running on empty

running on empty

This wasn’t the plan. Subconscious-cycling has become the subconscious-running (after a small operation – photos available on request).

Sure there’s more to life than riding a bike. There’s running too. It’s easier to put trainers on and just go.  Why don’t I go for a run? No cramming pockets with inner tubes, tyre leavers and energy bars. Out the front door in 5 minutes.  Simple, quick, easy. (In theory “who’s moved my headphones?”).

To make a positive from a negative my bikes have been consigned to the cellar and a brand new pair of trainers purchased (positives from negatives) and I’m running to work and back to reclaim my running legs – which have previously been consigned somewhere similar to the cellar on a long term basis.

Home to office is 9 miles.  My goal is to work up to running back from the office to home in 1 go.  I’ve already decided I’m not going to do there and back in 1 day – I know my limits.  Over the 6 week cycling ban I’ll extend my run back a station at a time: Waterloo, Vauxhall, Battersea, Clapham Junction, Wandsworth Town, Putney and finally on past Barnes to the finish line: Home.

Sound like a plan? How’s it working out?

Is it possible to unlearn something? Apparently so.  Not gilt-edging my running past, I wasn’t ever that good but I wasn’t ever this bad. Cycling 100km holds no fears whilst running just 10km currently appears unlikely.  I used to cook a mean Thai green curry but I’ve lost that ability, swapping cooking dinner for reading bedtime stories (a good swap).

Our modern world would struggle to match the engineering feats of the Egyptians.  Even substituting slaves for modern machinery I doubt we could replicate their pyramids.  Or match the engineering and artistic feats of our medieval forebears who built our grandest cathedrals either.  Technologies and skills gone forever. Lost or forgotten through neglect, laziness, new distractions or lack of demand.  Unfortunately, just like my running ability.

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empty head

empty head

My bike and I are on Cycle Super Highway 8.  My head is still in the Alps.  It’s the same when I’m sat at my desk at work.  It hasn’t been easy to fit back into my normal life.  Whilst 3 weeks on Froome & Co have moved on to Rio, I’m still looking at my col top photos, planning routes for future col conquering trips (I like the sound of the Circle of Death in the Pyrenees) and my head is still a whirl of cycling cliché ridden flashbacks, flickering like movie reel, playing over again and again.

Our unofficial race from Verbier to Martigny (the centre of the apricot growing universe) with riders attacking off the front at 60kmph only to be pulled back in by the collective will of the rag bag peloton or more likely stopped in their over eager tracks by the damning headwind of truth and fading, retreating back to the safety of that same rag bag peloton; until they’re ready to go for the breakaway again.

The world has an infinite ability to move on.  Look at the news.  The bloodless coup that saw Cameron’s clique ousted not by the coup leaders but by Teresa May’s puritan posse. Forgotten.  Labour leadership battle, hardly newsworthy, not even the intriguing undercurrent of plotting Trotskyists lurking in the shadows.  Syria and its refugees a footnote.  All overshadowed by the Rio Olympics.

Stevo pulling a neat line of us up Col du Forclaz, Wout Poels like, until the elastic snaps and I fall off the back, legs pounding out squares rather than spinning effortlessly like Christine’s as she floats past.  My stomach is cramping with hunger pains, a sure sign of hitting the wall.  I’m blowing up, with a low rumble of thunder the skies open bringing refreshing rain, part washing off the ingrained grime and sweat.  Forclaz was so bad it was almost good, the climb itself wasn’t too tough but the long grinding road lacks visual drama, making it a mental rather than physical haul to the top. The top is a relief, bathed in sunshine, the storm has passed over in the time it’s taken me to ascend.

The Olympics brings us wall to wall joy, hope and over achievement.  A rainbow of colourful drama to banish the recent darkness from our lives.  It’s almost as if it planned.  The economic fallout from BREXIT, conveniently unreported, what we don’t see can’t hurt us.  The American car crash Presidential Election.  Actually that’s still receiving of column inches because it’s entertainment: Presidential Election Reality TV.

Descending off Col du Ramaz, a messy thin ribbon of tarmac, rutted, scarred with untidy bitumen repairs mixed in with gravel, greasy white lines and rollercoaster hairpins – steep and banked like a natural velodrome.  I’ve no idea how to ride them properly, maybe like a mountain bike berm, that’ll do, not too much speed scrubbed off.   Stevo and DrewBear have gone, disappeared down the road, its’s still worth chasing them, attacking out of the hairpins for the hell of it, to do the brutal climb justice, to pay back the legends who inspired in memorial posters on every hairpin on the way up – Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, LeMond, Indurain (no poster for Armstrong, he’s been erased).  It’s a good one, with the road as good as closed we can confidently-ish use its whole width, not as good as the descent of Colombier the day before but we’re in the alpine descent sweet shop so no need to compare.

