Archive for May, 2013

The Race Against Time

May 30, 2013

Graeme Obree
Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Geoff Waugh and Offside

“I can tell you the exact point my career ended. October twenty-second 1996, around four p.m.”

Not that Britain’s most successful male cyclist – at that point – knocked it on the head there and then. It would be three more seasons before Chris Boardman called a close on what was, by most people’s standards, a glittering career.

During his annual debrief with coach Peter Keen, the Olympic gold medallist and Hour record holder was, for the first time, discussing how to repeat that year’s formula, rather than progressing as usual.

“I think we realised we’d looked under every stone. That was what we were going to get out of this body. That was it. In that one instant I lost interest in the whole thing.”

The man who had once famously admitted he didn’t particularly enjoy riding a bike, much to cycling fans’ dismay, had seen the writing on the wall and was mentally as good as finished. Boardman enjoyed the process, the challenge. What was the point in treading water?

Boardman’s story is, of course, one half of this gripping tale based around the respective Hour Record attempts of the two riders who elevated British cycling in the ‘90s, after decades on the fringes, to front page news, both home and abroad, and sparked the revolution that ultimately led to Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, via the Olympic gold rush of Beijing and London.

Press attention at the time focused more on the contrasting machines used by Boardman and Obree than the men who powered them to world records: the sleek lines of the Mike Burrows-designed Lotus against the kitchen sink manufacturing of Old Faithful, washing machine bearings and all.

If the bikes were poles apart, so was the public’s perception of the contrasting approaches of the two protagonists – number crunching, emotionless Englishman versus shambolic, scatter-brained Scot. According to Keen, who worked with both, we had it the wrong way around.

“The Graeme Obree I saw and spent time with was absolutely a better scientist than most, in terms of asking questions and forming hypotheses, then testing them.

And with Chris we were very organised and structured in a relative sense, but what we were dealing with in terms of his life, was chaotic. He had a growing family from the age of eighteen, and his life was probably not much less chaotic than Graeme’s.”

What both men undoubtedly shared was a lack of income throughout the record breaking years, Boardman’s successful Hour attempt in Bordeaux run on a shoestring budget made just about viable by the loan of a truck from the Rolling Stones.

Obree would cash in on any money-making scheme going after setting his record in Hamar, often to the detriment of his cycling, but a living had to be scraped somehow.

Author Ed Pickering gleans insights from the major players in both riders’ extraordinary careers, including Doug Dailey – whose role in British cycling’s rapid development is often overlooked.

The coach (although Dailey makes it clear there was far more administration involved in the role than hands-on coaching) had identified timed track events as having the best potential for Olympic medals following Seoul in ’88.

And he had identified Boardman as his best prospect for gold, spending long days in the car driving his protégé from the Wirral down to Chichester for lab testing with Peter Keen – another of Dailey’s discoveries.

When Obree phoned the British Cycling coach in April 1995, having seen his radical tucked arms position banned by the UCI the preceding year, with news of further developments, Dailey backed the Scot where others may have scratched their heads. Or – quite reasonably – run a country mile in the opposite direction. The ‘Superman’ position was born…

Obree was duly crowned world pursuit champion for the second time in ’95, but that was the last time we would witness the Flying Scot in full flow. Again, the UCI stepped in and banned his radical riding position.

Boardman never seemed fully comfortable in his role as team leader with Gan and Crédit Agricole, and certainly did not struggle with retirement for one so young. Obree, fighting successive bouts of depression and mental illness, adapted less well, surviving a second suicide attempt in 2001.

Pickering identifies two men seemingly worlds apart yet strikingly similar in their approaches to being the best in the world: embracing short, intensive training sessions when mile-munching was the norm; the ‘marginal gains’, in both equipment and fitness levels, that became the buzzwords of Team GB under Dave Brailsford; and (not immediately obvious) the fear of failure that drove both Obree and Boardman to become record breakers.

For anyone wanting to understand the roots of British cycling’s recent triumphs, The Race Against Time is essential reading, and it is Pickering’s thorough research that makes it so.

Barcelona Olympic Games 1992



The Race Against Time is published by Bantam Press.


May 23, 2013

Words: Richard Moore Photos: Gerard Brown

By common consent, 1994 was one of the hardest Giros in history (sceptics might suggest that this might have had something to do with the alleged prevalence of EPO).

For Britain’s Brian Smith, riding for Motorola, it was a baptism of fire with, thanks to the Stelvio, a dash of snow.

It was to be Smith’s only Grand Tour. But he finished it. And he survived the Stelvio.

