Bike racing in the midday sun

The final few days in Delhi were busier than the rest. That’s why I haven’t managed the final blog until the plane home. I’m trying my best to ignore the low-hairlined member of the athletic community in the seat behind who has formed the conviction that the harder she thumps the touch screen entertainment system in the back of my chair, the faster it will work. A month in Delhi seems not to have taught her that nothing in India happens quickly, but it all gets there in the end.

My race, after two weeks of sitting about, was last Wednesday. The air temperature was about 40 degrees. Finding a cool place to put the rollers for a warm up was a challenge. In the end we used the men’s changing room, on the basis it was air conditioned, and hence merely 32 degrees. I’d have used the women’s, which was cooler, except that David Millar and the Scottish delegation had barricaded themselves into it.

The race itself was among the dullest 50 minutes of my life. The sun beat on an empty three-lane highway. There were no spectators after the first few hundred yards, just mile after mile of security fence and soldiers. If you looked up, the road disappeared into a vanishing point just this side of the pollution haze. It seemed best not to look up. Anyway, if you did that, you missed all the entertainment possibilities offered by staring at your handlebars. Next time I’m taking a book.

By ten minutes in, I was hot. By 20 I was hotter, and until then I would have said this wasn’t possible. By 30 minutes I’d formed the paranoid delusion that this ride was just a qualifier, and the finals would be later that afternoon.

But I rode about the right pace, didn’t do anything stupid, kept my temper when someone parked their official car on the racing line at the turn, and oh-so-slowly the time dribbled past. There isn’t much else to say about it. The course was so featureless that my personal 10km-to-go landmark was a funny smell that had been there all week, presumably from a sewer.

I was leading when I finished, but as I suppose I should have expected, I ended up in fourth place, for two Commonwealths in a row. Not good enough for a medal, but good enough to get taken to dope control for the second time in fifteen hours. I was last to leave the venue. When I got out of dope control there were 200 men waiting to dismantle everything and take it away so they could open the road again for the rush hour. I might not have got a medal, but I can be justly proud that my recalcitrant bladder caused one of the biggest traffic jams in Delhi’s history.

(Incidentally, the two Welsh athletes across the aisle of the plane have just decided that what they’re looking forward to most when they get home is, ‘a proper curry, not the shit we had to eat in India.’)

I did finally get out of the Village the night after my race. I might well write a postscript to the Village blog about it sometime in the next few days, because several people have asked me about it. But it doesn’t really feel like it belongs with everything else.

I think that’s because outside the wire, the Commonwealth Games hadn’t taken over everyday Delhi the way it did Manchester or Melbourne. There were a few posters, but that was almost it. There were no souvenir shops, no ticket shops. There were no crowds of tourists who’d come specially, and there were no athletes around. There was no need for the usual uniformed volunteers to look after visitors. There was little sense of a community that felt involved. The Games were almost invisible.

I think it’s fair to say that there are three Games happening at once. There is the event that you see on television – which is the most important product because it’s for the largest number of people. There is the Games that the athletes experience – and bear in mind we number only a few thousand. And there are the Games that the city lives through.

The TV Games were probably very good. I don’t know, because I couldn’t really watch, even if I could get BBC2 on my TV.

The Games experience the athletes had was mixed. The volunteers in the Village were quite exceptionally friendly and enthusiastic, even if dealing with the Village bureaucracy was sometimes wearing. Most of the accommodation was all right, even if it was a bit on the grubby side. (You could ruin a pair of white socks beyond any hope of cleaning on one stocking-footed walk to the bathroom.) One of our balconies didn’t have a wall round it, but they’d replaced it with a bit of cardboard and a small sign saying ‘low wall’, so as long as you didn’t get lost on the way to the bathroom in the night, I guess it was OK.

But the security was overwhelming. Other athlete villages I’ve lived in have involved airport-style security. But this was up a whole level. I’ve had less physically intimate relationships with my underpants that I had with several of the security friskers. The metal detectors were so sensitive that if you got through without a siren going off, you knew you’d forgotten your iron supplement that morning. And if the amount of weaponry on display had been wheeled past the Politbureau as the stood atop Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square, they’d have thought it was a little over the top.

I can only assume that it was all necessary. Even a normal Metro trip in Delhi, or a visit to a decent hotel, involves an x-ray machine. And, apart from one incident where I was marched back to the residential zone at gunpoint, it was all done reasonably courteously.

But the sense of confinement started to spill over at the end. I was in the main dining hall one night at about half eleven, and it had the pent-up atmosphere of a rough pub just before the punches start flying. I had a hasty bowl of Sugar Puffs, and got out before the boxers and the wrestlers threw years of technique training to the winds and started hitting each other over the head with chairs. I’ve never experienced that at another Games. In Manchester and Melbourne, a lot of people didn’t really want to go home. In Delhi, most of the people I spoke to (admittedly mainly UK or Australia-based) weren’t going to be terribly sorry to leave.

I can’t presume to speak for the locals about their Games. All we really saw of them – apart from the volunteers – was their being herded about by the military to ease our passage about the city on our busses. One morning we passed a bus-stop where the dozen people in the queue had been required to crouch down behind the seats in the shelter while two soldiers with guns watched over them. I can’t imagine their feelings towards us were especially warm.

Out on the courses for the time trial and the road race, spectating for non-VIPs was limited to small, brutal-looking pens with high fences. They were in direct sun, and you weren’t permitted to take any water into them for fear you’d throw it at the riders. The riders were sufficiently far away that anyone who could it them with a water bottle should have been down at the stadium chucking stuff for the glory of India. Events like cycling and the marathon are normally the ones that anyone can see for free, and which ought to make the whole city feel involved. Not in Delhi. Watching a bike race in Delhi looked potentially lethal.

Even less would I want to speculate on the cost of the Games. Given some of the poverty on Delhi’s streets, you wonder a bit. But I’m not going to join the patronising westerners declaring that India should have spent its money on something else. It’s a democracy. It’s up to them.

Despite the reservations, you have to say the Games were a success. Down at the closing ceremony, the interminable speeches were triumphant. Indian athletes had won unprecedented numbers of medals, and best of all, no one had been shot.

26 Responses to “Bike racing in the midday sun”

  1. The_Tortoise says:

    Great summary MH. My limited experience of India (from a business visitor point of view) was in many ways similar. Feelings of invisible barriers between the general populous and visitors are indeed ever present. I wonder how this may change over time as India rises up to look Westerners squarely in the eye, instead of from behind a barrier or indeed a sofa!
    Enjoyed all your CG-related blogging, oh yes and well done for getting around the TT without passing out - from heat or boredom….sounded really tough.

  2. tsanko says:

    Wonderful ..thanks a lot for posting a good informitive blog

  3. Rocket Roy says:

    A good well written write up, thanks.

    Pity you couldn’t do the Redmon though…

  4. Simon Coates says:

    I was really disappointed with what I saw of the time trial; I was hoping to see you riding but the cameras focussed on the same riders, over and over again, I didn’t see you at all. Considering you were leading at one point and finished fourth that was pretty poor. I can’t imagine what it was like riding in the conditions, not just 40 deg heat but a completely featureless landscape. I almost nodded off. Anyway, fantastic ride, really disappointed for you to finish just outside the medals.

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