I’ve aborted my season. It’s been kiboshed by a revolting cough that comes with thick ropes of mucous and a tubercular affectation. The mudguards are back on the Bob and I spent the weekend watching other people hurt themselves in the name of cyclo-sport. I am looking forward to attending the National free from the technical constraints of actually having to race. If any of my three readers are there, please say hello. I may even produce some sort of banner or signage to chase riders with, a la Simon Warren.
I rode a hill climb yesterday. I use the verb loosely. Perhaps “attended” might be more accurate. It was the VC Walcot promotion on the Avenue in Bath. Over the past few years the event has grown in size and stature, to the point where it’s now one of the prestigious events in the West DC calendar. This has nothing to do with the climb and everything to do with the unstinting efforts of the club to get people riding, create an atmosphere and promote it in ever more exciting ways. Hats off indeed.
Make some noise (eat apple first)
I was excited, but several things conspired against me. On arrival one of my erstwhile clubmates asked jokingly “who’s this chubby man?”. It wasn’t the best start. At the weigh-in the night before i was 73kg. It’s about 5kg over my fighting weight. I chose to ride gears.
This was a lazy choice based on riding out to the event and not being bothered to change the sprockets on the back more than once. I got some stick from Rob Borek who is a proper fixed monkey, and his partner in crime, the young Warby.
On the start line my sprocket made a hideous crunching noise and the 17t exploded. The race was over before it started. I shifted it across and then rode off in one gear, the only problem being it was the 12t. I had to stop again and manually shift it back to the 23. It was a proper scheiße-show.
I got things moving and cranked it up a bit (after being overtaken by 3 or 4 riders whilst communing with my bike) in order to avoid the embarrassment of walking up the hill past the really big crowd with pots, pans, whistles, airhorns and cowbells, only to be balked by a huge 4×4 coming down the hill, so sat up and dribbled up to the finish. The timekeeper even asked me if I was really finishing. It was embarrassing. I carded a 5.09, a shade behind the winner’s 2.07, before it was later rounded down to a DNF.
The quest for a socially acceptable racing performance continues next week oop north, where I will be riding two events I planned to ride and one event I planned never to ride again, only to accidentally enter it this year after misreading the organising club and course.
This year’s National is shaping up to be a classic. The podium in the Otley 2 stage, taking in the climbs of Norwood and Guisely, gave witness to a veritable smörgasbord of championship winners. It’s fantastic to see Jim Henderson back at the sharp end.
The women’s event looks like it might include a current competition record holder and worlds TT competitor.
And I’ll be riding, if I can get in. This will be a considerable factor in the vintage nature of the event.
I was riding home recently (not for christmas) at a very gentle pace. Most of my riding is done at a gentle pace these days. It’s a combination of incipient decrepitude (is that an oxymoron?) and a medieval lurgy that sits on my chest emitting ropes of mucous. So, I was riding home recently when I had the misfortune to be interrupted by a Mini driver (not the Minnie Driver, that would make this a markedly different blog post) who took umbrage at me being in his way at a particularly narrow piece of road as he attempted to overtake and thus catch up with the stationary traffic hurtling up the road. It was one of those garage courtesy cars with writings on it. I tapped on the side of the car, gently. My reasoning is that if i’m able to tap on the side of a car, the car is probably about three metres too close. As is usually the case, my attempts at self-preservation were seen as a violation of the human rights of the recipient and an invitation to further discussion. Often, further discussion is simply a euphemism for ‘threat of unrestrained serious physical violence, including stabs to the head’. In this case it was a genuine attempt to engage in discussion. I ignored him and rode on; he was, after all, stuck in traffic. Somehow, some miles further on, he caught and overtook me and repeated his invitation.
“Can I please discuss this with you”, he said, with what can only be described as a passive aggressive tone of barely suppressed rage. The kind of anger that simmers, but it is repressed with such extreme effort, that any suggestion that they might be angry is met by an angry denial that they are not angry. He opened up with his trump card:
“I’m a cyclist.”
It’s great when people drop the “I’m a cyclist” bomb. He clearly hasn’t read my blog where I articulate what it means to be a cyclist. Shame on him. He followed it up with:
“I ride MTB, I ride watt bikes, I ride on the road“. As if it wasn’t enough to be simply a cyclist, it had to be followed up with some sort of cross-tribe emphasis. The watt bikes bit had me laughing. He had a foppish demeanour and came across a bit like Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s day off. I don’t think he liked it when I laughed. I resisted the temptation to ask ‘watt bikes do you ride?’ or to reply with: “You’re not a cyclist, you’re an idiot. There’s a clear difference between to the two in this case.”
