Cyclist Conversations

‘So how d’you get on?’ ‘It was rubbish, a long 1.’ ‘Oh tough. What was the course?’ ‘The G17/29.’ ‘What? With all the roundabouts?’ ‘That’s the one.’ ‘So who won?’ ‘I’m not sure. I think it was old Charlie Starkweather with a short 53. But I didn’t hang around, it was cold.’ ‘Who was organising? Was it Hanratty?’ ‘No, it was his wife, you know – Klondike Mary.’ ‘No, not Klondike! I remember one time, a few years back, I did the B52 course out by the airfield, I had my new Dolan…’ ‘With the Zipps?’ ‘No, this was before Zipps. I was using the Hed cases with Contis…’ ‘Great tyre.’ ‘Yeah, although I had a load of punctures in ’83, you know when we had that miserable winter…’ ‘Yeah, I remember. I was on the XL5/42 out by Shagrabbit Ridge and I was all set for a short 55, would have been a PB and this absolute twat…’ ‘Yeah, what?’ ‘This absolute twat right, came out of nowhere, he was on a Roberts…’ ‘One of the new ones?’ ‘Yeah, Campag…’ ‘Chorus?’ ‘Nah, Athena and those Greg Lemond bars and he…’ ‘What?’ ‘He…’ ‘What?’ ‘Let me finish. He came out of nowhere and whoosh, he went right past me and could I catch him…’ ‘Could you?’ ‘Nah, not a chance. Mind you…’ ‘What?’ ‘He missed the turning, got lost, came last ha ha.’ ‘Twat.’ ‘Yeah, twat.’ ‘Any way. What you doing now. Fancy a coffee?’ ‘Nah, I’m going home. See ya.’ ‘Oh, you doing the 2 up week after next?’ ‘What, the WD40 out by, you know, Shipman’s Folly?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Dunno, you?’ ‘Nah.’  

The Old Man and the Seat

Nick took his bike down from the rack and wheeled it out of the shed. He had many bikes but this was his favourite. It was a good bicycle, one of the best. He loved the clean lines, the pale blue colour, the shiny components. Nick was old and tired. His hair growing thin, his skin dark and tanned, no excess fat, slim muscled legs, strong calves. He poured a daiquiri from the jug and the salty spirit moistened his lips. He removed a fat Cuban cigar from his top pocket, bit the end off and stuck it in his mouth, rolling it around with his tongue before dipping it in the oily flame from his Zippo. The bicycle was his friend. He remembered the good times, the best of times. Those were good times when they rode to Les Invalides and drank good coffee by the Seine and when it was dark they rode home again. They didn’t have lights but  they weren’t afraid, they were never afraid except for Scott who was always afraid and kept falling over. Nick cleaned his bicycle carefully, using a toothbrush on the cassette and an old rag to polish the metal. He loved how it shone in the weak sunlight. Now it was true and honest and clean and it was good. Nick sat down on his garden chair. It was worn and brown and cracked. He wished he had kept it in better condition, like his bicycle. His bicycle was true and honest like a man, a good man but his garden seat was a woman, soft and uncertain and changeable. Nick grew wistful as he gazed at the cloudless sky and thought of seats. Nick looked at his bicycle and then he looked at his chair. He looked at the saddle. It was a brown Brooks saddle, worn and faded but the shape fit him perfectly, he could lose the bicycle but not the saddle. He would keep the saddle and they would grow old together and keep each other warm. He stroked the hard leather, his fingers catching on the shiny rivets. Bicycles could be changed and replaced, they didn’t last but a good saddle was a seat forever. His wife joined him in the garden with a cup of tea. ‘Look Pilar,’ said Nick, stroking the saddle. ‘Is she not fine?’ ‘Yes, she is fine,’ said Pilar. ‘She is very fine.  But I prefer a Fizik.’ With apologies to Ernest Hemingway

Ultegrysses

Far beyond the evening’s early glow and the late commuter traffic is damping down, there is a cool breeze as I glide down the hill to Corkscrew. I see Mike mad miling from Selsdon past the dog walkers and ipod runners as he eases past the roundabout changing down for the early rise to Layhams. My cleats cleave to my soles and my soul soars as I settle in behind him, we nod, no words are needed we know the route, the pace, the plan, who will win tonight and best the climbs. And on the road where angels fear to tread on Beddlestead, along the Ridge the swirling wind buffets me bump bump bumpy road bump suface bump with Chaucers pilgrims yclept the Miller’s Tale I open the sprint down Clarks Lane and further down and bend double to reduce the wind spring, spotting every tiny road blemish twig and stone past Church Hill the Lord is with me I feel and taste the salty sweat it snakes a line down my forehead briefly pausing to re-group at my eye brow over and through my hair it is caught on my eyelid I blink and shake my head but cannot pause the final slide into my eye stinging and biting seeping into my eyeball and I squeeze my eyes shut yes but there is no respite or relief. Along the Pilgrims Way with the sun flashing through the treees, past the tilled and ruptured brown fields, slip streaming on Mike’s wheel, fingers dancing on the levers, click I change down click leaning forward click, frantic on the pedals, heart beating faster, oncoming Land Rover with clanking hay strewn trailer forces me over to the side, the road rises and curves to the left then right, slow for the junction, sweeping riders rushing past, a slight raise of the hand from the bars acknowledges a fellow rider, plashing brown puddles flick dirty droplets up and coat the frame, feathering the brakes and it is free and warm and glorious yes and the kites are swooping above the fields mice catching and diving yes and my mind is empty, all spare thought focussed on the ride and the day and the past is behind and the future is ahead and I am in the present and that is all that matters no-one will  catch me now no watch me go go go yes and a Strava segment coming up, extra effort to pass Mike up up sweat flows freely and stings my eyes again yes and I shall ride this road for evermore, past Ovenden sprint and Cow Poo Corner oh no we have dropped Damien the turn to Hog Trough yes and Chevening cowers behind the trees, pot holes and bumps, drainage ditches, loose stones and gravel unseat the careless yes and we push on the Garmin on its out-front mount betrays the speed, time, distance, cadence, heart rate yes and now the Star Hill roundabout pause yes and wait for passing cars and we ease onto Pol Hill busy, busy impatient cars with a clear stretch of road yes and the trees close by and gloomy, hold that big ring all the way yes and the gradual bend to the left yes and Mike pulls away yes strong and determined 6 feet, 3 yards, 20 feet, my rhythm falters and the road opens up and the gradient eases one extra effort and I will catch him yes though my heart will burst yes but he is gone and clatters through the gears and ups the pace legs whirring yes while I am frantic panting and almost there and he swings round the final bend but I summon one final  effort and I can catch him yes I can yes I can catch him yes and I catch him yes and then I pass him yes and yes I say yes and again yes and again yes.   With apologies to James Joyce

