Zone of Proximal Development

I was chatting to Mike Strada and Jez Strada the other day. Somehow we ended up discussing our encounters with famous cyclists. None of us could top Jez’s encounter with the big beast himself:

Legendary cycling champion and figure of notoriety – and some chump in a replica jersey

I once had a brief encounter with Axel, son of Eddy…

Me and Axel, son of Eddy.

A furtive back-turning from the son of a legend, played out in a rain and wind swept car park in Bradford is not quite a story to tell the grandchildren about. And i have been comprehensively outdone in the “Cycling Legends Top Trumps” by Mike.

Eddy recognises raw power when he sees it; the handshake speaks of the fellowship of the road, of two brothers joined in adversity and separated only by 11 grand tour wins.

Paris Roubaix

Paris Roubaix takes place this weekend. It’s the best of the classics and has the most mythical cachet. The seminal document of the event is “A Sunday in Hell”, by Jørgen Leth, a beautiful and beguiling film; “Maertens, De Meyer, Dierickx, Godefroot, De Vlaeminck… and Merckx… leading”.

I went over to watch the event in 2009, spending the weekend in Lille. I spent the Saturday riding the last few sections of pavé before sweeping into the velodrome and riding two laps. On the second day I watched the race and was staggered by the speed and skill of the peloton and the way in which Tom Boonen piled on the pressure towards the end of the race, forcing the pace over the cobbles.

The lead group prior to carrefour de l’arbre: Flecha, Boonen, Pozzato, Van Summeren and Hoste, Hushovd

I remember several things quite clearly: the bike-destroying magnitude of each cobble; the joy of being in a country where cycling is the national sport; and the brutality of professional bike-racing. Rarely has the gulf between the professional and the amateur been so starkly reinforced.

The Hardrider treatment

taking the bike for a walk

Today’s stage of Tirreno-Adriatico was an exercise in living purgatory for the (fool)hardy bicycle racers. It included 3 ascents of the Muro di Sant’Elpidio, a piffling 27% ramp which caused mayhem and destruction. Horrible rain and wind contributed towards an enormous list of 54 DNFs. When even Zdenek Stybar calls it “one of the hardest days in my career”, you know it’s been tough.

Stybar in happier, simpler times

It was too much even for some of the hardened members of the peloton;

“It has nothing to do with bike racing, I call it sadomaso”; Cancellara

“In dry conditions would have been the hardest parcours I’ve ever done! With rain and wind turned into something between epic and insane!”; Quinziato.

Chris Froome lost time to Nibali who managed to get into a breakaway with well-known mountain goat Peter Sagan. It was a peculiar day where the form book and any sense of normality was rent asunder by the savagery of the weather and the parcours. Froome said he was overgeared on a 36:28. Sanchez changed bikes just so he could use a 30 tooth cassette.

Zig-zag wanderer, as Don van Vliet might have said.

All of which made for a brilliant spectacle as the professionals zig-zagged their way up the cliff face with all the elegance of drunken lizard.

Meanwhile, I managed to squeak into the online version of Cycling Weekly. I like it when that happens.

Tour De France Visits Leeds

It’s one of the more improbable news items, but no less exciting for all that. The Tour is coming! I am already making plans to spend the weekend in Yorkshire. Luckily, my mother lives in Bradford so we have a base from which to catch both days.

I’ve never seen the Tour in mainland Europe, but I did go and watch when the Grand Depart visited London in 2007. Here’s a nice home spun clip trawled from youtube of Cancellara absolutely gunning it in the World Champion’s Jersey:

Visits from the Tour have been progressively more exciting. In 1974 the greatest show on earth rolled up and down a newly constructed bypass near Plympton. Riders were distinctly non-plussed.

It didn’t grace these shores again until 1994, when things were a little bit better. They took in the ‘Col De Ditchling Beacon’ en route to a stage finish in Brighton. The two days were successful, at least partly because of the ‘Boardman effect’.

The visit in 2014 promises to be a high watermark for British Cycling. Cavendish and Wiggins have become global cycling legends of the highest order and Team Sky is the dominant outfit in the professional ranks. Yorkshire is a hotbed of cycling and I’m sure the Huddersfield Star Wheelers, East Bradford, Oldham Century, Airedale Olympic and Otley Cycling Clubs are breathless with excitement at the prospect of seeing the stars at close quarters on their local roads.

It might change the strava top tens a little bit though.

Tour of Britain: Merrivale

The Tour of Britain took in some of the lumpier terrain of Devon this morning and afternoon in a stage that went from coast (well, Taw estuary) to coast, up and out of North Devon before hitting the National Park and climbing up Merrivale. The stage started in Barnstaple, outside the Atheneum. It seemed strange watching on the terrorbox this evening, the peloton was a psychedelic ribbon strung across Barnstaple bridge. It seemed more odd than it might otherwise because i was born there and spent some incredibly tedious and empty years hanging out in the nether regions of a town described by Ross Noble as ‘the toilet of the universe.’ It’s hard to imagine that Ivan Basso, Mark Cavendish and Sammy Sanchez would be charging up Sticklepath Hill. I’m sure they found it equally momentous.

