Burry Stander RIP. A hero in the making

Burry

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?

Garmin Sharp ride out rule one: set your co-ordinates for the heart of the New Forest

How did Team Garmin Sharp know that the sun would shine so brightly? And how did they know that the best sunshine would be in the New Forest? Well, whoever does their crystal-ball gazing should be complimented, because they chose the perfect day, and perfect place, for Garmin Sharp’s annual ride out. Maybe it was just luck. Or perhaps it was because it was the last Friday before the start of the Tour of Britain. But who cares about the reason why, because the boys from Garmin Sharp organised an almost-perfect day out for 500 or so of their supporters.

More Garmins outfits than you can shake a stick at

Almost perfect? Well, there was one small hiccup, and quite an embarrassing one, at that. For a team connected to the Garmin name, what is the last thing you’d expect to go wrong? Well, that’s exactly what went wrong – they ended up in the wrong place. But, they were keen to let us know, it wasn’t their satnav that went wrong, it was human error: someone keyed in the wrong postcode. Of course, they could probably have sent half a dozen of the many ringers kitted in replica Garmin kit to lead the field, but someone might have noticed when they started getting passed by mere mortals. For those of us hanging about at the Avon Tyrrell outdoor centre there was lots to do while waiting – Wiggle and Mavic had mechanics to check over our bikes, Muc-Off had a maintenance demonstration, High5 fulfilled our nutritional needs and, of course, we could hire Garmin computers for a test-ride. And then there was the goody bag to wade through: three water bottles (already I hear the missus asking: Why on earth do you need another water bottle?), a sample of Muc-Off bike cleaner, Cycling Plus magazine, a fistful of leaflets and vouchers, plus enough gels and energy bars to power an entire pro team halfway round the Tour de France (how many more gratuitous links do you think I can get into a single blog?).

Also, to keep us entertained while waiting, there were Q&A sessions with the triathlete Tim Don and a couple of young riders from Rapha Sharp whose names escape me but whose demeanour was sharp and attire very Rapha-esque. And finally – cue the fanfare – Team Garmin Sharp found their way into the marquee, led by Tyler Farrar and Sep Vanmarcke (who used Twitter to challenge all 500 riders to a fast ride).

Under the starting banner ... hmm, now, which is the start button?

Under the starting banner … hmm, now, which is the start button?

And that brought us to our reason for being there – the ride. I landed up in the first group and for the first 20km found myself desperately hanging on to the coattails of the pro team (who were just cruising along). Once I let them go and settled into my own rhythm things were a bit more enjoyable. There were shades of the Tour de France, with Mavic and Shimano motorcycle outriders loaded up with spare wheels – I had hoped that I might puncture and, by swapping wheels, get an upgrade. But no such luck. It was my first road ride through the New Forest, and the undulating nature of the ride helped the miles to slide by quickly. The only blip was Blissford Hill – a short but truly sharp incline just before the halfway mark – but we had been warned, and I got over that without problem. I admit that I took strain in the last ten miles, but seeing that this was my longest ride of the year, I can’t complain. And I soon recovered after tucking into the hot pasta and salad that were waiting at the finish.

On a personal note, the only downside of the day was that I spent longer in the car than on the bike. That wasn’t helped by the Friday-evening crawl on M25 – even in my exhausted state I reckon I could have cycled more quickly from the M3 junction to the M26. I suppose that’s the price we pay for having so much fun on two wheels. So, let’s just hope that I get invited back again next year.

LA Con: the legend of Lance Armstrong

In the end it turns out that he was not Mr Invincible, he was simply the man who fell to earth. The story of Lance Armstrong, the legend in his own lifetime, was no more than a myth, a mistaken belief.

