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…)


Third time lucky?

February 22, 2016

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I completed my third North-West Passage on Saturday. It doesn’t sound much put like that. Despite a comedy of errors which included forgetting my bottles and phone (only one of which I went back for), I completed it. Moreover, I managed not to get lost on the final run into Rochdale. However, due to the worst wind and rain I have ever endured on a 200, I can confidently claim this was the hardest ride I have finished. So hard that the best bit was the (dry) A6 through and South of Lancaster.

Sometimes arriving is all that is important and a ride is somehow incidental. It is never quite like that because the experience of arriving at a pub you left earlier isn’t the same when the intervening twelve or so hours were like being punched in a cold shower by an Irish classics specialist. But yes, on Saturday I was just content to finish. And then back out shivering into the night for the hour and a quarter home…


The Ghost in the Machine: underneath the tinfoil hat.

February 2, 2016

I have been struggling for a while to decide how to continue to write about cheating in sport given its state of anomie. Scandal after scandal in athletics, soccer, tennis (and even cycling) have helped normalise the view that sport is actually inherently fraudulent, whether or not that is in any sense ‘true’. Nonetheless, two developments in sporting fraud have emerged which suggest a post-humanisation of sporting fraud. Neither are entirely new in concept, but both engage with human performance in ways which question the boundary between technology and the body, and create a gap between our inquisitive nature and what we can comprehend as either human- or machine-like.

  1. Gene Doping
    The ability of products to manipulate the inner workings of our cells isn’t all that new, and many journalists have latched onto the warnings about dangers (turning something on doesn’t mean you can then turn it off) or the potential for such products to be both potentially undetectable and incredibly powerful. One such product which has never exited testing or been brought to market is Repoxygen, which causes an alteration to cells which then produce higher than normal levels of EPO. Whether this exists as a black market product is unclear but it is certain that athletes, coaches and sporting authorities believe that to be likely. The crucial difference between Repoxygen (or a similar product) and rEPO is that whereas doping with rEPO decreases the production of EPO by our bodies whilst boosting red blood cell production, Repoxygen acts directly on the cells increasing their production of natural EPO. The trick is to do so without creating chronically and dangerously high hematocrit levels. That does not happen with rEPO – which suppresses natural production of EPO and is therefore relatively short lived in effect.
  2. Technological Fraud
    The second development, which although highlighted by recent events at the U23 Cyclocross World Championship event, has been posited for much longer, is the use of small concealed electric motors to boost cycling performance by a marginal, but significant quantum. There is a suspicion amongst some that Femke Van den Driessche used such means to achieve her gains on the climbs at the 2015 Koppenbergcross – a suspicion that may have helped motivate what looked to be a targeted operation to detect the motor using an EMR application in the pits at the World Championships.

What links these two techniques is their invisible testing of our assumptions about what it us to be human. Of course, all cycling is technologically enhanced, but whereas an illegally light bicycle is only quantitatively illicit, the motorised bicycle is qualitatively illicit. We assume the power input which the drive train converts comes from the rider and if this is no longer the case we are watching a motorcycle race, not a bicycle race. With gene doping it is not the undetectability or effectiveness which chills, it is the categorical shift from human to… not human. In both cases there is an uncanny valley effect where in the absence of better preparation, whether natural or pharmaceutical, the athlete goes beyond what is possible for their physiology. The results of doping can look odd to the naked eye, but the result of gene doping or technological fraud create a categorical shift. This is no longer enhancement by degree, but a new sport which goes well beyond the metaphorical Lance-as-cyborg narrative.

Human beings are fairly inquisitive: I’d guess around .7 on the cat scale. Their desire to gather and interpret data is not always matched, however, with the intellectual capacity to come to conclusions that bear much relation to reality. Whether it is rappers thinking the Earth is flat, or the mistaken belief that there is a causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine, our desire to explain what we observe can outstrip our ability to interpret. Of course, it’s worse than this: the desire for an explanation may not drive us to seek information upon which to ponder; and it can be manipulated by the unscrupulous. It may drive us to select information which reinforces our existing beliefs; or to reject information gathering and rely upon solipsistic deduction of a kind Sherlock Holmes would be distinctly uncomfortable with. And sometimes, the explanation is so seemingly crazy it can lead to madness…

The detective novel plays with this desire for explanations, and also the pleasure we gain from being just one step ahead of the detective (or one step behind). And although we often look to be searching for the smoking gun, its discovery often disappoints as well as befuddles. The reveal undoes the setting up if explanations, unless through shock (Seven) or unexpected confusion (Usual Suspects) it itself sets up a new set of questions. It takes a deft artist to tell a tale which simultaneously unfolds into a rational state of closure yet still leaves us questioning: perhaps this is why the confusing “reality” of time travel narratives, whether hysterical (Interstellar) or creepily whole (Predestination) are so fascinating.

So where does this leave the inquisitive cycling fan? All sports fans have some degree of fascination with the causes that sit behind winning. However, many of these factors are hidden, either because they are forbidden by law or rule, or because they are too complex for any but an expert to really grasp. These ghosts in the machine of sporting excellence lead many of us to express our inquisitive nature in fantastic, ill-evidenced speculations worthy of the X-Files. The truth is indeed out there, however, and it isn’t our fault that the UCI have to use ghost detectors to combat technological fraud. Who can blame us for retaining our tin foil hats when if turns out that a form of cheating much derided as fantasy turns out to be both actual and invisible, yet needs only the right tool (a free EMR detector app) and a tip-off to find.

 

Further reading:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15157120 (paywall – a review from 2004 of the state of the art in gene doping in sports)

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/sports/playmagazine/0603play-hot.html?_r=0 (NYT from 2007)

http://www.wired.com/2010/02/gene-doping-detection/ (WIRED from 2010)

http://cyclingtips.com/2016/01/more-details-emerge-about-motorized-doping-at-cyclo-cross-worlds/

http://cyclingtips.com/2016/02/cyclocross-motor-scandal-belgian-rider-blames-mix-up-claims-bike-belongs-to-a-friend/ (Two CYCLINGTIPS articles on the Van den Driessche affair)


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