Archive for the 'cycling' Category

‘Eddie, they’ll arrest you’

16 September 2017

There is a fabulous snippet of cycling history in the latest edition of Rouleur, which has a Spanish theme. It profiles the former Basque rider Txomin Perurena, a Tour de France King of the Mountains winner in 1974 and twice Spanish road race champion. Perurena rode for the Basque team sponsored by drinks company Kas, and was a contemporary of the great Eddie Merckx.

The story is about a stage of the 1974 Tour that crossed the border into Spain. Perurena:

We’d taught him [Mercx] Euskera, which is even more difficult than Flemish. Well, not all of the Basque language, only one phrase: “Gora Euskadi Askatuta” (‘Long live the freedom of the Basque country’.) It was Santi Lazcano who had taught him, and all Mercx could think of doing was to start shouting it in the middle of the pack when the Tour got to Spain, a stage that ended in La Seu d’Urgell. 

“You’re crazy, Eddie”, we would tell him, “if the Guardia Civil hear you, they’ll arrest you.” … It was 1974 and Franco was still alive. Spain was still a dictatorship.

Perurena’s brother was a member of the Basque separatist group ETA and was shot on the street in 1984, a decade after Franco’s death by the Spanish mercenary paramilitaries GAL. They had been hired by Spanish police with the secret approval of the government to fight a so-called ‘dirty war’ against ETA.     

The Basques are passionate and committed cycling fans, and you see their flag on Pyreneean stages of the Tour, along with another black and white flag that supports a prisoners’ repatriation campaign. It wants those ETA members still in jail returned to the region from far-flung parts of Spain and France to serve the rest of their sentence in one of the region’s jails, so that friends and family can visit them. 

The former Basque cycling team Euskatel, with its striking orange tops, was part funded by local subscription in the region, and had a policy of hiring only riders who were born or brought up in the region. Elsewhere, in his wonderful book of stories about the Basque area, Obabakoak, Bernardo Atxaga has a story about a cyclist that stands in some ways for the loss of childhood.  

In the interview, by Carlos Arribas, Perurena tells the story of the day he lost the lead in the Tour of Spain in 1975. At the start of the decisive time trial, he was ahead by more than a minute. The time trial ended in the velodrome in San Sebastian/Donostia, in front of Basque fans. 

“On entering the velodrome and hearing the silence that greeted me from the fans, I knew I hadn’t succeeded. In the end I lost by 14 seconds, half a lap… I’ll never get that silence out of my head… That’s how I lost the Vuelta in front of the home fans.” 


Cycling books: life in the peleton

11 August 2017

Over the last year or so I’ve read three books written by professional cyclists about the life of the pro: Michael Barry’s Shadows on the Road, David Millar’s The Racer, and Geraint Thomas’ The World of Cycling According to G. With the Vuelta about to start, it seems like a good time to mention them.

Millar and Barry, who used to train together in Girona, are now retired, Thomas is still racing, and crashed out of this year’s Tour after winning a stage in the race and wearing the leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in his career. Each of the three books has different strengths; of the three, Barry’s is probably the best, as you might guess from his previous book Le Metier, with the photographer Camille McMillan.

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Coping with pressure

23 May 2017

In his book Etape, Richard Moore revisits stages of the Tour de France through the eyes of the protagonists. The first chapter in the book is about Chris Boardman’s win in the Prologue in Lille in 1994, which made him only the second Briton to wear the race leader’s yellow jersey. Boardman’s route into the professional peleton had been an unusual one; he turned professional relatively late, at the age of 25, after winning the individual pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and then breaking the world hour record in Bordeaux in 1993–a record attempt that took place just as the Tour went through the city.

Boardman was invited onto the Tour podium the day after his ride, although not all of the Tour riders were impressed. Luc Leblanc, then the leading French rider, said publicly that most members of the Tour peleton could better Boardman’s distance if they put their minds to it.

Boardman was always quite anxious about his performance, and before Barcelona, he went to see John Syer, a leading sports psychologist.

Prior to the Barcelona Olympics, Boardman spilled out his fears to John Syer. “What if this goes wrong? What if I can’t go fast enough? What if the other guy’s faster? What if I puncture.”

