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First of all I want to quote some words of Paul Churchill aka ‘Winston’ that I published on Moving Target 14 years ago

You’re riding casually along Oxford Street when one of those idiot parents decides to use their child in a pushchair as a “traffic tester”. There’s an impact, you feel terrible, it’s not your fault and the policeman spots you’ve got no brakes…. Think about the consequences….

I think it was maybe around 2002 that the brakeless thing started to become really fashionable amongst London’s bicycle couriers. Couriers had ridden fixed-wheels in London since bicycle courier year dot (1983 or thereabouts).

Fixed-wheel bicycles remained popular in the UK long after the invention of the free-wheel and variable gears between the wars. I remember John Humphries asking me if people still rode fixed-wheels as he used to in the 50s. But by the 80s, fixies were rare, and if you rode fixed, most people thought you were wierd, and you would get accosted by old men who would reminisce about their own fixed-wheels of yore.

By the 90s, lots of couriers were riding fixed. It is fair to say that we helped to popularise fixed-wheels. But we all, without exception, rode with a front-brake on the road.

The first time I ever saw a no-brake fixie was at the first Cycle Messenger Championships, held in Berlin, 1993. I was one of 5 or 6 guys riding fixed out of the several hundred attendees, and two of the others fixie riders, Eric & Steve both from Washington D.C., were riding no-brakes. I thought it was dangerous and stupid, but I was too polite to say so. They told me that a lot of messengers working in cities in the eastern part of the U.S., rode fixies, and some portion of those rode no brakes

Later on in the 90s some guys from Philly came over & worked in London with their fixies, and the riders at the company that they worked at, Creative Couriers, insisted that they put brakes on their bikes. I mention this to illustrate the point that at that time, not only were all fixie riders riding braked, but they considered that it was the right thing to do. It is also important to point out that at no point have fixie riders, front brakes or not, been in a majority amongst London’s couriers. There were times when almost no-one rode fixed, and other times when quite a few rode fixed, but never time when most rode fixed.

It was only after 2000 that this attitude towards front brakes on fixies changed. I cannot identify the exact cause, but there is no doubt that peer pressure and a desire to be like the coolest kids on the street were a major factor. A lot of European couriers had started to ride no-brake fixies, and when London hosted the 2003 European Cycle Messenger Championships, I am sure that a number of London couriers were influenced by hanging out with their European comrades.

And there is no doubt that couriers, in the same way as they had popularised fixies, also made it fashionable to ride fixed no brakes.

By the time that I published the article that I quoted above, a lot, but by no means a majority of London couriers were riding no brakes. I have no comment to make about what other courier companies were doing, but at the company for which I was by then a controller, we made it clear to our riders that we would not let them work unless their bike was road legal, i.e. had a front brake, and we checked their bikes. Some of the guys & girls were pretty resistant to our instructions.

Tofu, who I knew quite well, and was a good friend, was a loud no-brake advocate. He was an excellent courier and a really, really good urban bike rider (it’s not necessary to be a good urban bike rider to be a good courier, and not all good urban bike riders are good couriers – the skill-set is completely different), so arguments about not being safe and so forth weren’t effective, not least because I did not believe the arguments myself. He had been riding no brakes for years, and was unlikely to get himself into trouble on the road without a brake. So our only recourse was to say that he had to do it because we said so, and send him home when he did not have a front brake.

The day after we had sent him home, he called to say he was on the way in. I asked him if he had a front brake, and he said yes. A little later in the day, one of my co-workers told me that he had seen Tofu, and his bike did not have a front brake. Furious, I called him and started berating him for having lied to me. He said, “but you didn’t ask me if the brake was on my bike, you asked me if I had a front brake – I have – it’s in my bag” – I retell this story to illustrate how strongly people felt about it.

I felt equally strongly that it was stupid and wrong, but I was so sick of the constant rows about it, that I had someone, a very experienced and well-known courier, who had participated in proper bike races, including many seasons on the velodrome riding track bikes, and had in fact organised well-attended races for couriers on the velodrome, to write the piece which I published on Moving Target. Paul pretty much said everything I would have said, and I disagree with nothing at all that he wrote.

