A big part of cycling's attraction is the social element. There aren't too many sports where it's possible to chat to your mates during the activity, whether it's recreational or serious. Even in the Tour de France, one of the toughest sporting events in the world, the racers talk to each other in the bunch.
Cycling is an easy way to meet other people and as we know, the social network is fundamental to human life. This is why we have cycling clubs, which bring people together on and off the bike. Clubs serve to teach budding cyclists about their newfound sport, as well as acting as event organisers and meeting places. They're important.
But what makes a good club? Why do some seem to grow rapidly while others stagnate?
I was recently at the launch of Zappi's Cycling Club Oxford. It's a perfect example of how to make a successful club.
The fact that I was there on a weeknight says something, as covering a team launch is usually a long way down my list of priorities. Especially this week when sleep has been urgently required but in short supply. So while it was quite pleasant to wander through the streets of Oxford to the Mamma Mia Pizzeria in Jericho to enjoy a tasty repast and the company of other bike nuts, I didn't relish the three hours of travelling. Make that three-and-a-half hours after a drunk decided it would be a good idea to hop onto the train tracks at Swindon on the way home (he was arrested, not flattened).
I went because I remembered the club's founder Flavio Zappi from a hilly time trial a few years ago. I'd caught him near the finish of the race and we got chatting afterwards. I learned he was an Italian pro in the '80s and was now running a cafe in Oxford. I subsequently learned that he used to be pretty handy: second in the King of the Mountains in the 1984 Giro d'Italia behind the late Laurent Fignon, 12th in Milan-San Remo and 18th in Paris-Roubaix that year. On top of that, he was clearly a passionate person and I knew that meeting wouldn't be the last I'd hear of him. The social connection was made.
Flavio did some more racing in the UK – with success – before refocusing his energy into coaching riders from Oxford University, then setting up his own club and racing team. In two years, Zappi's Cycling Club has grown from zero to 120 members, a lot of them active. He's also helped scout Claire Galloway, who came very close to making the British Cycling Olympic squad for 2012 (and hasn't given up for 2016). It's a testament to what you can do if you get the mix right.
Oxford is a city full of cyclists but that doesn't explain why this club has grown so quickly. Other Oxford-based clubs, Oxford City Road Club for example, have remained relatively static at 60 members or so. Although the offer of the club's ace time trialist Mark Jones to help members with aerodynamic testing and power measurement might attract a few more into the fold.
What Flavio Zappi has is a focal point: his cafe, where people come in and chat all the time. It's far more informal and accessible than a designated club night and that is enough of a catalyst to hook people in. There's also Flavio's considerable enthusiasm and energy, another vital component in bringing people together. This makes regular group rides, which are the core activity of any club, less of a struggle to pull together. And once there's a critical mass of active members, the club starts to run itself.
It sounds easy but few clubs manage to get these vital elements in place. It's about spreading the word, making it accessible to people at any level, making it fun and above all, keeping the social aspect at the top. Zappi's Cycling Club Oxford has this in spades.