In Defence Of: Running With Riders

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Aside from their disastrous/cataclysmic failure to spot and remove a bollard from in front of a garage door on Stage 5, it’s hard to deny that, when it comes to road management, the organisers of La Vuelta did all they could to keep the riders from coming a cropper. On the steeper climbs especially, burly, boiler-suited young men kept crowds at bay, deterring any behaviour more energetic than polite applause as the riders grind past.

One effect of this was that the sight of “runners” - fans scampering alongside, behind or just ahead of riders - became a rare one, certainly more so than at either of this year’s other grand tours.

While many armchair/Twitter spectators and pundits, applauded the fans being kept in their place, not all did. The Cycling Podcast’s Richard Moore observed that the police were “slightly heavy-handed in dealing with spectators who encroached into riders racing line.”

I’d go even further. From the comfort of my living room, the Spanish Guardia Civil seemed, at times, to have more in common with American college campus police at a civil rights sit-in, than stewards of a simple sporting event. 

Of course, I understand where it came from. The French laissez-faire approach to crowd management came in for a lot of criticism in July, particularly on Ventoux and in the incident that saw Chris Froome lamp a Carlos Valderama lookalike waving a flag perilously close to the lead group’s front wheels.

But as high profile as they might be, in reality these occasions are so rare, and the risk of incident so small as to be negligible. In my experience, the supporters that decide to run, rather than being inconsiderate idiots, do so having put a good amount of thought into how to do so without interfering with the race. 

My single favourite memory of this year’s tour was watching a group of Irish chaps, wearing either Etixx jerseys or football kits, conducting a relay between themselves as Dan Martin went past on the second time trial. I spent a wonderful day in their company and while they had, indeed, partaken of a couple of Heineken while waiting for their hero, they had nonetheless planned the run with military precision. They watched as the other racers passed through our corner, carefully measuring how much room and time they would need so there would be not the slightest chance of getting in Martin’s way. They pulled it off to perfection, having bought themselves a few extra moments of entertainment and given me my favourite photo of the week (above). At no point was the rider in danger. Despite what many believe, this was not an act of narcissism, but one motivated by love for the sport and adoration for “yer man”.

One anecdote does not make a summer, of course, and this is not meant as a blanket defence of all who run. It is, however, intended to remind those who will unequivocally condemn that cycling fans are, on the whole, a good sort. Of course the racing must come first and be allowed to proceed without interruption but you're crazy if you think those on the roadside don't realise that too.

It can be easy to lose sight of how important the fans are to bike races but we are occasionally reminded when we see vacant roadsides, devoid of atmosphere or excitement. To crack down on fan behaviour risks deterring ordinary fans who, having spent who knows how many hours, travelled countless miles and spent god knows how much money, just want to have a bit of fun. They've waited for hours by the side of the road only for the race to pass by in a matter of seconds. Who would begrudge them a couple more?

Man to child

It’s no massive revelation becoming a father. It’s been happening since the beginning of mankind but its impact on individual’s lives is quite frankly, as we’re constantly being told, a life changing event. On one level it’s like having a permanent guest coming to stay. Everything that you once held sacred and which had a value greater than material wealth, has now been cast aside, downgraded, your life becomes an altered state, one that is occupied by a plus one. Your time is no longer your own and spare time just doesn’t exist.

During the early stages of parenthood very few can honestly say that cycling as an activity can truly exist in their lives. What once had its place in your routine will now be taken over by a new presence, a new demand on your time. But with this comes other non-cycle friendly factors - things that destroy your concentration, your eating patterns and ultimately the way you function on a daily basis.

By far the worst casualty with the most impact with the arrival of any newborn is lack of sleep. It doesn’t matter what age you are, although older parents will suffer worst, the effects of sleep deprivation will reduce anyone to a zombiefied half-life state: an existence in the shadow of your former self. Sleep becomes a thing of the past and you have to re-educate both mind, body (and life) to accommodate for it - or lack of it. You’ll learn to survive on three hours of undisturbed slumber instead of the recommended eight.

For the next few months the front room sofa becomes your bed - it’s the only way you’re going to reasonably function at work. The term ‘Baby Brain’ does exist and has a massive effect on all new parents. Your physical environment also gets violated. What was once unused floor space has now become home to playpen or an infant rocking chair. Where you once were able to leave kit out for an early morning ride, that space has now gone - it just doesn’t exist anymore.

