Archive for January, 2012

The Phenomenon

January 26, 2012

Words: Graeme Fife Photos: Gerard Brown

He greets us by the open door into the lower floor of his condominium (he also has the upstairs apartment) and shows us into a spacious, light-filled room, the end wall panelled in glossy maple wood, a flat-screen television, family photographs. A balcony overlooks the garden; at the other end of the room are shelves lined with trophies, a dining table. Photographer clicks his inbuilt light meter into action and sets off back to get the gear; Hasselblad will get the nod. I sit on an armchair, Sercu on the settee. He remembers me from Bremen, when we spoke in French, and from a brief encounter at Ghent when he was so busy he had no time to say much more than hello in any language. Now we speak in English.

Where to start?

Where Patrick Sercu started, here in Izegem, a few kilometres from where we sit, on the track built by Odile Defraye in 1912, the year he became the first Belgian to win the Tour de France. He’d bought a restaurant with his winnings and built the 166 metre cement track in the garden. By 1959, when Sercu was 15 and ready to start riding, the surface was cracked and pitted. Albert repaired it and, in the photograph which shows his son riding it for the first time, the patches and ribbons of new cement grouting show white on the grey surface. His father organised a programme of competitions on the track for local teenagers.

“Did he teach you?” I ask.

“He was my first trainer, my first promoter. I got on well with him. He’d finished racing, mostly on the road, but he did the Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels Sixes – I think he rode around sixteen altogether.”

Between 1964 and 1983, Sercu Junior rode 233 Sixes and won 88. But he also raced through the road season. His palmarès are quite simply dazzling. I ask how he managed a full winter programme as well as the long calendar of classics and stage races over what was an exceptionally long career.

He smiles. “I couldn’t stay at home. I felt a bicycle rider should always be in competition, on the track and the road. Maybe it was just how I was and I was lucky I could do it.” Moreover, by his own admission, he never took any more than two weeks off and even then only twice a year. The driving imperative for him at the time, as for everyone else, was money. The Six-Days might have paid well in the ‘blue train’ – that elite cadre of some sixteen riders who star on the bill – but otherwise track racing delivered only slim pickings. When riders were paid very little on contract, earnings had to come from prize and appearance money. Reputation fuelled pay rises. There was not the specialisation then as there is now. All riders faced a much longer season than today’s well paid pros.

As an amateur, Sercu routinely raced on the track on Sunday and then on the road on Wednesday; kermesses through the summer, the hard, tight-cornered, cobbled local circuits where the intensity of the crowd’s enthusiasm both reflects and spikes the fury of the competition. It must have been the experience of those short-lap town and village circuits which toughened him, early on, for the dizzy circling on the indoor wooden tracks.

Extract from Rouleur issue 28, coming soon

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Oregon Trail

January 19, 2012

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Andy Waterman

I think independent framebuilding has picked up, but I think independent businesses across the board have picked up. Portland is popular for bike makers, but it is also popular for single-operator bag makers, or dressmakers, or bakers. Places that have that local, craft-y, young-ish population – where that is popular, frame building is popular.

Eric Estlund, Winter Bicycles

We were warned it would be wet in Oregon – mostly by the people living in the drier climes of Kentucky and North Carolina we just left – but they had a point: all day rain and plenty more to come, apparently. This place makes Manchester look like Abu Dhabi.

What we had no warning of was the quality produce we have found on every step of this road trip. After a lifetime of somehow sidestepping the USA, I had built up a warped perspective of what constitutes America: McDonalds, KFC, Budweiser, Britney Spears – you get the picture. We Brits get the very worst of what this huge, diverse country has to offer, and assume that is it. How very wrong. It transpires they have been keeping all the good stuff for themselves. Turn off the gaudy neon highways and dig around a little and every stop throws up a fine eatery with a selection of local beers to rival anything Belgium has to offer. It is foodie (and drinkie) heaven that, for an American virgin like me, has been a wonderful surprise and an attitude changer. Y’all come back soon, y’hear? You bet!

But we are not here to sample the local produce, as fine as it is. We have come to Oregon to talk to producers of bicycles, of which there are many, starting with Eric Estlund, who makes beautiful steel frames under the name of Winter Bicycles in a big old draughty building in Eugene, a couple of hours’ drive south of Portland. Eric is vice president of the Oregon Bicycle Constructors Association and an eloquent spokesperson for the art of framebuilding – if it is an art. His past life as an artist working in metal, followed by a spell learning his chops with local folding bike manufacturer Bike Friday, suggests it is. And seeing his handiwork at close quarters confirms it. This is quality craftsmanship.

