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?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Ken Hargrave – Our Cycling Champion

I lost one of my cycling heroes back in June. Ken Hargrave, who, along with his wife Doreen had taken me under their wings back in 1983 as a schoolboy riding for the Old Portlians, lost his fight with mounting illness and frailty. Although this was terribly hard to do, it was an honour to be asked by Doreen to write this Eulogy that the vicar read out at the service. I wish, as a farewell gesture, that I'd had the strength to read it out myself. Impossible.


Long before the Internet took over as the supposed fount of all knowledge for racing results, cycle coaching, tips and advice - a lot of it a load of unbelievable rubbish, as he would often mutter - riders like us relied on wonderful people like Ken for good-natured support, encouragement and help. He was the epitome of the approachable club cyclist, a talented competitor in his own right, blessed with a selfless honesty, integrity, and a love of the sport he was keen to pass on to us newcomers, eager to learn. As well as unlimited access to his collection of 'Cycling Weekly' going back some half century or more, there'd be a seemingly infinite pool of experience willingly passed on, gems which affectionately became known, in certain circles, as 'Kenisms':

When do I drink when I'm in a race, Ken?
"Drink before you're thirsty. And eat before you're hungry. Little and often."

But what do I eat?
"Doreen's made some jam sandwiches in foil for your jersey pockets, here's a banana, and there's a cheese and pickle sandwich in the kitchen you should eat before we go." And invariably, at least two cups of her delicious thirst-quenching tea, too.

What tyre pressure should I run, Ken?
His experienced thumb was all that was required. He'd push it into my front and rear tyre in turn, and that cheeky grin and a wink would confirm I'd got it right, or the track pump would come out, and in a few moments we'd be ready to ride.

How do I ride a wheel, Ken? It looks really dangerous!
Hours of Sunday club runs though the lanes were the place where his advice was meticulously put into practice: "Don't look down at my back wheel; when you're riding, if you focus on my backside you'll be the right distance away and be able to see what's going on in the bunch around you too."

To an easily embarrassed 15-year-old boy, this seemed decidedly odd at the time, but now we all know. As with all things bike, he was absolutely right.

"And make sure you listen too: the swish of tyres on the road, and the sound of people changing gear means that something is happening: the racing has started. Keep your eyes AND ears open!"

His patience with us was legend, certainly when we first started out and were having trouble even finishing races. Perseverence was what counted:
"Stay in there, no heroics. Keep plugging away, and one day it'll 'click'."

I remember the evening it eventually did 'click' for me, a Thursday night at Brands Hatch, and it all happened just like he said. I stayed in the fast-moving bunch, having sipped and nibbled all race, stared at riders' backsides for longer than is advisable, and listened intently to the point of self-inflicted tinitus ... The shandy Ken bought me that evening at our usual haunt on the drive home really was the sweetest thing I've ever tasted.

That cycling epiphany - all thanks to Ken and Doreen - had given me a sense of freedom, of self-worth and secret pride that I'd struggled to find elsewhere. They'd made a five-foot boy feel ten-feet tall.

Along with our families there will no doubt be many among us here who have Ken and Doreen to thank for shaping us into the people we are today, and it's a debt of gratitude we'll no doubt never be able to adequately repay. Thanks to them, a life with cycling in that era seemed idyllic, much simpler, sunnier even when it rained. We really were young and carefree, as one of Ken's favourite riders wrote. Laurent Fignon was a favourite for his attacking, have-a-go riding style, and no doubt also for his matter-of-fact honesty and belief that cycling, even at the top level, should still be about having fun. It's no surprise that posters of the much-missed French champion still hang in Ken's garage alongside numerous bikes and other cycling paraphernalia, and I'm sure that's how many of us view our racing adventures with him. Simple, honest - physically challenging for sure - but fundamentally just great fun.

It wasn't always laughter and light though, as I'm sure Michael James will testify. There were moments when Ken could get quite exasperated with us, but rightly so. Sometimes we really weren't giving the bike the focus it deserved, were 'playing at it', and wasting our time. He wasn't angry that we might be wasting his time because he loved the bike too much, and neither was it that suddenly we weren't supposed to be enjoying ourselves. It was far more that Ken passionately wanted us to realise how important it was to make the most of whatever talent we might have - to be the best we could be. That sounds like a pretty good approach to the way we all ought to tackle everything we do in a lifetime, in my opinion, and it's an opinion shaped in no small measure by the man we've come here to honour today, a cycling champion in the truest sense of the word.

"Cycling was his life when I met him, and it always has been" Doreen told me last week, and for people who knew him, had the good fortune to ride with him or have been part of those teams in which he's been a pivotal character for so many years, we'll miss him dreadfully. But it's the team he's been in for over 60 years that will undoubtedly feel this terribly sad loss the most. But Doreen, you'll never be alone because we're team members too, not second-claim but fully-paid up members of Ken and Doreen's team, for life, and we'll be here for as long as you need us.

And to all of you - if you do two simple things in the next few weeks or months, here are a couple I'm sure Ken would appreciate. Firstly, just get out on your bike, ride, feel the freedom it offers you, and go and marvel at the beauty of the open expanses of the Ashdown Forest. The terrain is tough when you're on two wheels, but infinitely rewarding, and for this reason it's the place he truly loved when he was cycling. Do it, do it with friends, and do it soon.

And secondly, we're all wearing black today because it's the done thing, but if the truth were told, Ken hated black, especially when it came to bikes. He'd often lament the modern trend for bikes to be black, all naked carbon-fibre and anodised components, a marketing-fabricated image of 'mystery and stealth' to impart some feeling of speed. "Rubbish", he'd say. "All these bikes look like they're in mourning". So, when you get home later, go and take a look at your bike, and if it fits the description above, promise Ken that you'll make one easy change and at least swap out that sad black handlebar tape for something happy and bright. And then go out and ride with a smile on your face because you, like me, have been privileged enough to have known Ken Hargrave.