Posts Tagged ‘team sky’

JTL: One Year On

September 19, 2013

FREJUS/FAYENCE

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

Advertisements

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

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.

JimmyCasper

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.

Podcast: Issue 37

March 11, 2013

Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 16.12.16

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

Issue 37

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

“Jump On, Lad”

February 26, 2013

Mad1

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Guy Andrews

A funny little anecdote worked its way back to us from the Challenge Mallorca series of races a couple of weeks back, courtesy of one of the young Madison Genesis riders.

Picture yourself, if you can – and have a long enough memory to do so – as an aspiring 18-year-old cyclist, making your professional debut in what will hopefully be a long and fulfilling career.

Last season, your staple diet of racing would have been local circuit races interspersed with the national junior road race series. Now you are in at the deep end competing against the biggest cycling teams in the world; rubbing shoulders with guys you have previously only seen on TV; riding along in the middle of a bunch surrounded by the familiar jerseys of Garmin, Movistar, Cofidis, Omega Pharma, Lotto, Lampre, Euskatel, Orica-GreenEdge, Sky…

A boy’s head could easily turn to mush at the very idea of such company. It could all be a dream. Then, as is the way with pro racing, you are rudely awakened by a split in the bunch. Through no fault of your own, you are at the head of affairs – but in the wrong bunch. There is a gap ahead. It is widening at an alarming rate

Those guys – the ones who have been doing this for years and who you watch on TV – those guys are receding into the distance. Those guys were smart to the split. They can smell it before it happens; they’re ahead of the game; hip to the tip.

You, however, are raw as a cabbage in January. And on the front, into a headwind. Nothing for it but to blast across and bridge that gap – the trouble being that, no matter how hard you press on those damned pedals, the gap will not close. It stays exactly as it is.

Time for a change of tack: a flick of the elbow, a slight swing to the left, and let someone else do the hard work. Except the next guy in line doesn’t come through. What is wrong with him? Does he not understand?

A quick glance over the shoulder to see who the uncooperative swine might be, perhaps a few choice words at the ready to fire off in his direction – standard racing etiquette, you’d think, except that as your vision focuses on a gleaming Pinarello, then takes in the man aboard it, that uncooperative swine glued to your wheel turns out to be the winner of the Tour de France.

What to do? Knuckle down and get on with it is the answer. If Brad wants to come through, he will. If not, what are you going to do about it? Our young man pushes for all he’s worth, but still the gap does not close.

Eventually Brad pulls up level, glances across and issues the words you’ve been longing to hear; from anyone, let alone a Tour winner: “Jump on, lad.”

This man, who you used to watch on TV and hope one day to emulate, is giving you a free ride back to the bunch, because he can, not because he needs to. It is ever so slightly humbling.

Ned Boulting’s piece in issue 36 on the Revolution refers to the origins of the winter track series: Dave Brailsford’s ‘Pathway to Podium’ idea, where young riders compete in the same arena as Olympic gold medallists, and the magic rubs off. How can they fail to be inspired when riding with the likes of Hoy, Pendleton and the rest? Success breeds success – witness Becky James and Simon Yates’ respective gold medal rides on the track in Minsk last week.

So this young man from Madison Genesis, this wet behind the ears whippersnapper with much to learn and little time to learn it, picked up a couple of valuable lessons that day: always stay focused and don’t find yourself the wrong side of the split. And, should the split occur and there is a gap to be closed, look to your friends in the peloton to help, even newfound friends like a Tour de France winner. Keep working hard and one day you may be in a position to return the favour…

Mad2

On Doping: Sport, Play, and the Difference Between Them

November 15, 2012

 

Words: Michael Egan   Photo: Camille McMillan

During the summer of 1994, I fulfilled a childhood dream. That July, I stepped onto a soccer field for a professional trial with Oxford United (I haven’t verified this, but I suspect I might be the only academic who ever went to Oxford for the soccer). I didn’t expect to win a professional contract; rather, I think the trial was more for myself: culminating a youth career with a professional tryout, being able to say that I was good enough to get that far. I loved playing soccer.

