thewashingmachinepost




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power less

the legs (don't) have it

by now, i think that even those of you who pay scant attention to the weather references that frequent these pixels, will have garnered the impression that much of scotland's west coast is frequented by less than clement weather. and in particular, that the hallowed isle is host to winds that would make wahoo's kickr headwind look like a kitchen window draught. take a look at a map of scotland and it's fairly easy to see why. between northern ireland and mull, the islands of islay, jura and colonsay have no windbreak, thus everything that the atlantic ocean needs to get rid of ends up in our backyard.

however, far from being the stuff from which heroes are sculpted, these are conditions which you generally become fairly used to. either that, or you quickly scrabble to find another hobby. becoming acclimatised to weather of this sort pretty much allows the velo club the luxury of riding every sunday without the need of staying at home to watch a tv programme that wasn't originally on the agenda. which is a pretty decent set of circumstances when you consider that someone a lot faster than any of us once said that those summer races are won in the winter.

i'm kind of assuming that they meant that winter training provided the base fitness for victory in the (allegedly) sunnier months of the year. if they meant something else, then i've based my philosophy on shifting sands.

though none of us race, acquiring fitness at that time of year (apart from the tales of derring do that accompany pedalling in 60mph gusts), generally means that when we find ourselves joined by visiting cyclists over the summer holiday period, we have the honed physiques that help prevent humbling embarrassment. well, sometimes.

but if i might, once again, refer to the above phrase holiday period, it's a point of the year when even members of the velo club are wont to take the odd break from civilisation, heading to scotland or, as it once stated on a whisky cask near bunnahabhain distillery 'other places'. and often without velocipede in tow. as mentioned a few times in the past month, such has been my own experience(s), finding myself away from my desk (so to speak) on two successive weekends. not the ideal situation as far as i'm concerned, but sometimes circumstances are like that.

thus it was that this past weekend was my first aboard the bicycle since the early days of july and i now find myself wondering where all that winter accumulated fitness has gone. though i did manage a 100km ride on the isle of arran a couple of weeks ago, such was the constitution of the bicycle shaped object and my rather tardy pace in the face of excessive heat, that i seriously doubt it presented any physical benefit. after this saturday's ride around the principality, i cannot deny that my legs were no longer speaking to either me, or each other. sadly, on arising on sunday morning, the situation had scarcely improved and my cunning plan to remain safely at the back of the peloton also failed miserably.

having recently begun reviewing what promises to be a particularly lucid and excellent book on training "to take my racing to the next level", i truly look forward to the chapter that explains why it takes months and months to gain a confident level of fitness and only a matter of days to lose it all completely. when i find out, i promise, you'll be the second to know.

monday 16 july 2018

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rtfm

campagnolo ultra-torque

it used to be oh, so simple in the halcyon days of yore. when the cables exited the top of the brake levers, gear changing was on the downtube and bottom brackets were square taper, cup and cone. the factory fitted brackets were usually filled with bearing races and scarcely a trace of grease; those metal races were rarely of top quality and subsequently disintegrated, leaving insufficient bearings to fill the space, even when mixed with tangled shrapnel. however, take the thing apart, skinning a whole set of knuckles trying to remove the fixed cup, it was then a simple matter of filling every available space with bearings and grease.

under those circumstances, until the bearings wore down, there was pretty much nothing to go wrong.

modernity, however, pays scant heed to simplicity. the present day road bicycle is a complex animal, extending so far as electronica and hydraulics. no longer do the cables exit the top of the brake levers. this technological state of affairs threatens to undermine the abilities of the home-mechanic, the number of which has been dropping like flies. capitalised statements on the parts warranties, warning that even the tiniest of metal components should not even be looked at by other than a qualified mechanic, have given pause for second thoughts. perhaps it would be more prudent to drop the bike into a local bike shop.

