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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Beanbag photo shoot from Moving Target, 1989

Rob Penn writing in the Observer magazine today about the development of cycle fashion – rearranging the words 1980s Rapha Vulpine lycra lurid MAMIL stylish successful – has the following line: 'the “heroin-chic” cycle messenger sub-culture in the late 80s'.

Not really sure what he means. I thought heroin-chic was invented in 1990s, and that the 1980s was the era of power-dressing and busty super-models. Bicycle couriers or cycle messsengers are generally pretty skinny, although not always. Maybe I'm over-thinking this.

Perhaps he was an assiduous reader of Moving Target back then, and he is referring to occasional fashion shoots that Charlie Bayliss like to put in? Anyway, no further prompting needed – here's a Beanbag shoot from a 1989 issue of Moving Target. Ah, Beanbag.

A more innocent age, dear reader – before anyone had conceived of fakengers, hipsters, before most people had heard of fixies. The usual cliché is 'halcyon days', isn't it?

 

For a greater understanding of the Tour, and professional male cycle sport in general, I recommend the following books. I apologise for the fact that some of them are out of print. I haven't selected these books to be obtuse, or seem clever, I selected them because I think they are worth reading, and reveal, sometimes consciously, as in the case of Benio Maso's excellent work, sometimes unconsciously, as with Freddy Maertens' autobiography, what lies beneath the surface of professional road-racing.

Jean Alavoine, a rider that Albert Londres came to admire, struggles on the Tourmalet in 1923

1. Les Forçats de la Route, Tour de Souffrance (Slaves of the Road, Tour of Suffering) – Albert Londres

Albert Londres was well known as an investigative reporter, writing on people trafficking, the piteous conditions in France's colonies, and other significant social and economic issues of his times. He was a major public figure, practising what the French call grand reportage, of sufficient importance in French public affairs to have not one, but two annual prizes awarded in his memory.

As far as I know, this has only been published in English once, translated by Graeme Fife, and issued as a gift with Cycle Sport in 1999. There is no current english translation available, which seems incredible, as Londres invented some of the most enduring clichés of cycle sport, not least the title. The interview with the Pelissier brothers, which he conducted whilst they were eating (riders trapped in a restaurant by a journalist – a scenario many modern writer-followers of cycle sport will recognise), after they had abandoned le Tour de France of 1924, has been quoted in part many thousands of times, because of the significance of the section dealing with drugs to the modern era:

You want to know how we keep going? Here…” He pulled out a phial from his bag. “That's cocaine for the eyes. This is chloroform for the gums.”

“And the pills? You want to see the pills? Take a look, here are the pills.” Each one of them pulled out 3 boxes.

“Fact is,” said Francis, “we keep going on dynamite.”

 

It's a shame that the rest of Albert Londres' reports from the 1924 Tour (unlike the Pelissier brothers, he continued on the Tour) are not more widely known in English. They are worth reading because they are from the beginning of real reporting on road cycle sport. As he is writing for a newspaper, Le Petit Parisien, which was a rival or, at least, not in league with the organisers of the Tour, the owners of l'Auto newspaper, his is a neutral point of view, not inclined to the hyperbole and downright fabrication of chief organiser Henri Desgranges and his employees. One can also sense in his reports, which were filed at the end of each stage, and not re-written later, that, almost against his will, this Tour novice was falling under the spell of the Tour and its heroes.

Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape by Paul Howard

A biography of the first 5 time winner of the Tour, Jacques Anquetil, I suggest this book because Anquetil was one of the first big stars of the television era. The first live outside broadcast of bicycle racing came from the 1960 Paris – Roubaix, which made a star of Tommy Simpson in France because his (failed) solo breakaway were the first images of live bicycle racing ever broadcast to the watching public, and the 1960 Tour de France was the first to be broadcast live, as opposed to viewed later on newsreels.

