Friday, 13 April 2018

Rouleur- We need to talk about Okbo...

For many, Rouleur magazine (or I'm guessing they would probably prefer something like "velocipede linked lifestyle journal") typifies a certain type of approach to cycling. Overpriced, fashion led and trying to take itself too seriously- pretentious even. Arty close-up photos of bikes (so up-close that you very rarely actually get to see the entire bike), merchandise and adverts that veer perilously near to parody... these, and of course an astronomical cover price, all combine to create a climate of suspicion and inverse snobbery . Hands up- that was generally how I used to feel about it. I would buy every cycling mag I could lay my hands on (and still miss the dearly departed Cycle Sport Magazine which was so shamelessly sabotaged by its publishers to force more people towards The Comic). But Rouleur was different- I really couldn't bring myself to hand over so much money for something that seemed to be exclusively for the well-heeled whose runaround to the shops was a Cervélo.

However a few years ago I had just lost my job and needed reading material to fill the hours until I landed a new one. Flush with redundancy I decided to buy a copy and was surprised by one, major, thing. The quality of the articles was fantastic- not the usual guff about disk brake arguments, or writers trying to find new ways to say "compliance" and "stiffness". Here was a channel for Matt Rendell, Phillipa York, Matt Seaton and other talented and interesting writers. If you get past all the ads that try to so hard to be unique they all end up looking the same, there were great articles and the slightly cheaper "travel" edition (basically the same content as the full size subscription copy without the up-its-own-arse cover art and smaller) meant this was something I would look forward to buying each month- for once a magazine that really was about the articles.

By this time I had reduced my bike magazine purchasing to a minimum- Cycle Sport was gone, Cycling and Cycle Plus were basically the same magazine each month and Cycling Weekly had tried my patience for the last time (Dr Hutch being the only reason I kept up with it for so long). Procycling Mag and now Rouleur would be generally all I would buy and all was well- until a certain journo came to my attention.

The first clue was an article about Floyd Landis in Las Vegas and his cannabis business. It was dire- an attempt at being cool and edgy but simply read like a couple of spoilt teenagers who think that their stoned stories are interesting to everyone else- it was as far away from a cycling piece you could get. The hack put himself at the centre of the story, and all the other elements were seen as supporting objects, and he seemed to be under the impression that readers were more interested in how baked he was and what other K-eerrrrrazzzzyyy stuff he got up to in Vegas. I have been employed as a drug worker for the past 16 years (minus the month and a half of redundancy mentioned above!) so can clearly state that people's stories about what they get up to when they are stoned are really, really uninteresting to everyone except the teller of the tales. It reminds me of the person in the school or work place who would get plastered or wiped at the weekend operating under the misapprehension that it would result in great stories to share in the class or office on Monday morning.

So this was my first real introduction to the work of Morten Okbo. Perhaps it is a blip, I told myself, that something so self indulgent should past muster- maybe the temporary insanity of an editor under pressure to fill space for one edition. However it was soon clear to me that Okbo had previous- I tweeted simply that I had just read one of the worse cycling articles I had ever come across. Without prompting, someone on my timeline asked - "It wasn't Okbo by any chance, was it?".

A few more issues passed and occasionally his name would crop up and what would follow would be self-indulgent "wackiness"- an attempt to be different but generally infuriating. So much so that when I went to pick up a copy of Rouleur I would flick through it quickly- if Okbo had a byline it went back on the shelf and my £7.50 stayed in my pocket.

This month however I was not as alert. The front cover promised an interview with Cancellara so I forked over some of my hard earned cash and took a copy home. It was then I realised my mistake when I saw who the hack behind it was. This wasn't an interview about Spartacus- it was Okbo talking about himself and basically Cancellara was a crutch to allow the Dane to spout nonsense disguised as existentialist, gonzo fare. Look, Morten-here is the thing. I have no interest in your personal thoughts or "whacky" pseudo-nihilistic worldview. I buy cycling magazines and books to read about the folk and things who really matter- the cyclists, their DSs, their teams, their gear, the races-or interesting perspectives. I don't need the hack to be the centre of the story- I have read plenty of great stuff by the Fotheringhams, Bobet, Abt, Moore, Pickering, Friebe, Bacon, Benson and many more who don't feel the need to put themselves at the centre of every story.

