Saturday, 27 October 2012

Tour de France 2013....

The final confirmation is lacking, but it looks increasingly certain that Bradley Wiggins will not defend his 2012 Tour de France title, but will race as a key wingman for Sky team-mate and this year's runner-up, Chris Froome.
Instead, Wiggins will concentrate on the Giro d'Italia, cycling's second biggest stage race. "It's more than likely I'll ride in a supporting role for Chris," Wiggins said at the presentation of the Tour's centenary edition 2013 route in Paris yesterday. "It was always about winning one Tour de France. I've done it and I'm very proud the way I did it. I want to be in a successful team and if that's Chris [as leader] then so be it.
"My priority is the Giro d'Italia. It's become apparent that it's very difficult to compete in two grand tours and so it's very likely I'll be there [in the Tour] in a helping capacity."
Wiggins did insist – jokingly – that "he [Froome] will have to grow some sideburns though", a reference to his own trademark muttonchops that became a familiar sight to British sports fans this year as Team Sky took a stranglehold on the Tour barely a week into the 21-day race.
Wiggins' supremacy last July was such that it will be hard to imagine a switch in roles for the British duo between team leader and domestique de luxe, as cycling calls the top "helper", but it would boost both Wiggins' personal ambition and Sky's chance of a repeat victory.
Should Wiggins win in the three-week Italian race – which he led for one day in 2010 – it would be a first for Great Britain. The inclusion in the Giro next year of a 53km individual time trial – unusually long for the Italian race and Wiggins' strongest suit – makes it even more attractive for him. Racing the Giro flat out, though, would make it almost impossible for the Londoner to dispute the Tour de France a month later.
Alberto Contador, cycling's top stage racer, was the last to try, last year. He won the Giro, but finished fifth in the Tour. Other Grand Tour winners, such as Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov, have tried the double and failed even more dismally.
Hence the increasing likelihood that Froome, rather than Wiggins, will step up in the 2013 Tour, and after the route for next July was revealed this week it became increasingly probable.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Mark Cavendish....

