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.
Posts Tagged ‘Richmond Park’
Cyclists and Richmond Park: we’ve known each other, for so long. But as you watch the deer staring at you riding around, you’ve probably never realised that on any given day west London’s verdant jewel is paid a visit by none other than… Rick Astley.
It’s absolutely true. He said so in the Daily Express last week. (Hey – don’t judge me. I look through all the papers. It’s part of my job. Seriously.)
Rick, 47, revealed: “I have lived close to Richmond Park for the past 18 years and it has become something of a spiritual home. It is a beautiful place and I normally try to take a walk there every day.
“In some ways I am quite a solitary person and really do need time to myself to reflect and relax.”
Fascinating stuff. And, by making this admission, I think we all know what he’s trying to say.
Rick, in a very real sense, is telling Richmond Park: “I’m never gonna give you up.”
Indeed, he is certain, given the special connection he has to the park, that he is never gonna run around and desert it.
That, essentially, is Rick’s message to Richmond Park.
Don’t tell me you’re too blind to see.
5 UP John Torode
On a typically busy Saturday morning in Richmond Park, TV culinary arbiter John Torode was spotted parking his stealth-black Condor up against the wall of the famed Roehampton Gate café, where he quietly enjoyed a brew undisturbed by the large number of two-wheeled Masterchef fans milling around. Well done, polite Lycraists! Although it must have been tempting, surely, to congratulate him on doing a few laps of the park’s 6.7-mile loop by adapting his no-nonsense catchphrase and solemnly intoning: “Cycling doesn’t get any tougher than this.”
4 UP Slowing down
Fabian Cancellara, a lap away from besting Sep Vanmarcke to win Paris-Roubaix… and he isn’t even ruddy pedalling! Has cycling slowly ever been more exciting? No, it has not. Cat-and-mouse officially beats solo breakaways on The DYNAMITE! Files Thrill-O-Meter. More of this please, professional cyclists!
3 DOWN Slowing down
Pictures from Amstel Gold were annoyingly intermittent this year, leaving the Dutch host broadcaster NOS filling airtime with expensive super-slo-mo shots of various riders – which, as TV expert Alex Murray pointed out, was a pretty ineffective deployment of broadcasting technology. Has slow motion ever been as uninteresting? No, it has not. Less of this please, professional television people!
2 DOWN Jonathan Vaughters
He’s Garmin’s omniscient eye, observing the movements of his riders via the bank of screens in his control room. Sadly, that carefully cultivated image, propagated by the promotional film for the new Edge 810, was revealed to be yet another of cycling’s many lies after Jonathan Vaughters had to locate Nathan Haas with the modern-day equivalent of opening the window, yelling, and hoping for the best. “If anyone is near @NathanPeterHaas,” Vaughters tweeted, “please tell him he just got the last minute call up to do Amstel. And turn on his phone!”
1 UP OAT
What, you may wonder, is OAT? According to Bike Biz, it’s the Office for Active Travel, a soon-to-be-launched government department with a budget of more than £1billion which will aim to get more people cycling and walking. Well done, clever bureaucrats, for choosing a name relating to porridge, the traditional breakfast of British cyclists. Although, as the department will be responsible for moving bodies around, they could have called it the Central Agency for Kinetic Expression – or CAKE for short.
The answer to the above question, judging by what I saw during my Surrey Hills ride this week, is possibly not.
I don’t usually ride on Sundays, but I made an exception this week so I could greet the belated arrival of Spring by displaying my bare legs and arms in Lycra. I’m sure Spring appreciated the gesture. Many bicyclepeople had a similar idea, judging by the herds lolling around at the top of Box Hill where I witnessed the full panoply of questionable jerseys on display, from Sky replica kit to those who chose to dress ironically – and, I’m sure you’ll agree, totally hilariously – as a tub of Marmite.
What intrigued me most, however, was spotting the famous blue tops of the US Postal cycling team. They say two is a coincidence, three is a trend; in that sense, the riders I saw wearing USPS jerseys – one in Richmond Park, the other (pictured above) on Box Hill – hardly constitute a resurgence of the once-ubiquitous blue-and-white kit. For some, though, it’s two too many: who would still want to associate themselves with the most duplicitous team in Tour de France history, whose star rider is now commonly prefaced with the word ‘disgraced’?
