Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Anjou Velo Vintage 2013

I suppose this is about cycling, but it's probably more about the French and their attitude to life, eating and drinking, cycling and a pride in their own area.

Right, to start with, I've found out why France is in the state it's in. It's their young people.
There's something wrong with them !
The boys, for example ( and I mean Club 18-30 candidates) don't get pished and rip off their tops at the drop of a hat or the blink of sunshine. Hardly any of them are tatt'ed up to the eyes and I've yet to hear them talking to their buddies 200 meters away without a phone. The black boys are French and black and the white kids are French and white. They do drink, I've seen them ! But they don't seem to be able to start fights with anyone. Probably because they can't give out abuse to all and sundry at all times.
What they need is a good dose of paranoid self-hatred like our honest British kids.

And the girls ? Do none of them know what a right slapper is ? Because I've yet to see one. Like the boys, they're peculiarly unmarked with obscene tattoos. And they definitely have no fashion sense. The silly besoms wear clothes that fit them, for Christ's sake ! They're all skinny bitches anyway. Even the fat ones must be on something because they look happy and get lots of attention and seem to be enjoying themselves. I don't think any of them would know how to walk with one broken 9 inch heel and vomit into the street at the same time. Poor things !

And the eejits think they're having a good time just because they have a joke with old people and talk about food and drink and sports and ask them questions and nonsense like that.
Xenophobia's probably all Greek to them. And they're just showing off  by speaking English !
You know what else is wrong with them ? They're intelligent, educated, polite, confident and independent. And they do have a sense of humour.....Weirdos !!

There you are then, that's 40% of the participants in the 2013 Anjou Velo Vintage dealt with. The rest were just French with some English, Dutch, Italians and a few Yorkshire renegades.

The whole thing is apparently well funded by the Bureau of Tourism and it shows in the slick organisation. I booked on-line months ago( to get a good discount ! ) but you could actually book yourself in on the day. You get a musette with some goodies in it and a bracelet to wear ( I still can't get mine off ) which you present at the feeding stops where you get offered wines, drinks and lots of food. And a plaque d'immatriculation to put on the bike. I took my 1947 Flying Scot.

And a copy of the email exempting me from the "no handlebar mounted gearchange" regulation.  Sure enough, the bike attracted a fair bit of attention, the Sturmey Archer system being a good conversation piece. Although curiously enough, on some of the stalls offering new "city bikes" a lot of them are now using modern Sturmey Archer components which is considered to be "tres chic".

It felt pretty odd for me to have someone wheeling an immaculately  chromed Rene Herse past and stopping to talk about my Flying Scot. Quite a few times it was just a case of nodding approvingly and giving the handlebars a wee clap.

There was everything from Penny Farthings to triplets and everything else. Here's a shot of some of the bikes parked up the night before.
Here's a selection of some of the other machines...

The flying bottle, I admit, was only seen cruising round the village. 
But some of the other machines I saw being ridden would have given certain VCC members serious envy attacks.

And no French cycling event is complete without a "Caravane Publicitaire" of some sort. Here's some....

Then of course, the riders...

 Yes, that is a rifle over his shoulder !

Good to see Tommy Simpson remembered, even if he was riding a Flying Gate.

The guy in the striped shirt and false side whiskers is the Maire of Saumur, who completed the 46km run. Can you imagine a Lord Provost of Glasgow doing something like this. Perhaps senses of dignity and humanity are incompatible. A Lord Provost actually mixing with people ? And not a freebie in sight ? Highly unlikely !

And there's got to be music, hasn't there ? And if there's going to be music, there's got to be dancing.  This is Elle and the Pocket Belles giving us some serious Swing ! Check out a member of the Purple Gang doing the Bunny Hug. The next time I saw him, he was bowling along on what looked like a butcher's bike with a smoked ham and a couple of bottles of wine in the front basket. If I had any shame, I wouldn't admit to the fact that he overtook me.

The longer runs were flagged off a 10am by Raymond Poulidor and leading the peleton was Joop Zoetemelk a Tour de France winner. It's not everyday you sign a start sheet with someone like that, is it ?
The run was "neutralised" for the first few kilometers and we had to stay behind the lead cars like these...

We followed the left bank of the Loire for a bit  where I came upon Peter Stray from the VCC who along with a few others was making a weekend of it.

The Loire at Saumur, makes the Clyde look like a burn, doesn't it ? Mind you, the Clyde knocks it into a cocked hat when it gets to the Firth. Still one of my all time favourite views.
And how about this for a place to rest your head ?....

Christ's Cock ! These Lords of the Loire were no small beer !
There are loads of them too. After 10 kilometers or so we were all funnelled into a kind of hole in the ground. The French seem to have a thing about holes in the ground. We build houses over them and deny that they were ever there when the houses start falling down. The French turn them into houses, dungeons, secret fortresses ( the one at Chateau Brézé is the biggest in Europe apparently) wineries and places to grow mushrooms. They also store cheeses and wines....and who knows what else ?

In this one they were dishing out all manner of drinks, Coke, Fanta, fruit juices, water and a selection of local wines. Then there was various breads, biscuits and fruits. They even had a wood fired oven going, turning out foueés which are a kind of local delicacy. They're actually a form of ancient flat bread like pitta bread, but straight out the oven, stuffed with pork rillettes and cornichons, they could be addictive !
I certainly restrained myself as I correctly figured out we were now heading away from the Loire and into hills. Not killer hills, but definitely hills !

I snatched this photo hoping to show the glasses of wine being offered but such was the good-natured scrum I failed miserably. But believe me, wine was consumed in large quantities !

This was lunch, served up "sur l'herbe" at Chateau Brézé where we were entertained by a kind of brass band who were playing a version of "Dock of the Bay" when I turned up.

This is maybe, maybe not, a wee video clip of the band knocking out an interesting version of "Amazing Grace" Very Pleasant !

