Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Bradley Wiggins: Tour de Force - Book Review

Daniel Coyle's similarly titled Lance Armstrong: Tour de Force was a fantastic read, one of my favourite (at the time) cycling books. This is by a different author, John Deering and so is not to be confused with the former. However it is a real pleasurable read. It cleverly mixes a day-by-day run down of Wiggo's Tour Success in 2012 with a look at the rider's history and build up to the tour in a similar way to Coyle.

As an avid Tour follower and equally keen reader of cycling books a lot of it was visiting familiar ground already covered elsewhere. If you watched all the 2012 tour and have read Sky's The Limit and Bradley Wiggins autobiography (released a couple of years ago) then you will learn little from this book. But that isn't the only reason to read is it? Deering beautifully pulls all this information together and presents it in an enjoyable way that is like reading the best bits of three books and adding them to your own personal memories. He adds first hand tales from the tour as well as information gleaned from difference sources such as tweets and web site reports. Most importantly for me, he explained where the nickname of Frome Dog for Chris Frome came from. I first heard it on ITV4 when David Millar was interviewed. I thought it was his 'street' name for Frome. Turns out it was quoting a tweet from Frome's girlfriend as she felt his interests were playing second fiddle to Wiggin's ambitions "if you want loyalty get yourself a Frome dog". So now you know too, I may have taken away your "aha" moment but there is still plenty in this book to keep you entertained and is well worth a read.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Sky's The Limit - Book Review

I decided to read this book during the Tour this year (sorry for the late review) as I thought it would be great to have an insight in to the team and compare it to what I was seeing on TV. In a world of wanting everything now it's no surprise that I was frustrated at the lack of insight in to the team in its present state but that soon subsided as I read about everything that had got them to this point.

The book is set in the time of setting up Team Sky with their talisman, Bradley Wiggins signed and hoping to beat his previous year's outstanding achievement of finishing fourth in the tour. I think while David Brailsford and the team weren't naive enough to think they'd have instant success I think they probably dared hope they'd have something to shout about, something to show to say "here, this is what we've brought to the world of road racing".

In some respects they did bring new elements to the world of cycling, some of it visible to the fans (slick buses, outfits and cars), some of it visible to the competition (buying riders out of contracts in a football style - new to cycling) and some of it only visible to Team Sky and Richard Moore, the author of the book. Richard does mention that it isn't an authorised / official book and in that sense he doesn't suck up to Team Sky but does get pretty close access to them. His insight behind the scenes is certainly what makes this book a worthwhile purchase and the whole feel of the book goes along with the debut season Sky had. Upbeat and positive at the start followed by realisation that it's not all going to go as planned (something David Brailsford doesn't put up with for long) and the book and season ends with lessons learned and a new positive outlook to the future.

As a book it's a good read but it doesn't have the depth of some of Moore's other books, this is surely because it's like writing an autobiography before you've achieved anything - there's not much to tell. I wonder how it would read if it was written now...

Monday, 22 October 2012

Giro de Nottingham - Day Two

Up early in the morning the team were raring to go, well at least they were keen to go down for breakfast. It seemed after a night's sleep and a decision to go for it today the mood was positive for the day ahead. After an all you can eat breakfast we were loading up our chariots for stage 2.

The team headed through the city centre and even through the shopping centre - despite all the shops being closed. The start of that days route would take us away from our intended finish and further south along side the canal. It felt great to be riding at a good speed on flat ground and only a headwind stopped it from being perfect.

Team Pannier now in its third official outing was starting to look like a more slick outfit (and that had nothing to do with John and Neil's Lycra). Riding as one peloton the team formed more of a line as they looked to maximise speed and take advantage of aerodynamics. The miles flew by and along with the beautiful scenery it was a great time to be on the bike. The canal route took the team past lovely lock side pubs, beautiful fields and hills (in the distance thankfully) and started to loop to the west and then started to turn north.

It wasn't long before the M1 was crossed and a choking fog descended on the route. It seemed there was a fire not too far away and this triggered in Neil's mind that he'd seen on the news that there was a woodchip fire and people had been warned to stay indoors! We then had cyclists coming towards us with hankerchiefs over their mouths. Maybe it was REALLY bad ahead? Luckily it wasn't much further before it cleared and we were pushing on.

Knowing that the trail ended further down the line and that there was an unknown section of riding coming up it was important to get the miles in the bank. Everything certainly seemed to be going to plan and it was looking like half the miles had been covered before lunchtime. In fact at 11.40 the team had done close to 25 miles. Keen to push on Jon set us the target of 30 miles before lunch.

At this point the team reached the end of the cycle route and headed off on Spanners speculative route. Having only been able to use the Sustrans mapping system it wasn't clear whether we would be following cycle routes, bridal paths or b roads. As we made our first turn the first thing we were hit with was a hill. Not Rich's favourite at this point - put him on a flat or a downhill and he could push the speed with the rest but the weight of his panniers were slowing him down. In fact on getting back he threatened to put them on eBay "if I haven't got 'em I can't fill 'em".

