Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Tour de France - Now and then.....

Here we are then - a couple of days from 'The Grand Depart' of this year's edition of The Tour de France. According to the experts this years race could be interesting, the organisers have tinkered with the route to hopefully provide something finely balanced and that offers possibilities for everyone - they're hoping for the excitement witnessed in this years Giro d'Italia which saw the leaders fighting for victory right up to the final day. That would be good.

Realistically there are probably a handful of riders in with a chance of overall victory - favourite is Chris Froome who will be looking for a fourth win and three on the trot. However, his form so far this year has been below par, is he still the strongest rider?

Lately I've been reading an interesting book - 'The Unknown Tour de France' by Les Woodland. Mr Woodland is a long-term cycling journalist and Tour devotee and he has put together a succinct history of the Tour. Originally published in 2000, this book has been around for a while although because much of its content is historical that doesn't really matter. I'm always interested in the history side of cycling - so this is a book that was always going to resonate well  - the style is engaging and humourous - combining well researched historical facts with the many Tour legends and myths.

The first section was the best for me - looking at how Henri Degrange started the Tour, the early races and the 'star' riders of the time. It's a real eye opener in terms of what the actual race was like back in the early 1900s. We all know that the TdF is tough - probably the hardest event in the sporting calendar - but reading through this book will open your eyes as to how hard it was - todays race is a breeze by comparison!

The book is replete with amusing stories - such as the story of Londoner J.T. Johnson who rode in the first Tour of 1903 -

He wore a jockey's silk shirt and coloured cap and carried a whip 'to keep off the dogs'. He was in second place after 60 miles but paid for his enthusiastic start when he ground to a halt at Vaudreil. Local cyclists managing the control station ran up to him...
'What's the matter Johnson?'
'I'm shattered'
'Get off your bike"
'I can't'
They carried him, literally, to the home of Monsieur Duval, the head of the train station, where he was laid down, undressed, massaged and given warm wine. Johnson told them he'd ignored the Doctor's advice and eaten just two sandwiches before the start. Duval fed him and left him to sleep. When word spread a local moneybags insisted on taking Johnson home for dinner. The Londoner, no worse than many a cyclist who has ridden too far and eaten too little, was happy to oblige. An hour later, fed, washed and content he told his host - 'Well thanks a ot, I'd better be going'
He scampered up the road passing one competitor after another - regained the hour he'd lost and finished seventh.

Riders in those early Tours often completed stages approaching 500km - starting at 2.30am and riding through the night, on bicycles with no gears on roads with no real surface - the book really gets into describing the hardship in some detail.

'We chatted for a while and he said he'd ridden the Tour de France 40 years earlier, in the 1920s, - I said the roads must have been very different - he said 'Qui monsieur, they were very rough surfaces then' I pointed at the way the riders would be coming and said I'd seen the climb in the days of Bobet and Coppi, when there were holes in the surface and stones and rocks on the road. Now of course they're in a very good state, more or less smooth like any other road. And he looke very surprised - Non monsieur, you don't understand. We didn't come up there. And he turned and pointed to a tiny goat track behind us, all rocks and tufys of grass and no more than two yards wide - 'We came up there'

Of course, for the testimonies of those like that forgotten cyclist to be given due weight, the investigating journalist must attempt to convey their experiences as completely as possible. Woodland doesn't disappoint, devoting six whole pages to the cycling technology of the day. Three of them go to a French bike, reputedly a veteran of the first Tour of 1903, which he turned up in the Midlands.

It was fun to read the many tales of the early years of The Tour, and I recommend his book wholeheartedly, it doesn't boil each year's race down to an anecdote and then sprint on to the next year. Instead the book is structured along thematic lines which gracefully move forward in time. So you get a chapter about the beginning of road racing and a chapter about the beginning of the Tour. You get a chapter about the mountains. A chapter about the yellow jersey. Chapters about doping and cheating. There's a chapter for the Brits and a chapter for the Americans and the Australians. You also get the (inevitable) chapters about Coppi and Anquetil and Merckx.

‘He gets a phial from his bag. “That, that’s cocaine for our eyes, and chloroform for our gums…” “That,” says Ville, emptying his shoulder-bag, “that’s horse ointment to warm my knees. And pills? You want to see the pills?” They get out three boxes apiece. “In short,” says Francis [Pelissier], “we run on dynamite.”’

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Eroica Britannia 2017 - done!

