Archive for September, 2013

Sampler

September 30, 2013

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Our free sampler went down a storm at the Tour of Britain. For anyone who hasn’t seen the magazine before, this taster of issue 39 – the monster 260-page Tour de France special edition – is the perfect introduction to what we do.

“What about free digital copies for American fans,” Tweeted Jim Conrad. A fine idea, Jim. And you don’t have to be American to download it, in case you’re wondering.

We hope you enjoy reading about 100 Tours, Chris Froome, Corsica, Russ Downing, Julio Jiménez and Speedplay pedals.

We trust you will find the writing of Robert Millar, Ned Boulting, Carlos Arribas, Paul Fournel and Colin O’Brien engaging and illuminating.

And we are confident you will find imagery from the likes of photographers Taz Darling, Timm Kölln, Paolo Ciaberta, Robert Wyatt, Daniel Sharp, and illustrator Jo Burt, of the highest order.

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Nencini: Forgotten Champion

September 26, 2013

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Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Elisabetta Nencini’s Collection

It was a rainy Saturday morning in Croydon in late February 2010. I was going into town for a hair cut.

First, I had a phone call to make.

Days before, I had spotted some videos Elisabetta Nencini made of her father, Gastone, on Youtube.

Instinctively, I was curious about a Tour and Giro winner of whom I’d heard little. I made contact with Elisabetta.

As she recalled her father’s life and career down a crackly phone line, I was surprised by the vividness of her memories and raw emotions.

I didn’t know how to cope with her tears. I remember telling the hairdresser about it in a daze, some twenty minutes later.

I knew even less what to do with her passionate words. The memories of such a close family member are often individually precious and distorted. Love adds its own tint, omits foibles or twists facts.

I held back Elisabetta’s memories. With the world championships in her city – Gastone’s city – of Florence this weekend, this is the right moment to share them.

*      *

Gastone Nencini was a block of Florentine granite on a bike, stubborn to shift from a lead group, a master of descending.

This rural kid wasn’t afraid of anyone. His courage and obstinacy yielded his nickname, the Lion of Mugello, a Tuscan town forty kilometres north of Florence.

“Until then, grand champions dictated their terms, who was in command, over the domestiques. Nobody could move before that,” Elisabetta recalls.

“At the moment my father turned professional, he upset all their plans because he didn’t give in.

“He had the character of a wild horse. He didn’t like that someone imposed rules on him, didn’t like to be harnessed.

“There was a conspiracy of people that didn’t ride in a fair way: in general, in the sport, there’s a code of honour. He’d rather die than fall in line behind champions.”

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Nencini made a quick impression. The second year professional was poised to win to the 1955 Giro.

On the race’s penultimate day, Coppi and Magni planned a coup against the callow maglia rosa. They charged away, ready to make him sweat for the win.

The latter had his heavy Tour of Flanders tyres on. He knew they faced stubbly sections of strade bianche. When Nencini double-flatted on a rough stretch, the old rivals were off.

The upshot of that 170-kilometre break into San Pellegrino: the stage to Coppi; the Giro, overturned, to Magni; third place overall to the devastated Nencini.

Nencini’s daughter hints at mechanical foulplay: “Coppi told my dad to stay calm because if anything happened, he would be by his side. He made an agreement with Coppi.

“We speak of a plot because on that day he punctured so many times and the support was never behind him.

“Changing the wheel should take a few seconds, 15 maximum. Well, he lost a minute.”

Cycling’s a funny old game though. Two years later, Nencini took his single Giro victory, the opportune winner in similarly controversial circumstances.

He latched onto a Louison Bobet-led splinter group, up the road after Charly Gaul stopped for a piss – a revenge attack after the Luxembourger had wronged Bobet in identical circumstances earlier that very day.

Descending towards Monte Bondone, disaster. Another puncture for Nencini. His bid was surely over.

