Archive for September, 2011

Here’s to you, Ms Robinson

September 29, 2011

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Wig Worland 

The Three Peaks, for those of you who are unaware, is a cyclo-cross race. But then again, it isn’t a cyclo-cross race. It certainly bears no relation to any UCI-approved course regulations you might peruse at your leisure should you feel inclined.

Whilst yomping up the three biggest climbs in Yorkshire is not strictly forbidden by the powers that be, presumably they deemed the likelihood of anyone wishing to undertake such an idiotic and arduous mission as so far-flung that it was unnecessary to ban such behaviour. Yet just shy of 600 of us lined up in Helwith Bridge this year, including a healthy smattering of Spaniards, Italians and Americans. The lunacy is spreading…

And when it comes to rules and regulations, John Rawnsley, organiser for the past 49 editions of the race, says what goes and what doesn’t, which I rather like. Turn up on a machine with tyres that are too fat, straight handlebars or anything that does not resemble an old school ‘cross bike and you run the risk of being disqualified before you’ve even started. Bit of a purist, is John. Seeing as he won the first edition of the race in 1961 and, until recently, had finished (as well as organised) every one since, he’s every right to be.

This is truly a hard-man’s – and woman’s – race where being a sprightly young thing seems to give little advantage. Veteran Nick Craig won the men’s as expected, even without straight handlebars…

It was the women’s title that intrigued me. Louise Robinson’s time of 3:44-49 was phenomenal. I am normally pretty close to the top woman’s finishing position – Isla Rowntree kept me company on the finishing road stretch after Pen-y-ghent a few years back; this time it was Renee Saxton, winner for the last two years. I say they kept me company: truth is they both dropped me unceremoniously. Ms Robinson, meanwhile, had crossed the line an astonishing 26 minutes earlier, missing her own course record by just five minutes on what was by general consensus a slow year due to the boggy conditions on top of the peaks.

Louise, if you are not aware, won a silver medal at the World Cyclo-Cross Championships back in 2000 – a rare British success at the discipline. Her father, Brian Robinson, was the first pro from these shores to make a go of it on the Continent, paving the way for Tom Simpson and those that followed, culminating in Mark Cavendish’s rainbow jersey-winning ride last weekend. And her nephew, Jake Womersley, featured in Rouleur issue 25: another of the Robinson clan making a mark.

And if you’re wondering what it takes to be a Three Peaks winner and a member of the Robinson cycling dynasty, I think this quote from Louise says much.

“My first club run was 114 miles into the Yorkshire Dales, and as seems a regular story, I got left to my own devices when I blew my doors off and had to grovel home where my Mum had to help me off my bike and ply me with sweet tea and biscuits while I lay on the drive. Surprisingly I went on the club run again the week after, although anybody in their right mind would have been put off I think.”

There you go. Who said we Three Peaks-ists were in our right minds?

Angliru

September 21, 2011

Words and photos: Ian Cleverly

I decided that to get a true fans-eye view of the Angliru, the famously fearsome climb first used by the Vuelta in 1999 and growing in mythical status ever since, I should really walk up the mountain, 12.5kms of it, 23.5 per cent sectors and all.

Several things transpired to turn me against this carefully laid plan. It was raining. It was cold. An old woman collared me as I wandered the town of Riosa at the foot of the Angliru issuing dire warnings of atrocious weather conditions on the mountain and the inadequacy of my clothing. She may have said something about wolves and killer sheep as well, but I was struggling to translate.

Besides all that, there was a press bus leaving for the summit in half an hour. I’d have been a fool not to, surely?

The entrepreneurial townsfolk of Riosa were flogging rather sad-looking rain capes that may or may not have kept the water at bay for a few minutes. I decided against a panic buy and boarded the bus.

As it turned out, conditions at the top of the climb were less than apocalyptic, even if visibility was far from perfect. I wandered down the mountain from the anticlimactic finish area in search of the party. Prime positions had already been taken, walls on the outside of hairpins providing a place to rest for the next five hours before Juan José Cobo would loom out of the mist and wrestle the red leader’s jersey from Bradley Wiggins.

The 23.5 per cent section of Cueña les Cabres was, as expected, quite brutal. Streams of cyclists passed in various states of distress, notably those on road bikes with insufficiently low gearing. The one guy I saw who seemed to have got his gearing spot on was, unbelievably, a unicylist (exhibitionist, mentalist, depending on your viewpoint). I did not take a picture of him. Such behaviour is not to be encouraged.

Eventually I descended below the cloud level to a broad meadow, home for the day to several thousand Spanish fans, blue and yellow flags of Asturias proudly displayed, beers in hand and a big screen to follow the Vuelta’s progress for the next few hours. I settled in for the afternoon. This was shaping up to be a great day.

 A more considered view of the Angliru, with proper photographs by Timm Kölln (as opposed to my iPhone snaps) will appear in Rouleur issue 26, coming soon.

