a cycling manifesto

a cycling manifesto

Cycling requires honesty.  That climb hurt? You haven’t trained hard enough.  That descent was slow?  You’re not brave enough.  A vote for Brexit, a fear of immigrants the rise of extremism?  Democracy has failed.  Our elected representatives have taken the easy options.

Cycling from London to Luxembourg (330 miles in 3 days / 4 countries in 3 days) had everything.  Gruelling climbs and exhilarating descents, beauty and decay, physical devastation and mental strength. Everything together on one ride.  A country is a bit like that: rich and poor, rural and urban, young and old.  All having to rub along in the same space and time.

10 hour cycling days afford a lot of time for reflection.  By the end of the trip I knew exactly what needed to be done.

My 53/39 Chainset needs to be swapped for 52/36, the corroded Di2 battery needs replacing and 11 speed would be nice.  Whilst I’m at it I need to take a long hard look at myself, dropping some weight (obviously), strengthening legs and training intelligently wouldn’t leave me falling out the back of the peloton every time the road goes upwards.

A simple systematic and honest approach.

I’m hoping whoever holds the keys to 10 Downing Street tomorrow morning does the same.  A map of poverty in the UK would be a good place to start.  It would correlate strongly with maps of sub-standard housing, low life expectancy, high unemployment, entrenched benefits dependency and hot spots for extremism.

Put simply, if people live in a decaying, degrading, demoralising environment they will become disillusioned, despairing and dangerous.

Take the challenge head on, no short cuts.

The most deprived areas of the country need to be prioritised for fundamental improvement.  Improvements in housing, healthcare and education infrastructure.  All would bring better standards of living, employment and have a positive impact on communities (and lesson the anger).

Charleroi, sits approximately half way between Calais and Luxembourg.  It’s Belgium’s 4th largest city and the largest in the region of Wallonia.  As we cycled the last few KM of a 200KM+ ride, make that dragged ourselves homeward, we passed through the imposing remnants of Charleroi’s heavy industrial past.

The rusting hulks of factories and plants were as breath-taking as they were imposing as they were sad.  Those derelict machines are not coming back to life, the jobs they demanded likewise.  Monuments to the past are their best role now.

The UK has tracts of Industrial Legacy too.  A map of these would correlate to that map of poverty too.

Yesterday lunchtime, for the first time, the UK sourced the majority of its energy from renewables (50.001%) and in doing so provided a glimpse of the future and a solution for now.

The UK’s rich industrial heritage needs a reboot.  Rather than mourn the loss of jobs in 19th/20th Century Industries, reminisce for the glories of the Industrial Revolution, there should be investment in the industry, manufacturing and technologies of the future, centred on the map of ‘communities targeted for rebirth’.

Taking the lead in 21st Century technologies – renewable, environmental, lifesaving – would give the UK something to be proud of and believe in.  Other Nations would take note and follow.

If you put the hard miles in, work intelligently there is no need to feel fear or anger for the future.

Of course this isn’t a Manifesto for Cycling.  Where are the demands for investment in segregated cycle-ways with super smooth tarmac and priority traffic lights?  Sometimes the needs of others need to be prioritised first and the 10 Downing Street key-holder needs to put the needs of their supporters aside to break up current divisions and make a real and positive change.

(My bike is in for a full groupset re-haul with the best of the old groupset being donated to the mechanic doing the work so that he can build up a bike and join us on our rides, just maybe not the 330 miles in 3 day ones).

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the importance of backing up

the importance of backing up

Monday is the worst day for me to get on my bike.  Firstly, it’s Monday.  First day back at work.  If I’m lucky I’ve had a long ride on Sunday.  Not forgetting the destination is work.  Did I mention work already?  Did I mention I don’t want to go to work on Monday?  (I’ve not landed my dream job of being paid to write about cycling. Yet!)

If I rode MTB then I’m doubly reluctant or simply unable to drag myself out of bed, kit up and ride to work.  More likely I’m feeling like I’ve been run over by the bus I need to catch to the train station.

Monday morning trains run chaotic. Worse than usual.  Of course, it’s the Train Drivers first day back too.  I’m guessing many of them don’t want to go to work either, their boyhood dreams of being a train driver have long evaporated under the onslaught of the early morning alarm.

The sardined passengers are in a worse mood than usual too on a Monday, many sense of humours have been lost in the act of getting out of the wrong side of the bed.

Riding then makes best sense.  It also makes sense in the case of ‘backing up’ – riding for a few days in a row – between scheduled and well needed rest days.