Now, I'm not going to go on and on and describe the rest of the route and the chateaux and caves and what not. Somebody that can write will probably do that properly for you.  The rest, in no particular order are just memories and impressions I took from this event. I'll put a link in at the end so that you can see the official site and see much more expressive photos than mine.

I did originally intend to just do the 46km run, but by good chance I managed to miss the turn for the shorter route and ended up doing the full 87 km. This, I think, happened when I got into company with a Yorkshire couple who had spent the previous week cycling along the Loire on a sort of package holiday with hired bikes and luggage moved on from hotel to hotel for them. Very civilised ! We were blethering away and they told me that they hadn't actually officially entered the event and were just out for a wee last run before they went back home the next day. They'd been doing a maximum of about 50km a day and were getting a bit anxious about the length of the run they were on. "Not at all" I assured them, "just follow the arrows at the roadside and you'll be back in Saumur in no time" However, a feed stop turned up where I wasn't expecting it and when I asked, I found out that we were on the 87km route and had still about 40km to the Arrivee ! They weren't in any real distress so I didn't feel too guilty about sneaking off and leaving them to find their own way back. They did have satnav with them. I'm sure that they'll really thank me someday.

I'll never forget the welcome everyone got in even the tiniest of villages. Several times I was riding through a hamlet and the kids were lining up at the sides of the road holding out their hands for high fives. In parts of the UK they would be lobbing bricks at you !

And every cross road and junction was manned by volunteers with red flags to stop other traffic to give you priority. And nobody threw nails on the road as they've done recently in Scotland on a cycling event.
Just as a shower set in I started climbing the two hardest climbs of the whole route and I started thinking "Just like Scotland !" But halfway up there were a bunch of kids sitting on a wall cheering me on and a guy, probably their father, offering me a glass of wine or a drink of water.
"No, this isn't Scotland !" I realised.

Almost at the end we were drawn into the estate of Maison Bouvet-Ladubay a highly prestigious sparkling wine producer. I was carefully walking my bike through the almost completely dark cave when I started to hear organ music. You know, Phantom of the Opera type organ music, and as I went on it got louder and louder until as I emerged into a vast underground chamber an incredible female voice burst into song. You had to have been there. It was an unearthly experience. I don't think I'll ever forget it. And the glass of sparkling white never tasted so good !

 So I was thinking that was a grand day out, I'll soon be back at the start and I'll just get packed up and make my way back to the hotel. Not at all !!
We were directed along this avenue that had been covered in a red carpet and before we went under the Arrivee arch we had to pass crowds of people sitting in a spectator area or leaning over the barriers cheering and clapping. No wonder the ancient Romans had a slave in the chariot constantly whispering in the Victor's ear when the Senate had granted a Triumphant parade through the city of Rome, " Remember, Master, you are only mortal !"

The CTC York Rally should have taken place over this weekend, but was cancelled at short notice because of funding.
People will ask how the Anjou Velo Vintage compares to the York Rally.
The similarities were, there were lots of people on bikes, it rained a bit, and you could spend money !
York Rally has lost direction for me for a long time now. I agree that there's more to cycling than riding a bike but for me York Rally has just turned into a boozy weekend that you take a bike to. Nothing really wrong with that. But York Rally doesn't involve the people of York like the Anjou Velo Vintage does The people of Saumur. The Anjou Velo Vintage is a genuinely heartfelt Celebration of Cycling in all forms whereas the impressions I get from York are that we are only grudgingly tolerated because we're there in a sizeable number and pay out a lot of money for the privilege. There's absolutely no love for the bike in York nowadays....was there ever ? I didn't detect a hint of hostility at all during the Anjou event. I couldn't say that about York !
Anjou Velo Vintage is for  The People, York Rally is for cyclists, and is on it's last legs.
Despite what the media says about cycling in UK becoming popular, it's at the moment fashionable and the bubble will bust pretty quickly. Mark my words.
The UK has too many problems within itself as a nation. It'll take many generations before the British can discover the qualities that could have made it a Great nation rather than just a rich one.

I said I would put in a link for the official Anjou Velo Vintage site so just click here and you'll see.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Right Stuff.

A very rare A J Rickett  PBP Special from Houston, Renfrewshire

This is not about the right stuff to go to work on, or to go for the shopping on. Or to go racing on, or to go downhilling on, or to go posing on. Or to go round the world on, or even to go for a fortnight's holiday on.

This is about the Right Stuff for me to do a long Audax ride on !

Peter Marshall on Recumbent  Photo by Maindru.

Yes, I know that Drew Buck did Paris-Brest-Paris on a Dursley Pedersen, and in 2003 a young Finnish lad, Alpo Kuusisto, did it on a scooter, of all things ! People have done PBP on recumbents, trikes, tandem trikes, recumbent tandem trikes, just about anything you can imagine on two or three wheels propelled solely by the rider/riders.

Pat Kenny and Pete Gifford on Tandem Trike.

But this is the equipment that, after many years of painstaking trial and error, I use for long distance Audax rides.

The two main criteria are  Comfort and Reliability.
Actually that should read " The Main criterium is Comfort and Reliability " Because one without the other is just not on, it must be both.
Then we should start taking weight into account. Never forget though that you can spend thousands on the lightest components but if you neglect your diet you're wasting time and money. When you weigh your bike make sure that its fully equipped with lights, mudguards, tools etc. Then weigh yourself and add the weight of the bike. Now you have a Total Riding Weight, and this is the weight that you should be minimising.
Don't buy Mars Bars and Coke for a fortnight.  How much money will you save ? And how much weight will come off the Total Riding Weight ?
Or you can buy a custom carbon fibre frame and a set of carbon wheels and reduce the Total Riding Weight by perhaps 900gm, but at what a cost financially ?
And much more importantly by losing the weight from your body you'll be improving your Power to Weight Ratio.
How do you think guys like Drew Buck did PBP on a heavy antique steel bike ? Because they weren't carrying much excess weight on their bodies and they were bloody FIT !
So get fit !

