Tuesday, 28 May 2013


In chapter 13 I alluded to how my old Adidas Sambas made for a ‘perfectly serviceable pair of cycling shoes’.  They do, and they’re actually more suited to pedalling than they are the kicking of footballs, contrary to their designation.  I bought my Adidas Sambas for five-a-side football but never performed well in them.  During one of my work affiliated footballing tenures I opted to wear my Puma Top Winners instead, with pleasing results.  Originally intended as casual wear, their repeated use on the field forced me to retire these pumps prematurely, although I never once featured on the losing side the whole time I played in them.  I should have bought two pairs – at least.
            So now, over a decade since they were purchased, the Adidas Sambas have found new life as cycling shoes.  Unfortunately, their age is starting to tell and the rubber has degraded in the intervening years.  Because of this, new shoes have been added to the list of accoutrements I’m gathering in preparation for the London to Brighton.  Better move quickly, though; the event is just three weeks away.
I eschew the use of cleats, which precludes me from buying the conventional, and more readily available, cycling footwear there is on the market.  Relying on toe clips and straps will completely undermine my authority as a cyclist in many people’s eyes, but so be it.  For me, it’s a question of aesthetics and I don’t think the Romani would look right with clipless pedals – something I’m quite willing to sacrifice performance for. 
In my experience, properly fitted toe clips and straps still offer a fair amount of traction anyway, and if I can find a shoe with stiff enough a sole then I shouldn’t be dissipating too much energy.  I’d like an old pair of Sidi or Vittoria cycling shoes, which do occasionally reveal themselves on eBay.  These old style shoes are deceptively… shoe-like, and later models even accommodate cleats.  More modern footwear of this flavour does exist – made by companies such as Dromarti, Quoc Pham, Exustar – but they’re beyond my financial range.  I could wear MTB shoes; however, they’re clunky, chunky affairs, not designed to be used in conjunction with clips and straps.  Initiative is what’s called for, and an element of risk.
I thought I’d found a solution when I discovered a pair of resolutely stiff brown leather trainers in TK Maxx.  Made by an obscure European manufacturer, manufacturing under the name Jorcel, it appeared that they’d manufactured a shoe that fulfilled my manufactural requirements.  At £25 a pair a more impulsive fellow would have bought them straight away, but I am ponderer extraordinaire and recoiled towards my laptop to research, study and pontificate. 
I decided against them.  I thought they might jar against my more current cycling attire.  If I was wearing a woollen jersey and riding in the L’Eroica, or partaking in the Tweed Run, sporting tweed, then the brown traditional leather uppers would have been a good fit.  But you may recall that I ditched those crochet mitts for fear that I might look a little too muddled in my appearance.  I like anachronism but, like colour, it must be blended well.
Let me consider my race visage for a moment: a steel bike with some contemporary features; a cycling jersey designed in the 1980s utilising latter-day fabric in its reproduction; black lycra cycling shorts; white socks; a helmet, probably white, if not black.  Remove the helmet from the equation and it will look like I’m riding for La Vie Claire, the modern elements of my bike too subtle to disturb the impression.  But it’s not as dated a look as one might think.  I suppose you could say the 1980s represented the sartorial birth of modern cycling.  It’s not like with football, where the size and fit of the uniform are in a constant state of flux: cycling apparel needs to be tight.  So all that’s left to change or falter is the material and the amount of adverts that cycling’s governing bodies allows teams to have printed on their jerseys.
            And the colour.  In the 1980s nearly everyone wore black cycling shorts, regardless of the colour of the jersey.  It was an actual rule on many of the tours, and a sensible approach; cycling shorts should not be made available in any other colour.  Black also predominated when it came to shoes (although it appears Bernard Hinault favoured blue when he rode for La Vie Claire).
Nowadays anything goes, and shoes may even be tailored to team colours, but white seems to be the colour of choice for many riders. (It was Mommersteeg who had asked me what I thought of white cycling shoes over drinks in a pub in Barnes, implying either that he had a pair or that he was thinking of buying some.)  So if I don’t want to look like some sort of 80s pastiche on a bike then maybe white’s the way to go?  Or if I do opt for black then I should look for evidently modern qualities.

(A new, old pair of Sidi cycling shoes - courtesy 'Velosniper')

The issue was not resolved in time for Carlos-Weltschmerz’s second official training session, which was poorly attended.  It was scheduled for the Sunday of the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, so maybe this was to be expected.  Our assembly was dependant on the weather anyhow, which turned out fine.
            It was just Wenborn and myself, then, and we met in Wimbledon at the Starbucks shrouded in glass.  After a strong cup of filter coffee, Wenborn led the way and I tried to hang onto his back wheel for as long as I could.
            By the time we reached Epsom, 9 miles later, I had my concerns.  I felt okay but I was aware that we were only about halfway to Box Hill, and thus a quarter of the way through the day’s full ride (these statistics disregard the 8 miles I’d already cycled to reach Wimbledon).  The A24 (Dorking Road) followed, an undulating trail that saw my companion laying down quite a pace.  Once we crossed over the M25 and joined the Leatherhead Bypass – still the A24 – these conditions persisted, and it was only when turning down Old London Road that we were offered respite.
            The Zig Zag Road up to Box Hill itself was manageable, although it did require me to sink into the second to lowest gearing obtainable on my 14 gear bike.  The sense of achievement, the distance travelled, a cup of coffee, and the view over Surrey, Sussex and the South Downs, helped me to forget about the apprehension I’d felt back in Epsom, but this was mere delusion.
            Going down Boxhill Road was good and as we crossed back over the M25 the situation gave me no cause for concern.  What followed were a series of dual carriageways and the run of the traffic lights.  The A217 took us as far as Rose Hill Roundabout, whereupon we joined the A297 until such point that it merged with the A24.  We then remained on the A24 until it segued into the A219, which would take us into Putney.  I tried to keep up with Wenborn but he was out-pacing me.  Most of the roads were in poor condition – or at least the sides of them, where cyclists must keep – which put a physical strain on my body as it tensed up before every visible pothole.  ‘Wimbledon 7 miles’ was succeeded by ‘Wimbledon 5 miles’, but the two intervening 1.609 kilometres seemed to have lasted an age.  I had run out of water, although there was barely a stretch of road safe enough to tackle my bidon anyway.  My saddle was no longer comfortable.  My body bored of its posture.
            Then, Putney within touching distance of my imagination, we began the climb up Wimbledon Hill Road: one third of a mile that had me on my knees, almost completely spent.  The only reason I didn't dismount was because it struck me as being eaier not to - that pushing my bike up such a steep gradient would require only marginally less effort, and that if I debarked I might never be able to get back on.  So I made it up that mountain and fumbled my way to Putney, whereupon Wenborn and I stopped for beers.  By the time I’d made it home, my Romani Prestige had covered just over 51 miles, albeit with three breaks along the way.
This is the longest I have ever cycled in one day and I thought it would be easier.  That I had concerns after just 17 miles of cycling conveys to me that I could have been a little off-colour from the outset, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time.  In retrospect, it would have been a good thing to have eaten something when we got to Box Hill, because it was on the journey home that I evidently began to flag. 
There were a lot more hills than I’m used to and perhaps my recent excursions have been a bit too flat.  I now plan on putting in some time doing laps of Richmond Park, where I know there are the climbs that might lick me into shape.
Looking at the experience a little more positively, my bike behaved impeccably throughout; gear changes were fluid and without tribulation.  Also, my body felt fine the next day – no aches or strains – and I was never in any trouble with regard to my breathing; merely fatigued and lacking in strength.  But it has come as a bit of a mental shock.  I don’t know what the gradient is on Wimbledon Hill Road, but it can’t be any more formidable than Ditchling Beacon.

