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?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Passion: The Life Blood of Cycling

Remember those crazy South American football commentator ‘gooooool’ celebrations? These seem to get repeated on TV quite often in this country come World Cup time, and whilst I’m sure the editorial intent is for us to be amused at how another nation responds to sporting success, I always thought there was a subtly implied sense of superiority from, say, the BBC, our commentators patronisingly looking on at their hot-blooded counterparts’ exuberance as somehow amateurish, compared with our stiff-upper lip, controlled, British kind of way.

The reason I love the Giro d’Italia is that the race organisers have had a habit lately of giving commentary teams ample opportunity to really stretch their vocal chords in a way that would make those Brazilian fútbol crazies sit up and take note, and they oblige with gusto.  I watched stage 15 of the 2012 Giro first on Eurosport where the venerable David Harmon was screaming himself hoarse at the finish, and then found it again on YouTube where I watched – and listened to – the Italian TV coverage. Forget that this was a stage win by an Italian, in a race where the home nation seems to be having less and less success of late, this really was a stage that restored my faith in cycle racing: one of the best stages I’ve ever seen in a grand Tour, and the two commentators only added to the euphoria by completely letting their emotion getting the better of them. A strange phrase that, since surely losing a little bit of self control is what watching sport is supposed to do to people. No matter if you don’t understand Italian – passion sounds the same in any language.

It could be argued that it’s the riders that make the race rather than the percorso, but in recent years the Giro has consistently outshone its transalpine rival for enthralling racing. Whether the Tour is too big, there’s too much at stake, and that the emphasis on the tactics of control and defence – rather than attack – is a result of the French race’s predominance could generate a mini-novel of blogposts on its own. Is the traditional demanding final week in the Dolomites at the Giro really an incentive to dope? It’s a criticism that I’ve seen leveled at it, and ostensibly the reason why races like the Tour have reduced the number of kilometres and mountain-top finishes. But despite our Bradley’s outstanding win at this year’s Tour, for long stretches, and in the mountains where the race is supposed to come alive, what we somewhat reluctantly witnessed was Team Sky’s total dominance and control of the racing. Apart from Cadel cracking, it was like watching a wattage-controlled high-intensity Sky altitude training camp, day after day. Was the route not hard enough? Would it have made a difference anyway?  Undoubtedly if the route had been more challenging, Sky would have changed tactics and the result may wall have been the same. Whatever the  reason, I’d argue that the Giro better expresses what I consider to be ‘proper’ bike racing, where there’s something, an indefinable quality, that encourages riders to throw caution to the wind and try and make a race of it. Something in the water? There is a recipe on the peninsula for something called ‘Acqua Pazza‘ - 'Mad Water' after all…

Regardless of my opinions on the reasons, Stage 15 was undeniably an epic; I challenge anyone not to be moved by the action in the clip below, stunning racing augmented by two Italian commentators who ably add their quintessential latin passion to the race finale. Matteo Rabottini, a young pro with the Farnese Vini-Sella Italia team and son of former pro Luciano, thrilled the partisan crowd by holding off a storming Joaquim Rodríguez of Katusha in a pulsating finish. It was a performance of daring and bravery from the 24-year-old, who led the stage from almost start to finish, picked himself up off the tarmac after a fall in the wet at the foot of the final climb, and still had enough grinta to repel the challenge of the rampaging Rodríguez at the summit at Piani dei Resinelli. The Spaniard appeared to have timed his final effort to perfection to win the stage – as well as take the maglia rosa – by catching Rabottini with just 400 metres to go, but the proud Italian refused to let go of Purito’s wheel as he tried to accelerate past him, and then surprised him with a last-ditch winning effort to the line. And this after a gruelling 169km stage, alone for the most part through rain and mist over four categorised climbs – an exploit that is becoming a rarity in these days of almost palpable commercial pressure not to lose, rather than win. To an extent I think the outburst of emotion from both the British and Italian commentary teams is as much one of relief as anything else, relief that a race like this can still happen and a welcome indication that even ‘modern’ cycling still has this wonderful potential to help us lose ourselves completely in the pure excitement of the sporting spectacle.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Ken Hargrave – Our Cycling Champion

I lost one of my cycling heroes back in June. Ken Hargrave, who, along with his wife Doreen had taken me under their wings back in 1983 as a schoolboy riding for the Old Portlians, lost his fight with mounting illness and frailty. Although this was terribly hard to do, it was an honour to be asked by Doreen to write this Eulogy that the vicar read out at the service. I wish, as a farewell gesture, that I'd had the strength to read it out myself. Impossible.


Long before the Internet took over as the supposed fount of all knowledge for racing results, cycle coaching, tips and advice - a lot of it a load of unbelievable rubbish, as he would often mutter - riders like us relied on wonderful people like Ken for good-natured support, encouragement and help. He was the epitome of the approachable club cyclist, a talented competitor in his own right, blessed with a selfless honesty, integrity, and a love of the sport he was keen to pass on to us newcomers, eager to learn. As well as unlimited access to his collection of 'Cycling Weekly' going back some half century or more, there'd be a seemingly infinite pool of experience willingly passed on, gems which affectionately became known, in certain circles, as 'Kenisms':

When do I drink when I'm in a race, Ken?
"Drink before you're thirsty. And eat before you're hungry. Little and often."