When Ian Curtis wrote ‘When routine bites hard and ambitions are low’, the lyrics from Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’, he could have been describing the early days of parenthood. Any routine you have will disappear for several months until you establish a new baby-friendly one. Timescales will totally alter, you'll find yourself becoming nocturnal in order to fit everything into a day.

But what in effect is happening is the cycle of life. In the not-to-distant future you’re be teaching your son or daughter how to ride a bike in the same fashion your father handed that skill on to you. The rotation of life, generation on generation, this ritual is at the very core of what we do - how we get introduced to cycling. What you’ve temporarily lost will blossom again but this time round you won’t be alone, you’ll have your own flesh and blood cycling buddy. For Eddy think Axel, for Stephen think Nico, the list is endless but who will your son or daughter become? 

It’s the past looking back at you. You’ll experience for yourself the joy and pride your father felt when he handed on the gift of balance and movement called cycling. Now you’re in charge of that next generation of cyclists in your family but remember we’re all individuals, don’t force your passion and addiction on a youngster who’s growing up in a totally different world to the one you experienced as a child. Cycling may come later in life for them or not figure in it at all. Your mission is to plant the seed and then step back and see what happens next. You may be nurturing the next Froome, Cavendish, Wiggins, Armistead, Trott or Barnes.

What you may lose today will be repaid ten fold in the years to come so you should embrace and enjoy every aspect of it while you can.

 

 

TdF 2016: now the dust has settled

 Image courtesy of @BrakeThrough Media and @TDWsport

Image courtesy of @BrakeThrough Media and @TDWsport

  Image courtesy of @BrakeThrough Media and @TDWsport

Image courtesy of @BrakeThrough Media and @TDWsport

'All the world's a stage,' or so it seems every July as the Tour de France barges into our consciousness for 23 days. The race gathers together the finest teams and riders to do battle across the backdrop of France and its bordering countries. For these first three weeks in July the world is treated to all the drama, comedy and farce that professional cycling has to offer. Every stage can be considered as a scene, complete with its heroes and villains, as the plot twists and turns (like stage 15's descent of Grand Colombier) culminating in its own unique finale. 

The sheer scale of this Grand Tour never ceases to amaze us – the organisation required is epic. Year on year, issues like security become more demanding as political unrest fosters extremist violence. Crowd control (or the lack of it) gave this Tour one of its key moments when on stage 12 - the shortened Ventoux stage - a group of three chasing riders were brought down by the sudden braking of a camera bike having to avoid spectators in the road. What followed was farcical - Chris Froome, the yellow jersey holder, running sans bicycle up the road towards the finish line, desperately radioing for assistance and another bike. And who could forget the collapse, on stage 7, of the 1km inflatable banner that caused Adam Yates and (yet another) camera bike to crash?

Here come the men in black. The dominance of a single team remains bitter-sweet for us. For a while it's a mesmeric spectacle to watch, like a spider eating a fly, but ultimately it reduces the GC race to a battle for second position. As with so many other sporting super teams with big budgets it tends to dampen enjoyment and removes some of the unpredictability of the competition. At times it felt like we were back in 2002/3 watching US Postal suffocate the opposition in order for their team leader to win. Of course we acknowledge that this time round there are no drugs involved, just sheer hard work and natural ability, but that doesn't make the spectacle any better to watch.

One aspect of this year’s race that has remained with us is the fragility of cycling when pitted against the changeable nature of the elements. On stage 19 the overall standings were thrown in the air as wind and rain turned the race and the peloton on its head. To see two previous Tour winners taking each other out in a single crash highlights just how fragile cycling can be. The elements and the terrain give any bike race a delicious uncertainty, levelling out the racing and introducing a certain randomness that we all love. It reflects the human condition and exposes each racer’s depths of determination.

We relate directly to the suffering involved in pro cycling. When we witness two riders out in front on a 100+ km break battling not only a head wind but the chasing peloton we know, at least in part, how this must feel. Chapeau to the sufferers.

