Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Saturday solo....

I'd planned to meet up with Gary for a ride, we haven't done too many things together this year and the Friday pub session with the usual omnipresent bike-talk made me feel like making the effort . But Gary had to work Saturday morning so we decided to do our own thing. My plan started out as a simple 90 minute meander along my usual route. I have a hankering these days for slowness. I like to look around without the concentration needed when travelling at speed, for then the need to be aware of the road surface along with all that might threaten safe passage is paramount. A man grows older, and my 'new' bike, although a lovely machine, is beginning to feel like a young Valkyrie who wears me out with her prodigious appetite.

I headed out on my bike of choice of late - my trusty Trek 7.5FX. here is an old girl that, if the need arises, can turn a head of speed, but is happy and content to drift along at a more sedate and regal pace. And the added bonus is that there is absolutely no need to snipe at any stray cyclists that enter my no-ride zone. I don't feel the need to chase distance figures or, better still, feel no frustration when attacked from behind by some nifty noughties racer dressed in black on a matt black steed more akin to a stealth fighter plane than a bicycle. Leave them to it I say, let me go slow and watch the butterflies, or stop to admire a beautiful tree. Let me gaze at the immense enveloping green vista stretching out beyond the hedgerows; let me dream of mystery, romance and unfulfilled adventure.

The day is warm and welcoming as the golden glow of another beautiful dawn fades to blue. There's the blended song of blackbird and mistle thrush for the soundtrack and all is well. I feel happy and content and decide I don't want to stop. Instead of turning up the hill and the route home I carry on, still holding the gentle rhythm that seems perfectly natural and rewarding. I mooch around the lanes, stopping occasionally to peer through a gap between trees or to look at the patterns on the bark of a tree. It feels like it should feel. Unhurried and with no pressure of time. I pass a pub and decide to stop, rolling onto the car-park and up to the garden area at the rear. There are people gathered at picnic tables, eating, drinking and enjoying the sunshine. Some children are gathering tufts of grass and leaves to feed the pub chickens housed in a shady corner of the garden. I buy a pint and settle at a table with my bike perched at the end. Then I notice a group of cyclists arriving. Ordinarily this would be an expected, almost typical sight on a sunny Saturday afternoon - but this collection of five are all riding Brompton bikes. What would be the collective noun?..... a clot perhaps? The sight from a distance somehow conjours up a vision of Reliant Robin's and Thermos flasks of Tupperware boxes and cheese sandwiches. As it happens they set up at the next table to me and inevitably a conversation strikes up. The leader of the group is over eager to demonstrate the Brompton offering - that it folds away quickly and neatly and can be easily carried around. He's something of zealot, folding and unfolding the machine with dextrous speed and efficiency, discoursing at length on its lightness and portability as well as the quality of its ride. I was sold - had he have been carrying a spare I may have purchased it there and then. As it was one of his Brompton buddies was indeed carrying another Brompton, neatly stashed in a special bag - this was properly nerdish - a bit of bike-on-bike action - maybe that's what the foldaway perverts really go for! Truth is though there really is a lot going for the Brompton brand. And I have to admit to an element of desire. Come the lottery win there'll definitely be a Brompton somewhere - and it wouldn't take up much space in my dream bike shed. Think of the opportunities - get on a train with the Brommie folded, pop off at some far flung destination, pedal around a bit, get a bus, a ferry, even in a car, pedal some more - and no need to worry about leaving it around to get stolen, this baby goes everywhere you do.