Olympic flavoured Dopamine for the masses.  The Developed World masses – investment in Olympic glory does little to alleviate the pain and suffering outsides of the medal table top 20.  Even in the top 10 countries what do all these medals achieve?  A satisfied population?  Unedifying glory on the world stage?  It beats going to war.  It beats being miserable.  State sponsored escapism can be good.  Our sportsmen are our modern day warriors, adventurers, heroes.  They don’t need to defeat an armada to earn a knighthood. Which is progress of sorts.

On the road between Taninges and Samoens we’re at Tour peloton pace, or close enough.  A disciplined pace line hauling 45kph, racing in the suppressive heat of the valley floor, taking our turns on the front, sun burnt noses in the wind, team time trialling to the foot of Col du Joux Plan before it gets closed.  That and hunting down coffee and pastries (plural). It’s a brutal pace, we’re being made to work hard in the chain gang.  I let them go as we arrive at the outskirts of Samoens, saving myself for the climb, besides I know where the best café in town is.  They’ll have to wait for me.

 The media decides the news that we see.  Have they decided it’s time for us to be happy?  Or what are they trying to hide?  We should be suspicious of the 4th estate as any of the other 3.  What news will shoulder its way back into the limelight when the Olympics has ended.  The old stuff or new news?

The crowd are closing in on top of brutal col du Joux Plan, the gap in road no wider than a meter.  I’m in the crazy footage you see when the pro riders climb Alpe D’Huez, Ventoux, Galibier and the spectators, close in, over step the mark.  I’m not about to hit anyone.  This is too exciting and I haven’t even started the descent.  Then I do and so does the rain.  Lots of rain starts.  Thunder too.  The road down becomes a river; I tip toe around the hairpins to scared to regret the lost opportunity to push max speed.  I can’t see much other than huddled spectators waiting for me to slip/slide off the road.  They don’t mean me ill; they’ve just had a long roadside wait of nothing much too see.  Satisfied that I’d cashed in a month’s worth of risk cheques in 1 sodden descent I was in the barriers.  The barriers that mark the last 3km to the finish line.  I almost certainly shouldn’t have been. You’re not allowed to drive your car around an F1 circuit before the race starts.  Under the gaze of the massed Tour spectators I don’t know whether to look serious, grin like an idiot or concentrate on not losing it on the still wet corners until crossing the finish line where my grin is unstoppable.

That’s better.  My memories have been backed up to the hard drive.  Time to sit back and enjoy the Olympics.

cycling the new rugby

cycling the new rugby

This is the fourth year the Bicycle Moaning Collective have been Chasing the Tour.  I don’t know who came up with the name – Kiero I think (our club photographer and mechanic – talented guy, if only he could climb as fast as his wife).  The idea wasn’t strictly mine either. I stole it off Ned Boulting (“How I won the yellow jumper” circa 2011).

As a journalist, Ned, gets to follow the Tour de France (TdF) from ringside. Initially he was employed to bravely/foolhardy-ly chase down Mark Cavendish (who’s interviews pin-ball between exuberant, venomous or banal (or all 3 at once)) for a post sprint sound bite.  This year he’s progressed to the role of ITV 4’s ‘voice of the tour’ providing excellent commentary alongside David Millar (I have to admit Ned is something of an inspiration to me).

I saw no reason why I couldn’t get close to the action too – even without a media pass. That’s the great thing about the TdF – you can.  In 2012 we did.  CheeseMap, Stevo and I loaded our bikes into the Volvo and chased the tour from Col du Girond in the Alps, via Mont Ventoux and on to the Port de Lers in the Pyrenees.  And we’ve been chasing it very year since. The only difference is that there are more of us Tour Chasers each year. 14 to be exact, 1 short of a rugby team.

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Looking around at lunch in Verbier (yes lunch in Verbier on a Thursday), even though we’re pretty much all resplendent in the Bicycle Moaning Collective club kit we’re all individuals, different sizes/personality/background – that’s what I like about this bunch.  Even though we’re wearing our cycling kit these Bicycle Moaning Collective Tour Chasers look more like a rugby club than a cycling club. We drink like a rugby club. OK – maybe that’s an exaggeration but we’ve got a couple of 2nd rows, a centre, a few wingers and definitely some flankers.  That’s how rugby used to be, a game for any size and any shape. That’s not so much the case these days but it still can be with cycling.

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Is cycling the new rugby?  It’s been the new golf and the new mid-life crisis.  If you have to have a mid-life crisis, then riding your bike in the mountains must be one of the best.  Our big guys might not climb as quickly as the whippets but if they’ve got ‘big balls’ (as Sagan so eloquently puts it) – they’re catching everyone up on the descents.  It’s their rear wheel that the whippets desperately cling onto when the power is applied and the pace lifts on the flat gradient of the valley floor. In the end, over the course of a ride, it all evens out, we all arrive at the bar at the same time and all have stories to tell.