campagnolo ultra-torque

the latter option, it has to be said, rests firmly on there actually being a local bike shop into which your beloved velocipede might be dropped. otherwise you're pretty much on your own, flagrantly ignoring any threats from the warranty lawyers, armed only with a piece of 4 x 2 and a big hammer. the chaps at vicenza, though providing what i'm still happy to recommend as the finest of groupsets, seem not averse to designing obstacles into as many components as possible. take the ultra-torque crankset for example.

for those with no interest in such matters whatsoever, assuming you've actually read this far without falling asleep, let me make you a smidgeon drowsier. ultra-torque consists of left and right cranks, each featuring half a bottom bracket spindle. this is interlocked in the centre by means of a hirth coupling held together by a bolt that requires a lengthy 10mm allen wrench. (told you so). only the original power-torque featured a cartridge bearing pre-installed on the chainset, while the left bearing was already inside the frame-mounted bb cup. the right-side cup was empty. ultra-torque has bearings on both cranks.

now that ultra-torque is the only game in town, however, the bearings are pre-installed on both cranks, meaning that both bb frame cups are empty. so far, so good. installing the crankset is but a simple matter of pushing both cranks together in the middle, preferably at 180 degrees to each other, before using that really long 10mm allen wrench to fit the joing bolt in the middle. oddly enough, while a chorus left crank is threaded and the bolt is installed from the right side, on everything else (particularly the recently announced twelve speed groupsets which offer no opening on the chainset) it installs from the left .

campagnolo ultra-torque

go figure.

the real problem arises when time comes to replace those bearings, when a modest amount of wobble introduces itself, or the creaks and groans when climbing threaten to drown out the pelotonic conversation. and though simplicity has been replaced by complexity (not solely by campagnolo), the lifespan of those more complex components seems not to have been extended in the process. my original colnago c40, with a campag record cartridge bottom bracket has been in place for well over a decade and exhibits no signs of lateral play.

the carbon campagnolo chorus chainset has been affixed to the ritchey logic only since last november, covered just short of five thousand kilometres, yet was in need of replacement bearings. if you're still awake, you'll recall that those bearings are pre-installed on the cranks from where they can only be removed by a proprietary bearing puller tool costing anything from £50 to £90, depending on brand. after consulting with my personal campagnolo expert (thank you graeme), i bought the unior tools set, which also arrives with a resin bearing installer, necessary to fit the new (£20 +) bottom bracket bearings, a far cry from the 50p packet of quarter-inch bearings of yesteryear.

campagnolo ultra-torque

at this point, it pains me to admit that i should indeed have read the f***ing manual. the bearing puller fits over the hirth coupling, while the side grips sit under the bearing. tightening the tool's threaded centre rod, pulls the bearing off its seating. that on the left crank came off like a hot knife through butter, while the chainset bearing disintegrated all over the shop despite employing exactly the same process. this left the inner bearing race still in place on the bb spindle.

convinced i had done nothing wrong and that the bearing had been in a poorer state than originally observed, i once again consulted my campag expert who had the expertise to enquire whether i had previously removed the bearing retaining clip.

aha.

in my defence, the tool's instruction leaflet made no mention of that clip, but ultimately, that's no excuse. on prising the clip from its slot, removing the last part of the bearing was simplicity itself. and now i know why those little booklets included with the componentry advise that such procedures be carried out only by a qualified mechanic.

i'm qualifying the hard way.

endless thanks to velotech cycling's graeme freestone king for his endless patience, expertise and good humour.

sunday 15 july 2018

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rule five

sunshine

last weekend, i set off to scotland to visit my mother who recently celebrated a landmark birthday. disappointingly, due to work commitments, i was unable to be there on the day, hence my appearance on the saturday calmac ferry heading to kennacraig for a weekend visit. active as the velo club apparently is, on disembarking, i met two of my fellow pelotonese returning from an end of the week camping trip on arran. not unnaturally, we managed a brief conversation prior to them being asked to accompany their bicycles to a point adjacent to the linkspan.

