Rio 2016 – Track cycling

Before the track cycling started at Rio I was worried. I should have listened to Chris Hoy, or, as I’m now calling him Guru Hoy. He was SO upbeat about the prospects of the British team prior to the Olympics and I doubted him. I will never doubt Guru Hoy ever again. He knew. The performance of the whole track cycling team was so head-tighteningly, life-affirmingly fantastic that I haven’t been able to write about it until now because I have spent most of the last couple of weeks like this:

lqdyivhhureci

I started to believe when I saw Phil Hindes come out of the starting gate in the qualification round of the team sprint. This wasn’t what I had seen at the Wirld Championships earlier in the year. The GB cycling team have a tradition of keeping their innovations secret until just before the Olympics. Many of the other countries had trialled out their Olympic equipment in competitions before. Not GB. In the lead up to the Olympics details of the work of Room X (how very Turing!) at British Cycling began to emerge: new bikes, skinsuits and the recruitment of Tony Purnell, formerly of the Jaguar F1 team to oversee innovations.

Back to the team sprint. Guru Hoy had tipped Jason Kenny to get three gold medals in Rio. I doubted he could get even one medal of any colour, because I am an idiot who knows nothing about anything. Having watched the start of the team sprint competition in the Sports Bar (because I was on me ‘olidays), Mr FtW and I watched the final in bed. I can’t actually tell you very much about it because, as Mr FtW pointed out, I was more excited about it than he has been about anything in his entire life. I had to express my excitement in a silent, arm waving, tense sort of way because the Junior FtWs were asleep in their room on the other side of the lodge. I contained myself (just about.) Callum Skinner was a bit of a revelation. Many have tried and failed over the years to be the next Hoy and Kenny. Skinner looks like he might be the real deal AND he gently told off a pro-Brexit group on Twitter for using his image without permission. Good lad.

That was just the start. The men’s team sprint victory was followed by the men’s team pursuit. During the final of the TP I honestly thought I was going to stop breathing and pass out. It was SO close and excruciatingly tense. One of the things I love at the Olympics is the brain-combusting joy of first-time gold medalists. Callum Skinner experienced it on the podium during the TS medal ceremony, as did Owain Doull, who, for all of his good hair and ‘Yeah I’m off to ride for Sky’ coolness, looked like he was going to start sobbing when the national anthem started playing. Luckily Bradley Wiggins stepped in to gurn like a fool on camera and reduce the rest of the TP boys to giggling wrecks. Once you’re a Sir you can do what you like.

The women’s Team Pursuit! Oh how I love them. Four more contrasting characters you couldn’t dream up. The Jane Austen-y younger Bennett sister looks of Elinor Barker. Katie Archibald, an actual real-life version of Julia Stiles’ character from Ten Things I Hate About You. Jo Rowsell Shand, a TV presenter in waiting and the elegant, grown-up lady I will never be. Laura Trott who defies description, although she reminds me of those plucky girls from the WW2 Pathe newsreel footage: ‘Well, the Germans bombed my street so I pulled everyone out of the rubble, grabbed the family dog and cycled ten miles to get help. I’m not a hero, I just really like dogs!’

Post-event interviews are always fun. Handled by the wrong interviewer they can be mind-numbingly awful:

Interviewer: ‘You’ve won a gold medal!’

Interviewee: ‘Yeah!’ [Then spends two minutes answering the statement that has been presented to them because the interviewer is too witless to ask them a question]

Luckily Jill Douglas is pretty good at getting the post-race interview right. She even handled Katie Archibald well when she was asked about her hair after the TP final (I’m paraphrasing slightly but this was the gist of it):

JD: Will you be dyeing your hair gold after this?

KA: I dunno, I might have to ask you for tips.

😱😱😱

I swear you could see Katie Archibald inwardly thinking OH MY GOD OH MY GOD WHY DID I SAY THAT WHY OH WHY KILL ME NOW immediately after she’d said it. I felt her pain because it’s exactly the sort of thing I would have said after winning a gold medal. In fact, it’s the sort of inappropriate thing I say on a daily basis and I’m more than old enough to know better and will never win a gold medal at the Olympics.