Some of my earliest recollections involve kicking a ball around my backyard. The trees were hapless defenders; the swing set the opposition goal. This was my preparation: I would represent Canada in five World Cups, starting in 1994 and finishing in 2010 after a successful professional career. My parents wouldn’t let me play on a team until after I had learned to swim, so I raced through three swimming badges in about as many months in order to be ready for the new season. I was seven. Organised soccer was the carrot. And I looked forward to every practice. Every game. My school week revolved around weeknight practices (once, then twice a week) and weekend games. As a teenager, I would wake at the crack of dawn to watch English soccer on television as I polished my boots, anticipating my own game. Soccer was an important part of my adolescence; this I knew: I was a soccer player and nobody could tell me I wasn’t good at it. On the soccer field, I belonged.

My trial in Oxford not only cemented that belief (even if the bolder dream had already waned), but it also served as closure on my soccer career. My youthful dreaming had run its course. It closed, though, on a sour note. At the World Cup in the United States, my boyhood hero Diego Maradona tested positive for ephedrine, an illegal substance. He was banned and scapegoated for being a cheat. I was crushed. I cried. Not so much because he had betrayed me, but because of the manner in which he was cast out as a lone sinner.

A little bit about my relationship with Maradona: I watched almost every game of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico—the last and only time Canada competed in the tournament finals—and the diminutive Argentinian stole the show. He was positively brilliant. To my mind, he remains the greatest soccer genius. His magic was intoxicating, his play full of emotion and panache. He was at play, happy. That raw passion and playfulness was why I loved the beautiful game.

Four years later, he was overweight and stood listlessly in the middle of the field, but with a touch here and there he still dictated the game. By 1994, at the beginning of the World Cup, he looked trim and back to his best. It was awesome to see, and not just from a sporting perspective. The troubled Maradona—who faced so much legal and media attention off the field, and was constantly chopped down and fouled by players on it—was back. This was a human drama, a comeback story. He seemed older and more driven—angry, almost—but he still possessed otherworldly skill, only to be found guilty of cheating and forced to leave the tournament in shame.

In England, the response to his doping was vitriolic to say the least. In 1986, Maradona had almost singlehandedly dispatched the English, once with a little help from “the hand of God”, and once with the most brilliant goal I have ever seen (worth at least two as far as I’m concerned). Maradona was already a cheat, the English declared, and his doping in 1994 only confirmed it—he could now be properly punished. It was presented as a morality play. But was Maradona more sinner or sinned against? My sadness at his ban had more to do with the fall of a tragic hero than the fact that he had broken the rules. I don’t want to absolve him of wrongdoing, but it seems to me that Maradona’s cheating was more a by-product of the world in which he found himself. The poor son of the Buenos Aires ghetto with this supreme talent found himself almost overwhelmed by his celebrity, unable to cope with his transformation and the counsel he received from people who stood to benefit from his success on the field. On the field, opponents found the only way to slow him down was to cut his legs out from underneath him. This was no game anymore.

I stopped playing soccer shortly after my professional trial. A few months later, I fell in love and in 1997 I became a father. I stopped playing soccer because my priorities shifted, and I have barely played at all in the past decade. I have never missed it. And I do not follow the sport today. Somewhere along the line, soccer shifted from play to something more serious. I always took soccer seriously, but I lost my joy of training, and games were no longer fun. I loved the process of play, the work involved. But by the time I put my boots in my bag and buried them at the back of my garage, it seemed as though winning at any cost was the rule. On a much more modest scale, this was no game anymore.

More recently, I find my exercise in cycling, where I can enjoy the solitary struggle. Cycling can certainly be a social activity, but after years of soccer, something about the solitude of cycling alone appeals to me. The pleasure is derived in a rekindling of the difficult balance of work and play. Technique and fitness on the one hand, but also the sheer exhilaration of freedom the bike affords. This is play. Cycling is about getting up early to fit in a ride and thrilling at the crispness of the pre-dawn air as I click into my pedals. And the light whizz of the chain as I roll up my street, and the tightness across my chest and lungs when I’m confronted with a hill. And then going harder. I ride for me, for fitness, for pleasure. The more I ride, the more I appreciate the nature of cycling aestheticism and technique. But that’s not why I ride.