as i turned to walk to the bus stop, one half of a tandem crew stopped me to express his enjoyment of these very pixels (obviously not these precise ones, but you know what i mean), taking me somewhat by surprise. in situations such as these, i'm rather taken aback, unsure quite what to say. such instances, however, are most gratifying. i'd hestitate to call it fame (because, really it's not), but scribbling these words on a regular basis has undoubtedly focused a modicum of attention on this particular part of scotland, to the extent of attracting television interest.

prior to my disappearing into the mists of the mainland, i had received an e-mail from a broadcast production company intent on adding another episode to their gaelic travel programme 'mach a seo!', a title that apparently translates as outta here!. the programme's presenter, willingly or otherwise, was to be dropped upon the sunday morning peloton to experience islay from the perspective of the saddle.

there was no inquisition as to our usual set of routes from which to choose, nor indeed, any queries as to whether the hapless presenter might be unceremoniously dropped before we reached uiskentuie farm, so i took it as read that the fellow harboured at least some basic level of fitness. always keen to be as inclusive as possible, i took an executive decision and opened the sunday morning door to mr macmahon's joining our merry throng, before informing the rest of our peloton to wear a clean jersey and brush their hair.

you just never know when stardom might beckon.

the producer's initial e-mail was, later that same day, followed by a forlorn query as to whether any of our number had the ability to speak gaelic. oh how we laughed.

with last weekend's trip to scotland being my second week away from the saddle, i found myself fervently hoping that our impending tv presenter was, in fact, considerably less than a honed athlete. it's bad enough being the lanterne rouge on a regular, unobserved sunday ride, but there would surely be no hiding from endless taunting were it to be imprinted on (even) gaelic television for all to see. but then a chance meeting with a gent from the community garden earlier this week elicited the news that the islay visit had been cancelled until further notice. and the reason for this cancellation?

a less than favourable weather forecast.

it seems, therefore, that travel programmes (at least this one), wish only to portray their points of visitation under pristine circumstances, surely something of an uphill struggle north of the border? either that, or the presenter has become aware of our fearless pelotonic reputation and is now deeply concerned for his image in the face of adversity and an adoring public.

c'est la vie

saturday 14 july 2018

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carte du tour - paul fournel. rapha editions/bluetrain publishing hardback. 248pp illus. £40 (special limited signed edition £200)

cartes du tour - paul fournel

on my recent visit to a neighbouring isle, i was delighted to be housed in their local field centre, accommodations that are mostly employed throughout term-time to host schoolchildren, many of whom come from regions that are anything but rural in their make-up. in fact, on my day of arrival, the surrounding rooms were filled by kids from south london, where tall green hills, a loch or two and a calmac ferry are quite likely conspicuous by their absence. i have no idea of what their visit to a scottish isle consisted, but i can assure you, they need no lessons in slamming doors in the early hours of the morning.

by the time i arose the following morning, they had departed for the early ferry and were later replaced for the weekend, by a group of geology students. according to my hosts, the latter were spending a long-weekend creating small grids on nearby ground in order to study the constitution of local, yet historical rockfalls. i fervently hope that their examination of rock strata bore greater fruit than their search for the tomato sauce bottle at breakfast. some things you apparently can't teach.

cartes du tour - paul fournel

though my grasp of the rudiments of geology is pretty much non-existent, i cannot deny an awareness of the basics of sedimentary examinations, where the history of millennia can be ascertained from the composition of exposed rocks. it's a time-lapse look at the world that can take us back to the age of the dinosaurs, and is possibly the only realistic means of an appraisal heading back quite so many thousands or millions of years. more recent history is, by comparison, far easier to research and in greater detail, particularly from around the mid-fifteenth century when johannes gutenberg invented the printing press.

this is something particularly pertinent to this superb, large-format book that forms another part of the rapha edtions collection, one which includes andy mcgrath's award-winning book about the ill-fated tom simpson. co-published by guy andrews' blue train publishing, paul fournel's carte du tour is a tad more substantial in format than the preceding 'getting started in road racing', this one appearing in a cloth-bound, coffee table size book that features a map of the tour de france from every year since 1903. it's probably worth my pointing out that the edition for the race currently underway, is far less impressive than that which appeared on the front page of l'auto on 1 july 1903.

