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.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Shameless Plug

Yes, I know, I promised to suffer for your amusement. I have, and I will get round to writing it up soon, but I've been busy. With what? Well, the current issues of Cycling Active and Cycling Weekly both contain contributions from me, and there are a few other pieces in the pipeline for Cycling Active.

Vuelta A Espana 2013 Predictions

There are a lot of reasons why I love La Vuelta. I listed a fair few of them in last year's Vuelta a Espana preview. The main two are probably the deliberate excess of the parcours and the mix of proven riders on  bad seasons having a last stab at salvaging their year, meeting upcoming talent who haven't been blooded in the two bigger grand tours. The combination of the two usually results in some fine racing.

2010? Great battle between Nibali, Anton and Mosquera. 2011? A strong, clever ride from an injury hit Wiggo preceding a scrap between Froome and Cobo. 2012? An attritional war that saw Valverde and Froome drop away before Rodriguez and Contador matched legs and wits, with Rodriguez winning the legs before Contador stole the race with wits. It might not always be pretty, or have have the strongest field, but the Vuelta is rarely dull.

After 2010, Vuelta watchers knew to keep an eye on Tejay Van Garderen long before everyone else. Ditto for Sagan after 2011, and prior to last year's event, we were pondering Quintana's chances. It'll be interesting to see who raises their status in this year's race. Meanwhile, Samuel Sanchez & Joaquim Rodriguez are there to give their teams and careers a final fillip, and Nibali will be trying to repeat his 2010 victory. It's shaping up nicely already, especially when  you look at the bonkers parcours: thirteen mountain stages, one more than last year's ridiculously mountainous route. A quick scan of the stages and their profiles turns up a greatest hits of recent Vuelta climbs, along with a few highlights from recent Tours de France.

Among those highlights, we have an early return to the Mirador de Ezaro, the incredibly short but torturously steep climb that Rodriguez won last year. There's a rerun of the Port de Envalira, Tour de France favourites Port de Bales and Peyragudes, a return to Pena Cabarga, and of course, the Angliru. The long, steep, misty, Wiggo-ruining Angliru that was once rumoured to be impossible for cyclists. About the only thing missing is Lagos de Covadonga, and you can't blame Unipublic for holding back a few treats for next year.

Just in case you're interested, this is Rodriguez and Contador having it out on Mirador de Ezaro last year:

Of course, any overly mountainous route can stifle the racing, like we saw in the 2011 Giro, but I doubt that's what will happen this year. Rodriguez must still be smarting from the way the victory was snatched out from beneath him last year, and must also be aware that every passing season reduces his chances of winning a grand tour. Poor Euskaltel can't really rescue their season, but their riders need to find new teams and Sanchez and Nieve have things to prove, with Nieve having shown flickerings of form recently. Sky's Colombians will be let off the leash for the first time, which will be a last hurrah in black and blue for the departing Uran. Nibali has won a GT already this season but he has enough quality and, hopefully, enough rest, to chase another. There are racers coming, and they'll be coming to race, even if us mere mortals look at the route and emit nothing more than a nervous whistle from the back of our bibshorts.

Podium Predictions
Who's going to win? Tough one. I've been saying for a while now that, at 34, I think Joaquim Rodriguez is probably on the wane. But you know what? I'm going to pick him. He slowly, methodically went from anonymous to podium during the Tour. He's strong on the big climbs and absolutely lethal on the short, monstrous ones like Ezaro and Pena Cabarga.  Ezaro is probably too early in the race and too far from the stage finish to be decisive, but still, this is Vuelta full of good omens for Rodriguez.

I'm going to discount both Nibali and Valverde from podium spots, Nibali because his early season campaign was so good, but his recent appearances have been lacklustre showings accompanied by the old saws that there's still time, things are where they should be, progress is being made etc. I'm discounting Valverde simply because we know he can fade, and we can be damn sure he has no luck. If there's a crosswind, he won't be in the Echelon, if there's a mechanical, he'll fluff the changeover. It's almost like karma is mad at him for some reason. Can anyone think of any reason why fate is pissed at Valverde? Something he might have done that's upset the Gods of Cycling?

I was actually expecting Rigoberto Uran to get the leadership nod from Sky rather than Sergio Henao, and one hopes we're not about to see yet another of Sky's patented dramas over pecking order. It seems unlikely, as the two are a complimentary pairing, and I'd be surprised not to see one of them on the podium. I'll go with Henao, but I wouldn't put it past Uran to find a way of taking some points to OPQS next year despite not being given the leadership.

