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?

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Price of Progress? Anonymity.

This image from last weekend's Milano-Sanremo caused a bit of flutter on Twitter, as fans such as @Plastic_Peloton adopted the role of the young boy in the Emperor's New Clothes to point out how ridiculously poor Fabian Wegmann's choice of clothing for the wet and cold race made him look. Functionally perfect garb perhaps, but surely no-one can dispute that sartorially this represents a backward step. A big one too.

For me it's even more fundamental than simply kit that just looks naff: at first hand more large corporations coming into cycling, investing large sums of money in teams in order to market their products to an increasingly large audience might seem like a positive development. However, more insidious in my mind is the increasing human disconnect we're witnessing in our sport brought by this shift, where once-accessible riders are increasingly isolated from their public - either by ill-advised egotistical behaviour fitting of superstar pop divas, privacy windows on Tour buses, burley minders keeping fans at arms' length - or through 'technical' accessories that disguise them completely like these. So many of the Milano-Sanremo riders out there that day were barely recognisable: is this anonymity the price we're paying for supposed progress?

Fabian Wegmann Looks Ridiculous in his POC helmet and glasses
Oh dear.
Admittedly the peloton was well wrapped-up against the elements for La Primavera, but this trend - more sponsors products like glasses and helmets contractually foisted on the riders, identikit jerseys à la Rapha and bland, black plastic 'stealth' bicycles - means riders are virtually indistinguishable one from the other. Riders increasingly resemble corporate billboards, employees rather than riders, reduced to anonymous Robocop automata in a cycling video game rather than individuals with their own style, characters and visual reference points. Interviews too, are, for the most part, simply distilled down to PR opportunities where riders must not stray one iota from sponsors' messaging. In the same way Formula One lost its mojo, cycling risks becoming souless ... thank goodness when Brit-pop bad-boys Cav and Wiggo go off script.

Compare and contrast the above with this image taken during the 1984 Tour de France. Now I've been a fan of the bike for longer than the 30 years since this picture was taken (and I know that the eagle-eyed amongst you will know just from glimpsing Laurent Fignon's Super Record front brake calliper arm being on the 'wrong' side that the image is flopped), but I can still name them all without too much trouble. Next season, 1985, the big money arrived: Bernard Tapie lured Greg from Renault for a million-dollar contract, the American started sporting Oakley Factory Pilots, and arguably this started the downward spiral, as cycling became more commercially confident and moved on from its almost quaint, parochial European roots.

1984 Tour de France 80s heroes, instantly recognisable
Name them. Not too hard, is it? 
Even after 30 years, all of these riders are instantly recognisable. Fignon, Hinault, Angel Arroyo with the white shoes [Miroir du Cyclisme poetically described him at the time as "l'homme aux souliers blancs"; the Tour de France organisation fined him for the transgression], his Reynolds team-mate Pedro Delgado on the wheel of his compatriot's red Pinarello Treviso, Skil's Eric Caritoux just behind, World Champ Greg LeMond, Claude Criquielion and Patrocinio Jiménez riding for Teka - the guy Robert Millar dropped at the top of Peyresourde in the Tour the year before to take victory on Stage 10 to Bagnères-de-Luchon. OK, so I'm renowned as a bit of a 'Statto' when it comes to bikes, but I feel that most cyclists out there 'of a certain age' with a keen interest in the sport would be able to name most of the riders here, the event and the year due to the kit, the sponsors and equipment, but most of all the human features of the personalities. I think it's why I'm a big fan of the Facebook groups "80s Cycling Remembered" and "Real 80s Cycling": simply put, it was cycling at its apotheosis.

