Friday, 30 December 2011

New Year's Revolutions

It's my blog and I'll pun if I want to. Anyway, it’s a few days early, but I’m going to start working out my goals for the New Year. Not quite resolutions, but cycling related things that I’d like to accomplish.

1.) I will massively increase my mileage.
Most of this year I’ve done a couple of solo six to twelve mile rides per week, with the occasional twenty-miler thrown in, and one fifty-miler. So an average week has been weighing in at about 24 miles, a good week in the forties and an incredible week in the nineties.  For 2012, I’m going to make an average week hit the 60 mile mark. That said, I might try not to spend every mile going flat out the way I currently do. Also, I will find out what those bigger sprockets are for.

2.) I will stop mocking Dave Harmon’s commentary.
It’s all good-natured, but I do give Dave more grief than he deserves. Not that he ever reads my tweets. Ok, I’m pretty sure you don’t really pronounce it “Fuh-google-sang”.  Nor can I ignore the fact that no other cycling commentator will so consistently look at break that’s got a 35 second advantage with 25K to go, observe that Lampre and HTC are doing the chasing, then sagely announce that he thinks it will stay away to the finish. Death knell pronouncements aside, though, I’ve got to get over my resistance to any commentary team that isn’t Phil and Paul. Besides, he’s got Magnus Backstedt to keep him in check, and he beats Carlton Kirby’s breathless explosions every time a Latvian chancer is first to crest a molehill 100K from the finish.

3.) I will not attempt to carry out every single repair and tune up using a monkey-wrench.
Poor, poor Purple Peril. Many of his straight bits are bent due to the overzealous application of a monkey wrench better suited to coercing reluctant mafia debtors than tightening the bolts on a seat tube. This year, I won’t try to fix the unfixable, and I will use tools appropriate to the job.

4.) I will not train by dead reckoning.
I’ve got bad habits: Using low gears make you look feeble. Guinness contains iron and is therefore a food supplement. Twenty minutes riding so hard that I’ve wept blood with each heartbeat means I can spend the next three hours going slowly. This is not science. This year I will work out what I want to accomplish and find out the best way to achieve it.

5.) I will stop making easy predictions.
I’ve had a lot of mileage on internet forums this year simply by spotting the sort of short, sharp climbs that suit Joaquim Rodriguez, or the sort of deceptive finishes to lumpy days that suit the tougher breed of sprinters such as Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb. Easy predictions, easy wins. I feel slightly guilty, so this year I’m going to make some riskier predictions - Janez Brajkovic to get a Tour De France podium, for starters.

6.) I will learn to descend.
On my terrifying run down Mt Ventoux I noticed that simply glancing across the road was enough to make me sway off course at terrifying speed. I’ve since discovered that this is a well-known phenomenon, usually used as an aid to descending.  Keep your eyes on where you want to be when you come out of the corner, they say. If only I'd known that on my downhill run, I wouldn’t have put a year's worth of wear on the brakes of a rented bike. Seriously though, getting better mileage is just a matter of building physical strength, but getting downhill safely is a matter of building a braver brain, and that’s something I need to work on. I want to be able to take the mickey out of Andy Schleck again, and I can’t do that while I’m sympathising with his timorous downhilling.

7.) I will blog to my strengths.
Next year, every post will contain a reference to Peta Todd, deer and Mt Ventoux, because those are the ones that get the traffic, and I believe in serving my audience, which apparently consists of horny, animal-loving grimpeurs.

Monday, 26 December 2011

I'm a very lucky man.

Forgive the typos, I'm enjoying a few seasonal snootfuls. I'll fix them later. It feels a little unseemly to post a blog about all the cool cycling-related goodies I got for Christmas, but in the absence of professional road races to write about there’s a strong possibility that I’ll be using reviews to keep the blog ticking over, so I should let you know what to look forward to.

I’m blessed with wonderful wife and family who are kind enough to know and humour an obsessive when they see one and among the cycling-themed presents waiting under the tree were:

Shimano M520 & Red Shoes
Clips and straps have served me well for the past couple of years, but the last time my devotion to cycling attained a reasonably feverish pitch was about five years ago, and I had SPDs back then, and I wanted them again. I must admit, I’m not looking forward to learning to use them all over again. I’m hoping the heel flick will be saved in my muscle memory somewhere, but I strongly suspect I’ve got some comedic sideways topples in my near future. Actually, I have four pedals, as my in-laws didn’t realise that the pedals are sold in pairs. Look at those shoes, how cool are they? I want to wear them every day, and damn your ruined parquet floors.

Maglia Rosa
I love the Giro.  The Tour will always be the superior race, but only because of the the indefineables, the “je ne sais quois”. The Giro, on the other hand may come in second, but you can easily articulate all the reasons why it should come first: the unpredictability, the meat-flinging partisans, the Dolemites, and the sense of style. It’s that last one that’s shared by this history of the Giro from Rouleur. Look at that cover- the perfectly chosen photo, simple typeface and tidy dimensions. Anyone who’s found themselves paying through the nose for a copy of Rouleur magazine without even checking what’s inside it will already be aware of just how powerful good design can be. It’s nice to see that the same attention is paid to their books, especially when you know that words from Herbie Sykes mean that there will be substance to go with the style. That said, me and a Swiss army knife have so far failed to get through the actual packaging.

The Vault
An anti-novel, apparently. But perhaps not in the way its author thinks. My wife chose it for me based on the back cover blurb, which contains the line “a gripping tale of army snipers, nuclear espionage and competitive cycling.”  It does dozens of things that they probably tell you not to do in novel writing class, and is really enjoyable because of it.  

Hulstra Jersey:
Have you noticed how a slightly throwback, seventies look has become quite hip lately? This windproof top is the hippest thing I own. Slightly shiny, white and orange, fleece lining and zip pockets on the back. It’s beautiful. I’ve been complaining lately that it’s just too cold to stay out for long, but this should change all that.

2005 Tour De France DVD:
It occurs to me looking at this that when I started watching cycling, Channel 4’s coverage consisted of half an hour of highlights every day, for 21 days.  I used to feel like my many, many highlight DVDs were merely a substitute for the actual TV coverage. It’s strange to think that 12 hour highlight DVDs mean that I’ll see more of the race now than I did when it happened.

Bicycle Dreams
I’ve seen the odd documentary about the Race Across America, but this seems to be the definitive DVD on the subject.  Cycling is such a telegenic sport, it’s hard to get the visuals wrong, but from what I hear Bicycle Dreams finds the story to go with them. I might stick this on later tonight, unless someone manages to mobilise a strong  Downton Abbey/Strictly Come Dancing block vote.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Ah, the vagaries of blog traffic.

Oh look, I've had a traffic spike, I wonder where it came from? Ah, you're all googling "Peta Todd." And at Christmas too. You're all going on Santa's naughty list, you dirty little monkeys.

Just kidding. As you were.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Three Days in Corsica

Nope, not my holiday plans for 2012 but the Grand Depart of the 2013 Tour De France. I'm properly chuffed about this. If you've ever watched the Criterium International then you'll know what a cracking venue for cycling Corsica is.

The entire island seems to be made up of porous rock and spindly trees that give it a slightly more exotic look than will be offered by, say, next year's spin around Liege. Corsica isn't just good looking, either, it's lumpy. It's like ASO looked at the Vuelta's decision to have a summit finish on stage four of their 2011 event and decided to trump it by having the Tour break the 1000 metre ceiling with the Col de Vizzavona on only the second day.

Of course, there are no actual summit finishes in that first week, so its unlikely that the three day Corsican trip will do much to shake up the eventual GC, but with over 2000 metres of climbing on day two and just under 2000 metres on day three, we might well see a successful first week breakaway, something that's vanishingly rare these days.

Hey, remember when Claudio Chiappucci was in a breakaway on the second day of the 1990 Tour and ended up defending the Yellow Jersey for the best part of three weeks? Hmmm...

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Star Spotting

Check this out:

Yes, that is Fabian Cancellara out for a weekend spin in Richmond Park. Can you imagine if you were just some club cyclist and Spartacus suddenly joins you for the most demanding bit-and-bit of your life? You'd wet yourself.

Personally, I intend to spend every hour of tomorrow's daylight riding back and forth through Bushy Park just in case he's scoping that out as well.

