Monday, 30 July 2012

The dream is over for Cavendish...

What a bloody shame. After all the talk, the hype, the odds. After self-sacrifice at the Tour de France and with a four year old desire burning strong in his heart, Mark Cavendish's hopes of securing an Olympic medal were left on the narrow lanes of Box Hill last Saturday.

In the morning they had all but hung the medal around his neck. By afternoon Mark Cavendish had left The Mall, his Olympic dreams in tatters.

It had been a day of magnificent promise. The crowds were massive - over a million people was the estimate. Somewhere out on the 156 mile course Mark Cavendish lost his christian name and most of his surname - to everyone along the route he became, simply, Cav. The name was on the country's lips. Reports of the manners of rival supporters, of rival nations, all exuded grace. On the packed train to Box Hill people leapt to offer their seats to older people. One man even offered his seat to an Australian. But in the end, out on the road, there was cruel disappointment and talk that it was impossible to ride such a gruelling race back to back with The Tour de France.

Team GB seemed to be riding the perfect race, controlling the main peloton and appearing unruffled as splinter group after splinter group tried to break them. But behind the impassive faces the toll of providing all the work was beginning to take effect. No other country was prepared to share the hard miles - But why should they? - What would be the point of helping deliver the fastest man in the world to a sprint finish that would all but guarantee him gold?

The message was clear. Teams that could not deliver a gold medallist were intent on preventing Britain from doing so - leaving Cavendish frustrated and helpless.

But nevertheless it was an Olympic spectacle, and Box Hill was a superb vantage point. It had been subject to a fingertip search before the Olympics - not for the caches of terrorism, but for nesting and endangered species. There are two species that are clearly not endangered - the wonderful British sports fans and the great British cyclists.

Some thoughts on the Olympics...

So, just enough time to get our breath back from The Tour and the Olympics are upon us. To be honest, after the first couple of minutes of the opening ceremony I had my head in my hands. The sheep. The Maypole dancers. Kenneth Branagh. The eyes of the world were on Britain, and the world was thinking, "what the hell is this?" But then the twee vision of ye olde England was dramatically, and deliberately, brushed aside by the power and fury of the industrial revolution, and for the rest of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony we scarcely had time to draw breath, never mind look back.

How to define Englishness, Britishness ... surely it is impossible to define. Danny Boyle managed to define it, in a madcap, eccentric and gloriously self-aware way. With the words “Good evening, Mr Bond” the Queen secured the monarchy for the next thousand years. Then there was David Beckham  - a man who has achieved many things in his sporting career. But no last minute free kick for England could ever have matched the iconography of him escorting the Olympic flame by speedboat down the river Thames. Cool Britannia has never, and never will be, cooler. The climax, the literal handing over of the flame to a new generation of Olympians, followed by the creation and ascension of the Olympic cauldron, bordered on the spiritual.

The NHS, gay kisses; the Sex Pistols, Mary Poppins, the Suffragette movement, it was bewildering enough, at times, to its domestic audience; abroad it must frequently have been plain incomprehensible. But we, in Britain, knew what it added up to, despite its baffling moments: it was Boyle's impassioned poem of praise to the country he would most like to believe in. One that is tolerant, multicultural, fair and gay friendly and holds the principles of the welfare state stoutly at its heart. One that is simultaneously silly and earnest, mainstream and subversive, "high" and "low" in its culture.

