I wrote a piece for the excellent Ride journal a while ago. The issue in which it appeared, like all the others, has since sold out, but the Diprose brothers have now kindly put it online along with four others. The article I wrote is set in Richmond Park, and it’s about the relationship between riding and words, and the weird dynamic that occurs between you and strangers who happen to share your peculiar hobby. It’s in issue five, on pages 102 and 103. The issue also includes pieces by some guys called Michael Barry, David Millar and Graeme Obree. The downloads are free, and you can get them here.
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I had a gander at Guy Andrews’ Twitter last week and found a baffling response to Road.cc’s review of his company’s latest venture, the Rouleur Centenary Tour De France. To bring you up to speed: a photographer by the name of Dan Kenyon considered the writing “lacklustre” and the photography “poor”, pointing out that the £40 book only contains one picture of the race’s winner – and a partially obscured one at that. “It’s putting the art before the sport,” he concludes. In response, a few photographers – including, oddly, one he actually praised – have tetchily pointed out that Dan got some of the technical aspects of their craft incorrect, which I suppose reveals one of the great hidden truths of publishing: the only group more sensitive than writers are the snappers.
Being one of the former tribe, as well as once being responsible for ensuring Guy’s magazine contained reasonably comprehensible English, there was one line in Dan’s review that leapt out at me: “Someone at Rouleur doesn’t know the difference between a hundredth edition and a 100-year anniversary.” This was a reference to the book’s title: the centenary of the Tour de France – it’s 100th anniversary – was in 2003, not 2013; last year’s race was the 100th edition, the two world wars accounting for the total of 10 years’ absence.
I should point out Rouleur is not the only journal of record to refer to the 2013 Tour as the centenary. And actually, Dan isn’t entirely correct: Chambers, the dictionary I’ve used for most of my professional life, including my stint at Rouleur, defines “centenary” as “a hundred” or “a hundredth anniversary”.
But 2003 was referred to as the centenary in the Tour’s own branding, and there was even a book about the ’03 race that had “centenary” in the title. So I think it is a mistake for Rouleur to name their book the Centenary Tour De France, simply because it confuses two editions of the race.
Guy’s response was to tweet the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of centenary, which is “the hundredth anniversary of an event”. Which, of course, is the point Dan was making in his review. Now, I would like to think that Guy could have been waving the white flag here, but I doubt it: having spent a good deal of time in his company, I know that the word “surrender” is not in his vocabulary. Maybe “centenary” isn’t either. Did he misunderstand Dan’s point? Or does the editor of “the world’s finest cycle racing reportage” erroneously believe that the Tour began in 1913? As I say, it is an odd reaction whichever way you look at it.
More to the point, does any of this matter? Rapha once put the Hungarian flag on its Italian jersey and the Dutch flag on its French one, but those gaffes don’t seem to have affected the company’s fortunes. It’s the great contradiction of road cycling: its fans set their own pernickity rules and seethe when they are broken, yet don’t seem to care when the more conspicuous and useful ones are disregarded.
Three cyclists, three quotes, one common factor.
Here is the final line of a news report on last year’s world championships in Florence:
“Clearly this is Purito’s destiny [...] To lose the Giro by a whisker, then the Vuelta and now the Worlds.”
This is from the pages of Procycling magazine in 2012:
“Carlos Sastre was there for him; and when he had someone who could make his dreams come true, Carlos Sastre was in the second line.”
And this is how one rider assessed his previous season last week:
“I was often in the top five in races that mattered but that’s not good enough for Alberto Contador.”
In all three cases, the quote comes from the rider himself. Joaquim Rodriguez, Sastre and Contador are all talking about themselves in the third person.
I’m reliably informed by two people who, unlike me, can actually speak Spanish that this isn’t a quirk of the language: referring to yourself in the third person is unusual and just as likely to make you look pompous among Spaniards as it is among English-speakers. So I wonder if this is self-aggrandisement as a form of defence, because in all three cases the riders are trying to come to terms with a significant disappointment: Purito narrowly losing the world champs, Sastre constantly being Bjarne Riis’s second choice, and Contador winning only one race in 2013.
