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.

Burry Stander RIP. A hero in the making


Burry Stander (pic courtesy the Cape Epic)

I don’t go in for all that hero-worship stuff. In a world of X-Factor and I’m a Celebrity and attention spans that last no longer than the briefest soundbite, heroes are set up today to be knocked down tomorrow. All too often our heroes turn out to be fallible at best, or downright cheats at worst – take a brief glimpse at professional cycling. Forgive me for being such a cynic. But in spite of that cynicism, one bright light caught my attention five years ago – Burry Stander, the young South African who was tragically knocked down and killed on a training ride last week.

Not for nothing was Burry’s Twitter hashtag #Africanmtbkid – he was young, he was proud to represent his country, he was everything that makes me proud to be South African. And boy, he could ride a bike. But he was killed by something the country  should be least proud about – its appalling road-safety record.

Burry was the local kid who became a world beater. In 2009 he was world under-23 cross-country champion, and in 2011 and 2012 (with teammate Christoph Sauser) he won the Cape Epic. In spite of his amiable nature and appearance, Burry was a demon on his bike: fearless on the downhills, relentless on climbs, often riding up hills where other professionals got off and pushed. Despite being a world-class competitor, he was always happy to ride out with friends and family, and whoever turned up at his cycle shop in Ballito.

Burry may have ridden in two Olympics (he was fifth in London 2012 after a memorable ride), and won the Epic, but he had so much more to offer. Of course, now we will never know what he was capable, and he will forever remain the hero we never new. Burry, I salute you.

This was the summer of …. velo?

Remember the Summer of Love? You know, San Francisco, 1967, flowers in your hair and all that?

Of course you don’t, because you weren’t even born yet. Or if you were, you were thousands of miles away, getting drenched on the family holiday in Scarborough. And for the lucky/unlucky few who happened to be right there in Haight Ashbury, caught up in the maelstrom of that zeitgeist – well, of course you don’t remember it either, you were too freaked out on free love, dope and rock ‘n’ roll. Well, whatever. But the summer of ‘67 will always be remembered, especially by those who weren’t there, because it was the start of something new, something revolutionary, something that liberated us from the shackles of our parents’ lives.

And now it is the turn of our children’s children to have a revolution, but what kind of revolution will it be? An X-Factor, x-rated ecstasy-fuelled revolution? I certainly hope not. But I reckon that they have something far more exciting, far more fulfilling in store. I’m hoping that 2012 will be remembered as the start of a different revolution – a moment in time that will one day be known as THE SUMMER OF VELO (don’tcha just love anagrams?).

Just think about it. We had the victorious return of Brad Wiggins, the very first British winner of the Tour de France. Along with that was the first second-placed British rider in the Tour – Chris Froome (we’ll forget about the Kenya-born, South African raised bit of his story), who promises to be the new star on the horizon. Then there is Mark Cavendish, who might not have won the green jersey this year but still proved he is the best sprinter in the Tour, and the world. This alone brought cycling into every front room in the UK (although the front room isn’t the best place for cycling: that should be outside, on the streets and bridleways and byways).

Then we had the Olympics in London, with silver success in the women’s road race and gold in the men’s time trial (arise, Sir Brad). Meanwhile, across London in the Olympic velodrome, Hoy and Co were back in business. At the end of the Games, Team GB’s cycling tally included 12 Olympic and 22 Paralympic medals. And if that isn’t enough to inspire you to get on your bike, nothing will.

Of course, there has been a down side just lately – injuries to Bradley Wiggins and Shane Sutton, who were knocked off their bikes by motorists. But even that down side has an upside – it has brought cycling safety to the fore and forced the country to debate the issue at every level of society. Safety is, after all, the biggest concern of every person who takes to the road on two wheels.

There are so many undercurrents of cycling at the moment – London Cycling Campaign, British Cycling, SkyRides, The Times’s Cities Fit for Cycling campaign – but they all come together with one message: to get more people out on bicycles, cycling safely, for their own health and for the whole world’s well-being. This is a moment that authorities and cycling supporters should not let slip, because it will be years before the wheel goes full circle and such a moment comes around again. There are some plans to promote cycling over the next year – the London Cycling Festival comes to mind – but that is no more than a drop in the ocean.