I had toyed with the idea of asking Rouleur to put a warning sticker on the cover anytime they featured Okbo's work but somehow I don't think I have the clout that would encourage them to follow through. And I do have to ask- am I over reacting? I'm not sure- all I know is that I am passionate about reading great cycling articles and books. I have said before that our sport has encouraged the greatest sports writing and being a failed journo myself I revel when I indulge myself with the finely tuned words that capture and chronicle history. There are many great races in the past, even from before when I was born, that I can summon up clearly in my mind, despite never having seen the TV pictures because of how well they have been written about. And it just really grates that, in the future, some yet unborn cycling fan will have Okbo's submissions to fall back on as an example of how pretentiousness and fake nihilism took the place of well crafted pieces.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Book Review- "The Invisible Mile" by David Coventry, (2015, Picador)

Verbosity does not always equal profundity

Let me begin by saying that David Coventry writes beautifully. Or, to be more precise, he writes beautiful, individual sentences, laced with metaphor and discriptive prowess, and keen observations. So why do I make the distinction? Simply because almost every single sentence in the book is overwritten in this way. It makes reading more of a slog than actually riding the 1928 Tour de France. Often I found myself getting agitated because sometimes being direct is fine- not every element of every sentence should require mental gymnastics to get to the core of the plot. Don't get me wrong- I like an intellectual challenge but this book simply seems to ignore what Freud, in an other context once said- "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!".

In many cases it feel that the author has mistaken verbosity with profundity. There are many conversations detailed in the book, but they are more like those you would expect from characters in a surrealist existentialist play directed by sixth formers- almost a parody, where every single word and action is drenched in meaning and no one responds simply or directly. You get the feeling that even asking any of the characters what time the stage starts the next day would result in a treatise on the fluiduty and temporal nature of time rather than a simple "9:30am". Even the conversations and contributions from the crowds watching the Tour go past are framed as profound- the simple peasant woman mourning her daughter lost during the war seems to speak like a philosophy professor leading a symposium on the nature of loss.

As for the narrator- I don't remember ever getting so annoyed with a fictional character! If he used the energy he expended on his deep conversations (internal and external), getting drunk and spending nights with a female (both in bed and on car journeys in the middle of the night)on actually riding his bike, he would have beaten Franz, never mind Opperman! Cycling is a sport where conservation of effort is one of the keys to success, and this is not reflected in the writing in this book. The closer we get to the end, the more of the character of the narrator is revealed and it is impossible to have any empathy or sympathy for him the longer it goes on.

There are some twists as we go on, but these are signposted quite early for the more attentive reader (and anagram fans might pick up on one of the most unsavory reveals before it happens). The end of the book left me with mixed feelings- glad that I had finished it, but the actual denouement seemed a bitter cop-out- an attempt to make the reader feel even worse about human nature than a book that is grounded in the aftermath of the First World War (as individuals and countries were still trying to come to terms with it) and other personal tragedies already does.

Coventry has blended fact and fiction in this book- some of the riders and events were real, whereas others are not. This can be distracting if you actually know about history of the Tour de France- yes 1928 did see the first NZ/ Australian team enter and Opperman was a real person (in fact his life story would be worthy of a work on its own). Frantz really won that year and others like Bottecchia who was mentioned in passing existed (although Conventry got the dates of his victories wrong). The narrator is a fiction as is the names of many of the teams he mentions, so part of the problem when reading is the little voice at the back of my head that kept pointing out what was real and what wasn't. To be honest being a cycling fan could actually be an obstacle in getting through this book.