Boardman expected Syer to offer words of reassurance. Instead he said: Yeah, well, those things could happen.” Boardman was puzzled. “I said, ‘Hang on, aren’t you supposed to be helping me here?’ But he said, ‘No, this is the deal, mate–elation and despair are two sides of the same coin, in equal and opposite proportion. If you want to risk the big win, you’ve got to risk the big low. So instead of trying to deny that, why don’t we stare it in the face?'”

John Syer was the first well-known sports psychologist in the UK. He was a former international volleyball player and coach, who came to prominence from working with the Spurs first team in the early 1980s. His book Team Spirit, one of a string of books he wrote or co-wrote to explain his methods,  was published in 1986.

A story I remember well from that book was of his work with the forward Steve Archibald, a talented player who needed a certain amount of anger to play well, but didn’t need it in the rest of his life. Syer helped him deal with this by having him visualise letting a bear(Archibald’s own image) out of a cage before the game, and then returning it to the cage after the game.

I remember the story because I tried a version of this myself in the early 1990s. I had taken a job in a new role that brought me into conflict with some of the engineers in the television company, and the head of department and his deputy proceeded to try to undermine me in every way they could. Nothing was too little trouble for them. Every day–for the better part of a year–was a sea of passive aggression.

By the time I went home each day, having absorbed the best or worst they threw at me, I always felt terrible. Remembering Syer’s story, I found a box and put it in the bottom of my filing cabinet. Before I left for the night, I would go through a ritual of visualising removing their hostility and leaving it in the box, in the office. It worked well enough.

As for Boardman, in that famous Prologue win, where he rode faster than any Tour rider before or since, he caught his ‘minute man’, the rider who left sixty seconds ahead of him, which shouldn’t really happen to professionals in a ride that lasts for eight minutes. His minute man? Luc Leblanc. What goes around, comes around.

Armstrong, Pantani, and ‘Ventoux’

5 May 2017


As a cycling fan I went to some lengths to see the stage production of Ventoux, currently touring in the UK, after I missed it in London. But it is an interesting piece of theatre as well: it’s not all about the bike.

So what is it? A double hander, with one actor playing Armstrong, the other Pantani, restaging a famous Tour de France contest between the men on Ventoux in 2000, helped along with a couple of turbo bikes and some big coolboxes, of the kind you might use to store, say, doped blood. There’s some back projection as well, and also from time to time the audio of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. As far as I can tell, the script is “found,” edited from actual words spoken or written by the cyclists, which is the modus operandi of the production company, 2 Magpies Theatre.

In terms of the racing, that stage was epic. In 2000, both men had won the Tour once, Pantani in 1998, Armstrong the following year. They had contrasting styles: Pantani a maverick who would race when he felt good, Armstrong the calculator who stacked the odds with a strong and dedicated team, going head to head over the last kilometres. Here’s the footage, with an appropriate music track:

With hindsight, we know that both men stacked the odds in other ways as well. Pantani died in Rimini in 2004 of a cocaine overdose, but we also know that he had used EPO, which boosts performance, especially when climbing, and that Armstong’s entire team was doped up. Liggett’s commentary on the day, used in the play, notes the pace that his team-mates Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingstone were setting on the early part of the climb, and we know from Hamilton’s later testimony that both he and Armstrong had had blood transfusions to top up their red blood cells on the rest day, the day before the Ventoux stage.

What the play does well is explore why, when we know all this, we still admire Pantani and regard Armstrong as a cheat. (Sure, Armstrong was a cheat, a systematic cheat, as the USADA’s Reasoned Decision outlines in jaw-dropping detail, portrayed on stage as flurries of yellow legal paper. But we know that Pantani cheated too). And, by rearranging the chronology of the stage, so we hear parts of twice, knowing the result long before we hear the drama of it, it also reminds us that even when corroded by doping, cycle racing is still thrilling when two well-matched riders duke it out at the edge of their physical limits.

And some of that explanation in the play comes from Armstrong himself, in a speech taken from an article he wrote long after Pantani’s death, and after his own disgrace and lifetime ban from the sport.

