Posts Tagged ‘Tour de France’

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 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.

40 things I’ve learned about cycling and myself now that I’ve turned 40

July 12, 2013
The best-kept secret in club cycling (see no.26)

The best-kept secret in club cycling (see no.26)

1. The most recent thing I’ve learned is this: having taken an extended break to mark your 40th birthday, it is a challenge to get back into the swing of updating your moderately amusing cycling-related weblog. My brain is like a rusty chain; thankfully, I also have lubrication in the form of a warming pot of tea. Let’s see if that’s enough to oil my way through another 39 of these buggers. Off we go!

2. (Before we properly begin, another challenging aspect to banging out a few thoughts on the old MacBook is that I’ve chosen to do it while cycling’s greatest distraction is on the telly. I refer, of course, to the world-famous Tour of France, which I am pleased to note is now being subjected to the high-octane vocal stylings of Carlton Kirby. Did Eurosport bosses promote him to Grand Boucle commentator – Chief Grand Boucleator, if you will – after reading my enthusiastic recommendation in April last year? Why yes, they did. Of course they did.)

3. Taking a sip of my Thé des Moines – a delicate blend of black tea, green tea, vanilla and calendula petals – I am reminded of cycling’s secret truth: no cyclist really drinks coffee because they love the taste. If you actually enjoyed the flavour of refined hot beverages, then you might also seek out the odd cup of well-blended tea. But you don’t, partly because tea only contains a sixth of the caffeine content found in coffee. It’s only a mild addiction, but addictions rarely turn out well. As the old saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you feel incredibly tired once the effect wears off.

4. Well, we’re a tenth of the way through, and I’ve already alienated the caffeinista community. More to the point, I still haven’t properly started this thing yet. So I’ll begin at the beginning. Here we go. For real this time.

5. About 10 years ago, when I started riding seriously, I thought I’d never fit in because I wasn’t serious enough. I don’t mean the long miles or the hard work – I’ve never had a problem with either – but the attention to detail, the planning, the analysing. Then I realised quite a few amateur riders were no good at these things either. It turns out serious cyclists can be as disorganised and shambolic as anyone else. The difference is they feel the absence of discipline more keenly. This is what attracts them to cycling.

6. Pain is temporary; quitting lasts forever. Go hard or go home. Ride like you stole something. No chain, no chain! Etcetera, et bleedin’ cetera. Whenever you’re inclined to think that one of cycling’s many pithy sayings is a great insight into the bigger picture, remember that the cyclist who coined with the greatest number of them was the sport’s biggest fraud. It’s not about the aphorisms.

7. Having said that, I am fully aware the above edict is an aphorism in itself, and this list might become a veritable storehouse of sayings. This is simply my way of participating in one of the longest traditions in cycling: rank, stinking hypocrisy.

8. We need a moratorium on the word ‘velo’. What was once a signal to the more serious end of the cycling spectrum has congealed into an undifferentiated veloslop. Everything, regardless of quality or its target market, is called ‘velo’ these days. Veloriders, Velorution, Urban Velo, Neon Velo… oy, oy, oy. Enough with the velo. We’re veloed out. It’s velover.

9. Two more words that need curbing are ‘pain’ and ‘hurt’. You’re writing about a race or a sportive you have participated in and apparently it was painful. Tell me: if you were writing about swimming, would you tell me that the water was wet? It’s cycling, mate. It’s meant to hurt.

10. Actually, I’d like to make one exception to that last idea, because for some years I’ve harboured a secret desire for the Surrey League to host a race in a village called Hurtmore. In my fantasy promotional campaign, Surrey League bigwig Glyn Durrant peppers the internet-based cycling media with banner ads which are entirely blank, except for one word: “HURTMORE”. The “HURT” is in red, the “MORE” is white. Then a second wave of anticipation hits Surrey League competitors everywhere with these words: “IN 2014 THE SURREY LEAGUE IS GOING TO HURTMORE”. No spaces – “IN2014THESURREYLEAGUEISGOINGTOHURTMORE” – just the words alternating between red and white. Man, imagine the excitement. Imagine the fear.

