The differences between Kevin Keegan and me are obvious. He’s a northerner who had a bad perm, disastrous pop career, stack heels and a penchant for annoying the bejesus out of that living Caledonian deity, Sir Ferg. Oh and he wasn’t too shabby at fitba either. The similarities are fewer – actually there’s only one, I hope – and this is that neither of us will ever make a professional cyclist.
For folk of my generation, one of the defining collective memories of our youth is of the super-competitive Keegan falling off his bike in the pouring rain in the midst of a fevered duel with another Superstars competitor (I think it was judo hardman Brian Jacks). Leaving aside the conundrum of how Liverpool, the English champions, gave one of their star assets permission to compete in such a patently insane televisual car crash in the making, the question we all asked was this: what else could he expect? He admitted to never riding a bike, it was chucking it down, and a nation was willing him to go Evel Kneivel on us. So when he duly obliged, most of us laughed ’til our sides hurt or our pants needed changing, whichever came first.
For some reason, visions of the permed one flying through a park in Middle England in the Seventies on a one-way journey to oblivion came flooding back to me halfway through my umpteenth circuit around the Sir Chris Hoy velodrome yesterday.
How, I asked myself, had it come to this? Keegan may not have had enough self-awareness to realise that he looked like a prat on a bike, but I suffer from no such illusions. Or at least that’s what I’d have thought if I wasn’t hanging on for grim death, peddling like fury to keep up with the 12-year-old in front of me, and wheezing away like an old tin kettle.
In my defence, when Sir Chris calls, the only answer is to ask how fast you should come running. It’s a bit like an invitation to a night playing strip poker with Cher, Enzo Ferrari ringing you up to ask if you want to test-drive a Testarossa or the Weirs calling to say that there’s been a terrible mistake on their Euromillions win and that you’re entitled to half of their jackpot – you don’t think it’ll ever happen but you have no doubt what your answer would be if it does.
To make matters worse, I’d already been to the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in the space-age Emirates Arena in Glasgow. I knew that the track is at 45 degrees at both ends, and that the futuristic bikes have tyres that are thinner than my pinkie. I also knew that most of the participants in track cycling are considerably more svelte than me, and that they’d be wearing Lycra to boot. There are some red lines that a man can’t cross and this is one of mine (what’s wrong with rugby shorts anyway?)
So it’s fair to say that I knew what I was getting into when I was asked if I’d like to come along with five other likely geezers to ride with Sir Chris to mark his sponsorship of the youngsters’ part of the Revolution Series, which coincided with the launch of his range of sexy pushbikes, as we auld yins insist on calling high-tech track bikes with the engineering spec of an F1 car or America’s Cup yacht.
Or at least I thought I knew it all, partly because I’ve covered a lot of cycling, partly because I’d already taken a good squint at the arena and partly because I know a lot of MAMILs (the Middle Aged Men In Lycra who infest our roadways on Sunday mornings). There were, it turns out, quite a lot of things that came as a major surprise.
The first was that, unlike road bikes, just being light is not the point of track bikes. In fact, I’ve just bought a sturdy Revolution Cross Bike from Edinburgh Bike Co-operative in Edinburgh and, at 8-9kgs the bike I was on wasn’t a lot lighter. Instead, track bikes, which are made of aluminium, need to be stiff so that they can transfer the huge amount of power that the other riders were pushing through the frame. The bold Sir Chris made sure we all had all the specs, but I’m not a read-the-manual sort of guy so I just asked the two pointy-headed hacks who write about nothing but track cycling what they thought: “At £750 it’s half the price of my bike, it’s stronger and it’s lighter,” came the answer. See, far easier than wading through figures.
There were four other major surprises. The first is that there are no gears or brakes on the bike and that you slow down by peddling backwards (this is a surprise when you’ve been used to free-wheeling, as all mountain bikers will know, which is effectively the same as applying the brakes); the second is that, thanks to the superglue qualities of the tiny tyres, you soon find yourself right at the top of the track, almost on top of the cycling world, as if it was the most natural thing to do.
Another surprise is that the whole thing is strangely and surprisingly addictive.