The return to Flanders

Last weekend I returned to Belgium for my second ride of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (for non-cyclists and English-speaking non-Continentals, that’s the Tour of Flanders). I do love visiting to Belgium. I mean, who wouldn’t, what with those thousands of Trappist beers  to try and, of course, the frites. And even chocolate, if that’s what takes your fancy. And, of course, endless cycle paths (none of which says “Cyclists dismount”).
But there’s one thing I just don’t get about the Belgians (perhaps it’s just the Flemish), and that is their penchant for weird and not so wonderful garden decorations: think garden gnomes, let them grown and remove all colour, then place them in tableau about your garden. Think of giant red rabbits, blue elephants. Think Smurfs … oh, perhaps that explains it. Maybe there’s something about the mushrooms that they eat. Anyhow, during the ride I saw one elderly couple that sitting on a bench outside their house, watching the cyclists passing by. Alongside them was an almost identical couple, half life-sized and cast in concrete, like some kind of mini-me memorial. And I don’t think they were dead yet. Spooky.
The Flemish hills are a bit like their garden ornaments – undersized, but with some dreadful element added. The Flemish call them “berge”, which I thought translated to mountains. But they certainly aren’t the Alps or Pyrenees. Perhaps the North Downs, but shorter. What makes them challenging are the gradient and, in many cases, the cobbles. If you want to loosen every tooth in your head and every bolt on your bike, just ride down one of these “berge” at speed.
Four years ago, when I first rode the RVV, as it is commonly known, it finished in a nonentity town called Ninove, but since then the ride has centred on Oudenaarde, the Flemish capital of cycling. Once again I opted to ride the medium distance: 135km starting and finishing in Oudenaarde (plus a 20km warm-up from our campsite in Munkzwalm). Last time it was cold and wet, making the cobbled climbs particularly slippery and treacherous. This time the weather was perfect: slightly cool and overcast, with almost no wind. I started out easy, planning to take my time and enjoy the day  – if it took all day. And if I had to push on the hills, then so be it. So what had previously been quite a tough ride turned out to be no more than a pleasant jaunt. What is more, I didn’t need to push up the hills – well, not until someone fell off in front of me halfway up the Koppenberg, which forced everyone around me to a halt. On the rest of the hills and the cobbles I just took  my own sweet, but slightly laboured time, and it was only on the final climb, the short but brutal Paterberg, that I finally capitulated and pushed over the summit. So, apart from one puncture at the 100km mark, it was a great ride.
cancelleraA big part of the fun of being at the Tour of Flanders is to watch the professionals toil over the same hills the following day. My son Matt and I went into Oudenaarde on Sunday where we saw the peloton fly though on their way to the berge. For the next few hours we became ensconced in the town square, sampling the local brew and watching the race on big screens. A few hours later, back in a bar in Munkzwalm, we cheered as we watched Fabian Cancellera outwit and outsprint three Belgians to take the honours. And we cheered even louder when Cancellera confirmed that I’m not the only one who believes that beer is the perfect post-ride potion. Moments after dismounting, and live on television, Cancellera was handed a bottle of beer, unopened. Like the old pro that he is, he popped the cap off by smacking it on the chair next to him, and downed the beer in one go. Cheers Fabian, I’ll drink to that!

Riding into a storm, of sorts

It’s not easy being British if you can’t complain about the weather, and so just recently, with all the rain we’ve had, we’ve finally had a lot to complain about. But in the end it all gets a bit much, doesn’t it? Just look at the soaking that we’ve had so far this year: in Kent, where I do most of my cycling, it’s rained four or five times more than the seasonal average, so it’s been especially difficult to get out for a ride. Commuters in London have had no choice but to get on their bikes over the past few days – that’s what a strike on the Underground system does. For the rest of us, though, we’ve just had to hide indoors and look up to the skies, longing for a break in the clouds.

And so while professional cyclists head for the sunshine of the Tour Down Under, or the desert sands of Qatar, Dubai and Oman, the rest of us are stuck in this perpetual cycle of rain that has us wondering if we should switch from bicycles to pedalos.
Last week I looked at my calendar and was horrified to see it was just two weeks to my first sportive of the year. I don’t have water wings on my bike, or a winter base in Mallorca or Nice, so there’s only one solution: get out the old turbo-trainer.

