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Lifestyle doping and the rise of the no-fessional

August 19, 2015

Here’s a true story. An accomplished amateur cyclist went round to a similarly high-achieving rider’s home for dinner. During the course of the evening, the guest confided to the host that work and family life had got in the way of bike racing. The host was unimpressed as they too had children and other responsibilities yet still found time to train and race. “Isn’t that right?” the host said, turning to their spouse for support.

Mentally noting that the accomplished amateur cyclist was aided by a personal trainer, a nutritionist, support for their family and ultra high-end kit, not to mention a complete lack of paid work, the long-suffering spouse coolly responded with the admirably Salteresque aversion: “Up to a point, dear.”

This anecdote, which I stumbled across a couple of years ago, popped into my head when I saw the Daily Telegraph’s John Critchlow provide a breakdown of the eye-popping £25,000 he had spent to compete in top-level amateur races. It was the first in a planned series of missives which will detail his racing progress, and I suppose it’s in the nature of these sorts of serial blog posts to inspire others who would like to take up a similar challenge (although I can’t seem to find any follow-up posts in the intervening four months). In any case, more knowledgeable people than myself have done a good job of ridiculing the idea it is necessary to spend the equivalent of the average UK salary just to ride the Surrey League and other events that no normal person gives a flying toss about, so I’m not going to throw another log onto that particular bonfire of hilarities. What interests me is how Critchlow, like the nameless dinner party host I’ve mentioned, seems unable to acknowledge a simple truth: that in the pursuit of sporting excellence, emptying your wallet and your schedule may give you an unfair advantage.

This isn’t about harvesting results. The High-Achieving Dinner Party Host has a considerable list of wins to their name, whereas a comment on Critchlow’s post points out he had yet to score a single BCF point this season. The advantage I’m talking about is psychological. Would the dinner party guest be quite as demotivated if they too had a paid backup crew? And be honest: aren’t there bleak moments when you wished you had the pro-level of support that the Telegraph’s Mr Mid-Life Crisis has afforded himself?

I’d call this sort of thing lifestyle doping – injecting litres of dosh and keeping a secret stash of expendable time, both of which enable you to be competitive at a high level. In truth, a form of lifestyle doping was around when I started riding semi-seriously around a dozen years ago. I remember my amused clubmate Chris Chapman telling me after a chipper race that our Dynamo chum Sam Humpheson had “won the race for people with jobs” by taking the bunch sprint after a break had already crossed the line, led by a particularly unloved crit racer who did practically nothing else at the time except train and race. It was a few years later that we entered into The Era Of The Golden Parachute, a period immediately after the global financial crisis which saw some high-earners of my acquaintance suddenly finding themselves with no paid employment, bags of cash from a redundancy settlement and even bigger bags of free time, which they filled up by punishing themselves on a bicycle for months on end. Then another job would come along, and living the pro dream came to an abrupt halt.

These Golden Parachutists, or at least the ones I knew, quietly went about getting into the form of their lives without drawing too much attention to themselves. But now lifestyle doping has bred an altogether less modest cyclist: the No-fessional, the sort of rider who will never have a professional contract but behaves a bit like they do. Like a professional cyclist, the no-fessional revels in the attention and admiration that comes with a life spent in the saddle, which in their case is attained by blogging and tweeting about every ruddy mile they ride. But unlike professional cyclists, the riding no-fessionals do isn’t exactly racing, even though they like to give the impression it is. I know of one no-fessional who boasted of completing a Grand Tour when it was actually just the route they were riding (and – whisper it quietly – they didn’t complete all the stages). Another no-fessional, my chum Chris Ward, recently qualified for a glorified sportive called the UCI Vets World Championship Road Race where every rider is lifestyle doped up to the eyeballs – which, as another friend who took part in a previous edition noted, consequently means the quality of the field isn’t the highest that it could be. There are probably faster guys on your club run.

I should pause here to say I am not knocking Chris (or, indeed, anyone else I’ve mentioned) for becoming fitter, faster and healthier. But Chris’s aim was to prove that it’s possible to work more than 40 hours a week and still conquer an extraordinary challenge, to which I would say: up to a point, dear. One of the reasons he’s able to train when he wants is because he has a number of factotums who are willing to work antisocial hours to get his projects completed on time. And I would know, because I was one of them.

