Archive for March, 2011

Tour of the Dengie Marshes

March 31, 2011

Extract from Rouleur issue 17

Words: David Arthur
Photographs: Geoff Waugh (www.waughphotos.com)

Echelons form across the narrow farm track. Spread across the full width of the road, we each seek shelter alongside our temporary companions. There’s a mutual, silent agreement that we’re going to work together. We may all have watched the eventual winners ride off up the road, but we are still willing each other onto the finish. We’re in our own personal race ‚ anything to avoid the dreaded letters DNF beside our name on the results sheet. There will be some glory in finishing. We battle on.

Soon, the road surface deteriorates further. Racing through a farmyard, past huge stacks of hay bales and menacing-looking farm machinery, we’re onto a farm track, descending. A large crowd of supporters greets us as the descent turns into a steady incline. This is the jewel in this event’s crown, a track scarred with potholes, lunchbox-sized bricks, puddles and slimy mud.

My bike bumps and bounces over the path; you would need a four-by-four to get through this, not a road bike with slick 25 millimetre tyres. I try to let the bike float over the large areas of gravel, broken tarmac, water-filled potholes and large rocks. Picking a clean route through while jostling for position is more luck than skill. Finding traction is a struggle. Not every rider makes it through intact. This is the breaking point of the race.

I grip the bars tighter and decide that the best way across is flat out. Gritting teeth, I push on the pedals as hard as I can. Dodging a fallen rider, my bike squirming on the slop, I veer into a pile of bricks. I try to unweight the bike as the tyres pound into and bounce over them. My heart is racing –  a puncture now would be a cruel end to my race. Then we’re onto the tarmac, slithering in the mud that has been dragged onto the road by the riders. The huge cheers from the crowd are overwhelming yet hard to decipher beyond being those of admiration. People holding wheels in preparation line the road, some offering bottles. And we’re through. For another lap.

It’s about as close to racing in Belgium as you’ll get in the UK, along with the Rutland-Melton held further north. Its roads might not be as steeped in tradition as the spring Classics, nor are the roads considered as punishing. But it still sparks some of the fascination that makes us admire the true grit of the sport’s hard men, such as multiple Paris-Roubaix winner Roger De Vlaeminck and last year’s winner Tom Boonen. The Dengie offers a unique chance to emulate those tough roadmen, putting you right into those sepia-toned photos we all admire.

It was a race of courage. Even though I was nowhere near the pace of the leaders, I’m glad to have taken part in a very unique race and one that I’ll be telling stories about for years to come.

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Japan: generous, spirited, humble

March 21, 2011

BettiniPhoto©2011

 

Issue 23 is at the printers. Which is where I sit and type this, surrounded by thrilling titles to browse such as Offshore Support Journal and Transport Review. It’s going to be a long night. But not as long a night as it will be for many hundreds of thousands of Japanese, made homeless by the recent earthquake and tsunami that washed away their lives.

At the start of the Milan San Remo last weekend you may have seen Japanese champion Takashi Miyazawa in the early break. Before the race, the riders signed a Japanese flag and Miyazawa led a very heart warming tribute to his compatriots, his tears as he draped a flag over his handlebars were hard to ignore – potent stuff indeed. The minute the flag dropped he did everything he could to make that break, as a tribute to his country and those who have suffered as a result of the earthquake. Chapeau Takashi.

Around a year and a half ago we travelled to Japan and came back with a host of stories about an amazing adventure. We were warmly welcomed wherever we went, be it at the Keirin, Shimano or Nagasawa, and finally by the man who is central to the last installment that will feature in issue 23, an interview with pioneering Japanese pro rider Mashiko Mifune. Massa is a wonderful man with a positive and uplifting outlook on the sport of cycling and a determination you rarely see in pro riders today, but much like Takashi Miyazawa showed last Saturday.

Rouleur magazine has become far richer by the stories we collected during a month there, and for me the experience was inspirational. It was a wonderful trip and I loved Japan, not just for their love of cycling and food, but mainly for the people, their generous spirit, respect for one another and a humble resilience, the things that will surely see them through this arduous time.