11. I’ll be honest with you, though: I haven’t done my research on this one. If Hurtmore doesn’t have a leg-shredding climb, they’ll just have to make the race 260km long and hold it on the hottest day of the year.

12. On the subject of races, I thought, upon entering my forties, I would be happy to relinquish my BC licence and limit myself to the sportive playground. Instead, I now realise I am not a sportive rider. I ride them like I would a club ride. I miss the brutality of racing, and I realise I’ve only been competing fitfully since I came back from having major surgery a few years ago. I think this will have to change.

13. I have tried and tried, but I simply cannot forget the name Chester Hill. I saw it on a Surrey League results sheet years ago, and it remains the most old-school cycling name I know of. Despite not having a clue what he looks like, I have a fantasy that one day I might pass him on a particularly testing climb and exclaim: “It’s Chester Hill!” And he, gasping for air, would reply: “It’s not just a hill – it’s friggin’ Ranmore!” I fully realise this may never happen.

14. Cyclists are told too often that cycling is beautiful. Beautiful bikes, beautiful frames, beautiful photography… but they can’t all be beautiful, can they? Because beauty, by definition, is rare. And if you have to tell your customer that the object you’re trying to sell them is beautiful, the chances are it probably isn’t. It’s just… pleasing.

15. The tight-fitting clothing. The pipe-cleaner limbs. The shaved legs. Don’t obviate cycling’s inherent daftness by wallowing in the hollow, monochrome ‘epic’ aesthetic of ‘serious’ cycling culture. Embrace the ridiculous.

16. In the future, not every bike will have electronic gears. But every type of bike will. Think of the growth in usage in the context of the humble kettle: electric kettles are comparatively more complicated than their stove-top equivalents, but everyone uses them now because they do the job with less fuss. And, crucially, they’re not that much more expensive.

17. Miles, not kilometres. Kilometres will always be with us; kilometres are the building blocks of a race, the countdown to the finish line. But say both words out loud: ‘kilometre’ is sharp and factual-sounding; the long ‘i’ of ‘miles’ is expressive. Miles are what you have in your legs, or what you have yet to get in. Miles are units of yearning, not matters of fact. ‘Miles’ conveys incompleteness – and all of us, as cyclists, are incomplete.

18. I have been part of a very big club ever since it was no bigger than a few dozen members. For the first five years, I put together a weekly newsletter about the club called DYNAMITE!, which I set up this blog to archive. Writing DYNAMITE! was one of the more worthwhile things I’ve done. It brought hundreds of strangers together. It kept them entertained. It recorded, in the course of more than 200 issues, just how much we love the sport.

19. Strava and route-sharing websites should’ve killed off cycling clubs, or at least diminished the importance of club runs. Instead, cycling clubs are getting bigger. Nothing surprising about that: cycling can be a miserable sport, and it helps if you’re surrounded by people who will help you cope with terrible form or terrible weather. What is surprising is how little of the culture of cycling clubs is reflected in cycling media, given that club cyclists are the basis of their readership.

20. I like being a loner. But what I like even more than solitude is being out on my bike and stumbling across an old clubmate I haven’t seen for years. Being part of a large club, I often get these little surprises.

21. I miss seeing heart rate monitors on the wrists of strangers. Before Garmin GPS units became ubiquitous, I would sometimes spy a chunky Polar beneath a shirt cuff and realise that, yes, this person is indeed one of us. Now I have to look for daft, mitt-shaped tan lines, like the ones I currently have demarcating my pale hands from my brown arms.

