with the release of born to ride around a month or so ago, stephen roche celebrated the 25th anniversary of having won the giro, the tour and the world championship, a feat not often achieved these days, or perhaps a feat that no-one's really too interested in repeating. the strategic notions of modern day cycling revolve around winning the tour, and most of one team's eggs and those of their star riders are placed in this particular basket. a sort of all or nothing approach. it worked for big tex and it currently seems to be doing likewise for bradders.
it is conceivable therefore, that those star riders may never see more than one grand tour in a season, or in fact in most of their careers. not unnaturally, the italians have designs set upon their national tour, victory in which, for them at least often overshadows any moves they might manage at the tour de france. unless, of course, they actually win the darned thing.
the same, however, does not necessarily apply to the support staff, and in this i include the teams' domestiques, the best of whom quite likely ride all three tours. this is perhaps an honour allied to the tenacity of those involved, but surely makes most sense of the phrase 'if you're tired today, just wait until tomorrow.' many has been the article documenting the endless work undertaken by the teams' mechanics. up at the crack of dawn before the riders even know what day it is, and still hard at work under an illuminated awning when those selfsame riders are turning over in bed for a few more hours of sleep, and then they do all the very same on the following day. consider the extra work involved if that star rider has the temerity to win one of the three principal jerseys, preparing a colour-coded bicycle all the better to please the sponsors.
if we allow ourselves the luxury of stopping for just a reflective moment, we might just summon up the savvy to ask how it is that we (or i) know all this. it's because those on the periphery of any of the grand tours are also still at work at the very same time, recording words and images that allow me to insouciantly profess that i am a know-it-all, thoroughly deserving of your admiration.
edinburgh-based photographer, scott mitchell deservingly received the call-up from team sky to join their entourage for a traipse round italy this past may. though the gig arrived with perhaps a well-placed word from bradley wiggins, it is likely that sky were, to a certain degree taking a chance that his addition to the squad would add a certain frisson to their website. they were correct on so many levels, and due to supportive accolades from most corners of the sport, they invited him along to the tour de france.
as i have frequently mentioned over the past couple of weeks, from the comfort of my 29 inch imac, i have been watching the tour de france in a browser window confined to the top left corner. though it is gratifying that two british riders occupy places one and two on the general classification, for reasons that i prefer not to delve into here and now, some of the days have been both processional and predictable. scott's photos have filled the gaps and joined the dots.
personally, i prefer the giro d'italia, for it seems more concerned with the racing and somewhat less of a circus, but that is simply my opinion. what, if anything, is the difference for scott? "For me I as a photographer the difference is in the landscape and the light. The Tour is also a lot more international and everything is that much more difficult to achieve due to the scale of the event.
"Oh and the Giro transfers are legendary."
in a previous life, i explored the vicissitudes, joys and infinite variety of topography that varying landscapes can provide for an artist at the other end of a paintbrush. though these factors may not have specifically affected the finished works in terms of how they were painted, it was always important to have these works informed by the characteristics of the place in which the original drawings and notes were made. for scott mitchell, had he found the character of his imagery to be substantially different than those produced during the giro?
"Yes the images are different. I would have expected that and I embrace it. The Tour somehow feels less about cycling and more of a cycling celebration."
if i might lay out scott's daily routine on a tablecloth, it involves being up as early as any other member of the team, spending the day in either a car, the bus or at the side of the road gathering hundreds of images, before following through at the end of the stage with pictures that reflect the aftermath. it's time to eat after that, before retiring to the sanctity of a quiet place to sift through the day's photos, editing to provide between 25 and 30 that are seen as suitable for the team sky website. next day, it all starts again. i mean this not as a vote of sympathy for the photographer; we all have jobs that revolve around repetitive strain, and few would argue that scott is 'living the dream'. however, does the process of daily recording ever seem formulaic? could he see it ever becoming that way?
"It's a constant worry for me to try and not replicate what I have shot in the past. Obviously the process the team goes through is very similar every day, but events can change in an instant. The day Mark crashed I was on another photo essay, changed tack and the followed him through a difficult few hours. I tested our relationship by following him onto the bus that day. We said nothing to each other, but he accepted what I was doing."
it may be a truism that fame begets fame. when working in what many describe as a media circus, it is unlikely that anonymity can be successfully retained by even the working photographer. thus it was that scott and his photos became the subject of an all too brief interview feature on itv4's evening highlights show, when ned boulting took care to show the day's photos to the itv viewers. during the course of the interview, mitchell stated to ned boulting that his photos were impressionistic in nature. is this an aspect that he is actively pursuing, or is it simply the way his eye captures it all?
