Oh dear what can the matter be?

September 22, 2016

There was a time when throwing up in the middle of the night in a Northern town might have involved drink and drugs. These days I’m better prepared (bivvy bag) but it’s cycling that drives me past the point of physical no return. Two rides in a row now have ended in physical and mental collapse around the 300 km mark. You may think this is normal and unsurprising, but in over 20 years of long distance cycling I’ve only ever quit three audaxes: once through over sleeping and running out of time and the other two this season, in similar circumstances and in close succession.

My most recent ‘failure’ is particularly telling: having ridden 200 or so km to Glasson in the Fylde, and managed to navigate around a closed bridge and a swiftly mended puncture (first this year), I descended into chaotic failure mode surprisingly quickly. I clearly hadn’t eaten enough before reaching Glasson (where I inhaled a burger) and wasn’t functioning properly. I was following a mandatory route and hadn’t really had any navigational issues but my Garmin routed me in completely absurd way following my stop, dumping me onto a bizarre network of minor roads and cycle paths, all in roughly the right direction but none anywhere near my planned route. In a better mental state I might have noticed earlier, but I had clearly gone into ketosis and that state where the body is OK but brain is starved of fuel. 

Hence, Colne at around midnight, opposite a full hotel. 307 km but a fair way still from home. Sick twice and shivering. I was offered help by a lovely taxi driver and a BMX bandido, but by that time I’d called for help from my angelic partner as I was in a worse state than on the Old 240.

Learnings: I’m switching to using my smartphone and ride with gps app for navigation if I ever do this again. I’ve done two DIYs before with no issues but this was a complete navigation disaster. And some thoughts about taking on more fuel (possibly liquid). The main realisation though is that as I get older I may need to reduce the intensity of my training and ride longer distances (there’s lots of good advice from ironman triathletes on this it seems): I’ll let you know how I get on.


A tale of two rides: riding for love versus riding for glory…

August 29, 2016

img_20160827_164148 I’ve had a mixed experience riding long distances, mostly AUK randonneur events – which are a beautiful thing. I had a few inklings last year, on the way to my second Super Randonneur series that all was not well. At time I put that down to poor sleep hygiene before events and the added pressure of attempting to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris. This year was going to be a mammoth year: Mille Pennines (1000 km with 10 km ascent) which I failed to start, and another SR series (looking unlikely now). I think I learnt a few things on the way from three of the long rides I did, and I’m going to share some of these in the hope they help others understand their relationship with motivation and capability…

tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo9_1280tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo2_1280The three rides were very different in all but length, making for an interesting comparison. Two were AUK rides, one a calendar event, the other a permanent ridden with friends. The third was a solo ride mixing on and off-road sections. All were about 300 km in length and involved some night riding. But as you will see they mainly differed in my motivation for riding, and as a secondary factor, British weather.

So then, motivation: I rode a permanent with Gavin and George starting in Kent because I fancied riding in company – and on fresh roads. I started (but didn’t finish) the Old 240 from nearby Mytholmroyd because I fancied challenging myself as an alternative to the flatter Not Quite the Spurn Head 400 which runs the same day (and I’ve completed three times – also it’s the first 400 I ever rode, over ten years ago). The third ride was a solo trip to Brecon from Hebden Bridge, motivated by a sense of familial pilgrimage, with a postscript ride half way back after 24 hours in Brecon. All three of these rides were challenging, but two felt much more genuine. I’m wondering if the near disaster on the third was more about my head than about the physical and meteorological challenges I faced.img_20160703_133517

I’ve written elsewhere about my excellent ride with Gavin and George so I won’t cover old ground. My ride to Brecon, however, hasn’t been covered here despite being in July, and my second attempt at the Old 240 deserves a post-mortem before my mind blocks out the good bits!

tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo3_1280tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo4_1280tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo5_1280tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo7_1280So, Brecon. Literally the land of my father. And his father. It is the site of the Brecon Depot and Regimental Museum of the evolving Welsh Regimental  (South Wales Borderers) and Brecon Cathedral. Also the Brecon Jazz Festival which should be more up my street. My father’s side of the family were unashamedly military, hence a paucity of relations. They carried out the orders of their superiors all around the world, however absurd or horrific. My childhood was full of strange and exotic stories and photographs of foreign lands and exotic peoples. Maybe I’ll write about that in a bit more detail one day. I never met my grandfather, and only really knew my father only as a rather creative teacher of English (who used to try to bring set texts alive through acting them out with his pupils, often outside).

