Archive for December, 2013

In praise of Sir Cav

28 December 2013

I’m going to go against the grain here, but my nomination for the outstanding sporting achievement of 2013 goes to Mark Cavendish for his performance in the Giro. It was easy to overlook, because British eyes tend to focus on the Tour de France, where he won only two stages, more than once being beaten for speed by Marcus Kittel. (The fact that this seems like under-performance says something of the stellar standards that Cavendish has set for himself, and for us. Before Cavendish, the only British rider to win two stages in a Tour de France was Barry Hoban.)

In the Giro, though, he won all of the five stages that were designated as sprint stages, also collecting the points jersey for the most consistent rider of the race.

It’s hard to convey the scale of this as a sporting achievement: maybe it’s a bit like taking all 10 wickets in a cricket innings, or scoring a double hat-trick in a football (soccer) match – except that to do it in a Grand Tour means bringing your best game on five different days, on different stages, in different racing situations, in different weather conditions. And it means staying in the race in the mountains, dragging yourself over the climbs even in snow.

Take for example his 100th career win, during the Giro in pouring rain in the stage to Treviso. (See the video highlights – with Italian commentary – at the top of the post). He’d used his team to keep the race together as they approached the final kilometres, but they’d run out of energy by the time they got to the final kilometre, so he used the slipstream of the other teams to launch his attack. (He won the World Championship title in the same way, using the Australian sprint train as a springboard.)

When he won again the following day, his Omega Pharma Lotto team set him up perfectly, with the kind of leadout train that his former team, HTC, had perfected.

His emphatic victory in this year’s Giro’s points competition – missed by a single point last year – made him a member of a club of only five riders who have won the points competition in all three Grand Tours: the others are Abdoujaporov, Eddy Merckx, Petacchi, and Laurent Jalabert.) Cipollini is missing because he rarely finished Grand Tours, being famously allergic to going uphill.) In the Tour de France, Cavendish is, similarly a member of an elite group of five riders who have won stages in five successive Tours.

43 stage wins in the Grand Tours (Tour de France, Giro, Vuelta), means he’s now third in the all-time sprinters list for Grand Tour wins, behind the Italians Petacchi (48) and Cipollini (57).  His tally of 25 Tour de France wins puts him third equal, with Andre Leducq, behind only the five times winners Bernard Hinault (28) and Eddy Merckx (34). The other three all had time trial Tour wins to their name, so Cavendish has already won more road stages than any other Tour rider. Ever. He is the most successful sprinter in Tour history, in terms of stage wins and also in the opinion of the French sports paper L’Equipe. The milestones keep ticking past.

Road sprinting isn’t just about speed. There’s a lot a more involved: technique, craft, and guile. Like good comedy, it’s also about timing. His second stage win in this year’s Tour de France was a case in point. A day after being outpaced by Kittel, he used his team to split the race in a crosswind and leave Kittel in the trailing group on the road. When another team, Saxo Tnkoff, repeated the trick later in the stage, Cavendish made sure that he and two teammates went with them, memorably explaining afterwards that “When echelons form [in crosswinds] it’s similar to falling through ice… you’ve got five seconds to save yourself or it’s all over.”

Cavendish, as Rod Ellingworth explains in his book The Rainbow Project, is a rider who lives for winning.

In a memorable passage, Ellingworth brings a coach’s eye to Cavendish’s technique:

He doesn’t sit right behind the the rider who is in front of him. He’s not straight behind their back wheel; he sits slightly to one side. It’s as if he was riding an elimination race on the track, so he’s got room to move out. That means he creates space for himself all the time; he’s got room to come back and get onto the wheel if he knows it’s his teammates and he wants to get it; he can latch onto the wheel of a rival if he’s coming past, or he can just bluff by constantly moving from one side of the wheel to another. [p.160]

Cavendish was awarded an MBE in 2011 – in the same year he won the World Championship and became BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He explained with a touch of Manx humour to a Norwegian journalist trying to understand the British honours system, “You can call me Sir Cav.” Cavendish is a world class sprinter at the top of his game, making cycling history in front of our eyes, as Richard Williams reminded us in a review recently. We’re lucky to be around to watch him.