The modern-day peloton: Can't name even one. Oh - Simon Gerrans.
Name them. Bit of a challenge, eh? Cyclists? They all look the same to me.
Being a commentator must have been so much easier back then: the opportunity to mix amongst the riders either before or in the aftermath of a race, easy access around team hotels and vehicles, with riders on the road much easier to identify. Forget the small black-and-white screens Liggett and Sherwen often used as an excuse for their constant identification errors, I happen to think that the Stateside-adored 'Phil and Paul' duo were just a little bit crap as correspondents, for both their stilted, overly-excited, permanently intense delivery and the numerous mistakes; let's not even talk about David Duffield here, since his unrelenting 'Colemanballs' deserve a whole post on their own. I'm amazed, conversely, that their modern-day peers like David Harmon, Declan Quigley, Matthew Stephens, Brian Smith, Carlton Kirby and Magnus Backstedt manage to do such an excellent job given the conditions they work under. Better research and preparation? More competition? Who knows.

And finally, if you want to argue that I've been disingenuous by picking a Tour de France summer pic from the past, with riders in short sleeves in the optimum riding conditions rather than the rain and mist of Milano-Sanremo, have a look at the image above and tell me how many of the riders you can name. Yeah, there's some guys from Orica-Greenedge and Garmin-Sharp, on their black Scott and Cervélo bikes for sure, but who are they? And will you be able to name them in 30 years' time?

Friday, 21 March 2014

1986/87 Circuit Cycliste du Port de Dunkerque Start Sheets: Recognise Any Names?

More digging around in the loft in an attempt to de-clutter, and instead I'm back amongst all my old cycling magazines and souvenirs, having a bit of a nostalgic reminisce about my mid-eighties racing days. Easily one of the best events for many of us in the south-east, raised on a diet of parochial (yet admittedly excellent) Kent and Surrey League road events supplemented with Crystal Palace and Brands Hatch circuit races, were annual trips organised by Roger St. Pierre to go and ride the Circuit Cycliste du Port de Dunkerque each summer. For some reason - perhaps to add a bit of an overseas, err, 'sophistication' - he'd arranged it so that an increasing number of us relatively inexperienced have-a-go plucky Brits from the lower categories were allowed to travel over and mix it with some of France, Belgium and Holland's finest amateur roadmen. A brilliant experience for us, keen as mustard (that'd be Colemans English, rather than Maille Dijon then), and a baptism of fire into hard-core continental racing.

Circuit Cycliste du Port de Dunkerque 1986
First go: 1986, aged 20. Super excited, soon to be disappointed.
Taking the Sally/Viking Line ferry from Ramsgate to Dunkerque (and a pre-race carbo-load thanks to their on-board restaurant's astonishing Smörgåsbord), we'd ride on to the old port - about 15km from the new ferry terminal if memory serves - where we'd get changed into proper racing kit, get warmed up for the 130-kilometre event, and even courteously sign autographs: being unknown quantities clearly allowed us the short-lived delightful luxury of pro-bikie adulation, and we all revelled in it, some more plausibly than others. Yeah you read that right too: that's an 80-mile crit, around the port and its warehouses with its multiple 90-degree corners, and worst of all, replete with numerous tramlines, almost magnetically drawing us off our racing line like some kind of insidious tractor beam. At my first attempt in 1986, we were already aware after our first warm-up lap of the potential carnage the tramlines on the first corner could cause; no-one wanted anyone to ruin their race and come a cropper so unnecessarily and so early on, but no: despite repeated reminders about it amongst our group, disappointingly one of our entourage - either not the sharpest of intellects, cack memory or just desperately unlucky - managed to ignore all the advice and snugly slot himself into one and ride with all the fluidity of a Scalectrix car for around 15 metres before being catapulted over the bars, right into my path. I avoided falling, but was held up, forced to undo a toe-strap to put a foot down, get out of the mess, and then get restarted with no chance of getting back on. Out the back after a full 200 metres of the race: angry doesn't describe it, and the stricken rider was lucky to not have his injuries compounded by a bruised and bleeding group of extremely disappointed coureurs britanniques. Muppet.