The route I took mixed NCN paths of hugely varying quality and signage with a few sections of busier roads and a majority of minor roads. I had pretty good weather and got horrendously lost through and around Manchester’s supposedly bike friendly routes. I left early but an hour later than planned due to Garmin issues, and hence was against the clock as getting to Brecon in time to reach my guest house was always going to be a push – in the end my hosts stated up specially late after a slightly ill-advised long-cut and Garmin crash! I arrived… knackered – and went to bed after a shower to quell my shivering. The weather had been rather good, unlike my trip with Gavin and George, which I thought at the time to be about as bad as British weather can get…

The following day was all business I guess. My visit to the Cathedral to see the two plaques in the Regimental Chapel was really tough. I cried on my own in a pew and then walked in the beautiful and secluded grounds before a pie and pint and a trip to the bijoux yet extraordinary Regimental Museum. Having arrived purely by force of will felt good, and the trip back to get a train or two from Shrewsbury was fast and broken by tea and scones in Stretton.

img_20160828_155502My second and failed attempt on the Old 240 was a real paradox. Beautiful weather and riding for about 12 hours then turning cold on Yad Moss the gathering clouds turned to torrential rain. I’d been feeling good until then but increasingly cold, sick and weak (couldn’t eat any solid food at Scotch Corner at 11 pm) I ended up climbing Kidstones on foot. Here it was that the Gods of Audax smiled on me and I was caught because fellow rider (thanks Paul) who firstly paced me then when my sorry state became apparent lent me his bivvy bag and pointed me at an audax hotel before setting off for the finish through the rain (he got a brand new bivvy bag in return). Turns out I wasn’t the only one struggling on this ride…

img_20160827_112955I slept a few fitful hours that night just 60 km from the finish in Mytholmroyd in Kettlewell on the bench in the lovely bus shelter (en suite facilities too). I was soaked through and shivering. and the cataclysmic thunderstorm storm right overhead before dawn was pretty terrifying. It might as well have been another 340 – I was done. I still couldn’t eat: after my saviour had left the night before I had tried to eat an emergency gel and threw it straight back up… I have only quit on two audax rides, and this was the second, thankfully not so far from img_20160828_155837home that my loving and understanding family couldn’t rescue me by car.

So – riding for family or with friends is one thing. For a badge another. At least that’s how it seems to me. Yet so much left unsaid…


Transcontinental Race: a paradox of mediation

August 15, 2016

Here’s the paradox. Professional road cycling offers easy access to a wealth of direct experience: you can touch the riders if you want on the climbs, and catch their empty bidons. If you have favourites they will hear your cheering; if you have despised riders they can feel your spit or worse (and vice-versa). Even when we cannot be there the forms of mediated experience offered to us via television, radio (and the new media offerings of Velon or Dimension Data) seek to minimise our distance from the travails of the riders.

There is another way of experiencing the racing, however. Many early followers of cycling could only learn the exploits of riders through newspapers, and until fairly recently (for me at least) photographs and reports in the glossy magazines. In some ways this distanced and reduced level of information impoverishes and narrows the experience. However, where information is scarce our imagination takes over, and we become creative in our piecing together of scraps of intelligence from any source we can get: social media has had a strangely distorting effect on how we experience racing: it is immediate yet often primarily text-based; it can link to other media; it can democratise the collection and dissemination of previously professionalised journalistic data. Our ability to not be there and yet capture details unavailable to the physical spectator increases the personal nature of the experience and decreases control by third parties. Anyone can set up a tumblr to focus on a corner of racing or livetweet/Storify what they see/others see. One of the first pieces of writing I finished for this blog reflected on the experience of following races via the tweets of those watching a pirate Internet stream, a curiously modern, yet atavistic way of seeing the familiar through others’ eyes. The fog of mediation creates a space for interpretation, as well as personal connections with sources that are people whose perspectives are as much a source of interest as the events that they report.

