road to valour. aili and andres mcconnon. weidenfeld & nicolson. hardback 317pp illus. £20

road to valour

'If you're good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.'

days have changed, times have changed and cycling has changed, at least it has changed from what it was in the years immediately prior to the second world war and those following. for all that we're behind bradley, mark and possibly chris, we were or are rarely ever at extreme odds with those who throw their support behind cuddles or nibbles. in the tour recently completed, the australian and the italian were the only two considered likely to challenge the yellow jersey of wiggins. as it turned out, neither had either the temerity or leg muscles to successfully dispute the sky train all the way to paris.

i doubt that's even still the case in italy or australia; or any other country for that matter. it could be entirely due to cycle sport being not the be all and end all that was once the case, particularly in the years referred to above. that position in modern society has likely been overtaken by football/soccer, where supporters of domestic or national teams have, in many cases, taken things to extremes, cultivating a sense of hate against those who prefer a team other than their own.

in hindsight, followers of gino bartali and those behind the young upstart, coppi were just as misguided as followers of glasgow celtic and glasgow rangers, for the activities in which they are respectively involved are categorised as sport. and sport is supposed to be enjoyable enetrtainment for those watching, and a demonstration of skill and athleticism by the participants.

gino bartali was born in july 1914 at ponte a ema, near florence italy, enduring the sort of childhood that has almost become a cliche nowadays. his parents were too poor to buy him a bicycle; his mother was very much against him racing in any way, shape or form because she considered it too dangerous an activity. he learned to ride on a bicycle that was far too large for him, fitting under the top tube and grabbing the bars from underneath. though not a great lover of school, his father insisted that he complete his education at the equivalent of sixth grade, but the local schoolhouse taught only up to fifth year, meaning bartali had to travel to florence. as his father said :To go to Florence, you need a bicyle, and a bicycle costs money. You will have to earn it."

the work he'd to undertake at the age of twelve years old involved mostly farm labouring. it is an endemic trait of these days of privation that cycling was viewed as a way out of such a life, and it is therefore of little surprise that young boys such as gino bartali looked to bicycle racing as a way out of the sort of lives their families had quite frequently to settle for.

road to valor

bartali became one of italian cycling's great pre-war heroes, but in those days the giro d'italia held greater sway over the cycling season than has subsequently become the case. though the tour de france had seemingly greater importance, that had not reached the almighty proportions that are obvious today. an italian travelling over the border to participate in le tour, generally did so in order to show his country's superiority over french riders, for in those days, the race was competed amongst national teams. it must be pointed out that the same arrangement worked for both the french and spanish riders, the french frequently hoping to demonstrate their prowess in the italian national tour.

bartali won the tour de france for the first time in 1938.

the years following this italian victory were beset with national politics involving nazism and fascism; hitler and mussolini. though the former had already made known his persecution of jews, in italy, they were celebrated members of society, after having fought alongside their gentile countrymen to unite the nation in the late nineteenth century. mussolini's partnership with hitler changed all that, and as the second world war started to destroy much of western society, the italian jewish community started to feel the thin end of the wedge of persecution, including many friends of the bartali family.

during the war years, any regular form of cycle racing life was desecrated. bartali was married and with children, but with no races to ride, he had little other activity in which to involve himself but that of training for the days when normality might return. during these years of heightened fascism, bartali's recognised need to train and celebrity status allowed him to assist hundreds of jews living in fear of their lives, by transporting false papers to aid their bid for freedom. these were rolled up and fitted inside the tubing of his bicycle. there is little doubt that had he been found out he would have either been imprisoned or shot.

little or nothing of these clandestine activities in aid of italy's jews was known for many years after the war ended. for many long years, bartali refused to discuss the part he played in saving hundreds of lives. road to valour is a more than worthy testimony to the greatness displayed by the italian on and off the bike. authors aili mcconnon and brother andres mcconnon have undertaken a considerable amount of research in the compiling and writing of this impressive tome, particularly considering almost all of those involved in the secret wartime activities are now dead, and most interviews were carried out with the descendants of those connected.

the major triumph is that the astounding level of research is all but transparent throughout the narrative. the book transcends its subject matter, adding greatly to the historical knowledge of the era over and above its value as a biography of one of cycling's greats.

it is, however, not without its faults. in 1948, bartali was again competing in a revitalised tour de france, but riding less than impressively. the newspapers had him confined to an old folks' home, regarding him as past it, paying no heed to the war years that had slipped by taking with them, any opportunity the italian might have had to add to his palmares. as the tour entered its latter stages, bartali sat twenty-one minutes, twenty-eight seconds behind the leader, louison bobet.

on july 14th 1948, palmiro togliatti leader of the italian communist party was shot by a lone would-be assassin. the shooting threw italy into utter confusion, desperation, violence and turmoil. to shorten a lengthy story, a phone call was reputedly made to bartali, imploring him to try and win the tour de france and save italy from what many feared may become civil war. he duly did so. this incident has entered the annals of history as one of the greatest exploits of post-war cycling, and is described as such in road to valour without any critical comment from the authors.

however, in his mammoth work pedalare! pedalare! italian historian john foot casts serious doubt on whether any such phone call as described above, was ever made. in a chapter entitled the bartali myth foot pours liberal amounts of cold water upon the chain of events that have, over time, become a seamless invention that may, or may not be true. the mcconnons are, to be fair, not the only authors to have perpetuated this story, but in view of the impressive bibliography annotated at the back of the book, it seems surprising that they failed to even mention that others had cast uncertainty upon the affair. there is little doubt that they extensively researched this part of bartali's biography, but seem to rest their results on much of bartali's writings about the tour, writings that foot maintains may hve been the result of the rider himself wishing to perpetuate the saga.

in my review of pedalare! pedalare! i mentioned that i thought foot was guilty of over thinking the affair, and that he should have perhaps let sleeping myths lie. i have not altered that opinion, but i think it remiss of the present authors to either not mention an alternative viewpoint or, even worse, be unaware of its existence.

at the risk of being a pot calling the kettle black, i also found the mcconnons occasionally guilty of over dramatising affairs. describing the stage that followed that phone call they continue thus: 'Gino awoke well before dawn. Giovanni Corrieri, his roommate, watched him. There was something strangely reassuring in what he saw. Gino was silent and lay calmly in bed, in striking contrast to his frenetic banter the previous evening . His bike rested nearby, propped against one of the hotel room's walls. Like the cowboys in his favourite movies, Gino had insisted on spending the night beside his horse.'

the chapter's opening continues in similar fashion, and it seems as if much of this is pure conjecture, for i doubt that so much detail could have been committed to memory by any of those present sixty four years ago. the authors seem to have invested more literary devices in the description of this historical tour stage than were expended on bartali's brave wartime activities. though i have no specific discontent with their melodramatic scene-setting, it presents a partial and avoidable imbalance to the story of gino bartali.

that said, however, this is a work of truly magnificent proportions, of great import to any scholar of italian cycling or those possessed of an enthusiasm for this portion of cycling heritage. there are relatively few words spent on the bartali/coppi rivalry, the principal thrust of the book ending at that 1948 tour de france. this is no serious ommission however, for the rivalry between the two riders has been more than satisfactorily dealt with in many other writings on italian racing history, such as that of herbie sykes' maglia rosa as well as foot's pedalare! pedalare!. road to valour is a well paced and highly engaging narrative that is of great credit to its writers.

however, i would seriously question what on earth the uk publishers weidenfeld & nicolson were thinking in commissioning an alternative cover to the original as published in the usa? obviously enough, the american spelling of valor may grate with british readers, but the alteration of spelling is simply a cosmetic treatment, for none of the text has been altered to that of a more uk orientation. the result is an unmitigated disaster of a cover, unlikely to lead to any sales to those who judge a book by this albeit inadvisable method. surely it would not have been outwith the bounds of possibility to simply reproduce the american cover with a change of spelling, or easier still, leave it as it is? we don't care. (i have reproduced the american cover above by way of comparison.)