cartes du tour - paul fournel

for most of us, a map, is a map, is a map; the sort of device (and i do not use that word lightly) we use to get us safely and speedily from a to b. call up google maps on your web browser and you can even drag the little yellow fellow in the corner onto the roadway of your choice and it's possible to take a three-dimensional walk through the neighbourhood. those first maps of the tour de france parcours were utterly devoid of topographical information, providing simply the names of towns, villages and cities through which the nascient grand tour was due to travel.

author and respected race historian, paul fournel, commences this historical cartographic journey by introducing us to the man who made it all possible, henri desgrange.

cartes du tour - paul fournel

"He wanted this event to be nothing less than the biggest, hardest, and best sporting event of the year. It had to be spectacular and unbearable."

even today, it seems likely that desgrange's wishes continue to be fulfilled on an annual basis. strangely, for a newly introduced, large-format sporting event, the maps become somewhat less than truly functional through the years of 1906 to 1909, being almost unremarkable even in a graphic sense. however, from 1907, tour de france cartography took an upward swing in quality, the latter year fillling the centre of the country with stuck-on photos of the race's three favourites (georget, van houwaert and garrigou). the historical aspect of le grande boucle is precis'd with remarkable skill by monsieur fournel, including such as alphonse steines' suggestion to desgrange that he take the race over the pyrenees. steines was duly sent to reconnoitre...

"At daybreak, the police found him in the snow, frozen and haggard.
"They took him back down to the town.
"After a nice hot bath and a substantial snack, Steines - having come round - phoned Desgrange: 'It's good; we can go."

for those of us who exhibit pecadilloes not always present in the average cycling aficionado, those maps offer a secondary level of intrigue: that of typography. for instance, in the map published in l'auto on 2 july 1910, the countries surrounding french france are delineated in a spidery, hand drawn typeface, while the central region of the country is impressed upon by a sturdy and varying set of woodtype lettering, including that of l'auto which features in blackletter.

cartes du tour - paul fournel

humour me.

cartes du tour is a fascinating volume, printed as it is on heavy art paper, with reproduction of the well-researched maps (credit is due to guy andrews, i believe) often little short of breathtaking. the predominantly blue, red and orange map of 1938 (see right) features a border allowing the lucky recipient to fill in the first four on each stage along with the general classement, while that of 1956 is quite basic but decorated with caricatures on bicycles. the latter, oddly enough, is a theme that was delightfully repeated sixty years later in 2016. the variety is endless and impressive. disappointingly, the official maps provided by aso in recent years seem positively lacking in inspiration by comparison with many of their antecedents.

it is not often that a writer of the stature of paul fournel is overshadowed by a co-star, even if that co-star inhabits a cartographic demeanour and it is with the greatest of respect that i contend that this is one of those rare occasions. the accompanying text appears in both french and english and it is hard to consider this running commentary arising from the pen of anyone other than the author of 'need for the bike' and 'anquetil alone'. i wonder what is the french word for 'succinct'? many books of this size concerning the tour de france seem only to occupy the moment created by those three weeks in july. i think it more than likely that cartes du tour will have a considerably longer lifespan.

cartes du tour by paul fournel

friday 13 july 2018

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a few words with andy mackie of la corsa italian tours

la corsa italian bicycle tours

the last time i recall a spate of sunny weather like the one scotland is/was currently experiencing, was when i was still at school. and though i'd be the first to admit that while i can scarcely remember what i had for tea last wednesday along with a sneaking suspicion there's a smidgeon of looking through 'rose-tinted' glasses, i'm pretty sure i'm right. possibly. sad to relate, however, well over two weeks of that warm, cosy sunshine has been occupied by non-velocipedinal activity, leaving pangs of missed opportunities, despite finding endless sunshine a less than desirable alternative to wind and rain.