Ready for action!
We're back from a suberb weekend at the Eroica Britannia festival, held at Frinden Grange in Derbyshire's Peak District.

And what a weekend it was - the weather was unbelievable - someone said hotter than Thailand? - whatever, it was uncommonly hot. Gary and I had decided it was fitting for such an event to cycle there, on our old bikes, and dressed accordingly. This seemed a reasonable idea - around 45 miles in good weather with no rush to get there and the promise of a country pub stop (or two) along the way. We set off from Gary's heading to Burton on Trent, after eight miles or so Gary's bike developed a mechanical problem which clearly could not be resolved roadside. International rescue were called - Thunderbird 2 with the bike pod was duly despatched to make the pick-up (thanks Kate).

Fortunately Mike Spratt who built our bikes was attending Eroica too - he would be able to fix the problem once we got the bike to him. So with Gary travelling with his bike via Thunderbird 2 - I decided to stick to the plan and continued on my own - this would be a good test for the Garmin Edge Touring device that I'm hoping will help us navigate through France later in the year.

Around Ashbourne
I rode steadily through Burton centre and then out to Rolleston on Dove, from there I turned onto a quiet lane which was more or less traffic free until just south of Ashbourne. The route was good although there were plenty of sharp climbs to test the legs. At Ashbourne I met with a gradient that was impossible on the old bike - I had to walk for a hundred yards or so. Then I hooked up with the Tissington Trail to take me within 5 miles of the final destination. The Garmin did a great job - except the last two miles I'd put into the route were along a track that was totally unsuitable for cycling - pretty much a hikers footpath across fields - I pushed the bike until I reached the next road.

Chris Boardman
Oooh Arrrr - my next bike maybe?
By the time I got there Gary had managed to get his bike into hospital and repairs were being carried out (Thanks Mike! We decided to spend the evening at the Eroica site - there was sunshine, music, food, pop-up pubs and gin and cocktail bars - all with an authentic vintage/retro atmosphere. Then there's the 150 or so 'shops' - offering everything from Maserati sports cars to vintage clothing and bike parts and handmade arts and crafts. There really was something for everyone.

On Saturday, I took my bike out for a short spin round the lanes before breakfast - just to keep my 'every day is a bike day' new year resolution going. Afterwards we all got changed into our daytime costumes! - If you're going to attend an event like this, it's better to go the whole hog - get dressed up! - Gary and I had opted for fairly simple 'farm-worker' type outfits - I had a bowler hat, waistcoat, grandad shirt, puttees and boots. He had similar but with a flat cap and no puttees! The ladies were dressed up too, polka dots and floral patterns.

We had a laugh with these costumes - but noone gives you a second glance on site - everyone else (or most) have done something similar. The problem was the weather was so hot - dressed in thick waistcoats and heavy cotton workshirts we were soon soaked in sweat - we were thankful for the beer tent and a shady spot! We wandered round the shops, made a few purchases, saw Chris Boardman and Ned Boulting and then went back to the shady spot!

We had a break for a couple of hours in the afternoon - and then got changed into our evening wear - Gary in a dinner suit, Union Jack dicky-bow with two-tone shoes and spats - me in a straw boater and striped blazer. We spent the evening watching 1980s popsters ABC - they had more hit tunes than I remembered!

On Sunday we all met back on site for the Eroica ride - 4500 cyclists on all manner of machines setting off for either 25, 55 or 100 miles along the tracks, trails and roads of the Peak District. There were people dressed in early twentieth century bathing costumes, there was a man riding a 'stop me and buy one' ice cream bike - there were tandems with midwives, there were onion sellers, 1950s policemen, a man on a penny farthing, someone on a Chopper, a man dressed as chimney sweep riding a Raleigh bike from 1916 - whatever you could think of it was there! - the mood was fun and laughter all the way.

A couple of old scrubbers!
As we queued for the start ex-professional racer David Millar came skidding past on his old bike - Gary chased after him and managed to get a selfie. Finally we were off, in a huddle of bikes and clouds of dust from the bone-dry tracks. The route was well marshalled and there was never a danger of getting lost - it was easier riding than I'd anticipated, just the heat being the main obstacle - some of the hills were a little testing but nothing as steep as the one I'd got stuck on around Ashbourne. Some of the off-road trails were tricky and very rocky - easier to walk on those stretches. Soon we were stopping for lunch - a quintessentially English village with a lovely pub and a field at the side offering free local beer and a lunchbox for all riders. No sign of any energy gels here - Cheese and Pickle cobs, Sausage Rolls and Bakewell pudding!! - perfect! - The whole thing had the feel of a village fete from 1954.

