Nowhere to Nowhere - 28/06/13

Nowhere to Nowhere

A film by Andrew Telling, words by Tom Southam

Stood around at the back of a rock gig a few years ago, shifting my weight from leg to leg (as all cyclists do when they are forced to stand up for more than five minutes at a time), I exclaimed to a friend that I was watching the show with, ‘This is so cool, 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, during the show, and afterwards I imagined 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 going on the road once again. When I thought about it like this, I soon started to see the similarities…

Many people dream of being a rock star, and how it will feel to be in those amazing moments, when the crowd is calling your name and it feels like the world gets to take a glimpse at you at your very best. 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 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 mid way through the afternoon.

In 2004 Cornish band Thirteen Senses released their first album on 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 the glory, but all the freedom to do whatever you wanted too.

Now though, when I talk to the band’s guitarist Tom Welham, and I think about what it is like to be a rider in the Tour Series, being a rock star is probably the only lifestyle I can think to compare it to.

As Tom explained a tour for a band 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, late night drives in speeding team vehicles and budget hotel chains becomes 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.”

Bike riders 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 to a mid-priced hotel chain to rest until the next performance.

“On a bus tour you’d stay in Premier Inn sort of places, with the occasional treat of a posh hotel on days off.”

There are plenty of bad songs about rock stars finding themselves in these situations – isolated in a hotel room, talking to a spurned lover on their mobile phone. It becomes a cycle of nothing, but a cycle that the performers in a strange way find that they need. 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 of the Tour Series 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. Each night the main event shoots on by and time slips away towards the next show from the moment that the previous one finishes.

It is not that the highs of performance are only undercut with the isolation of the road; the hours are also distorted by the concentration that it takes to be able to perform at ones best night after night. In hotels between events the world soon becomes a blur, as the focus it takes 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. There are usually things about the show you want to tweak for the coming evening, either set-list, lighting, how you enter the stage, encores, gaps between songs etc.”

It is that exact same quest for perfection that is found in the riders who endlessly analyse their performance in the time between races; what went wrong, what went right. How to change to be more successful on another night; the desire to not only to perform at ones best but to keep on improving that consumes riders 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…

“Sometimes we’d have a couple of hours wander around in an afternoon, then time for a shower, and often just lying in the bunks. There was also lots of ‘Fifa’ and ‘Pro-Evo’ played on the consoles, or an afternoon film on a darkened bus.

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 when they are on one side of the barrier and the audience on the other, they are at least working together in some way; an audience 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 show, its crowd-pleasing city centre locations, and unique format make it so. Rock and roll might ‘stop the traffic’, but a bike race closes down the whole city centre, 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 both bazaar, and quite a lot of fun. On the outside it is this moment that takes close as an athlete can get to be a rock star, glitz, glamour, dancing girls, and bright lights.

But the real similarities go so much further than the boredom and discomfort of life on the road, or the glamour of the show and it makes me think that my friend at that gig all that time ago was indeed quite right.

A cycling team at the Tour Series, like a band on tour, becomes close-nit group of friends, who manage to fulfill their dreams through hard work, sacrifice, motorway service station sandwiches, and 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 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.”

With special thanks to Campagnolo and Muc-Off for their involvement in the making of the film