Posts Tagged ‘tour de france’

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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Podcast: Issue 40

July 24, 2013

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

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

Issue 40

Platzregen – a True Story

July 16, 2013

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

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

Callin’ the Shots

June 13, 2013

COLLECTION LIONEL LAGET *** Local Caption *** leducq (andre) desgrange (henri)

Words: Johnny Green Photo: Offside/l’Equipe

“What is needed here in professional cycling is a benign dictator”, said The Brief. I had bumped into him on the train. Brandishing a newspaper, he was fresh back from the law courts, sending criminalised ruffians from the hulks to the colonies. His wig was carefully powdered ‘n’ packed away in his brief case. I caught his drift.

A leader to head the parade and call the shots. A man such as Henri Desgrange. One who brooks no nonsense. One who walks the walk as well as spieling it. He invented Le Tour and ran it ruthlessly until his demise during the Second World War. Young Henri had given notice of his attitude as a young Parisian office clerk in the latter days of the nineteenth century. He was a pioneer of the pedals, cycling to work in plus-fours with no socks. His bare calves shocked women pedestrians. His boss told him to cover up or shave off. Desgrange quit. Ain’t that cool? His racing mores were ‘men not the machines’. He led from the front and took no bullshit.

“It is always easy to obey if one dreams of being in command”
Jean-Paul Sartre

In these difficult days, it would seem that cycling is run by committee men. No difference here now from all those other sports controlled by bug-eyed sponsor-sponging bureaucrats. I warn my kids to beware of men in bland bespoke suits wearing those frameless glasses of the psychopathic Nazi dentist played by Larry Olivier in Marathon Man. Such men as we possess fail to inspire and uplift. Praise for the sport emits as a muddled apology, time after time. What is needed at the top is a hero to represent our dreams to the unknowing. A towering figure to fit the bill. Just like John Wayne.

“Walk tall. Walk straight,
And look the world right in the eye.
That’s what my Mama told me,
When I was about knee high”

Val Doonican, the loveable Irish country artiste with the remarkable knitwear, sang that. But it was written by Don Wayne. Not John (no relation), but it could well have been. The Americans have, of recent years, buttoned on to the importance of a strong, charismatic, fabulous looking leader. Why, Ronald Reagan, he of the superb quiffage, got his feet under the desk in the Oval Office of the White House. And Arnold Schwarzenegger got the gig as Governor of California. Yep, even George W. Bush pulled the top job because folk tagged him as a fun guy to go for a beer with. For a maybe moment, I even had Lance Armstrong figured as a wannabe Capitol Hill politician. Not so sure, right now.

Yet are we here to do the bidding of despots? Or do we quite like, on the quiet, being shoved around and told what to do? I am tired of the fluff and drivel. A strong icon to persuade the world that all is golden in the land of the bicycle is attractive. I’m not lookin’ for a Führer; I’m only referencing the cycle game here.

“We don’t need this fascist groove thang”
Heaven 17

Jacques Goddet as a supreme organiser in tough times is a wonderful memory. In khaki suit with a pith helmet, he stood through the sunroof of his motor, looking every inch the tank commander. Jean Cocteau called him “The last of the troubadours”. Goddet said, “It’s necessary to keep the inhuman side to Le Tour. Excess is necessary”. Loud ‘n’ clear, Jacques!

Jean-Marie Leblanc, resembling a pork butcher from Lille with impressive jowls, certainly knew his cycling chops. He spoke from the heart to save us all from ruin but was short on glamour. These days, image is everything.

I just want to be comforted, inspired, driven by beautiful determination and certainty. I would consider Mario Cipollini as pres, because a winning smile and a great barnet go a long way. What matter a little flakiness around the edges? It can prove most endearing.

Status is conferred by achievement; gravitas is arrived at through painful experience; diplomacy gained by always thinking about the other guy. One man towers above all-comers, residing in a stratosphere of his own creation. Would we not trek to the ends of the earth and the Izoard in unity with such a man? That man can only be Eddy Merckx.

“Don’t follow leaders;
Watch the parkin’ meters”
Bob Dylan
Subterranean Homesick Blues

Extract from issue 39, out now

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.