But Gaul did the donkey work, pacing him back up to Bobet. If he wasn’t going to win this race, then neither was his crafty French rival. The Italian profited.

Nencini kept himself to himself. “He was very modest; I believe it came from a great respect that he had for others,” Elisabetta says.

“I don’t think that my father had a weakness. But he perhaps did not like the faithful life of an athlete.

“Sometimes he would smoke a few cigarettes; he loved women.

“Ever since he was a young man, he liked to have a glass of wine on the table. It did him good, lifted the tension.

“Although his directeur sportifs prohibited it, my father did not listen. Those glasses of wine stayed on the table,” Elisabetta recalls.

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On the penultimate day of the 1960 Tour, Nencini was clad in the yellow jersey when the race stopped at Charles de Gaulle’s house in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises.

“The patron of the Tour introduced my father to de Gaulle and said ‘Nencini, Italiano’,”

“My dad replied: ‘No! Nencini, Florentine’.

“De Gaulle said: ‘You have fought like a real soldier. My compliments, Paris is yours, well deserved’.”

Ultimately, Nencini rode among legends, but never became one. He is framed as little more than a tenacious plugger in cycling history.

He is one of seven Tour de France winners to win the yellow jersey without taking a stage. And list Italian champions who are Tour winners and after Bottecchia, Bartali, Coppi, Gimondi and Pantani, Nencini would be the oft-forgotten number six. But would he care about being remembered?

“I don’t think that my dad sought glory. He fought for himself, to beat adversaries, more than the glory,” Elisabetta says.

“Therefore he always avoided the TV, newspapers, those things didn’t interest him. He preferred to show his strength on the roads, a way of being a true man. That was my father.

“He wasn’t a man who imposed. I learnt to live my life as he did, to have certain values which are the important things that count in life: it’s not success, glory and the rest.”

After his career, Nencini was a directeur sportif for Max Meyer and opened a bike shop.

He was there for the kids too. “I felt that he was so strong, capable of defending us like a lion.

“Every day at lunch and dinner, I would go on my dad’s shoulders and he’d compare my hand with his – because he had enormous hands, huge. I felt so protected by that.”

These labourer’s hands turned to painting, the fledgling artist taking lessons from Pietro Annigoni, who depicted the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John XXIII and JFK.

“I probably inherited this passion for painting from my father. Now, I am an artist and a graduate of the Academi di Belli Arti of Florence,” Elisabetta says.

Nencini was only fifty when he died in 1980 from lymphatic system failure. Elisabetta begins to cry as she remembers her father’s last days.

“I’d gone to the hospital to see that my father was dying, and then my mother sent me home.

“I got up early to return the next day. Then my aunt came into my bedroom and said that they’d just said on TV that my father was dead.

“At that moment, it felt like a part of me had died and left my body.

“I am a cheerful, serene person. But the good part that my father gave me has not returned – it went straight with him.”

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Our Home Tour

September 24, 2013

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Words: Andy McGrath Photos: David Blanks/Rouleur

We nearly burned the clutch out up Honister Pass. 

We sat two kilometres down the descent of Pen-y-Pass, with only scree and a stream for company.

We got food poisoning in Llanberis.

We rocked out to Rage Against The Machine heading into Sidmouth.

We gave a stranded photographer a lift from Dartmoor to Basingstoke.

We were kept entertained by our sat-nav’s Jamaican voice for six days.

It broke on the seventh and we spent an hour and a half looking for a hotel in West Drayton that wasn’t actually in West Drayton.

We asked Angel Madrazo “where is the cheese?” in pidgin Spanish.

We talked to Wouter Sybrandy about his staggering recovery from a terrible crash.

We logged 1,500 miles in eight days around Britain. That’s the equivalent of driving from London to Kiev.

