I have nothing against Strava. In fact, it definitely enhances my cycling. Only yesterday I found that someone I ride with at Herne Hill Velodrome was holidaying in the same corner of Dumfriesshire as me and that we’d even ridden the same roads, mere hours apart. Schedules permitting, we’ll meet up tomorrow. That wouldn’t have happened without Strava.
But Strava doesn’t record everything. Your favourite rides can appear entirely mundane on your “activity feed”. So how about this: Get a nice notebook and start a cycling log, in the old fashioned way. No need for those painstaking mileage tables, though; this is just for the fun stuff.
Every time one of these things happens, make a note. These are the things – or at least some of them – that give cycling meaning. Count ’em up to make an alternative record of your cycling season.
On your ride …
You met a friendly stranger
You found a new shortcut
You noticed a statue/bit of a building you wouldn’t have spotted from a car
You see a baby rabbit
Bird of prey
You had trouble sleeping because you were excited about your ride tomorrow
You see your shadow on the road, and your pedal stroke is just so
You see your reflection in a shop window and your socks look terrific
You ride over a humpback bridge, en danseuse, out of the saddle
You emit an involuntary vocalisation of any sort. Could be an “oof” of effort, a laugh as you spot an amusing sign (recent example: “Solway Golf, 99% midge free, guaranteed”) or even a gasp as the sun rises over the hill ahead of you and you are bathed in light and warmth.
No climb in road cycling has been more written about than Mont Ventoux, at least by Brits. Thanks to its longevity in Le Tour, its unusual appearance – most “iconic” climbs end between mountains, not on top of them, and few feature candy-striped superstructures – and the death of Tom Simpson, Mont Ventoux has had countless articles, blogs and chapters devoted to it, and more than one full length book. So I’ll take the basics for granted and tell you what I didn’t expect, when I attempted to ride up it on July 8th this year.
1. It’s deserted. Or at least it is if you are too childishly excited to sleep past sunrise, and you find yourself setting off from Bedoin at 6.45am, as silvery dawn light shimmers down the peak.
I was overtaken by a lone Italian cyclist within a couple of kilometres of the start, but we were so evenly matched that she was never further than 50m ahead of me until I overtook her in sight of the summit (which sounds like shitty etiquette, but I was sticking to my planned pace and not deliberately trying to beat her, honest). Her partner and baby daughter would leapfrog past her on the road, then park on a bend to take pictures and yell encouragement. By the last part of the climb, he rather charmingly started giving me some “allez!” too, to which I was only able to reply with a whispered “merci”, through gritted teeth … Aside from that I saw only a handful of riders on the way up. On the way down, I must have passed three hundred coming the other way. Early is good on Ventoux.
2. It’s pretty. People quite rightly dwell on the sheer extremity of the deforested tip of the mountain, with its pale scree slopes. Indeed you’re almost obliged to describe the scene as “blasted”, “godforsaken” and “a moonscape”. But the preceding 16-odd kilometres are a journey through woodland which, in dappled early morning sunlight, is intimate and delicate, with little oaks and wild flowers. Not vast, epic, intimidating forest; in fact it’s … feminine, almost?
3. The architecture is mental. The weather station on top is huge and uncompromisingly built. It’s a brutalist complex, not just a single building. But its high-viz white and red stripes lend it the look of an Arctic science station too. And it comes with a radar dome to the side, adding a confusing but endearing early-Star Wars vibe.
4. People are weird about Tommy Simpson. I knew British riders left mementos at the memorial to the man who was our finest, pre-Wiggins, on the spot where he died in ’67. So I expected some water bottles and sprigs of flowers. The hand knitted replica jersey was a nice surprise. But … a Science in Sport ReGo Caffeine Gel? As my sister in law commented “energy for the dead guy? Really??”.
I had pictured the memorial being right at the side of the road, but in fact it’s several large stone steps up from it, enhancing the feeling that this is a shrine, which one approaches in pilgrimage.