I only stayed for the one beer - I felt the need to cycle along the canal towpath back towards Ashby - at least I think it was towards Ashby? - it was definitely the Ashby Canal. After a mile of so of unhindered bliss I emerged back onto the road and made my way back towards home. But even then I felt the need to carry on - back at the foot of the hill that would take me home I ignored the turning yet again - this time happy to simply repeat the first 10 miles of my journey instead. And every mile was just as enjoyable as the first time round. To be honest I can't remember a ride I've enjoyed more. The conditions were just perfect; beautifully calm and warm but not oppressive. I approached the hill turn for the third time. This time I stopped at the foot and wondered whether to carry on - 45 miles covered and I felt I could easily cover the same again. But by now it was 2.00pm - I'd been out since early morning and reality was beginning to influence my judgement. Too much of a good thing and all that. So I set off for home, but with a smile on my face.

Monday, 15 August 2016

As the Olympics moves on, I'm still stuck at the Tour de France...

Everyone's favourite Brit cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins added an eighth Olympic medal to his impressive collection - well done Brad. Apparently he'll now ride the Tour of Britain in September followed by a London Six-Day and the Ghent Six Day - and that'll be it - Bradley will retire, as the most successful and well liked British cyclist of all-time. And it's true I think - the breadth of his success is what seals the deal - All those track medals, World Championships, Olympics, World Records - then the switch to the road and winning the Tour de France, The Olympic Time Trial Gold, The Hour record, then back to the track for more medals... its an impressive list. But what about retirement? - there's a rumour that he's going to reform The Jam???

Meanwhile I'm making good progress with the Tour puzzle... another couple days should sort it ....


Monday, 1 August 2016

Ride London 2016

I didn't get a place in this year's Ride London event - as it happens I wouldn't have been able to ride anyway, we had a family christening to attend - with me as the photographer for the day!

Gary, Dave the damp, Baz the bell and newbie, Paul from over the border (as opposed to Paul from over the road, and because he lives in Shropshire - which is almost Wales!) travelled down to take part - for my part I downloaded the 'Ride London App' and managed to load up the guys so I could track their progress during the day via the interactive map of the course - technology is so sweet! - I had four little blue circles on my map, lined up on the start-line, each with the rider's initials displayed.

Now back behind the camera - church, vicar etc etc

I checked progress through the day - technology is sweet... just as long as it works. It seemed to me that the promise of interactive tracking had been something of a hollow promise on behalf of the developers - Despite rigourous checking, closing the app, restarting the app, shutting down and restarting the iphone - my little blue blobs didn't move past the first check point.

Back to the camera - group shots, family, friends etc etc

Later I checked again - this time a few of the circles had moved a short way - but one seemed to be stuck? - Was it the app? - Did I need wifi? - I hooked up to Google and did a quick search for Prudential Ride London - I soon discovered that a couple of serious accidents had halted proceedings out on the road - air ambulances had been involved to lift the injured to hospital and the knock-on effect, with something like 30,000 cyclists on narrow roads, was massive delays. It seemed like the app was giving me good representation after all.

Back to the camera - post christening now - barbecue etc etc...

I kept checking throughout the day - right up to a time I figured they should have completed the course - the little blue blobs were still out there - but gradually creeping along. Later I could see that three had finished together but with Paul from over the border still out - at least that's what the app said. Then I got a text from Gary telling me they'd finished but the delays had been considerable and they'd had to walk for some considerable distance.

It's a shame when this sort of thing happens - and it seems that something happens every year at Ride London. Although this was only the fourth year, there's been representation from this blog at the event for three of those years and each has thrown up reasons for delays or diversions from the course. First time torrential rain caused part of the course to be closed, last year someone sadly died on Leith Hill and this year a couple of serious accidents - I don't think there's anything the organisers could do to alleviate any of these unfortunate incidents - and with so many riders on the road consequential delays are somewhat inevitable. Of the reports I've seen so far riders were patient and typically stoical in their outlook - which is how it should be.

Camera work all done - just the post-shoot editing to tackle - almost 600 photographs to be looked at, edited and stripped down to around 100 maximum. That will keep me busy for a few evenings this week.

Meantime the 'Tour' is making slow progress too.....

Friday, 29 July 2016

...bit further

Progress so far - the peloton will begin emerging soon!