_DSC0249The bunch heads down a Cumbrian lane on stage two

_DSC0260Bleak is beautiful. Hardy souls wait on Honister Pass for the Tour of Britain

_DSC0349Pain in the rain for Angel Madrazo (Movistar) at Knowsley Safari Park

_DSC0368 copyWill Stephenson warms down on rollers in the Rapha-Condor-JLT van

_DSC0416 copyIan Wilkinson leads the doomed break down Pen-y-Pass towards Llanberis

 _DSC0700 copyMarco Coledan (l) and Alexandre Blain (r) sprint for the finish in Guildford

_T4Q5894Photographers spy Cav in the capital

_T4Q5889Rouleur Combativity Award winner Kristian House pedals down Whitehall before the start of the final stage

_DSC0615 copyAngel Madrazo (Team Movistar)

David Blanks is a photography student at the University of Falmouth. You can see more of his work here.

Podcast: Issue 42

September 23, 2013

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Rouleur assistant editor Andy McGrath, and writer and Rapha-Condor-JLT press officer Tom Southam, join Jack Thurston on the slopes of Haytor on Stage 6 of the Tour of Britain to mull over the eight-day stage race and the contents of issue 42 of the magazine, including Tom’s debut as a DS at the Tour of Korea, Dan Martin, and the mysteries of UCI’s race categorisation system. Andy and Jack fail to see the day’s stage finish.

The Rouleur podcast is brought to you by Mosquito Bikes, London’s custom made bicycle specialists and stockists of waterproof kit by Showers Pass, the perfect choice for the wet weather of autumn and winter. Mosquito is at 123 Essex Road, London N1 2SN and on the web at mosquito-bikes.co.uk.

Issue 42

Sweet Smell Of Success

September 22, 2013

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Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Sam Butler/Tour of Britain

Brie, Gruyere, Camembert, Stilton, Wensleydale. We’re not fussy. Pile it on our plate, please.

We like our cheese almost as much as we like our attackers. So before last year’s race, we reckoned we’d combine the two for the Rouleur Combativity Award.

As well as being an instant post-stage calorie replacer, the cheeses give a quirky culinary roadmap of the places the Tour of Britain has visited.

From savoury, salty St James in Cumbria, to pongy Beenleigh Blue stinking out the Madison Genesis bus under the Devon sun, it’s been quite a journey.

After a pungent first outing last year, our marketing man Sam came armed with a refrigerated cooler box for his week of transporting the assorted quarries around this fair nation.

He fared little better. Unfortunately, the cooler’s vent often wafted the odour into his face meaning he is now desensitised to any scent of cheese.

Fans seemed to like our dairy daring. But what do the recipients themselves think?

What are they going to do with it? How were their breakaways? And do they even like cheese?

Anthony Delaplace (Sojasun), stage one, Isle of Mull cheese
“Is it cow or goat cheese? I haven’t eaten it yet. It’s for after Sunday’s stage.

My favourite cheese is Comté.

[“Camembert!” comes shout from open Sojasun bus window]

Well, I’m a Norman. Calvados, Camembert.

The finish was a kilometre too far [on stage four], it came back, but I still took pleasure in that break. I like being out in front better than following in the bunch, waiting.

The Team Sky way of riding is one I don’t care so much for. There’s a breakaway, they ride, then it’s brought back. Always. Among the professionals, it’s always a bit like that in the big races. For attackers like me, it’s a shame.”

In the future, I’d like to be French champion and win a stage of the Tour de France. Those are my two big aims: it’ll be hard, but there you go.”

Angel Madrazo (Movistar), stage two, St James
Rouleur [rudimentary Spanish]: “Il queso…
Angel: “Ah, il queso. Si?”
Rouleur: “Es bueno?”
Angel: “Yes, it’s in the bus, I’ll be sharing it with my team.”

Tom Scully (Team Raleigh), stage four winner, Hafod
“It was pretty cool to win that cheese. It’s in one of the vans, we haven’t packed into it yet.

I don’t mind a bit of cheese after dessert. I know my teammate Alex [Blain] is really keen on it. Being from France he’s told me a lot about it.