The Three Peaks

September 14, 2011

Words: Matt Seaton Photos: Geoff Waugh (www.waughphotos.com)

For some of us here at Rouleur, the Three Peaks cyclo-cross is the highlight of the year, not to be missed. For Matt Seaton, once was enough. In this extract from issue 11, Matt tackles the final climb of the day…

The only encouraging thing about Pen-y-ghent is that you can pretty much see the summit from the bottom, so you know how far you have to go and that once you’ve made the turn, it is downhill, more or less, to the finish. The opening section is deceptively easy: of all the peaks, this is the most rideable, a broad track mutating into a stony path. This makes it also the easiest descent, and it is where mere mortals are passed by the gods on their way back down. On cue, Rob Jebb comes flying by, practically airborne and looking unfeasibly fresh.

I try to stay on the bike as long as I can, but make a mistake and fall for a final time. It’s more a clumsy dismount than a tumble, but I twist an ankle as I go over. Just disentangling myself from the bike and getting back up seems to take ages.

My mind is so clouded I only dimly perceive how tired I am. In fact, I am in a state of fatigue-narcosis – and like a helpless old drunk lying in the gutter, I actually giggle as Chris Young twiddles past. He knew to use a smaller gear for this climb, and he had paced himself better than me all day; so now I can only watch him disappear up the mountain as I trudge wearily, dehydrated and running on empty.

Running back down, I have to tell myself consciously to concentrate: mistakes always come when you are tired. My thumb is throbbing, my ankle hurts, there are muscles in my legs I didn’t even know I had which are now threatening industrial action. I just want to get off that last hill. I remount and try to pick my way through the outcrops on the rough upper section of the path. Better descenders shoot past me. The temptation to relax my grip on the cross-top levers and follow them is powerful. But even if I had the skills and courage, it’s a vain thought – because that’s when I flat.

Cursing, I pull over and swap a new tube in. With a gas canister, I lose maybe three minutes, though it feels much longer with riders passing all the time. I set off again. Another minute down the slope, the rear goes soft again. So much for my Michelin Jets. This time, a spectator tells me there’s someone with spare wheels 150 metres further down. Rather than try to mend another puncture, I carry and run. Five hundred metres later, with no spare wheel in sight, I have to change strategy and start working the mini-pump. I feel as though I’ve lost half an hour with this messing about; in reality, it is perhaps another eight to ten minutes. But without high pressure in my rear, and down to my last tube, I have to complete the descent almost as slowly as I went up it.

On the road back to Helwith, I’m overhauled by a big lad in a Sigma Sport skinsuit. It’s all I can do to suck his wheel to the finish. Four falls, two minor injuries, two punctures, 54th overall in 3:44:38 – I’m just glad to get there. Even after the hardest road race, or the longest day in the saddle for a cyclosportive, you eat something, have a drink and soon feel better. This is different: I have never felt so totally spent as after the Peaks. For a week afterwards, my whole body feels as though I had climbed up Pen-y-ghent on my hands and knees and then rolled down it.

The Peaks is a humbling experience. If you think you know where your limits are, the Peaks administers some brutal re-education. I can understand the desire to go back again and again: to trim minutes with better training and race strategy, the right choice of tyres and gears, more support, careful pacing, more experience and local knowledge… that’s the desire to master the Peaks. I’m not sure I have it.

Viva La Vuelta

September 8, 2011

Words: Christian Vande Velde Photos: Yazuka Wada

Garmin Transitions’ Christian Vande Velde loves the Vuelta. And this is why. Extract on the 2010 edition from the Rouleur photography annual volume 4.

La Vuelta Espana is the least known Grand Tour of the ‘big three’. It lacks spectators, TV ratings, the massive ambition that the Tour and the Giro bring, and of course, the history. However, almost all of these traits are because of where it falls on the calendar year. And we all love it for that. Smashing through the arid countryside at speeds unfathomable to almost anyone (including myself sometimes), all for the sake of racing. If you are motivated, fresh and have goals past the month of August, at the Vuelta you have already won.

September is an interesting month in the cycling world. Most of us have been on the road for the better part of 10 months by this time and although the body is still working properly, the mind is exhausted. Airports, hotels and skype calls with the family lead to an unhappy and unmotivated athlete (not to mention family). So thank God we have the Vuelta to fool us into racing our bikes when we can’t bear the thought of doing another interval up some random hill. We have an organiser who will take us up every goat path with gradients over 20 per cent in Spain. Believe me, should you happen to be the owner of a construction company with the means to make a road that is ridiculously steep, chances are the Vuelta might come to your back yard. The ultimate brainless training.

That said, I love the race. It has a laid-back attitude, bright sunshine, amazing scenery, nice people, good hotels and great food. Plus the hardest racing you can get that close to the off season. And the sleep? My lord, this is where riders with children come to rest up before the off-season with their families.