Often the http://thebicyclemoaningcollective.com big summer rides are big multi day affairs – 300 miles in 3 days –  long days in the saddle, or consecutive assaults on big mountains.  Backing up in training is essential.

It’s quite clear the Democrats didn’t back up.  True they put 2 hard terms together thanks to their star player: Obama.  However, they didn’t look far enough ahead, they rested on their laurels, they failed to back-up for when the big test came along.

Here’s some very unscientific research to substantiate my weak hypothesis.

Rewind Saturday Night Live to pre-Barack, 2008, watch Tina Fey lampoon then Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin, sit back and enjoy the comedy gold.  Fast forward to the 2016 US election, sub Fey with Alec Baldwin and the jokes are the same.

What’s going on?  Different but the same message.  Lazy SNL script writing or did Barack’s two lauded terms fail to help Good Ol’ Joe Six-Pack and make America Great Again?!

Back in 2008 the SNL team had a lot of material with the ‘Washington Outsider’ stuff, ‘Joe Six-pack’ as the Republicans targeted the traditional blue collar vote.  Sound familiar? Maybe I shouldn’t take my political insight from SNL but essentially SNL lampooned the same electoral message in 2008 as they did in 2016!

There it is.  Indisputable.  The Democrats had plenty of warning, at least 8 years.  They can’t then be surprised that the same disenchanted, alienated voters targeted by the Republicans in 2008 were the same disenchanted/alienated voters in 2016.  They’re still there, just more so, the so called Deplorables.

(Note to Hilary: don’t insult the voters that you need to vote for you to win).

The Democrats got lazy, got complacent. They didn’t clock up the hard miles in training so that they could put a run of strong back to back performances together.  They resorted to the classic under-trained cyclist’s desperate solution: throw money at the problem.

How often does that work?

the bubble bursts

the bubble bursts

Last Sunday as I charged past yet another beat up old boat, rusting, rotting, covered in grimy tarpaulins and assorted debris (old bikes, chairs, pipes etc) – and obviously occupied – I understood Trump could win. People are living in desperate conditions.  Now. Today. In Great Britain.

They’re also living in run down garages, shacks and sheds (that wouldn’t look out of place in a shanty town) in the gardens backing onto the canal. Now. Today. In Great Britain.

This is the same country where a homeowner can be forced to give up their own home to build a runway (by the same politician who said they wouldn’t have to).

Remember in the USA its BREXIT plus plus plus. Supersized.

In an idle moment of curious voyeurism have you clicked through to: “You won’t believe this: derelict stadium / derelict shopping mall / derelict factory / derelict neighbourhood”? The photos are brutal and real and now in the United States of America – the ruler of the free world.

No wonder people in the ‘Developed World’ are angry with the establishment, the political elite, their elected representatives who just do whatever the hell they like (or as they are told to by their party-donor paymasters).

 We’re ripe and simmering for revolution.

And there has been a revolution. Just not the one we needed, wanted or hoped for but it was the one we got and arguably deserved. 

The question is why? Why when democracy has served up the opportunity for a protest vote:

  • Is the candidate of tried and tested ‘fear and hate’ the most attractive?
  •  Is there no alternative offering hope and goodwill?
  •  Is it a surprise that the status quo isn’t as appealing as loud, brash, rabble rousing change?
  • When we want change we entrust the hardliners to deliver?

From despair comes desperation, desperation leads to taking risks. Its lead to BREXIT and Trump.

Free to ride my bike on a Sunday morning (because I’m lucky enough to be able to enjoy leisure time) I saw outside of my bubble and glimpsed desperation and understood a little better why BREXIT and Trump.

political sludge keeps us riding

political sludge keeps us riding

September 2016 was a personal milestone. I turned 40.  What long seemed impossible, was always inevitable.  The mountain I’d built in my path turned out to be a gentle ripple.  The world didn’t stop and my legs are still spinning my pedals.  My monument isn’t the only Impossible that has become the Inevitable.  It was impossible that the UK would vote for BREXIT.  It was impossible that the Labour party vote the unelectable Corbyn as their leader twice.  It’s impossible that the US will vote for Trump. Isn’t it…?

Cycling past the Houses of Parliament I wonder what’s happening in Western Democracies? The accepted wisdom is that these are protest votes by the electorate to give the political establishment a bloody nose.  If this is true then it is a high risk strategy.  This means does not necessarily justify the end.  The results to date are that the UK has voted to exit the EU without a clearly defined exit strategy i.e. a vote for the unknown.  Labour has voted for a leader (and entourage) that is stuck in a 1970s time-warp to regain their party’s socialist heritage i.e. 2 steps forward, 3 steps back.  The USA is quite possibly going to vote for Braggadocious Lunatic instead of an experienced politician because she represents corrupt Washington and he represents the anti-establishment and offers no nonsense change (according to Trump himself).

