Archive for March, 2013

Sean Kelly: King of the Kasseien

March 28, 2013

Words: Matt Seaton Photos: Graham Watson

What makes a great rider of the pavé?
First of all, it’s a rider who is strong and powerful. You have to be pretty heavy, or the cobbles will just hop you all over the place.

And, usually, if you have the weight, you have the power – if you’re any good. You need the power because you have to ride a gear that is higher than normal. You push a bigger gear to get the power down smoothly and keep traction.

Then you have to learn to overcome the cobbles. If you’re Belgian, you grow up born and bred to ride the cobbles, certainly from when you start racing as a teenager. But if you’re a non-Belgian national, you don’t race a lot on those roads. It takes time to know how to do it.

I had ridden the Paris-Roubaix five or six or seven times before the first time I won – and not only the Paris-Roubaix and big races like the Tour of Flanders, but a lot of smaller races in Belgium. There was the Grand Prix de l’Escaut that finished with three laps of a 15km circuit that had a several bad sections of cobbles every lap.

Riding a lot of these smaller races is how you learn to ride and control the bike on the cobbles. Of course, when they’re wet, it’s a different matter…

In the Paris-Roubaix, you sometimes see riders hunting for a flat section in the gutter, while some seem to prefer to ride on the crown in the middle. What’s the best way to ride the pavé?
There’s a trade-off. When it’s dry, it’s much easier to ride on the side, not even on the cobbled surface. But the risk of punctures is much greater – you have all the grit and small stones from the fields there.

So you’re conserving energy but you’re risking having to chase back on after having to get a wheel change. That’s OK early in the race maybe, when you still have all your team around you, but later in the race fractions of seconds become critical.

And in the Paris-Roubaix the service cars are always further behind, so you can lose a lot of time.

So the safest place from punctures is to ride in the middle of the cobbles. On either side the road is cambered quite steeply, so especially in the wet you have to stay in the middle.

What changes did you make to the set-up of your bike when you were riding the Paris-Roubaix?
The main thing was you ran fatter tyres – and higher, to avoid the risk of pinch flats, which was greater because you rode them softer than you would for a normal race on asphalt. I didn’t change my position on the bike; very few riders did.

But some used to put foam padding under the bar tape to absorb the shock. I didn’t; I didn’tlike the extra thickness – it’d give me cramp in my hands trying to grasp the thicker bar.

What was your technique for climbing the muurs? You see a lot of riders who sit back in the saddle to get the power down, but sometimes you see a power rider like Boonen who seems to be able to climb the cobbles out of the saddle.
Sitting down, definitely, and keeping the weight to the rear. Most riders can’t do that like Boonen – you have to keep the momentum very smooth, which is difficult on cobbles, and it’s very hard to keep traction.

But there are always some who can do it – Eddy Planckaert was one of the few who could climb like that.

Who else did you rate?
[Eric] Vanderaerden, obviously. He had the power. Greg LeMond could have won more of the classics, but he chose to take it easy and concentrate on the Tour later in the season. Steve Bauer was good, too. He could ride the cobbles.

You were always flying in the Paris-Nice, and kept that form through the spring classics. How did you prepare so well?
The good winters in Ireland helped me a lot – all that sun. No, but I seemed to work quite well in the winter. I wasn’t afraid to go out in the weather. It didn’t bother me. I could do 4-5 hour rides in January; I didn’t get cold as easily as some riders.

Also I didn’t need a lot of training kilometres to get into shape. Some riders had to do half as much again. That’s just the luck of my physiology. I didn’t have to do as much to get good condition.

And then I always looked forward to the classics. So motivation helped. Those northern classics are a monument in Belgium: you have to have lived there to understand it. And if you can win one, you’re a hero for a long time there.

What does the Paris-Roubaix in particular mean?
I always say it was the most horrible race to ride, but the most beautiful to win.

Was it harder than any other? And which hurt most afterwards– your legs or your arms?
Well, the wrists could hurt a lot. But if you’re riding well, you don’t hurt that much.

