1987. Channel 4. West Berlin. Team time trials. Stephen Roche. Z. Système U. La Plagne. Oxygen. Round-rimmed glasses and headbands. It was all terribly exciting for a nine-year-old living in York.
I’d rush home from school, dinner in the oven, and then that music would come on – that iconic Channel 4 Tour de France tune that would drown out all other sounds – and I’d be hooked.
Back then, we had this old Pioneer television that had to warm up before it started showing images. We only bought a remote control in 1994; back in the 80s, the television worked through on-unit buttons and ours were broken, so if you pushed 4, then 2 would pop out onto the floor, and you’d have to pick it up and carefully put it back in. A remote in the 90s felt like luxury.
Roche started it all for me. I loved Laurent Fignon, Robert Millar. I just loved it all. The cycling was better then, and even the music was better. Sunday nights spent up in my room, taping the top-40 chart on cassettes, stopping it between ads and DJs talking over the top, and then swapping recordings at school the next day...
And back then cycling wasn’t mainstream like it is now. There was one kid at school who seemed to discover the sport at the same time as me. Alasdair Kay, that was his name, and just by chance his father was the caretaker at the local primary school, so when it was closed we’d do time trials around the school like it was a closed circuit. I think Alasdair still races.
For me, cycling and watching that ’87 Tour was all about adventure. Cycling opened my eyes to a new world that was outlandish and exotic. I’d go into bookshops in York and look up the place names of where the Tour visited in Michelin maps. These places actually existed, like Le Bourg-d'Oisans, with its post office and church.
Then riding gave me that same sense of adventure because for some reason – and I don’t know why – my mother let me out on the roads and I’d be out all day. It took me away, and it gave me this sense of independence that I’d maybe not had before. I had a paper round, and I’d go into the shop super early every Thursday and buy the Weekly. Then I’d sit at the back of chemistry classes with a folder over the top, and I’d read the magazine from cover to cover. I knew everything about it.
The feelings were similar to when I was even younger, maybe six or seven, and I’d be watching soccer games, and then I’d have to go outside and kick a ball around because I’d got too excited. I remember going on my bike and trying to ride fast along the bike path. It was just an old converted railway line – think gravel racing before its time.
But I remember the feeling of riding fast on summer evenings, sweating and panting away until the sun drew down for the evening. And then the next year I had a massive set-to with my mother because I wanted a proper bike – a Dawes Milk Race bike, with curved handlebars. It was more expensive than the bike that she wanted to get me, but in the end I broke her and got the one I wanted.
Around the same time, my mother got me a book called ‘The Tour of the Forest’, and it basically explained how cycling worked through all different animals that ride bikes. The book explained why an elephant isn’t a good cyclist because he has poor aerodynamics, and why a sloth lacks motivation. These days I actually read it to my kids and they love it.
It’s hard for me to explain to them how my job works, otherwise, because it’s a bit odd, if I’m honest.
One day I’ll probably have to explain to them what the 80s were like. That might be a bit more difficult.
This story was edited by Daniel Benson.
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