A Farewell to Armstrong

Films about sports are seldom successful; actors aren’t great sports people and sports people don’t make great actors. ‘Escape to Victory’ was a film set in a prisoner of war camp where the inmates started a football team; I seem to remember Bobby Moore and Pele were in it (they couldn’t act) and also Michael Caine (he couldn’t play football). Rocky was a good film but Sylvester Stallone wouldn’t last a minute against Mike Tyson. However, Stephen Frear’s film about Lance Armstrong – The Program – is entirely believable. For one thing Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong is uncanny and the cycling sequences are entirely convincing. The story has been told many times before and is based on Sunday Times journalist David Walsh’s (here played by Chris O’Dowd – good but way too young) refusal to accept that Lance is clean and his dogged pursuit of the truth. All of the key moments of Walsh’s books are here – Lance’s hospital confession in front of Betsy and Frankie Andreu that he’d taken performance enhancing drugs; Lance asking for a back-dated TUE for cortisone because of saddle sores and his comment to Emma O’Reilly – ‘now you know enough to bring me down;’ his description of her as a whore; Lance’s comments to Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simione about ‘omerta’ in the peloton; the motor-cyclist delivering blood bags and syringes to the team bus, etc. Walsh is the ‘hero’ – the only one who refuses to believe that Lance is riding clean, alienating friends and colleagues because he dares to question the great man. The villain of the piece is Dr Michele Ferrari who is shown cynically manipulating Lance (after his request) to prove how science can bring remarkable changes to someone’s performance, although Ferrari’s Joe Dolce ‘Shaddap you face’ accent grates. The other out and out villain is Johann Bruyneel – shown as up to his neck in the whole conspiracy while the other riders including Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis (played by Jesse Plemons, late of Breaking Bad) are sucked into Lance’s game plan. It’s hard to see the film being of much interest to a non-cycling fan – captions give the names of key individuals eg ‘Floyd Landis’ and ‘Johann Bruyneel’ but unless you know who they are you’d be in the dark. A few scenes strike the wrong note – Alberto Contador is shown near the end as Lance attempts his comeback tour but although he is dark and Spanish looking he is not nearly thin enough. Dustin Hoffman (yes, him) has a small part as Bob Hamman, the insurance agent who was forced to pay out win bonuses when Armstrong won the tour seven times. Armstrong’s motivation is depicted as: 1) all of the others were doing it and he wouldn’t win otherwise and 2) having beaten cancer, to him everything was possible and allowed. Scenes of Ben Foster and the other actors cycling are cleverly intercut with genuine footage and no cycling film would be complete without appearances by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, although thankfully we are spared Sean Kelly, Ned Boulting and, most importantly, David Millar (although he is ‘Cycling Consultant’ – what about? Doping?) The bikes – built by Condor when originals couldn’t be found – and race jerseys and other kit are all faithfully reproduced and the iconic picture of Lance lying on his L-shaped sofa in his giant living room with his 7 Tour jerseys framed on the walls is faithfully reproduced. The film ends with his famous interview with Oprah Winfrey; it has her ask the questions which Ben Foster as Lance then answers as he confesses all. Do you learn anything new about Armstrong? No. Is the film worth seeing? Definitely. Is it a film about sports which is believable? Indubitably. Is it worth seeing if you’re not interested in cycling? Probably not. Did Lance deserve a lifetime ban? Now that’s a different blog.

Tangfastic

Jeff turned left and soon the road started rising. It had been warm, almost hot in the valley with the strong sun and little cloud but as he climbed higher the sun slipped behind the trees and the temperature fell. Jeff didn’t mind; he wore a base layer beneath his top and the exertion of climbing kept him warm. He settled into a steady cadence and kept his head down, watching his Garmin and occasionally glancing at his feet. His right leg was stronger and he noticed that his left knee jutted outwards on the upward pedal stroke but he felt comfortable and believed he could hold this pace to the top of the pass. The trees were thicker now; tall pines close together and he could see little as he glanced to right and left. A few other cyclists had passed him, some heading down, some up but he had seen no-one for the last 10 minutes and there were no cars. The road was smooth and clean and his carbon rims sliced through the air. Beneath his helmet he wore a cap facing backwards to protect his neck; the close fit also stopped the sweat from sliding into his eyes. The occasional chain rub and the squeak of tyre on tarmac was the only sound to be heard. Jeff’s mind wandered; he loved this time – while cycling his mind could focus on a particular topic, turning it over and over or else it remained blank, all energy and brain power directed to his legs, heart and lungs. He reached down and took a sip from his bottle and reached into his pocket for a fig roll. The crumbly sweetness and sticky fig seeped into his blood-stream and gave a spark of extra energy. He watched his cadence and heart rate on the Garmin and scrolled through the screens – time, distance, speed, average heart rate, metres climbed, calories burned, so much data. He felt a sharp bump beneath his front tyre and the bike started to wobble. As he always did when he got a puncture he refused to believe it was really happening – as if the tyre would plug the hole itself or he would ride on and it would miraculously inflate. But it never did and it didn’t this time. He stopped the bike and dismounted; his cleats clattering on the dark road. He looked around; the forest was dense and impenetrable, a carpet of leaves covered the ground. The sun was hidden and it was cold and gloomy. He pushed the button on the Campagnolo brake lever to relax the brake blocks and undid the quick release lever; the wheel slipped out and he fell into his practiced routine. He found his tyre levers and levered the bead from the rim. He pulled the tube out and then pulled the tyre from the rim. He ran the tyre through his fingers, looking and feeling for whatever had caused the damage. He found nothing. He rotated it again, more slowly this time, the tips of his fingers gliding over the rubber, searching for a tell-tale flint or thorn. Still nothing. A voice came from behind him. ‘Y’all right mate?’ Jeff turned around. He was a tall, lean man wearing full Rapha Sky kit, a Kask helmet and orange lace up Giro shoes. He had mirrored Oakley shades, a thin face and a full beard. He was astride a black Pinarello with Zipp wheels and a full Dura-Ace group-set. No shortage of money there, thought Jeff. ‘Need any help?’ Jeff looked at him. The shades reflected Jeff’s own face; he couldn’t see the cyclist’s eyes. ‘Where the hell did he come from?’ Jeff thought. ‘Have you got a spare tube?’ he asked. The cyclist unzipped the bag velcroed to his seat post, removed a tube and held it out. ‘Thanks.’ said Jeff. Jeff put the tyre on the rim seating one side of the bead. ‘Have you got a pump?’ Wordlessly, the cyclist removed his pump from where it was attached to his frame behind the bottle on the down tube and handed it to him. Jeff attached the pump to the valve and pumped a little air into the tube. He pushed the tube onto the rim beneath the tyre and worked it around. He began to roll the tyre onto the rim. The tyre was tight and stiff; the last few inches were always the hardest. Jeff bent over the wheel, rolling the tyre with his thumbs. He pushed his tyre lever into the remaining gap and levered the final section of bead onto the rim. He worked the valve up and down and waggled it to seat it fully in the tyre. The other cyclist reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small Co2 inflator. ‘Here’ he said. Jeff screwed the inflator to the valve and squeezed the trigger on the pump. The icy gas raced through the tube and left white crystals on his fingers. He removed the inflator and handed it back to the cyclist. The tyre was hard and ready. Jeff slipped the wheel into the drop-outs and pushed in the button on his Campagnolo brake lever. He collected up the old tube and rolled it tightly and put it in his tool bag together with his tyre levers. ‘Thanks’ he said. ‘Wanna fig roll?’ The cyclist thought for a moment. ‘Ta’ he said. Jeff reached into his back pocket and removed two fig rolls wrapped in foil. He handed one to the cyclist. They stood together in silence at the side of the dark piney forest, leaning against their bikes, the only sound the chomping of dusty fig rolls, as the clouds drifted apart and the hard bright sun gradually emerged. ‘Tangfastic?’ said Jeff. ‘Don’t mind if I do.’ Jeff reached into his other pocket and pulled out a handful of Haribo tangfastics. The cyclist took two, a blue and green one and an orange and yellow one. He bit into them and twisted his lips as the sourness hit his tongue. He took two more. ‘I’ll have these later,’ he said. A group of about six cyclists rolled past, all dressed in identical Sky Rapha kits and shiny blue Kask helmets, legs pumping on their shiny Pinarellos. A Jaguar XKE followed close behind and rolled to a stop. ‘Hey Brad’ called the driver. ‘You coming?’  

