"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same..."
Thomas Ivor was in Devon for the weekend when the email came in to let me know that we were racing last night at the cycling club, in the first 'Go-Ride' event of the season that we're hosting.
'Desert Storm', still fortunately shod with knobbly tyres, was duly retrieved from the back of the 'Daddy Bus', where it had remained following an off-road trip to the country park a week or so ago. My crack team of bike mechanics (Ruth and Rhoda) were immediately all over it so we could be ready for action as soon as we'd fetched Thomas Ivor from school.
A trip to the park to re-set saddle height (a recurring theme at the moment - the lad's growing again!) culminated in some practice starts on the grass, which were going rather well until a foot slipped off a pedal and a shin got skinned. Cue wailing, gnashing of teeth, TCP, a bit more wailing, protestations that he wasn't going to race because he was mortally wounded and everyone was going to beat him anyway, and a strong talking to. Just like Brian Clough and his players, we had a talk about it and decided I was right. Bidons filled, Croozer loaded for the girls to sit in, we duly set off for Kettering.
I have to say, it was a slightly surreal experience pinning a racing number to my seven-year-old's jersey. I never took part in any competitive sport at Thomas Ivor's age, outside of school. Certainly not at anything I was any good at. This was the road less travelled!
After a thorough equipment check, off the lad went, circulating amongst boys and girls of all age groups in the warm-up. Dear me, this was really happening wasn't it. The girls settled in to their seats in the Croozer to watch 'Oliver' on the iPhone (one of my favourite wrinkles, that!) and I found myself in the pitch darkness preparing to photograph a ten-minute event like nothing I had ever covered before.
In my former life as a motor racing photographer I looked down the barrel of the lens at all kinds of race starts - but this time I had a vested interest like nothing else imaginable, being as I was, team manager, chief mechanic, motivational coach, team nutritionist and doctor, as well as photographer. That and being the rider's Dad. Frankly, I was more nervous than he was, if looks were anything to go by.
I caught Thomas Ivor's eye as he lined up. The first corner, after a short grassy straight, was a dimly-lit square left bend round the outside of a tennis court fence, with a bit of a ditch and some bushes on the outside. They were all going to funnel into that like a stampede of very small, rather excitable and slightly tipsy cattle. He had to make the first corner, first, to stay out of trouble and avoid getting baulked from the off. I was glad we'd practised starting. I caught Thomas Ivor's attention, pointed to my own eyes in the international gesture for 'look right where I'm showing you', and passed my message. First corner, first. Own it, Son. A single, solemn nod of the head indicated our strategy was understood.
The start of an 'Under 8' race is a lot like watching children playing in the school band. There is a lot of looking sideways at the kid next to you for ideas, and everything happens in slightly delayed action. I fired off three frames before his right foot even landed on the pedal, but nevertheless, Thomas Ivor motored towards the first corner (can you say that any more, after the mechanical doping scandal?!) and got round cleanly before you could say 'ten minutes of effort now - pace yourself!'. He and the other six children disappeared down the back of the tennis courts like their lives depended on it.
If there's one thing that's become a dirty word in the world of primary education now, it's competition. Of course we want to encourage children who aren't the best, at a given activity. Of course we don't want people projecting their own baggage onto the children, but life in so many ways involves having to strive for things in competitive environments, and learning to deal with defeats and victories alike. "Like the Rudyard Kipling poem, ‘If’. You know that- ‘If’ you do X, Y and Z, Bob’s your uncle"
I am sure I'm not the only kid who grew up hearing inarticulate parents savaging their children, or worse still other people's children, at juvenile sporting events. It's unedifying to say the least. But by the same token, I couldn't just stand there and watch my little boy in the first race of his life, in silence. Mercifully, the boy in second place was ably supported by his Dad, who thought similarly. As the banter and repartee flowed, we each urged on our respective sons. Trying also to get some photographs for us and the other parents, I found myself running from one side of the course to the other so I could get two bites of the cherry per lap. It was mayhem.
It was about seven minutes in that he lost the back wheel and fell, on the exit of the first corner. My heart was in my mouth. Come on, Son. It's only pain. You can do this. With gritted teeth he threw himself back on the bike and went after his opponent. I've never seen resolve quite like it from him.
The bell was being readied when, in the twisty section coned out through the tennis court and Thomas Ivor dived for a tight right hand apex inside his rival, seizing the position and what I hoped, amidst the lapped children and Under 10s, was still the lead. "Keep going, Thomas! Up a gear, Son! Empty the tank!"
So it was, then, that by a slender margin, Thomas Ivor crossed the line to take the first victory of his career, in his first ever race. I didn't dare congratulate him in case I was wrong and someone had beaten him. He, meantime, hadn't realised that was the end of the race, and proceeded to put in another hot lap before we could stop him!
Sure enough, it turned out he had won after all.
Off he went to shake hands with 'Number 22' (and me with '22's Dad'!) - before turning to me and saying "I think I fell off six times. I don't think that was my best ride".
A certificate signed by both a certain Mr Kenny and a certain Miss Trott, and a gold medal, were the result of his night's work. I'm not sure who ultimately was most shocked or worn out, the rider or the rest of the team! Of course, the mechanic now has a bike to clean once more. The nutritionist has bidons to wash, there is kit to launder, the photographer has images to wire to proud grandparents, and the coach has to work out how to prepare their star rider for his next outing, including making sure he does his English homework...
Find out more about British Cycling's 'Go-Ride' programmes and races near you at https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/go-ride