Another drawback about trying to reduce the Total Riding Weight by using ultra lightweight componentry like carbon frames, is that in the event of a heavy, or even just an unlucky fall the bike might be rendered irrepairable at the side of the road. Think long and hard about lightweight components and their effects on reliability. Sure, Tour de France riders use state of the art stuff, but even they have to observe the UCI minimun weight for a bike. I know the UCI comes in for a lot of deserved criticism, but I must agree, in principle, with them on setting realistic minimum weights for cycles. And again Tour riders have the luxury of a back up car loaded with replacement bikes. An Audax rider won't have that ! Although I did hear of one rider, whose bike was wiped out in an accident, who was fortunately near a branch of Halfords in the UK . Using his credit card he bought a cheap and cheerful Halfords Special  and successfully continued his ride.

Columbus Framed A J Rickett.

So, starting with the frame, my preference is steel, Reynolds, Columbus, Vitus and Dedacciai all make some of the finest lightweight steel tubing there is on the market. A properly made frame using any of these makers tubesets will give a light  but strong and comfortable bicycle. And my preference is also for steel forks. I've tried many aluminium framesets and although there are weight savings to be made by the time the makers have engineered comfort into the frame the weight saving is negligible ! Some expensive aluminium frames I've ridden have been so harsh I was lucky to be able to complete a 100km Audax.
 Comfort on a bicycle depends on many seemingly unrelated things, but the frame is the starting point. Get a good steel frame and you've got the start of a good Audax bike.

Semi Deep Section Campag Rim
Next, no, not the saddle, we'll come to that later. Wheels ! Wheels can be so rigid that they'll loosen the fillings in your teeth ! At the other extreme you can get wheels that ride as if they were made of marshmallow. It's all to do with the choice of rims and spokes and the way they're put together. Good quality hubs go without saying, my preference being mid range Campagnolo or slightly higher range Shimano. I certainly don't mean Super Record or Dura Ace, they're for sponsored riders ....or rich ones ! My preference for rims is either Mavic or Campagnolo with my current favourites being Campag Mexico rims, although you'll find these hard to come by nowadays. Always aim for a balance between strength ,reliability and weight. I've come to the conclusion that using double butted Sapim spokes laced  three-crossed into wheels gives me the ideal balance of responsiveness and comfort. Personally I've never noticed any difference in the general feel of a bike with either 32 spoked front wheel with 40 spoked rear wheel and 36 spoked front and rear. I do notice a degree of harshness with a radially spoked front wheel however so I avoid that.

A nice Bob Jackson Legend with Proper Zefal Pump.
Now, tyres. First, size matters !  23mm x700c tyres are quite unforgiving after 200km, so for distances up to 400km I use 25mm x700c tyres. For distances over 400km I would be using 28mm x700c and possibly 32mm  x700c but getting this size in the right quality isn't easy. For many years now I've been using kevlar beaded Continental GP's in either 25mm or 28mm, both weigh just over 250gm. If you're going to lose weight on a bike, lose it at the rims and tyres first. It really does make a noticeable difference. And get into the habit of carrying a folding spare tyre along with at least two tubes and a new puncture outfit. Observe closely the manufacturers pressure settings, a squeeze with the finger and thumb just doesn't do. Running the pressure too low wastes energy and leaves you more liable to visits from the Puncture Fairy ! Why ? If you hit a pot hole there won't be enough pressure to stop the rim biting into the inner tube giving you the characteristic snake bite double puncture.
Don't, whatever you do, depend on a mini inflater, no matter what part of California it was made in or what parts of a recycled Stealth aircraft were used. A proper, aluminium, full size, frame fitting pump with a fast lock-on valve connector is required, nothing less ! Not unless you want to be one of those riders waiting at the side of the road for someone with a real pump to stop and give you a loan of it ! Believe me, I speak from bitter experience !

A Ubiquitous Rolls Sadddle.
OK, now we'll talk about saddles. The advice I would give is to check what a Tour de France rider of a similar weight to you is using. These guys spend much more time in the saddle than just about any of us. So it stands to reason that if it works for them, it'll work for you, provided you've done the necessary training. By that I'm not suggesting that you put in the same saddle time as a pro rider, but you'll have to gradually build up saddle time. It's actually more about getting your sitting area conditioned to the saddle rather than the saddle being broken in, that really is a myth ! When your saddle seems comfortable after several hours it's because you've accustomed  the muscles around your sit bones to cope with it, nothing to do with the saddle itself !
When exhaustion kicks in, your seating area muscles frequently collapse and that's when you feel as if you're riding a razor blade. If you look closely at some pro's saddles you'll realise that they are actually Selle San Marco Rolls saddles re-badged.  I prefer a Rolls saddle because they aren't prone to being damaged by rain like Brooks. I had three Brooks saddles distort badly due to rain despite careful application of Proofide and covering them when left in the open. But then, maybe that was just Scotland ?

Cinelli 'bars and stem.
Handlebars,Cinelli are my favourite, they do suitably wide dropped handlebars with a nice straight centre section. The centre section is important because you'll need it to mount a bike computer and at least one lamp. And possibly a heart rate monitor during training. Although I personally don't use one, I know quite a lot of riders are now using sat nav devices, and they need some space on the handlebars? This really rules out most of the newer one-piece aerodynamic handlebar assemblies. Professional  riders don't use lights nowadays and they certainly don't use map holders, or bar bags or sat nav devices. When they do the market place will change, but don't hold your breath ! I've found using a double layer of Cinelli cork handlebar tape to be very effective against the dreaded numb fingers that can set in after a long time on the bike. Some riders swear by a product called Mar Sas I believe, but whatever you use don't forget gloves. One simple fall could give you such bad gravel rash on the palms of your hands that you won't be finishing the ride, so wear gloves !