22. If you really want to know what cyclists talk about, don’t look on the internet. This is because the internet has become The Fact Olympics – “Look at my big, juicy facts! My facts are far more powerful than your puny facts! Just face facts – preferably my bulging, pulsating facts!” Relatively few of the face-to-face conversations I have with my cycling chums are about doping, and none of them have deteriorated into an argument. I suspect this is because competitive cyclists prefer to use their bikes and legs rather than words to best each other.

23. I used to believe in strength in numbers, that bad drivers would be shamed into curbing their worst behaviours if we simply had more cyclists join us on London’s streets. Well, we have, and they haven’t. I don’t think there are more bad motorists, but I do think the worst ones are behaving even more badly. We need stronger laws, and better road infrastructure.

24. Having said that, I don’t believe that an adversarial, them-and-us culture is the motorist’s default mindset. You can pass dozens of cars on a single ride without incident. Drivers generally don’t have an issue with us.

25. The best time to ride in London is after 1am. There are fewer cars and, perhaps because there is less traffic, the standard of driving is less aggressive.

26. The best-kept secret in Surrey-based club cycling is Fairoaks Airport. You may not know it, but there really is an airport nestled amidst the roads you train on. It has a nice cafe. You can watch light aircraft and helicopters landing and taking off. It’s like a little day out in the middle of a ride. You will feel like a kid again.

27. Speaking of being a child, the funniest phrase in the cycling lexicon is ‘anodised nipple’.

28. The second-funniest phrase in cycling is ‘Edvald Boobsandhardon’. (If you think it’s disrespectful, please blame my romantical partner Littlejen who made it up.)

29. The third-funniest phrase in cycling is ‘Fartlek’.

30. I rarely drink. I ride quite a bit. I don’t put on much weight. These three things immediately pop into my head when I come across a cyclist who has signed up to a complicated and restrictive diet plan.

31. More than speed, more than distance, cycling is about time. Time is the agent of anticipation, and we’re all anticipating something: the next ride, the next bike, the moment when everything – the right level of fitness, the mental focus – finally comes together.

32. You will know if your bike is the one for you if you keep it by your bed. Wake up. Look at it. Does it make you want to ride even when though you are exhausted? Then congratulations – you have made the right choice.

33. Nobody needs to spend more than £2,500 on a bicycle. I’ve experienced the full panoply of frame materials – aluminium, steel, titanium and carbon – and I’ve loved them all. You can experience the same joy as I have done without spending the equivalent of the price of a new hatchback.

34. I have never envied another person’s bicycle. I don’t go looking for another bike to own. All my bikes found me.

35. I can recall miserable wet rides from years ago – the people I was with, where we went, where we stopped when we punctured – but I can remember barely anything from some of the warm, sunny rides that should have been more memorable. Hot days wipe my memory.

36. Women are the best people to ride with. Men specialise in talking about facts and objects; women tend to talk about people and experiences. They are more observant of character and more aware of absurdity. If I’m going to chat with someone for three hours or more, I know which gender I’d prefer them to be.

37. Book and magazine publishers, please note the following: no one has ever said, “Brilliant! Another lengthy retread of obscure cycling history, told with a personal twist! I’ve just got to read this!”

38. Bicycle races are even more fun when you watch them with Littlejen. My romantical partner is quite a reserved person, but my goodness – you should hear the gob on her during the Tour.

39. Jen is that rarest of people: a cycling fan who loves cycling yet hardly ever rides. She enjoys the spectacle and occasional absurdity of professional cycling; the nerdery and punditry are anathema to her. We need more Littlejens in cycling.

40. Sometimes, when you’re out on your bike, you’ll want to go as hard as you can. On other occasions you might be out for a pootle. Similarly, when I’m being serious, I try to be as engaging and argumentative as I can be; if I’m being daft or whimsical, I put in as many funny bits as I can think of. I wish more people did the same. Write like you ride.