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The banana skin and the manhole

14 December 2013

There’s a story about a conversation between the Hollywood screenwriter Charles MacArthur and Charlie Chaplin. 

“How, for example, could I make a fat lady, walking down Fifth Avenue, slip on a banana peel and still get a laugh? It’s been done a million times,” said MacArthur. “What’s the best way to get the laugh? Do I show first the banana peel, then the fat lady approaching, then she slips? Or do I show the fat lady first, then the banana peel, and then she slips?”

“Neither,” said Chaplin without a moment’s hesitation. “You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.”

There was an excellent piece of banana skin and manhole business in the last but one show in the current series of the BBC comedy Hebburn, which has just finished. (UK readers can find it on iPlayer for another couple of weeks). Without giving away any spoilers, the McGuffin of the story was an edition of the Telegraph magazine in which there was an extract from Jack’s secret diary of his wife Sarah’s pregnancy. Jack calculates that no-one in Hebburn – not an affluent town – reads the Telegraph, and reluctantly shreds his own copy. 

But – of course – a copy arrives in town, and gets left by mistake on the sofa in a recording studio where Jack’s sister happens to be (banana skin). But before she sees it, the sound engineer scoops it up and takes it out with the other rubbish. From then on the plot ticks inexorably towards the manhole moment and the discovery of the offending article by a friend of Sarah’s. You know it’s going to happen, but you don’t know how or when: it creates a point of comic tension.

I like Hebburn, not least because it’s blessed by the acting of Gina McKee and Vic Reeves. Although the second series is less dark than the first, it’s managed to develop the characters so they feel fuller (they could easily have descended into thin North-eastern cliches). You also know immediately that the scriptwriters, who come from the area, like their characters rather than regarding them as clotheshorses to hang jokes on (Little Britain, anyone?). I also like the fact that their lifestyles in the show correspond with how they might be in actual life; these are people who live in post-crisis Osborne-land, who don’t have much money, and the storylines and quite a lot of the humour reflect that. In contrast, when you watch Big Bang Theory you wonder how Penny, working as a waitress on minimum wage, manages to afford to pay for an apartment on her own when Sheldon and Leonard, both better paid, have to share. Or at least I do.  

The photo of the cast of Hebburn at the top of this post comes from its production company, Baby Cow Productions, and is used with thanks.  

The blues and the whites

13 December 2013

Watching a fine documentary about the blues guitarist Bill Broonzy on BBC4, I realised for the the first time how political he was.

Two examples. Invited to play in the Spirituals to Swing concert at the Carnegie Hall in 1938 with jazz and blues luminaries such as Count Basie, Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing and Sonny Terry, he sang a version of “Just a dream” in which he imagined, in front of a well-heeled largely white audience, of being invited to the White House to meet the President. At a time when much of the US was still segregationist, this was incendiary stuff, in the same way that ‘Only in America’ was flammable 30 years later. But he saved himself from lynching by the construction: it was ‘just a dream’.

Broonzy served in the US Army in World War I but like other black soldiers who served (in both wars) he returned to the US to find that nothing had changed, that America was as racist as ever. His response was to write “When will I be called a man”:

When I was born into this world, this is what happened to me
I was never called a man, and now I’m fifty-three
I wonder when,
I wonder when,
I wonder when will I get to be called a man

To a whole people used to being routinely addressed as “boy” throughout their adult life, the meaning would have been obvious. As indeed it was when Dylan wrote that innocuous-sounding line – innocuous, at least, to British ears – about “How many roads must a man walk down before they’ll call him a man”, 40 years later.

Given how well schooled Dylan was in the history of American folk and country blues, it seems unlikely that he didn’t know he was quoting from Broonzy. I’m not the first person to make this connection. And as I’ve mentioned here before, “Blowing in the wind” ended up being an inspiration for Sam Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which in turn opened the way for a whole generation of black political music during the 60s and 70s. Culture’s always flowing, finding a way to make its own connections.