I write all of this to illustrate not only did I do everything that I could to discourage people from riding no-brakes fixed on the road, I even foresaw not this exact incident, but something very like it. Of course, I did not foresee the extent of the media coverage (it made national news, and not just for a day, either), but I was worried about the potential for such a case to cause big trouble for the cycling community. So I can say, I told you so, I told you this (or something very like it) would happen.

And for all those of you in the courier community saying Charlie Alliston is nothing to do with us, well, no, you are wrong, our community helped create the social conditions in which Charlie Alliston thought it was ok to ride around London without a front brake. By the way, I do not believe that Charlie Alliston did not know that his bike was not road legal. He bought the thing off the LFGSS forum, so he must have come across posts about the legality or otherwise of not having a front brake on the road.

An old friend (also an exenger) called John Mack and many, many others have sought to defuse the media furore by pointing to other fatal crashes and the lack of reaction to them. This is plain wrong. Tu quoque (sometimes called ‘whataboutery’ or more simply ‘but these other people did something worse at some other time’) is no defence at any time in any place. Seeking to excuse one crime by pointing at others is wrong-headed.

This whole thing is incredibly painful and upsetting, not least because someone has died in an unnecessary crash, which we would not know be talking about if Charlie Alliston’s bike had had a front brake fitted. Why did he not have a front brake? Probably because he thought it was cool not to. Why did he think it was cool? Yeah, right.

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British Cycling have been annoying me for the last couple of months. First, they invented a new version of the empty phrase cycle-friendly or (apologies to the guys at the Times, who have done great work) cycle-safe. The BC approved version is 'cycle-proofing'. It's supposed to mean making roads safe for cyclists to use.

Using a non-specific suffix such as -friendly or -proofing generally doesn't signify anything apart from good intentions. Sometimes, as in the case of Google Maps beta bicycle thing, it can be seriously misleading, as Gmaps appear to be using the prescence of a marked bike or bus lane as an indication that the road in question is suitable for cyclists, meaning that Upper and Lower Thames Street were designated cycle-friendly. Likewise, I think cycle-proofing sounds like bike-wash, the cycle advocacy equivalent of green-wash. You see? It's so easy to make up meaningless but interesting-sounding labels.

I don't understand why British Cycling doesn't call a spade a spade and say exactly what it means. If BC is in favour of protected bicycle lanes, 2 phase traffic lights at junctions and so forth why not say exactly that? Surely BC doesn't think that Advanced Stop Lines and other painted surfaces are anything except an awkward and unsafe halfway house? Why not use a widely accepted shorthand that encapsulates the whole protected lane, re-engineered junction package like 'Go Dutch' or 'Space For Cycling'? Why reinvent the wheel, thus muddying the advocacy waters? Suspicious and cynical cyclists like myself might be tempted to see this as a turf grab by BC, keen to expand into new areas now that the Olympic tap is no longer spouting money with the same force as before.

Then I read BC's 2 year old report on the cycling economy: 'Gross Cycling Product', trumpeted by BC as the first attempt to quantify the contribution of cycling to the wealth of the nation. Guess what? Deliveries by bicycle (or tricycle) feature absolutely nowhere. It's as if the writers of the report have never been to central London, or, indeed, any major city anywhere in the world. I'm not going to suggest that couriers and other bicycle delivery people are a huge source of income for the national purse, but I would suggest that they are far from insignificant. I shouldn't take this oversight personally, but hey, I used to be a bicycle courier, so I do.

And there's helmets. Here's what British Cycling has to say (taken from the page 'Safety Points' on the BC website):

British Cycling asserts that the wearing of a correctly fitted hard shell helmet conforming to a recognised safety standard is recommended for all of its non-competitive events. British Cycling also strongly recommends the use of such a helmet whilst cycling at all other times, whilst recognising the right of each individual to choose whether or not to accept this recommendation.

Helmets are the subject of much debate, most of which is anecdotal (i.e. highly subjective and virtually impossible to verify – “my helmet saved my life”), and lot of which is emotional (e.g. the recent appeal by the father of Ryan Smith, a teenager left in a coma after a collision). I don't want to get into it too much. I said more or less what I think about helmets over here, and as a recent edition of More Or Less pointed out, not enough research has been done. However, there is good evidence that in jurisdictions where helmet use is compulsory that cycling rates have fallen after compulsion. It is also the case that use or non-use of a helmet is increasingly becoming a modifier used in legal proceedings to determine 'contributory negligence' by the cyclist, even in cases where the cyclist bore no responsibility for the collision that caused the injuries suffered by the cyclists.

