There is no way to sugar coat things. No amount of carbon paste or WD-40 can ease the friction points. It takes a special type of person to live with a cyclist. For if ever there was a pastime perfectly calibrated to place undue pressure on the foundations of a relationship, cycling is most surely it. Time. Money. Social life. Diet. Holidays. Sleeping habits. They represent some of the most sacred building blocks of any relationship. And each can be tested to their anaerobic outer limits by sharing your life with a dedicated cyclist.
None of this is to suggest cyclists aren’t capable of enjoying long and happy marriages, mind you. I know of at least one. But given the often extreme levels of commitment our beloved cycling requires of us, even as a largely social rider, it does necessitate a deeply understanding and autonomous partner. Of course there are those who argue that it is precisely because of the frequent and extended separations that many unions manage to last so long.
You don’t need Dr Ruth to know the dynamics of every cycling-affected relationship are as different as the individuals within it. Finding the right approach is inevitably a matter of trial and error. And, yes, at times it may involve lots of shouting and even throwing stuff; just hopefully not the bike itself as the repair costs may lead to even further recriminations for all concerned.
The way I see things, there are two types of cycling partners out there. The first are those who know full well what they’re getting into before crossing the point of no return, be it marriage or a less formal but equally permanent living arrangement. Their beloved was openly afflicted with the cycling bug well prior to their domestic union. In other words, they knew the score and rolled the dice anyway, perhaps naively thinking they could change their man or woman’s cycling ways after the event. As a strong believer in the principles of buyer beware, for these folks I have little sympathy. There’s a greater chance of convincing a 70-year old Colnago loyalist to straddle a Giant TCR at L’Eroica than getting a committed cyclist to roll back his or her passion for the bike. Career-threatening accidents aside, it just doesn’t happen. Once a cyclist, always a cyclist.
There is another group, however, worthy of far more sympathy and understanding. Those poor folks whose once ever-present and devoted partner somehow discovered the way of the bike long after their loving bond had been forged, and promptly metamorphosed into an obsessive cyclist who disappears for hours on end to sit at close quarters behind the heaving hindquarters of fellow afflicted souls, before consuming large quantities of caffeine to replace the fluids lost in sweat along the way, only to re-emerge at home some time later completely tuckered out and ready for a nap.
Yes, we all change over the years; the result of our life experiences, good and bad. But when carbon paraphernalia and tight-fitting clothes are involved, the changes can often be incredibly swift and exponential. The sudden appearance of a bicycle in one’s relationship should be cause for urgent alarm bells. It could well mean the smooth-talking person you hooked up with in that nightclub ten years previously may soon become a very different life companion indeed, steering you both toward a type of abrasiveness that cannot be eased with a liberal dollop of chamois crème at 5am.
Bank accounts that were once flush with funds for holidays or a rainy day are suddenly noticeably barren, as are storage options in and around the house. Without warning every nook and cranny in the family home becomes filled with bikes, bits of bikes and bits of bits of bikes. Free time on weekends is likely to become a distant memory, as are late-night bedtimes, especially on weekends when there’s pre-dawn riding to be done the following morning. The menu is likely to undergo significant revision too as carb loading and protein replacement becomes the order of the day, pretty much every day. If you don’t have a significant repertoire of rice and pasta dishes, you’re in more trouble than Pat McQuaid at a British Cycling convention.
So what are the options for partners who find themselves trapped in such situations?
Different couples choose to cope in different ways. To the outsider, one of the most obvious is simply to cave in and take up cycling too, the ‘can’t beat them so join them’ strategy. Whilst on the surface the logic of such an approach seems sound enough, I’ve seen many examples where it has failed quite spectacularly, leading to considerable resentment on both sides. And, no, not just because they thought getting a tandem would be splendid idea.