Nice pics by Roz Jones as well. The only thing that could make this cooler were if he were being chased by a dog named Benton.

Friday, 2 December 2011

All I want for Christmas is me two front cleats...

Hopefully the seasonal icon of your choice will soon be bringing me a pair of road shoes and some Shimano clipless pedals. I find this concept so exciting that I've become giddy enough to resort to awful puns in my titles.

I've always wanted a bike with two things: clipless pedals and an STI groupset. With Tiagras selling for nearly £300 the latter is going to have to wait, but the former should be a reality by January.

I've actually had clipless pedals before, so I have some experience of the cycle of increasing the spring tension, falling over sideways, getting used to the release mechanism, tightening the spring tension, falling over sideways, getting used to...and so on. Having said that, it's been a long time since I used them, the shoes having disappeared in one of the many Uni and post-Uni house moves I've made. I'm fully expecting to be very rusty and to pick up a few new bruises.

The funny thing about my last set of clipless pedals and shoes was that I'd blagged them off a friend, a mountain biker who'd broken his back so badly that he was half an inch shorter when he healed. He didn't want his bike, or his purple, yellow and chartreuse shoes anymore, as he'd celebrated the removal of his orthopedic back brace by taking up roller blading, which tells you everything you need to know about road cycling's exuberant, mud-splattered cousins.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Deer in Traffic

Most or my traffic tends to come from Twitter or from other cycling blogs, so I was a little surprised to see Google climbing up my list of referrers. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that Mark Cavendish’s run in with a deer has prompted a lot of people to search on “Mark+Cavendish+Deer”.

Unsurprisingly, that’s a search that leads to my post about being chased through Bushy Park by a deer, and my suggestion that we could give Cav a Paris-Tours boost by arranging to have him chased down the Avenue de Grammont by an angry stag. I’d just like to go on the record and say that although my post preceded Cav’s accident, I had nothing to do with it. My money is on Greipel having arranged it, like some malevolent German Dr Doolittle.

Mark Cavendish: Britain's sweariest role model?

The shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2011 has been announced, and it's making me quietly optimistic. For the second year running, Mark Cavendish is among the contenders, as are golfers Darren Clarke, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, cricketer Alastair Cook, athlete Mo Farah, athlete Dai Greene, boxer Amir Khan, tennis player Andy Murray and cricketer Andrew Strauss.

This time last year I was exhorting people to “Vote fact, vote Cav eight times, one for each Grand Tour stage win”. Sadly, it was to no avail. Capturing the Vuelta’s Green Jersey isn’t the same as capturing the public’s imagination with Tour De France successes, and for all that Cav’s 2010 TDF stage haul was impressive, I think it disappointed some people: they’re used to seeing him cross the line first, this time they wanted a jersey in Paris.

To a cycling fan, it seemed almost inconceivable that Cav’s 2010 season didn’t deserve wider recognition, but when you looked at that year's shortlist it was hard to ignore the number of household names Cav was up against-Jessica Ennis, David Haye, Graeme Swann, Tom Daley and the eventual winner, Tony McCoy, a man who started dominating his sport back when Cav's bike still had spokie-dokies.

This year, things look different. There are still plenty of household names in the list, but there isn't as much silverware amongst them. They’re all deserving candidates, but for the most part they’re either there for having had one or two high profile victories, or for leading the field in their chosen sport. Or for being Andy Murray.

Mark Cavendish, on the other hand, ticks both boxes, having been consistently at the top of his profession for several years as well having had several stand-out wins this year. World Champion. Green Jersey. Two Giro stage wins, five Tour stage wins, a spell in the Maglia Rosa. Then there have been the victories that were less high-profile for cycling fans but arguably more important for the casual voter: winning the Olympic test event, winning the final stage of the Tour of Britain and getting started on a family with Peta Todd.

British sporting life has long since left behind the days of loveable losers like Eddie Edwards and Tim Henman, and we’re getting quite used to being able to point at our athletes and call them the best in the world, but in Cavendish we’ve got something even better: short of a spectacular loss of form or terrible injury, he’s going to go down in the history books as the greatest sprinter of all time.

On top of that, he’s articulate, emotionally honest, engaging and unfailingly polite about his teammates. He sets goals and works tirelessly towards them, and he delivers on his promises. He’s just about the sweariest man who could ever be described as a role model. That’s got to be worth half-a-dozen phone votes on December 22nd, surely?
What's that, Mark? You want me to vote twice? OK!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

It's a wee bit parky...

So all further cycling activities are cancelled until I can obtain some warmer clobber. Throwing a hoody over your summer Liquigas jersey sounds like a passable workaround, until the wind fills the hood and you're being throttled by the ties on the windsock you're suddenly wearing. Watch this space for further misadventures. In the meantime, where's my video of the 89 Tour....

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Cavendish and Wiggins: The Simple Solution

In Dave Brailsford's recent Radio 5 interview he suggested that the key to defending the Green Jersey won by Mark Cavendish last year whilst simultaneously pursuing the Yellow Jersey for Bradley Wiggins would be in packing the team out with super-strong domestiques. Marvellous. Glad he thought of that. So simple.

We all know it won't be that easy. The last team to successfully pursue yellow and green was Deutsche Telekom, who managed the feat in 1996 and 1997, with Erik Zabel taking the first two of his six Green Jerseys, while Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich both captured their sole Yellow Jerseys. Deutsche Telekom could draw on an admirable selection of super super tough domestiques, including Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm and Udo Bolts.

Cavendish knows Aldag, Holm and Zabel well, having worked with them as directeur sportifs at HTC. While they undoubtedly contributed a great deal of experience and tactical savvy to the Manxman's tally of victories, one ingredient from the Telekom team that they've always tried to leave behind is EPO.

I'm not being snide here. I've said plenty of times that pre-Festina doping and post-Festina doping seem like very different things to me. The point is, packing a team full of domestiques capable of leading out sprints through the first week and towing leaders over mountains in the second and third isn't really as practical as it used to be in the bad old days of proper preparation.

There is a simple and practical solution, however. One that we all know, but which no one will dare say out loud: don't chase the Green Jersey. I love Cavendish to bits; he's made the first week of the Tour worth watching again, but he's only 26. In all likelihood, he's got at least four more years before his powers even begin to fade, and as Zabel showed, canny racing can still bag you points jerseys even after you stop being as powerfully and repeatably explosive as you once were.

Wiggins, on the other hand, is 31. He hasn't got many chances left. More importantly, how often in the last ten years have you seen a Grand Tour route with over 90K of Time Trialling in it? When Team GB saw how well suited to Cavendish this year's Worlds route was, they agreed to put aside all individual ambitions and ride for Cav. Team Sky need to apply the same logic to the Tour. The route suits Wiggins, and he'll never have a better chance to win the biggest prize in cycling. The team needs to be entirely and completely focussed on working for Bradley.

For one season, Cav needs to put his Tour ambitions aside. The team can build his program around the Giro or the Vuelta, or he could chase Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours. He'll have plenty of opportunities to chase the Green Jersey in years to come, but I'd hate to see Wiggins lose his best shot at the Tour because Dave Brailsford thinks he can split the efforts of a clean team the way it used to be possible to split the efforts of an 'enhanced' squad.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Cycling’s Greatest Ever Attack?*

That asterisk in the title is me being both coy and a bit of a smartarse. Its coy because the I’m using it to add some equivocation to an otherwise blunt statement - after all, my cycling viewing only covers three decades, and even in that period I’ll admit to having seen plenty of other contenders for the title of cycling’s greatest ever attack. Its smart-arsed because the attack in question was made by Bjarne Riis, a man whose 1996 Tour De France win is also marked with an asterisk that refers you to his later admission that he used PEDs to win.

The attack in question is one I recently found myself discussing on an internet forum, where the consensus opinion was that it was one of cycling’s most shameful moments, which was funny, because for me, it was one of its finest. Bjarne Riis’s repeated attacks on stage 16 to Hautacam were so exciting they became the default highlight reel of my imagination. Long walks home, boring lectures on dead linguists, sleepless nights, all would be made bearable by flicking a switch in my memory and replaying that sequence of fade-and-attack, fade-and-attack that broke the wills of some of the strongest cyclists in the world.