Pantani wasn’t a star, he was more like a rock star. He had the aura, he had the following and he was huge. As an American coming over and playing a European sport, I was in a different position… If I was the carpenter, then he was the artist. He had all the panache in the world, all the panache you could fit into a small climber, and I, if I’m honest, didn’t have that.

Here are the actors talking about the production.

Even if you’re not interested in cycling, it’s an interesting piece of theatre. If you are, it’s compelling.


Lumps of energy

3 April 2017


I’m always interested in how professional sportspeople think about their craft. It’s intrinsically interesting, and sometimes there are life lessons to be taken from it as well.

So I was interested to see Lizzie Armitstead talking in a Guardian interview this weekend with Simon Hattenstone, about using energy, or conserving it, during bike races.

She refers to racing as a game rather than a sport. “It’s like chess on wheels. Imagine your energy as a big block of sugar. You can only chip away at it a couple of times, and you need to use that energy at the right time. If you have the instinct and logic to attack 20km into a race, it might look like a strange move to somebody else, but if it pays off, there is nothing better. It’s very tactical. On the road, it’s not always the strongest person who wins.”

It reminded me of the period after my son was born. He didn’t sleep at all well for the first eight months or so, and so I was always tired. (To borrow her phrase, my energy had become quite a small block of sugar). I found that managing my effort at work was essential if I was to function in the job I was doing at the time. My solution was to focus on the one or two things that actually mattered each day, rather than spreading my concentration and application too thin, and making sure my energy went into those.

The image of Lizzie Armitstead (left) on her way to winning silver at the 2012 Olympic Games is by Doug Shaw and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Notes on RideLondon 100

4 August 2016

I rode the RideLondon 100 at the end of July–a 100 mile circuit on closed roads that starts at the Olympic Park in Stratford, drives south-west through London and onto the Surrey Hills, climbs Leith Hill and Box Hill, then returns to London to finish on the Mall. My interest in doing it: it’s become something of an iconic “century” ride since it was created as part of the 2012 Olympic legacy, and middling sportive riders such as me don’t often get the chance to ride on closed roads.

The ride is huge: 25,000 riders or so, leaving the Olympic Park in carefully managed batches every three minutes from around 6 a.m. (when the fast riders go) or so to the last depart at 9 a.m. My start time was 8.41, based on the 7’15 time I quoted on my application form for my last 100 mile ride. There is a series of cut-off times along the route, selected diversions to shorten the route for the slow, and a sweeper van if all else fails. The reason for this is that much of the course is used for the professional one-day race, the London-Surrey Classic, which starts in mid-afternoon.

I’d been apprehensive about the ride, to be honest. I’d done “century” rides before, and the cut-off times seemed OK, but only so long as I didn’t have any mechanical or physical problems. And I’d been on a club run with the London Dynamos a couple of weeks earlier over some of the same roads, and hills, and had a disaster, cramping horribly 25km from home and limping back slowly, helped by a couple of sympa Dynamos, and towards the end stopping often to pour liquid into me. (Hotter day than expected; not enough water or hydration/electrolytes; not enough food; all the elementary errors. And once you do cramp, it’s too late.)


As it happens, RideLondon this year was strewn with problems. In particular, the route was closed at about the 40 mile mark while an air ambulance lifted a crashed rider to hospital, which in turn caused a huge backlog, which meant that there was a second wave of congestion when the roads narrowed again going through Dorking High Street, which meant that many riders were sent along a short cut to get them back to London within the time limits. But not in turn, before the professional peloton had been halted in mid-race while marshals and police cleared the sportive out of its way. And there were other crashes as well; ambulances at Fen Ditton and on Leith HIll, which has a truly horrible descent (narrow, poor road surface, overshadowed by trees so visibility is poor).

Too many riders out on the course, was the verdict of the Dynamo riders on the club forum the following day, perhaps a sign that the organisers need to trim capacity. And too much variation in skill level. The start times are designed to keep riders with similar speeds together, but it doesn’t always work. I travelled through London at 30-35kph, but the serious riders (the people who race on other weekends) would have been travelling on the same roads at 40-45kph, and a slower rider drifting backwards can create havoc, especially if their bike handling is not so good.