The answer is, maybe, they don’t. Believe it or not, you can wear a jersey solely for the purpose of riding, rather than using it as a tool to fit in with a group of strangers, expressing your brand loyalty or attempting to look completely amazing (which, naturally, I always do when I’m wearing my black-on-white Rock Racing kit). It was the first warm weekend of the year. They wanted to enjoy it. So they reached into their wardrobe and pulled out the first, or only, cycling-specific clothing they laid their hands on. And off they went. Sometimes a jersey is just a jersey.
…and it’s green. Like a laser beam.
It has a computer brain.
And it’s adorned with a reference to the director of Blade Runner.
So basically it’s a robot bicycle from the future. A Tron bike. A carbon fibre Terminator. An X-Wing on wheels. The Ridley brand is steeped in the heritage of Belgian cycling, but this looks like the sort of bicycle Kraftwerk’s robotic doppelgangers would ride (if they didn’t have aluminium poles for legs).
I’ve been interested in this particular Ridley Excalibur since Pearson Cycles tweeted a photo a couple of months ago. There are a few reasons why I decided to buy one: the price tag is quite attractive; I wanted to reward myself for being a very good boy money-wise throughout this financial year; and I wanted to try a carbon bike, especially one crafted in the traditional way – by anonymous factory workers in the Far East. More importantly, The Green Machine looks like it couldn’t give an anodised nipple what I or anyone else thinks of it, and that appeals to the obstinate side of my nature.
As a new owner in the first flush of joy, you’re not going to get anything remotely objective out of me at this stage. You may recall that bit in the Alan Partridge Christmas special, where he repeatedly presses the eject button on a CD player in a branch of Tandy (overseas readers: Tandy is, or was, Radioshack) and marvels: “Nice action… very nice action… that is a very nice action.”
Well, that’s basically me dicking around with Shimano Ultegra Di2 during the past couple of days. Changing gears electronically has its own peculiar fun, mainly because it’s so… soft. Light. Gentle. I’m enjoying it immensely, although it will probably be only a matter of time before I yearn for the manly clunk of the 2006 Chorus groupset on my Merlin Cyrene.
I rode up the small climb in Richmond Park against a headwind, and it feels noticeably zippier and more responsive than the Merlin. My emotionless android bicycle does not fear bad weather – but sadly, being human, I do. So I won’t be taking the Excalibur out if it snows or pisses down this weekend. You’ll just have to wait until next week to see it.
As a British person, you may have felt left out as you watched our American chums preparing to choose their president. And now they’ve made the right choice, perhaps you’re wondering how, in your own small British way, you too can make a difference. Well, fear not! For I have found a couple of petitions with which you can express your idealism, good nature and sound judgment.
The first petition aims to increase cycling access in Richmond Park by excluding motor vehicles from the seven-mile loop on Sundays. The giddy dream is that the proposal will be debated in parliament if it gets enough signatures.
At first, I thought the concept isn’t a bad idea. Cyclists who don’t yet feel confident riding among cars would get their own mini-Sky Ride every weekend. Then I posted a link to the petition on the London Dynamo forum, and now I think it’s a great idea. Because, perversely, it seems my cycling club – one of the largest in the country – is not keen on this particular plan to promote bike riding. And if there is one defining hallmark of a great idea it is the mood of fearfulness with which it is greeted.
You can’t read the thread I started unless you’re a member, so I will try give a fair précis of the objections and provide my counter-arguments. The main fear is that with lots of beginners and children pootling along at 10mph, more serious cyclists such as myself wouldn’t be able to use the park for training rides on Sundays. Well, I’m fine with that. Dynamo’s group ride in the park is on Saturdays; everyone heads for the hills of Surrey on Sunday. Under this proposal, less experienced riders would get to enjoy the park for one day a week, ’Mos and other club cyclists would get the other six, and maybe at some point a few of those beginners would gain the confidence to ride with us. We all win!
