“British Cycling Announces World Class Field For National Championships”

In a little over two weeks time the National Road Championships are taking place at Abergavenny. There are various events, including the road race, featuring a stellar line-up. It’s worth heading over to see the circuit; it takes a route through Celtic Manor near Newport and is a tough course. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see the top domestic and continental professionals going head to head for the red, white and blue jersey. On the Thursday evening the time trial championships kick things off. Some of the heroes of modern British cycling are riding; people who have shaped the narrative of the sport, like David Millar: his personal arc of triumph, then earth-shattering fall and eventual redemption contains all the elements of optimism that most cycling fans have clung to over the darker years.  Sir Bradley Wiggins is also down to start. I can’t begin to mention how important a figure he is without lurching into hyperbole. He is the reigning Olympic time trial champion.

David Millar is the commonwealth games champion. Both have won grand tour TT stages. They are the zenith of the sport. Also riding for Sky are Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe. Alongside is Alex Dowsett of Movistar, who recently sliced 25 seconds from the National “10” record, pulling out all the stops to record a 35mph ride.

The startsheet is available here. Some time ago i put an entry in. It was fairly speculative and I didn’t anticipate getting a ride. As it happens, I’ve managed to get in. I’d like to reiterate that last statement, it seems a bit Karl Power-esque. Somehow, i’m riding in the same race as the above people and a whole gang full of inconceivably fast people. Since i saw the startsheet this morning I’ve been a state of excitement, anxiety and fear. I hoped the professionals would turn out, but now the concrete, real reality of the race line up has created different emotions; I’m fearful and I am going to be on the receiving end of some fairly hefty time gaps. But it is what it is, and if you’d told me 5 years ago that i’d be on the startsheet for this kind of race I’d have looked askance and questioned your sanity. As it stands; i’ve entered, I was given a start based on the organiser’s belief that i wouldn’t be out of place in the elite race and was deserving of the chance. I want to race. I want to not come last. And i want to throw out the rock horns on the start ramp. (Oh no, please, no, i didn’t even think about the start ramp, if there is one, christ, please god don’t let me fall off).

And i want to savour the moment and look back on it as one of those things that i did within a life where opportunities were taken. Because time trialling, the race against the clock, the race of truth, is a thinly concealed metaphor for the battle against the capricious nature of time itself.

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

But at the same time i’m shitting myself in living terror at being caught for 25 minutes by Sir Bradley of Wiggins.

 

On riding ten miles in less than 20 minutes

I’ve come to realise over the course of a few years that i’m pretty much an out-and-out tester. This includes hill climbs or any solo race of truth against the clock. I like the romanticism of road racing, but i lack the attributes or desire to succeed in amongst the bronzed continentals. Therefore, I accept my status as a hardcore tester. Despite any initial reticence, I’ve come to embrace this most British of pursuits. Nevertheless, I retain some ambivalence towards the sport. One of the key factors involved in time trialling is, unsurprisingly, time. Success is measured in minutes and seconds; perhaps more so than finishing position. Emphasis is placed on the achievement of benchmark times; initially under the hour for a 25, under 24 minutes for a 10, and then a series of reducing markers to be aimed at and crossed off.

What’s that Dad? 30mph? you wait ’till you see what i can bust out on this bad boy; no bongo in sight. You gonna look slow. Keep trying, Dad.

The quicker you get, the harder it becomes to go more quickly. There are lots of reasons why; i’ve been led to believe it’s something to do with how the level of effort involved in overcoming air resistance increases exponentially the faster you go; ergo it’s much harder to add 1mph to your speed if you’re already travelling at 29mph. As a result, the course and the weather conditions become more and more important. The holy grail is a fast course on a fast day, whereupon strange things happen and people suddenly achieve lifetime ambitions. This has to coincide with the right form. Suddenly the variables become a little bit more complicated.

Rock Horns, no space helmet, mind still blown. Wife gives the BSCC race salute.

Of late I’ve been going well. ‘Going well’ is often subjective; I know the variables that can lead to a fast time and it might not be as clear cut as simply ‘going well’. Regardless, if you put in a succession of quick times, it’s clear that you are going well. This week I had booked in a prior appointment on a known fast course, the F11-10 near Aston Clinton, a place where the houses looked expensive and the roads were quiet. The last time i rode a fast course was two years ago near Hull, on the super-quick V718. I don’t ride there any more; i’m not a fan of the narrowness of the carriageway or the lines of sight. In fact, i tend to avoid most fast courses unless I’m sure that in relative (and relatively subjective) terms, they are as safe as the other courses I use on a regular basis. It’s not a simple as saying ‘all dual carriageways are unsafe’; but some courses happen to be unsafe and it’s self-serving to suggest otherwise. Anyway, I felt that a relatively quiet bypass road in the home counties with an unblemished safety record that doesn’t lead towards a major continental ferry port with all of the additional freight traffic that might ensue, or have a start point at the very junction that distinguishes it from motorway with only a change in colourway for the signs, might be worth a punt.