Friday, 24 May 2013


Since my search for a bike began there has been one constant: coffee. These are not related events per se, for coffee has always been a companion of mine. I should add that it’s only in recent years that I’ve embraced the drinking of coffee outside of the home with such enthusiasm, but it’s been going on long enough. Mind you, I don’t recall coffee shops or cafés featuring on those early rides with the Raleigh Record Ace, although I suppose they must have done. They were certainly present on my reconnaissance missions to East and North London, searching for potential bikes, and were very much to the fore once I started riding the Carlos.
            They have a practical purpose though, these pauses for caffeine. They provide a target, or a half way marker – or a two thirds marker. The idea on my longer rides is to select a destination at which to stop for coffee, to work out a way to get there and then find my way back via a different route – never go back on yourself.
            It’s hard, actually, because there are only so many directions in which I can feasibly travel. I am confined by geographical limitations, namely the River Thames to the south (decreeing I first head west or east if I want to explore Surrey), and Heathrow Airport and the M25 out west (a bleak and industrious restraint). Moving south-westwards through the corridor between M3 and the River Thames works well for me, and I will take it as far as Walton Bridge. By the time I’ve made it to Kingston – my allotted coffee point – I’ve covered almost 20 miles, including a 1.5 mile steady push up Hurst Road.  This route also benefits from a paucity of traffic lights and junctions.
If I want to explore south-eastwards then I usually ride through and circumnavigate Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common respectively.  I can move south fairly easily from there. Carlos-Weltschmerz’s next trip shall see it stab deep into the countryside, another jaunt in a southerly direction intended to reach out as far as Box Hill.
            The farthest north I travel is Ealing Broadway, and that’s invariably followed by a swing to the right which takes me along the Uxbridge Road towards Shepherd’s Bush and often on to High Street Kensington. It may also happen in reverse.
            For the most part I like to head eastward, which offers up the most interesting terrain – London basically, and its labyrinth of streets. The prevailing path of late has been straight into Waterloo, through Richmond, Putney, Wandsworth, Battersea Park and Vauxhall. It’s a fast trip with surprisingly few obstacles – one can attain quite some speed.
I like this about cycling, this peripatetic feature, and I can quite understand why some cyclists get into touring or randonneuring.

I’m not a caffeine snob and don’t at all mind drinking in places like Starbucks, Caffè Nero or Costa, so long as I like the territory and can look at nice things – or if the café in question faces in a direction that allows me to feel the warmth of the sun. I’ve alluded to a few of these already, like that Starbucks in Wimbledon village, a capacious establishment reminiscent of an All Bar One or a Pitcher and Piano – pubs I never willingly enter. Its walls are made of glass and it strikes me that most coffee shops like their walls to be made of glass, as much as is architecturally possible. I think this is because people like to feel connected with the outside world when they take a break for coffee (or tea, maybe cake). It’s as if they don’t want to separate their leisure time from the rest of the day, even if the rest of the day is all about their work. Maybe if these places were too dark, or too ostensibly sheared off from their environment, the clientele would find that too much and slink off into a leisurely reverie from which they would find it hard to recover. They want distraction but not so much that they get too comfortable, unable to settle back into a work related state of mind (that’s what pubs are for).
            Starbucks in Wimbledon, with its wooden interior, glazed frontage and not too difficult jazz, overlooks an unobjectionable high-street, and it makes for a satisfactory place to drink; the filter coffee just about passes muster. There’s a Starbucks in Chiswick that I’m rather partial to as well. Its shape and size restrict the copious use of glass, but I like to sit outside of that one anyhow: it’s south-facing.