That is much easier said than done. First I have to find the machine at the back of the shed, then I must convince the wife of the necessity of clearing a space in the spare bedroom. After that I must set it all up, find the heart-rate monitor, install a computer on the spare bike, find a cover for the floor so that I don’t sweat on the carpet. This all takes far longer than I intended to ride for.

But finally everything is set up. Outside the wind is howling and the rain beats against the windows. Inside it is all snug as I plug myself into my iPod and set off at random for my stationery ride. First off is the sound of The Doors. A bit bizarrely, but probably quite apt, I find myself pedalling along to Riders on the Storm. Ah well, I’ll just have to put my head down and ride it out.

Even cyclists are rude sometimes

Bicycle-Sign-freefotoI was pedalling along quite pleasantly on my Sunday morning ride when I got around to thinking, as occasionally I do. Everything was good with the world, everyone seemed to be behaving, apart from the weather, and even the passing motorists seemed to be almost benign. As my legs propelled me onward and upward, so my thoughts turned towards that eternal, vexing question of why there’s such a big divide between the two tribes that use our roads. Why do motorists and cyclists seem to hate each other? Why can’t they quietly co-exist, sharing the roads in love and peace and harmony? Such thoughts tumbled through my mind as I pottered over the potholes, and slowly, in the distance, an answer began to appear.
As the cogs in my brain engaged a higher gear, it became clear that this fight is not at all a battle between motorists and cyclists. If you think about it, most people who ride a bike also drive a car, although the corollary does not necessarily apply. The two tribes are not those who ride bikes and those who drive cars; rather, the tribes are those who care for others, and those who care only for themselves. Basically, it comes down to a question of manners.
When I am out on the road, whether on a bike or in a car, I like to feel comfortable and happy, and I’d like others to feel the same. Having good manners and showing consideration for others should make everyone happy. If, by being nice to another road user, I lighten their mood or bring a smile to their face, my work for the day is done, and I feel glad. Of course, that is no more than a utopian notion – I too get peeved when others are rude and unthoughtful, and when they fail to acknowledge little niceties I fume with fury.
This all reminds me of someone I worked with recently – let’s call him Benny, for argument’s sake (because, for sure, there were a lot of arguments). I think that generally I’m quite an easy person to get along with, but Benny and I just didn’t see eye to eye. Fair enough, you might say, not everyone gets on with everyone else, that’s just the way of the world. Benny professed (quite loudly and very proudly) to be a Christian, but to me he was just rude, intrusive, and unable to show common courtesy. On these issues we clashed often. After one such run-in Benny stalked off and talked about it to one of the nuns who live in the abbey next door to us. (Those nuns are the most wonderful, wise and patient people that I have ever known, but that’s another story for another time.) Benny told Sister X about our argument and she asked him: “Why don’t you just apologise?”
Benny replied: “Me apologise? But that would be humbling myself.”
Sister X said: “But isn’t that what Christians do?”
I don’t know how Benny responsed, but clearly humility, which was once a virtue, has now become almost a dirty word. And that is the problem with our modern world – many of us have a skewed image of our self worth. Showing humility doesn’t mean having to grovel or demean yourself, it just means having a proper sense of your self-worth, and a proper regard for those around us.
Anyhow, Benny never did apologise and, truth be told, I couldn’t care less. All I hope is that I – and you – never run into him when we’re out on the road, no matter whether he’s in a car or on a bike. You see, it’s not about the bike or car, it’s all about the person who’s driving.

Safety: a life and death issue

Guest post by MIKE EVANS: Should cycle training be compulsory?