So what was projected, through this ceremony, of British artistic achievement? At the outset, it was all about the density of British literary brilliance. There was Shakespeare, of course, there was Blake. Tolkein was invoked through the manner in which that bucolic landscape gave way to industrial gloom, even if he was never explicitly referred to. Fleming had a double hit, with references to both James Bond and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Carroll, JK Rowling and Barrie were there, the last ushering in the great celebration of free healthcare at the heart of the ceremony. The ceremony showcased Britain's dance landscape, with choreographic sequences, and TV and film got a look-in – aside from Boyle's slightly cheeky references to his own back catalogue, there were clips of those decidedly nonconformist British classics, Ken Loach's Kes and Gregory's Girl. Apart from the vaguely Samual Palmerish landscape of the opening scene, though, there was no visual art: no shades of JMW Turner (and no Hirst or Emin). Music, of course, was the other great element: the soundtrack triumphantly smacked down one classic British track after another, from Bowie to the Sex Pistols. Classical music got fairly short shrift: Nimrod, from Elgar's Enigma Variations, had its moment, and there was Jerusalem and Handel's Water Music, and several nods to Britain's choral tradition. The fact that Sir Simon Rattle was called upon to play a junior role to Rowan Atkinson's comic turn as he conducted the theme for Chariots of Fire seemed an eloquent enough remark on how marginal classical music really is in Britain today. It was also, however, part of the wit and comedy: this was surely the most joke-filled Olympics opening ceremony ever staged. After all, what else can a former imperial power do in its more or less dignified decline than have the good grace to laugh at itself? The Queen herself colluded in the national sport of humorous self-deprecation, and not even the most hardened republican could deny that she did it beautifully.

And in the end, the cauldron is not lit by a lone Olympian from the past, but by seven teenagers whose days of glory are surely yet to come. The torches ignite the copper petals; the petals in turn ignite the cauldron. It is a masterstoke, a dazzling end to a night of wonders and a glorious salute to the democratic spirit of Olympics; enshrining these games as a collective endeavour and a celebration of emerging talent.

And all at once the cauldron is blazing and the games have begun.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Arise Sir Bradley.....

Bradley Wiggins is the Tour de France winner - and he deserved every drop of the champagne, traditionally offered, upon his entry into Paris. But he didn't have time to take too many sips as he worked relentlessly to deliver his team mate Mark Cavendish into a position from which he could sprint to a final victory on this last stage of a historic 2012 Tour. What excitement, a fitting finale to a thoroughly enjoyable and of course memorable Tour.

Cavendish has seen his ambitions somewhat dampened in this years Tour - his usual fistful of stage wins have been reduced dramatically to only two up until today. We have seen him carrying water bottles, stuffed up his shirt, to his team mates in the peloton, working as a 'domestique' rather than a coveted star sprinter and world champion. It's like having Wayne Rooney in the team and playing him in goal. But today Mark looked good - in fact the whole of the Sky team looked fantastic, dominant and all conquering. I thought for a moment that they would be unable to reel in the breakaway, but as the tempo picked up and Brad took his turn at the front of the peloton and wound up the pace it really was an emotional moment.

Sky were looking at fulfilling a dream this year - a dream that has resulted in history being made -Victory in the Tour de France for a British rider. Already the pundits are announcing that this is the singular most important achievement by a British sportsman - ever!

And, if having won the Tour, Bradley Wiggins goes on to add more gold medals to his already considerable collection at the Olympics, he will deserve a place in the House of Lords not just a simple knighthood.

Bradley Wiggins leads out Mark Cavendish on the final stage

Bradley Wiggins - Tour de France winner....

As Bradley Wiggins crossed the finish line to win the final time trial in Chartes yesterday, the victory confirmed him as the first British rider to win the Tour de France, the toughest sporting event in the world - first held in 1903 it has long been thought that no one from these shores could ever manage the feat. Indeed, no Briton has even stood on the podium before, and now it looks a certainty that today we will see a British one-two and hopefully Mark Cavendish will take the final stage on the Champs Elysees to seal a historic hat-trick.

Wiggins winning margin of 1 minute 16 seconds on the penultimate day was a dazzling display of power and concentration - the emotion as he crossed the line punching the air was palpable as was his post stage press conference. "I'm just Bradley Wiggins" he said "I've dreamt of winning the tour since I was a kid, but growing up in London you never imagine you can do it"

He made it look so easy, carving through the French countryside at an average speed in excess of 30mph - Anybody watching might think - "I could do that" - have a go, it's hard!

Time trials are about maintaining a constant pace, like a continuous hum. But they are also about pain, an agonising heat that you feel in your stomach, a burning that affects your breathing. You get into a rhythm, and when the pain comes, you tunnel into it, exploring it to the bitter end. What with the discomfort and the heat some riders cross the finish line and throw themselves to the floor, it's all part of the same ache. From top to bottom, front to back you need to gather the pain into a small ball that spins around in your mind until the time trial is over. Pain in your muscles, a burning in the sole of your feet, an aching in the wrists, a stabbing in the neck from holding the head in one position. There isn't a second to relax or stretch or move your hands. You have to go on, and on, in the same position. If you need to spit it has to be done by twisting the mouth sideways to avoid moving the head. You fix your eyes on an arbitrary landmark - a tree, a point on a bend, and say Until I get there I'm not going to change position. And before you get there you fix to another point....

