Archive for October, 2013

Sunday at The Palace

October 30, 2013

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Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Jonathan Hines – info@jonathanhines.co.uk

The St Jude’s Day storm held off long enough for a bright and blustery day of Rapha Super Cross racing at Alexandra Palace.

We’ve been promising mud for three years now, and looking out of my window at six in the morning, it seemed a sure bet. But no. The course was fast and dry – which, from an organiser’s position, is no bad thing. The prospect of flying gazebos and torrential downpours made for a fitful night’s sleep.

But it all came good in the end. The best part of 500 riders tackled the slopes of Ally Pally. Most of them could raise a smile once they had regained their breath. Myself included.

How they roll

How they roll

Is that Jeremy Clarkson?

Is that Jeremy Clarkson?

Passing the palace

Passing the palace

Some of the 160 under-16s who raced

ViCiOUS Velo going green

ViCiOUS Velo going green

Spiral of doooom...

Spiral of doooom…

Bruce Dalton, Rouleur team

Bruce Dalton, Rouleur team

Dan Tulett dominated the youth race

Dan Tulett dominated the youth race

Paul Oldham won all three rounds...

Paul Oldham won all three rounds…

...as did his Hope team-mate Annie Simpson

…as did his Hope team-mate Annie Simpson

Elites are dooooomed

Elites are dooooomed

No pain, no gain

No pain, no gain

Everyone's a winner, baby

Everyone’s a winner, baby

Tequila!

Tequila!

No jet-washing required

No jet-washing required

"Your thumb goes OVER the top, Annie"

“Your thumb goes OVER the top, Annie”

A feature on the 1973 cyclo-cross World Championships, held at Crystal Palace, will appear in Rouleur issue 43

The Usual Climb

October 25, 2013

biffclimb3Words: Steve Walton

 “The Chakata fruit on the ground belongs to all, but the one on the tree is for she who can climb.”
Shona proverb.

It does not matter if we choose to look skywards or earthwards when compelled to consider.

Whether we prefer to take the road back over what life has already provided or the pass to what is yet to be delivered, Shambhala lurks and lures nearby, waiting for those willing to reach and climb.

It is difficult to find. Always fleeting, failing to be captured. And it lies in the mountains. The mountains that never change.

The numbers do not lie. The legs know what is around the corner. They have a photographic memory for all that they have previously felt.

The misnomer of a favourite climb. A frequent climb, yes. A loyal climb, perhaps. A favourite climb, no.

These are the tortured actions of a recidivist, trying to deceive the mind for a fraction of a second.

The familiar landmarks, the familiar fatigue, the slow clearing of the edges of the mind, for when there is nothing you would rather be doing.

Off the main road and straight onto the hill. The water cascades over the weir as you climb over the hump backed bridge. You can still hear it until you reach the red post box tucked away in the hedge.

The road is quiet and protected by tall trees on both sides, rough and crumbly as you pass the timber yard and farmsteads on the left. The wind and pain is higher up.

The road is a slow snaking turn as you gradually climb in ever increasing steps. The surface starts to improve.

Organic honey and free range eggs For Sale on the left. This is the last step before the consistent climb all the way to the top.

A series of manhole covers and drains keep you close to the verge. The road veers right and loses the protection of the trees. Ahead is just a long, thin track without end.

A white gatepost appears on the right, a marker that progress is being made. Slow progress. This ceased to be fun a while ago.

The gradient increases and the patchwork tarmac doesn’t help. A SLOW sign painted across the road seems a little personal. The legs are trying to keep a rhythm.

You know a resurfaced stretch of road lies ahead, you know its distance from the top but you also know that it is the steepest part of the climb. Keep the legs going until at least that new road appears.

There it is. Only a few hundred metres to go you try to convince yourself. Houses on both the left and the right now with grass pavements.

White painted road markings emerge. Up it goes, around the corner to the left and the new road runs out.

It’s back to bumps and holes but not much further. A sign for the crossroads comes into sight. The church on the left means that’s it.

There is a word in Afrikaans, perhaps in other languages as well, that I love. Buitenverwachting. Beyond expectation.

