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Nowhere to Nowhere
To accompany Andrew Telling’s new film documenting Rapha-Condor-JLT at the Tour Series, Tom Southam explains the synergy between travelling bike racers and nomadic band members.
Stood at the back of a gig a few years ago, shifting my weight from leg to leg (as all cyclists do when they are forced to stand for more than five minutes), I exclaimed to a friend I was watching the show with, ‘What I wouldn’t give to do that for a job…’ My friend, who was working at the Post Office, looked back and said – ‘but this is what you do. You get to do your thing in front of crowds of people for a living, what’s the difference?’
At the time I regarded his comment with contempt. What we were watching was rock n’ roll, it was exciting, it moved people; the crowd adored the guys up on stage. What I did was sport, and sport was made up of plain old hard work, a nagging fear of failure set against the backdrop of competition and endless travelling. Being a cyclist, I thought, could never take me anywhere near what I was seeing on stage.
I thought that life couldn’t get much better than being in a band on tour, being in that limbo that Bob Dylan once described as being like “going from nowhere to nowhere”, and that in turn surely couldn’t get much further away from a life as a professional athlete, could it?
I thought about it though, imagining the band walking off stage, exhausted, elated, their sweaty faces wiped clean on the fresh towels laid waiting for them on their chairs. Their dressing room full of people buzzing around, congratulating them on a good show, bringing food and drinks, whilst the cheers and the applause rang out. Then drinking cold beers before making their way to through a few assembled fans and signing some autographs on their way to the tour bus, to get on the road once again. When I thought about it like this, I soon started to see similarities between both worlds.
Many people dream of being a rock star, and how it will feel to be in those amazing moments on a stage. But I supposed, when you actually do these things the carousel of life isn’t only about these moments but instead is made up mostly of the time in-between. For a performer the show - much like a bike race - is the final product. Two hours on stage still leaves twenty-two hours of day to fill with all of the rest of the things that have to happen to make that show possible: eating, travelling, sleeping, and rehearsing. The awkward gaps, and the long weary silences listening to the hum of a van engine and the empty quiet found lying on a bed in a hotel room midway through the afternoon.
In 2004 Cornish band Thirteen Senses released their first album on a major label Mercury Records, and began touring at a national level. At the time I was still racing myself, and I remember looking across at the four guys in that band and, despite the fact we came from the same place, believing that we lived in worlds as far apart as I could imagine. A life in cycling was sacrifice, dedication, early nights and a youth spent missing out on all the fun. A life in music seemed like all that glory and the freedom to do whatever you wanted.
When I spoke to Thirteen Senses’s guitarist Tom Welham, it’s clear that being a musician on the road is probably the only lifestyle to compare to that of a Tour Series rider. As Tom explained, gigging at a national level, just like the Tour Series, is as much about logistics as anything else. The show moves from city to city, and the cast has to make their way there too. Just like being in a band, in a cycling team, speeding along motorways after dark and budget hotel chains become the backdrop for a life on the road.
“Most of the tours we headlined and supported were around the 20-date mark spanning a period of about a month. We did bus tours. It’s the sort of touring intermediate level bands do. We had beds on the buses and we’d leave after the show to drive to the next destination.”
Most bike racers are never faced with sleeping overnight in a vehicle, but the travelling and routine is much the same. The nights on the Tour Series are late, as riders try to get as close as possible to the next venue, where they check in and rest until the next performance. The Tour Series too is a merry-go-round that some riders just don’t want to get off.
In the 2013 series, Felix English didn’t return home once, despite several rounds within one hour of his home in Brighton. Falling out of the groove it seems was a very real fear for some riders. Tom Welham tells a similar story.
“We'd never really headed home during a tour and I never liked to when we could. It always felt weird, as you're in the house from midnight until 9am or so the following morning. I always felt you got out of the swing of things going home.”
It’s right there in these uniformly soulless hotel rooms that both types of performer share another similar challenge once they’ve arrived and the clock has begun to tick down to the next performance: waiting.
In these places time can seem to stop being linear, seeming instead to expand and contract depending on proximity to the next performance. The hours are also distorted by the concentration that it takes to be able to perform at one’s best night after night. In between events the world soon becomes a blur, as the focus consumes the performer. In these hours they might do their best to forget, but for musicians and cyclists alike the anxiety of performance bites at the nails of relaxation.
“I always tried to distract myself, but the show is always in the back (if not the front) of your mind. In me it always manifested itself as butterflies and nerves, all day, literally from the moment I woke up, and it’d just get stronger and stronger.”
It is that same quest for perfection that is found in riders who endlessly analyse their performance in between races. Finding ways to relax becomes hard; there is an undeniable unease for anyone in this situation, away from home with a job to do. To tour is to travel, and to wait…
It is not just before the events but also immediately afterwards where, like a receding tide, time draws back out again, and removes the performer from the rest of the world. During the event the audience on the other side of the barrier can carry a song, and a crowd can make a bike race. When they go though, their absence can be deafening.
“It was always difficult to come down after a show, particularly a headlining show. Being under such scrutiny from an audience is such an intense thing, and a real adrenaline rush. I'd never feel ready to sleep before 3am on the nights we'd play. Even at that time I would often be in bed with my head still spinning, thinking over everything that had happened, and thinking about how we performed that evening.”
The Tour Series is a big show, it’s city centre locations and unique format make it so. Rock and roll bands might ‘stop the traffic’, but a bike race closes down the whole town, sets up huge speakers, and erects its own village. For bike riders more used to being left to do their thing in the quiet of the country, the showbiz touches are bizarre and good fun. The show itself takes an athlete as close as they can get to being a rock star with the dancing girls and bright lights.
But the real similarities go further than the boredom and discomfort of life on the road, or the glamour of the show. It makes me realise my friend at that gig was indeed right.
A cycling team at the Tour Series, like a band on tour, becomes a close-knit group of friends, who manage to fulfil their dreams through hard work, sacrifice and motorway service station sandwiches.
A group of brothers who, just for a few hours each night, get to do ‘their thing’ to the very best of their ability, in a bid not only to win, but to entertain. The universal truth is of course is that there isn’t a person there who would change that.
“At the age we did it, 20-26ish, it was just a dream… the thrill of playing and seeing an audience’s response, to the elation after coming off stage after a good gig. All that followed by the camaraderie and banter of having your mates there… It was brilliant.”
Thanks to Tom Welham
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