Cycling is a cruel sport with many big egos. Which makes it a bit of a mystery why we don’t see riders of all nationalities talking like this when the chips are down.
London Dynamo celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2013. We had a big dinner at Smollensky’s, took advantage of the free bar, and watched a short film about the club which was put together by the inestimable Stuart Spies. I have included it at the top of this blogpost for your enjoyment. Also, if you spot two photographs of me, then you could win a special prize! (Although I doubt it, because I’m not handing out any prizes. But you’re already a winner, aren’t you, because you’ve chosen to read this blog. Yes, you are. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)
Apart from giving The DYNAMITE! Files a sizable plug, what I like about Stuey’s film is that it captures the larky enthusiasm and love of speed that have made Dynamo such an enjoyable club to be a part of. We didn’t set out to be bigger than clubs that have been around for generations – it just sort of happened. Part of the reason is that we are the only club to have a year-round ride in Richmond Park, and with so many unaffiliated riders sharing the seven-mile loop on Saturday mornings, our Parkride has become an advert for Dynamo and a means of attracting new members. Another reason is the pleasing look of the jersey, designed by founding member Russell Short. But the main reason for the success of London Dynamo is that the barmy blue-and-black army is whatever you want it to be. It’s a racing club. It’s a series of social events, both on and off the bike. It’s a means of testing your fitness and your abilities against others. It’s for the fastest, the slowest and everything in between. It’s a living, breathing internet: networks of friends – actual real-life friends – who support, listen, ride together and often rib each other. And it amazes me that we arrived at this wonderful state of affairs with barely any planning whatsoever.
Of course, you don’t have to join Dynamo. You might not live in London, and if you do, there are plenty of other large clubs around. But joining one extends your horizons: you have a pool of advice, information and ideas to draw upon, and you could try out another discipline such as track racing or mountain biking.
Ultimately, though, it’s the value-for-money argument that should clinch it for you. In the ever-costly world of cycling, what can you get for £40 these days? For that price, I can get access to an organisation that hosts four weekly rides, provides spin classes and core conditioning classes during the winter, and takes the hassle out of putting together a trip abroad for a sportive. Alternatively, for a similar price, you could buy a cycling podcast (that’s two people giving their opinions on news items you’ve probably already read), purchase a lavish book of photographs about last year’s Tour de France (that apparently has only one picture of the winner), or get yourself a large saddlebag (which you really shouldn’t need because, y’know, your jersey has these things called pockets). I know which one I’ll choose.
Quite a few people are getting terribly excited that Bradley Wiggins, Fabian Cancellara and now Tony Martin could all attempt to break the Hour record within the next few months. But the interest surrounding time trialling’s triumvirate throwing their pointy hats into the ring is surely in inverse proportion to the low level of excitement involved in watching the event itself. Basically, you’re looking at 60 minutes of a man going around in circles – or three hours if they all end up doing it. Watching Strava updates would be more thrilling (although if an attempt fails, you may in theory have witnessed the fastest time for a brand new segment).
So here’s how I’d like to inject some interest into the proceedings: Bradley, Fabian and Tony attempt the record at exactly the same time in their home countries, all linked up by a live simulcast. Now that’s what I call a race.
The Hour, of course, has been attempted behind closed doors, but in an age where we can watch feeds of small, obscure races, that approach would just seem retrograde and not befitting the prestige of the event. Plus, this is a unique opportunity to supply the cycling community with exactly what it craves: an orgy of raw, uncompromising and constantly-updated data. Split the screen into three, show where each competitor’s distance is in relation to the other two and how close they are to beating the record. If that doesn’t get your stat bone tingling, then nothing will.
The combination of what fans love most about the sport – athletic achievement matched by a dynamic use of technology – would make my fantasy Hour record a fascinating spectacle. The Superbowl of cycling, no less. Who’s in?
Going into a branch of Evans often seems to me like entering a bizarre, alternate world of cycling. On Planet Evans, I have witnessed cyclists in full possession of their faculties who are unable to mend a puncture. I have been met with fearful, uncomprehending stares when I have asked for a Garmin stem mount, as if I was demanding that they unearth an Aztec goblet. Most curious of all, I recall a time when a woman said her shopping bike was making a funny noise and looked put out when the assistant correctly ascertained that her chain needed lubrication. She was displeased that the solution required her to actually buy something, as if that wasn’t the done thing in shops.