"When we were poor and weary, he gave us back our honor."

monday 30th july 2012


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strategic planning

mens olympic road race

many of you will have watched the men's olympic road race on saturday, having experienced perhaps mixed emotions. for starters, the number of folk lining both sides of the course for a substantial portion of the course must have been not only of great benefit to the riders, but surely helped show, via the not altogether roundly praised television pictures, that not only is road racing an exciting spectacle, but that so many thought it exciting enough to get out and watch. the liberal smattering of union jacks throughout simply helped underline the hyperbole we've all been guilty of spreading in recent weeks.

of course, the fact that none of the british riders were even remotely close to winning a medal left a lot of pent-up cheering subdued for at least the last 30 kilometres or so. team gb's strategy, if that is indeed how it could be described, has come in for a not entirely unexpected level of criticism. though likely more attributable to the media than the riders or management themselves, we had been led to believe that the coagulation of wiggins, stannard, froome and millar all riding in support of mark cavendish would, in effect, leave all the other countries arguing amongst themselves as to which would take silver and bronze.

mens olympic road race

cavendish was quoted at a press conference as saying "if we wanted to win this bike race, we couldn't be in a better situation team-wise."

rather obviously, the team's strategy was much the same as at last year's world championship race. the four who were not cavendish would effectively control the race before delivering cav to the front with only a few hundred metres to go, thus capitalising on wiggins' and team sky's success in this year's tour de france. this could hardly be described as a strategy, in the terms that we'd possibly understand the word, because if truth be told, that's not only what we figured they were going to do, but pretty much what everyone else thought they would too. after all, that's how cavendish wins races.

of course, as we now know, it didn't quite work out that way. as has been said by many, it was britain's race to lose, and when a break went clear, they were perhaps a tad naive in thinking that other countries would assist in the chase. it's also a heck of a lot harder to control a race with only four riders, if we assume that cavendish remained the protected rider and thus more or less immune from chasing duties. the subject of race radios has also reared its ugly head; none were allowed in the olympic road-race.

though i have no evidence to suggest it was indeed the case, it is quite possible that without this electronic assistance, the composition of the large breakaway group was essentially unknown, for who in their right mind would allow such a break to go without having at least one british rider in it? that boonen, eventual winner vino and cancellara were a part of this disappearing act would tend to lend credence to the possibility that the british team didn't realise they'd gone. though both boonen and cancellara suffered unrelated disadvantages, the principle remains true.

mens olympic road race

but, and, like jaylo, it's a big but, it's bike racing. it's one of the very reasons we all smugly grinned behind dave brailsford's back when he said he'd have a team sky rider atop the tour podium within five years. to be quite blunt about it, shit happens. there are any number of reasons as to why team gb failed to follow through on just what we hoped they were going to do. yes, they're professionals and it's their job to make sure things like that don't happen, but how many of us haven't made a mistake at work, even though we're paid not to? life and bike racing don't always work out the way you hope they will.

if you've read this far, you are probably thinking so what? hurry up and get to the point. my reason for telling you everything you already know is because i have seen one or two calls for an inquest into the abject failure of britain's race strategy. cavendish is again quoted as having said "it just seems like the other teams were happy not to win as long as (britain) didn't win"; possibly a bit of a kneejerk reaction as there were quite a number of countries represented in the breakaway, and their team-mates were unlikely to do anything to endanger that situation.

i have no doubt that dave brailsford has already minutely examined every last wrong move, re-watching the race over and over in order to better inform himself and learn from the team's mistakes. but plain and simple, they didn't win. that's a part of the vagaries of sporting competition. endless analysis by the media, including me, if i might honour that epithet for a moment or two, isn't worth a whole bunch of bananas. that's just the way it is. watching the second half of the race, it was plain to see that every rider in the british team was working their collective butts off to try and regain a foothold on the race. there is no shame in that, and we truly have no cause to think any the less of any of them for not having provided us and them with that much vaunted gold medal.

mens olympic road race

what i think i might be allowed to say without too much in the way of contradiction, was that it was a fairly exciting race, more so than many of this year's tour de france stages, and perhaps the uci ought to further consider a reduction in the number of riders per team come the grand tours. if the olympic race proved one thing, it's that nine riders can place a greater stranglehold on a race than can be achieved by five. and though i know the majority of directeurs sportifs just love having those radios, the lack of them on saturday, while it may not have favoured team gb, has been posited that it led to less predictable and more exciting racing.

of course, those are only my opinions, based on my less than astute reading of the race. i'm generally not very good at this, and there's every possibility i've now proved that in public, but i think, much like the leveson inquiry, any degree of public investigation really isn't going to change the result. lizzie armitstead was utterly brilliant yesterday; whether strategy or otherwise, she got it completely right, being beaten to the line by a better rider in a fair sprint. so can we put saturday behind us and look towards wiggins' performance in wednesday's time-trial and the track racing beyond that.

it's entertainment, pure and simple.

photos by phil o'connor from british cycling

monday 30th july 2012


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who'd have thought it?

the cycle show

i bought a bike when i was 24 in order to save myself petrol money. i'd ridden a bicycle up until i went off to college because i had a daily paper round after which i usually rode to school, quite frequently in all weathers. there's less to be concerned about at that age, but in my own terms of the day, the bicycle was a simple means to an end.


the bicycle i bought to save on petrol money was the archetypal ten-speed racer, a cycle that arrived replete with owners manual pointing out that the shimano gears affixed to middle and rear were the very same as those used by riders in the tour de france. i would figure out much later in life that the only commonality was that of the word shimano on each mech, for i would have severe doubts that professional racers used anything like the bent tin bolted to my bicycle. there was also a free poster depicting the racing team who allegedly rode the very same machine that sat in my parents' garden shed, but hindsight tells me that they were unlikely to be competing on plain gauge steel.

i, however, had no notion for competition whatsoever. in fact, naively it never dawned that the word racing adjectively used to qualify the word bicycle actually meant what it said, team poster notwithstanding. it served my purposes well in traipsing back and forth to my work of the day. channel four's innovation in broadcasting minute portions of the tour in a daily half-hour show was the catalyst for me, as it seems, for many another. with a tousle haired scotsman swanning around the upper reaches of french mountains, wearing a white jersey with red spots, it was hard to avoid the infectious notion that cycling played a greater part in the panoply of world sport than i had been led to believe.

channel four capitalised on their annual french display by bringing city centre cycling to our screens which, though often featuring in the wee small hours, gave the now avid cyclist something concrete to hang onto. then, as up until recently, dropping into work the following morning, full to the brim with tales of derring do from the peloton, elicited much the same response as do shouts of "your wheel's going round" from the roadside.

the cycle show

but then chris hoy and his pals started demolishing all and sundry around the boards of whichever velodrome they happened to find themselves on, crowning it all by winning screeds of gold medals at the beijing olympics. this provided the impetus for mr brailsford, whom we smugly figured had completely misunderstood the complexities and traditions of road-racing, to not only put together team sky, but portend that he'd have a british winner of the tour de france inside five years.

ah, how we laughed.

of course, bradley did just what everyone knew he could, but simply doubted would ever be achieved in our lifetimes. or even his, come to that. the fact that he drew the raffle in paris a couple of weeks ago seemingly made the british public absolutely certain that it was simply a matter of kilometres before cavendish walked off with gold in the men's road race at the opening of this year's olympic games. sadly, that didn't come to fruition, but it seems to have done little to dampen the enthusiasm for competitive cycling by the previously disinterested british public. today's women's race resulted in britain's first olympic medal, and it was a sight for sore eyes to see the numbers at the roadside most of the way round the course. if there was ever any real doubt that cycling has successfully raised its profile in this country, it has been now dispersed.