Look Cleats.
Now we come to the last of the three points of contact with the bicycle, Pedals. I would urge you to get used to a clipless system like Look, particularly Look, as they have a pretty large area of contact between the sole of the shoe and the pedal. A criticism I've often heard about Shimano SPD system is that after a while it feels like pedalling with a chestnut in your shoe. The best advice I can give is to start with a particular type of pedal and stick to it. Sure, Jock Wadley did PBP wearing a pair of Hush Puppies and used clips and straps, but Jock Wadley was a true veteran and could probably have done it in his bare feet ! The reason I recommend using Look pedals is because you can get really well engineered shoes that take Look cleats. Specialised make a good range of shoes which incorporate a lot of serious development in foot to pedal contact. Admittedly you won't be able to walk in them, so try and hunt down a pair of cleat protectors that'll slip into one of your back pockets. The next time you slip and end up on your derriere you'll remind yourself never to forget them again ! Use the money you've saved by not buying a £200 carbon seatpost  and a pair of Mavic Kryserium wheels to get the best in footwear. If you've ever experienced the peculiar agony known as "hot foot " you'll agree with me. Clips and straps were fine in their day but I've felt straps cutting off circulation to my toes and leaving me hobbling for a week after an event, that surely can't be doing your body good. Also look at the hi-tech overshoes available nowadays, you won't be able to use them with clips and straps.

The last thing I'm going to cover today is Mudguards or Fenders for TransAtlantic riders. A huge long running debate went on in Audax UK about mudguards. Then mudguards were compulsory, no beating about the bush, plain and simple, compulsory ! Now they're not. I won't go into the whole debate as it became quite acrimonious as only a squabble in a British cycling club can. No wonder the world thinks the British are eccentric !
Anyway, we digress, I use mudguards because I'm a penny-pinching, idle sod ! There , you have it now !
No, not Scotland this time, Belgium !
Clocking up hours of riding on wet, wintry Scottish roads will get a bike absolutely filthy. And the rider too, especially without mudguards. What you must do at the end of every training ride is wash your bike. Only death is accepted as an excuse for not doing so. Leave your bike unwashed for a couple of days or more and the next time you want to ride, it will be unusable. The chain will be rusted solid, the brakes will be seized, the rims will be corroded and the chrome will be pitted. This is the beauty of having a proper set of mudguards fitted. Sure the bike will be dirty, but certainly not filthy. And the chainset, bottom bracket, headset bearings, seat post clamp and yourself will have been afforded a degree of protection. This will half the time it takes to was your bike and extend the life of your components, saving you money. Campagnolo Racing Triple chainsets don't come cheap, so they're worth protecting.
Who has experienced the joy of swallowing a liberal sample of the road covering from a wet Scottish farm road that's been launched in the air in front of you by your unguarded front wheel ? Great, isn't it ?

Start of National 400km 2000 in Scotland.

Well, there you are, that's the very basics about the Right Stuff to ride an Audax with.
Later I might write about some of the finer details, like the choice of computer, what type of headset bearings are best, the best bottom brackets, luggage, lights....it goes on !
And that's not even mentioning Sudocrem , or Bag Balm, or bags of white powder that cyclists have in public toilets in the early hours of the morning, which prompted the local Hawick drunk to mutter "F***in' cyclists, I might huv known !"

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Fear !

"I'm sorry, Nick, I just can't go on with this! I'm terrified I fall and injure someone ! I'm going to have to pull out !"

I was shaking when I said that. I was so bitterly disappointed in myself. I'd spent over a year preparing for this and I just couldn't bloody well do it !! I was scared, really scared ! If I made a mistake on the straight, or worse, on the banking, I was not only going to fall and hurt myself but I was very likely to cause other people to fall and injure themselves. The least would be big patches of skin torn off my hips and knees but the thought of me causing other riders to suffer horrendous injuries like Jason Queally was really getting to me. He had crashed while riding Meadowbank velodrome and very nearly died because of a huge splinter of wood penetrating his lung. I couldn't get this image out of my head !

Alistair Rickett at Manchester Velodrome.
Over a year before this, Alistair Rickett and I were at a cycle jumble sale in Manchester Velodrome and I'd been persuaded by silver tongued Alistair that it would be a great idea to rent a couple of track bikes and try a Taster Session on the track. It was well supervised, the track was cleared and only a dozen or so novices were actually riding. The coach got us lined up then one by one we pushed off and slowly, with a bit of wobbling, rode round the flat concrete part of the track. It felt really weird riding a fixed transmission again, it was about thirty five years since I'd last ridden fixed. And this time there were no brakes at all, if you wanted to slow down, you reversed your pedalling forces, i.e. you resisted the pedals , you can't freewheel and apply a brake ! Eventually we were all managing to ride round the flat and more or less come to a halt when we wanted to. Now, onto the actual banked wooden track !
"Stay low on the track, keep on the Cote D'Azure, the blue painted band, and when you go into the bend don't lean the bike, just let the banking take you round, but keep pedalling !" Well, we weren't going to be able to stop pedalling were we ?  If we did we'd be in trouble.
" OK you seem to have the hang of that. Now start going further up the track towards the red line,but when you get to the banking you'll have to pedal just a bit harder to keep on your line, On you go !" I soon saw what the coach meant. As you go up the banking it gets steeper and steeper and you've got to get your speed up, think Wall of Death scenario ! OK, it soon felt quite natural to me to be riding at an angle of forty five degrees from the vertical. "Just look where you want to go, not where you don't and you'll be fine !" Sure enough, if you looked down at your front wheel while you're going round the banking a sort of spacial displacement sets in. Unnatural signals being processed by the brain, and the brain doesn't  like it !
I couldn't believe that the hour was up and that I'd actually ridden round one of the fastest velodrome tracks in the world....and not fallen off !

It was the first time for big Steve Mundie too. Alistair had ridden the dreadful Meadowbank open air stadium when he was younger. Unlike me, Alistair is one of those people who are just natural on a bike, a real talent ! Steve was very much into rowing when he was a bit younger, but he too was one of nature's athletes and although he'd taken up cycling a bit later he was wasting no time. He actually went on to ride the Worlds Masters Championship in Manchester a few years later. And did very well !!