But it does take longer to recover from the Paris-Roubaix than any other race. The body just takes more punishment than a long but straightforward race like the Milan-San Remo, or even the Liège-Bastogne-Liège which has a lot of climbing in it. Two or three days after the Paris-Roubaix and the body is still pretty weary.

And it can hurt to pee afterwards. Your prostate takes a pounding. A lot of riders complain that you get a burning sensation for a couple of days when you go to the loo.


Extract from issue 2


March 21, 2013


Words: Paul Fournel Illustration: Jo Burt

The bike is the school of the wind. There are two kinds of biking wind: objective wind and relative wind. The first one is produced by the world around us, and the second is the work of the cyclist alone. His masterpiece, you might say, for the faster he is, the more wind he creates.

The wind of the world is the one that hits you square on. Against it there’s no remedy other than friendship and solidarity. When you get a strong, persistent north wind full in the face, there’s nothing better than a big-shouldered friend. You curl up into a little ball behind him and wait for it to pass. Actually, you wait till he moves aside to give you his spot, and then you take your pull.

The strongest wind I can recall ever having ridden into is the wind of the west of Ireland. I pedalled along the coast, south of Galway, and I was careful always to leave riding into the wind, so I could be sure of getting back. I was alone, and it was a rough fight. There was no mercy. Everything that allows you to cheat and find shelter was missing: no trees, no houses, no hedges, no contours. Nothing but the wet, powerful, inexhaustible ocean wind. Stretched out on the bike, I had the feeling I was killing time, condemned to using mountain gears on flat terrain.

On the way back, all along the Irish coast, it was sheer delight when my little inner breath connected with the big outside wind. More pleasurable than descending, because I felt like I was in super shape, going much faster than I should have been.

Having very early on, at my own expense, learned that the wind wears you out, I soon learned to note from which direction it was blowing. There’s something of the sailor in the cyclist. Thanks to this basic training you learn to shelter yourself better and take better advantage of the strength of others. When the wind blows from the side, or from an angle, the riders fan out across the road in order to use their companions as barriers. These fans are called ‘echelons’, and if you’re not in the right one, getting from one to another is practically impossible.

Shelter and suction are the best reasons to make cycling friends. You can benefit from the combined effort and relax for a moment before taking your turn at the front.

To really take advantage, you have to stay close, in the bubble, with your front wheel only a few centimetres from the wheel in front. If you give up a few bike-lengths, the wind closes in on you and ‘getting back in’ is not easy. When whoever’s in front is pulling really hard, it can even be impossible.

In the 1996 Tour de France, in the long and very regular descent from Montgenèvre to Briançon, the peloton, anxious to get to the finish, stretched out in a long unbroken line, with every racer fighting to keep his place. Melchor Mauri, a good-looking rider who had been pedalling next to our car, had some derailleur problems that made him lose his spot; he was slipping away very quickly from the group. Christian Palka, who was driving, told me: “If we leave him there, he’ll soon be ten minutes down. He won’t get back in by himself at that speed.”

So we sheltered him with our car for about a hundred metres, to get him back in the line. He thanked us with a pleasant wink. At that point we were doing about eighty kilometres an hour.

Please don’t repeat this story, since it’s strictly forbidden by race rules to help riders in this way – by breaking the terrible law of the wind.

Extract from issue 8

Paul Fournel is the author of Vélo, available from the Rouleur shop

In Excess

March 13, 2013

Ciclismo 48 Tirreno-Adriatico  - Sesta tappa  Porto Sant'Elpidio
Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Offside

“Life’s aim is simply to be always looking for temptations… Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Thus spake – no, not RCS Sport helmsman Michele Acquarone, the man behind Tirreno-Adriatico – but that knowledgeable cycling commentator, Lord Illingworth to Lady Hunstanton in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance.

There was no way Acquarone was going to be as frivolous after a sixth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico where nearly a third of the field abandoned and several were reduced to trudging up near-one in three gradients. So he apologised.

The Malarkey in Le Marche, they probably won’t call it in the future, was a pig of a stage, the bloodshot eye of the storm being three climbs through Sant’ Elpidio a Mare after a host of Adriatic-adjacent ascents so chippy that they’d start an argument with you in the street.