Anquetil was the culmination of natural progression in road cycle sport. At first the heroes were noble sons of the soil (or so the journalists would have had it), but after WWII, the improvement of road surfaces, allowed the development of cycling stars with the allure and presentation of popular stars of stage and screen. There would have been no point Hugo Koblet, the pédaleur de charme, keeping a comb in his jersey pocket in the 20s & 30s, as his hair would have been matted with dust, mud and other less appetising substances, but in the 50s, as more and more roads were tarmaced, and more and more pictures, both still & moving, were taken of the riders, it made sense to look as presentable as possible. Jean Robic, winner of the 1947 Tour, was contemptuous of Louison Bobet and his brother because, according to Jean Bobet, the brothers didn't blow their noses on their fingers, but the power in cycle sport was passing from the stone age giants such as Robic and Gino Bartali to the silver and small screen idols such as Coppi, Riviére & Anquetil. My mother, who was a French teenager in the 1950s, had a crush on Anquetil.

Anquetil dominated the Tour not just physically, but tactically and psychologically. An illustration of this is that he was credited with winning the 1966 edition for his team-mate Lucien Aimar, despite the fact he abandoned the race. This domination earned him the whistles of the public, who preferred the honest, but unsubtle methods of Raymond Poulidor. Or at least, they preferred the image Poulidor that was presented by the media to that of Anquetil.

Anquetil's era is significant because it was towards the end of his reign as the undisputed master of European cycle sport that the riders, teams, sponsors and race administrators developed the attitudes towards doping that led directly to Liestrong. Anquetil was an unrepentant doper, maintaining his stance that the riders should retain the right to do whatever what was necessary for them to practise their craft even after the amphetamine and alcohol assisted death of Tom Simpson on the scorched upper slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967.

Anquetil blamed Simpson's team for not looking after him properly and was absolutely steadfast in his refusal to accept dope testing, and as one of the most important figures in the sport, there is no question that he was instrumental in the development of the informal structures of doping, both in its artisanal & systematic phases, by which I mean that doping was effectively tolerated by everyone in the sport, including the media, because those that weren't participating, whether riders, team helpers, race organiser, and, crucially, the journalists, kept very quiet in public about what they knew of doping in private. This silence extended to Anquetil's domestic arrangements, which, whilst not actually criminal, were certainly scandalous.

Cover of 'The Sweat of the Gods'

The other books I have suggested are very much of their times. This book covers the development of professional road cycle sport from the very first 'official' road race run in France, 1868 or 1869 (as Maso points out, the myth-making – or fabrication – of male cycle sport obscures what really happened, but we can be reasonably sure that James Moore won) to the present day. Not so much a record of who won which race, as an explanation of why a given race came to be founded, who & what the sponsors and organisers were, and by what means stories, rather than news, because one of Maso's themes is that of myth and myth-making, of the race were spread.

He explains magnificently why the exploits of Coppi, who routinely humiliated his fellow competitors in the 40s & 50s, were celebrated and lauded by the media and public, whereas the feats of Merckx were often denigrated and, towards the end of his reign, occasioned actual hostility. (Briefly, it was the effect of live television – hours of pictures of a solitary man riding a bike up a road emptied of competitors not make for a great televisual spectacle, whereas a literary description of the same feat can be made much more exciting). This book is in print, and every serious student of male professional road-racing should have a copy, in my opinion.

4. Fall From Grace – Freddy Maertens

Fall From Grace, Freddy Maertens

There is no point in pretending that this book is an easy read. The narrative is jumbled, and one senses that Maertens' ghost-writer struggled to impose himself on the fallen champion. Freddy Maertens insights into his relationship with his wife made me grind my teeth, and there were other sections of anecdotes of 'pranks' which were equally distasteful.

 

Don't read this book if you wish to view male road-racing of the 1970s through rose-tinted spectacles; Freddy will grab them off your face, spit on them and then grind them into the pavement. However, Freddy Maertens' memoir has one overwhelming virtue – it is very honest.