Well done Bradley - we're all proud of your achievement!

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Swan Inn, Milton

Once again our Beer ride was threatened by the prospect of dreary, wet weather. All day I kept an eye on the clouds - mid morning it was looking very doubtful as the heavens opened, it tipped down with the force of a waterfall, swiftly followed by a bout of thunder and lightening - I figured that was it; we wouldn't be riding, another night lost. But as the afternoon arrived things brightened up. The sky cleared, the sun made a welcome appearance and suddenly everything looked good.

I got to Gary's a little later than I had intended, Paul from across the road was riding as well and we duly set off heading for Overseal. No time to make the trip to Burton so we'd have to make our own way to tonights venue - The Swan Inn at Milton, Derbyshire.

As usual we made speedy progress, Gary led the way up Gunby Hill and then down to Overseal, across the crossroads and the steady pull up towards Woodville - this route requires some effort!

We crossed the busy roundabout at Woodville and headed towards Hartshorne, taking the left hand turn  onto the Repton Road, a winding, undulating road scattered with flood debris and plenty of potholes. But this was the best part of the ride; rolling green fields and fresh fragrant pine trees, the sunlight catching the rain particles caught on the leaves so that they shone like diamonds.

We arrived at the pub at around 8.00pm - the contingent travelling from Burton were already there. We added our bikes to the burgeoning pile and made for the bar.

The Swan - Milton
The Swan is the only pub in the village of Milton. It's a pleasant enough building, typically pubby, with a large garden area at the rear. There's a restaurant which doubles up as a cafe in the daytime and we pass through a corridor which leads us to the bar. It's a homely place - and what I mean is, it's like being in someone's home. Someones home from the late 50's/early 60's possibly. It has a vague, lost feeling, it's as if we're in a time warp, its 'Darling Buds of May' meets James Herriot with a touch of Summer Wine... with a landlord who bore a passable resemblance to Amos Brearley from Emmerdale. There's a curry night on Mondays, a few random bits of Railway memorabilia and an upcoming concert in the garden featuring Paul (Wherever I lay my hat) Young, what on earth is he doing playing out here I wonder?

The beers tonight were a choice of Doom Bar, Worthington E, or a Dark, black beer that I can't recall the name of. Also there was draught Cobra, Cider and a couple of Lagers. We started with a couple of Doom Bars - I thought it was okay, Gary didn't like it - too sweet. We had three pints to make sure and then it was time to make a move - Chips!

A mile or two down the road is Repton - and the famous Public School. The school was used for the filming of the original version of 'Goodbye Mr Chips' - so it was fitting that we made a visit to the village chippy - 'Goodbuy Mr Chips' - I found the chips a bit greasy, not up to the usual standard, but nevertheless welcome, more so because I hadn't eaten since lunchtime. We sheltered in the chip shop as another vicious rainstorm passed over. By now it was getting dark, already it is noticeable that the nights are beginning to draw in.

We set off for home leaving the majority to head back towards Burton. We pushed hard again, fuelled by the beer and chips and the ride back seemed easier than the one coming.

Overall it was another good mid-week beer ride - 24 miles or so and home relatively dry.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Bradley will make it.....

It is more or less certain now - barring an accident Bradley Wiggins will become the first Englishman to win The Tour de France this coming Sunday in Paris. I was thinking of making the trip over there, to witness it all first hand, soak up the atmosphere, get close to the action..... then I noticed the prices for getting to Paris on Sunday have trebled at least - and anyway, cycling is a sport that works much better on TV.