Nero is where my mother likes to drink her coffee – she appreciates the double dose of caffeine. At Caffè Nero (with its pictures on the walls of people drinking coffee, to look at while you’re drinking coffee) I order a white Americano, but they never provide enough milk and I normally have to ask that they re-fill my thimble of a jug. They hit you hard for drinking inside too, which is why I never bother with their lattes – too expensive. I should probably avoid Nero on principle, but they’ve got some choice locations. The aforementioned branch on High Street Kensington next to Boots Chemist is my favourite, with its triangular outside seating area and railings, to which I can secure the bike.
            There’s a decent Caffè Nero in Fulham Broadway, opposite one of the best equipped Evans Cycles in the whole of London. Tables and chairs ring the perimeter and the pedestrianized zone that separates it from Evans Cycles makes for a calming experience. However, the adjacent bike racks are normally overpopulated and finding alternative solutions can be a bit of a fag.
At Costa I am in the habit of drinking lattes. Many cafés top their lattes with too much froth but Costa don’t tend to, and I approve of the fact that they won’t charge you extra for drinking-in. There are only a few Costas I frequent, though. The first is in Ealing around the back of the mall. Its generous outside seating area is frequented by gentlemen of Middle Eastern and/or North African descent, talking and smoking. Inside is the stalking ground of the mother and child, and it is gloomy and unappealing.
            My favourite Costa is the one just across from Embankment Tube Station, although there are no obvious anchors for your bike. Interior wise, it’s quite small, but I like the intimacy.
Wimbledon Village also has a passable Costa.

Really, though, it is the independent cafés that I like to offer my patronage, and trips to Kingston-upon-Thames always involve establishments such as these. After a particularly brutal cycle out to Walton-on-Thames, I recently discovered The Terrace on Apple Market. The Americano was of a very high standard and charged for at a reasonable rate, and I was given hot milk without even having to ask.
            Then there’s the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank; awful coffee but a brilliant view.
            Kew Greenhouse Café in Kew is another good one, although as my rides have become longer it’s been harder to accommodate.
            And so on…

Coffee has strong associations with cycling – probably something to do with its robust Italian heritage. I ride an Italian bike. I’ve been to Italy twice. I would like to go there again.
            British riders used to be encouraged to ride British bikes, and not without justification. This wasn’t loose jingoism: we used to make very high quality bikes and Reynolds steel was – and maybe still is – considered (the Italian) Columbus’s equal. You may recall that the Raleigh Record Ace was made from Reynolds steel, and it is a bike that I think of with fondness. Those early rides were something of a revelation and set me on the path that has led me to where I am now.
            There have been other British bikes I’ve looked at along the way. Some I’ve mentioned, like the (allegedly) stolen Holdsworth, and others I’ve not (out of compassion for my readership). I’ve never been biased one way or another and I’m only riding Italian because the Romani is the bike I’ve come across that most suits my needs.
            But I’ve been to Italy twice and would like to go there again. I think it would be a nice idea to ride the Romani in the L’Eroica, assuming it meets the criteria: no cleats; shifters on the down-tube; manufactured no later than 1987 (although the Romani might well be). It would be like some sort of homecoming.
            I’ve heard that certain travel companies have started putting together package tours centred around the annual L’Eroica race in Tuscany. You don’t even have to worry about the bike because they will hire you one on the day. What do you think of that?  What do you think of people – people who might not ordinarily own a bike that qualifies – throwing some tour operator a wedge of money and flying to Italy to impose themselves on an event geared towards those with a genuine affection for vintage bicycles?


Sunday, 19 May 2013


When The Guy From Tunbridge Wells called about the bicycle I’d told him he’d need to be at my house by 11.00 the next morning. I was nervous that this relatively early hour might jeopardise the sale, for The Guy From Tunbridge Wells was a young man and in my experience young men like to get up late, especially at weekends. I didn’t know how long the journey would take him but I knew that the M25 – London’s orbital – would be involved, and was fairly certain that he would have to be on the road before 09.30 to be sure of making our appointment. But I had another appointment that day: at 13.00 in Morden Hall Park with the members of Carlos-Weltschmerz, an engagement of great significance.
            The Guy From Tunbridge Wells arrived 10 minutes early and appeared reluctant to enter into cycling based discussion of any great depth. He asked a few cursory questions but I didn’t get the sense that my answers were of much consequence to him. He appeared wary of me, in fact, yet surprised when I allowed him to take the bike for a ride unaccompanied. Teenagers…
            In terms of making a sale I had a good feeling from the off. He struggled in identifying the Carlos from the Romani, as they stood against each other in my hallway, and I suppose either may have sufficed. Why was I selling one of them?
‘Because I can’t afford to keep both.’
‘Oh. Is there anything wrong with the one you’re selling?’
‘No, the Romani just serves my needs better. It cost more.’
The look of the bike was the thing - I don't suppose he cared too much about the performance. I still fully expected having to haggle a bit, but he paid what I'd been asking for and was swiftly on his way.

