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View from the Back

Words: Chris Edwards | Images: Chris Edwards & Horton Collection | From issue 14

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It comes as no surprise that the largest general interest sports magazine in America has the word “illustrated” in its title. All sports seem to generate terrific images, which enrich and convey their drama. And cycling is no exception; in fact, in the arena of imagery, I would suggest no other sport comes close. Kristof Ramon, Yuzuru Sunada, Tim De Waele and others have so beautifully captured the amazing soap opera that is professional racing. In no other sport is the phrase “the agony of defeat” more eloquently memorialized in pictures. As for the grandeur of setting, even the vaunted Masters’ Augusta National course, splendid as it is, is no match for the Alps, the flowering fields of France or the stony heights of the Pyrénées.

Two cycling images, separated by more than 40 years, say something about what cycling has meant and still means to me.

The first is a mental image from July 1967; no photographer was present to capture the moment, but the picture is still vivid in my mind’s eye. I was living in Farnham, Surrey, walking home along a country lane to meet my brother who was returning from a trip to the continent. As I rounded a corner, he was driving toward me. As soon as he spotted me, he flattened a folded newspaper against the windshield. I could read the headline from 100 yards away, and I see it clearly now. In huge black, block capitals it read: “TOMMEE EST MORT.”

It was of course a French newspaper (maybe L’Équipe—I can’t remember that detail) reporting the death of Tom Simpson a couple of days earlier on the Ventoux. Arguably the greatest road rider ever to come out of England, Tom Simpson was something special. Back then road racing was a continental affair, and the fact that the French would take a British rider to their hearts was amazing and tells us a lot about his qualities both on and off the machine. To us he had been Tom Simpson but once the French took him to their hearts he would forever be Tommee.

So that’s the first image. The second…we’ll come to that.

My brother (the one with the French newspaper) was four years older than me. He introduced me to cycling. He knew that headline would mean something to us both. It was he who made me understand that while riding a bike and cycling had some things in common, they were by no means the same thing.

Our first bike was shared and we both learned to ride on it; I was eight or nine, he was thirteen. The bike was an upright Raleigh town bike handed down by a rich (or at least richer) relative. It was dark green, with a Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub, fenders and an elaborate chainguard that probably alone weighed more than a decent steel frame. I thought it was wonderful. My brother was not impressed. He stripped off the fenders and chainguard and installed, horror of horrors, “dropped handlebars.” My father was appalled. He thought this wonderful bicycle was being ruined, and sincerely believed that riding in the drops would lead to permanent spine damage.

Then it was repainted—by hand with a half-inch brush and a little can of red Valspar enamel. Next, toe clips and straps were added—more consternation from my parents, who felt that riding a bicycle with toe clips was the equivalent of running with scissors or with your shoelaces undone. The final touch: With a small brush my brother christened our transformed machine “Tour de France Special.” The Tour de what? I knew nothing about the larger world of cycling. He was already a fan of cycling and his heroes were Bobet, Bartali and Coppi, while most of his contemporaries found their idols in the ranks of English football. He was patient with me and bit by bit I learned about the richness and depth of cycling; it took him several days to get it into my thick young head that a rider could lead, or even win, a Tour without actually being first over the line. Soon the bike was much more to me than just a kid’s round-the-block recreational device.

And that was the beginning of an enduring and vigorous enthusiasm for cycling. We graduated from that first Raleigh to a bike each and ended up with some pretty nice machinery. The present-day fascination with equipment, weight and brand names is nothing new. We just had to have toe clips by Christophe and straps by Lapize. And of course, the frames had to be hand-built of Reynolds 531 double-butted tubing with hand-filed lugs. I remember my first cotterless crankset—a real classic by Mavic. No more hammering in those crazy cotter pins—does anyone even remember that system now? And if you believe exotic frame configurations began with carbon fiber, look at Hetchins, Bates and Holdsworth steel frames from the 1950s.

in those days everyone
Image: Chris Edwards.
in those days everyone
Tom Simpson. Image: Horton Collection.

In those days everyone trained on a fixed gear in the offseason, and some of us rode a fixed year-round, simply because derailleurs were beyond our financial reach.

And of course, as anyone who has ridden a fixed gear knows, there is no comparable setup for feeling a part of the machine. On a bicycle one becomes a sort of latter-day Centaur—tophalf man, bottom-half bicycle. The machine becomes not something you ride on but a prosthetic enhancement. You get on the bike and become this new creature, a cyclist, at the same time redrafting the age-old contract defining and limiting the human being’s experience of speed and distance. Perhaps this sudden and dramatic extension of our capabilities is the root of cycling’s seductive hold.

The conventional wisdom was that a fixed gear taught you how to spin, or as they used to say to “fan the pedals.” It also taught you how to suffer! We grew up in South Wales—very hilly and very trying on the fixed-gear rider. I prided myself on my strength, riding on an 81-inch gear. (The old measure we used was chainring divided by sprocket multiplied by 27.) A more typical gear was 76, so I felt pretty macho and could climb pretty well—at least among our crowd. The other inescapable characteristic of riding in Wales was cold rain. The options were: Learn to love hills in the rain on a fixed gear or move. Giving up cycling was an option never considered worth the mention and we certainly couldn’t move. We learned to suffer.

