in view of today's tragic crash in the giro d'italia, i am not going to sully the memory of wouter weylandt with my trivial scribblings.
photo: graham watson
posted monday 9 may 2011
in 1975, a comedy series written by and starring john cleese (along with his then wife, connie booth) graced the television screens of the uk; fawlty towers. set in an hotel in the seaside town of torquay, the hotel was run by basil fawlty (john cleese), and centred round the apalling standard of customer service provided, hence the double meaning inherent in the show's title. the series also provided an excellent platform for the acting talents of andrew sachs who played the character, manuel a spanish waiter with very little command of the english language.
a former hotel-owning friend of mine inferred i had no idea how close to the truth some of those sketches were.
cleese would appear to have perhaps learned from his springboard to comedic fame, monty pyhton's flying circus, a particularly eccentric and contentious comedy series (of its time), that provided many memorable sketches still repeated word for word nowadays (frequently by me), but also arguably guilty of remaining on the box for at least one series too many. fawlty towers obviated this criticism by existing for only two series of six episodes, the second appearing in 1979. perhaps one of the finest examples of the motto always leave them wanting more. for many, self included, it was most disappointing that there were to be no more. the catchphrase, oft repeated by manuel i'm from barthelona, is still in general use today (once again, often by yours truly).
it's a difficult call to make, deciding when is the right time to call it a day, for it can be often detrimental to whatever we're talking about at the time to stretch credibility too far. take things past their sell-by date, and all the good that was first initiated can be swept away and forgotten. it's a fine line.
and i don't mind saying that i figured the rapha continental was edging very close to that precipice last year. surely there had to be a limit to how many various rides across the united states could be documented in the same fashion: a series of flickr photos by one of north america's more notable photographers, beautifully filmed accompaniment often from the lenses of dave christensen or brian vernor, and some obscure yet haunting music from a series of bands that i've never heard of (and often, neither had anyone else on this side of the atlantic). don't get me wrong, i was more than addicted, looking forward to each subsequent posting on the rapha website, eager to read erudite narratives of the day's cycling from, originally, daniel wakefield pasley (who pretty much invented the format), and latterly from embrocation magazine's jeremy dunn (who is also an integral part of rapha north america).
yet, by the time the last bunch of rides had been completed, filmed, photographed and written in 2010, i figured rapha north america would have the perspicacity to thank all concerned, congratulate themselves on a job well done, and call it a day, before moving onto something bigger and better that i could yet again become addicted to.
yes, it's all about me.
but flipping heck, if they didn't start all over again in 2011, and not just with the same format, but like the bbc, starting with a repeat; riding four stages of this year's tour of california. had they learned nothing from john cleese? surely this was a series too far? of course, what i'd failed to take into account is the fact that i merely spend my time penning lengthy diatribes full of too many words dependant on having a dictionary to hand, while these folks do their stuff for a living and, according to the very nice black number at the bottom of the excel spreadsheet, do so very successfully. so would it not be totally uncharacteristic of rapha north america to go to all the trouble of saddling up several riders (including pro rider, tim johnson, and rapha's slate olson and jeremy dunn), sending along dan sharp to take care of the stills photography, and portland's droptree productions to film each stage, without being at least reasonably sure that the money was about to be well spent?
the series of epic rides reached the rapha website this past week, and my addiction left me no real alternative but to read, look and watch. i admire jeremy dunn's writing style, i adore dan sharp's photography, and i had not come across droptree before, but a smattering of intrigue is always welcome now and again. but the song remained the same: movie, narrative and flickr slide show.
so how come it worked?
i have spent many too many hours writing, reading, thinking about and taking part in cycling activities, and have been partaking of all the above for more years than i care to remember. there has been a veritable slew of cycling apparel to review, along with bicycles, components, books and various items of cycling paraphernalia. don't get me wrong, i love every minute of it, but i really figured i'd have become jaded by now; as i communicated to slate olson, i rather thought a highly developed degree of cynicism would have turned me into bikesnobislay by now, able to dismiss in one fell swoop, the notion of grown men riding four stages of the tour of california simply to advertise a clothing brand.