la corsa italian bicycle tours

i know, i know...

but, you have to feel at least a few condolences for those who have saved their hard-earned pennies to enjoy a few days of cycling in more commonly warmer climes. or at least, that would be the case were i 100% sure that these foreign cycling trips were all about the weather. if you'll forgive me for once again mentioning my travel trip of a few years back, despite it taking place in french france, the weather was decidedly un-french. or at least not what i expected french weather to be. in which case, perhaps i've underestimated the value of the cycling parcours, and the weather can go take a running jump.

because i figure there's every chance that the decision to book a cycling holiday is not one taken at the last minute; at least, not for most of us. though we're slap bang in the middle of summer right this minute, i've little doubt that velocipedinal thoughts have already strayed to summer 2019 and the cycling joy that awaits one year hence. in the light of which, this hardly seems an inopportune moment to have a few words with andy mackie, a fellow scot whose day job is looking after pelotons of cyclists with the presence of mind to book several days in italy on a la corsa tour. and, if like me, this tuscan-based enterprise doesn't ring any bells, that might be due to its relatively recent appearance.

la corsa italian bicycle tours

"La Corsa started proper in 2016. I intended to start it sooner but broke my leg pretty badly."

though cycling's three grand tours take place in italy, france and spain, arguably the european heartlands of the competitive side of the sport, i'm sure i'm not the only one to put my hand up and point out that their previously unassailable position in the uci's firmament, though hardly in danger, is not what it once was. for the chaps at aigle, ever in pursuit of the sponsorship dollar, have invoked the spirit of globalisation and taken their finish line to a wide variety of less than traditional cycling corners of the world. potentially, that means that the market for cycle holidays surely ought to follow suit? with the so-called globalisation of cycling, why has andy decided to remain in the historical heartlands of tuscany?

"I think the answer actually lies within your question. Tuscany literally is the heartland of cycling in Italy and steeped in cycling history. Tuscany has always been a hot bed for producing some of the best Italian cyclists, stretching back to Gino Bartali. It is also perhaps the reason Mark Cavendish, Taylor Phinney and many others use it as their European base.
"The main reason La Corsa took base in Tuscany is that I still view it as my second home. I lived in Florence for eight years and from there operated a successful one-day bike tour company. It was a natural progression to operate in Tuscany. To boot, it has everything that makes it a cyclist's paradise: great roads, landscape, cuisine, wine and we have a great network of people based there. It's with this knowledge that we are able to confidently say we possess the expertise and knowledge to make Tuscany the ideal cycling destination."

la corsa italian bicycle tours

it would likely be something of a stretch in terms of personnel and resources to offer a continuous range of cycling tours from the first hint of spring, till the falling of the autumn leaves. thus, la corsa tours tend to be a bit more selective when it comes to available dates on which to book your tuscan cycling holiday. currently, there remain only three outings for 2018: a tuscany classic commencing in around a month, a de rosa factory tour and pedal round the lakes in late september, rounding off the year with l'eroica week in october. suffice it to say that the earlier months of this year have already featured a couple of rides in fausto coppi's back yard.

but are there any plans to offer more tours, or are la corsa's resources already strained to bursting point? "Yes absolutely! Currently Tuscany still offers us so much scope for more tours. Even as we speak, we are putting together itineraries for trips in Umbria under the same style of staycation holiday. We're refining and tweaking our Lakes trip in the North of Italy and through our brilliant partnerships with De Rosa and Campagnolo, we are able to offer private tours of both factories. Guests also have the chance to meet Ugo De Rosa and his sons over lunch."

i cannot deny that thoughts of cycling through the vineyards and hills of tuscany are those that have flitered through my psyche on more than just a single occasion. though i've cycled in france and in the usa, ticking the italian box is one that is mentally at the top of the list, one that i rather hope receives a tick sooner, rather than later. however, i'm well aware that my comparatively sheltered existence means that my foreign cycling experiences lag well behind those of many of my peers.

la corsa italian bicycle tours

but though i'm happy to suffer for your art, i also have your best interests at heart, concerned that at least one or two of you may have your oakleys pinned on further horizons. if andy has similar observations, has he any plans to stray further afield?

