Daylight Robbery, Grand Larceny, Raw Power

Ian Stannard is fast acquiring legendary status. He is hard as nails. He rides on the cobbles just to stop himself from dropping the entire peloton.

This weekend he won the Omloop Het Neuwsblad. It used to be called Het Volk in the days when it was easier to spell. How he managed to win is still a rich topic for discussion. The Ettixx Quickstep team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Stannard destroyed them. At one point (7.46) he seems to let a gap open with the express purpose of dropping Tom Boonen. He then powers away, with Terpstra the only one to go with him. It’s amazing. Terpstra kindly leads him out for the win, his mind scrambled by events. The sprint has all the pace and panache of two articulated lorries overtaking each other on the M5, making it somehow all the more glorious.

There’s a degree of irony, as Cycling Weekly pointed out, in the most unpredictable result coming from the most ‘predictable’ team, with Sky and Stannard the underdogs for once.

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on the corinthian spirit vs the consumerist ideal

I’ve spent a bit of time recently thinking about the Corinthian nature of cycling as a sport. In part it’s an ongoing reaction against the relentless consumerism of the cycling leisure market, the over-marketing of over-engineered machinery and a shift away from the egalitarian origins of cycling towards a more elitist and expensive realm. It’s not a simplistic paradigm, as evidenced by some of the recent comments on this blog, and it’s a difficult argument to present. On the one hand, I’m hankering after a more niche and narrow definition of cycling, one driven by a fellowship of participants, less prone to flawed notions of epic grandeur, more accepting of the past and tradition as a good thing. On the other hand, I’m completely welcoming of new entrants into the sport, and the more lowly and unpretentious their beginnings, the  more welcoming I am. It leaves a middle ground, defined by high-end leisure wear, beyond the wallet of all but the most affluent wearer, of high end erotica straddled by low-end riders, of cash cows and the unspoken tenet that somehow an explosion of cyclists is somehow an unambiguously good thing (the ‘more cyclists is always good’ mantra).

Cycling Weekly has had a bit of face-lift recently. It looks a lot better and seems to have stronger content, less sportive-related guff or completely bogus advice (shocking news: train more and you go faster), more acknowledgement of the identity and roots of  cycling in the UK. It’s not the finished article though (no pun intended). One of the things they have resurrected is a weekly feature on clubs. This is a good thing, but it’s interesting that the two clubs featured thus far are clear examples of ‘bike boom’ clubs. These typically consist of a group of individuals banding together, deciding that the current world of bike clubs is unwelcoming, somehow symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with everything, run by petit-bourgeois mittel-englanders as some kind of labyrinthine bureaucracy designed to crush the soul of anyone who wants to join. They then knock up a kit that looks suspiciously like a knock-off of Team Sky, declare loudly that they are going ‘to do things differently’ and ‘shake up the sport’ and point to the five billion members they’ve signed up in 5 minutes as proof of their evangelical and revolutionary power and the defining mark of success, as well as the definitive statement that somehow other clubs were doing it wrong all along.

It’s some way wide of the mark. It’s interesting how few events the new clubs organise compared to the amount of races run by other clubs, including the weekly TT series run by the local club, usually since time immemorial, by volunteers giving freely of their time. It’s also interesting how many events the new clubs and their legions sign up for, run by the luddite and monstrously outmoded Yesteryear Wheelers. The bike boom CC is a shaky model, one rooted in the superficial, the here and now, the mode, the representation of what they think cycling should be. It would be nice to see the Comic focus on one of the established clubs, document the warm welcome given to members, the support for the community, the roots established over a hundred years, the change in jersey design, the significance of the colours, the unbroken lineation back to the founder members seeking time and space away via the emancipatory power of the bicycle. The club as a corinthian institution, not a willing reflection of consumerist mores or the grubby power of professionalism which has the Astana debacle at its zenith. The myth of an unwelcoming cycling club is exactly that.

There is no greater representation of the Corinthian ideal at present than Steven Abrahams. I can wholeheartedly recommend the recent bike show interview with Jack Thurston.

This is not big money professional cycling. Steve has quit his job and cashed in his life savings to better the record of the man he regards as the greatest cyclist of all time. He’s assembled a small team of volunteers who will organise his routes and overnight stays, fix his bike, feed him, wash his clothes and upload his ride data to the Ultra-Marathon Cycling Association which is validating the record attempt.