The route then weaved its way through a housing estate before coming to a bridal way. It looked like the right route on the map and, having conquered closed routes and water crossings in the paste, this wasn't going to stop the team. With a short run down a foot path and a lift over a style the team were soon on to a track used by cars down a field. Following it down the team found themselves on a farm. With no one to ask for directions the team picked their way through chickens and pig poo. Letting themselves through two gates and walking past the farmers front window the team eventually came to a main road - and back on track by the looks of things.

Having lost faith in the planned route it was decided to go more direct on the roads, hills or no hills, main road or not. A steady pull out of Heanor and we headed toward Codnor. With food now in our mind we noticed a pub but decided there was bound to be a nice pub in the next place called Somercotes. Sure enough there wasn't anything up to scratch and we pushed on to Alfreton. Spotting a pub at the top of a hill Spanners was sent in to check it out. Rich came out saying it was alright, John suggested we pushed on with thoughts of the previous days pub in mind. Chef sat out of the front of the peloton and pushed the pace on.

The route continued to go up and down as the canal cycle route seemed a long time ago. With the undulating terrain the miles were ticked off a lot slower and with no lunch inside them the progress seemed to be slow. Coming out of Alfreton Jon spotted KFC and McDonalds. Suggesting it first half jokingly and then seriously. Not matching the previous day's high John pushed on. Called back by his team mates he protested this was not what he wanted. They agreed that if he didn't want to eat there they would push on. It was now 1.30 and the pressure was on to find somewhere to eat, if they didn't find somewhere John would be in BIG trouble.

The end of the adhoc route was in sight as the team turned off in to an industrial estate and soon worked their way on to the Silverhill Trail. More trails meant less chance of anywhere to buy food and the pressure was certainly mounting on John. The only hope was that it was a disused railway and the old pubs that used to be by railway sidings were still there.

On a flatish trail it was good to be getting some miles done again but running on empty the team weren't going as quick as they had been earlier that day. Progress was still slow and the 35 mile mark still hadn't been reached. So with no other choice the team asked some walkers (aka the enemy) where to stop for food. It was pointed out there was a carvery pub 500 yards up the road, just past the turn off for the route home. One mile later and with the team only just pulling away from the gentleman in the mobility scooter they finally reached the turnoff for the pub and scrambled up the hill towards their oasis.

Or hell? I guess it depends what you want from a lunch but the boys didn't seem to be pleased to be queueing with half of Derbyshire for their lunch. Spanners and Jukebox had a "Yorkshire" carvery, no, not one filled mainly with Yorkshire puddings but one big plate loaded high to share between them instead of paying for two. There was silence at the table as everyone tucked in or was it just tiredness after the miles and beers of the day before?

Stocked up on food the team made their way back on to the trail and the mile ride back to the planned route. Diverting off on to the Five Pits Trail it was clear that the trail wasn't based on a flat railway line. Every slight incline now felt like Alpe d'Huez as the legs search for a bit of power with each turn. Soon it was another motorway marker to tick off as we went through Tibshelf. It may have services there but it is a small village and we passed it in the blink of an eye.

We knew now we only had Grassmoor to tick off before we were at the end of another trail and heading in to very familiar territory in the form of Chesterfield. As we rode out from Grassmoor and headed towards a place we had spent nights out in the past we saw the famous crooked spire. This was a real moment of realisation 'we're close to home'. Coming in to Chesterfield, Rich, Neil and John knew it pretty well and it was easy picking our way through the town. Jon predicted we'd be home (i.e. Neil's) by 5 - no way sai John, 5.30 at best. Even so it was a lot more promising than the previous days prediction of getting a train.

Heading out towards Unstone we discussed how maybe Rich and John should cycle ahead as they got to Dronfield - our home town. This is something done by professional cyclists whenever they get chance to go through their home town. However I think Rich and John knew what was coming, a couple of steep hills!

Regrouping on Dronfield Bottom the team cycled together the final miles within site of each other and headed out of Dronfield and in to Yorkshire. Heading up to Greenhill the team suddenly realised they'd lost Jon. Ten minutes later and he was back having taken a wrong turning and the four cycled as one as they rolled down Bocking Lane to the end of the ride. Bang on 5 o'clock.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Giro de Nottingham - Day One

Team Pannier set out on another expedition but this time they were shunned by one of their own members. Jon had decided to go 'sans pans' - he would ride with just a rucksack. Having read the Guardian's cycling blog this was clearly a no-no with tales of regret and aching backs. I set off smug in the fact that he would soon regret this faux pas and want to rejoin the team at the first opportunity.

So where were we off to this time? With two coast to coasts in the bag it was clear to all what we should do, whatever we do - stay away from the sea where cliffs only lead to uphill roads. So Sheffield, the city furthest away from the sea was the scene for the start for our next expedition. In fact it was to be a tour of previous university cities with Jon, John and Neil all attending Sheffield Hallam and Rich taking us back to his university roots in Nottingham.

The plan was to set off from Neil's house and head through the centre of Sheffield and out east and then down to Nottingham for an evening out in Spanners old haunt. Day two would see the rest of the clockwise circuit route completed as the team would head south out of Nottingham and then back up the west side back to Sheffield.