Why Chris Froome might not win the Tour de France

June 14, 2013

Chris Froome is likely to win the Tour de France because he has won this year’s edition of the Dauphiné. If you crunched the numbers and analyzed the manner of his victory, that might turn out to be an accurate prediction. Purely from a historical perspective, though, the opposite is true: Froome is unlikely to win in July, chiefly because he won in June and has never won the Tour before.

Only Luis Ocaña (1973), Bernard Thévenet (1975) and Bradley Wiggins (2012) have won the Dauphiné and claimed their first or solitary TdF victory in the same year. That’s three riders in the 66-year history of the Dauphiné, with a 37-year gap between the second and third. And the notion of the Dauphiné as a harbinger of a debut Tour win becomes even flimsier when you consider that Ocaña, a winner of the Dauphiné on two previous occasions, had the advantage of Eddy Merckx’s absence from the ’73 Tour.

I want Froome to win this year. I would also like him to take at least two more Tour wins. Because if he does, he will have bested Thevénet’s achievement of being the only member of this select Dauphiné-Tour club to take a second Tour de France victory.

Ten questions we may never get answered

January 17, 2013

lance and oprah

1. Will you publicly acknowledge, for the sake of your own dignity and the wider sporting community, that triathlon isn’t actually a proper sport?

2. Can anyone actually pronounce “Madone” without having to Google it?

3. Black socks. Whose idea was that, sunshine?

4. You know back in the day, when David Letterman used to announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, the five-time winner of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong!” and a fat kid wearing a yellow jersey would ride through the studio audience on a Trek while the band played a speeded-up version of Proud Mary? How long did you have to spend in makeup to pull that one off? And can you put one of those clips on YouTube? Man, I loved those skits. Great times.

5. You always surprised your rivals with an unexpected, audacious move that allowed you to gain the upper hand psychologically. When’s the cookbook coming out?

6. After all that’s happened, how can you expect any of us to believe that you were the first person to ride a bike on the moon? And without oxygen? Seriously WTF?

7. Do you know that when Festinagirl daydreams about frenching Bertie, she opens her eyes mid-snog and sees your face?

8. Honey Stingers – you could call ‘em Bee PO! Hahahaha! Just putting that one out there, buddy.

9. Contrary to what’s been reported, can you confirm the only performance-enhancing rugs are on either side of Bradley Wiggins’ face?

10. Doping isn’t a victimless crime. Because of what you’ve done, thousands of us in the UK will ingest massive levels of caffeine to watch this ruddy interview at two o’clock in the morning. HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL, YOU MONSTER?

Lance falling

October 11, 2012

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.

Bradically different

July 26, 2012

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.

Tea de France: week four and the Tea GC

July 22, 2012

Stage 19, Saturday 21 June
Bonneval – Chartres (ITT), 53.5km
Winner: Bradley Wiggins (Sky)
Brew: Fruits Rouge Wu Long
They say: “Raspberry and wild strawberry flavors. Low in caffeine.”
We say: Yeah, sure – it’s just raspberry and strawberry, like Wiggins’ time trial victory was just pedaling and a funny helmet. The brief description above doesn’t do justice to the full, rollicking ride this tea takes you on. Open the sachet and whompf – we’re rolling down the ramp with a fizzing raspberry aroma. Empty it in the pot, pour in the water and you’re settling in to the scent of wet earth. Then comes the long, steady brewing section (at a recommended time of seven minutes, this was the longest wait of all our teas) followed by a woody taste hitting the finish line at the back of your palate. Bravo!