Of course maybe the frustrations, the hard going and the lovely writing are a clever ploy by Coventry to allow the reader some sympathy with the struggles of the riders. After all, they are also surrounded by beauty but are unable to appreciate it because of the demands of just making it through. I felt guilty about not always appreciating Coventry's skill with the written word, but I had had reached saturation point. Sentences that danced around and around what they were meant to describe and left room for ambiguity, and phrases used where words would have done ( "bullets" is dramatic enough instead of "shouts of death") meant that the whole book could be submitted to Pseuds Corner in Private Eye.

Perhaps Coventry's undoubted skills as a wordsmith would be better suited to a travelogue type book, because he could definitely replicate natural beauty on the page, but as for "The Invisible Mile" I have never been so conflicted about a book before. While I don't want a simple linear "We did this and then did that", this doesn't come anywhere near the quality of Tim Krabbé's "The Rider" which takes the same cerebal, pyschologicial approach but does it so much better without feeling so forced.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Porte-nts of Froome...?

Only a week until this modern classic echos forth once more from the television, followed by Gary Imlach's acerbic, dead pan and economical but effective introductions, summing up quite complex action in a few words.  Boardman and Boulting will ham it up for the cameras while Phil and Paul try to outdo each other in seeing who can misidentify the most riders. Well ,OK forget that last bit since it seems Millar and Boulting will be calling the action instead but anyway... Yes, the annual 3 week long advert for the French ( and this year German and Belgian) Tourist Board has come around again, and suddenly rugby and soccer supporters transform themselves into cycling fans in the way Wimbledon turns many into tennis fans for the duration. 

As the first rider leaves the start ramp in Dusseldorf for the opening TT,  the editors of Tour and the Official Tour de France guide will breath a sigh of relief if all their cover stars actually make it to the race, which doesn't happen every year.  Suddenly the predictions and form guides that had been developed ever since the season kicked off in Australia and used to fill gaps in the action by commentators in every race since can finally be held up to scrutiny.  So on current showing, is Froome going to come away with his fourth maillot juane?

A lot has been made of the fact that each year he taken the top step on the Champs Elysees podium, Froome has won, at the very least, 5 races since the season started. Currently the 2017 shelf in his trophy cabinet is very bare- empty in fact. Add on Richie Porte's great start (particularly his Dauphiné performance compared to his mucker) and inidications are that maybe Corbyn's recent electoral performance isn't the only thing that can make a Murdoch throw their toys out of the pram. However a caveat or two- Froome's victories have come because of decent performances which tail off in the last week. Has this year's lack of results come about because of a different approach. designed to allow him to peak later and save more of himself for the final week? Is that this year's equivalent of his attack on a descent and a four up time-trail with the green jersey to break away and spoil the sprinter's day out?

No matter the reason for the lowly palmarés this year (lowly in relative terms of course!), it was quite clear that Froome wasn't at the top of his game on the Dauphiné. His aggression on the Mont du Chat seemed to be more of desperation rather than a planned tactical assault, as if he knew he wouldn't have enough to do any damage when gravity went from being an ally to the enemy again. Even his interactions with his supposed best mate seemed to be bullish- he undercut Porte very tightly on the descent and then steered him into the boards as they wound up for the sprint. Watching, I felt Froome wasn't displaying his usual temperament. Was it a coincidence that he was acting out of character in around the same time L'Équipe was running a quickly denied story linking him to a BMC move? Let's imagine a hypothetical situation- if the article had any grain of truth the big loser would again be Porte who went to BMC to get out from under the Kenyan's shadow. How would he feel if, after finally cementing himself as a viable TdF GC contender in one of the few squads who can match Sky's budget, suddenly the guy he acted as a domestique deluxe for reappeared to put Richie back down the pecking order? A wee leak to the press, at a stage when technically riders and teams are not supposed to be making approaches to each other, would require a firm denial and make such a move that bit harder to engineer and allow Sky to come up with a package to try and get Froome to stay.  Again I have to emphasise that this is just  a flight of imagination based on conjucture and theorising- I'm not saying this happened! A lost opportunity to rescue his reputation by breaking the link that has been tainted through Sky's disasterous TUE/ jiffy bag debacle could maybe add a bit of spice to any race. Even the post-race comments were more barbed than usual, but again perhaps I am reading too much into it- after all this is really the first time that the Tasmainian and Froome have really gone head to head on almost equal terms and we have no real indication of how that plays with either of them.

