Posts Tagged ‘michael barry’

Flecha

October 11, 2013

roub08-flecha-agua
Words: Michael Barry Photographs: Timm Kölln

We spent more than six hours on our bikes and ascended two long climbs. Climbing for over half an hour, the tempo gradually reached the point of discomfort.

Few words were spoken. We both gazed at the road ahead, the peak in the distance, and focussed on the effort. It was December – we knew we should be reining in our effort.

But for Flecha, like me, that is something we find difficult. As in our childhood, we still both want to be on our bikes pushing our limits, which is not always the best for conditioning.

As we reached the summit of the first climb, I asked him if he wanted to ride to the next peak that we could see in the distance. The answer was a simple “yes”.

Rod Ellingworth, our team coach, once summarised Flecha’s training method. “He’s not a rider who lacks the motivation to train hard. He knows what he needs to do to be fit.

“But he just needs guidance as to when he should back off his workload so that he doesn’t arrive at the key races tired.” Racing his bike is a job; riding it is a passion.

During the ride, we chatted incessantly about writing, races, bikes, cycling history, cars, our families, Catalonia and dozens of other things which I can’t recall.

He writes well and has often contributed stories from races to Spanish newspapers. He has a profound interest in life beyond the bike. A mountain of novels always accompanies Flecha to a Grand Tour.

In the team bus or hotel, he leafs through books while his teammates tap away on their keyboards as they check results and chat with friends.

To him, the technology which seems to command many of our lives is simply a distraction from the essence. He is seeking simplicity and nature. But he can also be ferociously competitive when he has to be.

Three months before the Classics, he was already focused on the upcoming month of intense racing in the spring. He knew, based on experience, what he needed to do to be in good shape for the races.

With the guidance of the team’s coaches and sports scientists, Flecha sought out what he thought would separate him from the rest.

Yet, like most top professional cyclists, he will resist new ideas until they are proven and effective. That caution is in part based on superstition and partly on common sense. There is data and then there is hope.

While most cyclists search for warmer climates to escape winter, Flecha spends weekends at his second home in Puigcerdà in the Pyrenees to sustain and improve his climbing.

Unafraid of the cold and wet, he rides while his girlfriend skis, his tyres making tracks in the snow. Cars loaded with skiers pass cautiously.

Despite the discomfort of frozen extremities and the risk of crashing, he finds peace and reason riding alone in the frozen environment.

Like his Flemish rivals, Flecha has learned to persist through inclement weather. He has conditioned his body to become accustomed to the cold and his mind to accept and even embrace it.

A true Classics rider will thrive in adversity. When asked if he prefers a wet or dry Classic, Flecha doesn’t hesitate before answering: “Wet and muddy.”

Wet roads separate the skilled riders from the hopeful. Flecha seems to have battled adversity since he was a boy, following his dreams despite the hurdles of life.

Prior to the Ronde, Flecha was the focal point of our team press conference. The media fired questions at him. They asked about his past, crashes he had been involved in, his rivals, his tactics and his potential.

He deflected criticisms by asking the journalists rhetorical questions. It was apparent in his answers that he felt his nationality hindered him in a xenophobic peloton.

He is burdened with the generalisation that Spaniards can’t handle their bikes on the cobbles and, as a result, don’t belong on the front when there are cobbles. Often blamed for causing crashes, Flecha feels he is scapegoated because of his nationality.

There is truth to this. But like any minority working to fit into a class system based on nationality and performance, he has never felt as accepted or respected by his peers when racing in northern Europe.

It is his tenacity that makes him thrilling to watch on a bike. He will resist and persist, only backing down when it is on his terms.

Extract from Rouleur issue 21. Michael Barry is a former professional cyclist and author of Le Metier, available from the Rouleur shop.

flecha-bed

On Doping: Sport, Play, and the Difference Between Them

November 15, 2012

 

Words: Michael Egan   Photo: Camille McMillan

During the summer of 1994, I fulfilled a childhood dream. That July, I stepped onto a soccer field for a professional trial with Oxford United (I haven’t verified this, but I suspect I might be the only academic who ever went to Oxford for the soccer). I didn’t expect to win a professional contract; rather, I think the trial was more for myself: culminating a youth career with a professional tryout, being able to say that I was good enough to get that far. I loved playing soccer.