I'm also going to disregard Scarponi's chances. I know, I know, I'm supposed to go through all the serious GC contenders and weigh them up sensibly, but really, I can't remember the last time he did anything particularly impressive. It's been two seasons since his last stage or overall win in any event, and he's become one of those anonymous, aging riders. In fact, in order to get all the accusations of ageism out of the way in one go, I'm also disregarding Ivan Basso, Chris Horner and Sammy Sanchez.

Other riders I'm supposed to give consideration to probably include Igor Anton, Roman Kreuziger and Bauke Mollema. Guys who have nipped at the heels of the podium placers and should be considered candidates to take a step up. Except I don't think they are... I think the latter two are third week faders,  and Anton is a luckless, crash happy type who will probably come into his own at the end of the race at exactly the point where two preceding weeks of skidding and yo-yo-ing have put him into irretrievable arrears.

Which leaves my third podium spot up for grabs. When you see riders win stages in devastating fashion, it's easy to assume that they will improve to the point at which they can seize a grand tour, which is why the romantic in me ponders predicting a podium spot for a Thomas De Gendt, or a Domenico Pozzovivo, but the realistic part of me (not to mention the part that has seen Pozzovivo time trial and descend) thinks it's unlikely. For consistent performance over three weeks, combined with proven ability to distance competitors, I'm thinking Carlos Betancur. His Giro ride made me expect big things, and this Vuelta might be where it comes good.

So, my podium picks are Joaquim Rodriguez, Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur. I'm thinking stage wins for Dan Martin, Alejandro Valverde and maybe Mikel Nieve.

EDIT: Wow, these predictions went South pretty quickly, didn't they? Mea Culpa.

Just in case you're interested, my Vuelta team in's fantasy league has most of the names I've pegged:

AR  Value: 14.4  Form: 0.00
GC  Value: 29.5  Form: 18.00 In form rider
KM  Value: 12.8  Form: 7.20
DS  Value: 5.8  Form: 0.00
DS  Value: 3.0  Form: 0.00
DS  Value: 7.6  Form: 0.00
KM  Value: 20.6  Form: 1.00
GC  Value: 39.0  Form: 24.00 In form rider
KM  Value: 16.1  Form: 16.80 In form rider

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Bike Events London-Oxford 2013 in aid of St Mungos

What with holidays, the Tour de France and actual work, this post has been brewing for a while, and is perhaps a little late now, but I wanted to write something about the London-Oxford ride, if only to acknowledge the great company I had on the day from Oli and Stu.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that I'd been mildly nervous about the ride. 60 miles is a distance I'd ordinarily be quite happy about riding, but then ordinarily I'd choose sixty comparatively flat miles and do them at a gentle pace whilst stopping for cake and photos. The London-Oxford ride was to be done with people who exercise regularly, maintain high speeds over many hours, day after day, and generally make my own particular brand of cycling look like the enjoyable pottering around the parks that it is. Also, it was going through the Chilterns. Ok, that's not the Alps, but still, there's a good twelve mile stretch where you can always find a hill when you want one.
Syon Park, 7AM, picking the breakfast flapjack from our beards.

Knowing that it would likely be faster and less flat than I'm used to, I actually did the unthinkable and prepared for the ride. Not scientifically or anything, but I at least took all that stuff about training, equipment and nutrition that I'm aware of but usually ignore, and did my best to put it into practice. In the six weeks building up to the ride I made sure I rode pretty much every day (I'd take one day a week off to let my legs recharge, and I missed a few days for a wedding). It wasn't always for very long, between half an hour to an hour and a half usually, but always very hard. The mission every day was to warm up the legs, get myself out of breath as quickly as possible, then stay that way for as long as I had available. I also took to doing clockwise laps of Richmond Park, in order to have longer, draggier ascent rather than the short, steep, sprintable ones you get on the anti-clockwise path.

As everyone always says, having a goal in mind really helps focus you. My previous efforts at "training" (in the sense of riding with the intention becoming better at riding as opposed to simply riding for fun) had always petered out after a few weeks when I realised that I'd rather just go out for a casual spin than attempt to bury myself every day in the hope of making those casual spins longer or faster. This time round, there was a date on the calendar and sort-of goal: don't be a danger to yourself at the finish. Every previous fifty mile plus ride I'd done had ended with me spending the last five or ten miles slightly foggy headed and weaving with fatigue. Not a massive problem on quiet local roads close to home, but I was determined not to negotiate the junctions and roundabouts of in an unfamiliar town centre in such a state.