So cast that little soap opera aside- is Froome going to win the 2017 Tour?  My heart says no but head says yes. It is highly likely Sky are playing the psychological game here- reduced expectations lead to reduced pressure, and Porte will probably still have his one bad day. And of course we haven't even looked at Quintana yet. Is Nairo's Giro-Tour double attempt actually another sandbagging strategy? Go into the Giro, look under par and instead use it as an actual training race for the Tour? This of course may all be wishful thinking on my part  and probably come July 23rd, Murdoch newspapers will be hailing "their" man as a great human being before reverting to type and encouraging White Van Man to cut a swathe through ordinary cyclists on the 24th. Am I grasping at straws in an attempt to add intrigue and jeopardy into this year's Grand Boucle ahead of watching the horde of white jerseys sitting at the front defend Froome's lead? Probably but it is still a good time to remember - races are won off, as well as on the bike and it would be nice if, for once, Twitter wasn't full of the too cool for school types who publicly decree that they stop watching as soon as Froome takes yellow (but suspiciously seem very well informed about how the rest of the stages go...!).

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Team Sky and the Soccer-isation of Cycling

Let's clear up one thing at the start- this is not yet another attack (or defence) of how Sky have handled recent developments. There are plenty of other places where the whys-and-wherefores are being picked apart. While Sky's earlier promotion of their own cleaner-than-clean-you-can-trust-us PR image more or less guaranteed  that this situation was going to arise just as a politician who fronts an anti-drink driving campaign will inevitably be caught behind the wheel with a few Dan Lloyd mineral-waters consumed, this is more about what the reactions say about how cycling and cycling fandom has changed, particularly in Britain.

If, like most normal people, you actually read the title of this piece before  the main body, then you can probably guess where this is going. And I don't mean "soccerisation" in relation to the influx of money- well not totally, because Sky's approach to buying up any potential challengers and adding them to the team may sound familar but I mean more about fan dynamics. Ever since 2012, with Wiggo fever and so-called newspapers, that are more likely to be found on the dashboards of sociopaths happy to run cyclists off the road, offering free cut-out sideburns, the British were percieved to have suddenly developed an interest in the sport.  The UK Cycling Expert Twitter feed in particular is a hilarious and genius creation that parodies the new converts. Now this isn't slating new fans- it is indeed a joyus thing to attract new supporters and it is what the sport needs to grow and thrive. However looking at some of the reactions to Sky's recent difficulties seems to suggest that many new British followers are bringing a soccer fan's attitudes across, and this may not be so healthy.

Basically put there are traditions associated with being a football fan in the UK. I say this as an outsider because I don't actually follow it and I am in Ireland (so some of this is also relevant to GAA fans) but when it is more acceptable for politicans to be caught out in a lie about supporting a team than simply saying they aren't really all that into it , there is a lot of social and cultural capital in adhereing to certain customs and attitudes. However these don't translate so well to cycling.

For example I have seen many people feel almost offended that someone else dares to support a different team to them. Twitter exchanges I have seen from people who would otherwise have a lot of common, degenerate into real insults and the calling of the other person's intelligence into question. It tends to lapse into that unthinking brand of patriotism that the UK and USA seem to do so well- basically "this-is-my-team/country-so-are-unable-to-do-any-wrong-because-they-are-MY-team/country-and-any-highlighting-their-shortcomings-is-treachery". And that has largely been a lot of the reaction to the media coverage of Sky (and the irony of a Murdoch linked body complaining about bias and unfair reporting is just too delicious to let pass without comment!). I have a rule of thumb that says as soon as someone calls the questioning of an individual or body a "witch hunt", they may as well run up a flag that says "guilty" and this is one of the terms that keeps popping up in discussions. Simply reporting the fact Sky has been asked questions and their answers found somewhat wanting is now seen as bias and "tall poppy syndrome". Repeated slogans and mantras of groupthink ("haters are going to hate"; "witch hunt";  "the media love to build people up and knock them down" etc) are being used against people making relevant enquiries to try and get to the bottom of what has been going on.  The questioning of "my team" is now seen as a direct personal attack on the individual fan, since they are the ones who have chosen to hitch their wagon to Brailsford's band of brothers (with no room for the sisters according to Jess Varnish. Lizzie Deignan and Nicole Cooke).