for make no mistake, through all the nurtured bonhomie, the cultivated pain and suffering and the long shots of a string of cyclists negotiating a series of 's' bends through scenery to die for, are not there because rapha have a self-imposed mission to keep us entertained. it's a tough old cut-throat world out there, where corporate largesse has to be brought to account somewhere down the line. it's just that, if we're aware of any of this, belief is required to enter a period of suspension during our temporary residence on rapha.cc.
so i have watched the five films twice (the first is a sort of trailer for the following four), i have examined in detail, every image from dan sharp's camera, and i have enjoyed jeremy's stories. yet despite searching for my cynicism switch, i am yet again hooked. and even worse than that, i have been overcome by a necessity to get out on my chris king cielo, with its pink hubs, dressed head to toe in rapha and ride through scenery not even vaguely reminiscent of any part of california. it's a phenomeon i am at a complete loss to explain or even understand.
of course, it could be that i'm the very chap that those racks of sweets at the supermarket counters were designed to entice (except, i don't eat sweets). could be that i'm just a sucker for an obvious marketing ploy. but it could also be that, say or think what you like about rapha, just like that peanut butter ad, they have an almost perfect understanding of their customers and would-be customers, because they're really just like you and me.
would you turn down the opportunity to ride four stages of the tour of somewhere with a film crew, photographer and sram neutral service car? suspend any prejudices you may have, sit back and enjoy. it's epic entertainment. addictive entertainment.
photographs by dan sharp
posted sunday 8 may 2011
we settled down in the corner of the cafe, away from the window and prying eyes, and near enough to the coffee machine for an easy refill. robert had a latte, and i had my regular soya cappuccino. crumbs of carrot cake attested to our combined decadence.
many will attest to the yawning chasm that is the difference between the amateur ranks and those of the professional, yet millar had won a mountain stage (stage 10) in his first tour of '83, after turning pro in 1980, then stepped up to the podium in '84 wearing the polka dot jersey, as well as also having taken stage 11.
i was interested to know how he'd coped with the pro-am difference and if there had been any specific training prior to the '83 tour and again in '84 that led to such a consummate rise to the top.
"peugeot gave those of us expected to go well in the mountains different bikes to the others. they were the same frames, but they'd been fitted with sturmey archer three-speeds."
posted saturday 7 may 2011
bella bathurst was born in london, but now sensibly lives in scotland, which more or less provides the answer to my question as to why cyclingscotland's website is listed in the appendix of the bicycle book and not that of british cycling. more power to her adopted country. her website portrays her as an author, journalist and photographer, three skills with which she dispenses with credit. as several of her posted newspaper articles are book reviews, i have made a quick scan over my own review of her bicycle book in the hope that i have not disgraced myself.
it is not too unusual in modern times to come across those who write and photograph for a living, but there are, i believe, not too many authors who move from fiction to non-fiction with such practised ease. following on from yesterday's review, the opportunity arose to ask bella a few questions about the book, about cycling and about writing. the saying goes that if you want something done, you ask a busy person; i have no idea how busy ms bathurst is, but she is very much in line for the record of quickest reply i've ever had. this provides me with the luxury of becoming almost thematic in my output: two days of bella bathurst.
posted friday 6 may 2011
if i might indulge your patience and lingusitic skills for a moment or two, perhaps you'd be so good as to read the following;
o wad some power the giftie gie us
tae see oorsels as ithers see us!
it wid frae monie a blunder free us,
an' foolish notion
the first four lines from the last verse of 'to a louse' by robert burns. it's written in a dialect simply known as scots, one that is in even less contemporary use than that of gaelic, though you might be forgiven for thinking so in some of the more arcane depths of glasgow and its surrounds.
prior to moving to this island paradise, i lived only a few miles away from burns' cottage in alloway, ayrshire, a cute little whitewashed, thatched affair that still draws a considerable number of visitors each year to the home of the man often referred to as the nation's bard. based almost entirely on this geographical proximity, many an english lesson at school (i hope nobody has missed the irony in that) was spent dissecting burns' copious output, in particular, the epic 'tam o' shanter'. if it is any consolation to those in foreign parts reading the above, at that age few of us understood much of it either.