Closed roads

You do travel faster on the closed roads, especially in the city, although you also have to be more alert to riders passing you on either side. And in particular, rolling out along the Cromwell Road and the A4 to Chiswick was an absolute blast, as was the final 6 or 7km from Putney back to the Mall.

I was lucky not to get caught up in the vast delay for the air ambulance, and the luck was in the timing. By the time I arrived at the back of the crowd on the blocked road, it was clear that nothing was moving, and there happened to be a junction to the right and cyclists saying there was a diversion down one of the suburban roads that ran off it. It was, I think, strictly unofficial, and we ended up on open roads for 15km or so before we regained the closed route just short of Newlands Corner. (Which is why the total on the Garmin is just short of the full hundred.) Even on the open roads it was like being on the biggest club run in the world.


Refuelling stop at Newlands Corner

Perhaps because of the closed roads, it ended up being the fastest sportive century I’ve done–my official time was 6’34.22 (the minute’s difference from the Garmin time shown at the top of the post is the time it took to roll across the start line).

Eating well

Some things I learned. Probably because of my disastrous day out on the club run, I was obsessed about both water and hydration tablets, and about eating (you can absorb about 60g an hour on the bike, and it’s best to eat before you think you need to.) I also got through more gels (effectively liquid sugar) than I would have done normally, using the rush of energy to help me up the bigger hills and through the longueurs of the 120-130 km section.

Riding on your own, as I was, it helps to find others moving at about your speed, and the Ride London colour coding helped  with this. My 8.41 start time was “Blue Q”, and 8.38, the previous start time, was “Black H”. So whenever I found riders in Blue Q, P or N, or Black H or G, especially later in the ride, it meant that I’d likely be able to tuck in with them, which also allows you to relax slightly in terms of concentration.

Being alert

But you have to be alert. A couple of women, riding together (matching tops), touched wheels just ahead of me about 20 miles in, where the road both narrowed and started up a small incline, and went straight down. The speed wasn’t high and they were probably only grazed. But as the road had narrowed, I could see they were chatting  and not paying attention to the slowing and the bunching, perhaps from inexperience, so I’d already created space for myself behind them.

There is a lot of hanging around at the start. Blue Q was at its collection point between 7.15 and 7.40, and we then moved slowly round the Olympic Park, wheeling our bikes for at least 800 metres before lining up for our start. The excellent Sportive Cyclist blog recommended keeping a rain jacket on to stay warm during this process, which was good advice. (Monty’s site is full of good advice for we middling sportive riders.)


Heart attack

A couple more notes. I rode to raise money for Unicef, and if you haven’t sponsored me, and would like to, my page is open until the end of August.

Secondly, my thoughts go to the family of the man who died of a heart attack during the ride; he was only 48. Like the great British racer Beryl Burton, who also had a heart attack while out riding, at least he probably died in a good mood; there are worse deaths in the age of dementia and Alzheimer’s. He was riding to raise money for Cancer Research UK, and the donation totals on his Just Giving page have gone through the roof.

Thirdly, it is only a bike ride. The driver who took me to my drop-off point at 6 a.m. in the morning, who worked for a west London hire firm, had been socially cleansed to Clapton by Kensington and Chelsea Council after living in the borough for 27 years. It’s possible to be over-attentive to the visible injuries from a cycling crash and not attentive enough the more damaging forms of slow violence that are going on all around us.


Reading Sean Yates

10 November 2015

sean-yates-it-s-all-about-the-bikeI bought Sean Yates’ biography, It’s All About The Bike, because I’d always been a fan of the rider, in his heyday the toughest domestique in the peloton. I like the fact that in one of his final Tours de France he got to wear the yellow jersey, if only for a day.

Yates says he didn’t intend to write a book, but realised after leaving Sky in the wake of the Armstrong findings, where he’d been a Directeur Sportive, that he needed to tell his story.

