A tale of three documentaries

This post is a review (of sorts) touching on three films about cycling. All portray amateur efforts to overcome physiological and psychological limitations, and two of the three end up, by chance, being about topics rather grander (and darker) than the original intentions of the film-makers. The final film of the set is no less complex, but, for me at least, speaks of a less troubled and more positive version of cycling obsession, possibly only because of the reality that unfolded, but serendipity aside I think we could all do with something constructive and life-affirming right now.

The three films in question are Icarus, The Journey to the Other Side, and Brevet. All play with the truth about cycling and what it takes to challenge expectations of human capacity.

Because I have to start somewhere I will start with Icarus because it is the film which deviates most from its initial authorial intention, indeed wandering so far that one ends up wondering whether the shift in subject from frustrated amateur cyclist and film-maker, to Russian (anti)doping czar is also a shift in authorship. The slip from being a film about doping to being THE film about doping is both fascinating and troubling.

But the hidden narrative here is that the director started making a tired and formulaic replica of stories by others about amateur self-doping, and was saved by his access, granted by Don Catlin (oh yes the man with the freezer of doom), to the greatest orchestrator of doping fraud (no not LA), Grigory Rodchenkov (and just how charismatic is he?). What gets lost on the way is that this starts out as a redemption film for the director, who is trying to push himself to place higher in the Hautes Routes event, and who knows that the people above him are probably doping and getting away with it (although he is careful not to say this explicitly). Hilariously, his doping regime improves his physiology, but seems to have a negative psychological impact, and cannot offset the mechanical issues which cost him time (although see this interview, which I read after seeing the film). This is a film about failure: everyone in it is a failure, from WADA to individual athletes and indeed Rodchenkov himself. And like all car crashes it is a joy to watch, but does little to make me feel positive about the future of sport of cycling, or my place in it. I too am frustrated by my inability to succeed in cycling as I wish to, but there isn’t anything here for me except the fascination of the ethicist confronted by mendacious and talented scoundrels.

Given that I have publicly enjoyed following three editions of the Transcontinental Race (and written about it here and here), and ride relatively long distances, often solo, you might imagine that The Journey to the Other Side would float my boat in a more direct manner, and maybe even provide some helpful pointers to becoming a better long-distance cycling. This film is an unofficial documentary covering the first edition of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, which has a similar format to races like the transcontinental, but is actually closer to some of the unsupported US races that follow a fixed route, such as the Trans Am. I was troubled by some of what I saw of this race, and the approach to risk being taken by riders, but generally I accept that although I would do differently, that is a personal choice. Watching the documentary made me feel less comfortable, and I wrote most of the next two paragraphs last year, well before this year’s edition of the race was cancelled in response to the inquest into Mike Hall’s death.

There is no doping here (as far as I can see), but there is death, and there is a rather unpleasant if not unsurprising fatalism which I found completely surprising, and somewhat shocking. The obvious and painful contrast between the ‘winner’ (who does not win) and the ‘loser’ who dies is present right from the start, before anyone (unless you live under a rock) knows the outcome. Mike Hall looks troubled and unhappy, whereas Kristof Allegaert looks carefree and talks endlessly of fun. I followed this race as it happened, and watched a duel which looked honourable. This film my made me deeply uncomfortable, and I question your empathy if you can watch it without discomfort. But that isn’t the fault of the documentary which has an honesty and directness that Icarus lacks. The catch sequence made me feel physically sick. I haven’t been able to watch it twice, although I have dipped in to check my memory on some issues.

In short and this is the bit I have struggled with, I have come to the conclusion that being “more Mike” isn’t necessarily an embrace of life. It is, as is so often with extreme sports (such as mountaineering), an embrace of risk and marginality which is far from where I think cycling should be going. Nearly every recent race of this kind includes a fatality (most recent editions of IPWR, TABR & TCR all had fatalities), and the only attempt to properly estimate the risk of entering a race of this kind suggested it could be as dangerous as BASE jumping. If I discovered that the fatal accident rates were as high on Audax rides I would never start. There, I’ve said it, and take no pleasure in it. I found it extraordinary that when the lanterne rouge of last year’s Transcontinental expressed a similar view he was asked to delete the offending tweets. He’s now gone from twitter, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I have much more to say about what I found in this film, but I’m not ready to share. Suffice it to say I am not aligned with the majority of the YouTube commenters on the film.