 Bjarne Riis was my GC rider back then, the guy I rooted for. Until 1994 the Tour De France was nothing more than a homo-erotic Kraftwerk song to me. I had a half formed idea that it was a bike ride, maybe something along the lines of the London to Brighton. Accidentally stumbling across Channel 4’s coverage of Stage 1 to Armentiere was a revelation. Long stretches of beautiful yet serene racing that seemed too graceful to be just a sport, followed by bursts of action that seemed too brutal, again, to be just a sport. Literally, in fact, as this is how my first encounter with cycling finished:
I’d missed the prologue of the 1994 Tour, but it would be 263 stages before I missed another day of the Tour. Nevertheless, in those early days I hadn’t really picked up on the nuances of the sport. In 1994 I watched Indurain win without really investing with his victory. By the 1995 Tour I was reading Cycle Sport and Cycling Weekly and knew enough to know that Indurain wins were the status quo. By 1996 I didn’t want the status quo. I wanted cycling to realise it had a new fan, and to oblige me with a new yellow jersey. I was rooting for Riis, mainly because his ride in the previous year’s Time Trial had suggested that he was the man to look to if you wanted someone to challenge Big Mig. It was an incredibly exciting TT that you can watch below, accompanied by Channel 4’s glorious electronic rendition of Frere Jacques played on porno-guitar and stylophone:
Seriously, that tune still brings a nostalgic tear to my eye. Riis’ detractors like to talk about the 1996 Tour De France as if Riis simply took unsporting advantage of a declining Indurain, but that sells him short. Like it or not, Riis defeated one of the strongest fields ever seen in a Grand Tour. Even if you only include the riders who had won or would go on to win a Grand Tour you’re still looking at a list that includes Indurain, Olano, Jalabert, Jimenez, Mauri, Zulle, Ullrich, Rominger, Berzin, Gotti, Armstrong and Savoldelli. That's a whole bunch of GT winners, with a few World Champions and World No:1s among them.

Then factor in the guys who’d never win a grand tour but would have a huge influence on stage racing: Virenque, Moreau, Leblanc, Chiapucci, Luttenberger, Ugroumov, Piepoli and Escartin.

Riis didn’t just happen to be in the right place when Indurain crumbled, he defeated the best riders of the decade. Of course we now know that he was using PEDs when he did so, but again, look at the people he beat: Virenque, Zulle, Ullrich, Moreau and Leblanc would all admit to using PEDs, while Chiapucci and Berzin would both fail “Health Checks” (wherein the UCI would rule that it is not healthy, nor indeed normal, for riders to have blood as glutinous as wallpaper paste and only need to inhale once a fortnight.)

Even among the guys that never fell foul of either the vampires or their consciences, suspicion has always dogged Jalabert and Armstrong’s transformation into GC riders from porky sprinter and grumpy classics man respectively.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending doping and I love the progress cycling is currently making towards becoming a squeaky clean sport, but I find it hard to call Riis a cheat simply for riding under what seems to have passed for normal working conditions at the time. No one can actually know what percentage of the peloton were doped back then, but my feeling has always been that it was a majority, and a very sizeable majority at that. Rider after rider tested positive. Entire teams fell under suspicion and in many cases were caught with more than just beers in their coolboxes.

These days, when I genuinely feel that the clean riders outnumber the dirty ones, the use of PEDs makes a rider a cheat in my eyes, but back then? I just regret that they had to do some of the things they did. And what did Riis do? He crushed his rivals. This wasn’t defensive riding. It wasn’t even targeted aggression on one strategically vital day. This was a pop-eyed gurning Viking taking the axe to his rivals. He’d already taken the maillot jaune with a mountainous sprint to the finish on the weather-shortened stage to Sestriere, but his rivals were still on his wheels, expecting him to crumble. Instead he flattened them with series of hammer blows.

Zulle and Virenque have forced a selection by chasing after breakaway rider Laurent Roux, Tony Rominger has fallen off the back of the group of elite riders and Riis’ teammate Jan Ullrich is setting the pace up the middle slopes. Indurain, Olano, Berzin and Virenque are all still in the group of 16, as is Luttenberger, Leblanc, Escartin. Oh, and Paddy Jonker.

Riis suddenly eases up slightly, drifting to the right as the pack rounds a gentle corner, and drifts down the line. He's looking sideways at his rivals, eyeballing each of them and eventually drawing level with Leblanc. He’s halfway down the line, holding his position just in front of Berzin and Olano, with several dangerous men in front of him. Then, with a smoothness not normally associated with his burly, power-over-panache style, he smoothly accelerates back up the line, past Ullrich, and assumes a position maybe five meteres ahead of the pack. Indurain is forced to come around the naturally unhelpful Ullrich and drag the group back up to Riis’ wheel. It doesn’t sound like much, but anyone who’s ridden a lengthy hill will tell you that changing rhythm does more damage than any number of miles at your chosen pace. Closing that gap has hurt a lot of riders.

Next, Riis gets out of the saddle, riding just fast enough to force the others out of their seats, lifting the pace high enough to string them out and have Berzin and Olano drop off the back. The group is down to Dufaux, Jonker, Leblanc, Virenque and Indurain. Riis pulls off to the side again, and the lull in pace momentarily turns the line into a pack, as Riis again eyes his rivals, before another slow, smooth acceleration takes him up the road. He’s already dropped his nearest GC rivals, and this third burst claims the biggest scalp yet, as five time Tour winner Miguel Indurain is left behind, unable to up his rhythm a third time. He drifts back to and eventually through the distanced group that contains Olano and Luttenberger.

With only Leblanc, Virenque and Dufaux on his wheel, Riis stays out of the saddle, keeping the pace high. Dufaux still seems comparatively sprightly behind Riis, Leblanc looks solid. Virenque, wearing the King of the Mountains jersey is hanging on by his fingernails. It’s an illusion. Another few hundred yards at this pace and Dufaux can hang on no more, peeling off to the side, creating a bike’s length gap that Leblanc hasn’t the reserves to close. The stage is already won by that bike length, all that remains is to see how far Riis can pull it out.Here, watch it, and enjoy that theme tune again:
People often talk about ‘the look’ that Armstrong gave Ullrich in 2001, but eyeballing an overweight German boy doesn’t compare to Riis torturing the cream of cycling, deliberately making little gaps that would force them to make agonising shifts of pace that would ruin their legs. Doped or not, the dominance of the winner over such a strong field makes Hautacam 96 the most exciting of cycling’s many rounds of mountain warfare.

I’m anti-doping. I want the sport to be clean, but I have a harder time getting angry about a doped victory in the Pre-Festina days than I do nowadays. I genuinely believe that cycling now has a sizeable core of clean riders who are being cheated by dopers. Back then? Well, I suppose the saintly Gan team were getting it in the neck, but nine out of 219 riders is a proportion I find it harder to get wound up about.

More to the point, I don’t think that witch-hunting past riders and punishing current dopers is as important as planning for the future and praising clean riders. Yes, the guilty have to be punished, but this recurring talk of four years for a first offence and lifetime for a second is too much. Most dopers say the same thing-they got a stagiare contract, it was their first time away from home, they didn’t know anyone, they didn’t speak the language. Performance was the quickest way to carve themselve’s a desperately needed niche, and PEDs were the quickest way to boost their performance. Most dopers have made a terrible but understandable mistake. A potentially reducible two year ban allows them to pay for their crime and come back to the sport, it allows riders wishing to ‘break the chain’ the chance to confess and repent without going straight back to the factory or farmyard.

More importantly, bitching about Riis’s win and wishing they’d take his jersey away only begs the question, who do you give it to? Ullrich? Virenque? Dufaux? Taking a win from one confessed doper and giving it to another only muddies the waters. What we need is clarity. We need a message that says clean riders do exist, and the do win races. We need those clean riders to be lionised in the press and to run the teams when they retire. We need more Roger Legeays telling riders to stay clean. More Aldo Sassis telling them how to ride clean. More sponsors like Gan and Garmin who tell the riders that their paycheques will survive a loss of form but not a loss of integrity.

2011 was a bumper season for exciting racing by riders with spotless reputations. Instead of pretending that races of the dirty old days weren't exciting, lets keep reminding ourselves that even as the sport cleans up its act, we're still seeing great races. This year's Tour, Vuelta and Worlds could be the keystones of a program of positive reinforcement.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Tour De France 2012: Phew...