We have all enjoyed the interventions of Bradley Wiggins & Laura Trott in this area, but it's worth pointing out that both Wiggins & Trott are very much the creations of British Cycling, have been nurtured and developed by structures put into place by British Cycling and the downside of enjoying the glorification reflected from their respective medals is having to accept responsibility for the stupid things that they say, especially when what they said was only a paraphrase of British Cycling policy.

Lastly, there's Eastway. It's long enough since the Eastway Cycle Circuit was bulldozed that a lot of Londoners will associate Eastway with a miserable road running across Hackney Marshes, through one of the most hostile and confusing road junctions in all of London, scene of the death of a cyclist during the Olympics, run over by an Olympic bus. But for older sporting London cyclists Eastway means a green oasis of cycle sport, built in the 1970s, and used pretty much 7 days a week through the summer for road-racing, mountain-biking (Eastway was the original venue for the Beastway races), time-trialling, BMX and cyclo-cross.

Eastway Cycle Circuit was sacrificed by British Cycling on the Olympic altar, depriving London cycling of its best equipped venue for nearly 10 years. The organisation of the replacement facility, Hog Hill, was less than stream-lined, but hey, it was all worth it because we (London's sporting cyclists) are getting back a world-class sporting facility blah blah blah. I won't be the first to point out that cycling is getting back a lot less land than was taken away. Ok, there's a velodrome there as well, ok, ok. But the size of the site is much, much smaller.

But how are we going to get to the Velopark, or whatever it's called? This is something that doesn't seem to have been considered very much, or at all, by British Cycling. Maybe they just assumed that people would do what they do when going to bike races elsewhere in the country, that is put their bikes and their kit in or on their car and drive.

We have heard so much about the attention to detail of British Cycling, the 'marginal gains'. BC was apparently consulted about the velodrome at every step of the design and construction. To give one well-reported instance, there had been modifications to the design of the entrances to the velodrome to keep the ambient air temperature inside the building as warm as possible to facilitate quick times. Chris Hoy purred when the velodrome was presented to the public.

I first started using Eastway Cycle Circuit before the M11 link road was built. I rode from Hackney. At that time, Eastway, the road that I used to access the cycle circuit, was pretty busy, and the right turn across 3 lanes of traffic was… well, it was a right turn across 3 lanes of fast moving traffic, albeit at a signalled junction. Not something to look forward to, but not something I couldn't handle, what with being able to ride reasonably quick and also a 'professional' road-user.

Since then, the link road has been built, which has added a motorway intersection into the mix. This ramped up the speeds, and made the westbound turn off Eastway towards Hackney even more fun than it had been before. The Olympic Park has added an extra dimension of confusion to the road layout, which undoubtedly contributed to the death of Dan Harris. If I, an experienced cyclist who has been riding in London since the age of 2, gets confused by the road layout around the Velopark (or whatever it is called), what must it be like for less experienced cyclists?

I don't use the A13 for anything really, so I can't really comment on how dangerous, relatively, the Eastway / A12 (M) / Olympic Park / Westfield interchange is compared to the notorious Barking interchange, or what the KSI numbers are. But I will say that it was pretty inappropriate for cycling before the M11 was built, and has only got worse and worse since. It has always been a road that I rode along as quickly as possible to minimise my exposure to the conditions.

I asked British Cycling if they had any input at all into the roads around the Velopark. This is their reply:

As far as I know, we didn't have any input into the route but we have heard the criticisms. My colleague in the Campaigns team has suggested that you contact the London Cycling Campaign on this. Hope this is helpful.

In other words, they didn't raise the issue of whether people would cycle to the Velodrome, and how safe it might be for them to do that. This doesn't surprise me, as I have always found cycle sport to be a pastime for people with cars.

I don't want to labour the point, but BC is trying to get more kids into cycling. The Velopark is virtually in Hackney. Hackney has very, very low rates of car ownership. It therefore follows that Hackney kids, if they aren't going to get the bus or walk, aren't going to get driven, so are likely to cycle to the Velopark. Honestly, I wouldn't want anyone's kids to have to negotiate the roads around the Velopark.

