Archive for June, 2011

Chick in China

June 30, 2011

Words and photos: Mike Chick

After twenty hours of travel and about six hours sleep in two days I finally made it to my hotel in Beijing, albeit without my luggage. That was to follow the next day, something I’ve become reluctantly accustomed to with these long journeys. But I’ve learned to keep all my gear with me: cameras, laptop, batteries, chargers, film, everything, even if it breaks my back and most cabin baggage regulations in the process. Because without that I am lost.

So after a very, very long sleep and a few cups of tasty Chinese tea I headed west to the Laoshan velodrome, scene of some of GB cycling’s finest moments, with a view to grabbing some shotss of the Chinese track team in training. I’d attempted to make contact with them via email from London but got absolutely nowhere, so I decided just to go there and see what was up.

It’s an impressive building but somewhat disconcerting to see the parking lot being used by numerous driving instructors guiding their hesitant pupils through  car handling drills in slow motion. Makes you wonder what’s going on inside… The reception was manned by two giggling teenage girls and an even younger security guard. I had to stop myself asking why they weren’t at school, but they wouldn’t have understood anyway. Some minutes later, having tried in vain to communicate with them, I resigned myself to the fact that this little project just wasn’t going to happen. But, as I was about to leave, a more businesslike individual appeared and I asked if he spoke English. “Yes,” he replied, and proceeded to explain that he was assistant manager of the track team and that I could come back tomorrow and take some pictures. Hallelujah!.

So the next day I duly returned and did exactly that. Led by a French coach who has been working with the Chinese squad for the last five years, the group of young men and women riders trained hard but were very open and friendly, curious where I was from, in admiration of GB, and excited about the prospect of coming to London – if they are picked, of course. I asked permission to interview the riders but was told that the boss needed to authorise that and I would have to come to another session. I’ll do that after the small matter of the Tour of Qinghai Lake is taken care of, which is where I’m heading now.

More to follow.

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Beggar’s Choice

June 23, 2011

That's no moon

“Just like Beggar’s Canyon back home!”

And that is it really. My approach to cycling psychology. My go-to technique when needs must. I’ve read Shrosbee and Carmichael and a fair few others and written plans and weighed myself. I’ve attached myself to a heart rate monitor, although never a Powertap, and I’m guilty of fiddling with various nutritional nonsenses but, really, it all comes back to the Death Star.

Staines, 1977 and I was clearly a small boy in receptive mode. Life tends to somewhat randomly pick the ‘stuff that sticks’ – you can often remember the oddest details from the strangest happenings, whilst a whole heap of useful stuff slips through your grey matter and off to heaven knows where – and this was a day for something to stick. Something useful. A phrase that became a technique. And now I’ve the 34 year old philosophy of a nine-year-old – as good for me now as it’s always been. Simple to apply and often very effective it has made me the cyclist I am. I think that’s a good thing. It seems to work.

I ride my bike. It’s fitted in around work and family and procrastination. I think I count as a cyclist. It’s a version of training. I sometimes “Go long! Son” and sometimes I aim for short and sweet with a little bit of speed. I might attack a climb, or sprint for a town sign. What I’m always doing though is collecting ‘approximations’, ‘scaleable exploits’, ‘equivalent exertions’ – cycling achievements I can apply in tougher circumstances – Beggar’s Canyons. To ride a hundred miles you ride one, then another. And to ride an Alpine pass you ride a hill, then another (that might well be connected to the first) and for all of these situations I look to arm myself with a parochial process (from the Church of Me) that I can use. If I can get my head around a challenge I can often get my body to follow.

The familiar and the local travels with me – I’m not for a moment denying the uniqueness of the places I’m visiting, the differences and diversity are always an education – but if I need to ride, to meet a challenge, I have to have my reference points. It’s just like Beggar’s Canyon back home…

The coast road climb up to the pub, the headwind on the seafront, the horrible section of bypass I can’t avoid, the time it rained horizontal ice shards, the Spitfire escort in the dark, the can’t-see-straight energy slump that sunday, the shit-late-to-get-the-kids-time-trial, the patella-spitting steepness of that road in the woods – these have all been appropriated across the world. The Alps, the Rockies, parts of Dorset – the races and adventures only work because I can take my ‘been there done (something a bit like) that’ pedi mind tricks with me. I’m sure it’s a common enough technique for a whole host of people but obviously it has to be a personal thing. I can’t lend you my false-summit-experiences-out-by-the-industrial-estate anymore than you can lend me your…

And I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Each to their own then. I’m not quite a force to be reckoned with, but I’ve one of my own to call on. It’s worked so far, my local goes global (to the power ten) transplanting. I guess one day soon I won’t get a match or perhaps a rejection part-way through but I’m flexible and I’ve a fair assortment of arrows in my quiver. I will compare and contrast and learn from it all – the successes and failures. Quivering wreck or decorated hero – I like riding my bike. I’ve a way of doing it. I like where it takes me.