If Anquetil was the king of the French in an era when the French still dominated le Tour, Maertens was the pretender to the throne of the king of the Belgians in an era when the Belgians dominated not just le Tour but all professional cycle racing. Not just Merckx and Maertens, a double world champion, winner of the Tour of Spain as well as countless other races, large and small, but de Vlaeminck, a good enough all-rounder to take the points jersey at il Giro, as well as multiple Classics, Van Impe, 6 time winner of the King of the Mountains competition, and winner of the Tour itself in 1976. A gilded era, which still overshadows everything that has come since. Maertens' Flandria team, managed by, amongst others, Lomme Driessens, a man whose character could charitably called 'colourful', counted Walter Goodefroot (manager of the Telekom team during the polluted 90s and early 2000s), Marc Demeyer (died suddenly, whilst in his prime), Michel Pollentier (thrown off the Tour in 1978 whilst leading in what was the biggest doping story since the death of Tom Simpson) and Sean Kelly, who rode in Maertens' sprint train at the beginning of his career.

Maertens career and palmares are, in my opinion, the finest of any Belgian except perhaps Merckx himself, which makes Freddy's fall all the more sad, but makes his memoir all the better. I considered including Bernard Hinault's Memories of the Peloton in this list, but discarded it not least because although it is well worth reading for his account of the 1986 Tour alone, there is very little in the memoir to endear Hinault to the reader, whereas Maertens', despite the evident sexism and general boorishness, is far more entertaining and engaging, despite its faults. Inexplicably out of print in English.

Wide-eyed and Legless, Jeff Connor5. Wide-eyed and Legless – Jeff Connor

The Tour of Maertens' era was in the doldrums. The fields were 160 or less. The ambiance was stiflingly parochial, according to Robert Millar, even in 1983. By the late 80s this had all started to change, and quite rapidly. The field in 1987 was over 200. An American had already won the race, a Colombian and a Scot had taken the Grand Prix de Montagne – this was the result of the policy of mondialisation pursued by the organisers. This policy brought a British team to the Tour for the first time in decades. In its midst came a tabloid journalist, a Tour novice like Albert Londres was in 1924.

There are other echoes of Forçats de la Route, not least because Connor gets to see riders abandoning up close. There are some similarities between Tony Capper, the boss of the ANC-Halfords team that Jeff Connors was travelling with, and Lomme Driessens, Maertens' mentor – both are substantial characters, but ultimately turn out to be unreliable friends, even if Capper is not a villain of the same order as Driessens.

If you find all the British triumphalism surrounding Sky tiresome, or wonder why British cyclists of a certain age are willing to forgive Cav and Wiggo all sorts of transgressions, you need to read this book. This book shows just how pathetically amateurish British professional cycling was before Peter Keen came along, and might help to explain why guys like me are moved to tears when Cav wins in Paris, or any Brit takes any jersey, i.e. we have been used to inglorious failure for so long that the current success finds us utterly unprepared psychologically.

Wide-eyed and Legless is also absolutely gripping, and well-loved enough by British cycling fans to have prompted Connor to write a follow-up called Field of Fire.

 

Why is the Chancellor’s announcement that he is planning to spend more on new roads (for motor vehicles) than at any time since the 1970s such a bad idea? Uncle Bob Davis explains why.

Road Danger Reduction Forum

Yes, the Chancellor’s much awaited Comprehensive Spending Review has indeed been disastrous for sustainable transport. The possibilities for alternatives to increased dependency on cars and road freight recede. It has indeed been as dreadful as commentators like Campaign Better Transport   say it is, with an excellent summary by Carlton Reid here . Let’s see why:

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London Courier Emergency Fund

Where do couriers like to go on holiday? courier events of course…with other couriers, riding their bikes and doing courier things.

These coming months are packed with messenger races and championships that will take us in all corner of Europe,well Switzerland mainly.

The summer kicks off with the Bern ECMC 2013 pre-event in Milano. I’ll be heading off to sunny Italy next week to help out my good friend  Matteo and catch up with fellow messengers.

  More info here: http://ecmcpreevent2013.tumblr.com

Check the teaser: http://vimeo.com/66745450

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The pre-event will be followed by a ride to Bern, Switzerland, where the  18th European Cycle Messenger Championships will be taking place.

Everything you need to know is here: http://www.ecmc2013.ch/index-en.html

http://vimeo.com/66585455

ecmc_flyer_web

Few weeks to recover and it will be time to ride off again. The whole messenger community is eagerly waiting for the 21st edition of the Cycle Messenger World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. It…

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Forgive me for using a title that is actually a tweet, but this post is a tweet that turned out to be too long to be a tweet, so it is a mini-blog instead of a micro-blog, but not a sub-tweet.