the weekend broadsheets quite frequently hand over a page to their motoring correspondent on which to 'review' a motor car. in point of fact, i think i would be less than convinced to purchase or not purchase a motor vehicle based on a few humourous paragraphs and a stylish photo, but nonetheless, it displays the status that the motor car has in our psyche by that fact that several of the dailies subscribe to a similar notion. brownie points ought to be presented to the guardian, who have, on occasion, banished the motor car in favour of a bicycle review, but generally the latter is confined to the specialist magazines.

such favouritism has also invaded the television screen, resulting in the long-lived top gear and at least one other, the name of which escapes me. if cycling has reached the status i have hopefully described above, then how come nobody has brought a more general cycle show to our tv screens? that would have been a valid question had i asked it two weeks ago, but as of last monday, the aptly named cycle show has appeared on itv4, another tv channel capitalising on its coverage of the tour de france and now in basking in the glow of bradders on the podium. however, television rarely works on immediacy, so i would think it the case that there is remarkable coincidence between the programme's first outing and bradley winning yellow. i asked sharon fuller, operations director of century tv, producers of the cycle show, how long it had been in the planning?

"We've been working for two years to get the financial backing to be able to approach a broadcaster to try to get the show on air. We only got the final sign off from ITV within the last six weeks so it's been a race against time to pull all the elements together. We've been extremely fortunate being able to schedule the show immediately after such an historic tour."

with this sort of thing not having been brought to air before, though did attempt something vaguely similar several years ago, it is obviously a major factor in planning that century didn't blow it by getting it all horribly wrong. on the basis of the first programme shown last monday (23rd july) that is most definitely not the case. however, one of the major considerations has to be that of the presenters, who might not quite manage to ruin everything, but could conceivably help it receive positive approbation from its intended and possibly inadvertant audience. how did they choose the presenters and had they given due consideration to messrs boulting, rendell and imlach?

the cycle show

"We wanted to avoid the traditional cycling 'old boys club'. We're trying to do something different and attract a new audience, so while some of those names may appear as guests within the series, we wanted to get a nice mixture in our presenting team.
"Graham Little is someone whom we've worked with on cycling coverage in the past, but who also has a lot of experience in a studio environment. He's a mad challenge nut; he took part in an ultra marathon earlier this year and also holds a World Record (along with our Editor, Adam Heayberd who was also part of the team) for Long Distance Open Water swimming. He's a massive cycling fan and he's really knowledgeable on the subject. A perfect mixture. If you ever get to speak to him, ask him about his elephant polo experience.
"Rob Hayles is someone we've worked with a lot over the years. We actually gave Rob his first commentary job and he's brilliant to work with. We wanted one of our presenting team to be able to speak from within the sport and to be able to test equipment and explain things from experience. Rob can sometimes come across a little dry on camera, but we're working with him on that and once he's on a bike he's always great.
"Anna Glowinski is a key part of our presenting team. She's so competitive at so many different types of cycling. I've never known anything like it. She's got the loveliest personality, has an incredible affect on people. She's really not afraid of getting stuck into things. It was important to us that our female presenter was able to take on the boys and speak with authority about cycling. We first found her when she was racing at the Tour Series for the Mule Bar Girls and we were interviewing her pre-race. We thought, 'this girl's got something special.'"

channel four, in their heyday, had little about which to be concerned when broadcasting either the tour, city centre cycling or even the kellogg's tour of britain. it was all cycle racing; the audience knew just what they were going to get and were rarely disappointed. pick up a copy of the comic during less frenetic parts of the season, and it inhabits a blatant dichotomy. the cover frequently displays a regular cyclist aboard a regular bicycle wearing regular cycle gear. it flatters to deceive, for while pretending on the shelves of whsmith to be of interest to even the casual cyclist, open the first few pages and its racing pedigree is plain for all to see.

the cycle show, however, has truly to appeal to a much wider audience, particularly in the light of the bicycle's new found atom of delight in the public eye. a programme about anything that tries to be all things to all people could be seen to suffer from a lack of focus. how does sharon intend/hope to avoid that situation? "We're going to focus on different topics in each programme rather than to cover all topics in every programme, which is why some people may need to bear with us a little. Also we'll provide additional content online which will happen more as we get further into the series. We only have eight half-hour slots, so this series will almost be a statement of intent for what we'd like to do given more time and resources. Which, if people get behind the show, hopefully we will. Ideally we'd like it to grow to an hour in the future."

the cycle show

authenticity is perhaps something harder to come by. we have all been dismayed at some point in our tv watching careers, by a blatantly ineffective backdrop, something that is often little more than a trompe l'oeil and considerably less than convincing. the use of look mum no hands in london's old street as the 'studio', is rather inspired. where did that surface from and will it remain so throughout the series?

"We've been regulars at Look Mum No Hands for a while as customers. In fact we shot the pilot show there back in November. The guys there have been great, incredibly helpful and have really got behind the show. It's ideal for us as, aside from anything else, we're all caffeine addicts and there's such a big coffee culture within cycling. We're hoping to do a 'coffee wars' feature later in the series, pitching riders of different disciplines against each other in a Barista-off."

you will notice that those riding in the appropriate jerseys in the olympics are referred to as team great britain, nomenclature that encompasses england, scotland, wales and northern ireland. the import of cycling is spread almost evenly across each country, and those of us in what london regularly refers to as the north, feel just as involved as anyone else. will the cycle show remain london-based (from a studio point of view) for the present?

"If we're able to get a second series we'd love to take the show on a tour of cycling themed coffee shops (always assuming an increase in budget!) so that it's not so London-centric."

the cycle show

there is an advertiser in our local newspaper whose advert has not only remained largely unaltered for the last dozen years (aside from the addition of a web address), but which has retained exactly the same position on exactly the same page throughout that time. perhaps a case of familiarity breeding content. though an unfair question to ask after only one programme, is there a strictly adhered to format for this first series of the cycle show, or is there still an element of flexibility depending on audience feedback?

"The format of the show will change each week to fit the guests and features we have. We were unfortunate with the first show because we had to film on the last day of the Tour de France. The guests and links will normally move around the shop a little more than we were able to in that first programme."

the complete lack of any restrictions on thewashingmachinepost means that i have no trouble presenting articles and features of any length i deem suitable, though i am generally mindful of the needs of its readership, trying hard, though not always successfully, to curtail my verbosity as much as possible (well, sometimes). the medium allows for as many words as my keyboard will suffer, accompanied by an endless stream of photos and graphics, plus the occasional luxury of moving pictures. the cycle show has half an hour to put its point across, interrupted by a mid-point advert break. is this long enough to deal with any subject in-depth? is there a danger that certain aspects will suffer from a degree of superficiality?

"We'd love to have a longer slot, but we have to remember that ITV have been good enough to take a chance on us where no other broadcaster has. It's always going to be difficult to go in-depth when the programme is limited to 22 mins 20 secs of editorial, however we will find our balance."

it is of great credit to chain reaction cycles that they are sponsors of the programme. though it can do them no harm whatsoever, it is nice to see that those within the cycle industry have recognised the efforts being made by century tv, efforts that can surely do little but increase the number of customers visiting bike shops and subsequently accessorising. generally speaking, has there been the level of support from within the cycle industry that sharon had hoped for, or is there a feeling that most are waiting to see how the series develops?