i have no great love of poetry from wherever it hails, having been put off while a school due to the endless deconstruction of each line and, in some cases, choice of word. for that reason alone, i have no intention of disinterring the above, but i am particularly interested in the first two lines which are fairly easily translated as having the power to see ourselves the way others do. for regularly are we so self-absorbed with carbon frames, alloy components, tyre treads, spoke lengths and quality of lycra, that it never dawns that those not inducted into our strange little world, might not quite see everything as so amazingly important.
that's just one of the reasons why folks point and snigger when you ride past wearing that delectable polti jersey.
the entire world of cycling becomes almost self-referencing, when you consider that pretty much everything we read is prepared for our consumption by those inhabiting the very same world as ourselves. it can, therefore, be a trifle difficult to take a step back tae see oorsels as ithers see us. that too becomes a self-fullfilling prophecy when you consider that few outside this world would be likely to either pen something for one of the monthlies or, indeed, approach a major publisher with a pitch for a book about cycling. a bit like me writing something about football.
but, believe it or not, that's pretty much what the exotically named bella bathurst has done.
ms bathurst is portrayed on the rear inner flap of her book the bicycle book as a writer and photographer, having previously published a book shortlisted for the guardian first book award about the lighthouse stevensons: the extraordinary story of the building of the scottish lighthouses by robert louis stevenson's ancestors. this also won the somerset maugham prize. however, bella does not confine herself to fact, having produced two works of fiction; special and more recently the wreckers. impressive credentials, so what prompted over 300 pages about the bicycle?
rather provocatively, in her introduction, ms bathurst states 'i started writing this book because i wanted to read something good about cycling and bikes, and there didn't seem to be that much around'...'there wasn't anything for the sort of cyclist who liked cycling, and reading, and stories, and who had long ago given up any desire to experiment with exogenous epo'
in point of fact, those few words in a book of thousands, tell more about the author's acquaintance with the world of the bicycle, and leads one to consider whether this really is a book from the outside looking in, as it perhaps purports to be. for at this point we are not yet into the guts of chapter one (where bella joins dave yates' framebuilding course), yet epo has already reared its ugly head. is it not possible that the casual cyclist might just have choked on the word exegenous before wondering just what the heck epo is?
this is, i must admit, a particularly disingenuous criticism on my part and perhaps a rather smart step on the author's part. for though there may well be those willing to investigate the pages of this attractively covered book on the basis of ms bathurst's previously published work, i think it likely that a majority of purchasers/readers will already have some affiliation or affection for the bicycle. those who simply employ velocipedinal services for their transport needs are unlikely to want to invest in a book that blatantly refrains from explaining how to adjust index gearing, or repair a puncture.
so now we have a quandary; who exactly is this book aimed at?
to be blunt, it's aimed at you and i, for we are the very people who will happily read from cover to cover without any degree of undue persuasion. the contents were a complete surprise to me, for i had visions of narrative alluding to sprightly pedalling in the country, aboard a duck egg blue pashley bicycle. what in fact inhabits these three hundred plus pages is a veritable cornucopia of devotional aspects of the bicycle world, yet seen with fresh eyes. richard moore and bill strickland would not have written a book in this manner, and while i greatly admire the works of the latter two authors, this is refreshingly different.
it seems a touch trite to even mention the literary abilities of bella bathurst, given her palmares recounted above.
aside from recounting the building of her first bicycle frame under the expert tutelage of dave yates, subsequent chapters visit the history of the bicycle, the bizarre water pedalling of zetta hills, the importance and social standing of the bicycle in both the netherlands and india, an interview with london cabbies, with some edinburgh cycle couriers, and worth the price of admission alone, a visit with graeme obree at his home in saltcoats, ayrshire (only a few miles further along the coast from burns' cottage). obree has rarely been a man to refrain from calling a spade a gardening implement 'basically training is so overrated, so overcomplicated in terms of what it is, because it's got to be complicated in order to sell books'. it is with no trace of irony that later in the chapter we are informed that obree is currently involved in writing a training manual for novices.