Having recently rejoined the London Cycling Campaign, I now get their e-newsletter thing.  This week’s is a bit depressing, with the news that only 66 000 people have signed the Get Britain Cycling petition, which was started in April of this year, with support from the Times as part of its Cycle Safe   campaign.  The petition is also supported by all the major cycling organisations in the U.K..

I know I have signed, I’m pretty sure Anna has signed, and I had hoped that everyone I know that cycles in the U.K. has signed it, and everyone else that cycles in the U.K. regularly surely ought to have signed it too.  In which case, why so few signatures?  Is that really the level of support that cycling has amongst in its own constituency?  What chance do we have of making major changes to Britain’s transport policy if we can’t even get 100 000 signatures on this petition?

The text of petition follows:

We the undersigned call on the Prime Minister to pledge that the Government will implement the recommendations in the ‘Get Britain Cycling’ parliamentary report. The inquiry, chaired by a cross-party panel of MPs and peers, heard that promoting cycling as a healthy and affordable way to travel can tackle Britain’s obesity crisis, save millions from NHS budgets, boost the economy and reduce congestion on our roads and trains.  The inquiry’s 18 recommendations focus on reallocating investment, safer road design, lower speed limits, better training and strong political leadership. 

This will require cross-departmental consensus led from the Cabinet Office and Downing Street, not just from the Department for Transport.  In the Commons on February 22, 2012, the Prime Minister said of The Times’s ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’ campaign: “If we want to encourage the growth in cycling we’ve seen in recent years, we need to get behind campaigns like this.” 
Now is the time to act on those words.

Sign it.

When I mentioned that I had been to the 2nd Hackney Cycling Conference, people asked me if I had enjoyed it.  Enjoy isn’t the word.  There was too much information packed into the event for me to enjoy.

A couple of the speakers were way above my head.  Dr. Adrian Davis on Bristol’s ‘Public Health & Transport collaboration’ was too dense for me (Bruce Mcvean of Liveable London was kind enough to point me at Lucy Saunders’ presentation on the website, which is a lot more digestible).  I got the principle, outlined in Professor Harry Rutter‘s illuminating presentation, that the public health benefits of cycling far, far outweigh the risks, I just didn’t really grasp what Dr. Davis was saying.  I guess because I am neither a transport planner nor a public health professional it doesn’t really matter.

I also struggled with Keith Firth‘s presentation of the nuts and bolts of redesigning junctions for increased cycling.  He took us through the process of modelling movements within the junction. During his presentation Mark Treasure tweeted that he was amazed ‘that 5 bicycles are “equivalent” to 1 car in assessing capacity, regardless of number of people in that car’ for the purposes of modelling traffic flows, which shows that I wasn’t the only one who got confused.

A lot of people responded negatively to that tweet, but Keith was merely saying that a bike occupies a fifth of the space of a car, for modelling purposes, in the same way that a bus occupies 4 times the space of a car, no matter how many passengers are carried on the bus.  The much more interesting point that I took from Keith’s presentation was that pedestrian movements are not modelled at all.

I spoke to Keith afterwards, and he mentioned that microsimulations of traffic at junctions are incredibly computationally complex, and require a huge amount of calculating power, which is probably why they don’t model pedestrian movements as well.  As an aside, Keith said that Advanced Stop Lines should be 4 or 5 metres long.  I’m pretty sure I got this down right, as I had only had one or two beers by this time, and I wrote the number down.

If this is true, then there are a lot, a huge number, of sub-standard ASLs in London, which need to be widened or lengthened.  Islington Council or TfL, whoever is the responsible authority, can start with the ASLs on the junction of Goswell Road / Clerkenwell Road / Old Street.  I see that they are trialling the ‘trixi’ mirrors at this junction, finally, but it might be more useful to repaint the lines so that cyclists can get that little bit further forward, away from the lorries.  This would possibly take them out of the blind-spot.