As a teenager, I read Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a short story about a boy in juvenile detention who finds solace in running. His story is not dissimilar from a number of accounts—true and fictional—of talented endurance athletes—cyclists and runners—who lose themselves in their discipline as a means of escape. The harder they run/ride, the more they are very evidently running/riding away from something. In that context, it might be worth noting that my rides are always loops and I am intent on returning. But the ride—alone—is a kind of solace. The tragedy of Sillitoe’s story, though, is that his protagonist is presented with an opportunity to get out of detention if he wins a race, thereby gaining prestige for his borstal. He speeds away from the others, but stops just short of the line—to the shock and disappointment of his wardens. Running—and running quickly—is his lone gift, his only escape, and he will not exchange it, even for his freedom. In his running he is free.

In riding I am free, and I have become a total convert to cycling, whose professional scene was dealt a severe blow with the US Anti-Doping Agency’s presentation of its evidence against Lance Armstrong, which has brought with it numerous confessions from a generation of North American cyclists who rode with Armstrong on the US Postal team. Among these is the Canadian Michael Barry, who I have admired as much for his exquisite writing as I have for his lucid pedal stroke. In Le Métier, Barry offers a chilling perspective of the professional cycling world. One of airports, dingy hotels, fatigue, pain. Re-reading passages of his book this week suggest shadows of Barry’s secret and his doping past. Le métier can translate loosely into English as “the job,” but a better translation probably revolves around something like “the trade” or “the craft,” stressing both technique and experience.

In Barry’s hands le métier is also something just this side of an addiction. He describes in vivid prose the struggle and agony inherent in professional cycling—the crashes, the hospital rooms, the suffering, the travel, the stress, the exhaustion. Always exhaustion. For the professional cyclist, racing bicycles is not a game and there is no place for Sillitoe’s romantic irreverence. Cold-hearted numbers, dollars, and seconds rule. It’s a beautiful and moving read, Le Métier. And through Barry’s exhaustion, one might infer an almost natural—pragmatic—descent from painkillers and recovery vitamins to EPO, testosterone, and blood transfusions.

I am saddened by the reaction of people both outside the cycling world and inside who dismiss and demonise individual cyclists with accusatory finger-pointing when clearly a much more sinister system of doping in the sport was in place. Twitter is not the right conduit for these discussions, where 140 characters is insufficient for uncovering the nuances behind any individual’s decision to dope or not to dope. The question is not whether or not one athlete or another did or did not cheat. Nor is there a black and white spectrum of morality and betrayal; the line is never that clear, especially the closer you get to the sport. The purity or sanctity of play is not tainted by the actions of a single rider who dopes, but rather by the machine that has systematically turned sport into big business and athletes into commodities. This is where the Armstrong saga gets ugly. Owners, managers, doctors, and team pressures created environments where doping was regimented and commonplace, and aspiring professional riders were shepherded through a well-orchestrated series of steps to the point where doping seemed inevitable, necessary, and maybe not all that bad. I don’t think this excuses doping, but I think it points to the extant pressures that give rise to a culture of doping.

And to that end, maybe cycling is unique not for its widespread problem with performance enhancing drugs, but for the fact that it has done more than any other sport to identify and confront the doping in its midst. Entertain the thought. The soccer I left almost 20 years ago has changed radically. Over 90 minutes, players today cover almost twice as much ground in an average game than Maradona did in 1986. The game is much faster. Ice hockey, too. And American football.

While there have been remarkable advances made in sports science in recent years, to profess that doping won’t help in other sports is to stick one’s head in the sand. My instinct is that more extensive and aggressive doping tests in other professional sports would knock down a massive house of cards. If there are advantages to be gained, if there is money to be made—and it pains me to be so cynical—systematic methods of doping will occur, frequently putting the athlete’s health and well-being at risk. And the parallels exist outside of sport. Athletes are not the only people prone to temptation in order to get ahead, and they are often enough as much victims of the necessities of surviving in their métier. The difference is that they are placed in a dubious spotlight and held up to be role models.