My very own picture of Lance climbing the Koppenberg during the Tour of Flanders, 2010

And how we wanted to believe in that myth – we admired those magnificent wings that bore him aloft, way above all other mortals, wings that took him so high, so close to the sun. But now the myth has been exposed, and we can see that the wings that bore him aloft were constructed not of wax and feathers, but of lies, deceit and bluster. And those lies, deceit and bluster, just like wax in the sunlight, melted under scrutiny. Like poor Icarus, Lance’s ambition to fly too high proved to be his undoing. So when those fantastic wings were exposed to the heat of intense scrutiny, Lance decided he would not even try to keep flying. He just stopped flapping those wings, gave up, and fell to earth, crashing into the sea of mere mortality. Now he is no more than any one of us.

But what about all of us – what was our part in this affair? We all wanted to believe, didn’t we? Either that, or we desperately wanted him to be proven a cheat.  We look for heroes, we set them on a pedestal. In fact, we set up pedestals and then goad people to climb up just so that we can knock them down then revel in their misfortune. That is the society that we have become, a people shaped by tabloid values and Big Brother beliefs.

So much has been written in the past few days about the whole affair – thousands of words, probably millions. So many comments from journalists, supporters, believers, detractors. So, what can I add to the debate? There is probably no new angle to explore, no new words, except the expression of my personal disappointment. But in which camp did I plant my banner? I think that I wanted to be a believer, but deep down I was a sceptic, especially later, when it all seemed too good to be true. But I feel no schadenfreude, no glee that things are as they are. There is only a certain pain that people should feel driven to deceive in order to succeed.

So I will have to live with that pain, because the only cure for this ill is – if you will pardon the awful pun – to lance the boil, to let out everything, good and ill. That is the only way there could ever be healing. Now, it seems, we will never know, and so we will live forever with this running sore – a sorry end to a story of such inspiration. In the end, all we can ask is what Lance Armstrong did for us? Did he get you out of an armchair and into the saddle? Did he inspire you to get on your bike and lose a couple of stone in weight? Did he challenge you to ride up Alpe d’Huez, or Boxley Hill? If he did any of these things for you, what more can you ask of the man?

Tour de France win doesn’t make a cycling nation

Rejoice, rejoice. Go out in celebration and paint the town, no, the country yellow. Brad Wiggins has wonderfully, masterfully, won the Tour de France, and all of a sudden Britain is this wonderful cycling nation.

Yes, in just a matter of days a freewheeling feel-good factor has rolled across the country. The media, always quick to jump on the bandwagon, have splashed column-miles and acres of pictures on a sport that, weeks ago, merited little more than a paragraph or two on an inside page. Sorry, forgive my cynicism. It is right that the achievement of Wiggins and his teammates is accorded such space, such accolades, but why only now? Why not in previous years, when they were working so hard to build to this point.

David Brailsford, the Team Sky principal, called the triumph “miraculous”. But he, more than anyone else involved, knows that the win was not at all miraculous – it was the result of meticulous planning, hours of training, deliberate squad selection, and all of this backed by a committed sponsor. When you look at the effort put in by all those involved at Sky and British Cycling, it was simply a matter of time before they achieved this result. It could have happened sooner, but this year, for the first time in three attempts, everything turned out right on the day – well, on every day for three weeks. And Mark Cavendish, who to me is one of the biggest heroes in the race, sacrificed his personal ambitions and rode magnificently for the team. And his pure, raw talent alone helped him to another three stage wins, including an incredible fourth successive victory on the Champs Elysees. We will be seeing a lot more of him in future weeks and years.

So why then do we question the veracity of this achievement, the value of it? In his radio programme Jeremy Vine asked where does this victory fit into the pantheon of sport? Nowhere else in the world would one ask this question. The victory speaks for itself – it is the greatest achievement possible in cycling. What more needs to be said.

So, does this success make Britain a cycling nation? I’m afraid that we are still some way off that mark. The day after Wiggins first wore the leader’s yellow jersey in this year’s tour I went on a ride around the lanes of Kent with a like-minded group of cyclists. Travelling along one particularly narrow lane a car drove up behind us. There was no place for us to pull over and allow him to pass, and so he followed us, dangerously close, hooting like a maniac, for about half a mile until the lane widened and he could shoot off as fast as possible. Like so many drivers, he seemed to regard the speed limit as a minimum target, not a legal maximum. This country can produce as many Bradley Wigginses and Mark Cavendishes as it likes, but as long as drivers treat cyclists like third-class citizens, Britain will never be a cycling nation.

