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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.



I mentioned elsewhere that I first started following cycling after watching the 1987 Tour de France on Channel 4. Stephen Roche was the hero, and winner, of that Tour, and went on to cap a season equalled only by Merckx with a victory in the World Championships, as well as the Giro d'Italia. Along with Robert Millar, Stephen Roche did as much as anyone to inspire me to follow and participate in cycle sport.

Roche was, is, one of the pre-eminent figures in the English-speaking world. After the apotheosis of 1987, his career petered out somewhat, although he was still good enough to win one or two really big races before retiring. After retirement, he moved into the commentary box at Eurosport, forming a sublime double-act with David Duffield, with this passage, describing Pantani's epic ride over the Galibier in 1998, surely the pinnacle of their time together.

I found Stephen Roche's commentary on the racing illuminating. He described what was happening tactically, and surmised why, and also suggested, when nothing was happening, what the contenders ought to be doing. Having been a rider who liked to attack and shake things up, he was always critical of teams who appeared to be settling for a place on the podium.

He seems an engaging character, and, on the two occasions that I have met him, took the time to say hello and do more than just pass the time of day, even making more or less indiscreet remarks about a leading rider when I bumped into him in a petrol station outside Bourg d'Oisans, about 4 hours before the Tour was due to come through.

However, after all he has gained from the sport, and its supporters, people like me, he owes us more than the tripe that he is peddling regarding cycling's past. In an interview with Jack Thurston on The Bike Show last year, he equivocated, avoided and shamelessly evaded Jack's probing about doping in his era. Once again, quoted in Cycling News yesterday, he is up to the same thing, once again wishing to avoid difficult questions about doping. He even has the gall to suggest that it is only journalists that are interested in cycling's murky past.

It is impossible, in my view, and the view of a lot of ex-fans of cycling, for us to believe in the sport unless all those people still present in it, still making a living from our enthusiasm, who were present when all that dark stuff happened, stop lying by omission and come clean. I don't wish to see Stephen Roche brought down, but it's important that he, as one the leading figures in anglophone cycling, answers some questions, and participates in the cleansing of cycling's Augean Stables. He wants to remain a leader in the sport, wants to continue to enjoy the reflected glory of his sucesses. That's fine, but let him speak of what he knows.

Here's a couple of reasons why it's important that Stephen Roche speaks out:

  1. Stephen Roche rode on the Carrera team alongside Marco Pantani, who has been proven beyond most people's reasonable doubt to have been doping systematically throughout his career, and is arguably the highest profile victim of doping in cycling's history (for a full account of Pantani's life, career, and terrible descent into madness and death, see Matt Rendell's The Death of Marco Pantani). The association with Pantani continued after Roche retired, with Stephen acting as cheerleader in chief during Pantani's Giro / Tour double year. Stephen Roche is a clever, perceptive man, and I would find it extraordinary if he wasn't aware that a new 'preparation' was being used in the early 90s, on his own team, of which he used to be a leader.
  2. Stephen Roche was the winner of the one of the last Tours which we can confidently identify as being before EPO. Lemond, Fignon, Roche and Delgado, whilst still playing team rôles, were nothing like as infuential after 1991 as they had been. This wasn't a gradual descent into obscurity, a slow submersion by the incoming tide of age, this was more akin to a passage from light into shadow. Did none of them discuss with anyone why this might be? Fignon is fairly clear in his autobiography that he knew what was going on, but had no interest in participating in the new arrangements. Robert Millar has obliquely made similar intimations. There is fairly clear evidence that Stephen Roche's blood values were manipulated as part of an early attempt to systematise the use of EPO. Is he seriously suggesting that he knew nothing at all about this?

The sport of cycling will not change unless it learns from the past. It cannot learn from the past if the witnesses stay silent.

 

Inspired by Channel Four’s coverage*, I used to fantasise about riding in the Tour de France.  Of course, riding the Tour was just a dream.  Being an extremely average physical specimen and a smoker, I was never going to get the call from Cyrille Guimard or Peter Post.

However, I took the Tour into my work.  After all, because of the way that the work of a bicycle courier is organised (the more parcels you deliver, the more money you get), the daily life of a messenger (courier) is pretty much a race.  You are competing against the other riders to get your hands on the parcels before they do, get them in your bag, and get them delivered.

I modelled myself on the pros. I ditched the cut-down, upturned bars, started using ‘proper’ drop handle-bars and wearing cycling caps, and began to draft the wheels of other cyclists and tail-gate motor-vehicles, just like I had seen the pros do on the tv.