Take a 30-something couple I know living on Sydney’s lower north shore. Both are accomplished road cyclists in their own right; in fact, they actually met through cycling. Initially it was heaven on wheels as the two lovebirds rode and trained together pretty much everywhere. But it didn’t last. Like a new pair of cleats getting traipsed across mud, concrete and bitumen, the gloss soon wore off. After no end of disputes about where, when and how far they should be riding, these days they actively avoid riding with each other altogether. She has her riding friends. He has his. Should they decide to go away for a weekend to ride in a major race or sportif, only one will take their bike. The other is designated soigneur.
This may seem extreme. But as they quickly discovered, one of the more important aspects of a strong relationship is often having the space to foster and enjoy your own identity. Cycling provides precisely such an opportunity; time for each of them to escape the day-to-day domestic issues that often preoccupy them at home – including one another. Even when done with the best of intentions, they realised that to encroach into this space was to risk shifting the entire emotional axis of their relationship.
The second approach, one for which I have witnessed far greater success, is the ‘quid pro quo’ strategy. Or put another way, I let you ride and spend thousands on bicycle gear, you let me do the same in my chosen area of interest. One of my riding mates has stumbled across a winning formula whereby he counterbalances his riding weekends away with art gallery and theatre escapes. Another friend used to have a partner who was, of all things, a rather talented pole dancer. She used to travel all over the state to wrap herself seductively around shiny posts in front of strangers who showered her with medals and applause. In return, he got to ride pretty much whenever he liked and no doubt also had an awesome time in the bedroom when he came home. (Hey, who are we to judge? Whatever turns your cranks, right?)
The third approach is the conflict-riddled ‘ultimatum’ strategy whereby the partner never truly accepts the situation and constantly tries to dictate riding terms, effectively wrestling to seize control of your emotional handlebars and steer things in a completely different direction. Not surprisingly, this tactic is doomed to end worse than a Vini Fantini supplements program; either through a claustrophobia-inducing submission by the cyclist which can only be endured for so long before exploding like a bidon getting run over by the Race Director’s Skoda. Alternatively, the pressured rider may opt to go the other way and begin sneaking about behind his or her partner’s back, with clandestine riding activities and secret credit cards for cycling purchases. Bad idea. Sooner or later this bubble will burst and when it does, a type of bedlam will ensue that makes the drunken antics of Dutch Corner look like a Sunday family picnic. Sad to say if any of these scenarios describe your current riding situation, well, you may be just one or two coffee rides from separation proceedings.
Which brings us to the final coping mechanism. It’s also the simplest and is known as the ‘grin and bear it because you love them’ strategy. Now on the surface this may seem fantastic to the rider in the relationship, who can essentially ride whenever and wherever he or she likes. But be warned. Like endeavouring to ride 1,000km non-stop on a velodrome, such one-way traffic is not sustainable. Even partners with the patience of a saint will eventually crack; and emotional crevasses the size of a Lance Armstrong lawsuit will likely come between you. Should you find yourself in such a position, probably best to mitigate such risk by employing a quid pro quo arrangement as soon as possible.
This is all great in theory, of course. But how do things measure up in the real world? Let’s look a couple of specific relationships that seem to be working out okay, and hear from the protagonists themselves.
Delia & Gavin
Delia and Gavin have been together for 12 years of which they’ve been married for nine. Gavin has been riding for the best part of a decade. As for Delia? “Well, Gav did buy me a bike about eight years ago,” she says. “It’s been a great garage ornament, dusted off occasionally just to check that I can still ride it, but not much else.”
A cycling tragic hook, line and sinker, in a typical week Gavin rides anywhere between 350km and 450km on his beloved Trek Madone. Spread over both mid-week and weekend mornings, this equates to a fair amount of time away from home. So what does Delia do when he’s out riding?
“Oh, I have a few options. I can have a sleep in, especially on Sundays. Or I can have some pamper time, like a facial or a massage. Or just plain ‘me time’,” she says. “Gav has so much energy and is constantly on the go. I love the down time to just chill and read my book and recharge before the tornado that is Gav sweeps back through.”