I headed down to Merrivale on the top of Dartmoor to watch the peloton climb up. Prior to the arrival of the race there was a hillclimb organised by Tavistock Wheelers. It was a team event and the Bristol South CC outfit consisted of myself, Tavis Walker and Glyndwr Griffiths. We were fairly close together in the end, Tavis was 1st with 6.45, Glyn 2nd with 6.56, and I was 4th with 7.04. When the pros came up later their times were a bit slower – Tom Moses, riding for the GB academy team put in a 7.33. Anyway, they were riding tempo for over a hundred miles. I can forgive them. A particularly rapid young rider beat me to the final podium place by one second. We won the team prize by 3 minutes from the next best outfit. The prizes were terrific, some local ale, a pint glass, champagne, a trophy, meal vouchers, free cake, all sorts. Hats off to the local club and all involved in running the event, especially the Tavy contingent, but also the Yogi who turned out en masse. It was a great first race for the BSCC Hill Climb Dream Team.

Watching the pros come up the hill was a fantastic experience, especially with Ivan Basso in the lead group. The atmosphere and general feeling engendered on the hill from the massed ranks of eager spectators was comparable with anything I’ve seen in Europe. It was amazing to be there.

glyn recovers with a garage pasty
Basso! In Devon! With Sanchez!
Devon boy John Tiernan Locke shows the peloton a clean pair of heels
Devon boy Jeremy Hunt

It will be great if Tiernan-Locke can keep hold of the golden fleece at the end of hostilities tomorrow. Fingers crossed….

A Genuine Cave of Pain: Ciutu Negru

One of the most overused epithets of recent times, in relation to cycling, has been the term ‘paincave’. As in:

‘oh yeah i went to the vets session at the ‘drome, it was total paincave’

‘omfg that sportive, i was like, deep in the paincave’

‘holy shit man SQT was a one way ticket straight to the paincave’

‘during that mendip ride i was practically spelunking i was so deep in the cave of pain’

it’s a hyperbolic way of saying that things hurt a bit. often, it’s utterly baseless, but does go to show that suffering is always relative.

Yesterday the Vuelta visited the climb of Cuitu Negru. at the end it’s fair to say i think i could have walked more quickly over the line than some of the leading cyclists. it was described beforehand as ‘leg snappingly’ steep and ‘the climb to end all climbs’.  their experience was amplified by the fact that the usual mountain mentalists, waving big flags and shouting in their faces, could keep pace for quite some time. Here are some of the rider reactions from the race:

“This last climb is hell, for a fact. The last three kilometres were horrible. It was steeper than the Angliru. I almost fell off the back of my bike.” Robert Gesink

“I think he has never known anything that hard,” Orica Greenedge DS refering to Daniel Teklehaymanot (Orica-GreenEdge) who was seen vomiting as he crossed the finish line, some 35 minutes behind stage winner Dario Cataldo.

“I rode with a compact cassette for the very first time in my life. And in the end, I needed it! It was no fun, I was in a cave of pain. Horrible.” Laurens Ten Dam.

Lance Armstrong

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the Lance saga appears to have entered the endgame. Even now, it’s hard to find anyone who polarises opinion quite so much. Gary Imlach said something like ‘an argument about Lance Armstrong is almost a faith-based matter’. There’s a spiritual zeal to those who continually defend him, and an abject refusal to look at anything circumstantial, no matter how weighty that circumstantial evidence might be.

I can’t help but feel that Lance’s rustication goes someway towards discrediting that particular era of cycling in its entirety, and everyone in it. I think this is a good thing. It’s the final nail in the coffin. The best article i’ve read of late, and well worth a read, is by Jonathan Vaughters. I found it erudite, engaging and honest. I felt sorry for Christophe Bassons, in fact anyone who crossed swords with Lance Armstrong, the man with the biggest chip on his shoulder since the invention of the sliced potato and hot oil combo. I find it inconceivable that any individual would be able to ride clean and win 7 tours against riders who were engaged in systematic and scientific doping, including his team-mates. This is when denials of doping become a case of denial – if you don’t admit to it then there’s not a lot you can do about it. In light of this, asking whether Lance doped is not unlike asking whether Michael Jackson had plastic surgery. Both deny it, vociferously, but with a caveat or occasional exemption for medical reasons. The wider circumstantial and visual evidence appears to suggest otherwise.