The final film, Brevet, follows three participants in an event I had entered, but failed to start: Paris-Brest-Paris 2015.

Brevet – Official Trailer – English from CURLYPICTURES on Vimeo.

PBP is an amateur race that isn’t a race, a de-fanged version of itself, run for randonneurs, but raced at the front, whilst everyone else rides for their own time, their own finish. I am very different to the three riders they followed: two were younger and very competent faster riders, the other an older, slower but much more experienced rider. Yet there were elements in things they said and did that resonated deeply with why I started (and have returned to) long distance riding. In a sport where I have experienced much bullshit, there was little here to upset me: no cutting corners, lots of cameraderie, and the risk-taking seemed within bounds. These were people pushing limits, but not so far that they seemed self-destructive or cruel. The film simply did what it set out to do. And the smiles seemed truly genuine: for one it was the satisfaction of continued flow; another the satisfaction of challenge met; and for the third a joy in life which I am sure helped her complete the most recent Transcontinental Race. I bought the full version, with English subtitles. If I ride PBP in 2019 it will be because I watched it.


Shortly after writing the first draft of this piece four cyclists on the Flatlands 600 (a ride I considered entering this season) were struck by a hit and run driver.

The cancellation of IPWR also happened. Long distance cycling is risky, and that the pressure of racing undoubtedly increases this risk. I also know that bad driving is much more likely to be the cause of an RTA than bad cycling, but also that the risk profile changes with distance and lack of sleep. As Chris White (who has finished TCR three times) puts it:

The strongest criticism that I’ve heard about ultra-distance bike races is that they encourage people to cycle on public roads in a state of reduced alertness. Race organizers have a minimal influence on this, so participants need to manage their rest sensibly. There are not only personal goals and safety to consider, but also the safety of other road users and the future viability of this format of racing.

Ride Far

Finally, this has become rather more real to me as I have entered the inaugural Race Around the Netherlands. I am minimizing my risk by entering a race on Dutch roads and cycle infrastructure, and by building a schedule that includes plenty of sleep. I know I can ride 600 km on 2 hours sleep, but I am certain that I will need much more than 5.5 hours to ride 1600 kmt! In other words I am playing safe. I cannot do otherwise. I don’t expect you to watch (although you can if you want), and I don’t really care what you think of me (although that’s probably a lie). It’s not about you (?).

And it’s not about Mike Hall, who I admired as the creator of the TCR and promoter of long-distance unsupported riding, and as a talented racer who I could never emulate even if I wanted to:
I don’t want to be more Mike, I want to be more… me. And If I cannot reconcile the risk, or overcome my fear (those are two different things) I won’t start.


Festive 500: Let’s Simplify

There is a card in the game Fluxx which allows you to remove new rules. My attempt on the Festive 500 started with a fairly simple schedule, but with the premise that I would just ride some of my normal local roads, adjusted for the weather. 

In the end, after a hilly first fit on Christmas Eve, and painful sinuses on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, I decided to… simplify.

One of my least interesting but least weather prone routes is straight out to Hollingworth Lake on the main road. It’s not flat but as it is along the valley until the little climb to the lake it is somewhat sheltered and generally well gritted and snow free.

So I just rode out and back… repeatedly. In some cold, windy and then very wet weather. 


Cycling is a foreign country: exoticism, skulduggery and the British.

Why is it that British success at the Tour de France (or anywhere on the Continent) seems so dissonant? Why is it such a shock to many of my fellow British that it might be built on deceit and immorality? Is it that “foreign” cyclists and cycling tap into a rich British desire to both lust after the exotic, yet believe it to be dangerous and disreputable? There is nothing new about the ITV coverage of the Tour de France focusing on British riders, but once upon a time you knew none of them would win, and that somehow made it all right.