This approach to fandom is really quite alien to cycling. Most die-hards are fans of particular riders rather than teams- indeed it is hard to give allegiance to a team whose name (and nationality) can change from season to season based on who is paying the rider's wages. There is also the fact that many people will have a team they support for the Classics, another for the Grand Tours and their national squad for the Olympics or World Championships. Sky in many ways are the cycling equivalent of the late 90s-early 2000s Manchester United- they are an easy team for the late-comer or casual observer to get behind because of their success and British identity (is it wrong to point out that neither of Sky's Tour winners were actually born in the UK...?) and being a well funded operation. The tribalism of soccer is not needed in cycling and in fact could be quite damaging.  New fans are very welcome and are to be encouraged, but they also need to be reminded that the structures and traditions of our sport do not fare well when people become so blinded to team loyalty that they are unwilling for questions to be asked. One reason Lance got away with what he did for so long was an unwillingness and inability to openly question. If a Sky fan gets bent out of shape every time a team rider gets asked about doping they would end up ressembling the route map for the Ronde van Vlaanderen. It is unfortunate but for journalists doing their jobs means that Chris Froome is going to have to answer the same question thrown at him in various languages every day he wears yellow. To be fair to Froome, he handles this with grace and politeness, so maybe the Sky fans need to learn from him, and await the outcomes of the UKADA investigation before feeling put upon.

This week's Cycling Weekly included the results of a poll around attitudes to Sky and the vast majority of printed responses went more for attacking the journalists and MPs than actually engaging with the premise of the question. However, at the risk of falling into the trap of stereotyping nationalities I ask this- if it had been Katusha or Astana in the firing line would the Sky (and British Cycling) fans be responding to it in the same way?

Monday, 22 August 2016

Suffering for a cause...

We're cyclists and we are in love with pain. From the very first coverage of the classics and Grand Tours, tales are based on adjectives that wouldn't look out of place in a realistic, gritty, war novel. Obviously since the first bike races were held to sell newspapers, and they were the only way to keep the public informed, dramatic tales of suffering and heroism became the norm, since the more evocative and entrancing, the more copies of your paper would be sold.

The semi-religious, semi-martial mythologies of the convicts of the road shaped how the narratives around bike racing were formed, even today with our more cynical and media-savvy populace. "Calvary", "Enfer du nord", "Fight for Pink"- these motifs are still drawn upon as journalists and authors try to give the general public at least some semblance of an insight into the men and women who make their living hauling 6.8kg of carbon fibre up mountain passes or across unforgiving cobbles.

And so- this is quite a tenuous link to what I really want to write about tonight. Yes there is some heroism in suffering, particularly when it would be easier and more tempting just to step off the bike- both literally and figuratively. And there is always room for heroism and dealing with pain alone- however we have to remember that there are limits. Limits where even the most ardent, most competitive cyclist knows that they have reached and maybe it is time to turn around and ask the directeur sportif to let them into the car. Even the best don't go beyond their limits without the support and safety net of a team. And this is not just about physical pain and exhaustion- any sportsperson will tell you the mental aspect is as important, if not more so, and needs careful monitoring and conditioning, just as muscles and the cardiovascular system do. If you read anything about Team Sky and British Cycling success stories, every rider and staff member will mention the role of Steve Peters and how he was as important as the aerodynamists or interpreters of training data.

