Archive for the 'cycling' Category

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

‘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.”

Back on the track

14 December 2014

imageThe weather was good and I found myself, unusually, with a free Saturday morning. So I cycled over to the Herne Hill Velodrome to take part in one of their Saturday track sessions. There’s nothing quite like the “burn” on a fixed wheel bike, where, if the wheels are going round, so are your legs. Or the pleasure of using the banking to accelerate down to catch the back of a group as it goes round below you.

The open-air Velodrome is one of the oldest cycling circuits in the world, and the last time I wrote about it here it was under threat of closure. Since then the Trust that has taken it on has done a wonderful job. The track surface has been relaid – it’s far more rain-resistant than it used to be, so cycling is much less likely to be rained off. The trackside barriers have been upgraded. And they’ve built a small circuit in the middle of the track for kids to practice on, with a multi-purpose games area.

There’s more to be done: the Pavilion, which has been shuttered for more than a decade, is due to be replaced over the course of the next year, which will also reinvigorate the place.

Because it was so close to Christmas, it was quite a small turnout for Saturday’s session. The coaches said it was like “the old days, before cycling got popular”. And it was striking how many kids were around, taking part in the other cycling activities the venue hosts. VCL Londres, the club that manages the track activities, has a model that allows kids to start as young as two and grow up with the sport. And actually, cycling is quite unusual in this, and in maintaining the social infrastructure (the clubs and the coaches) needed to support it. Elsewhere organised grassroots sport is under pressure, especially where it’s associated with men spending time away from their family.

And apart from the success of Britain’s new cycling stars, at the Olympics and on the road, and the funding that has followed from it, this might be part of the secret of the cycling boom – it works for families. You can do the serious stuff with the coaches on the track, and you can put the miles in to improve your fitness or prepare for a sportive. But you can also just go out for a ride along a towpath or a Sustrans route with the kids, or your partner, or both. It has social pathways.

The image at the top is from the Herne Hill Velodrome website, and is used with thanks.

Fitting a bike

9 March 2014

_MG_0470The rationale for a bike fit is pretty simple. You spend £500–600 on even an entry-level road bike, and if you’re training for a sportive, even half-heartedly, you’ll be spending three hours a week or more on the machine. So whether you measure the close to £200 cost against the cost of the bike or average it across training time, you can justify it fairly easily. And if that wasn’t enough, I had some money I’d won as a prize so felt, of course, that I deserved some kind of a reward.

In other words, rationalisation is easy. And just to make it easier, since it’s not about the bike, the performance gains per pound of a bike fitting are going to be greater than spending the same money upgrading your bike.

Which is a long way round of explaining how I came to find myself recently at Pearson Cycles in south-west London with my road bike talking to Ronan about my cycling style.

Over the course of a few hours, I explained my cycling habits and ambitions, was filmed on my road bike (on a turbo), was tested on a machine that measured power output, had my cleats repositioned, and finally watched Ronan realign my saddle and handlebars to increase my comfort and my power. (I could feel the improvement even just cycling home.) One of the interesting things about how Ronan did this was that he read the technical data from the bike fit rig, but he also used a theodolite to line up the saddle. He told me later that one of the reasons he enjoyed bike fitting was that it was always a balance between science and art,

Along the way I learned that my power output between left and right legs was pretty even, and that my legs were pretty straight when cycling, which are both good things. And I also learnt that my hamstrings are very short – which explains why I’ve had such problems all my life touching my toes. (Note to primary school PE teacher: I was trying.)

And I learned one other thing as well. Part of the pleasure was in the sense that I was being taken care of, by someone who wanted me to be better on my bike. I’ve had the same sense in the past from time to time when I’ve been coached. And maybe that men aren’t very good at letting themselves be cared for because, compared with women, they do much less caring themselves.

The outcome: well, I don’t have power data, but it feels from my cycle computer as if I’m going 5–10% faster, acceleration is quicker and smoother, and it’s a bit less of a battle on the hills. And all for the cost of a long weekend away. There I go again.

The picture of a Serotta bike fit machine is from the Cycling WMD blog, and is used with thanks.

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.

Domestique: Riding for the team

23 September 2013

The sports story template is Rocky, basically: athlete tastes success, athlete suffers failure, athlete faces down demons to snatch success from the jaws of failure. Indeed, I listened to a presentation recently by the publisher at the justly admired Yellow Jersey Press when he said that when he bought the rights to Bradley Wiggins story after his Tour de France victory, and then published in time for the Christmas market, they basically structured it as “Rocky on wheels”.

Another cycling story, that of the insufficiently recognised Graeme Obree, also fits the template, not least when turned into the film The Flying Scotsman.

So it comes as a shock – and maybe a surprise – to open a sports autobiography in which the protagonist never won anything as a professional – at least not individually – and who admits, quite early on, that the pressure of winning was too much for him.

Charly Wegelius was an expert domestique – and by the end of his career, at least, pretty well paid for it. His book, Domestique, is about the frustrations and pleasures to be had from putting your talents at the disposal of your team.

There’s an illuminating passage about the fragility of the life of the professional cyclist during a chapter on one of his Tours de France, as his bike buckles on a descent and he braces himself for the fall.

“A crash, no matter how seemingly innocuous, can be all it takes to start off a chain of events that can end a career. … There is nothing worse for a manager than having one of their twenty-five riders unable to compete. The pressure is passed on to other riders and the management themselves while they try to fill the gap left by an injured rider. … 

There is simply no room in the twelve or twenty-four months on a rider’s contract for time out for crashes. People often marvel that cyclists continue to race with horrific injuries, and think that cyclists are tough. It’s not that cyclists are particularly robust guys, it’s just that they don’t have a choice. … If a rider can get to the finish then at least he has a chance to race the next day. If he can do that then he won’t abandon his team in the race, he won’t lose race days, and he won’t be seen as a problem to anyone.”

The classic in this genre is Eamonn Dunphy’s Only A Game?, about the life of an end-of-career professional football player in the second tier of the English league. There are some cricket equivalents (Peter Roebuck’s It Never Rains onwards). The only other book I know of that sheds similar light on the life of the cycling domestique is Matt Rendell’s A Significant Other (maybe also Le Metier by Michael Barry.)

But a brief memo to the publisher, Ebury Press: in the fact-checking department, David Millar famously stopped half a metre short of the finish line of the Altagliru in protest, not 150 metres. And Alberto Contador won the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, but not in 2008. And please, proof it one more time before you publish it in paperback.