Theobald’s Road, a very slight incline, would be the lower slopes of the col du Galibier (I always preferred to imagine myself on Alpine climbs, never Pyrenean).  Percy Circus became one of the lacets of l’Alpe d’Huez.  I went on Sunday rides with mates, and started to ride harder and harder.  Occasionally, I was able to sample the delicious sensation of dropping a fellow cyclist who was trying hard to keep up with me, enjoying watching them drop away from my back wheel, thrashing like a drowning swimmer might.

I started doing actual bike races, on an actual racing bike.  (Ok, it was only the Tuesday 10s at Eastway). I had become a proper amateur cyclist.  I was ready to test myself against the Giants of the Road, on the roads of the Tour de France.

In 1993, I rode up Mont Ventoux, literally up it.  Nearly all ‘mountain’ roads pass between mountain peaks.  This is one of the very few mountain roads that takes you to the very top of a mountain.  And, for all that Mont Ventoux appears much older and far more eroded than the nearby Alps,  it really is a mountain, which, as I write this in February, has snow on it.

This was my first ride on roads used by the Tour.  I rode to the summit via Sault, having started that morning from my great aunt’s house on the Crau plain, about 100 kilometres distant from, and 1900 metres lower than the summit.  The climb from the Sault side is the easiest of the 3 road climbs, with a total elevation gain of around 1200 metres over 24 km, at relatively gentle gradients.

The weather was benign, being hot and not very windy.  I generally go alright in the heat, and I had plenty of water, so the dehydration so dreaded by cyclists wasn’t a problem.  Pretty much by chance, I wasn’t on an over-geared bike, being on a triple chainset, with a lowest gear of something like 28 X 24.

I had taken it relatively easy on the ride in, so my legs were reasonably ok by the time I got to Chalet Reynard, which marks the start of the hardest part of the ride, if you are coming from the Sault side.  Again, I was lucky with the wind, so was able to ride to the top without serious difficulty.  My first ‘major’ climb, and one of the most famous, and significant for a British cyclist.  I left a cap on the Simpson memorial.

5 years later, I would reach the foot of Mont Ventoux having danced my way over the Col de Murs, which had been designated a Cat 2 climb for that year’s Tour.  Arriving at Saint-Estève, which is where the real climbing starts, if approaching from the much harder south side, I had felt really strong, and attacked the first kilometre into the forest, thinking how easy it was.  Within another kilometre or so, I was sat under a tree, trying to inhale my lungs back into my chest.

The ride up through the forest on the south side is steep, and, as it is not possible to see very far through the trees, somewhat disconcerting, as it isn’t possible either to look back and see how high you have climbed, nor to look up and see how far you have to go.

By the time I hauled myself up to the Chalet, I was suffering, and the Mistral, which had been blowing all week, absolutely destroyed me mentally and physically once I was above the tree-line, and into the arena of the white stones, which make Mont Ventoux appear snow-capped when viewed from a distance.

If you don’t know what the Mistral is, you have never been to eastern Provence.  The Mistral is a wind that blows from North to South down the Rhone valley.  The wind is a regular feature of the climate of that part of the Midi, and is generally caused by an atmospheric depression in the Bay of Naples.  When it blows, it generally blows for 10 days or so, and is very, very strong.

The inhabitants have adapted to the wind by growing lines of poplars and pines to protect gardens and houses from the wind, and none of the older buildings in that part of Provence have any large windows facing north.  It is a wind that can whistle up insanity and disorder, not to mention ruin any number of days on the beach, or, indeed, any otherwise pleasurable outdoor pursuit.

The road from the Chalet to the summit zig-zags along the flank of the mountain, turning north and  west.  Every turn to the north forces the cyclist into the jaws of the roaring monster that is the Mistral, if it is blowing.  On that day it wasn’t blowing hard enough to rip me off the mountain, but it was more than strong enough to bring my speed down to a crawl, and to force me and my legs to crab desperately along the road in over-geared (39 X 26) discomfort.  Robert Millar describes this sensation as ‘blowing your brains out’.  Millar once said that it doesn’t matter how strong you are, the sensation of climbing on the limit of your endurance and beyond is the same.  You go faster if you are fitter, but the pain of grovelling in the gutter is the same, no matter how strong or weak you are.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the climb from the Chalet is the optical illusion.  As you ride towards the summit, the Observatory appears not be getting any closer for a considerable amount of time.  The kilo stones count off the distance remaining accurately, but in the hundreds of metres in between, with the mind in free-fall from the effort, the disorientation of this receding mirage can be very demoralising to an exhausted rider.