If this a strange and worrying state of affairs why has no one done anything to stop it? In a globalised ever-changing world politicians are the very slow to change.  In the UK we’ve long been stuck in a political sludge, with just two established political parties of two extremes. The Left and the Right.  The vast majority of us are not similarly polarised.  Love him or loathe him, Tony Blair understood this and created New Labour that in the early days was as close to everything for everyone as you can be.

Why is no one filling the gaping void now?  Our politicians are stuck in a binary inertia. When Apple, Facebook, Google have gone from small tech-start ups to Global Super Powers in a relatively short time, why can’t a new political party(ies) make themselves legitimate in a similarly short responsive time frame?

Why hasn’t Hilary sought to distance herself from being a full-paid up member of the Washington elite?  Maybe she can’t or would be even less trusted if she did but it must be easier to convince US voters that she does represent change and a fresh direction than for Trump to convince US voters he could be the President of the USA.  Whilst Trump has spun, morphed and trampled over his own words over and over again to catch any passing tide of momentum Hilary has stayed Hilary.

As I stop, waiting for the lights to allow me to proceed I worry in another direction, if these protests votes build an unstoppable momentum and the impossible/unthinkable continue to, why aren’t those with true power doing anything about it?  Surely the mega-corporates, the political dynasties, the secret societies don’t want the global disruption that a Trump presidency would trigger?

Which makes me conclude that none of it really matters, that it doesn’t matter who is President of the United States, it doesn’t matter which colour of political party is in power, it doesn’t matter which common market a country is a member, none of this can disrupt the entrenched status quo.

What can be done?  Same as when I hit 40: Keep calm and ride your bike.

let them wear lycra

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It’s not gone away yet and it will probably never go away, the knowledge, the feeling that when you catch sight of yourself in the mirror as you head out the door for a ride – there is something very amusing about cycling attire. The shoes that make you walk precariously, less graciously than a pair of 6 inch heels (I’m guessing here), the resulting wobbliness accentuates the lycra-clad form, opening up cyclists to further ridicule.

If that wasn’t enough, the whole looks is quite possibly worsened by garish colours, topped off by big sun glasses (even in winter) and a bulbous helmet, which even though it unquestionably saves lives doesn’t help the overall look.  Sure, some guys and girls look great in head to toe lycra but most of us don’t.  It can be a uniform: I’m a cyclist and proud. Or it can be a statement of intent: I know I’m out-of-shape but I’m doing something about it.  Or it can just be the most comfortable and practical clothing to wear on a  bike.  But it’s our choice.

Imagine if we couldn’t choose what we wanted to wear on our bikes. If politicians decreed that wearing lycra is offensive and not in the public interest (there are many I am sure that would argue that this is the case). Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet to the minority group known as: Cyclists.  But it is happening in France to Muslim women – probably one of the most subjugated minorities in the world.

I’m not wholly sure why, Muslim women are not allowed to enjoy the beach, to sunbathe or swim in the sea whilst wearing a burkhini.  I do understand that France is a secular society and that the ban is not national but locally imposed on the beaches of the South of France.  I also know that the burkhini was designed to promote inclusion, to allow Muslim Women to join their non-Muslim friends on the beach whilst not falling foul of the religious rules that they abide to.  That’s got to be a good thing, right?

Instead it is being used to further repress a small minority who need help rather than persecution and humiliation.  Surely there are better ways to target Islamic extremism. The ban on the burkhini and the public bullying of the women who wish to wear them by the authorities can only exacerbate rather than cure.

Next time I waddle into a pub or cafe in my lycra, sweaty and bulging, attracting the inevitable amused side-glances and giggles, I’ll return the grins with my own, safe in the knowledge that the police are unlikely to force me to publicly remove an item of lycra clothing perceived as undermining national identity.

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.

it’s not democracy (when you lose)

it’s not democracy (when you lose)

I looked at my phone in disbelief, looked at it again, decided that 6am was too early to contemplate what Great Britain had just done. It’s a dream right? It wasn’t. It isn’t. Life goes on. Those strange bedfellows Farage, Boris and Gove can’t stop me riding my bike (yet…). So I rode from London to Brighton with the Bicycle Moaning Collective and let the pedal strokes and banter with my mates order my thoughts.

I started angry. Navigating London rush hour traffic was tiresome, difficult, dangerous. Like life from now on. It wasn’t fair. London had voted overwhelmingly (60:40) to stay in the EU and as the paymaster of the UK is going to have work even harder to subsidise a people so out of step with its collective belief.  The Young voted overwhelmingly to stay (70:30) and it’s their future that’s been hijacked.  That made me angry. And sad.