Lunchstop - the village of Moneyash
The last section before arriving back was fairly flat and we picked up some speed in places - soon we were back at the site with the commentator announcing our arrival and a Hurricane fighter plane flying overhead. We picked up a free beer for finishing and settled down to watch other riders arriving back - while desparately trying to find a spot out of the blazing sun.

And that's Eroica in a nutshell. It’s a far cry from your average sportive - completing the course in a record time is not an option: enjoying the sensation of having cycled into a time machine alongside like-minded riders is the name of the game. So often cycling events seem to ostracise children and spouses, but not here, everyones welcome and all can enjoy the fun.

Essential refuelling

Every rider gets a lunchbox

Mike Spratt - Vintage Bike Builder extrordinaire!
Phil looking retro!

About to embark on the ride

Gary with David Millar

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Eroica is looming - which bike to ride?...

At last a break from the turbulence of late - I'm in my office; it's 7.45am, the sun is shining. The trees display none of the violent animation of late - it looks like a good riding day.

I'm on the Colnago today - I have to make a final decision on which 'old' bike to use for Eroica - Yesterday I went out on the Bianchi and that went well. However, I'm pretty sure it will be the Collie - but a long ride today will help the decision ...maybe.

The outward part of the trip is great - the bike is riding well, smooth, quiet and remarkably quick. I cover the first ten miles easily, the sun is behind me, it's warm and no wind to delay progress.

At some point I will need to pause, catch my breath, give the legs a rest, but the clear sweet summer air is somehow exciting with the feintest tingle of freedom. The sky is clear and bright blue, a few white clouds unfurl vapour trails marking the journey of aeroplanes overhead, but here on the ground it seems that all of England is laid out before me, shaken out across to the horizon like a proverbial summer quilt. Each blade of grass seems to catch the sun and toss it back to the sky and meadow flowers are weaving a tapestry of subtle colour through the fine grasses. Islands of Ox-eye daisies reach upwards, their spindly, delicate stems swaying gently in the lightest of breezes.

I stop with 18 miles covered - I decide a lie in the grass would be a good thing. I stare up at the empty sky. There's nothing to do, nothing is moving, nothing is happening. the June grass is long and cool to lie on, entagled with wild flowers and spears of wild wheat, coiled with clambering vines and the whole humming with bees and the flicker of scarlet butterflys. I lie there, chewing on a piece of grass.

The sun is high in the sky as I set off for the return journey. It's hot now. Bees and butterflys fly back and forth amongst the vegetation, the hedgerows are alive with buzzing. The hardest part of today's ride is the return journey, taking in a number of stiff climbs, all challenging, especially on the Colnago with it's racing gear configuration. The first climb: up past the forgotten apple tree, in abundant leaf now with green fruit forming, past the climbing rose with its dizzy scent displaying bright mauve and pink blooms, past the ash and hawthorn hedges with glimpses through the gaps of the rolling countryside beyond. The climb drags on - I'm feeling tired, but I finally make it to the top - a gentle roll now for a few hundred yards as I catch my breath. The next few miles are okay, although I notice a distinct headwind - no wonder the pace is slower.

Anything even slightly uphill feels like a chore now - legs are aching slightly but feet are worse - not helped by being squashed into my old pair of Patrick Poulidor cycling shoes - these were fine 35 years ago - they're tight now, I'm sure my feet have swollen with the heat? I try to focus on the landscape - it's a beautiful day - the swelling slopes of meadow, the sunlight lying like transparent gold among the gently curving stems of feathered grasses summer has arrived and we must make the most of it.

I'm 8 miles from home when i'm suddenly awoken from my idle thoughts - a front wheel puncture that went off with a distinct bang - I'd recently filled my tubes with anti-puncture sealant - this white latex concotion spurts from the tyre as it revolves - it's like sitting on a catherine wheel - within seconds both me and the bike are covered in sticky white goblets. I pull over and access the situation - will the tyre seal or do I need to change it - I get the wheel out anyway and sit for a moment on a convenient bench. A cyclist passes and calls out - I tell him I'm okay - he turns and comes back anyway just to check - 'Just a puncture" i tell him - and he's soon on his way - 'Nice bike' he nods towards the upturned Colnago on the grass next to me.