Which brings us back to that dinner party and Critchlow’s blogging for the Telegraph. Because that’s the common theme of the high-profile lifestyle doper: tell your audience you can do what I do while glossing over the advantage they have over the schmucks. To quote the great American philosopher S. Twain, that don’t impress me much. Riding with riders who are wiser or fitter than you and learning from them will help you reach your goals. Listening to hollow bragging probably won’t.

How workplace bike parking facilities should be done

July 28, 2015

Job interviews never used to be a standard procedure in my line of work. Traditionally, you’re asked to do a few shifts, and if they like you, then you get to do a few more, and somewhere down the line you may be offered a contract. It’s a bit like a massively extended version of the Apprentice, except it’s not as entertaining and you get paid during the process. And, obviously, you don’t need to be a game-changing, thinking-outside-the-box, nonsense-spouting berk to take part.

So having an interview for my present job, which I started five months ago, put me in an unfamiliar arena, which is my excuse for being momentarily flummoxed when I was asked at the end if I had any questions. Of course I did; I was just so relieved to have reached the end that my mind went blank for a second and I just couldn’t remember them. So instead of enquiring about healthcare or the pension scheme, I asked about an aspect of the job which only a foolish bicycleperson would ask: what are your bike parking facilities like?

I wasn’t quite prepared for the answer. Apparently many of the top people in the company are cyclists and one of the main things they wanted was a secure facility to store their bikes and change into their civvies. And that’s what they, and we, have got. Whenever I have mentioned this in passing to one of my cycling chums, they react with a wide, beaming smile, a bit like a child being told, “Pack your bags – we’re off to Disneyland!” It seems that in the workplace a proper bike parking facility is the stuff of a madman’s dream. So I thought I’d give you, my several readers, the same vicarious pleasure by going into greater detail about these facilities and showing you what they look like.

Our bike park is situated beneath the building and is monitored by CCTV cameras. To get in, you need to swipe your pass at two sets of doors at either end of a short corridor, the first of which has to have closed before you can open the second. This security system has already thwarted one enterprising ne’er-do-well who managed to tailgate someone going in but then found, after taking a load of clothes and actually changing into them, that she couldn’t get out.

Bike parking bike racks

Most of the bikes are stored on split-level racks; to wheel your bike up onto the top part, you pull out the metal arm it will stand upon and, voila, you have a ramp. Thanks to this space-saving idea, there is ample parking for approximately 200 bicycles in a relatively compact area.

Bike parking showers and towels

There are toilets and small lockers around the parking bays, while upstairs has showers, male and female changing rooms and a drying out room for when Mother Nature blesses you with a thorough drenching. The changing room has free towels which are replenished twice a day as well as lockers which are bigger than those downstairs and lining the corridors.

Bike parking big lockers

Naturally, many people with small lockers such as myself covet these big ’uns. I know I did – until the day I walked into the office and saw a fellow cyclist wearing a pair of ladies’ three-quarter-length jogging pants which he had to borrow from a female colleague. Unlike the small lockers, which have combination locks, the big lockers need a key – which, unfortunately, he had forgotten.

Bike parking small lockers

The changing room is quite small, so there seems to be a certain etiquette: don’t take up more space than you need and try to keep keep a towel wrapped around your waist as much as you can, because no one needs to see that sort of thing at close proximity, mate. The occasional bike chat with fellow cyclists is fairly standard – discussion of commuting routes, equipment, moaning about poor driving and so on – while joggers seem to exist in a world of their own, silently thumbing their smartphones or, in the case of one bloke, wandering in straight from a run, mixing a recovery drink in the shower and then walking straight out again. I’m sure he does shower and change before returning to his desk, I’ve just never seen him do it.