A lot of the background here, and much of his cycling career, will be well-known to anyone who has followed Britain’s “foreign legion” since the 1980s, or read William Fotheringham’s book on the subject. His upbringing in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, a delinquent at school (even at the Steiner School he was sent to), a natural at cycling, with outstanding time trial results that saw him first represent Britain in the 1980 Olympics and then gain a place at the ACBB club, the leading French “nursery” team, just as the so-called “Anglophone invasion” of professional cycling was getting started.

And then on to Peugeot, Fagor, and 7-11/Motorola for a long professional career. Somewhere along the way he observes that he had no coaching: not quite true, since he also recalls that at ACBB the trainer Mickey Wiegand told Yates, “If you don’t take the chain off that big ring, I will take the big ring off your bike.”

“Hitting myself in the face”

But his preparation for the World Pursuit Championships in 1982 involved training at full gas until the day before the event, with the result that he under-performed at the event: “By the time the Worlds arrived I might as well have been hitting myself in the face with a shovel.” Even sportive riders know about the importance of pre-event recovery and ‘tapering’ these days.

He’s also wry about how little he knew about tactics at the start of his professional career.

I’d be riding along with an experienced little guy on my left, sheltered from the wind by my size. We’d swing round a bend and the wind would be coming from the other side and, as if by magic, he’d be tucked in on my right, sheltered again.

The end of Yates’ career at Motorola coincided with the start of Lance Armstrong’s: the brash young pre-cancer one-day rider, rather than the ruthless drug assisted Tour winner. Yates benefited personally. The two men were close and Yates’ plans to retire were deferred a couple of seasons with lucrative contract extensions so he could help the young American develop as a rider. Armstrong has been a guest in Yates’ house in Sussex.

Perhaps as a result he’s blind here to the corruption that Armstrong wrought later. And when Yates’ ex-wife Pippa says of Lance, “I don’t hear Lance accusing any of those around him in the glory years of any fault or blame for their roles in the saga,” (p275) one can only think that she’s being blind to the way he smeared and bullied people like Betsy and Frankie Andreu and Emma O’Riley along the way.

Setting the strategy

The parts of the book that are most interesting, and most new, are those that cover his more recent career as a Directeur Sportive, as assistant DS at Linda McCartney and CSC, as head DS at Sky. In cycling, directeurs sportives are influential figures, akin to football managers. They set the strategy for a stage (and for a whole race), they call tactics as a race unfolds, and they’ll also motivate the riders, as well as handing out drinks as they go.

Yates was the architect of Bradley Wiggins’ 2012 Tour de France triumph, and he’s justifiably proud of his 2012 record, in the Tour itself and in the races leading up to it. As Brian Smith reminds us elsewhere in the book, Yates is the only British DS to win a Grand Tour. Actually, Yates has won three: with Paolo Salvodelli, against the odds, in Italy’s Giro, with Contador, also in the Giro, as well as the 2012 Tour de France with Bradley Wiggins.

Two stories from that stand out for me. One, the newsworthy account of the behind-the-scenes row in the Sky camp after Froome had attacked Wiggins (or not) on the climb to La Toussure. Wiggins was in the race leader’s yellow jersey; Froome was riding to support him. After the stage, Yates went to Wiggins’ room, and Wiggins, who’s always been mercurial to the point of fragility, told him,

“Well, I might as well go home now.”

Yates could see team boss David Brailsford outside, along with head coach Shane Sutton and Rod Ellingworth, and he texted Brailsford to come urgently to Wiggins’ room. Brailsford arrived in short order to talk Wiggins back up.

“Breathing out of your arse”

The other story is more tactical, about why you instruct a team to ride fast on the front of the race towards the end of a stage:

People often think that setting a high pace is all about dissuading other teams from attacking, but there’s much more to it than that. When you’re hanging on for grim death to the wheel in front, 30th place in a line of eighty, there’s no way you can affect the race. You can’t move up to 29th, let alone first. You pray that the rider in 15th or 20th doesn’t blow up and lose the wheel in front … you’re breathing out of your arse just to hang on to the wheel in front … you’ve done that, but you’ve all been dropped. (p14-15)

When Yates had some physiology tests done when he turned professional he was told that his numbers were as good as those of Eddie Merckx, who dominated professional cycling for a decade in a way not seen before or since. But top class sport is about desire as well as physique, and somewhere he didn’t want it enough, as he acknowledges of his Sky career:

I should explain that I’m just not passionate about cycling and success the way that Dave [Brailsford] and Shane Sutton are. … For me it’s always been a job. … That didn’t mean I didn’t give 100 percent. I loved my job, but I was coming from a different point of view to them.