"The series is aimed at a mainstream audience and we're very lucky to be in the position that we are, to be able to make a programme like this and have a sponsor and a broadcaster back it. We, and the rest of the industry, need to make the most of it.
"Weve had a lot of really good feedback on the show, we've had some constructive criticism, which we accept, and we've had some negative comments. To be honest, that's what we expected.
"There are reasons why cycling hasn't been able to take advantage of the rise in popularity to the extent that it might have in the past and we are trying to do something different. These things take time and it's hard to get things right the first time.
the cycle show "From within the industry, the feedback has genuinely been quite positive, and we really appreciate that."

again, an unfair question to ask just one day before the second episode is aired, but will there be a second or third series? "We certainly hope so!"

social media has made serious inroads to virtually all aspects of modern life, principally via the mediums of both facebook and twitter. it is therefore of little exclamation that there are several mentions throughout the programme to the effect of 'if you want to know more, simply get in touch via facebook or follow us on twitter'. however, when i wanted to do exactly that to arrange this interview, i could find no communicable e-mail address or even telephone number. i would be the first to admit that i couldn't find my way round facebook if my life depended on it, but it strikes me that it ought to be a tad easier than i found it. assuming someone reading this feels they have the very subject matter that will bring fame and fortune, how would they get in touch?

"We're really active on twitter (@thecycleshowtv) which hopefully people will see, our facebook page ( is full of fantastic ideas which people have sent us and we welcome direct messages. This series is almost entirely pre planned or pre shot but we're always open to ideas."

the numbering system utilised by most of the major television broadcasters tends to support notions of an hierarchy amongst their various channels. therefore, itv1 presumably holds greater status within the independent television network than does itv4. similarly, the relationship between bbc1 and bbc3. though itv4 has garnered an excellent reputation for its tour coverage, do you see the cycle show being promoted to itv1 in the future? "For now, cycling is still a niche sport, though we're trying to help change that. In the future, who knows?"

the second episode of the cycle show will be shown at 8pm on itv4, monday 30th july. if you have similar difficulties gaining any reception of itv4 as do we on islay, the programme can be watched on or eventually on itv player.

sunday 29th july 2012

showers pass


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showers pass double century ex jacket

showers pass double century jacket

much has been said regarding the design of the british jerseys for the olympics, perhaps less the styling, more the fact that the colour red seems to be almost conspicuous by its absence. the bulk of the torso is decorated predominantly in shades of blue and white with, as i recall (having been left out of the british team this year, i do not have a jersey to hand) a red collar. the discussion, perhaps bizarrely, has revolved less around the fact that red is all but missing, but more regarding its influence on performance.

it will become a very strange world if the uci or the ioc carry out further research to determine if certain hues could be considered doping in one form or another. current consternation, perhaps responsible for today's desultory perfromance by the british squad in the men's road race, is that the vagueness of rouge in the lycra has a slowing influence on performance. i noticed tom booned on a bright red specialized, who seemed no better placed than cavendish, but if i point out that the eventual winner, vinokourov, was also astride a red specialized, perhaps those more well-versed in colour science than i, have a point?

showers pass double century jacket

in the summers i spent working when a student, my unit manager apparently suffered from regular migraine headaches. in order to lessen the blow caused by this malady, he had the walls of his office painted a particularly unattractive shade of green, one that he said exerted a calming influence and allowed him to continue being a complete pain in the neck. if colour, therefore, has truly an effect outside its more normal sphere of influence, perhaps there are uninvestigated aspects of this feature that could be researched in our favour. for instance, am i any less likely to garner a soaking if wearing an orange or purple waterproof than perhaps grey or white?

with stunningly large sums of money provided as research grants to provide answers to the most obvious questions, i think it beholden upon thewashingmachinepost to find the appropriate form, fill it in, then sit back and await squillions that will allow me a wardrobe full of all colours of waterproof, ready and waiting to be scientifically graded according to colour. i think we all know the answer that will appear at the bottom of my research paper, but that seems not to have too much bearing on the success of one's application. after all, if £27 million can be found for what passed as olympic opening entertainment, a couple of hundred thousand for a comprehensive waterproof study seems like exceptional value for money.

showers pass double century jacket

waterproof jackets own a mystery all of their own, predominantly asserted by the descriptions provided by the manufacturers. while i am more than willing to be proved wrong on this, it is my understanding that only a garment featuring fully-taped seams can legally be described as waterproof. everything else can only be said to be water-resistant. this is a thoroughly confusing situation, for i'm sure the majority of us take more heed of the water repellency of the fabric from which the jacket is constructed rather than investigating the status of the seams.

i have worn many a waterproof in years past that has bobbled the water all across the sleeves, yet experienced modest or excessive seepage where it's all joined together. it is, therefore, legalese be damned, far better to find ourselves a jacket that proffers waterproofing to a depth of several metres with seams taped to within an inch of their lives. of course, there is then the not inconsiderable problem of breathability.

showers pass double century jacket

the latter is often the real bugbear when it comes to keeping dry. one of the world's foremost apparel providers brought their first waterproof to market advertising a degree of water repellency that exceeded the minimum standard by a factor of five, a claim that seemed substantially true. however, the breathability left a great deal to be desired, meaning that, while the rain remained on the outside most successfully, anything above modest effort on the bike resulted in a mobile sauna behind the fully taped zip.

the holy grail one would imagine.

which brings me to the garment under consideration; a showers pass double century ex; a breathable and fully waterproof jacket. the waterproof/breathability aspect is taken care of by cocona xcelerator fabric, a product containing so called active particles which attract humidity vapour and absorb body heat. but then, they would say that, wouldn't they?

as seems perennially the case, everytime a waterproof arrives at washingmachinepost cottage, the weather takes a turn for the better, rather belieing our average annual rainfall of around 1236mm. portland, oregon, where showers pass live, gives us a good run for our money, managing an average of just under 1000mm. endless offers of assistance from the girls in the office to throw buckets of water over me during the warm and dry period were strongly resisted. it's just not the way things are done. in fact, i firmly believe that the only way to properly test a waterproof jacket is to go out on the bike and attempt to get very wet.

showers pass double century jacket

my first endeavour to do so failed miserably. after heavy rain throughout the night, by the time breakfast was past and i was out and rolling, the rain had ameliorated to a fine drizzle. enough to make it seriously damp, but hardly the worst that could be expected. ironically several hours of very wet rain were experienced on a day when i hadn't expected to get particularly wet in the first place.

the ideal factor attaching to the double century jacket is the ability to roll it into a compact and bijou bundle and unceremoniously stuff it in a back pocket, exactly what i did when setting out this morning. it had been showery up until that point, but i made it only a kilometre or two before it seemed more prudent to remove the showers pass jacket from its pocket and put it on. and there it stayed for the next 55km as the rain got wetter and wetter. though i have no doubt many of my fellow islanders think me a mite strange when extending the length of a ride despite heavy rain, there's no way a satisfactory test can be undertaken if a ride is curtailed at the first sign of precipitation.

showers pass double century jacket

though it's a pleasant sensation to watch rain drops form baubles of water on the surface before harmlessly rolling off, the proof of the pudding is in what state the garments sheltering beneath are in when retiring for a coffee and a cheese and pickle sandwich (i did have a slice of st clements cake too, but we'll ignore that for the time being). in this case, my upper layer was bone dry. not only was there no sign of any rain having sneaked in, there was also no evidence of any breathability problem either. ed at showers pass said "My objective was to find a dryer to-the-skin waterproof /breathable fabric with improved MVTR (moisture vapour transmission rate) and better durability. The Cocona Xcelerator Fabric is fantastic and meets all the criteria I was targeting." he may just have achieved his wish.

it cannot have escaped your attention that the plasticky lining that informs most breathable waterproofs is rather clammy to the touch under extenuating circumstances, ie, bike-riding. in the majority of cases, breathability seems to be more than adequate until pedalling is introduced to the equation. despite there being two zippable flaps, one each side of the jacket to allow additional ventilation, i'd be lying if i said dessication was the order of the day, but it would be highly unrealistic to expect this to be the case after a couple of hours in the saddle. regular riding bereft of any jacket covering a cycle jersey in dry weather will inevitably result in some degree of perspiration invading the fabric of both baselayer and jersey. so why we should expect even a breathable jacket to keep us thoroughly dry internally is quite beyond me.