Another cyclist was involved in a fatal accident on London’s roads today, the sixth person die in the capital in two weeks. His death will undoubtedly lead to more criticism of the safety of London’s cyclist as well as proposals laid out by Boris Johnson for London’s cycle superhighways. With Road Safety Week, an initiative by the charity Brake, taking place this week there will be much speculation on how to make Britain’s roads safer.
The majority of media speculation on the issue has focused on whether or not helmets should be compulsory for cyclists and while there are strong arguments on both sides regarding this, it doesn’t address the root of the problem. Similarly, often in cases such as this there are calls for large-scale changes to infrastructure to make UK cities more cycle friendly. However, the sheer cost and time needed to implement these changes mean that it’s just not feasible at the current time. So what’s the solution?
In my opinion, the first stage to addressing the problem would be to invest in compulsory cycle training for all those that were able. This would be a necessity before you were able to take your driving test and, just as those who want drive an HGV need to pass a regular driving test first, those who want to pass their driving test would have to complete a compulsory cycling test.
Undoubtedly, this would still be a significant investment but it would be a great deal less than the cost of investment in infrastructure. Current government proposals amount to around £77 million for cycling investment across the UK and this won’t even begin to address the root of the problem – that  many people have no idea what it’s like to be a vulnerable road user.
In a survey conducted by the cycle training group Bikeability, 90 per cent of respondents chose “improved road awareness” as the main benefit from cycle training. Many drivers have never had experience cycling in traffic and so cannot possibly understand what it’s like. At the same time, there are many cyclists – particularly in London where cycling is a more common form of commute – that don’t have a proper understanding of the highway code and how to cycle on busy roads. This is not to say that the tragedies of those that have died in London this month is down to poor cycle training, far from it.
It is about doing everything we can to ensure that all road users have a good awareness of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. There would also be the extra benefit of allowing people the opportunity to see that cycling is not dangerous and is in fact a very enjoyable form of commuting. This would lead to more people cycling, meaning less traffic on the roads, which is better for the environment as well as saving people money. Evidence from the UK cycle charity the CTC suggests that more cyclists on the road mean fewer accidents, which also supports the original idea of reducing road traffic accidents.
The number of people commuting by bike has been shown to be increasing, which is undoubtedly a good thing, but with more people cycling we want to ensure that those who commute by bike are safe in doing so. Compulsory cycle training offers a viable solution to this and is something the Government should seriously consider following these tragedies.

For more information please visit Cyclist Safety

 

Twitter: @mikesearchlabs

 

A day off, or just an off day?

Today was my day off. My friends always ask how can I tell that it’s my day off because, you see, I work as a volunteer and don’t get paid for the many things that I do. Plus it’s a live-in job, so I don’t have to go out to go to work. But it can consume me 24 hours a day, and I have only one day off a week, so I’m always torn as to what I should do on that day off … Sleep? Sleep some more? Catch up on some reading? Go to London and lunch with friends? Write a blog? Go for a bike ride? Clean the house and do some washing?

Choices, choices. But you get the drift. Generally, the options are do something useful, or do nothing and recover from the rest of the week. The latter usually wins. Well, today I wanted to go to London and visit a few bike shops to see if I could persuade them to sell my book. It’s something I’ve been putting off for ages. The weather wasn’t great for trekking around London on a bike with a bag full of books, so I thought I would use the Tube. But perhaps I could sneak in a ride before I went, in spite of the weather.

So I kitted up, dipped a toe out the back door and thought: “Noooo, I don’t want to go out there.” But an evil spirit on my shoulder reminded me that I have a SkyRide coming up this Sunday, and I hadn’t had a decent ride in, well, weeks. Man up, I told myself, and get out there. So I did. “Just keep it short and sweet,” I said. (Actually, that is what Mrs R tells me about this blog, and a few other domestic matters.)

Needless to say, once I was out and about, the rain didn’t seem so bad. There were even a few other idiots out on bikes, so I wasn’t alone in my insanity. The ride went swimmingly, and in spite of the puddles and mud I was quite enjoying myself until I hit the appropriately named Basted Lane, a short, sharp, muddy and bumpy downhill that is the prelude to a long, steady climb.

Just take it easy down the hill, I think, knowing that it is full of – wham – yes, full of potholes, this one disguised as a puddle. I brake, and see that my front wheel has instantly gone flat. Bugger. Or, should I say, Basted. A quick thought runs through my mind – should I phone the missus. A quick check of the mobile shows there is no network coverage, so I’m all on my own. But it’s no big deal. I pull over to the muddy, ivy-entangled verge and take off gloves and glasses, remove spare tube from saddlebag and pop off the front wheel. I take my time, because what’s the rush? I curse for bringing the smallest pump known to mankind, but it gets the job done, eventually. My hands are wet and grimy, but I pull on my (by now quite damp) gloves. Now, where did I put my glasses? I can’t see them anywhere: clear lenses, with just a strip of black frame across the top, renders them virtually invisible in the tangle of ivy and dead leaves. After five minutes I give up, mount the bike and – but what’s this? No. That back tyre is flat. Okay, I’m a boy scout, and have come prepared, because I always carry two spares (and even patches, if I’m MTBing), so I’m not stuck. I change the back tube in record time, then spend another ten minutes looking for my glasses. No luck.