I have mine with caramelised onions, I’m partial to a bit of crackers and chutney too.”

Jacob Rathe (Garmin-Sharp), stage five, Gorwydd Caerphilly
“I don’t like cheese. Other people do though, so someone will eat it. It’s a gift [to them].

The strangest prize I’ve ever received at a cycling race was a chainsaw blade, a long time ago, from one in Oregon.

I didn’t use it to cut anything, it sits in my house.”

Liam Holohan (Madison Genesis), stage six, Beenleigh Blue
“You’re doing a blog about cheese? Want some cheesy puns? Or will that grate on your nerves?

Getting in the breakaway yesterday was one of the highlights of my year. It’s amazing being on home roads, people shouting your name, the support on Twitter and things like that.

It’s nice to pay Roger Hammond back, he’s put so much into the team and is so supportive. To see him chuffed at the end made it all worthwhile.

As for the cheese, we don’t know how to look after it. We don’t know if it has to be refrigerated or whatever…

I’ll ask the lads if they want a cut and divvy it up if they do.

I might keep it for my wedding in December, serve with some crackers. There’s a story behind it then, in’t there?”

Rouleur Combativity winner Liam Holohan

Turning The Corner

September 21, 2013

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Words: Andy McGrath Photos: David Blanks

September 16 2012. Stage eight of the Tour of Britain, Barhatch Lane, Surrey.

Wouter Sybrandy was on an adrenaline high, charging after the breakaway. Time to end a good Tour of Britain by bridging this gap on the fast descent, he thought.

“I remember going into the corner a little bit fast. But I’d done it lots of times, I thought I could make it,” Wouter recalls.

Spoiler alert: Wouter didn’t.

His first recollections are IG-Sigma Sport manager Becky Frewing and doctor Andrew Meilak standing over him.

Sybrandy made sure he could move all his limbs. Yes, no problem. “Then I was actually pretty chilled. I had a bit of morphine, I wasn’t feeling too much pain.

“But from the expression on their faces, I realised I might be in a bad way.”

There was a lot of blood. His face was a mess and he had broken three vertebrae and several ribs.  Race doctor Andrew Meilak recalls being frightened by the severity of his injuries.

Wouter spent the following week in St George’s Hospital in Tooting, forbidden from moving and waiting for serious spinal surgery.

Time flew by in a morphine-muddled haze as he moved from hospital room to room, surgery to surgery.  His forehead and cheekbones were plated.

As for pain, it sounds like he’ll never complain about an interval again. “After the back surgery, they put me asleep on my wound. I woke up and I’ve never been in so much pain. It was so bad, I was unable to talk, just mouthing ‘help’ to the nurses.”

A fixture of the British racing scene, 29-year-old Wouter is a refreshing throwback to the days when top roadmen took both the Premier Calendar and time trials seriously. He’s a tough, attack-minded guy on the bike, a thoroughly nice chap off it.

But the Dutchman didn’t realise the high regard in which he was held by peers til he got internet coverage in hospital, a week after the crash, and received the many messages of support.

“It’s a good way of seeing who your real friends are. I was really surprised by some of the people visiting,” he says.

Step by step, Wouter got better. One day, he walked to the bathroom. The next, outside. Then to the next floor. And so on and so on, setting small targets.

Wouter’s sunny attitude in the face of adversity shines through as he recounts events. He even calls the whole thing “a very positive experience”: on a high in the race, then from the morphine, even the hospital experience.

He must be one of life’s optimists. That’s the right tonic when plunged into such a pendulous situation.

Only able to ride an hour at a time before his back got painful, he did his exercises, went swimming and rebuilt the lost back strength. His progess was staggering.

“The doctors said it would take me six months to get back on the bike. I did it in two. They were amazed. Actually, they emailed me the other day, they want to write an article about it.”

By the time February rolled around, he was back at training camps, making his team-mates suffer again.