"We are looking to add more territories, but currently we're likely to be busy with Italy for the next year or so."

if there's one thing that pretty much every cyclist has in common, it's an appetite that would equal that of two normal people. all that frantic pedalling in italian sunshine is pretty much bound to engender the need for frequent face-stuffing, an inherent necessity that surely the land of the tuscan is more than agreeably constituted to fulfil. la corsa tours, even in the short time they've offered their campagnolo chorus equipped de rosa bicycles, have become renowned for the quality and quantity of their daily repasts. was this gastronomic aspect of la corsa a cunning plan from the beginning, or has it simply worked out that way?

"Call it a plan and an intention! On a recent tour, one of the guests commented that we really needed to make more of a noise or fuss about the places we eat and drink. I was always adamant that when I created La Corsa that the ethos of the tour wasn't going to be that of a slog fest. The area that we are in is far too beautiful not to appreciate.
"Staring at your handlebars and keeping to a set wattage isn't our style. The nature of the terrain is fairly demanding, so riders will get a work out regardless of that choice, after which the logical thing to do is to go and eat! This has to be the reward. Living in the area and having local knowledge shared with ex-pat Chris, who lives in the area, we wanted to share all these amazing eateries and let guests be fully immersed in not only the cycling culture, but the fabulous cuisine that the area offers."

la corsa italian bicycle tours

however, there's little argument that nipping off to foreign parts for a week of glorious cycling on roads steeped in velocipedinal history, taken at face value, might well be seen as a somewhat superficial activity. yes, it's nice to go pedal on hitherto unvisited roads in countries where the indigenous language is that of cycling itself, but i figure most of us would like to think that there's more to it than that. there's always the fervent hope that some of that history and culture will have its own effect, making the end result greater than the sum of its parts.

what does andy hope that his guests will gain from one of the longer la corsa tours? "Without sounding clichéd, I want people to go away with an amazing life experience. We want to offer our guests a chance to ride in some of the most beautiful countryside, stop and eat at some of the best places we have put together and not have to think about a thing. From the moment people touch down at the airport, we are there to take control and look after everything.
"Ultimately, we hope that guests will experience everything amazing about the area, food and lifestyle in the space of a week, an experience which has taken us years of trial and error to put together. As a side note, it's also nice to be told that many of the guests who have met one another on one of our tours, are still in touch with one another long after they've all returned home."

la corsa italian bicycle tours

this is, of course, the modern world, where equality allegedly rules the roost, no longer simply the province of the self-professed dominant member of the household. for if the latter has every intention of spending a few pounds on one of andy's holidays, there's every likelihood that their non-cycling spouses or partners hold the intention of tagging along. let's not lose sight of the enviable food spreads to be appreciated. that considered, are there any alternative activities provided for the non-pedallers in attendance?

"This is an interesting question. We've trialled two tours already this year with pre and post yoga, which seemed to be a massive success. We had two non-cycling partners who joined us for these tours and seemed to love it. This may be something we offer more of in the future. Additionally we are able to accommodate non-cycling partners by visiting various nearby towns along with a winery tour."

la corsa tours have not, however, thrown all their italian eggs in the one shopping basket. in addition to the week-long tours described above, it's possible to book and participate in a one-day scoot about the tuscan countryside. but i'm assuming that those one-day excursions are designed to attract folks already on holiday in the region? surely no-one actually flies out for a day?

"Yes! We have Chris based in Florence who operates our one day tours in Chianti. He 's able to offer guests the opportunity for a mini La Corsa taster tour providing the opportunity to experience some of the roads and places we do on our five-day and week-long tours. This has been an extension of my previous business and has proved very popular. Tourists have the opportunity to ride a £4.5k De Rosa road bike with a local guide showing the best of the roads and once again, taking away any concerns the guests may have. This service includes lunch, as well as pick-up and drop-off at the hotel. So far, no-one has flown out for one day, but you just never know! Never say never:)

la corsa italian bicycle tours

is there any chance of a lastminute.com hustle to italy with la corsa this year?