The atmospheric conditions were pleasant when Mommersteeg and I left Twickenham, although I hesitated over whether or not to take my new sunglasses, for the forecast was not in our favour. I don’t like having to carry superfluous material on my person, but a satisfyingly strong burst of sunshine broke through just at the moment I opened the front door, so I took them.
            We cycled through Richmond Park and down the A3, before joining Coombe Lane to Raynes Park. We then followed the small gyratory to the other side of the train tracks, joined Kingston Road, but then turned right too far along it, missing the turning off of Bushey Road that would have led us straight to Morden Hall Park. On realising our mistake we improvised a shortcut alongside the River Wandle, which unintentionally brought us upon our intended destination via its north-easterly aspect. Mommersteeg and I were exactly seven minutes late for the rendezvous, but no one seemed to notice.
            Beverages were purchased and introductions were made. I observed that Gowland’s Bianchi was not typically celeste, but a deeper, more royal blue, which suited it well. I was probably the only one that cared. Mommersteeg talked of the new Condor Squadra he’d picked up just a few days before, which he was too protective over to bring along for the ride. And jerseys were mentioned – of course jerseys were mentioned.
            After our coffee, Wenborn led the way towards Battersea, weaving through Merton, Summerstown, Earlsfield, Wandsworth and Clapham. Once we’d cut through Battersea Park, I took over the lead and we crossed over Chelsea Bridge and followed the A3212 all the way to Westminster.
            Our destination was Rapha Cycle Club on Brewer Street, Soho, to stop for another coffee and to watch half an hour or so of the Giro d’Italia, in which Bradley Wiggins was suffering.  Unfortunately, this being central London, many other cyclists had similar ideas and we had to sit outside and grab whatever visuals we could from the pavement.
Such is the nature of the Rapha Cycle Club, Team Carlos-Weltschmerz felt rather underdressed. The weather forecast was partly to blame for this. Many of us had overcompensated in preparation for the negative forecast: cycle shorts were worn under looser outdoor garments; jerseys were obscured by anoraks; one of us wasn’t wearing any cycling gear at all.  But Carlos-Weltschmerz feels no pressure to conform to type and the staff at the Rapha Cycle Club were most welcoming, refusing to exact revenge for any perceived vestmental failings on our part.
Raining now – but not heavily – Wenborn and I led the group (a reflection of our geographical savvy) back along the Thames as far as Wandsworth Bridge, whereupon we crossed south over the river and stopped for alcoholic refreshment at The Ship, just at the end of Jew’s Row. We sat outside to mind our bikes, and the rain moved up a gear. After finishing his drink, Evans (S) announced he was leaving and cycled hard against the wind all the way back to Epsom. The rest of Carlos-Weltschmerz decamped to the Queen Adelaide for more ale – two more pints of the stuff. Or was it three?
I calculated that Mommersteeg and I rode 35 miles of ground over the course of the day.  Wenborn – who had not particularly benefitted from the meeting point being so close to his home – had cycled out to Box Hill in the morning to compensate, and will have travelled nearer 50. Gowland had come from Croyden so he probably chalked up a fair few miles too. Evans (S) will have had no reason to be dissatisfied either. But covering ground had not been the point of the day’s excursion: that had been for the members of Carlos-Weltschmerz to meet and form an integral unit.
            I had perceived a potential schism amongst the rank and file of the Weltschmerz, although I saw no need to impose a creed. The matter concerned the regulatory wearing of lycra cycling shorts from London to Brighton, with me in favour and Evans (S) personally opposed. On the grounds of comfort alone I thought this madness, but Evans (S) explained to me that his looser shorts incorporated a cycling-short style padding in the rear, so what was the problem? Wenborn, too, would be wearing baggier shorts, but over the top of a pair of regulation cycling shorts, his justification centring around the need for multiple pockets.  Mommersteeg and Gowland did not offer an opinion either way, although I suspect Mommersteeg will be a ‘cycling shorts only’ kind of guy. Gowland, meanwhile, remains something of an enigma.
It’s not really important, but when I started disseminating propaganda with a view to persuading everyone to wear retro-inspired jerseys, I’d just sort of assumed that people would be wearing black cycling shorts to match.  Apparently not, although by marked contrast my ‘order of the white sock’ seems to have been taken on board without the merest hint of dissent.
Our meeting also afforded the opportunity to gauge fitness levels and assess the team’s capability. Mommersteeg and Wenborn already have a clear advantage because they regularly commute into town on their bikes, and also own more capable machines.  Wenborn certainly looks to be the fittest of the lot at this stage, although no one is too off the pace. Thing is, there’s talk of a dual stop strategy: once at the halfway point and again at the top of Ditchling Beacon. The halfway stop off is by no means controversial – I’m sure I will be in need of a pause after 25 miles of uninterrupted peddling, and it should serve as a good incentive to keep the team together for as long as we can.  But to stop off at the top off Ditchling Beacon seems like a wasted opportunity. Why throw away the relief of the sharp descent that follows by stopping off to recuperate and take in the view?
Again, these are the thoughts of Evans (S) and Wenborn, and they’re both semi-veterans of the London to Brighton. More inclined to partake in triathlons and marathons respectively, the London to Brighton is their B-Movie, a laugh, entertainment – a mild challenge. One cannot admonish them for this, and it would go against the spirit of Weltschmerz to do so. Still, I’d been looking forward to quite an aggressive last quarter, and maybe even leading someone out toward the finish.
Training in full swing, I followed up Sunday’s cycle with 19 miles on Monday, 20 miles on Tuesday, 14 miles on Wednesday, eight on Thursday (which was supposed to be my day of rest) and another 19 on Friday. I know these aren’t massive distances, but it’s over a hundred miles covered in less than a week, and for me quite unprecedented. Furthermore, I’ve cycled them at an honourable pace.
            It seems incomprehensible, now, the idea of engaging the London to Brighton on Carlos, or indeed any bike other than the Romani Prestige. This is not to say that it would not have been possible – I am sure the Carlos would have handled fine up until the climb to Ditchling Beacon. In all probability, it would have coped with that too, assuming that the Suntour Ole rear derailleur didn’t fail me, which it sometimes did. But I recall how agitated I was three months ago, trying to decide whether to lavish money on the Carlos and get it up to speed, or replace it with another more race-worthy bike. The moment I laid down the deposit on the Romani, committing myself to its use, I felt a sense of relief, of doing what was necessary. But it was instinctive and the road-worthiness or otherwise, of either bicycle, is not really the point, for plenty of people finish the London to Brighton on any old bike.
The acquisition of the Romani roughly coincided with the moment I embarked in earnest on what one might sensationally call a training regimen. I had intended to commence my physical development earlier but circumstances conspired against me. Now I’m in full flow, minor injury having abated, warmer and drier conditions prevailing, and an absence of work bestowing ample opportunity. And the Romani is the machine on which I’m labouring, and it is proving a very satisfying ride. I suspect the Shimano gears and the Wolber TX Profil 622 700C rims, with their Campagnolo Record hubs, have been partly responsible, but if I was still riding the Carlos would I have known any better? If I was gifted a half-decent carbon road bike tomorrow, would I not then regard the Romani with equal dubiety? Hard to say, but I suspect the issue is a psychological one. I am reasonably assured of the Romani’s quality, even more persuaded of its aesthetic harmony, but those 115 miles have probably instilled a confidence I did not have when I sat down months ago to watch amateur footage on YouTube of the exhausted hordes flagellating themselves up Ditchling Beacon.