“OK kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home”

Short Circuit

June 15, 2011

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Wig Worland

All this circuit racing is exhausting. And that’s just from a spectator’s perspective. The riders are hauling themselves all over the country at this time of year, putting on the style in possibly the best free entertainment around, hitting phenomenal speeds for an hour or so, two or three times a week, to earn their crust and keep us entertained. Hat, as Ned Boulting might say.

Crit racing is something I have never got to grips with, even when young and relatively fit. Gaps mysteriously appear between myself and the wheel in front. Other riders, sensing a rank amateur in their midst, surge past unchallenged. Lightly-feathered brakes (at least in my mind) on tight corners leave me chasing a bike-length deficit every time. Counting down the weeks until the ‘cross season starts is my only coping strategy…

But watching criteriums is another matter entirely. I love it. A chance to natter with old friends over a pint of beer while others suffer on our behalf is infinitely preferable to actually riding the darned things. Ability goes a long way towards enjoyment in your chosen discipline, which is why competing in circuit races is low on my list of priorities, but waffling and supping ale I have innate talent for.

Last week’s spectating duties took me to Stoke for The Tour Series, a fine start with young Scott Thwaites of Endura powering up the finishing drag to take the individual honours. Former cyclo-cross riders are always high up in my estimation: tough as old boots, even the young ones.

Next stop was the London Nocturne in Smithfield Market, where a massive crowd was entertained with an eclectic mix of events, every one a gem. Alex Dowsett lapped the field in an amazing display of solo riding. The longest skid has to be seen to be believed: how anyone can lock up their back wheel and keep going for 100 metres is beyond me. The folding bike race is always a hoot, besuited gents and ladies tearing round the market, but was that 15-year-old Germain Burton (see Rouleur issue 23) I saw in the runner-up position? Ringer! And the winner of the penny farthing race had the surname Brailsford…

The Rouleur stall at Smithfield was busy all evening, due in no small part to the 1,000 cowbells we gave away. The sight of grown men pleading for the last little branded freebie, designed for kids to make some noise with, was quite worrying. We were the Gerald Ratners of Smithfield.

There are two more circuit races for me to attend in the next week, starting at the final round of the Tour Series at Canary Wharf on Thursday, which should be fun, with Endura making a late charge to wrestle the overall from Rapha-Condor-Sharp. Then it’s North to the 26th edition of the excellent Otley Cycle Races, previously won by the likes of Mark Cavendish, Russell Downing and Jeremy Hunt.

Should you find yourself in front of the TV this Friday (June 17) evening, it’s a two-hour extravaganza of circuit racing starting on Sky Sports 3 with the Nocturne at 19:00, followed by the Tour Series on ITV4 at 20:00.

But do make an effort to attend the races in person. Nothing beats it. And by all means come and say hello if you spot me in the crowd. Just don’t ask for a cowbell.

Racing Through the Dark

June 9, 2011

Words: Ian Cleverly Images: Timm Kölln (www.timmkoelln.com)

David Millar’s excellent autobiography, Racing Through the Dark, is published this week by Orion. Ian Cleverly talked to Millar at length for Rouleur issue 24, coming soon.


A series of missed calls and voicemails between David Millar and myself evolved into text messages. “Sorry for not answering”, I wrote, “but I was derny training. Call now?” The reply came straight back: “No. I’m at the cinema.

The professional cyclist and his wife, Nicole, were enjoying a relaxing evening watching a Clint Eastwood movie while the old gimmer journo, who really should know better, chased a fat man on a moped around Herne Hill velodrome. This tickled me no end. The culture-vulture and the athlete had swapped places. Cycling of an evening is the release valve for the deskbound writer, while the full-timer, having done his stint, puts his long legs up and catches a film.

Millar comes across as a pretty cultured sort of man as professional athletes go. The choice between attending art college or throwing himself headlong into the world of road racing in France following a brief apprenticeship in Britain put his artistic leanings on hold. Millar left Berkshire for VC St Quentin in 1995, aged 18, and has ridden his bike ever since. There may be time for painting post-retirement, he tells me, when he can “take classes and learn how to do it again.”