showers pass double century jacket

the jacket cuffs feature velcro straps to close the arms to unwarranted ingress of cold air; leaving these at their loosest setting noticeably aids the jacket's breathability. there is also a drawcord at the hem to alter how close the jacket fits. the drop tail provides a modicum of protection from rear wheel spray, a bonus in today's case, as my review bicycle had no guards/fenders fitted. though there are no rear pockets of any description, there is a taped vertically zipped pocket on the front left breast with an internal grommet for ipod headphones. the full-length front zip operates as a two-way closure, and it is suprisingly untaped, though the full length waterproof baffle behind it ought to take care of any suspect water ingress.

in view of its success as a breathable, waterproof jacket that can be stuffed in a back pocket, i fully intend to make this my first choice as i depart through the back door en route to my palatial bike shed in inclement weather. the folks at showers pass experience pretty much the same climate as that of the hebrides, though perhaps eased by a touch less wind. it is no coincidence that a jersey sent me by rapha's slate olson was accompanied by a card that mentioned "i suppose we are brethren in rain."

never a truer word was written.

the showers pass double century ex jacket is available in sizes ranging from small to xxl and in either orange/black or white/black. cost is $160 (£104). the jacket could likely be ordered in the uk through nrg4. a list of uk dealers can be found here showers pass uk dealers

showers pass

saturday 28th july 2012


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the art of expression

james straffon

as if you needed me to tell you this, the bicycle is a truly wonderful machine, being at once both an end in itself as well as a means to an end. for many, it is not only a vehicle of delights, transporting its engine to and from interesting and perhaps less interesting locations, but allowing an almost unfettered level of expression by that very same engine. it is this that often encourages its acolytes to collect more than one of its kind in the bike shed, for surely expression can be counted upon to alter itself on a weekly, if not daily basis? while this does not necessarily disfavour those possessed of only one, it certainly humours those possessed of a flock.

james straffon

for the majority, one, two or several examples are plenty. these may favour only one or several gears; they may offer a splash of colour; they may appear more straight-laced for the more formal occasion, but in truth, many an owner is satisfied with his/her lot, using the exertions of pedalling as an appropriate means of expression. there are, however, a minority for whom the bicycle has more than one end to its means, individuals who have possibly a greater sense of perspective than the majority, and are able to place the cycle and its heritage just where we didn't realise it belonged.

one such person, currently enjoying nods of approval and the approbation of his peers, is iconic artist, james straffon. having viewed his current exhibition at the snap gallery in london's piccaddilly arcade, it seemed only right and proper that i make further enquiries of the gentleman to better edify us all as to what brought him to his current position of prominence.

there are two possible routes to artistic excellence: that of the prescribed educational direction, or that of self-made troubadour. did james revel in the formally trained approach? "If formally trained means attending the likes of Slade School of Art for three years, and immersing myself in experimental practice and theory, the answer is no. I am however, art-qualified, with a degree in Graphic Design, and a great deal of experience working within the arts. My route to fine artist has been somewhat more self-initiated, which perhaps sums up my approach to life."

james straffon

personally, on leaving art college, i dabbled, but mostly inhabited the wilderness on which the life of an artist occasionally appeared on the horizon or inhabited the periphery. it was a goodly number of years before i succumbed to the thought that i might be guilty of ignoring an inherent talent and decided to take the artistic life a tad more seriously. was there a previous life to james straffon?

"Although the last couple of years have seen a creative focus on the cycling oeuvre, I don't really think of myself as a cycling artist. Indeed, if it were not for the LOCOG brand clampdown, the public would have seen a new body of work based on Olympic Games heritage. That said, I have always been a creator - covering many forms of creativity - I've made films, written a novel, but perhaps none finished to the degree of my present work."

james straffon

the last remnants of my own artworks from well over a dozen and a half years ago still cover the damp patches on the wall, saving mrs twmp and i from having to choose a wallpaper with a more visible pattern. due to the thematic nature of their subject matter, many has been the comment that they appear to be differing threads of the same story. james straffon's works currently on exhibition seem intent on doing likewise; telling a story. is that something he wrestles with; is that the true purpose of his work.

"I'm not really one for wrestling. I see my show as multi-layered, as all good art should be. The 'purpose' is that which the viewer finds themselves. So on one level the visual can be explored for form, effect, emotional resonance alone. Beneath there is an overall allegory - the story of the Tour de France; each artwork telling its own chapter, or verse. My intent was to fashion a body of work which spoke of what I call 'devotional imagery'. To that effect, I see the upstairs room of my show as a perfect example of this. The altar, located on the far wall, is the large LE TOUR artwork. It is the very fulcrum from which all the other artworks radiate. And running down the flanks of the side walls are the stained glass windows (the Portraits series). These show the saints or icons, each pane reflecting a narrative or folklore. So if there is a purpose, it is to rework the exploits of the riders in a bike race, into a form of apotheosis."

james straffon

i am not the only individual who considers the bicycle as a means of expression. though i hadn't considered it so for many a long year, it has subtly crept upon me that riding around a small hebridean island dressed in the finest clothing the cycle world has to offer is as much a form of expression as the visiting enthusiasts who come decorated in all manner of whisky themed clothing. though i hope it stops short of ostentation, it is an almost hidden way of expressing personality, letting others know just where one's loyalties lie.

the expressionists as defined by the art world, are just as concerned with nailing their colours to the flag pole, intent on describing by artistic means, just how much their subject matter influences them in the moment. for reasons of identity or ego, many of these expressionists channel such exuberance through rapid application of paint or whatever medium serves their purposes, leading to often rapidly completed works. expressionism would, therefore, be regarded as more immediate than the meticulous art practiced by straffon, yet expressionism seems the only appropriate description that fits the bill. does he find that to be the case, as opposed to 'mere' illustration?

"An interesting thought. I would struggle to align what I do with the likes of Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Egon Schiele or Max Beckmann. Expressionism, for me, sacrifices reality for more emotional, subjective effect. My artwork very much deals with real life, albeit a sporting one. Therefore, I have always considered my practice more akin to Pop Art, and the likes of Peter Blake, Robert Rauschenberg, even Andy Warhol."

james straffon

many of the great masters of the art world produced their masterpieces through a series of studies ranging from tiny pencil sketches to virtually scaled-down works impressed either in gouache, watercolour ore even libeerally applied oils. some of these could take many a year to be realised, suffering from constant revision and a honing of the necessary skills. this is, of course, not the only method of creating art; many throw themselves headlong into the final canvas from the outset, almost endlessly reworking and scraping the paint until it is either moulded into the final image, or beaten into submission by strength of artistic will.

james straffon's works are less influenced by this work pattern, yet the depth visible in each final image on display suggests a less than immediate approach. does he undertake considerable research before he commits to each series of work? "Very much so. And particularly with the LE TOUR exhibition. I wanted to cover as many aspects of the race itself; in the process revealing some of the subtext. To that end, I feel I have only scratched the surface. So although the show is now up and on the gallery wall, my research is still ongoing. I find it an integral part of the creative process."

james straffon

cliche in artistic expression is not entirely unknown, and nor is the same unheard of in words ascribed to a particular subject. i am not overly fond of inserting cliche into my own written work, but it seems appropriate in this current thread to state the obvious that you cannot make an omelette without breaking some eggs. on the right, just inside the door of the snap gallery sits a single rapha grand tour shoe clipped into a pedal attached to a crank. the shoe has been treated with decoupage in a similar manner to several of straffon's accompanying works. applying decor to the yak leather reputedly required a sanding of the surface to allow it to adhere to the surface.