Another objection is that it fixes a non-existent problem: you can still use the park early in the morning when there is almost no traffic. I would suggest the almost total absence of pootlers at that time of the morning shows this is a lousy option that has, in effect, already been rejected. If I had kids, I wouldn’t relish waking the family up at the crack of dawn and getting to the park to ride for a measly hour or less before the cars showed up. The other alternative is sticking to cycling on the straight strip of car-free tarmac bisecting the loop, which is an excellent plan if you want to be bored out of your mind. You’ll never get more people cycling if you make the activity seem unappealing.
Some Dynamo members appear to be thinking of other people’s concerns. What about the residents surrounding the park? Surely they won’t like golfers parking on their doorstep to use the park’s course, and they’ll be miffed at the increase in traffic on the roads in their neighbourhood. Also, if fewer people visit the park, then there will be an economic impact on the cafes within its grounds. But then there is no guarantee any of these eventualities will occur. Sunday golfers may have a round on Saturday instead. Roads surrounding the park do not become insurmountably clogged when it is closed for deer culling. The custom of hungry cyclists in cafes could replace that of motorists.
There was one alternative suggestion to car-free Sundays: a congestion charge, levied in the park throughout the week. I suppose this ambitious plan could reduce the traffic, although it can’t weed out the worst drivers, which is what really puts people off riding. So it’s only a partial solution.
Basically, it comes down to this: I would like less confident riders to experience of the same simple pleasures I have enjoyed in the park over the years – things like the big, long descent or the nonplussed deer watching you on the small climb to Richmond Gate. So if you think this a reasonable and commendable aim, then please add your name to the list.
The second petition I signed aims to reinstate Danny Baker’s weekday afternoon radio show on BBC London 94.9. You’ve probably heard what happened to the Candyman after coverage of his magnificently funny and defiant two-hour swansong last Thursday made just about every news outlet you care to mention, including the front page of The Times.
And yes, regular dwellers of this blog will have already noticed me gabbing on and on about how much pleasure Danny’s show has provided. Nestled amid the phone-in topics and chats with his co-hosts Baylen, Amy and the inimitable David Kuo was a central idea: that the kinks, quirks and fleeting moments of oddness in popular culture and people’s everyday existence are what gives these things life. So if you value originality and good humour – which, of course, you must surely do – then sign now. If you do, I promise to stop gibbering on about how much I love Danny Baker. You can’t say fairer than that.
Nine years ago, Jen and I went to a bar on the Haymarket, had a few drinks, met some fellow cycling fans and watched Lance Armstrong fall off his bike. The famous tumble on the road to Luz Ardiden caused by a spectator’s musette caught in Armstrong’s handlebars had taken place earlier that day, although we hadn’t turned up with the intention of watching the yellow jersey and Iban Mayo have a whoops-a-daisy. We didn’t even know it had happened – both of us had been at work, Twitter hadn’t been invented yet, and mainstream news outlets didn’t give a toss. The reason why we went to watch a big screen at a West End watering hole had something to do with engaging in what was a unique experience for us in 2003: being in a room with other bicyclepeople who liked watching bicycle races. Because we knew very few people who did.
The shindig at the Sports Café was organised by Phil Cavell and Julian Wall of Bikepark in Covent Garden, which later evolved into Cyclefit, the business which is more or less responsible for bicycle fitting becoming a standard part of the bike-buying process. Paul Callinan, who had chatted to me at the Hillingdon circuit when I tentatively started racing, was among those attending. A few months later, after Bikepark stepped down from organising its two popular weekend group rides, Paul and a couple of friends would seize the momentum by reviving a name that Jules had coined in the mid-nineties for the early incarnation of his shop’s team – and so it came to pass that the all-new London Dynamo, which started life as a discussion in Paul’s kitchen, became a phenomenon that swiftly (and inadvertently) grew to be bigger than every long-established club in the south-east. Also propping up the bar on that July evening was Nick Peacock (he later sold me his Merlin frame after he became Dynamo’s second club captain, although I think we didn’t get round to speaking to each other that night) and triathlete-turned-demon-time-trialist Martin Williamson, one of many kindly ’Mos who gave me a lift to races during my first season as a non-car-owning fourth cat. But that night we were all more or less strangers to each other.