"So did you like that ? Fancy doing it again ? "
Yes and yes !

 That was the start.

That was in January; In  March, we got a wee group together, Alistair, Ian McGivern,big Drew and myself and we all travelled together from Glasgow to Manchester in my VW van. Poor Drew, first time on a track, fell off  at the first bend. Didn't look too bad, and he's got the right attitude, so he got up, changed his bike and tried again....and fell off ! We put it down to a bit of contamination on the track, but really I don't know why he fell. His whole hip was badly skinned, his shorts were for the bin, and it was obvious that he was going to be sitting queerly for a week or so. Ouch !
 I was having a ball, I didn't fall off !
Once the nerves calmed down I was really enjoying this !
We made the trip once a month after that and got in with a bunch of people who like us, were just getting a great kick out of riding the track. The coaches were great, they got us doing some fairly informal group riding. Then forming a pace line, where you take a turn at the front and then peel off up the track,let the rest of the line pass below you then drop back into the end of the line. The technique is to ride very close to the rider in front's back wheel and get the benefit of the slipstream so that you can get your heart-rate back down until it's your turn at the front again. Then you've got to ride almost flat out to keep driving the line along, slow the line down and you get riders all over the track as the line disintegrates....no brakes remember !
This is when you realise how much trust you have to put in other riders. Track discipline is rigid and you can understand why, when you're riding in a line at 45 kph  a quarter of a metre away from somebody's rear tyre.
Craig MacLean in civvies at Manchester Velodrome
What really got to me was, when we all looked as if we knew what we were doing on the track, great riders like Craig MacLean, Chris Hoy,Chris Boardman and Vicky Pendleton would share the track with us while they were warming up for their training sessions. These people, even then, were major cycling stars, Chris Boardman was an Olympic champion, yet they rode with you, joined in the banter and showed no signs whatsoever of being superstars. It's not many people who can say they've been coached by  Olympic and  World champions is there ? But that's cycling, apart from the very fringes, it's the most sociable sport there is !

We were sharing a shower with  Craig MacLean ( now there's definitely not a lot of people can say that ! ) when he suggested that we should go for Track Accreditation which meant that if we passed the test we could turn up at Manchester Velodrome ,pay the session fee and then join in any training group we wanted to. Track Accreditation meant that you were deemed to be safe and competent on the track and unlikely to be a danger to others
This was really raising the bar for me, could I do it ? Did I want to do it ?
Well, I had endurance fitness, so I reckoned a bit of speed training wouldn't go amiss and it would give me something to focus my training on.

That November Alistair, Steve and I signed up for a Track Accreditation Test next May.

January 2001 started with a Forth Flattie Audax 100km event. It was very cold, below 0C all day but I put in a good time and was pretty content. Plenty of Hamster Wheel ( Turbo Trainer ! ) and generally riding to and from the Garage. We kept up our monthly sessions in Manchester and the coaches started to focus our training on the Accreditation Test.
February was a poor month, snow and ice ruled out any road work.

Steve, John Bell and Alistair on a Black Sheep Run
By March the weather started picking up and at the end Alistair, Steve and I did John Bell's Black Sheep Run from Harrogate. It consisted of cycling to a brewery, having some beer and cycling back. Wow! really serious training then ? Actually, on more than one level it was/is. John Bell is probably one of the most gifted cyclists I've ever met. You would never know it unless you paid close attention to just exactly how he rode. He could always keep up a good brisk pace, and this was in Yorkshire ! and somehow managed to keep the bunch together and all the time keeping the crack going. Somebody once said one of the hardest things about John Bell's runs was being able to cycle while doubled up with laughter ! Especially if Alistair Rickett was in the bunch !! When he was younger, John Bell won the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross Race, surely the hardest cycle race ever. Just Google it, you'll see what I mean ! Of course he would never tell anyone, it was only when we were in Ron Kitchen's library in the Otley Cycling Club and I was looking at an article about the Three Peaks Race with a list of previous winners that one of the older guys pointed at his name and said "That's him, you know !" pointing at John. " Oh aye, that were long time ago !" he said with a shrug.
Jings, if I'd won that I'd have had it tattooed onto my forehead ! and I'd still be waving flags and drinking out of the cup. The whole world would have know if it had been me !! But that's John. A great guy !
Just riding with these people helps you get what the handlebar code is all about.
April and Easter found us on Arran for a good fast run round the island, and the next day some seriously hard climbing over the String Road followed by the 1 in 4 slopes of the Ross Road. Felt like kill or cure treatment.

Nick O' Balloch Road with no rain !
 Next weekend was a run over the Nick o' Balloch road in poor weather, rain and a freezing cold wind on the descent. The pub at the foot of the descent had a blazing open fire going. Despite being well wrapped up I was so cold going into the pub I couldn't speak, I had to point to things on the menu. A nice couple ran the place then, they gave us dry towels to use and took our cycling clothes to put them through their tumble dryer. It was a sair wrench leaving that pub, I'll tell you !
End of April saw me doing a fast 100km tour of Glendaruel despite the cold and rain. Hard, but I was pleased that I was managing to keep up a higher average speed than I was used to.
May 13th, perfect weather, I managed to deliver John and Irene Dunn's lovely old Mercedes SL to them first thing en route with the usual suspects to Glen Lyon for a final leg strength test before the Accreditation.The ride through Glen Lyon and along the south side of Loch Tay can be challenging....this certainly was! We deliberately pushed the pace up past our usual pace and we were all pretty well strung out at the end.
But I was quite happy with my form, surely I would cope with the test next week ?

Friday May 18th. Left Glasgow with Alistair and Keith, a new recruit. Picked up Nick Tithecott in Maulds Meaburn and Booked into the Campanile hotel in Manchester. Once Steve arrived off to a decent Italian Restaurant for what felt like a last supper. I still don't know where this came from, but we all admitted later that we were nervous. Why ?