Having a date and a goal was every bit as motivating as they say. I rode every day, fast. Finding the time to ride, something that had always seemed difficult in the past, simply became a natural part of the day, and after about a fortnight the need to train actually became a desire to. Best of all, I could tell some of it was working. In the early stages I'd climb off the bike and reel around on insubstantial legs that would refuse to hold me up properly for a good fifteen or twenty minutes, during which time I would be gasping for breath. After a month, the same efforts would see me casually hop off the bike and stroll around getting on with my day, my breathing returning to normal within a minute.

For all the confidence that gave me, I still had a few nerves on the day. For starters, none of my efforts had made my climbing any better, and I knew we'd hit the Chilterns after about forty miles. On top of that, after weeks of rain and clouds, we were due 31 degree temperatures and no cloud cover. To make sure I stayed cool and rested, I'd resolved to make use of every rest stop along the way, but shortly after we rolled out of Syon Park it became apparent how impractical that would be - the first stop came in West Drayton after only nine miles. Trying to stick to the plan, I pulled in to the school car park that was supposed to be providing water, cakes and toilets, but I knew the idea was a non-starter. I was actually ashamed of myself for suggesting a stop so early, and for holding up Stu.  I needn't have worried, as the rest stop itself, despite having a ride marshall outside directing people in, was empty. No loos, no drinks, no cake. No people. We'd set off just after eight, intending to get at least a few miles in before the sun was fully up, so perhaps the marshalls hadn't arrived yet.

The initial run out of London was comparatively straightforward. We crossed over the motorway half a dozen times on our way through the suburbs, before slowly starting to see fewer homes and shops, and more trees. I usually get bad legs or a bad chest in the first few miles of a ride, and spend a nervous half hour or so thinking that I won't be able to carry on, before it clears up. Whether it was the training or the warm air, there was none of that. My legs didn't need to bed in, and my lungs were fine, and pretty soon I was in a relaxed enough frame of mind to pick up an inane and involuntary mental game: nicknaming our fellow riders according to the “Girlfriend in A Coma formula: a portly chap dressed head to toe in black became “Fat guy who’s a ninja”. A woman who hadn’t dressed for the weather became “Sunburn in a boobtube”, and then there was the star of the show, “Granny in a Sports Bra”. 

We ran into her well before the five mile mark, and she marked herself out as a notable early on, when she began half-wheeling Oli and I in our attempt to catch up with Stu. It wasn't hard work or anything, but for several miles we had been naturally overtaking people, and people had been naturally overtaking us, as the 600 odd riders involved found their comfortable pace. This was the first point in the day when an overtaking move wasn't natural, when we had to decide to do it. She was grey haired, riding a sturdy Dutch bike with a basket, and us two on our road bikes, Oli wearing  Dulwich Paragon kit, had to actively pass her. It wasn't the last we'd see of her, either.

Shortly after being half-wheeled by a pensioner, Oli decided it was time to do things properly, and with a promise of beers in Oxford, he clicked his Garmin and shot off up the road, leaving Stu and I to a more leisurely pace. Pace became an interesting indicator of who was riding. Every ten minutes or so, Stu and I would gently glide past groups of people who were obviously fundraisers rather than cycists - they'd presumably be running next week, abseiling the week after, hopping from event to event raising money for good causes. Then there were our own closest kin, cycling enthusiasts: padded pants, a well maintained bike, and an enjoyment of getting out and putting some miles in. Then there were the serious cyclists, the ones that overtook us the way we overtook the fundraisers. In ones or twos, in club kits, on very expensive bikes, they blew past us at speeds we couldn't have maintained for more than a few miles. At one point a gang of riders in De Ver cycles kits rocketed past us in the traditional double line, yelling instructions, and with enough combined drivetrain noise and displaced air to be a louder presence on the road than the flatbed lorry that had overtaken us earlier. Their kit was cooler though, and they didn't yell "Fucking cyclists", so their overtaking move was treat to watch, rather than a pain in the neck.

After about twenty miles, we turned into Burnham Beaches, a small forest in Buckinghamshire that seemed to mark the point of transition between a route that was occasionally pretty into a route that was unfailingly so. My fondness for Burnham Beeches might be down to its sunlit mixture of deep woods and open, grassy meadows, or the fact that the road through it tended to dip and swoop gently downwards, allowing us to descend in that sweet spot in which you move effortlessly fast, but fall short of the sort of descending that makes you rest a nervous finger on the brakes. On the other hand, I might just have loved Burnham Beeches for the cafe where we got coffees and bacon sandwiches. (Don't give me that look, I bet the salt helped see off cramps later.)
A sandwich stop in a sunny forest. That's a good reason to ride a bike, isn't it?