At the Hackney Cycling Conference Andrew Gilligan said, in reference to the Mayor's (and TfL's) support of sporting cycling events, something like: I view the relationship of events like the Tour de France to everyday cycling as similar to the relationship of the Bluebell Railway to Eurostar. (Apologies to Mr Gilligan if I have mangled his metaphor). British Cycling's flagship facility in London is the Velopark. As it is, the Velopark could not be more isolated from the attempts of other interested parties (councils, TfL, the Mayor's Office, London Cycling Campaign etc etc) to build mass cycling in London. The Velopark is therefore the perfect illustration of the truth of Mr Gilligan's aphorism.

If British Cycling wants a suggestion from a former member, former user of Eastway, London cyclist, I would shut up about 'cycle-proofing', get a grip on your athletes and stop them from blurting out nonsense, and do something to sort out safe routes for cyclists around the Velopark.

 


When the Tour route was announced last year, I spotted straight away that, using Eurostar’s direct service to Avignon, which runs on Saturday, you could ride around at least two of the big Tour stages (stage 15 to Mont Ventoux & stage 18 to l’Alpe d’Huez), and, with a short hop on the train from Valence to Avignon, get the train back on Saturday. I mentioned that what I was thinking of on my local bicycle forum, and soon I had riding companions. In the end, five of us did the little tour of le Tour. The tour provoked a lot of thoughts in me, some of which I have put down here.

1. The Tour of France is a phenomenon that can overwhelm people.

It was instructive to be with someone for whom the bicycle race spectacle is relatively unfamiliar, whose knowledge of the event was almost at the level of Ned Boulting’s famous “yellow jumper” comment. The difference between stage winners and the overall, what does G.C. mean? Our companion was entirely entranced by the spectacle, despite not knowing all of the ins and outs of the race. This entrancement was, in my opinion, because of her proximity to the race (we camped on the slopes of Mont Ventoux the night before the race), and the scenery, the gigantic stadium which is le Mont Chauve, as the French call it, is amazing. I think it is impossible to look upon le Ventoux and not be stunned and amazed that any human would consider racing up its slopes in the stifling heat of a Provençal afternoon.

We then rode part of Stage 16, joining the race route at Montbrun les Bains, climbing the Col de Macuègne, and turning off before Gap to go over the Col du Festre. This took us the best part of 2 days. The Tour roared through this section in a couple of hours, taking less than 30 minutes to swallow a climb that had occupied us for nearly 2 hours. Even allowing for the fact that Chris Froome wasn’t carrying his own luggage, tools and food, you can feel how much stronger, how almost super-human these guys are in the sinews of your own legs when you ride the roads of the Tour.

The scale of the event, and the way in which the public who stand by the side of the road become the event, as much as the cyclists competing in it, is only really apparent when you actually come and stand by the side of the road. We camped just before the first bend of the Mont Ventoux climb proper, and on Sunday morning we watched a seemingly endless stream of people, lots of them British, but mostly French, moving up the hill, all shapes and sizes, some on bikes, some walking, some in lycra, some just in jeans and t-shirts, some with flags and elaborate costumes, some only carrying a couple of baguettes. For hours and hours, they came.

Eventually, the whole 15km from Saint-Estève to the Observatoire was lined, thronged with people. It was the same in Bourg d’Oisans, from where we watched l’Alpe d’Huez stage, people lining the barriers. But the people who stood on Mont Ventoux will not have been able to watch the stage finish as we were able to do in Bourg d’Oisans, but somehow they were part of the event, even those fools on the Irish Corner (were they French, Irish, Scottish, Flemish?) who dressed up as surgeons, in a way that those of us who retired to cafés and bars to watch television were not.

2. Normal standards are suspended when it comes to le Tour.

Objectively, as I said elsewhere, le Tour de France is a horrifying spectacle. The infrastructure of the race is carried around France on the backs of lorries, being torn up as soon as the race has moved through, and ferried ahead the race of itself in a vast fleet of vehicles. The finish line gantry and associated stuff arrived on Mont Ventoux as we were turning in for the night in our tents, roaring up the sinuous road beside us in great clouds of fumes and dust, rolling on and on through the night. The Tour is a vast cavalcade of motor vehicles of all shapes and sizes, with a sliver of athletic endeavour nestling, almost obscured, in its steely grasp.

