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Introduction to the World of an Average Bike Rider

While I have not done a whole lot of bike-racing in the great scheme of things I am very au-fait with the sport. This is largely thanks to the heroics of an Irishman called Charlie Haughey who managed to stand atop the podium of the Tour de France in Paris back in 1987. I in fact saw nothing of this epic Tour de France but for the ceremonial parade down the Champs Elysees on its final day. Thus, my close study of the sport really began back in 1988. I am no anorak by any means but I do know my cycling post '88. For various reasons I didn't get more intimate with bike-racing until I transitioned from triathlon into cycling in 2006. I had planned on using the bike-racing season as a warm-up for the triathlon season only to realise that triathlon is the biggest load of pants and that at last I had found MY sport. I loved the adrenaline of it all it but my 2006 season was cut horribly short when I was in the best form of my life. I suffered the worst nightmare of every endurance athlete; glandular fever (mono-nucleosis). It would persist leading me to abort a come-back in both 2007 and 2008. My long-awaited return to full health happened in 2009, although my season was tame due to the absence of a proper winter. Of course, I then idiotically disappeared to tour around the world on an expedition mountain-bike thereby skipping the 2010 season. I returned at the end of February just in time for the start of this season.

I will never be able to compute the merits or faults of last year's adventures in terms of race preparation, meaning this season was always going to be a mystery. Needless to say, I will likely be a better or lesser shade of mediocre. However, the fact that I am nothing but an average rider often escapes me. It only ever seems obvious after the brouhaha of a race. Indeed, my ability to con myself into thinking that I can put myself in a position to contend for a high placing in a top race is fairly impressive. It is this kind of delusional thought that allows me to get excited about every race I do even if I rarely feature. Indeed, such conceit is common to all average cyclists as it is a sport where the strongest doesn't necessarily always prevail (even if he does a lot of the time). That there is a chance for an outsider to benefit from a lapse of concentration, a lack of route-intell or a moment of bad luck by the contenders gives us average riders a chance. We try to wriggle free or hang-on as the the strong-men delay and keep tabs on each other thereby granting us a stay of execution. On any given day the favourites might just make the error for a change giving the average rider his shot at victory ... or so the dream goes. This microscopic seed of hope that sits in the back of every average racing cyclist's brain is the only way to justify the amount of physical and mental energy, not to mention money, that we expend on this sport.

It is not every sport where fortune can favour the brave. Herein lies the average racing cyclist's conundrum. If one attacks, one risks blowing the lights out and then looking like an idiot as the strong-men and the cowardly cyclists that follow in their wheels swallow you up and then spit you out the back. As you gasp they chortle at your foolhardiness. If one follows in the wheels, one suffers less and experiences no ignominy. Thus, an average cyclist is always calculating the value of his anonymity. This, is in addition to all the standard calculations he has to compute during a race. How much energy do I have, how good are my legs, what way is the wind blowing, how long is this climb, how far to the group up the road, how many strong-men are here, who here will do the work for me, what is the right position to be in, who is the best wheel to follow for the selection, when will the selection happen, do I really have to attack now, how long until the finish ... oh dear God, how long until the finish? The better the rider the less he has to calculate as he can make up for a moment of poor mental arithmetic with excellent physical prowess. However, for the average rider the game is pure suffering one way or another. You need all your smarts not to miss a key moment and then, when that moment comes all the calculations happen at once. Before you know it you are suffering on your limit drilling home the advantage in a break and hi-fiving it. Or else, you are suffering in pure mental anguish as the break of the day disappears up the road with the lead-car leaving you feeling stupid and in a stressful huff in the bunch of riders behind. Worst case scenario, you miss the key break and in your frustration you panic and try to jump across in a small group only to spend an eternity in no-mans land neither getting the thrill of being at the head of the race nor relaxing in the wind-shadow of the bunch further back. It is all lunacy but no matter where you place behind the winner there are always plenty of hours (yes, hours!) during the race to justify your losing position at the finish. We average riders have an unbelievable knack of calculating everything to a tee except for the one thing that allowed the winner to break free. Excuses are too numerous to mention; I was boxed-in, I was marking the other race-favourite, I was reaching for my water-bottle, I had just done a big pull on the front, that was the one break I didn't follow, I was getting bottles from the team-car, I thought it was too early, I didn't see him attack, he was always too strong etc. Every average rider has heard all these excuses but we've all used them too.

Even in victory there is little cause for celebration as success in the sport is fleeting. The jealousy of the average rider as he watches the victor collect his prize runs very deep and such is our collective contempt that we vow never to let it happen again. Inevitably it doesn't as we mark the hell out of him at the next race and our intense focus on last week's winner allows somebody else to sneak away to victory this time. Few sports are as democratic as cycling.

One thing is for certain, the mental and physical anguish involved in this sport is beyond belief and can only be fathomed by those who actually know the smell of burning rubber as the bunch breaks hard into yet another jammy corner. It is impossible to explain bike-racing to a regular person. The amount of stress, suffering and calculation of tactics is incomprehensible. I can't think of any other sport where it is fun to get your head totally kicked in one day only to get up and do it all over again the next day ... and the day after. The only way I can attempt to explain it is that the sport can make you feel alive inside. I can experience the full gamut of emotions, while riding in the full gamut of weather conditions, while riding over the full gamut of geographical terrain. A race is literally choc-a-bloc with highs and lows. And all this in the space of a few adrenaline-filled hours as I start with a full-tank of gas and optimism and finish with nothing but depleted blood sugars and bitterness. There is so much stimulation to process that I have to take leave of my normal persona for a few hours as I rely purely on instinct to get me through. It's a funny feeling having to switch off to absolutely everything else in life just to switch on to racing, but such is the focus and concentration this sport requires.

The odds are that I will win ... some day, but like a game of poker you have to keep playing for the odds eventually to come around in your favour. It is this delusional thought that cycling is a game of chance that allows me to justify my humble and very average existence in this brutal sport.

My name is Mark Gill and I have a gambling addiction.

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