political cycles

political cycles

Cycling politics. Political cycles. Forever intertwined.

Government and Cycling share a common problem: when the politics becomes the story, the main event, the only talking point.

They’ve both lost their Raison D’être.

Exhibit A. Peter Sagan. Stage 4. The intervention of the Administrators robbed the Tour of Cycling’s World Champion and most charismatic rider. Or to put it bluntly: the biggest name in cycling. The irony was the initial penalty was universally accepted. A significant point loss, hurting Sagan’s inevitable charge into the Green Jersey (that could’ve spiced things up!). Video evidenced debunked the claim of a malicious elbow, instead closer inspection showed Sagan’s elbow hooked on Cavendish’s shifter being pulled outwards. The UCI Race Jury could’ve let it be. Instead we lost 2 Galacticos overnight. The Tour, the cycling (i.e. the important bit) is lesser for it.

Exhibit B. Boris Johnson.  This guy saw the EU Referendum as an opportunity to make a smash grab for Prime Minister. Having become the Poster Boy of Brexit, he didn’t get down to making good on the £350m for the NHS. Instead he and his soon to be ex-Best Friend started squabbling about who should be the next Prime Minister (after Cameron had done a runner). When they’d done with stabbing themselves in the back neither was Prime Minister, neither had a plan for Brexit.

Exhibit C. Nacer Bouhanni. Stage 10. After booting out Sagan from this year’s Tour de France the UCI’s race jury found forgiveness in their capricious hearts. The fiery (and unintentionally comical and irrelevant at the same time) Bouhanni might’ve punched Jack Bauer. A 200 CHF fine and a minute time penalty won’t stop him trying to do it again. Inconsistent administration is distracting. We shouldn’t need to be talking about it.

Exhibit D. Theresa May. The Maybot is the story, her precarious grip on power the drama, her inevitable downfall at the hands of her own treacherous party the obvious conclusion to a sorry tale of arrogance and ineptitude. After the ‘step back in time’ grammar school policy what else has the May Premiership offered? Brexit means Brexit means Brexit. That’s a sound bite not a policy. Strong and stable, strong and stable. Whilst none of her would be executioners have her balls to execute a coup (or simply don’t fancy the poison chalice of being Prime Minister right now), her drawn out political execution is standing in the way of government by her self-centred Government.

Exhibit E. Uran, Bennett but not Romain Bardet. Stage 9. This dastardly trio dared to take on food / water from a third party as they battled through the final gruelling Kilometres of the stage – in Bardet’s case a water bottle from some bloke on the road side. How dare he? It seems a poor rule, contrary to rider welfare but rules are rules. Unless of course you are the French favourite in a French cycle race. Despite all three being caught on camera only Uran and Bennett were penalised. Then as even the UCI Race Jury realised how this might look, rather than bang Barnet with a penalty they repealed all penalties. Bardet’s finish on that mountain runaway was spectacular, instead we’re obsessing about confused and, inconsistent race officiating.

Exhibit F. Jeremy Corbyn. You don’t have to agree with his politics to admire Jezza and his cussedness. He stuck to his guns when even his own MPs were calling for him to go. In spite of the Front Bench / Back Bench rebellions he’s created a truly socialist political party differentiated from New Labour’s copy of the central / moderate reaches of the Tory Party. The infighting has been the story, the ongoing drama of Labour’s soap opera concealed the fact that Corbyn’s policies are unaffordable (and really only attractive to anyone who doesn’t pay tax). The cult of personality surrounding Corbyn sees the important interrogation of his policies a low priority versus ‘will he won’t he survive another coup?

Exhibit G. Unwritten Rules. This Tour. The unwritten rules of the Tour seem to be more comprehensive and less flexible than the actual real rules of the Tour. In F1 if the race leader gets a puncture the whole race doesn’t stop and stand on ceremony. If the race leader has a mechanical. Tough. Everyone else just gets on with the racing and the Team go back to base and figure out how to prevent that mechanical happening again. Time to rip up the unwritten rules and let rip with the racing.

Exhibit H. Trump. His election and the smoke that shrouds Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 refuses to disperse. The insinuation of collusion, real or otherwise taints his Presidency and whilst it continues to do so his opponents can look on smugly. Job done. As Trump and his inner circle firefight the flames licking at their personal reputations, they surely can’t get on with building walls and Making America Great Again. Policies, good or bad are stuck in the political sludge.

Please, Administrators / Public Servants when Tomorrow’s newspaper headlines are going to be all about you – think – get a grip of yourself and focus on what we should all really be talking about: a fantastic Tour de France

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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!

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.

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.