Thursday, 28 July 2016

I'm doing the Tour de France.....

..... format.

Its amazing the bargains that can be found in the hidden corners of your local 'The Works' - check it out.....

Ok - let's get going....

So far so good - not too many hills either. Further reports to follow!


Monday, 25 July 2016

Chris Froome - one of the greats?....

As Chris Froome crossed the line arm-in-arm with his Team Sky teammates to confirm his victory in the 2016 Tour de France he joins a small, elite group of cyclists and becomes Britain's first ever three-time winner.

Froome becomes only the eighth man to win three or more Tours - and will now have his sights set on the record jointly held by Jaques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx - All five-time winners of sports most grueling prize.

Eddy Merckx sent out a stark message to the rest of the cycling world last week. He does not see anyone capable of beating Chris for the next few years. He added that he was impressed by Froome - but not by his rivals.

"Chris Froome is a very great champion" said the Belgian legend " I think he can win more Tours. If you look at the guys who are behind him, I don't see anyone who can beat him in the next years. He's complete; a good time-triallist, good at ascents, he's overall, he's the best of the moment - even his teammates are as strong as his rivals"

The last point is perhaps the bone of contention that has emerged this year as far as Froome and Sky are concerned. With speculation regarding the legitimacy of Froome's performances far less pronounced than in 2013 and 2015 - largely because of the way he built his lead this year - on descents and time trials and flat stages - attention has turned to the power of the Sky team, with bitter rivals complaining that Sky have bought up an army of potential grand-tour winners and got them all working for the three-time champion.

There is a truth to it. Sky's .'pain-train' at the front of the peloton keeps the pace high - even on climbs - daring anyone to have a go and put themselves in the red - and then shutting them down if they do. Sky undoubtably have the numbers and talent to control things - with four riders in the top 20 of the general classification.

None of this is a concern for Sky though - quite right! - It is up to others to come up with a plan to stop them. No other team, seemingly, came with a game plan even to try?. As Chris Froome pointed out - no other team have eight riders working with the sole purpose of getting their team leader to Paris in as quick a time as possible.

Geraint Thomas added - "Maybe its boring? - but we don't get paid to make it an exciting  - we get paid to win the race"

Whatever - there'll be teams working on a strategy to break down Sky's dominance - and that will make things more exciting - but I'm hoping Sky will hold out - Chris Froome is one of cycling greats and I'd love to see him become a five-time winner.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

What would it be like to ride a stage of the Tour?...

As Gary and I hunt around for future cycling challenges it suddenly occurred to me - riding an official stage of the Tour de France - a day or so before the professionals - that would be one to remember.

The chance to feel part of it, to ride the same routes under the same conditions, the roads closed, spectators cheering us on.... it might be worth thinking about?

You'll get the idea here.....

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Tales from the Tour.....

As this years Tour heads gently towards an ignonimious, Cav-Free finale, I wonder whether it's all become a bit banal? - where's the drama? Apart from the farcical day on the Ventoux there's not been a great deal of spectacle so far? There's been a few minor crashes but nothing like the usual skin lacerating affairs. I suppose it makes a change. Since the race started in 1903 there has been hardly a year where riders (or their supporters) haven't resorted to dubious methods to ensure success.

The second tour, in 1904, was one of the most scandalous. Riders were punished for skulduggery including taking shortcuts and using cars and trains. Others, such as race favourite Maurice Garin, were beaten up by their rivals' supporters. The following year saw nails being strewn on the course, a practice that continued for several more Tours.

Tales of riders seeking chemical assistance began to make the news in the 1920s when brothers Francis and Henri Pélissier (the 1923 Tour winner) boasted to a journalist that they had...

 "cocaine to go in our eyes, chloroform for our gums, and do you want to see the pills? We keep going on dynamite. In the evenings we dance around our rooms instead of sleeping."