Another thing I took from the conference, and this won’t be welcomed by some, is that whatever infrastructure is going to be put in to support cycling in London, it will not be allowed to inconvenience bus passengers or pedestrians.  This almost certainly means no diversion of bus routes to permit the installation of segregated tracks.  Andrew Gilligan made this clear, as did Peter Wright, who is the Senior Delivery Planning Manager at TfL.  As I have said before, the bus is king of the London roads.

This explains why Councillor Vincent Stops is so anti-tracks.  He made a remark to me which reveals how seriously he takes the prioritisation of the bus.  He talked to me of the bus network having lost 6% of capacity since Boris Johnson became Mayor, in terms that made it clear what a bad thing he thought it was, and that the bus network needs to be protected from increased depredation.  I’m not suggesting that Councillor Stops has a major say in Boris’ transport policies, far from it, but I am saying that whatever changes are proposed to the infrastructure, those representing the interests of pedestrians and bus passengers will need to be reassured that they will not be delayed, diverted or otherwise pushed to the margins.

There is a problem with the way that some people on bikes are using the canal.

I participated in a workshop on pedestrian / bicycle conflicts on Regent’s Canal, led by Dick Vincent (a.k.a. Towpath Ranger on Twitter) and Rosie Tharp of the Canal & River Trust.  They presented a shocking number about the speed that people cycle on the towpath.  Although the data was collected in Kensington & Chelsea, there is no reason to believe that speeds in Camden, Islington & Hackney are  substantially lower.  The 85th percentile speed is 13.8 mph. The equivalent number for London Fields bike path is 13.4 mph.  In other words, people are riding along the canal towpath, which is narrower by roughly half for large stretches, has pinch-points under the bridges, isn’t segregated, and has a body of water on one side, faster than they do in London Fields which is straight, smooth and segregated.  This is obvious completely wrong, and needs to stop.  I personally do not understand why anyone would want to cycle that fast in a space which so inappropriate for any kind of speed.

Dick Vincent said that it’s an inditement indictment of the state of the roads that people prefer to use the canal, but I think the resurfacing work, which has made the tow-path safer, has probably encouraged higher speeds as well.  The CRT have no intention of banning bikes, but clearly people are riding too fast along the towpath.  Developing a parallel network which is as convenient and safe as the towpath is clearly one answer, but the big problem is intersections with main roads.  If you use the canal, you don’t have to stop at the main roads, whereas I imagine that any parallel route would not be given priority at Kingsland Road or Queensbridge Road, to give examples in Hackney.

In the short term, behaviour has to change, though, as the speeds recorded are far too fast.  If you want to ride at more than 10 mph, you should really be using the road, not a narrow shared space that has a body of water running along side it.

Probably the presentation that I enjoyed the most was entitled ‘Principles of Permeability’, presented by Tyler Linton.  It was designed to show what Hackney has done, and should have been retitled ‘Bollard Porn’.  It was just one shiny bollard after another, which was somehow strangely calming and relaxing.  Maybe that was just me, though.

At the top of the show was Jules Pipe, Mayor of Hackney.  Hackney Council deserves praise for its approach, which, even if it is not pro-cycling as some would like, is unquestionably pro-people, particularly those people that do not have access to a private motor vehicle.  Jules Pipe’s speech, in my opinion, was not Hackney Council’s finest hour for one reason only.  The target, published elsewhere as well, given for cycling modal share in 2030/31 is 15%, or just over double the 2013/14 target, which is 7%.  Call me impatient, call me unreasonable but I think that is PUNY.  This target is easily achievable, but surely Hackney should be a lot more ambitious, and going for 25% at least?

And I’m going to end there.  There was a lot of great stuff at the conference, and these events are inspiring, but there still remains a lot to be done, if a place like Hackney believes that it needs 16 years to double cycling rates in the borough.

nocturne1

Funny to be back at a bike race after a couple of years.  Sights that used to be common, and entirely normal, such as a man in skin-tight lycra, click-clopping across the pavement in cleated cycling shoes, carrying a pint of beer, now seem bizarre to me.  Pleased to see that there were no podium girls, only Paul Smith, to congratulate the riders.

Thanks very much to Volvo for hosting me!