My soccer career never got me so far as to be faced with the difficult questions about where exactly the line between love and duty lay—or the line between responsibility to myself or to my employer. For me, ultimately, the tragedy of Diego Maradona was that his genius made this sinister world seem like play until it all came crashing down. For Michael Barry, it stems from the theft of the pleasure he derived from cycling because of le métier. Watching my own children grow up, though, I do worry about how play and process have become secondary to success in all manner of endeavours, even as we go to great lengths to stress the former.

Michael Egan is an associate professor of history at McMaster University, Hamilton. He is the recipient of the 2012 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award, which is funding the development of a collaborative research project with his undergraduate students on the environmental history of the bicycle.

The third edition of Le Métier by Michael Barry and Camille McMillan is available from Rouleur

 

Belief Systems

August 16, 2012

Words: Ian Cleverly

I’ve just got back from a mini tour of France. For a cycling journalist, that is something of a busman’s holiday, but there were parties to attend and good friends to catch up with. And, of course, some fantastic riding to be had. The country does have its up sides.

Starting in the Loire and a three-day residency at a salle des fêtes on the banks of the river downstream from lovely Saumur, we partied as only a bunch of alcohol-hardened 50-year-olds can, before tumbling into bed and resuming celebrations a few hours later.

Unusually, people wanted to talk to me about cycling; how exciting the Tour must have been for someone in the business; a British winner after all these years; magazine sales must be going through the roof.  Jane, who lives near Cognac, told me that the French media and public had taken to Bradley ‘Le Gentleman’ Wiggins after a slightly rocky start to relations in the opening week. Entente cordiale had broken out once again, which was good to hear.

We headed south to the Drôme, on the edge of the Vercors, quiet enough to feel totally relaxing and with enough traffic-free climbs and winding lanes to keep any cyclist happy for a week or two.

Joel, the next-door-neighbour, said it had been a tedious Tour. Sky had strangled the race, killed off any enjoyment for spectators. He said they had raced like a team (yes, I know; struggled to get my head round that one as well). He also believed they were doping. That was the only possible explanation he could find for the complete domination he had witnessed during the previous three weeks.

Next stop Versailles.  If you have not been, the palace is of such ludicrous dimensions and grandiosity that its very existence lends an air of inevitability to the French Revolution. If the peasants were wavering in 1789 then one glimpse of Versailles would have provided sufficient incentive to tool up and storm the Bastille.

By this time the Olympics were in full swing and Team GB were hoovering up the medals, especially on the track. French TV, much like any other nation, showed mostly sports its own athletes were performing well in. I got to watch lots of handball but not a lot of cycling. I did, however, see a French journalist interview David Cameron in the garden of Number 10. How, the journalist wondered, could Team GB possibly win so many gold medals in cycling? What was going on? (Why he thought David Cameron would have the answer to this, God only knows.)

It was an intentionally loaded question, the inference clear: they must be doping. Cameron batted it away with the usual ‘hard work and dedication’ line, and did not take the bait, unlike Wiggins in that infamous press conference on the Tour.

I had exchanged emails with two Americans towards the tail end of the Tour, both in the cycling business, both knowledgeable of the racing game, both having serious doubts that what they were witnessing on this race was possible without chemical assistance. American fans have been badly burned by the US Postal revelations and the realisation that the Blue Train they had been hollering for all those years was not altogether clean, to say the least. Now the Sky blue train had taken its place with equally devastating results, why should they not draw the same conclusion?

These anecdotal snapshots are what the sport is up against the world over. It is not sufficient to think that, because we are British, we are clean, play fair, and the rest of the cycling world should be happy with that explanation. It has to be shouted from the rooftops, over and over; proved beyond doubt; made public and challenged, not avoided and brushed under the carpet.

Say it loud: I’m clean and I’m proud.

When Johnny Met Bradley

July 26, 2012

Words: Johnny Green Photos: Ben Ingham

“In the city
There’s a thousands things
I wanna say to you”
The Jam, In The City

The Christmas lights of Covent Garden were twinkling. Bright shop windows were adorned with colour, sharp art for stylish goods of all shapes ‘n’ shades. It is urgent that there are brands to be pushed, desired product to be flogged. Designer cool mingled with desirable tat. Shoppers bustled ‘n’ shoved, danced nimble side steps to avoid those absorbed on mobile phones.