what makes this an eminently unmissable book is the eclecticism of its subject matter. much of the content can doubtless be garnered elsewhere with a bit of conscientious research, but i very much doubt you'll find any of it so well presented, and certainly not in such readable form. bella bathurst has a delightfully fluid style, one that never even hints at getting in the way of the subject. unless you are a consummate historian of the bicycle already, this book is an education in itself, though at no point does it alert you to such subversive intent. bella bathurst is, i'd venture to suggest, a touch more intrigued with the bicycle than her introduction would profess, and that this love affair runs a trifle deeper than 'i'm a cyclist because i reckon there is no lovelier form of transport.'
it wid frae monie a blunder free us,
an' foolish notion
foolish notions need not apply.
posted thursday 5 may 2011
things were different when i were a lad, and shops were different too. we'd to wear school uniform, and school uniform had to be purchased from one particular retailer in the town; veitch's if memory serves. thus every august there would be an appointed day to take a walk downtown with mum to be appropriately attired for the forthcoming school year. it stands to reason that a blazer would simply be insufficient on its own; there were accessories to be considered too, such as trousers (good call), shirts and perhaps a tie (the purpose of which has long fallen in to the forgotten annals of history. at least as far as i'm concerned).
the shop itself bore a traditional exterior: two large plate glass windows framed with varnished wood, the owner's name in carved gold lettering across the top, and in gold leaf on the door window. in each large window were examples of the sort of apparel one could expect once the darkened threshold had been crossed.
this was most certainly not a shop in which one browsed. you either entered with a purpose, or you simply looked in the windows. the shop assistants, mostly drawn from mr veitch's family as i recall would pounce the instant that front door closed, moving smoothly from behind glass topped and fronted counters, measuring tape in hand. i have a friend who works in the circle of industrial lighting who would have freaked had he seen how dark the inside of the shop was kept. but then, this was not a particularly eccentric example of the genre, simply the way gents and ladies outfitters were in them days.
i have no idea if the same shop still exists, but i'm willing to bet that if it does, it looks a whole lot different nowadays. retailing is as much at the behest of fashion as everything else nowadays, conditioned by marketing, psychology and a need to continually remain at the forefront of the shopping experience, particularly with competition coming from those interweb pixels. the latter can barely be compared to the physical experience of wandering around bricks and mortar (you know what i mean), but the lack of similar overheads often means online sales have the benefit of lower prices. it is a discussion into which i dare not go.
so how has the average cycle retailer fared over those changing years? though i have searched far and wide amongst my limitless store of random graphics, i cannot find the italian cycle shop depicted in a cannondale advert from many years past. but it encapsulated what many of us would regard as the archetypal bike shop: owner behind the counter attempting to true a wheel, while all around is a mass of cycling paraphernalia; not an empty space to be found midst the clutter, though you just know that if you'd asked him for a 32 hole campagnolo record threaded hub, he'd have turned round without taking his hand off the truing stand, and pulled the very item from a shelf that you'd swear wasn't there when you came in.
but just like the back of that wardrobe in narnia, nothing can remain that way forever. and true to form, it hasn't. there are likely many such cycle retail establishments all across the uk, and perhaps other parts of the world, but i'd be willing to bet that little in the way of carbon has transgressed any vacant floor space.
with cycling now becoming big business for a variety of reasons, bike shops now attract customers not steeped in the lore of pain, suffering and epic, and without thirty years back issues of cycling weeklies stored in the attic. these modern day cyclists, intent on carbon at all costs, would prefer to be courted, to see the wide choice of possible purchases laid out in front of them, price tags to the fore, allowing endless walking back and forth, deciding whether ultegra really is worth paying for over 105.
however, what the majority of cycle stores lack is endless amounts of clean, unsullied space; bicycles and accessories laid out in a clean and logical manner; somewhere to hang out pre or post ride, drink a decent cup of designer coffee, perchance take a shower after that ride, and maybe even sit down for a few moments and flick through bona fide cycling books. but what is truly missing from any cycle stores i have seen or visited, is any sort of affectation for the sport with which we are all happily obsessed.