It defies confinement. A physical concept but so much more when embraced by the soul. A choice, an ambition of the spirit and the source of everything that is beautiful. A bolt of lightning, the eyes of a child, a good deed done.

I tame Bucephalus to take me there. The legs lament and quiver. The chest vexes and sears. It is to be expected.

I must labour beyond expectation if I am to retrieve that which I have seen before, that which is truly beautiful.

Stick to the left as you start the climb. The surface is poor and always gravelly. There is a thin strip of decent tarmac on the left. The road starts heading up as you reach the church on the right.

You can shift down a few gears at this point. That is the second time a church has provided refuge on this ride. Up through the narrow chicane, past the exquisite garden on the left.

If only my legs matched it. There is always gravel here as well as running water.

The first stream appears below the big oak tree on the left and the second just around the corner. It rolls softly away into the deep ditch, best avoided, on the side of the road.

The road veers right at the crossroads and ramps up. More free range eggs on the left.

Pass the first lump of concrete stuck to the road which marks the apex of the corner. Make a mental note to avoid it on the way down.

Veering back to the left under the trees, past the garden filled with children and children’s toys, undoubtedly having more fun than you are at this stage.

The second lump of concrete marks the beginning of the end but the legs are beginning to feel the previous climbs.

Another distraction is required! Is Abi Harding the best sax player you have ever seen? I think so.

Better have another look. That’s a few metres further up.

Now the trees totally envelope the road in dark shadows. Don’t look up for the light at the end of the tunnel just yet. There is a big round brow to get over before the climb is done.

It is dark and quiet. Nothing to see but the metres immediately ahead of you and nothing to hear but your own gasping breadths. The road lets you know when the climb is done.

The wistful drop drifts down the pane,
A pale reflection that is me,
I wonder from where it came,
I yearn to be that free.
 
Hidden deep within the being,
I get a glimpse, a sign so rare,
A warmth, a shine, never seeing,
I dream for those that dare.
 
Who rides with us through turn and crest,
We climb towards that tranquil place,
It comes not at our own behest,
The drop that makes its ambrosial trace.

This is the final climb. That knowledge helps a great deal. The larder can be emptied without recourse.

The beacons which previously loomed large are now hidden above you. The goal is within reach.

The farm gate on the left holding back the barking dog means it is time to catch your breath for the final stint. Trees appear on the right and that is where we are heading.

Make the sharp right turn, avoid the ubiquitous gravel and listen for cars coming over the hill. They usually hoot.

The legs dictate which gear to choose, usually a low one. A chicane to the right and then to the left blocks the view of the ramp which is a good thing.

Get to the big tree on the right before panicking. 22% they reckon it gets up to. Make a positive start and the rest will fall into place: they also said that.

No need to look ahead. You know what’s there. Just concentrate on the next turn of the pedals. The road is good.

It usually takes a couple of verses of Lady Gaga to get through this one. Now is a good time to start with verse one.

Bad Romance, bad legs. Picture the outfit, forget about your legs.

The roads veers left and the trees give way to gorse. The air seems to get noticeably thinner. The legs start to ease and the gradient slackens off. Back into the teens.

Two shelves of shallower roads bring you to the top. England’s pleasant pastures lie below you.

An irresistible look at the watch. 41 minutes. Missed the thirties again.

Perhaps tomorrow.

Steve Walton is a weekend cyclist and regular reader of Rouleur.

Love Handles

October 18, 2013

SCHEVENINGEN/ROTTERDAM
Words: Andy McGrath Photographs: Offside

Now the racing season’s all but over, we can get talking about the serious issues that modern cycling has failed to address.

This one has been on my mind since this year’s Tour de France, what with G’s pelvis-smashing crash, the Tourminator dominating the points competition and Froomey winning the whole thing.

See the problem? What’s in a nickname anymore? Not much, and that’s a shame.

Back in the day, lone scribes would conjure up (often) fictional accounts of riders battering through the dark on rutted roads, regularly telling a story lent by their style, background or personality.

The original purpose wasn’t on the reality – how could they catch the riders passing? – but on getting readers interested and laying on the poetic license, picking favourites and eulogising.