That's a relief. Last week's leak of the route for the 2012 Tour De France route had me worried, but yesterday's official announcement has eased some of those misgivings.

When this year's Dauphine Libere avoided the sport's most famous climbs I'd assumed that organisers ASO were trying to give them a breather and keep them fresh for Le Tour. The leaked Tour route, however, had no big name mountain finishes either.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. The big names are all there-the 2012 Tour's 4 mountain stages will be going over the Croix de Fer, the Madeleine, the Glandon. the Aubisque, the Peyresourde, the Tourmalet, the Aspin and Port de Bales. That's a hell of a lot of big name mountains.

What's interesting is that none of them are hosting the finish. Little used or brand new mountains are taking those honours, perhaps in an attempt to introduce some new legends to the race. Two names stand out in particular, the Planche de Belle Filles and the Mur de Peguirre.

Belle Filles will feature on stage seven and looks hugely interesting. It reminds me of Pena Cabarga, too short for slow battles of attrition, but too steep  for careful group riding. With slopes of up to 20% and a 14% finish, we'll see some short, explosive attacks here. It won't ruin anyone's legs, but it should produce some big gaps that will ruin a few GC contenders.

Mur De Peguirre, on the other hand, reminds me a bit of Bola del Mundo. I've no idea how scrubby or misty it gets, but it has a similarly simplistic profile. It gets steeper. Then steeper. Then steeper still. Most mountains have some waver and wobble in their ascents. Not this one. Its percentages march steadily upwards in a way that must break a riders heart. If you're suffering halfway up, tough. It gets worse. If you're suffering three quarters of the way up, tough, it gets worse. If you're suffering in the final two K, tough. It gets worse. It isn't a nuanced mountain where riders will vary their tactics according to the gradients they prefer. It's a ramp that will ask more questions of the rider's hearts than their legs.

For all that the sheer  number of TT miles pretty much rules the Schlecks out of contention, this isn't a race that rules out the climbers. It favours TT specialists, certainly, but only the ones who can climb defensively as well-it favours TT specialists of the Evans or Wiggins stripe, not the Cancellara type.

When I first became interested in cycling in the 90s the oft heard logic was that science had made great advances against wind resistance, and none against gravity. It was said that pure climbers would never win Grand Tours again. Even Pantani's GT double in 98 was seen as a blip in the asendancy of the testers.

As it turned out, such predictions were far wide of the mark. More mountains, fewer time trials and the rise of the diesel climber over the explosive type has once again made the mountains the true testing ground of a GT. That's the way I like it, but I do look at this Tour de France route, which resembles a 90's course more than any I can remember, and I feel a frisson of anticipation. It's a route that demands versatility. I suspect we won't see any displays of crushing dominance from the winner, and with the exception of stage 17, maybe no moments of high drama that upend the race. On the other hand, I do think we'll have a close, unpredictable race, one where dramatic peaks and troughs are replaced with a constant buzz of tension. It might not be the sort of race I want to see every year, but it will be a good race, and it will have an enjoyably different tone.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Super Super Funny

When Mark Cavendish took to describing himself as "super super happy" or parcours as being "super super hard", I thought he'd just been given some slightly simplistic media training. You know: "So, Mark, whenever you want to describe something a 'proper f*cking tough', I want you to take a deep breathe and instead of 'proper f*cking', say 'super super'. Can you do that for me Mark?"

Turns out that someone with a voice synthesiser and a scandalous definition of Manx has some other ideas:

Monday, 10 October 2011

Tour De France 2012: Evans vs Wiggo, clearly.

Rebecca Romero announced this morning that she wouldn't be going to the Olympics to defend her gold medal. Take a look at that picture above and tell me if you reckon Bradley Wiggins might be writing a similar letter to the selectors as we speak.

Le Tour briefly and mistakenly published an admittedly un-finalised copy of next year's Tour route on their site this morning. It was taken down almost immediately, but not before screengrabs began circling the internet.

96K of individual time trialling and only four mountain stages. If you listen very carefully you can hear the Schleck brothers sobbing and contemplating self-harm.

Of course, we've no idea as yet what mountains are contained within those stages. Peyragudes is generally regarded as a bit of a soft climb, but the stage to Bagneres de Luchon could easily take in Superbagneres or the Peyresourde, while the sheer length of the two Alpine stages would allow them to cover several of the widely spaced climbs in the region. Nevertheless, the absence of a summit finish on any of cycling's most famous climbs will have the climbers downplaying their chances already.

To be fair, Alberto Contador can do damage on any climb and can Time Trial strongly as well. If he's allowed to race, the lack of serious climbing might not hamper him as much as it will the Schlecks, Gesink, Basso et al. Really though, this race has got Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins written all over it, guys who can gain serious time against the clock and defend powerfully in the mountains.

I'm also tempted to give Janez Brajkovic a bit of a nod here. I know, I know, I'm putting him in some rarified company, but he's young and competent against the clock, and his 2010 Dauphine showed that he's capable of defending on the slopes.

Anything that has 96K of Time Trialling makes you think of Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin, obviously, but while they'll both be rubbing their hands at the prospect of stage wins on those TTs, neither man has ever look like a three week contender. Martin has shown flashes of brilliance of Mt Ventoux, and Spartacus can win a week long stage race if he sacrifices a little power in order to shave a few pounds, but even so, a Grand Tour is too big an ask.

Lastly, of course, you have to wonder, what of Cav? Right now he must be weighing up the number of flat stages in this Tour versus the Olympic road race. The London/Surrey test event route couldn't knock him off when it only went up Box Hill twice, but nine times will be much tougher. I wonder if he'll be looking at this route and wondering where he wants to spend his legs?

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Bushy Park Deer vs Cyclists

I often put in a few miles in Bushy Park. Anything more than 12 and it gets repetitive, and I was bored witless the one time I did 20 in there, but a lap followed by a pair of figure eights will build up the miles in beautiful surroundings.

One immensely enjoyable thing about riding in Bushy Park is the deer. There are two varieties in the park, Red and Fallow. Neither are the sort of stunted, scrawny animal you expect to find eking out a living in a suburban area. They are proper wild animals, tall and imposing, and they thrive in the park. They’re also pretty tame, or so I thought. Working on the assumption that they wouldn’t wander so close to humans if they were feeling temperamental, I’ve often pottered over to them with my camera for a few shots, or ridden past them like they were hairy, spikey headed spectators.

Last time I was riding round Bushy, however, one of them started yelling at me from a distance. I ignored him and pushed on. He bellowed longer and louder. Odd, I thought, and kept pedalling. Then he started moving, rather cleverly I thought, to cut me off. He was off to my left and began trotting diagonally forward, still bellowing, on a path that intersected mine some twenty yards ahead.

For some reason, I was truly unnerved. I know how placid the deer can be, but this looked a bit unusual. Worse still, I didn’t know what to do: if I turned around I’d be forced to slow right down, but to speed up and sprint past him might aggravate an already unusual situation.

He bellowed again and my nerve broke. I got out of the saddle, bent low over the bars and pushed with all my strength, initially struggling against the high gear but swiftly benefiting from it. Now with frighteningly loud (and close) bellowing in my ears, I sprinted like Cavendish for the perimeter of the park, not stopping or looking back until I skidded sideways onto a cinder path. Looking back, the deer was reassuringly distant, and I was suddenly completely ashamed of myself.  What a plonker! What a coward! What if anyone had been watching me fleeing in terror from Bambi?

As it turns out, recent weeks have seen Bushy Park deer attack two women, one man and a swan, putting one of the women in hospital. Mating season for deer runs throughout Autumn, and the stags ignore food and play in favour of gathering a harem of females. Humans in the park are essentially the equivalent of that awkward flatmate you had in college who’d always stay in and watch blues documentaries, no matter how many hints you dropped, and the deer of Bushy Park don’t take kindly to having their sexy time stymied by gawping dog walkers or panicky cyclists.

I’ll have to find somewhere else to ride for a while, but in the mean time I’m wondering if we can arrange to have a horny deer chase Mark Cavendish down the Avenue de Grammont today, propelling him to a Paris-Tours win?

No sooner do I post this piece, than this video starts doing the rounds: Antelope Hits Cyclist.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

L'esprit de l'escalier: Cadel Evans, Pat McQuaid & China.