But what do I eat?
"Doreen's made some jam sandwiches in foil for your jersey pockets, here's a banana, and there's a cheese and pickle sandwich in the kitchen you should eat before we go." And invariably, at least two cups of her delicious thirst-quenching tea, too.

What tyre pressure should I run, Ken?
His experienced thumb was all that was required. He'd push it into my front and rear tyre in turn, and that cheeky grin and a wink would confirm I'd got it right, or the track pump would come out, and in a few moments we'd be ready to ride.

How do I ride a wheel, Ken? It looks really dangerous!
Hours of Sunday club runs though the lanes were the place where his advice was meticulously put into practice: "Don't look down at my back wheel; when you're riding, if you focus on my backside you'll be the right distance away and be able to see what's going on in the bunch around you too."

To an easily embarrassed 15-year-old boy, this seemed decidedly odd at the time, but now we all know. As with all things bike, he was absolutely right.

"And make sure you listen too: the swish of tyres on the road, and the sound of people changing gear means that something is happening: the racing has started. Keep your eyes AND ears open!"

His patience with us was legend, certainly when we first started out and were having trouble even finishing races. Perseverence was what counted:
"Stay in there, no heroics. Keep plugging away, and one day it'll 'click'."

I remember the evening it eventually did 'click' for me, a Thursday night at Brands Hatch, and it all happened just like he said. I stayed in the fast-moving bunch, having sipped and nibbled all race, stared at riders' backsides for longer than is advisable, and listened intently to the point of self-inflicted tinitus ... The shandy Ken bought me that evening at our usual haunt on the drive home really was the sweetest thing I've ever tasted.

That cycling epiphany - all thanks to Ken and Doreen - had given me a sense of freedom, of self-worth and secret pride that I'd struggled to find elsewhere. They'd made a five-foot boy feel ten-feet tall.

Along with our families there will no doubt be many among us here who have Ken and Doreen to thank for shaping us into the people we are today, and it's a debt of gratitude we'll no doubt never be able to adequately repay. Thanks to them, a life with cycling in that era seemed idyllic, much simpler, sunnier even when it rained. We really were young and carefree, as one of Ken's favourite riders wrote. Laurent Fignon was a favourite for his attacking, have-a-go riding style, and no doubt also for his matter-of-fact honesty and belief that cycling, even at the top level, should still be about having fun. It's no surprise that posters of the much-missed French champion still hang in Ken's garage alongside numerous bikes and other cycling paraphernalia, and I'm sure that's how many of us view our racing adventures with him. Simple, honest - physically challenging for sure - but fundamentally just great fun.

It wasn't always laughter and light though, as I'm sure Michael James will testify. There were moments when Ken could get quite exasperated with us, but rightly so. Sometimes we really weren't giving the bike the focus it deserved, were 'playing at it', and wasting our time. He wasn't angry that we might be wasting his time because he loved the bike too much, and neither was it that suddenly we weren't supposed to be enjoying ourselves. It was far more that Ken passionately wanted us to realise how important it was to make the most of whatever talent we might have - to be the best we could be. That sounds like a pretty good approach to the way we all ought to tackle everything we do in a lifetime, in my opinion, and it's an opinion shaped in no small measure by the man we've come here to honour today, a cycling champion in the truest sense of the word.

"Cycling was his life when I met him, and it always has been" Doreen told me last week, and for people who knew him, had the good fortune to ride with him or have been part of those teams in which he's been a pivotal character for so many years, we'll miss him dreadfully. But it's the team he's been in for over 60 years that will undoubtedly feel this terribly sad loss the most. But Doreen, you'll never be alone because we're team members too, not second-claim but fully-paid up members of Ken and Doreen's team, for life, and we'll be here for as long as you need us.

And to all of you - if you do two simple things in the next few weeks or months, here are a couple I'm sure Ken would appreciate. Firstly, just get out on your bike, ride, feel the freedom it offers you, and go and marvel at the beauty of the open expanses of the Ashdown Forest. The terrain is tough when you're on two wheels, but infinitely rewarding, and for this reason it's the place he truly loved when he was cycling. Do it, do it with friends, and do it soon.

And secondly, we're all wearing black today because it's the done thing, but if the truth were told, Ken hated black, especially when it came to bikes. He'd often lament the modern trend for bikes to be black, all naked carbon-fibre and anodised components, a marketing-fabricated image of 'mystery and stealth' to impart some feeling of speed. "Rubbish", he'd say. "All these bikes look like they're in mourning". So, when you get home later, go and take a look at your bike, and if it fits the description above, promise Ken that you'll make one easy change and at least swap out that sad black handlebar tape for something happy and bright. And then go out and ride with a smile on your face because you, like me, have been privileged enough to have known Ken Hargrave.