Tom Southam

The travelling salesman

Tom Southam

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I stumbled through a
Greek restaurant the other night, in search of a bathroom to relieve the
pressure that the mounting beers had begun to apply to my bladder.

After finally
translating the waitress's hand gestures and passing through the the cavernous
and sweaty expanse of kitchens to my destination, I found another part of the
puzzle of my cycling career, in the least likely of places.

As I focused down on
the toilet, something caught my eye on the cistern. A logo, a brand name, that
was all too familiar, yet in this setting seemingly completely out of context.

I had been so used to
the distinctly European blue and white VALSIR logo being emblazoned across my
chest, legs, backside and track-mitts during the 2005 season that I was
instantly taken aback. It felt like someone had written a note here
specifically for me to discover.

As my slightly blunted
mind refocused, it then dawned on me, in the toilets of my girlfriend's uncle's
restaurant on the Greek island of Limnos, that back in '05, in what was close
to the peak of my physical prowess, I had been a rolling, sweating, pedalling,
panting advertisement for cisterns and other such items essential to plumbing.
That made me smile.

I have always been
fascinated by the fact that trade team cycling team jerseys, despite looking so
visually appealing, are in fact merely advertising placards, every single
stitch of them.  They are woven around
the idea of making someone who rides a bike into a corporate logo - there is
nothing more to it.

I personally think
that is fine, I think sponsors should get their kick-backs from the fans of the
sport their money helps keep alive. It is the deal that cycling made from the
very beginning.

But there is also the
fact that for many years, in a much less globalised world a lot of the sponsors
themselves remained little more than a mysterious and often exotic European
name. They were faceless, stateless and it didn't matter. The cold hard facts
of concrete, flooring or insurance don't really spring to mind when you think
of the greats, but they were there.

In 2005 I rode for the
Barloworld-Valsir (and in Italy for the record Valsir-Barloworld) pro cycling
team. There was a curious arrangement to this set-up that involved us changing
jerseys every time we went to a different country (not too uncommon in cycling)
and the fact that Valsir only actually sponsored one rider.

Valsir had remained a
mystery to me because (it was rumoured) they were the personal sponsors of
former World Road Race Champion Igor Astarloa. They paid him his million-euro
salary in return for naming rights to the team, and the team got one pretty hot
property when it came to turning pedals. A nice arrangement for all involved,
apart from the fact that they forgot to tell us just what they did.

Many sponsors will
astutely go to the trouble of having a few pre-season seminars extolling the
virtues of their products to the riders. That way the riders would never be
caught short in an interview, nor miss an opportunity to sell the product we
were brandishing about Europe: We - the travelling salesmen of the sporting
world.

So it was not simply
the relief of the call of nature and the moment's respite from listening to
rapid-fire Greek conversations at the table that made this toilet stop so
successful, but I had also pieced together a bit of my own history.

I know that I could so
easily have found this out years ago by just looking it up, or asking someone a
bit more informed than a shrugging fellow rider, but it was much more
satisfying to work it out this way.

This way, I also of
course got to see the product that I had lent my name, face and image to in
action. I can now tell you, perhaps a few years after the fact, that Valsir do
indeed make very fine cisterns. I thoroughly recommend them.

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