The day's first hint of drama came shortly after Burnham Beeches, when we rode past a string of marshalls atop and most of the way down a hill, warning us of a steep descent and a sharp left hand turn. None of them mentioned that the sharp left was halfway down the steep hill rather than at the bottom of it. As a timorous descender, I was already hanging on the brakes and was able to make the turn but Stu, with his more exuberant approach to hills, had no chance.He sailed straight past it, and had to stop, turn and climb back up the hill onto the side road, all in completely the wrong gear. No harm done, but it did plant the seed of an idea that maybe the route, advertised as being of only middling difficulty, might perhaps have a few sections that were too technical for middling riders.

A short climb later, and the seed began to sprout. As we crested a hill just short of the halfway point at Marlow and were warned by a marshall to go slowly down the other side as there had been an accident. What he didn't mention was the cause: an incredibly long, steep descent with a right hand bend halfway down that had enough trees shielding its exit to look like a tight  but not alarming 90 degree bend. Until you went into it, of course, at which point we discovered that it was a genuine hairpin, bending right back on itself in almost no distance. The presence of an ambulance and several cars on the corner gave us a visual warning and took up enough space that we had to take the bend in the oncoming lane, very warily, but you had to wonder what must have been happening to riders who'd been descending into the bend all morning with no sense of where it ended. 

As it turned out, the poor chap in the ambulance wasn't the only one to have come a cropper, as Stu and I arrived at the rest stop in Marlow to find Oli, caked in blood, looking only mildly flustered, and complaining that his Specialized Allez now looked like a clown's bike. As he would later describe it:

"Steep downhill, tight right hander turns out to be a proper hairpin, brake, brake off, brake, brake off, tyres skidding, now whole bike skidding, brake off, corner corner, brake on, slide slide, woah shit. Realise none of life's boundless possibilities involve me making it safely round this bend. " 

Not only had he crashed into the bend, but while he'd been dusting himself down, someone else had done exactly the same thing, and neither of them were the chap in the ambulance, so we knew there had been at least three crashes on that corner in the space of fifteen minutes. I was suddenly much less ashamed of my timid descending.

The free mechanic service laid on by Bike Events soon had Oli's bike in good nick again, and he eyeballed my gears as well, for which he received a well deserved £15 in tips. He also reawakened my nerves about the Chilterns, pointing out that our next hill was steep at the bottom and very very long, while the one just after it was only a little shorter, would hit 20% gradients and was, as he put it, "relentless".  I don't know if he was winding me up about the 20%, but I had a grumpy urge to demand my ten quid back from the grizzled Cassandra.

Oli's attempt at a good time had been scuppered in the crash, so we set off as a trio, planning to treat the rest of the journey as a relaxed, sociable spin. As it turns out, the first hill was...ok. Not comfortable, but I had a few gears to spare, overtook a fair few people who were off and pushing, never felt like climbing off and never lost contact with the guys, at least not while the road was going up. They left me trailing on the descent, and then slogging along through the wind on the false flat that led to the next stop, at a pretty country pub.

From here we had our next misadventure. As the day wore on, marshalls and route signs had become steadily scarcer, until we found ourselves at a crossroads, not twenty yards on from the last rest stop, with no idea which way to go. One road went up, the other down. We chose down. Everybody else chose down. For the next three miles we whizzed along between sunlit cornfields, through little rustic hamlets, effortlessly picking up the speed on the mild incline, accompanied almost continuously by the unstructured carping of a gang of cockney cyclists who thought we were going the wrong way. They were right of course, but they didn't half make a meal of it. Eventually, after a brief roadside confab, we turned back. Every two minutes or so we'd encounter another pack of riders and go through the same palaver of coss-referencing the tiny cardboard maps with the rusting road signs to convince them that we'd all gone wrong. Most accepted the idea, a few forged on regardless, but it was striking how many people had chosen the downhill fork and had to be persuaded to turn back. Clearly, people weren't in the mood for hills.

The next thing we came to was a hill. A big one. With an awful, gravel-flecked crown and crumbling, mud covered gutters, leaving just a narrow strip of worn, twig strewn tarmac as the best path up a hill that was steep and long. One might almost say relentless.

Greeting the uphills with the same glee as the downhills, Stu was quickly out of sight. Bless him, Oli stayed nearby and offered climbing tips and encouragement as I attempted to drag myself up the climb to Christmas Common with an in-the-saddle effort. I had the momentary satisfaction of overtaking a couple pushing their bikes, until I saw that they were riding fixies, and was forced to marvel at how strong they must have been to ride their shirt-button sprockets as far up the hill as they'd managed. Passing them, I found myself not so much settling into a rhythm as maintaining a desperate scrabbling at the pedals. The trees on either side provided lots of shade, and the view between them across fields and grasslands was a delight, but within a few hundred yards I was missing it all, staring at the stem and trying my utmost to keep it going. I'm surprised I made it as far as I did.