I am willing, however, to accept that in this context, as in so many others, it is me who is the anomaly. The high street’s green and gold giant has published figures from a customer survey which reveal that only six per cent of people who shop with them are members of a cycling club, and more than 60 per cent never ride with anyone else. So as a proud member of London’s blue, black and orange army who attends one club ride per week, my presence in a branch of Evans is as incongruous as a recumbent in Richmond Park. Or a recumbent just about anywhere else.
The survey shows how sensible Evans Man and Evans Women are in their purchasing choices. The most popular price bracket for a bike is £500-£1,000. Quality is their most important criteria, brand the least. And rather than spend hundreds of pounds on a Garmin, they tend to plump for app-based tracking devices. Which could explain the difficulty of getting a mount for my 810.
When you think about the extremes of high-end cycling which we have come to accept – the £12,000 custom builds, the reverence for the phony authenticity of some heritage bike brands – Evans doesn’t seem that bad. Its customers only pay for what they need. They’re not suckered in by marketing. As alien as they might sometimes seem to my needs, their shops are little oases of sanity in the mad, rapidly-expanding cycling universe.
I can tell you exactly when I began to dislike the Garmin 810: it was as I took the left-hand turn that leads you towards Hampton Court Bridge, and the treacherous thing froze. It did exactly the same thing the following week and the next (each time I was following the course of my regular training ride), then it stopped picking up both the speed/cadence and heart rate sensors. A hard reset didn’t work, so back to Wiggle it went. And behold! A new one was delivered to me which, two months later, hasn’t had any of its predecessor’s conniptions. Bless you, Wiggle, and your staggering profits which allow you to mail me a replacement package worth £430, no questions asked.
Whenever I tell someone I have an 810, three things invariably happen. Firstly, seasoned Garministas are mildly amazed that you don’t need to attach it to a computer because it will upload your ride as soon as you finish, thanks to the magic of Bluetooth and an app on your phone. Secondly, they scoff at my enthusiasm for enjoying the company of the virtual partner, which tracks your progress on a saved course against a previous attempt. And thirdly, they’re not at all impressed when I tell them the live tracking facility, which is also linked to my phone, allowed Jen to follow my progress as I cycled up some mountains in France as part of the Challenge Vercors. Giving your wife or partner details of your location in real time is not, apparently, a very good idea.
Even though I’ve now got an 810 that works, there’s still a lot I don’t like about the thing. It doesn’t show up on my MacBook’s desktop when I plug it in, and it takes ages to eject. Setting up the screen configurations, or ‘training pages’ as they are clumsily known, is a fiddly business. Irritatingly, the app can’t be activated if my phone is locked (although it could before I updated to iOS 7). And although I’ve made a lot of tweaks to the set-up, I can’t for the life of me remember how I did them – such is the counter-intuitiveness of the user interface.
I think Garmins should be like iPhones: simple devices that anyone can pick up and use. Instead, the options open to you are buried amid a stack of headings and pages. I had never used a Garmin before, so I was surprised at how low-tech they appear: the jerky animations, the primitive icons, the bleepy eight-bit fanfare whenever you finish a ride. Perhaps Garmin isn’t inclined to drastically improve the design of their devices because, in the world of sports-orientated satnav, it is practically the only player in the game.
But the main thing I don’t like about the 810 is what it says about me. I’m dreaming of a time when Google Glass takes all the visual information crammed on that plastic pebble a foot below my face and puts it in front of me, which is where it should be. I’m hoping that the tracking facility is improved so I can see, without having to fish my phone out of my pocket and check my email while riding, when people I know are riding in the same vicinity as me. Neither of these wishes even occurred to me before I clicked “buy” on Wiggle. Now I am, essentially, excessively annoyed about living in the present when I should really be grateful that little devices such as the 810 have replaced bulky, laminated maps taking up space in our jersey pockets, and helped reduce the endless stops and self-inflicted misdirections. They’re a turn for the better.
I’ve had an idea how manufacturers could help prevent thefts of their bicycles. It’s not going to happen now, but I think it could happen in the future. To explain, I’m going revisit the recent past.