On that second time up, the temptation to get off and throw my bike off the side of the mountain was great.  It’s possible that the only reason I didn’t was that I wearing racing shoes, fitted with Look cleats, upon which it is virtually impossible to walk very far.  I made it to the top, but the climb of the mountain hadn’t been a pleasant experience.  I seem to recall that David Millar said he couldn’t understand why anyone would ride up Mont Ventoux for pleasure, and on this occasion it really hadn’t been a pleasure. On the ride down, I was virtually torn off the road by the cross-winds, which made it even less pleasant.

My 3rd encounter with the mountain was in 2004.  I had signed up for a week  with Veloventoux, a cycle-holiday company run by Craig Entwistle, who has probably ridden over Mont Ventoux more often than any other Englishman, alive or dead.  The programme was a few light rides, with La Ventoux – Beaumes de Venise cyclo-sportive on the Saturday.

A few light rides, I say, but we rode up the north side of Ventoux on the Tuesday, completing my set.  It had taken me more than 10 years to ride all 3 of the roads up Ventoux, but some people do it in the same day, the so-called Cinglés du Ventoux (cinglé is colloquial French for ‘mad’).  With 160 hilly kilometres on the Saturday, we probably should have done nothing of consequence, and, almost certainly, we should have stayed away from the local produce.  Mont Ventoux is flanked by some of the most celebrated vineyards in France, Côtes du Rhône.

I am happy to tell you, dear reader, that we did neither, even managing to combine a very pleasant afternoon’s ride with the local touring club with an evening in the club h.q., a café-bar in Nyons, making an extensive inquiry into the nature of the local rosé, whilst hearing of the club members’ exploits on their various long-distance epics on Les Diagonales de France.

On Saturday, the big race.  Let’s make no bones about it, a big cyclo-sportive like La Ventoux is a big race.  There are motorcycle out-riders for the leaders, and proper prizes for the winners.  The roads are more or less closed by default in the bigger events, as there are thousands of riders, making the road pretty much impassable for anyone not participating.  Spectators line the route.  A cyclo-sportive is the closest that the mere mortal can get to riding the Tour de France, especially when the sportive uses a road like the road up Mont Ventoux.  It is hard not to get carried away at the start, and blow your legs off in the excitement of being in a huge group, riding on the roads that the stars use.

The other really great thing about cyclo-sportives for the extremely mediocre rider such as myself, is that, no matter how often you get dropped from the various groups that form and re-form, there’s always another one behind.  You might spend most of the day watching a lot of back wheels disappearing into the distance, but there’ll alway be a least one, not far away, that is coming back towards you.  So no matter how slow you are, relative to the fastest guys, there will always be someone that you can leave behind on the road, grasping futilely at your dead air.  The amateur can enact his (or her) fantasy of launching a race-winning attack on the run-in to the finish that will turn the general classification upside down, in the manner of Merckx, Coppi or whichever rider you prefer.

The course of the event is one and a half times over Ventoux, with a loop round to the north of the mountain, if you do the full route, thus making every finisher demi-cinglé, or half-mad.  The route also takes in two tremendous descents, first from the top of the mountain to Malaucène, and then from Chalet Reynard back down to Saint-Estève.

As on my first time, the weather was extraordinarily benign, being nice & warm without being too hot.  I can’t remember too much detail about the day, apart from one moment when I was foolishly sitting on the front of a smallish group with another guy, and, getting annoyed with our companions, who weren’t coming through to take their share of the wind, said in french, ‘look, 15 Frenchmen led by an Englishman and a Belgian’.  I do remember that at the feed station at Chalet Reynard, on my second time around, there were cups of wine available.  I also remember being a little disappointed by the meal supplied at the finish, the disenchantment being somewhat off-set by more free wine, and the Gold certificate that I ‘won’ for getting the requisite time in my age group.

The lack of detailed memories, however, does not erase the glow of having ridden in the tracks of Giants.

* I watched an episode from the late 80s again, looking for Stephen Roche’s attack on the descent of the Col de Joux-Plane, and was totally stunned to see that Richard Keys was the presenter in 1987!

liestrongThis bit of levity from tweeter @Marcus___ is very welcome, and, like all good satire, holds a cracked mirror up to a truth.

The Liestrong saga hasn’t been much fun for people like me who were (and still can be) inspired by watching bicycle racing.  The first Tour I watched was Stephen Roche’s win in 1987.  It was as dramatic a sporting event as you could wish for.

As I became more interested in road racing, I read everything I could about bicycle racing, and became well aware of doping, and its place.  In 1988, the winner of the second Tour that I watched, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for Probenacid, a diuretic apparently used to mask the presence of proscribed drugs.  At the time of the test, Probenacid was on the banned list of the International Olympic Committee, but not on the list of the Union Cycliste Internationale, so ‘Perico’ was not sanctioned.