So this is the latest scandal: Could it be that a fit of pique on McQuaid's part is setting back the anti-doping crusade? He's pushing the sport in oppressive corners of the world, sending letters to bully teams into attending, he's even talking about shortening some of the sport's most prestigious events in order to shine the spotlight on races in new territories, but he'll abandon dope testing entirely if the testers make the sensible suggestion that administering and policing a sport might best be handled by separate bodies? Jeez.

What does McQuaid think will aid his goal of globalising cycling? I think it would be a cleaned-up image and restored credibility, but McQuaid seems to think that deathly dull, smog-blurred races in repressive regimes are the priority, and dope testing is an optional extra.

When I started this blog just after Cadel Evans' victory in the Tour De France, this was the first post I wrote. It was also the first (and only) post I decided not to publish. It was heartfelt, but it seemed churlish to rake such old news over after so much time. But you know what? Sod it.

The Best Thing About Cadel’s Victory

There are lots of reasons why Cadel Evans’ 2011 Tour De France victory is a good thing. It’s always nice to add another name to the roster of winners and it puts a perfectly placed full stop on his transformation from an aggression-free nearly-man into a worthy winner. It also seems fitting that a man whose last four Tours include two second places and two broken bones should finally experience triumph rather than disappointment. He’s earned that top spot as much by coming back from bad luck in past Tours as by avoiding it in this one.

None of these are the main reason why I’m delighted by Cadel’s victory, however. Victory in the Tour De France makes him the most prominent athlete in cycling, a role I think he’ll make good use of. This is a man who said after the Beijing Olympics:  "Trying to bring awareness of the Tibet movement is something someone in my position can do. I just feel really sorry for them. They don't harm anyone and they are getting their culture taken away from them. I don't want to see a repeat of what happened to Aboriginal culture happen to another culture."

Compare Cadel’s awareness that there are more important things than sport with the most prominent bureaucrat in cycling, current UCI President Pat McQuaid. During his days as a cyclist, McQuaid looked at apartheid-era South Africa and decided that a bit of extra pre-Olympics training (and a shot at some prizes) was worth violating the international sporting boycott of the country.

He never actually admitted to anything so shameful as weighing up brutality and repression against training and money, but unlike the many cricketers who openly defied the boycott, McQuaid competed secretly using a false name, which suggests to me that he knew how shameful his actions were and chose to do it anyway. He claims to have been motivated by a “genuine interest in South African politics”, which is the 70s athlete’s equivalent of buying Playboy for the articles.

Over the next year, the articulate and aware Evans will be mingling in the same circles as McQuaid. I hope some of his class rubs off on Pat.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Central London CTC: Essex Edgelands

His father was a scaffold pole, his mother was an aubergine.
 Who’d have thought 42 miles on the flat would be harder than riding up a mountain? Ever since my half-baked assault on Mt Ventoux I’ve been planning to go back and climb it properly, a plan only slightly hampered by my lack of fitness, fear of cars and junctions, and descending abilities on a par with Jan Ullrich or Andy Schleck.

My plan for dealing with this was to learn from experienced riders by joining some CTC rides and picking up tips from the group. A few 12 mile practice runs and one 20 miler doesn’t sound like much preparation for a 40 odd mile ride, but a friend in the CTC had assured me that if I could do 20 miles I could skip the beginner’s rides and jump straight in with a two star, so I invested in a crash hat and a powdered energy drink and got myself ready for the Central London CTC’s Essex Edgelands ride.

As you’ll no doubt have expected if you’ve read any of my previous cycling posts, things didn’t get off to a perfect start.

Sunday morning, 6:50 AM, peaceful, dim and only a little chilly. My train wasn’t due until 7:02 so I was able to ride round to the station slowly and enjoy a quiet broken only by my own undignified grunting as I heaved my bike up the first set of stairs, over the tracks and down onto the platform. My train was on the board and my ticket was paid for when a rotund chap with an orotund voice and synthetic trousers threw a spanner in the works by yelling across from the other platform that my train had been replaced by his bus, and furthermore, he had:  “a letter signed by the general manager saying he wasn’t allowed to take cyclists as they complain about the pushchairs and start fights.” It being pre-dawn on a Sunday morning I couldn’t see any pushchairs to complain about, but I’ll concede that the obvious glee this florid jobsworth took in telling me, unprompted, that I couldn’t come on his bus did make me feel a little like starting a fight.

I actually climbed on my bike admitting defeat. If there’s no catching a train to Richmond then there’s no getting the District Line to Tower Hill and meeting the Central London CTC at Fenchurch Street. As I pedalled home, however, I felt slightly ashamed of myself for not trying to get to Richmond under my own steam. Admittedly, I didn’t know the way, but I knew it was off to my left somewhere. The train does the journey in 13 minutes, and to make the first District Line service I’d need to be not much slower. Impulsively I peeled off to the left and swooped down the hill, tires hissing in the pre-dawn, all speedy and impressive but for the bit of flapjack stuck in my beard and the enormous crash helmet perched on my bonce.

Despite the early hour I was soon being overtaken by both single-decker local buses and sneering jobsworths in rail replacement double-deckers, all whilst negotiating roundabouts and junctions on a dead-reckoning basis that I hoped was taking me to Richmond. So much for learning to deal with traffic from the experts, it looked like the traffic might deal with me before I even met the experts.

Dead reckoning turned out to be pretty effective and I was soon crossing Richmond Bridge, powering up the gentle slope in pursuit of another early morning cyclist, feeling limber and fast and ready for whatever the day had in store. The final dash downhill into Richmond might have been responsible for my excess of enthusiasm, as I charged into the station and bounced down the concrete steps onto the first tube of the day. It was probably here that I lost my bar end plug.

Still, the main thing was that the ride was still on and that I had made it all the way up the District Line without my bike inconveniencing anyone. That was mainly due to it not even being 8AM by this point. I had an hour and a half to kill and I needed a pee. The only place open in this entire part of London was a Pret that didn’t have customer toilets. The young woman behind the counter was so apologetic she gave me “the first coffee of the day” for free. I was both grateful and amused as I sipped more coffee,making the situation ever more dire while the streets East-ish London  failing to offer any sort of relief, until a Frenchman (rescued by a Frenchman, again!) saw my perplexed look and told me that there was another entrance to Fenchurch Street a few roads away. I rode round there and was pleased to find a proper station with proper conveniences.

The damage had been done however. No, not that sort of damage, I retained my self control. But after an hour spent feeling rather ‘on edge’ my optimistic mood had been replaced by nerves as I walked towards the CTC riders congregating on the concourse. They looked very lean and well equipped. Obviously none of the bikes on display could match the Purple Peril for looks (£200 from Maurice Burton’s De Ver cycles in 1996 if you’re after one) but they all looked lean, lightweight and free from rust. Not one of them was being desperately re-taped for want of a lost bar plug either.

Still, they were a welcoming gang and I managed to have a quick chat before my friend Kate arrived. Kate is the one who assured me that being able to do 20 miles around the local park meant I’d be able to handle a 2 Star. A short train ride to Upminster and it was time to test that theory.

Back on a chain gang
The group was about twenty strong on an assortment of racers, tourers, MTBs, hybrids and one recumbent, and ranged from youthful to gently matured. And they were fast. Not in an aggressive, competitive way, but in a bizarrely unknowing fashion. No sooner had we set off than I discovered that people were able to open gaps on me by freewheeling.  I honestly can’t tell you how that works, but it was undeniable, people who weren’t pedalling were gently easing away from me, who was. I responded in the typically unsophisticated fashion that I have on the bike: I stuck it in a higher gear and pushed a bit harder.

Soon enough we were cruising along country lanes, flat fields on either side of us, and I was feeling faster. The group of twenty had split in two, riding about 60 yards apart. At Kate’s suggestion we moved up from the second group to the first. I kept it in a high gear, just shy of what I’d use on a downhill, and after 30 seconds of pushing just fractionally harder we’d bridged across the gap. My nerves about riding in a more experienced group had vanished. They were friendly, they weren’t hooning it, and I felt great as we turned off the tarmac for the first of the day’s several off road sections.