Peter Sagan won, part of a break with Joaquim Rodriguez and Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian displaced an underdressed, overgeared Chris Froome in the lead. For the rest, it was a schlepp.

Those who didn’t abandon were cramping or walking on the 30 per cent gradients in Le Marche; crampons may have been more effective than bicycles.

“Today’s stage has nothing to do with bike racing. All the steep climbs we done you find in the area. I call it #sadasmo,” Fabian Cancellara Tweeted in his inimitable cod internet English.

It begs a recurring question for modern cycling: how much is too much?

It’s recurring because RCS Sport and Unipublic have taken to wanderlust and superlative chasing to reclaim attention from the Tour de France for their respective races, the Vuelta and the Giro. Just how high, hard and steep can we go? Looking for temptations.

Promotional fanfare detracts from the truth that these alluring extraordinary altitudes or ascents do not often yield extraordinary racing.

Take the 2011 Giro. It was a dull grind through various mountain hells with a spurious, clearly superior winner in Alberto Contador, a lesson that excess heaped upon excess often leads to conservative racing from all but the freshest.

Similarly, the most meaningful action of last year’s mountain-packed Vuelta took place not on the eye-catching gruellers to Cuitu Negru or Bola del Mundo but stage 17’s second-category Collada de la Hoz when Contador unshipped Joaquim Rodriguez to engineer Vuelta victory with nimble nous. Nobody expected it.

This element of surprise is too often lacking in modern cycling – that’s also why this Tirreno terror  was a gem and post-stage reaction was amplified. Fans and riders alike weren’t prepared for the savageness of a stage whose highest climb topped out at 290 metres.

Exciting racing doesn’t validate excess, but it changes the focus. On the road to Porto Sant’ Elpidio, Nibali and Rodriguez were predatory when they saw Froome faltering. Again, nobody was reckoning on the status quo to be changed, or like that.

Three climbs through San Elpidio a Mare were excessive. Some fans loved it, but I don’t see what’s epic or exciting about the many racers behind the few contenders reduced to zig-zagging or tramping up on foot. It’s intentional belittlement, memorable for the freak show value. A nicer outcome in professional cycling is scintillating racing through subtlety.

Nevertheless, the stage around Porto Sant Elpidio could do with context to take it away from straitjacket and Nurse Ratchet territory.

Without the afternoon downpour, without the two previous mountain stages, without appearing to poleaxe a Team Sky procession, it would have been slightly easier. Less decisive and less memorable too.

Fifty-two riders abandoned. But then 19 did on a more innocuous penultimate stage last year. With a time-trial to come, nothing was compelling dog-tired domestiques to slog up the severe climbs again. The team buses called out to them like a hot pie steaming on a window sill.

As for Cancellara’s claim of sadism? Of course it was sadistic. Every cycling race is  – spectators take pleasure in suffering. Sadism underpins the sport’s entertainment value, even if this was a particularly hefty whack to the peloton’s solar plexus.

Ultimately, the ones who keep the circus going, the riders, define what is excessive and there were enough dissenting voices and Tweets to make Acquarone’s apology necessary.

But it was clever. Acquarone wasn’t surprised by this. He likely suspected that the race’s sixth stage lacked balance months ago when the route was finalised.

Because taking riders on three laps of a circuit into the horrifically steep hinterland around Porto Sant’ Elpidio means some degree of murder on the Le Marche muri.

And so, this discourse, dolour, drama and Taylor Phinney’s all-day drudge to miss the time-limit? Exactly the kind of thing that Acquarone wanted.

That “apology” was an aerosol spritz to the flames of fervour. It harks back to that century-old ploy, from which the Giro and Tour were created: creating a buzz and selling newspapers.

For the first time in years, Tirreno-Adriatico has garnered considerably more headlines – and attending Grand Tour contenders – than calendar companion Paris-Nice. Acquarone certainly isn’t sorry for that little victory over ASO and the Tour de France.