Steve’s shortest ride this week was 187 miles. Thats 60 miles further than my longest rider ever. He’s managed 10,000 miles so far this year, twice my annual distance.

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On the hour

I awoke early this morning. As a result I watched Jack Bobridge take on the hour record. The event is experiencing a spectacular resurgence with most of the fastest men on wheels lining up a tilt at some point this year. For years the event lay dormant, the heady days of Boardman vs Obree seemed consigned to the archive, a series of dusty VHS transfers on youtube the only reminders of the struggle. The event was kiboshed by a rule change limiting all attempts to the ‘athlete’s record’, using the same equipment as Eddy Merckx in 1972.

In an era where technological change and science are the driving forces in improvement, it proved an anachronism. Brian Cookson tore up the rule book, opening it up to technological innovation and in effect luring in the big bike companies who now see it as both useful R+D and a raunchy shop window for their new bongo weapons.

Watching someone ride for exactly one hour in circles should be one of the more boring spectator sports; to be filed next to ‘golf’ in the pantheon of crappy crap things done by crap people. However, it somehow transcends the rhythmic, soporific loops to become a narrative event. Everyone is aware of the record, the time gaps are assessed and checked and reinforced and reminded, the velodrome goes increasingly more batshit crazy and the souplesse of the rider, so delicately tuned over the first 30 minutes, unravels like a loose thread pulled from a hand knit jumper. The more the lap times drift out, the harder it becomes to rein them back in, the crowd sense an effort slipping away and implore the lone rider to greater heights in the battle against the clock. It’s a knife edge of total accomplishment and complete failure. There is no second place in the hour record; you make it or you don’t. And if you miss out, it’s measurable in metres. Boardman beat Merckx’ 1972 record by 10 metres. Bobridge missed out by 500 metres, fading at the end.

“It’s by far the hardest I’ve ever done and the hardest thing I’ll ever do I think. 20 minutes in I think it sunk in what was happening and what was about to happen. 20 minutes, there is nowhere to go. You have to keep going. It was just brutal, it was brutal the whole time. There was nothing nice about anything.”

In the spirit of useless comparison; I reckon at the peak of my form I might just be able to squeak in a shade under 47km. This is based on my peak 25 mile time and a friend’s Military hour record. Right now, I’d be lucky to knock out a 25 minute 10. Next up will be Rohan Dennis on Feb 8, then Alex Dowsett, if/once he’s recovered from his unlucky break, with Dame Sarah Storey contesting the women’s record in around 3 weeks time. Later on the year it’s likely that the big guns will roll out, with Cancellara, Wiggins and Martin all rumoured to be attacking time by riding in tight circles on siberian pine. It’s an exciting prospect.

 

Taking the Bike for a Walk (uphill)

I came across an article on the Guardian bike blog the other day. It had the saucy and provocative title; “Is it OK to get off your bike and walk up a hill?“.

It’s not ok to get off your bike and lie down

It’s very much a bike boom piece of writing, as is most of the Guardian Cycling Blog; a lefty liberal and metropolitan take on what it means to be a cyclist. Nonetheless, it refers to a particular issue that bedevils us all: when is it OK to get off and walk? I have to be honest and confess that I have walked up a bit of a hill once before. In 2004 I was riding up the Wyche on a road bike which had jammed in the 53 plate. I wasn’t very fit and found it hard to cope with the incline whilst pushing a massive cadence. It was too much hill and not enough gear. I can’t think of any other episodes which have ended in such ignominy. I have been close to the edge, especially when riding fixed and misreading the contours or elevation of a route. On such occasions I have forced my way up and over the crest, usually at about 15rpm, because I can. I also think that most hills can be ridden up in pretty much any sensible gear; it’s a question of willpower and not physical capacity. The article in question challenges the mentality that it’s not ok to walk. I agree in one respect; if you’re wearing flip-flops or a suit and commuting to work (and don’t necessarily class yourself as a cyclist) then feel free to walk if it gets tough. It’s not worth the aggravation and there is no badge of honour.

