Racing the Giro (May 2024)

So, the Giro started on Saturday, which I’m very excited about, and as I’m not sure that this will mean much to all of you I shall explain. The Giro is the Giro d’Italia – a bicycle race that is one of three annual “Grand Tours” (the other two are the Vuelta d’Espana in August and the Tour de France in July). Each of these tours is a three week cycle race with around 200 participants – at least to start with. Each day, apart from a couple of rest days, they cycle a bit more than a hundred miles, taking around four hours to do so – and therefore maintaining a pace that for ordinary people looks like a sprint all day every day. They also go up and down mountains and through whatever the weather has to throw at them, in large bunches where one mistake can mean dozens of riders hitting the tarmac at 25mph. Simply getting selected for a team makes you one of the best road cyclists in the world, and finishing is a considerable achievement – as well as the risk of accidents there is a rule that you have to finish within half an hour or so of the first rider, so if you’re slow you get cut and have to go home.

I’m not a cyclist – although Mr Lloyd is, and if he hasn’t already told you about his achievement in climbing Mont Ventoux – one of the most famous mountains in the Tour de France – then it’s only a matter of time. I’m not a cyclist, but I am fascinated by cycling, and have been ever since I learned about the tactics and teamwork that go together to make success. Cycling is definitely a personal endeavour – you have to train hard, you have to push yourself through a pain barrier, you have to cope with losing acres of skin to the gravel if you come off the bike and still get on and power through – it’s about overcoming difficulty. It’s a personal endeavour, but there is also a team – both on the road, where eight cyclists will work together to help each other, usually to help their leader to do well; and off the road where there’s a team car full of people providing advice, analytics, running repairs, and bottles of water. There are also tactics – ways to use your energy and effort effectively, to get the maximum value from your hard work. I’m not going to spend long on the physics of cycling because I can’t find a way of relating that to your current situation – briefly, though, and to amuse those of you doing Physics or Maths, the big problem with cycling is that air resistance is absolutely not negligible. And so, the last of my delights in the Giro is the scoring system – there are a huge range of achievements that are recognised and rewarded: races within the race. Every day is, for example, a race in itself – everyone sets off together and the person who gets to the end first wins. Then there is the general classification, a running total of how long it’s taken you so far – and as well as winning over the three weeks, just being ahead of that on a single day is a triumph that puts you ahead of most professional cyclists. As well as that there are points to be scored from sprinting, mountains to be climbed faster than anyone else, daily prizes for combativity, racing excitingly, and for some a private scoring system of working for your team, helping your leader to win those baubles even though you don’t get close to them yourself.

Exam season is heading your way – the biggest exam season of your life so far, quite possibly the most gruelling exam season you will ever have to face – and in some ways this is like your own personal academic Grand Tour. The Giro de Year 13, if you will. The exams themselves are like the mountains, an hour or two of hard work, of pulling knowledge from your brain and putting it down on paper and the times between are long miles of flat road, pedalling hard to keep up with the pack, getting yourself in the right position for the next challenge, taking rest when you can, making sure your body is appropriately fuelled and cared for.

So, what lessons can we learn from cycling?

  • The passages between the mountains are as important as the mountains. The hilly bits are what separates the riders, where they really show what they’ve got, who’s excellent and who’s left behind, but to get there the riders have to slog along miles of flat road. They bunch together to protect themselves from the non-negligible air resistance and keep their legs pedalling, no matter how tired they feel. You have to make the best use of days and half-days where there aren’t exams, to study, to revise, to practice, to learn – and I recommend that you, like the cyclists, bunch together for this – that you come into school and study in the library rather than staying at home where the temptations of bed, TV, phones and computer games act like air-resistance, halting your progress.
  • Use the team car – in the Giro the cyclists aren’t allowed to pop their bicycle on the back and hitch a ride, it’s obviously cheating, (don’t do this) but they still listen to advice that comes through their ear pieces telling them about terrain, and weather, and what other cyclists are doing, letting them know how well they are pedalling, making sure they have food and water. So for you, neither your teachers nor your parents can take the exam for you – it’s you alone in that room – but we can tell you what to expect, how much to work each day, how well you’re doing on practice papers, what you need to work on. Listen and take advice. And also come for help – if it’s getting too much and you need to rant, or just get some reassurance, come and talk. We’re here for you right through to the finish line.
  • Take the needs of your body seriously. Make sure you get enough sleep – I’m still having conversations with some of you on the late gate where you’re blaming staying up past midnight and not feeling good in the morning. You have to feel good in the morning. I took a big exam last year just to remind me what it’s like and I’m still blaming some of my lost marks on not feeling brilliant that morning – it doesn’t do any good, except gives Mr Naheem something to tease me about – those marks are lost forever. Go to bed at a regular time, get up at a regular time, eat properly, keep hydrated, avoid too much caffeine.
  • Watch who you follow. In a bicycle race one of the questions riders have to worry about is whose wheel are they on – who is riding immediately ahead of them. The best wheel, the best person to follow is the strongest person in the race – that way you can get helped right to the top of the mountain. Similarly, you should be looking around, not to see how much your friends are working, not to see how much the least productive people are working, but who is the best worker in your class, in your subject, in your year – and copy them, work as hard as they do.
  • Race your own race – just as different cyclists are going for different prizes so you have your own targets, your own goals, your own pattern of exams. Don’t let others distract you.
  • Use rest days carefully. There are two rest days in the Giro, days when there’s no racing – and on those days the cyclists will recuperate, speak to their families, enjoy themselves. But they won’t go out partying, won’t stay up late – and they will go out for a cycle, not a terribly long one, not a terribly taxing one, but they’ll keep their legs in trim. Similarly, you should have a couple of rest days at some point – maybe one in May half term, and one in June – and you should use them to recuperate so you feel better the next day, not worse – and you should do some study, just not as much as normal.

And what is normal? Well – we talk about a 9-5 working day so that seems about right – are you studying for eight hours a day, six days a week, a bit less at weekends? If not, then why not? One of the most exciting times in a bicycle race is when there’s someone who’s got ahead and a group behind trying to catch them up, working together, using all their energy, doing their best – and the question is whether they’ll get there before they run out of road, before they get to the finish line. Throughout the race they’re careful not to run out of energy – they call it, quite spectacularly, blowing up, unable to keep going, and if they get it wrong they can go from second place down to last worryingly quickly – and so they don’t push themselves quite to the limit until the end. And then they do. And so – again, no late nights studying, no wiping yourself out, just steady, eight hours a day, every day – but no slacking, no putting it off so that you run out of road, get to the exams before you’re properly ready.

This year’s Giro is likely to be fought between Tadej Pogacar and Geraint Thomas. I’m resolutely partisan and am wholeheartedly team Geraint, but if you want to support the winner you’d be wiser opting for Tadej – as of yesterday he’d won one stage to Geraint’s none, and was 46 seconds ahead (which doesn’t sound much over 15 hours of racing, but that’s how these things go).

This year’s exams are fought between you and the paper in front of you and I’m resolutely partisan and wholeheartedly team you, each of you. I hope that on this one we’re on the same side. In cycling when someone has had a good ride it’s polite to say “chapeau” – I lift my hat to you. I’m looking forward to when I can say that to each of you in August. In the meantime, good luck, keep pedalling and show that non-negligible air resistance who’s boss.


1. It's not quite true that I'm not a cyclist, as is told in the assembly Samarkand.

2. Working 9 to 5 is reflected on, Dolly Parton style, in Spinning Pebbles.