“Cycling is the best thing that’s happened to Gav,” says Delia. “He’s tried a few different things over the years but nothing really worked out. Cycling has been perfect for him – and to be honest, for us. On the weekends he’s out at the crack of dawn and home in time for a late brekkie before we have to tackle the day.”
“It doesn’t really impact our lives much – other than when he can’t get out enough, he gets grumpy. I’m more than happy for him to be out there doing his thing cause a grumpy Gav isn’t fun to live with.”
“Gav’s truly at his happiest when he’s spending a lot of time on the bike. The only thing I ask is that it can’t take over our weekends.” This leads to the only real cycling friction point in their relationship. “Sometimes Gav does go off and plans cycling events or weekends away and doesn’t consult me,” says Delia, putting it more down to Gavin’s enthusiasm for his riding than anything else. “It not about permission, more about being involved and knowing what’s going on. Every now and then he takes it a little for granted that I’ll be okay.”
Given that, could she ever foresee a situation where she might tell him he can’t ride? “No, I would never do that! I do however worry about him a lot when he’s out on the road and pray that he’s safe until he walks through the door. But why take away something that makes the other person truly happy?”
Things are changing in their household, however, and it may soon be time for Delia to dust off her bike once again. “I made a commitment to myself and Gav that I’ll do the Sydney to ’Gong ride later this year. I haven’t decided if I’ll do the full 90km or the 56km, it’s going to depend on how my training goes.” This may, of course, depend on the availability of her live-in training partner.
Lavinia & Anthony
Married for eight years, together for ten, and living on the Central Coast of NSW, Anthony has been riding on and off for about four years. However in the last 12 months things have become far more serious. Nowadays he rides pretty much every day. His wife Lavinia doesn’t. In fact, she doesn’t ride at all. “It’s too much like hard work,” she says with a disarmingly mischievous grin. “And I don’t like Lycra, it’s not a good look.”
Fashionable or otherwise, Lavinia still finds herself following her hubby all over the countryside, literally, as his obsessive relationship with the bike sees him ride and compete everywhere from Sydney, Bathurst and Goulburn to Coonabarabran, Gunnedah and Tamworth. Romantic weekend escapes typically consist of hours spent away from each other and a nightly hotel room ménage à trois with the other great love of Anthony’s life, Scott. Or to be more precise, his Scott Foil.
“Cycling has become all-consuming for Anthony,” Lavinia says. “It’s like living with someone with an addiction. It is a good addiction, but it has become a part of everyday life. For example, on a recent three-day trip to visit family in Melbourne, Anthony simply had to take his bike to train on. During bushfires late last year the bike was also one of the first things to go on the car after we were told to evacuate.”
So what does Lavinia do while Anthony’s out pedalling, apart from navigating her way to finish lines in distant towns to greet him?
“Well, I love things like art and painting and coffee with friends,” she says. Asked if they have any arrangements in place to offset Anthony’s infatuation with the bike, Lavinia chuckles. “Well, what he spends on cycling I spend on my own interests!” Anthony quickly points out she’s not entirely joking.
As for cycling-related pressure points? “Social activities and occasions are always scheduled around training and racing routines,” she says with raised eyebrows. “He’s also far too tired after training or racing to do any work around the house.” Dietary requirements appear to be another touchy household subject. “What’s the deal with eating so many boiled, poached and scrambled eggs after every ride?” (Protein, Lavinia, protein.)
Despite such inconveniences, however, Lavinia stresses things are far better with cycling in their lives. She’d never lay down a ‘me or the bike’ ultimatum to her husband. “Seriously, Anthony’s health has improved immensely,” she says before bursting into another cheeky smile. “And the $7.50 he brings home when he places in a club race, well it goes directly towards the mortgage!” Surely the secret to domestic bliss and eternal happiness.
People tend to forget about our better halves, they do their own Tour de France, year round.
David Millar (@millarmind), 11 July 2013, during the Tour de France.