The article goes on to quote Chris Balfour: “Some of the snobbery and sneering which exists towards riders using ‘granny gears’ or who occasionally walk is really quite divisive and disappointing. We should celebrate [cycling’s] ‘everyman’ appeal, not slide to the worst of golfing ‘etiquette’ where newer and less able players are excluded or mocked behind their back in the clubhouse bar for ‘having the wrong swing’ or ‘wearing the wrong gear’.” I do celebrate cycling’s everyman appeal, but I don’t think anyone I know has ever mocked anyone for having the wrong gear (unless that means no mudguards, in which case get to the back and stay there you slurry-spreading infidel) or the wrong bike, or sticking it in the granny and shaking it around a bit. Quite the opposite, the guy on the hybrid who smashes everyone to bits seems to be a staple of most club runs. It’s the materialistic guys in the ‘right’ kit, typically the full castelli europro lycra show, who have purloined an entry ticket to an inclusive club in the mistaken belief that it confers some sort of bragging rights. All sports or activities have a degree of snobbery, cycling included; it’s integral and important. As cycling broadens outwards, dragging in everyone and anyone, it’s fine to celebrate inclusivity, but also important to recognise that there is a justified exclusivity at the core, of those who train hard and ride hard, race and follow an unspoken creed, writ with obsessional traits and a commitment to cycling and the past. This isn’t snobbery, it’s the long traditions of the sport. You gain entry through learning from others, picking up the hand signals and not making stupid mistakes. Entry is not pilfered through the impulse purchase of a BMC Impec and full Rapha kit. And if you are riding an £11k bike with £500 of clothing, you should damn well ride it to the top of the hill.

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“Cyclists”

Of late there have been more than a few posts in the internetosphere highlighting the errant behaviour of ‘cyclists’. There was one recently from the brilliant people at road.cc. I’m sure you can think of many others. Such articles are of a genre. However, I bridle at the use of the term ‘cyclist’. In the case of the article above, the aggressor would seem to fit the definition of ‘pyschopath who happened to be using a bicycle as a form of transport at that particular time of day to go about his psychopathic daily business, to include the act of beating-the-living-crap-out-of-septuagenarians’. Almost always the term ‘cyclist’ is applied in error.

It’s worth drawing this semantic distinction when there is such a welter of anti-“cyclist” sentiment out there; most of it from dumbass below-the-liners. Lazy attribution of the term only enforces the stereotype that all cyclists jump lights, run down old grannies, set alight paper bags of dog poo and leave them on your doorstep, that sort of thing. I’m all for more people riding bikes, insofar as it’s good to see people using bicycles as a practical means of transport. It doesn’t mean they’re cyclists. (in fact, as the three readers of this blog will know, i’m not actually ‘all for more people riding bikes’ at all and will be glad when this sorry bike boom dies on its consumer-driven ass and the choppers on rapha bikes currently crawling up the gorge like a plague of carbon cockroaches ((in full rapha carapace, obviously)) disappear back to the 18th hole).

I’m certainly not about to wander along the path of comparison and suggest a reappropriation of the term, thus negating its power and pejorated form, reclaiming it for those who wear the true badge. This is a path fraught with danger, and also a path best left to the experts. However, I am suggesting that we think carefully about how we apply the term ‘cyclist’, and question it when it’s foregrounded ahead of a more obvious description; like sociopath, or murderer, or alcoholic, or simply a sociopathic, murderous alcoholic.

Race the World

On a separate but equally curmudgeonly note, i was pleased to see Cycling Weekly waxing lyrical about the ‘Race the World’ in this week’s comic. It’s definitely one of the more accessible sportives of recent years. You even get a free bike and ‘individual tent space’. It consists of 5 legs taking place in 5 continents for the bargain price of just under £8000 per leg, or £40,000 all in. Did I mention the free bike and individual tent space?

full bersekrerThey seem to be missing a few extras you might normally expect for that kind of price. Namely, a full time fluffer, a beater to rouse the pheasants into flight for the evening meal, a travelling tank of lobster and beluga sturgeon for ravitaillement and a sponsorship deal with Rapha. A full set of rapha garms might exceed the entry fee though. These people are not cyclists; and as an event it’s beyond satire. A race for people who don’t race and can’t ride, who don’t know how to function without a concierge, have a sanitised and bogus view of suffering and adventure and a total shedload of money to burn on vanity projects. It surely has to be the apotheosis of the demented sportive trajectory.

 

Cyclo-Cross: Taking the Bike for a Walk

This morning was the second annual Odd Down clagfest. It’s a grotty, filthy, bike-destroying assault on the sensibilities. As such, it makes perfect sense to spectate, armed with a cowbell and a strange pink honky horn thing.