Instead I opted for what I thought would be the less inflammatory approach, a wearying and possibly patronising retort based on his suppressed rage:
“That’s lovely. I’m really glad you identify as a cyclist. It’s great, and I’m really happy for you. I’m surprised though that as a cyclist you attempted to drive into another cyclist. It doesn’t seem to be consistent. I’m also surprised that you’re in such a hurry and quite so angry about this”.
I have to add that at this point I had already made the value judgement that if things turned nasty and the guy got fresh, I could probably take him down by throwing my helmet at him. He didn’t have the air of physical psychopathy that is sometimes encountered. If he did, I would have been long gone, hiding somewhere until the coast was clear and wouldn’t be writing about it now.
“I’m not angry or in a hurry. I’m not angry at all”. He said, with the aforementioned barely suppressed rage.
“That’s good, because I suspect you’ve driven the wrong way in a rush hour to tell me how much of a cyclist you are and will now have to drive back again. I hope it doesn’t happen again with another cyclist on your way back to where you were before”.
He was fuming by this time. He moved back towards his car and he unleashed his final slab of rhetoric, the true insult:
“You’re the kind of cyclist that gives other cyclists a bad name”. At which point it just seemed so surreal and other-worldly. I felt as those all my life has been a mere prelude to this moment. Finally, I’d been on the receiving end of the mythical words spoken. I told him:
“Thank you. That’s a lifetime’s ambition ticked off. I genuinely didn’t believe people said that, and if they did, no-one would ever say it to me. I’m humbled.” He gestured from inside his car, as though I had to move off first in this spaghetti western on bikes. I stayed still. He gestured again, then jumped out of his car to throw his final insult:
“And this isn’t even my car!”.
As is often the case when you hear something for the first time you then can’t stop hearing it. I was walking my bike over the elaborate scaffolding structure in the harbour that has replaced the bridge being replaced. There is a very large sign saying ‘cyclists walk’, and it’s narrow and a bit edgy and full of pedestrians. Walking is the ideal option. As I came to the other side a ‘cyclist’ rode his bike onto the bridge. I told him to walk and he got really stroppy and more than a bit pissy with me. An elderly couple gave him short shrift and he stopped talking, embarrassed. They then turned to me and said, “He gives cyclists a bad name”. I replied, ‘to be honest, he gives himself a bad name’. And they nodded in acquiescence. Besides, I’m not sharing the limelight with other cyclists giving cyclists a bad name, having worked so hard to earn it I want that badge for myself.
This sign really isn’t that clear, to be honest. And they should have another one to be sure, perhaps a yellow one.
I went to someone else’s talk the other evening. It was much more relaxing. Jack Thurston is a famed bikewriter, podcast host, cycling advocate and all round good egg. A couple of years ago he wrote a book exploring ‘Lost Lanes’ around the south east of England, in essence, those within pedal distance from London. I bought a few copies and gave some to friends. He has just released a sequel, “Lost Lanes Wales“, coinciding with his move from the city to the wilds of Abergavenny. It’s a paean to the rugged and beautiful countryside of the principality and the quiet roads that dip and lean around the contours. Jack’s talk was measured and engaging, he spoke of a love of cycling and the need to find quieter roads to escape the hostile traffic densities of the modern world. The book (and the talk) also articulated the idea of the journey being what matters, perhaps more than the destination. In some ways it’s antithetical to my book, and it’s arguably more egalitarian, but there is a clear common ground in terms of the transcendent beauty of the landscape and the transformative power of cycling.
Last April I went on a three day mini-tour in the Black Mountains, heading out from Bristol to Talybont, then on to Hay and over the Gospel Pass to Abergavenny, returning via the Usk valley and Caerleon. Many of the roads feature in Jack’s new book. My touring buddy Will and I met up with Jack in Hay-on-Wye for a ride back over the Gospel Pass, through the low shrouding mist and up through the cut. Jack is a roving Baedeker, and he pointed out things I’d never have known otherwise, from Eric Gill’s commune, to endless views across the Wye and Usk Valleys. He was armed with a camera and took some nice snaps, some of which have ended up featuring in the book. Will confessed himself ‘a bit overpleased about this’.
It’s a super book and has already got me planning new trips and excursions for next year. If you haven’t yet listened to the bike show podcast, then you should do so. It’s the best there is.
