This year’s National Hill Climb was on Haytor. It’s the first big visit since Jeff Williams beat Gareth Armitage in 1979. It has been used since as a regular climb, sometimes as part of a double with either Widecombe or Mamhead. I used to love riding there, it’s a challenging climb but nice and long to it rules out all the power-hobbits. I contemplated coming out of retirement, but had another glass of wine instead.
A couple of things are worth mentioning. It was a beautiful day; the sun shone from start to finish. This has a profound effect on the levels of joy and the spectator experience. I bathed in the autumnal sun and prehistoric landscape. I stood at the side of the road with my scarf for four hours and it felt good to be alive.
It wasn’t a closed road. I don’t think it’s possible to have a closed road on a climb of this length on a road of this nature, for this long. You either don’t use these classic climbs anymore or you have them on open roads. See The Tumble, or Bwlch. The open road caused some grumbles. I didn’t see it as a particularly big problem – however, I wasn’t caught behind any vehicles. A substantial proportion of the traffic on the road was cyclists and competitors in cars. The preferred option will always be a closed road – but it isn’t the only option, and if it is then we’re going to lose a lot of courses.
This event is now seriously big. It lasted from 8am until 1pm, in racing terms. That’s a heck of a long time. It makes it an enormous logistical challenge to put on and run successfully. The MDCC did a brilliant job. I wonder if it might be worth splitting the events in the future. It’d be a shame – you’d lose the inclusive element.
In terms of the racing, the best riders won; Hayley Simmonds, Ed Laverack, Phil Stonelake and others. My mind was blown by the speed and power on show. Seeing Hayley and Joss Lowden rip up the climb was spectacular. Joss opted for a disc wheel – and she was the only competitor. At Burrington a week before some bloke off the internet was banging on about how ‘aero’ was going to be the defining factor. I kept my counsel (unusually) because I was getting ‘expertsplained’, and because I thought it was a load of cobblers. I listened for a bit then walked off to eat some more cake. The defining factor at Haytor was power-to-weight and coping with the steep ramps in a technical and seriously challenging course. The Comic had a small photo of both Hayley and Ed on the cover, which was great, with the caption ‘Ed and Hayley TT to the Title’ which was less great, because they didn’t TT to the top any more than Simon Yates did in 2013 when he dropped Quintana and Martin on the way.
Afterwards there was quite a regal gathering of champions; Joss Lowden, Hayley Simmonds, Marykka Semenna, Dan Evans, Richard Bussell, James Dobbin, Jim Henderson, Andrew Feather, Adam Kenway… I don’t think anyone had the foresight to get a photo.
Lastly, there isn’t any other race or type of racing which comes near to the Hill Climb for atmosphere and deranged enjoyment. There is a solidarity and an honesty to this race that can’t be found anywhere else. I love it, but I think everyone knew that already.
It’s long this year; 3.1 miles to be precise, and it’s a technical climb. It’s possible the winner might be someone unexpected. I’m tipping Phil Stonelake for the Vets. This is what I wrote for the MDCC programme:
“Yes, Dartmoor is a worthy setting. If the devil did desire to have a hand in our affairs.”
And so it goes… the championship returns to Devon and the long, undulating climb of Haytor. The clocks reverse and a deep darkness descends to a landscape unchanged since Jeff Williams crested the summit 40 years ago. The onlooking cairns and kistvaens of prehistory are soundless witnesses to our savage efforts.
“A grey, melancholy hill, with a strange jagged summit, dim in the distance like some fantastic landscape in a dream.”
Of late, the weightless roadmen and testers have been but shadows sketched onto the shorter, shiftier climbs, lurking in the gloaming of Pea Royd or Bank Road, watching the watt monsters racing into and through, rather than over the hill. But now the cleat is on the other foot. Haytor is a rhythm climb, 13 minutes with eyeballs bulging but not bloodied. It is a spiteful sibling to the Horseshoe and the Tumble, where pacing triumphs over power.
“I counsel to forbear you from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted.”
Watch out for Hayley Simmonds taking on Joscelin Lowden, Emily Meakins and Fiona Burnie. See if Andrew Feather can ward off those reliant on the rhythm method in pursuit of ecstasy; think Laverack, Gildea and Evans. Let’s hope for a kind day; a long climb in spiteful rain and wind is no friend to the spectator or rider. Lastly look out for the MDCC, home to Colin Lewis, Yanto Barker and Jeremy Hunt. They are the keepers of the flame, eager to see who will be spoken of alongside Williams, Webster and Boardman in the years to come.
“That which is clearly known has less terror than that which is but hinted at.”
Words by Paul Jones (with apologies to Arthur Conan-Doyle)
I mean to update this page more regularly; it’s an important thing for me. However, all my energies get sucked into writing whatever other thing I’m supposed to be writing and then I think that writing this thing is somehow not a good thing be to writing because I should be writing the other thing. It’s as though doing this is somehow profligate these days. I don’t think it is. I just find it hard to find the time.