Some of my earliest recollections involve kicking a ball around my backyard. The trees were hapless defenders; the swing set the opposition goal. This was my preparation: I would represent Canada in five World Cups, starting in 1994 and finishing in 2010 after a successful professional career. My parents wouldn’t let me play on a team until after I had learned to swim, so I raced through three swimming badges in about as many months in order to be ready for the new season. I was seven. Organised soccer was the carrot. And I looked forward to every practice. Every game. My school week revolved around weeknight practices (once, then twice a week) and weekend games. As a teenager, I would wake at the crack of dawn to watch English soccer on television as I polished my boots, anticipating my own game. Soccer was an important part of my adolescence; this I knew: I was a soccer player and nobody could tell me I wasn’t good at it. On the soccer field, I belonged.

My trial in Oxford not only cemented that belief (even if the bolder dream had already waned), but it also served as closure on my soccer career. My youthful dreaming had run its course. It closed, though, on a sour note. At the World Cup in the United States, my boyhood hero Diego Maradona tested positive for ephedrine, an illegal substance. He was banned and scapegoated for being a cheat. I was crushed. I cried. Not so much because he had betrayed me, but because of the manner in which he was cast out as a lone sinner.

A little bit about my relationship with Maradona: I watched almost every game of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico—the last and only time Canada competed in the tournament finals—and the diminutive Argentinian stole the show. He was positively brilliant. To my mind, he remains the greatest soccer genius. His magic was intoxicating, his play full of emotion and panache. He was at play, happy. That raw passion and playfulness was why I loved the beautiful game.

Four years later, he was overweight and stood listlessly in the middle of the field, but with a touch here and there he still dictated the game. By 1994, at the beginning of the World Cup, he looked trim and back to his best. It was awesome to see, and not just from a sporting perspective. The troubled Maradona—who faced so much legal and media attention off the field, and was constantly chopped down and fouled by players on it—was back. This was a human drama, a comeback story. He seemed older and more driven—angry, almost—but he still possessed otherworldly skill, only to be found guilty of cheating and forced to leave the tournament in shame.

In England, the response to his doping was vitriolic to say the least. In 1986, Maradona had almost singlehandedly dispatched the English, once with a little help from “the hand of God”, and once with the most brilliant goal I have ever seen (worth at least two as far as I’m concerned). Maradona was already a cheat, the English declared, and his doping in 1994 only confirmed it—he could now be properly punished. It was presented as a morality play. But was Maradona more sinner or sinned against? My sadness at his ban had more to do with the fall of a tragic hero than the fact that he had broken the rules. I don’t want to absolve him of wrongdoing, but it seems to me that Maradona’s cheating was more a by-product of the world in which he found himself. The poor son of the Buenos Aires ghetto with this supreme talent found himself almost overwhelmed by his celebrity, unable to cope with his transformation and the counsel he received from people who stood to benefit from his success on the field. On the field, opponents found the only way to slow him down was to cut his legs out from underneath him. This was no game anymore.

I stopped playing soccer shortly after my professional trial. A few months later, I fell in love and in 1997 I became a father. I stopped playing soccer because my priorities shifted, and I have barely played at all in the past decade. I have never missed it. And I do not follow the sport today. Somewhere along the line, soccer shifted from play to something more serious. I always took soccer seriously, but I lost my joy of training, and games were no longer fun. I loved the process of play, the work involved. But by the time I put my boots in my bag and buried them at the back of my garage, it seemed as though winning at any cost was the rule. On a much more modest scale, this was no game anymore.

More recently, I find my exercise in cycling, where I can enjoy the solitary struggle. Cycling can certainly be a social activity, but after years of soccer, something about the solitude of cycling alone appeals to me. The pleasure is derived in a rekindling of the difficult balance of work and play. Technique and fitness on the one hand, but also the sheer exhilaration of freedom the bike affords. This is play. Cycling is about getting up early to fit in a ride and thrilling at the crispness of the pre-dawn air as I click into my pedals. And the light whizz of the chain as I roll up my street, and the tightness across my chest and lungs when I’m confronted with a hill. And then going harder. I ride for me, for fitness, for pleasure. The more I ride, the more I appreciate the nature of cycling aestheticism and technique. But that’s not why I ride.

As a teenager, I read Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a short story about a boy in juvenile detention who finds solace in running. His story is not dissimilar from a number of accounts—true and fictional—of talented endurance athletes—cyclists and runners—who lose themselves in their discipline as a means of escape. The harder they run/ride, the more they are very evidently running/riding away from something. In that context, it might be worth noting that my rides are always loops and I am intent on returning. But the ride—alone—is a kind of solace. The tragedy of Sillitoe’s story, though, is that his protagonist is presented with an opportunity to get out of detention if he wins a race, thereby gaining prestige for his borstal. He speeds away from the others, but stops just short of the line—to the shock and disappointment of his wardens. Running—and running quickly—is his lone gift, his only escape, and he will not exchange it, even for his freedom. In his running he is free.

