christmas cycling

christmas cycling

Something has happened to Christmas.  Not commercialism, nor loss of its true meaning (that happened in the 4th Century AD when the Christians hijacked various Pagans’ Winter Solstice festivals).  No Christmas has changed because of the rapha.cc/feature/festive-500 on www.strava.com/.

Everyone is cycling.  Every day between Christmas and New Year.  Trying to rack up a cold, wintry 500 km.

Christmas used to be incarceration by family, with no escape as friends were similarly imprisoned, seemingly for the full 12 days of Christmas.  This year, everyday there’s been rides with organised or available for the riding with good mates (or with someone you vaguely know on the cycle club’s WhatsApp).  Even on Christmas Day (if you wanted/needed one).

Only Daley Thompson used to train on Christmas Day!

Winter cycling kit has been tested to the extreme.  Motivation is equally tested by an increase in punctures from dirty winter roads.

Starting with Hurricane Barbara, the weather systems have thrown everything at festive cyclists:  rain, wind, sub-zero temperatures, deep fog and stunning early morning sunrises (it may be Christmas but seasonal goodwill does not extend far enough to grant cycle-passes outside of the statutory hours of 7-11am).

It would’ve been great to stop for a photo but the riding has been fat, fast and suburban (to keep clear of rural ice roads), no time to stop for snaps.  The energy burn has been high too, as fast as the turkey and spuds are shovelled in they’re burnt off the next morning (that’s the theory, par is probably the best that can be hoped for).

Best Christmas ever!

(and I didn’t even sign up for the Festive 500).

(Photos courtesy of @kieranhc)

Advertisements

it’s all over

it’s all over

Done. That was it. The last proper ride of the year. It had everything: glowing early morning fog, burnt through in places by a magical sunrise, coffee and a bacon sandwich in G!ro (Esher), a straight line blast through the reservoir and a taxi driver reversing into me less than a mile from home. A fitting way to end my cycling year.

I’m out with Big CJ. Except he’s not so big anymore. He’s started cycling to work and the KGs have melted off him. He’s looking good for it. It’s looking ominous for me. I wish I hadn’t given him a hard time about letting his mileage slip as now I’m struggling to hold his back wheel.   

Worse I can’t stick with him on the hills (not even big ones) – he whips me 3 out of 3. 3.0. It’s my own fault, I asked for it, I woke the beast. I’m facing the consequences now.

This Thursday I’ve got my second hand operation, right hand this time. I’m not just stopping cycling just because it’s cold. Honest.  It will put me out of action until 2017. This time I know what to expect, which makes it worse, there should be no surprises – that large needle going deep into the palm of my hand.  Am I going to approach things differently this time?   Probably not, if anything I’m more casual, more complacent (apart from the prospect of that needle).

I’ll be happy to hang up my bike as Big CJ really ramps it up past Hampton Court Palace on through to Kingston. He’s in his sweet spot, the long, straight, flat road. I’m hanging on, just, the balance of power has shifted.

2017 is going to be a tough year as I struggle to get back on terms with the new order.

chasing the tour (pt1)

chasing the tour (pt1)

18.10. A date as exciting as 25.12. Correction: More Exciting.  The day the 2017 Tour de France route was announced.  Like Christmas I was disappointed.

Why?  You can’t Chase It.

Previous years have been easy: Alps or Pyrenees?

A simple binary choice: What mountain range’s stages fall on a weekend?  Tour Chasing is only a weekend pastime (all be it long weekends) – Tour Chasers have day jobs after all.

The choice hasn’t been a choice we’ve had to make.  It’s always the Alps on the last weekend of July. The Pyrenees always seems to fall mid-week.  We’ve only made it there once in our 5 years of chasing (and having nearly died of hypothermia; we haven’t hurried back).

Thanks Monsieur Prudhomme.  3 Mountain ranges, 4 if you include the Massif Central – the Alps twice – in 3 weeks and I’m struggling to make the Bicycle Moaning Collective’s Chasing the Tour work.

Usually the Chase planning goes like this:  Wait for the official tour route to be released – although I’d been checking out the rumours online since before 2016’s Tour had finished – book lots of rooms.  I got a good idea that Briancon, the highest town in France, was going to feature.