So there we all were, the many and varied chums of Bikepark, watching Armstrong fall off, get back up, wallop his groin into his top tube as he came out of his pedal and then solo away to victory. Chapeau! Except no one exclaimed “Chapeau!” or “Hat!” because it hadn’t occurred to any of us yet that pretension or irony had a place in cycling. The mood was more of muted amazement rather than the whooping, roaring enthusiasm you now get at Look Mum No Hands! during an eventful moment of a big race. This was fascination before it evolved into fandom. And we all know the aspects of Armstrong’s story that fascinated us: beating cancer and then beating everyone, a singular character with a single ball. Personally, I loved watching his movements on the bike, swaggering when he was out of the saddle, and the robotic, propulsive, high cadence when he was seated – a contained, measured ferocity. Yet most of the conversations that night weren’t about Armstrong or pro cycling, but about our own, more modest, adventures: where we had been riding, where we planned to ride or race, each of us glimpsing the others’ characters and experience (invariably much greater than mine) by learning about their cycling history.
And when Dynamo began, I still didn’t know who my riding chums actually were. They each had a name, a bike and stories about their riding, all of which helped to identify the less vocal members who dwelt beneath the ubiquitous mask of helmet and sunglasses, but the life they lived beyond our weekly 50-mile training loop across the Surrey Hills was a distant vista. Before setting out one Sunday, Paul muttered wearily to me about having practically no sleep because he had been on call all night. Ah-ha, I thought – a doctor! It took a while for me to discover that he actually worked in IT for a bank, and being on call involved piping zeroes and ones to the Far East in the early hours of the morning. But at least I knew his name – I can still recall the delight at discovering “Nicholas Peacock” on the finishing list of Dynamo’s inaugural Beginners’ Series race, because the surname was part of a long-standing in-joke between myself and Jen. (And as it’s a slightly bizarre gag which isn’t aimed at Nick, it’s probably best Jen and I keep it to ourselves…)
Dynamos were Dynanonymous to each other – but the one name everyone knew, whether they had a rich history of riding or had just started out, was Lance Armstrong. There was a unique combination of factors that led to Dynamo confounding a British Cycling official’s prediction to Paul that we would probably attract a total of around two dozen members: as the only club to have a regular ride in the cycling mecca of Richmond Park, we were conspicuous; we welcomed all-comers; we were, and still are, a friendly bunch; and, in a major departure from the aesthetic of the time, our jersey didn’t comprise a clumsy mélange of fonts and colours or resemble something an estate agent might hammer onto a stick. But I think the main reason why Dynamo grew so rapidly was due to a pool of new, unaffiliated riders who had recently taken up the sport after an English-speaking athlete had caught their attention by repeatedly winning the Tour de France. Armstrong was the key that unlocked the entrance to a previously clandestine world – and if he could get on a bike after what he had been through, then why couldn’t you?
So the blue train of the US Postal Service team unwittingly begat a blue, black and orange locomotive – although it is there that the parallels, like two diesels thundering towards each other, must screech to a halt. I can dimly remember a line in Procycling magazine claiming that Armstrong-related catchphrases such as “No chain! No chain!” and “How d’you like them apples?” had become de rigueur on club runs – and oh, how I cringed, because from my experience of Dynamo, amateur cycling didn’t take hero worship or wish fulfillment to those extremes. Talking about Armstrong, or pro cycling generally, was an excuse for men (sadly, there were only men in those days) to indulge in the necessary human act of gossiping, sharing our awe about feats that had amazed us, trading information, often as a means of trying to work out who would do what the next time around. Would Jan Ullrich ever win another Tour? Could winning the Dauphiné prove to be a poison chalice for the Texan? And, inevitably, along came the only question that never went away: do you think Lance is clean?
Fast forward a few years, and half a dozen ’Mos are sitting on one of the benches outside the Roehampton Gate café in Richmond Park after the Parkride. I’m one of them; two others are also long-standing members (although they’re not the Dynamos I mentioned earlier). Armstrong has decided not to contest the US Anti-Doping Agency’s case against him, and the consensus around the table is that, as a result, no one will truly know if the man stripped of his seven Tour wins ever cheated. Most think the case should never have been pursued because it happened a long time ago, everyone was at it, and USADA doesn’t have any authority in the matter anyway. One Dynamo calls USADA boss Travis Tygart “Travis Dickface”.