Eventually I was overtaken by a big Mercedes, and as is often the case when I'm too tired on a bike, the presence of a car brought home to me the fact that I was onboard, pedalling, but definitely not in control. If I started to weave or wobble, I wouldn't have the strength to right myself. That's fine on an empty road, but with traffic around...? I stopped. I got off and did the push of shame. Oli disappeared up the road and I clacked my way up the hill, consoling myself now and again by looking back at the two other groups of walkers in the distance behind me. Had the car not encouraged me to climb off, I could perhaps have kept turning the pedals for another minute or so, and I was strangely pleased to see that the remainder of the hill would have taken a lot longer to climb than that. Regardless of the car, I wouldn't have made it, so instead of feeling cheated, I got to make a mental note to practice hill repeats, then pushed on.

Over the top of the hill I rejoined Stu, Oli and a whittled down contingent of the unhappy Cockneys, who had obviously cheered up a little for seeing other people suffer. We had mostly rolling roads for a few miles, which occasionally feigned a steep upward turn to put the fear into our still tired legs, but never maintained a proper incline for more than a dozen yards or so, luckily.

Coming downhill, on the other hand, was another time when the word relentless could have been applied. I'd been warned that the descent into Watlington could be a bit of a rascal, and so it was. Only a few turns, tight but not quite full-on hairpins, and all strung along a road that had only two gradients: steep and precipice. Ok, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but I span out my littlest gear with a few dozen yards of the descent, which canted forward steeply just long enough to get you up to an unnerving speed before alternating between long straight ramps and short steep turns that seemed to go on forever. 

I was travelling far, far faster than I was comfortable with, and soon found myself braking regularly. Sadly, this was the sort of long, long hill where bringing your speed under control takes just two or three seconds, but another two or three seconds off the brakes is all it takes to have it go out of control again. Soon I took to just hanging on the brakes permanently, until a few more minutes into the descent, when I realised that it wasn't going to level off anytime soon. The old saw about constant braking on descents overheating the air in your tires and causing a blowout suddenly became the only thought in my head, and I began alternating my braking patterns between feathering the front, feathering the rear, squeezing the front, squeezing the rear and frequent, terrifying bursts of just letting gravity do what it wanted. At no point could I ever stay off the brakes long enough to convince myself that they would have cooled down from the last grim deceleration into a corner, but at the same time I could never get comfortable enough with the speed of the descent to just lay off them entirely. Finally, after another unnerving right hander the road straightened, and I could see one final steep ramp followed by a long, straight, flat road. I let go of the brakes, hit a ludicrous speed on the final incline, and must have freewheeled along the flat for the best part of a minute before my speed returned to anything resembling a sensible velocity. 

By this point, Stu had long since disappeared, and Oli had set off to catch him not long after. In the flat roads leading out of Watlington towards Chalgrove, there were probably half a dozen of us, strangers, all within sight of each other, close enough to follow, but far enough apart that we could each be said to be riding alone. 

I took stock of my legs and felt extremely positive. Back at the forty mile mark, I could honestly say that I didn't feel like I'd done anything more strenuous than riding 500 yards to Tesco. Now, with a five mile diversion, another few miles of the intended route and one ghastly hill climb in my legs, I still wasn't doing too badly. I didn't want to hit anymore hills, obviously, but I've felt worse after shorter, flatter rides. I put this down to a combination of training and eating-I'd been sure to eat something, a sandwich, a gel, a clif bar, every twenty minutes or so. Naturally, it was at this point that I realised that the last time I'd eaten had been back at the pub.

Now, I can ride no-handed for a few seconds if I need to, and one-handed for as long as you like, so eating on the ride is rarely a problem for me. At this point however, all I've got are Clif jelly sweets in my jersey pocket, squidged together and unopened. Extracting, unwrapping, separating and eating them requires more dexterity than I have one-handed, and will take longer than I can manage no-handed, especially as we're back on a main road. I chug along for a mile or so, wrestling with the dilemma. I'm alone, but I have riders in  sight. If I stop to eat, I'll lose sight of them and have to ride completely alone. If I don't stop, is there the possibility that I'm going to start suffering? I did an exploratory test, upping my cadence, and was pleased to find that I still had some speed in my legs, and it didn't wear me out to use it. I could easily stop, unwrap a few sweets, then turn on the afterburners and catch up with the little string of riders I was in.

