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In praise of looking pro

Trevor Ward
25 Jun 2019

There’s more to it than having matching jersey and bibs

This article was originally published in issue 86 of Cyclist magazine

Words Trevor Ward  Photography Tapestry

As we assembled for the start of the opening stage of the Ride Across Portugal on a narrow bridge just outside the medieval city of Chaves, I found myself being accidentally squeezed towards the front of the peloton.

To my alarm I was suddenly bumping shoulders with the whippet-thin, snake-hipped elite who would be treating the next five days as an actual race while the rest of us more adult-sized participants would be making regular cafe stops for platefuls of pasteis de nata.

Apart from our body shapes, we actually looked pretty much from the same mould, sporting as we were a colourful and stylish ensemble of Lycra, shoes, sunglasses and helmets, and straddling a range of shiny bikes adorned with electronic gadgetry, space-age wheels and sundry other hi-tech paraphernalia.

The detail that separated ‘them’ from ‘us’, however, was of such seemingly inconsequential significance that it would have gone unnoticed by the dozens of spectators who had gathered to wave us off – it was how little these riders appeared to carry in their rear jersey pockets.

My pockets bulged with rain cape, armwarmers, phone, pump, spare tube, tyre levers, sun cream, handkerchief, wallet and a couple of cheese and ham rolls from the breakfast buffet.

As I bent over my handlebars, my lower back looked hideously deformed. Either side of me, the lean, slender torsos of the ‘serious’ riders were untroubled by unsightly lumps and bumps.

If you looked closely, you could detect the ripples of a perfectly folded, wafer-thin gilet, the tapered outlines of a couple of gels and a minor protuberance where their spare tube and levers were neatly bundled together, but that was it.

Nothing else interrupted the perfect symmetry of their upper bodies. Part of me felt sorry for them. After all, we had 170 mountainous kilometres ahead of us, and there was rain forecast for the afternoon.

And then the embarrassing truth dawned on me. I’d packed everything except the kitchen sink because I was expecting to be out on the road for most of the day. The riders either side of me, carrying the bare minimum, were planning on being home, hosed and dried in time for lunch.

They looked utterly, effortlessly, sickeningly ‘pro’ simply by virtue of their confidence and capsule packing techniques.

They would be completing today’s stage at a brisk clip, foregoing the cafe stops and photo opportunities the rest of us were relishing, so they didn’t need to pack their pockets with emergency accoutrements and supplies.

Looks are deceiving

Many people make the mistake of assuming ‘looking pro’ is all about what you wear, or the bike you ride. It most certainly isn’t.

Chris Froome wears custom-tailored Team Sky kit and rides a £12,000 Pinarello, yet I would dare to suggest looks about as professional on a bike as my Auntie Agnes, who has arthritis and a replacement hip.

‘Looking pro’ is less about the cosmetic, superficial details of the kit you’re wearing or riding, and more about a general demeanour that extends from what you pack in your jersey pockets to how you comport yourself on the terraces of cafes.

Yes, details like sock, sleeve and shorts length, wearing your sunglasses outside your helmet straps and regularly shaving your legs are aesthetically important, but the essence of looking pro goes much deeper than these superficial fripperies.

Looking pro means feeling pro. You have to reach a state of enlightenment that comes from if not actually earning a living riding your bike then at least a happiness in doing so.

Riding a bike on Britain’s roads may not seem like an obvious route to Zen-like contentment, but if the pleasure you get from it has reached a point where you no longer worry about wearing ‘the right kit’, you’re not judgemental of other riders who choose to wear hi-viz or eschew helmets, and if you’ve stopped tearing your hair out and kicking the cat when your Garmin fails to log your ride, you’re already halfway to ‘looking pro’.

Other clues you have arrived at this transcendental state are when you reach the top of a climb and take photographs of the view rather than your bike propped up against a sign showing the altitude; when you attend a pro race and are more interested in the riders rather than the bikes they are riding; when you accumulate more cafes than KoMs during a long day on the bike.

Further signs that you have reached a state of being pro, rather than merely looking it, include: being inclined to use vowels, words and complete sentences rather than fist or bicep emojis when you comment about a friend’s ride on social media; preferring to watch A Sunday In Hell rather than live coverage of a flat stage of the Tour; being happy to bring up the rear of a club run and keep an eye on any newbies or juniors; showering, eating and spending some family time before uploading your ride to Strava.

Yet more important than any of that is one key quality that separates those ‘being pro’ from those ‘pretending to be pro’: impeccable bike-handling skills. This doesn’t mean you have to be able to bunny hop over a Fiat 500, but you should be able to ride competently and courteously among a pack of other riders.

This is one attribute of a pro rider we should all aspire to. Yes, the pockets thing is important – in hindsight I probably didn’t need two cheese and ham rolls for that first stage of the Ride Across Portugal – but so is the attitude.

We can all look pro if we put our minds to it.

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