I shared a lift with the Spinkmeister. He was gunning for a 19 but i suspect he dared not mention it in case it didn’t happen. It’s a bit like this when you’re chasing the elusive 30mph ride; until you’ve actually bagged it you dare not even imagine that it might happen. It was quite blustery, by no means floaty, but nothing to really worry about. the faster you get the less you worry about certain types of wind conditions. The wind seemed to be cross, rather than head or tail, which can be significant in that it’s often a faster day than promised. It’s important to not allow yourself ot be beaten before you start; the conditions on a sheltered course are very different to those at the HQ. In the earlier event, the VTTA National Championships, Rob Pears had turned in an 18.53 which is super super quick. I did some mental Maths and surmised that a 19 should be in the bag if i rode according to form. Rob has ridden the 14th fastest 10 mile trial in the history of the sport. Ahead of him are Hutchinson, Wiggins, Dowsett and others.

Aston Clinton – lovely there this time of year.

I did my usual warm-up. This is a well-honed routine which consists of getting the bike out of the car, riding to the start, maybe riding up and down the road for about 10 minutes, having a caffeinated energy gel and then heading to the start. It’s not complicated. Richard said he’d seen some of the big hitters with olbas oil tissues up their noses, locked on the turbo churning out fat watts and clearing their breathing. I saw them, they looked really serious, like they meant business, proper bongo-business. It was quite intimidating. Everyone else’s bike always looks much more expensive and much faster. Usually because they are more expensive and much faster. I try and retain some sort of anti-tester status.Keep it independent, try not to take it too seriously. It keeps me sane and prevents disappointment.

There is one topographical reason why the F11-10 is a fast course: it has a ‘gift hill’ in the middle of it. This is a descent of sufficient length to speed things up a bit without suffering the indignity of having to come back up again. Clever course alignment helps in this respect, althought it’s more just luck than anything. After a relatively quick start I hit the top of the slope and floored it. It’s not a huge huge drop or anything like a ski slope, but it does really boost your average speed after a slow opening and complicated double roundabout thing. Once you’re through and onto the last bit it becomes a case of holding on. I’ve got much better at holding on lately, i think due to the rides at Aust which have consisted of going flat out and holding it for as long as possible. I knew the 19 was on with about 3 miles to go, so it became a question of how much of a 19 it would be. In the end, it worked out as a 19.38; a new club record and PB, heading up for about a 31mph average speed for the ten miles.

I guess with any long distance ride in search of fast times, it makes sense to turn yourself inside out and do the best you can; the worst that can happen is you try your best and fail, which is infinitely better than finishing undercooked and left with a sense of what might have been. Richard Spink also scraped under with a 19.52. He’s the second BSCC rider to break the 30mph average for 10 miles and it was a super ride. If we had a 3rd counter they could have carded a 23 and we would have taken the Club team record. Jon Simpkins, who carded an 18.53 and was a very nice bloke for one so fast, advised going off slowly. I ignored his advice, or so it felt. I managed to sustain the heartrate in a fairly tight upwards line and even hit the highest bits (185bpm) in the run to the finish. I enjoyed the race; especially the sensation of riding very fast for ten miles. It’s good fun. I think i came about 6th, Nick English was 1st with 19.11, a very quick time, then there were 4 riders on 19.30 or thereabouts. I was surprised to be in amongst them, to be honest and I’ll settle for reducing the gap between me and the mighty Wiggo to a mere 1 minute and 39 seconds. I also lowered the club record a little bit which is always really satisfying; it’s great to be a part of the lineage of fast riders for the South. John Legge was magnanimous with his praise. Lower down the field there weren’t that many 19s. I suspect that many people came along with high hopes and went home disappointed.

Normal service is resumed this coming weekend with a hilly circuit in the Cotswolds, where a fast average speed will be somewhere around 23-24mph.

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 De France Time Trial

Like most of my friends, i’m glued to the Tour this year. FACT. This year is uniquely captivating because of the unprecedented British level of interest in the race. It feels a little bit like cycling in general is creeping into the wider consciousness of the British public. My boss and various colleagues are aware of both Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish and would probably be able to pick them out of a identity parade, as long as they are wearing lycra.