Bike parking drying out room

The downsides? Well, there aren’t any. It’s a safe, secure, clean facility that’s a pleasure to use, although it’s a shame there’s a bit of low-level rule-breaking going on. The drying out room, pictured above, looks like a walk-in wardrobe, even though there’s a sign asking us not to use it to store clothes, and a track pump which appeared to be for our shared use went missing a couple of months ago. (A handwritten note asking where it had gone prompted one wag to write beneath: “It stepped outside to get some air.”) A bigger problem is that dozens of bicycles have been locked to racks months ago and never used again, so as of this month, all bikes need to be registered and have a numbered disc attached to them. Any remaining bikes are going to be removed and stored in a nearby car park, and those which aren’t claimed will be shipped out to a charity in Africa.

Quite right, too. There are many who would love to use this bike park – as the amazed faces of my friends can attest.

Dynamo at the Dynamo

July 13, 2015
Dunwich beach, 4am, Saturday 4th July 2015

Dunwich beach, 4am, Saturday 4th July 2015

This year, for the first time, London Dynamo had a group at the Dunwich Dynamo. It’s taken us 11 years to get round to the one ride that’s practically got our name on it, and there were only a handful of us. But hey – from small acorns, right?

It was, of course, huge fun going at a fair old pace through the night with my club chums en route to our breakfast on the beach. But it was during the journey back to London that I was most grateful for their presence.

Thanks to an engineering train smacking into a bridge, all services from Ipswich to London were cancelled. This was obviously not the news we wanted to hear having cycled 30 miles from the beach after the century we’d clocked up getting from London Fields to Dunwich. And now it had started to rain. To get home, we had to take a train to Colchester and a cab to Chelmsford, where we ran back and forth with our bikes between two platforms because no one had a ruddy clue when or where the two trains were going to arrive. What a bleedin’ palaver.

Having had practically no sleep, lesser riders would’ve crumbled under the pressure of the dangerously large crowd packing out the platforms at Chelmsford and the general ineptitude of the station staff. So I’m grateful to Andres Roldan (left in the photo above), Lily Liu and Nick Dove for maintaining their calmness and good humour throughout. I’m particularly indebted to my former neighbour Nick for seamlessly executing my rather hazy plan to get us into a people carrier at Colchester just as some cyclists appeared to be on the verge of seriously losing their rags in the station’s car park. Next year, I hope, we’ll either be on one of Southwark Cyclists’ excellent coaches or in a specially-commissioned Dynamobile.

If you want to know about the Dun Run itself, you can read a short piece I wrote for Road.cc. I also took some photos as the sun came up which you can view over at Exposure.

Skwinge when you’re winning, Skoyens before you’ve won

June 1, 2015

At the recent Tour of California, a 23-year-old Latvian (pictured above) briefly lead the race after taking a solo victory on stage three. Before he won, his name was “Skoyens”; afterwards, he was referred to as “Skwinge”.

Apparently Eurosport’s commentators spoke to a couple of Toms Skujins’ countrymen after his victory to get the correct pronunciation, and Skwinge was the result. Latvia is hardly known for its sense of humour, but I suspect those two Latvians did their bit to change that.

There’s been a nasty outbreak of pronunciationitis recently. In the weird world of TV commentary, As-TA-na has transmogrified into ASS-ta-NAR, which is surely now cycling’s equivalent of Hyacinth Boo-KAY. The chap who was talking over the Giro d’Italia for Eurosport constantly referred to Eh-LEE-ya Viviani, as if we would have been scratching our heads if he stuck with broadcasting tradition and referred to riders by their surnames. And in the otherwise excellent Telegraph Cycling Podcast, the flow of conversation is briefly stymied whenever one of the presenters pulls the other up on how to say “Michal Kwiatkowski”. Meanwhile, to my untrained ears, it seems no one is that bothered about pronouncing Dutch or Flemish names correctly, even though Belgium and the Netherlands have had a far greater role in cycling culture than Latvia or Kazakhstan.

I think UK Cycling Expert offers a lesson here. There are two broad reasons why we chuckle when he refers to Zdenek Stybar as Zebedee Sidecar. The first is that there is something in the phonetic alchemy of those words that sound funny when they’re put together. The second is that we like getting names wrong. It’s a British tradition. In a similar way to the British First World War soldiers who mispronounced Ypres for their satirical magazine the Wipers Times, we like to make our own fun. So don’t tell us what we should be saying, even if you happen to be right.