Well, Mr Dickface does have the authority, and USADA’s 200-page report released yesterday, featuring damning testimony from every American Tour rider who rode for USPS and Discovery, may convince the doubting Dynamos I listened to that morning. Perhaps I should have pointed them in the direction of the truth: there were some professional cyclists who asked Tygart to sit in as an observer when they were questioned as part of the original federal investigation into USPS – so USADA had to pursue the allegations, because this is what they are funded to do. Anything less would have been corrupt.
But I didn’t say anything. And I’m pleased I kept my trap shut, because the opinions I heard that morning were not those of diehard fans desperately clutching at straws; they were an expression of disconnection from a complicated story that has been twisting and turning for years. True, a few of my cycling chums have followed the slow, inexorable exposure of the EPO years, but they tend to be the minority whose interest in pro cycling began prior to Armstrong’s appearance. I get the impression that most of the cyclists I know have simply not followed the diffuse trail of whispers and nose-tapping which has been played out mostly on fan sites and forums. They’re not angry or disappointed about Armstrong’s fall from grace, because they’ve not been exposed to much of those areas of the internet where anger and disappointment reigns. Threads on our own forum these days about tyre choice, groupsets or any other quotidian aspect of bike riding dwarf those about Armstrong, while the full-throated, joyful cheers we’ve given to Wiggins, Cavendish and other home-grown heroes are more passionate, more engaged than the interest anyone had showed for the Texan. One reason for that enthusiasm is that the likes of Wiggo and Cav are British, and their Olympic exploits were performed on roads we’ve all ridden. Another reason, of course, is that the performances have become more believable.
So let’s remember the Tour de France 1999-2005 in this way: lots of people took loads of drugs and did some amazing things, and we all had a good time witnessing them. But like the big screen looming over our conversations that night at the Sports Café, Armstrong’s adventures have proved to be just the background noise to our own experiences on bicycles. It’s not about the bike rider who brought us together – if, indeed, it ever was.
There was a time when I would ride my bicycle into town, thinking that the portly physique I had in those days would never be able to convey me any further. Then one day I fell in with the right crowd (long story – I’ll tell you about it another time) and found myself doing 50-mile rides around Surrey. When you combine these two distinct parts of my life, you have, broadly speaking, the collective routes of the Olympic road races and time trials.
I witnessed parts of these races by the roadside. Jen and I walked from our flat to the mini-roundabout on Fulham Palace Road, where we cheered the men’s road race rolling towards Richmond Park like a procession of dignitaries. A few days later I watched the women’s time trial in Hampton Court. But it was seeing the roads I know well on TV that had the most impact on me.
Staple Lane’s steady ascent, the hairpins on Box Hill, the punchy little climb after Box that Gilbert was the first to tackle – they are only tarmac strips bordering fields, but these are the places that broadened my perspective on how far and how hard I am able to ride. They made me. It was like seeing your first kiss, your old friends, jobs you once had – or lost – gathered together behind the Perspex screen, depersonalised by the context of the race, and all the stranger and more moving for it.
On Monday, I did my usual 70-miler through the Surrey hills. I do the same ride regularly because, regardless of whether I’m planning to race or not, losing myself for five hours a week does my mind a bit of good. I have wondered over the years why more people don’t do the same. This time, I saw the messages that fans had painted on the roads before the pros raced by. One, on Box Hill, reads: “This way to… victory”. And I like to think this kind of graffiti is a victory in itself: a permanent reminder of cyclists’ presence on these roads, and invitation for others to join us and be changed.
It isn’t discipline or drive which defines serious cyclists; it’s a lack of focus. You can hear it when we talk: a climb in Surrey, a mountain in France, a Tour stage from 20 years ago, last week’s chipper race – all tumble and flow into our conversations. With cycling fans, nothing is small, long ago or far away.
