Dauphiné

I like the Dauphiné. It’s a compressed Tour, with punches thrown and some indications of form ahead of the Grand Boucle, but nothing that nails it down with certainty. It’s also a race that has had more than its fair share of British winners; Wiggins and Froome have carved up 5 of the last 6. Robert Millar won in 1990, and Brian Robinson in 1961. One of the other reasons I like the Dauphiné is because my subscription to Eurosport has lapsed and it’s available on ITV4. Hurrah.

12241327_927947727272481_242652354119151870_n

robinson-brian-cycling-cover

I like it because it uses some of the high Mountains; it’s the first chance to see the peloton get blown to smithereens over the course of 40 or 50 minutes of relentless uphill; the slow and steady grind as riders get shelled out of the back.

This year it opened with a savage uphill time trial, much closer in spirit to a longer British hill climb than anything particularly continental. It was a shakedown and had everyone salivating over the form of ‘el pistolero’. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but I didn’t see the time gap as all that relevant. It showed he had some form, but it isn’t a definitive statement; you can misjudge a time trial or simply be a bit cold, or rusty, or not quite on the rivet, and I had a feeling that Froome’s ride wasn’t all that worrying. Later in the week he replicated the narrative from last year’s Tour. Smash everyone on an early mountain stage with a brutal, uncompromising attack, take the lead and defend it, job done.

There are a couple of other warm-up races, the main one being the Tour de Suisse. After that, it’s heads down for the Tour.

Meeting Point

IMG_20160515_075118Of late, I’ve found it really difficult to find the time to do various things and have had to stop doing the additional writing for Snowdon. There is a limit to how much you can do with the time available, and having a family and a full-time, fairly hectic job, mitigates against taking on large chunks of additional work. I’ve opted to rein things back in and instead focus on books. I have a couple of irons in the fire, but the current project is about Alf Engers. We met initially, very briefly, at the Pedal Club. He then rang me some weeks later to talk about cycling and essentially reeled off a string of anecdotes from the golden years. It was quite a surreal conversation.

Yesterday I made the trek to Engers Towers to start the process. We talked for around 3 or 4 hours about his life in cycling. I’m going to state the obvious; Alf’s life is fascinating and he is a heroic figure. For this reason, he is a complicated and intensely admirable chap. I found myself bowled over by his charisma, engaging personality and the staggering number of anecdotes.

The next step is to go through everything from the conversations, transcribe the text, add to the timeline I’ve got and begin sketching out the outline of the book. I’ll then write up sections that are full enough, and revisit Alf to get more depth and detail on gaps and thinner sections. At the end, he went through an enormous string of stories, seemingly unconnected in space and time, tales from the track at Portsmouth, on the F1, stories of characters in the trade, the works. Each of these was almost the basis of a short story in itself.

I’m going to speak with some contemporaries of Alf, including Eddie Adkins and Derek Cottington. I then need to get some additional colour on the likes of Len Thorpe, Ted Gerrard, Alan Shorter, although again, these are potentially books in themselves.

It goes without saying that I’m excited about this one.

IMG_20160515_075345
Alf with Alan Shorter at the Herne Hill Track
Uncategorized

The King

“I look at the sky, expecting a heavenly chorus. Instead, somewhere a dog barks.”

alf 1975Alfrecord

alfengerscatterick_1000

Alf Engers rang me up out of the blue the other day. He introduced himself over the phone by counting down from 5 to 0, like a timekeeper at the push. He’d read my book and we met very briefly at the Pedal Club when I gave a talk. Apparently he liked my sense of humour and attitude. He’s quite the raconteur and I’m optimistic that this is the start of a new project. Three phone calls in and I’m already overwhelmed by writeable stories.

He also asked me if I was still racing. Alf Engers. Asked me about my bike riding.

On Bogus Comparisons

One thing the bike industry is particularly good at is convincing people that they need new stuff. It’s even getting very good at convincing people that they need new stuff that looks very much like old stuff. It’s a sophisticated marketing dream, peddling (pun intended) a dream of escapism, reified in crabon.

I’ve paid good money for bikes before. If you dig deep enough on here you’ll find a evidence of expensiveness. I think I even wrote about it, comparing the cost per kilogramme between a Cervelo R5 and a Range Rover.

Nevertheless, amidst all of the talk of R+D, trickle down technology and assorted justifications for much expense, I came across this:

IMG_20160416_064019.jpg

I couldn’t escape the sensation that surely, absolutely, this had to have a greater engineering provenance and cost value than his:

trek.PNG

And that someone, somewhere, was having a laugh at the expense of golf manufacturers, mamils, and anyone seduced to such an extent by the sauciness of the bike boom that they felt compelled to spend nearly ten grand on a push bike.

Uncategorized

Ooh la la! Chute a la derrière!