"I think it can only be impressionistic. After all what I 'm doing is documenting the Team through my eyes. No one tells me what to shoot, although there are some guidelines for me as someone new to the team."
apparently due to arrive on the shelves of camera dealers this summer is an 18 megapixel leica camera that deals exclusively with monochromatic images. the ccd at the back of the lens ignores colour as a means of depicting that which it sees. i am not sufficiently well qualified to propound just why this is perhaps perceived as a landmark in the timeline of digital photography, but in a strangely parallel situation to stupidly expensive bicycle components that weigh little, this absence of colour will set you back almost $8,000. quality black and white photography is something of a holy grail when applied to the digitised colour world, but it's also of interest as to why certain images work more successfully in monochrome than they do in colour. and vice versa.
peruse scott's daily gallery and there is an elcectic mix of the two. what makes him opt for monochrome rather than colour in the final edit? "I don't know why an image is colour or black and white. It's funny; I see it straight away. There's never really any doubt as to how it should look. I have taken a lot of care in my grading for the team. I want the images to have a signature unique to the team. I suppose a TeamSky 'look.'"
the reason that more washingmachinepost articles could be printed on the length of a toilet roll than not, aside from my frequently simply not knowing when to stop, is that the interweb allows an almost limitless amount of space for whatever takes our fancy. scott mitchell's daily web gallery on the team sky website consists of around a dozen and a half images. how many do we not see? "I shoot about 400 images each day. It sounds a lot I know, but speaking to other photographers here at the Tour, they are often up to around 1500. It's also a speed thing for me. I have no time to edit, so I just keep everything for now. I would normally cut it in half."
it has been brought to my attention that many a star footballer, earning enough money in a year to finance a small pro-continental cycle team without losing the lap of luxury to which he has become accustomed, often trains only a couple of hours a week and plays for considerably less. i jest not when i mention that at one point during the last year, a football team manager stated that his players were tired from having had to play two matches within four days. the grand tours occupy a period of three weeks, with daily stages mostly in excess of 150km, often over sequential mountain summits, yet the riders are provided only two rest days in that period. however, those so-called rest days are often anything but. there may be no racing on those days, but the riders are generally out for a scoot about to keep the muscles reminded of why they are there in the first place.
a similar affliction affects the media following the racing. rest days are when all hope to garner a relaxed interview with the principal protagonists, to snap photos of interesting cycle developments never before seen by the assembled multitudes, and to have an hour or so more in bed of a morning. does scott get a 'proper' rest day? "No one get's a rest day. Everyday we are all going ''full gas' The whole team is completely dedicated to achieving a Tour win and for the three weeks plus, life is on hold. Personally editing sometimes as late as 4am in the morning followed by early starts, tests your resolve. And friends sometimes don't really understand that I sometimes don't reply to emails and texts, It's that busy."
i think i might be one of those who was anxious to know if scott had received my e-mails concerning this feature, but i am not renowned for exhibiting a requisite amount of patience if i have a notional deadline in mind. on saturday i received a message from scott that said "Brian, sorry really really busy, can you wait till rest day?.
the answers arrived on sunday evening. thank you scott.
monday 16th july 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
serendipity has a lot to answer for, in the very best of ways. it is my regular habit on a saturday to choose from my copious phalanx of bicyclery and head off to the hinterlands for a modest perambulation prior to almost magnetically tracking towards deb's cafe in bruichladdich for a lunchtime repast and coffee of the highest quality. and always supposing no-one has seen fit to park their enormous 4x4 outside, i can gaze pointlessly towards bowmore over a mirror-like loch indaal (actually that last bit is something of an in joke). yesterday was no exception to this unwritten rule.
however, as i pulled up in a thoroughly relaxed manner outside my intended destination, i was momentarily obstructed by a touring cyclist crossing my path. reece (which turned out to be his name) asked if i was a local cyclist and whether involved with the local cycling club. with a loose agglomeration of four regulars, it's hard not to smile out loud when asked that particular question, and it is one that has been voiced on many an occasion. having disavowed him of his potential misapprehension, i made clear that the club would be off out on the prowl from that very same location at 10am the following morning if he would care to join us. we are nothing if not inclusive, though perhaps a tad short on numbers.
though arriving slightly late and requiring to divest his appropriately named croix de fer touring bike of its luggage, reece joined the sunday morning peloton and we showed him roads and scenery that he may well have missed on his questionable intent to visit as many distilleries as possible. i noted that he had in his possession, a copy of richard barrett's guide to cycling the hebrides, reviewed only a matter of days ago, and though a throroughly worthwhile publication, it cannot begin to encompass the utter nonsense we can propound over the course of a two hour bike ride in an islay breeze. i think that something of a shame when it comes to the composition of modern guidebooks, whether geared (did you see what i did there?) towards cyclists or not.
post war britain in the late 1940s was one of austerity. the war years had imposed a regime of rationing that restricted the availability of essentials such as food, clothes and fuel. at this point on britain's timeline only one in seven households had access to a car, vehicles that had very little in common with today's air-conditioned comfort. for most, the principal methods of mechanised transport were those of rail, bus or bicycle, the latter providing cheap and easy access to the country's more interesting corners, perhaps incorporating both the former alternatives. raleigh had establshed themselves as the nation's leading bicycle manufacturer, production peaking at over one million in 1951. with only 8% of homes in possession of a television at the time, and even those were provided with one channel, itv not having joined the bbc until 1955, there was little by way of affixation to keep folks indoors. broadcasting hours were still fairly limited and the radio or wireless provided the principal source of family entertainment. no xbox, no wii, no playstation.