A few years back it was a very different story, i was one of three colleagues in the workplace who were seen as freakish exponents of a niche sport, up there with curling and possibly welly-wanging.

wang that welly: hard, fast and long.

Things began to change with a couple of timely occurrences; British Olympic success, the staggering rise of Mark Cavendish, the beginnings of the current bike boom, and the Tour’s visit to London a few years back. When colleagues who previously had shunned me as a lycra-clad leper instead chose to ask questions about Cavendish, i knew that strange things were afoot at the Circle-K.

The current tour has the potential to push the sport far further into the mainstream than it has ever been. I’m on tenterhooks, anxious not to jeopardise the serene progress of Wiggo. Each day i studiously avoid all spoilers, which in effect means avoiding any outside communication, and then watch the stage in the evening in a state of enraptured tension. I then plan the next day’s cycling, simultaneously excited vicariously by the Tour, and suddenly painfully aware of how a big day (or even two days) for me pales into insignificance behind the herculean feats of the peloton.

I like the mountain stages, it’s impossible not to. They possess grandeur, romanticism and physical suffering on an epic scale. They are one of the few instances where cycling generally deserves its typically hyperbolic metaphor. I also recognise some of the Cols through my experiences over the years – heading to the Alps to ride the Cols is a ‘must-do’ for all keen cyclists. There are few sports that present such an involving, astounding and wholly photogenic spectacle as the Queen stage in the Tour.

However, i have an unsurprising soft spot for the time trial stages. it’s fantastic to see the race of truth play a central role in the best bike race in the world ever. Tuesday’s stage was quite lumpy, not unlike a slightly warmer, classier hardrider event. The winners averaged around 29mph, which is where any tenuous connection between the WTTA and the UCI ends. As an aside, Matt Clinton made this observation on his facebook page: “People say Cav can’t climb. They also say I can. Thats why he finished 1hr20min quicker on today’s stage than I did in the Etape”.

It’s interesting to note that Wiggins started with a visor and finished without one. I rode the Gillingham hilly course yesterday in the steaming rain, with gravel and grit making it treacherous under tyre. I had to take my visor off halfway round after it steamed up the extent that i couldn’t see an awful lot. For a brief moment i felt a kinship with the great man. I managed to force the spiky visor down the front of my skinsuit where it sat awkwardly. I suspect Bradders had some Skyflunky to grab it from him.

It’s great to see the elevation of time trials to an artform; when Wiggins is turning over the o-symetric rings in full flow it’s a balletic sight, remorseless and utterly smooth. It’s inspirational. I mentioned to my boss the other day that cycling is an odd one, everyone can ride a bike and sometimes it’s easy to think that there isn’t that much of a gap between the pros and the amateurs. The action and process is the same. I think Ned Boulting touches on it in his recent book (which i recommend by the way, it’s insightful and engaging, and i’ve reassessed my vague ambivalence towards him). It allows us to dream. When i ride to work the morning after a stage, or take part in a time trial during the Tour (concurrently, not the Tour time trial), i dream lazily, or allow my mind to drift and feel as though somehow i’m at least metaphysically not that far away from the tour – i’m racing on my bike and enjoying (!) the same sensations as those experienced by Froome, Wiggins, Rolland and the others. It’s a child-like fantasy, but an endearing one.

Ned’s book. Very good.

Christian (of HW fame) put it more succinctly than me in a text message recently, although he might have forgotten this. It read simply:

“FUCKING YES BIKE RACING”.

Incidentally i won at Gillingham by over two minutes, was 30 seconds off my PB despite the terrible conditions and sitting up round the corners, not to mention thinking i had a puncture at one point and pretty much stopping. I was pleased.

Mountains of the Mind

i knew at some point i’d get round to writing about hills, the thought and the intention has been there since i started to write these tentative pages, and today is as good a day as any, having got it right on belmont and experienced the euphoria of accelerating over the crest, knowing i judged it perfectly. i seek them out when on the bike – and feel unfulfilled if out riding with someone leading and and there is a palpable absence of ascents. i get edgy, and feel as though the day has been wasted; but become excited when hills appear, sensing from the layout of the landscape that at a key moment the terrain will shift and the battle with the contours will begin, the road rolling upwards in short shifts in the way english hills tend to do.

some of my favourite hills in the UK include: toys hill near westerham- a nasty and very steep climb i used to ride up with chums when living in london; ditchling beacon near brighton – a bit of a mecca and the nadir (paradoxically) for pootlers or bromptonauts on the annual L2B run (or chaos on bikes).