Twenty minutes later I arrived alone at Chalgrove School, having lost sight of the other riders within seconds of stopping and never seen them again despite slogging my guts out. And all to make sure I kept my calorie intake up, despite being less than twenty minutes from a school playground where friendly cycling fans were serving homemade burgers and cakes. I stood in the playground for a few minutes, not getting off the bike. I hadn't seen Stu or Oli for a long time, and didn't want them to have to wait too long for me further down the road, but at the same time, I really wanted to stop here, where there were other people, for a little while. Fortunately, my dilemma resolved itself when Stu appeared round the corner, clutching a fistful of cakes and nodding at the sports hall: "They've got the Andy Murray game on in there." he said casually, as if he hadn't been absent for the last hour, tormenting mamils.

We skipped the tennis, filled up on junk food, and set off on the final ten miles or so.

After a day in which the organisers had excelled themselves by consistently finding traffic free, picturesque roads to ride on, the final run into and through Oxford was a shock. You don't think of Oxford as having industrial estates, or dual carriageways, or big ugly roundabouts, but it turns out to have a few, and we saw them as we made our way into the town centre. You know Oxford town centre, right? Nice wide road, narrow pavements, and a tourist count in the trillions? As you'd expect, the final few miles were a mess of bus dodging and kamikaze pedestrians stepping blithely out into the road without looking. I was tired enough to find it mildly unnerving, but if I'd been as tired as I have been at the finish of some rides, it would have been terrifying, I wouldn't have had the reactions to keep dodging my way down the assault course of the final run through town to Oxpen meadow, where we were greeted, delightfully, with IG Markets London Nocturne cowbells and big, cold beaker full of Prosecco. 

Oli, having beaten us to the finish by a reasonable margin and been to the medical tent to have his wounds dressed, managed to join us just as Granny in a Sports Bra came chugging across the finish line, moving at the same speed and looking as unflustered as she had 60 miles previously, although she'd lost the shopping bag from her bike basket along the way.

Now, I won't pretend I wasn't tired, as I definitely was. I might have been able to get back on the bike and ride a little further, but I certainly didn't want to, so while Stu and Oli climbed back in the saddle to head over to the pub, I hung my bike from the carrier and got a lift to the boozer. Nevertheless, I was pretty enthused.  Oli had proved that you can body surf on tarmac. I disproved the theory that your tires will explode if you brake for ten whole minutes of descending. Stu proved that you can look like a Nam veteran and ride like a pro on a bike that predates the Boer war. It was lovely day out, and I couldn't wait to do another one. Which is probably why I agreed to do London to Cambridge this coming Sunday. This time, of course, I haven't been training at all. Oh dear...

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

RideLondon-Surrey Classic 2013 Photos

Bushy Park was off the route this year, so we watched from the Sigma Sport end of Kingston Bridge.

Henry VIII in a roller. Because of reasons.

Gorilla on a Triumph. Also because of reasons.

The breakaway heads toward the Hampton Court intermediate sprint. Jon Mould (back left, in blue) will take it.

Madison-Genesis rider keeps his eyes on the exit of the corner.

And now a bunch of the bunch...

It's not a set of race photos without some Moto riders doing a Judge Dredd impression...

...or a team car shot of the local heroes.

After the race headed off into Surrey, it was amazing how many cycling fans felt the need to shop for a new telly...

...and how willing John Lewis were to cater to them.

Monday, 29 July 2013

In which I talk about bonking...

Cycling. As a sport, it's just about the toughest in the world. As a hobby it can run from gentle to exhilarating to infinitely challenging. It's a sport in which it's possible to burn so much energy that your body uses up every calorie you've given it on the ride, every calorie it has stored in previous days, and begins liquifying fat in a desperate attempt to meet the demands you're placing upon it. And what do we call that spell during which your body has no more calories left? When your eyes go blank, your muscles tremble, and your bike weaves? That moment that has cost champions their crown and lesser riders their ability to keep pedalling?



Leaving aside the fact that anyone who was a teenager in the late eighties/early nineties is sniggering childishly behind their hands, it's hardly a word that sums up the heroic lengths that lead to it occurring. After all, calorie debt might be a catastrophic mistake, but it's one you have to be very tough and hard working to make. And you can't rename it. Hunger Knock? No one uses that. I've seen people trying to steal the term Hitting the Wall from Marathon running as well, and it never catches on. It's always bonking. "Can I borrow a gel? I'm bonking" "Attack now, he's bonked." 