So, in years to come will we look back on this summer as a moment of revolution? I believe we will. And this time round, we will have no reason or excuse to forget it. We were all there, in the Velodrome, on Box Hill, or simply in front of the box at home. Yes, we were all part of this revolution. But it’s up to every one of us to make sure that this new burst of cycling fervour is a revolution without end. Amen.

Florence gives us a lesson in cycling

Women on bikes

Watching the passing show - the view from our trattoria

I’ve visited Florence six or seven times, and I’ve always known it as a city of art and culture, old buildings and dirty pavements, good food and expensive drinks. Rome might be the capital of all Italy, but I’d rather eternally roam this small corner of Tuscany – it’s so much more fun, more vibrant. When I visited last week I saw something I hadn’t noticed before – Florence is a city of bicycles. There are thousands of them, old bangers mostly, of every make and faded hue, chained to every conceivable immovable object. There are those with missing wheels and saddles, the skeletons of bikes that we see littering most busy urban areas, but not many. And there’s not a Boris bike in sight.

What amazed me most is that cyclists are just a part of the way of life in Florence – there are no arguments with pedestrians and cars. In London you so much as look at a bike and, before you have mounted, every taxi driver within half a mile is hooting, and dozens of irate pedestrians are waving their fists, urging you to desist. But not in Florence. Cyclists ride without trepidation the wrong way down one-ways, sail through stop streets and red lights with a wave and a smile. And everyone just gets on with it.

Brits think of Italians as uptight, overexcited, but perhaps it’s the other way round. There is something in the national character of Brits that they can’t bear it if someone invades what they see as their personal space. Also, they dislike seeing others break rules, but feel it is totally within their rights to do so themselves. Italians aren’t at all like that.

One evening we sat enjoying sundowners in a small roadside trattoria in the shadow of the Duomo, and watched the passing show. We were at a junction where cyclists gaily sailed through a stop junction, across the crossing traffic, without a care in the world. Not one voice was raised, not one hooter tooted, not a single person upset or even slightly animated by this phenomenon.

And cycling here seems to have no sense of class – it covers every stratum of society: you can see the most chic of chicks, elderly matrons, young students, pin-striped businessmen, children and delivery people. And, what’s more, men don’t appeared to be in the least bit fazed to be seen riding what in England would be perceived as a woman’s bike (some men I know wouldn’t be seen dead riding one – if you can ride when you’re dead).

On the Friday evening we heard a hullabaloo outside our apartment, which was near the Academia (think of Michelangelo’s David – he was a neighbour). I went outside to see what I can only guess was the local critical mass – a sort of flashmob ride. There were hundreds of cyclists, with balloons, wigs, fancy dress, on all sorts of bikes, shouting with joy as they pedalled past in a parade of cycling passion. And that is what cycling is all about, isn’t it?

The joy of cycling - something for everyone to love

Lance Armstrong, the truth is out

Surely there is no longer room for doubt over Lance Armstrong’s years of cheating. This week USADA published the evidence that led to its decision to disqualify Armstrong and ban him for life. It is a compelling indictment, giving the full A to Z (Andreu to Zabriskie) of evidence from those who were there, those who saw, those who aided and abetted the scam. For anyone who doesn’t want to believe, read the dossier – it is there for everyone to see, and it spells out quite clearly how Armstrong managed to manipulate all those around him. LA was very clever – he coerced all his colleagues to become complicit in the crime, thus buying their silence. The riders tell how it became impossible for them to speak out against Armstrong, because their livelihoods became dependent on him. Read it and weep. And believe it.

Peter Brookes cartoon

Peter Brooke's take on the affair in The Times

And yet, from the comments on websites that I’ve been trawling through, there are still those who doubt. No,  not doubt, they clearly believe that Armstrong is as innocent as the day he was born. Such people must surely fall into a category similar to Holocaust denial. One friend not close to cycling asked how could Armstrong manage to cover up the affair for so long, and so effectively. If so many people knew, why didn’t someone blow the whistle? And it struck me that this is just like the case of Jimmy Savile: many people suspected or knew, but no one had the smoking gun, so everyone kept shtum.

But that’s not the end of the story, is it? Where does cycling go from here? Is there any future for the sport? I believe that the only way to bring closure – and clean up the sport once and for all – is to have a truth and reconciliation commission, where all riders, past and present, are given an amnesty on all demeanours as long as they come clean and tell everything. And if they don’t, prosecute over anything that comes to light after the commission.

So then, Desmond Tutu, are you willing to get on your bike again?