life was bliss (maybe not).
a columnist with cycling weekly at the time, harold briercliffe, then in his late thirties embarked upon the monumental task of covering the entire nation by bicycle and a series of feature articles published in the comic of the day. these were eventually combined into a series of guides, the first published in 1947 covering northern england. over the subsequent few years, a further five were published, ending with the guide to southern england reviewed here and originally published in 1950.
it is highly unlikely that a guide written over sixty years ago would be of great use to anyone intent on covering similar routes today. much of the scenery of the time will have changed beyond recognition, and for those that have remained relatively untouched, there's a darned good chance that the roads providing access are now of a different hue. that, however, is to somewhat miss the point of their having been re-issued in both 'real' and e-book format.
it has been said that nostalgia isn't what it once was, but reading the words and descriptions of briercliffe's england of the late 1940s opens doors to not only the halcyon days of british cycling, but of a country now long disappeared.
'Burford is one of the best preserved old towns in England, and one of the most picturesque. The town was of great importance in coaching days, but now the main east-west road passes it by. There is a variety of architectural styles about the houses and inns at Burford, but all are clearly of the Cotswolds. There are several inns and tea-houses in Burford catering for tourists. They are open on Sundays and all the year round - a point worth remembering.'
there is, however, dual purpose in re-publishing these guides of harold briercliffe, though i'd be more than satisfied if it were purely for the exquisite lithographs that decorated the covers. though the roads and access to all that briercliffe surveyed may now be substantially altered, where possible the publishers have updated the guides to keep them at least modestly relevant. at the end of each chapter there are directions to current and recommended sustrans routes that will help the more active reader to re-visit many of the places on briercliffe's original sojourns. all the original illustrations have been faithfully retained, and there is great joy in perusing the advert for royal enfield bicycles that offer a ladies or gents model for a resounding £15 15 shillings plus £3 13 shillings and sixpence purchase tax.
not only the roads have changed.
purchased from apple's ibook store, each of the three currently available guides cost £3.99, readable on ipod, iphone and ipad (but not yet on a mac). the paperback edition retails for £9.99 with the kindle edition at £5.14. read one, or all three while absorbing the detail and phrasing of yesteryear, all the better to regale visiting cyclists to your area. it is tantamount to treason to let the ways of yesteryear fade into obscurity, and if for no other reason, the batsford division of anova publishing is to be congratulated on their substantial level of perspicacity on presenting us with briercliffe's writings. and most definitely for retaining the original covers.
sunday 15th july 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
though there are those who would dispute darwin's theory of evolution in favour of creationism, a dichotomy i do not intend to expound or take issue with at this point, most of which we have at our disposal today is the result of some form of evolution, much of which is easily traceable through the magic of observation and typing the correct search terms into google. even now, during those three weeks in july in france, it is possible to find daily galleries of photos attesting to the beauty of the sport and the astounding quality of expression demonstrated by those who grab such imagery on our behalf. and as i write, i have a small browser window open to the left of this page which shows me just what is happening at this stage of those three weeks in july.
what it does not provide, at least not at this point in time, is any interpretation of that which transpires. granted, i am following my own advice and watching the dedicated eurosport channel in which the moving pictures are accompanied by only the sounds of whirring chains and the cheering of roadside crowds. i have no intrinsic method of distilling all that i see into some form of contained whole, sort of in the manner of sky photographer, scott mitchell. even then, i am left with my own personal reverie, taking in those pixels of representation and marvelling at that which was seen by an acute eye.
such was at least a part of the principal behind daniel wakefield pasley's original concept of the rapha continental; a traversing of the continental united states, documenting the views, the visions and the riders by means of the cleverly written word and the astutely observed photograph. one of the few occasions when something managed to represent both a means to an end and and end in and of itself. it is not to infer, at this point, that mere words and static imagery are lacking in any particular manner, but when the series evolved to incorporate moving pictures, the whole enchilada moved up a stage or two.
for now, not only could we see sequential imagers building to present a better notion of the surrounding topography as well as the route less travelled, but an overweening necessity to entertain had suggested the need for musical accompaniment. in the case of the original continental movies, this was devolved to music previously composed and released on a commercial basis, for i was frequently e-mailing the videographer to enquire as to the name and progenitor of that to which i was listening. thank heavens for itunes.
but yet again, evolution has seen fit to provide music specifically tailored to the imagery thus portrayed, yet again providing a level of enhancement only dreamt of one or two years previously. i mean not to credit the rapha continental with having upended the more traditional means of storytelling, for several cycling movies from a more bygone era rather preceded the concept, albeit on a grander scale. but several of those movies have also fallen foul of musical accompaniment that can only truly be described as utterly dire. it was ths something of a revelation to watch road to roubaix, a more contemporary cycling documentary regarding stuey o'grady's victory at paris roubaix. the music specifically composed for this epic was devolved to a chap by the name of paul o'brien who happily has not gone onto more obscure and unheard projects, but remained firmly in thrall to cycling and its moving imagery.