Everyone is talking about bonking right now, partly to speculate about what might have happened to Chris Froome if he hadn't grabbed a few illegal energy gels from Richie Porte in the Tour, and partly due to Frank Strack's assertion in the latest issue of Cyclist that "Riding through a bonk is a rite of passage that each cyclist should strive for."

Now, I've got a confession to make. I'm pretty sure I've never bonked (stop giggling at the back). I've been exhausted on the bike, reduced to painfully turning the pedals over, weaving even on pretty flat roads, but whenever that's happened it's always been at the end of a very long and calorie filled day. I might be wrong, but I'm inclined to think that my worst times on a bike have come from fatiguing my leg muscles rather than failing to fuel them.

With that in mind, I'm setting out tomorrow to bonk, deliberately. This blog pretty much came into being to document an amusing cycling misadventure, and it seems like high time to document another. I shall be heading for Richmond Park, rather than the open roads, and I will attempt to ride myself into calorie debt for the sake of science, or an amusing blog post, whichever seems likely to be more fun. Naturally, I will have some pies in my jersey to alleviate the knock once it occurs. Watch this space.

EDIT: Ok, might take a little longer to do this than expected. Ever since switching from SPDs to Look pedals, I've been having a bit of bother with my knees. Turns out a bit of bother becomes a lot of bother when you spend a couple of hours chugging up the local molehills, and with a big ride coming up next week, it's no time to be crocked.

Never fear, I shall take some Nurofen today, raise my saddle tomorrow, and ruin myself for your amusement early next week.

Winning: Grounds for Suspicion?

When I wrote about my thoughts on WADA's reasoned decison against Lance Armstrong last year, I started by saying that there were too many contradictory feelings pulling at the structure of what I was writing, and that my best hope was to splurge - to present an account of my feelings as opposed to an actual essay or editorial. I think I'm going to use the same approach for writing about Chris Froome. My confusion when it came to Armstrong stemmed from the fact that I condemned him for doing things that I'd forgiven other riders for. My confusion with Froome comes from the fact that I thought he looked suspicious way back during the 2011 Vuelta a Espania, but that I'm getting really annoyed with everyone being suspicious of him now.

There are plenty of conflicting opinions on Chris Froome - Antoine Vayer has declared that his performances are suspicious, L'Equipe has said that they aren't, the French Senate think it's unfair to have a whispering campaign against him, and the roadside fans have made their confusion and suspicion known with a variety of banners, the simplest of which was also the most expressive, saying only "Froome?"

What exactly has Chris Froome done that's so suspicious? Well, he's won the Tour de France for starters - a feat previously managed by, among others, Lance Armstrong, Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, Floyd Landis and Bjarne Riis.

To be fair, it is also a feat manged by Carlos Sastre, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans, none of whom (not even sweary Bradley) have been the subject of as much of the suspicion that Froome has been under. The fact is, Evans, Wiggo and Sastre all looked vulnerable while winning. Evans had to dig deep to rein in Andy Schleck's multi-mountain attack. Sastre got his victory by spending one good day attacking his teammate, and for all Wiggo's dominance in the TT, we'd all seen what happens to him on particularly long or steep climbs - his TdF win was made possible in part by the fact that France has no Angliru!

Froome, on the other hand, created an air of dominance in this year's Tour de France, dashing away from the best climbers in the world on the steep stuff, whilst also winning one time trial and coming second in another. No wonder he's been lumped in with the TdF winners who crushed their opponents at the time, and then had their victories asterisked or struck out further down the line. There were times when his team looked vulnerable, and he could have paid a hefty price for forgetting to eat, but in terms of strength compared to his rivals, he looked tougher than the rest by a significant margin.

I'll confess right now, there were moments during this year's Tour, especially during the Time Trials, where I was rooting for Froome to lose, and greeted his first and second places with the annoyance a grown up would show to a child who doesn't know any better. "Don't win it!" I'd be thinking at Froome, "Don't you know what it will look like if you smash everyone against the clock as well as on the mountains?" This tends to be my benchmark for being suspicious of riders, the TGTD (too good at two disciplines) flag.

Remember 1999? Remember watching Armstrong and wondering how a guy previously known only as a Classics rider suddenly had three weeks' worth of stamina and the ability to beat the best time triallists against the clock and the best climbers on the mountains? Thus far the only thing we can prove against Chris Froome is the sin of looking a little too much like Lance Armstrong. Which is not the same as using Armstrong's methods, but goes a long way towards explaining why people are so suspicious of him.

