Charlotte Smith, a lecturer at ULSB and world class cyclist, discusses the tensions between amateurism and commercialism in the world of international cycling.
On the 27th of August I rode for Great Britain Masters at the Gran Fondo World Championships in Albi, France. I’ve competed in various sports all my life and have often dreamed that I might represent my country one day. So when I qualified as a cyclist at a fast ride in June I was elated even though I am primarily a long-distance triathlete. The race soon came around and as I sat in departures at Gatwick and the British camaraderie grew exponentially, with blue, red and white kit donned everywhere, my excitement was only just about containable. Cycling is known for its spectacles and Grand Tours (e.g, Tour De France) and this event which is also organized by the Union Cycliste Internationale was hopefully going to be one of them. The series even has its own sports marketing agency.
As I arrived in France I was starting to feel a little torn though. I was still ‘living the dream’, but at the same time the whole thing was starting to epitomise what most of us academics detest about corporate branding: lots of shiny logos and expensive items with the consumer being inordinately out of pocket. This race had already cost a small fortune too. Some mandatory purchases I had to make included: £200 for compulsory British Kit, a €90 race fee and £40 for a GP medical certificate declaring I was fit. This was before the flights and accommodation which had evidently been increased threefold, it being an August bank holiday.
I am an amateur and despite probably being good enough and often needing it, I have not applied for the growing commercial sponsorship programmes on offer. These require further commitment from an already time stretched amateur such as twice weekly reporting and physical presence at many exhibitions. As I continued my transfer, something else was also bothering my obsessive cyclist self. Race day would only be 59 miles (plus 10 warming up), all over in about 3 brief hours. It would be a very hard effort, but it would fall significantly short of the 100 miles that I ride most Sundays. Nor was it the distance I should be riding for the solo 24-hour bike race I will be doing on the 16-17th September.
I couldn’t help but wonder if I had myself available at UCI’s convenience, paid a large sum of money for a short-glorified bike ride, albeit on perfect roads, but one that didn’t fit my race schedule. I understood my participation meant nothing to this organization, my place could have very easily been ‘rolled down’ to the next qualifier. As I walked around the event village and Albi town before race day, amidst the ‘Festival of events’ put on and hundreds of other pasta seeking cyclists, I was enjoying myself but was still hoping I hadn’t paid for some pleasurable but very expensive miles come Sunday morning.
And then Sunday came, I’m an athlete, racing makes me ‘tick’. This was a different type of race excitement though. I was riding for my country. As I pinned my race numbers on my GB jersey, I realised I had to accept this meant a lot to me and in this moment I needed to forget about the assumptions deriving from being a critical academic.
The race didn’t go exactly to plan but I finished and have a world ranking of 46th. I’ve written and blogged elsewhere about ‘what happened’ but it was very hot, fast and I was in a bit of pain. The result though in no way detracted from the special occasion. I am glad that I gave myself those moments of pride, glory and euphoria of riding for my country. Those who I know who would have given everything to go, those who couldn’t afford to, all of us who have sacrificed sleep for training before and after a day’s work. I was reminded of this by the constant roars: ‘Go on GB’, ‘Allez allez allez GB’ from the multi-national spectators lacing the roadsides. They didn’t know me but evidently appreciated what I was fortunate enough to be doing.
Some might that say the amateurs are the true heroes. We don’t have the resources or many helping hands to deal with the laborious work and organization that goes into being an athlete, but instead a huge amount of passion. I’m not comfortable with the commercialisation of sport, despite having an Ironman M-Dot Tattoo branded on my wrist, holding a Bronze Ironman All World Athlete status for 2017 and owning several very expensive bikes. So I suppose I had embraced commercialism, with the compelling performative promises of kit, a beautiful setting and potentially ‘the best race ever’. This turned out to be a small but very meaningful return on investment. So much so that my application for 2018 qualification in Italy is already in.