Yates has been well-served here by his co-writer John Deering (who also wrote the cycling classic Team On The Run, about the Linda McCartney team where Yates was Directeur Sportive). Somewhere between them Yates and Deering go back and talk to people who’ve known Yates along the way, which maybe gives the book a more reflective quality than you get in many sporting biographies.

More than a bit driven

Although he’s now back in the world of professional cycling as an assistant DS (he was with Saxo Tinkoff in the 2015 Tour) I hadn’t realised how ill he had been when he stepped down at Sky. Two strokes (one minor); an arrythmia of the heart; a heart condition that could have killed him on a cycling holiday. He now has a pace-maker fitted. Of course, he left in a cloud of rumours that he might have been a victim of Sky’s post-Armstrong clearout of those who acknowledged doping. He never has, and this is frankly, a gap in the book, especially since he mentions the 1989 Tour of Belgium, which he won, where he initially tested positive but was subsequently cleared.

He comes across as more than a bit driven (500 push-ups a day, pretty much without fail), but completely in love with cycling. It is hard to think of other ex-pros who keep on racing in amateur events, years after they have retired, or keep setting records. And it’s also hard to think of another DS who would take the opportunity of a 250km transfer during the Giro d’Italia to cycle it rather than drive it.

Or, come to that, of a DS who, a year after he’s steered a team to their first Grand Tour triumph, returns to watch the Tour as a cyclo-tourist with his teenage sons. It’s just about the bike.

My best 2015 Tour de France moment

28 July 2015

Steve Cummings wins Stage 14 of the Tour de France
 © ASO/X.Bourgois

My favourite moment in this year’s Tour de France, won by Chris Froome, was the stage win in Mende by Steve Cummings, the British rider who now rides for MTN Quebeka.

Several reasons for this. First, that MTN Qubeka is a “wild card” team at the Tour, one of those included by the organisers at their discretion, usually as part of a development strategy.

Second, Qubeka, which is South African-based, is an NGO devoted to improving opportunities for cycling in Africa, and half of its team are African. And since Saturday was Mandela Day, the timing was perfect. A South African friend sent me a  link to a South African report that suggested (tongue in cheek) that Cummings had had “the spectral hand of Tata Madiba on his buttocks”.

Third, it was a victory for craft and experience; Steve Cummings is a 34-year old rider who has been riding as a professional for more than a decade, riding for teams such as Sky and BMC, and has also had some success on the track, which tends to sharpen speed.

Although I like the romance of the African connection, it’s the craft element I’m going to write about here. The last four-and-a-half kilometres of the stage to Mende comprises a short-but-tough three kilometre climb followed by a fast downhill to the finish line. The young French climbers Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot crested the climb first, Bardet followed by Pinot. Cummings isn’t a climber, but he is a good time triallist and he’d used that power to get up the hill in third, to general surprise, but was still some way back from the other two.

Fighting for the gap

The trick in professional cycling when fighting for a stage win is not to let another rider get onto your back wheel; if they succeed, they will almost certainly be able to use your slipstream as a springboard to accelerate past you at the right moment. Where the craft came in was two-fold: first Cummings knew that he’d have the advantage on the downhill stretch: climbers are typically lighter than time-triallists. As he said afterwards:

“When the road tipped and went down, the race sort of changed, it was in my favour. I had more kilos, I was more aero than the other two.”

And as he passed the French riders, he went past at some speed, giving himself a moment’s advantage as they were first surprised, and then gathered themselves for the chase. But they were back on his wheel quite quickly. Cyclists say that winning often takes a little luck; you gamble and you might not succeed. For Cummings that bit of luck was that Pinot was immediately behind him, and not Bardet, for Pinot’s known to be careful on corners, and wouldn’t take them as quickly as Cummings was prepared to.