I have spent some considerable time following the third and fourth Transcontinental Races from Belgium to Turkey, via a combination of live GPS tracking, twitter and Facebook. I have seen pictures and videos, and interacted with riders and other followers. This year these have been supplemented by Lydia Walker’s excellent blogs, and Francis Cade’s beautiful videos. I’ve even talked with friends about it in real life! In some ways the lack of direct connection with the race is also supplemented by my experiences of riding long distances with little sleep and no company, despite the huge difference in scale between my riding and the finishers. Moreover, unlike a grand tour, I could enter next year…

I will leave you with the haunting singing of Alexandre Bourgeonnier, who was second in 2015 and scratched this year. It will stay in my memory for a long while…


When a punch is not just a punch: vigilantism, fascism, sport and fiction

July 10, 2016

Superheroes conflate goodness with hitting things. For the superhero genre, the best person in the world is the one with the greatest power; beating evil is a matter of hitting it harder. A world in which force and goodness are one and the same and both always triumph is a world in which you’re essentially worshipping force…

(Berlatsky, 2013)

[Warning: this piece contains movie spoilers and the examples portray real and fictional violence]

Yesterday Chris Froome punched a spectator during a Tour de France stage. I was surprised to see many commentators (both professional and amateur) supporting this violent act: in summary, they argued, fans get too close to riders and are endangering them in their workplace, therefore a punch is justified through the principle of self-defence. I found myself disagreeing with this rationale as I do not think such actions are justified in general or in this particular instance. The punch was, I would argue, both disproportionate (the fan seemed to be presenting a potential rather than immediate threat) and a vigilante act outside the expectations of rider behaviour. The race jury agreed with me, and the video evidence might form a fairly good basis for an assault prosecution in other circumstances. Whilst some have characterised the blow as an elbow/forearm strike, it certainly isn’t a push or a barge, and is clearly premeditated – unlike George Bennett’s collision today (with an almost stationary fan on a bend) which looks almost reflex and unavoidable.

I do not intend to dwell on all that though. Opinions are cheap. The more interesting debate to be had is around the collision between sport as a fictional spectacle and the reality it occupies. Froome and the fan are real people: their altercation resulted in physical consequences. Many of those who were excusing and even praising Froome’s actions seemed to be revelling in a vigilante approach to fan control. The argument goes like this: if the fans are dangerous and can’t be controlled by the authorities then this is justification for taking the ‘law’ into one’s own hands. There are two components here: the right to take action as an individual and the extent of this action. Whilst many might find a shove or barge acceptable in relation to the first component, the escalated level of response in this case seems to tap into a desire for disproportionate action: punishment rather than self-protection. And this takes us, depressingly, to the links between vigilantism and fascism.

Before getting all serious though, we need a detour into the pure fiction of the superhero, away from the hybrid fictional reality of sport. We’ve been here before of course. I’m not the first person to associate champion cyclists with superhero narratives. Take seemingly inhuman performances, add technological and biological performance enhancement, and you just need morally self-righteous violence for the superhero analogy to be complete. And we all know what happens when the morality turns out to be fake: Armstrong looked like a superhero until he was exposed as a bully and fraud. What concerns me is that in these days of the hyper-real the violence of Armstrong  (mainly psychological) or Hinault (rather more err… direct) isn’t just entertainment or spectacle, but also real: the victims (Simeoni; French trade unionists) are real, and although we can treat these events as fictions to be amused by or learnt from, they actually happened.