In these days of explicit and horrid racism, of insane and pathological isolationism, it is hard to remember the curious relationship Britain had with Europe in 1980s when I first started watching cycling. I can still remember the huge cultural shift signalled by the disappearance of duty on the ferries and the sudden feeling that we were European (oh happy days). But we never were: cycling was yet another sport that signalled our deep otherness: don’t race on the Continent you’ll end up on drugs, or worse liking foreign food or speaking Flemish. And of course, the Tour de France IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT FRANCE (see Roland Barthes). If there is nothing more foreign than fritjes with mayonnaise (and cyclocross racing being popular) there is nothing more spectacularly French than le Tour. British riders can compete, but must fail tragically to win or even finish. They must decry foreign practices like race-fixing and doping.

Of course this is all fantasy. The domination of that race by Belgian, Italians, Spanish, Germans and even Americans (not forgettig bit parts played by Swiss, Dutch, Luxembourgeois, Danish… and an Australian) developed its internationalisation over a long period. But we still think we are better, have no real sense of our connection with continental Europe, and retain a false belief in our post-Imperial exceptionalism. That’s why Wiggins, Froome and Co freak us out so much. And why Chris Boardman’s epic failure does not. To win the Tour de France is demostrably un-British, and removes a necessary distance from our exotic object of desire.

Get Carter: 400 – 260 = audax hotel again

You’re a big man, but you’re in bad shape. With me it’s a full time job.

There’s a missing post before this one which was too dark to share. So tangentially, I pass over a completed 300 and get to a failed 400 with a long name: a night in a beautiful bus shelter and a great ride cut short by my inability to sleep enough in the days before. You don’t want the details, so instead some impressions and images, and the connections made by my head.

The text of the missed post included the assertion ‘long distance cycling is not a death cult’. And it isn’t: as I write this I am listening to Matthew Bourne’s version of Chaplin’s Smile, and my last event was, despite wind and then awful rain in Holyhead and a spot of exhausted vomiting, a good match for my mood:

A standard pulled apart and touched gently.

And if there was violence, it was only in my head…


Image result for get carter beach

Dead Souls (long-distance cycling is not a death cult)

I experienced the death of Diana Spencer in a rather bizarre manner: in a taxi to catch a plane to a new life before most had heard the news, the black-bordered rush newspapers in the airport shops, and then in the series of bizarre and intimate condolence emails I received due to my name (which I only wish I had kept). I never mixed with royalty, although my father once received a rather lovely letter from Diana’s then husband. And I experienced the huge and bewildering outpouring of Elton John-shaped collective grief that ensued from afar. I was asked by one of my housemates in Nijmegen what I thought about it at the time and I was… nonplussed.

I have never really understood death, and public death even less. When my father died it had a lengthy and distressing impact on my well-being and was a major factor in my nervous breakdown of 2006. The public celebration we had of his life was an important event (and reading Tennyson there more so). Although it has became clear to me that such events are distinctly odd, and construct and relive sometimes false memories, they are important sites for setting the dead in context (as I write this Spotify serves up Dead Souls, and I’ll return to music in good time).

I had never found the death of public figures affecting to me until the last few weeks: despite my sometimes fragile emotional state I can’t remember a single public death making me cry until this year. Two events changed that enviable record: the sudden deaths, both to traffic, of two people I have never met. Both were cyclists, and although that might seem an obvious factor in explaining my feelings, I never cried when Marco Pantani died, although this was a similarly sudden shock. One was Steve Tilford, the other Mike Hall – I do not intend here to pay tribute to either, I would rather leave that to such as Juliana Buhring, Seth Davidson or indeed Bill Strickland (sometimes the best tributes are written when the subject still lives).

My strong reaction to these two deaths has challenged my view of public grief, but has also after reflection impacted on my understanding of why I continue to ride long distances. On many of my rides, completed or otherwise, I have had major physical or emotional crises which although not life-threatening, have felt pretty awful: I have sat on the grass in pouring rain in Bowland, tears streaming down my face (finished); I have experienced the despair of simultaneous navigational and lighting failure in the middle of the night (finished); more recently I’ve found motivation hard to come by due to nutritional collapse (vomiting and exhaustion; emergency bus shelter bivvying; DNF). Perhaps most distressingly I remember the sense of desolation at oversleeping on my final PBP qualifier and losing out on a four-year goal. Being close to disaster is a common feature in my riding. Even on my last 300 which was surprisingly trouble-free I ended up dazed with cold in a bus shelter chewing an energy bar held with senseless hands.