I also like burrington combe and any of the Mendip climbs – cheddar gorge, blagdon, belmont, backwell, dearleap – with their varying degrees of savagery. whilst visiting my mother up north i have tackled lots of west yorkshire beasts; these tend to be sudden and very sharp indeed – chat hill road, hebden bridge, widdop, trawden being prime suspects. the mendip climbs in particular have had an effect on others; most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an early moutaineer (see robert macfarlane’s fantastic book ‘mountains of the mind‘) who wrote about the sublime, the profound feeling emerging from being on the precipice; of mountains and the effect on the soul (when not busy taking liquid opium and destroying himself). He even wrote about Brockley Coombe, a sub-mendip climb – now quite a shallow and steady road that runs up to the bristol airport, but then a stony ascent through woods.

With many a pause and oft reverted eye
I climb the Coomb’s ascent: sweet songsters near
Warble in shade their wild-wood melody:
Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear.
Up scour the startling stragglers of the flock
That on green plots o’er precipices browse:
From the deep fissures of the naked rock
The Yew-tree bursts! Beneath its dark green boughs
(‘Mid which the May-thorn blends its blossoms white)
Where broad smooth stones jut out in mossy seats,
I rest: -and now have gained the topmost site.
Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets
My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.

I think of Coleridge when riding up the Coombe, it’s funny to think of him ascending by foot, possibly on one of his perambulations from nether stowey to bristol. my preferred gear when riding for ‘pleasure’ is round about 72″, which is perfect for Brockley, and i regularly do training rides in and around the mendips on a fixed wheel, building stamina and leg power. this year i rode the burrington hillclimb and geared down to a 65″. i was one of four riders riding fixed in a  field of 60 and came 5th overall. the climb was won by tejvan pettinger, a slip of a boy with quite a pedigree, riding a gossamer-light bicycle.  i beat the national men’s v4 champion by 4 seconds, the national woman’s champion by over a minute (for what it’s worth, i was pleased anyway) and was the first bristol south rider across the line – gaining my first ever trophy. tejvan was a further 40 seconds ahead of me; i shall endeavour to narrow the gap for next year, at which point i will be aiming to build form solely for the nationals, which i think is in gloucestershire, and hope against hope for a top thirty finish.

this summer i spent some time in the alps, riding up mythical tour climbs which alternately blew my mind and tore my legs off. the galibier, lautaret, alpe d’huez and les deux alpes. it built a degree of strength though, and i think next year i shall aim to tackle the tourmalet and a few of the pyrenean monsters – but i am also drawn back to one particular mountain: Ventoux. i tackled it two years ago on an incredibly beautiful spring day in April with no wind at all – unusually for a mountain frequently ravaged by winds in excess of 150mph. the weekend before the mountain was closed by heavy snowfall, which left high drifts on the side near the top and added to the other-worldy beauty of the landscape.

Before it had even entered the imaginative realm of cycling, it became an eye-opener for Petrach; who climbed it in the 14th century. He had this to say:
‘the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes. It is a very steep and almost inaccessible mass of stony soil. It was a long day, the air fine. We enjoyed the advantages of vigour of mind and strength and agility of body, we had no other difficulties to face than those of the region itself… but as usually happens, fatigue quickly followed upon our excessive exertion, and we soon came to a halt at the top of a certain cliff.

At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance.

I rejoiced in my progress, mourned my weaknesses, and reflected on the universal instability of human conduct. I could see with the utmost clearness, off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of the mediterranear, altho’ all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of several days to reach them. Under our very eyes flowed the Rhone.

Petrarch finished by describing the revelations that came to him:

men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not. We look about us for what is to be found only within. …. How many times did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation?”
The mountain in effect led to him to realise the real size of human imagination and our capacity to do achieve the infinite and transcend our humble origins. It opened his mind. Some 700 years later, Mont Ventoux retains its power to intoxicate, overwhelm and also destroy. It is famous now as one of the most difficult tour de france cycling climbs, and particularly as a mountain that has ended many cyclists hopes of winning the overall race. It holds a mythical place in cycling history, the Everest of bike racing. It appeared again this year for the 13th time, and is more dreaded than the fiercely steep Tourmalet, which has featured in the Tour 67 times. A common view is that whilst the Alps create drama, Ventoux creates tragedy.