A few months ago I wandered into a shop which sold only electric bikes. The owner’s enthusiasm for his products was tempered by a smugness which I thought was unwarranted. Thanks to his bike’s motor, he could get from his shop to central London within 10 minutes – but then so could I, and I can enjoy the exhilaration of riding a bike rather than the tedium of operating a clunky electric machine. He pointed out all the bicycles in his shop were fitted with a disabling system (which I presume contribute to their two grand price tag). It’s basically a small electronic card that fits into a slot on the handlebars and it functions in a similar way to a car key: without it, the bike won’t start. He said that as a result of the disabler, he had only one bike stolen in the past seven years. Well, none of my bikes have a special electronic key, and I haven’t had one nicked for more than a decade. Maybe knowing where you can’t safely leave your bike unattended is more worthwhile than having an expensive anti-theft device.
I doubt electric bikes will sell particularly well in the UK over the next few years. Apparently they’re the coming thing in China, the Netherlands and Germany, but these are countries that each have had their own cycling cultures for generations, so I suspect a lot of long-term riders are converting to electric when age or its attendant infirmity or injury prevents them from using regular bikes. Countries such as Britain that have recently caught the cycling bug may take longer to convert. Here in London, some of the Barclays hire bikes will go electric for a trial in a hillier part of the capital, and I imagine they will prove popular with the more, shall we say, leisurely rider who doesn’t want to sweat it when the road heads upwards. But realistically, how many Londoners would end up spending the price of a decent second-hand car on an electric bike of their own if they could use one for £1 a pop?
The disabler, though, is a useful idea. I wasn’t aware that such a facility existed – and neither, I suspect, did the thief who threw the shopkeeper’s bike into the back of his van, otherwise he wouldn’t have taken it. Surely what we need is a gadget that can fit onto the next generation of ordinary, pedal-powered, mass-market bikes; that way, every thief would know about them, and its presence would act as a disincentive to theft because the bikes would be much harder to sell on without that “key”. But what would that thing be?
I think it already exists. It’s the electronic groupset. Take the battery out of the slot for Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 and my Ridley Excalibur is not much use. Yes, you can still ride it in whatever gear you left it in, and I’m not suggesting we all buy expensive, Di2-equipped carbon bicycles to go down the shops or get to work. But the prices of electronic groupsets are coming down as their popularity increases, which means, like all kinds of consumer goods, it is probably only a matter of time before they make it into the mainstream. So maybe we could one day see an ordinary commuter bike that a thief couldn’t easily sell on because the bit that makes it fully operable is in the pocket of the owner. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
While waiting for the elite women’s race to reach Florence (and I swear to God this is the very last time I’ll mention our trip to the World Championships) Jen and I wandered into a bookshop. We left with a book that goes by the hyperbolic title Fifty Bicycles That Changed The World. I’m not sure that a Brompton is on a par with penicillin, but then again the book is part of series put together by the Design Museum which also includes Fifty Typefaces That Changed The World and – hold on to your fanny packs – Fifty Bags That Changed The World. By “change the world”, I think what they probably mean is Fulfil A Purpose Particularly Well At A Specific Point In History.
Fifty Bicycles is a slim hardback with thick pages. It displays an image of each bike on the right-hand side and explanatory text on the left. You could say the format is a grown-up version of a Ladybird book.
It’s actually a cracking little read. You can get through it in an hour or so and learn about the major innovations in the 200-year history of bike design as well as some odd cul-de-sacs designers have wandered down, such as Denmark’s architectural Dursley Pedersen which encompasses no fewer than 21 triangles in its frame. It’s basically a bridge on wheels.
Author Alex Newson has squeezed some great little nuggets into his no-nonsense descriptions. The BSA Airborne bike for paratroopers came with its own parachute. The design for the Raleigh Chopper was doodled on a transatlantic flight, literally on the back of an envelope. To entice the more sybaritic consumer, an advert for the Sturmey Archer Roadster from the 1930s featured a cartoon of a chubby chap pedalling away while merrily smoking a fag.
I was particularly taken by the photo for the Penny-Farthing, which cheerfully attempts to show that it’s the ideal means for delivering mail. Which I suppose it is, if the recipient happens to be standing on the third step outside their front door at the very moment the postman trundles past.