Nicknames have become a part of cycling’s rich heritage. They are instant, pleasant entry points to a sport for the novice, or provide a rich image for the fan.

Physical or personal characteristics become accentuated, mortals on bicycles lent a violence or beauty.

We had a bunch of locomotives and cannibals; phantasmagoric battles where a heron could swoop above lions and leopards.

Charly Gaul, a slight man who worked in a Luxembourg slaughterhouse before turning professional, became the Angel of the Mountains.

Sometimes they were sillier or downright rude. Three-time Giro winner Carlo Galetti was the Squirrel of the Canals, in reference to his birth by the Milan waterways, scrunched-up facial features and conservative racing style.

Henry Anglade acquired the sobriquet of Napoleon for his (lack of) height and bossy manner. Appropriately, he didn’t mind the association.

The bunch of the ‘50s and ‘60s was a caricaturist’s dream, and the fans lapped it up.

Now I feel like we’ve reached an impasse, cycling lolling into the lazy territory owned by football’s dressing room.

The –y or –o (Froomey and Wiggo, tut, tut) is more readily tacked on at the end as an afterthought, a vague attempt at familiarity.

They used to be anointed by journalists; now you’re as likely to have executives thinking up new sobriquets as a way of making money.

The elephants and other animals – the menagerie is close to being exhausted – have been caged. New nicknames are either forced or cliché. It doesn’t take much imagination so it doesn’t capture the collective one.

Vincenzo Nibali is the Shark of Messina, but as a well-brought up bambino, he’s got about as much bite as a goldfish. As for Sagan’s Tourminaitor… we can do better.

Maybe it’s me erringly romanticising the past; maybe it’s a malaise relating to the present day.

With coverage exploding in the last decade, everyone can see the action, give an opinion and try to be an Antoine Blondin; the myriad platforms are available at the click of a button.

Social media and the availability of action is a joyful advance, but it means we rapidly take on the water of rapid information and opinions, and struggle to float.

No one person is a key outlet like the scribes of yore being read by millions.

Cycling is sharing a smaller piece of the popularity pie too. Whole nations aren’t enthralled by a race or a rider anymore.

Perhaps the last man to gain such a heady national fervour was Marco Pantani. Or rather Il Pirata, Elefantino, Nosferatu… he had nicknames aplenty.

I feel this particular cycling lyrical tradition is slipping away. It’s a little sad (though not a lot sad because, let’s face it, getting better nicknames is somewhere low alongside ‘make team kits more fashionable’ on the sport’s never-ending to-do list).

As it’s annoying to moan without offering solutions, here’s a few suggestions. Feel free to add your own – or dismiss mine.

Ian Stannard: the Iron Man of Milton Keynes.

Matt Goss: the Tasmanian Devil, for his tactical slyness and propensity to fly into an occasional rage at a sprint going awry.

Gerald Ciolek: The Iceman, a nod to his sangfroid and winning ways in wild weather.

John Degenkolb: the Flying Moustache, part-dependent on whether he keeps his facial topiary.

ENTRAINEMENT SKY

Flecha

October 11, 2013

roub08-flecha-agua
Words: Michael Barry Photographs: Timm Kölln

We spent more than six hours on our bikes and ascended two long climbs. Climbing for over half an hour, the tempo gradually reached the point of discomfort.

Few words were spoken. We both gazed at the road ahead, the peak in the distance, and focussed on the effort. It was December – we knew we should be reining in our effort.

But for Flecha, like me, that is something we find difficult. As in our childhood, we still both want to be on our bikes pushing our limits, which is not always the best for conditioning.

As we reached the summit of the first climb, I asked him if he wanted to ride to the next peak that we could see in the distance. The answer was a simple “yes”.

Rod Ellingworth, our team coach, once summarised Flecha’s training method. “He’s not a rider who lacks the motivation to train hard. He knows what he needs to do to be fit.

“But he just needs guidance as to when he should back off his workload so that he doesn’t arrive at the key races tired.” Racing his bike is a job; riding it is a passion.

During the ride, we chatted incessantly about writing, races, bikes, cycling history, cars, our families, Catalonia and dozens of other things which I can’t recall.