In a recent piece by Chris Yogerst in The Atlantic an attempt was made to argue that our fictional superheroes are not fascist, and that their vigilantism somehow aligns with more liberal tendencies. Benjamin Welton, in a slightly more sophisticated piece, contrasts the actions of Dirty Harry of Magnum Force with Frank Miller’s Batman: the former, while on the edge of the rules, works to maintain them, whereas the latter undermines and eventually destroys them. Noah Berlatsky unlocks this further: for him superheroes may represent fascism, but the stories they are embedded in allow us to critique the logical consequences of their hyper-vigilantism. They are stories about the roots and consequences of vigilantism/fascism and the desire for power through violence and can be read as propaganda and/or critique. Some of the more deviant superheroes  (Wonder Woman, The Comedian, Deadpool) are written to more explicitly expose this critical tendency: in turn they show how you can be a superhero who isn’t a man and wants peace, how a superhero ends up a sadistic and amoral government stooge, or how you can be “super, but… …no hero”, revelling in comic nihilistic carnage.

 

But this is all fiction, not sport. Unlike the commentary on the Vietnam War in Watchmen, Froome’s punch is not just a fictional act, a signifier which connects him with the “hard men” of yesteryear. It is a real punch, probably born out of frustration, but nonetheless the exercise of excessive violence given the context. The surplus is symbolic, a message to all fans: get too close and you’ll get what’s coming to you. I’m happy to watch fictional violence when there is some effort to do more than just glorify it, but in real sport, no thanks. The fictional Jonathan E in Rollerball couldn’t tell the difference between sport and reality, and look where that takes him: the conventional reading of the apocalyptic ending of this movie is that it is a triumph of the individual over a corrupt dictatorship of corporate evil. But Jonathan E merely becomes a focus for undifferentiated glorification of a brutal spectacle, which when stripped of its social purposes and the rules that map onto these is just a sporting Lord of the Flies

We live in an age where fascism once again seems possible as a mass political movement. Trump, Brexit, ISIS, Putin and the like point inexorably towards the idea that folk is good and might is right. The frustrations of riders towards race organisers and federations over safety are real, but they do not justify any violence at all unless one believes that violence is the solution to frustration. It is all too easy for the powerful to co-opt our frustrations and their violent expression.

It may just be a punch to you but to me it symbolises all that can become wrong with sport. Froome may be super (and his winning attack certainly was), but he’s no hero…


Men of Kent pull an all-nighter (Permanent Brevet Randonneur 300)

May 26, 2016

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaReceipts

A handful of receipts to be stapled together and posted with a card to a man I have never met. That is the goal. And it is a good one.

Don Quixote – Sancho Panza – Rosinante

Offshore wind farms in the distance make me ponder a future without fossil fuels: throughout the night I am haunted by Mad Max visions of a post-petrol world, the lack of traffic signalling a world dominated by pedal power and wind.

Rain in a park

In a park, on a path, as the rain steadily turns from annoyance into a heavy and unwelcome presence. The riding becomes dirty and sightless. All I can see is reflections from the water droplets on my glasses.

Peloton
George, embedded in the Ashford peloton, deep in conversation as Gavin and I drift on and off the back, enjoying the stimulation but unsure of the pace.

A Thousand Plateaus

After the rain and the joy of an increasingly dry early morning, the gaps in our trio increase. We ride as increasingly silent and isolated units, becoming social only at the controls, but even here it is a grim task eating and drinking.

IMG_20160522_074156

Birdsong

The volume and diversity of bird song after the deluge, even before the sky changed from black to blue is an assault on my ears. A seagull tells me we are close to the coast again, but I rarely see the sea.

Navigon

Only Garmin could manufacture a device which guides you perfectly along a route until an unpredictable moment where it ceases to do so. It is like a map for spies, designed to destroy itself before capture.

Grimpeur

Early on: a hill. Heart rate reaches 159 never to return. Later undulations register only as minor annoyances, slowing me down but making little impact on my increasingly depressed heart.

Route 2

The joyless disappointment of the National Cycle Network – it is telling that the worst part of the route is dedicated to bicycles: what a sign of British failure.

