Real answers to the big questions: with Fergus Grant
The worst way to cross a finish line, the best advice for a friend having a really hard time on their bike and the real reason some people won’t ever forgive Lance Armstrong. Why should professionals be the only ones to answer the sport’s biggest questions? Each month we go deep with cyclists from around the globe to get the real answers to some of the sport’s biggest questions, from the people who matter most.
Words: Ashleigh Maxwell
Keeping Fergus Grant on topic is like herding cats. It might be because he is better versed at asking questions, than he is at answering them. The gregarious Brit moved from the UK to the French Alps almost 30 years ago to work ski seasons, but soon after took a sharp turn into cycling and never looked back. Fergus has since served as the ‘Lantern Rouge’ on Haute Route events helping riders at the back of the pack, before taking on the task as the events’ official speaker on the start and finish lines. Well known in the cycling community for his quick wit and terrible taste in music, Fergus spends a lot of time talking to cyclist strangers from all over the world, which makes him a great candidate to share his take on the sport’s biggest questions.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you on a bike?
Probably the famous ‘hitting the horse’ incident of 2014. It was on the penultimate day of the Pyrenees on the last descent. In the pyrenees there’s horses everywhere, cows, donkeys. There’s usually never any fences. In this case, a couple of the horses were on the wrong side of the road. I was coming down with three or four other riders and behind us was a safety motorbike. So, the horse must have heard the motorbike, and at the last second, when I’m maybe five metres away, it took off across the road. There was literally nothing I could do; I didn’t even have time to touch the brakes. I had time to go “ffffff…” and then I hit the back end of a horse. I did a flip in the air and landed on my back on the grass. There was nothing wrong with me or the horse, and most importantly my bike was fine. But if I were one second later I could have had the horses hooves or the horses arse.
"Our bikes went together and we both went down like a ton of bricks about 10 metres from the line."
Is that also the most embarrassing thing to happen to you on a bike?
The horse was a good one, but I can go one better. At the end of the first Alps, the finish was at the Col de Vence. It was neutral down to Nice and I’m right at the back with the last rider to cross over the finish line and I said to this really nice American guy, ‘as we cross the line we’ll do something, like hold each others hands in the air’. But I didn’t realise just how tired he was. He was absolutely screwed. So as we got to the finish line, I took his hand and it unbalanced him and both our bikes went together and we both went down like a ton of bricks about 10 metres from the line. That was definitely the most embarrassing because it was my own stupidity.
From your experience as Lantern Rouge for the Haute Route, if you had one piece of advice for someone who is struggling or having a really bad day on their bike, what would it be?
Get off. [laughs]. I always start with a joke. Very occasionally people want to know how many kilometres to the next climb, but usually what they don’t want is all the platitudes like ‘it’s all going to be alright’. You have to take their mind off it completely. I start with general boring conversation. Sometimes I do quizzes, like music quizzes from my phone. Jokes generally get them pedalling faster, and if the jokes don’t work , I start singing. I mean, we’ve all been there. My last race as lantern rouge in Italy in 2016, I was in no condition whatsoever to be doing that. One day, I had to get in the broom wagon myself. I had to have a little sleep. But they can’t sack me now [laughs].
"What they all forget is that Lance Armstrong was a horrendous piece of humanity to everybody else around him."
What is the weirdest thing you remember about cycling when you first started?
The weirdest thing about cycling that you learn as you get better is the slip streaming. I never realised when I was riding in the uk; I wasn’t cycling much and mostly alone, but when I came here and met people who know about how to slipstream and ride in a group. When you first start doing that, it’s an amazing experience.
What do you think about Lance Armstrong?
Self-serving sociopath? [laughs]. There’s been lots of writing recently saying ‘oh even if he wasn’t doping he would have achieved the same thing’ and ‘everyone else was doping’, but what they all forget is that Lance Armstrong was a horrendous piece of humanity to everybody else around him. He’s done lots of good and raised lots of money for cancer, but in between times he was fairly horrible. But the fact that he cheated and won seven tours, I personally think his name should be on those tours. For the tours he won, there are now no winners, because they know full well that at least the top ten were all on the sauce. So there’s no need to forgive him for that, but I certainly wouldn’t excuse the behaviour that he had with other people around him.
A few big celebrities made the cycling news recently when they bought road bikes and posted about it on Instagram. Is cycling becoming too cool?
I think cycling is cool. But I don’t think cycling will ever become mainstream enough to be considered cool in the way a sport like American basketball is. That’s cool. Those guys have got something. So it’s all relative, but if we go to the shaved legs and Lycra, I don’t think it will ever be cool. Mountain biking is certainly more cool than road biking and maybe gravel will make things cooler. But it’s never going to be cool-cool.