Sportives – toll roads for cyclists

Before the coming of Starbucks, coffee was sold in cafes (greasy spoons) or in tea shops where it was tolerated but not encouraged. Starbucks’ greatest trick was to get people to believe that paying £3 for a cup of coffee with a silly name in a ‘coffee shop’ was better than paying £1 in a cafe. Now, cafes are dying but coffee shops are everywhere and the coffee is invariably sold with a Panini (that’s a toasted sandwich – £4.95) and an Italian style biscuit (£2.95) and the specials are written on a blackboard and there’s a poster of Marco Pantani on the wall. Likewise, back in the day – pre Di2, pre carbon wheels, pre Rapha, pre Bradley Wiggins, pre ‘bike fits’ – a cyclist who fancied a long ride on a Sunday got on their bike, met their mates and went for a ride. They rode on ordinary roads, carried bananas or jam sandwiches for when they got hungry and stopped at a cafe for a bacon roll, a slice of fruit cake and a cup of tea. They would pass other cyclists along the way and exchange a cheery hello with Nobby or Binky or Lionel or Moocher and arrive home in the afternoon just in time to watch the Big Match while the wife cooked a roast. The more OCD ones recorded the distance in a grubby notebook kept for such a purpose and in the evening they hung their damp woollen shorts in front of the open fire to dry while they read the Daily Mail and smoked a woodbine. And then someone invented the sportive and, like Starbucks, the world changed. No longer could you just go for a ride; first you had to register and if it was too popular you couldn’t get in! And now you had to pay – £25, £35, even £50 – just to ride on the Queen’s highway across a land your grandfather fought for! Toll roads for cyclists. On the appointed day you turned up with the other suckers and got a timing chip (like you didn’t already have a cycling computer or a watch). You followed a route – maybe even the same route you had ridden for free a few weeks ago and occasionally a bored looking Marshall in a yellow tabard would point the way. Every 25 miles there would be a ‘feed stop’ – some trestle tables laden with (yes) bananas, the cheapest of cheap cakes and a tap to fill your bottle. If you were lucky there was a portable toilet where 200 people queued to pee in a glorified bucket. There were no more cheery hellos at other cyclists. This was (unofficially) a race and other riders had to be ignored or (ideally) abused. Those who had chosen the shorter route had to be mocked and sneered at and if they rode a mountain bike or, heaven forfend, a hybrid, were to be ignored completely. At the end of the ride you passed under a flimsy banner which announced the finish line and then you went home and watched some cycling on Eurosport while the wife made you a Panini with mozazarella, rocket and sun-dried tomatoes. The more OCD riders then loaded their ride onto Strava and waited for the kudos to flood in. And now there is a sportive ‘calendar’ and every charity raises money with one and they have silly names – Hellfire Corner, Purbeck Hills Saurus, Dragon Ride – and each one has a special jersey and a logoed bottle and every year the price gets higher and I miss the days of cycling just for fun, the cafe and the bacon roll and Nobby and Binky and Lionel and Moocher and the Big Match and my Woodbine and Daily Mail, my damp woollen shorts and the wife.