Day one got off to a slow, relaxed start as Jon's promise of riding over to start was renegotiated to a lift as the start time of 9 came and went. Once all together they were waved off by a small fan club of parents and other halves. It was a quick start with a nice downhill to Millhouses Park and then a zigzag through the city to   the offical start of National Cycle Route 6. With the traditional picture at the start taken it was straight to the hills as the team climbed out of Sheffield.

Once on top of one of the seven hills, it's just like Rome don't you know,  it was steady progress as the team negotiated control gate after control gate (example above). They're designed to stop motorbikes being ridden on the cycle paths. The only problem is you can't fit a bike through them, we all had to stop and turn our handlebars sideways to fit through. It was slow progress and as some unsavoury characters eyed up our machines it was not the best place to be slowing down. It wasn't helped by Rich mentioning his last time riding that bit of track, he was asked by a friendly chap how much his bike was worth - bet he rode it quick that day.

As the slow progress continued we were already quite behind schedule. The hills and gates were not a cyclist's dream and yet the peloton were in good mood as the sun was out and we were stretching our cycling legs for the first time in quite a while. The talk amongst the camp was quite different from the first C2C, the four all now a bit older and certainly with more dependants. Talk this time was of babies, children's TV and the annoying theme tunes we couldn't get out of our heads. Even Jukebox was struggling to overcome Timmy Time.

Heading down in to Rother Valley we managed to crash a women's triathlon and soon started passing all the ladies on the course, they may have been only jogging but we still showed them a clean pair of heels. We wowed at the cable water-skiing and yurned for chips as we stopped for a quick comfort break and took in the wonderful smell of food. Despite the lovely aromas, suntan weather and surfer dude music in the form of Grouplove's album we decided to push on.

As an adopted Bristolian I (John) was enjoying being back in my native Yorkshire and this was none more evident than riding through the car park at Rother Valley and the car park attendant, a guy in his twenties, shouting top of his voice "ey up, you alright?". Ah friendly northerners, how I've missed you.

So the team headed out of the valley and of course that means hills and a bit of a test as the team headed through Wales (the village not the country). Then it was some lovely little villages and countryside before pulling up beside a canal. This was celebrated as we all know canals are generally flat. This became a double celebration as we found The Lock Keeper pub beside the canal for lunch. It was a perfect setting, in the sun, pub grub and some miles in our legs.

After a spot of lunch we hit Worksop. Or it hit us. It didn't start well, the team lost the scent of the trail and soon we were at a roundabout not knowing which way to turn. A quick consultation of the map on phones (Spanners and Jukebox now enjoying the delights of smartphones) and we were back on track - even if it did require a quick dash across the road, down a bank and across a field.

We then headed off up in to a housing estate and, already aware of our less than salubrious surroundings, we were greeted with a call of "lock 'em or lose 'em" from a local. Cracking a nervous smile we pedalled on looking forward to the end of Worksop. I think the irony was lost that we were worrying for our possessions as we headed deeper in to Robin Hood territory. Thankfully it wasn't long before we were hitting the wonderful sites of Clumber Park and another chance for us to show our age as Neil revealed his National Trust membership would come in handy if we needed parking.

By now the weight on his bike was starting to slow Spanners down and the unexpected and unwelcome hills of Clumber Park were cheered up a little by the different calibre of person we came across in the park. There was one certain lady who we all noticed as she rode on her bike unsupported. With plenty of tattoos and two heavy pieces of luggage to carry herself we were soon speculating about what her job was.

It was then a twisting ride through the woods, and as tradition seems to have it, we passed the back of Center Parcs as we rode further through Sherwood Forest. We then came on to some nice trails as we passed Rainworth (my wife tells me it's pronounced Ren-earth) and towards my father-in-laws village of Ravenshead. He lovingly refers to the area as "all fur coat and no knickers" but it certainly looked a lot more upmarket than some of the places we'd ridden through. Heading out the top of Ravenshead it was starting to get dimmer as we reached 5 o'clock.

We headed across the A60 and in to Newstead Abbey, passing a sign saying we needed to pay to get in if we were on a bike. It was quiet and no one stopped us so I'm not ashamed to say we didn't pay to go on a national cycle route through the grounds. I am also not ashamed to say I just lost out on a race through the grounds - with an Aston Martin. As there are speed bumps on the road he kept slowing down to go over them and then speeding up. I however could keep up a steady pace and with the help of some downhill (finally) I came in to his slipstream at every bump. Sadly I think he'd had enough of me in his rear view mirror and then burnt me off.

Coming out of the security gates at the top we paused to catch our breath and Spanners started on a rant not dissimilar to Jukebox's famous breakdown near Hartside. From this previous experience Jon instantly knew what to do "someone give him some chocolate" and sure enough with Mars bars inside them Team Pannier pushed on towards Nottingham. The chocolate coupled with some downhill sections really got the team moving and they were through Hucknall (yes we sang Simply Red) and in to the heart of Nottingham in no time. Or flat Nottingham as it had been constantly been described by some members of the team (cough Spanners). Sure enough there were enough ups and downs to match any similar period on the route so far. Dipping in and out of valleys the team steadily spread out and as John pulled up along side Jon and Neil, Neil announced we were here. "The post code leads us here so we're right on top of it". John stayed put as Jon and Neil rode on to find the Igloo Hostel. Rich pulled up alongside and declared "we're here". Literally here, we had stopped outside the entrance and not even realised it.

