With Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this Saturday (27th), and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne on Sunday, we’ll be getting the first tastes of the forthcoming classics season. The warm-up races in Qatar and Oman are over, and now the real racing begins – both for riders and fans alike. Out go deserted desert roads lined with one man and a bemused camel, and in come the fanatical Belgians for whom racing is in the blood (sweat, and tears).
Timm Kölln‘s excellent photography (above) captures the gritty atmosphere of the northern classics, where bleak agricultural and industrial landscapes play host to the hardmen of the sport.
At the moment I’m scouring the start sheets of the early races I’ve entered, and my heart quickens as I contemplate the reality of pinning on a number and getting stuck into the racing. With summer still seeming very far off, it’s easier to relate to battling the cold, muck and pavé of the classics than with the heat and sand of the desert.
As has oft been kindly pointed out on club rides (or mocked – I’m not quite sure which), I’m quite partial to a bit of Rapha. So it is with some interest that I took a look at their new 2010 collection (it gives me some clue as to what items I’ll be able to afford when they make their way into the clearance section of the website in a year or so).
Paul Fournel wrote in his book ‘Need for the Bike’, “You have to know how to look good when you’re riding. You have to impress your adversary with your elegance. To look good is already to go fast.” Cycling is one area of life where the phrase ‘style over substance’ is made redundant.
However, for some reason Rapha seems to attract its fair share of critics and detractors. Surely it’s not the ‘premium’ price tags that are offensive? Or the irksome pretentious product descriptions? Or their forays into producing superfluous luxury accessories such as silk scarves and tool cases? The irrationality of ‘Rapha Haters’ is beyond me. All I know is that what’s good enough for Gary Kemp and Jake Gyllenhaal is good enough for me.
From the new 2010 range it is the Stowaway Jacket – in the pink ‘colourway’ (above) – that most piques my interest. A hitherto unexploited colour in the performance cycle wear market, anyone brave enough would certainly cut a dash at the Sunday club run.
It’s also worth studying closely the aspirational photoshoots for on- and off-the-bike styling cues. Riding with aviator sunglasses is definitely IN. As are long flowing locks, loose and tamed only by a cap with its peak inversed. OUT go helmets, Oakleys, and undertaking any rides that are neither ‘epic’ or not on beautiful sweeping roads of Sicily, Girona or other such continental cycling nirvanas.
Fear not, there’s no need to replicate such scenes on Col du Box Hill – Rapha now run luxury trips to more suitable poseur locations. They may be the only rides you can safely undertake without the fear of having your pink cycling jacket laughed at.
The 2009 route of the Tour de France was contrived in part to set up, after three weeks racing, a climactic showdown on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. By taming the Pyrenean stages, Christian Prudhomme, the race organiser, was banking on the final stage to decide who would wear the yellow jersey into Paris on the following day. Unfortunately for him, Alberto Contador had already built up a comfortable lead, and the race had been nullified for two weeks with no effect. The race ended in an anti-climax, going to show that attempts to manipulate the outcome of a three week stage race – with its multitude of unpredictable variants – is nigh on impossible.
And so making their debut this year is the much-hyped Team Sky, headed by British Cycling maestro Dave Brailsford with his catch phrase “The aggregation of marginal gains”. In the pre-season build-up we’ve been treated to such stories as ants and chimps on pre-season training camps, team busses referred to as ‘performance vehicles’ complete with mood lighting and a flashing beacon to guide riders home once crossing the finish line at races. Whether all these ‘marginal gains’ will stack up high enough to propel Bradley Wiggins into a GC contender this summer remains to be proven. My hunch is road racing is too unpredictable for such peripheral factors to make a real difference to the final outcome of a race – Contador proved that, even with a team scheming against you, the strongest rider will eventually win out.