I rode Burrington this weekend. I choose the word ‘rode’ carefully, I can’t say I raced. I used my Bob Jackson, a 65″ gear, and it felt a bit tall. I had a laugh. Andy Legge said ‘that was shocking‘. Tejvan Pettinger commented that maybe I should “go back on the hill climb diet”. Matt Clinton said “Have you eaten a small child?”. Alice Thomson said “I beat you”. I came 78th. I had DOMS all day yesterday and today. This is what death and old age feels like. What will survive of us is delayed onset muscle soreness.
I’m writing, writing, writing. There is no change leftover for fripperies like training. I ride to work. I drink wine. I eat a lot of chocolate. I write some more. I’d love to ride more, but I think I might even have mentioned it some time ago, that there is only enough room for three (or so) things at once, i.e marriage, children, work, that sort of thing. I’m fine. I’m mostly happy.
I miss the camaraderie of the village hall and the brotherhood of the hill climb. I’m gobsmacked by the increased level of participants, especially women. It’s brilliant. I’m going to the National Hill Climb next weekend, I wrote some programme notes and am giving out some prizes. I still feel very impostery at these kind of things. Always. I did a talk at the NEC Bike Show. It was surreal, going on after Matt Haro. Height of imposteryness.
My deadline for the End to End book is April, I’m about 45k words in, with another 35k to go. I’m trying to find a balance right now between the different stories to ensure they are different enough, and trying to work out how much of me I can or should put in. I’ve interviewed some incredible people face to face; Eileen Sheridan, Dick Poole, Andy Wilkinson, Janet Tebbutt, Pauline Strong, Michael Broadwith, Mick Coupe. I’m sitting on the most amazing pile of transcripts. I feel beyond lucky.
Book should be out at the back end of next year.
To come: review of Max Leonard book, Higher Calling – if you haven’t read it, seek it out, it’s brilliant. He has written two books, both of which caught me off guard with their subtlety and joyousness.
I’m reading: Lady Velo by Jools Walker (we share a publisher! wow!) and Where There’s a Will, by Emily Chappell who is the loveliest writer.
I like Jonathan Vaughters. I like how he dresses and I liked his oddly sharp sideburns back in the day. In my head I think he would be engaging company. I think I project certain things onto him, that somehow I imagine him to be quirky, cool, and committed to making things work in a different way. He’s the indie music fan’s DS of choice. I reckon he listens to the National, which I can overlook for now because lots of other interesting people have a bizarre affection for this most boring of bands. I’m sure he’d like other stuff, like early REM or perhaps Deerhunter. Maybe not. Maybe he loves Counting Crows. I doubt it though.
It’s a book about bike racing, so it appeals straight away. However, I was also drawn to the complex sponsorship issues which threatened to unstitch his cycling team at various times. Lastly, there is the Lance thing. He’s an American cyclist who grew up in the same peer group, rode the same junior races and ended up at US Postal for a time. He was a protagonist in the rise and fall of Armstrong, a walking shadow; who fretted his hour upon the stage, and appears in the narrative of The Reasoned Decision.
All of which meant I was very excited when Quercus sent me a copy of his new book. I put aside my other bedtime reading and pretty much ripped through it in a day or so. It’s an easy read – as most cycling books are, and the chronology means you’re always reaching forwards to race to the bits you know, the USPS stuff, Bassons, Wiggins, what happened with Millar, the sponsorship sagas. Which is a shame, because these aren’t the best bits in the book. The writing is linear, conversational and straightforward, meaning this book lives or dies on the strength of the anecdote.
The first third or so is a classic tale, part American Flyers, part Breaking Away. It taps into the mythology of cycling in the US, the open spaces, huge journeys between races and sense of geographical and cultural dislocation from cycling in Europe, leading to an inferiority complex. It shows Vaughters’ determination and desire to win, even when losing heavily. All the key protagonists are there, from the Dad with his words of wisdom; “if you start something you damn well finish it…“, to the bike shop owner dispensing sage advice and fancy kit. Gradually the narrative shifts, as other key people emerge; Hincapie especially, but then Lance.
The second bit amplifies the first section, this time on the bigger canvas of continental cycling, with Vaughters, by now accustomed to winning, having to get used to losing all over again, yo-yoing off the back with Greg Lemond, wandering what the fuck was happening and experiencing a pervasive sense of disillusionment. The descent into PEDs is framed in the same way as other accounts, well, the more open of them. A sense of right and wrong being eroded, with noble choices being punished, and of institutional practices which carry a weight far greater than the individual, with a few notable exceptions. By 1997 Vaughters had cracked; “give me the damned chemicals, doctor, give me all of them.”
He got quicker, he took more drugs. He felt empty when winning but felt that it was the same for everyone; “We all knew what we were up to at the time… We were all just flawed humans trying to make the best of a short life.” He’s right, and there isn’t any point in throwing cant at the wall in the hope that some of it might stick. If, by some quirk of madness I had ridden in the peloton in the late 1990s I don’t doubt for one second that I would have ended up in a similar position. The pressure to take PEDs, the normalisation of the process, the lack of an alternative at that time, all point towards an endemic and systematic problem.
