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

July 2, 2017

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

June 14, 2017

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)

April 27, 2017

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…

February 19, 2017

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. Read the rest of this entry »


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

October 17, 2016

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.


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…


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