By becoming the first British rider to win the Tour, Bradley Wiggins is, to me, a living expression of this culture that expresses road cycling in all its forms, all at once. I saw him at the now-defunct Eastway circuit quite a few years ago, dressed in his Française des Jeux kit, racing among amateurs (he lapped the field and sat up, allowing the race to be decided without him). More amazingly, Jen inadvertently saw his willy as he got changed in the car park. Imagine that: a professional cyclist sticking to the age-old amateur tradition of disrobing in front of a car boot (even though Eastway was, at the time, the one circuit in London that had proper changing facilities…)
Some Tour winners are like stone icons standing upon a mountain. To me, Bradley is the boy on a poster inside the bike hut at the Hillingdon circuit, holding his winner’s bouquet. He’s the fella who conquered the mighty Pyrenees and once trained by riding up the pimple in Richmond Park. He’s here, there and everywhere – like cycling is at the moment. Like we are.
5 DOWN The Dragon Ride
A mood of high dudgeon pervaded the sportive community this week after many Dragon Ride participants noticed they had been omitted from the official list of finishing times – and there was some surprise, to say the least, that the feed stations at Britain’s best-known mass-participation cycling event were handing out bags of crisps to carb-starved riders. Those aren’t the sort of cock-ups you want at the UK’s premier sportive, especially since it landed a big-name sponsor in the form of Wiggle and has been awarded “Golden Bike” status by the UCI for next year’s edition. But speaking as a former poster-boy for the Welsh hill-romp, this blog would like to put the criticisms and general moaning into some sort of perspective: responsibility for the timing chip problems – reportedly caused by mounting the race numbers too tightly – is ultimately down to the company contracted to provide the equipment, not the organisers, and the nutrition is certainly better than in 2007, when finishers were handed “gels” which actually turned out to be, er, sachets of lubricant. That experience really did leave a bad taste in the mouth. Quite literally.
4 DOWN Mark Cavendish
Being the wittiest tweeter in the peloton, Mark Cavendish naturally reacted with good humour after discovering on Tuesday that the water supply at his home in Tuscany had been mysteriously cut off. “Got squirrels living in my hair and mushrooms growing in my feet now,” he quipped, and later admitted he had used the lavatory before fully realising the consequences. That’s the sort of toilet-based humour this blog loves, but we can’t help thinking that there’s a more sinister side to Cav’s predicament. Because if you’ve seen Jean de Florette, you’ll know how they deal with outsiders in the more bucolic parts of the Continent: deprive them of water in the hope of driving them away. Somebody help the poor guy before it ends in tragedy!
3 UP Walker Savidge
It features two chaps thrusting their crotches while another seems delighted to be caught between them, so it’s no surprise that this snap of Taylor Phinney, Danny Summerhill and Walker Savidge has been bringing the LOLS this week following its appearance on yay cycling! and Cycleboredom. But the image is lifted above the usual level of homoerotic fratboy tomfoolery by the expression on Savidge’s face. Just look at him on the right: the quiet dignity, the stoical acceptance that the photo might resurface, say, three years after the event, but those who snigger at it will never, ever be able to take away his sense of self-worth. Or maybe he just didn’t realise where Phinney and Summerhill had their hands. Actually, it’s probably the latter, isn’t it?
2 DOWN Cycling websites
A Tour de France star jets in to Britain, sets a record in an area of the capital known to amateur cyclists throughout the UK, and not one cycling website which doesn’t have a print equivalent bothers to report it. Strange, but true. In fact, The DYNAMITE! Files’ site stats reveal that a few inquisitive souls googling for information about the intriguing event ended up here – so for them, here’s this week’s news about…
1 UP David Millar
You know how it is – your autobiography is about to be published, so your agenda includes a swanky book launch, a round of interviews, and mercilessly crushing the fragile egos of every competitive amateur cyclist in London, Surrey and beyond by doing the fastest-ever lap of Richmond Park on your very first visit. Damn you, David Millar! Setting off at 7:23am on Sunday as part of a clandestine time trial he had organised for his Velo Club Rocacorba buddies, the Commonwealth champ completed an anticlockwise circuit of the hallowed 6.7-mile loop in 13min 35secs, giving him an average speed of 29.595mph. And the BBC’s footage of the event, which was removed on Thursday after the Royal Parks complained, featured a post-ride interview with the great man wearing a natty beret. As they say, hat!