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Cycling is a sport for romantics. Its legends are created through suffering on a heroic level. And whenever you ride a bike you can understand that suffering. Everything important in cycling has a mythology. Just think of the Koppenberg in Flanders, or the Forest of Arenberg cobblestones. And over the years we build our own personal cycling mythology, a kind of memory bank containing the images that are important to us—epic rides, races won or lost, roads that have punished us. I’ve been hopelessly in love with this sport for more than three decades and, yes, I have just such a gallery of images in my head. Rich, engaging, encouraging—it’s my history on a bike. It comes with me on every ride.
If pushed, all of these images could be pinned to a time and a place. Except one. One image is a mystery to me. And yet it’s also extremely important. It pops up in my mind when I’m having breakfast before a long ride, when I’m filling my jersey pockets, or when I’m spinning away into an early-morning chill.
Here’s the image: a lonely wooden shack, high in the Catskills; mist swirling through the treetops; a man sitting on his porch eating a bowl of Grape-Nuts. The man is lean and tanned, dressed in plain black shorts and white jersey. A shining titanium bike stands next to him. His mind is clear. He can see what is ahead of him. It’s a thousand-yard stare at a hundred miles of open road. For the next five hours he will be alone in the landscape. Just like yesterday. Just like tomorrow. I do not know his name. I think of him simply as the Grape-Nuts man.
Where did this picture come from? And why has it stayed with me?
I fell in love with cycling at age 10. It came from nowhere. Like any other kid I charged around the neighborhood on my bike, and later I enjoyed riding into England’s Oxfordshire countryside with my father. How that turned into a love of professional road racing is a mystery but my infatuation certainly ran deep. I won my first race—a cyclocross around a farmyard—at age 11. Soon I was clocking up 60 or 70 miles on a Sunday morning. And when I wasn’t riding my bike, I was absorbing every book, magazine and video (it was a long time ago!) that I could lay my hands on. The most exotic pieces of literature were the American magazines. I remember Bicycling and Winning, but no doubt there were others. I pored over every page. Compared to the British magazines with their grainy black and white pictures of mud-caked Belgians sprinting into yet another unpronounceable Flemish town, these American counterparts were a blast of fresh air. The ads—as I remember them anyway—all seemed to feature a strip of sun-glistened tarmac, with a single central yellow line curving away through the redwoods. They held the promise of sunny days, smooth riding and empty roads. A true California nirvana. The feature stories too were suffused with a pioneering spirit. This was adventure, but with a European road racing sensibility. Jack Kerouac on a Pinarello.
The image of the Grape-Nuts man came from one of these magazines. There was a story behind that opening image. It went something like this. Every day this man trains in the mountains. Long, hard rides on his pristine titanium machine. Always alone. In the afternoons he rests. He might go out to his workshop, where resides a fleet of perfectly maintained road bikes. Arranged neatly around the workshop are his spares. A shelf of Campagnolo derailleurs. A rack of lightweight Mavic wheels. A box of Christophe toe clips with oxblood-leather straps. Around the walls hang his tools, one for every conceivable job, and all gleaming, all in the correct place. Needless to say his kit is spotless and his diet strict.
He is the epitome of a professional cyclist. And yet he is not a professional. He rarely leaves his mountain refuge. Three or four times a year he loads up his car and drives to a local road race, where naturally he rides away from the competition. Before the victory ceremony he packs up and disappears. The organizers are used to it. He is such an enigma that he has become famous among local cyclists. His appearance at an event is an endorsement of its qualities. It’s been said that some of the tougher road races have been created just to tempt him out of the woods, like a trail of food laid for a brown bear. Across America, there are elite racers and team managers who remember the period when he dominated the country’s biggest events. Some of them knew him personally. No one knows the reason for his self-imposed exile. The cycling media have given up trying to find him. His peers don’t often talk about him, but when they do it’s with a hushed awe and more than a little fear. What if he makes his comeback? What scrappy prizes will be left for everyone else if he re-emerges? For now they are safe. The Grape-Nuts man is still training. Still a recluse. And yet every time they arrive at a bike race and see a car carrying a single titanium bike, a pang of anxiety twists at their guts.
This is the myth that has fueled my riding for 30 years. Every time I swing my leg over the saddle I imagine myself as the Grape-Nuts man. Hard, solitary, ascetic. Of course I’m none of those things, and perhaps that’s the key to it all. This image is the touchstone of my personal mythology about cycling because it expresses the kind of cyclist I’d love to be.
Reflecting on this one July morning as I battled through chaotic South London traffic on my daily commute, I decided I had to track him down. In these days of big data and instant communication, how hard would it be?
I started by calling one of the magazines still in circulation. Yes, we do have an archive, said the customer service representative. Then the conversation began to stumble. Do you know which issue you’re looking for? I hesitated. No, I don’t know which issue, I told her, nor which year. There was a short but meaningful pause at the other end. Do you know the title of the article, or the writer? I might be able to search on one of those. I didn’t. I knew nothing about the article, only an image. I could only imagine what she might say to her colleagues after the conversation ended. You’ll never guess what this guy was just asking….
Next I took to my computer. But I soon found that magazines published before the Internet have no digital footprint. My various searches, discussions on forums, following of links down strange Internet alleys, bore no helpful results.
The only way I was going to find the story was by finding the physical magazine that carried it. And because I didn’t know which edition I was looking for, the only way of finding that physical magazine would be to trawl through a collection. There had to be a library somewhere in North America that had copies of cycling magazines going back to the 1980s. After all, isn’t that a fundamental principle of libraries—to safeguard history for future generations? If I could find the library with the biggest collection of cycling magazines, I could book a flight and a cheap hotel and maybe, just maybe, I could pull the needle from the haystack. Having found a suitable flight the only thing left to do was to tell my wife. That could wait till the morning.
The next day I went for a ride. And as I pedaled alone through the quiet lanes of Kent, through apple orchards ready for harvest, I realized just how preposterous my plan was. The chances of finding the article were incredibly slim. And even if I did find it, wasn’t I setting myself up for disappointment? The reality would probably be a lot more mundane than my imagined version.
So the Grape-Nuts man remains a figment of my imagination, and I think it’s better that way. Does it really matter where our personal mythologies come from? Whatever image you need—to keep going on a tough climb, to pull on your kit on a wintry day—embrace it. Don’t question it. The power of imagination is a wonderful thing. Grape-Nuts man, I’m grateful to you. You’re with me on every ride, just out of sight.
From issue 36. Buy it here.