Seven Dials is some weird epicentre to link up with a cyclist outta season. A small roundabout in the heart of the city, the hub is wrapped in scaffolding, maybe a festive tree, perhaps a challenging art installation. It was way too cold to bother checking it out. The lanes spun off like spokes. A hunched figure beetled across the junction. It was Guy Andrews, your editor, clutching what appeared to be two paving slabs, right size ‘n’ weight, like a magi bearing holy offerings. They were copies of Timm Kölln’s brand new monster book The Peloton. How out of place they looked, these savage stark portraits amongst the exfoliated beautiful people. One book was a gift, a sweetener from Rouleur, for Bradley Wiggins who I was due to meet shortly in some swanky nearby boutique hotel. Guy ‘n’ I ducked into the nearest boozer. Lo and behold! There was our man Wiggy. I had to double-take because he wasn’t on his bike – the same kinda idiot savant take that Montezuma’s Aztecs had on Cortez’s Spanish conquistadors on horse-back, thinking animal plus man-in-armour were one whole creature. Wiggo was dressed sharply, in smart threads. I watched the way he moved around the cramped crowded corner of that bar, his balance good for a surprisingly large bloke, neat ‘n’ precise footwork between the stools ‘n’ chairs, careful yet apparently careless, innate. I’ll bet he can dance real good (for a white man) when he’s had a few.

We sat and he talked, straight and to the point. No duckin’ or divin’; no flannellin’, no mod mumblin’.

JG: How d’ya do, Bradley. Let us speak of Coppi and Pantani.

BW: [laughing] Let’s talk about Keith Richards. Have you read his autobiography?

(Oh shit, I thought. I had been determined to get through this entire interview without mentioning dopage. Like Basil Fawlty in a parallel universe, I was telling myself, “Don’t mention the drugs.” But The Wigster rejoiced in the tale of Adam Ant queuing patiently in line recently in Waterstone’s to get his copy signed by Keef. Fame in two directions, ebb ‘n’ flow – a perfect start for a man high in the sporting spectrum. George Michael and Madonna belched outta the pub’s speakers.)

BW: Wish this was Ian Brown. He’s cool. Are we here to talk about cycling?

JG: Not necessarily.

(At this point, your photographer, Ben, persuades Brad to crush himself into a corner for a photo shoot, muttering, “The eyes, its all in the eyes,” whilst I’m jaggin’ to him, “The shoes, shoot the shoes.” It was becoming confusing.)

JG: Your book, On Tour, is brave.

BW: It was about documenting what it’s like to ride the Tour de France, success or failure. With hindsight, it is all the more interesting because it went tits-up. The photos tell the story of what that race does to your body. Obviously it wasn’t planned to be like that. Going into it, I was thinking that I was going to be Audley Harrison beating David Haye. It became apparent after round one it wasn’t gonna happen. You don’t know until you go in there. In a lot of sport, there is this premeditated media training…

JG: Although you’d had this amazing year in 2009, you nevertheless put your neck on the line. I thought, when I read your book, hats off to you. But how come you are so much into retro music? There is a playlist inside your book…

BW: Music was my first love before cycling. For some reason, it seems fascinating to people that you can have a personality towards music and still be a top sportsman. You don’t all have to walk about in a Daley Thompson tracksuit and trainers 24 hours a day and be this archetypal sportsman. I go with a lot of my mates to gigs and concerts but, you know, you’re not supposed to because their perception is of your sporting persona – they associate it with not being disciplined. But you’ve got to have a life outside of your sport.

JG: I would hope so.

BW: As a kid growing up, I listened to my uncle’s record collection and my granddad’s – you know, Chas ‘n’ Dave and stuff.

JG: Me too – fantastic!

BW: From that I went on to the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Howlin’ Wolf. From a young age, it was always there.

JG: You’re a London boy – Harrow Road. Tell me about live music.