It is also the perfect race for spectators. There is practically no crowd control at the starts and you can pretty much walk around and meet any cyclist that you care to name; ride the course on your bike before the race without being thrown off by an over ambitious police officer; refuel with a great dinner and some local wine; and – if you aren’t too tired – take in some night life, where you may rub shoulders with one of your heroes who is racing the next day. No shit, it happens.

The Vuelta is hilly, hot, and not easy. The first week this year the thermometer never went below 100 and the ‘sprinter’ stages had 7,000 feet of climbing. So if anyone ever says that the Vuelta is easy, they are ignorant, misinformed or both.

Ambition is the key word here. There are Spaniards whose likeness will be cast in bronze in their respective villages after any sort of breakaway (doomed or otherwise), stage win or halfway decent performance. There are riders without contracts for the following year killing themselves to get into breaks, others who need to turn around a horrible season. And, of course, the guys trying to prepare for the world championships. (Most of them know full well that they wouldn’t be able to come close to training properly if left to their own devices at home.) Then there’s a final ten per cent who weren’t given a choice in the matter and needed to fill out a roster. All of this gives the race a unique feeling of opportunity.

It also makes for the perfect storm of insane tactics and racing. Anything goes. Take yesterday for example. I would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of harder first hours’ of racing than yesterday. Now, depending on which side of the sword you fall, that could be good or bad. I loved it. It is what racing is all about. The radios don’t come into play because everything is happening too fast. And everyone is racing. Everyone – the GC guys jumping into breaks and the guys at the back, racing their hearts out to survive another day.

As for me, La Vuelta serves a purpose second to none: getting a massive block of racing back in my legs, regaining the confidence that has left me over the past few months, and enjoying being a bike racer again – all things that are taken for granted until you crash…over and over and over.

The lack of preparation that I had going into this race would have left me struggling anywhere else. But at the Vuelta, anything is possible, and if you had the opportunity to see an unknown kid from Bratislava launch himself onto the podium yesterday in the TT, and the well-known race leader go from first to fifth over a 46-kilometre course through the some of the best vineyards in the world, you would agree.

This is a great race.

Haute Route: thrills, spills and applause

September 1, 2011

words:Mike Chick photos: Mike Chick and Jo Burt

Leaving the hotel in Geneva for the start of the inaugural Haute Route I realised my front tyre had punctured, probably during the ride back from registration the night before.

A part of me was hoping this small offering would appease the gods and spare me the trouble of another flat during the week to come. But I wasn’t to know that far more testing challenges lay along the road ahead. The Queen stage on day three featuring the cols of La Madelaine, Télégraphe and Galibier over 160km was to be a marathon in ways I could not have foreseen.

The first climb of La Madelaine was a long and tough one but I rode it well, and descended to the valley of La Maurienne, famed for its head winds and stroppy truck drivers. You’re well advised to find a group to ride with during this 25km transfer to the base of the Télégraphe and that’s exactly what I did. Making good progress in blustery conditions I was just thinking to myself how well things were going when in a split second my wheel clipped the one in front and I was hurtling towards the tarmac. One of the ever present escort motorbike riders was instantly on hand and asked me how I was as I peeled myself off the deck, a gash to my arm and nasty road rash to the leg and backside. “You need a doctor,” he said, wincing as he caught sight of the wound. I insisted on continuing and asked for them to find me on the road. Jo Burt, my room-mate of the last couple of days, stepped in as super domestique and towed me to the start of the climb by which time the doctor had seen and cleaned my wounds. I could continue but needed stitches at the end.

Things took a turn for the worse when I realised that my rear mech was damaged and wouldn’t shift up to the climbing gears but some brute force and ignorance dealt with that. I let Jo carry on at his own pace, and set about the climb from the valley alone. It was hard, more psychologically than anything else, as the adrenalin left me and my spirits fell. I knew that I had to get my head together so I pulled over and sat in the shade for a few minutes. ‘Make a plan’ I thought. I knew I had time in the bank so I decided to ride easy and stop a couple more times, once at the top of the Télégraphe, and again on the ascent of the Galibier, making sure I took on board plenty of food and water. It worked and I soon found myself on the final push to the summit. It’s rare that I look forward to seeing a man with a van when on my bike, especially if it’s in the lanes of Essex, but here on the slopes of the Galibier, the man with the white Europcar van offered cups of coke, cake and much needed words of encouragement. Before long and despite some dark moments I reached the summit of the Galibier well within the time limit. A huge relief.

Stitched up by the medics and with my bike miraculously repaired by the men from Mavic I received a round of applause at dinner that night as “Hero of the day”. It was an accolade I would have rather foregone, but I took my minute of fame with good humour. If I had been in any doubt this race would be a tough one, I certainly wasn’t now.