I doubt whether pronouncing a rider’s name differently to how his mother says it would cause him offence anyway. And although broadcast professionals are well-meaning and probably correct, they’re fighting against the tide of time. Does anyone really think that our grandchildren, looking at the yellowed pages of a cycling magazine, would see the name emblazoned across a garish greeny-blue jersey and pronounce the first syllable in the same way that an American would say “arse”?

The obvious point here is that with so many languages involved in professional cycling it is impossible to pronounce all of them correctly. This being the case, my advice to any English-speaking broadcaster is to follow the Roy Walker rule: say what you see. Because aiming for authenticity is truly Skwingeworthy.

The bag that will never be bettered

April 21, 2015
One of these bags is invaluable

One of these bags is invaluable

I’ve been using a new bag to take my suits into work. It’s called a Henty Wingman. You put your jacket and trousers on a coathanger, zip it into the flat main compartment then roll it around a cylindrical inner bag which you’re meant to use for toiletries (I prefer to use it as a poncy manbag for the office and leave the bigger, cumbersome outer layer stuffed in my locker).

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of the courier bag one-shoulder set-up, which in my experience means you often have to decide between losing the circulation in your left arm or keeping the strap loose and putting up with the whole thing randomly swinging into the wing mirrors of trucks. I could also do without the Wingman’s preponderance of clips and straps which take a bit of getting used to and make the contraption look like a piece of camping equipment. But the bottom line is, if you fold everything correctly, it works. Your suit will not give you the appearance of having slept rough in a shop doorway. For that look I rely on not shaving for a week and attacking four climbs on a heavy steel fixie as part of my 12-mile commute, which gives me the classic punch-drunk stare of a wino.

The Wingman gets stares of a different kind, mainly because it looks so complicated. A few weeks ago, as I was preparing to go home, someone saw my new bag in the staff changing room, but this time it was the Uniqlo plastic carrier I had pulled out of the side pocket that provoked interest. “It doesn’t matter what you use,” this stranger observed, “you will always need a plastic bag.”

It’s a hallmark of The Serious Cyclist that he (it’s always a he) will proffer a nugget of wisdom whether you’ve asked for it or not. But he’s right, you know. Like the red balloon trailing that kid along the streets of 1950s Paris, the humble plastic bag has patiently followed me throughout my cycling life. It’s a protective wrapping for food to prevent your work clothes being splattered in a burst ready meal. It’s a waterproof inner layer lest the rain seeps in through a zip. It’s a receptacle for soaked kit after you’ve been drenched in a particularly wet off-season race. And it’s a compartment to separate sweaty clothing from smothering the pages of whatever paperback I happen to be reading. Like the best cyclists, the dutiful plastic carrier bag is light, uncomplicated, adaptable and free. Our lives would be messier and smellier without it.

Pay a tenner and get all the cycling magazines you would ever want

April 13, 2015

My chum Chris Ward, who rides his bike a lot but doesn’t like to talk about it, recently tipped me off about a magazine app called Readly which has hundreds of titles available to read on your iPad. It stocks all the main British cycling mags – Cycle Sport, Procycling, Cycling Plus and Cycling Weekly – as well as the niche publications Urban Cyclist, Cycling Active, Cycling Fitness and Rouleur. There is no charge for two weeks, and if you want to continue subscribing then you pay £10 a month – which, obviously, is pretty good value for seven monthly titles and a weekly. And if you get bored reading about a load of old cobbles that define the most recent phase of the racing calendar, then you can always peruse the delightful Your Chickens, which has a news-in-brief section called Chicken Nuggets. The silly cluckers.