Perhaps if I hadn’t been feeling great, I might have paid more attention to Kate’s suggestion that I stick it in a lower gear and spin for a while. I’ve said before, I have an irrational dislike for that sort of high cadence, minimal movement riding. It might be because my Dad always told me that you’re wearing yourself out doing all that leg movement for so little bike movement, but I suspect it’s more because my flailing knees look silly. I popped the chain onto the second largest sprocket, the one I usually save for small hills, and left it at that. If I’d gone up one more, or even down one chainring then perhaps I wouldn’t have spent this week Pinocchio like, with legs of badly carved wood, only able to feel like a ‘real boy’ for brief spells after a warm bath. At the time, however, I just got on with it.

The route was an interesting mix of country lanes, cinder paths and out-and-out woodland, albeit with the sort of packed down dirt paths that are solid enough not to be genuinely called off-road. Nevertheless, there was some good natured griping from riders on leaner tyred road bikes. I wasn’t griping, however. I was warming to the experience and by the time we were about five miles into the ride I was actually wondering what the etiquette was for moving up the line. I felt good, and while I was aware that there was a long way to go, I actually felt like I might be wearing myself out by holding back rather than pedalling smoothly and consistently at the speed I wanted. Still, I didn’t want to be the guy who turns a club run into a race, so I kept my place in the line and stuck with everyone else. By the end of the day, I’d be very, very glad I did.

Off the back
Towards the end of the morning I found myself near the back, with only an experienced club rider politely riding behind me, making sure that no one got left behind. Ironically, at this point I was still feeling good and resilient. I was at the back primarily because my awareness of my newbie status had made me give ground and let others go first at every junction and stile. That was about to change.

As we approached Rainham Marshes a brief sidewind actually pushed me into the middle of the road. I thought nothing of it, until we began to angle round to the left and it slowly became a headwind. By this point I was starting to slow down anyway. I wasn’t feeling bad, but we’d passed the twenty mile mark that had previously been my longest ride distance, and I was aware that while I didn’t feel tired, I didn’t seem to be getting much speed from my efforts either. As we rode through the marshes the stronger legs in the group, which was pretty much all of them, began to pull away from me, while another newbie began to fall back to where the back marker and I were. Over the next ten minutes the group clearly reshuffled itself, as the regular riders pulled past me and headed off into the distance, while I set myself the personal goal of not being the slower of the two newbies, a goal in which was aided by the fact that I’d already spent a long time riding gently at the back. Soon I was in a no man’s land, with the main group of riders almost at the limit of my vision in front, and my fellow newbie and the group’s newbie-sitter about as far away again behind. For all my obvious lack of pace, it was really only in the final few minutes of the run when my legs genuinely started to feel tired, which I mistakenly put down to the fact that I’d tried to up the pace when the end came into sight.

In those final few hundred yards I hit a lump in the path and my saddle gave sudden skyward lurch. I was too tired to be really bothered, but I was disturbed-this had happened before on gentle local rides, and I’d fixed it via the enthusiastic application of a monkey wrench. Now, however, it was clear that it wasn’t a just a loose bolt: it was a worn out one. It was as tight as could be, yet still my saddle was making nut-smacking bid for freedom, and this time I still had 25 miles to ride.

The end in this case was the RSPB Cafe, where cyclists and twitchers mingled over carrot and coriander soup and cake wedges so thick you could have launched a BMX off them. 50p pieces were handed in to pay for the admin costs of the ride, and the group again proved how welcoming it was, with plenty of mingling and nattering. My inexperience was revealed by a brief, uninterrupted string of questions “You’ve ridden with this lot before?” “Oh, but you’ve ridden with other groups?” “But you do a lot of miles on your own?” “Ah, but you commute, at least?”

Despite answering “no”   to every question, I’d started feeling good again as soon as we sat down, and great as soon as I’d necked my soup, roll, fruit juice and flapjack.  I felt like those last arduous four or five miles hadn’t happened. In fact, I felt like the 20 miles before that hadn’t happened either. I was fresh, fuelled and ready to get started.

Unsurprisingly, I began to struggle soon after we left the marshes.
Good soup and comfy chairs.

We rode a long, twisting cinder path, liberally scattered with acorns that pinged out from beneath our tires, narrowly missing dog walkers and pedestrians. I used this comparatively gentle stretch to move up the line of riders, reasoning that if I struggled I’d only fall to the back of the group, rather than falling off it.

 A stretch of dual carriageways and roundabouts put the idea to the test, and soon I was among the final few riders on the road, along with my fellow newbie and a couple of old hands who’d been delayed by an inexplicable and unnerving decision to ride the wrong way up a slip road and been forced to clamber over a set of motorway barriers to rejoin the path.

This “gruppetto” soon rejoined the main bunch for another spin through the woods, after which I began falling off the back again as we climbed a very short but unexpectedly steep hill. The gorgeous multi-part clacking of expensive shifters rattled down the line and a few of the old hands even got out of the saddle. My own, significantly more inexpensive shifters plonked the chain onto the top sprocket with their usual  zzzzz-ka-clung, and  I got out of the saddle and began pushing the pedals with all my weight, weaving around bumps and potholes, mindful of my loose saddle, desperately twisting my ever loosening handlebar tape, cursing the lost bar end plug and starting to feel like I didn’t have the strength to lift my weight off one pedal and deposit it on the other. A wobbling glance over my shoulder revealed that my fellow newbie, who’d ridden the morning far harder than I, had climbed off and started walking. Using my upper body as much as my legs, I heaved out another few pedal strokes to bring myself over the brow of the not-that-steep hill, then set off in pursuit of the gang.

I was worried now. Had that hill required just one or two more pedal strokes to reach the top, I’d have been unable to provide them. If I’d tried to shift to the granny ring the loss of rhythm would have stalled me. Pulling on the bars had caused my unsecured handlebar tape to turn into a decorative streamer, and now I had to sit back on the loose saddle.

Maths and morons
The group was now strung out over a very long stretch of road, and as I approached a large roundabout where four motorway slip roads met our country lane. I reflected slightly sourly on the fact that I was going to have to do this alone. Learning to handle big, scary junctions was one of the reasons why I’d wanted to ride with a group, but despite pushing as hard as I could I could only get to within a few metres of the next rider on the road. An immense extra push had me only about two and a half feet behind him by the time we were halfway round the roundabout. I might not be picking up any tips, but at that speed and with that narrow a gap and with our speeds matched, we were for all intents and purposes a single unit:as long as I did what he did, I’d be fine.

Except I wasn’t. Three cars had stopped side-by-side at the top of the slip road, and no sooner had my companion gone past each in turn than all three began to pull out. Apparently they al thought they could move a stationary car through a 30 inch gap when the back end of that gap is travelling at 15MPH (or, to put it into context 950400 inches per hour, or 17.6 inches per second). Put another way, they had under two seconds to take a three or four metre long car through a 30inch gap from a stationary start. That one driver would have such a worryingly poor grasp of speed and geometry is disturbing, but three? Seriously?

I’m never sure whether I think such things are a sign of incredibly widespread stupidity, or incredibly widespread callousness, or which answer I’d find more terrifying. This is not one of those problems wherein everyone’s moving at pace and is unfamiliar with each other’s respective speeds, this is motorists trying to do something that the simple act of driving their car every day should tell them is impossible. Does magic suddenly start happening when you need to save yourself an entire second and a bit (17.6inches per second, remember)? Oh, and aside from anything else, on a roundabout you’re supposed to give way to the right! Even I know that.

Nerves jangling,  I carried on along a sweeping, gently rising curve that saw the rest of the group easing away from me again until I resumed my accustomed position, about 45 seconds ahead of the last two, an unknown distance behind the front group. Fortunately, we regrouped at each major junction, but things were starting to get tough as we turned once again into the wind.

The initial gusts soon had me at the back with my fellow straggler and a pair of friendly riders who carried on an effortless conversation while we puffed and heaved at the pedals. I couldn’t tell you how much of it was aerodynamics and how much was wishful thinking, but after a few minutes of labouring in the wind I got as low as I could over the bars and began a comedically slow attempt  to close the gap between myself and the out-of-sight front group. I pulled away from the final three seemingly millimetre by millimetre. By now I was no longer just slow and a little tired, I was slow and starting to feel genuine discomfort, my leg muscles burning one moment and feeling smokey and insubstantial the next. I must have kept that inching effort up for a good ten minutes before I’d eked out anything resembling a reasonable gap, but when I was easily overtaken by one of the other riders moving to the front it became clear that I didn’t have anything like the pace needed to get me back up to the rest of the group, so I settled into no man’s land again.