Ian Cleverly, Rouleur’s deputy ed, recently started a routine of popping to the off-license on a Friday night and stocking up on New Zealand wines. His way of supporting the rebuilding of their economy after the quake hit a few month’s back, he might manage to help out pretty well single handed too – he likes a drop, does Ian. But it’s a simple and quite practical idea. So, if you have a spare few quid, have a look at the auction. If the flag is getting a bit out of your budget, you could think about a jersey. Or just buying some Japanese parts instead (there are many other brands, not just Shimano) or you could always follow Ian’s approach – he’s off for a case of Sake this week.

 

 

 

 

Signed, sealed, delivered

March 17, 2011

by Herbie Sykes

It had seemed a good idea at the time.

Actually it didn’t, not at all. It seemed an indescribably stupid thing to do, which I guess made it all the more appealing. I was to collect 140 books from the printers in Vicenza (that’s on the other side of the country), and do a five day Giro d’Italia in the hope of getting them signed by as many Giro greats as possible. I’d rung them all beforehand, and so they were sort of primed, but the reality is that most of them have much better things to do, and that signing 120 books is not a little dull. I was, to say the least, somewhat fearful that my big idea may have been just a little… misguided. If, I assured myself, I managed to pull it off, I’d treat myself to a week off. I’d ride my bike in the sunshine and forget about the Giro d’Italia for a few blessed days. If only I’d known…

I set out at 5am on Monday morning, got to Vicenza shortly before 9 o’clock. The books were beautiful and, thus emboldened, I made for Marostica, home of the 1981 winner Giovanni Battaglin. This was where my problems began in earnest. The warrior Battaglin, looking ever so slightly incongruous with a Yorkshire terrier under his arm, informed me that he’d to go out, and as such he could only give me ten minutes. Over the years, however, I’ve become reasonably adept at massaging cyclist’s egos and so, the thick end of an hour later, I took my leave. Part one of my mission impossible accomplished, I headed for Francesco Moser’s vineyard, up in Trento. I’d arranged to meet him, and Gibo’ Simoni at 3 o’clock.

Moser, a collosus of a man in most every respect, signed, but Simoni said he’d need a couple of hours to finish up what he was doing. I killed time helping Moser move crates of wine around, and ultimately Gibo was as good as his word (and as good as gold), as he always is. I bought some wine from Moser, and took my leave at 7 o’clock. I drove to Monza (that’s just above Milan), and booked myself and my books into a cheap hotel. Then I rang Gianni Bugno.

He could come at 9.15 in the morning, he reluctantly informed me, but he had to be getting straight off to Tirreno – Adriatico. He added that he could therefore give me a maximum of 15 minutes and I, very obviously, responded that 15 minutes would be more than enough. Then I set to devising a scheme to condense an hour into 15 minutes. The plan, such as it was, was to have all of the books open on the page featuring his photograph, and lined up. In order so to do I comandeered half of the hotel dining room, to the utter bemusement of both the hotel staff and their guests, several of whom were compelled to eat breakfast standing up. Bugno, never the most effusive individual, was duly confronted with four 10-metre rows of books. Notwithstanding the fact that the expensive Mont Blanc pen I’d bought started to play up, Gianni Bugno signed 120 books in a little under 12 minutes. Bloody genius, that…

My lower back’s been suspect for years and, as I humped the boxes gingerly back into the car, I deluded myself that the “excercise” was doing it good. I spent two thoroughly agreeable hours with the great Fiorenzo Magni, drinking Earl Grey and talking about the final stage of the 1955 Giro d’Italia. When I got to Bergamo, where Felice Gimondi sells insurance, it transpired that Gimondi was running late. However I  − or more specifically my recalcitrant back – faced a rather more immediate problem. Gimondi Assicurazione is located in a pedestrianised precinct, and I was therefore condemned to carry fourteen heavy boxes for 100 metres from the car and, upon completion, back again. No laughing matter as you can imagine, but for all that I was in pieces, day two had been an overwhelming success; Felice had been kind and expansive, and I’d managed to have three of the truly great Giro winners sign.