“I caught them and went right to the front ready for the corners. I knew Pinot would be cautious and that he wouldn’t corner as fast as I could. It wasn’t really a risk. I saw that he wasn’t on the wheel and went for it, using my track speed for the final 400 metres. It’s hard for a climber to stay on the wheel of a track rider.”

Sadly I couldn’t find one usable piece of video that shows the whole sequence. The Tour’s video of the day shows him – 2’30” in, commentary in French –  catching the French riders at the top of the hill; its video of the last kilometre shows him hitting the corners at speed (Cummings is already on the front when it starts). And you’ll have to click on the links, because embedding them here seems to involve a whole new career.

Bardet and Pinot said afterwards they’d made a tactical error. But they made good in the last week of the Tour, when each of them won on one of the big mountain stages in the Alps.


Three rules for riding a sportive

8 June 2015
Image: London Revolution

Image: London Revolution

I spent a weekend in May riding the London Revolution, a bike ride that covers 190 miles in two days. It starts at Lea Valley Athletics Centre in north-east London, then heads south and west to Ascot on Day One, then heads north (west) and east and back to Lea Valley on Day Two. Last year it went anti-clockwise; people who did both thought the change was a good idea.

I’d been training for four months – in fact, I followed the London Revolution training plan pretty closely. As I got to within 20 miles of the finish on Day Two, I realised there might be only three rules to finishing a sportive, certainly if you’re not at the racing fitness end of the spectrum. They’re all about muscles.

  • Rule One: Prepare your muscles
  • Rule Two: Feed your muscles
  • Rule Three: Preserve your muscles.

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‘The hell of the North’

5 May 2015

Inside the velodrome: Paris-Roubaix 2015.
Source: Andrew Curry. CC BY-NC-SA

I recently spent a few days in Lille so I could watch Paris-Roubaix, which is for me one of the great one day cycle races, run over sections of cobbles, starting these days from Compiègne, and finishing as it did in the very first race in the velodrome at Roubaix, close to the Belgian border. Since we were there anyway, we also decided to visit the area of Great War fighting around Ypres—the Ypres salient.

Happily, we found a Flemish cyclo-tourist company, Biking Box, which was able to guide us on a one day ride across the last eight secteurs of the race, before dropping us at the velodrome to watch the race unfold on the big screen. And then picked us up the next day to ride the route around the salient, learning more about the “war of the mines” as we went.

Afterwards, reading Iain MacGregor’s chatty history of the race, built around his attempt to do the amateur sportive that now precedes the professional race, I discovered that in a way, these two were related.

Paris-Roubaix has always been run in April, and in 1919 Henri Desgrange, of the race sponsors L’Auto, sent one of his reporters, Victor Breyer, and the cyclist Eugène Christophe to recce the route, to see if it would be possible to hold the race. Lille and Roubaix had been behind the German lines for most of the war, so the race would have to run across the battlefields.

Neither was prepared for what they found. The images of the mud and desolation of the trenches are familiar to us now, but little of the news that came from the front described the conditions. Breyer’s report has a shocked tone:

”From Doullens onwards, the countryside was nothing but desolation. The shattered trees looked vaguely like skeletons, the paths had collapsed and been potholed or torn away by shells. The vegetation, rare, had been replaced by military vehicles in a pitiful state. The house of villages were no more than bare walls. At their foot, heaps of rubble. Eugène Christophe exclaimed, “Here, this really is the hell of the north”.”

And yet … as MacGregor explains, on Easter Sunday 1919, after a minute’s silence, the race did roll out of Paris, a peleton of 130 riders, flanked by columns of French soldiers, with crowds cheering them on. Henri Pelissier’s winning time was the slowest on record, as was the average speed, down to a mixture of the road conditions, the lack of racing fitness of the riders, their pre-war bikes, and possibly a deal done by the peleton not to race until the last 70 kilometres or so.

”The resumption of the race”, writes MacGregor, “certainly attracted the crowds, but there was also a definite sense of starting anew—an attempt to reignite enthusiasm for such an event, perhaps any social event, so soon after the devastation of the Great War.”