Stage 20, Sunday 22 July
Rambouillet – Paris Champs-Élysées, 120km
Winner: Mark Cavendish (Sky)
Brews: Pu Er Imperial and Dong Ding
They say: Pu Er: “A very fine crop, with many buds for this very particular type of tea. Its powerful scent is reminiscent of damp soil and bark. Its name means ‘trouser bottom’. A Chinese folk tale tells how the tea pickers keep the best leaves for themselves, hiding them in their pockets before taking them home with them. Pu Er tea is highly regarded in Chinese medicine for its curative properties. It lowers cholesterol levels, they say, it dissolves fats, helps digestion, improves blood circulation and lowers the effects of alcohol. This tea improves with age, owing to the specific type of fermentation that affects the tannins.”
Dong Ding: “This tea which grows on the eponymous mountain, means ‘Icy peak’. It is considered by tea lovers to be one of Taiwan’s best. The leaf, which is pearly and moderately fermented, gives the liqueur a particular yellow-orange colour that is unique in the world of tea. Its scent is both silky and lively, its taste recalls the flowery side of the little fermented Wu Long (oolong) teas and also that of the fruitier, woodier Fancy teas. An exceptional crop.”
We say: The final day of the Tour is supposed to be simple: a procession into Paris, a crit on the Champs Élysées and we’re done. If only the last section of our tea odyssey had been as straightforward. Pu Er, while in the packet, smells more like ordinary tea than all the other brews we’ve had. Add hot water and the scent is transformed: we’re in a wood-paneled room that retains the oddly comforting aroma of old cigarette smoke. A sip reveals that it actually tastes like tobacco, too. A few more gulps of this red-tinged oddity and we’ve acclimatised. I have a second cup; Jen passes. We decide to give Dong Ding a spin and our opinions become more sharply divided: I think it has a gassy odour, while the taste reminds me of farts and wet, miserable afternoons in Balham; Jen smells the perfumes Opium and Amarige and tastes… well, nothing really. But at least we both agree that Dong Ding is a bit of a clanger.

The Tea GC
It’s been a historic three weeks of racing, and an incredible four weekends of drinking teas. Now we reveal which brews are our Wiggins, Froome and Nibali.
Third place: Thé des Moines. Light, calming, floral. A delight.
Second place: Thé du Hammam. Creamy, vanilla-like, echoes of Earl Grey. And it leaves a mild tingle on your tongue.
First place: Margaret’s Hope. Malty with a rich, woody aftertaste. Deep and enriching. A classic.

So there you have it. Our tea journey has been drained to the very dregs. If you fancy some of the brews me and Jen have been tasting, have a look at Le Palais Des Thés. Happy supping!

Tea de France: week three

July 19, 2012

Stage 13, Saturday 14 July
Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux – Le Cap d’Agde, 217km
Winner: Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol)
Brew: Thé du Hammam
They say: “Inspired by a Turkish recipe using green tea, Thé du Hammam is a fruity blend which evokes the fragrances used to perfume the hamman [Turkish bath]: roses, green dates, red fruit and orange flower water. Sprinkled with flower petals in the purest of eastern traditions, the tea’s extraordinary fragrance features a subtle combination of Chinese green tea, celebrated for its freshness and thirst-quenching properties, and rich fruit aromas.”
We say: We found our Wiggins in the form of Margaret’s Hope – and now we’ve discovered the Chris Froome of tea. In Jen’s words, “It’s like walking into a sweetshop. But with your tongue.” A creamy, vanilla-like flavour with echoes of Earl Grey and a slightly tingly aftertaste, this is the least bitter of all the green teas we have had so far. It’s our number two tea, and it’s fruity. Our two tea fruity.

Stage 14, Sunday 15 July
Limoux – Foix, 191km
Winner: Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank)
Brew: Thé des Moines
They say: “Inspired by an ancient recipe created in a Tibetan monastery, Thé des Moines is a rare blend with a unique flavour. Legend tells how the monks would prepare this blend of tea, plants and flowers in the greatest of secrecy. After several days of soaking, the leaves were carefully plucked out and put to one side. By this mysterious alchemy the monks turned the tea into gold and gave Thé des Moines its exceptional scent.”
We say: Did someone say something about punctures and total chaos on today’s stage? I can’t say we noticed too much as we were becalmed by the perfume of this black and green tea blend. An earthy, slightly floral taste. A delight.

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