BW: My first gig was when I was 12, in 1992. I went to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for Ocean Colour Scene and that’s where the mod thing happened for me. All these boys turned up on scooters, impeccably dressed, and I was, like, I wanna be in that gang. That was it for me. I was at a multi-cultural school and then Weller came along with Stanley Road in ’95, then lookin’ back at his work in Style Council and The Jam. His influences, tracing ’em back, through Small Faces and Steve Marriot – like satellites taking me to another world.

JG: You never lose that first impact, do you?

BW: Right. I actually met someone who was at Woodstock and saw Hendrix play – phew…

JG: So as a retro man, where do you stand on hats – helmets – which I’m not fond of stylistically?

BW: I couldn’t go back. Not any more. I did the Paris-Nice in 2003 and I was behind [Andrei] Kivilev when he died – no head protection. It’s like seatbelts, and once upon a time no one wore them and now everyone takes care. Helmets on bikes is a reality.

JG: And then someone at ASO figures, what will happen if we remove earpieces for one day? How was that?

BW: It was a load of codswallop, to be honest. We protested by not racing properly. It’s like goal line technology – things have moved on.

JG: Ah, the football… Do you still go, take an interest?

BW: Yeah, I go but it’s no longer Arsenal. I was at Liverpool recently when they beat Chelsea – brilliant!

JG: I notice in the press room at the Tour, the sporting culture is rugby not football. Loathsome.

BW: Well I’m based in the north of England these days, near Wigan, and it’s all rugby league around me. It’s a brilliant place to come home to, especially after three weeks on tour, doing the same thing every day. I’m grounded with dogs, horses, sheep. I have become a rural man. Like some old-time rock star. I love it. Everyone needs an outlet.

JG: Ha ha! Like Keith Richards strolling in his estate in Connecticut. With Team Sky, everything is done for you and nothing is left to chance. Is that helpful?

BW: I think we might have gotten too obsessive this year in trying to stay one step ahead of the game. We tried to predict the weather – maybe trying to be too smart and eliminate chance. Hopefully we’ve learned from that.

JG: So back to mod, Brad… Do you know about Pete Meaden?

BW: Yeah, yeah – he roomed with Pete Townsend, went to art school together, used to manage The Who, was the first strong link with style. He said that being mod was “clean living under difficult circumstances”. I’m not sure that applies any more under the modern day, which is why I’m not a hundred per cent, but I do like what it stands for. I grew up on a council estate in central London so I understand about that attitude to look smart and pristine when you’ve got no money.

JG: Ah, bang on. Nothing to do with… [Shh! Don’t mention the gear!]

BW: Yeah it’s crucial to me, in cycling terms, to be clean and presentable, so when you’re out on the bike… It’s summed up in the team time trial: crisp formation, white British skin suit. It’s how I look at life, almost a religion, never forgetting where you come from, being true to your roots, not getting high ‘n’ mighty. That’s how I try to live my life and teach my kids. Sometimes it is difficult not to get carried away with your own self-importance. Outwardly, it might sometimes appear otherwise. Mark Cavendish is a classic example. People think he’s arrogant, but if you knew Mark on a personal level, he’s nothing like that at all. He’s the most down-to-earth, honest person you could wish to meet. In the past, British riders underwent less intense public scrutiny…

The conversation was cranking up the interest level when the spell was broken. Some old girl comes into the boozer, face flush from the instant heat, her eyes aglow in recognition of her hero.

“It is you! Bradley! I saw you through the window. Unbelievable. I’m reading your book, On Tour, at the moment. I’ve left it on the bedside table.”

“Right”, says Wiggy. “So where did you get this copy?”

She’s shifting her steamed-up glasses, clutching the book, then thrusting it at him.

“When I saw it was you in the pub, I shot off round the corner to Waterstone’s and bought one. Would you sign it please? Fancy, an Olympic champion like you in a pub in the middle of the afternoon!”

The Wigster is cool, friendly and helpful. This lady’s day has been made by a piece of the finest juju. Who’s gonna believe her when she gets home?