5. There’s another memorial up there. Actually I did expect this, but others might not. I’m grateful to Max Leonard for telling the extraordinary story of Pierre Kraemer (“The Gaul” as it says on the stone), who chose to end his life on the Ventoux. It’s well worth a read.
And speaking of reading, I’m also grateful to Emily Chappell, whose book Where There’s a Will, we’re publishing in 2019. An early draft of the book describes her ascent of Ventoux, at night, on a fully laden bike – she was competing in the Transcontinental race across Europe, so carried a tent and all sorts. She got through it by imagining that a different friend and riding partner was alongside her for each of the twenty one kilometres to the top. She hates being called an inspiration, but her idea, and her ride, inspired me.
I generally love my bike very much. But there are moments when I fleetingly hate it and glare at it murderously. These are generally “parking” moments, when I’m trying to stand it somewhere for a bit, so I can do something else like lock the front door or check Twitter.
We all know that bikes function best – like The Sundance Kid – when they are allowed to move. Forward motion keeps them balanced. But that doesn’t explain those times they seem almost wilfully resistant to being rendered immobile.
Our efforts to keep them still are complicated by several factors. We are rightly reminded by The Velominati not to – ouch! – lean the frame itself against any other objects, or – the horror! – ever put the thing upside down. But it should still be fairly simple; I always try to heed my dad’s (no doubt quietly exasperated) observation that if both your saddle and handlebars are in contact with a wall, not much can go wrong.
And yet it does. The thing stays still until your hands are engaged elsewhere – taking off your helmet, for instance – then it cheekily flips a wheel round 90 degrees and demands catching, like a daring toddler in the playground. Or it waits till you’re looking the other way before creeping forward, away from the thing you rested it on, eventually throwing itself to the ground in clattering slow motion.
The cruellest trick, which my otherwise loyal bike seems to perform regularly, is reversing round a corner: slowly rolling back and tilting, so the front wheel flares out and the whole machine describes an elegant curve backwards, then (fucking) falls over.
We can add to all this woe the sad reality that bicycles, while stationary, are basically traps on wheels, with their pedals at ankle-knocking height and handlebars positioned to catch your hips and your trouser-pockets. Add to that the way they interact when stationary together (basically: a monkey puzzle) and you’ll surely agree that the only possible solution is to ride the damn things.
In his excellent book Letting Rip, Simon Wilde describes the omerta that batsmen maintain about their fear of fast bowling, at least until they retire. Active players simply can’t admit that they’re scared. Robin Smith used to talk about how life-affirmingly exhilarating it was to be bounced by Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh and how he’d much rather that than be bamboozled by devilish back-of-the-hand-merchants like Shane Warne. Ian Bell breezily told us he knew he’d “wear a couple” facing Brett Lee, but he was cool with that. Then they retire and – with the exception of the greatest narcissists by which I mean Geoffrey Boycott – they admit that they were, in fact, shitting it.
Why maintain the lie? Because, of course, to admit you were scared of bouncers would be to invite … all of the bouncers.
Cycling’s equivalent is surely crashing. Pros are supposed to be totally comfortable with the high risk bits of their job; descending, riding on cobbles, sprinting; and they even manage to seem nonchalantly into it, in a studly kind of way. And when the inevitable happens? They have to brush it off.
“I’m fine. It was only superficial wounds I had, and now I’m looking forward to getting on with the rest of the race.”
That was Chris Froome having crashed in this year’s Giro d’Italia, scraping his poor body across the tarmac in a skinsuit thinner than a wetwipe.
Even the vocabulary the pros use is euphemistic and down-playing. “Road rash” is nothing of the sort. It’s hideous. People lose masses of skin. Epidermis, dermis, erm, subdermis, whatever; we’re talking holes in skin not just nasty grazes.
Froome had to say it was all ok, but his coach Tim Kerrison, in a BBC interview after the race, said he’d spent the next several days’ worth of recuperation energy not “building form”, as they’d planned, but simply healing.