More cowbell! More pink honky horn thing!
More cowbell! More pink honky horn thing! (pic Africa Mason)

I love watching cyclo-cross. It’s the most bonkers of all the disciplines and you get to see a wider range of suffering and confusion than in most other events.

Man takes bike for stroll
Man takes bike for stroll

The course deviates through the woods hanging off the back of the Odd Down road circuit. Recent heavy rain had reduced the course to a quagmire. Even better. There was a huge field of riders, even more than last year, well over 100. Cyclo-cross is growing in popularity more quickly than any other branch of the support, in part because it’s accessible and there is a perverted camaraderie amongst the groterati, a collective insanity that can also be seen at hill climbs. The strongest, luckiest rider wins. 5 years ago you’d be lucky to lure one man and his dog out to a race day in Hengrove Park, which is stretching the definition of ‘park’ a little bit, unless by park you mean scrubland with a disused runway in the middle and some ruined industrial buildings, the playground of the NEETs. And the cyclocrossers. Next year i’m half-expecting to see a Fritewagon and bar selling Duvel, pumping out furious Belgian techno trance to an enraptured audience of low-country cyclofanatics – otherwise known as “all Belgians”.

wpid-img_20150104_1226202.jpg.jpeg
Could do with a quick clean

 

I staked out a spot in the woods and heckled like a madman. I rang the cowbell in Oli Beckingsale‘s face. A crowd formed and we cheered anyone who managed to ride their bike for more than 10 metres. The slope all but defeated them, making it the perfect spot to see crashes and some proper bike breakage.

Champion versions
Champion versions

The birch woodland echoed with the sound of derailleurs snapping. At the beginning the riders seemed to enjoy the challenge, revelling in the support and even smiling on occasion. By the end, all smiles had ceased, glassy eyes stared outwards, each orb a disconsolate and unthinking window into a mind shattered by the experience. A ghostly legion of pallid cyclists trudged onwards, destroyed in body and spirit by the accumulated trauma of 60 minutes in the woods. In years to come the locals will speak in hushed tones of the hauntings in the woods, how come January, if the weather is right, you can hear the sound of metal on mud, a hoarse tangling of twigs and chains, and the heavy, syncopated breathings of tortured souls condemned to circle through the undergrowth with bicycles wrapped across their heaving shoulders.

The Gidmeister gives it some beans
The Gidmeister gives it some beans

All of which made for a startling son-et-lumiere show. It was fantastic. Hats off to the amazing VC Walcot, a club committed to cycling and the community and a rich example to all clubs of what grass roots sport can look like.

The Story

A Happy New Year to all 3 of my readers. I hope you’ve managed to enjoy life and cycling. Strava are running an end of year feature which summarises your riding over the previous 12 months. The short videos are quite neat and judging by their ubiquity, a big hit with the cycling fraternity.

Here’s mine:

http://2014story.strava.com/video/2944054

It seems to suggest a couple of things, namely that you don’t need to do extreme mileage to be competitive, and that if you’re not doing lots of mileage, racking up the climbing helps. It doesn’t tell the entire story, here are a few other highlights:

– I rode the National TT Championships against Bradley Wiggins and other assorted demi-gods.  use the word ‘against’ quite lightly, I finished 28th out of everyone in the whole country. This is a truth of sorts.

My ass, like, breaking the internet

– I scraped under the 50 minute mark for 25 miles with a 49.58. This is seen as a significant mark within the sport and I was only the 130th rider in the history of time trialling to manage this feat. It’s harder to dial in a 30mph ride at 25 miles than over 10 miles, pacing becomes more important and much easier to get wrong.

one finger for each second required

–  I set a new course record on the BSCC Aust circuit, something I’d been trying really hard to do for absolutely yonks. In the end I smashed it, as is usually the case. I also lowered the club 10 record with a 19.38.

– I rode the National Team Trial Champs with the Spinkmeister and Trotterz, we came 14th. We were beaten by Olympic gold medallists like Steven Burke, and World Champions like Katie Archibald. And some dodgy road-riding by a team of chumps who sat on our wheel. They know who they are.

– I won two open events, both 25s, both on the same course. I’ll settle for that.

Apart from the milestones, I enjoyed riding in France with Traumbébé et Belle, it was probably the highlight of all the cycling done. I plan to do more of this.

 

 

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