The team may have been there but it wouldn't prove to be that simple. The promise of being booked in with some Swedish Au Pairs didn't look like it was going to becoming true. Despite our mixed-dorm booking confirmation they had no booking on the system. Having cycled a fair few miles and snacked on sugar and caffeine all day it was surprising how calm we were. As they tried to find room for us by moving people about Neil set about searching for accommodation with his phone. Within a short period of time he had not only booked us in to the Purple Palace but he had sweet talked the staff to storing our bikes inside. He then guided us through a non hilly route and to the door in five minutes. What a result, Jukebox had done brilliantly. The staff there were brilliant and while they couldn't promise us any Swedish au pairs, they did look after us very well.

It was then a dash to get changed and back out ready for curry and a pint. I swear the only reason Chef goes cycling is to have a pint as he led the way to the pub - Rich's local knowledge seeming a little confused. Whether it was the passing years, the change in the city or, more likely, the alcohol filled years he stayed there being just one big blur but he struggled to get his bearings and we actually walked past the curry house we were aiming for before he realised that was the one.

Settling down for a pre food pint we started to discuss the day and started to worry about the following day. Plans were put forward for a change of route, for a route with constant train stops should we run out of time or even an abandonment of the trip all together. It was decided we were no team of quitters, if we'd set out to do this route then that's what we would attempt the next day - plus we could easily grab a train if we needed to...

So after a curry in the place where all the celebrities go, well Cliff Richards and Jane McDonald, we headed back to our own rooms, with our own tellys to watch Match of the Day. Rock on.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Was Lance Clean and Did He Need To Cheat?

What an emotive subject Lance Armstrong is. He has inspired millions, whether they are cyclists, armchair sports fans or cancer patients his story has touched so many across the world. The man who dominated cycling to such an extent that it's probably better to describe him as crushing rather than dominating his opponents. Lance was everything the sport needed and he was everything that was needed to win at the sport. His nationality and mother tongue made him perfect for the media and his dynamic personality filled inches after inches of sports columns, hours and hours of TV coverage and flogged products to their readers/viewers. So was it all a sham, did he take drugs and that was why he was so good? Well the answer to the those two questions is "probably" and "no".

First of all let's rewind to before Lance had cancer, he was a strong rider from a young age and was the youngest rider to be road race world champion. Then cancer hit. Armstrong hit back at cancer with everything he had, he researched cancer to the nth degree and went about it in a way that he would be famous for attacking cycling when he made his comeback. He was methodically, looking at everything at the heart of that was nutrition. Coming out the other side (if you want the whole story read his excellent autobiography) he must have then analysed cycling with a new lust for life. I imagine him saying "right what do I need to do to win the Tour de France" and then researched it massively. This is where the grey areas start to come in. The Tour at that point (late nineties) was a dark place, running a two speed peloton - those who took drugs (doped) and those who didn't. There wasn't yet a test that could detect the most popular drug EPO and so it was rampant amongst cyclist. This description from explains how it works

"EPO artificially boosted the body’s red blood cell count . Boosting an athlete’s red blood cell count (and thus the efficiency with which oxygen is transported around the body) in order to improve performance, is done by injecting erythropoietin – a hormone produced by the kidneys that stimulates production of red blood cells – and it gives a massive advantage in performance."

The only cyclist and those on the staff who had been caught were those caught in possession of the drug rather than through drug tests. So before we go any further those who claim that because an athlete has take "hundreds of drugs tests" it doesn't mean they're not taking drugs. There wasn't a test for the third generation of EPO until May 2008, three years after Lance won his last Tour.

So back to Lance and his outlook in 1997/8, all the top cyclists were doping. Evidence? Let's look at the three winners before Lance, they were Pantani, Ullrich and Riis. Bjarne Riis has admitted he took drugs, Jan Ullrich has been done for drugs and, if you have the stomach for it, you can read The Death of Marco Pantani, a biography that uncovers his drug aided career from start to cocaine overdose finish.

Faced with a Tour that was fuelled by drugs it is feasible that Lance thought his only way of winning the tour during his generation was to use EPO.

However, Lance wasn't just EPO good, he was amazing. This is where the non-drugs side to Lance comes through. He was the complete rider. Let me explain in more detail.

He trained hard, he was one of the first riders to bring in reconnoitering the major stages of the tour before hand. Knowing how the route was gave him that extra edge, knowing exactly when to attack, knowing which side of the road to be on when descending. It all added up.

His diet was followed strictly, unlike Ullrich who would crash diet before the race Armstrong would turn up to the tour looking lean and but would stay lean aiding his training. Why is that important? Before cancer Lance had a lot of upper body weight in the form of muscle (he used to be a tri-athlete), the new slimmed down version meant he was a lot lighter and that aided him when climbing mountains. As you can imagine the lighter you are, the less weight you have to drag up a mountain.

