To the cultured confines of Dulwich College last night; to the Charles Barry Jr designed Great Hall where 150 years worth of names of the old boys who went up to Oxford are listed on the vast wooden panels on one side of the room, whilst those who opted for Cambridge are recorded on the walls opposite. Famous alumni include Sir Ernest Shackleton and PG Wodehouse but the school also prides itself on its sporting prowess, honed on the pitches and facilities that make up much of the 70 acre site.
The names on the walls – which date back to 1865, although the College is almost 400 years old – are presumably there to inspire the current crop of Alleynians, who came to hear further epithets of inspiration from two men who reached the very pinnacle of their chosen sport. Not Olympic champions these two – unlike at least one former pupil at this prestigious South London private school. Not World Cup winners (of either the round or oval ball games), Ashes heroes or Grand Slam victors. The boys came – many in their football, hockey or rugby kits but some wearing the lycra VCDC jerseys of the school cycling team – to hear Grand Tour winners Bjarne Riis and Alberto Contador, who were at the school as part of a corporate event hosted by team sponsors Saxo Capital. They had been at the nearby Herne Hill velodrome during the day, riding with the corporate VIP’s and gave an hour before dinner to the boys of the school and a few junior riders from the Herne Hill club.
I was in the Great Hall thanks to Herne Hill and my two young sons. The velodrome had been given a number of tickets at the talk and, as I was able to stump up a couple of the requisite Under-18 year olds that set the bar for entry, we had three seats in the packed hall. Following an introduction from the college and Matteo Cassina of Saxo Capital, Riis was welcomed to the stage before a short film of Alberto was shown to prime the audience for the arrival of the main event. Despite the fanfare he made it almost to the foot of the stage unnoticed – small, dark and impeccably dressed – before he was spotted and applauded to his seat.
Interviewed by Rouleur Magazine, initially the talk made efforts to place Contador’s achievement within the cycling pantheon and questioned both men about what it takes to become an elite athlete. “Is Alberto the best rider you’ve ever worked with?” was offered to the Dane who has coached four different riders to Tour success. Riis stared directly at the slight man by his side as if considering the question for the first time. “Yes.” he said after a few moments deliberation. “I think I could say that.” If this was Riis’ Great Hall, Contador’s name would have a wooden panel all to himself but then again maybe so would Bjarne himself.
“What is more important, Talent or Hard Work?” asked Mr Rouleur, simultaneously pleasing both the parents and teachers in the Hall. “Enjoy.” came back the answer in Contador’s surprisingly good – though heavily accented – English. “At this age, when you are young, you must enjoy whatever sport you do. Then later, you need both.” Riis, barrel-chested and broad in a dark knitted jumper, agreed. “To get the the very top, you will need talent and hard work. I have seen hundred’s of riders who had the talent but they didn’t have the mindset. Didn’t have the mental strength.”
Forty minutes into the talk the mental strength of my seven year old was waning somewhat and he had taken to doodling Minecraft characters in a sketchbook instead. My eight year old was still attentive though and I had to get him to sit on his hands so that he wouldn’t prematurely stick one in the air before questions were asked for. As it turned out he didn’t get the chance to air the one he had wanted to ask as the questions from the floor were pre-prepared too. I had cheekily thought about priming my kids with some testing queries about Spanish beef or how Tinkoff-Saxo now reassure young riders coming onto their team that the practices of the ‘bad old days’ are no longer part of the programme but both my son and the organisers had felt that their choices were better.
“Play Up! Play Up! And Play the Game.” The 19th century words of Sir Henry Newbolt are never far from mind when in such rarefied surroundings such as Dulwich College. The spirit and notion of fair-play courses through privately educated sports and, although it never raised its head directly last night, the asterisked history of the two speakers was not lost on all within the room. Instead the talk focussed on achievements, on the hardships of the life of a professional athlete, on the craziness of 100kph descents and the importance of the support of the family and ones own character to continue when things go wrong. Contador’s fall and broken leg in this year’s Tour de France and his return to win the Vuelta just eight weeks later was used as an example of fortitude and courage in the face of disaster. Not rising to the baited hook of celebrity and self glorification, Alberto himself spoke warmly about how it is his younger brother who is paralysed, and not he, who is the centre of his family life back home in Spain and also about how his favourite race win is his Stage 5 win in the 2005 Tour Down Under, which followed brain surgery on malformed blood vessels in his skull that had caused him to lose control and crash the previous year, and the long recovery that followed.
As the talk drew to a close the parents and adults were asked to leave the Great Hall so that the College could get some photos of just the children with Contador and Riis. When my two came downstairs ten minutes later they were both grinning from ear to ear. The seven year old was just happy that he had been given a free bidon on the way out and that we were now heading for pizza but the eight year old had more of a story to tell. “I asked him.” he said proudly. “I asked him my question.” It seems that during the choreography of the photograph my intrepid cub reporter had sidled up to Riis and managed to ask the question he had wanted to say. “What are your aims for next year?” According to our four foot tall correspondent, Riis had looked down somewhat quizzically and the eight year old had had to repeat himself to make himself understood. “Ah, to win everything” came the reply, apparently accompanied by an old school hair-mussing of the kind that Bjarne may well have fondly remembered from his own (more hirsute) youth.
Sadly the eight year old’s photography skills do not quite matching his investigative reporting endeavour as yet but it was an evening well spent and, despite my own slight reservations prior to it, I came away thinking better of both Riis and Contador for it. One must assume that, if my cynical old self can find something inspiring in there, the youngsters in the audience must have been well served. And that was the point.
photos via Dulwich College, Cycling Weekly and The Eight Year Old