Archive for July, 2013

Froome Blog

July 25, 2013

VERSAILLES/PARIS
Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Offside

July 21 2012, final weekend of the Tour, St Pancras station, London. I sat waiting for the Eurostar reading a newspaper with a picture of a young Bradley Wiggins on a first bicycle. Inside were pages and pages on his life story, reflections from his nearest and dearest. The Sun had cut-out sideburns on the front cover.

It felt like the world stopped spinning that Sunday.

A year on, I was struck by the comparatively muted response to Chris Froome’s Tour de France victory. Fans decamped to Paris and broadsheets had a few yellow-jersey front pages, but it didn’t approach the wig-out Wiggins euphoria.

Why does Froome’s win not compare? Firstly, he had the misfortune to win when Britain sits briefly and blissfully in the sporting ascendancy.

His triumph was the summer fait accompli sandwiched in between more capricious mainstream successes of the first Ashes Test, the Lions tour and Murray at Wimbledon.

Is it due to a perceived “plastic Britishness” because of Froome’s African upbringing? Baloney. We don’t cheer less for Samoan-born Manu Tuilagi when he scores a try for England, or for Mo Farah, who lived in Somalia till he was eight.

It’s funny because, in character, Froome is more quintessentially British than Bradley Wiggins. He’s Le Real Gentleman: faultlessly polite, quietly determined, boarding school-educated with a clipped accent and dry sense of humour.

Mirror-gazing honesty time: we’re a nation of Froomes. We wait politely in long queues. We give up our seats to pensioners on buses. And it’s not as fun for fans seeing a reflection of the nice-but-bland national stereotype winning.

Whereas mod Wiggins is more chaotically, engagingly human. He swears occasionally, says a few things he shouldn’t and doesn’t play by the rules the whole time. Fans and journalists like persuasive personalities, shows of honesty and a fallible hero.

There’s the gripping feeling that it’s always a rollercoaster with Wiggins. He can match golden seasons with doldrum months. Even winning the 2012 Tour, he gave hints of fragility, snapping at journalists and seeming to hold back Froome.

It’s not as fun when the overwhelming pre-race favourite doesn’t show any great weakness.

But don’t mistake Froome for being boring or uncharismatic. As a Dutch journalist told me on the Tour’s second rest day – and as our issue 39 interview with the Tour winner testifies – Froome on and off the race are two very different people.

He has to peddle the sensible line at the Tour because there’s the – not unreasonable – perception that a few of us hacks will spin anything other than anodyne quotes into the day’s big story.

The future belongs to Froome. Yes, several more Tour wins potentially await but he could be the responsible, transparent talisman modern cycling craves.

Currently, long-term modern cycling followers are wronged lovers sitting at home in pyjamas with their spoons in ice cream tubs. Every time we were lied to, cheated on and told tall tales, we came back for more.

Enough, we’re sick of it. Automatic trust has been waived by the sport’s history. Look what a fine mess blind trust got us into.

So Froome had to patiently field question after question about his and Sky’s performance. And journalists have to keep asking: every performance changes the parameters.

Over the course of the race, especially into the last week, he seemed to change from someone whose winning experience threatened to be soured by these repeat demands to recognising his important role.

“This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time,” were his final words in Paris.

But he’s got to keep acting and talking about doping because he means it, not just because it sounds good or because the team spokesperson whispers it in his ear.

What also excites about Froome and the future is his voracity. He very nearly won the King of the Mountains too; the last man to do that was some Belgian called Eddy. The first thing he targeted post-Tour was not a lengthy pub session but the world championships in Florence.

He doesn’t share readily, even when the wise thing to do in cycling is occasionally let someone else win and store it as a favour for the future.

When the season finishes, the big challenge for Froome is keeping his head. He’ll be transported to the very bottom of the climb again to begin the long Tour training trudge again, only with the demands on his time of the reigning champion.

I can only imagine the effect the award cermonies and late nights have. They can toy with training plans and the mind. When people keep telling you how great you are, your sense of self-importance gets skewed.

A repeat Tour win, that’s the real difficult second album. Recent history is littered with one-time champs who failed to do it again.