A week in Mallorca

A week in Mallorca Day One December was cold with gusts of snow and biting winds and even though I got out on my bike I needed some warmth. Steve and Sally, Mig and Father Jack had all been to Mallorca and recommended it and the Sky team and others used it as a training ground so if it was good enough for them…I decided to go. I was due some holiday in March so I searched online for a flight and accommodation. Steve and Sally had suggested the Hotel Uyal in Port de Pollenca but it was all booked up for my chosen week so I searched around and booked a week at the Hotel Illa d’Or and a flight on Monarch from Gatwick. I decided to rent a bike and found a Planet X carbon with SRAM Red at 2Go Cycling (http://www.2gocycling.com) and booked that online. My flight from Gatwick was uneventful and we landed at Palma after 2 hours. I made my way to the taxi point just outside the arrivals lounge and my taxi was waiting for me – a comfortable Mercedes. We drove north through the dark as it started to rain. ‘Fuck, it’s raining’ I texted my wife. Arriving at the hotel I checked in to a warm welcome and was shown to my room. It was a single room with hardly space to swing a bike helmet so I asked to move to a double room which was an additional supplement but as the hotel wasn’t full they had space to spare – a fine room with a balcony overlooking the sea. After a bite to eat I unpacked and went to bed. Day Two I woke early and went out on the balcony. It was cloudy and cold and windy but it wasn’t raining. After breakfast I waited for my bike to be delivered. Shortly after 9 a van pulled up and my bike was unloaded. It had mountain bike pedals! ‘I wanted SPD pedals,’ I said. ‘Yes, these are SPD pedals.’ ‘Oh sorry I meant the other ones.’ ‘What other ones?’ ‘Er, you know Shimano road pedals.’ ‘But you asked for these Senor.’ ‘Yes, I know, my mistake. Have you got road pedals?’ ‘No Senor.’ ‘Not here or not at the shop?’ ‘We have them at the shop Senor.’ I cadged a lift in the van and we headed back to the shop where the pedals were changed over. I had brought my own saddlebag with spare tubes and tools and a pump but the bike came fitted with these already. It also had a bottle but I bought another one just in case. The bike also had a computer fitted but as I had a Garmin I used that instead. Back in the hotel I quickly got changed and headed out. For my first ride I decided to go to Cap Formentor as it was on the doorstep and I thought it would make a good introduction. Remembering to ride on the right I headed off and almost immediately reached the first climb. A series of switchbacks stretched ahead of me and there was a strong wind. I settled into a rhythm and headed upwards. The road was smooth, clean and clear – no potholes, shards of glass, dog-shit or the other detritus clogging English roads. After some 20 minutes of steady climbing I reached a car park with a look-out point where I paused to catch my breath and admire the view. A long descent came next through a wooded area before emerging onto a less good road surface before arriving at a tunnel through the mountain. The tunnel was dark without lights and I had no lights on my bike. I forgot to remove my sunglasses and entered the tunnel. Soon the blackness was complete – I couldn’t tell how close I was to the sides or whether the road was clean and I started to wobble and almost lost control of the bike. I only just made it through. The road emerged onto a rocky headland curled round a series of bends and reached the lighthouse at Cap Formentor. I paused to eat a roll and a Kit-Kat with the other cyclists and take a few photos of the wild goats that clustered round. There was a series of steady climbs on the way back to stretch the legs and then a long sweeping descent back to Port de Pollenca with the whole bay stretched out below me. I had only covered some 20 miles so decided to ride round the bay to Alcudia. Through Port de Pollenca the road follows the bay and a cycle path runs beside the road. With the breaking sea on my left, hardly any traffic and a flat, smooth road to follow I maintained a steady 18mph all the way to Alcudia. The old town of Alcudia nestles behind stone walls and I walked the narrow alleys in the bright sunshine, rocking on my cycle cleats. Back in the hotel I stored my bike in a large, lockable store-room along with some other bikes – clearly I was not alone. Miles ridden: 35 Total elevation: 903 metres Day Three I went down to breakfast early. It was a buffet breakfast with everything you could imagine plus more. I ate the same things each day – freshly squeezed orange juice (2 glasses), fresh fruit (orange, grapefruit, melon), cheese, salami, sausage, bacon, croissant, rolls, coffee. I headed out to Alcudia and then Port d’Alcudia. This was in sharp contract to Alcudia, a long strip of road like the strip in Las Vegas but without the charm. On either side were bars and burger restaurants, run down apartment blocks and anonymous looking hotels. Perhaps on the other side of the road there was a beautiful sandy beach but I didn’t see it. I passed many cyclists going in both directions, often in organised groups but there were also many cyclists on their own like me. Soon the buildings petered out and a long, straight, smooth road cut through the nature reserve of Albufera to Can Picafort, another tourist resort. After Can Picafort, the built up area disappeared and I was riding through the ‘real’ Mallorca, past fields, stone built farm-houses, olive groves. The road was still fine and clean but there was a sharp drop on either side where the road ends – slipping off the edge here would mean a painful crash. Occasional pelotons of cyclists would whoosh past me – invariably Germans dressed in the colours of their tour organiser. I turned off the road down to Colonia St Pere, a sleepy seaside village. Many houses were still shuttered for the season and there were few locals to be seen and even fewer tourists. I paused on the sea-front hoping for a coffee stop and something to eat but the only cafe open was still setting up and not yet ready to serve food so I wandered round the small marina and then headed along the coastal road. The sun was out now and it was warm and the sky was blue. I followed the road past dusty fields and shuttered houses and came across what seemed to be a holiday complex, now closed and run-down. Dogs barked at me from behind a fence, a slide and swings were rusted and collapsing, a tennis court overgrown with weeds (no Rafael Nadal effect here), and the remains of an ice cream kiosk, now faded and empty. The road petered out at the edge of a small bay and there was police tape stretched across the road. A murder scene here in the middle of nowhere? I turned around and a group of riders on horseback appeared, upright in their weathered, leather saddles. They dismounted and slipped past the police tape and headed into a muddy gully between rocks. I decided to turn round and head back to Colonia St Pere. The restaurant was open now and I sat at a table overlooking the sea. The waiter brought me a menu. The food was posh with an emphasis on fresh fish. ‘Can I just have a sandwich?’ I asked. ‘No, Senor, we don’t have sandwiches.’ I ordered a salad with marinated chicken and a lime juice with sparkling water. The waiter returned with a basket of bread with fresh olives and a bottle of sparkling water and a small jug of tart freshly squeezed lime juice. Shortly after he brought the salad along with a bottle of balsamic vinegar, a bottle of olive oil and a bottle of red wine. It was delicious. After lunch I headed back up the hill to the main road and then the long drag back through Can Picafort and Port d’Alcudia to Port de Pollenca. Miles ridden: 55 Total elevation: 581 metres Day Four I decided to book a taxi and go to Deia and then cycle back. The taxi arrived promptly at 9 and we headed off down the motorway towards Palma. The weather got brighter and bluer and warmer as we moved further inland and we drove through lanes past olive groves. The houses were much grander here, larger and better maintained with strong gates and the blue glint of swimming pools glimpsed through the trees. The road climbed steadily through Vallambrosa, a beautiful sun dappled town draped around the hills and then the taxi hugged the steep road and wound its way to Deia. Deia was very different from the coastal resorts. Exclusive, expensive looking hotels at the end of long wooded drives, celebrity houses (Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were rumoured to be occasional residents), narrow alleys and trinket shops. I didn’t linger but rode through the village, pausing at Robert Graves’s house – he had put Deia on the map (for foreigners anyway) and an artist’s colony had grown up around him. The house was only open on Tuesdays and Fridays so I followed the road which now began a long twisting descent into Soller. Off to the left the sea shimmered and glinted and there were houses built overlooking the sea and perched on the edge of cliffs. I rode through Soller, occasionally checking the map and stopping to ask directions. I was heading for Fornaluxt and almost immediately the road began to climb. There were very few cars and the road was smooth and clean with regular hair-pin bends. I had never cycled on the continent before and this was my first taste of a ‘continental’ climb. Although not particularly steep it had a steady gradient that just seemed to go on and on. I settled into my lowest gear, which was only a 34 x 25 and pedaled on. I stopped a couple of times to check the map and once for a toilet stop. After about 10 miles I came to a car which had mounted the metal barrier at the side of the road and was now perched at an angle of about 45 degrees. There didn’t seem to be anyone in it but I thought it best to check – occasional cars sped past without stopping probably thinking the same as everyone else – ‘I’m sure someone’s checked.’ I was glad of the rest and went over and peered inside – it was empty. Back on my bike I continued the climb. Other cyclists passed me, which irritated me but didn’t surprise me. I felt it would never end and after a while one hairpin bend looked the same as another – I was convinced I was going round in circles – bend, forest, view stretching down the valley to Soller nestled far below followed by bend, forest, view stretching down the valley to Soller nestled far below followed by … At last after some 2 hours I reached the Monaber tunnel and a look-out point overlooking the valley. Far below the burnt out remains of a car was visible but how it had got there was hard to fathom. I had brought my rear light in readiness for another tunnel and switched it on. Nothing happened and I realized I had removed the batteries before storing it in my suit-case. I removed my sunglasses and latched onto the wheel of another cyclist and followed him through the tunnel. A long, sweeping descent past two man-made reservoirs brought me to a café near the Sa Calobra turn-off. I stopped here for orange juice, a salami roll and chocolate. The road then continued, mainly downhill, all the way back to Port de Pollenca. I arrived back at the hotel at the same time as another cyclist and we got talking. Brian was Scottish, lived in Basingstoke, belonged to the North Hampshire Road Club and was here with his wife. Brian said that he had hired a car and suggested driving to the café stop and then riding Sa Calobra thus cutting out the long climb of the Col Sa Battala. I wasn’t sure if this was cheating but Brian felt it wasn’t, so I agreed and we planned to go on Wednesday. Miles ridden: 45 Total elevation: 1380 metres Day Five I planned a longer ride. Before leaving I had printed out some rides from a couple of blogs (http://22stonecyclist.com/mallorca-the-island-of-cyclists) and I decided to follow one of their routes. I headed out to Port d’Alcudia again and then turned off the main road passing through 8 feet high fields of swaying reeds at the edge of the nature reserve. I passed through Sa Pobla, Llubi and Maria heading for Petra. I saw a sign to Buger but didn’t pick that route. The final stretch of road into Petra was heavy with traffic and a buffeting wind with only a narrow cycling strip beside the main road and I was glad to turn off into Petra itself. I passed along narrow streets with blind bends. Mallorcan locals stood in doorways putting the world to rights as happens everywhere. I followed the maze of streets and emerged into a square crowded with cyclists. There must have been well over 50 of them sitting at tables with their bikes supported on racks. I sat down and a waitress brought me a glass of coca cola and a plate of orange segments. Nice but I hadn’t asked for it. She obviously assumed I was part of the organised rides and this was the standard fare. Instead I sucked the juicy flesh from the orange segments and ordered freshly squeezed orange juice and a burger and chips. The cyclists were mainly from Max Hurtzeler, a German organization based in Port d’Alcudia. Ample middle aged and older Germans sat around while their Cube and Canyon bikes were stacked around them. I was wearing a Rapha top and while I stood around taking some pictures a man came up to me. ‘Are you German?’ he asked. ‘God no,’ I replied. ‘Er sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m English.’ ‘There is a Rapha shop over there,’ he said. ‘Is it cheaper than England?’ I asked. ‘No.’ That’s Rapha I suppose. Reassuringly expensive everywhere. I finished my hamburger (beef burger actually) but hopefully horse free and headed off. I took the road well travelled heading back to the Can Picafort road. A mainly straight road, very fast through the stony, dusty landscape. Back in Port de Pollenca I called into 2Go Cycling to see if I could get a bike with a bigger rear sprocket in readiness for Sa Calobra tomorrow. They had some Specialized aluminium bikes with 28 sprockets but the change didn’t seem worth it so I decided to stick with the Planet X. Miles ridden: 62 Total elevation: 539 metres Day Six  I met Brian and we loaded our bikes into his hired Ford Fiesta and he drove to the café stop near the start of the Sa Calobra climb. There is a short climb before reaching the start of Sa Calobra and my rear derailleur appeared stuck and wouldn’t move into top gear. I had high hopes of having to abandon but Brian was able to fix it for me and we carried on. ‘What sort of time are you aiming for?’ said Brian. ‘I’m not aiming for any time,’ I replied. ‘Are you a good climber?’ he asked. ‘No.’ Sa Calobra is the most famous climb on the island – a twisting, turning road heading down to the small village by the sea. It is the only way down and the only way up so don’t descend unless you’re prepared for the ride back. The sky was blue with wisps of cloud and the sun was warm. However the road is very exposed and buffeting winds can catch you off guard. Brian stopped a couple of times to take pictures. ‘Don’t wait for me,’ I said. ‘I’ll just go at my own pace.’ He didn’t and disappeared down the bends in his club colours. I had brought a Go Pro video camera, which was attached to the handlebars, and I filmed the descent. I am a lousy descender; I don’t have the nerve. The road was slippery in places where rivulets of water flowed down the hillsides and the bends were tight and never-ending. As I neared the bottom I saw Brian waiting for me and we paused for a couple of minutes at the end of the climb. There is not much there – a few restaurants, a small patch of beach, some cars and coaches – in the summer I imagine you can’t move for people but today it was fairly deserted. ‘Are you ready?’ said Brian after a few minutes. I had hoped to wait longer but there seemed little point in delaying the inevitable. I thought I switched the Go Pro on in readiness for the climb and we headed off together. ‘You don’t have to wait for me,’ I said to Brian. ‘I’m okay with this pace,’ he said, but after a mile or so he upped the pace and moved steadily away. I couldn’t stay with him and settled into my own pace. Looking up, the road snaked its way round and round the mountain and I tried not to look. I kept my head down and concentrated on pedaling. About a dozen riders passed me including one in the big ring. It struck me that no matter how long or how steep or how tough the climb, eventually it will end and this thought kept me going. It’s like the fastest gunman in the West – sooner or later he will come up against someone faster. All the gunmen on Sa Calobra were faster than me but eventually they will lose. I finally reached the last bend where Brian was waiting and we completed the last few hundred yards together: the wind was very strong and it was all we could do to remain upright. Back at the car we loaded the bikes and drove back to Port de Pollenca; Sa Calobra conquered. Miles ridden: 16 Total elevation: 854 metres Day Seven   Thursday was my last full day and I decided to combine cycling with some sightseeing. I rode to Alcudia and then continued round the headland along to the little peninsula of Mal Pas. This had a series of short little climbs as the road clung to the edge of the sea and finally stopped where the road was blocked due to a military installation. I saw hardly anyone on this route until I headed up a sharp climb to the Hermitage of Victoria. There were a number of walkers heading off up the mountain but hardly any cyclists and I paused briefly before heading back to Alcudia and then on the back roads to Pollenca. Pollenca has a fine old centre with a square with cafes and a long series of steps replicating the way of the cross. I shouldered my bike and clumped up the steps but the combination of slippery cycle cleats, the hot weather and the bike on my back meant that I paused some third of the way up. The view down the steps to the church was spectacular but I didn’t complete my dolorous way. I headed for Cap St Vincenc on the coast. This was a very quiet place with most hotels still closed for the season. I paused at the Hotel San Pedro, a hideous building blighting the landscape looking for somewhere to eat. There was only one café open by the small beach and it was obviously another Max Hurtzeler favoured haunt as their signs were plastered everywhere. I asked the frazzled waiter for a menu and he pointed to small blackboard:
  • Bread and cheese
  • Bread and ham
  • Bread and tuna fish
  • Coffee and cake
I ordered freshly squeezed orange juice and bread and cheese. The waiter brought the food – two long slices of Mallorcan dark bread with cheese, tomato, raw onion, olives and olive oil – it was delicious. Miles ridden: 35 Total elevation: 521 metres Day Eight My last day. I rose early and left at 7.00 for the climb to the look-out point on the way to Cap Formentor. The sky was clear and the golden shafts of the rising sun bounced off the bare rock. I felt strong and cruised up the hill. At the look-out point I followed the rocky path some hundred yards while it hugged the cliff edge to the observation point looking towards the light-house. As I arrived the sun erupted around the mountain and lit up the sky. I was alone with the sea, the sun, the rocky outcrops and the Planet X. Descending the windy bends the whole of the Bay of Port de Pollenca stretched below me. I returned the bike to 2Go Cycling and had a last wander around before waiting for the taxi to the airport. I was waiting outside the hotel for my taxi when an enormous coach negotiated the narrow street and paused outside the hotel. I was annoyed thinking it would disgorge a load of tourists and block the road for my taxi. The door hissed open and the cargo bay yawned open and the driver emerged. ‘Mr Julian?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘It’s for you.’ ‘What, just me?’ ‘Yes, Senor.’ I climbed into this 56 seat behemoth and we headed off for Palma. The end to a perfect week. Miles ridden: 5 Total elevation: 197 metres Observations and conclusions Hotel The Hotel Illa d’Or was superb. Clean, comfortable with attentive, friendly staff. It had outdoor and indoor swimming pools and a gym, which I didn’t use, and a large terrace by the water’s edge as well as indoor lounges overlooking the water. My room was spacious with en-suite facilities and a large terrace with balcony where I could have sat and sunbathed (although I didn’t). There was a large locked storage room for bikes, which could easily accommodate 10/12 bikes. Breakfast was buffet style with an enormous selection. I was on half board and the evening meal was pleasant with a good choice of 3 courses. Cheaper options would be available but I would highly recommend this hotel. Bike I booked through 2Go Cycling before I left England and reserved a Planet X with SRAM Red. In fact although the gears were SRAM Red, the brakes were only Apex and I doubt if the chainset was SRAM Red which I thought was a bit cheeky, although I didn’t complain. The wheels were serviceable although I would have preferred a lighter option. Rental was 120 Euros for the week and they delivered the bike to the hotel. I saw people with bike boxes and I can see the advantages of having your own familiar bike. However packing and transporting the bike box would be a pain and the boxes are expensive to buy. All in all I would rent again. I was happy with 2Go Cycling although their range is quite limited – basically Planet X or Specialized. Roads Mallorcan roads are superb – smooth and clean with no potholes. Very little traffic (at least when I went) and cars give you a wide berth. The majority of roads have a cycling track at the side. I didn’t have a single puncture. Clothing I wore knee warmers or three quarter bibs and was glad of the extra warmth. I generally wore a base layer and a long sleeved top and sometimes a long sleeved base layer with a short sleeve top. I had a gilet or long sleeved wind jacket in my back pocket and this was very useful – it can get cold in the mountains or when descending. I had road shoes but next time would probably take SPD shoes – much better for walking in. Strava Many routes are listed on Strava so there are plenty of segments to test yourself against. I used a Garmin 800 and uploaded to Strava when I got home. Weathe The temperature was warm – generally 16 -18c but the wind can be strong – take care when descending particularly on exposed roads. Mobile phone Check your tariff before leaving the UK – uploading to Instagram or Flickr can use up a lot of data and charges can rack up unless you’re careful. Go Pro The Go Pro takes excellent quality video or still pictures. However, battery life is not very good – about an hour maximum – so I carried a spare battery. The lack of a viewfinder means you have to check that the camera is recording. I thought I recorded the ascent of Sa Calobra but realized at the top that I hadn’t and I was not in a fit state to do it again!

