Two Wheels Good – Part 1

7th August 2018

This is the first occasion on which several sports are holding their European Championships in the same cities at the same time. These arrangements are currently being inaugurated in Berlin and Glasgow. The former has the athletics and “Glasgow” has everything else (though its catchment area has been liberally expanded for this purpose): golf (in Gleneagles), rowing and triathlon (both in the Strathclyde Country Park), swimming, diving (in Edinburgh) gymnastics and cycling.

On different occasions this week, various members of the family are accompanying me at a range of cycling events: yesterday evening’s programme in the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, tomorrow’s Men’s and Women’s Time Trials through the streets of Glasgow and East Dunbartonshire, the Men’s and Women’s Road Races on successive Sundays and Friday’s qualifications races in the BMX events. We are currently part-way through the programme.

The Women’s Road Race took place over 9 laps of a 14 kilometre circuit through the city, starting and finishing on Glasgow Green. The proximity of the long straight stretches of St Vincent Street (on the outward journey to KelvingrovePark and the West End) and West George Street (on the return) meant that we could flit between the two without having to wait long for the caravan to pass. Both roads are also fairly steep – a regular feature of the course – so we had good views of the cyclists on both a demanding incline and a speedy descent. Elsewhere, we also took in the perspectives from the front of Queen Street Station, where the riders emerged from a chicane skirting the church of St George’s Tron, and the pedestrian precinct in Buchanan Street, close to where the much-missed Borders Bookshop used to be.

The anticipation of seeing the riders pass by for the first time brings its own excitement. The preliminary vehicles come through – the race announcer with the Baptist’s promise of the imminent coming, the safety vehicles, the police outriders, the mounted members of the press et al – and then there is the gentle whoosh as the peloton glides by, the softness of the sound brought about by a combination of the wheels on the road and the streamlined passage of the riders through the air in the canyon created by the city-centre office blocks. Then, more tour officials’ cars and police motorcycles and the teams’ support vehicles – Skoda seem to have cornered much of the market – with the spare bikes on the roofs: Denmark, Slovakia, Ireland…

A group of five riders broke away on the second circuit but, by the time of our Buchanan Street viewing on lap five, the young British rider Sophie Wright had established a lead of about 35 seconds over her nearest rival with the main group further behind by over a minute. The game can change quickly, however. By the time we had returned after a quick sandwich in Eat (on the seventh circuit), Wright had been reeled back in and her brave adventure thwarted. The race was won by the Italian, Marta Bastianelli, just ahead of the Dutch World Champion, Marianne Vos.

The Dutch featured prominently at the Velodrome on the Monday evening, winning two of the three gold medals and one of the bronzes up for grabs. We saw the last two (of the four) stages of the gruelling Women’s Omnium event, in which the first two places were contested by the veteran Kirsten Wild and the local favourite, Katie Archibald from Bearsden.

Archibald brought about the loudest roars of the evening when she won the final sprint of the Elimination stage of the Omnium and a couple of the intermediate sprints in the 80-lap (and 20 kilometre) finale to the event, but Wild skilfully tracked her throughout the latter race and ensured that she extended the points lead that she had established in the earlier rounds. The Netherlands national anthem was then repeated as the powerful Jeffrey Hoogland won the final of the Men’s Sprint by defeating the German, Stefan Botticher.

Indoor track cycling has its own captivating – almost mesmeric – qualities as the eye follows the riders around the circuit. It is also no place for the faint-hearted. Three of the Omnium riders took heavy tumbles during the course of the evening (one of them twice), but all got back on the horse and resumed their journeys. I was amazed that there weren’t more crashes, given the speeds being reached and the continual jockeying for position. I thought of a murmuration of starlings soaring and diving: each member in control of her individual space whilst being part of the larger whole.

The spectators in the Velodrome, most of whom were obviously rooting for Archibald, were generous in their support. They acknowledged the courage of the riders who had taken a tumble and, later, dutifully stood (with only one or two exceptions) for the Russian anthem when Maria Shmeleva swept home in the Women’s 500 metre Time Trial.

Of course, the Velodrome audience had – one assumes – chosen to be there. For the Women’s Road Race, the spectators in Glasgow city centre would have comprised cycling enthusiasts, casual observers, Sunday shoppers and the rest. I suspected that most people would have been aware of the event, not least because of the various road closures and access limitations that it had necessitated.

Not everyone, however. As I was leaning on the barrier in Buchanan Street, I was approaching by an elderly man with a wispy beard and a couple of carrier bags.

What’s happening here?” he asked with a quizzical smile.

I explained the event – European Championships, Women’s Road Race, fifth lap, leader coming through soon…

He smiled again.

Oh, that’s good. At least it’s not something political”.

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