I’d say Wiggins will be another, but his history suggests it’s stupid to write him off. He’s due a big rise on the rollercoaster in 2014.

FOUGERES/TOURS

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Podcast: Issue 40

July 24, 2013

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Editor Guy Andrews and Managing Editor Ian Cleverly chew over the latest issue of Rouleur with Jack Thurston. On the menu is the gravel racing at the Tour of Battenkill, behind the scenes at Milan-Sanremo, the remarkable rise of Chris Froome and a whole lot more cycle sport blather besides.

The Rouleur podcast is brought to you by Mosquito Bikes, London’s custom made bicycle specialists. Ready to ride at Mosquito Bikes are the latest Alchemy bicycles. Their fully custom carbon Arion is the winner of best carbon bike two years running at NAHBS and is available exclusively in the UK at Mosquito Bikes, 123 Essex Road, London N1 2SN or on the web at mosquito-bikes.co.uk.

Issue 40

Platzregen – a True Story

July 16, 2013

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Ferdinand “Ferdi” Kübler, 93, is the oldest surviving Tour de France winner. His victory in 1950 was followed by the World Championship title the following year.  A fast finish helped him rack up over 400 career wins, making him a national hero in his native Switzerland.

This is a true story, published in Rouleur issue 29. See more of Marc’s work here.

Winging the Etape

July 12, 2013

etapemorning
Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Rouleur

“Do you want to do the Etape du Tour?”

When someone asked me that weeks before the event itself, I said yes. Never mind the trifling matter of having done no training.

Save the occasional fair weather commute, it had become routine not to ride my bike this year. Cold winter, friends, girlfriend, work, guilty hours watching crap TV all sprinted past and took precedent. I’d be winging the Etape, certainly not winning it.

Unprepared, I had two thing going for me: the fact, in the words of Richard Hallett in Tim Moore’s French Revolutions, that I’m not a great big lardy pie man. And that it was a short Etape.

Yes, apparently I was meant to be grateful that it was only 130 kilometres with six classified Alpine climbs.

I started to get really worried in the run-up when colleagues started to bandy words about like tapering and dinner plate cassettes.

They were resting having racked up training mileage in the thousands; I’d done a few hundred kilometres and a hurried 50-mile ride the weekend before the Etape. I kept my standard 25 cassette for the test: the only mountains I’d been conquering with dinner plates were those of rice and tikka masala.

I had pre-Etape visions of sitting in the massive voiture balai, thighs incapacitated with cramp, race number torn off by a stern French man, fellow riders noting my Rouleur jersey and tutting. The shame.

Luckily, the nightmares didn’t come to fruition. Climbing Alps on a bicycle is like assembling flatpack furniture: pesky and uncomfortable without ever being savage. You just have to remind yourself it’s going to take a while, keep referring to the manual (two words printed repeatedly: ‘pace yourself’) and settle into a rhythm.

The descents are a different matter, like someone handing you a sledgehammer to destroy the furniture you spent an hour constructing. You’re left with maniacal, grinning enjoyment, nailing apexes on closed roads. Alas, it’s all over too quickly.

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Towards the end of the Etape, something strange happened. I stopped worrying about cramping and cracking and began enjoying it. Even the hour-long torture rack final climb of Semnoz.

It was like going right back to the teenage throes of swooning, look-mum-no-hands bike love. Perhaps it was down to a feeling of brotherhood, sharing the road with suffering cyclists all day. Or the sensation of being in the Tour de France, Mavic motorbikes buzzing us all day and roadside French fans shouting “bravo”, “courage” and “allez les gars”.

I even had imagined commentary running through my head.

“Two kilometres to go, McGrath, moving slickly past his rivals, out of the saddle like a pendulum heading into the King of the Mountains jersey.”

Ridiculous, I know. I should have left the Etape swearing off cycling. I should have suffered more. I should still have done some training.

I was as unprepared for this blue riband sportive event as I was for how it made me feel afterwards. Bizarrely and unexpectedly, Sunday’s slog through the Alps made me love cycling again. Now I’ve got what the French call passion pour le vélo.