He writes well and has often contributed stories from races to Spanish newspapers. He has a profound interest in life beyond the bike. A mountain of novels always accompanies Flecha to a Grand Tour.

In the team bus or hotel, he leafs through books while his teammates tap away on their keyboards as they check results and chat with friends.

To him, the technology which seems to command many of our lives is simply a distraction from the essence. He is seeking simplicity and nature. But he can also be ferociously competitive when he has to be.

Three months before the Classics, he was already focused on the upcoming month of intense racing in the spring. He knew, based on experience, what he needed to do to be in good shape for the races.

With the guidance of the team’s coaches and sports scientists, Flecha sought out what he thought would separate him from the rest.

Yet, like most top professional cyclists, he will resist new ideas until they are proven and effective. That caution is in part based on superstition and partly on common sense. There is data and then there is hope.

While most cyclists search for warmer climates to escape winter, Flecha spends weekends at his second home in Puigcerdà in the Pyrenees to sustain and improve his climbing.

Unafraid of the cold and wet, he rides while his girlfriend skis, his tyres making tracks in the snow. Cars loaded with skiers pass cautiously.

Despite the discomfort of frozen extremities and the risk of crashing, he finds peace and reason riding alone in the frozen environment.

Like his Flemish rivals, Flecha has learned to persist through inclement weather. He has conditioned his body to become accustomed to the cold and his mind to accept and even embrace it.

A true Classics rider will thrive in adversity. When asked if he prefers a wet or dry Classic, Flecha doesn’t hesitate before answering: “Wet and muddy.”

Wet roads separate the skilled riders from the hopeful. Flecha seems to have battled adversity since he was a boy, following his dreams despite the hurdles of life.

Prior to the Ronde, Flecha was the focal point of our team press conference. The media fired questions at him. They asked about his past, crashes he had been involved in, his rivals, his tactics and his potential.

He deflected criticisms by asking the journalists rhetorical questions. It was apparent in his answers that he felt his nationality hindered him in a xenophobic peloton.

He is burdened with the generalisation that Spaniards can’t handle their bikes on the cobbles and, as a result, don’t belong on the front when there are cobbles. Often blamed for causing crashes, Flecha feels he is scapegoated because of his nationality.

There is truth to this. But like any minority working to fit into a class system based on nationality and performance, he has never felt as accepted or respected by his peers when racing in northern Europe.

It is his tenacity that makes him thrilling to watch on a bike. He will resist and persist, only backing down when it is on his terms.

Extract from Rouleur issue 21. Michael Barry is a former professional cyclist and author of Le Metier, available from the Rouleur shop.

flecha-bed

Land of Second Chances

October 3, 2013

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Photographs: Ben Ingham

Author Tim Lewis charts the project founded by mountain bike pioneer Tom Ritchey and led by coach Jock Boyer to establish Team Rwanda as a force in the peloton in Land of Second Chances, published by Yellow Jersey. It is a compelling story, furthering Tom Southam and Ben Ingham’s Tour of Rwanda features published in Rouleur 28, 29 and 30.

How did the Rwanda story come about for you?

It really started around 2008, when I was editor at Observer Sport Monthly and we ran an article by Steve Bloomfield, who was based in Nairobi, and he had met Jock Boyer in a coffee shop and heard about the project. He pitched the story to me and I thought it sounded great. We ran a story on it in 2008, which was really when the project was just starting out. It really was a ‘Cool Runnings’-type story, of random guys trying to get to the Tour de France. That was the appeal of the original story. After that, I thought I would keep an eye on it, then it moved forward again in 2010 when I went over for the Tour of Rwanda.

How much contact did you have with Jock or Tom Ritchey before heading to Rwanda?

A bit with Jock. There wasn’t a lot of coverage around that time, so Jock was very keen to get some publicity. The 2010 tour ended up being probably the biggest it has ever been; the African Continental Championships were held in Rwanda as well that year, so teams from across the continent stayed on to ride the tour.

Presumably you have been to the Tour de France and other major races in Europe. There must have been some striking differences in Rwanda.