“Of course I remember it,” he laughs. “How could I forget it? I was on it for ages. We had about 50km from the start to the Stelvio. It was a nice day, but I remember guys putting on tops, leg warmers, overshoes.

“There was a lot of discussion, but my Italian’s not great and I didn’t know what they were saying. In any case, I fancied myself as a hardy Scotsman, but then I started to wonder. What was I missing here?

“Andy Hampsten, my team leader, told me just after the start, ‘Apparently it’s snowing at the top of the Stelvio.’ We’d sent our soigneur up there with flasks of hot tea with honey and rain capes.

“But I thought I’d better be prepared. So I dropped back to the team car, got my knee warmers, jacket and overshoes.

“We rode piano initially, and when the climb started we were bunching up. It was okay. It was nice and steady. Everything was cool. I had my 39×23 on; I thought it’d be fine.

“The one thing I was concerned about was staying with a group. The Stelvio came early in the stage; we still had the Mortirolo and another climb after that, so you couldn’t afford to be isolated. If you got dropped, you weren’t coming back.

“Then Vona attacked and that set the cat among the pigeons. The group split to pieces, people were in ones or twos. I can’t even remember if I was in a group for much of the climb. You’re concentrating too hard on just getting up it. I can’t remember much about the crowd, either.

“The Mortirolo [the stage’s final climb] seemed like a different race. I was back in short sleeves. And the last 500m I didn’t touch the pedals – there was a huge crowd and you just got pushed along.

“Only the hardiest, toughest tifosi had made it up the Stelvio. At the summit the road was clear, but there were 12ft snowdrifts by the side. I’d never seen anything like it. It was surreal: huge banks of snow lining the road.

“But when I think of the Stelvio I think mainly of the descent. I got up it okay; it was going down that was the problem. Although I’d been back to the car, I’d forgotten my gloves. And I didn’t want to stop.

“I was never one to get scared on a descent. But coming down the Stelvio that day, with my hands freezing, having to close one eye for the tunnels, and then hope for the best once you were inside, is something I’ll never forget. I was petrified.”

Extract from Rouleur issue 7. Richard Moore is a writer and the author of ‘In Search of Robert Millar’. You can purchase a copy of Gerard Brown’s Stelvio print here.

The Accidental Death of a Cyclist

May 14, 2013

Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Offside

The English-language documentary about Marco Pantani is due to be completed in the next few months.

“The Accidental Death of a Cyclist” charts the tumultuous life and times of the late Italian star, using archive and contemporary footage, stylised dramatic reconstructions and interviews with Pantani’s family, close friends, former teammates and peers.

The film is a collaboration between director James Erskine and New Black Films, who previously teamed up for Italia 90-based One Night in Turin and cricket flick From The Ashes.

Erskine’s hope is that the Pantani film can approach the success of Senna, the 2010 smash about the mercurial Brazilian Formula 1 driver.

Last week, we sat down with Erskine to get the details on a film which could surpass anything that has come before in cycling cinema.

Why did you want to make a film about Marco Pantani?
I thought this was an extraordinary story with an extraordinary athlete, unique in that his story combines all the highs of contemporary commercialised sport and all the lows.

It feels to me that this was a story on the scale of Senna or Raging Bull, one about a human being and a human tragedy in the sporting world. And that’s what compelled me. It’s about getting to the heart of the man.

The Pantani story is really about someone who loves the bicycle. It’s ultimately about why someone becomes a professional in the first place. It’s about love and risk and adventure and seeing sport as an art.

I think that’s really important if you’re going to try and make a cinematic film. Senna was an artist behind a racing wheel, Pantani was an artist on a bicycle.

How do you frame whether or not Pantani doped?
I think we allow the audience to make their own conclusions. But I don’t think the aim of it is to force them into making any conclusions.

It’s about stripping away the doping scandals and looking at the real human being behind it. Is it more interesting to examine the question of whether Marco Pantani took performance enhancing drugs or to explore why he had such a tragic end?

If you decided that Marco Pantani took drugs, it doesn’t explain the ending.  If you decided he didn’t take drugs, it certainly doesn’t explain the ending.

What happens to a human being in that situation, one that has won the Giro d’Italia in spectacular fashion, everything that their life has been about, at the very peak of the mountain. That moment when the haematocrit test comes out [at Madonna di Campiglio in the 1999 Giro], he can never get back, he can never be untainted again, even if he was innocent.

How anyone could cope with that? It’s supposed to be about suffering going up the mountain. What’s extraordinary about Pantani is this suffering on the way down.