Is there a false equivalence here that makes me feel simultaneously moved by Mike Hall’s death yet uncomfortable? I don’t race, and I never think of what I do as actually dangerous (statistically speaking it isn’t). Do I fear that the next step in the epification of long distance riding is for it to become a death cult? Overcoming (and managing) a certain level of risk is one thing, but cycling does not have the relationship with risk of motor racing (although not quite as risky as Lauda claimed) or mountaineering (read Joe Simpson) . In the field I work in, music, the sanctification of musical martyrs is an object of study, one which I first experienced as a music fan, writing as a teen about Joy Division and the reasons why the suicide of Ian Curtis were both relevant and irrelevant to their music.

Of course, like any thing worth doing, long distance riding can become pathological – like crack or heroin (or indeed the prescription painkillers I know so many have become addicted to) – first it giveth, then it taketh away, so to speak. I’m still learning about this, as are we all I hope. My last ride (revisiting the Plains 300) was close to the edge, but I finished, and despite a dip 48 hours after finishing, I’m still OK.

It’s not you it’s me…

img_20170218_125211_590Another North West Passage 200 completed (#4), and with it the realisation that I’ve fallen out of love with Audax. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of randonneuring, but as with many ideas, a collision with reality is never far away. The weather was the best it has been for four years, just a little drizzle towards the end, and a bit of battling into headwinds after the turn.

About 160 km in I started feeling grim, and eating and drinking didn’t help – the same sensations as on my last two failed events, and although this one I finished I was in no fit state to ride home and had to ask my long-suffering partner for a lift home (I did ride the 25 km to the start). I hadn’t ridden for a month before this (apart from a quick spin on the Brompton) which probably explains the earlier onset of these sensations, but I am becoming increasingly frustrated with my string of unpleasant audax experiences. Continue reading

What’s in the package, Dave? Thinking outside the box…

I spent an hour and a half yesterday listening to Lionel Birnie and Richard Moore interviewing Dave Brailsford. The two main topics were TUEs/Corticosteroids/Tramadol (related to Fancy Bear(s) and the JTL accusations) and the contents of the medical package delivered by hand to Wiggins at the end of the 2011 Dauphiné Libéré by Simon Cope. Here I’m going to focus not on facts but on their presentation, and what Brailsford’s language betrays about thinking at British Cycling and Team Sky. This is probably sensible, since on actual medication, doping and the contents of that jiffy bag Brailsford said almost nothing. That he spent over an hour doing so is relevant in itself, as we shall see.

There were two main elements to Brailsford’s narrative, regardless of the efforts of the interviewers to ascertain facts:

  1. Brailsford took personal responsibility for what he regards as a Public Relations failure; and
  2. he takes no responsibility for any possible failings in regard to Anti-Doping that may or any not have occurred. 

Leaving aside the question of whether Sky or BC have been implicated in the misuse of medication for sporting enhancement, it is notable that in his narrative there is a clear boundary between what is outside the sporting arena (whether legal or not) and how it is presented. This is congruent with the view of sport as a goal-driven activity: a medal factory where the extent to which a practice is permitted is judged only in relation to its success. In such a world the use of medication is governed by what is permitted and might enable a competitor to perform at their best. Outside this box lies the world of how a team would like to be seen, and the world presented by Brailsford was one in which the following words were repeated knowingly and frequently:

  1. Trust
  2. Rules
  3. Authority
  4. Clean
  5. Openness

Within the first minutes of the interview, given the opportunity to tell us how Sky have lived up to their initial mission (to win the Tour clean with a British rider; to do so without employing those with connections to doping) Brailsford claims that they have been consistent in applying their values but have learnt from mistakes. His description of their behaviour, however is at considerable variance with this. Sky employed an ex-doping doctor and many tainted team staff (only to ditch them later); and they sought to do everything within the rules to maximise performance. The only part of their behaviour which is coherent with their initial mission is the outcome: all else has been a moveable feast. Brailsford continually apologises for being too open with the press, leading to a lack of control over the narrative, but nowhere apologises for the approach Sky have taken to the use of corticosteroids or tramadol (whether as extensive as the interviewers suspect or he will admit). All these medical decisions were made and confirmed by experts employed by the team and the authorities: he simply trusted these actors to be correct. The gap between his view of sporting governance and sporting doctors and the reality exposed by scandal after scandal in amateur and professional sport is enormous.