Looking at Booking.com and the fully booked hotels throughout the Romanche Valley, from Le Bourg-d’Oisans through to Briancon and likewise in the Marianne valley confirmed it.  The Galibier was in for sure.  I just had to find the beds.  Easier said than done.

Obviously the ASO get in there first but these rumours must be sound as it seemed every other Tour Chaser in the World had already booked their hotel.  Even if you find a hotel that’s no guarantee. We were kicked out of our hotel by Skoda this year. The Tour entourage is huge and it needs to sleep somewhere.

– Not too despair.  We’ll have our bikes with us (that’s kind of the point of all this chasing) and can ride to wherever we need to be.

Grenoble and Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis are the best I can do.  I doubled down, hedged my bets and booked beds in both, lots of beds.  We can ride in from the East or the West. There’s just the small matter of getting up and over some Monster Cols.

We’re travelling down on Wednesday.  We might just make it to the top of Telegraph, over the top and maybe to the foot of the Galibier before the Tour closes the roads.  It’s going to be tight and not how I dreamed conquering Galibier – a 6-hour drive in our legs, probably miss the Tour and not be able to climb against the traffic coming down the mountain, euphoric from chasing and catching the Tour.

On Thursday – it gets worse.  From Grenoble or Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis to the top of Izoard is over 100km, with a sprinkling of Monster Cols and then there’s back again.  That’s not looking promising either!  Close, yet so far, the Tour within touching distance, slipping through our fingers.  

Just like Christmas, disappointment, this year’s Tour promised so much more than a pair of slippers and a sweater.

But True Tour Chasers don’t give up that easily!  After the disappointment of Christmas there is always Boxing Day.  If we miss the Tour there’s our lunch in a ski resort, probably Val D’Isere via Col d l’Iseran or maybe Alpe D’Huez.  We might still have a crack at Galibier of tick off some of the best climbs we’ve missed during the last tours, tick off some of legends.

The must do’s: Lacets de Montvernier, Col de la Madelaine, Col de la Croix de Fer or the corkscrew on Grand Colombier.

That doesn’t sound so bad.

Watch this space!

cycling the less obvious

The world faces many problems and believe it or not, cycling cannot solve them all.  UK Government policy regarding cycling is focused on keeping cyclists safe, which is a good thing of course but does seem to generate negative tension between cyclists and the rest of the human race. How to solve that?

A good start would be to make more humans cyclists?  Why would you want to do that? This maybe tenuous, scientifically unproven but a human that cycles is a happier human. Why?  Scientific research has probably proven that they’re fitter, healthier, explore more, socialize more, have more fun.

Don’t believe me?  Don’t see the benefits to the human race? With 1 case study I can’t prove it but here’s a great cycling story to warm the heart of cycling humans and maybe some that don’t.

My 65-year-old father clocks up more mileage in a week on his bicycle than I do. I have to take his word for it as he doesn’t know how to use the Garmin bike computer I gave him to record his rides. And there you have it, the old boy rides his bike for fun and the social life not PBs and post ride analysis.  It wasn’t always this way. His early retirement was spent buying stuff he didn’t need from LiDL, being nagged around the house by mother and itching to open the bottle of wine at 11am in the morning.

Maybe it was being an enthusiastic (if rarely in the right place) support driver for the Bicycle Moaning Collective’s forays into Europe or simply fed up with being trapped in the house and made to do mundane chores, whatever the reason he joined his local Cycling Touring Club.  Now he’s out on his bike 2 days a week and at the weekend with his new bike friends, or ‘old farts’ as they affectionately refer to themselves.

As far as I can tell the routes for their rides are largely dictated by the locations of coffee shops and pubs and with no time commitments, why shouldn’t they be? They navigate by vague memory and something called a ‘map’. They don’t dream of carbon race bikes or shaving off weight with a carbon seat post. No, they want steel Audax style bikes with a triple although according to Dad, his NBFF*‘Old Charley-boy’, who’s 80 has built his own frame and says you only ever need a single speed and he’s officially the fastest up ‘what’s-its name hill’ in the whole County!

That’s all well and good.  Yes, my father is looking healthier and fitter than he has done for years, in less than 12 months the transformation in the old boy is astonishing, he’s lost weight, drinks less (well starts later in the day). The best bit is that I don’t have to listen to the him telling me about the deal of the week at LiDL, instead he is brimming with enthusiastic stories about his cycling adventures with Old Charley-boy and the other old farts.