 Needless to say, the Pélissier brothers were French cycling heroes. While not all competitors relied on "dynamite", it was common practice for Tour cyclists to drink alcohol during the race until the 1960s, when the French passed a law forbidding the use of stimulants in sport. However, the British rider Tom Simpson reportedly drank brandy before his death on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour.

Stories of other methods of assistance, especially in the mountain stages, regularly crop up. A 1938 article described how a former champion was praised for making a miraculous recovery – only for it to be later revealed that he was hanging on to the back of a car. In 1955 the Guardian reported a long list of riders who had been fined for receiving an "unsolicited push" from spectators.

Meanwhile, in 1950, the French government had to apologise to Italy when drunk spectators blocked the road in the Pyrenees and threatened favourite Gino Bartali, forcing the Italian team to withdraw. Even more extreme was the case of the "fan" who punched five-times Tour winner Eddy Merckx in the kidneys during the 1975 race. Merckx finished the stage, but his attempt to win a sixth Tour was fatally damaged.

Doping tests were introduced in the mid-60s and so began a long history of riders trying to fool the doctors. One infamous case was that of Michel Pollentier who was disqualified in 1978, after it was discovered that he had an elaborate system of tubes running from his armpit to his penis containing clean urine.

Recent drug scandals have included cases of riders using testosterone. Perhaps they should have taken note of Italian cyclist Mario Cipollini who used a more natural method to boost his supply of the male hormone – taping a picture of Pamela Anderson to his handlebars.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Mont Ventoux - A higher hell

Standing alone above Provençal fields, Mont Ventoux has a history of triumph and tragedy in the Tour and on Bastille Day will again ask questions of riders like no other

“Physically, the Ventoux is dreadful,” wrote Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and cycling fan who sought in Mythologies to capture the cruel spirit of the mountain. “it is much more an essence of climate than a geographic place – a damned terrain, a testing place for heroes, something like a higher hell.”             
The limestone giant that is Mont Ventoux stands 1,912 metres above the lavender-filled fields of Provence. With an average gradient of 7.2%, stands alone, bleak and awesome, “God’s tomb” adrift in the massif des Cèdres – your eyeline forced to adjust radically from its foothills to the observatory at its peak. It thrusts its way out of the plain like a great tumescent white whale. It is the Moby Dick of cycling.

The Tour uses it sparingly and always as the dominant climb, the main protagonist of a day’s racing – this year, on Bastille Day, the Ventoux will again host the queen stage of the Grand Boucle. The winds that rake its slopes are ferocious, especially when the Mistral blows - and today, with winds at the top in excess of 100kph the stage has been cut short, ending at the Chalet Reynard some 6km shy of the summit.

On the ascent, as the road climbs out of the tree line it is completely exposed – a thin black ribbon winding precariously across the blinding white scree. If you’re strong enough, or crazy enough, you can tackle all three routes to the top. If you can ride them in 24 hours you earn membership of the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux and join the other lunatics who have fallen in love with the Bald Mountain.

The houses of Bédoin nestle into the slopes of the surrounding hills, dwarfed by the spire of the church that echoes the tower of the observatory high above. The mountain lowers over the village and it is from its medieval streets that the classic route to the summit begins. Up through the cool depths of the forest, the road rises through gradients of more than 12% to the ski station at Chalet Reynard. Here is the bar where generations of riders (Me and Gary included!) have taken a little nip of brandy or a glass of beer (expressos with 6 sugars!) before the final assault on the summit.

Up here the road bursts from shadow into bright, white light. If you’re lucky, (we weren't) the wind will ride your back and you’ll fly over the final seven kilometres to the observatory. But if the evil god of the Ventoux demands a sacrifice, you’ll battle your way over the final kilometres against the kind of headwind that threatens to blow you off your bike.