Why the subterfuge? Because, as Geraint Thomas – no stranger to brushing off a flesh wound like, er, a broken pelvis – says in The World of Cycling According to G “the peloton can be a horrible place when you’re struggling. Stories fly around; this bloke’s lost his nerve; he’s a bottler. He’s gone”. Cultivating a reputation for toughness avoids this and deters rivals from attacking you when you’re injured. And affecting to enjoy recklessly fast descending, cobbles, sprints etc presumably makes it less likely anyone will challenge you on that territory. But I bet any money a quarter of the peloton has actual nightmares about crashing, the same way Chris Broad’s sleep is probably not untroubled by Australian quicks.
It all makes me wonder what the pros talk about, when they talk about crashing (to one another). Do they all just accept that crashes happen randomly, and that anyone can have one at any time, regardless of ability? (after all, if a guy goes down right in front of you, what can you do?) Or do they, like the test pilots in The Right Stuff, secretly believe that even a crash that was clearly unavoidable – an engine failure for instance – was still, somehow, that pilot’s fault. “He failed – but I wouldn’t have!” is how Tom Wolfe conveys it. And perhaps an element of egotistical self-delusion is prerequisite to all three careers …
In addition to the many practical benefits of commuting by bike, it can also be something of a feast for the senses. Unlike when you’re sealed in a car or train, your experience of the city involves all your senses. Except taste, now I think of it. Though, if you really wanted to … nah.
On the bike, you hear snippets of others’ conversation; you feel the elements. Quite often you feel too much of the elements, but nevertheless your connection to the environment and the changing seasons is heightened.
Visually, your vehicle imposes no artificial horizon, so you’re free to gaze up at nice buildings, skies, trees etc … *honk* sorry mate.
Combined with your relative slowness of travel, this open field of vision means you are particularly likely to notice things. I find myself noticing statues. Indeed I could plot the final stages of my old commute to Hachette on Euston Road thus: Hepworth > David > Dumb animals > Sikorsky > Hepworth again > Nelson.
The first Hepworth is the lovely Single Form, by the lake in Battersea Park (subject of a treasured misunderstanding between friends “is that a Henry Moore? / Do you mean a moorhen?”).
David is the monument to the Machine Gun Regiment at Hyde Park Corner which bears the chilling inscription “Saul has slain his thousands / but David his tens of thousands” and whose figure boasts what an old girlfriend maintained was the best bronze butt in London.
Half way up Park Lane is a vast and vastly daft monument to ANIMALS IN WAR (the inscription is rendered in a font all too obviously based on the titles for The World at War) which proclaims “THEY HAD NO CHOICE”. You don’t say.
On Portland Place, Wladyslaw Sikorsky, Polish hero and leader, is a personal favourite mainly for the sheer pleasure of saying his name. And finally the odd elevated tree-planter installation in Triton square features a sort of stone frieze which, it turns out, was a spare from Marble Arch, depicting Nelson’s breakthrough victory at the battle of Cape St Vincent.
That same route, in a homeward direction, could also be plotted in smellnotation: roast dinner > roast chestnuts > charcoal barbecue > cigar box.
The roast dinner aroma was the most perplexing, cropping up at the junction of Wigmore Street and Welbeck Street. Does the Wigmore Hall have a carvery in operation at 5.45 on any given week night? Someone does …
Just beyond, at Oxford street, there was a roast chestnut vendor by the traffic lights. Surely there’s no product whose taste delivers so poorly on the promise of its aroma (apart from fruit teas, obvs).
Crossing Knightsbridge onto William Street always involved cycling through a comforting fug of middle eastern grill smells and the attendant temptation to run in and grab a hot pitta from the coals.
Finally, speeding over the river and past the park keepers’ enclosure in Battersea Park, I would get a pungent blast of what I assume was some kind of organic fertiliser. It reminded me so strongly of the cigar boxes I used to handle when I worked in a wine shop that I felt there must be tobacco leaves in the mix somewhere … unless the cigar boxes were themselves reminding me of compost all along? Who knows.