When did you come up with the title, which seems a nod to Dario Fo’s work The Accidental Death of an Anarchist?
Pretty early on. The nod to Fo was deliberate in the sense that this is the story of a man whose death no-one will take responsibility for, yet everybody is responsible.

Also it’s about a corrupt system. I think there’s no doubt now – you might have argued when we came up with the idea – that cycling in the Nineties was corrupt.

The relationship between Conconi, the IOC and the UCI indicates a system in which natural justice doesn’t prevail.

Does the film go from the beginning of Pantani’s life?
It starts from the age of sixteen, seventeen years old. Most of the archive footage came from the Italian national broadcaster, RAI.

It’s very much about mountains too: we went with GoPros and cameras to these places, like the Galibier, the Mortirolo, filming on empty roads.

What makes Pantani stand out is that he’s a climber. I don’t think the film would have anywhere near the impact if Pantani wasn’t already attempting to do something which is, by its very nature, visually terrifying.

Cinema is supposed to be about showing extraordinary people in extraordinary places. What could be more visually extraordinary than the Galibier, Alpe d’Huez, the Mortirolo?

Which other places did you visit?
God, we went everywhere: Alpe d’Huez, Deux-Alpes, the bit near Turin where he fell off his bike, Cesenatico, Rome, Aprica, Minneapolis, where Greg LeMond lives.

Who else was interviewed?
We talked to his mother Tonina, Pino Roncucci, Roberto Amaducci, Piotr Ugrumov; Marco Velo was good too.

One Night in Turin drew heavily on Gazza-mania in England. Can you compare Pantani to Gascoigne?
There’s an interesting symmetry. I think they’re artists of sport, that’s what makes them entirely memorable and makes a nation embrace them.

It’s the idea of that single figure who represents the emotions of a country at a certain time. Pantani unquestionably does that in Italy.

Think about his funeral, it was extraordinary, on that scale of Senna and Princess Diana. Tens of thousands turned up – more people than for Margaret Thatcher.

It’s a way of connecting emotional identity through sport. Televised sport is at the heart of it.

Has there been an Italian sportsperson since Pantani? I’d say not, and Italian cycling is searching for a similar hero.
Pantani is unique. As much as Coppi might be a hero, or Jacques Anquetil in France or Merckx, they’re sort of pre-television.

You need mass media to create mass celebrity. You’ve got to be able to see their faces, see the emotion. It’s emotion that gets people.

Pantani’s mother Tonina seems to feel that the media had a part in her son’s downfall. How did the family feel about the making of this film?
We’ve been talking to them for a long time and interviewed them. I’ve shown them some bits of the film, which they found moving.

They see that we’re not making a journalistic exposé, we’re just trying to capture the spirit of the man.

Is there a narrator?
If we needed to clarify any of the key propositions of the film and push the emotional moment, we’d have one. But I don’t think that we do.

Each race is a story of its own, commentators from all over the world tell it well.

A lot of it was stripping down races to the bare ingredients, the key battle and protagonists, be it Tonkov, Ullrich, Armstrong, Indurain, Buenahora… fortunately Pantani offers those pugilistic moments.

When will it be in cinemas?
Some time between now and the 2014 Tour de France. I hope it would premiere at a major film festival and get theatrically released…

To me, it feels like a film that could come out in the autumn. It has lots of beautiful shots of mountains that recreate the magic of cycling so perhaps cyclists might fancy getting on their bikes, going down to the cinema and seeing those things.

Rouleur 38 is out now, featuring Colin O’Brien’s piece on Marco Pantani. Buy it here – or get it free before May 20 with a Rouleur subscription.


Operation Dennis

May 9, 2013

2internal-iliac copy
Words: Andy McGrath

How did you spend New Year’s Eve? Watching Jools Holland’s Hootenanny round a warm fire? Down the pub having a few drinks with friends? Having a few more and dancing badly to brash nightclub music?

No bubbly or bad boogieing for Blanco rider Dennis Van Winden. The Dutchman was lying hazily in hospital after a third operation on his iliac artery, health and cycling career hanging in the balance.

“The nurses woke me up a little bit before midnight and said ‘this will be your last minute in 2012’. I remember I said ‘2013, from now on, it will be a straight line to the top. Because I can’t get any worse now’.”

How did it come to this for the Tour de l’Avenir stage winner who had even never spent a night in hospital before last winter?

It started when he felt a slight twinge in his right leg four years ago. Wanting to push on with his newborn professional career, Van Winden ignored it – till he could no longer.