For Team Sky, Mark Cavendish just did not work.
They tried, it did not click, nobody got hurt, and they can all look forward to seeing each other on the starting line next season without anger, embarrassment or too many regrets. As divorces go, it is hard to beat in the amicability stakes.
But that will not stop some fans from wondering why it did not work and who was to blame, because somebody must be to blame, right? The truth, however, is less exciting than the conspiracy theorists would like: Cavendish and Team Sky might have looked great together, but they should have stayed friends, not partners. Of course, with the benefit of 12 months' worth of what Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford might call data (but the rest of us would recognise as hindsight), it is easy to say that now. The picture was not so clear when Cavendish signed his three-year deal in October 2011, though.
Back then, with Cavendish's World Championship victory still vivid in the memory, everything seemed possible. The Isle of Man-born superstar had just backed up his green jersey-winning performance at the Tour de France, the first British rider to achieve that, with this country's first triumph in the biggest one-day race on the calendar for 46 years.
Riders perform in national colours at the Worlds, so "Cav" was wearing a GB jersey, with GB team-mates, following a plan devised by GB coaches. But that victory was arguably the high point of the Cavendish-Team Sky partnership. Born of a dream to transfer Britain's track prowess to the road, based at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, and bankrolled by a big British brand, Team Sky is our flag-carrier in the cosmopolitan world of professional racing.
Brailsford, for example, has not only spent the last four years developing Team Sky, he has also run the Olympic cycling team: BMX, mountain bikes, para-cycling, road, track, the lot. But the cross-pollination between Teams GB and Sky goes beyond Brailsford. Coaches, kit, science and, most importantly, riders have flowed between the programmes to wonderful effect - six of Cavendish's seven team-mates at the Worlds were from Team Sky. Cavendish was actually in the strange position of being both the poster boy for this professional/Olympic connection, and the "one who got away". When Brailsford went to BSkyB in 2008 to ask for the millions he would need to develop a winning team, Cavendish was his best case study.
But "the Manx Missile" had exploded onto the scene too early. Already a track world champion, Cavendish moved to the road in 2005 with the formidable T-Mobile Team's development squad. With no natural home for him here, he was forced to do what dozens of talented Brits had done before and join a continental team. Over the next six years, that team would be transformed from a German outfit focused on winning the Tour, to a multi-national ensemble dedicated to one-day victories and stage triumphs. Sponsors came and went but the team kept winning, and the image of Cavendish rolling through the line, arms outstretched, became its calling card… right up until the moment the last sponsor, Taiwanese phone company HTC, put the brakes on!
Some pundits suggested Team Sky making eyes at Cavendish during the contract renegotiations did not help, but the truth is that HTC-Highroad, to give it its final name, had been struggling to hold on to its riders for some time, and it was only his prolific hit-rate that kept the show on the road for so long. What is equally true, however, is that by 2011, the lure of a "return home" had become as irresistible to Cavendish as the Death Star's Tractor Beam was to the Millennium Falcon. Any debate about how a sprinter might be integrated into a team with the stated ambition of winning the Tour by 2014 was forgotten in the moment. So often was the twin goal of green and yellow jerseys repeated, it became a mantra.
Team Sky, to be fair, were coming off a breakthrough season, Cav was Cav, and that day in Denmark proved what could happen when you put them together. The fact that no team had managed the green/yellow double since HTC-Highroad's ancestor Team Telekom in 1997 was barely mentioned. But, as Cavendish so often demonstrates, timing is all in sport.
Those breakthroughs - particularly Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins finishing second and third at the year's final grand tour, the Vuelta - changed the team's expectations and focus. A fortnight after Cavendish signed his contract, his new team's priorities crystalised with the announcement of a 2012 Tour de France route that looked made for Wiggins.
Suddenly, Brailsford's "British winner within five years" ambition did not look so far fetched, but only if his inexperienced team concentrated their efforts. Any distraction with secondary targets would alert the cycling gods to hubris. Cavendish's 2011 finished in glorious fashion with a richly deserved win at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show, but his prospects going forward were ever so subtly being reduced. First, a backdated doping ban removed Alberto Contador from the Tour start list, adding to the sense that this could be Wiggins' year, and then Team Sky's "A Team" started to deliver on those gruelling "altitude camps" in Tenerife.
Wiggins went from hopeful to favourite with three victories in four months. They had found a formula - as many big diesels as they could muster to reel in breakaways, ward off attacks and set up "Froomey and Wiggo" for the final assault - and it was difficult to see where the highly-tuned Cavendish and his pit crew would fit in.
For his part, Cavendish made a steady start to the season, winning stages in Qatar and Italy, but he probably did not win as many races he would have liked, and he certainly crashed more times than he liked, or was used to. This would become a theme for his year and perhaps the only source of tension between him and Team Sky. Cavendish's point was that he had never expected to have a platoon of riders working hard to set him up for bunch sprints, but he had expected some protection for his front wheel as anxious rivals tried to baulk his burst for the line.
A huge crash at the Giro, was followed by another at the Tour: the 27-year-old was lucky to ride away from both, but the experiences served to remind him how isolated he was now with his team keeping most of its riders safely out of the harm's way. With little luck or support, Cavendish was unable to mount a defence of his green jersey. He would win three stages to take his career total to 23, but the first of those was a textbook example of opportunistic brilliance, and the last two came when Wiggins' hold on yellow looked secure. For any other rider, three stages and 15 victories in total for the year would be a fine return. But for the man French sports newspaper L'Equipe's readers voted as the best sprinter in Tour history, it is average.
Add to that the disappointment of not repeating the GB/Sky Copenhagen trick at London 2012 and you have a campaign that falls below his high standards.
Television footage of the world champion going back to the team car to collect water bottles for Wiggins' workhorses was another sight that raised eyebrows, although it was not something he complained about, which is to his credit.
That fact also goes a long way to explaining why he kept quiet until the eve of his final outing for Team Sky, the Tour of Britain - Cavendish appreciated being part of a historic year for British cycling, and he enjoyed sharing his friend's triumph; he just does not want to do it again. And neither should British cycling fans. His is a talent that deserves the best possible home. Under different circumstances, that home could have been Team Sky, but the circumstances changed. The good news is that those circumstances changed for the better, Britain now has a grand tour winner.
The even better news, is that all parties realised this and Cavendish can get back to winning green jerseys for Omega Pharma- Quickstep, another multi-national ensemble dedicated to putting him in the right place at the right time - which is crossing the line, with arms outstretched.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Plans for 2013....

