the year of the blog

the year of the blog

A year has gone full circle.  I’m driving through France looking at the rough agricultural tracks or gravel roads dissecting the vast agricultural lands, running far into the distance again. Kids are in the back of the car watching Disney movies again.  My wife is sitting next to me in the front, probably pretending to be asleep again so I don’t talk to her about cycling through France by Gravel Road.  Again. 

With most of my eyes on the road ahead, out of their corner I watch the gravel roads, farm tracks, dusty pathways dissect the vast agricultural lands of France, (France is not a country that will go hungry), they often disappear over the crest of a curvaceous hill or the sanctuary of an inviting wood.  Each promises an adventure. Each promises their own unique story.

The same old day dreams.  Not much has changed over the last 12 months then.

Except I’ve changed and I think writing this blog has played a part. 

Seeing your thoughts in print has taught me being opinionated is not a nice trait.  It can quickly sound like just having a rant.  Digging in and holding firm on your position can just be pig headed.  For every one of your own opinions there are at least a hundred others? Who’s right?  Who cares?  Unless you’re the President of the United States of America (or a judge in Hawaii) it doesn’t really matter.

Every time I’ve knocked together a post I’ve asked myself: am I being a pig headed ranter?  Hopefully not.  That’s my one rule for my attempts at writing.  I’ve tried to carry this over into my other relations at home, at work and at play.

Having got over the lack of traffic to https://subconsciouscyclist.com/ what do they say?  There are lies, damned lies and statistics.  I resolved that I was getting more than simply hits from hits.  Which was just as well.  From Blog writing I’ve tried to develop different styles of writing and get used to seeing my words alive, out there, sort of in print.  It’s still cringe making to think someone I know may read my thoughts and know what I’m thinking.  I guess that’s a rite of passage for any writer.  Either way it’s more nerve-wracking than descending Col du Glandon at 90kmh.

Thanks for sticking along for the ride the last 12 months.

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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!

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.

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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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.

the origin of the subconscious cyclist

the origin of the subconscious cyclist

My blog about cycling was born whilst driving (cyclists drive cars too). Returning from the French Alps my family were ignoring their driver, transfixed by their iPads.  With no conversation and no music permitted (as it distracts from the DVD the kids are also watching –  multi-tasking aged just 7 and 4) my eyes roamed freely across the largely uneventful landscape of Central France, that borders the monotonous but largely traffic free AutoRoute.

With the droning soundtrack of tyres on tarmac and the just audible film soundtrack my thoughts naturally drifted away from concentrating on piloting my family safely home to – cycling.  More specifically to gravel road cycling and gravel bikes. In my mind, until now gravel bikes were simply a niche too far, another blatant marketing fad – certainly in the UK.

UK roads are bad but rarely are they unsealed gravel. Bridleways, those ancient relic thoroughfares that criss-cross Britain, come close but a Mountain Bike will suit and excite more. Of course I want one but I’m still searching for the justification to find space amongst the other niche but totally justified bikes in my cellar (the Fatty, the Fixie, the Titanium, the Aero Road, the 650B…amongst others).

Until now. Along the length of the AutoRoute between Calais and the Alps, there are miles and miles of gravel road. Many running alongside but much, much more interestingly, many spearing off at right angles from the AutoRoute, cutting across the fields, heading towards undulating farmland, woodland or vineyards.  Here was justification enough! I pondered writing a whimsical travel book charting my adventures as I explored France’s gravel roads (on a brand new gravel bike).

Except of course I can’t. My usual excuse for not doing anything, for not follow my dreams reared its ugly and familiar head: Mortgage to pay. Wife & kids to support. My dreams were smashed again. Drive on.

Except they didn’t have to be. Why can’t I fulfil my dream and write about cycling? No reason. From subconscious thinking (whilst driving) my blog on cycling was born. ‘France by Gravel Bike’ may have to wait but there is nothing stopping me exploring my writing style and finding a voice through the subconscious cyclist.