What Eric says at the top of this page regarding the growth of independent and single-operator businesses in Oregon, and many other pockets of the USA, hits the nail on the head. As framebuilding in the UK clings on by its fingernails and the remaining dozen or so guys, with the knowhow to take a pile of tubes and construct a beautiful and individually tailored machine, appear in danger of being the final generation, Portland is awash with people making spectacularly wonderful bicycles.

What Eric says, I think, is there is a sea change here in the States that we could learn from in the UK. The shop local, source local – pay just a bit more for quality produce instead of constantly seeking the bottom line – movement is strong here. If framebuilding is to survive at home, it needs those other small businesses to grow alongside it. And for that to happen, it needs you, the consumer, to look anew at your choices.

Worth thinking about the next time you step inside yet another Starbucks…

In the meantime, Andy and I are sampling the Wassail winter ale from Oregon’s Full Sail, an independent, employee-owned brewery, and mighty fine it is, too. You have a choice, people. Do the right thing.

Culture Clash

January 11, 2012

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Wig Worland

You may recall a young man from Kent featured in Rouleur 22 who was based in Belgium trying to make a living from that most unlikely of sources for a Briton, cyclo-cross.

Ian Field, at the third or fourth time of asking – every year seemingly the tipster’s favourite – finally claimed a senior national championship jersey. It was a genuinely emotional moment to see how much those blue and white bands meant to a man who has immersed himself wholeheartedly in the cultural homeland of ‘cross. ‘Field de Brit’, as the Belgies call him, will do the jersey proud.

No disrespect to runner-up Liam Killeen, but the thought of a national champion who doesn’t actually ride ‘cross, save for a couple of warm-ups leading up to the nationals, sticks in the craw somewhat. Having a visible champion on the Continental circuit can only help raise the profile of the sport. Field is the man for the job.

As visible champions go, Helen Wyman is right up there, taking the woman’s crown for an astonishing seventh year in a row. I use the word astonishing because, not only has Wyman been decidedly unwell, but her nearest rivals Nikki Harris, Gabby Day and Annie Last threatened to make it a close, four-way battle for the medal positions – all three have been riding brilliantly in recent weeks. Wyman simply powered away from them, as per usual, making it look easy before coughing and spluttering once past the finish line for the last time. Harris, in particular, must have thought this was her big chance, and her face on the podium clearly showed the bitter disappointment. Wyman’s trademark big grin, meanwhile, stayed locked in position, and rightly so.

As it was a bumper day of cyclo-cross spectating, once home from Ipswich I tuned in to live coverage of the US championships, intrigued to see if the scene is as big in the States as it appears from the UK. The jury is still out on that one.

The park in Wisconsin was visually unexciting, the course a dull, straight-line thrash. Outside the top four or five riders, the drop-off in quality is steep. The three commentators were unintentionally hilarious and less intelligible than the standard chap I tune into on Sporza for Belgian races, and he talks Flemish… If you have seen the film American Graffiti, you will remember well the growling, gravelly tones of DJ Wolfman Jack. One of the three stooges rumbled away in similarly dramatic fashion, the trio reaching a crescendo of excitement well before the race’s finish. They tossed the commentary around with such alarming frequency you’d have thought it was a live hand grenade with a pulled pin. I’m not sure about the riders, but I was utterly spent with a lap still to go. I can only hope the Three Amigos were forced to lie down in a darkened room afterwards, preferably wearing headphone commentary of the tremendous Sporza bloke (whose name escapes me), issuing his favourite admonition: “Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

The crowd did not appear particularly big, but as you would expect, make up in enthusiasm any shortfall in numbers. I write this in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean bound for Louisville, Kentucky, as the city hosts not only the World Masters Championships this week, but the actual UCI cyclo-cross World Championships next year. The whole Belgium-based ‘cross community travelling lock, stock and barrel to the States is an interesting prospect.

Will the fans travel? Is this one step too far in this globalisation obsession of the UCI’s? Can a compact crowd of colourful, cowbell-wielding whoopers create as much atmosphere as tens of thousands of grey-clad, beered-up, smoking Belgians? We intend to find out.

Andy Waterman of Privateer magazine – being younger, fitter, faster and more enthusiastic all round – has kindly agreed to race so that I can chew a pencil and ponder the future of cyclo-cross, whilst supporting from the sidelines with terribly British-style encouragement. There’ll be absolutely no whooping from this sourpuss, just the occasional: “Jolly well done”.

Huge thanks to Chris and Andrew from Trek for the loan of a Cronus CX. And Brian Roddy at Rolf Prima for the wheels. And Bill from Challenge for tubs and things. We’d have been stuck without you, guys.