That said, Wouter is not fully recovered. He still gets double vision in the time-trial position because his eyes aren’t quite aligned – which is why he nearly ended up in the barriers on the final corner of the stage three test around Knowsley Safari Park this week.

“You can see in my left eye socket, it’s arched a bit more than the other. I need to get that fixed… People that haven’t seen me in a while are surprised, it looks a bit like a black eye.”

The crash that could have ended his career doesn’t prey on his mind. On September 17 – a day late – Wouter realised his bad fall had been a year ago.

It’s been good for publicity too, but every time he signs on at this year’s Tour of Britain, he’s heard “Wouter Sybrandy, the rider who recovered from a bad crash,” booming from the announcer.

Time to put that one to bed. Wouter Sybrandy, Tour of Britain stage winner would be a more pleasing replacement.

So how would he like to ring in his return to his adopted local Surrey roads on today’s seventh stage between Epsom and Guildford, a year after that horror crash?

“The only way is to be in the break, that’s how to do it properly,” he says.

JTL: One Year On

September 19, 2013

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Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Offside

Forget winning it; Jonathan Tiernan-Locke might not even have been at last year’s Tour of Britain.

With a late pre-race training camp sprung on his already tired legs, he was instructed to do one more hill repeat in training by his directeur sportif.

He refused, got off his bike and took his helmet off to get a tan. Then the team car came round the hairpin.

“My heart sunk. He was going to go mental,” he recalls.

The manager threatened to drop him from the Endura line-up for the race. “I said: ‘Look, I’ve been really tired, I’m not going to get fitter, I just need to rest up’. I said to him: ‘You’ve not trained me all year, I know what I need to do going into it’.”

The 28-year-old is not outspoken or uppity for the sake of it. It’s just that he knows his own body and its quirks. He admits it can frustrate him, one day flying in training, the next flagging.

Endura kept him in the team and the rest is history. JTL escaped on Caerphilly Mountain, cameras trained on his knitted brow expression, wore the gold jersey on his home Devon stage and rode around Guildford to rock star adulation.

He went on to lead a star-packed Great Britain team at the World Championships, the summit of his revelatory season. In a year, he went from being a man whose most significant result was Tour of Britain Mountains classification winner to a coveted talent, who triumphed in the Tours of the Med, Alsace and Haut Var.

Then, just as quickly as he took the scene by storm, he has slunk into the background with an indifferent 2013.

While there’s no Team Sky rider mould, a numbers-oriented training style suits some more than others. Tiernan-Locke is more old school, riding purely on feel until recently.

His home is reached by a singletrack lane on the Devon-Cornwall border; all he’s known are the heavy, hilly roads of the region. “If I lived in Nice where a lot of my team-mates do, I’d feel like my life was a training camp. And I’d hate that,” he says.

The off-road scene was Tiernan-Locke’s inspiration as an adolescent: his childhood was spent nailing jumps in the woods or sneaking into the local old people’s home to do trials moves.

Entering his first season in the WorldTour, he had the same motivation as ever. “I need confirmation that I’m improving, and that’s what gives me confidence. And when I’m confident, I’m racing well.”

Tiernan-Locke reckons the turning point was his second block at Sky’s training Majorcan camp in mid-January, 2013. Increasingly tired and struggling with recovery, he felt bad in the first few races. His self-assurance ebbed away. Even the act of training became a battle with numbers and negativity.

“I started not enjoying things… I was like a slave to this SRM box. I knew what I had to do in training, but I knew it recorded everything so the coach would know if I’d done it.

“Even if I felt not good enough to do it, I was like ‘I’ve got to’. I’d do half the session, but I couldn’t quite finish it off or I didn’t hit the power numbers [written on the stem] or whatever. Or I’d come home like: Ohhh,” he sighs, “demoralised – like what am I gonna say?”

A bad day of training would inform other parts of his life. He’d make poor nutrition choices too. “Come home and eat a cake,” as he puts it.

