Friday, 18 October 2013

How I Learned to Love Climbs

I had this piece in issue 7 of The Ride Journal, and now that it's off-sale and sold out, I can post it here as well.

He has a jaw like an anvil, dark eyes beneath darker brows, and a slight grimace that shows his canines. It’s 1997 and I’m watching Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, the infamous Uzbek sprinter, riding his last Tour de France. 

I’m learning something as I watch the man known as the Tashkent Terror. Not something about sprinting. Something about climbing. I’m learning to love climbing.

It’s my first visit to the Tour de France, and my first glimpse of a Tour climb. For several years now, I’ve been an aficionado of time trials. In the Indurain era the time trials are where the Grand Tours will be won, and they’re the home of headfairings and tri-bars and the occasional soon-to-be-banned carbon monocoque. They combine spectacle and drama in a way that I thought could never be matched by mere hills. Then there are the sprints: more spectacle, and the ever present danger that the forward sweep of the pack will become a whirling tumble of bikes and riders, like a breaking wave, the way it did at Armentiere in ‘94. How can hills and mountains compare to that?Where’s the spectacle in something that makes the riders go slower?

Yet here I am at the first categorised climb of the second stage of the 1997 Tour de France, in a town named Cany-Barville. The road is long and straight, sweeping upwards out of the town and onto a wooded hillside where it smoothly curves to the right and out of sight. The initial ramp is only modestly inclined, but it’s long and steepens gradually until the curve, where the riders will have to corner as well as climb. The bunch whirs past, still led by Abdoujaparov, but somewhere up in the trees Laurent Brochard will push his way out of the pack to take the points at the summit.

Within a couple of days Abdoujaparov will test positive for Bromantan and Clenbuterol and be kicked off the race. Brochard will become World Champion by the end of the year, and leave the following year’s Tour in disgrace, permanently tainted by his involvement in the Festina Affair. 

Within a few years they’ll both be largely forgotten, but the Cote de Cany-Barville will stay with me. Seeing a little “4” on the route map is one thing, but watching an ageing sprinter lead the pack over his climb is quite another. This hill isn’t considered challenging by any of the riders, but to me, viewing my first Tour climb, it looks impossibly difficult. Not steep, but long and draining, with the sun reflecting off the exposed asphalt of the lower ramp and making the air thick and dizzying. The later curves rear up at just the point where your legs would be unable to take anymore. And if this is a hill, a short hill, then what are the mountains like? 

All cycling fans eventually have a moment when they realise that cyclists aren’t like other sportsmen. They’re not footballers or tennis players or even marathon runners. For all the sneering the sport has to endure at times, professional cyclists carry out superhuman feats almost every day. I’m having that moment of realisation on the Cote. In years to come, whenever I feel that the day’s racing isn’t challenging enough to entertain me, I’ll remind myself of this hill and that realisation that all climbs are worthy of respect.

From this point onwards, for me, every slope in every road will contain a little bit of this climb. It will be my initial reference point for all climbs, even the monsters. I’ll get fitter, and find lower gears and higher cadences, and hills like this won’t seem quite so challenging. In 2011, when I am lucky enough to tackle Mt Ventoux, I will still be thinking of Cany-Barville, and seeing its DNA in the leafy arches above the road or the reflected sun of the upper slopes. 

The Giant of Provence will do its impassive best to stop me in my tracks, and I’ll be amused to realise that suffering on a 22Km mountain doesn’t feel that different from suffering on a small hill. The pain goes on for longer, but it’s the same pain. Cycling will seek out ever harder climbs, and find Zoncolans and Anglirus to trump its Tourmalets and Colombieres. Cycling fans will become accustomed to climbs of comically brobdingnagian proportions but the Cote de Cany-Barville, forgettable to everyone else, will help me keep things in perspective.

My heroes over the next few years will be Marco Pantani, Jose Maria Jimenez and Ivan Basso, and when I’m having a good time on a climb I’ll imagine I’m riding along side (but never, not even in fantasy, ahead of them). But when I’m struggling, when I need to push a bit harder, I’ll remind myself of the calm, wolfish grin on Abdou’s face as he rides up the Cany-Barville, supposedly out of his element but riding with a grace that belies his terrible, reckless reputation.