Circuit Cycliste du Port de Dunkerque 1986
Recognise any names in there? I can see a few ...
Ironically the reason the pace had been so frantic right from the gun was the offer of a prime to the first rider over the line on the opening lap: a pair of Look clipless 'safety' pedals, still a bit of a novelty in the bunch, but by now a DNF was going to be the only result I'd register as the back of the peloton disappeared out of view. Still, I decided I'd come all this way, so I might as well ride a few of the 28 five-kilometre laps, and milk the crowd a bit. Best race face on, trying to telepathically communicate to the 30,000 crowd lining the route that I wasn't just another shit rider, and that I was out the back only because I'd been involved in a crash ... and yet I had sustained no evidence: damn! Can't you see the dirty marks on the ankles of my crisp, white Santini socks, or the scuffs on my pristine Biemme track mitts? No, there were no tell-tale marks, and no-one was really interested in any case. There was a bit of polite cricket-match applause as I struggled around alone, but it was only when the Mayor and a few other dignitaries were milling around the finish line during a lull and unaware of my lonely approach that I managed to gain a bit of support for giving a very Gallic indignant hand gesture, as if to say 'c'mon guys: I may be off the back, but don't I count?'

Circuit Cycliste du Port de Dunkerque 1987
Glutton for punishment - back again, older and wiser, in 1987.
Next year I came back, determined to do more. It had been a better year for the bike - lots of long rides and races in the summer recess from college, added to by commutes from my mum and dad's place in Addington to Dauphin Sport (as it was then) at the top of Box Hill for work during the week and Saturdays - that's 40 miles a day, over 250 a week, with extra miles before or after work, plus racing on top. Unsurprisingly I was flying. And yet ... and yet. No crashes this time, but instead I managed to stay in contact until around half distance in what really isn't exactly my preferred cycling discipline (self-styled climber: it's the romance), thrilled with being part of the race, delighted at feeling comfortable in such a distinguished bunch, until big-hitter locals like Johan Museeuw, Francis Moreau, eventual winner Jean-Francois Laffillé and top Brits Neil Hoban, Harry Lodge and Steve Cook decided the racing had actually started. Goodbye.

Circuit Cycliste du Port de Dunkerque 1987
And even bigger and better field for 1987; this time I as marginally more successful.
So, my race was over again, and despite not being in any way a protagonist, I felt I'd done well, or rather I'd simply enjoyed my 'Jim'll Fix It' moment, long before that whole concept went bad. Next year would be a full year racing in France, and also another 12 months of collecting race souvenirs like these. It's still my favourite waste of time, looking back though old magazines and race programmes, and recalling that I once rode - albeit fleetingly - alongside riders of the calibre of the guys above. Then again this was a top-class international event at the time for the 'Continentals' - other winners have included Jos Lieckens, Michel Cornelisse, Bruno Wojtinek, Britain's Peter Sanders and Lithuanian Arturas Kasputis - but thanks to the efforts of Mr. St. Pierre, even us little fish got to swim in the big pond for a short, magical, while.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Flanders Training: No Strava, HRM or Powermeter; Your Legs Tell You When You're Good

Here's a route for a 'proper' old-school training ride courtesy of my mentor Ken Hargrave, who sadly passed away last summer. I wrote the Eulogy for the service, and eventually Cycling Weekly deigned to publish the obituary I wrote on their online version, which his widow Doreen doesn't have access to: she so wanted to see it in print, and I think it's quite a shoddy way to treat a man who bought 'The Comic' for over 60 years. Clearly there's no space amongst the mail-merge reviews of identikit black plastic bikes ridden by grateful staffers and diet advice on whether to eat porridge or a fry-up on the morning of a Sportive. Anyway, this isn't the place for a rant.

With the cobbled and hilly classics coming up, I thought I'd share the training route map that Ken devised for me when I was preparing for the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Voor Wielertoeristen back in 2011. It's nothing new or revolutionary, and we all knew these hills were there, but the point is that his input and effort to produce this forced me to go and do the rides, much to my benefit. For Ken the North Downs gave ample opportunity to recreate the Flemish hellingen right on our doorstep, and you could ride all the way from Exedown to Leith Hill taking in one b*stard climb after another ... and then doing it in reverse to get home. Here's his poignant hand-drawn map for me of a little loop you can do around Star Hill - perfect for repeats too. It really isn't Strava Cycling, but I like it like that.