Everything for Lance was down to the little detail, he wouldn't walk around in bare feet in his house as that was a way to catch colds. Everything was thought of. You may have heard David Brailsford talk of marginal gains to do with British Cycling and Team Sky but it's Lance that really brought that thinking on a step. He looked at everything, I've mentioned nutrition, training, health but his team also looked at his bike making sure he gained every advantage where he could.

Tactics wise he was spot on, at the start of his dominance he seemed easy to read, he would attack on the first mountain summit finish and then just keep eating away at time after that. Yet, it wasn't that simple. First of all, knowing when he would attack wouldn't help if you could keep up with him but he controlled the whole race from start to finish. He would carefully choose who would have the race lead by allowing only certain breakaways to have success (by his team not chasing them down) and would then hold them at a certain length so they weren't a danger to him but meant he wouldn't have to defend his lead too early. Team Sky are still learning from Lance today. They looked at how he never got in any crashes - something Bradley Wiggins didn't avoid as he went out of last year's Tour with a broken collar bone. Again it seemed easy to read him, just stay at the front and you don't end up in a crash. Yet when 200 riders want to be at the front for that very reason it actually causes the crashes so how did Lance do it? He got his team to ride a fast pace even on stages where there was nothing at stake, this stretched out the peloton and meant that the scrum for the front was no more.

Drugs may have helped with the implementation of his tactics but it didn't help form the original thought. That really sums Lance up, it may have helped his implementation but he was head and shoulders above the other drug takers. Does it make it right? No but he's still the best rider of his generation. That I'm sure of.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The get-to-work-on-time trial

Following the barren cycling years in his twenties, John Sills and his wife bought new bikes about a year ago, and have been impressed with how nice they look sitting unused in the garage. John works in London and lives in Buckinghamshire, and is best described as 'amateur', particularly at cycling. John recently started to contemplate cycling to work, and this is what happened. 

I've got a reputation for being tight with money. This is grossly unjust, and I'll bet anyone a fiver that I'm not. However, when the email dropped into my inbox announcing that it was time to hand back my company car and take some cash instead, it did get me thinking...

I pay nearly £1000 a year just to park my car at the station, and that's before I start to add on Insurance (I'm sure it was cheaper when I was 17), Petrol (I'm sure that was also cheaper when I was 17), and general servicing, as well as actually buying the car (this would be more expensive than when I was 17, as I just stole my Mum's).

So I was all set to get a Scooter - cheap to run, free to park, and I'd get a tan like one of models in the adverts, freewheeling along the A40 in three-quarter length trousers and espadrilles. But my mind got whirring on a 40km ride with my wife to watch the Olympics - it really wasn't that hard, and the fitness felt great. I work in London and live a bit too far out to ride the whole way, but I could certainly change the way I got to the train station.

After excessive deliberation, a plan was hatched to do a trial week on my bike. I asked for advice from everyone I knew who was a serious cyclist, and got plenty - including 'Get a good lock or a sh*t bike' - as well as taking tips from a few websites, most of whom seemed to be sponsored by Wet Wipes.

The Friday before, I trundled into work laden down with a suit, shoes, shirts, ties, hair wax, and the all-important deodorant. My colleagues looked on confused as I commandeered the coat rack as my personal wardrobe, debating as to whether I'd been kicked out of home or was planning to sell off my unwanted wares. The shirts were delivered to the dry-cleaners (£2.95 per shirt, ironed and hung), and over the weekend I planned my route. The idea was to aim for High Wycombe station rather then my usual Beaconsfield, as the route was shorter and flatter.

Oh, and I live up a massive hill.


I'm up on time, Banana devoured with gusto, and the ride goes well. Surprisingly well - I arrive at the station 15 minutes before the train is due to go (any regular commuter will tell you that 15 minutes is a lifetime in a world where we try to eek out every last second in bed). I feel very worthy getting on the train, loving the comfort of travelling in shorts and t-shirt, watching as it fills up with unfit and uncomfortable-in-their-suits businessmen. At work I manage to sneak into the Disabled toilet unnoticed, dousing myself in a double dose of deodorant. A minor crises strikes as I realise I've forgotten my cuff-links, but is averted easily as a new pair is acquired without fuss. I'm conscious I might smell, so decide to go on the attack, loudly proclaiming to my colleagues that I'm doing this test and it's their responsibility to tell me if I smell. I receive a muted response.

On the way home, I put my cycling gloves and glasses on a few minutes early, looking effortlessly cool to the rest of the packed train, who are in no way focussing on my old baggy shorts and ripped ageing trainers. I make it back home in good time, conquering the hill in front of a small group of kids who have presumably heard about my task and come out to watch (whilst also playing football). This is only the second time in history this feat has been achieved, with the first time rendering me unable to speak for nearly an hour.


A great morning - I change my route slightly to go on a back road (past a
Pub called The Sausage Tree), remember to take cuff links and socks, and the train journey is brilliantly relaxed. I'm wide awake and full of energy at work, with no visible signs of retching or recoiling from my work-mates. This is easy.