Roubaix Sportive

Try everything once, said Lord Beeching, except incest and folk dancing. To which I would add – the Roubaix sportive. It was cold and drizzling as the Old Ports headed out of our hotel in Tourcoing to the Roubaix Velodrome and the start point. Once there we delayed as first one, then another Old Port decided to go shopping – gloves, rain jacket, cap – and Iain decided to check his bike over. Then over the timing mat and off. Our little peloton picked up pace as we headed out of the beautiful old town of Roubaix and into open countryside. Flat fields on either side and passing small groups of riders who latched onto our train before being dropped. The pace increased and I clung on. ‘Sit in the pack’ said Steve, ‘you’ll be all right.’ A delay to take a drink, a misjudgement on a corner and I was 5 yards behind, then 10, then 20. ‘I’ll catch up’ I thought and sprinted. The pace increased and I fell behind again. What fucking pack? No more sprinting for me. I watched the Old Ports red train as it gradually faded into the distance and settled into my own rhythm. The wind ambushed you from the fields and the rain was thin, malnourished, never weighty but it soaked through. I foreswore rain covers for my shoes and soon regretted my failure to go shopping with the others. Nothing prepares you for the Arenberg trench. You’ve watched ‘A Sunday in Hell’ and read about it, you’ve searched You Tube and heard about it, you watched the pros and their little recce films but that all only hints at the horror. These aren’t cobbles, they’re boulders, crags, granite outcrops, sharp edged stones to weigh down dead bodies, jagged and sharp with massive gaps between, big enough to swallow riders whole. The dirt down one side has been ploughed up by farmers to prevent riders cheating and the pre-race barriers line the other side forcing you onto the rocks like Odysseus. ‘Enough to shake the fillings from your teeth’ goes the old saying but this is worse. It shakes the dye from your hair, the dirt from beneath your finger-nails, the paint gradually flakes from your bike frame, zips come undone, the zero tablets in your bottle froth and boil over. Your instinct is to slow down – ‘if I go quick I shall fall and break a collar-bone, a neck, a leg’ (yes, it happened) – but you can’t steer a line and hope to pick your way through the gaps, so counter intuitively you must go faster and harder and try and glide over the cobbles and trust your bike to find its way. And it works. I even pass a few riders who haven’t learned the skill. Eventually it is over and I slump over the bars and wait for my tingling fingers and shaking hands to calm down. The Arenberg is first and by far the worst but the road goes ever on and there are many more cobbled sections to traverse. I stop at all 3 feed stops and gulp down honey cake and waffles and grab a plastic cup of energy drink. I need to pee and stand at the open pissoir but the flow is weak and painful. The passing groups go too quick for me but the individual riders tend to be slower than me and the fat man striding along on his wooden bicycle (whom we had seen in Flanders last year) is even slower than me, so for virtually the whole ride I am alone and pushing against the wind, no minimum wage domestiques to shelter me, no Sky cannon fodder to shield my aching limbs. After 60 miles I have had enough. My legs ache, my face has set into a rictus grin, teeth barred and screaming ‘merde’ at the sheep and the mountain bikers. A lady of a certain age sashays past and spots my Old Ports jersey. ‘Is that a UK club?’ she asks. ‘Yes’ I grunt, panting. ‘Are you enjoying it?’ ‘No.’ She rides away. There are 18 cobbled sections on the 139 km route and the Arenberg is the worst. After that, nothing is as bad although the Carrefour de l’Arbe seems to go on forever. ‘Ride on the crown’ is the advice but in some places this is only a few inches wide, falling away to steep, rocky slopes on either side. On some sections there is a narrow dirt track between the cobbles and the grass but this can be more tricky – previous riders have worn deep and sudden ruts and here also is where the flints and debris collects and most punctures happen. An organised group of about 30 mountain bikers rumble past me – they are identically dressed in black and red tops marked ‘Flandrien’ – they crowd the cobbles and steal my line. I shout feebly after them but am ignored. A little way on, one goes flying and lands in a ditch, trapped and unable to unclip, wheels spinning and nose bloodied and I am glad. The rain comes and goes and there are times when I remove my rain jacket and a pale sun briefly shines. The last 20 miles seem to take forever. I am exhausted but can’t give up, although I saw one rider waiting at a bus stop, his grimy tearful face and worn out bike and race number proclaims his failure to complete. The last couple of miles to the velodrome takes about 20 minutes. Not tiredness – in sight of the finish straight my energy returns – but the traffic is like heading to Ikea on a Saturday afternoon. It is raining heavily now and riders weave in and out of the traffic, dicing with trucks and the Saturday shoppers. I turn into the velodrome (some riders misjudge the slippery bend and choose this final moment to crash) and scan the stands for a group of cheering Old Ports. Nothing. The rain plashes on the cinder track and a thin film of dirty water coats the banking. Many have finished with me and there is no space or stomach for a sprint finish. The timer pings on the finish line and the few spectators rise to acknowledge our dishevelled group. I’ve done it. The exit gate is packed. Medals are being placed around necks by damp podium girls but there is a queue so I grab a medal and drape it around my own neck, like Henry and his crown. I have no change of clothes and so miss the iconic showers. The rest of the Old Ports have long since returned to the hotel but I am tired and can’t remember the route. Luckily I spot John and we meet up and find the way. It is late afternoon and the rain is heavy now and Roubaix is cold. The route is very slightly uphill and seems to go on forever. Eventually we reach the hotel and stumble upstairs. We emerge from the lift to be greeted by a scrubbed and tubbed Andy and Iain – his bloodied knee tells of his exploits. ‘Steve beat me by a wheel length.’ he says. It takes me 20 minutes to get undressed and I fall into the bath to soak and dream of cobbles. Would I do it again? Hell (of the north) yes! Join me. PS Back home I load my Strava data and find that I have beaten Iain over the Arenberg trench. ‘Ave it!