Lastly, if he is stripped of his seven titles, then the redistribution of honours becomes faintly surreal. Take a top ten, any top ten, from within those 7 years. Remove Lance. Reallocate based on whether rider was clean/proven drugs cheat. Let’s use 2004 for an example: Armstrong/Basso/Ullrich/Kloden top four. Hmmm. That leaves Jose Azevedo as the winner. I think.

Here’s a sort of realigned top two from the Armstrong years, removing those who have been involved in doping scandals. it’s worth considering that Azevedo was a US Postal rider. and in case you’re wondering who Totschnig is… he rode for Gerolsteiner. We’ll ignore the Schumacher/Kohl connection for now.

99 Escartin, Casero

00 Escartin, Nardello

01 Kivilev, Simon

02 Azevedo, Sastre

03 Zubeldia, Sastre

04 Azevedo, Totschnig

05 Evans, Pereiro

06 Pereiro, Sastre

Or as a friend sardonically put it – ‘Boardman gets ’96 – he was 39th overall’.

Cycling in Burgundy

This morning I did an extended boulangerie run. This meant taking in a nice scenic loop, rolling through as many gentle Burgundy villages as possible, navigating through the undulating countryside and gently ruminating Charolais cattle, before stopping at a small village bakery and picking up the croissants and baguettes for a well-deserved breakfast.

The villages have richly evocative names, like Dracy-les-Couches. The extra bit probably doesn’t mean sleepy, but each tiny hamlet is seemingly closed to the outside world, the shutters across with no sound or signs of life.

I went to the Morvan national park yesterday and was a little bit underwhelmed. I thought there might be a range of hills and some savage volcanic scenery, perhaps like the Auvergne, or a glacial solemnity like the Jura, but instead I found forested inclines and not much else. It was good for a short loop, but I went down the one climb I should perhaps have gone up; acquiring a nagging as the descent began to take a while, with each corner offering more downhill action, all of which contributed to a sense of regret that I didn’t do the loop in reverse and thus enjoy the steady climb up out of the valley for about half an hour. I am going to go back there tomorrow to have a look at Mont Beuvray and take in a particularly nasty climb out of Autun. It’s the site of an ancient Gallic village called Bibracte.

Speaking of prehistory, we came across some menhirs. Last year we went to Carnac, which is about as scarily intense as prehistory can get; rows and rows of neatly aligned stones, stretching over 4 or 5 kilometres with odd stone enclosures and towering sarsen slabs. I found it more impressive than Stonehenge which has always been something of a damp squib for me; some stones that aren’t as big as you think they’re going to be, surrounded on all sides by arterial trunk roads. There is nothing of the scale and size of Carnac here, but we did find some archetypal standing stones. By archetypal, I mean corresponding precisely to my understanding of what a menhir looks like, an image gleaned entirely from the works of Goscinny and Uderzo. These 4 or 5 stones looked like they had been sculpted by Obelix and placed neatly in the field by Asterix after imbibing some of the magic potion. One had some strange markings on it.

archetypal menhir

Riding in the French countryside is an unending source of delight. Most cyclists tend to be francophiles, therefore you get to combine two earthly delights in one glorious moment. I have been reading French cycling magazines. Their take on the Tour is very similar to the British angle with more Franglais – ‘God Save Le Wiggo’ – and with added emphasis on the exploits of Voeckler, Pinot and Rolland.

Col de la Faucille

The Col de la Faucille is a steady climb that starts in the small town of Gex and lifts you up to the top of the Jura mountains. It’s 8 miles long and never particularly steep, making it a ‘rhythm’ climb. You can stay seated, find the right cog and power your way up to the top. I was using the 22 or 23 for most of it. It has featured in the Tour 41 times and was the location for Lance’s unseemly chase after Simeoni in 2004.

thousand yard stare from the big texan 
Col de la Faucille

The Jura Mountains are less impressive than the Alps in terms of sheer size and scale, but they are beautiful nonetheless. There is an initial escarpment that runs along the horizon and overlooks Geneva and the lake. Once over the crest there is a hidden Alpine valley, followed by a second parallel crest, making the range seem like two huge rolling waves, rippling across the landscape.

hidden alpine valley between the two ranges

I dropped down from the top towards La Cure, before rolling along the bottom of the valley and into Mijoux. At this point i took a smaller road and climbed back up to the Faucille. The descent into Gex is a corker; the relatively benign curves and friendly gradient make it one you can attack.

I had a great day, doing 50 miles with 9,000 feet of climbing, taking the two day tally to nearly 18,000 feet, when added to yesterday’s hors categorie Joux Plane. My legs felt stronger as the ride progressed and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The views across the Lake and Geneva, towards the Saleve and the Alps, were lovely. Even the smaller climbs here are considerably longer than anything in the UK. The Col is higher than Ben Nevis.


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