The ride back is not so great, carrying my laptop as I attempt to put the hill to the sword again in front of my adoring supporters. A fumbled gear change sends the chain flying off the cogs, which I manage to fix with all of the guile, speed, and professionalism of a man building IKEA furniture. I return home covered in oil, which it turns out is not particularly easy to wash off. After 39 minutes of scrubbing, my mind begins to wander and I realise that going from High Wycombe could cost me £400 more per year in train fares for 7 minutes more each way. A low point.


I worked from home today, had a couple of successful Video calls, and made a superb Steak and Pepper dinner. This is wholly irrelevant to the cycling test.


I set off in the morning, flying down the hill and enjoying the feeling of the fresh air rushing through my visibly-thinning hair. It's at this point that I realise I've forgotten both my glasses and helmet, and the approaching A40 suddenly seems more daunting. To make things worse, the bike isn't behaving - skipping around as it pleases and constantly wanting me to ride in top gear. I test my brakes.

However. I make it safely and have a moment of epiphany as I finally realise why there are always lots of bikes locks attached to the bike stands. It's not, as I presumed, the work of cunning but conscientious thieves leaving their leftovers, but cyclists not bothering to carry their locks home with them, lightening the load.

On the way home, a quick Google search tells me that my Bike is 'Ghost-shifting', and can be fixed easily. I do as it says, turning some small thing on the gear shift left. It works, but I don't know why. Whilst powering up the hill, narrowly avoiding a plastic sucker accidentally fired at me from the spectators, I realise that I could win back the £400 by riding to Beaconsfield instead. It's a longer ride and up a big old hill, but I'd be cycling in the right direction and I'd have seven extra minutes to play with.

I fill up with pasta and fix my lights on my bike, then take a quick look online for advice on climbing hills. Lance Armstrong's website gives some good tips.


I set off for Beaconsfield, taking my time up the hill, and arrive at exactly the same time that I've been arriving at High Wycombe. I'm both confused and suspicious, as this means I've got up a hill and gone 1.5 miles further without losing any time. Although I'm much, much sweatier, this does mean I can get on the earlier train and get to work with more time to get changed. I also seem to get more space on the train, with the seat next to me remaining unusually empty. Probably because it's a Friday.

Aside from a small issue at work where someone else has cheekily got into the Disabled loo before me, I get home without issue, enjoying the long downhill stretches whilst curling into an aerodynamic position to enhance my professional look. The hill to my house is a struggle, but I make it and put my bike to bed for the weekend.

Buoyed by my success, I immediately get online and buy SealSkinz socks, DHB triple lens glasses, an unnecessary laptop case, and a hi-vis Hump backpack cover for a back-pack I don't yet own.

So in conclusion, it seems that if I'm happy to get up five minutes earlier and get home five minutes later, I can get fit, save the environment, have a more comfortable commute and save a fair amount of cash. I've felt wide awake and full of energy at work, and my suits should last longer too. I'll need some car-lift favours from my wife occasionally, when I need to be in early or home late, but in return she'll get a fitter and slightly sweatier husband. The big unknown is the weather - it was fine for the whole week, with barely any wind or rain, but I'll keep going until either my colleagues subtly move their desks away, or I have to be rescued by the Buckinghamshire Ambulance service, peeling me off the bike that I'm frozen to, covered in oil and muttering about improving my cadence.

After all, I can't let my fans down...

Thursday, 2 August 2012

More Than A Dream

There are somethings you hope will happen during your life time. I hope I will see England win the World Cup or European Championships, either I’m not fussy. I dream that one day Huddersfield Town will spend a season in the Premiership. However having followed the Tour de France since 1991, watching super human beings from various nations win the Tour I have never dreamed or hoped that a Brit would win the Tour. It was just so unbelievable I never imagined it was possible. Watching the tour year after year we were lucky if there was even a Brit racing the Tour and even then they rarely achieved anything great.

As time went on and we started to achieve some success with Boardman and Yates it still never occurred to me that we could win it or even contest it. That’s why 2009 is probably my favourite ever year of the tour. It was the year Bradley Wiggins allowed us to dream, that we could hope one day he, or another Brit could build on his 4th in the Tour that year. I didn’t follow the Tour when Robert Millar finished fourth all those years ago and so this was the first time a Brit had finished within sight of the podium. Not only that but in 2009 Mark Cavendish showed that we could win a major jersey at the Tour by running Thor Hushovd close and winning stages for fun. His time would come surely and in 2011 the Tour organisers seem to have built the course to let him win it, I believe they even stated they didn’t want a sprinter to win as many stages as Cav had in the past and not win the Jersey. So sure enough, Cav won his ‘usual’ bag of stages and along with them he took the Green Jersey.

Did this inspire Wiggins that he could win the Yellow Jersey? Probably not, I think we have to give Wiggins more credit than that but it certainly can’t have held him back. Wiggins believed in himself, he might have surprised himself a bit in 2009 and then had to prove to himself it was no fluke. It’s always the hardest to do something for the first time, whether it’s the first to climb Everest or win a stage at the Tour. So much of that is belief. I think I watched the Tour and thought “wow, look at those super human beings”, Wiggo looked at it and thought “I want to do that” – “I can do that”. So some how from a position of having no challengers, we suddenly found ourselves with the Tour favourite. Who could have thought we had that in store!