The missing glasses

The missing glasses

I knock the accumulated mud and decaying leaves from my cleats and head off down the hill and up the long climb on the other side. It’s as I start climbing that suddenly I feel as if I’m riding a clown bike – on every rotation of the back wheel there is a bump, causing the saddle to give me a kick up the … Well, one look tells me why – the tyre beading and valve are not seated properly. Once again the tyre and my spirits are deflated, and the tyre properly bedded down, followed by another frenzied bout of pumping. I continue home without incident, apart from a lot of spray and mud in my eyes, and a wish that I’d bought some mudguards.
And so, a good hour later than expected, I return home, a little dejected, but none the worse for wear. And then, in one reflective instant, I realise what a total idiot I am – I catch a glimpse of myself in the kitchen window and there, stuck in the front of my helmet, are my missing glasses. Basted.

Cruising along on the cycle of life …

Heavens, doesn’t time fly? And, more importantly, why is it so difficult to say something important without resorting to cliches? Let’s start with the first poser, about how time slips by without us noticing, and we’ll consider the second if we still have time. It is over three months since I last wrote on this blog – Chris Froome wasn’t yet Tour de France champion, summer was waiting to burst upon us (we’re still waiting) and the Queen was proudly expecting the birth of her first great-grandchild. Just where did that time go? I wish I could tell you but, to tell the truth, I just don’t know. So perhaps this is a pertinent pause instead to sit down and consider something other than bicycles – let us consider, say, the cycle of life.
But what could I possibly say about the passing of time that is new or original? No thought, no idea is truly original – someone else has surely thought the same thing previously (except this thought, of course). So that is why I use Grammarly to check for plagiarism because if I’m thinking someone else’s thoughts, I want to know just who it was that thought them first. I think.
But I digress. We were talking about the passing of time. Perhaps this question is weighing heavily on me right now because I have a birthday coming up soon. And when I say birthday, I mean a BIG birthday (and don’t tell me that every birthday is bigger than the last – I know that). But this birthday is the biggest that I’ve had yet, and the roundest. Sixty. There. I said it. Out loud (well, I typed it out loud). I can’t believe that I’m about to turn 60. I mean, I don’t feel like I’m 60. I don’t look 60, do I? In fact, I feel like I’m still 21. To this day I look at 36-year-olds and think how grown up they are, and that maybe one day I too will be that grown up. What would you expect when my mother still treats me as if I was 12.

How I see myself

So I must still be 21. At least, in my head I am, even if my body doesn’t always listen straight away to my 21-year-old brain. And before you say anything, there’s nothing wrong with this body (apart from a touch of arthritis in the little finger) and there’s nothing I can’t do now that I could do when I was 21, except maybe I do it a little slower now. But that’s because I have more patience, and I know how to enjoy life.

I do understand the process of ageing, really. I even enjoy some of the jokes about it. But somehow I just don’t seem to comprehend that it is something that’s happening to me. Maybe sub-consciously I’m just trying to ignore it. Maybe I’m just being childish and pretending it’s not happening to me – like a brat who shuts his eyes, blocks his ears and shouts: “Na-na-na-na-na-na. It’s not happening.” Maybe. But then, if that’s what I do, maybe it’s some kind of defence mechanism against ageing. And I believe that it works for me. Perhaps I could patent it, bottle it up and sell it. But that would take time, and effort. It’s so much easier just to ignore it. And then perhaps age, much like time, will just slip away without us noticing.

Me, sixty, eh? Who’d have believed it? I suppose it’s time to start behaving myself, even if I can’t grow up.

*This posting is my first commercial blog and was sponsored byGrammarly, a website that promotes the correct use of English. I submitted this piece to Grammarly’s online service and it reported 53 critical issues: one of plagiarism, eight of contextual spelling, 18 of grammar, six of punctuation and 20 style and word choices.  Of course, being the old codger that I am, I chose to ignore them all.