In order to understand why Brailsford (and the paraphernalia of Sky and BC) display such a dissonant narrative a diversion into organisational theory is helpful. I don’t want to oversell this approach: Brailsford could have constructed this narrative of subservience to authority simply to get out of telling us what was in the package, but there is nothing much new here in his approach, it follows a familiar pattern. 

I’ve sat through many dull days listening to management and leadership educators telling me about the theories of Argyris and Schön, and I won’t bore you with detail. Moreover, I am not an expert in organisational psychology, more of an end-user. However, the gap between behavior and narrative we see here is characteristic of an organisational malaise which is rather well captured by their thinking. Brailsford’s narrative here represents Sky’s “espoused theory”: a set of beliefs which are presented as governing values. These differ from the implicit theories or “theory in use” that govern actual behaviour. Such a gap is common in organisations which exhibit what Argyris and Schön call “single loop” or Model I learning/behaviour: learning that only reflects on behavior rather than the contexts for that behaviour. Model II or “double loop” learning steps outside current thinking and is able to consider higher level solutions. 

To illustrate the trouble single loop learning can get you into Sky are a perfect case: the theory in use is one in which success is valued regardless (British Tour de France victories achieved) and all efforts and practices are permitted as long as they are considered by the authorities to be within the rules. This is not the same as a win at all costs approach,  but it is not necessarily compatible with being “clean” as competitors, staff and regulators often cheat or manipulate the system in a goal driven culture. If there is a gap between the goal and its acievability a Model I approach will never question the obvious source of this gap: the lack of an obvious British Tour contender. Everything else follows on from this error. A Model II approach might have responded to Wiggins 2010 disappointments by maintaining a “clean” approach and resetting goals, instead Sky employed a set of experienced old school staffers, focusing on psychological and physiological preparation. Regardless of questions around their espoused ethical stance and their practices, this approach was catastrophically tested in 2011, when Wiggins crashed out of the Tour. The attempt by Sky later that year also demonstrated the single loop: Wiggins was favoured in the Vuelta despite the clearly better performing Froome; all focus was on the rider destined to be the first British Tour winner until well after it became clear that Froome was the stronger rider. There are, admittedly elements of double loop here: the readjustment of goals from Tour to Vuelta, for example. But these were always tactical, never impinging on the strategic objective.

Compare the approach of Brailsford at Sky with Vaughters at Slipstream: the lesson Vaughters learnt from USPS (and Millar at Cofidis) was that a singular focus on performance was not conducive to incentivising an ethical culture. Instead of winning clean, the new value hierarchy was to compete clean and celebrate wins where they occurred. Although this goal has not always been clearly exhibited by Vaughters’ team it enabled the team to employ staff and riders with histories of doping without creating an environment in which this knowledge would need to be deployed to bridge a gap between  aspiration and reality.

To finish, do go and read this piece summarising the theories I touch on here, especially the characterisation of Model I and II approaches. The Sky approach is not entirely Model I, but where it fits it explains how they have reached such a dissonant and unhealthy pass.

I realise, to mix metaphors, that there is a huge elephant in this room. But I can’t tell you what Wiggins was sent just before travelling to a final altitude training camp. Nor can I tell you how much corticosteroid or tramadol use there was out of competition at Sky by riders on that team. On the basis of the interview it is entirely plausible that Brailsford may not be able to answer these questions, although this seems hard to believe and even harder to accept. What we do know is that there was a TUE granted in 2011 for a powerful drug that most experts seem to regard as performance enhancing and medically excessive drug at just the optimum time for its non-medical use. Whether Froome or Wiggins are “clean” British winners remains to be seen, but the culture of their team could certainly do with some more honest and open critique from within.