Whether “the event” will deliver the reward I’m hoping for is another matter. The idea, of course, was ‘to know what it is to ride en masse… and generally get some idea of what it must be like to ride in a Grand Tour.’ It’s ludicrous conceit, I admit, and it has been pressed upon me that the London to Brighton is not to be raced at all. There will be many others fit enough to ride more competitively but I suspect they will be sorts who belong to clubs, race in designated sportives, and just like the idea of laying down a personal best in an event that they may well enter every year to raise money for charity, or just to enjoy the traffic-free roads. How will these dedicated amateurs respond when the greenhorns of Carlos-Weltschmerz huff past them? Or will it just be me?  Will I be the only one pushing hard for a sub four hour finish (to include our stop on Turner's Hill)? Or will I have come unstuck, a victim of my own hubris, disgorging energy bars at the side of the road?
What is beginning to occur to me is that there might be something rather savage behind all of this.  Here I am, quite insistent that I ride a bike that’s at least 20 years old, finding a jersey congruous with that, and precociously intent on pushing myself and my team – if it will let me – to its limit.  I’ve been riding road bikes for less than a year, commenced training with just two months to go, and I’m treating the London to Brighton like it’s a stage in a Grand Tour.
If I hadn’t decided to write about this somatic venture, then the myths I’m imagining would be mere solipsism, existent only in my mind, fleetingly, and completely inconsequential.  I certainly didn’t treat my first (and only) 10k run like this, digging down into the minutia, but I didn’t seek to depict that endeavour. Is it the narrative I’ve created that’s driving me forward, imparting a mission, making it seem more significant than it really is?  Or maybe it’s to do with the romance of road-racing, its history of gallant suffering? 
Perhaps it was last year’s Vuelta a Espana and the sight of Javier Chacón chasing hopeless causes.

[POST-SCRIPT: Bradley Wiggins was to subsequently withdraw from the Giro after completing stage 12, suffering from a chest infection. He’d had a torrid time of it, crashing his bike during the seventh stage, and sustaining a puncture on the eighth – the individual time trial.
Vincenzo Nibali went on to win the general classification – the pink jersey – and Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Mark Cavendish amassed the most points, awarding him the red.  Cavendish has now won the points classification in every grand tour. He’s only the fifth rider to have achieved this feat.]

Sunday, 12 May 2013


I’ve received a few deliveries of late, the finishing touches, I think (and hope) for my appropriate bicycle.
First up were the replacement gloves – a pair of white Mavic Espoir ‘everyday race gloves’ offering ‘progressive cushioning’. They only cost me £13.30 - £3.69 less than the Altura gloves they replaced.  I tried to order them on-line at the already reduced rate of £14.00 but the website wouldn’t process my order.  I emailed Hargroves cycles, not to demur but to question whether their website was at fault and if there was an alternative means by which I could complete the transaction.  They took it as a complaint, none the less, and offered me a 5% discount on my order by way of recompense.
I’d been unsure as to what size I should take – medium or large – after trying both on in Cycle Surgery with inconclusive results.  Hargroves only had medium and small in stock so the prospect of saving £6.00 (they retaill at £20) settled it.  The medium seems fine, the elasticated top portion of the glove allowing for a variable fit.
Next to arrive were a pair of white leather Zefal ‘Christophe’ toe straps.  If you don’t understand why I parted with £9.99 for these, or if your reaction to them is a shrug of indifference, then I doubt you’ve reaped much reward from reading An Appropriate Bicycle.
Practically speaking, I bought them because leather toe straps are far more effective than the nylon banding I’ve been making do with – you should at least comprehend that.  Leather holds its shape better, which can be of great benefit when re-engaging one’s foot with the toe clip after standing around at traffic lights.  Nylon is slack by comparison and more vulnerable to snagging.
The Romani did actually come with leather straps already attached but they were black, well-worn strips, and the metal fasteners marred with rust.  The Carlos had come with black toe straps, too, and I’d discovered that when wet they would make quite a mess of my shoes (the dye would rub off, presumably).  So I needed new straps to ensure the fluidity of my ride and to save spoiling my footwear.  Further, I thought it might be good idea to tie in the colour of my toe straps with the colour of my bar-tape.
£9.99 is actually about as cheap as you’re going to get for genuine leather straps, although they were reduced by a couple of quid.  It wasn’t just a question of price, mind: these Zefal straps have the word christophe printed upon them in the most pleasing of fonts.  It’s like that little M for Mavic insignia on my jacket and new gloves, or the engraved detailing on my bike’s handlebars, and the Cinelli head badge that features on the clasp of the handlebar stem: small details that make all the difference.  I don’t even like branding as a rule, but certain names and ensigns leave their mark: Fred Perry’s laurel wreath, Adidas’s original trefoil logo, Levi’s red tab, and now Zefal’s christophe.
And who or what is christophe anyway?  The blurb on the back of the packaging tells me he was Eugene Christophe, a French cyclist who purportedly invented the toe clip.  He entered into business with a company called Poutrait Morin, who later changed their name to Zefal, and these straps now bear his name as something of a tribute. 
When I went to fit my new straps to my toe clips I noticed that they too bore the legend ‘Christophe’.  Isn’t that a wonderful thing?