When this piece appeared in The Ride it was accompanied by a beautiful illustration by Irene Fuga which now hangs in a frame above my desk. You can see her work at

I didn't submit anything to Issue 8 of The Ride, but rereading this just now has reminded me of how  much fun it was to play around with tenses, and to try to capture the significance of the moment, a photograph of which has been framed and hung on the wall of every house I've lived in since 1997. I rarely enjoy reading my own writing, but I'm really pleased with this. I'll have to come up with something for Issue 9.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Future of the World Tour

I guess this explains why the Tour of Britain didn't get the improved ranking it asked for:

I have mixed feelings about this. I'm in favour of a transparent system of promotion and relegation rather than the partially secret set of criteria that currently decides who gets a World Tour license and who doesn't.

I can also see that having no concurrent races means that teams won't need enormous squads and the huge wage bills that come with them, which should make life easier for the less well funded teams.

On the other hand, a lot of smaller races are going to get it in the neck, either by being shortened so as not to clash with the marquee events, or by being reduced to second division status. It seems possible that we'll have no more plucky French wildcards at the Tour de France and, conversely, no more cycling superstars turning up to their little hometown race. This new system might rule out the likes of both Ciolek's victory at Milan San Remo, and Wiggo's victory in the Tour of Britain.

On the other hand, it will finally put an end to that terrifying speculation that the Giro d'Italia could be shortened so as to free up an audience for the Tour of California. Silver linings, eh?

I think it'll take a bit more thought before I'm willing to fully pick the bones out of this, but I'm going to try to concentrate on the positives for now.

A Round Up

It's been a lively few weeks. I've had a few pieces in Cycling Active, been described as "skinny and athletic" in the pages of Cycling Weekly, seen the Tour of Britain four times and...not blogged very much. Whoops. That feels particularly bad towards the end of the season. In a couple of weeks time I'll be trying (and probably failing) to psyche myself into having some enthusiasm for cyclocross rather than just respect, and I'll regret not having found more time to blog about the actual racing this season.

Still, prior to doing a big wrap up of 2013, I thought I'd put down a couple of lines about recent events.

Tour of Britain 2013
Probably my favourite edition of this race so far. The double climb of Caerphilly and the summit finish on Haytor weren't the race shapers we might have hoped for, but it was great to see a win for Simon Yates on Haytor, and the fact that the TT was the decisive stage just meant we got the winner wed all been hoping for for years, so I mustn't grumble, much.

 I would like to see a longer/ tougher summit finish, a Kirkstone or a Rosedale or a Bealach, combined with a longer TT, to create a real see-saw between the climbers and the testers, but the logistics of getting a race caravan up those climbs make it unlikely. In  any case, we had dramatic weather, enormous crowds, great stage winners and the long awaited Wiggo victory.

The Worlds
I enjoyed the worlds a bit more than usual this year. Certainly more than Joaquim Rodriguez or Pat McQuaid did. The fight for Silver in the Men's TT was a nailbiter and, as has been the case all season, Wiggo showed that you can't judge the second half of his TT effort based on the first half. Not that Tony Martin wasn't a nailed on cert for Gold, but I do wonder if it might have been closer if it weren't for the negative split? Still, Wiggo knows what he's doing, he must think that the steady ramping up of effort throughout the stage is his best tactic. He knows what he's about.

As does Mariane Vos. Effortlessly surviving all of the US team's attempts to ruin the pack's legs, dodging a crashed rider, making the break, then jumping off the front on the final climb for a 15 second margin of victory. It's not like women's cycling is particularly unhelathy, there are plenty of brilliant riders in the women's peloton, which makes it all the more impressive that Vos' victory came as a surprise to absolutely no one.

As for the Elite Men? I know I'm supposed to belittle Team GB as a bunch of jessies who climbed off early, but really, what else was going to happen? Thomas has spent all year crashing and breaking bones, Stannard has been flogging his guts out in the pissing rain since Milan San-Remo at the start of the season and can hardly be expected to be at top strength at the end of it, Wiggo had presumably burned all his matches in the Tour of Britain and TT and it's not like we'd seen any sign of form from Froome since July anyway. Beyond that, Edmonson and Rowe both suffered crashes and Cav did a good job grinding away on the front in the early going, which was all that could have been asked of him.