The caravan publicitaire, which travels along the road in the hours before the Tour itself arrives, is one of the major sources of income for the organisers. If you haven’t seen the caravan in action, or haven’t read a description of what it does, it is a substantial motorcade, made up of at least a hundred vehicles (not counting the police and safety escorts), emblazoned with the logos of whichever product or brand being promoted.

The vehicles themselves are often further modified, either simply to allow people to sit or stand on the roof, or sometimes to permit persons to ride a static bike or gyrate from harnesses and swings. Nearly all the various sub-motorcades distribute free samples of the product, or, if the product will not scale down (as in the case of a mobile phone), some sort of cheap trinket, such as a key-ring. ‘Distribute’ is probably not the word to use. The free stuff is thrown from the cars towards the side of the road.

I guess they must be under strict instructions to make sure the airborne swag does not land in the road itself, to avoid the possibility of souvenir hungry spectators rushing in front of following vehicles. And I guess that after a couple of weeks the throwers get very practised at launching the stuff from the vehicles. We got the distinct impression that some of the throwers were aiming directly at our heads.

On television, when pictures are shown of riders lobbing stuff into the verge, you will sometimes hear the commentators say that every last scrap of jettisoned Tour trash is picked up by the spectators. This may or may not be true, but even though the spectators do seek out as much free stuff as possible, a lot of the promotional material ends up in the bushes, propelled beyond the grasp of even the most committed collector.

Then there is the normal accumulation of waste that 100 000 or 200 000, or however many spectators there were on the sides of Mont Ventoux, will generate. The rubbish, if it is bagged up and left by the side of the road, will be collected by the crews who come past the next day, but the – how shall we say on a family-oriented bicycle blog? – poo cannot. And there was quite a lot of it left behind in the trees on Mont Ventoux.

So in sum, a huge number of people swarm into a forest (did I mention that the forest is a nature reserve protected by law?), causing a 2 day, bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, have a load of rubbish thrown at them, some of which ends up lodge in the undergrowth, promoting consumer products they almost certainly don’t need., they wee & poo all over the forest, and then leave, causing another bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. As the dreadful cliché has it: what’s not to like? On the other hand…


3. Riding along the same roads as the Tour is an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Nearly all the team vehicles and some of the officiel vehicles toot & wave as they pass, nearly all the fans in camper-vans and the like toot & wave, and sometimes even put their hands out to clap you as they pass. People by the side of the road clap and shout encouragement. Some kids with big flags ran alongside us shouting and waving their flag, which was really quite inspiring.

A van pulled alongside James at one point, and the passenger reached out a hand holding a full water bottle. It was yet another blistering hot day, so a full bottle was more than welcome.

We rode down to Grenoble on Friday morning, and as we dropped down the Romanche valley away from the Tour, we were passed by team coaches and other Tour traffic heading for the motorway route around to the finish. Even though normally it isn’t something to be enjoyed, having large fast-moving vehicles overtake you on a single carriage-way road, when we got to Grenoble, where the Tour traffic went north and we went south west, one of my riding companions expressed regret that we were ‘leaving’ the Tour.

4. There aren’t any proper hills in the south of England.

Having ridden in the Alps, or even just around the relatively small hills of southern Provence, allows you to think and say unbearably smug and annoying things like “there aren’t any real hills in London – Highgate isn’t even 250 metres high”. Or “Box Hill? Mere bagatelle, my friend, mere bagatelle.”

Ditchling Beacon, or any ‘climb’ in the south east, simply is not impressive in any way if you have seen and ridden even minor climbs in the Alps. You can plausibly walk up Ditchling in 15 minutes. I saw people that were crippled by walking up and down Ventoux. The average club cyclist will take a lot more than an hour to ride up Ventoux, a lot more than an hour. The top pros are happy if they can get up in less than hour, as this means that they will be climbing with the leaders.

Riding up Swain’s Lane might hurt your legs a bit, and you can put yourself into oxygen debt riding up it if you try hard enough. But the climb to the first hairpin on the Alpe is twice as long as Swain’s Lane. James and Sam, who were by far the fittest of our group took over 80 mins to reach the top (admittedly, they weren’t rushing and there were a lot of peds walking around in the road).