Then there was Becky. I’m totally #teambecky. Earlier this year I was chatting to someone (no names) who had done some media work with Becky James and apparently she is an absolute sweetie and a pleasure to work with. Being a dreadful English person, my reference points for Welshness are: 1. The Welsh rugby team 2. Gavin and Stacey. This is handy because there something very Stacey-ish about Becky and she’s going out with George North. Obviously he’s not Gavin, but… Even Dame Clare Balding got a bit overexcited when she interviewed George after Becky’s first silver medal because 💪💪

So to Jason and Laura. They just work don’t they? As sportspeople. As a couple. They complement each other perfectly. Laura’s all competitiveness, giggles and pluck and Jason is outwardly ‘Whevs’ and by his own admission a bit grumpy. She cheers him up; he keeps her grounded and they evidently look after each other. I reckon they’d be fun company at a dinner party and they love dogs. They just happen to have ten gold medals between them and are young enough to get more. The whole comparing them to reality tv couples is a bit overwrought, but they are just the kind of people that children and young people should have as role models. Brilliant enough to win gold medals but also practical enough to keep their kit in a bag for life. What more do we need from our heroes?

I was genuinely worried for Mark Cavendish when I saw him at the World Championships. He’s brilliant but I felt that the decision to focus on the Omnium was made too late; there surely wasn’t enough time for him to master the disciplines to a sufficiently high level to get a medal at the Olympics, let alone gold. Once again, I love it when I’m wrong. Gold was indeed a step too far but his silver medal was a wonderful moment. He could come back in four years….

I was genuinely sad when the track cycling finished. Dame Clare looked a bit lost standing out in the rain on her own after six nights in the company of Chris Hoy under the bright lights of the velodrome. The Olympics kind-of ended for me (triathlon aside) on the second Tuesday. I tried to get into the BMX, I really did, but it wasn’t for me. It felt too Whacky Races and random for me.

A quick note on the comments made by cyclists from other nations. Aside from the USA, very few countries bought their A-game to the velodrome. Bauge and Pervis, both great over the years, are fading forces for France. The Australian team looked dependable but not stellar (men’s team pursuit aside). There are promising signs from the teams from the Netherlands and New Zealand but the other nations looked under-par. If Sarah Hammer could have cloned herself three times and taken up all the places in the team pursuit, I feel sure that she would have done. I loved the GB whitewash in the Rio velodrome, but I hope that the other nations really bring it to them in Tokyo. The GB team funding is fuelled by Olympic achievement. World Champion jerseys are a ‘nice to have’ but they don’t fit in with the plan and they don’t  get c.35 million pounds in funding to win them.

Next: the Paralympic cycling. GB should be pretty good at that, too although I won’t be making an predictions because I’m rubbish at them. However, I fancy a couple of people to turn their London 2012 silvers and bronzes gold in Rio….

 

 

 

 

 

 

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World Track Championships 2016

The World Track Championships happened last weekend, six miles (ish, as the crow flies) from my house and I went to one session. One. What an idiot I am.

When the tickets went on sale I looked at the dates and times of the sessions, looked at when my husband was working (we have children, I’m not needy enough to require his presence at all times) and (grumpily) concluded that I couldn’t go to any of it. It was fine. I could watch it on the telly. It didn’t matter.

However, once the WTC started I knew I had to go along to *something*. Of course, most sessions had already sold out but I managed to bag a single ticket, right at the back in the corner of the Lee Valley Velodrome and went along. I attempted to (non-threateningly) stalk The Cycling Podcast but I think they were hiding. Perhaps they spotted my binoculars. I’m like the woman that Frasier Crane thinks is stalking him but actually turns out to be a little eccentric but essentially harmless.

I’ve been to a lot of Revolution sessions in London and I went to the Velodrome to watch the Paralympics in 2012 but nothing had quite prepared me for how different a World Championships would be. [Side note: I fail to understand why the LVP hasn’t hosted the World Para-Cycling Championships yet. It’s the perfect venue, the racing would be incredible and it would be the perfect access point for school kids to go and watch some cracking competition.] The session I attended featured the women’s team pursuit and Mark Cavendish in the Omnium.