I told you it was steep !
Saturday, 19th May. Arrived at the Velodrome in plenty of time to sort out our hire bikes.
10am. Our two coaches introduced themselves and in one of the small lecture rooms went over what we were about to do. They emphasised the need to observe at all times strict track discipline. Then Pete described the routines we were going to follow for the next couple of hours.
11am. Onto the track in two groups of twelve. Nick then showed us the Webley .38 revolver. "I'll use it firstly as a starting pistol, but the next five chambers are filled with live rounds and if I see anyone riding dangerously I'll shoot them dead !"
OK, the humour was maybe a bit heavy handed. And I can assure you that now you could feel the tension in the air. but now we were about to go through some manoeuvres that had most of us squirming in our seats in the lecture room. First we did about twenty laps to warm up, then we formed a line and took turns at the front, peeling off at the start of a turn and running up the banking to drop back into the end of the line, like we'd all done before.
 But now we had to steadily increase the pace until we were all riding just about flat out ! Every time Pete blew his whistle we had to dig harder and harder. Just when most of us couldn't go any faster we got the signal to slow down and move off the track to recover.
All too soon we were back on the track cruising in a line when Nick gave the instruction to follow him closely. He then led us right up to the barriers at the top of the track and we did a few laps like this then right in the middle of a bend he swooped down to the bottom blue line, turned and rode back up to the barriers and continued the lap.
This was heart in the mouth stuff !
Especially when someone crashed at the bottom and brought another couple of riders down. The first guy suffered a broken collar bone, the other two got nasty track burn and torn tights. Another reason for not wearing £120.00 worth of Castelli bib tights on the track ! One of the riders eventually came back on and success fully completed the test. Mr Castelli threw in the towel...a nice expensive Castelli one !
By now my nerves were at snapping point and I don't know how I got through the next exercise as I had the handlebars in a death grip. So much for riding alert but relaxed !
What we did next was to ride two abreast and peel off on the corners, one up the track, one down the track then rejoin the line. Very difficult for the rider peeling off down the track because you have to ride hard to get back into position at the end of the line and because the line was now only six riders long there was not much time left to recover before you were back at the front, having to put in a big effort to keep the pace line speed up.
Then the dreaded swoops down and back up the banking. I managed to do it, but through a red haze, all the time thinking "it's going to be me next ! it's going to be me next !"
The relief, when the whistle blew to slow down and get off the track, was indescribable ! I wasn't wearing a heart rate monitor but if I had been I'm sure the upper safety limit bleeper would have been going nuts .

1pm till 2pm Lunch. I've no recollection of eating anything at all, but I must have. I do remember drinking litres and litres of water.

2pm till 3pm another safety and riding technique lecture which I listened to in a state of panic.Then back on the track for a go faster session.

In the tunnel going back to the track I just snapped . I could take no more .
"I'm sorry, Nick, I just can't go on with this! I'm terrified I fall and injure someone ! I'm going to have to pull out !"

"You're kidding ?" he said, taking my elbow and leading me over to Pete the other coach.
 " Pete, Ronnie's having a bit of a confidence crisis, he thinks he's a danger on the track. I certainly don't. You've been riding with him, what do you think ?"
Pete looked at me for a minute then said " Sit down here and take another drink of water. I noticed when you came off at lunch time you were a bit dehydrated. And I agree with Nick, I don't think you ride dangerously. You're what, fifty two years old ? You're not going to have the top end speed that the younger guys have, but you've got stamina. When that guy came off the track and brought the others down you were fourth man behind him.You were still capable of reacting properly and riding out of danger. I've spoke to the three lads that crashed and in my opinion they were exhausted and didn't recognise the signs. I've been monitoring you like all the others and so has Nick and as far as I'm concerned unless you do something really stupid in the next couple of hours, you've passed. "
" Go on, saddle up and get back on the track !"

I still don't know the exact reason why, in the space of a couple of minutes, I went from panic stricken to a state of being calmly confident. But I did, and went on to actually enjoy the rest of the test.

And I passed !!

And I also learned a lot about fear.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Grand Day Out on the Bike !

The Apprentice and the Bent Boat

"Jings! that last one was a bit grim, was it not ? Did you never just go out on your bike to enjoy yourself ?"

Of course I did, most of the time actually. So what you're saying is, can we not get something a bit more uplifting to cheer us up in this dreich ( a fine old Scots word meaning cold, wet, windy and grey, all at once ! ) winter time ? Will I tell you about the ride that the Apprentice and myself did a few years ago ? Sunshine, French scenery at it's best, tailwinds only, good food and not a clock to be seen, how about that ?

Wild flowers in August.
Ok, one fine summer morning in France,  the Apprentice wheeled the bikes out and checked them over. A couple of drinks and some emergency rations were loaded into my bag along with the regular Handlebar Code Kit, Tubes&Tools ! "Where are we going ?"  There was a very gentle breeze floating in from the north east, so we headed into that taking us out of town towards the village of Frossay. I was riding a fine Dutch roadster, a Gazelle Impala. The words "Gazelle" and "Impala" kind of lead you into thinking about speed, agility and lightness. Hah ! They say only the English do irony ? The Dutch do too !  This is a great bike but jings, it weighs a ton ! A Gazelle Elephant  would be a more appropriate name !  However it's got qualities I love. Rims and handlebars are stainless steel, it's got a fully enclosed chain, full mudguards, a front hub dynamo with built in lights, a sturdy steel rear rack with straps, Shimano seven speed hub gears and Shimano roller hub brakes. In a word, Bullet-proof ! It's the kind of bike that you can just step on no matter what you're wearing, what the weather's doing or what time of day or night it is. Short runs to the shops or all day contemplatif rides and anything in between. I used it a lot in Glasgow where the peace of mind came from the built in rear wheel lock and combined anchor like chain, meaning that I didn't have to keep it in line of sight at all times. And of course in Glasgow it was truly unfashionable, so the local low-life thought that it was not an easy Buckfast voucher. ( Buckfast tonic wine is made by a religious order in the south of England. It's cheap and fortified with extra alcohol and the thieving classes in the west of Scotland just live for it... and probably die because of it. So much so, that the rumour is, a pipeline is going to be installed between Devon and Airdrie to cope with the demand. ). For the day, the Apprentice had chosen his wee Decathlon MTB, sturdy, not overburdened with gimmicks like a lot of kids' MTB's and not expensive. The only real criticism I had was the length of the cranks, come on ! 175mm cranks on a kid's bike ?  That's OK on a BMX that's going to be thrashed about, but not for long steady runs. It's a recipe for damaged young knees and disillusionment with cycling. However, St John Street Cycles came up with a decent set of shorter cranks and they were mailed out to me in a few days and half an hour's work had the boy on a bike that he would enjoy riding for as long as it fitted him.