i knew it was bound to happen of course; rapha's cycle clubs have been the finger pointing at the moon since last year, but what did come as a surprise, was just where this avant-garde of cycle retailing has appeared.
aside from the wheels, bicycles and frames we all know and love, barcelona's pave culture cycliste quite literally has cobbles leading into the main display area. how unbelievably cool is that?
marcel batlle is a spanish graphic designer, and good friends with pave's owner javier maya. "we are close friends and we started working on all the ideas and design, thinking about new things to offer in the shop. current stock includes really nice brands such as rapha, pasculi, cervelo and assos. there are showers for after training, a nice tv to watch paris roubaix, the giro, le tour, la vuelta, a little library where you can drink good coffee while you read through books and magazines about cycling. So we try to offer a new concept of bicycle store." spain has long been heading to the forefront of graphic design excellence; you need only take a look at the banner graphics encapsulating the vuelta for evidence. however, if you take a trip over to probably the most impressive cycle store website the world has ever seen and watch the full-screen slideshow, just take a look at the workshop.
i'd be very surprised if barcelona's pave isn't imitated by all and sundry, as long as they are in possession of sufficient real estate, and i'm sorely tempted to see what it costs to fly from islay to barcelona. pave culture cycliste is situated at alcalde ferreri mones, 57-59 prat de llobregat, barcelona.
posted wednesday 4 may 2011 (international star wars day - may the 4th be with you)
i didn't quite see the connection at the time, and now that i've visually seen the connection, i'm not altogether sure it makes sense. it was a bit of luck really; if i hadn't bumped into joanne at debbie's, by now i'd have been kicking myself. however, after phoning ardbeg distillery, we got our times sorted out for monday morning, and with continuing sunshine and blue skies, there wasn't much need of any other excuse to go for a bike ride both there and back.
whatever else orange county new york is famous for, if you've clicked onto the discovery channel every now and again, you may have seen the teutel's family arguments raging across the tv screen, as they distract themselves from building some quite phenomenal motorbikes. and not just any motorbikes, but those machines with considerably extended front forks: orange county choppers. i have no particular interest in motorbikes per se, but i have on occasion marvelled at the ingenuity of father and sons when engineering and decorating these wholly impractical machines. they might not be propelled by pedals, but credit where credit's due.
in 2010, ardbeg distillery had orange county choppers build two machines that would represent the brand at the various whisky expos that are held all across north america. according to hamish torrie and alan little of glenmorangie (ardbeg's parent company), the choppers were well received wherever they went, apparently cementing the connection between ardbeg's amber nectar and the imagery that a fabulously decorated and vastly expensive motorbike concocts in the first place. like i said in my opening statement, i don't quite see the connection.
both american ardbeg orange county choppers have now moved onto new owners; one was auctioned, i believe, and the other was purchased by an appropriately fanatical gentleman with a penchant for ardbeg and occ. however, somewhere, at sometime, somebody seems to have considered the european contingent. after all, the distillery isn't that far away from scotland, and at the end of this month, when the islay whisky festival obliterates any spare standing room the island might have, a sizable proportion of mainland europe will temporarily move in. it seems only fair that they be provided with at least a glimpse of the orange county chopper.
of course, the vagaries of marketing don't always match up with real events, and it appears that the ardbeg chopper will be in mainland europe when most of mainland europe is here. that's not my problem, however; i am simply required to observe and, perhaps, comment.
with the helicopters populated by european journalists due for arrival at the distillery around 10:30am, manager mickey heads said i should get there around 10. despite a bright and shiny day, in the true spirit of manana that pervades much of island life, the flying choppers landed almost half-an-hour late. following coffee and scone, jam and clotted cream, it was time for the obligatory tour of the distillery, ending with a tasting of three expressions of ardbeg midst thousands of casks in warehouse one. as a confirmed teetotaller, i yet again provided a modest degree of hilarity by politely refusing any of the three. whisky rhetoric is well over the top, particularly when espoused by the head of marketing and the company's master blender.