It's less that the team wimped out, and more that you had to wonder why they'd been chosen at all. Bringing Stannard when you know he must be f*cked, using the world's fastest man to do the job you'd use Stannard for if he weren't f*cked, hoping that Wiggo would be motivated to pull for a charmless backstabber like Fwoomie, then padding out the team with World's virgins and crash-happy walking wounded? It's not like Team GB had success written all over them. Even then, you can't really fault Rod Ellingworth, who else would you have picked? Short of dragging the Yates brothers out of the Under-23s it seems unlikely that he could have found any riders who were both suitable, in-form and motivated.

Brian Cookson
Finally, there's Brian Cookson winning the UCI presidency after a day of ridiculous hair splitting and debate. Seriously, watching the UCI congress unfold via Twitter made the whole thing hilariously farcical, but I gather from those who were actually there it was less funny, more tedious.

In any case, Pat McQuaid is gone and that's a victory in itself. Whether you believe that he's merely a chump doing what Hein Verbruggen told him to, or if you think he's a crook in his own right, it's hard to be sorry that he's gone. I've heard plenty of  awful rumours about the man that I won't repeat here, but I'm happy to see him go just for the stuff that can be confirmed: his decision to race in  Apartheid era South Africa, awarding of World Tour status to pi$$ poor races he appeared to have a financial stake in, the disregard for women's cycling and the constant attacks on Landis, Kimmage and USADA rather than attempting to address the concerns they were raising.

Of course, just having Cookson in charge doesn't mean everything will automatically improve. I refuse to believe that McQuaid was the only crook in an organisation full of saints. There's still going to be corruption in the UCI, but the removal of McQuaid hopefully also means the removal of the organisation's brass neck and elephant hide.  Knowing that McQuaid's handling of doping scandals was what turned people against him, one can only assume that Cookson will have to handle them differently. A good start will be having someone in charge who doesn't call whistleblowers "scum" and attempt to sue journalists.

I think the basic hope is that the focus of corruption in the UCI will have to change. Instead of doping cover ups, we'll have people skimming the canteen fund. I can live with that. In fact, I'll be overjoyed with that.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Tour of Britain 2013: The Day That The Rains Came Down

I'm not sure I approve of quite how finely the rolling roadblock cuts it, but it is an impressive sight as the police motos leapfrog each other to every junction.

Delaplace, Madrazo, Northey, Cronshaw, Dibben and Downing. 

Miserable weather to ride in.

The peloton descending through Keekle.

Cannondale make a token defence of the jersey, while Sky make a statement of intent.

Nairo Quintana, among others.

Two of the four crash-detached riders struggling through the cold to get back on.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Incidentally... know how I posted a few weeks ago that I thought cycling's current atmosphere of constant suspicion and baseless finger-pointing might become as damaging as the old Omerta, and my suggestion that we all just shut up about who we suspect is or isn't doping unless we had more reason for suspicion than just a good performance?

Well if you've been watching the same Vuelta as me, I'm sure you can imagine how difficult it is to stick to those principles right now. Some riders have no credibility. Some riders that have no credibility use press conferences to point out that others have even less credibility. And I sit here wanting to weigh in about how preposterous a certain person's performances are, but am hamstrung by my own desire not to point fingers at anyone unless they've failed a test, or at least been a client of a Ferrari, Cecchini, Fuentes or Bernard Sainz.

Oh well, I guess Twitter can vent its spleen on my behalf.

London to Cambridge

I didn't take a camera, so here's a generic pic of our starting point - Bar Italia, where you can get coffee, cycling jerseys and strange offers of introduction to "handsome boys".

I shall keep this fairly short, as it's been a few weeks since I did the ride in question, and these things always work best when they're fresh in the mind. Nevertheless, I want to mention my recent London to Cambridge ride, simply because it was so much fun, and because it ticked off another small milestone for me.

We rode from Soho's Bar Italia up to Angel, where we joined the canal and rode out past the Olympic Park towards Waltham Abbey, Sawbridgeworth and onward into Cambridgeshire, momentarily interrupting a TTC 25 before eventually arriving in Cambridge after 75 miles. That's 120km, which feels pretty special to me: it was my first metric century. I'm still hoping to tick off a proper century in the next few months, although I'll confess that without a specific ride to aim for, my training has become a little lax lately.