But what of Chris Froome - he's playing second fiddle to Brad for now but his future ambitions must be to be the leading man. There was the much discussed incident on the climb to La Toussuire last Thursday, when he seemed to prove himself a stronger climber than Bradley until he heeded his sporting director's instruction to slow down, he is, of course, riding to orders to help ensure that his team leader becomes the first British rider to win the Tour. It seems a certainty that Froome will win the Tour one day - and it would be nice to think that if he does, Wiggins will be there helping and supporting him all the way.

Froome is a steely rider "I like to fight alone," he said, referring to his fondness for the solitary effort of time trialling and for the pleasure of riding in the mountains – the two disciplines in which he excels. Even more significant may have been his description of the decision to live in Italy when he was racing for the Barloworld team, to make it easier for his girlfriend to travel to her job in Milan. After they broke up, he told himself: "Now the only thing I'm going to think about is my career as a rider." Team Sky's strategy this month, which has roots going back four years, is to maximise Wiggins's talents and minimise his weaknesses in order to put him on the top step of the podium in Paris next Sunday. It did not work in 2010, Sky's debut season, when his form and the team's naivety combined to destroy the hopes that had been raised by his fourth-place finish for the Garmin team the previous year, and 12 months later an early crash removed him from contention.

This year the 32-year-old triple Olympic champion has a handpicked squad, only slightly compromised by the need to give Mark Cavendish, the team's big winter signing, the chance to mount a token defence of the green jersey while wearing the world champion's rainbow stripes and to attempt a fifth consecutive win on the Champs-Elysées next Sunday. But the wild card, as it turns out, is Froome, who signed for the team in 2010 but is only now making his first appearance in the Tour for the team, having made his debut with Barloworld in 2008.

Although planned down to the minutest detail, what the team's strategy for this year's race cannot account for is the sort of unexpected change that so often happens in the Tour. In a three-week stage race a rider's form, no matter how carefully monitored in the months before the Tour, can suddenly hit a wall. There is also the possibility that the kind of incident that took Wiggins out of the race 12 months ago could repeat itself. Or stages requiring different gifts can expose inherent failings. Wiggins is currently 2min 5sec ahead of Froome, who sits just behind him in the general classification, and the Sky leader can expect to take a further two minutes out of his principal rivals – Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali – in Saturday's penultimate stage, a 53.5km time trial in which the final order will be determined before the ceremonial procession into Paris.

Now that the final mountain stages of the High Pyrenees are out of the way Cadel Evans has waved the Tour goodbye and Nibali has lost further time - it's all over bar the time trial.

For the moment Sky are perfectly placed with their leader and his first lieutenant at the top of the standings heading into the last few days. And orders are orders. But watch out next year - I expect Froome to be demanding a chance of the glory.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Dog......

It's been a couple of weeks since the last 'beer' ride - the weather just hasn't been kind enough for me to make the effort - a poor excuse but that's how it is. This week, a random day of sunshine caught in the intestines of incessant rainfall, like trapped wind, meant that an evening ride was at last possible. My working arrangements of late mean it is too much of a rush to make the arranged rendezvous point in Burton on Trent. Instead I am faced with a solo effort through the leafy lanes of Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire and finally into Staffordshire and the destination for the evening... Whittington - the entire ride made into a wearing headwind that made me decidedly miserable. On top of that it felt cold, and I was overtaken by a girl.

I got to the pub, The Dog Inn, at around 8.15pm - there were a few bikes chained up in the garden, I added mine to the pile and headed indoors. Norman, Tim, Ken and Richard were all there, about halfway down a pint glass. "Don't mention the Tour" were the first words to greet me from Richard. Apparently Norman had recorded the days stage but hadn't watched it - he didn't want to find out that Bradley Wiggins had retained Yellow and was looking increasingly likely to make history later this month.

The Dog
The Dog Inn at Whittington is not a pub I could ever enjoy, a soulless, tedious and unispired place with cloudy beer (Black Sheep) that tasted past its best. Not many people there, always a bad sign, the bar staff seemed preoccupied, it all seemed like too much of an effort. It's one of those new-fangled restaurant style pubs really, a confused, stuttering statement of pubby nostalgia and pretentious gastronomy. But it doesn't hit the mark, not by a long shot.