Wiggo himself, I suspect, is going to have to become used to being spotted as a national patriotic symbol for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Local boy makes good, on home turf, all kitted out in the red, white and blue of the flag. Thing is, the ’60s mods used it as an ironic device to depict the demise of empire…

As I go to wish the man well, he’s gone. He hovers at the edge of the bar, barely perceptible foot shapes, shuffles towards the door and then, zoom, out ‘n’ gone, like the move of a rider off the front of the pack, lookin’ for that combativity award.

I tucked my faded Ben Sherman shirt in, picked up my little bag of mementoes and slipped away into the chilled city night.

“Dizzy in the head and I’m feelin’ blue
The things you’ve said, well, maybe they’re true.”
The Who, I Can’t Explain

This feature first appeared in Rouleur issue 22

Rise of the Idiots

July 19, 2012

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: ASO

The former Cervélo man Tweeted these statements minutes after Chris Froome had crossed the line arms aloft at La Planche des Belles Filles and as Bradley Wiggins was about to don his first ever maillot jaune at the Tour.

Seeing as I had only just finished hollering at the telly – not a common practice, I assure you – and resumed a seated position on the sofa, Vroomen got me thinking. Brits were unbearable already. Would the country be gripped by rampant jingoism in the following weeks due to the heroics of Team Sky’s men? As the mainstream media latches onto a sniff of home success and cycling briefly commands the front page, perhaps there is danger of this nation not realising what this sport is all about.

Consider the highlights of what has been a tremendous Tour (ignore the naysayers who plead boredom), for which huge credit is due to Christian Prudhomme for some dramatic parcours and exhilarating stage finishes, blowing away the notion that only the combination of high mountains and time trials can settle the GC.

Peter Sagan’s brilliant three stage wins, each one different from the next, each with its own accompanying victory celebration. Thibaut Pinot, this year’s youngest rider, soloing across the line, his apoplectic directeur spoftif Marc Madiot behind, hammering the car door in frustration, encouragement, sheer nervous tension. (The left arm of my sofa also took a serious battering, a cloud of dust emerging as my every smack echoed the manager’s.)

The Tour’s oldest rider, the fabulous fruitcake Jens Voigt, hauling his creaking bones up the final kilometre into Bellegarde-sur-Valserine in the most painfully drawn-out slow motion sprint you will ever see. And that day’s winner, Thomas Voeckler, outwitting his breakaway companions with typical panache, his Europcar teammate Pierre Rolland pulling off a superb solo win 24 hours later. And Voeckler again, at Bagnères-de-Luchon.

Not forgetting David Millar’s wily fox routine at the end of a dull day on stage 12, the anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death and a fitting tribute to a great rider.

Cycling fans appreciate great performances, first and foremost. Nationality is secondary. We stand by the side of the road for hours on end to cheer guys who have been riding their bikes for hours on end, and – though we may reserve that extra shout for our favourites – we applaud each and every one (apart from Ivan Basso, obviously…)

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: certain stretches of Alpe d’Huez; some of the Pyrenean climbs frequented by disturbingly inebriated orange-clad fans; the pissed-up hordes of the Carrefour de l’Arbre at Paris-Roubaix. Sky’s Michael Rogers took abuse from fellow Australians at the roadside as he paced Wiggins up the Glandon on stage 11. The morons thought supporting Cadel Evans would be better served by mouthing off at their countryman. Wiggins would probably have a word for them. It begins with C.

As for the bizarre incident with the tacks, there appeared to be no dubious nationalistic intent behind it. Just wanton malicious damage. Very effective it was, too. A moron working alone it seems.

So as a combination of Austrian, Australian, German, Norwegian and (let’s face it) Kenyan riders coax and tow a Brit along at the head of affairs towards Paris, put it in perspective. If Wiggins does become the first winner from these shores of the Tour de France in Paris on Sunday, it will be a great moment for the country. Just remember who helped put him there. It is our duty as long-time supporters of the sport to educate those – and there are many – not so au fait with road racing’s many peculiarities, alliances and tactical nuances. Teams are not built around national lines, and neither should they be supported as such.

By all means be patriotic, but not to the detriment of other nations. Share the love.

IG London Nocturne

June 14, 2012

Photos: Wig Worland