At the Ardennes Classics, he was overweight, then yo-yo dieted for the Bayern Rundfahrt. In losing six kilos, Locke reached lean race weight but compromised his power.

As the year flew by, it was demoralising having people asking about his dip in performance on Twitter, forums, even out on the bike. Few understand that his Team Sky role, often as a domestique to the leaders, is a paradigm shift from being Endura’s unexpected jewel.

Take one encounter in a Clevedon café when a former Tour de France rider and his friend asked where he’d been in the Ardennes Classics.

Tiernan-Locke’s role had been to cover the early break and protect his leaders. “The race was in pieces and I was at the front of it. I was written off for the next 260k, I’d ruined myself in about ten [kilometres], then I was getting bottles, bringing Froomey back after a puncture, riding in the wind.

“By the time I got to the 180k mark, with the race properly kicking off, mine was done. The TV coverage might switch on with 50k to go, at which point you’re just going out the back.”

Summer was “a blur of shit”. He had problems with motivation. At a pre-Vuelta training camp, Tiernan-Locke had it out with coach Shaun Stephens.

“‘Look, I don’t need to train, that’s the last thing I need right now. This has gone from bad to worse since training camp. I’ve got no morale, no form, I feel awful every time I turn the pedals, I can’t even do recovery rides, my legs fill up with lactic straight away’,” he says, giving the gist of the conversation.

He took a three-week break and was taken off Team Sky’s provisional Vuelta roster. Even back racing, he has endured rotten luck: punctures heading into the finales of the Vattenfall Cyclassics and GP Plouay, then a painful crash in the GP Montreal (see below).

But Tiernan-Locke isn’t self-pitying or defensive about his annus horribilis. Clearly it’s something he’s thought – and been asked – about a lot. He reflects on it with unflinching honesty.

Now he needs that unquantifiable value that no magic gadget can measure, confidence: even to sometimes, perversely, believe he’s going better than he actually is.

“My confidence is getting there. I’m not deluding myself, I’m gonna need a result.”

He is currently without a coach, listening to his own body going into his second year with Team Sky.

“Everyone around me has noticed I’m just enjoying riding my bike again.”

GP DE MONTREAL

El Pirazzi

September 18, 2013

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Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Offside

If you’ve seen an Italian bike race on the telly, chances are you’ve seen Stefano Pirazzi. He’s the one who attacks. A lot. Usually when the road heads uphill.

Who are the other aggressive riders in the Italian bunch? “Aggressive like me? There’s nobody else… I think I’m the only one,” Pirazzi says.

As he looks around at the quagmire formerly known as Knowsley Safari Park, he says it laughing, as if it’s a badge of honour.

Sadly – if you’re a romantic like me – the perennial attacker is a dying breed in modern cycling, sacrificed on the altar of buttoned-up, reserved, necessarily sensible (yawn) modern tactics.

Breakaways are often futile endeavours. You’d have to be brave, deluded or simply bonkers to spend all day out there.

While aggression has yielded Pirazzi no race victories yet, he’s gained a trunk – that’s where he keeps his career prizes – full of King of the Mountain jerseys, not to mention a sizeable fan club. ‘Tutti pazzi per Pirazzi‘ (we’re all crazy for Pirazzi) is their tagline.

Even over here at the Tour of Britain, he hasn’t been subdued, giving it a go on the road to Kendal.

Pirazzi can’t help attacking. He’s always done it.

“Ever since I started cycling aged six, I rode like this. I’m trying to improve myself, to achieve my biggest goals… At the end of the day, everyone tries to complement their own characteristics.”

His most prominent performance came at this year’s Giro d’Italia. Pirazzi was the jack-in-the-box, popping out of the bunch on stages into Florence, Vajont and the Galibier to score points and secure the green jersey of Mountains classification winner.

When previously his attacks had sometimes been tactically deficient, this success was a sign of Pirazzi’s growing maturity.