We've been working on a cycling project for 2013 - and finally we've got something sorted.

We'll be riding from London to Paris next July, arriving in Paris the day before the finale of The Tour de France. We'll be riding along the Champs Elysees and around The Arc de Triumphe on roads already closed and prepared for The Tour - not only that, we'll be in Paris to see all the razzamatazz as the Tour ends - hopefully with another British winner!!

I'll be posting further details over the coming weeks - I'm not sure if we might try to raise funds for our charities again - maybe we could push our totals raised up towards the £10,000 mark?

It's an exciting plan and one to be thinking about and planning for over the winter period - training will have to be taken seriously again come the new year and the warmer weather. But an event like this provides the inspiration to get out and do some miles.

As they say in France - Allez-Allez!!!, Vite, Vite!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Weekend work....

It's been one of those weekends that just disappear without me ever having the chance to relax or unwind. I'm writing this from my office having just completed the second draft of a sixteen page comic book style brochure specifically for school children in Wales and featuring a famous rugby club. However, I don't wish you to think it was a burden - far from it, I've enjoyed doing it, and furthermore the next job for this particular client is a twenty page cycling magazine!! - I'm looking forward to that.

This week I placed a couple of on-line orders for spare parts, replacement bits and various components to enable me to perform a thorough service on my new bike. Two new tyres, new chain, new cassette, new chain rings, new gear and brake cables, new bottom bracket bearings, new brake blocks. Maybe it doesn't sound much - but it cost me £300. That's a lot. You're thinking I could probably buy a bike for that? The trouble with expensive road bikes is, the component parts are made of lightweight alloys - they wear quickly and the replacements are expensive - it's a price we have to pay!

There seems to have been a late summery finale here. Although autumn is most definitely here we've been warmed by some glorious sunny days with little or nil wind and dry as well. The TV weather map has been all smiley-sun. There is something about the countryside at this time of year, on a perfect, still day, when summer and autumn seem to fuse into each other imperceptibly. Autumn comes slowly and goes on slowly, usually until December - it seems harder and harder to make the mark between seasons.

I've been out today and enjoyed every minute. It's long trousers and long gloves now and I for one would rather be a tad too warm than a smidgen too cold - I got it just right and ambling along the country lanes was just a total pleasure. I didn't push hard at all - I was absolutely content to let the bike dictate the speed - I simply wanted to enjoy myself and soak up the views, the smells and the sky and let my mind drift away somewhere. October is a lovely month, a kind of second spring, uncertain but exhilerating, sunny, maybe snowy, hot and frosty, bright and dark by turns - a sort of autumnal April.

I was surprised how many other cyclists were out - sometimes (most) I see very few others, put today it seemed like every few yards I was acknowledging someone or other heading the opposite way. I paused a couple of times to gaze over a farm gate ot through a gap in the trees. The land looks quiet and charming but at the same time brutal and elemental. Trying to describe the landscape is like trying to copy a Constable with an Etch-a-sketch. You shoot a load of exclamatory adjectives almost immediately - and the land, the hills, the trees, the rivers and skies look back as if to say - "Is that the best you've got pal? - Can you not think of a better cluster of similies, metaphors and allusions than that? Because, frankly, we didn't get up this morning and put on all this finery simply for you to stammer, 'wow, awesome" - and it's true - sometimes all you can do is stand and stare.

As I rode around my course I became aware that I was actually moving quite quickly - but it felt okay - my mind was somewhere else totally and I hadn't really given the idea of speed any thought at all. When I got back I almost turned around and set off again - the day was so pure and perfect - had it not been for a pressing deadline and spending time with my rugby comic I probably would have.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Pheasants and Mushrooms....

The corn is cut and the stubble is bare. Young pheasants are in abundance, tame flocks along the woodsides, their cocky arrogance reaching its height as they stroll across the roads with damnable indifference, their savage scarlet and electric blue colouring attracting the eye. The pheasant occupies an odd position in English bird life. It is the royal pretender, the pampered scarlet-crowned would-be-king of every field and wood. Fussed and pampered and protected from all manner of evil by armed guards, he leads the sheltered life of a royal heir, and all for one purpose. By an ironical chance he bears the sign of that purpose on his head, the fierce red side-splashes that might be his inheritance of spilt blood. Though he struts like a royal pretender he is, from egg onwards, one thing and one thing only. He is the lamb to the slaughter.