TdF 2016: the Simpson verdict

Best team: Movistar

Best rider: Adam Yates/Jarlinson Pantano/Romain Bardet

Best kit: Cannondale Drapac

Best stage win: Mark Cavendish x 4

Best breakaway rider: Ion Izagirre of Movistar stage 20

Best crowd chant: Bardet, Bardet, Bardet

Worst kit: Bora-Argon 18

Worst weather: Hailstones on stage 9

Worst haircut: Peter Sagan

Worst wheel/bike exchange:  Etixx-Quick Step/Marcel Kittel on stage 21

Luckiest rider: Nairo Quintana

 

 

Into the heart of darkness

“My undercarriage is ruined, my hands are numb and I can’t remember my own name.” So says one of the riders in the London-Edinburgh-London ultra-Audax from 2013 in a new film about the ride due for release on 1 June.

Why would anyone want to cycle 1400km in five days? It’s a very odd thing to do. The pain, exhaustion and jeopardy these riders put themselves through is pretty extreme. It’s the kind of ride that any cyclist would love to be able to say they’d done but very few would actually want to go through it.

Every cycling breed is represented in this excellent documentary, from Strava segment bashers on their carbon race bikes to innocent newbies who have no idea what they’ve taken on, and wizened old ultra-distance riders with steely eyed determination and trusty tourers.

Every rider has their own reason for attempting this ridiculous distance. Some are raising money for charities close to their heart. Some are negotiating mid-life crises. One was simply celebrating the fact that he was still alive following a quadruple bypass operation.

Together they go off rather too quickly in high spirits under sunny skies. And together they cycle into the heart of darkness, losing their sense of time and place and even self as they push deeper and deeper into their reserves to beat the broom wagon.

They pedal relentlessly on through breath-taking scenery and dreary cityscapes, trying to snatch minutes of sleep before they slip into unconsciousness in the saddle through sheer exhaustion.

It’s a great watch – and made all the more fun because the 2017 event is already fully booked up so there’s no danger of being sucked into the madness, however inspired you might be by it (and you will be inspired, trust us on that one).

You can see a trailer for the London Edinburgh London official documentary here https://vimeo.com/ondemand/londonedinburghlondon/137386687. The kind folk at MadeGood.films, who produced the documentary, have offered Simpson readers a 10% discount code. All you have to do is enter the code 'lelpresale' at checkout, or follow this link https://vimeo.com/r/1HL2/x/QXBFY1ljM3 before 1 June.

 

Chalk lines and village halls

It was all very British. Sat in a village hall car park at an hour when most folk were still in bed sleeping off the excesses of a good Saturday night, two bikes wrapped in blankets on the folded seats behind us as we watched other competitors arrive. Outside the hall stood two men, one with a clipboard the other measuring the distance of a complete crank rotation between two chalked lines. Any bike travelling more than 18 feet 8 1/4 inches was instantly disqualified. We had entered the world of medium geared time trialling. It felt like a mysterious closed society - the stuff of secret handshakes and whispered conversations.

This is the underbelly of British club cycling - an honest down-to-earth, grass roots event that sits a million light years from the glamour of televised Grand Tours. The fundamental principles might have been the same but the execution was very different.

Having passed the measurement requirement we signed on. Now we had passed the point of no return. We were committed. Our countdown with destiny (and the stopwatch) had begun.

However well you prepare, there's always those unknown factors, those niggly little things that float around in your head before the off. We lined up in a narrow lane leading to a farmer's field, everyone in sequence with the numbers pinned to our backs. No digital LED countdown, no start ramp just a line chalked on the road and man with a clipboard and stopwatch. A 25 mile TT had seemed a good idea at the time of entering. It didn't anymore. Having refused the starter's push in favour of a self-propelled start, the race of truth had begun.

You soon reach top speed on a single speed bike; the secret, as in any time trial, is maintaining it. It took eight painful miles to regulate breathing, settle down and find a rhythm. As soon as the halfway roundabout came into view we knew we were homeward bound. This elation was immediately soured by a sequence of repeated mechanical failures - on three separate occasions the chain jumped the rear sprocket. Without a team car in sight (dream on punter!) it was time to get our hands dirty. The ignoble sight of a cyclist, bike upturned by the side of the road wrestling a jammed chain signified us kissing goodbye to any semblance of a decent finishing time.

Needless to say we completed the event way down the field but we weren't last and our appetite to give it another go is keen. We have unfinished business.