Why James Stout rides: because he can
As we get to the end of production of RIDE #71 and consider who will feature on the cover, it’s time to consider the question posted on the front of the magazine. Why do you ride?
Inside RIDE #70 are many stories and cycling and cyclists. Among them is a feature by James Stout. And now is as good a time as any to publish his response to the question: why ride?
(This is a feature from RIDE #70, available in newsagents now.)
*Also available on Zinio.
Because you can
Why ride? There are many answers to a question we’ve asked in this regular series about people who have made cycling part of their lives.
Bees eat cabbages and uncle sells eggs…
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I remember precisely the moment I stopped caring about bicycle racing, or at least the bike racing I was doing. I was doing what my more distinguished countrymen would refer to as a “shit small” race, a UCI 2.2 in Tobago, and I was getting the shit kicked into me. I resolved to attack on one of the road stages and stop feeling like a waste of space. The first neutral descent was so steep, wet and technical that I saw several riders pull out or crash before the race itself even began. I remember feeling that I would have liked to join them. Once the race was on, I tried to make my way to the front of the multilingual and chaotic bunch with limited success. The sketchy road closure and sketchier road surface combined with extreme heat and a general malaise on my part after an unspectacular season made getting off the front seem particularly difficult.
I saw a gap open up on to the right and threw myself at it with the energy that only comes from a deep desire to justify a flight across the world and a year spent living on strangers’ sofas. I made myself as small as possible and, as had been my recent tendency, began battling the idea that I had no right to be where I was, doing what I was doing.
I was plugging along with my hands in the drops and my SRM reading 42 degrees in October. I’d been racing since February and had broken my own “don’t spend money on bike things” rule several times that year when the harshest spring I can remember in Europe forced me into the clutches of an Italian brand with a jersey named for a Norwegian rider. My SRM wasn’t telling me I didn’t deserve to be there, but something inside my mind insisted I did.
I don’t have the raw power to ride anyone off my wheel, let alone a large group of motivated South Americans with contracts to maintain. That means I have to take risks. Plunging down a hill I took the inside fast line. Coming around a wet turn in the rainforest on dodgy tarmac is never an entirely secure prospect and just as I exited and stood on the pedals I noticed that what looked like a shadow was, in fact, a giant pothole. I lifted my front wheel just in time but my rear wheel kissed the lip of the yawning crevasse and made a “crack” which sounded like the world had ended. As I looked down at the rapidly approaching asphalt, I had an inkling that mine was about to.
By the time I got up, realised nothing was broken apart from my bike and my pride and held the rear wheel up in the air the bunch had rolled up and the caravan was passing. I couldn’t see my team car (I was guesting and the race provided all team cars so they were hard to spot) and I ended up taking a neutral wheel. The caravan was its usual chaotic self and I bounced around it fluctuating in between mortal fear and manic excitement, all the while trying to grab sticky bottles and ice packs from friends in team cars. Just as I was about to exit the caravan I realised that I must not have cleared the gap with my front wheel as well as I had thought. A huge bulge in the rim seemed to be growing, like my wheel had some kind of carbon hernia. As soon as I braked the whole thing imploded and I went down again with a searing pain in my back. I got up and held the wheel up in the air like I was asking for salvation (which I was). Sadly I must have been praying to the wrong god because I looked up just in time to see the neutral car peel away, either out of wheels or attending to another crash.
I wasn’t getting a wheel out of that car and I would have to wait for the broom wagon. I threw the wheel on the ground and balanced the bike on its fork. I sat down on the hot ground and tried my hardest not to completely disintegrate. Now, suddenly I wasn’t a bike racer any more, I wasn’t part of a group any more, I was just a skinny man alone in the jungle. As soon as the bunch had rolled by, everyone else seemed to forget it had ever existed; they crossed the road and went back to their chickens, donkeys and fishing nets. I didn’t have any livestock or a fishing net handy so I just sat there and realised that I looked a bit silly in tight bright clothes and shoes I couldn’t walk in.
I realised that nobody there cared how many watts I could do for five minutes. It doesn’t matter that I’d won a criterium that year or that my Colnago had a state of the art SRM on it. None of that was of any use in my attempts to find a ride back to the hotel where I could end my season with a DNF and a bottle of double-proof rum.
I’ve been a bicycle racer, defining myself as such, for over a decade so waking up on a Monday morning without road rash, a trophy or at the very least a set of legs that barked at me when I climbed the stairs has been a new and exciting experience. Bike racing is something that has punctuated my life since childhood. It’s easy when you’re winning or even when you’re improving but not winning. It becomes something you invest self-worth in because you see linear improvements. You ride more, get faster, eat better, get leaner and suddenly you’re a minute faster up your local test climb and you’re in the front group on the bunch ride. You don’t go out on Saturday night so you can wake up early on Sunday and race your mates, so soon enough your cycling mates become your only mates. You’re okay with that because the time and money you spent down the pub is now being poured into carbon and lycra anyhow.
After deciding I didn’t want to race any more I sat about at home for a few weeks, maybe a few months.