Home to Turin for a decent night’s sleep, and a stress-free day with Balmamion, Zilioli and Coletto. When these three, all friends and all within an hour or so of home, duly obliged, I re-adjusted my sights somewhat. I’d promised the guys at Rouleur that I’d deliver “at least ten”, and so, for all that the back was extremely painful, I was well in front of myself. When it transpired that Ercole Baldini was in Costa Rica (and even I’m not fool enough to make that trip) I consoled myself with the fact that Massignan and Berzin, two of the three victims I’d earmarked for Thursday, would be relatively easy pickings. Berzin, these days an overweight used car salesman, was a joy, whilst Massignan, the ‘Spider of the Dolomites’, was just as endearing as ever. It’s 51 years since his heroic failure made the legend of the Gavia, and yet even today Imerio gives the impression that his heart remains broken.

I finished up with a trip to brilliant, fragile Gianni Motta, consumate in winning the 1966 edition before his left knee, much like my back, undermined his career. He said he wasn’t much interested in re-invoking his cycling life, and yet he gleefully set about doing just that. On the wall of his lobby there is a very large, very beautiful oil of him in the maglia rosa. It’s to die for, frankly, and I was thrilled that its subject, the great Gianni Motta, had signed my book. Truly humbled, I headed back to Bergamo, and booked myself (just for once) into a decent hotel.

The following morning I sat down with Vittorio Adorni. In winning his Giro, that of 1965, he gave one of the most commanding performances in the history of the race, and would win the 1968 World Championship with a 220km breakaway. Adorni, the very opposite of the contadino ciclista (the farmer-turned-cyclist) was not only urbane and intelligent, but also great company. I’d never met him before, but he was happy to pass an hour sharing his memories,  a true gentleman. When, however, I bent down to pick up the final box of books, my back decided emphatically to call time on preceedings. Now, as Vittorio went off to his meeting, I found myself – quite literally – unable to move. The wheels well and truly dislodged, I sat amidst a huge pile of boxes, contemplating how on earth I might engineer them into the car, and quite how I was going to drive the thing having done so. Somehow, aided by the hotel porter and 1000mg of very strong pain killer, I managed. Fausto Bertoglio signed the books before Roberto Visentini (mad as a box of frogs) let me down at the last minute. It was a blessing in disguise; the effect of the painkillers was starting to wain.

I got myself, and the books, back to Vicenza, and got home early on Friday evening. The dream of a week on the bike hasn’t materialised because, basically, I’m barely able to make it to the garage where it resides, let alone contemplate getting on the thing. I’m writing this whilst laid on the sofa watching Paris – Nice, rattling with Neurofen but congratulating myself on my stupidity.

It was a daft thing to have done, but it made for an unforgettable week. The back will sort itself out, and anyway I’ve all my life to ride my bike. It’s not every day one gets to drink Earl Grey with Fiorenzo Magni.

Buy Maglia Rosa by Herbie Sykes here.

Follow the Badger: Part Two

March 10, 2011

Rouleur’s Guy Andrews and Ian Cleverly sampled some old-fashioned, mud-spattered Paris-Roubaix hospitality in the wake of the mighty Bernard Hinault. Andrews excelled and, while Cleverly groveled, he did learn a thing or two from the back of the bunch.

Photos: Wig Worland

You gotta roll with it
Riders possessing sizable thighs, shoulders and arm muscles (Hinault, Andrews) as opposed to worthless twigs connected to a slightly wider twig (Cleverly), will have a forward trajectory on the pavé. Those of a lightweight disposition, both physically and mentally, will surely bounce into oblivion unless fit and prepared to suffer. That would be me, then…

Attack, recover, attack, ad infinitum
Hit the cobbles hard to minimise disruption, then back off on the tarmac. We all know the theory that riding a rough surface at speed will reduce the jarring effect, yet many ease the pressure on the pedals as a default reaction. This is a mistake. Press on at all times when on the pavé and it will soon pass.