I also found these notes from him - on the back of an envelope, naturally - for an extended version of this ride, to be done once you've completed the route above a few times and are feeling stronger:

  • Climb Star Hill to Knockholt Pound
  • Through Knockholt Pound to Knockholt
  • Descend Sundridge Lane and Hill to Pilgrims Way
  • Climb Brasted Hill, bear left into The Nower, left turn down Hogtrough Hill, right into Pilgrim's Way
  • Climb Westerham Hill, immediate left at top into Chestnut Avenue
  • Climb up Clarks Lane, left into descent of White Lane
  • Right at junction with Titsey Hill, climb to top
  • Left into The Ridge
  • Descend Chalkpit Lane, bearing right into Barrow Green Road until A25
  • Right into Tandridge Hill Lane and continue right into Gangers Hill, back to The Ridge

It's certainly tough training, from a champion cyclist riding in an era when no-one used heart-rate monitiors or power meters, because their legs and lungs told their head exactly how well they were going.

Thank you once again Ken, and Doreen, for everything.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This Is My Inspiration

Sunday's lone ride in the sunshine felt a little like perfection, for years personified for me by this pic of Roberto Pagnin, training in the Veneto. It's been an inspirational image since July 1987 when I was given the copy of Ciclismo Agonistico by a friend returning from teaching in Siena.

It's not only the aesthetics that count - heck, I'm not that shallow - although the Bianchi X4 here, with its glossy celeste finish and unique black chrome, the Almarc leather bar covering and Campagnolo Cobalto calipers, is undeniably a thing of utter beauty I admire even today. More, the image seems to encapsulate everything I love about the bike: 'continental' cycling, very much distinct from British sport of the era, of a poetic foreign language, of style, sophistication, design flair and craftsmanship, riding on sunny traffic-free roads to a cafe to sit and enjoy a caffè macchiato or two and pore over the results and reports in La Gazzetta dello Sport.

You see, I love cycling, in all its guises; I've ridden and raced for over 30 years (the latter without much success it must be said), and I've absolutely adored all of it, perhaps in a wierd way even the frozen fingers, the soaking feet and the streaming eyes that winter training rides would seemingly inflict on me more than others, without fail. I suppose being out of my comfort zone made me feel alive. Well, perhaps with hindsight.

But it really is when the sun shines that riding truly finds its appeal for an erstwhile competitor and, I admit, fair-weather cyclist like me. The fitness gained through that focussed training and intense competition once gave me the ability to push myself harder and deeper than I thought I could, and would see my voluntary self-flagellation rewarded with a sense of hightened self esteem and pride. However, contrary to coaching advice that dictates that every ride should have an objective, in my view sometimes that goal can be as simple as getting out on two wheels and into the fresh air of the countryside, just for the sake of it. I'm more that happy to casually sling my leg over the bike to meet up with friends in a sociable little peloton, or, as on Sunday, venture out on my own, no particular route in mind, where the simple act of 'getting some miles in' under bright blue skies and some much-missed warmth brings a wave of positive clear thinking that washes over me, gently lifting the stresses of the daily grind away. It's wonderfully simple, and simply wonderful.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Milano-San Remo, 17th March 1990. Or The Day I Became a Kleptomaniac

Bugno Vincitore!
After a year spent in France in Aix-en-Provence as part of my degree (and racing for the ASPTT Aix) , I graduated from Uni with a hard-fought 2:1, and after dead-end stints in Halfords & Habitat finally managed to get a post as an English teacher in Turin in January 1990 with Inlingua Torino. As you'd imagine, after an année sabbatique in such a gorgeous Provencal town, I didn't think it could get much better, but it was here on the other side of the Alpes Maritimes that my love affair with Italy began. Slowly the language improved - it's not so different from French - and as before, the major reason was my enthusiastic and total linguistic immersion in the place, where I'd devour cycling magazines like BiciSport and La Gazzetta for news on anything to do with the sport I'm absolutely besotted with. Not long after I'd arrived in January, the weather warmed up from the single-digit icy winter lows, and the spring classics were on the way: the 81st edition of La Primavera - 'springtime' as Milano-Sanremo is affectionately known in Italy - took place exactly 24 years ago today, on Saturday 17th March, 1990, and I enthusiastically jumped on a train from Turin with a couple of fellow English teachers to watch the finish on the Via Roma in San Remo. I'd seen 'proper' bike races before - the Worlds in Goodwood '82, the Tour several times in France - but this time the whole feel was different. I'm not knocking the French at all, but they really don't have the warmth and passion of their transalpino cousins, and being a bit of an emotional type myself, the drama of their everyday lives is simply another facet of their national persona that I adore. Well, pehaps not while we're building our guest house out there, but certainly when it's finished ...
A Wonka Golden Ticket, for a collector like me.