It didn’t fade that evening. It didn’t fade on the 14-hour drive back from Annecy where our depressing waypoint, Eurotunnel Calais, seemed to be populated entirely by leg-weary middle-aged men in white Etape du Tour T-shirts. It didn’t fade when I was doing a few laps round Regent’s Park yesterday evening.

I don’t think it’s going to fade. I’ve been looking at buying turbo trainers and entering time-trials in 2014. I’m threatening to shave my legs again, much to my girlfriend’s concern.

So sign me up for next year’s Etape. Maybe I’ll even end up doing some training for it.

Battered

July 4, 2013

 

TonyMartin

Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Offside

Monday evening, by the team buses in Bastia, Geraint Thomas spoke into an ITV microphone: “It’s the Tour. It’s not your average race and I’m going to keep fighting.”

It’s a variation of the same quote we hear every Tour around this time. The inevitable mega falls of the Tour de France’s opening week turns one day’s warrior into the next day’s gauze-swaddled, zombie-eyed backmarker, flogging himself to make the time limit, so he can live to flog himself again.

This time, it was Geraint’s turn, riding on with a fractured pelvis. And Tony Martin, with a bruised lung, concussion and more holes than an average Hollyoaks plotline. And Ian Stannard… the list goes on.

Bizarrely, when a lot of riders have chunks taken out of them, the media only seeks the slowest or most affected. You’ve got to race on in tears, with a separated something-or-other, or a broken bone. Bad bruising and road rash no longer make the headlines.

In this peloton of limping invalids, past and present, of my mind’s eye, I see Jimmy Casper (see below) being carted off in the Meaux pile-up in 2003, riding for the next week with a bulbous neck brace. Ad Wijnands, who performed similar heroics in the final week of the 1985 race, bleeding and battered, to make it to Paris.

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Remember, the Tour de France is measured in superlatives. We pin praise and a yellow jersey on the fastest rider, yet remember the lanterne rouge too. We note the oldest (Jens Voigt, still telling his legs to shut up at 41) and youngest (Danny Van Poppel, third on the opening day at the age of 19) every year.

So it’s appropriate to look for the most beaten up one too, the most enduring, make heroes of the wounded. It’s a dangerous game, mind.

Where does it stop? The rider doesn’t want to abandon. If conscious post-crash, the natural cyclist reflex, overshadowing pain and logic, takes over.

Can I get up? Yes. Get on the bike. Cross the line. Go to the X-ray machine.  If I can stand, I can race again tomorrow.

At night, the martyrs toss and turn  – maybe woken by a nightmare of thudding onto tarmac as a 60km/h projectile rag doll – road rash sticking to the sheets, or broken bones, aching and heavy.

The only hope is that it gets a little better every day: slowly, slowly, until they recover enough to attain a veneer of pre-injury form, to offer some help to the captain.

To continue is both profoundly selfish – causing friends, family (“My mum doesn’t want me to continue,” Thomas said) and fans endless worry and wincing whenever there’s another fall – and selfless to the team.

The problem is, the stakes get higher and good-sense safeguards get flimsier.

Frankly, only modern team doctors know whether they stretch the limits of their sense and their Hippocratic Oath at the Tour compared to, say, that of Picardie or Poland. Was it sensible to allow Tony Martin to take the start for day two after a hefty concussion, for instance?

He was fine, seems fine now, rode the TTT fine, very nearly helping Omega Pharma to a stage win. But it could have been different.

We’re tiptoeing towards another racing tragedy – perhaps a concussed rider who goes to bed and never wakes up again or causes a catastrophic crash in the bunch the next day because of his head trauma.

That’s what it’ll take to about-turn this line-pushing. ‘Because it’s the Tour’ becomes a hollow excuse, even professional negligence, for such above hypothetical happenings.

That’s all conjecture. Every rider at the Tour is defined by a certain self-importance too.

Because when they are forced to retire – take Ted King – just like a sudden departure from a bad soap opera, they’re forgotten by the next episode, as if they never inhabited Planet Tour in the first place.

It’s stressful, strenuous, hot, exhausting, non-sensical. But being at the Tour is a better drug than any WADA-legal painkiller.