In riding I am free, and I have become a total convert to cycling, whose professional scene was dealt a severe blow with the US Anti-Doping Agency’s presentation of its evidence against Lance Armstrong, which has brought with it numerous confessions from a generation of North American cyclists who rode with Armstrong on the US Postal team. Among these is the Canadian Michael Barry, who I have admired as much for his exquisite writing as I have for his lucid pedal stroke. In Le Métier, Barry offers a chilling perspective of the professional cycling world. One of airports, dingy hotels, fatigue, pain. Re-reading passages of his book this week suggest shadows of Barry’s secret and his doping past. Le métier can translate loosely into English as “the job,” but a better translation probably revolves around something like “the trade” or “the craft,” stressing both technique and experience.

In Barry’s hands le métier is also something just this side of an addiction. He describes in vivid prose the struggle and agony inherent in professional cycling—the crashes, the hospital rooms, the suffering, the travel, the stress, the exhaustion. Always exhaustion. For the professional cyclist, racing bicycles is not a game and there is no place for Sillitoe’s romantic irreverence. Cold-hearted numbers, dollars, and seconds rule. It’s a beautiful and moving read, Le Métier. And through Barry’s exhaustion, one might infer an almost natural—pragmatic—descent from painkillers and recovery vitamins to EPO, testosterone, and blood transfusions.

I am saddened by the reaction of people both outside the cycling world and inside who dismiss and demonise individual cyclists with accusatory finger-pointing when clearly a much more sinister system of doping in the sport was in place. Twitter is not the right conduit for these discussions, where 140 characters is insufficient for uncovering the nuances behind any individual’s decision to dope or not to dope. The question is not whether or not one athlete or another did or did not cheat. Nor is there a black and white spectrum of morality and betrayal; the line is never that clear, especially the closer you get to the sport. The purity or sanctity of play is not tainted by the actions of a single rider who dopes, but rather by the machine that has systematically turned sport into big business and athletes into commodities. This is where the Armstrong saga gets ugly. Owners, managers, doctors, and team pressures created environments where doping was regimented and commonplace, and aspiring professional riders were shepherded through a well-orchestrated series of steps to the point where doping seemed inevitable, necessary, and maybe not all that bad. I don’t think this excuses doping, but I think it points to the extant pressures that give rise to a culture of doping.

And to that end, maybe cycling is unique not for its widespread problem with performance enhancing drugs, but for the fact that it has done more than any other sport to identify and confront the doping in its midst. Entertain the thought. The soccer I left almost 20 years ago has changed radically. Over 90 minutes, players today cover almost twice as much ground in an average game than Maradona did in 1986. The game is much faster. Ice hockey, too. And American football.

While there have been remarkable advances made in sports science in recent years, to profess that doping won’t help in other sports is to stick one’s head in the sand. My instinct is that more extensive and aggressive doping tests in other professional sports would knock down a massive house of cards. If there are advantages to be gained, if there is money to be made—and it pains me to be so cynical—systematic methods of doping will occur, frequently putting the athlete’s health and well-being at risk. And the parallels exist outside of sport. Athletes are not the only people prone to temptation in order to get ahead, and they are often enough as much victims of the necessities of surviving in their métier. The difference is that they are placed in a dubious spotlight and held up to be role models.

My soccer career never got me so far as to be faced with the difficult questions about where exactly the line between love and duty lay—or the line between responsibility to myself or to my employer. For me, ultimately, the tragedy of Diego Maradona was that his genius made this sinister world seem like play until it all came crashing down. For Michael Barry, it stems from the theft of the pleasure he derived from cycling because of le métier. Watching my own children grow up, though, I do worry about how play and process have become secondary to success in all manner of endeavours, even as we go to great lengths to stress the former.

Michael Egan is an associate professor of history at McMaster University, Hamilton. He is the recipient of the 2012 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award, which is funding the development of a collaborative research project with his undergraduate students on the environmental history of the bicycle.

The third edition of Le Métier by Michael Barry and Camille McMillan is available from Rouleur

 

Chute!