And this Sunday I will be going through the physical suffering to try and help alleviate those whose pain isn't so visible. I will be doing Lap the Lough to raise funds for Craigavon branch of Samaritans. Yep I know it is only 95 miles (I will be adding a few extra on to make the ton) and many people will see this as no more than a normal Sunday run, but I have to admit that work and other commitments (including those linked to being a Samaritan volunteer) mean that I am already trying to work out my pacing strategy (not helped by the changed route- thanks folks!!). My training has been derailed for one reason and another so it will be a long day in the saddle- a few events that I normally use over the summer to get the legs working were cancelled or postponed this year so I am short in miles - and I only wish this was me getting my excuses in early! But I have a few motivating factors- as well as my Qhubeka bracelets reminding me that there are kids much worse off than any temporary pain I will be in on the day, I will be helping ensure that other people will also benefit.

No matter what time of day or night, or what time of year there will be Samaritan volunteers listening to callers or replying to e-mails or texts sent  by people who want to be listened to. In some cases they are ready to step off the bike, but in many other cases they simply want to be heard. My Lap the Lough adventure will go a small way to make sure Craigavon branch is able to offer that opportunity to be heard- to be the team car handing out energy gels and bidons to ensure the person can make it that bit further,  and hopefully closer to safety so that when they do climb of the bike it is into the safety of a team bus, and not an abandonment with no one around (okay I may just be stretching this analogy a wee bit far here...!).

I'm not a natural fundraiser- I really hate asking people for money particularly in these tight times, but if you would like to ease my physical pain and the mental pain of many, many others my fundraising page is here. And if you can't give that is fine- you can do your bit by simply spreading the word that Samaritans exist, they can be contacted on 116 123 (free call) or e-mailed at .

 (Please note that if you do want to contact Samaritans use those details rather than just through this blog.)

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Tour de France 2016- lessons from the Champs Elysees

My stretch of the Elysian Fields...

Let's be honest- when I worked out a few years ago that my 40th birthday would exactly coincide with the final stage of the 2016 Tour de France then there was only really one place I was going to be on that day. Of course it would mean my wife and me breaking our rule not to go on holiday during the summer months, but it would also act as an effective distraction from the inevitable sad reflections that come with such landmark birthdays.

L'Equipe, the Arc de Triomphe, TdF hat and lots and lots of high factor suncream...

However there were a few things I needed to sort before the big day- I wanted to see as much of the action as possible, including La Course, so trying to work out what time to be at the Champs Elysees to get a good position meant also figuring out how to ward of the potential for sunstroke and dehydration. Further complicating matters was the fact I was going to be on my own and would be unable to go to the toilet or go seek water or food without losing my spot on the barriers. This was going to take some planning...

La Course passes by on one of thirteen laps

Despite being the biggest, annual sporting event in the world, info on how to get the best out of watching the TdF is hard to come by. Obviously different types of stages will have different considerations eg big grimpeur stages will mean spending a week parked on the side of a mountain, while those set up for the sprinters will mean hours in one place for a few seconds of colours flashing past (mostly black, blues and yellows taking this year's predominant peloton colour scheme into account). At least the publicity caravan provides some compensation in the latter case (and in fact it is not unknown for people to leave after they have got their freebies and before the race arrives). But for atmosphere and value for your time, it is hard to beat the final stage into Paris, since the circuits mean you will get plenty of chances to have your view blocked by a CRS officer or some gabshite sticking a tablet or camera in front of your face each time the riders pass.

Having only been in Paris once, almost 9 years ago, my memory of the Champs Elysees was quite foggy and Google Street View helped a bit in deciding where to stand. But nothing beats on the ground planned reconnaissance, so on the Saturday  I worked out the best metro stations and locations. Well I say nothing beats planned recon, but actually I went for a wander later on Saturday evening and turned a corner to suddenly see that the Arc de Triomphe was actually in walking distance from my hotel, avoiding two metro changes in a very hot and crowded underground.