Laura Trott is box office. She’s the Kylie Minogue of cycling – tiny, brilliant at what she does and everyone adores her. Jo Rowsell Shand is quietly authoritative and seems extremely calm. I’d be amazed if she didn’t become a TV presenter/pundit once she retires from cycling.  I hadn’t seen the team pursuit ‘live’ before but it’s such a beautiful discipline to observe when it’s done right (no, I wasn’t there on the Thursday).

I hadn’t seen Mark Cavendish in the flesh before but he reminded me of a boxer. He’s got the same swagger as my boxing trainer (clarification: I don’t fight, I just train like a boxer). Its the inner fire that makes them brilliant. The paramedics at the track looked bored for most of the session (no accidents for them to attend to, luckily) but a couple of them leapt to their feet when Cav took to the track and roared him on with the rest of the crowd. If Cav ever thinks that the British cycling public don’t love or understand him, he only has to think back to this weekend and remember the collective power, energy and noise provided by thousands of people willing him to do well.

I managed to watch the rest of the TWC on TV. I worked out that I could have gone to more sessions and would have seen John Dibben win the points race (jumping up and down in front of the TV in my pyjamas was really not the same) on Friday, and Jason Kenny win the sprint the following evening (hiding behind a cushion muttering ‘He won’t win this. He won’t…OH YES HE HAS!’). As for Sunday (which, for complicated reasons that are not worth explaining, I was finally able to catch up with on Monday evening) when Kylie…sorry, Laura won the Omnium and Wiggins and Cavendish won the Madison… I’m fine about it though. FINE. It’s not like the WTC won’t happen in the UK (or, specifically, six miles from my house) in the next 10-20 years or more. Did I mention I was fine? Good.

The WTC forcibly reminded me how much I love track cycling. I love it for the same reasons that I love buying clothes from Oasis, hot chocolate from Starbucks and go on holiday to Center Parcs. It’s safe, aesthetically pleasing, controlled, familiar, reliable, clean and never lets me down. Am I a boring person governed by routine and predictability?  Oh yes. Proud of it, too. At least the racing isn’t adversely affected by the weather – see today’s Paris-Nice stage for evidence of that. I have promised the girls that we will take them to Revolution and the London 6-Day later in the year.

Of course I’m watching Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice now, but there’s a little piece of my cycling-loving heart that belongs to the velodrome in Stratford.

 

No more heroes

I have a policy of not having individual sporting heroes. Not these days. Certainly not current sportspeople. Frankly, I’m too old and cynical to indulge in hero worship of anyone.

When I first got into cycling, we were watching the highlights of a race one evening (I forget which one) and my husband piped up from his end of the sofa ‘There’s no-one in cycling for you to fancy really, is there?’ I thought about it for a bit and concluded that it wasn’t relevant and didn’t matter. There may have been a bit of ‘How very dare you!’ for good measure.

Of course, there are some members of the peloton that are generally considered to be quite fanciable: Adam Hansen (clever, hard as nails, 13 consecutive grand tour finishes and counting) and Tom Boonen (reformed bad boy, dad of twins, Classics specialist) immediately spring to mind.

Others stand out for different reasons. Marcel Kittel has magnificent hair (see also Owain Doull.) Esteban Chaves is adorable and I’d like to adopt him. Taylor Phinney (also has good hair) is too cool for school but you’d be glad if one of your children bought him and/or Alex Dowsett home. Peter Sagan is an absolute gift to cycling and probably one of the few characters along with Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Laura Trott to transcend the sport.

As I’ve got older I find that I value solidity over flashiness. I’m convinced that once you have children you’re more impressed by someone that can get shit done rather than one that spends more time getting ready to go out than you do. I’m referring to Tony Martin, along with the Sky quartet of Wout Poels, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas. So impressed was I by the latter’s contribution to the success of Sky that last year I did a presentation for the Group Dynamics and Leadership module of my Applied Sport and Exercise Psychology course in which I argued that he was the prototypical team member and was therefore the future of the team, along with Richie Porte…

…who now rides for BMC. Awkward. Anyway.

Stage 3 of the 2014 Tour finished in London. My sister and I decided to watch the Tour at the Olympic Park in Stratford. My sister wrote Va Va Froome in chalk on the pavement and we spectacularly failed to nab any of the freebies that were flung in our general direction by the Caravan. By the time we realised that the arrival of the peloton was imminent I was slightly hysterical, to the amusement of my husband who had come to join us. It was the first time had been to watch the Tour – deliberately at least. It came right past our flat in 2007 but I was pregnant, sick and grumpy and didn’t really understand cycling back then.