But the picture I keep returning to is right at the front of the book. It’s an uncaptioned shot of four men on a mountain. Emotionally and geographically, they look like they’re on top of the world, as might you be if you were about to invent mountain biking, which I assume they are on the cusp of achieving judging by their klunker-looking bikes and the landscape.
I know very little about MTB history, and I only recognised the guy on the right as Joe Breeze because there’s a picture of him on page 51 next to the entry for the Breezer Series 1. His name was enough to prod Google Images into surrendering the names of the other three and the location. They are (left to right) Howie Hammerman, Otis Guy, and Chris McManus, and they are on top of Kent Rock, Mount Tamalpais, California, in November, 1977.
I like the expressions of the two on the left: grown men displaying a childlike joy – which, ultimately, is the state to which all cycling should aspire. Did 50 bicycles really change the world? Maybe not. But these four bikes certainly changed their world.
Me and Jen are in the seating area by the finish of the World Championship road race, surrounded by hundreds of bellowing Italians. It’s the final lap of the 16.6km circuit, and they are chanting one name: “VIN-CEN-ZO! VIN-CEN-ZO!” Determined Nibali, with the hopes of the host nation resting upon him, has refused to allow Joaquim Rodriguez to escape on the descent of the Fiesole. Earlier, there were long, deep groans followed by much emphatic gesturing towards the video screens when the Giro d’Italia champion slipped on the tarmac, as if the rain’s treachery had caused a deep, personal offence to each and every one of the tifosi here in Florence. “If Nibali wins,” Jen says, stifling a laugh at the very un-British outpouring of emotion, “we’re going to have to run for cover.” I get the feeling we may have to do the same even if he doesn’t…
Such passion is a contrast to four days earlier when polite applause greeted the competitors as they turned into the corner of the time trial circuit that took them north away from the bank of the Arno. Marco Pinotti got a big cheer, as did podium boys Cancellara, Wiggins and Martin, but that was about it. A bewildered Japanese lady got Jen to explain to her how a time trial works after enquiring in broken English if the event was “a European match”; a British woman who had probably wandered down the road from the Uffizi asked two men if they could move out of the way so she could take a picture (the tabards should have been a giveaway: they were press photographers, dear). It’s fair to say these were not big cycling fans.
But seated here at the incongruously named Nelson Mandela forum, it’s clear we are among those who know their Fabians from their Nairos. When Mark Cavendish slows down at the 150m sign moments before becoming one of the 146 riders to abandon, the Italian crowd instantly give the former world champ a rapturous round of applause; some even stand up for him. (A side note on Cav: I would love to know what an annoyed-looking Geraint Thomas said to the Manxman around half an hour into the race as Great Britain needlessly wasted their energy leading the peloton on the 100km-run to the finishing circuit.) One fan who gets to his feet is a testy blond fella in the front row who is not at all pleased that some of those in the crowd from the seats behind him are now politely jostling for space by the barrier. At one point he has a loud argument with one of the attendants. I’d like to tell him he should cool it: he’s in the one sheltered area of the circuit, unlike the poor wet sods on the other side of the road who have to endure diluvial conditions for hours. But I don’t speak Italian, and he’s got a Vinokourov-like pugnacity about him, so I don’t.
Each time the race rushes towards us, I experience a measure of what it must have been like when the first cinema audiences saw the Lumiere brothers’ locomotive seemingly burst out of the screen. One second they are televisual images, the next they are right in front of us, like Morten Harket stepping out of his rectangular, one-dimensional prison into the real world. By the time poor Purito becomes flesh and blood for the last time, it’s clear he is about to lose. The Italians yell and cheer, but they’ve stopped banging on the barriers. There’s a sullen silence moments after Rui Costa raises his arms in victory and then everyone begins to shuffle off, except for the Italian Vinokourov. He’s staring into the distance, making a quintessentially Italian hand gesture: thumb, index finger and middle finger pinched together, tapping the side of his head. The azzuri: what were they thinking? Minutes later, as Jen and I trudge with the crowd under the finishing gate, I want to know what the tifosi are thinking too.