his most recent outing, now available on itunes, is an album entitled against all odds the tracks of which have been culled from the incidental music for a series of individual movies, made by markus neuert's cyclefilm for the german cycling team netapp. the team received a wildcard entry into the 2012 giro d'italia, subsequently acquitting themselves remarkably well, and comprehensibly documented by neuert. it would have been tantamount to unprofessionalism to place the individual movies on youtube without the benefit of either commissioned music or even a selection from cyclefilm's own itunes playlist. they opted for the former choice, and once again, paul o'brien found himself watching moving pictures of cycling.
how did the connection with team netapp arrive? "I'd spoken with Markus via email a few times since Road To Roubaix. He was in London for some meetings for his company Cyclefilm and asked to meet up. He explained his role in capturing their story and wanting to have music written for the series instead of using all library music."
in this case, as mentioned, the music was composed to fit specific imagery, something that has become happily a more common happenstance these days. however, that selfsame music has now been unleashed on an unsuspecting public who may not have the faintest notion who team netapp are and why it should interest them in the first place. does paul figure it makes and real difference to the potential listener if they've no idea what it's the soundtrack to? "Yes and no. I like to think people will have watched the Against All Odds series it's got them pumped up to go our on the bike and maybe the soundtrack is something they can take with them on the ride. On the other hand, I like the work in-between the role of a composer and I guess an outright artist who writes and produces music that could be used for film. I'm surprised the roles haven't blended more in Hollywood."
former weather report drummer, peter erskine, recently related a session for the composer john williams in which he was required to play simple eighth notes with brushes for just under four minutes. in doing so he was instructed not to make any decisions on dynamics or rhythm for himself, but to accede to the composer's demands because he had an overall vision to which erskine was not party. in this sense, how does a musician go about composing music to a series of disparate images that may not subsequently be seen by the listener?
"When I spoke to Markus about the music he wanted, we agreed it needed to be anthemic and make people want to be excited about cycling and have some energy to it. It's a style I sometimes describe as winning montage music. Along the lines of the sounds you hear when someone has won X Factor or some sporting event and they slow down the footage and you kind of go on that ride for a few minutes as the whole thing is summed up to some sort of victorious point. I guess since I was composing with the excitement, energy and highs and lows of cycling in mind, the music produced ends up being something that go along with everyday life."
at the risk of imbuing paul with the qualities of a bona fide schizophrenic, is there, during the composition period, the ever-present thought that the music might have to make sense as a complete album, or was that not on the cards at the outset? "The idea of releasing the album was there at the start of the project and Markus wanted people to be able to buy the soundtrack from one of his productions. He mentioned he often gets asked by a customer where they can buy the library music in his productions but it's never for sale. "
though many of us have a shed or garageful of shiny expensive trinketry, having a complete set of instrumentation to hand, on the basis that a panamanian nose flute might just be the very sound that's required seems a tad unlikely. therefore, it is not an infrequent occurrence to bring on board one or two session musicians to augment the home-grown panoply, always assuming the budget will allow. did paul play all the instruments on the new album, or were interlopers in evidence?
"I play everything. I like being naive to the sound of a new instrument. I'll often just hit record and see what I come up with straight away and try and make it all fit. "
the career of a professional musician is often fraught with choices not always in keeping with one's original force majeure. i know of several bona-fide jazz musicians who can be seen in the orchestra pit come christmas, providing their accompaniment skills to cinderella or jack and the beanstalk. it is often a case of 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do'. however, in obrien's case it seems the genre of cycling not only has a hold on his psyche, but is proving a fertile ground for commisioned work, i would take it therefore, that he has a particular affinity for cycling? "I think we talked about this in our last interview but yeah, I grew up in an area that many would call the best part of the UK for mountain biking (North Wales). I've never owned a road bike, but have had all sorts of hard tail MTBS, full suspension 7" travel DH bikes, BMXs and everything in between. I spent most of my youth ten minutes or less away from forests and mountains so it just made sense."
does he ride for sport or pleasure? "Both really. When I was younger I'd hate pushing my bike up hills, but now I like the ying yang of suffering for the pleasurable part of the ride."
those of you familiar with the annals of progressive rock, may well recall the instimable rick wakeman in his early days with yes, surrounded on three sides by a phalanx of keyboards to suit each of the band's complex compositions. again, evolution has seen the requirement for such excess diminish to the point that all of wakeman's keyboard sounds are likely now available on an ipad, requiring only a connected midi keyboard to access those different flavours; virtual instruments. does paul have a favourite amongst the genre? "No real favourite virtual instruments, but I do love guitar amplifier simulations. Before I moved to London I had owned all sorts of various amps that weighed more my bike did. With the amp sims, I can quickly create amazing tones in minutes."
perhaps the hardest part about being a composer, much less a solo musician is that of musical influences. though picasso claimed that good artists borrow, while great artists steal, any indication of the latter being the case would undoubtedly lead to accusations of plagiarism and a lack of originality. it must therefore be a part of composition to hold strong musical ideals separate from one's influences. who would paul cite as his principal musical influences? "From the film composer side, Clint Mansell and Nathan Larson (hearing his music in the film Prozac Nation on a two month 'hope to find myself' trip to LA is the reason I wanted to started doing music for film). I love the film stuff Trent Reznor is doing also. He seems to create this pulse for the footage."
with this second album release related to the world of cycling, can we look forward to more velocipedinal extravanganzas from his musical talents in the future? "I'm about to start work on some music for Cyclepassion that Markus is doing and hopefully some more Cyclefilm projects in the future."