5. Lycra shorts are totally vile.

This is something that has only become apparent to me as I have gotten older, and spent less time in the company of ‘real’ cyclists. When I was a kid, working as a messenger, I used to wear lycra all the time. So did most of my work-mates. I became desensitised to lycra, and found it extraordinary that the North American messenger crew weren’t parading around shiny, skin-tight clothing that left nothing about the wearer’s anatomy to the imagination of the interested observer. In fact, they openly scorned us, the Euros, for wearing lycra. What funny fellows, I thought. Lycra is so practical, I thought, why wouldn’t you wear it?

However, I can now see that no-one looks good in lycra shorts off the bike, even elite professional athletes. Elite athletes only get away with it because they are singular physical specimens whose physique is so impressive that the viewer’s attention is taken away from the shiny leotards to their actual bodies. Lycra jerseys are just about tolerable, if the pattern isn’t too obnoxious, but shorts are not.

We stopped in Sault, at the bottom of the eastern flank of Mont Ventoux. The village was swarming with MAMILs. One or two had removed their jerseys, and were walking around in bib-shorts only. This type of deportment should be confined to single-sex changing rooms only.



As the cliché has it, you can't take a penalty at Wembley, but you can ride up l'Alpe d'Huez anytime. Well, anytime that the road isn't closed by snow or ice. This is part of the magic of the Tour. It will come down a road near you, or go up a road that you have ridden on, if you live in France or have passed time there, as most British people by now have.

For instance, my mother's family lived for a number of years in the Crau, an arid, stony plain between Arles and Salon de Provence. The Tour has passed through the village in which they lived once in my memory, and has passed within a few kilometres at least another 4 times, including Thursday's stage from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier.

If you can't actually be there, by the side of the road, as the cavalcade passes, there is a vicarious thrill in seeing familiar thoroughfares and corners rush past on the television, as a backdrop to the unrolling drama (or in the case of the Crau, flat as it is, almost always a rolling intermission as the Tour transits from Alps to Pyrenées or vice-versa). That vicarious thrill is heightened if you have actually ridden down the roads, and doubled and redoubled if the road is a classified climb or, even better, a summit finish.

Eros Poli on his way to winning the Ventoux stage in 1994Having ridden up Mont Ventoux the year before, I thrilled to Eros Poli's crazy and magnificent solo breakaway up Mont Ventoux in 1994. The fact that Poli, at 190+ cm, is no-one's idea of a pocket-rocket jack-in-the-box climber, made it all the more enthralling.

Watching his obvious travails, I was reminded of my own plodding efforts on the mountain quite vividly, even down to the final hairpin at the foot of the Observatoire, which caused Poli to almost stall, and come to a dead stop on the ramp. The exact same thing had happened to me the year before. Admittedly, I was in the granny ring, pushing a much much smaller gear, whereas Eros was probably pulling a 39 or bigger, but as they say, it doesn't hurt any less when you are fitter, you just go faster.

This Tour de France is going to be very thrilling for me, as I know the roads of 2 of the key stages really quite well. As I wrote elsewhere, I have been up Ventoux several times. I have also ridden Alpe d'Huez 4 times, as well as the first climb of the following day, Col du Glandon, a few times.

This isn't particularly remarkable, as many hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of cyclists have ridden those same climbs at least once, not least because l'Alpe d'Huez and le Col du Glandon form part of the course of the oldest and most famous (outside of the UK) cyclo-sportive, la Marmotte. The event dates from 1981 and, although it isn't quite as big as the largest of all European cyclo-sportives l'Ardechoise, it is, in my opinion, the best of them.

La Marmotte, unlike a Tour stage, but like most cyclo-sportives, describes a circle, and the finish is close by the start. It encompasses le Col de la Croix de Fer (or sometimes the Glandon, as the two climbs share exactly the same route from the south), the Maurienne valley, the Col du Télégraphe, the Col du Galibier, then descends through the Col du Lauteret, down the Romanche valley for a distance of 50km, at an average downgrade of 6%, to the foot of l'Alpe d'Huez. The finish is in l'Alpe d'Huez.

At 167 km it is almost as long as what is described as a Grand Tour 'Queen' stage, i.e. the hardest mountain stage, and has at least as much vertical ascent as you might expect at nearly 6000m.