I'm not sure if there are any poachers around here these days. I like to think there are. The poacher, after all, is a survivor, bang in the centre of civilisation he is the last of a race hunting by skill. He is the survivor, now that the smuggler has gone, of the romantic thief, of the hunter who is himself hunted. And what could be more romantic or exciting? in this now placid and smooth-shaven, no longer wild countryside of ours?

I'm riding up to Bagworth. its dry and sunny but with the cool chill of the season in the air. I head into Thorton, past the reservoir before looping back in a wide arc towards Market Bosworth. I pass my own house as I move on towards Barton in the Beans and then the lumpy up and down stretch to Newton Burgoland. The full fruition of things has come: woodnuts hang pale green among the already forming and even paler green of next years catkins, the trees are thinning and light is passing through, the leaf canopy is breaking and all around is a casual spinning down of leaves. I spot a man foraging amongst the leaves at the side of the road - he acknowledges me and I slow to a halt - he is collecting mushrooms. "Not much about" he announces, however his blue plastic bag tells a different story. He tells me he's been gathering since 8.00am - it's now 1.30pm. He shows me a few of his collection, wild, tender, beautiful pink-gilled mushrooms like little white silk parasols - I don't think I could ever be entirely happy as a mushroom collector - the fear of having picked up something lethal would spoil the party for me. A real mushroom is dew-tasty, faintly fragrant of autumn earth and fresh as morning rain - the shop bought variant is like a bird in a cage.

I move on and turn towards Snarestone before taking the road back to Shackerstone and the homeward stretch. There's soft rain now and dark skies ahead. The sun remains but behind me and suddenly I'm feeling the cold. The last few miles are not as good as the first. I'm wet now and a little tired - I labour up the last long drag of a hill thinking about the warmth of the woodburner and a mug of hot tea. Soon I'm home and those thoughts turn into welcome reality.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Early Autumn...

It seems to have happened so suddenly this year - autumn has crept up on me like a thief in the night, I went on the bike for two consecutive days; both were incredibly beautiful with intense, aquamarine blue skies and strong sunshine. The air was head-clearingly fresh and the light was bright and sparkling. The newly turned soil in the fields lay glistening in long furrows and the grass remains thick and lush on the verges.

I'm heading nowhere in particular - I just had to be out - the day seemed so perfect. I amble along at a leisurely pace - no rush - plus I'm troubled by an annoying clicking noise coming from..... somewhere? - Noises on a bike are so infuriating - there's something about the airflow that moves the sound around, so that just when you think you've pinpointed the cause, you realise it's coming from somewhere else entirely. So it is with this interminable click-click-click. Like all annoying noises it is intermittent. Just when I think it has gone away it will return with a vengence and spoil my ride. Anyway I've decided it is the bottom bracket - most likely a bearing. Or it could be a chainring, or maybe a pedal - I don't think it's my shoes... but you can never be sure. Gary had a strange noise on his bike - it niggled him for months until he finally discovered it was the bit you pull on the zip of his coat that was slapping against the fabric - sounded like a click on the bike though. I'll be stripping my bike down soon - as each day passes I'm looking forward to the day when I sort that click out - I know I'm going to sort it - i'm replacing everything. Only trouble is I might not ever know for sure where the cause lay.

I passed a couple of cyclists who looked like they had a problem. I stopped, of course. They were an oldish couple - he wearing glasses and a friendly smile, she lugubrious and sour. She'd had a puncture. He couldn't fix it. I stepped in - my lycra giving just a vague hint of a superperson, I soon sorted the problem and even pumped up the tyre for them. "I must reward you" said smiley man - "No need sir, just doing my job" I should have said before disappearing in a cloud of dust with a click-click-click and a wave... but it was too late. He opened his saddlebag and passed me..... an orange.

When was the last time you peeled an orange? It’s complicated. It’s fiddly. It’s messy. It’s like your first marriage. These days I think we’d rather eat satsumas, because they’re simpler to get out of the packet, though they don’t taste of much. Oranges were once such a precious, sweet and tart delicacy. The memory and imitation of the sun. Finer than any indigenous fruit.