Like most people, and certainly the three readers of this blog, I have a certain affinity for Paris-Roubaix. At this point in the year you can’t move on social media without being distracted by a series of gratuitous images of men on bikes amongst monstrous boulders. It’s by some distance the best bike race there is. I’ve written about it before, and it also happens to be one of the few continental bike races I’ve made the trek to see, back in 2008. It helps that the the definitive film about cycling is “A Sunday in Hell”, by Jørgen Leth, a visionary and experimental film-maker. Joyously, the film is available in its entirety on the youtube.

It features lots of saucy shots of Merckx wrestling with saddle height, of Moser etching out a cadence of perfect circles across the crown of the cobbles, of Marc DeMeyer and Freddy Maertens, and of Roger De Vlaeminck, a Flandrian monster. It’s rich and evocative and it captures the attritional nature of the race; “one by one… they falter…” (1hr 18 onwards). They push huge gears over the cobbles, with the heavy surface favouring a big cadence.

The weather is either scorchingly dry or horrible filthy, a lethal quagmire. It’s been sunny and warm for a long time, but there are some indications it might be a bit damp this weekend, which is exciting for the spectator but not the rider.

In 2009 I was watching at Cysoing. It was a golden year for Boonen; he whittled the bunch down with unrelenting pressure and speed. It’s indisputably a race for the hardmen. The other riders buckled under the pressure, with both Flecha and Hushovd crashing in the final few miles. There is no hiding place; riders wilt. It is a completely compelling spectacle. Skip to 14 minutes in: “OOH LA LA, CHUTE A LA DERRIERE!”.

At 16 minutes in, Hushovd, he of the ridiculously good bike handling, of super fast descents (69mph on the Aubisque in the 2011 TdF), bunch sprints and world champion bands, drifts out of the corner and crashes, almost apologetically, as though resigned to the overwhelming difficulty and forcing pace of Boonen.

There’s a tonne of material on the youtube; a vortex of time and space to drift through in silent romanticism.

Uncategorized

Testing

Of late I’ve managed to scrape a few bits and pieces into everyone’s favourite cycling rag, The Comic. Last Sunday I was tasked to do the write-up for the RTTC Classic Series. I think Fraser Snowdon puts these my way because he suspects, rightly, that I’m one of a kind with the testerati and know certain obscure details about the Masonic code. Nonetheless, it was a plum assignment, proper Martha Gellhorn stuff, with some cycling royalty taking part – Alex (not Alec, typo fans) Dowsett, a rider who has variously won National Championships, Grand Tour stages and held the hour record. I was instructed to ring him and see if I could get some quotes. Astonishingly, he answered, and did a 15 minute phone interview. He is a very nice chap. This meant the article ended up in the front pages of this week’s rag, with the race report in the back. It was a very juicy double page spread. I’ll put the full transcript up in a little while.

wp-1459364795389.jpg
What’s that? You wrote this? But no byline? Ah well. It’s good work Dad, simple but effective, and Snowdons are great people. Can I eat it now? 

It’s not much, a short article with a neat structure, but I’m thrilled. I’ll write soon about the series of Damascene conversions that led to me a. writing articles for the Comic, and b. writing them whilst wearing only a pair of Rapha Pro Team bib shorts.

 

It’s good to be on the road back home again, again

A couple of weeks ago Dave Braidley put on the 6th Annual BSCC road race. It’s by some distance the best road race in the area and a savage test for the innocent and hapless 3/4s who line up with all the unbesmirched joie de vivre of the spring lambs gambolling in the nearby Mendip pastures. All it takes is once around the block, the first ascent of Stowey, for things to come unstuck. With a further eight to go, it’s a war of attrition. There is no break per se, just riders rolling on out the back as the bunch reduces lap on lap.

This year, in light of not organising any races, I took on marshalling duties from a scenic roundabout on the A37. It gave me a perfect viewpoint to see things unfold, the attempts to get away and the subtle changes that shape the narrative of the race. Two things stood out; firstly the doomed early attempts to ride away from everyone else which can result only in la fringale, even if you do get a few precious seconds of exposure for the sponsors. The second was the superb race from the uber-jazzy and post-hipster outfit, Das Rad Klub, who managed to win and come third, with Rob Borek, once of this parish, remaining steadfastly invisible until the last few moments. Kieran Ellis, still of the South, rode an incredible race. His was a classic case of the returning second cat with legs of steel, bullying the nervy neo-fourths, but nonetheless, he animated a breakaway and then somehow managed to bag second place after being swept up by the rampaging chaos of a 3/4 peloton on the a formless hurtle through Bishop Sutton.

I guess if you’re going to crash in a bike race, you may as well get points for it by scraping across the line on your collar bone. It reminds me of a chap in Lynton near where I grew up. He smashed it down the hill on his Chopper, before having a bit of a speed wobble which ended with him sliding down the hill on his front teeth. As far as I’m aware his friends and family still call him ‘Sparks’. You can’t beat a good face plant.