Sometimes a bike commute is just an ill-tempered slog in bad weather, but far more often it will provide sensory treats of the sort that help make cycling by far the most rewarding way to travel.
Over time, a cyclist will start to talk like a cyclist. Meaning they’ll pronounce Bernard Hinault’s name like “Eno”, not “Hainault” and express distances in kilometres (which we should all do; The Rules aren’t just for fun, you know). They’ll begin to use expressions picked up from TV commentary and post-race interviews (as documented by GCN, whose valuable work in this field demonstrates how all pros eventually start to shound a liddle bit Belgian, you know? As well as including “for sure” or “it’s normal”, or both, in every sentence).
Two other examples of telltale peloton-speak:
“He did a good sprint”
Even native English speakers in the sport seem to have adopted this rather clumsy formulation, in favour of the more natural “he sprinted well”. “Do” has become mandatory. “I knew I wanted to do a good ride/sprint/effort …” etc.
“I had good sensations”
For some reason, this is the traditional way to describe feeling good on the bike. We all know we have to refer to The Legs in the non-possessive, as in “The Legs were good today”, but for some reason it seems more Euro and more Pro also to talk about your sensations.
Cyclists looked cooler in the old days. It’s just a fact. For confirmation, please refer to Velominati.com where our colleague Frank has done the science on this.
And so did cricketers. And in both cases, it’s headwear that’s the issue. Back before helmets emerged in the late 70s, a cricketer might wear his neat little county cap, or an absurd multi-coloured club number (the notorious “jazz-hat”), or even, if they were an Australian Test player, the “baggy green”, which has been getting a bit less fetishistic attention from the Australian Test squad of late, so seems bearable to refer to.
And cyclists wore casquettes. Peak up, peak down, backwards if they thought they could style it out. Ideally with some luft, so it’s perched just so. See the Brian Holm/Gianni Bugno masterclass for more on this topic.
This situation was cool for two reasons: firstly the – generally speaking – fine proportions of these athletes weren’t distorted by any mushroom-like additions up top. Secondly you could see what your heroes looked like, damn it. David Gower’s schoolboy smirk, Brian Close’s frankly intimidating combover (no, really), Jacques Anqeutil’s time trial face, Hugo Koblet’s hairdo, Marco Pantani’s bandana.
Flash forward to now, and you’re relying on chin shape, beards and mullets to distinguish one athlete from another. Cricket commentators have plenty of time to ID the players for us, but I bet their cycling counterparts find it a nightmare. Skilled though they are at recognising a rider from their style (e.g. Peter Sagan’s notoriously BMX-style posizione, which will come in handy again next time he’s not World Champion), they’re probably very grateful for a bit of Extreme Hair. Did Daniel Oss grow his out because he’s a free spirit, or because his agent thought he needed to tweak his brand, hm? Dani King’s plait? Same thing; her ‘do is her logo.
The one difference seems to be the effect of protective headwear on the actual sport. Many riders objected to the introduction of compulsory helmets in 2003 (and had successfully rebelled against previous attempts at imposition) on the basis that people would take more risks. In fact, the pros seem to take roughly the same risks and crash about the same amount. Sadly very occasional fatalities still occur, but there must surely be fewer concussions and head wounds than their used to be.
In cricket, though, the difference seems quite clear. In the heyday of the West Indies pace quartet, opposing tail-end batsmen, bareheaded against 90mph+ bouncers, would back away from their stumps like someone was pissing on their shoes. Since helmets (and, to be fair, Twenty20 and actual batting practice for bowlers) everybody tries to hook the bouncers. Sure, sometimes they catch one in the grille, and we have the spectre of the horrifying death of Phil Hughes to contend with, but it’s inarguable that the perceived risk has fallen and play has changed as a result. For the better? Not sure. I just wish both groups of sportspeople would spare a thought for the punters and take off their headwear (and their MASSIVE FUCKING OAKLEYS) as often as they can.