March 7, 2012

Words: Michael Barry Photo: Olaf Unverzart

Team Sky’s Michael Barry is the author of Le Métier and Inside The Postal Bus. He crashed and broke his elbow just days after completing Chute! for Rouleur 29.

To win, the strongest teams now strangle the race, force their tactics and try to control variables. The underdog has little chance. Despite increasingly challenging courses, pelotons often remain compact and massive until the final kilometres. Over the last 15 years, the differences between riders’ abilities have diminished because of better training, proper diets, a more international peloton and more aerodynamic, lighter equipment. The races have become more predictable. Often, only the injured or ill fall off the pace.

When nearly 200 riders charge down a narrow, twisting, rural road three metres wide, crashes are inevitable. Cameras can’t capture the chaos in the belly of the bunch. The peloton rarely relaxes. Within it, we ride inches apart, our elbows rubbing, our shoe buckles clipping sharp spokes, our tyres brushing up against another rider’s. There is precious little room to manoeuvre. Behind the first line of riders every inch of the road is used. To get to the front of the peloton, we’ll accelerate up the dirt shoulder, a driveway, a sidewalk or a bike path and dodge spectators, parked cars, utility poles and potted plants. In our hasty dash to the front, we jump kerbs at 50 kph. Crashes are inevitable.

The constant live feed of news from a race, which streams over the internet and television, has increased the tension. A decade ago, seasons began progressively. The early races were often slower, and riders used them to gain fitness. Now, the first race of the season has become as important as the last. Training camps are held in December to ensure we’ll be in top shape by the end of January. From the first race of the season in January until the last in October, entire pelotons of 140 to 200 riders fight for attention. Often we are considered only as good as our last race. The battle is relentless.

In the one day cobbled Classics the fight for the front is furious. Every rider knows his chance of victory could end if he is too far back in the peloton. From a four lane highway we funnel onto a dusty or mud-coated rural cobbled lane. In dry weather, the peloton kicks up a dust cloud, which blurs our vision. In the rain we slip and slide to find the best line around riders who have fallen on muddied stones. But the worst crashes often occur before the most technical bits of course, when the peloton stampedes through the countryside like frenzied cattle towards a chute. On smooth tarmac, the speeds are higher and the peloton a compact mass. One rider’s error will bring down a multitude. Not only do larger pelotons lead to more crashes, but the racing is also more controlled. Breakaways have less chance of success against multiple eight to nine man pursuing teams. Rules downsizing teams to fewer riders and shrinking the peloton would make the racing more animated and less dangerous.

The worst crashes aren’t limited to the Classics. In a Tour de France stage, where the stakes are highest and every kilometre has value, the fight for the front is relentless. In the first week of the race, every rider seems to be aiming for a chance at victory, the yellow jersey or simply a few flickering moments on television. As a result, crashes are more frequent in the first third of every Tour. As the race wears on, the effervescence yields to fatigue, every rider finds his spot in the physical hierarchy, and the race becomes safer. Changing the format of the Tour by adding a time trial or mountain stage in the first week, to create greater time gaps earlier, would reduce crashes.

Extract from Rouleur 29, on sale soon.

Animal Crackers

February 29, 2012

Words: Ian Cleverly

Animals seem to have featured highly in the news this week one way or another. Former editor of The Sun Rebekah Brooks and her loan of a police horse by the Met was obviously the big one, but what went on in the lanes of Kent last Sunday was, whilst small fry in comparison, far more puzzling.

I had donned a hi-vis jacket to point riders in the right direction for a few hours at the Hell of the Ashdown but was not aware of one rider having fallen and broken his collarbone – not an uncommon occurrence, although the circumstances were pretty unique. He had struck part of a cow’s carcass in the road, a rib cage according to witnesses.

You may wonder how hundreds of cyclists could have missed seeing a big chunk of animal like that. Splattered badgers, rabbits and foxes are a common and gruesome sight round those parts, but half a heifer? Conspiracy theories abound. Disgruntled local resident or fell off the back of a lorry? Call for Inspector Knacker of The Yard.