'against all odds' is available on itunes as of now, and the series of team netapp videos by cyclefilm can currently be viewed on youtube.
saturday 14th july 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
my only venture onto mainland europe on a bicycle was via hot chilee's london-paris ride in 2007 and again in 2008, the latter because i enjoyed it the first time and that the second year used a different route. for those who have not ridden this particular event, the formula splits all riders into four distinct groups, divisions which are based upon the sort of speed you figure can be attained over those 300 something kilometres between london and paris. the guys in group one expect to ride at around 32kph plus, while those at the tail end of proceedings ought to be able to mosey along at around 25kph.
unfortunately, there is no verifiable way of checking that either of those speeds are attainable by entrants until the first stage south to dover. while i can manage around 30 plus kph average from home all the way to debbie's and back again, that is pretty much flat from start to finish. france isn't. that is my very subtle way of pointing out that several riders were being constantly left behind. if you're in one of the first three groups, 'tis but a mere matter of dropping one level at lunch or at the end of the day. those who struggled to keep up in group four probably ought not to have been there in the first place.
on both occasions, i opted for the slowest group. less because i did not have the requisite speed, and more because i wanted to see something of the country in which i had paid to ride. there are no brownie points to be gained when asked what france is like, to reply "i've no idea, but it has assos written on the back."
londres-paris is, to quote the might dave t, 'cycling for softies. we stayed in nice hotels, our luggage was transported to those nice hotels on a daily basis, we had closed roads in france, motorcycle outriders for each group, the equivalent of a mavic car behind, and a lead car up ahead. as the slogan states "the professional ride for amateurs". this definitely makes me a softy, for i doubt i'm intrepid enough to load up a bicycle with panniers, camping equipment, a rudimentary arrangement of maps and a vague notion of the direction in which i should head. i generally admire those who do.
one of those deserving of admiration, is andrew sykes, a modern languages teacher at a secondary school in south oxfordshire.
according to andrew, there are three reasons to become a schoolteacher: christmas, easter and summer. the latter provides sufficient days' holiday to undertake more than a long weekend at a campsite in the dordogne, an opportunity that andrew sykes was only too keen to take advantage of. i do often wonder at cyclists who give their bicycles names, a very strange variation on anthropomorphism that i have thankfully refrained from indulging in. however, his purchase of a ridgeback touring bicycle did (sort of) lend itself to the abbreviation 'reggie'. reggie gains a lot of mentions in this narrative, for though a story concerning a bicycle tour would be severely limited if constrained to a discussion of the transport. it would also be a touch negative if the means of transport were ignored altogether.
though the book is available in paperback or e-book format, andrew sykes has a website all of his very own that allows him to publicise his writings. the general trend in this publicity and liberal spreading of quotes emphasises the humour incorporated in his narrative: a comical tale, a wonderful, witty account. you get the general idea. though you should probably not judge a book by its publicity handout, i had expected to close my laptop each night, hoarse from laughing, a situation that did not transpire. however, one of the other quotes inhabiting mr sykes' home page states "buy this book! you won't regret it.", and with that i would most heartily concur.
andrew sykes cycled for thirty days, interspersed with six rest days on his way from southern england all the way to brindisi in italy. for those whose grasp of continental geography is as rudimentary as my own, brindisi is sited midway down the heel of italy's boot. a certain level of planning went into this trip, including arrangements to meet up with old and new friends along the way, friends he hoped would assist in finding the almost mythical eurovelo cycle route, one that defied concrete definition, despite many weeks of prior research.
as you'd expect, the book concerns the sights, sounds, campsites and folks that sykes met up with along the way. the glorious days when everything went according to plan along with the intermittent periods when circumstances seemed intent on conspiring to halt forward travel, not least the lack of coherent signposting in certain sections of the trip. there's also the loneliness of the long-distance cyclist; would he end up hating his own company, would he spend days on end talking to himself, or would the isolation send him rushing to find the fastest route back to civilisation?
sykes has a glorious, yet understated wit, which is way more satisfying than any rip-roaring induced laughter at each paragraph end. the best writers and indeed, the best comedians are those with an acute sense of observation, married to an ability to translate this into eminently readable text. my review copy was in fact, the e-book version, one that opens in adobe's digital editions. it is the modern way, i am assured, but i cannot say that, for me, it's the ideal way to read a book. though numbers atop the screen indicate at what stage the reader is in the book, it's just not the same as leaving a physical bookmark in place. perhaps needless to say, i could not manage to get the electronic bookmark feature to work.