As usual however, I’ve probably completely missed the point here. In the absence of any real racing, Sky have filled the pre-season void with silly chitter-chatter that has garnered them valuable media exposure, and has sent fans’ tongues wagging (or fingers-a-clicking) on internet forums. They also seemed to have won few friends in the pro-peloton and frowned upon any journalist foolish enough to foster an opinion contrary to Sky’s outlook. But whatever, it’s entertained us during these dark winter months.
Where marginal gains becomes particularly tiresome is in the ranks of ricky racing amateurs; obsessions about carbon fibre components, aerodynamic deep section rims, titanium pedal spindles, recovery concoctions, power meters, TRIMPS… the simple sport of racing a bicycle has become a crazy kaleidoscope of pseudo-science and aerospace engineering, all wrapped in a lovely veneer of clever marketing. All this seems to do is obscure cycling in a mystical mist of expensive equipment and bizarre training regimes that can ultimately put off anyone considering entering the sport.
The pursuit of marginal gains for an amateur racer isn’t particularly enjoyable, is expensive, probably isn’t very effective, and certainly isn’t as much fun as actually riding a bike – however crappy that bike may be.
With the racing season drawing ever nearer, the weather still shows no sign of easing off the snow, sleet, ice and cold. That winter training plan – made in the balmy conditions of late autumn – is now looking to have been wildly optimistic. So with miles on the road becoming a rarity, it looks like we’re going to have to bury our simmering resentment of the dreaded turbo trainer, and get in some quality cycling time within the comfort of the living room/spare room/kitchen/garage/fully-specced-custom-designed-luxury-bicycle-chambre.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been ‘enjoying’ the ‘delights’ of the Sufferfest training videos – one hour workouts that mash together cycling footage from pro cycling into lung busting intervals. ‘Fight Club’ is loosely based around the 2009 World Champs, with inspirational images of squeaky Aussie Evans charging to victory, and the quite frankly intimidating sights of Spartacus ripping up the TT course. ‘The Downward Spiral’ incorporates the spring classics, so you can dream of pounding over the cobbles like Big Tom Boonen. Unfortunately when those 60 minutes of cycle-based torture are over, your reward is not the fawning adoration of Belgian cycling fans and a couple of lines of Columbia’s finest, but the sobering sight of your sweat pooled on the floor and a blank computer screen blinking back at you.
A highly recommended way to suffer your way through the winter on your bicycle.
You will often hear cyclists talking of pain. A strong rider will be referred to in awe as being able to ‘hurt themselves’ in training, having a high threshold of ‘suffering pain’. A racer will ‘bury themselves’ in order to bridge across to the break. I don’t know what all this masochistic talk has to say about the imbalanced psyche of the cyclist, and I wouldn’t like to delve any deeper (I’m not sure I’d like what I might find). Needless to say, any succesful competitve cyclist will need to embrace a love of suffering into their lives.
Like the Eskimo and their many words for snow, the cyclist requires a whole new vocabulary to express the sensations experienced during competition. But without such shorthand, I’ve tried to convey some common varieties of suffering and exhaustion below. Unfortunately this is only a sample – there are too many miseries to describe here.
On Saturday I completed my first race of the season at the Hillingdon Winter Series. I crossed the line satisfied that I had already made progress over last year’s season debut: I had actually finished the race. The improvement wasn’t to do with better fitness or race craft, but simply I had completed the race by avoiding the crashes.
It’s tempting to describe crashing as a rights of passage in the course of a cyclist’s life, but that would probably imply that some sort of lesson is learnt or valuable experience is gained. But crashing isn’t much to do with anything other than bad luck and a long course of painkillers.
That first serious crash – a crash beyond a scrapped knee or grazed elbow – is like stepping across an invisible barrier. On one side is racing with a dim knowledge that crashes do happen, that you can get hurt, but with a sense that it’s a distant danger. But a violent collision with the road helps the mind conjure a more vivid understanding of the consequences of a slick patch of tarmac, or a touch of wheels. Racing a bike is never the same again.