Tighten up
The first section of pavé will always result in somebody – usually equipped with one of those flimsy-looking carbon bottle cages – parting company with their bidon. Sure enough, a bottle bounced away into the surrounding fields within 50 metres. I noticed the offending receptacle a few miles further down the road, flapping around in the breeze, about to part company with the frame and bring its owner to a halt. Preparing your bike for Roubaix means tightening everything – and I mean everything – up. And ensuring your bottles cages are up to the job.

Gear up
Both Guy and I rode ‘cross bikes, all the better for mud clearance and comfort. Continental Gator Skins in a vibration-deadening 28mm were perfect – no slipping down the gaps between stones and grippy enough to make for a tumble-free day. We both fitted cross-top levers which, although rarely used, are reassuring when spending lengthy periods on the bar tops. Final modifications to my bike were gel inserts under the bar tape and a K-Edge chain catcher – an excellent little gadget that eliminates the possibility of chain derailment between frame and chainset. All in all, we got the equipment aspect spot on.

Shape up
Sounds ludicrously obvious, doesn’t it? Most rides you can wing it: a modicum of condition, stick to your own pace, and it’s possible to muddle through – even in the mountains. The cobbles are another matter altogether. They take every weakness and magnify it tenfold. Lacking strength? Five or six sectors into the ride you will start to flag. Bike handling skills not all they could be? Expect to be seriously challenged on the farm tracks to Roubaix. Heart (and head) not in it? Forget it.

Paris-Roubaix is not for everyone. But get it right and there is no ride I can think of that is so deeply satisfying; that gives such a sense of accomplishment when swinging onto the track for the closing metres of this legendary race.

Enter here if I haven’t put you off. That was not the intention: just want to make sure you know what lies ahead. There is just one month left to sort yourself out. Now, stop reading this and get on with it.

Follow the Badger

March 3, 2011

“You will never make me take back what I have already said about Paris-Roubaix. It’s a big nonsense!

Bernard Hinault, quoted immediately after winning the 1981 Paris–Roubaix.

Off the bike Bernard Hinault is a charming man. No doubting that. In his role at the Tour de France and similar major races he meets and greets sponsors, riders, journalists and special guests, always smiling and gracious. Nice guy, Bernard. On the bike he still has only one character – the minute he swings his leg over the cross-bar his persona reverts. Bernard Hinault is still Le Patron, not exactly the all consuming race-dominating Badger he once was, but he’s still a super fit alpha-dog of a man these days… It’s hard not to be intimidated.

To become a fan of cycling in the early eighties was to immerse yourself in the world of Bernard Hinault. He was the man you see, Le Patron. His famous victories were outshone by his ability to stand proud at the head of affairs and speak out for the riders or wade into striking farmers preventing he and his riding colleagues from doing ‘their work’. Fair do’s really, can’t argue with that. Even if you have the sympathy for the underdog, a race is a race and stopping it isn’t cricket, in France at any rate. Strangely I was never a ‘fan’ of the Badger. Being an avid follower of the fall guy or the scrapper, I was never drawn to his relentless domination of bike races, nothing personal – I just wanted to cheer on the less-championed. And anyways my distinguished colleague, Graeme Fife, did a marvellous job of getting into the Badger in issue 19 of Rouleur, so I shouldn’t go on too much, but needless to say Bernard Hinault is a legend and rolling into Erre in the heart of France’s hellish north, to line up alongside him to ride a section of Paris–Roubaix is kind of cool. What am I saying? This is going to be amazing.

Before I go on, please watch this. It is 1981, the year that the Badger won. He was in arguably one of the most perfectly formed Paris–Roubaix breakaways in history. Previous winners Francesco Moser, Roger De Vlaeminck and Marc Demeyer were joined by eventual 1983 winner Hennie Kuiper, who was fresh from victory at that years’ edition of the Tour of Flanders. The only weak link was Guido van Calster, who, nonetheless, was no slouch across the stones and anyway, who cares with that name? So make no mistake, this was a snazzy break. Resplendent in his rainbow bands, Hinault crashed out of the action in the final kilometres. For most this would spell disaster and yet he still furiously remounted, blasting his way back on and riding straight to the front of the break. The look on his breakaway companions’ faces when he makes contact says it all. In that moment Hinault clinched victory, the rest just knew it. It was the only time he would win the race but it demonstrated his key qualities; indefatigable, brutish and hugely self assured.