Friday, 8 June 2012

How I Won The Yellow Jumper - Ned Boulting : Book Review

"Isn't that supposed to be jersey?" my Dad asked. "Exactly" I said and that's the beauty of this book. My Dad doesn't follow cycling and 99% of what he knows about it he's learnt through osmosis from when I lived at home. This book is the perfect introduction to the modern day Tour for those who are less than knowledgeable about the whole cycling world. While other books have covered the whole history of the tour such as the excellent Blazing Saddles this concentrates on the tour since it began in Ned Boulting's world. Ned was thrown in at the deep in 2003, sent to cover the Tour de France having never seen a bike race before. It covers the characters in the race since then with a (much appreciated) British bias.

While it may sound like Tour de France for the beginner it actually gives the avid follower a real insight in to the tour from the media's point of view, often with a humorous outcome. Anyone who's watched ITV4 's coverage of the tour (or channel 4's before that) will be interested as he gives insights in to the whole cast, as he calls it, including legendary commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen.

I would heartedly recommend this as a light hearted read for anyone in to the tour but more importantly to anyone thinking they'd like to know more about the tour - this is the place to start. It was excellent.

How I Won The Yellow Jersey - Ned Boutling

Friday, 18 May 2012

Cyclebabble - Review

As my challenge to read 12 books in 12 months continues I find myself finding a bit of a hill in front of me. Our second baby is due in October and so really I need to read 12 books in 9 months. Luckily Cyclebabble is already number 6 BUT does it really count as a book? It's a collection of blog posts, with comments from the Guardian web site. It's hard bound and has words typed in it so I'm counting it as a book. The book was a present - I'm really easy to buy for, but all people think that don't they?.

The book covers all aspects of cycling, there are interviews with Olympic cyclists and policticians (I can't actually remember which politician) and there are articles on riding events and there are even bits about cycle maintenance. Overall it's quite a good toilet read (you can pick it up and put it down quite easily) but it is of course dictated by what they cover in the blog and that tends to be covering items that are in the news, that's understandable with it being a blog on a newspaper web site. The only thing I would say is that it gets a bit bogged down in safety issues and rules of the road. I now know a lot more about cycle lane widths, why cyclists don't have to pay road tax (it's not called road tax any more apparently and it's based on Co2 omissions) and how many accidents cyclists cause compared to drivers. Oh and pregnant women. In fact there is a whole chapter on women. I have a pregnant wife but I didn't find that section very interesting and if it wasn't for the challenge I would have probably skipped it.

However I would say there are uplifting sections to the book where it makes you want to get out on the road* and feel the wind through your hair*. There is a post / chapter on the naked rides - there's one in Bristol apparently - and there is a post on the city in some South American place where they close the roads on a Sunday.

The book as a whole makes you proud to cycle but there is a heavy bias towards London and the whole you shouldn't cycle through red lights just gets boring after the fifth time. It's worth a read and a £5.99 I'm pleased that my sister got a bargain...

*I haven't been cycling once while reading this book.
*I haven't got any hair.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Awesome Cycling T-Shirts

Is it a boy thing to like t-shirts? When it comes to clothes shopping I'm really not that bothered until it comes to t-shirts. I love buying t-shirts and find the task of reducing down my collection to make way for new ones very hard. I also don't understand why people buy branded up t-shirts when you could have something so much more original on your t-shirt.

I recently ordered five new t-shirts from the excellent Threadless web site. Threadless is a 'community' web site where you can vote for which designs you like and even submit your own t-shirt designs. However these aren't just any old designs, they have to be something different to get printed or as they say "We're not talking your fraternity's logo or a photo of your new puppy. We're talking an idea so amazing that your eyeballs may explode if you stare too long!"  Why am I telling you this on a cycling blog? Well they have a good range of cycling related t-shirts.

As most of the readers of this blog are from the UK I thought you'd like to know that they can deliver to the UK quite cheaply and as the exchange rate is in our favour the t-shirts are really good value for money. The only warning I have for you is that sometimes you get charged VAT and a handling charge by the Post Office. Why this is only sometimes I don't know but just be aware. The handling charge was £8 when I was hit with it...

Thursday, 15 March 2012

David Millar Autobiography - Book Review

David Millar, if you didn’t know, is a professional cyclist who in 2004 got busted for taking drugs. He was then promptly banned for two years and given a lifetime Olympic ban. I have to say that now is the time to read this book, Millar is appealing his Olympic ban and has been back riding for quite a few years. My wife bought me this book as she felt he had a story to tell and he really has, one that I didn’t quite appreciate.

First of all lets get things clear, Millar cheated. He took a performance enhancing drug for his own personal gain, basically to improve his race performances and therefore an improved contract. However he served his time away from the sport, a punishment that the governing body felt was equal to the rule he had broken.

The book itself is easy to read and is one of the best if not the best autobiography on life inside professional cycling. Millar was a very good cyclist when he was clean and it is good to read which events he won clean and which were when he doped. Throughout the book he explains the institutional nature of drug taking, how it becomes expected that you dope, that it is your duty to yourself and to the team to dope. He also doesn’t pull any punches and while he doesn’t blow the whistle on certain individuals he does mention some names.