As I read more about the sport, devouring almost every English language book about professional bicycle racing then available, I read of Michel Pollentier’s shameful attempt to cheat the doping control at l’Alpe d’Huez in 1978 (he had concealed a container of clean urine on his person), Tommy Simpson’s death, the famous interview with the Pelissier brothers in 1924, the frank admissions of Fausto Coppi & Jacques Anquetil, and on and on through the books of Paul Kimmage & Freddy Maertens (which I strongly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it).

I gradually came to realise that, as I wrote elsewhereprofessional bicycle racing is a manifestation of almost unrestrained venality.  But, luckily, or unluckily, I started following cycling during one of its most interesting eras: the post Hinault, pre Indurain dust-up, when almost anything could happen, where the Tour could be turned upside down in a matter of minutes, an era of drama, attacking riding, sudden collapses & ceaseless struggle between the favourites, LeMond, Delgado, Fignon, Mottet, Parra, Roche, Herrara…  I found it entrancing.

The Indurain era, which opened in 1991, and can now be described as the artisanal EPO period, before teams employed medical assistance in a systematic way, was less interesting, which is probably down to EPO.  I suspect that the racing was so crushingly boring partly because EPO levelled the playing field, to use the cliche.  Everyone was at the same level, and it wasn’t a question of counting how many matches you had to burn before the race, and eking them out in attempt to find the right moment to light the fuse and dynamite the race, as before, because you had an electronic lighter that would fire up anytime you wanted it.

It was pretty obvious, if you bothered to think about it, that something was seriously askew when Laurent Jalabert suddenly catapulted from the ranks of the Green jersey hunters into the pack of serious G.C. contenders in a matter of months, eventually winning the polka-dot jersey of ‘King of the Mountains’ twice.  The absurd spectacle of Bjarne Riis, 188cm tall & weighing 72 kilos, dancing away from the leading group in 1996 on Hautacam like he was Frederico Bahamontes probably should have made me switch off right then (Riis had elevated his haemocrit level to 60%, thus giving himself a step up from the levelled playing field).  By the way, every single one of the top 10 finishers on that stage have since been implicated or sanctioned for serious doping offences, bar one.  Guess which one?

The first EPO era came to an end with the Festina scandal of 1998, during which the French police did what the UCI could or would not, and exposed the scale of doping by leading professional cycling teams.  I was stupid enough during this Tour to be completely taken in by Marco Pantani’s performance to win the Tour.  I believed he was clean because he said he was.  More fool me.

1999 was trailed as the Tour of Redemption [or Renewal] by the French.  Oh, how ironic that looks now.  As Robbie McEwen said elsewhere, we all wanted to believe in the story of Lance’s come-back from the dead.  The fact that he had been an impetuous, aggressive rider, constantly trying to shake things up before he was struck down by cancer, made his victory all the more exciting, as it promised a return to the era of attacking racing, rather than the slow strangulation of the opposition as practised by Indurain.

Instead, Lance destroyed the field again and again and again, leaving us all with the same question as in the Indurain era:  who is going to finish on the other two steps of the podium, which was a little dull.  As Lance’s dominance of the Tour continued through the early 2000s, the overwhelming majority of us probably got a little tired of Lance’s posturing, and wary of the way that he ostracised & reviled former team-mates, but I think most people, like me, believed that Lance was clean because as Greg LeMond said in 2001, “if Lance’s story is true, it’s the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If it’s not, it’s the greatest fraud“, i.e. we believed because the alternative was too unpleasant to contemplate.

However, as the decade of systematic medical preparation dragged on, and the anti-doping effort began to catch up with the dopers, the lies of the leading riders grew ever more outrageous, blatant and impossible to believe (and occasionally unintentionally hilarious: ‘the human growth hormone was for my dog’).  I’m not sure exactly when lost all of my illusions, but I think it was probably after Landis’ positive in 2006.  I was completely taken in by his performance that day – I stupidly thought it was a display of attacking riding the like of which hadn’t been seen in the Tour since the 1980s.  After the positive was announced, I was angry, but mostly with myself for having been taken in yet again by a cheating pro bike racer.

I don’t want to comment on Lance’s belated, incomplete, and fundamentally flawed ‘confession’ (is there anyone with even a passing interest in the sport that believes he was 100% clean during his 3rd comeback?) but I will say that we are all (apart from the few on the outside of Lance’s circle who brought his shameless lying & cheating to our attention) like the fellow shown in the picture above. We  did all buy into it.  Let’s not get fooled again.