“When you’re in a race like the Giro d’Italia, everyone is trying to find the window to win a stage by being in the break. It’s truly spectacular when it pays off because it’s not easy,” he says.

However, his aggression is not always so popular among the conformists of the bunch.

“Many guys will not be happy about my way of riding but that’s the way I am. I’m happy to have that style, one that a lot of other riders lack.”

Hailing from the Lazio town of Fiuggi, Stefano – whose twin brother Roberto was also a handy amateur rider – moved north to Bergamo as an amateur to pursue his dream, aware that the Italian north-south divide extended to professional cycling opportunity too.

Pirazzi plies his trade for the lime-green, homely, youth-oriented squad Bardiani Valvole. They give him the freedom to take flight that WorldTour squads would likely stifle.

The Pirate would be a decent nickname for Pirazzi: he’s a hero of counter-culture, scourge of the other ships that follow formation, making plenty of rogue missions and firing away his cannons at will.

But that title belongs to someone else – Pirazzi’s hero, Marco Pantani.

“It’s because of his style of racing, plus his attacks on climbs and the way he pre-empted them: dropping the bandana, the sunglasses, the earrings, then he was off. It was a signal, as if to say ‘I’m going”.

We hope Pirazzi is as mad about cheese as attacking. If he gets into his usual breakaway groove, the Rouleur combativity prize may well be winging its way to him.

Perhaps we’ll even see some British fans going pazzi per Pirazzi.

Where There’s a Will

September 17, 2013

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Words: Andy McGrath Photos: David Blanks

A week ago, life was quite literally a beach for Will Stephenson. He was sitting on the Bournemouth sands, watching his dad sea-swim.

Then the phone rang. It was his Rapha Condor JLT team manager John Herety.

Four days from the start, Felix English had fallen sick and he would be taking the Irishman’s place.

“This all moves pretty fast. I was going going from thinking I’d finished my season to being right in the middle of the biggest race of my life,” he reflected at the finish of stage one at Drumlanrig Castle on Sunday.

Suddenly, he was in snarling Scottish weather, rubbing shoulders with Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and company. Very carefully, mind.

“It’s really weird [riding alongside them]. You worry about doing something stupid or swerving and knocking one of them into a bush.”

At 18, Stephenson is the youngest rider at the 2013 Tour of Britain. It’s just the next sphere up in the man from Ringwood’s rapid rise.

Just three years ago, he was doing his first full season of racing with local club Bournemouth Arrow.

Stephenson has spent most of the racing season at school too. He finished his A Levels in June. “I don’t think John knew that when he signed me,” he adds.

His results – two A stars and an A – were so good that he gained a place at Cambridge University to study natural sciences, which he has deferred for 2013-14.

By now, Stephenson must be getting used to good opportunities coming out of the blue. When he was doing the CV rounds with domestic teams last winter, he didn’t even bother sending his to Rapha-Condor-JLT.

“I thought there’s not much point, they’re not going to be interested,” he reflects.

He was doing himself a disservice. Team manager John Herety was keeping tabs on Stephenson, a runner-up in the 2012 Junior Tour of Wales.

He signed Stephenson for his development-focused outfit after the junior world championships last season, where he rode strongly, despite being held up by a late crash.

Stephenson doesn’t seem out of his depth at the Tour of Britain. The tall teenager has acquitted himself well in the opening few days, saving energy in the bunch.

“The first stage wasn’t as bad as I expected. I thought I was going to get freezing, my legs were going to be rubbish, and get dropped as soon as the pace lifts,” he said after day one.

“I felt good with the distance and at the end, it just ramped up so much at the finale – then with the crash, I couldn’t close enough gaps.”

Stephenson wants to get in a breakaway before the end of the race. “Even if I completely kill myself and get dropped from it.”

Whatever happens, the national tour – comfortably the longest race of his fledgling career, if he completes it – will round off a season of happy surprises for Stephenson.