The noise increased. The motorbikes came by and then the peloton was rushing towards us. I held up my phone to take photos. In my hysteria I screamed. In fact, I threw my head back and screamed at ear-splitting volume:

COME ON RICHIE!

To this day I cannot explain why I did it. It’s become a meme in our house. Every time there’s a bike race on and Richie Porte is participating I wait for my husband to screech COME ON RICHIE in a shrill approximation of my voice. It’s become A Thing. It is absolutely hilarious apparently. I find it significantly less funny.

However, I have no cycling heroes apart from the ones mentioned in this post. Maybe a few others. I’m sure there are plenty of people I’ve forgotten to mention. At some stage I need to do a whole separate post on the female cyclists that I find inspiring. This is definitely a ‘to be continued’.

The Cycling Podcast and me

As a relative newcomer to the sport, The Cycling Podcast has been my lifeline. Richard, Lionel and Daniel (or, as I like to think of them, my two wise older brothers and slightly aloof hipster cousin) have taught me almost everything I know about cycling. Their voices have accompanied countless commutes and training runs. They have provided much needed background conversation when I’ve been working at home researching and writing about unimaginably awful topics as part of my day job.

Crucially, their content is extremely accessible (findable, listenable and free for the standard podcast) and lacks the exclusivity of other podcasts. I don’t need to be wearing an Eddy Merckx replica jersey with a pair of Rapha yakskin loafers to be part of their gang. I don’t have to possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of Sean Kelly’s cycling career (although I sense that Lionel might secretly prefer that their listeners did) to keep up with the topics under discussion. They have found the middle ground between being too basic and too intimidating and in-jokey. Thankfully they steer well clear of interviews that proceed along the following lines: “So! Brad! What’s your favourite cheese? Let’s do a wheelie! Wheeeee!” Conversely, I love my Rouleur Magazine subscription but I’m waiting for someone to knock on the door any day now and confiscate my collection because I don’t embody the lifestyle expected of their disciples.

When the Friends of the Podcast scheme was established at the beginning of 2015 I signed up immediately. A fiver for several hours of extra material was (and still is) an absolute bargain. The Friends scheme has risen in price to £10 this year but it is still an absolute steal. Every time a Friends podcast is released it reminds me of the time I was given a subscription to the Hotel Chocolat tasting club (I miss it) and received a box of chocolates through the door each month. Their PIRC podcast for subscribers was a highlight last year, along with the (Im)Perfect Tour de France and both stand up to repeated listening. I cannot recommend a subscription to the Cycling Podcast highly enough. I got a bit overexcited when I saw them from (very) afar at Bradley Wiggins’ Hour Record in London last June and it was interesting to hear their take on the event afterwards.

Their podcasts from the Tour – both the stage reviews and Kilometre 0 –  last year were excellent although I must confess (Ciro-style) that on a particularly bad commute one morning I Tweeted the Podcast to tell them to stop telling me what was going to be in the upcoming interview before they played it. I felt a bit bad afterwards because I should have followed it up with ‘Loving your work, guys!’ but I didn’t because that’s just silly.

While I’m doing a ‘Feedback sandwich’ (and I’m fully aware that my feedback is neither sought nor required), I’m going to mention one small thing that mars my enjoyment of the Podcast. It’s a largely male affair (and that’s not necessarily an issue for me), but the (too) occasional presence of Orla Chennaoui does redress the balance a little. Just a tiny whinge though: if a female cyclist such as Hannah Barnes has achieved something she shouldn’t be referred via her status as Tao Geoghegan Hart’s girlfriend. Just saying. Can we hear a bit more about the women in their own right please?

Above all, what comes across is their genuine affection for cycling. Of course, their day jobs involve writing and talking about the sport so they’re paid to make it interesting but they all convey intelligence, passion and integrity. In short, they have greatly enhanced my understanding and enjoyment of cycling, their podcasts brighten my working week considerably and I sincerely hope we are never told why Lionel’s nickname is ‘Napalm’. I am very pleased that they will be covering the Giro (my favourite grand tour) in more depth this year and can’t wait to find out what the 2016 Friends specials will be.