Despite my ambivalence towards eyewear it is obvious that glasses have a place in cycling, if only to stop bugs and pollen from getting in one’s eyes.  As a hay-fever sufferer, the route the London to Brighton takes – through meadows and fields – has a nasty potential.  Aside from dosing up on antihistamines – which by no means guarantees a result – the best precaution I can take against such an “attack” is to invest in some shades.
            I already have a pair of shades – two, in fact – but not the sort that “wrap around” the face to ensure maximum coverage.  The cheapest I could find in-store – at Evans Cycles for £29.99 – was the Endura Shark glasses set – with interchangeable lenses and everything!  They seemed okay but I really wasn’t looking to spend that much.  You might think, ‘Why skimp on something like that, especially what with your hay-fever and all?’  We’ve already established that I don’t much like wearing sunglasses, and the British weather will hardly dictate I need to very often.  But on top of that, the shape of my nose isn’t conducive to the wearing of eyewear – most glasses sit too high on my face and it will be uncomfortable and it will look silly.  So unless the Endura Sharks were a perfect fit – which they weren’t – then what would be the point in parting with that much money for them?  (Not that the price would be considered expensive by your seasoned cyclist’s standards; some people will pay three figure sums for a pair of Oakleys.)
            I was almost resigned to buying a specific pair from Marks and Sparks, with an accommodating bridge, but I didn’t like their imitation carbon fibre frame effect.  Then, after stopping by the Hounslow branch of Halfords on one of my rides, I came across Foster Grant’s Ironman range.  Fairly innocuous looking shades, they sat quite well upon the ridge of my nose.  At £26 a pair I still thought the price a little steep (they didn’t even come with interchangeable lenses) but my internet based research unearthed yet another on-line discount – direct from Foster Grant themself – and I purchased the very same model for £17.42.
Finally, I had to deal with the helmet issue.  Actually, I bought a helmet some time ago but I don’t like talking about it.  As helmets go it’s actually not too bad: a Uvex i-vo, in white, weighing in at 225g, and of German origin.  What’s more, I picked it up for £29.99 (including postage) reduced from £44.99 (not including postage) and it’s not uncomfortable either.  But it does look awfully wide sat upon head, and I’ve been trying to sell the thing with a view to replacing it with either a Louis Garneau Sharp or a Giro Savant, both retailing at around £60 (although the Giro can certainly be found cheaper if you shop around) and helmets that seem to fit me just that little better.
No takers as yet for the Uvex, despite the “watchers” sniffing around on eBay.  If it doesn’t sell before the London to Brighton then I’ll just have to settle with what I’ve got.
And talking of buying things first and then impatiently waiting for a sale to materialise, I finally got shot of the Carlos.  That might seem a ruthless way of putting it, given the time we spent together, but after: bumping the advert up on Gumtree a total of 10 times over a period of at least six weeks; paying a pound to advertise it on a website called Preowned Cycles; giving it a go on the Retrobike forums and not receiving even the slightest bit of interest, despite a statistic informing me that 400-odd people had taken a look; having two people meet me to view the bike, only for both of them to tell me they’d need to ‘have a think about it’ and, after having thought about it, apparently deciding against it, I’d started to become rather sick of the sight of that bike still parked up in my hallway.
            So when a guy from Tunbridge Wells called me on the Saturday and told me he was prepared to drive to West London on the Sunday, I was confident that it would be a case of third time lucky.  I knew Carlos was a nice looking bike – most of my friends prefer it to the Romani – and I figured that anybody prepared to travel from one side of London to the other was of serious intent.
            And so it came to pass and he paid the current asking price of £325 without the mere hint of a quibble – this young man who was off to Oxford University in the autumn, with an accent that suggested he would not be out of place there.  I don’t think money was an issue for The Guy From Tunbridge Wells, but when he gets to Oxford with Carlos in tow I think he’ll appreciate what an appropriate bicycle he now has in his possession.