“I was thinking that last year ‘if I told myself’you’re going to do the world championships and next year the Tour of Britain’, I’d have been like ‘there’s no way that’s going to happen.”

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On Honister Pass

September 17, 2013

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Words: Andy McGrath Photos: David Blanks

“Well, they’re going up the easy side, aren’t they?” says Academy coach Keith Lambert. “Then down to Seatoller, the rainiest place in Britain.”

“A 28 cassette!” Bill Nickson exclaimed when hearing what size some teams were riding. “You don’t need a 28 to get up Honister. A fit professional cyclist can get up on a 25.”

“They should have taken it up Hardknott and Wrynose too,” he added, before recommending I get myself down to the Ras for some proper racing.

Those two sage stars of the Seventies were dryly doing a good job of playing down the challenge ahead.

But even the names of these Cumbrian circle of death confreres sound hard and mocking. Honister Pass is a member of that select band of brutal British climbs which elicit immediate grimaces of recognition – or worse, memory of riding – in  the cycling fraternity.

I wanted to be there for the modern Tour of Britain’s first visit to the climb – even if it was going up the easy (for an ex-national champion like “Legs Lambert”, maybe) west side.

British climbs don’t get much more honest than Honister. The lonely road cuts steeply through a civilisation-less U-shaped valley, a flowing river of tarmac squirming to the top, hitting 20 per cent in places.

Not for Cumbrian road builders, an arty squiggle of hairpins – flamboyant gestures of roadbuilding from nations populated by flamboyant gesturers like France and Italy. They get straight to the point around here.

The summit is reached by passing through two slate walls with broken turrets, foreboding gateways. The wind scuds coldly across the top, buffeting the scant vegetation.

To get away from this desolate Mordor? Fly down a treacherously steep descent.

It’s brutal enough without the weather jumping an angry moshpit. On top, an hour before the race’s passage, on-bike summiteers shivered against low stone walls in shelter from the wind.

The massed crowd on Honister was absurdly, brilliantly large, and many had cycled up. When the five hundred (my own guesstimate) or so souls turned to wave up at the TV helicopter overhead, you’d have been forgiven for thinking some mass congregation lost on the ridge was desperately appealing for rescue.

Standing out among the rainbow spread of cagoule wearers were a wolf, a bumblebee, a chicken and a white yeti, dementedly banging Yodel sticks and shouting.

If a bill of rights for British cycling tifosi was to be drawn up, the right to pull a sickie on a Monday morning to wear an animal costume at the top of a hideously-steep climb on a hypothermic “summer” afternoon must be near the top.

“Where did all those fans come from? It’s not like there’s anything anywhere near there,” Sky rider Ian Stannard said to me at the hotel later.

They build them tough up north. A bloke from Honister92.com was stood by a slate wall in cycling shorts; others stood by in fingerless mitts while soft Southerner me shivered in six layers. Complain? Head for cover? They got a Mexican wave going along the crowd.

When the race arrived, Honister also neatly epitomised the unique process of attrition that the wannabe race winner must overcome here.

The inclement weather, the six-man squads, tough climbs whose position in the stage favoured attacks. Because we can’t build mountains, we layer on the uncertainty here.

It’s very easy for someone to lose the race early on. Teams were grappling for control of the race like one of these hardened Honister folk after a runaway wind-taken umbrella and, frankly, there is very little at the moment, as we saw when Martin and Quintana tried to force affairs over the climb.

Meanwhile, race leader Elia Viviani was slipping backwards with the kind of slightly pissed-off and pained expression that said ‘what kind of madness is this?’ A man in need of a few hairpins.

When the last rider passed and the exodus started, most fans’ faces were hidden, behind bluffs, scarves, coats. But I’d wager there was a smile on every single one.

They won’t forget the day the Tour of Britain went over Honister Pass in a hurry and neither will some of the riders, 28 on the back or not.

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