The book doesn’t break new ground in this respect. It flags up the issues. It summarises the difficulties. It does it with candour. However, it also does it from a resolutely singular perspective. In the middle third the book shifts away from straightforward PED-memoir, into a bit of score-settling. The reader is left in no doubt of Vaughter’s role in the ‘Reasoned Decision’ case, the interviews and contributions made to tackling the mess. It’s intertwined with lots of bad blood (no pun intended) between him and Armstrong which is never fully resolved. We find that Vaughters really doesn’t like David Millar; “…I never felt he was interested in what was best for the team, but what was best for David. However, I’m a forgiving guy and David was a damned talented rider, so we didn’t leave him out in the cold due to his turncoat ways“. He sticks the boot in a couple more times. He doesn’t like Wiggins, and devotes a whole chapter to the Brad-Sky debacle, “the child was once again throwing his toys out of the pram.” Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t like Brailsford either. There is a sense of someone who holds a grudge, often with good reason, but holds a grudge nonetheless. Some of the comments still seem sharp, even after some years. They also get a lot of words, at a point when as a reader and cycling fan I was looking forward to some joyous stories from the team car, watching Dan Martin being chased by a giant panda as he takes home a monument. Some of these are conspicuous by their absence.
The final third is devoted to the sponsorship wrangles. It’s mostly an illuminating insight, covering the current model of funding and the difficulties this causes. As with the first section, I felt admiration for Vaughters, his drive and determination. I admire him because he sticks at things. He is still there, celebrating with his riders, bringing on new ones, having faith in neo-pros, seeking to chip away at the edifice and do things his way. There is something to be said for those attributes, maybe because I feel I don’t have them.
Perhaps the most telling – and therefore bizarrely late – bit of the book is his reference to his diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. It adds an important element of context; the obsession, the failure to forgive, the determination to do one thing to the exclusion of others, and at times – the lack of empathy or awareness of social causation, but it comes so late in the book as to be almost irrelevant. Maybe this is an editorial decision, I don’t know. For me, it’s vital, and a real missed opportunity.
I liked this book in the same way I liked The Secret Race, or Racing through the Dark, or any other story of second chances. It’s not The Rider (nothing ever is) and it’s not in the top echelon of cycling autobiographies (think Fignon), but it is a story worth reading. It’s a shame the prism of Asperger’s isn’t mentioned earlier; it’s a significant part of the story, and a significant part of Vaughters. It makes him more sympathetic and his decisions, quirks and grudges more understandable.
Part of the narrative of the new book is ‘experiential’, for want of a better phrase. Maybe ‘narcissistic’ is the better phrase I’m for want of. I’m doing the End to End in a couple of mighty chunks in order to get a greater sense of the challenges, but also the topographical and cultural changes across the UK.
The first step is a big stage across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, planned for half-term. It comes in at about 200 miles, give or take. I was quite impressed with this as a projected distance, right up until audax season kicked off and my stravr feed was suddenly alive with the sound of ultra-nutters carving out 300 mile rides across Wales and back, at which point I felt inadequate.
However, I’m doing it, and because I’m doing it I felt it might be a good opportunity to try and raise some money. And I’m utterly un-ultra-nuttery so it has all the hallmarks of being an absolute catastrophe.
I’m raising money for Off the Record, a group who work to support young people who are struggling with their Mental Health.
They work closely with the NHS and help vulnerable people.
I’m sure in 30 years time when we’re all burning up in post-BladeRunner 2020 dystopian furnace, we’ll all remember that at least we had that February week when it was 20 degrees and everyone was frotting around in shorts. What a time to be alive.
Except I’m barely alive because of this vile ‘flu which has crept into the house like a medieval pestilence. And I haven’t ridden my bike in four weeks. It’s possibly the longest lay-off in 15 years.
The only silver lining is that by not eating I have somehow lost a tiny bit of weight.
I neglected to update the details, but Alf is back in stock. We shifted about 1100 copies in three months, which was pretty amazing for an independent publisher and a niche, unmarketed book, aside from my slightly haphazard efforts.
I’m now embroiled in the details for my new book which is all about the insane, psychedelic horror and joy of the End to End. I’ve even managed somehow to get a literary agent to represent the book, which was definitely more luck than judgement, and I had the first of I’m sure many flat-out rejections.
Other things I have done:
I went to Champions’ Night and presented the Bidlake Award to Michael Broadwith, was theatened with legal action by Martyn Roach, ate breakfast with Michael Hutchinson. He said he liked the title. I got drunk and chatted with amazing people like Dan Bigham and Rachael Elliott and Dick Poole and Graham Huck and many many others.
I managed to convince my local bookshop to stock Alf and ACE. They took two, and sold them both in two days, so took four, then sold those, and then when I went back they’d taken to ordering it in from their distributor and were selling them too.
I hurt my neck somehow so haven’t been riding.
I sold my time trial bike.
My mum made a limited run of two pottery mugs with ‘I Like Alf’ on them. I gave one to Alf and it now has pride of place in his house.