The Roar
The Roar

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On distance, elitism and John Mullan, cycling's true hero

Nathan Dahlberg (Image: Supplied)
Roar Rookie
13th February, 2013
7

This morning I headed out on a quick spin, fixed wheel Concorde circa mid 80s, riding at around 30kmph enjoying the crisp dawn air.

Just over our local bridge a small peloton emerged heading at speed in the opposite direction. They were out-of-towners on holiday no doubt.

These were the ‘new’ generation of cyclists, middle-class professional men and women (and some of their sons) on $10,000 bikes.

I gave them a friendly wave, the two on the front glanced in my direction but were too involved with their power outputs, heart rate monitors and average speeds to wave back. Probably they weren’t unfriendly but they also probably didn’t see any comradeship between themselves and me.

After all, in this cycling-is-the-new-golf era, recreational cyclists are a dime a dozen. Just a few years ago these same people would’ve been cursing the likes of me in their SUV’s – if not actually trying to run me over.

Now, I’m some crusty old cyclist unwilling to change with the times and sit in chamois at a café discussing the ‘real cycling’ – i.e. their latest wattage figures and the coefficients of drag of some carbon wheelset that a heretic like myself has never even heard of– or more likely the colour and décor of their curtains at their latest holiday house.

An old timer like myself, eating a salami and cheese sandwich on some remote mountain top after six hours on the go – well, no wonder they used to try and run me down!

And for them, when a truck gets too close, they take the guy’s number plate, phone the police and their lawyers and hit him up for psychological damages – no chasing him down kicking his door in and getting into a fist fight – that’s for low life scumbags from some other era.

And their friends and training partners, when they beat them on Strava they go onto Facebook and tell all their mates about it.

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It’s all a modern ‘reality’ that’s removed from the actual real world. Being surrounded by a French ex-pro and three angry Polish riders in a dark alley, demanding their split of a combine you never knew about when you are just a kid of 19 in Europe, after racing four hours in rain and mud.

That’s a world they don’t even know exists…

For a couple of years I worked in the Department of Corrections here in New Zealand. The job involved taking 10 ‘criminals’ out on work gangs to do community work. These criminals ranged from people that were unwilling to pay parking fines (substantial ones) right through to ex-murderers (obviously not on the crew for murder but a latter charge).

The interesting thing which immediately emerged was that I had way more in common with these so-called criminals than the DOC office people, who were just fitting into society’s vision of how you should be, filing papers (or punching keyboards) while filling in their health insurance and retirement planning forms.

The thinking ‘outside the square’ of many of my crews was far closer to my outlook on life!

With the general changes in cycling over the last years and what has come out recently with Lance, doping, the UCI etc, the thing I’ve come to realise is that I’ve been increasingly forcing myself into the square notion of what a cyclist should be.

This is the UCI, Trek, Oakley ‘vision of cycling’ for the (middle class) masses.

It’s the commercial idea – cycling is for money making (or spending) and let’s all revel in it – and the ultimate element of the vision is that, in the end, success in our society is judged by how much money you make and that, in effect, money can buy anything.

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Before today I’d viewed the UCI’s vision of cycling as being all about an increased elitism for those that had the money. There I’ve been 100% back to front.

In fact, the truth is that my idea of cycling is elitist – for the few, for those who deserve it, for those who have talent.

As in everything else, when the commercial image becomes the accepted norm (however mediocre that may be), the more you produce the more you sell (call it ‘the McDonald’s Reality’). That is the UCI’s and the commercial vision of cycling – and now there is even a commercial hero: Bradley Wiggins.

A track pursuiter of limited, almost non-existent road credentials has been turned into a superstar – and all by public demand!

It reminds me of something, like rock and roll or pop music, there are similarities. Once you had to grind away in obscure bands.

There were singers and musicians working hard in back-water bars, fighting to get to the top and finally changing the music scene in the 50s and 60s. Music could be a successful career but it took years of work and hard effort.

Now in so many cases, none of the hard grind is required anymore, what counts is getting on a TV reality find-a-popstar show.

The whole thing is stage managed and produced. Yes, the final “star” still has to sing (and look good on TV), but it’s still a generic product that emerges, and with very little of the hard grind of that previous era.

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Than there’s the mountaineering companies’ trips to Everest, it’s just a matter of having the money.

If you have enough, we will haul your sorry arse up that mountain and hopefully back down (there’s still almost 10 % plus chance of dying) but what was once a journey of drama and legend is now a commercial gold mine.

There’s less elitism – it’s increasingly a level playing field, but not one determined by ones natural ability and passion– it all hangs on whether you have the cash.

Last year Luc Eysermans, my former masseur in the 7-Eleven team, wrote to me about this young New Zealand pro on Radio Shack. He had just won the three days of West Flanders.

His name was Jesse Sergeant, who has praised Lance because he’s helped New Zealand cyclists so much. This has an element of truth as 3 out of 5 New Zealand top pros are on Radio Shack.