Alexis Maneyrol Monument
The sun on our backs, birdsong in our ears as we rolled through the air perfumed with the scent of wild flowers. Bliss on a bike !

René Leduc and R-16

"What's that monument thing ? Was he some sort of hero ?" This was the monument in the village of Frossay to  Alexis Maneyrol. He was one of the first, but certainly not the last of a long line of pioneering aviators from Pays de Retz. The tradition continues today with the huge Airbus factories in St Nazaire and Nantes. When you look into it, it's amazing what aeronautical development was done in this quiet rural area. René Leduc ( not the René Leduc who developed the ram-jet engine ! ) was a disciple of Alexis Maneyrol , broke speed and altitude records with his revolutionary design of light aircraft and was born in our town of St Pere en Retz. He was also involved, near the end of his life, with the development of ULM's ( Ultra Light aircraft )  and a local flying club specialising in these fascinating machines is very popular. Hardly a week goes past here without you seeing something unusual in the sky, an Airbus Beluga so big it looks like it's breaking the laws of physics or a Flying Flea that looks like breaking the laws of common sense ! And there's so much wartime stuff too. Only last year the Mairie organised a memorial for the crew of a WW2 Lancaster, the remains of which had just been unearthed by a farmer clearing some woodland. During WW1 there was a huge American/French Airship base at Paimboeuf . They were used primarily against WW1 German U boats. This site is well worth a look, it's in French but the photos are great and Google will translate it for you if you want. Recommended !

Cordemais Power Station on north bank of the Loire
Well, that was the climbing done, such as it was, now for a lovely freewheel almost all the way to le Migron on the south bank of the canal de la Martiniere. We turned left here and ambled on for a few kilometres to the start of the canal. And what a canal ! It's not used as it was intended nowadays, but it still makes British canals look like flooded ditches ! It obviously cost an absolute fortune to build ( reading the heroic French newspaper articles of the time comparing it to ancient Egyptian pyramid building makes you wonder though ) and took about ten years to construct. The reason for building it was because bigger and bigger ships were wanting to get along the Loire to berth at Nantes,but the Loire at this point was shallow and very slow to navigate. A canal seemed like the ideal answer. However , such were the technological advances in modern powered dredging , that a permanent channel was soon created in the Loire, and the canal was obsolete within a few years of it's opening. Now it's well used for leisure purposes and is incorporated in a wild life preservation area. So we crossed a bridge and cycled on rough tracks as far as we could go, right up to the south bank of the Loire with a great view of the Cordemais power station, It burns coal and oil, and maybe gas but I'm not exactly sure on that. I looks a bit nucleary but I think it's just that French Techno Industrial architecture. It is quite a sight, if you like that sort of thing ! I like the contrast between the nature reserve , the river and this twentieth century monster. Here's a link to a wee You Tube video of the Canal de la Martiniere, It's worth a watch.

A nice Bob Jackson Curly Legend at West Locks
" This canal's not very long, why don't we follow it to the other end where it rejoins the river ?" Which is exactly what we did. The route along the canal going east was well surfaced and wide enough to accommodate cars if necessary although I think we only saw half a dozen the whole trip. By now it was really warming up, so we stopped at a point opposite a man made storks's nest and watched them for a while as we topped up our hydration levels. Rolling along, side by side, we passed the ULM flying club and stopped to watch a couple of micro lights taking off and landing, Looked like great fun ! Near here we could see the shell of a tall square tower, this was the remains of an Abbey which had been badly knocked about during the revolution but is still a pretty impressive piece of architecture.

Abbey at Buzay
The next stretch had us cycling in the shade of some trees bordering the canal, very "Wind in the Willows" stuff, until we came across a flotilla of dinghies going through their manoeuvres. They were from a sailing school with it's club house on the opposite bank. John Grieve singing  " The Crinan Canal for Me " came to mind. Certainly looked fine and safe for kids. I'll bet they never get the experiences my pal John and I had when we went to a sailing school in Tighnabruaich on the west coast of Scotland. That was memorable !  We slowed right down to keep abreast of them while they tried to  tack  along the canal and we joined in with their laughter as they merrily ran aground or rammed one another. This was fun sailing ! Then we came across the queerest looking things ! A couple of semi- submerged canal barges, big ones though, much bigger than any British narrow boats. But they were made of reinforced concrete !! We'd never seen anything like them.
Concrete Barges !
On enquiry, it turned out that during WW1 there was a shortage of steel which was what these type of barges were usually made of, so someone engaged in a bit of lateral thinking and came up with the idea of reinforced concrete. This turned out to be a great success as construction was fast and cheap. but when the canal fell into disuse they were no longer required and these are left as monuments to French ingenuity.  

Erwin Wurms strikes again !

By this time we were at the locks which let boats back into the Loire and the end of the canal. But the boat here really took the biscuit ! Check the photo, it's almost impossible to describe ! It's a sort of sculpture by Erwin Wurms who also does models of American cars made from cushions. But it made us smile !