This is all getting a bit gushy now so I’ll stop but without the CP I would be one of those idiots that still didn’t understand anything about cycling. Now I can at least sound a little bit knowledgeable. If they ever expand their t-shirt range to include one that references the Willunga Hill ain’t Alpe d’Huez meme I’ll be first in the queue. Ladies’ slim fit, obviously. I’ll wear it while I read the next issue of Rouleur.

The beginning (Part 2)

In Part 1 I learnt that the BBC is sometimes wrong, the breakaway rarely stays away and I had much to learn about cycling.

Extremes

Throughout 2013 I watched, listened and learned. From the TDU I mostly learnt about the wine growing regions of South Australia and how lovely they were to visit, but I also absorbed information about riders, teams and tactics. My next encounter with road cycling was watching Paris-Roubaix on Eurosport with an unwell daughter by my side. It looked utterly brutal. The screen was a dreary palate of grey: sky, road, mud, cobbles. My god, the cobbles. It was like the peloton had travelled back in time. I feared that they would be held up by highwaymen at any moment. Broadly, this was the same sport I had watched back in January but played out in entirely different circumstances. It was then that I began to understand that cycling was both an extreme sport and a sport of extremes

Giro

Then, the Giro. We had honeymooned in Italy (Rome to be precise) during a hot, bright August nine years before. The version of Italy that provided the setting for the first Grand Tour of the season was something else. It was hilly, cold and forbidding. Skinny cyclists wearing tights, thin rain jackets and gloves battled the elements and themselves. Bradley Wiggins came down ‘sketchy’ (now added to my lexicon of cycling) descents like a giraffe on a Brompton, fell off, chucked his bike against a wall, got ill and went home.

The moment that did it for me though, was Alex Dowsett winning the time trial, unexpectedly beating Wiggins in the process. Dowsett’s start time was so early that the Eurosport coverage hadn’t started when he set his benchmark. The TV pictures joined the stage later, when the faster men and GC contenders were due to take each other on. As each rider attempted (and failed) to beat Dowsett’s time, the screen flashed over to a close-up of his face. He looked terribly nervous mixed with ‘What the actual eff have I done?’ accompanied by a dash of ‘I’ve nicked some pick n mix from the shop and I might get found out by the grown-ups’. It was bizarrely brilliant.

So brilliant that I watched it twice. Once live and subsequently in the evening when my husband had gone to work and the children were in bed. A young British rider on a foreign team winning a time trial stage of a grand tour? Definitely worth watching again.

The Giro remains my favourite tour. Naturally, I watched the (Le) THE Tour in 2013, screaming at the telly as Froome rode up Mont Ventoux, admiring the teamwork of Team Sky, marvelling at the sheer feat of a British team with a (mostly) British rider winning for the second year in a row. However, my stupid romantic heart has a special place for the Giro. I don’t recall whether I watched any other races that year. I’m sure I did. I probably watched the Tour of California and may have flitted in and out of the Vuelta. I can’t warm to it as a Grand Tour for reasons that I’m unable to explain.

*Swirling leaves. Time passes. Etc.*

Now

That was three years ago. I’ve watched an awful lot more cycling since then. I went to the London stages of the Tour de France and the Tour of Britain. I was actually in the velodrome when Bradley Wiggins broke the hour record in London last June. I’ve been to so many Revolution meetings that I subscribe to their official playlist on Spotify and actually enjoy it. For our wedding anniversary last year my husband bought me a subscription to Rouleur Magazine. My evolution from cycling moron to someone that knows a bit about cycling and can hold her own in a conversation with an aficionado is ongoing, but progressing well.

Although I was an ignoramus at the start of all of this, at least I didn’t (and I promise I have not made either of these examples up) think the following:

  1. There is a cyclist called Peloton (first name Pierre, possibly.)
  2. Individual cyclists could enter Grand Tours without a team. This was said in relation to Vincenzo Nibali during the 2014 Tour when he was in the yellow jersey.

So, on this blog I’ll be writing about my impressions of cycling. Upcoming topics may or may not include (but are not limited to): Sky, track, Richie, books, crashes, the Hour, the Cycling Podcast, the Classics, the Giro, standing on the roadside, and anything else that comes to mind.