i have not had sight of the paper and ink version, but the e-book is totally bereft of illustrations, no doubt an economical way to publish a book, but not one that assists the enjoyment of reading it. though the website has links to facebook pages full of photos from the expedition, something that could perhaps have been viewed as i read, i'd have preferred some illustrations augmenting the text. perhaps next time.
that said, i cannot but congratulate the author on writing a throughly enjoyable read, one that encouraged continued perusal through its pleasant and easy to read narrative. there must be thousands of cyclists who take their bicycles to mainland europe every year, so the fact that a schoolteacher from oxfordshire did so a few years ago is a less than remarkable fact. i have seen a number of manuscripts that offer a similar invitation to travel, yet fail magnificently by way of convoluted plot, lack of a decent grasp of the english language and attendant punctuation, but most often through a complete lack of any clue how to tell a story in an interesting manner. this is a confident chronicle of what seems to have been a joyful trip and one that fulfils a similar purpose to all that tour de france tv coverage, illuminating aspects of the european countryside that more normally remain hidden to the average brit.
friday 13th july 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
in the days of islay pipe band's infancy we felt graced to receive a visit from scottish piper and self-styled personality, dougie pincock, a man who had just released a new compact disc (remember those?) entitled 'the gem so small' and was on islay at the behest of feis oigridh ile, (gaelic for children's festival). at that time, we held our weekly practice at lagavulin distillery, and as dougie was staying in bowmore, it was my devolved duty to have him collected from his abide a wee and escort him to where it all happened. dougie had recently collaborated with david byrne of talking heads at the time, and true to form, we heard nothing but incessant details of this collaboration from the moment we left bowmore until we thankfully exited the car at lagavulin.
please do not misunderstand my misanthropy; mr pincock is a particularly fine piper at least insofar as that can be said about any of the species, but he does/did appear to have an ego considerably in excess of that which is prudent. as a drummer of the realm, i saw little of the chap during the ensuing practice, and thankfully, it was someone else's job to deliver him home. however, on the following day, the pipe major at the time was rather disappointed to relate that the pincock chap had described the collective us as 'a social club with pipes and drums'. due to my inexperience with the whys and wherefores of scottish pipe band culture, i was wont to take this as something of a compliment, but it seems that it was not intended as such.
despite this heavy-handed and perhaps misdirected criticism on his part, the band enjoyed a further thirteen or so years of being sociably adept, and enjoying this sociability augmented by some skirling and accompanying paradiddles. that the band now consists of a low percentage of islay residents and is intent on making its way up the corporate ladder, will perhaps give some indication as to the demise of this particular aspect. in fact, when the band first formed, i asked the lead drummer of a visiting band for some advice with regard to lead drummer responsibilities, to which he replied 'don't do it', adding as a parting remark, that the only words spoken between he and his pipe major were 'by the left, quick march'.
with it no longer incumbent upon my spare time to wander hither and thither in a kilt, i have attempted, with no little degree of success i might add, to adopt the same modus operandi in the velo club, replacing pipes and drums with steel and carbon. with the notable exception of the sprint near debbie's after several kilometres of riding, the competitive aspect of pedalling a bicycle has not reared its ugly head, opting instead for a speed that allows consummate chatting about whatever is deemed appropriate at the moment. it's a happy little existence, and unlike the ministrations of self-proclaimed pipers, when visited by twice former british road-race champion brian smith a couple of years ago, there were no curt dismissals of our sociability (doubtless ameliorated by the fact that smiffy is quite the socialite himself).
it is surely no real surprise, therefore, that ian parkinson of parkinson media has developed a somewhat excellent idea for a radio show consisting of conversations with the great and the good while riding bicycles. ian admits to it being a less than original idea for the second decade of the century, having carried out his first on-bike interview with the legendary dave le grys in 1986. however, modern technology, aided and abetted by a production colleague, "has made really high quality recordings a possibility."
though ian hopes to sell the idea to various radio stations or alternative outlets, he may just have provided the world with a major dilemma by releasing a promotional video of his velocipedinal chat with ex-footballer and enthusaistic cycling convert, geoff thomas. i say dilemma because it strikes me that the concept lends itself remarkably well to televisualisation, never mind the radio waves. perhaps a video podcast operating under a subscription model might be the very mantle to assume, should those behind the radio desks prove less than perspicacious.
however, remaining with the radio waves for the moment, it strikes me that the idea would lend itself particularly well to those early saturday or sunday morning half-hour programmes broadcast on bbc radio four. current offerings tend to centre around some daft woman wandering "in the landscape" chatting to folk who must truly hope she gets lost before reaching the end of the programme. though it's unlikely we can influence matters to any great degree, please take the opportunity to watch the short promo video and listen to the whole programme with geoff thomas on soundcloud. just the thing for these lazy, hazy days of summer.