Of the main protagonists missing that day were one fall guy the rest of the cycling world adored: Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle. Now here’s a man I massively admire. If you want to see a rider with panache, who oozed style, look no further. Duclos was cool. One of the finest rouleur-baroudeurs the sport has ever seen. Famed for partying as hard as he rode, he was the smiling antidote to Hinault’s grumpy dominance – a crowd pleaser, the likes of which we have rarely seen since. I have a problem each time we are introduced though, I get a bit tongue-tied and can barely get past hello…  And here is the man himself at the start of the journalists’ recce of the stones to be ridden in April, telling us what to expect. I am all ears.

There are many things you need to know about riding cobblestones although here perhaps isn’t the space to start. I thought I had it down, but riding behind Hinault pretty much shows it all. It’s an education. Push a big gear, stay seated and fast, don’t switch suddenly, hold the bars firmly but not too firmly. Following his wheel goes further to explain the all-important positioning – stay in the centre of the road, on the crown of the stones as the edges subside and get really messed up towards the ditches. If you can move to the dirt (in February this is essentially mud) make it smooth and get out of the gutter well ahead of any obstacles. Keep your head up, concentrate. Never look away from the road ahead.

Moving up the line is unspeakably hard, so if a gap opens ahead it’s nigh-on impossible to get back on. Picking a line through and around the rider in front is like putting your head above the parapet (fitting, seeing as we are in the middle of a rather large ‘no mans land’) as picking a line over the rougher sections of cobbles is bonkers. Accelerating is necessary too and doing that uses a lot more power and effort than you’d think. Before long your legs and lungs are burning and you’ve only done one sector… there’s 12 more to come today. The sector at Mons en Pevele is downhill, but don’t stop pedalling as the bouncing upsets your balance and pedalling helps keep it. Mountain biking skills are handy here, as sideways bunny hops are terrific for getting out of the slush. The mud is slippy but it does smooth out the holes a little – having said that the car gets stuck and Hinault flicks off and stops for a piss. Maybe he knows something we don’t…

Before too long he’s back on the front and I’m beginning to feel like Guido van Calster. After three hours of hell we’ve thrown in the towel. Lunch is needed and the awaiting beer is all I can summon the strength to focus on. We stop in a restaurant and shower in the adjacent hotel, not quite the showers at the Roubaix velodrome, but just as welcome. As we all chat in the car park I notice that Hinault’s jacket is still immaculate and there’s barely a spec of mud on his face and I look like I’ve just jet washed a pig sty. Maybe the mud is scared of Bernard too. It’s a major final lesson learnt: always ride at the front.

For some reason Monday’s recce has changed me, besides the obvious honour of getting mud sprayed all over me by Bernard Hinault’s back wheel, I got back to London and rode home, in the rain, laughing at the pathetic pot holes around Elephant and Castle – and I’m thinking: has riding those sacred stones toughened me up? Maybe. Two days after the ride, as I type this, my hands still hurt. The vibration is a killer and Hinault’s huge farmer’s hands are clearly better suited to this work that my pathetic moisturised-soft-office-hewn digits, but weirdly, I’m quite liking the pain…

Paris–Roubaix is the best race on the pro calendar for me and it’s the only race that’s as tough now as it was ‘back in the day’. It was the first race I saw on TV, and it’s the only race I’d want to have ridden (in those plentiful daydreams about riding a bike for a living…) but even though we barely rode a third of the parcours, Monday certainly told us one thing: Paris Roubaix is stupidly tough and you have to be pretty stupid to want to take it on. As Chris Boardman once said of the race he always refused to ride: “It’s a circus and I don’t want to be one of the clowns.”

Guy Andrews is the editor of Rouleur magazine.

Photos by Wig Worland