In the early ‘90s, I backpacked around America for a few months, heading in whichever direction the locals pointed me. Texas, Colorado, Nevada, California… The scenery changed but two things remained the same: one was the boundless hospitality of American families who’d phone ahead to their friends so I always had a place to stay. The other was their children’s limitless adoration of Michael Jordan, star of the Chicago Bulls.
In the eyes of these teenagers, Jordan was a man whose appeal transcended the sport he played. In San Antonio, one child laid out his Jordan collection that included not only posters and magazines, but also cereal boxes, each one carefully flatpacked. In Denver, a fireman I was staying with rolled his eyes and explained how his son had pleaded for a pair of Nike Air Jordans, but now only wears them round the house to avoid getting them dirty. Now that’s a special kind of hero worship.
This Jordan mania came back to me the other week when a friend described how his ten-year-old son, fired up on Coco Pops and Tour de France coverage, had started playing ‘Mark Cavendish’ up and down the street. Every night, the boy was doing sprint finishes on his mountain bike, waggling the frame in an exaggerated fashion before lunging for an imaginary finish line. Already he’d put a road bike at the top of his Christmas list.
Now, obviously, one boy loving the Tour doesn’t mark a moment in history where cycling suddenly becomes bigger than football, Star Wars and Elvis combined. Cycling’s a mainstream activity but it’s still a niche sport in the UK, so let’s not expect any kind of Michael Jordan media ubiquity for Cav. Yet at the same time, it’s not every day that you hear about a boy begging for a racer and it’s interesting to see a youngster embracing a sport traditionally linked to an older fan base. This child wasn’t fired up by the Olympics and hadn’t cared about road racing until the Tour and now here he is, begging for a new bike.
YOUNG, COCKY AND GOBBY
Why? Because he has a hero now. And if Cavendish can reel in and retain more young riders, it won’t be because he’s British and successful, because the same description applies to Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy. It’ll be because he’s British, successful, young, cocky and, let’s face it, a bit gobby. Kids like that sort of thing.
It’s not so much what he does, it’s the way he does it. Everyone knows that Jordan could play a mean game of basketball but what sold a zillion pairs of trainers were those slow motion shots of him switching the ball from right to left hand mid-jump. Similarly, while Cav now holds the record of most British Tour wins, the lingering memory is his grin and well-rehearsed sponsor-friendly phone pose as he won.
While Cav’s mobile-phone toting, Oakley-waving showboating might seem to many to be a crass intrusion of cold-hearted commercialism into sport, what’s the bet that younger viewers thought the best way to cross the line was the way he did it – first and in a pair of expensive sunglasses?
So while Bradley Wiggins has emerged as a born-again road cyclist, and potential future Tour winner, I’m not expecting to see any kids playing ‘Wiggo’ down my street. And although Sir Chris Hoy’s bran flakes ads have put cycling onto primetime viewing, colon-massaging cereals appeal more to parents than their kids.
Mouthing off about his rivals disrespecting him, sulking in press conferences and getting a little too over-excited for his own good about his green jersey prospects – Cavendish did them all at this year’s Tour. Of course he pouts and moans – he’s a young man.
And sure he’s cocky, but if you won as often as he did, wouldn’t you be?
THE FUTURE OF CYCLING
Cavendish may never be the global phenomena that Michael Jordan was, but he could certainly be cycling’s equivalent of him. At just 24, this self-proclaimed press conference ‘asshole’ projects enough don’t-give-a-crap attitude and basketball-style razzamatazz to give a sport swamped in corporate sponsorship and lycra a little bit of a rough edge. If that’s what it takes to bring young blood into the sport, then may Cav continue to do what he does best – sprint and act his age.