Where’s Danilo?

March 26, 2014

Since getting a life ban and moaning that everyone was at it, why is everyone picking on me, it’s not fair waaah waaah etc etc, former Giro d’Italia champion Danilo Di Luca appears to have gone to ground. But I think I’ve spotted him.

Add a ‘tache…

Danilo di Luca with a tache

and a fedora…

Inspector De Luca

…and voila! He is Inspector De Luca, the bicycle-riding detective of BBC4’s latest Saturday night foreign crime drama.

Mystery solved.

Presumably his next case will be to uncover the 90 per cent of Giro riders who were juiced up. Or maybe not.


Is cycling rock or pop? (Answer: it’s pop.)

March 14, 2014

I like pop. Big pop. Enormopop. The type of pop it’s usually not OK to like – the synthetic, bright, ebullient kind which sounds as if it could’ve been assembled on the sort of machine you are reading these words from, because it usually is. I like voices – typically, women’s voices – that sound as if they have rocketed across oceans to reach your heart, and in an age where a song could have been recorded anywhere, they probably did. I like Sia, Robyn, Scherzinger, Gaga, the Aloud, that sort of thing. And as a committed bicycleperson, that puts me in a very small minority. Possibly a minority of one.

One of the shortest conversations I had in the Rouleur office was about the 2009 Eurovision song contest, even though I was raving about the spiralling, doomed romanticism of Patricia Kaas’s Et S’il Fallait Le Faire, which I thought would be right up their rue. A few years later at a Dynamo Christmas do, a fellow member asked me, in a manner which suggested he wanted reassuring that this was the case, if my frequent tweets about the X Factor were meant ironically (they weren’t). I can understand his concern: cycling, at least the type of cycling I enjoy, has more in common with the appreciation of rock, which hardly makes it the ideal environment for a TV-talent-show-loving nincompoop like myself. There’s an old belief, the lead singer of the Kaiser Chiefs recently noted, that you’re not in a bona fide band until you’ve gone “up the M1 500 times”; similarly, there are those who believe that you’re not a proper cyclist until you’ve got a few thousand miles in your legs (which, of course, have to be hard miles, up hills and mountains). Road cycling is about paying your dues and observing tradition: drop handlebars, 700c wheels and a diamond-shaped frame are its guitar, bass and drums. Cycling wears a serious face in monochrome, often amid a remote, enveloping natural landscape, like Joshua Tree-era U2 (a sullen aesthetic which, Raphaistas should note, even the world’s most ludicrously earnest band eventually had to abandon). The message, as crushing as a powerchord, is clear: cycling has a deep, inscrutable meaning; cycling is tough; cycling is 4 Real.

Or is it? Throughout my musical life, I’ve often felt excluded from the seriousness of being a rock fan – its various modes of rebellion, the accumulation of arcane knowledge, the penetration of the obligatory veil of mystery. The world of club cycling, on the other hand, I’ve found to be welcoming and jolly, despite – or maybe to mitigate – the physical pain you have to endure to be any good at it. And whereas rock can often feel like an exclusive club in which its members are obliged to venerate the ‘right’ artists and the ‘right’ albums, cycling won’t show you the door if you can’t tell your Coppi from your Bartoli, although it might point you in the direction of a detailed, hardback tome.

Watching a key moment in a race, such as Froome attacking Quintana on Mont Ventoux, gives me the same rush I get from pop. How could it not? Because, at its very core, cycling has a throbbing pop heart.

For a start, cycling, like pop, is a bastard form. Pop is a magpie nicking ideas – sounds, melodies, riffs, looks – from whatever genre it can find and repurposing them in a new form. Cycling did this when it pinched the downhill tuck from skiing and came up with the aerobar. The manufacturing know-how that produces many of the groupsets in the peloton came from golf and fishing equipment. Some of the training principles that put the current champion of the Tour de France on the top of the podium in Paris originated in swimming. Pop is manufactured, and so to is the constantly-evolving object at the core of cycling, the bicycle. There is no room for a blues-like purity in such a modern, inquisitive sport.

On an immediate, visual level, cycling is also identifiably pop. The rush of colours that constitute the pro peloton has an unabashed, gaudy, Roy Lichtenstein look about it. From a less artistic standpoint, the Tour’s post-stage shows became the inspiration for the Radio 1 Roadshow after station controller Johnny Beerling stumbled across them while on holiday in France. And, fundamentally, cycling shares pop’s commercial instincts: even though a race can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, it nevertheless exists primarily as a sponsors’ billboard.

Pop’s message, if it has one, is that the most thrilling place to be is the present. And is that not the feeling you experience when you’re completely immersed in a race – any race? Whenever I come across enthusiasm for a relatively obscure non-European event, I’m struck by how the more committed type of cycling fan exists at an emotional frequency as high as their pop counterparts. Compare this to football, where pre-season friendlies – the equivalent of the tour of Oman or Dubai – are considered so uninteresting that the great Danny Baker recently suggested that they should be held behind closed doors.

So let’s abandon the mythologising, tradition-heavy, rock-like paradigm we use to frame our perception of cycling. Pop is unhip. Pop requires no chin-stroking expert’s permission to exist. And those, to me, are the qualities that are at the very root of why we love cycling.


The Ride journal back issues are available to download

January 31, 2014

ride issue 5 illustrationI 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.


The centenary that’s not quite a centenary

January 24, 2014

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”.

chambers definition of centenary

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 Spanish cyclists and the mystery of the third person

January 20, 2014

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.


Joining a cycling club is the best thing you can do in 2014

December 31, 2013

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.


This is how I want to see Cancellara, Wiggins and Martin do the Hour record

November 25, 2013

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?


Evans: an oasis of sanity

November 22, 2013

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.


The main thing I don’t like about the Garmin Edge 810

November 7, 2013

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.


The key to preventing bike thefts

October 31, 2013

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?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30 other followers