We did the Première Manche - the first round - of A Travers riding across France from Dieppe to Marseille in the summer of 2009, and it was the original inspiration for this blog. The plan to put the 'band back together again' for another go in 2013 for the second installment fell on stoney ground, with life just getting in the way for too many of us, much to our disappointment. However, our enthusiasm for the bike remains undimmed, and so I'll keep posting my thoughts on the diverse and beautiful facets of the sport regardless. But there's bound to be another big 'adventure ride' coming soon - quite possibly in Italy - so potentially a name change too: Attraverso l'Italia in Bicicletta anyone?

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Collector

It's a couple of years since I last did some writing for Phil Diprose at The Ride Journal, and we're presently having a discussion about my submitting something new for the next issue. Below is my piece entitled "The Collector" which appeared in Issue 3, the result of a conversation I had with him explaining why I've got a loft crammed full of cycling magazines from all over Europe, going back over nearly 40 years.
I'd argue that this apparent compulsive hoarding is in no way a sign of mental illness (I think he doth protest too much), but rather no more than a harmless extension of Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder - a book I'm currently reading by Dave Barter. It's a much-valued accumulation over the years of a wide variety of printed matter, chronicling my love for this beautiful sport. No-one in their right mind would throw out family photographs, and these items are similarly capable of engendering a deep emotional response in me.


It ran like this: if you wanted to be a pro, you’d need to go and live and race abroad and speak the language. We’d all heard the numerous broken-dream stories of talented Brits in France who’d returned early, simply unable to cope. I don’t know which came first for me – the love of the language or my boyish cycling dreams – but whichever it was, when my French teacher urged us to listen to French radio, read novels and newspapers like Le Monde, I had a plan. In the mind of a 15-year-old Francophile, tuning in to long-wave radio to catch the results of a Dauphiné Libéré stage was a brilliant idea, and Baudelaire, Balzac or dreary business journalism could quite reasonably be substituted with magazines like Vélo, Miroir and Sprint. Here was stuff I actually wanted to read.

This was an era when Cycling Weekly was our only access to the ‘continental scene’, the occasionally inspiring cover removed and blu-tacked to the bedroom wall, the perfunctory journalism inside simply skim-read and discarded. This novel French reading matter from Charing Cross Road was different. Out of habit I similarly defaced my first copy of Miroir – a picture of Hinault in yellow – and regretted it the moment I did it. What had I done? Transformed into something to cherish, the evocative photographs and poetic writing meant that there was no way further acquisitions could be mutilated like this. The Collector was born.

I was transported into a world of cycling wonderment:
Le Coq Sportif yellow and Chocolat Poulain-sponsored polka-dot jerseys, Gitane bikes and Merlin Plage banners, red Peugeot commissaire’s cars blasting out their distinctive klaxons and flashing their headlights as the winner crossed the line. The voice in my head as I read is Daniel Mangeas, Le Speaker du Tour.

These first copies are my favourites, with riders unsullied by sponsors sunglasses and logo-plastered helmets, displaying instead an almost quaint parochial amateurism, of minimal sponsorship and commercial interests, where quintessentially French characteristics stand out. There’s a much-missed simplicity where the honest, human emotions of the riders are centre-stage: the intensity of effort, the unyielding focus on victory - la rage de vaincre - and the contrasting joy and disappointment of winner and losers alike.

As time has passed so the collection has grown, carefully stored in the loft and removed for occasional reminiscing. More than just a record of how cycling has changed over the years, they’ve become a poignant reference to moments in my own life: of exciting foreign adventures where they were purchased and poured over, of new places and people, of growing up, and like the fading images of the riders inside, of inevitably growing older.

I remember where I was when I bought a specific issue, what I was doing, who I was with. Pascal Simon grimacing up Le Puy-de-Dôme with a broken shoulder blade when perhaps I should have been revising harder. First-kiss butterflies of a new relationship, whilst Jean-Francois Bernard hauled himself to the top of the Ventoux faster than everyone else. Cowering inside a rain-sodden bar at Les Deux Alpes reading about that day’s stage in L’Equipe, whilst outside Marco simply rode away from everybody. 

Whilst deep-down I had no real hopes of becoming a pro, language study took me to University with a year in southern France, and a chance at the very least to pretend to be a rider. The irony of getting my name into
Vélo in 1988 simply for being a coureur Britannique riding in a French team, obviously the next Stephen Roche, was not lost on me. My personal triplé for the season consisted only of a nut-brown cyclist’s tan, French now spoken with a Pagnolesque Provençal twang, and a sizeable overdraft. 

