon a time, this might have been explained away by reference to the simple, peasant background of many cycling pros: they were escaping a life of fieldwork and they were not educated men; they would have imbibed superstition with their mother’s milk. But that doesn’t explain the continuing totemism of today’s social-networked, digitally-connected modern media peloton: the persistence of belief in the power of providence to reside in things.
Fabian Cancellara: charmed existence, even with the number 13
Nor does it explain why we no-account amateurs, too, have our lucky socks and our pre-race rituals. So why do otherwise rational actors – card-carrying cadres of sports science, no less – engage in magical thinking when it comes to bike-racing? I can only think that it’s because, after all the miles of training, the hours of preparation, the obsessive attention to all the hardware, human and mechanical, the strategising and visualisation, so many riders’ hopes come to grief by sheer chance: an ill-timed puncture, an unavoidable crash, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for just one rider, the stars seem aligned to deliver him first to the line. The perfect performance is never enough; chance always plays a part. To win, you must be favoured by fortune. And that is outside your control.
But when it comes to my lucky socks, I try not to over-think it. Wouldn’t want to jinx them.