I was reminded (thank you, Sarah) of a crash at the old Eastway circuit in Stratford a few years back, when a speeding rabbit tore into the middle of the bunch. It ended badly for several riders – and the rabbit, obviously. The fallen picked themselves up and dusted themselves down by the side of the track. The peloton tore round again, only to discover that a spread of entrails is trickier to negotiate than a live lupine. Down they came again…

There have been plenty of instances of dogs and horses causing chaos in major races over the years. This one is my current favourite, for the way this thoroughbred doesn’t just settle at the back of the bunch, but works its way through to the head of affairs, no wingman (or wing horse) necessary. Just brute strength and an ability to strike the fear of God into the hearts of the riders. You might want to try pulling out a pair of coconut shells from your jersey the next time you need to move up…

The consistently excellent Michael Barry has written a fine feature on crashing for the upcoming Rouleur 29 to accompany Olaf Unverzart’s images. No animals were harmed in the making of this article, you’ll be glad to hear – although Mr Barry gets his share of bangs and scrapes.

Set in stone

November 11, 2010

It has been my not inconsiderable pleasure this week to proof read the second edition of Le Metier, Michael Barry and Camille J. McMillan’s splendid book published earlier this year by Rouleur. The new, updated version – with added text from David Millar and Barry himself – will be available later this month. That’s the hard sell bit done with…

A couple of passages in Michael’s writing got me thinking about two things: one bike-related, the other not strictly, but relevant nonetheless.

Cobbles. There, I’ve said it. Barry describes the feeling of hitting the hideously undulating stone surfaces at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, and the resulting carnage that ensues as 200-plus riders fight for space on some of the narrowest lanes and farm tracks in Europe. Some riders seemingly float over the pavé, while all around others flounder. The big strongmen of the Peloton – Cancellara, Boonen, Hincapie, Hushovd, Flecha and the like – come into their own. (Roger Hammond is the anomaly here, being strong, but clearly not big. It doesn’t seem to do him any harm.)

It may not have escaped your attention that ASO is planning a Paris-Roubaix sportive on April 9, the day before the real thing. You may be planning on riding. You may be thinking that the 135km route from Saint Quentin to Roubaix – as opposed to the 250km ‘full Monty’ the pros ride – will be child’s play. Think again.

Having ridden the bi-annual summer event organised by the Vélo Club de Roubaix Cylotourisme a few years back, I can confirm that it will be a long, hard day in the saddle. My abiding memory of probably the best day’s riding I have ever enjoyed was approaching the first sector of cobbles at Troisvilles on a straight, gentle descent and witnessing half of the preceding pack fall apart at the very first hurdle. Bottles littered the pave; bodies flew into ditches left and right; some went down hard on the muddy surface, damaging both bikes and limbs.

How were we ever going to reach the velodrome for a celebratory lap of the track with another 27 of these – including the infamous Arenberg and Carrefour de l’Arbre – to go?

Then the pre-start advice from old hands kicked in: attack the cobbles, don’t grip the bars, let the bike find its own path, sit back and relax, recover on the road sections. And it worked a treat. The ‘cross bike with 28mm tyres soaked up the worst of the vibrations and our group arrived in Roubaix in good shape to pick up souvenir cobbles and bottles of beer. Much as I abhor memorabilia cluttering up the house, the cobble has pride of place on the mantlepiece as a reminder of an amazing day.

Then again, the version I rode is held in the summer. Next April will be a very different prospect indeed. It will be a memorable weekend, with the race the following day – just don’t underestimate the cobbles, and try and get some practice on them beforehand (easier said than done, I know). Details of the event can be found here.

The not strictly bike-related part of this post stems from Michael Barry writing about Flanders and northern France, and the inescapable, everlasting presence of the fact that a huge part of two World Wars took place in the fields the peloton races past and the towns it passes through.

I visited the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, near Arras, a few years back, having some spare time before the start of what turned out to be a Tour team time trial in torrential rain. Michael, being a Canuck, might well have been there. It is one of the most sobering monuments to the foolhardiness of war I have ever seen.

The ridge of high ground so brutally fought over during the First World War overlooks miles of flat terrain, featureless save for regular eruptions of gigantic slagheaps, testimony to the coal mining industry that dominated the area. An enormous network of underground tunnels, dug by specialist miners on both sides of the Western Front, spread for miles in each direction.

Sections of preserved trenches, quite literally a stone’s throw separating German and Canadian lines, snake through the woods, interspersed with craters of mind-boggling proportions – created not by shells, but by burrowing miners tunnelling beneath enemy lines and detonating tonnes of explosives. Thousands of casualties were incurred in the Battle of Vimy Ridge at Easter, 1917, for little gain – the hallmark of the entire conflict that resulted in an estimated 8.5 million deaths.

Should you be planning a Classics excursion for next spring, give yourself an extra few hours on the itinerary and swing by Arras. It is a deeply moving experience.


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