These riders were my boyhood companions, people I identified with, sartorially imitated on the bike and somehow wanted to be. Flicking through the magazines is like looking back at a family photo album you wish you were somehow in. Then they were daredevil uncles, today energetic young nephews, but both heroically competing in the hardest sport in the world, a sport I had neither the ability nor courage to pursue to their level, on the only stage that’s ever counted for me: Europe. The images and words captured inside are a celebration of this honesty, depicting la noble incertitude du sport - the magnificent uncertainty of sport. Sport is surely a metaphor for life, and this prized collection of magazines additionally represents a valued narrative of my own existence.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Or rather our Dave Stoller impression ...

Mike James just contacted me to reveal the true significance of the music used in that last post. Nothing to do with not choosing Gimme Shelter and going for something a little more sensible that reflects his (OK, our) advancing years, but rather the scene from Breaking Away, where Dave Stoller drafts the Cinzano truck along the highway.
Now I get it. Sometimes I think I'm the sentimental old fool and he's the dispassionate hard-nosed realist, but this all makes sense: an accident-induced softer side to him now re-revealed, something I haven't seen since the early 80s. I compare us to real racers at Roubaix, he's alluding to some rose-tinted fantasy world where riding bikes fast and making out you can speak Italian would mean you got the girl.
Get well soon Jamesy - that hip will be as good as new in no time.

Here's our Tom Boonen & Niki Terpstra Impression

Nearly three years prior to Tomekke and his Dutch lieutenant Niki doing this very same thing at Roubaix, Jamesy and I were rehearsing the perfect 'just too strong' imperceptible escape from the lead group as we rode across Northern France. Clearly not the Hell of the North though, with its muddy cobbled farm tracks, but instead well-tarmacked smooth straight roads across extremely flat and sheltered farmland further west on Day Three of our 2009 A Travers La France trip. So straight in fact that there was absolutely no danger in (a) us riding close up behind the van, then overtaking it, and (b) Steve sitting on the roof and then inside the the van filming it. The link above already has a bit of footage, but here's a compilation courtesy of Jamesy which extends the clip and adds some music. Given our shared history, I'm surprised it wasn't Gimme Shelter by the Stones, but then again a bunch of 40-something has-beens poncing around on expensive bikes in gorgeous sunshine doesn't really jibe with "Ooo, storm is threatening, my very life today ..."

So, absolutely 100% just like the winning move in Paris-Roubaix 2012 then, eh? We can dream, can't we? And isn't great how a bit of fake tan can make you look just a little bit pro ...

Monday, 16 April 2012

Robert Millar, World Professional Road Race Championships, Sallanches 1980

I already mentioned Robert Millar's fantastic ride at the World Championships on the last day in August 1980 in my earlier post, and then decided to re-read the relevant section in  Richard Moore's excellent book "In Search of Robert Millar". To quote Millar from it:

"It was just untrue the way I felt when they droppped me" ... "For this race I just tried to ride my bike like in any other one, but it does something to you when you see riders like [that year's Tour de France winner Joop] Zoetemelk crack and you're sitting there comfortably. I'm not too disappointed. There was a time when I really thought I might get the bronze - not before the race of course. With a lap to go I felt all right, but then everything went."

Fifteen finishers from 107 starters - and Millar is still there on lap seventeen of  twenty of the Sallanches circuit
Britain may well have a World Champion for 2011/12 in Mark Cavendish, but I'm of the opinion that Millar's 1980 result is far more impressive. When kids initially get into cycling, what do they ask? Firstly they'll want to know about your bike: how many gears has it got? Can you lift it up with one finger? Then talk will progress on to the stuff that we all find challenging on a bike: riding up hills, and the ones in the neighbourhood you have to get off and walk up. The Domancy climb looks like one big hill to me, and Millar will have been riding it on a 20-pounds-plus steel Peugeot bike, with, I'm guessing, a six-speed block ... heck, perhaps even a seven. Rohan will no doubt know for sure, but more than likely a Maillard Compact 700 'Super', driven by a Sedis Pro chain. Over to you on that one, Doctor D.

Millar achieved this eleventh place, over a murderously hilly 268km course, on his own - as with seemingly everything in his career - rather than with the aid of a well-drilled dedicated GB squad, supported during the season by a multi-million pound commercial outfit and various development programs. I'm not knocking Cav at all, since his is almost a different discipline to this type of riding, but Millar's finish was one achieved in a race where there would be no hiding places and little point in a 'train' to deliver you to the final 200 metres.

In Search of Robert Millar, by Richard Moore. Published by Harper Sport. ISBN: 978-0-00-723501-8