The main group from Burton arrived at about 8.30 - there were loud hushes as Gary started talking about Bradley's performance in the Tour. By now there were eight of us. There should have been nine but Graham - who looks like 'Suggs' from Madness, had suffered a broken spoke and went home to change bikes. Gary told us that on the way to the pub they had approached a group of young women on the canal bridge - a couple of them pulled down their trousers revealing their pants - and shouted out to Pete "Nice legs". This struck me as a bizarre incident. Women revealing their undergarments on canal bridges to passing cyclists must be quite rare. And Pete's legs are over 70 years old.

Suggs turned up in the end - he really does look like him - and he has a Madness tribute act to prove it. Upon arrival he spent an inordinate amount of time at the bar , it transpired he was ordering food - He came back to our table with a big smiley face "I'm having a proper chip butty" he said.

Chips have become a necessary factor on these bike rides - in fact they are almost essential to stoke up the boilers for a speedy return trip. Gary, Barry and I decided to join Suggs - we raced to the bar to place our order - £4.25 for a proper chip butty, a bit steep, but, we were assured, these were proper.

Alas, what arrived was far from proper. A big bundle of lettuce leaves filled the plate, artificially inflating the presence of the main event - the chip butty was a couple of pieces of sliced bread but no butter (how can a chip butty be so described without butter?) The chips were tasteless, scorchingly hot, no salt, no vinegar, no ketchup, but instead a vase-like recepticle of mayonaisse - it was all very dissapointing - by far the worst bike riding supper I've ever had. Nevertheless we wolfed it down.

The ride back started off cold - and dark. Gary and I headed to Fisherwick, up to Elford then Harlaston, Haunton, Clifton Campville and up the hill to Netherseal. The wind was behind us and we moved along at a reasonable pace. After leaving Gary I had a further 13 miles or so to go. By now it was proper dark - and I mean proper, unlike the chip butty.

I was home by about 11.30pm - 48 miles covered. Not bad for a Wednesday evening.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Bradley does the business....

Come on Brad!!! - All the pre-tour build up and hype seems justified now, Bradley has the yellow jersey, almost two minutes ahead of Cadel Evans - and he gave a blisteringly perfect performance on the time-trial stage yesterday.

However, as is sometimes typical with Brits doing well in sporting events, the press always look for a negative. The heckles, in the form of poisonous, abusive and anonymous tweets have been arriving since Wiggins looks like the dominant force in this years race. At Monday's press conference, when Brad had taken the yellow jersey for the first time, he was provoked by tweets comparing the Sky squad to that of the USA Postal Team, whose leader Lance Armstrong is currently at the centre of an alleged doping scandal - the inference clearly suggested that Tour riders are drug takers.

Bradley's response was an expletive laden rant "I say they are just fu**ing wa**ers, I cannot be doing with people like that, it justifies their own bone-idleness because they can't ever imagine applying themselves to do anything in their lives. It's easy for them to sit under a pseudonym on twitter and write that sort of sh*t, rather than get off their arses in their own lives and apply themselves and work hard at something and achieve something. And that's ultimately it. Cu*ts.

His outburst was, ultimately, heartfelt, reactive and understandable. Here is a rider who has sacrificed a lot for his sport. An Olympic champion who's dream, from when he was a young boy, was to win the Tour. I don't blame him - in fact his response received a round of applause. The sceptics should put up or shut up - cycling is cleaner than ever - the most tested sport in the world, let's major on that and relish the thought of a British rider winning the Tour de France - for the first time ever.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

More floods.....

Rain continues to dominate the weather - there is a lot of flooding around here, lanes are blocked and there is general disruption to travel and outdoor events. I went out this morning in sunshine, but the effects of so much rain over the last few days is all around. I came to a halt facing a dirty brown sea that used to be the road to Congerstone. I stood for a few minutes trying to work out how far it went (it disappeared around the corner) and how deep it was. Then I saw two cyclists heading towards me pushing through the water and creating a wake as they did. As they turned the pedals, each revolution meant that their feet went under the water - "Should have come out in my canoe" said one of them as they dripped past me.