Clapham Common to Tooting Bec by bike was jaw grindingly slow. Much gnashing of teeth. As my anger simmered on Cycle Super Highway 7 I thought of the heavily EU subsidised areas of the UK that had just shot themselves in the foot, cut their noses off to spite their faces and because…because? I couldn’t answer the question because it just didn’t make sense. It could only be that they had brought into the negative, small minded, intolerant, scaremongering dangerously preached by the Out campaign. A negative nasty message had won out.  That doesn’t make a positive message in anyone’s language.

The going wasn’t getting any better, Brighton ever distant, we’d not even dissected the M25 in 2 hours. I was becoming disillusioned.  My suspicion is that the Outers had taken a leaf out George W Bush’s Iraq War approach to planning: Shock & Awe and wing-it.  Then helpless, not in control of my destiny, feeling cheated by democracy. Yes, I had a vote, I’d used it, expressed it and lost. Like democracy the blue tarmac was letting me down, falsely promising a smooth ride but interrupted, cut up and blocked by buses, pedestrians, traffic lights.

The roads opened up, the traffic was getting faster as we got closer to the edge of town, we were on dual carriageway, with roundabouts to navigate and fast moving traffic coming at us from right to left. It was scary. I’m scared that we history is repeating itself, are we in the 1930s again? Where acceptance and of racial scaremongering and intolerance was capable of gripping hold of a nation and causing mass evil.  We hadn’t just turned the clock back that far, had we?

When you reach How Lane, a climb that says goodbye and shakes the City out of your legs and High Road descent that ducks under the M25 and the ride is on, the country side lit by a setting sun beckons. Why the long face?  Maybe today was our era’s defining political back lash, the people striking out at the establishment and giving them a bloody nose that they hadn’t anticipated, that just might’ve knocked the political class of their pedestal and now what next? Had Out foreseen Scotland voting overwhelming to remain in the EU and now threatening to leave the United Kingdom?  Was their vision of Out really England alone?  The UK now looks like a fragile House of Cards.

Politics in freefall, like me on my bike on Coopers Hill. Feeling like a kid again at 60kmph. Youth had lost out today – but maybe this is the catalysts for mobilisation and engagement of the young and open minded.  They won’t make the same mistake again of not making the effort to get to the polling station if they don’t want their parents’ to f#ck them up again.

As the minutes ticked by, the headwind had still not given up, I was tiring, yearning for the end.  There wasn’t much talk in the peloton. The ‘enraged of London’ chat had subsided.  Our own journeys were all that mattered now. With the freedom of a post-work Friday night ride in a setting sun, lighting up the South Downs in a golden glow. I didn’t feel so angry, frustrated, worried.

Maybe it’s about time we backed away from the World stage, for too long we’ve hung on to our imperialistic past (viewed through rose-tinted glasses), harboured ideas above our station and believed our own hype that we’re a ‘special’ nation deserving of a place at the table of the Global Elite. James Bond isn’t reality.  As former partners laugh at our impotence and we can no longer afford to take on the self-appointed role of policeman to the World, life might be simpler, safer.

It could be exciting. The last global disruption to our lives was the Financial Crisis in 2008, at the time that seemed cataclysmic but largely due to the Central Banks creating benign economies through interventionist monetary policy resulting in a low interest rate environment. Even the bitter pill of austerity has been easier to swallow as we’ve all been able to keep paying our mortgages. Crisis what crisis? Move on nothing to see. But this time who knows what is going to happen?

Who knows? Who cares? I’m too busy struggling up Ditchling Beacon, no record time tonight. It’s taking everything just got to get to the top and then enjoy the long fast descent down into Brighton.  Enjoy myself.  Besides we can just leave it to the politicians that created the mess to sort it out. We’ve not left yet. There’s a lot of stuff that has to happen for it to happen.  Our soon to be former EU partners might yet muck things up by following the UK with their own referendum and precipitating the collapse or re-design of the EU project

Ultimately I arrived in Brighton convinced that the journey has actually just begun and that no one knows where it will end.  I suspect that the architects of Out may not get the result that they imagined or desired.  Their promise of short term pain for long term gain may actually translate into short term political instability leading to a transfer of political momentum to a younger, more flexible, more global, more tolerant, more engaged electorate thus turning full cycle, negativity to positivity. I’m In.

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Footnote: On the rider tonight – a few Brits, some Aussie’s, Irish of course, Namibians, 1 Slovak and a Greek. I hope that doesn’t stop.