As I mentioned, my brother was four years older than me and I spent a lot of time riding with him and his cronies. He was much stronger, and I never really caught up. As well as learning to suffer I was learning humility. Even now I remember the feeling of frustration after being dropped on a hill. He would wait at the top, take a drink and a 30-second or one-minute rest, depending on how long it took me to catch up and then go off again. But I was the one who needed a breather! That view from off the back has been a big part of my riding career.

Back then in postwar Britain the cycling world had not fully shaken off the historic ban on “massed start” racing. Britain was the home of the time trial. These were tough men. Our local “twenty-five” course was about 15 miles out of town at a place called the Bynea Flats. Well named, as there were few places near us with 12.5 flat miles to provide the required out-and-back course. The boys always rode these TTs on fixed-gear road bikes. They would ride out to the course on their training wheels with the racing wheels (“sprint rims and tubular tires”) carried on little brackets coming off the front axle. It is difficult to remember, but in postwar Britain very few people had cars. The days of the ubiquitous SUV and Yakima racks were well into the future.

The time trials were held on Sunday mornings at some ungodly early hour, so the riders frequently started out from home in the dark. And believe me, the wind could whip in over the cold water of Carmarthen Bay to make the whole affair one of heroic discomfort. But they certainly loved to ride and race. The first man to go “under the hour” in our area was a hard boy who always came in with a Niagara of snot on his upper lip. If that seems distasteful or lacking in class, we must remember that back then cycling was not the “new golf.” Attorneys and stockbrokers were pretty thin in the ranks; it was a working-class sport and, in Britain at least, fish & chips was probably the standard carbo-loading fare.

Let’s fast-forward to the present. Thursday, lunchtime, Southern California. I’m off the back! This is familiar, not comfortable, but familiar. Most of the ride, my view is the cluster and back wheel of the guy whose wheel I’m on, but now I’m detached and the gap is growing yard by yard; perfectly normal for me. We start out together, maybe eight or 10 riders, maybe as many as 15. The ride is a loop, less than two hours, about 26 miles with a couple of minor ascents, one really nice fast descent and a couple of de rigueur sprint landmarks. This is the lunchtime ride, Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s an informal affair, the group usually comprising a sprinkling of 50ish lawyers and engineers who have no problem taking an extended lunch, a few old guys like me and maybe a young Turk or two out for a “recovery ride.” Yeah, I’ve heard that before! They can make you hurt. Everyone is riding good equipment and is pretty savvy about it.

The ride typically goes like this. We warm up for a mile or two. There is no tightly organized paceline and we potter along chatting. I hang in pretty well at first. No one seems to mind that I tend not to work at the front—at least I’m not aware of any dirty looks. As I gaze at the rear wheel and transmission in front of me, I realize it is showroom clean; some of these young guys seem to spend their time at three activities: riding, sleeping and cleaning the bike. Now we come to a false flat and I’m not chatting anymore, just grimly hanging in there. I ride near the front so that when the hill comes I can drift back through the group and stay on as long as possible. I salve my ego by thinking about the sprinters who do this in the Alps. Now the road kicks up, the group strings out and a couple of us older guys trail off the back. At the top of the climb the group waits nonchalantly while we puff up in the small chainring. Then off we go again.

This is a pretty nice group and they protest they don’t mind waiting. It’s not that long a wait and I wonder why I can’t just put my head down and hang on instead of letting that gap open and widen. I also sometimes wonder if they are relieved when we old guys don’t show up for the ride and they can just keep going. A piece of me keeps believing that if I just ride a little more, ride a little smarter and eat a little better I will get some magic legs, but I’m not holding my breath. On the other hand, I’m not yet ready to admit I should be out with the helmet-mirror-and-dayglow-yellow-windbreaker set.

Next comes the descent, and I do okay here as I’m not the slowest descender, and then some flats where I can make a pretty decent big-ring showing. Perhaps I’m just better warmed up by now. It takes us septuagenarians quite a while to warm up!

On one ride, while struggling to stay with the group and clearly showing it, my slower companion said, “Take it a bit easier, don’t be so competitive, you can’t expect to keep up with these young guys.” I told him I was not competing with them, or even with him. I was competing with myself. I know I’m no good against the general competition. Never have been. But I do have days when I feel good, when I have my legs and I’m a far better rider than I was last week or at the beginning of the season. I learned the humility and loneliness of being off the back a long time ago, but I also learned the deep satisfaction of riding well, at least within the meaning of riding well that is accessible to me. And I have come to believe that however modest my abilities may be and however much it may seem that I am on the outside looking in at cycling, that is not the case. My view may be from the back, but it is not from the outside.

I too am a cyclist—I always have been.

That second image? I am looking at it now on my computer. My brother sent it to me today. He is again touring France. He is standing on the blighted slopes of Mont Ventoux under a deep-blue sky in front of Tom Simpson’s memorial. He’s a pretty wiry seventy-something, and I don’t think he rides much anymore, but he still loves cycling. It is typical of him that he should make this pilgrimage and send me a record of it; let’s face it, the Ventoux, doesn’t show up on most tourists’ radar.

Tom Simpson wrote a great autobiography published just before his death. It was titled “Cycling is My Life.” Clearly my brother and I would never dream of making such an extravagant statement. Nonetheless, we too are cyclists. Always have been.

Chris Edwards was an essential part of Peloton for seven years until his passing in 2017 at age 76 while on a bike ride with one of his five sons. He was the voice of many of our videos, a volunteer at all our events and gave our brand a distinct Swansea accent and swagger. Also, he was the father of our “Special Ops” editor and partner for nine years, Ben Edwards.