It is, it goes without saying, a serious undertaking, for which you need proper physical condition, and during which you need to husband your resources. The first time I rode it, I was in ok shape, not really race fit. (I should point out, so as not to mislead any of my readers, that as a bike racer I was extremely mediocre, very much of the type of bike racer described somewhat unkindly as a career 3rd cat).

I had ridden the mountainous, but not monstrous, Mégève – Mont Blanc sportive the month before, and been taught a lesson by 2 middle-aged French guys, who were riding 1980s bikes, and not because they were rocking the vintage look. They were much, much better bike riders than me, and were also enjoying themselves much more than I was, despite the fact that we were riding only a little way in front of the back-markers. I rode away from them on one of the early climbs, only to find myself clinging to their slip-streams later on on the next climb, having been caught on a descent.

As always seems to be the case with older French guys with legs and arms the colour of leather, they descended like the proverbial stones and were laughing their way around the course, taking pleasure in their surroundings and the company. They understood better than I did the importance of sitting back and pedalling, to use Stephen Roche's phrase. I was still riding stupid.

UnfortunateIy I hadn't learnt my lesson, and I was taught it again, and received extra punishment for failing to pay attention on my first visit to the Alps. Alpe d'Huez was my educator.

I can still remember the awe with which I was struck when I turned onto the climb to Alpe d'Huez for the first time. It's not like Mont Ventoux or other climbs that have a gentle introduction. You turn off the flat valley road, go over a small bridge, turn left and there it is, rearing up in front of your front wheel, like a black cliff, impossibly steep.

The first time I rode up it as the finish of la Marmotte, I was utterly destroyed by it. I was over-geared, over-cooked and had stupidly used up what little I had left after climbing the Col du Galibier on the descent of Lautaret, messing about trying to share pace-making with guys who probably got to the finish an hour ahead of me. I got about half-way up the climb to the first hairpin, and I mentally cracked. The famous 21 hairpins – 21! – I couldn't even see the first one! I didn't know that the first lacet of the 21 is one of the longest, if not the longest.

I had already submitted before I even saw the first bend, and pretty soon was sat by the side of the road, trying to get my heart rate down. I can tell you that there is very little in this world that is more demoralising than watching other people ride bicycles up a climb that has forced you to stop, and climb off yours. I seem to remember that I stopped once more, and then finally managed to haul myself up into the village and across the finish line. 9 hours 40 mins or something around that mark. 90 minutes to get up the final climb! Nearly 3 times Pantani's record! Nearly an hour off a Gold time! The internal reproaches went on like this for a bit.

But apart from my time, and a few bad moments on the last climb, the experience had been magnificent. The start is in Bourg d'Oisans, on the valley floor at the foot of the cliff above which sits the village of Huez and the famous ski station itself, often known only as 'the Alp' by anglophone cyclists, as if it were the only mountain worth talking of. The road out of Bourg towards the valley that leads to the Col de la Croix de Fer runs straight and flat for around 10km.

I have ridden all sorts of cycling events, large and small, from Critical Mass in San Francisco to the Essex Road Race League, and I think that there is nothing in the wide world of cycling that is anything like the start of a really big, multi-thousand rider cyclo-sportive. The strongest sensation I felt was complete unvulnerability, mixed with a powerful sense of awe at what I was seeing on the road ahead of me.

I would guess that the first 500 starters (riders are allowed in this group by invitation only) are already starting the first climb to the reservoir above Allemond, some 20km away, whilst the back-markers are still crossing the start. The road is a river of cyclists, an amorphous mass of wheeled humanity humming along, occupying most of the road. A road closure, marshalls, police outriders – for the main field of la Marmotte, normally tens of thousands strong, all such things are irrelevant.

Louison Bobet leads Gino Bartali on le Col de la Croix de Fer (north side), Tour de France 1948

La Marmotte follows a really superb course. The Col de la Croix de Fer, even if it is climbed from the much easier south side, and the Col du Galibier, two 2000+ metre climbs upon which all of the giants of the sport have written their legends. The Galibier is climbed from the north, also far harder than from the south, and then after cresting the pass, always smeared with snow-banks, for it is cold even in summer at 2645 metres, a mind-bending 50km descent, through unlit tunnels, with hundreds of more or less gifted and crazy descenders weaving in and out of the groups that form on the drop down the Romanche valley from the Lautaret.