considering the newness of the footwear and its considerable cost, did it feel almost sacreligious to 'defile' the grand tour shoes in order to incorporate them as artworks? "There is a key component of my modus operandi, one which keeps my making charged and exhilarating, and that is risk. I have deliberately always worked with original items. So, for example, VOILA will feature a rare magazine cover from July 1934. Onto this I will add paint, pen, and lastly resin. Once I commit to the process, there is no going back. In this way, I have embraced the spontaneity of chance. And allowed myself to look beyond the apparent 'value' of the original items I repurpose into artworks, adding a new 'value' with the end result. Perhaps this 'destruction' is a form of desecration. But it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make, in order to arrive at a pseudo-resurrection; artist alchemy, if you will."

james straffon

i mentioned during my description of visiting the current exhibition that i had a less than concrete appreciation of the art i was about to embrace. though it had not previously occurred to me, the experience was not unrelated to a few hours previously, admiring the religious iconography exhibited in london's national gallery. how does james react to the contention that the triptyches in the 'le tour' exhibition form the basis of a modern iconography? "For me there is no contention. That is what they are."

though james has bowed to modernity and the history made by bradley wiggins and his sky team in this year's tour de france with the limited edition print shown on this page, the majority of his works feature the true greats of cycling; coppi, bartali, anquetil, simpson et al. does he generally find himself more in touch with the riders of cycling's great heritage than with that of the contemporary world, or is it more that their physical legacy has left material more adaptable to his idiom?

james straffon

"It is true that 'modern' memorabilia is less appealing to me. Ironically the improvement of print media - glossier paper, more vibrant inks, etc - is harder to work with. In addition, the infection of commercialism has rendered so much material unusable - where once a cyclist could be seen pictured on a magazine cover, heroic and well framed; succinct headline telling the story, now he (or she) will be swamped with additional subtitling, previews to other stories, branded supplementation. There is a quality issue. And within that, the base material. Which is why, I'd like to think, art schools will always encourage the craft of pencil, charcoal and paper. And not stylus, finger and iPad. Maybe I prefer to look back, than forward."

up till recently, i had only viewed straffon's art by way of occasionally printed matter, but more often several facets of the interweb. and in an embarrassing reprise of my attitude to photography when at art college, i found it wanting. while weeks of tuition in painting class taught us the basics of brush manipulation, mixing of colours, stretching and priming of canvas and the many other aspects of being an accomplished painter, one or two of those engaged in post-diploma work were making strides with photography. as a young and naive student, to me this seemed tantamount to taking the easy way out. for heaven's sake, how hard could it be to point the lens in an appropriate direction and click a button? simples.

james straffon

straffon works in layers, layers that consist of imagery, text, pen, resin and canvas. it is an agglomeration that eminently suits his iconography, but has he ever felt the desire to work more conventionally', using such as paint on canvas, or is that simply not his metier? "Art should never be confined by convention. I'll say no more."

i am extremely fortunate in receiving many review items of clothing and more recently, footwear from the folks at perren street, many items of which arrive at washingmachinepost cottage before they have been released to the public. this is a state of affairs that applied to even the recently released grand tour shoes, yet prior to that delivery, i had already been entreated to views of james straffon's artistic treatment of the very same shoes. from where did the rapha connection arrive? "Courtesy of Docteur Juppet, and the archangel Raphael. It's a great form of introduction."

chapel of rothko

the 'le tour' exhibition has been, to the best of my knowledge, extended by one week, and offers any interested viewer the opportunity to purchase a limited edition book cataloguing the works displayed upon the snap gallery's walls. the image of bradley shows that the artist has his eye on immediacy, if perhaps only infrequently. so where does james straffon go from here?

"Next year is the 100th Tour de France. So the stage has been set. I'm already fighting with ideas, for which I am keen on a departure into perhaps more abstract works. My ideal would be a homage to the Rothko Chapel, in Houston, Texas. I'd love the opportunity to fuse the eclecticism of the Madonna del Ghisallo Chapel, with the simplicity of the Rothko Chapel, and arrive at a setting of contemplation, and worship, for those who value elevation through tales of human fortitude and frailty.
"All I need is a location, and a sympathetic sponsor."

james straffon

friday 27th july 2012


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something to lose sleep over

calmac ferry

there are alwyas things to moan about when you live on an island. it doesn't take too long to accept most of the benefits for granted; the fact that we are all but crime free, there are no roundabouts, no traffic lights and no traffic wardens. kids can go out to play without raising any concerns for parents who may not be within earshot, and teeenagers can attend dances and discos until the wee small hours and fear not what may happen on the journey home. i can tell this is all beginning to sound too much like gloating, so i'll stop now.

however, at the risk of making an obvious and thus tautological statement, by the very definition of an island, it is surrounded by water. this rather precludes travelling to and from islay by motor vehicle; at least, not by driving it. though there is a twice daily air service from glasgow, it's difficult to fit a car in the fuselage, so the only viable alternative is to board a caledonian macbrayne ferry. when i moved here over twenty years ago, the island was served by a single ferry that travelled back and forth between the mainland and both island ports.

calmac ferry

in the intervening years, the popularity of islay as a destination and its principal export has dramatically increased to the point where one ferry would be grossly insufficient, and therefore in 2006, a second boat was added to the route. after only a short period these two smallish ferries were yet again struggling to serve the number of people and amount of freight shunting back and forth to scotland. luckily, around ten years ago, someone had the neat idea of fomenting a brand new ferry for the islay route, one conceived at the time when there was perceived need for only one boat. this ship, the mv finlaggan, built in poland and delivered last may, has joined the regular mv hebridean isles in struggling to keep up with the number of trips back and forth.

caledonian macbrayne is a state-owned ferry company serving the western isles, and by the nature of its existence it has a monopoly based on having a fleet of boats that can be placed according to need. the mv finlaggan was marketed to us as being the new boat for islay, disappointingly not named the mv islay, but you can't have everything. in point of fact, the finlaggan was simply an addition to the existing fleet, as subject to being moved as a pawn as any of the other calmac boats. and that is what has just happened.

mtb thru axle

ferry boats in constant year-round use need to be regularly maintained, and thus require to be substituted during those periods of down-time, resulting in our ferry being removed from the islay route this coming december and sent elsewhere to cover annual re-fits. it will be apparently remaining on these other routes until easter of 2013. to add insult to injury, it appears that this may be an annual occurrence, one that has not brought a great deal of approval from the local community.

my palmares in the realm of moaning continuously about what the industry is doing to the common or garden road bike is verging on the impressive. granted, not one of those moans has made a blind bit of difference, and in that there are remarkable parallels between this and the lack of a fair hearing from calmac. there's the irritation of moving the headset inside the head tube, before deciding to vary the diameter of the steerer that has need of the aforesaid headset. this was followed by shifting the bottom bracket bearings outside the frame and substantially increasing the bottom bracket spindle diameter, thus making the ubiquitous square taper all but obsolete.

as if that were not enough of a rebuff from the notional powers that be, the impending imposition of hydraulic discs is a threat that verges on the unconstitutional. that the first move was made by my favoured italian framebuilder was a mite harder to swallow. though i will live with accusations of arrogance, particularly when allied to my complete lack of verifiable engineering nous, i see it as people meddling with the simplicity of the road bike, most likely for reasons of increasing the annual number of units sold. though this may be the way of the modern world, it doesn't mean i have to like it, and though perhaps a voice in the wilderness, i know i am not completely alone.

whiksy carbon forks

i, along with every other road cycling devotee, has now to face a future consisting of carbon fibre road bicycles with enormous tapered steerers held in place by oversized internal headsets, mobilised by means of electric/electronic gear systems and brought to a halt via a pair of hydraulic disc brakes. fausto coppi and gino bartali must be turning in their graves, a statement that, i admit, places my appreciation of the world of road-riding in obvious and unapologetic perspective.