Sunday, 5 May 2013


For the most part, heroes are just the people who appeal to us when we’re young: random custodians we nominate to represent our nascent sense of self, to associate our being with the things we have begun to consider worthy. Nobody knows the person their hero elect really is, and there may be many, breaking down one’s worship into less obsessive morsels. As we grow older the notion of a hero/heroine becomes less relevant. Assuming you are of sound mind, these totems become superfluous. There will be people we still admire, and we might venerate them openly, but it forms reverence of a less partisan kind.
            “Heroes” come in all shapes and sizes, but amongst the callow they’re normally fished from quite a narrow caste. They may be sports people – and often are – although musicians and actors are not uncommon subjects of adoration. The more politicized may look towards nobler folk, whereas some youths cherish those of a more creative bent, such as authors, artists, poets. film-directors. But it is amongst the light-hearted stuff that the young generally look.
            As an adolescent the people I held in high esteem conformed to type – sportsmen and musicians mostly. Gary Lineker was probably the first person I placed on a pedestal, because he played for Everton and then won the Golden Boot at my inaugural FIFA World Cup – Mexico '86. No sooner had that tournament ended and Gary was off to Barcelona for a cool £2,800,000. I was in need of a fresh, domestic subject to fill the void. Up stepped Kevin Sheedy and his left foot – the perfect candidate on account of him playing for Everton and me being left footed. Indeed, I canonised many an Everton player back then: Trevor Steven, Graeme Sharp, Adrian Heath – even Neville Southall.
            In parallel, I made musical heroes of collectives, rather than individuals: the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Gangstarr, Brand Nubian, KMD. Mostly black, these rap artists seemed far cooler than the over-stylised pop and rock acts I’d grown up with. I'd admired Prince too, but I had always been a bit bothered by the clothes he wore. Come the end of the 1980s, and I wasn't particularly enamoured with the look of “baggy” or “Madchester” either. Rap artists, on the other hand, dressed conservatively by comparison, sportswear being their staple – I could get on with that.
When I reached the second half of my teenage years I started behaving a little more responsibly and lent my support to Plymouth Argyle, my local team and the team I really ought to have been supporting all along. I still needed a hero and it was Dwight Marshall to whom I turned. A short, pacey striker, who resembled some of those hip-hop dudes I was obsessed with, it was an instinctive choice. My friend and I used to watch the occasional reserve game down at Home Park just to get our fix of Dwight. Once, as he was leaving the field, we called his name and he rewarded us with a sly wink – it quite made our night.
A few years later, when Dwight returned to Argyle for a second spell, we bumped into him in some licentious Plymouth nightclub and bought him a drink by way of thanks. He left for Kingstonian soon after that, but Argyle’s glory years were just around the corner, offering a whole host of prospective alters to worship at: the French pairing of David Friio and goalkeeper Romain Larrieu; the Canadian Jason Bent; local “bey” Paul Wotton, or Argyle legend Mickey Evans. Mickey Evans remains one of the most gifted footballers I've ever had the privilege of watching in a real, live match environment. His appearance was slightly shabby, he lacked pace, but his first touch was impeccable and his hold-up play first rate. He’s probably the last footballer I've genuinely held in such high esteem.
It wasn't just football players who felt the pinch. As I hit my twenties I grew less factional in all my interests; I’d just like a lot of people, groups and things. Mark E Smith is a good example of this. I'm still very interested in his musical output with The Fall (he is The Fall) but the myths that surround him are of no great concern to me. He is still possibly the closest thing I have to a hero, but you won’t find his picture hanging on my wall, and I'm quite accepting of the fact that he’s a bit of a pissed-up mess – or more to the point, just a “man”.
It would be disingenuous of me to say that there aren't personalities that arouse my curiosity in a manner that goes beyond mere appreciation. For illustration, I buy into the myth completely that David Bowie has made for himself. I take stock in his persona just after he recorded Station to Station – maybe my favourite Bowie album – turning his back on his more outlandish selves, and, in turn, Los Angeles, cocaine and the Thin White Duke, before then moving to Europe to paint himself anonymously, but still with a certain style. I like that he was slim and I am slim, and that we share a fondness for the idea of Europe being a thing in itself – a mind-set. I like how he describes his album Low as being him trying to articulate how he had nothing to articulate. I like that he took/takes himself seriously but maintains a strong sense of humour; it’s what good art’s all about. That and provocation.
In my early thirties I entered into a period of being seriously intrigued by the actor and musician Vincent Gallo. He came across as well-dressed, amusing yet cantankerous, and something of a renaissance man – with good hair. But he is just another man, and I can see very little of myself in him – no physical resemblance, no skill-set, nothing – and potential heroes need that kinship on which to base a sense of aspiration.
And then there are intellectuals and writers – Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Meades, Ian Svenonius – whom I greatly admire, and maybe there’s still room for the odd sports personality too: Ronnie O’Sullivan certainly contributes to my enjoyment of snooker, although I watch the game whether he’s taking a sabbatical or not (or ‘retiring’ as he calls it). O’Sullivan is a hero par excellence. He’s got a great all-round game, tactical awareness, and plays with a visually pleasing fluidity. O’Sullivan also has personality and a charming oddness that is fascinating to behold. In fact, his glum disposition and ambivalence toward his own sport suggests he’s all too familiar with the concept of Weltschmerz, although maybe not consciously.
Which brings me on to cycling and the personalities involved: are any of them hero material? Would I, as a youth, feel inspired by its protagonists and have their pictures plastered across my wall?  Impossible to say, but Bradley Wiggins – the most obvious contender – just doesn’t quite do it for me.  He really should: he’s svelte, slightly sardonic, and something of a Mod. I’m not an actual Mod but I do like a Fred Perry, and it’s nice to see a sports person who doesn’t sport the collars of their polo shirts pointing upwards, or who wears earrings or advertises expensive wrist-watches. And I like his sense of humour, and I’m all for people who wear their thinness well… but there’s just something about him that doesn’t sit quite right with me.
            Mark Cavendish I like, although he’s not the sort of rider I could ever imagine myself to be – a sprinter. I couldn’t ever conceive of idolising Chris Froome because, although he seems a nice bloke and is undoubtedly a rider of great strength, he’s just too conservative in his demeanour. I warmed to David Millar over the course of his book but he’s nearing the end of his career. Also, he does a lot of adverts.
            Abroad, I find Alberto Contador strangely appealing (he looks like Prince) but the whiff of doping hangs around him, as does a Michael Schumacher type dedication that’s off-puttingly impenetrable. Cadel Evans seems okay, but he’s another one whose career has obviously peaked.
If I was a 16 year old cyclist, then, I’d like to think that Cavendish would be my main man, but I’d probably be rooting for Wiggins with the rest of them. It’s moot and not something that overly concerns me. Still, it would nice to be able to connect with the personalities of the sport on some level.
But it doesn’t just come down to who’s racing now. After all, I wasn’t around when Bowie was hitting his stride, or when Johan Cruyff was tearing it up on the world stage (if I could have been any footballer it would surely have had to have been Cruyff). I reach into cycling’s past, then, to find myself a “hero”, but who could it be?