Le Tour de Bore

August 9, 2012

Words: William Fotheringham 

Boring. Tedious. Monotonous. Predictable. That, according to some, were the words that summed up this year’s Tour de France. We had the first ever British winner but apparently that wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t thrill a minute, seat of the pants, tension all the way stuff. Well that wasn’t how Bradley Wiggins lived it, if the few chances we had to exchange views during the race were anything to go by. He seemed to be having quite an intense time of it.

Concern that the Tour is boring is not a new phenomenon. In fact it’s a perennial concern. In 1952, the organisers increased the prize money for second place to liven things up as Coppi romped to victory. In 1970, they were aghast when Eddy Merckx took the lead early in the race. Further back, Alfredo Binda was famously paid to stay away from the 1930 Giro because, guess what, he was making it too predictable. Jacques Anquetil was criticised for it, so too Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

Part of the problem is down to the nature of cycle racing on the road. An endurance sport is not always thrill a minute. Thrill a minute is an elimination race on the velodrome; the 20/20 to the Test Match that is the Tour de France. But while elimination races provide great entertainment they are rarely memorable in the longer term (unless Laura Trott or Willy De Bosscher is involved, but that’s another story). The other issue with road racing is team tactics, which are now so well honed that the outcome of many Tour stages is preordained until the (bunch) finish.

If we have expectations that the Tour is an edge of the seat ride, I blame Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond. It’s all their fault. Between them they created the most incredible Tour ever in 1989, with the Frenchman and the American swapping the lead time after time with never more than 53 seconds between them. I suspect that race has conditioned many people’s view of what a Tour de France should be. But it was a completely unique event, because neither Fignon nor LeMond was anywhere near their best form – both were fighting back from long-term injury of different kinds – and the big favourite Delgado set off with a 3min handicap by missing his prologue start time.

The 1989 race came two years after the Stephen Roche Tour – in which the Irishman ruthlessly hunted down Delgado in the final week – and three years after the most intrigue-filled Tour ever, the 1986 race in which LeMond and Hinault indulged in a hilariously theatrical battle with the glorious twist being that the pair were team-mates. That contest pitted a mentally strong but physically fading Hinault against a physically fresh but mentally fragile LeMond. Further back, the 1979 Tour was a thriller (ignore the 13min gap between Hinault and Joop Zoetemelk, 10min of which was added on afterwards when the Dutchman tested positive), largely because Hinault had a nightmare on the stage to Roubaix, losing three minutes after a puncture and a delay due to strikers on the course. He then hunted down Zoetemelk with the same ruthlessness Roche showed eight years later in his pursuit of Delgado.

These Tours are exceptions, however. Mostly, the race is a relentless process of physical attrition in which the first big physical test, be it a summit finish or an early long time trial, delivers a verdict that remains largely unchanged in Paris. On the whole the rate of physical deterioration in any stage race is a curve which remains the same for most of the protagonists, so in the final week it’s rare for a leader to be much better than earlier in the race. That’s why the classification is often fairly set and the gaps simply get bigger.

That can seem predictable but the fact is that there is so much else going on during the Tour that in my eyes it never is. This year’s ‘boring’ race had Wiggins calling the Twitter doubters “fucking wankers” (and worse), the tacks on a Pyrenean climb, the intriguing question of Chris Froome, and plenty more. It didn’t have the cut and thrust of the 1989 and 1979 races but few Tours do. Boredom is in the eye of the beholder.

Extract from Rouleur issue 33. William Fotheringham is the author of Roule Britannia. A history of Britons in the Tour de France, the book will be reissued in October with new sections covering the 2012 race. 

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.

Chute!

March 7, 2012

Words: Michael Barry Photo: Olaf Unverzart

Team Sky’s Michael Barry is the author of Le Métier and Inside The Postal Bus. He crashed and broke his elbow just days after completing Chute! for Rouleur 29.

To win, the strongest teams now strangle the race, force their tactics and try to control variables. The underdog has little chance. Despite increasingly challenging courses, pelotons often remain compact and massive until the final kilometres. Over the last 15 years, the differences between riders’ abilities have diminished because of better training, proper diets, a more international peloton and more aerodynamic, lighter equipment. The races have become more predictable. Often, only the injured or ill fall off the pace.

