The year I turned pro, I promised myself I would never do it. It wasn’t an option during my amateur days. In fact, it was something that was strongly frowned upon.
However, I began to realise that it was more common in the peloton than I’d expected. After four years as a pro, I have come to the conclusion that at least 90 per cent of the bunch is actually doing it. Yet nobody is confronting this growing culture that I’d distanced myself so vigorously from as an up-and-coming rider.
In a way, I understand their choice. It helps with performance and riders are getting away with it unnoticed.
Insecurity and peer pressure started to affect my morale. What was I to do? Refuse to give in, only to expose myself as one of those stubborn, principled neo-pros?
I wanted to stay true to myself yet I couldn’t ignore the obvious performance benefits it would give. So I cracked and decided to give it a go.
Suddenly I was just like all the others. I must admit it felt good and a little strange at first. I would get it ready the night before a race and decide in the morning whether or not it was the right decision.
What would I say if people noticed? I didn’t care. Most riders do it, so why shouldn’t I? Besides it seemed to be going undetected and everyone certainly seemed to be going very fast because of it.
So I’ve got to be honest: racing in a skinsuit is just better, period.
Yes, doping is out and skinsuits are in. Maybe that’s what the anonymous pro was trying to tell CIRC, but they just couldn’t understand him? It’s certainly the reality that I’ve experienced these last four years as part of the new era of pro cycling, witnessing everything from the inside.
However, it’s unfortunate for those whose only association with cycling is via the media. They – no offence, Rouleur guys – seem to cling to the past as if it was their own youth.
Maybe a new joint media rule should be introduced by the UCI, similar to what is being done to tree planting in the rainforest. For every story written about the past, two new positive stories should be written about the actual, current situation of pro cycling. Heck, they can start by reading my blogs.
I’ll save the “what do I make of the doping past” for another day, but the issue of rampant skinsuit use is too serious to ignore.
It comes down to vanity. All professional cyclists are vain. Put a CCTV camera in any team hotel elevator and you’ll quickly realise that it’s the riders, not the podium girls, who spend most time looking at their hair. I’m surprised, and slightly disappointed, that I haven’t had any of them chasing me due to my latest hairstyle.
Don’t tell me sideburns and beards have suddenly appeared in such great numbers due to laziness? (I’ve tried growing both, but facial hair doesn’t come easy to me.) And did I hear that Thomas Voeckler douses himself in cologne before a race?
Riding a bike also involves looking good on a bike. I’m not saying it determines a good rider, but it plays an important role. We all like watching a great star who looks the part too: a world champ with black shorts will always be a cool world champ.
So, where does it all begin? Easy: the legs, a bike rider’s most valuable asset.
Shaved pins don’t always make you fit in with the rest of the crowd. I spent my first three years of secondary school in Ireland at St. Andrew’s College, a school with a very proud rugby tradition.
Me, I chose hockey, an obvious choice as I was known as ‘the bike rider’. “Do you cycle? Like in spandex and shave your legs?” This was the standard question asked mostly by thick-necked, creatine-overdosing backs. I felt sorrier for my brother. He played badminton: he once admitted to hiding his racquet in his trouser and walking to school every Wednesday with a limp.
There is always that period in a young rider’s life where you have to make a choice: do I shave my legs or not?
If only I had more confidence in what I was doing, I could have used it to my advantage. Instead of bragging about how many hockey goals I’d scored (hardly any, ever), I could have established a bond with the girls. “So Eve, do you also use the Venus razor? I find they give the smoothest results.”
But unfortunately this was not the case. To this day, I still struggle at the supermarket check-out as I desperately try to hide my pack of women’s shavers amongst my groceries, only to blush and mumble something like “they are for my girlfriend.” Pathetic, I know.
Shaved legs are better. It’s not because of the massage benefit or a lower risk of infection in the event of a crash; hairy ones are just lousy excuses that I’ve finally grown out of. A fresh pair of cycling socks on a tanned, muscled calf puts the fear of god into any opponent.
Then there’s socks: such an insignificant piece of clothing and yet so important to any cyclist’s morale. If I’m facing a rough morning with many intervals on the programme, I know that putting on a crisp pair will automatically give me lactate-free legs.
Every year I receive around 50 pairs from the team. Lucky, I know, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to give them away. For some reason giving away a jersey doesn’t affect me the same way. But when someone asks “Hey Chris, is it ok if I take a pair of your socks, you’ve got loads of them?” I’m always like ‘woah, slow down.’ You can take a jersey but don’t touch the socks. I never know how many clean pairs I’m going to use in a season.
One thing is for sure: starting a race in dirty socks is a no-go, similar to having them down by the ankles or up by the knees. They’ve got to sit just right, complimenting the leg in the ideal fashion. Don’t judge me, I’m not the only one who thinks that.
Then the shorts. It pains me when I look down and notice that I’ve put on a pair of rain-worn ones. It’s ironic, considering the fact that the majority of my casual, off-the-bike clothing has stains – I just have to look at my white t-shirt and it gets dirty.
But my race clothing must be clean. Fluorescent yellow is our team colour this year, so being environmentally friendly has gone out the window (sorry Greenpeace) as my Oxi Crystal Vanish consumption has skyrocketed.
There are many unwritten dos and don’ts within the peloton when it comes to style. Wearing arm-warmers is okay, but it’s terrible to just have leg warmers, a bit like riding with a Zipp 808 on the front and a 202 on the back. Don’t do it.
Then there are those things that look a bit silly but feel good. Toe warmers, for example, may give you duck feet but your feet can’t live without them on a rainy day.
Depending on nationality, certain countries seem to have their own peculiar styles. Italians have the man purse, a small bag slung over the shoulder that hangs by the waist and tight-fitting tracksuit pants. (I admit to having experimented with both during my first year as a pro: what can I say, I was young and naïve.) The Dutch riders tend to overdose on brylcreem, a temptation I occasionally succumb to as my hair becomes increasingly uncontrollable. And last but not least, the French who, for some reason, have a fetish for tattoos on their calves. l’ll never fall for that one, promise.
In order to perform, I rely on my legs to be as well recovered as possible. Although I refuse to live by the slightly old school rule that a rider should eat, train and then do nothing until bed time, mainly because I find that extremely boring, I still have my preferred routines.
I constantly find myself in a position where my legs are above all other body parts. Pre-race lying in bed: legs in the air. In the bus after a stage: legs in the air. Waiting at an airport: legs in the air. I remember one of my first races as a senior. An older team-mate passed my room whilst I had my legs pointing to the sky. “What are you doing, you amateur? You look like an idiot!” he told me, only to continue along the corridor in orange compression socks and yellow Crocs. Every man to himself.
I can’t finish this piece without mentioning compression socks, which sit so tight that if I’m not cramping in my arms trying to force them on, I’m punching myself in the face because of the effort. But they work.
So you see, at the end of the day it’s all about trying to look good, but also accepting that while some things won’t, they just feel right! I’m as guilty as the next guy.
Admit it, so are you. Don’t tell me that you can go for a ride without checking out your own reflection in every shop window? I do it all the time…
This article was originally published in April 2015.