When I was quite a bit younger I used to review music for a couple of publications. I recall getting in a bit of trouble with the editor for a particularly scathing review of a Damian Rice album where I said more about the person and fanbase than I did the long-player. There were other scurrilous missives. I look back with regret. It’s a bit like that horrible moment when you have children yourself and realise just how much of a dick you’ve been to your parents over the years. Except in this case, you don’t then hate parents, because that’s what you’ve become. Whereas, writing a book or doing anything creative leads to a certain disdain for those who make a living by ‘mediating’ (read, feasting on) the works of others and making judgements. I’m not saying critics and reviewers aren’t important, but I am saying that some of them are pretty fucking useless. It’s partly why I felt resolutely unmoved by the hoopla surrounding the death of Brian Sewell. He was an overly articulate sociopath with a habit of spewing out controversial shit in the name of criticism.
But anyway, yet again, it’s perfume from a dress that makes me so digress. This week two reviews came in from relatively mainstream cycle websites. Road.cc posted their review to coincide with the hill races. It’s a positive review, insofar as they give it 8/10. Apart from that, I’m struggling to work out if the reviewer actually the read the thing in the first place, or just skimmed off a few quotes, looked at the pictures and spuffed out the word-count in a few short minutes.
In contrast, Feargal Mckay wrote about the book for www.podiumcafe.com. It’s a super review. This is because he has taken the time to look at the various strands in the book and try and work out exactly what the book is saying. I can’t help but think that many of the subtleties of the text are missed by some reviewers, in favour of a few headline elements; it’s obscure, it’s anti-sportif, it’s nichey niche, and so on. In contrast, Mckay ‘gets’ it. He sees that I’m genuinely trying to take a wider look at cycling through the prism of a narrow event. And he says some lovely things:
“…A Corinthian Endeavour is trying to be larger than that, it’s trying to say something bigger. As much as it is a book about the British national hill climb championships, it is also a book about “the unifying and singular joy that comes from riding a bicycle.”
“…the text is littered with occasional lines that cause you to pause: “The clock ticks audibly on the wall within the silence of reminiscence, the seconds so palpably less precious now, in conversation, than they ever were in the race.” Give Jones a smaller canvas than seventy years of hill climbing champions and I think he is capable of astounding the reader.”
“A Corinthian Endeavour, then, is a book that can appeal beyond its apparent immediate audience of British testerati, is not just for those with intimate knowledge of that quaint curiosity, the British hill climbing season, and can appeal to all who care about cycling, want to understand where it has come from and what it is that keeps it going on. For Jones, the hills and the champions who have reigned on them are the portal to the community spirit that is the true heart of cycling, present in the hearts of true cyclists.”
More than anything else, McKay has understood the book. I feel really grateful and appreciative. He has gone some way to restoring my faith in critics and reviewers. I shall keep the virtual clipping next to the washingmachinepost.net review in my digi-scrapbook.
I can’t be the first person to point out the irony between atrophy and a trophy, linguistically similar and yet physically so far apart. I guess it’s similar to a therapist, if you artificially divide it. Atrophy has been the experience of the weekend. I rode the Exeter Wheelers hill climb on Stoke Hill. It was a super event, and very much in keeping with the trend towards better organisation and prizes. Who would have thunk that if you organise things properly, use publicity and offer a big prize fund you get a whopping field, including the current reigning hill climb champions, Dan Evans and Maryka Semmena.
Having not ridden competitively since October last year, I approached the event with a degree of trepidation. I rode conservatively and came in a long way down the field. There is no surprise in this, although there is a degree of dented pride to be so far adrift of the top ten. I have been wrestling with a medieval lurgy for the past two weeks which didn’t help matters; I spent about 40 minutes post-race trying to eject my lungs from my body in a furious coughing fit which put the kibosh on further humiliation at Porlock today. Despite all of the above, it was a fun day out.
Borek gets fresh with Dan Evans’ weapon.
Earlier on in the week I made a whistle-stop visit to Rapha HQ in London’s famous London to unleash another hill climb talk. It was well-received, with the possible exception of a injudicious aside whereupon I implied that the Tom Simpson ‘Simpsonissimo’ jersey costs £600, at which point one of the men in black came hurtling out of the Citroën H Van which doubles up as their office and made it clear that the talk was ‘on thin ice now’. Jokes about Rapha go down better in Manchester Rapha than they do in London Rapha. I managed to stumble on and reverse a bit and get things back on track in front of a silent and vaguely alarmed audience. It was all smiles afterwards, apparently the men in black were joking as well. For the audience it all got a bit Tommy Cooper. It’s worth noting that I am incredibly grateful to Rapha for providing the venue and support for the talk and book, especially Jess who has been amazing. Sometimes these things need to be spelled out.
Next up on the epic world tour is Beeline Cycles in Oxford, Monday 28 September. This will be a double header with Tejvan Pettinger and it’s probably the last talk for quite a while. I think everyone has heard enough about hill climbs.