When nearly 200 riders charge down a narrow, twisting, rural road three metres wide, crashes are inevitable. Cameras can’t capture the chaos in the belly of the bunch. The peloton rarely relaxes. Within it, we ride inches apart, our elbows rubbing, our shoe buckles clipping sharp spokes, our tyres brushing up against another rider’s. There is precious little room to manoeuvre. Behind the first line of riders every inch of the road is used. To get to the front of the peloton, we’ll accelerate up the dirt shoulder, a driveway, a sidewalk or a bike path and dodge spectators, parked cars, utility poles and potted plants. In our hasty dash to the front, we jump kerbs at 50 kph. Crashes are inevitable.

The constant live feed of news from a race, which streams over the internet and television, has increased the tension. A decade ago, seasons began progressively. The early races were often slower, and riders used them to gain fitness. Now, the first race of the season has become as important as the last. Training camps are held in December to ensure we’ll be in top shape by the end of January. From the first race of the season in January until the last in October, entire pelotons of 140 to 200 riders fight for attention. Often we are considered only as good as our last race. The battle is relentless.

In the one day cobbled Classics the fight for the front is furious. Every rider knows his chance of victory could end if he is too far back in the peloton. From a four lane highway we funnel onto a dusty or mud-coated rural cobbled lane. In dry weather, the peloton kicks up a dust cloud, which blurs our vision. In the rain we slip and slide to find the best line around riders who have fallen on muddied stones. But the worst crashes often occur before the most technical bits of course, when the peloton stampedes through the countryside like frenzied cattle towards a chute. On smooth tarmac, the speeds are higher and the peloton a compact mass. One rider’s error will bring down a multitude. Not only do larger pelotons lead to more crashes, but the racing is also more controlled. Breakaways have less chance of success against multiple eight to nine man pursuing teams. Rules downsizing teams to fewer riders and shrinking the peloton would make the racing more animated and less dangerous.

The worst crashes aren’t limited to the Classics. In a Tour de France stage, where the stakes are highest and every kilometre has value, the fight for the front is relentless. In the first week of the race, every rider seems to be aiming for a chance at victory, the yellow jersey or simply a few flickering moments on television. As a result, crashes are more frequent in the first third of every Tour. As the race wears on, the effervescence yields to fatigue, every rider finds his spot in the physical hierarchy, and the race becomes safer. Changing the format of the Tour by adding a time trial or mountain stage in the first week, to create greater time gaps earlier, would reduce crashes.

Extract from Rouleur 29, on sale soon.

Blonde on Blonde

February 22, 2012

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Daisy Hendry

I dug out the Bible this week for some guidance. Lost and all at sea, I dusted it down and blew off the cobwebs, prised open the long-ignored pages and searched for pearls of wisdom. Seek and ye shall find.

The Bible, for Tour de France journalists and team managers alike, is the ASO-produced road book that tells us everything we need to know, from route maps to stage profiles to town descriptions, even which hotels the teams are staying in. This mighty tome is the 2010 edition but there is still useful information to be gleaned. It is truly a godsend for a disorganised airhead former blonde with a propensity to forget stuff at crucial moments. And I do mean crucial moments.

Take this, for example. Having organised a Tour trip for my mates – flights, hotels, taxis, the works – and asked them all if they had their passports as we left the house, guess who reached the check-in desk only for the colour to drain from an already pale face on realising they had forgotten theirs? Reaching France eight hours later than a bunch of pissed-up, piss-taking friends will never be forgotten.

So it should come as some surprise, you would think, that a couple of years later, the very same airhead should step off the bus at Paddington Station, en route to Cardiff to attend Millwall’s first appearance in an FA Cup final, to remember his (and his son’s) tickets are pinned to the kitchen notice board. The unfortunate Andy, who also had the bad luck to be involved in the Tour debacle, turned with a look of utter disbelief. “Not again,” he exhaled.

Yes. Again.

I now have a checklist, you’ll be glad to hear, and do not leave south east London without consulting it – which, seeing as there are a few races to attend over the summer, is probably no bad thing.

And, yes, me and the boy made it to the Millennium Stadium to see the mighty Lions get tonked by Manchester United. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world, ticket or no ticket.