Falling, falling down the watercourse towards the final climb. Past the Chambon reservoir, past Les Deux Alpes, and into evocatively named Gorges de l'Infernet. The road twists and turns here, clinging to steep valley walls, and then climbs away from the river, through a tunnel and then, at last!, turns into the wide open valley in which is le Bourg d'Oisans. The road along the valley perfectly straight, following the cliff on the right, up which the riders know they will have to ride. The turn out of the Gorges de l'Infernet made all the hair on my body stand up, even the second time. The drama, the majesty of the physical setting is overwhelming.

I was better prepared in my second ride in La Marmotte. I trained harder. My brother gave me a pulse-meter, and I learned how to use it, so that I could better measure my effort. I rode La Ventoux – Beaumes de Venise and did a Gold time, having enough strength left on the Dentelles de Montmirail to catch and drop other riders. I was in good shape.

I had ridden conservatively, trying to hide in the bigger groups and restrained myself from any show-boating or wasted effort. Arriving at the turn towards the last climb, I knew I had roughly 75 mins to get to the finish line to get my Gold time, a time I knew I had done a couple of days before. There was no stopping by the side of the road this time to put my lungs back in my chest.

I rode right on what I knew was my aerobic max, and backed off immediately if I went over. I took drinks only when I was riding on the flat part of the bends to avoid putting myself into oxygen debt. And I watched the time. 8h 50 was the time I was aiming for. It was going to be close.

The Tour normally uses a different route to enter the ski station proper these days, so doesn't pass Virage 1. La Marmotte does, and the final kilometre is another wall. I was out of the saddle a lot on this section, as I knew I was nearly out of time, and it didn't matter if I blew up. I reached the roundabout, 200 metres from the finish and was showing 8 hours 49. I sat up, and coasted over the line (actually a mat that registers the passage of a chip tied to your ankle).

I was too impatient to wait around to get my certificate, so I went and had a beer, got washed and changed, had another beer (or maybe it was a glass of sparkling wine? Or probably both.), and then went back and got my certificate. It was wrong. The time was right, 8 hours 49 minutes and 2 seconds, but the colour was wrong. It said 'Argent'. It should have said 'Or'. Not Or, as in equivocation, but Or as in unequivocally Gold. I turned around to ask someone to change the colour, as they had got it wrong. Then it slowly dawned on me. They had not got it wrong, I had. The Gold time for my age group wasn't 8 hours 50 minutes, it was 8 hours 49 minutes. I had missed it by 2 seconds. The time I had lost when I sat up and coasted over the finish line. 2 seconds.

Ok, it wasn't anything like as devastating as losing the Tour de France by 8 seconds on the last day of the race, but I did feel pretty stupid. At dinner with my riding companions from the Gastrobiking organisation that had organised my trip, we encountered Veloventoux, also hosting some British cyclists, from the north of the country. On hearing my story, one of them piped up: two seconds? Might as well have been two hours!

This post was sponsored by Eureka Cycles, suppliers of Orbea, Moda and Ridley bicycles

 

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.

 

It’s not a big secret that I am a big fan of The Bike Show.  I occasionally listen to other cycling podcasts, and have yet to find one which is as consistently entertaining and enlightening as the Bike Show.  Even if you haven’t been involved in the Bike Show directly, I think it must be obvious from the continuing excellence of the show that Jack is constantly striving to take his listeners to places they might not have gone left to themselves, and alway pushing himself to maintain and exceed his already high standards.  It is sort of superfluous for me to publicise the Bike Show, as I’m sure that most regular readers of this blog also subscribe to the show, but if you’re not, you should!

The latest edition is one of my favourites, and ties in with my last post about my neighbour’s Claud Butler, as she mentions that her first ‘proper’ racing bike was a CB.  An interview with the amazing and inspiring Eileen Sheridan, the first British female professional cyclist, who, like Reg Harris, was a star of the 40s and 50s, which period is widely accepted to be the Golden Age of Cycling.

Eileen Sheridan: The Mighty Atom | The Bike Show – a cycling radio show and podcast from Resonance FM.