The whole town of San Remo was decked out with bunting and flowers, mostly fragrant yellow mimosas, grown in abundance in the Ligurian coastal greenhouses, the Riviera dei Fiori, and traditionally given to grateful mothers on La Festa Della Mamma, Mother's Day, on the second Sunday in March. Everyone was busying themselves in some way, whether chatting, listening to commentary on the radio and relaying it to friends, or arguing as to who might be the winner that day; hopefully an Italian, after a 6-year drought since Francesco Moser's 1984 triumph. The shadows started to lengthen on the roads and pavements of the Riviera as the bunch ate up more and more of the 294-kilometre percorso, and we mooched from one coffee shop to another eager to learn what was going on. At Imperia with about 30 kilometres to go, Gianni Bugno jumped onto the wheel of Angelo Canzonieri as the Gis-Gelati-Benotto rider attacked, and then dropped him as the two tackled the climb of the 240 metre-high Cipressa; Bugno, cementing his reputation as a team leader after a couple of years of early promise, classily pushed on alone over the Poggio and on to victory on the Via Roma, holding off a select chasing group containing Jesper Skibby, Rolf Golz, Moreno Argentin, Gilles Delion, Jean-Claude Colotti and Maurizio Fondriest. 6 hours 25 minutes and 6 seconds, an average speed of 45.8km/h - a long day in the saddle.

Press Car Accreditation, liberated.
After the predicatable melee and euphoria around the finish had died down, as everyone who's been to a bike race knows, the situation rapidly turns to business as usual, as a logistical whirlwind hits the finish: tribunes to take down and pack away, VIP seating to collect, audio equipment to disconnect and store, barriers to move. It was at this point that I took my chance: no-one seemed to be overly precious, so I mingled amongst the RCS officials, smiling politely - and was even thanked for helping out as I removed a zip-tie with a small penknife and folded up a huge finish-line Gazzetta dello Sport banner - and instead of handing it over, I decided that I'd be able to tuck it under my arm and get away with keeping it. Flush with the confidence and nonchalence of the seasoned kleptomaniac, this venturous souvenir-hunting seemed like easy pickings, so I went on to additionally liberate an official press car's bumper plate, and blagged a lanyard from a smiling member of the TV contingent, visually delighted at a Bugno win that would undoubtedly boost viewing figures for not only today, but for all the celebratory repeats to come.

Out of Doctor D's mothballs for Cadence Performance's
'Italian Master Framebuilder Day' 
On my return to the UK at the end of the year, to pokey rented flats and with nowhere to realistically hang the thing, I decided to give the Gazzetta banner to long-time friend Rohan Dubash, who at that point was, we both thought, about to go it alone from Dauphin Sport and set up his own very Italian bike emporium, Prima Tappa. The years passed, Rohan moved on from Dauphin to Geoffrey Butlers, to Sigma Sport and eventually on his own as Doctor D, but never used the banner how either of us had envisaged. However, in 2012 I was lucky enough to be creating social media content and helping with event promotion for Cadence Performance in Crystal Palace, and it was at their 'Italian Master Framebuilder Day' that the aging pink banderole got to see the light of day - for the first time in over 20 years - as it helped to create a suitably celebratory atmosphere in shop to complement the array of stunning Italian workmanship on display. Did anyone notice? I don't know, and it doesn't matter, because for me it meant finally renewing an aquaintance with an object that had been hidden away for so long, affording me a little wry smile reminiscencing about how I'd been able to walk off with such a delightful souvenir of a memorable day.