rather in contradiction of the situation in which i have just placed myself, i do rather enjoy the ride offered by these latest carbon incarnations, and i really can find little by way of fault with electric gears. i'm just not convinced that they are a necessary part of the needs of the contemporary non-racer.

hydraulic discs are just plain wrong.

however, lest i thought i had now the limits of my luddite tendencies set for the foreseeable future, the rug has onec again been unceremoniously whipped from under my cleats. the quick release lever as invented by the great tullio campagnolo, has enjoyed a long and productive life, making it simpler for the removal anad replacement of bicycle wheels. co-incidentally, the hollowing out of the axle to allow use of this lever has improved the torsional strength of this component. a win/win situation as far as i can see. in the world of the knobbly offroad wheel, things have moved in a slightly different direction.

aside from the occasional bunny-hop demonstrated by the agile in avoiding legions of street furniture, the wheels of the road bicycle are relatively untroubled in a vertical compliance sort of way. mountain bikes, on the other hand, are subjected to all sorts of rugged and unexpected chunks of terrain, rarely alleviated by the propensity of such as downhill riders to literally throw their machines into the abyss. so doing is unlikely to be met with equanimity by the front axle in particular, leading to potential and not unforeseen mechanical difficulties. in solving these, the manufacturers of suspension forks came up with the thru-axle, simply described as the axle that would normally be a part of the hub assembly, now sliding through the hub and threading into the opposing fork leg.

whisky carbon forks

in effecting this solution, the dropout of each fork leg now has no need to be open, allowing the forks to become a stronger unit. the same affixation for the wheel has also made its way to the rear wheel on many a full-suspension offroad bicycle. if, like me, you are thinking that such an arrangement has no place or necessity on a road bike, then we are singing from the same hymn sheet. however, there are always those who occupy a different pew; in this case, whisky parts of bloomington, minnesota.

though named with a tenuous connection to islay, even down to the spelling, whisky parts, manufacturers of a variety of high-end carbon forks, have not only opted to encompass the thru-axle on a pair of cyclocross forks, but also to their future road forks for good measure. naturally these thru-axle forks also feature disc tabs.

it is hard to see how such an innovation will find favour in the professional peloton. unlike the current quick release which relaxes its grip on the dropouts with a flick of the lever, the current incarnations of the thru-axle require to be unscrewed in order to release the wheel. though i write not from experience but conjecture, i fear the professed reason for all this may yet again be levelled at the door of the great god stiffness. for up till now, every progressive step forward has involved imbuing an increase in diameter with that of undeniable rigidity of the type beloved of sprinters, whether it has any real world value for the rest of us.

there seems, to me at least, to be little discrimination being exercised here. i get the distinct impression that if i were to posit a substantial increase in the diameter of the derailleur pivot bolt because it would improve gear-changing stiffness, there would be someone at shimano working on it tomorrow.

thankfully, i can think of few components remaing that can be meddled with, but i'm not holding my breath.

whisky parts

thursday 26th july 2012


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what a magnificent octopus

magnificent octopus

mrs washingmachinepost is, as i may have advised previously, a childminder. keeping the little darlings occupied, happy, and satisfied is the prime concern of her day(s), something i am most definitely cut out for. you need only ask laura at rapha how easily i have contrived to turn impatience into a virtue. mrs twmp has my ultimate admiration.

there are, however, many ideal distractions with which to have them occupy their time, not least of which is the old standby, pencil and paper. indeed, these modern times have omnipresent digital alternatives such as the ipad to which even her two year-olds have taken like a duck to water, employing their little digits in efficacious ways that have all but stumped the adults for whom the devices were originally intended. however, there is still a great deal of mileage to be extracted from real world methods prior to entering any virtual universe within clicking distance.

it would be churlish to deny that pencil and paper did not play a large part in my own childhood, for i did eventually end my formal education in an art college, having previously undertaken every school certificate in the subject available at the time. as is amply demonstrated by the plethora of artwork that decorates the hallway of washingmachinepost cottage, self expression is the kernel of young minds in possession of a drawing implement. in truth, any direction to keep within the lines of a colouring book falls on deaf ears; scribbling is as much an art form as any other involving a packet of crayons.

magnificent octopus

in the absence of specific external influences, and left to their own devices, children of an early age take great delight in detailing the things that interest and excite them, and they are devoid of any self-consciousness regarding the accuracy and realism informing the end result. which is, as far as i am concerned, exactly how it should be. as formal education plants its 'interfering' finger, that delight of innocence usually subsumes itself to the imposed structure of indoctrination. or it leaves well alone and moves onto other things. of course, the latter is not a practical solution for some of us.

even taking into account the well-meaning ministrations of the worthy, some continue to plough their own furrow well into adulthood, in many cases proving they were right all along. which, in a circuitous fashion, brings us to the magnificent octopus, the calling card of edinburgh-based artist andy arthur. there is a prior connection of which i was unaware at the time of contacting the man to enquire further as to the whys and wherefores of his art. andy and his parents holidayed on islay around twice a year since before he entered this world, and up until the age of 17. he figures that's perhaps where the lighthouse/seabird bug may have transpired.

however, before i investigate further, it seems prudent to ask the question that is on the tip of all our tongues, why 'magnificent octopus'?

magnificent octopus

"I happened to be watching a particular episode of Blackadder back in 2003 when I was looking for a domain name. I did precious little with the name for the next 7.5 years, but kept on paying the bills and using that email address."

my eventual departure from art college brought me to question the veracity of my years' of formal training. many too many were the drawings and illustrations that seemed way too facile to be construed as a visual investigation of each and every subject. yes, i had a style, but it seemed one that existed in spite of my drawing rather than because of. this leads me to ask andy as to whether he has received formal art training or whether he's simply darned good at it? "(I'm a) formally trained marine & wildlife conservation biologist to Masters level. Informally untrained artist who never even got as far as Standard grade art. I have always doodled and scribbled, but I'm not that good with pen and pencil. Turning to digital illustration in about 2004 I've progressed from there, but only really begun to be comfortable with my style and become confident with it in the last year or so. "

as you will be tired of hearing, i moved to islay in order that i might pursue the occupation of full-time artist, for it seemed to me that occasional dabbling was not capable of producing works that might be deemed satisfactory either in my own eyes or those of others. having a day job can be regarded as something of a distraction, often a financially necessary one, but a distraction nonetheless. (strangely it seems less the case concerning the act of scribbling this stuff on a daily basis, but you can't have everything). does mr arthur ply his trade as the day job, or is he also beholden to other distractions to put food on the table?

magnificent octopus

"I am distracted by a day job. This is my evening job, and I will often put in more hours of an evening than I do at my desk job. The writing is on the wall for the day job, but I haven't broken that to my boss yet, so officially it's just an aspiration. Unofficially it will be by the end of the year."

in the process of transforming from an art education to that of bona fide session drummer, it was a necessary part of my percussive endeavours that i be able to play pretty darned near everything asked of my drum sticks and snare drum head. as with every musician, there are genres of music that are dearer to me than others, but if you want to work day to day, week to week, those preferences must be subsumed for at least a modest period of time in the beginning. when fame and fortune beckons is the time to stand up and be counted. it is a similar world when applied to illustration; there may be subjects at which you deem yourself more adept, but initially at least, you ought to be able to illustrate anything and everything.

bearing all this in mind, did andy set out specifically to be a cycling illustrator, or is this the sign of a mis-spent youth? "Neither. I never cycled in earnest until about three years ago when I took up commuting to shed some pounds. I only got into more recreational club cycling two years ago and it's snowballed from there. I only started doing cycling-themed stuff after that. A couple of things for a cycling mad friend, and it's just progressed naturally since then, as my love of cycling developed."

magnificent octopus

though i have briefly described my recent visit to the national gallery's titian exhibition, the first that made a major impact was a previous sojourn to view paintings of french artist, cezanne. though i cannot claim to have produced any art that could be compared to the frenchman, he was a great influence all through my later school years and art college. the titian exhibition was beautifully curated to demonstrate the varying influences that brought the italian to his first great masterpiece flight to egypt. any artist that denies external influences is, to my mind, fooling him/herself, and those influences need not be of an artistic nature. what influences andy the most?