Mambo Italiano/Mama Mia

Before. Renato Carasone. A Peroni. Ham, rocket and buffalo mozzarella. Chicken Risotto…

No particular order/moment form/mobile/Stockhausen

After. It always comes back to me like a Stockhausen piece. In this case a mixture of Goldstaub and Sternklang. And maybe a bit of Stimmung.

And if you want to ride it:

http://www.aukweb.net/perms/detail/DWI02/

Gavin’s post about it here


Compass Bon Jon Pass Extralight Tyre Review

April 8, 2016

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I don’t often write reviews. Choice of equipment is very personal: experiences of the same component or item of clothing are subjectively variable and I have bought many disappointing items that others love. That doesn’t mean they were wrong, just that I don’t see the world their way. I will however tell you what I think about Compass tyres (tires in US), or more precisely their 700 × 35c Extralight clincher, the Bon Jon Pass.
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Compass tyres are widely promoted in the randonneuring world having been developed by Jan Heine with Panaracer in Japan. They are reputed to be light and supple, are good at low pressures and come in a wide range of sizes (up to 38 mm for 700c; wider for 650b and 26″). They are indeed objectively light and supple, and are available in a very pale skinwall version, or all black.

I chose the Extralight version as I am a puny lightweight and thought I could get away with it. The Bon Jon runs tubeless, but I’m running them with standard butyl tubes because I am a late adopter. They fitted quite tight on the stock rims on my Whyte Suffolk (made by Alex I think) and took a while to seat properly – I inflated to about 80 psi to make sure they were seated and have settled on 40 front and about 50 rear (I weigh 58 kg): I could probably go lower but I think I will wait until I go tubeless sometime in 2020. My first ride was at 60 and 55 which seemed a little high: at the lower pressure I can descend very quickly and confidently although if I climb out of the saddle the front tyre looks absurdly squishy.
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So, apart from excellent descending in all weather, how do they ride? The only time I have regretted being on them in their first 750 km or so was lost on a farm track where the road turned to mud and was upward. Tarmac, cobbles, gravel (big and small) all seem fine. Even a bit of mud is OK if one is not trying to climb or get started! I have done two long rides on very mixed terrain and they were comfortable and felt very safe (and I am awful off road). The lack of side-knobs or raised tread would only bother me in really muddy conditions. On the road they are luxurious and I don’t think they slow me down.
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The main reason I chose the 35c version was frame clearances. They fit my frame with just enough room (the chain stay clearances are unnecessarily tight) for safety, and I can just fit mudguards to keep ride companions happy. No punctures yet and I have removed one sharp flint from the tread; the flimsy sidewalls still seem fine after some rocky path encounters.
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For mixed riding and/or long distances they are quite the best tyres I have ridden. I intend to use them on my next 300 with George and Gavin in May and I’ll report back after that, but after 105 km of awful cycle path, track and chipseal roads yesterday which delivered great comfort I am not expecting to be disappointed.
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You can buy Compass tyres direct from Compass themselves (see Jan’s original blog post about the newer tyres here) or if you are in the UK you can get them Extraquick and Extralight from Velo Vitality in Brighton. They aren’t cheap, but good tyres never are… in my opinion!
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NB I paid for these tyres myself and have no connection with Compass or Velo Vitality other than as a happy customer.


The map is not the territory…

April 6, 2016

map

I wonder what this will actually feel like? RWGPS makes route planning seem easy, but there is a surprise on every ride. After the familiar sections of Yorkshire are accounted for this route contains just enough mystery to imply a test for more than my legs. Between GPS and reality exists a fruitful gap which should get me into plenty of trouble. I could just get the train both ways and take my Brompton but I have convinced myself I am short of kilometers, and the allure of unfamiliar territory and a necessary change from my normal commute is just too tempting. In particular, I confess to never having ridden the Aire Valley Cycle Route , and my experience of off-road cycle provision in the UK is rather mixed but generally leads to something “special”. I also have some serious thinking to do about work and here is a chance to let my unconscious do the work.

Here’s to getting lost!

(BTW I am not really going down a section of the A1…)


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