You flick through pages in much the same way as you would with a physical magazine, and you can call up a scrolling menu at the foot of the screen that allows you to jump to particular pages. It’s a neat little service, and even though new issues are only available some time after they’ve appeared in newsagents, I find I’m reading more than I usually would in dead tree format because all the magazines are tucked in my iPad whenever I want them. The best thing I’ve read so far is Daniel Friebe’s interview with Mark Cavendish in Procycling, which pulls off that rare feat of maintaining a depth of analysis yet ultimately leaving the reader to decide on the main question: can Cav adapt to the challenges of this stage in his career?

cav in procycling mag

I’ve yet to see any of the cycling mags telling their readers about Readly, and that makes me wonder if they doubt the venture will provide any benefit to their bottom line. But I think it will appeal to special interest types like us, so I hope it flourishes.

I’ve seen the light – rechargeables are a massive waste

March 31, 2015

Photo 28-03-2015 22 43 40

A couple of months ago I bought a pair of Cateye lights. They look ridiculously massive because they’re not USB-rechargeable. But who cares? They work. Of course, USB rechargeables are supposed to be better for the environment, but not in my experience. Because all the ones I owned have ended up in the bin.

In the past two years I’ve owned four sets of USB-rechargeable lights made by four different manufacturers, and all of them went a bit Tour Of Beijing. The first set was a tiny pair which I picked up for a tenner. After about a month, the red one refused to charge. Then I bought two Knog Blinders; straight out of the box, the front light refused to switch on, so the good people at Sigma Sport replaced it – but a few months later the thin rubber strap broke when I attached it to the steerer of my Glider. I replaced it with a Moon Comet, which seemed much brighter but it kept running out of juice after little more than an hour. I retired the white Moon and red Knog after upgrading to a pair of Lezyne Microdrives, which I had been using up until a couple of months ago when the front light decided it wasn’t going to turn off no matter how many times I pressed the button.

Well, so what? I’m just unlucky, right? These things happen. Well, they shouldn’t. Because unlike gloves, a bottle cage or most other optional extras, a pair of lights are supposed to save your life, and I expect them to be reliable because we’re legally required to use them at night. And even if I have been a victim of bad luck, it seems to me that the concept of basic, small USB-rechargeable lights is flawed anyway. Unlike the rechargeable batteries I use for my Cateyes which I only need to top up once a week, all of the small USB lights required constant charging due to relatively short burn times. If I forgot to plug them in when I got to my desk, then I faced the daunting prospect of a ride home in darkness. If they ran out of power while I was riding, they died suddenly rather than fading out gradually, and I didn’t have the emergency option of popping into a shop or service station to get new batteries.

I suppose I could get a mini-floodlight like the Exposure Race, which I borrowed for last year’s Dunwich Dynamo. I switched it on at 10pm and it cast a powerful beam across unlit country lanes at the lowest setting until I reached the beach at sunrise. It’s an amazing light but I won’t be getting one because, aside from the expense, I would be venturing into “Mr Nut, meet Mr Sledgehammer” territory: when commuting, I shouldn’t need such a powerful light to accompany me along a mere 12 miles of Tarmac, all of which are illuminated by streetlights.

These days you can mount lights on your wheels. There is even a light that projects a laser image of a bicycle on the road in front of you to alert motorists to your presence. Or you could, if you wanted to look like a malfunctioning robot, wear a flashing jacket. Yet none of these products seem to provide any evidence that they are actually safer. One day, maybe, these entrepreneurial types will give up on crummy gimmicks and come up with small, long-lasting, easily-mountable USB rechargeable lights. Until then, I’m going back to stick to my bulky, reliable, battery-powered Cateyes. I have seen the light.

Me and heart rate straps are over. I’m glad I got that off my chest

January 13, 2015

I had a stroke of luck at Christmas. Jen didn’t know what to get me and I honestly couldn’t think of anything I wanted, but by chance I remembered a recent contribution I had made to a thread on the London Dynamo forum about the tendency of Garmin’s heart rate straps to give up the ghost. Two of the buggers have died on me, and I suggested to my fellow afflicted ‘Mos that a Mio Link Heart Rate Band, as recommended on Twitter by Pretorius Bikes’ very own Mike Miach, might be a smart alternative. So, in a spirit of inquisitiveness and practicality, that’s what I asked Jen to get me.