It was my turn now, the first few yards were ok - then the water deepened and quickly my feet were soaked too. At least it is a warm bright morning, I figured it wouldn't take long to dry out. I headed out towards Market Bosworth and then through Cadeby and Sutton Cheney taking the left hand turn up over the canal bridge to Daddlington and on then to Stoke Golding. My mission, in addition to just riding my bike, was to check out the village fete at Stoke Golding - there was a line up of local musicians/bands advertised and the usual fete-type attractions. When I arrived at the field there was the obligatory pasted-up notice " Event Cancelled" - I thought that would be the inevitable outcome, the land is totally saturated, add people and vehicles and it would quickly turn to a quagmire.

I carried on a circular route, passing a few cyclists and generally trying to push on. The verges are rich, thick and lush, there are flowers bursting with bright colour and swollen from rain. I pass a large Elder tree, its branches heavy with blossom and weighted by rain, bend towards the ground. The rain starts falling again and I seek shelter by keeping close to the high banks - clouds skud swiftly across the sky framed by the branches of overhanging bushes. The rain beats against the trees like waves against the shore, the warmth though, is such that the there is an overwhelming feeling of freshness, clean, bright and new. This is rain to savour and enjoy - I feel happy, I look up and let the rain into my eyes and over my face, it is totally invigorating and not at all unpleasant. Soon the shower stops and the heat of the sun and the gentle breeze quickly dries me. A large brown butterfly flies past; fast and erratic in flight, it races past me. I follow its progress and contemplate why it does not collide with anything? - it flies as though drunk. It is a painted lady, an array of dark, rich bars and creamy spots. The wind behind me blows up in a sudden strong gust. At first I think it is a vehicle approaching, I even look round to check. It is the type of wind that builds up, sweeping me along and screeching like a train. Another gust approaches - I hear it long before I feel it. The blast releases the scent of pines which hangs like an unseen phantom, I listen and breathe in the fresh aroma that sweeps around me.

Although there's much to moan and grump about this summer, there is also beauty and rich rewards for those who dare to venture out to look.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Queens Head - Newton Regis

With France a fading memory, the cold, wet roads of North Warwickshire made an unwelcome return to our cycling schedule for the beer ride. I was running late and opted to meet the peloton at Clifton Campville, it was an impressive turn out. Norman, Baz, Paul from across the road, Pete, Ian on his Brompton, another chap I hadn't seen before and Ken. We cycled up to Thorpe Constantine, then across the usually busy Ashby Road to Seckington and from there an easy saunter to Newton Regis.

The duck pond - Newton Regis
Newton was the northernmost village in Warwickshire when it became a Royal Manor of King Henry II in 1159. It was privileged to take the title of 'Regis' and the estate was granted to Geoffrey Savage and his heirs. Like many villages Newton Regis has lost its range of 'trades' - a century ago there was a shoemaker, a tailor, carpenters, wheelwrights, bakers, butchers and a grocer - all with apprentices. Today all are long gone. and the village dozes around its duck pond with the Queens Head sitting slightly back from the road.

It seems a pleasant enough pub, low, beamed ceilings, a fireplace, locals dotted around the tables and a few people eating. There was an interesting poster advertising 'Pie Night' and also a Quiz Evening.
Beer was just OK - nothing special really and not a great choice. We opted for Timothy Taylor 'Landlord'.

The Queens Head
I brought back some pieces of stone that I'd gathered from around the Tom Simpson Memorial on Mont Ventoux - I handed these out to those who were interested and Gary and I told our tale. There was another rider there who met us at the pub - We see him rarely, maybe once or twice a year, but he too had ridden up the Ventoux. In fact he has ridden up most of the Alpine mountains, and completed the fabled 'Marmotte' Sportive - probably the hardest bike ride in Europe or even the World. The route is 174Km and features over 5180metre of climbing over the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibiers and then finishes on top of the most famous Tour de France climb, Alpe d'Huez. Oh, and he's also climbed the Matterhorn and been up the foothills of Everest. Suddenly our efforts seemed unimpressive.

After three pints and a bag of crisps we were on our way home. The light was fading by now and with a long ride ahead, lights were needed. I split off from the main group and made my way home via Austrey, up the sharp uphill stretch past the radio mast towards Appleby Magna and then out to Snarestone, Shackerstone, Congerstone and home, I made it back well before midnight which was pleasing - and I certainly slept well that night.