But when he strikes on similar temptations in the future, he should beware: history suggests that excess won’t necessarily lead to success next time.

Podcast: Issue 37

March 11, 2013

Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 16.12.16

Jack Thurston travels to Ludlow, foodie capital of the Welsh Marches, to talk about the terroir and heritage of the great bike races, with William Fotheringham, veteran cycling journalist, regular Rouleur columnist and author of best-selling biographies of Tom Simpson and Eddy Merckx. They discuss the strange attraction of the Arenberg Trench, Team Sky’s strategy for winning at this year’s cobbled classics, how the UCI is unwise to tamper too much with the established race calendar, and why it ought to be doing more to promote women’s bike racing.

Issue 37

The Rouleur podcast is brought to you by Mosquito Bikes, London’s custom made bicycle specialists. Mosquito Bikes is proud to announce that it is the UK’s first & exclusive retailer of Alchemy custom bicycles. You can see them in the flesh, along with all Mosquito’s other brands, at the Bespoked Bristol hand-built bicycle show show between the 12th-14th of April. Mosquito is at 123 Essex Road, London N1 2SN or on the web at

Sylvain Chavanel

March 7, 2013

Chavanel 2
Words: Graeme Fife Photos: Gerard Brown

I pressed him on the subject of morale among the French riders which had, for a while, been patently on the slide. He rather dismissed the notion. They have a good level in France, a lot of wins since the beginning of the season.

“Is that evidence of a new charge of spirit?”

He answered before I could put it to him that the example of the older generation – him, Thomas Voeckler, even the late-blossoming Christophe Moreau – had much to do with an observable change.

His reply hinted that this wouldn’t be something he’d embrace readily: an innate modesty, I’d say.

“No,” he said, “I don’t think so. They got wins in Qatar, Mallorca…and I hope it will continue. When we come to the big classics, it’s a higher degree altogether. We had people like [Laurent] Jalabert and [Richard] Virenque at world class and we have to wait for others to emerge.”

There’s no question in my mind that he is happy with his role as elder professional, still ‘doing his thing’. Conscious, too, that this attitude will indeed stimulate others.

Solitary by disposition he may be, but he has that easy acceptability of all the demands of the job which shows in the deeply committed professional, a man of his trade, and a jusqu-auboutiste – an all-outer – which is his trademark.

When I ask him what his objective for the season is, I supply the word even before he responds: “Gagner?”

He smiles. The soigneur lifts his right leg to plant it on the table, Chavanel reaches for the pillow, pummels it briefly and reclines once more.

“Yes, it’s important to win, to go for victory. You can come in with the lead bunch but I don’t care about that.

“If I feel good – and that’s the main thing – I make a break and I look round to see if there’s anyone there or not. But I’m not one to think about advantage or disadvantage.

Je roule. If I can win two or three races, on good courses, as I’ve done these last few years, that I would like very much.”

Example: Tour de France stage 2 Brussels to Spa. Only 11km from the start, Chavanel breaks clear and is joined by a number of others.

He attacks once more alone on the Col de Stockeu, some 33km from the finish, only Jürgen Roelandts stays with him until he, too, falls away – on the Col du Rosier, 20km on.

In the rain, on slick, wet roads, Chavanel presses on to win by nearly four minutes and, joy, to take the yellow jersey.

Interviewed after that victory, he said he didn’t have superior qualities in certain areas – he can’t sprint like Boonen, for instance, so he has to find other ways of winning “to make a splash.”

It’s true that he doesn’t win so many races as the great champions “but when I do win, it gets noticed.”

Paradoxically, he said, all the way through the escape he struggled to convince himself that it would come off, but he didn’t want to be disappointed if he failed once again and gradually he got stronger.

The simple analysis is ‘it ain’t over till it’s over’, but the deeper explication is of a psychological toughness that can weather the doubt, know it for what it is and stick to the base instinct: to attack, no matter what it costs and to hell with the risk.

It seems to me an admirable attitude, a coupling of self-knowledge and careless courage, even joie de vivre.

Chavanel 1

Extract from issue 25.