We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Kent: Garden of England

I spotted this carpet of bluebells growing at the side of the road on Beddlestead Lane on a recent ride into Kent, and I took a photo to clear up a disagreement with my wife Kelda. She thinks that we've got them growing in our back garden, I was never convinced, and this pic proves her argument. I do apologise - we actually do.

So, instead of concentrating on training for France and my stated aim of wanting to be 'better' than Jamesy, I'm obviously riding along looking at flowers - more Charlie Dimmock than Charly Mottet - but perhaps without the prominent nipples. And even getting off my bike and photographing them.

Maybe I'm just getting old and appreciate these kind of things more and more, or maybe I never really had the kind of dedication and focus you need to actually be any good at cycling. Springtime, once it's warmed up a bit, sees me getting a little fitter, invariably enthused and always posing the same questions to my 40-something mates as we pretend any little steep climb, particularly if it's cobbled, is the Muur van Geraardsbergen: "Shall we race again?" Their response is always the same: "No. It spoils it."

Whilst I enjoyed racing when I could dedicate some time to training, I understand what they mean here. Racing without a proper base and then quality work on top is pointless: you might as well go to the race, pay the entry fee, and then stand on the start line, bend over and encourage the other competitors to come along and kick you up the arse, really hard. Then just go home in discomfort and slightly disappointed. Even as a 21-year old racing in France and skipping university lectures to train, I was still viewed as a dilettante by my DS: "Mais, tu bois cinq litres de bière par jour - but you drink 5 litres of beer a day." Not true (wine was more my tipple of choice). However, it is true that my focus was perhaps skewed: there just seemed so much other interesting stuff going on in Aix in addition to cycling: bars, cafés, films (when the grant cheque arrived), or sunshine and people-watching when it was running out.

I'm not sure I've ever been comfortable with the inherent 'nastiness' of competition either. The mind games. The psychological warfare. The deliberate flick in the last 200 metres where you'll end up on the deck trashing your prized £3500 Colnago and your £150 Assos shorts, which you bought because you wanted to look like a pro, not actually have to ride like one. I don't have Cav's reported pathological hatred of losing, and three BCF points over 25-plus years of on-off racing are clear testament to my enjoyment of simply riding, rather than racing, my bike. Jamesy, from past experience, simpy hates riding his bike around other people when he isn't fit enough to be able to give them a hard time. Last time we rode up the Ventoux in 2000 he hadn't touched the bike for 'quite
a while', and he made it pretty plain ("just f*ck off and leave me") that he didn't want me riding alongside him to witness his suffering, despite my good intentions of playing the supportive team-mate. I know he's been 'stacking the miles in' this time for July's trip.

That's not to say I don't enjoy being fit; a friend once said that being really fit 'was better than sex' (is he doing it right?). I love getting fitter on the bike, getting stronger, recovering more quickly after hard efforts, and of course, if I'm totally honest, being able to drop my friends on the climbs. But it's not that last part that makes it fun, certainly not anything to do with ego as such. We're simply playing at racing, it's a game to be enjoyed, and it's the far more intrinsic pleasure of pushing yourself beyond where you thought you could go and reaping the rewards of physical exercise, fresh air, feeling young and active that's where the buzz comes from.

It made me wonder whether the pros actually enjoy riding their bikes, or whether it sadly might be just like any other job. From where we're sitting as fans, we all know that it's the most beautiful sport in the world, but we also know that it's also the hardest. Were these guys just good at it as young riders, dedicated themselves to it and so followed a natural progression - perhaps lazily - into the paid ranks? Do they get time to marvel at the wonderful scenery that they ride through when the going is a bit more piano, or is the motivation purely based on winning, on glory, or simply doing a job that's better than working in a factory or worse? I always remember Bernard Hinault saying that he'd like to return and visit Italy after he retired, because it seemed like a nice place. Clearly, like Cav, his well-documented rage de vaincre meant that apart from possible relaxed stage starts or the celebrated 'ice-cream, laughs and letching until the last hour' Giro stages, the majority of his physical and mental energy was spent planning how he could simply win. No time to admire the scenery then.

Let's face it, for most it's a short-term career that isn't going to make the majority of riders particularly rich, and most are simply journeyman professionals, performing domestique duties. I'm sure the camaraderie is great - that's something I'm sure I'd have enjoyed - but constant pressure to perform from sponsors, living out of a suitcase and not being able to enjoy the wonderful surroundings that the luxury of all that travel affords you would certainly ruin it for me.

There: 500-odd words on why I never made it as a pro - because they wouldn't let me look at the flowers.