Breaking Away is the best film about cycling – ever

Breaking Away is a 1979 film, written by Steve Tesich (who won the Oscar for best screenplay) and directed by Peter Yates, the British director best known for Bullitt – iconic, San Francisco set crime thriller with the second best car chase sequence ever. (The best? The French Connection). Breaking Away is sent in Bloomington, Indiana and tells the story of four teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, focussing on their growing pains and camaraderie. They are ‘cutters’ so called because their families were stone-cutters, working class folk employed in the local quarry (now a swimming hole where the boys go to play). They are pitted against the middle class kids and students from the local college, which of course was built from the stone their parents cut. So far, so small town America and so predictable. But what sets the film apart and turns it into a true work of art is cycling, and specifically the efforts of Dave, the lead character played by Dennis Christopher, to embrace all things cycling and by extension Italian culture as the boys build up to entering the local cycle race – held on a track looking very similar to Herne Hill (if it was in Indiana). Dave is bike obsessed and has taken to speaking Italian, cycling everywhere, obsessively cleaning his bike and wearing his Campagnolo cap on backwards all the time which enrages his father, a used car salesman who hopes that Dave will join the business. His mother, meanwhile, just loves her son and wants to see him fulfil his dreams; in his passion her sad unfulfilled, loveless marriage is cruelly exposed. Dave’s friend, played by the great Dennis Quaid (the only one of the actors to find later fame) is the local tough boy, hoping to stay true to his working class roots while Dave’s other passion is an unattainable girl whose boyfriend is (of course) the star football jock. There are some superb cycling sequences – at one point Dave drafts behind an articulated lorry on the highway, in another a group of Italian pro cyclists come to town and he races against them with (un) predictable results. And in the key final sequence the 4 friends enter the race wearing T shirts bearing the word ‘Cutters’- as finally they hold true to everything they once stood for and take pride in their roots. Do they win? Does Dave become a used car salesman like his Dad? Does he get the girl? Do his parents find their missing marital spark? Does he turn pro and succumb to EPO? You’ll have to watch the film. This is not a film specifically about cycling (and all the better for not being so). Rather, it is a film about growing up, about friendship, about love and unrequited love, about having a dream and chasing it, about Campagnolo and all things Italian (there is no sight nor mention of Shimano or, whisper it, SRAM). But it is about the joy that cycling and the love of cycling brings.

Rapha – pretentious, moi?

Rapha is (arguably) one of the most hated brands on the planet – up there with Islamic State, the Daily Mail and McDonalds. Why? For those who don’t know, Rapha makes cycle clothes and accessories, sold mainly through an achingly hip website. The clothes are usually modelled by older people, often with beards and invariably not wearing helmets, photographed in the mist or fog or rain, in Scottish or Norwegian landscapes. Apart from the whole image thing, Rapha is famous for being expensive and more recently as the clothes supplier to Team Sky. Rapha clothing is available in a small range of shops and in their own Rapha cafes, of which there is one in Soho, one in San Francisco (of course), one in Osaka (Japan) and occasional pop-up shops – I came across one in Majorca for instance. So then – cycle clothes and accessories, over-priced but often well designed and made and beautifully packaged. So why should Rapha be one of the most hated brands in the world? Some reasons:
  • Cycling is (largely) a traditionally working class activity and Rapha is clearly focussed on a middle class poncey clientele – all the gear and no idea.
  • Moody, atmospheric, black and white photography and muted colours just look pretentious
  • Their pricing policy seems to be based on the approach of start at 100, double it and add 25%
  • Items are produced in limited numbers, meaning they inevitably sell out, thus creating a demand – cynical marketing at its worst
  • Some of their designs are so far up their own arse they have to be seen to be believed – Peter Kennaugh’s ride data turned into a black and white motif anyone?
  • Their signature colour for menswear is shocking pink and chartreuse (that’s yellow to you)
  • Some riders dress head to toe in Rapha – shoes 300, socks 15, bib shorts 180, base layer 50, jersey 130, rain jacket 250, scarf 50, gloves 100, cap 35 – total over a grand. I saw a whole family at the Tour of Britain ride dressed completely in Rapha – they’d be lucky to have had any change out of 2 grand and they looked like twats
  • They use those impressive, meaningless phrases that some people delight in posting on Facebook for some reason – ‘Follow your dreams and your followers will dream of you’ or ‘life is like a mountain climb – get in the small ring and pedal.’
As a niche, select clothing maker with a carefully crafted image they built a loyal and devoted following and could ignore the nay-sayers and class war activists but now – logos plastered all over Chris Froome’s arse and selling travel trips for 3500 excluding flights – they have sold their soul to the devil. But as Rapha alienates more and more consumers, new brands are stealing their shtick – Vulpine, Huez, Pedal-on and the latest and most pretentious of them all – David Millar. His brand – in conjunction with Castelli – is called Chpt lll, 1 being the first phase of his career – uncaught doper – and 2 being the second phase of his career – caught doper. Pretentious, lui?