"Trying to put across a sense of fun and humour around cycling. If it's not fun, you're doing it wrong. I like the 'in jokes' of cyclists. The turns of phrase, the lore and the black humour of it all."

the most striking styles are rarely consciously developed, for that would ultimately lead to accusations of contrivance. many an artist or illustrator develops a specific style through necessity being the mother of invention. in short, the end results that you see are invariably the only way the perpetrator can achieve that which they have sweated hours over. my early watercolours looked the way they did because having declared myself an 'artist' i suddenly found that it wasn't as easy as i'd promised myself. visually, andy's work is reminiscent of traditional screenprints. are those generated electronically in software such as (adobe) illustrator, or are they indeed crafted through more traditional media?

magnificent octopus

"They are all done digitally on a rather old version of a cheap competitor to Illustrator. I've tried the latter, (but it's) far too complicated and expensive for my needs. Beyond teaching myself how to print the things out on a high-end digital printer, I'd have to turn to a better educated / trained person for more traditional printing. If Plan A becomes a reality, I'll try and get myself taught though."

if i might return to my opening description of the subjects that intrigue mrs twmp's kids, the ones that consist of princesses, ponies, cars, tractors etc., many of the subjects ripe for illustration have a habit of re-emerging more frequently than conscious observation can account for. would andy admit to inhabiting the world of the thematic? is each day different, or does he concentrate on one theme at a time?

I skip between different subject matters / themes in little groups. It's all things I like or am interested in. I had fun doing a series of lighthouses / seabirds recently, then it was Tour-themed things. It will be something else shortly. I need to do some more Obree-homage, but I'm waiting to see what comes of his latest madcap contraption. I'd also like to do something (non-cycling themed) about Edinburgh where I live. It badly needs a sense of humour injection at the moment. I've always lots of ideas floating around my head, so I bought a sketch book and some decent artists' pencils and have learned to sketch (badly) to put things down on paper before I forget them. "

magnificent octopus

once into the comfort and joy of producing a fine body of work, receiving at least modest praise from one's peers and the cycling public at large, horizons that were previously obscured begin to offer enticing prospects. at this point, a sword of damocles often appears overhead and plans can be formulated. has this happened to andy, or is the future as much of a mystery to him as it is to the rest of us?

"If I can pay the bills and feed my cycling habit through these means, then the cunning plan has been achieved. I have a few illustrated book ideas..."

the possibility of commerciality can be viewed as a double-edged sword. on one hand, the bills can be taken care of perhaps without undue concern, and the opportunity to explore alternative avenues of expression could be brought to bear. but on the other, one may have to subjugate one's art or principles in the process. would he welcome commerciality with open arms?

"Not all forms of it. I could have (and have been encouraged to) simply submit designs to online click-to-print sorts of webshops, but I've resisted that entirely. I saved up (ahem, credit carded!) for a top of the line reprographics printer so that I could begin to turn things on the screen onto paper, so that I could control the whole process myself and be in charge at all times. The printer has at least paid for itself over the last few months. If I found people I could trust to work with, I would welcome that sort of thing with open arms."

magnificent octopus

there is, i am reliably informed, more than one way to skin a cat, though why anyone should wish to indulge in such a pastime is quite beyond my ken. similarly, there are many ways to bring illustrative explorations to the attention of an eager cycling public. websites have provided a far simpler and oft-times cheaper method of so doing, but there is still considerable kudos and satisfactions to be gained from having a series of works framed and hung on the walls of any appropriate room that might serve as a public gallery. does that magnificent octopus have any forthcoming exhibitions?

"Currently three things later this year - Art Crank in London, the Vulpine Christmas Cycling Fete and another online exhibition piece not yet announced but in the pipeline. I hope there will be a few more local things; I've got a few makers' markets / independent gallery-shops who are keen. With the day job I struggle for preparation time for any events just now, so I haven't approached anything, but have agreed happily to those that have approached me (less chance of disappointment too!)."

magnificent octopus

wednesday 25th july 2012


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keeping it to ourselves

graeme obree

a couple of years ago, graeme obree was on islay for the ardbeg committee tenth anniversary gourmet bike ride, a bit of a mouthful to name a bicycle ride, but a more than enjoyable day followed by an excellent meal and talk from graeme in the evening. due to a certain amount of half-heartedness on the part of ardbeg, there were not as many participants as we would have liked, but to be honest, it made no nevermind to the day's ride, and made it a lot easier for everyone to ride and chat with graeme at some point.

as the designated mein host for the day, it was my job to ensure graeme was well taken care of as the guest of honour, thus there were occasions when we cycled together without any local or ardbeg entourage. if you've ever met graeme, you will be well aware of just how down to earth he is in conversation, so though not everything revolved around cycling, it would have been unusual if the subject hadn't come up at some point.

though my prognostications have been subsequently confirmed (and how) with the events of the past weekend, added to which, the advent of an half-hour cycle show on itv4 last night, i mentioned in the passing that it was comforting to be aware that cycling was decidedly more popular than it had been at any point in either of our pasts. i figured that, as an icon of the sport, graeme must find this eminently satisfying. surprisingly, graeme protested that, on the contrary, he really would rather that as cyclists, we remained in the cosy little minority bubble that we had inhabited for the past however many years. there is every likelihood that the man had his tongue firmly planted in at least one cheek at the time, but it's a statement that may find favour with quite a few.

team sky car

though hardly the most enervating tour de france of all time (the blame for which can hardly be laid at team sky's front door), the fact that cav won more than just the one stage, bradders took both time-trials and they ended up with more than one guy on the podium cannot be seen as other than a major success for british cycling, and something few of us thought we'd ever see in our lifetimes. when dave brailsford announced about three years ago that he intended to have a british rider in the yellow jersey within five years, i for one had a quiet guffaw to myself. i know i was not alone.

one of the many subjects under consideration in the hubbub that was the rapha cycle club opening party the other evening, was just how long the pro cycling bubble might realistically last. with medals aplenty in beijing, followed by brad's success this season so far, and not forgetting cav's champs elysees gallop, there are few with even a notional interest in cycling that have not had their enthusiasm bolstered in the glow of this success. if we include a heightened awareness of the need to keep fit and healthy and the prospect of more cycling success in the forthcoming london olympics, the bubble is likely inflated to the point of bursting.

olympic gold medal

it's human nature to adopt pessimism. even in the midst of a stretch of fine weather, certainly those on islay are always looking to how long it can possibly last and just how wet it's likely to be when the end is nigh. so the fact that those of us with more than just a few years immersion in all that is good and great in cycling are already wondering how long the current buoyancy of support and interest can last, is really not that unusual. however, more likely the real reason is, like graeme obree, a hankering after the obscure life. i nipped out to the supermarket yesterday to buy a loaf, and three folk made comment on brad's success at the weekend. more normally, at the end of the tour, the same people would affect disinterest, in the forlorn hope that i wouldn't mention anything about france at all.

riding out on aerospace grade carbon fibre, dressed perhaps somewhat brightly in lycra and sportwool in a small island community has always been perceived as just a little left of centre. eccentric, by any other description. and though that had been the very last ambition or consideration when immersing oneself in road cycing culture, secretly, it wasn't that bad. not at all like being a football supporter and wearing a team jersey to work.

of course this could be indicative of a reluctance to accept reality and remain the anti-social individuals everyone thinks we are. and at least i still have to explain why brad won the race despite cav being first across the line.

tuesday 24th july 2012


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