A lot of the aspects were exactly the same as you would find in the big European races, from the leader wearing a yellow jersey and the best climber wearing polka dots, to the prologue and the stages. They have borrowed a lot of the structures of bike racing as we would know it, but equally there are lots of elements that are incongruous. You would find riders with really good quality carbon bikes, particularly the South Africans, and then you would have people from Burundi who were riding bikes I wouldn’t even commute to work on. They were a good 20 or 30 years old, they weighed a ton. And the disparity between abilities was huge. Most European bike races, you are used to seeing the peloton sticking together for the majority of the stage.  At the Tour of Rwanda, first hill and the whole bunch would split apart, with some finishing hours behind the winner.

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The title ‘Land of Second Chances’ seems to apply equally to the Westerners in the book. You refer to them seeming to be escaping from something back home.

There was this element where the people there were, at that time in their lives, looking for something wildly different from what they had experienced previously, so there was a ‘second chances’ theme. I always thought the title was slightly corny-sounding, and should be spoken in the voice of the man who does the trailers for Hollywood films!

Cultural differences are obviously an interesting theme in the book, timekeeping being a persistent bone of contention. If a European team says the ride leaves at 10, it leaves at 10: five minutes late and you have missed the boat. You refer later in the story to the ‘Africanisation’ approach successfully employed in Kenya with distance runners; adapting to the African way of life rather than trying to shoehorn athletes into Western constraints.

Jock is one of the most disciplined people I have ever met. When I was out there with Tom Southam, we were talking about what it would take to make it coming from a different culture. Don’t forget what a massive achievement it was for Jock to be the first American to make it onto a European pro squad and ride the Tour, as a domestique on Hinault’s winning team. Part of his make-up was to be disciplined and hard working. He is completely formidable. My concern was that, when someone like that becomes a coach, they risk being incredibly disappointed and let down by the people they are looking after. Not everybody is going to have his discipline and his motivation, and be able to make the same sacrifices. I think that has been as issue on Team Rwanda. He was really frustrated by it.

The one rider who really excelled, Adrien Niyonshuti, was the one most like Jock. In fact, Jock always said he saw a lot of himself in Adrien. A South African rider who lived with Adrien at MTN-Qhubeka said he really is the perfect athlete. All he does is eat, sleep and train. People would ask him to come to the cinema and he didn’t understand why you would want to do that. He is so focused.

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What does the future hold for Team Rwanda?

Jock and [marketing and logistics manager] Kimberly are still involved with it, but they did decide to broaden the outlook. Just as [MTN-Qhubeka’s] Doug Ryder has a dream of having an African team in the Tour de France, Jock shares the same ambition. He realised he wouldn’t be able to do that with an exclusively Rwandan team, and he would need to broaden it out and make connections with Eritrea and Ethiopia. In Jock’s mind, the Ethiopians especially have great natural potential.

Doug and MTN have a great level of organisation and contacts, and are obviously now racing in Europe, so that does seem like where the best African rider will come through.

I have been told by someone who has worked extensively in Rwanda that one little spark could return the country to the horrific events of 1993. Did you have any sense of underlying unease?

It is a difficult one to gauge, and I certainly don’t want to be sensationalist about it, but I did meet people out there who said the same thing to me. You have genocide which is so recent. President Kagame’s way of working through reconciliation was to bring everyone back into the country, have them live side by side, and you feel on a human level it would be impossible for there not to be tensions. Superficially, there is a great level of order and discipline – I think it is the safest country in Africa; things work, you don’t have to pay bribes. There are so many great and positive things, certainly as a visitor there. But you do feel like there are cracks in the veneer of order. Kagame keeps a tight rein at the moment, but he is due to stand down in 2017 and people wonder what is going to happen after that.

I feel that the story of the Rwandan cycling team was a microcosm of the country itself. There are so many positive aspects, so many good things you can highlight, but it would be an incomplete story if you didn’t also highlight the aspects that made you feel slightly more ill at ease. It is not a straightforward story of success and hope and triumph over adversity. It is complicated, both for the team and the country.

Land of Second Chances by Tim Lewis is published by Yellow Jersey. Tim speaks at the London Sports Writing Festival on October 20th.

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