Zwift

Zwift is an online game designed for turbo trainers. Download the (currently) free software to your computer and use an ANT+ dongle to transfer heart rate, cadence and power data (depending on your devices) to the game. Currently it requires a desk-top or lap-top running either Windows or Mac but an ipad version is planned. Create an avatar of yourself and then ride a virtual course, competing against other riders or just against yourself. As you pass other riders (or they pass you) the game shows how far they are in front or behind, thus encouraging you to speed up and pass them. Achieving certain goals unlocks ‘prizes’ – a new bike, upgraded wheels, clothing for your avatar, etc. Once finished upload the data to Strava or other platforms and wait for the kudos. It works best with a ‘smart’ trainer such as Wahoo’s Kickr as this will adjust the resistance automatically to the terrain you’re riding on in the game, but can be used with a standard trainer or rollers. It is remarkably addictive and there is already a worldwide community of Zwift obsessives – distance records are being set, KOMs competed for and organised rides take place with riders from around the globe. There is also a number of pros who are using it for training – the other evening I was on it and the great Jens Voigt popped up to beat me up a climb! Currently there are 2 courses – an island called Watopia and a road circuit – actually the 2015 World’s course in Richmond, Virginia – but more are planned. There is also a linked phone app which enables texting while riding (not easy when you’re trying to sprint) thus enabling communication with other riders. For anyone who finds riding the turbo boring or soul destroying (and often both), Zwift makes it fun and interesting. A number of Old Ports – Julian, Joe, Kevin, John, Dave C – already use it; why not give it a try and join an Old Ports club run on the turbo? www.zwift.com ***

The Enduring Appeal of Marco Pantani

There is nothing like dying young in tragic or unusual circumstances to cement your reputation. As a career move it can’t be beaten. Just think of who’s done it – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Heath Ledger, Marc Bolan (who he?), Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix – all now regarded as flawed geniuses. And Marco Pantani – a cocaine overdose in a cheap, sleazy hotel in a down at heel Italian seaside resort. Pantani ticks all the boxes to be an iconic figure:
  • Italian
  • Short
  • Working class
  • Pirate bandana
  • Little boy lost look
  • Bianchi rider
  • Cocaine addict
  • Mysterious death
  • Ear-ring
  • Goatee beard
That gaunt, sad face now peers out from mugs, T shirts (I have one myself), posters and is the go-to image on the wall of every cycling cafe from Sevenoaks to San Francisco. And yet, and yet…he was a doper, a coke fiend, a tragic figure maybe but a cheat nonetheless. We excoriate Armstrong and his ilk now but Pantani remains revered. Why? And does it really excuse anything that ‘everyone did it?’ Because not everyone did cheat; some riders stayed clean and in staying clean they didn’t win big and so aren’t remembered. If Lance Armstrong had died in a tragic accident after his, say, fifth win (that now wasn’t) would the world view him differently? Probably – but not quite so much as he lacked Pantani’s iconic (read weak) attributes. Of course if helps with the rose tinted view that there is really only Pantani and Tom Simpson as the two tragic, dead cyclists. (Fausto Coppi perhaps but his career was over by the time that mosquito did for him). Poor Fabio Casartelli and Wouter Weylandts were journeymen domestiques who had the bad luck to die in common or garden cycling accidents rather than the career enhancing drug fuelled demise which did so much for Marco and Tom. (There is even a cycling magazine named after Simpson. What next? Millar? Oh, of course he’s still alive…) Matt Rendells’ biography of Pantani does a fine job of describing Marco’s rise and spectacular fall but one can’t escape the feeling that he doesn’t actually come across as a very nice person – although to be fair, apart from Roger Federer, which top sportsman does? Ultimately, though, that all pails into insignificance – watch the video of Pantani racing up Alpe d’Huez in 37 minutes, on the drops, nostrils flaring (of course) and bandana flying and, doped or not, it never fails to quicken the pulse. So wear your bandana, buy your classic Bianchi, search Ebay for a pair of denim coloured Carrera shorts and raise a glass in memory of dear, departed, Il Pirata. ***

Prudential Ride London Surrey

I have nothing against charities or charitable giving – I give to charities (I even bought the Band-Aid single) – and I recognise that most of them do good work and are not profligate or wasteful of the donations they receive. But … I do resent the way that the Prudential Ride London Surrey has been hijacked by charities and sponsored riders. I believe that the event should first and foremost be for people who like riding their bikes. Many thousands of people enter and only a small proportion get a place but charities seem to get guaranteed places. Why? There are plenty of pure charity rides and if you want to donate money to McMillan or Scope or Cancer Research then by all means do so. As soon as I got rejected in the ballot both last year and this (and yes I did donate my entry fee to charity so I could get a cheap, tacky jersey with Prudential Ride written on it) I was inundated with emails from charities offering me a guaranteed place if I would commit to raising money. Maybe you’re not but I’m uneasy about hassling family and my small circle of friends for £1000 or so just so I get to ride a jolly through the Surrey countryside. If people want to ride and raise money for charity then by all means let them, but let’s open the Prudential Ride to the thousands of people who just want to cycle on closed roads and ride up Box Hill in front of cheering crowds. PS Although rejected in the ballot for the third year in a row, I was lucky enough to get a place on the Old Ports race team for the event so I rode it this year for the first time – and a cracking day it was too. Make sure you enter the ballot – who knows, you could be one of the lucky ones. ***

Too Many Kudos

Strava – for anyone who has been in a coma – is a web based app enabling you to record and upload rides from a Garmin or smart-phone, using GPS co-ordinates, thus allowing you to compare and compete against other riders. You can create ‘segments’ – specific routes or sections of road (eg hills) and if you ride it quicker you get a personal best. The fastest person gets KOM or QOM recognition and if you pay a premium subscription you can get age break-downs and other benefits. Being internet based (and the internet is a social medium) you can comment on other people’s rides or give kudos. And thereby hangs a sting in the tail. Kudos is defined as ‘honour, glory, acclaim,’ ‘praise and honour received for an achievement.’ Having given kudos you want it reciprocated and having received it you are honour bound to give kudos in return. But when everything’s an achievement, nothing’s an achievement.
  • I did half an hour on the turbo – kudos.
  • I completed a club run – kudos.
  • I managed 11.5 mph – kudos.
  • I walked to Coney Hall.
  • I rode to work – kudos.
  • I rode home from work – kudos.
  • I bimbled to ‘Box Hill – kudos.
  • I pootled to Pratts Bottom – kudos.
In the same way that all soldiers and policemen are now ‘heroes’, every pedestrian cycle ride, every easy recovery spin, every spin class at David Lloyd is now garlanded with kudos – praising with faint damnation. And the true achievements – Sonny’s ride up Yorks Hill, Northern Jon’s Cingle de Ventoux – are levelled down – kudos mate, chapeau. They gave me kudos; I must give kudos back. But if I don’t return the kudos, if I say ‘no, this isn’t what kudos should be’ will I be cast out of the Strava community, a segment pariah? And I am so the guilty one. I finish a ride, get home, put the bike away, sit at the computer in my damp shorts, plug in my Garmin and wait for the data transfer. Agonisingly, I watch the cups emerge – a PB, a second, a third. I click on the leader board to check my age group, my clubs – Old Portlians, the others (not telling) and then wait for the kudos and the comments, basking like a shark in the warm glow of recognition. My best time this year, all time, in the club (never), in my age group (sometimes). But wait… Why did he get kudos from 9 people but I only got 8? Why did she give kudos to him but not me? Why did they comment on her ride but not mine? Why didn’t he give kudos to me when I gave it to him? I have kudos envy. The resentment overwhelms me. I formulate a plan. I will create a segment in a land not yet discovered, that no-one else knows and will never find and I will ride it 3 times and be the best for evermore, my own private Idaho, where my Strava followers will never follow and I will reap all the kudos, all the plaudits from unknown lonely people in South Australia and Singapore and Montana and all the comments will be just for me and my hollow achievement. It’s on Strava, it must be true. ***