They were probably brought to this country, along with lemons and roses, by returning crusaders. People built elaborate glass temples to grow them in. A shipload of rotting oranges from seville dumped in the port of Dundee, led to the invention of marmalade. Oranges were candied, and preserved, their skins dried, their flowers used for scent and, every Christmas, children would make pomanders. I remember oranges being magical, like The National Health in your pocket...

On day two of my riding the roads were covered in leaves, crispy like dried out paper. The sun was shining again but there was a little more wind and the dead leaves rattled in it. As I rode on the same route as yesterday, patrolling for any pensioners in distress I started thinking of the term 'long in the tooth' I always thought "long in the tooth" referred to horses, but your teeth do get longer. And toe nails. My toe nails are now made out of a material that could be used to clad the space shuttle: tougher than steel (than scissors, anyway); a browny yellow colour, they're lethal. I could cut roof tiles with my big toe. I rode out through the usual quiet lanes - no one around? - it seemed such perfect riding weather, I had expected to see at least a few cyclists. Then on the way back I passed a club run on the opposite side of the road, maybe 20 or so riders - quite an impressive bunch and moving smoothly - the 'whoosh' as they passed me was loud - they looked serious, down on the drops and pushing hard. Of course I upped my pace as I saw them approaching - it's one of the things we do when we see other riders. They probably did the same when they saw me coming.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Cycle Show 2012....

Girls usually don't get it. Us boys sometimes need a firm fix on the latest stuff out there. The new super-shiny stuff that we simply can't do without, the must-have accessories, the cool gadgets. And here was the chance to take a good look before whipping out the plastic at the local bike shop. We were visiting the Cycle Show at Birmingham's NEC.

Gary considers a Lotus for his collection
As we queued to get in it was noticeable that there was an abundance of middle-aged men falling for the lure of Lycra. Women were outnumbered by about 5 to 1 in my estimation - why is that? why is it that more men than women are so keen to emulate the new holy trinity of our nation: Queen Vic, Sir Brad and His Royal Hoyness? Is it just men who dream of  a Boardman aerodynamic AiR bike and a wind-tunnel tested helmet, the Pinarello Dogma or the Colagno Ferrari - then there's the Venge or the Condor Lotus - a lottery winner could leave this place poor.

The exploits of Victoria Pendleton, Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy may be the spur, the signal to pump up the tyres, oil the chain and pull on the padded shorts. But even before our pedalling superheroes set about acquiring their gold medals and winning the Tour de France, cycling has been growing exponentially in this country. No wonder it has reached the point when some are calling it the new national sport. And the evidence was here, on full display.

Paul trys on a new helmet
The excitement was considerable as the doors finally opened - there was a definite rush to get in and get round isles. Gary and I wandered round gazing with awe - there were some beautiful machines on display. Wonderful retro styled models, crafted from steel and leather and with gleaming chrome. Then there were the cutting edge, hi-tech, sophisticated models of the 21st century, sexy, sleek carbon, light as air and with electronic gearing. Then there were the fixed-wheel bikes, With a fixie, there's no coasting. When your bike's in motion, so are your legs. (Hardcore fixie riders don't even run brakes, they simply use their superhuman thighs to decelerate and eventually screech to a halt.) Single-speed bikes only have one gear too, but that gear is mounted to a free-wheel that'll let you coast -- an indispensable feature if you live near any hills. You'll be able to tell a fixed wheel rider, quads like bands of spring steel. We noticed a stand with a stationery bike offering a virtual ride against the clock with the route showing up on a large TV screen. It looked like a real film as a man from the crowd attempted to break the record on a 1 kilometre climb - it doesn't sound much but by the time he had finished he had a face that looked like a burst haemorrhoid - and he was nowhere near the record.

I tried the 'Wattbike' a revolutionary stationery training bike - ideal for the winter months. The helpful man pointed to the digital display, he was talking a strange language, pointing at ever moving ellipses and encouraging me to up my cadence - the bike felt good - real almost - but after about a minute I felt drained. We wandered round to watch the BMX display, tattooed teenagers with rasta hairdo's flying and spinning almost up to the roof - impressive.

For four hours we wandered around - I think we covered most of the exhibits - we came out talking of dream lists and the problems of storage - it was an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday morning