Millar actually tried to resist the lure of doping, trying instead to prove that you can make it without drugs. He was not alone but, according to Millar, he was in the minority. Through the book you begin to emphasise with Millar, he describes the situation well giving you a good understanding of the dark world of doping. I have to say it was a joy to read. I say this because I’m not a big fan of reading about drugs in cycling, I read The Death of Marco Pantani and it thoroughly depressed me. Paul Kimmage’s book Rough Ride is another good read however it is a book at the start of the doping saga, certainly not supported by the cycling community for having broken the code of silence within the peloton. Millar’s book however is refreshing, it makes you believe there is another way and that we are coming out from the dark cloud that is EPO. It does however make you realise that the tour was dominated by drug taking cyclists. I have just looked at the average speed of the Tour de France since it started and it reached a peak in 2005, the year after Millar was arrested. What is interesting is the top ten that year:

  1. Armstrong
  2. Basso (caught for drugs)
  3. Ullrich (caught for drugs)
  4. Mancebo (Linked to the famous Spanish doping case, not allowed to start the ’06 tour)
  5. Vinokourov (caught for drugs)
  6. Levi Leipheimer
  7. Rasmussen (retired from a later tour after missing out of competition drugs tests)
  8. Cadel Evans
  9. Floyd Landis (Caught for drugs)
  10. Oscar Pereiro
I think that says a lot. I don’t think it’s fair to comment on the others in the top ten who haven’t been caught for doping however if Millar wanted to compete and win a grand tour he must have thought he stood no chance without doping. The book puts across really well the pressures on Millar, what he lost by being caught and his reaction to all this is interesting, I would even say amazing.

A lot of cyclists when they’ve been caught have still denied it (Floyd) and yet Millar took his punishment and decided that he had a responsibility to the sport to help clean it up. Putting together a ‘clean’ team, Slipstream (AKA Garmin) and being proactive against doping including being part of WADA the World Anit-Doping Agency.

This book isn’t only about drugs though. Millar gives insights in to cycling and the individuals involved. There are little snippets about Mark Cavendish, Lance Armstrong (he briefly addresses his links to drugs), David Brailsford (head of Team Sky and British Cycling) and Bradley Wiggins.

With Wiggins it gets interesting, Millar is scathing about his input as a member of the Garmin team and says how he felt let down by Wiggins. He also claims Wiggins 4th place finish in the Tour was a fluke, something which Wiggins commented on in The Guardian recently following his win at Paris-Nice the 6 day stage race. He said “I’ve now won the two biggest stage races in France. There is no longer any question of my fourth place in the Tour in 2009 being a fluke”. Obviously referring to the comments in Millar’s book. Well there’s only one way to prove that Brad my boy, win the Tour this year.

The book is a great read and while I’m a bit of a Brad fan I have to say Millar’s book is a better read, Wiggin’s book is good but Millar just has more of a story to tell and very well told it is.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Book Review: Why Don't You Fly by Christopher J A Smith

For those readers of my other blog you may be aware of my New Year's Resolution (NYR) last year. The plan was to buy an album a month and amazingly, probably for the first time, I managed to stick to my NYR. I think the key is always to make it something positive, do more of something you enjoy. Well this year I am aiming to read one book a month. For some I'm sure this would be an easy task, for others I'm sure it would seem an impossible task. I certainly would have thought that ten years ago and certainly when we had a baby girl it would have been a no go. Anyway, as I had 13 new, unread books on our bookshelf I thought I'd give it a go. As I looked through my list of books to read I realised 7 of them were cycling related so I thought I might as well review each cycling one on here.

Why Don't You Fly? is a cycling travel book as Chris Smith attempts to cycle from his home in the UK to Vladivostok in Russia. As you can probably guess from the cover he only makes it to Beijing and I guess this is a bit indicative of the book as whole. It's a book of a nearly man, he nearly makes it all the way without getting a lift, he nearly has a romance and he nearly made it to Russia.

The book as a whole is an enjoyable read and through Chris you learn quite a bit of history about the places he rides through. He teaches about where the people have come from and what is in the make-up. He uses big words without it detracting from the book and I feel I'm being educated without effort. I admire him for the journey he has been on but he just doesn't get to know the people very well. I guess I was always comparing his book to a similar book(s) by Alastair Humphreys. Alastair always seemed to end up sleeping on someone's floor and getting to know the locals. Chris just wanted to be left alone and needed space. He's older and more cynical and while at times his grumpy nature can be amusing at other times you wish he'd just open himself up more.

In fact the best parts of the book are when he has company and how he interacts with them. A boring Serb, a funny German (an oxymoron if ever I heard one) and a sweet Dutch lady all bring life to the journey. I'm quite a people person myself so perhaps that's why I enjoy these interactions.

To sum it up, to ride the distance he did is impressive but not superhuman. To the extent that maybe (I said maybe) I might be able to do it. What Alistair did was something special (he cycled the world), I would recommend both authors but if I was just to read one of them...