Of course, Armstrong's USPS/Discovery teammates were also doped up to the eyeballs, and were capable of squeezing the life out of the race, a charge that has been laid at Sky's door in previous Tours, but was pretty far from the truth this year - sure, they dominated a few stages, but they also collapsed quickly and completely on the second Pyrenean stage, got monstered by the crosswinds, and could muster progressively fewer riders on the front as the Tour wore on. A Postal-style invulnerable superteam they definitely were not.

Where Armstrong's Tours looked suspicious because his previous was all in one day races, Froome has been given a lot of grief for having no previous at all. To me, this is one of the weaker bases for suspicion. Sure, when Bjarne Riis waited until his early thirties to start challenging Indurain in the time trials and destroying the entire peloton in the mountains, that looked a bit shaky, but Chris Froome is 28. It's not like he has decades of being a water carrier to make his elevation to star look suspicious. He won a stage race, the Tour of Mauritius, in his final year as an amateur, turned pro in 2007, spent the traditional couple of seasons grovelling like a newbie, got his first grand tour podium in 2011, another in 2012 and then took a win in 2013. Compare that to, say, Jan Ullrich, who turned pro in '95, got a podium at the Tour in '96, and won it by over seven minutes in '97, and tell me again that it's Froome's development that looks suspicious. I'd argue that, even leaving the Bilharzia infection aside, we've seen Froome grow into the role of Tour winner, from being a rider with, as I've said numerous times before here and here, more strength than savvy.

The "He must be doping, he's got no previous" argument has cropped up a few times recently, in connection with Riche Porte and Nairo Quinatana. With Porte, it came largely from fans and was easily dismissed here. With Quintana, it was particularly galling, as Universal Sports announcers Steve Schlanger and Todd Gogulski questioned Quintana's sporting ethics on air for no other reason than he'd "come out of nowhere". It's hard to think of a more nauseating piece of cycling journalism in recent years. For starters, any casual cycling fan could have told them that Quintana had won stages in the previous years Vuelta and Dauphine, and more dedicated fans would have probably pointed out that he's also won the Route du Sud in 2012, the mountains jersey of the Volta Catalunya in 2011 and the Tor de L'Avenir in 2010. More annoying is the fact that for ten years barely any US journalists bothered to question the fact that a Texan with an all American name was pulling off cycling feats far beyond anything he'd ever shown any sign of being capable of, but as soon as a chap from south of the border starts winning races, suddenly this duo thinks they're Woodward and Bernstein, asking hard questions.

The idea that previous form is a good way of assessing whether a rider is cheating is flawed. It doesn't take into account maturing riders, or changing teams, or the fact that cycling might actually be getting cleaner, allowing previously overshadowed riders a chance to shine now that the playing field is marginally more level. I can find you cheats who were consistent throughout their careers, and cheats whose form vacillated wildly. I can do the same for clean riders.

The fact is, as Podium Cafe has recently pointed out, neither previous form nor displays of strength prove anything anymore, simply because we have no benchmark for watching clean riders in a clean peloton. The last time we saw a clean peloton (by which I mean one that was using amphetamines and sleeping pills rather than EPO and blood transfusions) was in the era of steel bikes, steak for breakfast, big gear riding and no TT bars. We have an idea of what clean cyclists looked like before cycling got scientific, and an idea of what dirty riders looked like when they could get away with anything, but very little idea of what clean riders look like in an age of scientifically aggregated "marginal gains".We have no way of knowing whether a rider stands out because he's cheating, or because his rivals have stopped cheating, and with no guideline for suspicion, we've entered an age in which winning itself is seen as adequate grounds for speculation.

We know that cycling hasn't entirely cleaned up its act, the positive tests at the Giro proved that, and we also know that it's possible for riders to evade detection. This uncertainty has led us into a situation where riders are guilty until proven innocent. The constant talk about who is or isn't doping is potentially as damaging to the sport as the old system of omerta in which doping wasn't mentioned at all. After all, if clean riders are going to be jeered, interrogated and pissed on regardless, doesn't the moral victory of riding clean start to feel hollow? If the only reward for riding clean is to be treated like a doper anyway, you might as well find a a way of guaranteeing some wins to go with it.

In the days when the majority of riders were doped but we didn't talk about doping, you could at least kid yourself that some winners were clean. These days, with a new generation of riders outspokenly riding clean and a greater chance of clean victories than we've had in years, we've somehow all decided to treat every victory as if it was doped. It's the most hopeful period we've had in cycling for many years, and the fans and cycling media are treating the sport as if it's beyond hope.

While I'd never advocate a return to the days of omerta, I think these current days in which a lot of fans choose to believe that every winning ride is a doped one comes dangerously close to creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.