Going out for a ride? Just get in your car and head for Cyclopark

Budding BMXers

Writing a blog is a bit like riding a bicycle – you miss a couple of days and suddenly you start believing that you’ve lost your touch. The longer you leave it, the more difficult it is to get back, whether it’s in the saddle or on the keyboard. Last week I was thinking about this blog, and the fact that I hadn’t written anything for ages. I wondered if maybe I should give it up: I’m all dried up, thought out, bloggered. And then I got an email telling me about the opening of Cyclopark, a special multimillion-pound cycling facility right on my doorstep. Just what I need to get back on my blog.

Cyclopark? I hear you ask, just as I did. Well, it turns out that the powers that be have coughed up quite a few million to create the “largest cycle park in Europe and the largest single Olympic legacy project in Kent”. (I’m not sure how the legacy bit works because it won’t be hosting any Olympic events – and the project was conceived long before London won the bid. But hey ho, why not jump on the bandwagon as it rolls by.)

I won’t bore you with the facts and figures, save to say that this is a multi-sport facility with road, BMX and mountain bike tracks, skateboard park, football and basketball pitches, children’s play areas, and much more. It looks good on paper (well, on its website), so I thought I should check it out. The grand opening happened on a hot, sunny day and I reckon a good few thousand people attended, many with their bikes. I came away full of enthusiasm for the venture, hoping that it will be a success, because I strongly believe that anything that helps people to get out on their bicycles is a good thing, isn’t it? But there was a nagging feeling about it, and it took the whole of my hour-long ride home for me to put my finger on it. The Cyclopark blurb boasts that more than nine million people live within an hour’s travel time. For me, that was an hour’s ride. But for most peoeple it means climbing into your car, bikes strapped on the back, and heading down the motorway. Is that the point of getting on your bike. The truth is, in an hour you could ride several laps of Cyclopark’s various circuits and still have time for a coffee in the cafe.

Somehow I feel that there has been massive over-investment in this facility. Just look at it – various councils and sports bodies have put up more than £9 million for this place, where most visitors will drive for miles, then pay for parking and entry. I can’t see them recouping that sort of money, even in the long term. Wouldn’t they have been better off putting £1 million investment into nine smaller, simpler cycle parks, where entry is free, then handing them to local authorities to run and maintain?

I do hope the park is a success, so just get out there and visit it. After all, who would listen to me. I’m just a silly blogger. And,  come to think of it, writing a blog isn’t anything like riding a bike, is it?

Pendleton’s power to deliver ….

I don’t see the connection, but maybe that’s just me. My friends at Halfords say a television show called “Call the Midwife” has delivered a “bouncing success” for Victoria Pendleton. Apparently a character in the show – a midwife, one presumes, having never seen the programme – rides a bike not unlike the eponymous range endorsed by the Olympic gold medallist.

The delightful Victoria with her eponymous Pedalton bicycle

[Editor’s note: Unfortunately this blog failed to report earlier this year when Pendleton launched her personally designed range of retro-styled bikes. That serious error of judgment – and consequent failure to take the opportunity to publish a gratuitous picture of our favourite lady track cyclist  – has been reported to the management. We hope this posting goes some way to making up for that shortcoming.]

Halfords credits the “midwife effect” for an unprecedented run on Pendleton’s  pedals. That could be. Or maybe it’s just panic buying – you know, a fallback for when the world runs out of fuel after some government minister tells everyone to go out and fill their jerrycans. But back to the bicycle. Victoria  “wanted to help create a bike that you could just jump on to go down to the shops or the park without having to change into cycling kit. I do recognise that most women don’t want to squeeze into lycra before they get on a bike and I am pleased to say you can definitely wear a dress to ride these cycles.” That may be so, ladies, dresses are always nice. But sometimes, squeezing into lycra is just that little bit nicer.

[Yes, it’s a good thing my better half doesn’t read this blog.]