I tried to do the other things other people do: lie in on Sundays, chase girls, drink beer and play five-a-side. Pretty quickly it became rather apparent that I was: a) crap at all of them and, b) missing riding my bike. So I broke it out of the shed. I undid the frame number that was still on it, popped the SRM head unit back in the shed and just went for a ride. And that’s more or less what I have been doing ever since.
I think I ride as many hours a week now as I ever have, but I don’t do a single minute of training. If I see a dirt road that looks interesting, I take it. If I see a hill that looks challenging, I ride up it hard, and if I see a bakery that looks good, I stop. The sport of cycling has given me an awful lot but none of what I get from cycling would be worth it if it took away the one passion that I’ve constantly felt throughout my life on different continents and with different people for almost three decades.
Cycling has been therapy at times, an escape at times and my job at times and there aren’t enough UCI points in the world to give up a friend as good as my bike is to me. I’ve found that friendship with the bike again, that craving to ride and the childlike joy that comes from doing things which put me just on the edge of my ability to balance.
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The funny thing is I haven’t got much slower on the bike. I come at every ride with the goal of enjoying myself now and I find I succeed in that much more frequently than I ever did when my goals were quantified in terms of power, time, kilojoules and other things on an LCD display. When your ride doesn’t have a route plan or a time limit, then every day becomes an adventure. It might be an adventure that ends at a coffee shop five kilometres away, or it might end 180km later with a sheepish phone call to a mate when you’ve run out of inner tubes, food and motivation.
Not coming back from any of your rides feeling like a failure means you approach each one with more enthusiasm.
I look around at races and group rides and see people who are still where I was: they’re “bike racers” and they’re so busy being racers they’ve forgotten how much fun it is to be a bike rider. They foreswear wide tyres as too slow, but they miss out on all the off-road adventures I’ve enjoyed of late. They mock my frame pump and huge saddle as too heavy but forget that it allows me to venture into the boondocks without having to worry about getting stuck. Maybe they’ll read this and try having a few adventures and a few less intervals next week. Or maybe they won’t… and they won’t be riding bikes at all this time next year.
I’ve raced more kinds of bikes this last year than I’d done in the past decade. Road, cross, MTB, track, alleycats, time trials, gravel races, granfondos to name just a few. I’ve done critical mass rides, speedo rides for charity, rides with Christmas lights on my bike, and ridden across international borders late at night with a torch taped to my handlebars. I’ve put numbers on the front and back of my jersey and even on handlebars (that one had to be explained to me twice after I tried to put the number on the seatpost).
I’ve met people who I would never have met, and now I can call them friends. I’ve shared beers, coffees and all manner of pastries with people from every race, class and social group imaginable.
It turns out that the whitewashed middle-class world of the local A-grade criterium is very far from representative of the world of cycling.
I’ve ridden my bike to the middle of nowhere, slept under a tree and ridden home. I’ve been to places I would never have otherwise been – some of them within riding distance of my house. All those times during the race season that I’d have spent in the backseat of mid-1990s hatchbacks have now been spent doing some of the most amazing adventures I can imagine. I can’t even conjure the notion of doing half of these things that I now enjoy if my adventures were pre-scheduled into training software and required a 250w normalised power throughout.
When I do go out on bunch rides now, I don’t need to pull on the front to keep my average wattage up, or hide in the back because I have five hours to do that day. Instead I can follow attacks if I want to, or I can sit up and turn around if everyone runs a red light.
When I do race I don’t have to fetch a bottle for anyone or drag a load of ungrateful Kazakhs along for five hours. Instead I can attack with gay abandon and pull out of the race after winning a dozen cookies that would cost less to buy than I paid to enter. But that’s okay because now when I do race, it’s only for fun anyway. Without the constant judgement of a liquid crystal display and the harsh reality of 124 people who are better than me, I’m more relaxed and happy. I have found that cycling, with or without other people, for a prize or just for pleasure, is actually really wonderful. I knew that when I was eight, I forgot it when I was 18, and at 28 I’ve found it out again.
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If I sound like I’m proselytising here, it’s because I’ve found something which I do on Sunday mornings which makes me a better person for the rest of the week and which I want to share with everyone. So forgive me for being a little preachy. I’m certainly not of the opinion that racing is a bad thing, but I think it’s only ever going to be part of the larger gamut of the cycling realm.
For the vast majority of us who don’t make a living from riding bikes, it’s worth remembering that cycling is something we do for fun. Sometimes driving five hours to ride for a couple of hours of competition isn’t as much fun as spending that same amount of time riding 150km and having a few beers afterwards.
It’s too easy to become focused on the “prestige” that we perceive through Strava KOMs or race results but, truth be told, to the rest of the world we’re all just weirdos who exercise in what they think looks like underwear.
I like to think that, these days, at least the people who don’t know a cobblestone from a velodrome can at least see I’m having fun out there miles from anywhere in my neon coloured skin-tight lycra. If I could ask you to do one thing this coming weekend it would be to disconnect from all your devices and go out on a ride with your pockets full of food and your agenda free of commitments. Get some mates, some bananas and make some memories that will last a lot longer than your Strava KOM.
– By James Stout
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