Tuesdays With Wilcockson #3

The blank slate

When Red Kite Prayer founder Patrick Brady asked me if I would pen a regular column on this site, he gave me no particular theme to write about, no particular length and not even a deadline. “Just enjoy yourself,” Patrick said. That was too good an offer to turn down. Or was it?

Being given a completely blank slate is both a luxury and a liability. It’s a luxury because in the world of journalism you are nearly always writing something that an editor has commissioned, with a set number of words and a (nearly always) very tight deadline. With this column I can choose any subject I like, as long as it’s loosely connected with cycling. And that’s the liability: There are so many facets to this sport and so many people involved with it that choosing just one topic is a not a simple task.

Among the things I’ve written about this month have been the challenges I’ve faced over the years as a cycling journalist and the tribulations (of a different nature) that talented bike racers have to overcome to achieve greatness. So, this week, I’m choosing to write about … hmmm … the blank slate.

One of the first times in my life that I faced a blank slate came during my Eleven-Plus exam — a matriculation test that English schoolchildren took (at age 11 or older) to decide whether they had the requisite knowledge to move on from sixth grade to a grammar school (England’s version of a charter high school). If you didn’t pass muster, you were sent to a secondary modern, a less-pleasant fate.

This happened eons ago, yet I can still recall sitting at my school desk, dipping my pen into an inkwell, and puzzling over the choice of essays we’d been given. There were three subjects listed, and we had to write about one of them. After panicking and thinking I couldn’t write anything about any of them I decided on the third subject: “The Life of a Milk Straw.” But as soon as I wrote down the title my mind went as blank as the page.

It seemed like an impossible challenge, and I struggled to channel my wildly diverging thoughts. Back then, a milk straw was made of paper not plastic, so I thought backwards from the finished product and put pen to paper: “I began my life as a tall pine tree in a forest in Canada.” Then my imagination took over, tracing the story of the tree being logged and floated down a river to a paper mill on the Pacific coast … and a milk straw emerging at a factory and traveling with dozens of other straws in a box packed onto a boat crossing the Atlantic to England … before the box was eventually opened at our school, where a small boy sucked on the straw to drink his third-of-a-pint bottle of milk that we were given at morning break every day.

The examiners must have liked the essay because I passed the test and went on to grammar school. Which reminds me of an even blanker slate I faced in my fourth year at the high school, when I was 15. English grammar wasn’t my favorite class, and the English teacher, Miss Norah Barter, was not my favorite teacher. She usually marked my papers with a C+, or a B– at best.

Then, one day, she gave us a very different task. We didn’t have to parse a page of a book or write about some obscure subject she’d chosen. Instead, Miss Barter told us to write an essay about anything we liked — and we had half an hour to complete it. What to do? I didn’t have long to decide on how to fill this blank slate. And so I began writing about something that interested me a lot, but could be a bore to Miss Barter. Perhaps my choice was a mistake and she’d give me a D….

What came to mind was an event I’d attended that week in London with my brother Dave. It was a “friendly,” as the British call an exhibition soccer game, and it was unusual because it took place midweek at night, and floodlit games were still a novelty. Adding to the interest were the two sides: West Ham United was one of England’s most exciting football teams, and Fluminense, from Rio di Janeiro, Brazil, played the most exotic soccer we’d ever seen.

The match between the two clubs was magical, with the final score being something like 7-5 after 90 minutes of brilliant end-to-end soccer and spectacular goals. There were amazing players on both sides, including West Ham’s right back John Bond and left winger Malcolm Musgrove and Fluminense’s Didi, one of the greatest midfielders of all time. With all these wonderful ingredients, my essay was easy (and fun!) to write. Miss Barter liked it. She gave me a first-ever A, and even read it to the class as an example the following week. “You see, even John can do good work,” she said.

What has all this to do with cycling you may ask? Well, half-a-dozen years after that English writing project, I learned how to apply the blank-slate theory to bike racing. I was in my first season of road racing with Redhill Cycling Club, and one of my earliest races was a Cat. 2/3 event on the notoriously hilly Ashdown Forest circuit in the county of Sussex. I began the race with an injured knee and wasn’t sure how long I’d last. I knew I couldn’t try my usual (novice) tactic of going out on an early break, so I’d have to make it up as I went along — gradually filling the blank slate as I did with that story about a paper straw.

Instead of attacking, I sat back in the bunch, watching what the more experienced riders were doing. They were also watching and waiting as the steep climbs made it a race of attrition. My knee was hurting the whole time, but because I was riding conservatively it didn’t get any worse. And by the time we were on the final lap, I even began thinking about doing something I’d never done before (because I was never up front to try it!): make a late-race attack. I followed a couple of moves on the last rolling hills, and feeling fairly fresh, I instinctively jumped away on my own at the foot of the 2-mile climb to the finish. No one came with me, but I dared not turn to see if there were chasers. I was running scared. And then, suddenly, I saw a small crowd at the top shouting and clapping. They were cheering me on. I crossed the line with an arm in the air and, as soon as I stopped, I collapsed to the grass at the edge of the road, exhausted and exhilarated. I’d won my first victory.

A blank slate has never again looked the same.


You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson

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