The tall Scot is also an intelligent and interesting interviewee and never lost for words or anything less than engaging during a two-hour conversation covering topics a lesser man may have struggled to discuss comfortably. He’s had plenty of time to mull things over. Millar started his book, Racing Through The Dark, two years ago. Journalist and writer Jeremy Whittle has assisted – making the rough copy palatable for a mass-market readership, editing and advising – but Millar assures me all 140,000 words were self-penned, which is good to know in this age of ghosted autobiographies credited to half-witted footballers and brain-dead starlets with nothing to say.

Millar’s sense of recall is impressive for someone who keeps no diaries and considers himself to have a poor memory. So is his honesty and willingness to bare all when he could so easily have skimmed over the gruesome details and painted himself in a better light. “Once you start it all falls into place,” he says, “and I was amazed at how much I could remember – we took out a lot because I was going into too much detail. I would check up, but it was spot on with where I was and what was happening. There has not been any dramatisation of facts or places.

“One thing I have learned from the book is I can’t multi-task: it’s sucked everything away. It’s not like you can do a couple of hours writing, then a couple of hours on the bike. You spend a lot of time sitting there, thinking things through. You become very neurotic about not missing bits out that are going to change the tone, so it was good having Jeremy to balance it out.”

Millar has been vociferous in his condemnation of the doping culture in cycling since his arrest by French police at a restaurant in Biarritz in 2004, yet remains unforgiven in the minds of some cycling fans. The mention of his name still produces mutterings of discontent in some circles. This may be the result of his public image at the time. My memories of watching Tour de France coverage at the time indicated a cocksure young man who always seemed to be complaining about something. For several years the focus, as Britain’s sole representative in the Tour peloton, was firmly on Millar, and he did not always come across well.

“You were a bit of a dick,” says Nicole in the book, of Millar’s character at the time, rather than his drug use: harsh words to take from your nearest and dearest, but it seems a fair assessment in retrospect.

“I was a nice guy, but I was dick a lot of the time as well,” he readily admits. “I was living a lie, so didn’t let people get too close to me. In many ways, I was ashamed of what I was, so when I met people, I wouldn’t be too committed. If they were fans, it would almost put me off them. It came across as arrogance. I was all over the place, always changing.”

Read the full-length interview in Rouleur issue 24

Superstition

June 2, 2011

by Matt Seaton

I walk under ladders. I cross the paths of black cats. I pay no heed to Friday 13ths. I’ve broken plenty of mirrors. I have no “knock on wood” fear that speaking of ill-fortune will bring it to pass. I am not only not superstitious, but philosophically I don’t believe in superstition. I believe in reason, and superstition is a symptom of contagion by the enemy, unreason. If religion, as Marx said, is the opium of the masses, then superstition, with its inchoate, pre-deist phantasmagoria of fears and omens, is the cheapest, most adulterated form of street-corner smack.

But when I’m packing my kit to go to a bike race, do I have to have my pair of lucky socks? Of course, I do. Who doesn’t? You can’t ask a racing cyclist to ride without his lucky socks. You might as well take away his bidon and forbid him from changing gear. And are my lucky socks lucky, you ask; how do you know they’re lucky? Well, it’s true that I don’t have any scientific proof positive. But I have such a strong feeling about them that it’s simply unthinkable to test whether not wearing my lucky socks would bring me bad luck.

So I am superstitious, after all. It’s true: in this one discrete corner of my life, I am. I believe devoutly that a pair of black and white polyester Assos socks, with a slim red line of trim, and a hole in one toe, bring me luck when I race. What kind of luck I couldn’t tell you. Do they help me get results? Do they help me make a break? Or do they just keep me rubber-side down and out of trouble? Do my lucky socks have a positive or a negative capability: promotion of good fortune or protection from bad luck? Can’t say. But what I’ll do when they finally wear out, I do not know. I will probably have to find another favourite pair, keep them next to each other in the drawer and hope that the lucky power transmigrates.

I am not alone in this matter of cyclists’ superstition. In the professional peloton, it is rife. In Catholic countries, the overlap with genuine religious observance is commonplace, as riders ritually make the sign of the cross over their chests before clipping in and starting a stage. Many riders hate to wear a dossard numbered 13. If they must, it is customary to wear it upside down, to fool the evil spirits who monitor these things – a practice apparently tolerated by race commissaires. In a few cases, a rider’s aversion to 13 is more entrenched. Viatcheslav Ekimov, erstwhile super-domestique for Lance Armstrong, simply refused to wear the number, or even stay in a hotel room numbered 13. In 1993, Belgian Lotto rider Peter De Clercq would not board a plane for a transfer on Friday 13th. Such sentiments are not just allowed, but are so normal in the pro peloton and even respected that the race director gave him special dispensation to travel by car instead.

Extract from the upcoming Rouleur issue 24. Matt Seaton is Editor of the Guardian’s Comment is Free America