Le Cafe 
We'd crossed to the other bank and were making our way back to Le Migron when we came upon a perfect stopping place, a canal-side cafe. A couple of Oranginas for the Apprentice and a nice cool Kronenbourg for me as we waited for our galettes. French fast food at it's best !  Sure enough, sitting under a parasol, digesting a fine wee lunch and watching people having fun on the water,the world really was our lobster that day . Back in the saddle after settling up in the cafe and off we went. No kidding though, we would have spent more in a McDonalds, and not enjoyed it nearly as much. On our road back we talked about how the spirit of Jules Verne seemed to pervade the Pays de Retz. Of how we'd spent the day enjoying things on land, in the air and on water that French ingenuity had brought about. Has Neal Stephenson become the twentieth century Jules Verne ? You can't beat a good blether on the bike!! (Blethering is Scots for indulging in spirited, animated and invigorating conversation )
The light breeze that we'd cycled into now seemed to have picked up a little, but it was on our backs,
 O Joy!
 So then we got that sensation of just not being aware of the pedals at all. We seemed to just float back along the other bank. Even when we approached Frossay and had to climb up to where we first noticed the Alexis Maneyrol monument the breeze was worth another gear. Back through the vineyards and through the fields of wild flowers a fine long freewheel, last wee drag up to the level crossing and we're on the road for home. Both feeling just fine ! Have you ever noticed how easy it is to describe unpleasant, painful sensations but how you can be at a loss for words to describe truly joyful experiences ?

The Apprentice with Decathlon MTB

Distance ridden, just over 50km. Time taken, who cares ? It was probably the first time the Apprentice had ever had such a good day on the bike. One of those days when you come home tired but not exhausted, you feel as if your whole system is in tune with ...something ?
You could get spiritual at these times.... but people would talk, so you just say " Aye, another braw day on the bike, wife, is that my tea ?"

Sunday, 12 February 2012

An Audax

What's an Audax ?

OK, an Audax run is a cycle ride, mostly, starting and finishing at the same place and following a prescribed route with check points along the way to confirm completion of the route and to act as a speed regulator.
An Audax ride is essentially non-competitive in that there is no prize for finishing first. By it's very nature there is an upper speed limit, exceed it if you can but you will still get the same time awarded as someone who finishes after you but at the exact minimum time allowed.  But it's the maximum time allowed that is usually of greatest concern. For a normal 100km Audax the maximum time allowed is 6 hours 36 minutes giving you a minimum average speed of 15 kph or about 9 mph.
Right, once you've stopped laughing, let's just go through this. You get your card stamped at 10am and off you go, you don't know this area and you have to follow a route sheet, some of which are just so vague that you've spent time making up your own, so you find your check point without too many wrong turns, get your card stamped and off you go again."This is a doddle !" you think until you turn the next corner and the road rises in front of you and you realise that you're going over those bloody hills that have been on your horizon for the last hour ! Well, eventually you settle down into a sustainable cadence realising that the pretty respectable average speed you've built up is disappearing rapidly. Then that saddle starts to niggle, your thighs begin to ache, your feet start burning and you're tasting blood at the back of your throat.You think you can see the top but it's bloody miles away ! You don't have any lower gears left and you're going so slow you probably couldn't maintain your balance if you went any slower. The air you're sucking in is freezing but your eyes are being burned out of their sockets by the sweat that's pouring into them. Your chest is aching and you can't even feel your heart beating any more. Then the red mist starts in front of your eyes and your hearing starts to go. " Oh **** this ! I'm walking !! " But you find you've lost so much sensation in your feet you can't unclip your feet from the pedals, you're going to fall over !! It's freezing, it's a really lonely quiet road, you'll almost certainly break a collar bone, fall into shock, develop hypothermia and  die !!
 There's nothing else for it, dig deeper than humanly possible, ignore all pain, close your eyes, you can't see anyway, and force your legs to make another ten pedal pushes !! It's not even a relief when you crest the hill, there's no downhill to let you freewheel and recover, you still have to pedal and now you're trembling uncontrollably. " If there were gods, they wouldn't let me suffer like this ! " What seems like hours later, you've recovered enough to take a hand from the handlebars to wipe the sweat from your eyes and even drag out your bidon . Water never tasted so good ! You're freewheeling ! "I'm going to live !" So you can see now, and it does look like the road is actually going down. OK, you've lost a lot of time but you're going downhill, you'll soon pick up plenty of speed. Until you come round the shoulder of the hill that was protecting you from a vicious north easterly headwind that you're going to have to plough into all the way back to the final check point. Soon the blinding sweat has dried off, but you're shaking again this time with cold. And the wind is so blustery up here you're down to walking speed just so that you don't get blown off the road. The road seems to be levelling out now and there's only 30 km  to go. Now the road turns into a switchback. Short 1:5 drops followed immediately by equally short 1:5 climbs. Just the sort of road Belgian Pro's excel on ! But you're not a Belgian Pro, and it's a case of rolling down but never building up enough speed to carry you up the other side, so it's a first gear grovel for the last few meters, which get longer and longer as the road continues to flail up and down. Right, here's the last checkpoint before the finish. What !!

You've only got an hour left !! Well, surely you can do 15 km in an hour ?  Let's Go !  Fair enough, the road is more or less level now, so why are you grovelling so badly ? Why do you feel as if you're about to pass out ? Eejit !! you forgot to eat ! Do you risk slowing down to cram a sandwich down your throat or do you press on ? No, it's got to be a sandwich, you're now beginning to become a hazard on the road. Have you ever had to force food down, it's not nice is it ? Jings, its looking like touch and go here, you might not make the time. Whether this acts as a spur or whether the food kicks in you don't care, you're now riding pretty quickly. There's the hall, dump the bike, and with your heart in your mouth present your card.
"Did I make it ?"
" Och aye, there's still another half hour to go, this is a Grimpeur Ride so there's always extra time for the hills !"
So you look around the hall taking in the riders who've finished, some are heading home and look as if they've just had a ride round the block, others look like walking wounded from World War One. And  you're not last !! Why does that feel like a victory ? Some older cyclists roll in with minutes to go and eventually you ask them if they were worried about the time.
" Not at all, son, that's a grand run, we didnae want to spile it by rushing it !"