why do i never think of these things first?
thursday 12th july 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
i am smug. not in the perennial sense but of a more immediate import, where i have a sense of one-upmanship over those currently less fortunate with regard to their immediate weather conditions. in all reality, this smugness is doing me no good whatsoever, given that the daily travail means i sit cooped up in an office all day with only the exclamations of visiting personages to intersperse my eyes being drawn to the view out the window. "isn't it lovely outside?" they innocently state, as if that is a) news to those of us stuck inside and b) of any actual use. sometimes you just wish people would keep their opinions or weather forecasts to themselves.
however, no matter; back to my smugness.
relations of one of my colleagues stuck in the very same office, while out of doors shone upon the blessed, had need of plane travel to scotland today and had advised that conditions across the water were considerably less clement than those in bowmore main street. 'tee-ing it down' were the precise words used, if i remember correctly, a phrase that bolstered that smugness just a smidgeon, still bearing in mind a complete lack of being able to take advantage of the conditions.
due to weather and climatic conditions that have seemingly gone awry, parts of the country are receiving an entire month's rainfall in a matter of hours, while others are rapidly finding out just what the word drought really means. never in all the years i have been footering about with twitter, have i seen so many references to cancelling leisure/training rides in favour of the turbo. i feel that here, some sense of perspective is sadly lacking or missing altogether, for if i recall correctly, at least one or two of those scraping the cobwebs and dust off the turbo trainers are the very ones who revel in the gloop come cyclocross season.
it's a funny old world.
i cannot pretend, however, that conditions even on this rock in the atlantic resemble that which might be considered summer-like. through years and years of social conditioning, aided and abetted by the fallible memories of youth, the word summer mentally conjures pictures of bright sunshine, shadows cast by everything, ice-creams to keep temperatures in check, and endless sessions of slapping on factor 50. in relation to the latter, at point of egress last summer, wearing shorts and short sleeve sportwool, it was noticeable that the factor 50 was conspicuous by its absence on almost every occasion, leading to a clumping about the house in road cleats and tinted rudy projects, trying in vain to second guess where mrs washingmachinepost might conceivably have designated a safe place.
in order that the same procedure should not be emulated this summer, i had placed an orange bottle of sun tan lotion by the back door. for one, this made it immediately accessible at point of requirement, and secondly reminded me of its necessity prior to nipping off for a bike ride. it will surprise no-one that it sits still in the same place virtually untouched by human hand. why, therefore am i imbued with smugness at this point?
well, though precipitation has not left the velo club alone for any greater length of time than necessarily anyone else, a sense of necessity and insistence has meant that the sunday ride has yet to be curtailed for the season. when i consider the conditions experienced during rapha's festive 500 at the tail end of last year, why would a constant downpouring restrict any time spent in the saddle. which brings me neatly to the turbo trainer currently advertised on eurosport during tour de france transmissions.
watching riders warm up on cycles affixed to turbo trainers under an awning at the side of the team bus or truck is one we have all become accustomed too. why anyone would wish to experience even a portion of their tour de france adventures, standing staring at a bloke with dark glasses on and a pair of ipod ear-buds in place, is quite beyond me, but perhaps you had to be there. this, to me, seems a perfectly acceptable use of the turbo, for the crowds and conditions surrounding a time-trial in the tour would rather mitigate against nipping off for a short ride to appreciate the scenery.
however, the device advertised on the telly augments the usual roller on which the clamped rear wheel rotates by slotting the front wheel into a rotating disc. this is designed to imitate the act of steering that very same wheel when out and about on the highways and byways of reality. unfortunately, it's not entirely accurate, for if you pay attention to your actions when rounding a corner or bend, the tendency is to lean the bike to one side to negotiate any bends or turns in the road, rather than remaining upright and turning the handlebars through any perceptibe angle. still, virtual cyclists can't have everything.
this turbo, it turns out, is not just a turbo, but one fitted with a computer screen on which it is possible to ride along with virtual friends or competitors, thus enhancing the turbo experience. even with my limited background relating to such devices, i am all in favour of anything that detracts from the purgatory involved in staionary sprinting towards the sink in my kitchen.
however, as i may have mentioned in relation to current weather conditions, there is a great big world out there, and no end of providers of appropriate waterproof and windproof clothing, some of which is particularly stylish to wear when nipping in for a coffee. i have had a look on the interweb to inform myself as to the cost of this warm, cosy and user-friendly virtual reality, a series of numbers preceded by a pound sign that brought tears to my thighs. i have a notion that i would need to be subjected to the atmosphere of venus before i would spend that kind of money on pretend cycling.
it might be raining, it might be windy and it might even be cold, but we are surely made of sterner stuff than that which would have us confined to a garage, basement or indeed the washingmachinepost cottage kitchen, rather than brave the elements? as the folks at nike are constantly persuading us; just do it.