 

My Tour de France dilemma

Stage one of the Tour de France is over, served up with the usual crash, panache and unpredictability that has become its trademark. This soap opera, in its hundredth season, is one that cannot be scripted – not once in my memory has the story ever been boring. And it is never repeated. The beauty of this race is that you never know what will happen,  or who will do what, whether it be the riders, organisers, weather or some other outside element. Yesterday it was a poor bus driver.

Over past years it has been easy for me to choose who to support. As a South African who has lived in England for 25 years, I still support SA in all things sporting. No South African has ever been a contender in Tour de France and, Chris Boardman excepted, until 2010 there were no British riders to pin my hopes on. So over the years I have picked my winner on the cut of his jib – his team colours, his bike, his haircut, or no reason at all. Last year Brad was a natural to shout for, and this year, you would think, Chris Froome is a shoo-in. Just look at the reasons: the guy represents Britain, but when he opens his mouth he is obviously a boy from my neck of the woods – you can hear that he grew up in SA. So I should naturally support him, no?

Kingedwardschoolst johnsWell, here’s my dilemma. I did my homework and found that Froome is very much from my old stomping ground, in fact he went to school half a mile of my old school – and that’s the catch. He went to St John’s College, a posh private school in Johannesburg. I went to King Edward VII School, known as KES and the best school in the country. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any St John’s notables (yes, I know I’m going to get pulverised for saying this). As for KES, I’ll only touch on a sporting few: Gary Player, Ali Bacher, Graeme Smith (cricket captain), Ray Jennings (wicket keeper, the year behind me at school), Bryan Habana, Joe van Niekerk (No 8, Toulon captain) and Gary Bailey (Man U keeper who sang in the church choir with me). As for St John’s, I can only name an infamous few – my brother-in-law included (see earlier postings about our Edinburgh-Manchester tandem ride).

Now, St John’s wasn’t even our biggest rival – that honour is shared by Jeppe, Parktown and Pretoria Boys – but geographically St John’s was our nearest rival, so there is a certain antipathy between the two schools. For me there was an added delight about that rivalry – my girlfriend’s father worked for St John’s, and they lived in the college grounds, so I took great delight in visiting her there in my school uniform, and enjoying the use of their swimming pool and squash courts with her.

So where does that leave me now? Do I bury the hatchet and shout “Come on, Froomey!” I suppose, reluctantly, that I will have to do that. But there is a small compromise that we can make: Chris Froome, I will give you my support as long if I can spur you on with the KES warcry:

Itchy ballagoota,
Skiet a ramma doota
SusKanada, Son of Karnovsky
Boom !
Budias ! Budias ! Budias !
Sas Sas !
Gigomalaia Gee ! Gigomalaia Gee
Teddybears Wha !
Who are we ? Teddybears !

So next Saturday, Chris, when you’re chasing Schleck, Contador and Co up the final kilometres to Ax 3 Domaines and you hear those immortal words, you’ll know that finally a KES boy is shouting in support of a St John’s rival. Go Froome!

We can’t all be heroes, can we?

“We can be heroes, just for one day,” David Bowie sang in his 1977 classic. But really, can we all be heroes? I mean, we’re just ordinary people, and heroes aren’t ordinary – they are extraordinary, filled with courage and strength and special abilities. They are men and women who pit themselves against the odds for the sake of others. To go a step further, a true hero is someone who goes beyond their comfort zone to help others who are in need?

But doesn’t that include you? And me. Can’t we all do that – go beyond our comfort zone for the sake of others?

You see, there are people out there who need you, who depend on your help. And some of the people who need you are true heroes, just like you. The charity Help for Heroes is organising a national cycling show of support for wounded servicemen and women, and they need you. Hero Ride takes place on June 2, and cyclists around the country are organising fundraising events, with a mass ride converging in The Mall in London. For more on the ride, visit the Help for Heroes website.

And should you be feeling particularly heroic, you can join in the Dawn Raid sportive, which sets off from Tedworth House in Wiltshire between 2am and 3am, aiming to reach Blackheath between 10am and 11am to join the ride to The Mall. Dawn Raid, which is limited to 2,000 riders, is designed for confident cyclists who enjoy an adventure that comes with night-time riding and thrive in a physical challenge. See the website for full details.

