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.

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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.

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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.

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A nice picture on Tejvan Pettinger on the Cycling Weekly website this week. I read the article the other day but didn’t spot myself watching the race. It was my first National and I came 24th. I’d been up and then came back down to watch the big hitters hurtle upwards. Thanks to Nick Burton for the spot.

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Helden

The last bit of promo for ACE took place last week. I’d been asked yonks ago to attend a dinner of ‘The Pedal Club’ in London’s famous London. To be honest, I had no idea who they were and had to do a bit of research. My partner in crime, Steve Green, had previously spoken for them about his Milk Race project and it went down very well.

I didn’t think it could be that challenging, and they were offering expenses + lunch + fee so it seemed like a done deal. Doug Collins invited Steve along for moral support.

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Doug rode for Condor Mackeson, winning several stages of the Tour of Britain and riding in the Peace Race. He recounted a story of riding London-Holyhead on a Moulton, which collapsed at some point after halfway.

On arrival it seemed fairly low-key, but any pretensions of an easy ride, metaphorically at least, were extinguished fairly quickly. I was seated to the right of Carlton Kirby at dinner, who gave a moving eulogy to David Duffield. He is much  much bigger than he sounds on the telly, and funnier, and more salacious, and does very good accents, and keeps his schedule in a tiny diary in his pocket, and bought a copy of my book. Sat in front was Grant Young of Condor. Behind him was Ian McMillan, a track champion. I was coping just about ok with this, when Maurice Burton strolled in.

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He was joined by Keith Bingham. And these were just the ones I recognised. All of the rest were united by their commitment to furthering cycling as a force for good. And they wanted to hear me speak about my book. It was by some distance the most nerve-wracking audience I’ve encountered.

Dinner was an entertaining affair, with lots of banging of the gavel and drinking of the wine. I sat restlessly, waiting for the point where I would have to get up and speak. It was preceded by a short announcement, celebrating my achievements as a cyclist, of which there are two; obtainer of 49 minute 25 and participator in National TT Championships, appearing alongside other minor celebs like Wiggo and G.

The talk went well, the jokes just about flew across and I forgot the no spoilers rule by telling them about death. I amended it on the hoof to take into account any issues which might be encountered when teaching elderly matriarchs to suck eggs, and on the whole, i think i just about got away with it. I even fielded some questions, including one from Maurice Burton asking me to tell the assembled dignitaries a bit about myself.

I was all set to sit down (and then hotfoot it across London to catch a train on account of misjudging how long a Pedal Club lunch might take) when one last person popped up at the back to ask a question, both about hill climbs and time trials, and how they are quintessentially, uniquely English, and about Darryl Webster’s achievements.

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At which point I realised I’d just spoken for 40 minutes to a room of cycling heroes, and amongst them, hidden at the back, was King Alf himself, and he was directly addressing me on the topic of my book and the people in it. I didn’t reply, i simply pointed out that i’d be unable to respond in a coherent fashion because I couldn’t process that I was being asked a question – or spoken to – by Alf Engers.

And that was it. A typical day out in the big city with cycling folk. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the change in circumstances that have come about from writing an obscure book.

 

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Islabikes

I’ve been much taken by the Islabike Rothan, and now the Cnoc 14. These are small bikes for small people. They are much lighter than other equivalents and have tiny finishing kit, like small levers for little hands. The bikes are made by Isla Rowntree, a fairly well-known name in bike racing. She was responding to the palpable lack of suitable machinery for children.

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Penny loves her bike. She is also able to ride it. Since hitting up the balance bike at 18 months her confidence and enjoyment has been a delight to behold and she has been riding without stabilisers since a few weeks shy of her third birthday. I’ll qualify that – with the first adventure being on an Rothan balance bike, Penny doesn’t actually know what stabilisers or for. She looks askance at others using them and asks why and what they are. If you want parent points in the playground arms-race, just roll your hyper-mobile two and a bit year old along past some lumpen school-age beast limping around in decreasing circles on a wonky stabiliser. Knocks them for six. That’s what it’s all about these days, getting my self-esteem from the poor bike-parenting skills of other Bristolians, especially now I’m about as fast as a small child at actually riding my bike.

The only drawback of the islabike is the drawback of all well-made bicycles: the cost. For many, the idea that you might pay over £100 for an adult’s bicycle is anathema. This factor is magnified when the same rules apply to the purchasing of smaller bicycles. For these people there is the Emelle Concept Store. Nevertheless, Islabikes are expensive. In fact, they are probably the most expensive bike brand for small people.

Yesterday, our neighbours returned from Centre Parcs. Upon disembarking they had their fleet of Apollo Mountain Bikes lined up outside the house, ready to be returned to cold storage in the shed until next year’s woodland half-term trailshredding. I was faintly amused to realise that the three bikes outside the house in all likelihood cost less in total than Penny’s Cnoc 14.  The second smallest bike made by Isla Rowntree will set you back the best part of £249 if bought new. It’s a hefty sum. However, there is a silver lining to this fiscal cloud: the bikes are durable. They can be handed on to the next child in line, thus halving their cost. More than this, they do not seem to have any depreciable value. The cost of a second hand Islabike is usually about the same price as a new one. Over the lifespan of the bike you’ll be unlucky to be £50 out of pocket. In comparison, you’ll be paying someone to take that Halfrauds Apollo piece of pudlocked buffoonery away after 2 abortive rides.

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Nothin’ meaner than the Deaner

All of which is rational in monetary terms. The true value of the Islabike range is the rapidity with which tiny children pick up the basics of cycling – the unabashed joy of hurtling along under their own steam, the freedom and excitement of the onrushing breeze and the vicarious excitement of Mum and Dad. It’s a joy.

 

 

On minor success

I’ve been writing some bits and pieces lately for Snowdon Sports. They are a big sports and media news agency. It came about after Graham Snowdon, venerable cycling reporter for the Daily Telegraph, posted about reading my book on Fazbk, saying positive things.

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He then suggested I do few bits for them. Thus far it has included some newsdesk shifts. You can do these from home, it involves chasing up results and writing up a report. It’s quite exciting, insofar as it’s about as close to journalism as I’ve ever got. More exciting that that, I get to see my written words in Cycling Weekly every couple of weeks, shifts dependent. I did the results write-up a few weeks ago and have also done the copy for this Thursday’s edition.

It’s quite an odd experience. You have to write according to a particular style, keeping it fairly dry and making sure you don’t include extraneous detail. I quite like the challenge, even if it’s a million miles away from the fluid prose sections of ACE and the ramblings on here. Snowdons also supply race reports and details to British Cycling and the CTT. I’ve had two interviews up recently, one today featuring Adam Topham. He came across very well when I spoke to him; reflective and self-aware.

The highlight of all of this so far is ringing people up randomly and dropping the CW bomb: “Hello. It’s Paul Jones ringing for Cycling Weekly.” It’s worth it just for that.

 

 

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