The road was rising ever so gently, a gradient that my admittedly inexperienced eye would have put at no more than 2%, but it seemed to go on forever. Gentle curves and high, lush hedges prevented me from seeing what was ahead or behind, and that tiny but constant slope soon began to sap more strength than any steep climb could. It was ridiculous. Six weeks ago I’d been playing on Mt Ventoux. Now I was being beaten witless by a stretch of Essex lane. My saddle soreness had gone well past the usual dull ache and become a raw, burning sensation. So much sharper and fiercer was the pain that I started to wonder if my expectation of saddle soreness in the area was deceiving me, and that I might be rubbed raw and bleeding by the insert in my shorts. I resolved to check at the next stop, if the next stop ever came.

The gradient seemed incessant whilst continuing to be annoyingly all but invisible. Over my shoulder my fellow newbie was drawing closer. I was starting to weave, my thigh muscles felt like they were being pulled apart. I rounded a gentle bend and found that the slope had finally developed into something you could actually eyeball. I had mixed feelings about that. I was perversely relieved that if I had to struggle like this, there should at least be some clearly visible reason for it, but on the other hand a visible incline was obviously steeper than the one that had spent the last twenty minutes ruining my thighs.

On Mt Ventoux, my legs had been fatigued, but never painful. It had been breathing that was difficult. Here, my breathing was fine, but my legs were hurting and enfeebled all at once. It took several hours of Ventoux to force me onto the granny ring, but this final, shallow ramp was enough to make me reach for my left shifter and clunk down to the inner ring. I was deeply upset to discover that I’d left it too late. I couldn’t feel the difference. My legs were fucked beyond the little ring’s ability to rescue them.

Weaving again, I looked over my shoulder and saw my fellow sufferer walking. With great relief I hopped off and with a juddering gait I walked the last ten yards over the crest of the hill.

On the other side there was flat road again. I was well past the ability to “hop back on”, but after heaving my quavering legs back over the bar the going was mercifully easier. Shortly after remounting, I rejoined the rest of the riders at a junction. A minute later the back markers rejoined as well, and we set off on the final, short leg. A few gentle miles to a much needed cup of coffee, a few more to return us to the station. I never got up to anything resembling a decent speed again, but my legs felt better and I wasn’t riding alone anymore. That last hill had been as bad as it got, and final highly caffeinated run in was done gently.

I had an hour on the tube to get home, from one end of the line to the other. In the final few minutes of the journey I thought back to when I set out in the morning, twelve hours before. It had been a long, satisfying day despite the initial discovery that the...trains...weren’t..........running. Sod it.

Saddle loose and wobbling, bar tape flapping, arse burning, legs seized up, brain now too baggy to really be dealing with even suburban traffic, I had another four miles to ride, starting with an uphill stretch. I’d done it that morning in about 15 minutes. It took nearly an hour on the way home.

I knew my legs were feeling weak when an old man with his Tesco bag hanging from his handlebars proved to be an uncatchable minute man. I realised how utterly feeble they had become when I found myself rattling along between a set of double yellows, the thickness of the paint on the road surface was too much for my low torque riding to surmount, leaving me bouncing between them until I finally pulled myself together and pushed a bit harder.

Thirteen hours after leaving, I arrived home. 48 hours after arriving home I stopped limping. The main ride had been 42 miles. I’d done an extra 8 getting to and from the start, making for a neat, round 50. Admittedly I grovelled for half of it, while more experienced riders breezed it, but still, 50 miles feels like a hell of a start.

Once again, I loved every second of it, even the bits I hated.

The Central London CTC were friendly, the route was fun, and again I was left wondering what I could achieve if I replaced half-baked optimism with regular training. So, if goal one was to start riding regularly, goal two was to start riding lengthy group rides and goal fifty six is to have another crack at Mt Ventoux, what’s goal four? I think it’s to try to attain a basic level of fitness and bike maintenance to make my next two star ride just as much fun but a smidgen less gruelling. That gives me three weeks. Watch this space...

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Giro d'Italia 2012: First News

Check that out! That's a stage of next year's Giro. It features the Passo Di Tonale and Aprica as a warm-up for an assault on the preposterously steep Mortirolo, followed by a summit finish and Cima Coppi prize atop the Stelvio.

I thought Angelo Zomegnan was supposed to put an end to these sort of stunt-parcours?

Not that I really mind. I think it looks like a cracking stage, and thanks to the densely-packed Dolomites appearing in most years, we already expect the Giro to pile steep climb after steep climb after steep climb onto some stages.

Having said that, this here stage is going to be the penultimate stage of the 2012 Giro d'Italia. So we'll either see three weeks of politely non-aggressive riding as everyone decides to settle a three week race on one day, a la the 2009 Tour De France or, as this is the Giro, everyone will throw common sense out the window and ride hell for leather to settle things beyond reversal before the penultimate stage starts, which reduces the route above to a sort of torture-for-torture's sake.

Either way, I'm glad to see that getting rid of Zomegnan hasn't robbed the Giro of its ability to keep us all so beautifully bewildered.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Tour of Britain Photos

I wonder if Mark Cavendish screams his way through all Time Trials?.

Ah-Layhoh-pard Trek-uh! Nope, you can't actually make that pronunciation any dafter.

Decent of them to make the catch right where we were watching, eh?

Not every Rabobank rider had a good day.

Mark Cavendish. Screaming.

Still screaming.

Lars Boom riding to second on the stage and first overall.

Lars Boom at the head of the chase.

Corners nicely, doesn't he?

Geraint Thomas, pondering Welshcake recipes.

Kristian House and Ronan McLaughlin led the race for nine laps, but never looked likely to stay away.

I'd have an outside bet on Thor Hushovd to still be wearing that World Champs jersey this time next week, you know. Still reckon my cousin might have had him today, though.

I bet they weren't cornering like that on their TT bikes.

Orange. G. Boom.

I stick my tongue out when I'm concentrating too.

Geraint Thomas and Mark Cavendish coming into the final lap together. Won't be long until that's a regular occurrence.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Screw Twitter: Thoughts on Wiggins and Froome

When it comes to supporting cyclists or cycling teams, I’ve never been particularly motivated by patriotism. Exciting riding styles, strong teams or the ability to dethrone a rider I dislike have always been the major factors in choosing who I support. Except it now turns out that my lack of patriotism has merely been down to the lack of a strong British/Kenyan-British contender.

Like every cycling fan, the performances of Wiggins and Froome over the last three weeks had me gripped. Froome’s attack on Pena Cabarga made me shout myself hoarse. As hope faded over the final week that either man could retake the jersey from JJ Cobo I engaged in ever more convoluted and far-fetched imaginings as I tried to figure out where the Sky pair could get another 13 seconds with fewer and fewer climbs available. In my head, Sky one-twos put Cobo under pressure even on the flat. I knew it would never happen, but my newfound need for a patriotic win saw the borders of sporting credibility stretched like an old sweater.

(Incidentally, I’d like to see “stretching the sweater of credibility” become a counterpoint to “unpacking the suitcase of courage”, as in: “Landis is really unpacking the suitcase of courage here, Phil.” “Actually Paul, I think he’s finished unpacking and started stretching the sweater of credibility.”)

Of course, I was far from the only one to become obsessed with the Sky duo, it seemed like every British cycling fan was paying close attention. Unfortunately it seemed like at least half of them were in the same camp as Twitter’s FestinaGirl, who said of Froome: “shame Sky didn’t appreciate his right to wear the Red Jersey when he had it” among many other pointed comments about Sky’s decision to throw all their weight behind Wiggins even when Froome was in 2nd position overall. The question occurred time and again on cycling related forums: where would Froome be if he didn’t have to work for Wiggins?

My answer to that is that he’d probably have been somewhere in the top twenty.