Mont Ventoux is the proving ground of giants, the mountain every champion aspires to conquer, yet it is a relative newcomer to the Tour. It was first used by the race in 1951 and the elfin climber Charly Gaul became the first rider to win at the summit seven years later, crushing the hopes of Federico Bahamontes, Jacques Anquetil and Louison Bobet as the “Angel of the Mountains” flew to a time trial victory. That year the Luxembourg rider would win his only Tour. Gaul returned to his mountain for the final time in 1993, climbing its brutal slopes with his daughter at his side.

His polar opposite, the Italian domestique Eros Poli, was the first man over the summit in 1994. The tallest man in the race, he hauled his mighty carcass over the Géant de Provence. Slowly, painfully, the huge Italian ground almost to a standstill, his 25-minute advantage tumbling with every pedal stroke. But he held on, descending into Carpentras to claim a famous victory.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the French can claim supremacy on the Ventoux. Raymond Poulidor, “the eternal second”, and Bernard Thévenet, both stood atop the podium in the shadow of the observatory. Bobet added the Ventoux to his palmarès in 1955 on the way to the last of his three consecutive Tour de France wins. Richard Virenque, France’s tainted chouchou, scored a sentimental victory there in 2002 to deny Lance Armstrong on a mountain he could never conquer
The now disgraced American came closest in 2000, racing head-to-head with Marco Pantani, the most gifted climber of his generation and the spiritual inheritor of Gaul, his friend and mentor. The lanky Texan marked every attack by the slight Italian magician before launching his own brutal offensive. Inch by inexorable inch, the Italian clawed his way back to the American as he bulleted towards the finish. Finally Pantani threw his bike towards the line to snatch victory, leaving Armstrong to sulk that he had gifted Pantani the win. “No gifts” would become the American’s raison d’être. Pantani would win one last time, a stage to the ski station at Courchevel that was to be his final professional victory. But for the wizard of the pedale, the rest was tragedy.

Jean-François Bernard is one of only three riders to conquer the Ventoux in the maillot jaune. In 1970 it was Merckx’s turn. Clad in the fabled Golden Fleece, he ascended into the dazzling whiteness, the observatory winking in and out of his eyeline. He passed the Tom Simpson memorial with a tip of his casquette to his fallen former teammate. But even Merckx was not immune to the mountain. His pedal stroke became jerkier, his thighs seemed about to explode. When he crossed the finish line and made his way to the podium, his legs gave way. He spoke of his fear during the ascent – the fear of ending like Simpson, a victim in 1967 of pride and desperation and a lethal cocktail of drugs, alcohol and dehydration, like an ecstasy death at 6,000 feet. Merckx himself was taken away in an ambulance after being administered oxygen, but he recovered and went on to win the Tour.

Mont Ventoux is inextricably linked in the imagination with Simpson’s Calvary. He is the mountain’s only victim but others have come close to joining him. In an eerie foreshadowing of Simpson’s fate, 12 years earlier Jean Malléjac had begun to pedal erratically – one leg spinning like an automaton before the rider fell at the side of the road, his eyes rolled back in his skull, his face a waxen effigy. The race doctor, Pierre Dumas, managed to revive the stricken Frenchman, who began to cry out for his bike, desperate to finish the stage. In 1965 Dumas was instrumental in drafting the first real anti‑doping law. He would spend the rest of his career trying to protect the young riders in his care. In Simpson’s case he was not so lucky

Simpson’s memorial stands between the Chalet and summit on Mont Ventoux, paid for by the subscriptions of thousands of British riders for whom the first Briton to wear the yellow jersey remains a hero. It marks the spot where Simpson fell, tantalisingly close to the finish line that he would never cross, the Tour’s great tragedy etched in stone.

Today the crowds scrambling for a foothold along the route will be immense – an estimated 300,000 gather whenever the Tour attacks Ventoux – the tricolore flying boldly for Bastille Day, the sun-beaten crowds hoping for another French victory on this most evocative of summit finishes. But it is always Mont Ventoux, that most pitiless of mountains, that will decide.