Solutions are not always linear.  An answer can be like a good bike ride with twists, turns and maybe a few dead ends, often heading in a direction that doesn’t make sense until you arrive.  The NHS is at breaking point in part due to caring for an ageing population leading unhealthy lifestyles.  Were the government to stop automatically giving pensioners free bus passes and instead provide vouchers to purchase new bikes not only would they reduce their long term bus pass outlay they would stimulate cycling related retail, encourage pensioners to take-up cycling which would encourage good health, reduce the number of vehicles on the road, save the planet, make roads a safer place to cycle whilst reducing the burden on the NHS.  More humans cycling – whatever their age – can help solve more than just our obvious cycling problems.

(*NBFF: New Bike Friend Forever)

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.

IMG_5802

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.

IMG_6107

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.

IMG_6140

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.

IMG_6139

the why

the why

Why? Four days in soaked, stinking Lycra, sweat pouring in torrents, stinging my eyes with a nasty mix of sun screen and salt, tasting of stale tartiflette as it runs relentlessly down my face, into my mouth, dripping off my chin, wiped away futilely by already soaked cycling gloves.  Why? Because it doesn’t get any better than this.

This is the French Alps and this is the Tour de France.  These grand, spectacular mountains are painted – with a lot of yellow and a fair deployment of red polka dots – but mostly with all things cycling for four intense, gigantic, dramatic days each year.  Like a fierce storm the Tour de France rolls through, up, over, down and out the other side of the alpine cols, sweeping me and my bike along with it. For those four days I’m in the Tour, or as close as I’m ever going to be.

Four days happen fast, an intense whirlwind of vibrant colour, people, vistas distilled into a potent emotional concentrate.  Except on the climbs.  Where it slows.  Pedals rotating slowly not spinning fast. Time falters and extends the opportunity to dissect and process individual moments, snapshots of memory from within the whirlwind and fully answer the: Why?

It’s butterflies basking on the warm road, escaping death by front wheel and disappearing amongst the mesmerising alpine flowers in the meadows that lie sandwiched between hairpins.  Camper vans, lots of camper vans with occupants spilling out dressed, half dressed, half cut, half bored, very bored or very excited.  How did that ancient VW camper get up here? Families camped on precarious precipices. Kids, lots of expectant kids reaching out for a high-five in return for a pain relieving allez-allez or even a precious song.  Some other songs are rude, I think.  Sung raucously in drunken European accents by uber-excited 18-30s, they’re maybe older, maybe younger – it’s a vast array of humanity swarming on the mountain sides.  Being overtaken by an E-bike (lots of them this year) but easily catching a Brompton folding bike set on conquering mountains too.  Distracted on the brutal Ramaz by official posters of past winners.  Where’s Armstrong? (The other drug cheats are all here).  Picture postcard perfect chalets perched on the mountain, promising idyllic alpine living, adorned in Tour decorations, like Christmas but celebrating cycling.  Wet paint on the road, splashing my bike with neon green and pink tattoos, daubed by supporters marking out their support for Bardet, Sagan, Froome – they’re all coming through later.  Mixing the Bicycle Moaning Collective club kit with club kits from all over the world.  Spotting club mates racing on hairpins high above or even better – below.  Appreciating admiring looks at my bike or were they admiring my socks?  Euro-pop-beats that help pick up the pace momentarily until fading out of earshot and fading with it my momentarily lifted pace.  The breath-taking, awe inspiring views from the high mountains – don’t forget to look down.  The cooling air as I climb higher, not too cold but cold enough to help.  Swirling mountain mists, riding through and above the clouds, entering another world.  Moving aside for Gendarmes on their motor bikes, roaring past in aggressive groups of threes.  Moving aside for Tour Team cars racing up behind, with deafening horns.  Get out of the way.  Is that for me?  Or the crowds pressing in from each side at the top of Col du Joux Plane? Narrowing the road – like they do on the television – no more than a meter wide.  I’m in the Tour.

That’s Why.  There’s one more: starting out on an epic climb and not knowing or believing that you can do it: climb that high, that steep, for that long and that hard. But you do.  You make it to the top.  You can, you did.