I contemplate first Jacques Anquetil, because it’s as far back into the annals of road cycling as I’m prepared to look and because he was the first really big hitter the sport ever had.  The Frenchman triumphed in the Tour de France five times – the first cyclist to achieve this feat – the Giro d’Italia twice and the Vuelta a España once. Only five cyclists have won all three Grand Tours and only three others have won the Tour de France five times: Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain (Lance Armstrong had registered seven victories until they were annulled because of proven and admitted doping offences). More significantly – for I’m not normally swung by the number of victories any particular sportsperson clocks up – Anquetil was a rider admired for his elegance, his style and the smoothness with which he rode a bike. He was also said to have liked a drink, was eminently professional and possessed an intellect that he imposed upon his cycling to great effect.
Seems like perfect hero material to me, but I find a weird family arrangement rather dissuading. After trying for a child, but failing, it was agreed that Anquetil’s wife’s step-daughter would offer her services as some sort of surrogate. To this she agreed, but rather than abandoning the arrangement once the child was conceived, they continued with their ménage à trois until Anquetil’s step-daughter’s jealously toward her own mother drove her away from the family home. The truly odd thing is that this scandal appears to have done Anquetil’s reputation no harm, then or now.
Anquetil and Merckx take time-out
Eddy Merckx is widely considered to be the greatest cyclist there ever was. As well as his five general classification triumphs in the Tour de France, he added five victories in the Giro d’Italia and another in the Vuelta a España.  Merckx also built up an impressive list of victories in the Classics, including seven in the Milan-San Remo, five in the Liège–Bastogne–Liège, three in the Paris-Roubaix, two in the Tour of Flanders and the same in the Giro di Lombardia. Such far reaching ability kind of makes him the Pele of his sport.  His passion extended to manufacturing his own bikes, and those who worked for his company speak well of him. Sounds great, doesn’t it, but most of this happened before I was even born. By saying that, I discount two other cyclists by implication: Fausto Coppi and Tommy Simpson.  Actually, I discount a whole raft of cyclists, but these are two chaps I feel a visceral affection for.
Fausto Coppi was a wiry Italian who won the Giro d’Italia five times and the Tour twice.  He was idolized by the Italian public until he fell for another woman. Italy was consumed by its Catholicism at the time and Coppi’s adultery was not received well – in fact, his adoring public turned on him and Coppi’s career spiraled into decline.
            In 1959 Fausto Coppi fell ill with a particularly virulent strain of malaria, after visiting Burkina Faso at the then president’s behest, and died soon after. Italy mourned emphatically.
            Tommy Simpson’s death is even more tragic, despite him never having won a grand tour. But then, he was English, and the English never had – or not back then – that sort of pedigree.  In fact Simpson had been relatively successful as a rider, winning four Classics – the Tour of Flanders in 1961, the Bordeaux-Paris in 63, the Milan-San Remo in 64 and the Giro di Lombardia in 65 – and, in 1962, becoming the first Briton to ever wear the maillot jaune, heading the general classification of the tour briefly after stage 12.
            It was on Simpson’s assault of Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France that he perished. He had hoped to make an impact that year: to wear the yellow jersey for a stage or two; maybe even finish third or higher in the general classification. Coming into the tour’s 13th stage, Simpson was placed a respectable sixth overall, but he’d been feeling unwell since stage 10, with stomach pains and the troubles that normally go along with that.  He was in no shape to push himself to any sort of limit.
            It was a very hot day, the day that Simpson died, and he’d prepared with amphetamines and alcohol. He fell off his bike with about 1km to go before the summit, insisted on getting back on but collapsed 460 metres later. He was pronounced dead soon after that.
All these guys raced during an era where doping was tolerated, which is neither here nor there, but the fact that they belong to a different time does sort of preclude their adoption as some sort of latter-day cycling saint. I don’t why but it just does.
            Now that Lance Armstrong has been brushed aside, the Spaniard Miguel Indurain remains the most legitimately recent colossus to have straddled the sport, and I remember his name from when Chris Boardman made his respectable impact on the Tour de France in 1994. It is accepted that Indurain rode clean – which is here or there because by then to dope would have meant to cheat insidiously – but his low-key personality fails to inspire. 
But there are two cyclists who have very much come to the fore in my recent study into the history of the sport, and I’m finding it hard to choose between them. Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond both raced for La Vie Claire for a while, and it was the former that initially drew my admiration.
Hinault has won the Tour de France five times, the Giro d’Italia thrice and the Vuelta a España twice. Again, the number of victories is of no great concern and it is the personality behind them that draws my intrigue. Resembling a 1950s Hollywood star, like Montgomery Clift or James Mason (not so much at the start of his career but more toward the end), Hinault was a Breton farmer who polarized the opinion of the French; he was either arrogantly aloof or shy, depending on your point of view. Nobody doubted his courage, though. During the 1977 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré he fell into a ravine, was helped out of it, got back on his bike and won the race.  In the 1985 Tour de France, he came off his bike and smashed up his face, with two black eyes and a broken nose to show for it. But again he rode on, and eventually won the Tour. Then there’s the time he physically attacked striking dockers and trade unionists when they obstructed the road during the 1984 Paris-Nice, and Hinault ploughed into them whilst leading a potential break from the peloton. Man, you didn’t mess with Hinault.
Greg LeMond, by all accounts, is a more mild mannered man. He’s an American, which might make this all the more surprising, and it’s also why I like him. The antithesis to Lance Armstrong, it is said that the latter helped destroy the former’s bike business by “persuading” the firm Trek to wind down promotion and distribution of the LeMond brand (Trek and LeMond had reached a licensing agreement in 1995 according to which Trek would manufacture bikes labelled as LeMond Bicycles). LeMond the man had cast aspersions on the nature of Armstrong’s victories in six successive Tours, and bemoaned the fact that Lance was known to be working with Michele Ferrari, an Italian physician heavily involved in blood doping and who openly advocated the controlled use of erythropoietin amongst athletes. Basically, LeMond guessed that Armstrong was using drugs and called him on it, and Armstrong did everything within his power to shut him down.
The reason why Armstrong might have seen LeMond as such a threat was because of his – LeMond’s – three victories in the Tour de France and the fact that he was the first (and, now, the only) American to have won it. Greg LeMond might have secured more if it wasn’t for a hunting accident sustained in 1987 that left him with 35 shotgun pellets lodged in his body. The trauma nearly proved fatal, but he recovered to triumph in the Tour for a second and third time in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
It is LeMond’s first victory that is the most curious, though, for it was earned riding alongside Bernard Hinault for La Vie Claire. LeMond had moved to La Vie Claire in 1985 from Renault-Elf-Gitane, where he’d played second fiddle to Laurent Fignon (a cyclist who I can’t contemplate revering as a result of him sporting a ponytail). He figured Hinault, who had also been a member of Renault-Elf-Gitane up until 1983, was on the wane and that he – LeMond – would be the main man at La Vie Claire. Turns out that the Breton had at least another tour left him, and LeMond was instructed to hold back and play domestique to Hinault’s team leader. Fair enough, but it was understood that in 1986 Hinault would be obliged to return the favour, for it was reckoned that LeMond might have been strong enough to take the Tour in 1985 but had been manipulated into restraining himself (read Slaying the Badger by Richard Moore for a more detailed analysis). 
Greg LeMond did win in 1986 but only after holding off a savage rear-guard action from Hinault himself, something which the American considers something of a betrayal. For his part, Hinault claims that he was indeed serving LeMond’s best interests and that he was merely grinding down the opposition. The fact that the Hinault won the maillot à pois rouges (the polka dot jersey awarded to the “King of the Mountains”), the Combativity Award, and three individual stages (compared to LeMond’s one), suggests that Greg might have had a case.

Hinault and Lemond camp it up - this picture flatters neither
Anyway, both riders have personality, good faces, were almost certainly dope free, and rode for La Vie Claire. These shall be my “heroes”, then, and maybe I will draw strength from them when I’m struggling to get up Ditchling Beacon.