Moniek Tenniglo and Marianne Vos

So time wise- La Course was to start at 12:30 and the TdF wasn't due to hit the cobbles until after 7pm, as ASO continue the quite unpopular decision to ensure it finishes at dusk.  I decided to head towards the Arc de Triomphe at 10:30am, stopping for a croissant and orange juice before getting near the Champs Elysees . At around 10:45 I made my way to claim my spot, stopping only to pick up a copy of L'Équipe and a hat, and made my way to a spot just a few hundred metres from the Arc. I settled in for a long stand, and it was only a bit later that I realised I couldn't see a big screen anywhere, so was going to be reliant on my dodgy French to try and understand how the races were progressing from the speaker just above my head.

I had chosen a water drinking schedule that, while not advisable, meant I was able to stay put until 9:30pm that evening without having to find a pissoir. Gradual sips just when I needed them kept me on the right side of hydrated, and every half hour an application of factor 30. However just before La Course started I realised the sun had moved and I was no longer sheltered by the trees, and so spent most of the day getting par boiled.

As well as my official programme, my copy of L'Équipe and Alasdair Fotheringham's "The End of the Road: The Festina Affair and the Tour that Almost Wrecked Cycling" on Kindle meant that the time actually went by quite quickly. A few corporate bike rides went up and around (and more than a couple of sportive-type riders seemed to have underestimated how steep the Champs Elysees actually is- it must not be a nice feeling to be dropped and suffer in front of so many people!). Then some of the women's teams did recces in dribs and drabs before La Course got under way. 13 laps later (and 13 chances to take good photos, most of which I fluffed!) Chloe Hosking crossed the line first although I never saw it and had to rely on the commentary and Twitter to confirm. While the crowds were not as big as they would be later on, the atmosphere as many of the cyclists whose exploits I have followed for so long went past (minus Lizzie Armitstead for reasons we would find out much later) was something to be part of.

The first break in La Course.

After the excitement, it settled down again and I resumed my reading, with just the odd wary look at individuals who seemed to be eyeing up my spot, or at least trying to manoeuvre themselves in beside me. Despite being an internationalist, I suddenly found myself in possession of a "what I have, I hold!" defensive attitude to these late-coming interlopers! Eventually my Tour Tracker app told me that the men had left Chantilly, though since the first part of stage 21 resembles the world's most exclusive Sunday leisure ride, I knew my waiting wouldn't be over soon.

Just as my Kindle indicated I had read 75% of my book, the relative peace was disturbed as the publicity caravan thundered into sight. Crazy floats and electric cars manned by really, really enthusiastic individuals as well as police, firefighters and the Tour's logistics crews drove past the crowds with a mixture of internationally known brands (such as Haribo and Vittel ) being advertised alongside products that wouldn't be really known that well outside of France.  Among the vehicles were lorries that played a role in getting the hardware of the TdF around, although their weaving from side to side couldn't help but bring to mind the images of the lorry mowing down those innocent people only 10 days before in Nice, so perhaps that could have been thought out better.

Quintana (right) and Tommy V's tongue...

Eventually a helicopter appeared in the horizon, and those more used to watching bike races around me stirred- it meant they were close! This was followed by the same people swinging around to look at the Arc de Triomphe, and like clockwork the Patrouille de France air display team came screaming along the Champs Elysees, emitting red, white and blue smoke just as the peloton arrived. It is no coincidence that they have been used each year since Wiggins won, and are part of a ring of steel to prevent Lesley Garrett being able to get onto the podium to sing the British national anthem.

Michael Matthews

Then suddenly a phalanx of police officers on motorbikes, closely followed by other vehicles then the red lead car swept by and then over 170 of the world's top cyclists were literally inches away from me. Suddenly it became surreal and real at the same time. Just like La Course, my brain struggled to process the fact that I was seeing these people in the flesh rather than on a 32" TV or 10" laptop screen.