So why not come along on June 2 and join the ride. And we can all be heroes, just for one day.

Introducing Icarus Smith …

What does it mean when a blogger has not regularly updated his (or her, naturally) blog? Well, it could mean that said blogger is out on his (we’ll stick to me in this case) bike, trashing the singletrack, braving the byways, pounding the pavements in pursuit of peak performance. Or perhaps he has simply been too busy. Or uninspired. Or just downright lazy.

From the number of posts made on this blog over the past few months, you could be led to believe that it was any, or all, of the reasons above. And you wouldn’t be wrong (apart from being on the bike – I’ve been out about as many times as I’ve blogged this year, but I blame that on the weather, really). The main reason why I haven’t written is because, well, I’ve been writing (as opposed to blogging) and finally my labour has borne fruit – today my first novel is published on Kindle. So please meet Icarus Smith, child of my imagination. Icarus, also known as The Accidental Cyclist, has had a long and difficult gestation (we’re talking years here) but finally he has seen the light of day. So that you can get to know him better, I will be putting an extract from the book on this blog. Otherwise, you can download the book from Amazon (see the link on the left).

All that I can do now, as a good parent, is let Icarus loose into the world, and hope that he flies, and does not fall. I hope that if you meet him somewhere on his journey you will be kind to him – because his feelings are my feelings, and his dreams are my dreams.

Nicole Cooke bows out, still true to herself

In a week that was all about Lance Armstrong and his so-called Oprah confession, what more can this blogger say?
Instead, let us talk about the retirement of Nicole Cooke, an event that could easily have gone unnoticed in a week so fraught with cycling excitement. Cooke, at the age of 29, announced her retirement from the sport after 15 years at the top. Many commentators focused on her excoriating criticism of Armstrong and his ilk, but they missed the point. And they failed to honour Nicole’s legacy as surely one of the greatest cyclists this country has produced, male or female. We have new riders full of ability and brilliance who are bringing the women’s sport to the forefront. Cooke (in the tyre tracks of the incredible Beryl Burton) was a pioneer, competing professionally in an era when cycling in general – and women’s cycling in particular – was widely ignored in the UK. Undeterred, Cooke was a determined adventurer who opened up the frontier for the women who now grace the scene.

Cooke wins the World Championship in 2008

Cooke was not without controversy – she appeared hard-headed, determined, even abrasive at times, often at odds with the cycling authorities and teammates. Many will say she was difficult to work with, but they fail to see that this was borne out of a principled outlook on life, and simply standing up for her rights. Hence her hard-hitting statement about cheating. Fellow riders – both rivals and colleagues – said Cooke’s retirement statement was a rant, but if anyone actually takes notice of the content of the statement, it will be those colleagues and rivals who will benefit from her words.
I interviewed Cooke in the year after her world-championsip/Olympic double. She was at the pinnacle of her career, but even then she was having trouble finding a regular ride, to the extent that she sank her own money into forming a team. Running a team takes a lot of money, time and organisation, and Cooke found it impossible to be both rider and team principal, so she was eventually forced to abandon the project, but her ambition was never thwarted.
We will never know what she would have achieved if she’d had backing anything like Team Sky’s support of Bradley Wiggins, but I am certain that she would have more than swept the world away. As it was, she was miles ahead of Britain’s male riders in the success stakes. In 2004, by winning the Giro d’Italia Feminine, she became the first British woman to win a grand tour. The following two years she won the Grand Boucle – the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France – but that feat went unnoticed by the mainstream press. No knighthood, no tickertape parade, just an MBE. All things being equal, if Brad’s Tour de France success is deserving of a knighthood, Cooke should surely have a peerage by now.
“I have ridden through the time of Lance and all the dreadful tragedy that the abuses surrounding him have brought to my sport,” Cooke says in her statement. “I have faced up to the temptations, but have always remained true to the 12-year-old inside me. Yes, I have suffered as a result, in many ways, but so what, I am not alone, I am one representative of that group, those who do it right.”
And for that, Nicole, we thank you. You have always been true to yourself, and you did it right.