How Teamwork Works
Don’t get me wrong, over the whole three weeks Froome was the stronger of the two Sky men, and by the end of the race was riding in a delightfully aggressive fashion, but it was Wiggins who rode like a team leader, and Wiggins who rode like a race favourite. It was Wiggins riding in the front two and marking the favourites on Sierra Nevada. It was Wiggins deciding who to leave and who to chase. When the Sky pair chased down Dan Martin and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali on La Covatilla it was Wiggins who assumed leadership of the group, moving to the front and sustaining a pace that burned off Rodriguez, Scarponi and Nieve, and made sure that Nibali couldn’t escape a second time.

Did Chris Froome help his team leader do all this? Of course, but thats what mountain domestiques do. They drag their leader up to the front group on the mountains. Once they’re there, however, it’s the leader who rides with his head up, bossing the field, setting the pace and attacking the weak. That’s what Wiggins did.

Froome’s reputation before this Vuelta was that of a strong climber with limited tactical nous, a penchant for crazy attacks, and a bad habit of positioning himself at the back of the bunch. If he’d ridden his own race, as half the internet seemed to have wished, he’d have flared brightly and then been left to slip down the rankings long before the race reached the Angliru.

Riding Wiggins into the lead is what taught Froome to ride at the front. Sticking with his savvy leader in the mountains is what taught him self-control. He added his own tremendously exciting attacking style to that, tear-arseing out of the bunch in pursuit of bonus seconds or gaps, but the Froome who finished the Vuelta in second place was not a podium rider who’d been held back all race, he was a domestique who’d been remade over the course of it.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what he does next, but for those of you who’d rather he’d bucked the team hierarchy, ridden selfishly and battled his own teammates, may I suggest you watch the Italian team at the Worlds next week?

Friday, 9 September 2011

A tale of two Tours.

Not much doing in the Vuelta today. The Tour de Bushy was fun though. 

In Spain we had a breakaway survive to the finish and a much need win for Lampre courtesy of Francesco Gavazzi.  No one wants to see one of cycling’s faithful old teams go through a grand tour without a win, so it was nice to see the breakaway succeed, even it was more due to the peloton not bothering to chase than the riders ability to stop squabbling and work together. The bunch rolled in over seven minutes later with no real change made to the important end of the GC.

On the other side of Europe I continued my stuttering transition from  armchair cycling fan to cyclist with my third attempt at a ‘training ride’, by which I mean an attempt to ride for a serious distance at a serious speed, rather than just pottering about. 

My first attempt was an enjoyable twenty miles, but a loose saddle meant that I couldn’t ride at speed. Attempt number two did briefly see some decent speed attained and maintained, but the loose saddle struck again, this time accompanied by some newly slipping gears and a return home after a paltry six miles.

Yesterday’s attempt felt closer to what I was after. At twelve miles, it wasn’t a particularly long ride, but I spent pretty much the whole time pedalling hard, fighting for breath. It felt like exercise. It felt like it was making me fit. It felt like a stepping stone on the way to doing twenty miles hard riding, which is the marker I want to achieve before venturing out on group rides with experienced cyclists and getting really serious.

I set off before nine, so the roads to Bushy Park were still hectic with school run, but the park itself was not yet full of little’ns. This played a vital part in allowing me to ride hard the whole time: normally each circuit of the park has a looong slow bit by the play area, where the toddlers enact a sort of Brownian motion between the swings on one side and the ice-cream van on the other, while I weave through them at low speed. Yesterday, I simply rocketed along the path, which was empty but for two people doing some of the strangest, least helpful looking stretches I’ve ever seen: spasmodic, hip-hampered high kicks that looked more likely to strain something than warm it up. Bizarrely, they were still there an hour later, still stretching. Perhaps they’d done some running or Tai Chi inbetween, but it looked to me like they’d merely stopped for a natter in gymwear.

I, meanwhile, had managed to hit a top speed of 21.2 MPH while being chased by a small, excitable Highland Terrier, whose owner yelled at me. I don't know if the yelling was "Stop exceeding the park speed limit", "Stop exciting my Highland Terrier" or "Well done you, you look like you'll have built a reasonable level of cardio-vascular fitness in no time." I'm hoping it was the latter, but just in case it wasn’t, I peeled off onto a short grass track when my second lap approached the same Terrier. This successfully avoided a second chase, but the short grass track turned out to be a long, muddy and bumpy rut that brought my average speed right down and put a fierce ache into my legs.

In any case, I managed a middling distance, a good average speed and neither my fitness nor my lycra embarrassed me, so I’m calling it a successful ride. The plan now is to have another, and another, and another, until it’s a habit. Once I’m habitually riding I’ll start looking into proper nutrition and setting targets.

Meanwhile, today’s Vuelta stage to Bilbao might, might just provide crosswinds, and those crosswinds might just carry the straws fans of Chris Froome and Brad Wiggins are clutching for. Yesterday, my ride was more interesting than the Vuelta. Today, however, might be very different...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Lots of straws to clutch at.

Is Poels still feeling frisky?
I spent the first 13 days of the Vuelta convincing myself that Bradley Wiggins couldn’t be expected to mount a genuine challenge for the red jersey in such a mountainous tour just weeks after breaking his collarbone. Then, after numerous robust performances where he rode comfortably over mountains I’d expected to ruin him, dropped riders I expected to drop him, and most importantly of all, lead from the front, setting the pace and bossing the group, I changed my mind. Nibali may have been the bookies favourite, but it was Wiggins who looked like a leader.

Although his margin in red was slender, his performance was strong enough that I’d started wondering if the real question was not “Can he survive the Angliru?” and more “Will the tabloids christen a Sky one-two Friggins, Woome or Bris?” Presumptious of me, no? The 22% slopes eventually saw Wiggins swaying like an evangelist at a tent revival, while JJ Cobo overcame his unsightly, knock-kneed climbing style to power his way to the top of a mountain that, from a spectator’s point of view, looks even nastier than the mighty Zoncolan.

So where does that leave things? Realistically, only Froome and Wiggins are in a position to attack Cobo, and only Bauke Mollema is in a position to attack Wiggins. Today’s stage was notable only for the confusion at the finish, with sprinters turning hither and thither on a badly signposted run in. But tomorrow won’t need signposts-the finish is on Pena Cabarga, which will loom over the riders. At 6k it isn’t a long climb, but the majority of it is over 9%, with the final K at 14%.

A climb that short and steep would have Joaquim Rodriguez written all over it (figuratively and literally) had his crash today not put a question mark over his back and wrist. More importantly, however, Pena Cabarga is the last summit finish of the Vuelta and the last clear cut chance to shake up the GC. No less a luminary than John Wilcockson is refusing to count Wiggins and Froome out thanks to the time bonuses still available. Until the confusion at the finish today, the 20 second bonus for the winner would have brought Froome level with Cobo if he could take first and the Spaniard not make it into the top three. Even after Cobo’s unexpected tenth in the sprint, the gap between first and second is still only a slender 22 seconds, a gap that could be closed if Froome outperforms him today.

That’s not as unrealistic as it sounds-Cobo’s two time-gaining attacks have both seen him spend a long time off the front grinding away for precious seconds. Even then his most sizeable time gain came when 20% + gradients brought Wiggins almost to a standstill. Cobo isn’t a Rodriguez or Contador who opens a ten or fifteen second gap almost as soon as he turns the pedals, and Pena Cabarga is too short for him to eke out much time if he does get away. Froome and Wiggins aren’t explosive either, but their pretend-its-a-mountain-time-trial approach to climbing has only failed them on the most absurd gradients the race has dished up. In all honesty, I favour Froome and Wiggins to be better placed at the summit of Pena Cabarga than Cobo, on a climb that practically demands that gaps appear between the riders.

Sadly, for all that optimism about the placings, I don’t see the gaps being large enough to overcome the existing deficit, nor do I see Bauke Mollema and Rabobank sitting back and settling for fourth when Wiggins is still within reach. Quite aside from the likelihood that non-GC men like Moncoutie, Montaguti, Moreno and Rodriguez will be contesting the finish, it seems probable that Mollema will also be trying to get in on the action. The chances of the time bonuses falling where they’ll do Sky’s pair any good seems pretty slim with so many riders vying for the summit.

I think today will see the gap between the top four narrow, but the GC remain unchanged. With Rodriguez nursing poor arm, picking a stage winner is harder, but Moncoutie’s 4th place on the same climb last year makes him look good, as does Wout Poels incessant friskiness.