wednesday11th july 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
though i ply my secondary trade as a percussionist in the community less and less these days (islay is not, contrary to what you may have heard, the hub of the live music universe), i still keep a modest maple drum set clothed in fleece-lined cases in the spare room upstairs. for on occasion, i receive 'the call' to add my noisiness to a band of the realm, and such an occasion will take place this coming friday eve. such is the demand for my talents, that i will repeat the venture come saturday night, a gig which will see much merry making and copious amounts of drinking on behalf of the audience (if it can indeed be referred to in such a manner).
this particular set of musicians are not unknown to me, for i have joined them in cacophony on at least one prior occasion, one that was musically enjoyable, yet less than palatable in other ways, mostly that of volume. i have no real wish to come across as a fuddy duddy, but i have done this for long enough to have serious queries as to why, in a modestly sized hostelry, it is necessary to turn the volume controls all the way up to eleven. the promise was good at the so-called sound-check last time round, when a short run through of possibly problematic tunes lent itself to a comfortable auditory experience. such expectation was wholly undermined later that same evening, when the three guitarists i was to accompany made every attempt to emulate a tornado combat fighter aircraft on take-off.
despite my positioning behind the amplifiers, by evening's end, my left ear was experiencing serious discomfort, and i still had riniging in my ears by lunchtime the following day. this is not good practice in my estimation, so eager to avoid a repeat of the situation this coming weekend, i have ordered myself a set of bona-fide ear plugs, specifically designed to protect the hearing of musicians, an epithet i am happy to adopt over the course of two evenings. even if it might not be as true as i'd like to think.
the subject of hearing has more recently been brought to my attention when in my more usual guise as a cyclist of the community. i count myself particularly fortunate to own two ipods, only one of which contains an eclectic selection of tunes, many of which seem largely unpalatable to any within hearing distance. this has led to my being only able to listen while washing and drying the dishes, while mrs washingmachinepost repairs to the sitting room to watch programmes that i find unpalatable. it seems a most equanimous arrangement if you ask me.
my very latest purchase from the itunes store is a track entitled 'this is what it is' by nina nastasia, extracted from her 2002 album, the blackened air. many of you will not have heard of this particular artist, and i will admit that, until a few days ago, i would have counted myself amongst your number. but while searching for music featuring the inestimable drumming of jay bellerose, i came across this particular piece of music-making and adjudged it worthy of purchase.
if you adopt a similar attitude to your listening habits as do i, you will quite likely listen to any new music almost incessantly until it becomes too familar for continued enjoyment. it is a cross i have to bear, and one i seem incapable of altering, even though i know i probably ought to. however, despite the number of cycling garments i own that make provision for ipod listening while in the saddle, i have yet to make any attempt to utilise these cunningly concealed features, for i disapprove of listening while cycling. this is for at least a couple of reasons, one of which is that i rather enjoy cycling along pleasant country roads surrounded by cows, sheep, birds, and silage toting tractors with comcomitantly enormous trailers. to intersperse any form of synthetic sound seems tantamount to heresy.
secondly, if i might reference those tractors again, despite the quiet reputation that the rural idyll may profess, this is a myth promulgated by hardback children's books. these machines are ruddy enormous, yet can be driven by a 16 year-old on a provisional licence (something that strikes me as an unfortunate loophole in the law that ought to be closed), and if i'm truly honest, i'd prefer to hear them coming before they reach level with my rear wheel. add to that the continued proliferation of substantially sized articulated trucks plying islay's modest roads, principally due to the ever profitable whisky industry, it ill behoves me to be without ears. thus, ipod listening is constrained to my sharp electronics hi-fi dock atop the microwave.
according to a study, however, by australia's ride on magazine, even cyclists with white earphone buds in their ears, doubtless listening to men at work and inxs can hear more than their traffic counterparts sitting in comfortable, soundproofed motor cars. the magazine states that it measured ambient traffic noise at 79 decibels, and with ipod earphones in place, at 71db. compare that with the average motor car (engine running), and the ambient noise level drops substantially to only 54db. the magazine does state, however, that the cyclist listening to obscure music stored in his/her back pocket ought to have the controls set to reasonable volume, whatever you might take that to be.
the outcome of this startling piece of research concludes by saying that "a bike rider with ear-bud earphones playing music at a reasonable volume hears much more outside noise than a car driver, even when that driver has no music playing."
i have used the word 'startling' in reference to this exercise, because it surely makes very little difference how much of the outside world is audible to the average car driver. they are ensconced in several hundred kilograms of metal and plastic, unlikely to be at risk from marauding oystercatchers, loud pedestrians or many other perceptibly invasive extremities. cars are fitted with abs braking systems, with reversing cameras and audible warnings, seatbelts and airbags. those of us on two wheels, a saddle and bendy bars need to be somewhat more aware of our surroundings, for there is much out there that can be avoided if it is heard before it imposes itself in a forcibly physical manner.
this is surely a particularly effusive example of not paying attention to the dictum that simply because an area of research can be undertaken, does not mean that it should be. i cannot see myslef subscribing to this particular publication anytime soon.
pointless in pretty much every definition of the word.
tuesday 10th july 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................