In 1955 the Swiss veteran Ferdi Kubler attacked in scorching heat at the foot of the 14 mile climb. Raphael Geminiani warned him in no uncertain terms: “Beware, Ferdi, the Ventoux is not a climb like the others.” Yet Kubler, wearing a cotton racing cap, unaware of the perils of hubris, the visor turned up like a challenge, replied: ” I’m not a rider like the others.” In the stifling and heavy heat he fell like Breughel’s Icarus; the arcane and dangerous rules on water bottles no doubt sealed his downfall… the Ventoux was suffocating. Geminiani saw Kubler weaving around on his bike, heard him swear; he zigzagged, his nose dipping toward his handlebars, curled over his frame, with his cap now turned askew. At one point he accidentally went the wrong way back down the mountain; such was his mental and physical exhaustion. He left the tour that evening and never rode again.

The most famous British cyclist ever, until the current glut of worldbeaters, Tommy Simpson, rode up in 1967 in stifling heat. He was under real pressure to improve on his previous placing of 6th overall in the tour, but had been suffering in the run up with a debilitating stomach complaint. Nearing the top, past Chalet Reynard, he began to weave wildly across the road before he fell down. He was delirious and (alledgedly) asked spectators to put him back on the bike, which he rode to within a half mile of the summit before collapsing, still clipped into his pedals. Simpson was transported by helicopter to the Avignon hospital where he died that evening. There is a memorial to Simpson near the summit which has become a shrine to fans of cycling, who often leave small tokens of remembrance there. i recommend Vin Denson’s autobiography, as well as Put Me Back on My Bike, for a moving – and honest – account of his death. In 1970, even the cannibal, Eddy Merckx, the most famous cyclist of all, rode himself to the brink of collapse while winning the stage, as did Andy Hampstein.  Merckx received oxygen, recovered, and won the Tour. In 1955, it forced Rick Van Genechten and others to abandon the race and even Lance Armstrong never won on ventoux.

Even before i got to the Ventoux, it had embedded itself in my psyche, the knowledge lurking that i would be tackling the climb in a matter of weeks, then days, then hours, a knowledge underscored by the awareness that it was a possibly beyond me. I had no way of knowing until I tried. The day before I was anxious, and even on the climb itself was constantly worried that it might be too much. Knowing, after 45 minutes, and 7 miles, that I was approaching halfway and had done the easy bit did not help. I did not overdo things, and was not racing, but even in april the heat and the effort required to cycle for nearly 2 hours uphill was extreme.  I made it in 1hr 40mins – the record is about 55 minutes by Iban Mayo – and on the way back down stopped to pay my respects at the Simpson memorial, a man who paid the ultimate price for the pursuit of glory and personal achievement. David Millar, Wiggins, Wegelius and Cavendish all did the same in this year’s race.

As to why i sought out a version of burrington coombe, but 7 times longer; i’d instinctively say that i don’t know the answer – but in truth, I do. It sought me out, and was always there, waiting; a tantalising figment of my imagination and a myth to be constructed and composed in my own words, rather than the quotes of others. And when I rounded the final bend, turning past the weather station to see the top, the sense of achievement, the view, the sense of escape from everything, was entirely novel. And now, when talking to others about cycling, about rides we have done, or the tour de france, the conversation inevitably turns to Ventoux – it featured in this year’s tour for the first time in 8 years, and I casually mention that I have ridden up the mountain, the giant, and it was difficult, but incredible. And that fact that I have done it is enough – the achievement is permanent.

the video below sums up the mythic nature of the climb, through a lovely, lyrical phil liggett commentary: “for one hundred and seventy one young men, it would be the place where they would dare to ask themselves the questions of greatness“; although the idea of a contre-la-montre up ventoux seems to be the devil’s idea.


Going back to Coleridge for almost the last word; he saw hills and mountains as an escape, a way to move further away from the suffocating claustrophobia associated with family life; his passion for climbing hills and scaling mountain peaks has an imaginative link with his internal desire for escape. The panoramic view from a peak often brings moments of intense vision; the atmosphere seems thinner, distance reduced, the air itself bracingly alive. He was, in effect, climbing out of civilisation, reflecting a longing to free himself not merely from the restraints of domesticity, but from the world. We climb to escape, but also to broaden our view and open our minds.

and this is probably the central truth, i ride uphill because at some point, somewhere along the line, everything is left behind, my body and mind soars higher, far away from the everyday. the struggle becomes transcendent, the metaphor of the mountain ceases and the moment becomes all that there is, the only compassable reality, the point where you hold eternity and truth in your hands, and pedal onwards and ever upwards.