I try pumping up the tyre - still more white stuff oozes from the hole. I decide to change the tyre. Not as simple as with a 'normal' bike though. These tyres are glued onto the rim - first thing is to release the bond and prise the tyre off - then spread new adhesive onto the rim (I'm carrying a convenient tube of glue!) Then get the new tyre onto the rim in the right position - it all goes well until it comes to trying to pop the last part of the new tyre onto the rim - it's tight - I have to really stretch the tyre to get it on - it slips and pops off the rim - the rim spins as well landing on my lap and depositing the newly applied adhesive all over my shorts. This glue is mighty sticky - fine strands stretch from the wheel rim to my clothing like a spiders web. More from hands back to the rim, it's getting messy!

Second time I get the tyre on - I try to wip the spilt glue from my clothing but it's a hopeless task - I pump up the tyre and carry on. The final few miles are hard work and I arrive back feeling drained. One good thing though - a tube of 'sticky stuff remover' makes short work of the glue on my shorts - and when I pump up the punctured tyre it seems to have sealed - looks like I should have waited longer for the sealant to act?

Will I ride the Colnago at Eroica? - still not sure!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Gone with the wind.....

The past week has been a bit disappointing weather-wise - Not so much flaming June as flaming washout - particularly unseasonable was Tuesday last - whereby we were relentlessly battered by rain and gales for the whole day. Regular visitors to these pixels will know that I am attempting to ride every day for a year - a challenge that is beginning to lose its initial allure - on storm-day I managed 5 miles and was escorted home by a lifeguard.

Interestingly I've been keeping a daily cycling log, it includes; mileage, which bike i'm riding, if the ride has been long one, where to? - and also a record of the weather.

So far, this year has seen a paucity of good cycling days - there has been but a meagre three that I would proffer as perfect for cycling. I ride to my mothers once a week - a round trip of some 44 miles - only once has that ride been an utter pleasure. Mostly I seem to be fighting against a headwind or else subjecting myself to a thorough drenching. But at least it's not cold at the moment! - not comparitively.

This week, Wednesday was my ride to see Mum. The day before was massively stormy and rained all day and whilst today was at least dry, I set off into a cruel headwind wind and made the slowest of progress.

As I labour along at least I have time to look around. The lanes are frothing with creamy white cow-parsley - hard to believe it has survived and remains defiantly upright after the gales and constant downpour of yesterday. It peppers the lanes for mile after mile, a luminous highlight against the hawthorn hedgerows. As I pass the Church house-martins are careering around the steeple and poking under eaves like builders on speed, I guess they're busy surveying suitable spots for nest sites. A little later I hear a cuckoo - the first for me this year - and always a joy.

The wind never subsides, not totally, although I notice there is a 'tidal' quality to the onslaught - with stronger waves punctuating slightly weaker ones, like breakers rolling up and hitting a beach. On a positive note at least it's a good workout - whilst I'm not travelling at any speed I am pushing a hard gear, the wind makes it tougher and my thighs have developed a constant ache which surely translates as 'doing me good' ?. And I comfort myself with the knowledge that the return journey will feel 'rocket-powered' with the wind behind and pushing me home.

Quite often my mind drifts whilst out on the bike - today I'm musing over Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. There was a most excellent programme on telly last weekend, in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the release of what is considered the most important album in popular music. I thought I knew the album quite well - I can sing along and know some of the stories: Paul getting the parking ticket from 'Lovely Rita' - John's circus poster that inspired 'Mr Kite' etc etc - But this programme opened up a whole new world!

The presenter - Howard Goodall - did a fantastic job of unpicking the album; track by track, layer by layer. Brushing away like a fevered archaeologist at all the delicate bits, uncovering hidden secrets and explaining them expertly. This isn't any old site though, because of the quality of the treasure and its influence, and the stories it is the best dig ever. Tutankhamun basically. 'What can you hear in there Howard?......"
"Wonderful things!"

Of course, I did what everyone else did after watching this programme - I played the album - and there was so much new to listen to - even though I've heard it about 5000 times before - and now those songs are whirling around my head as I cycle along. Check it out on BBC iPlayer or catch-up or whatever configuration you watch - 'Sgt Pepper's Musical Revolution with Howard Goodall' - Fantastic!