The beginning (Part 1)

My love affair with cycling…no. My love affair with road cycling (I’ve had a relationship with track cycling for a while now) began during the 2013 Tour Down Under.

No. Wait. Start again. I started watching road cycling during the 2013 Tour Down Under but I actually fell in love with it during the Giro d’Italia.

That explains the when but it doesn’t explain the why.

Olympics

For the why, we have to go back to the Olympics. London 2012. The Saturday morning after the Opening Ceremony the night before. The BBC were telling everyone that all Mark Cavendish had to do was turn up, pedal a bit, win the road race and TEAM GB’s FIRST GOLD MEDAL IN LONDON in the process. Or so it felt. There were words of caution from the ex-professional cyclists turned pundits and commentators but they were swept away by a tidal wave of patriotic confidence. Of course Cav was going to win! Mark World Road Race Champion and BBC Sports Personality of the Year Cavendish! That afternoon I took the children to a party absolutely certain that Cav would win because Sue Barker said so. There was a ripple of surprise among the parents at the party when someone looked on their phone and announced that Cav had finished 29th. This meant that the BBC and Sue Barker were wrong and that’s akin to the ravens leaving the tower or a plague of locusts. Heads would surely have to roll.

I, naively, took to Twitter to ask what happened. I got a couple of replies from proper cycling fans. Their subtext was that I was a moron. What they actually said was that it was impossible to control a race with 5-man teams. I still didn’t understand. Why did *that* matter? I left it and got on with the terribly important business of being completely and utterly consumed by the Olympics. Lizzie Armitstead won the silver medal in the women’s road race the following day and apologised on national television for coming second. I wondered if the apology was an attempt to prevent a crazed member of the BBC presenting team hitting her over the head with a Wenlock statue. I now understand it slightly differently.

The rest is so well known it is barely worth repeating. Bradley Wiggins won the time trial a week after winning the Tour which was a surprise to this particular idiot because I thought he was predominantly a track cyclist. A sort-of British person called Chris Froome took the silver medal in the same event. Then the track cycling events started and I essentially forgot all about the road variation as everyone in a Team GB skinsuit essentially won everything.

*Leaves swirls across the screen, marking the passing of time*

January

There are two things that are important to know about me:

  1. I HATE January
  2. I HATE not knowing things

To borrow a phrase from David Millar’s book The Racer, I f*****g hate January. Flicking around for something to watch in January 2013, I noticed that Sky Sports were showing something called the Tour Down Under. Inconveniently, it was being shown during the middle of the night (because that’s how the earth works) but we set the TiVo and decided to watch the previous days’ stage the following evening.

I decided that I wanted to understand road cycling and I didn’t like the fact that this sport was alien to me. My first image of cycling was of a peloton of approximately 150 men in tight, brightly-coloured clothing cycling really very fast along a very long, very straight road in front of a background of bright blue sky and yellowish-brown land. Apparently there was a ‘breakaway up the road’. This phrase meant nothing to me. They had ‘a sizeable gap’. No, nothing there either.

Breakaway

I read somewhere that one of the first questions that people ask when they first watch cycling is: Why doesn’t the breakaway stay away? I quickly learnt that it doesn’t. Well, unless Tony Martin is in it. Everyone fears Tony. I subsequently found out that the breakaway is controlled by the peloton and is normally reeled back in when it suits the purposes of the larger group. This sort of thing isn’t explained to the casual idiot who happens to put the cycling on. It’s just assumed that you know this stuff. It’s like sitting in the pub with a gang of people who are significantly cleverer than you and hoping that by keeping quiet and absorbing everything they say they won’t notice your presence and laugh at you for being infinitely more stupid than they are.

Growing up, I had no frame of reference for cycling. We were a family of avid sport watchers – football, cricket, rugby, athletics, anything on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon, any major multi-sport event – but cycling didn’t cross our radar. Moreover I only learnt to ride a bike in 2012 based on the rationale that if a bloke with one arm and one leg could do it and compete in the Paralympics, I could too. So, powered by the twin drivers of loathing the month of January and not wanting to be an idiot I shut up and started the process of understanding a new sport.

To be continued in Part 2….