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Lots of stories. We’ve nearly got it perfect this year. No shivering on a mountainside in sleet, no riding the wrong way up the mountain and being stopped by unimpressed gendarmes (all 2012 errors).  Sure there are always wrong turns and dead ends (more accurately the gravel roads over the top of Col de la Marlene above Verbier – all are integral to the adventure and those stories.

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another way

another way

I’ve learnt a new word. It was repeated multiple times on the mountain roads I cycled during this year’s Tour de France (when France welcomes the World). It was strangely familiar, I’d heard and spoken a similar sounding word myself before.

Normally it’s French words that are anglicised to effect a certain Je ne sais quoi. This time the French have adapted the English word: FREXIT. Maybe in Germany (DEUXIT), Italy (ITXIT) and Spain (ESPANXIT) similar words are daubed large in heavy set white letters on their mountain roads for cyclists to read. Why are they telling cyclists that they wish to free from the supranational shackles of the EU? Is it because as cyclists we’re continually seeking a freedom of sorts too? More probably because the eyes of the World through the lens of TV cameras suspended from multiple hovering helicopters, will be focused on the mountain roads too. 

Against the mesmerising mountains it looked alien, ugly and in your face: FREXIT (Libre Savoie was much less so, cute even). Out of place in the context of the inherent internationalism of the Tour de France. Riders from America, Russia, Columbia, Scandinavia, France, Italy, Spain & Great Britain (the Great somehow seeming incongruous and out dated) in the same peloton even in the same team working to achieve a collective goal. How often does the Breakaway get away? How many GC contenders solo to victory without their team? Not impossible but not often.

Spectators from all over the world flock to France, supporting riders from countries other than their own, looking past nationality to the heart of their chosen rider, backing them because of their riding style, swagger, temperament, their feats in the face of pain, even just the bike they ride or their record (Palmares (exotic French word)). We’re free to choose, not restricted to just supporting our fellow country men.

So why, when a nation becomes discontent does it turn inward and dismiss the outside world? Nationalism is portrayed as the answer to but it has all so often turned ugly. Whilst technology is pushing aside national boundaries, breaking down barriers, racing towards globalisation, deep down human nature leans towards tribalism. When disenchanted, seemingly threatened we seek identity and safety within our own pack.

Politicians know this. They are skilled in creating fear of ‘the other’. During the EU Referendum, our ‘other’ were the ‘job stealing immigrants’. Trump is championing Muslims as his ‘convenient other’ threatening the American way of life. To be honest we’ve got history in Europe, we’ve written the book on the politics of fear, using fear to gain popularity. We’ve readily walked that thin line that leads towards ethnic cleansing and genocide before.

Don’t worry, we’re sophisticated, developed nations. We won’t fall in to that trap again. We learn from our mistakes, history doesn’t repeat itself, does it? The true success of the maligned EU project has been its success in preventing (another) catastrophic war between ever squabbling nations. I am not sure why that is not more widely acknowledged.

Tormented by the hard climb, tormented by Dom and The Doog disappearing up the road above me, tormented by FREXIT, my mood has turned black as I finally crest the summit where I celebrate with a drink (stale, warm electrolyte), take my summit photos (monumental), another drink (chocolat chaud avec expresso – I’m introducing Café Mocha to France a Col at a time), eat an energy bar (soggy). No time left for a baguette jambon et fromage as the others have scoffed in the time it has taken me to catch back up to them. Clip in and descend.

This is true freedom. Pure excitement, earned and paid for. Nothing else matters other than staying away from the precipitous drop, the slippery white lines, the cracks in the road surface, gravel in the corners and soft, melting asphalt. Nothing other than enjoying the controlled exhilarating madness of descending a hair-pinned, switchbacked, off camber, mountain roller coaster from mountain top to valley floor.

Within the safety of the gorge, a tumbling meltwater fuelled river to my right I’d forgotten about FREXIT/BREXIT. On the mountain I’ve found the answer. When life becomes a cruel, endless grind, misery and resentment builds. When life is exciting, exhilarating, challenging it dissipates. Politicians don’t need to stoop to stoking the flames of fear to create unity. There is another way: energise and excite, create that elusive feel good factor that can unite a nation. Of course politicians know this too. It’s a space race or other vanity endeavour (like hosting the Olympics).

Conveniently we already have our national project: BREXIT. Rather than use it to curl up into an isolated little ball, closing out the outside world, it could be the vehicle to re-tool, re-focus, re-build, re-energise our curmudgeonly, insular, stuck in the past, clinging to former Imperial-glories nation. Make it current, on trend, world leading, prosperous even. BREXIT is a legitimate ‘once in a generation’ unifying challenge, adventure even, more legitimate than going to Mars or bagging a fistful of gold medals.

Our BREXIT project should have our children’s futures at its core, it can be exciting, collective, deliver national pride. What about a British-devised solution to climate change, cost effective supersonic travel, mass water purification in the Developing World, a new sustainable fuel source etc etc? That’s just the stuff I came up with at 60kmh on the down side of the Col de la Colombiere. There’s no limit to the potential, only our ambition.