And, my goodness, I’m very pleased that she did. I have experienced a sense of liberation that is surely similar to the burning of a bra. My chest is no longer enclasped: the Mio band sits above the wristbone on my left arm and detects my pulse. It’s as easy as putting on a watch, and never again will I have to go through the hassle of partially undressing in a bleary-eyed state after forgetting to strap up before putting on a baselayer and bibs. (Oh come on – we’ve all done it, haven’t we? No? Right, just me, then.)

The actual unit sits in the middle of a rubber strap. Press the button at the lower end of the unit and after a few seconds a light will flash in time with your heartbeat. Get your Garmin to detect its presence and bosh – you’re ready to go. The blinking light changes colour as your heart beats faster (blue is the lowest, red the highest) which I suppose is useful for runners or anyone else not staring at numbers on a little screen while they train. I just like looking at the electronic blinking because it makes my arm look a bit like a robot’s.

During three long rides the Mio band has stopped transmitting only once, and that was easily remedied by using the traditional, centuries-old IT solution of turning it off and on again. Powering up is simple: pop the unit from the strap and slip it onto a little charging tray which magnetizes the device into place.

It is, all in all, a very clever little gadget – although I reserve the right to lose my rag when I inevitably mislay the recharger and render the band as useless as my old, defunct Garmin ones.

The speed limit sign in Windsor Great Park is a stopped clock

December 16, 2014

On a whim and with two hours to spare, I took a flyer out to Windsor a couple of months ago and managed to ride to the Great Park shortly before night closed in. The speed limit sign at the entrance is a familiar sight, but seeing it at an unusual time of day when there are more families ambling along the pathways made it look even more inappropriate. So I took a photo to remind me of its daftness.

Speed limit sign in Windsor Great Park

Why is the speed limit so high for roads that are essentially paths for pedestrians and cyclists? And why not a nice, round number? Even a habitual speedometer-watcher like myself would struggle to keep the needle lodged a few degrees south of 40.

I can’t answer the first question but I do know the answer to the second. Decades ago, there was a plan to convert British road signs to metric, which would have meant displaying the basic speed limit as 60kph. Anticipating the switch, the Crown Estate put up signs in the park reading 38mph because that’s the equivalent of 60kph. Except it isn’t: 37mph is roughly 60kph; 38mph is actually 61kph. The body tasked with maintaining order in the park is asking its users to slightly exceed a mooted speed limit which never actually arrived.

You have to admire the Crown Estate. The number is wrong and so is the principle of using a path as a road, but like a politician caught in the glare of commonsense who refuses to admit a policy is dunderheaded or ill-thought-out, the speed limit defiantly remains at 38mph. Those signs could be swapped for useful ones to warn that groups of cyclists must not exceed six people, which is what Windsor’s parkies have told London Dynamo members in the past, but that would be far too sensible. Best to keep them as they are and hope that one day the government will once again want to display speed limits in metric form (which is what will soon happen to height restrictions on roads). Even a stopped clock is right twice.

I’ve written about Kingston Wheelers in Simpson magazine and I’m sure you’ll all enjoy it

July 11, 2014

My habit of tapping out words for this blog has been stymied of late because me and Littlejen have been searching for somewhere to live – but now, with issue five of Simpson magazine landing on the doormat of our lovely new home, I have finally found the time and a good reason to turn my attention back to you, the kind reader who allows me to indulge in this blogular folly.

Simpson issue 5 cover

More specifically, I would like to draw your attention to pages 60-62 of Simpson which feature a piece on Kingston Wheelers cycling club, written by me.

Simpson issue 5 Kingston Wheelers

Basically, I went for a ride with them, had a jolly nice time and then wrote about it. The pictures are great, and the magazine has been getting better and better with every issue. It costs six quid, and you can order a copy from their website.

I’d like to do more of these sorts of breezy articles on club rides because I think more needs to be written about the culture of cycling clubs and the idiosyncrasies of riding with them – that peculiar social dynamic that occurs when riding among good friends and total strangers. So if you’d like me to cover your club, email me at dancehippocleides at mac dot com or tweet me. Let me ride with you and write about you, cycling chums!

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