At times last season, it felt like he was pedalling with one leg. “The right one was suffering long before the left started to a little. When you notice it, each time on the bike you’re thinking ‘am I feeling it right now?’ You’re not really enjoying riding.”

He had a problem with his iliac artery, which runs from the heart carrying blood to the leg, and can be put under pressure when cyclists bend forward to exercise.

It’s a common cyclist ailment: Tony Gallopin, Travis Meyer, Stuart O’Grady and teammate Theo Bos are among those to have problems with it. In bad cases, the cyclist undergoes a winter operation and returns to former strength, sans souci. Usually.

Van Winden went under the knife in mid-November. But three weeks later, he developed a fever. The wound had gone bacterial and was bleeding internally. “From that moment, it’s really dangerous. If you don’t do anything, you’d probably bleed to death,” he says.

After surgery at a specialist sports hospital in Veldhoven, he spent a fortnight there on antibiotics, mind addled. “As a topsporter, you know your body… if you overdo it in training or don’t eat enough, you know how it reacts because you do everything to make it stronger.

“After this operation, I couldn’t believe how my body felt. It was horrible: I had pain everywhere, I couldn’t stand up. When I tried, I almost fainted.”

He was discharged from hospital on Christmas Eve but six days later, he awoke in agony.

“I was home alone so I called my brother and said ‘you have to come and drive me to the hospital’,” he says.

“In the car, I couldn’t get a normal position. Thirty minutes from the hospital, I touched my leg with my hand, just the upper leg, and couldn’t feel it.

 The top nerves were shut down. I thought ‘oh fuck, this is really bad’.

“When I arrived, I remember the doctors asked me ‘Dennis, you know the drill, number the pain from one to ten. One is no pain, from six to ten is unbearable’.

“I said ‘well doc, I’m not pushy, but if you give me a saw or a knife right now, I’d cut off the leg myself because I can’t live like this’.”

His doctors hadn’t seen a case like this. Having had the original injury repaired twice, the same surgery wasn’t an option.

After operation number three, they told him there was the possibility he might not be able to be a professional cyclist again.

How did he react to that? “The thing is, my condition was so bad, I think I didn’t realise what was going on. My body was in survival state.”

Van Winden was weak, jaundiced and skinny from weight loss. “I had no energy, my blood values were really bad. My haematocrit was 17, my haemoglobin was 4.1 for a week. That’s really low,” he says.

“I didn’t look in the mirror for the first five days afterwards – friends told me not to. When they walked in, they looked scared. But I always said ‘it would be fine’ and I really believed it. I’ve never been scared.”

Van Winden reckons his optimism was a key part in his recovery process.

“In the hospital, you get to know the doctors and nurses. They were saying ‘it’s incredible how your mind is working. From the moment you got here, you never had a bad day. Not even a bad minute. The day they brought you in, you were always fighting to get better in your mind.’

Once discharged from hospital in February after a six week stay, he had another operation on his hands: return to full fitness on the bike after four months off it.

He didn’t wear his new Blanco kit till early March, even then only going for hour-long coffee rides.

The enforced time off gave Van Winden a renewed appreciation of life. He went hiking in the hills around his Girona home and felt the bond of his Blanco brethren.

“Cycling is a beautiful sport. Like now, when I’m riding the bike with friends and colleagues, it makes me happy.”

“A day hasn’t passed without speaking with a teammate, director, soigneur or mechanic. I think we’re a close team, the Dutch guys and the foreigners… they really want to know how I was doing.”

The weight loss had him thinking he’d return as a climber. No chance. “They put a lot of sugar water in me. When I got back home, I gained ten kilos and I couldn’t even enjoy it, like if they’d given me a couple of chocolate bars every day. I was just lying around, doing nothing. You almost can’t see the lost kilograms anymore.”

Now the wheel has turned fully. On Sunday, a little over two months after getting back on his bike, Van Winden is set to pin on a number and returns to racing at the Rund um Köln.

Maybe this upped pain threshold will give him an edge. “Right now, I can do the training efforts real easy. No pain, no gain they say, but after this, pain is not difficult,” he says.

Blonde-maned Van Winden is your typical workaday professional, winless in his first three years in the ranks. For all the support and sympathy he received over the winter, the harsh reality is that he now has half as long as his peers to secure a contract extension – if Blanco finds a sponsor, that is.

Still, he’s ready for the fight. Van Winden had a last word to about his career-threatening ordeal too.

“Every surgery has its danger, even getting your ears pierced. This was an option to enjoy riding the bike as a professional cyclist again. I’d be lying if I said I was happy with the outcome, it’s been a very hard time, but I don’t regret having this surgery.”