One of the things that always strikes me when watching aerial shots of the last stage on television is the many people wandering the streets or around the funfairs while the Tour is happening literally feet away and they don't seem interested. This was magnified even more on the Champs Elysees as, out of the corner of my eye I could sense people ambling past without so much as a glance at the show in front of them- there are "too-cool-for-school" types all over the world!

Reinardt Janse van Rensburg has a wheel change

Eventually Andre Greipel's name came over the PA system and I knew the 103rd edition of the Tour was over (ironically, and just like when stage 2 of the Giro finished in front of Belfast City Hall and I was at the 75m mark, I was one of the last to actually see the finish, having to wait until the highlights were shown on TV later). I then made a mistake- I knew that the teams would cycle up the Champs Elysees and stood waiting for a bit. Then it gradually dawned that they wouldn't come as far up as the Arc de Triomphe- the photos normally published don't really reveal how foreshortened the background is. Eventually I made my way down and did see Lampre, a couple of BMC (including Greg Van Avermaet) and John Degenkolb cycle by on the way to their hotels but had missed everyone else.

So at 9:30pm my Tour de France also came to an end.

Tommy Voeckler

So what did I learn? What lessons can I pass on to anyone wanting to make the journey in the future?

Be early and make sure you see La Course. As well as providing an opportunity to see the world's best, the more who come out to watch it, the more the pressure to televise more women's racing.

Ensure you can see a big screen from where you are standing- if I had to do it again, the corner behind the Arc de Triomphe would be ideal- the riders slow down enough if you want to take decent snapshots, and you can see the big screen. Otherwise I would walk further down, closer to the finishing line- while the extortionately priced grandstands have the prime spots you will still get closer to the action as well as having more options in relation to stalls and services.

Don't get fixated on taking the perfect photo- maybe shoot a few frames on a couple of laps. It can be too easy to suffer tunnel vision while trying to snap the action each time. Take the chance to look at the riders without a screen between you and them.

GVA after the stage

Cycling fans speak an international language without words- Just as I arrived, I was joined by an older Spanish couple. Despite not exchanging a single word all day, we were somehow communicating ensuring all of us saw the race and did not inconvenience the other. As they left at the end of the day they even shared a cheery "bye!".

So after 11 hours in the sun, trying to stay good humoured as Johnny-Come-Lately's decided to try and squeeze into spots others had waited for, CRS officers standing right in front as the peloton flies past, and the almost impossible task of trying to ID riders in the bunch- was it worth it? Well yes, of course- it is the Tour! I would do a few things differently including choosing somewhere else to stand,but if you can just forget about trying to capture images yourself, and just simply glory in the close presence of so many of the most talented athletes on the planet then the problems really seem diminutive.

John Degenkolb (right) in civvies making his way home!

Froome at the midway point.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Kudos vs "Likes"...

To be honest I was reasonably late to Strava, only really joining it in 2013 since I always found MapMyRide more than met my needs- I wasn't overly concerned with my performance and just wanted to record my routes. However since so many people I knew were on it, it was inevitable I would drift towards checking out how quickly I covered certain segments rather than my average for each mile.

I still upload to both platforms since the data in each is useful for different things, but the one change I have really noticed as more and more people sign up is in regards "kudos". When I first started "kudos" were given by fellow cyclists when you had done something decent on a ride- a new PR, an impressive elevation total, a century or above- you had to earn them. Now however they seem to have developed into a Facebook style "like"- more or less some of your acquaintances simply signifying that they have seen you were out on your bike. This then leads to a cycle of simply giving them kudos, again for often ordinary runs, out of politeness and the whole thing loses any value it has to start with. It has been really noticable on my own feed recently- my form on the bike has been shockingly bad compared to earlier in the year- I have even titled rides "Pathetic" but still get kudos I haven't earned! Maybe I am taking things too seriously but I only want those thumbs up when my average goes back up (or at least when I come up with a humourous or inventive name for a ride!) as opposed to tunring into Facebook where my mum will "Like" anything I put up!