Luc commented that these new New Zealand riders seem so much better than some of us old timers! Yes, I can say that athletically these guys are great, and this guy Jesse is an excellent time trial rider, but at the same time they are backed up to the hilt.

Five star hotels, top level gear all their lives, chatting to girlfriends and family everyday on Skype and so on.

In the 70s and 80s, John Mullan spent eight years straight in a cold attic. There were no hotels.

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He ran kermesse races five to six days a week and then he completed Bordeaux – Paris (over 620kms) and proves after all that if the parameters of cycling were different (or more like the original 500kms a day, as the original Tours De France had) that he would’ve actually been a great champion.

As in previous writing that I’ve done about bikes, I’ve mentioned that bikes will suit their times and that the riders will also suit their times.

Probably Jesse Sergeant (and this is pure presumption as I’ve never meet Jesse myself), who is a former track rider (like so many pros now) would’ve never made it in the 70s and 80s any more than New Zealanders like myself could’ve made it now, in this far more systematic and regimented era.

The difference is that there are probably at least a dozen, perhaps even more, potential ‘Jesse Sergeants’ in New Zealand at the moment, but there was only one possible John Mullan. This again highlights that the world of cycling is less elitist than it once was.

If we take a look at the original Tours de France, the whole of bike racing was elitist and until recently the Tour de France winners were the obvious riders – whom you might call The Greats – the talents of Coppi, Anquielt, Merck, Hinault, Fignon, Lemond and most recently Contador.

These riders were spectacular the moment they entered the arena.

In recent years there have been guys like Landis and Brad Wiggins, winners who came from nowhere to stardom (no offence intended to either). Suddenly it seems that with enough backing and with the right program, a star can be made – and without doubt this is surely more democratic than when stars are only born!

There the UCI, big sponsors like Trek, LA and all the rest are correct, in that the society’s true measure of success is how much money is being made (and who cares how and where it comes from).

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As long as the profits are going up who cares about the star of the moment, how he got there, or what he represents!

The UCI, LA and the big cycling companies have actually increased awareness of racing and recreational biking in Anglo Saxon countries (where the greater part of the world’s financial capital is) and more recently in China, where fancy bikes have become a status symbol for the new rich.

It’s worth noting that the decline in traditional cycling countries of especially amateur cycling barely influences the positive aspects of this trend.

When I first raced in China (1999) there were a couple of great races, the Tour of China and the Tour of Qinghai (Tibet) the latter an epic that makes it comparable to early Tours de France.

The new Tour of China is just a series of circuit races around China, there’s no interest in creating a great race or developing local bike racers, it’s merely a vehicle for the UCI and Chinese cycling federation to make a whole bunch of cash and also sell more fancy bikes to the Chinese consumer.

It runs counter to all my own “elitist thinking” but if one sees it in the way the modern world sees it – i.e. as a commercial success – then again, who cares?

The old races like Qinghai were only ‘good’ for the few solid riders who wanted an extreme race – and that’s very few!

The distances of the first races made them very elitist – the longer you make a race the less guys that start.

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Originally Bordeaux – Paris was considered as the greatest classic alongside Paris – Roubaix, even if only 15 -20 guys started.

Over the years races have got shorter and shorter (next year in the Vuelta a Espana there won’t be a stage over 200kms, i.e. amateur length stage racing).

In 1988, the year I turned pro, the UCI shortened all races except the great classics and started imposing limits on stage race total lengths.

One reason they cited for this was to reduce doping, which was sheer nonsense, as any good cyclo tourist could ride the distances of the 1987 Tour de France (it’s speed that separates the peloton).

The real reason probably is neither the officials nor Directeur Sportifs wanted to spend six hours following a race when four hours in a car is more than enough (and having served in both roles I certainly agree)!

And finally back my new hero, John Mullan. As already mentioned he was the New Zealand rider of his day, but just the other week when I visited both him and Paul Jesson in Christchurch, and I was amazed how well we got on together.

‘Crusty Old Pros’ – that just about sums it up.

Once there was Eric Mackenzie as well who sat mid way between us in age, but as Eric has said himself, he’s moved on, being far more adaptable to the “real” world, the one governed by how much you earn.

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Interestingly Jesse Sargeant probably owes far more to Eric than Lance, Eric after all won the 1981 Belgium world’s time trial on a flat tire in front of Eddy Merck, and both Eddy and Axel, his son, have supported New Zealand riders ever since, Axel recently through the Trek development team.

John, Paul and I remain back in a time when being a New Zealand pro was still elitist, special and different – defining us even as outcasts from the ‘normal’ world.

And certainly bearing no relation to golfers.

Nathan Dahlberg is one of New Zealand’s cycling legends, having ridden as a professional since 1988, starting off in Europe with the famous 7-11 team, as well as for Motorola and for the Marco Polo Cycling Team.

Nathan’s lengthy career saw him ride the Tour de France, not to mention participating in classics such as the Tour of Flanders. Currently Directeur Sportif with the Plan B Continental racing team, Nathan, now 48, continues to race and to ride around the world.