As far as the London-Cambridge ride was concerned, the initial run along the canal was horrible. Not even a little bit horrible, but genuinely why-don't-I-sell-my-bike-and-take-up-hiking-if-I-want-fresh-air-and-exercise horrible. I'd pictured the sort of idyllic canalside riding you sometimes find in Surrey and Shepperton: thin dirt paths, bushes on one side, water on the other, and no one around for miles. Instead we got other cyclists, joggers, dog walkers and people out for a stroll. What I'd thought would be a nice alternative to roads and traffic was actually pretty nerve-wracking. The path itself has a raised lip running up the middle of some sections, so attempts to drift around people can result in that horrible tire-scrape/skid combination, while all the tunnels over the river are entered via a narrow chicane that leaves you completely unsighted-my apologies to the poor jogger I nearly hit!

Speaking of nearly hitting people, I have to admit that on a particularly narrow stretch of path somewhere north of Stratford I target-fixated on a line of oncoming cyclists and nearly put one into a barrier. Sorry again, but, you know, not as sorry as if I'd gone into the canal. I've target-fixated once before, and it's a strangely bewildering experience. You can tell you're on the brink of an accident, you make the necessary adjustments, but you're instantly back on the brink of an accident, making an adjustment, but instantly back on the brink of an accident and so on, until you either shake it off or crash. Brrrr. I'm obviously a bear of very little brain and need to sharpen up.

Still, rotten canals aside, the rest of the ride was one of the most enjoyable I've ever had. Bright sunshine, beautiful fields and villages, and a spell of around two hours in which we encountered not one single car. Let that sink in. For a two hour chunk of the ride, on road, we saw no cars at all. Idyllic.

I was particularly pleased to find that all my repetetive chugging up local hills was paying off as well. Although there were no big hills along our route to really test me, there were a fair few that would once have required an out-of-saddle effort from me, but which I tackled  from a seated position, without the granny ring. Yeah, I'm sure that's none too impressive for most of you, but for me it feels like real progress, as hills are the bit of cycling I most look forward to and am least good at.

Anyway, after a brief stop in Duxford for a Brie and Bacon sandwich (man cannot live on flapjacks and Clif bars alone) we finally finished up in Cambridge. It wasn't a quick ride, even allowing for a forty minute cake stop and an hours lunch stop, but it was such a nice ride it would have been a shame to hoon it anyway.

I had started the ride with a resumption of a habit I thought I'd kicked: overpacking. Somehow it snuck back in on me, and I ended up with a rainjacket, D-Lock, toolkit and ten tons of other crap in a backpack, while my companions were sensibly pottering along with nothing more than a bagel or two in their jersey pockets. I could tell I was carrying extra weight, as the only time I was ever faster than them all day was when we were freewheeling downhill. The extra weight probably accounted for the fact that my back and neck had seized up completely by the time we arrived in Cambridge, but it was nice to know that after ticking off my first metric century it was only my back and neck that were giving me trouble-my legs and lungs could have carried on, if only I'd still been capable of looking over my shoulder for traffic.

Oh well, you learn something from every ride. Next time it goes into a jersey pocket, or it doesn't come with me.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Oh Vuelta 2013 predictions went sour pretty swiftly.

Predicting cycling results can be an interesting game. Form is recognisable enough that you can't be too proud of yourself when you get it right, but the sport is unpredictable enough that you don't feel too foolish if you get it wrong.

That said, sometimes you get it really wrong. Really, really wrong. I've never had a set of predictions collapse so drastically, so quickly. It's taken just two stages of the Vuelta for two of my podium predictions to plunge right out of contention (Henao and Betancur, 3 and 10 minutes off the pace respectively) while Nibali, who I'd thought probably didn't have a second grand tour in him this season, is leading the race.

I'm taking some consolation from the fact that Domenico Pozzovivo looked frisky today. He's been a favourite of mine since his Punta Veleno ride a couple of seasons back. Hopefully he can pull another epic stage win out of he bag and console me for the spectacular collapse of my Fantasy Vuelta team.