during lunch, we were introduced to justin, the chopper's pilot for its brief stay, a slim cool dude from texas with a ponytail and facial hair; not at all the overweight hairy biker that i'd have placed as the archetype on such a bike. but i still don't quite grasp the connection between a scotch single malt whisky and an oversized motorbike.
no matter; the visit to the distillery, a perfect lunch aside, was somewhat of a means to an end rather than an end in itself, for my own transportational needs were to be taken care of first. i currently have, squashed into the bikeshed alongside a veritable panoply of bicycles, a traitor luggernaut, the full test of which will appear on the post later this week. however, it is powered by three hub gears from sturmey archer, providing the opportunity for a sedate rumble along the low road and out to the furthest south of islay's distilleries. with the flexibility and mother of invention that comes with being a do-it-yourself bike reviewer, i'd removed the campagnolo quill pedals from the sturmey cranks, and replaced them with a pair of crank brothers eggbeaters.
eggbeaters need cleats, and cleats need shoes capable of being attached to same. however, if you have comprehended any of the above, i hope i may have impressed that, despite ardbeg being the most laid back of establishments, a certain sartorial decorum would not go amiss when mixing with the hoi polloi of european journalism. that decorum starts with the shoes, in this case, a brand new pair of quoc pham, tan leather touring shoes with their contemporary looks and chunky, solid soles. having adopted the persona of urban warrior for the day, too cool for fixed, and entirely bereft of lycra, i popped helmet, gloves and cap in the manager's office, and could easily have passed for a regular member of the human race.
mind you, i would be guilty of a falsehood if i were to direct you that this was the shoes' first outing. i had already partaken of a perambulatory excursion a few days previously, culminating in the inevitable coffee stop. yet again, i was able to blend in with society.
the word touring brings with it certain implications, not least of which is that of a distance in excess of either outing on my island home. but it also impresses slow, steady motion, able to soak in the atmosphere, the sights and sounds, and whether those feet are as comfortable as they need to be. having benefitted from the luxury that is several leather saddles, i have no need of convincing of the material benefits to be gained thereof. get the size right in the first place, and continued, regular use, coupled with a soupcon of tender loving care will see such footwear not only grow old with dignity, but mould themselves to the awkwardness that is my feet. the same opportunities are available to all.
the chunky soles guard those small metal cleats with a vengeance and provide a stiffness that is necessary when feet are clicked into a pair of eggbeaters. this is not to cast aspersions upon the pedals, for they are excellent at their job, but in a rather minimalist manner, leaving little in the way of support for a large proportion of the shoes. it is then a case of balancing the rigidity of the sole with enough flexibility to allow some comfort.
touring, of course, also carries with it the need to walk about a bit, either across fields, supermarket floors, bed and breakfast carpets, the pavements bordering our streets and the dark and mysterious inner sanctum of a single malt distillery. unlike car production lines, distilleries are not arranged in a straight line, nor all on the same level. so having clambered over hoof-marked grass meeting the helicopters, up stairs to the malt bins, wandered past the grist mill, up to the mash room, across to the oregon pine washbacks and down to the still room without so much as the fear of a slip, nor managing to cleat myself into the open grate flooring, before emerging at the spirit safe with a healthy degree of composure, i'm sufficiently convinced. these are touring shoes in pretty much every way i can think of.
or are they?
tuesday eve is now port mor wheelers eve, when mr hastings and i tried our level best to lead the kids on a wild goose chase through the maze of tracks surrounding the grounds of islay house. yes, ok, i fell off once, but only because of incompetence, and some very muddy obstacles hastened membership of the association of wimps, necessitating some cyclocross carrying through the undergrowth bordering the squidge. on return to washingmachinepost cottage, you'd have thought the shoes had only just been removed from their box.
quoc has made a thoroughly excellent shoe; i know how long he's been working on this particular model, and every month has been worth the wait. if you're in the market for a highly competent and stylish pair of spd compatible shoes, he may have solved your problem.
the quoc pham tourer is available in brown, black and tan, sizes from 41 to 47 at a cost of £149.95 per pair.
posted tuesday 3 may 2011