"We have limited spaces left for our last tour of the season which runs during L'Eroica. This is a brilliant time of year and the temperature is still usually lovely, in the mid-20s. Guests have the opportunity to try a little of the Strade Bianche (white roads) on their De Rosa and then watch all the riders ride their pre 1989 road bikes and rattle over the roads. I still haven't been brave enough to do it, but one day!
"Next year we are also going to be adding the Gran Fondo Milano-San Remo, based on the same course that the professionals race on. Luckily the ride is in the month of June, so we should skip the snow and icy wet conditions."

if you've a few days to spare later this year and fancy joining andy mackie for some fabulous cycling in tuscany, check the la corsa tours website. if it's looking like 2019 is a better option, i'm pretty sure mr mackie will be more than happy to avail you of his plans for next year.

la corsa cycle tours

thursday 12 july 2018

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second class citizens?

e-mtb wheel

for those who know their islay malts, it is probably of no great surprise that bottles of port ellen single malt tend to sell for sums that would comfortably outfit the aspirational cyclist with some decent carbon fibre. the newsagent from where i purchase my monthly copy of procycling is also a well-known whisky shop, stocking bizarrely named uisge beatha such as flatnose and barelegs (yes, really) as well as one or two bottles of port ellen malt. despite being somewhat agnostic when it comes to the amber nectar, i know this because, on the top shelf above the counter, sits a bottle of port ellen malt whisky with a price tag of £3,750.

there's no real point in your issuing guffaws of derision over such eye-watering prices, for that very bottle replaced one priced at over £4,000, sold only a matter of weeks ago. and if you were a dyed-in-the-wool whisky aficionado, you'd probably be seriously questioning the mentality of velocipedinists who spend much the same on carbon with pedals attached. seen from either point of view, it's very much a case of 'horses for courses'. however, those of us with even a passing interest in such matters, were somewhat aghast to recently learn that drinks giant diageo, owner of the former port ellen distillery (it was closed in 1983), has decided to rebuild the distillery, adhering as closely as possible to the original. this in spite of having not so long ago knocked down all but the pagodas left standing behind port ellen maltings. they plan to have it operational by 2020, spending close to £35 million on the project.

bearing in mind the current major interest in any form of spirit produced on islay, on the day last october when they announced this volte-face, a whisky wag on twitter was wont to tweet 'i smell a bandwagon being jumped upon', a sentiment with which it was hard to argue.

and bandwagon jumping is something that may be now infiltrating the 21st century world of the bicycle. the first indication that this might be happening surfaced several years ago, when the predominantly american market introduced us to the gravel bike. this in itself might be only loosely associated with the sin of jumping on the bandwagon, for though many of us cannot see much difference between the long-lived cyclocross bicycle and those purportedly designed for gravel, one hardly supplants the other, or tags onto its coat-tails. but the accessory aftermarket may display an entirely different story.

i count myself as very fortunate to have received several pairs of superbly handbuilt wheels from derek mclay at larbert's wheelsmith for review over the past few years. derek has both the confidence and sense of perspective not to expressly delineate his wheels as suitable solutions for any specific task. thus, i have never had any qualms about running a set on both road bike and 'cross bike during the course of any given review. and, in truth, nor should i have; the wheels have no idea as to the nature of the bicycle to which they are attached and could scarcely care less as to whether there is tarmac or mud underfoot.

however, no matter any potential flaws that you might perceive in derek's marketing strategy, others are rarely so conscientious. for on more than a single occasion, have i come across wheelsets advertised as being specifically geared (pun intended) towards the gravel-bike market. and if you'll forgive my use of the vernacular, that's utter baloney.

but if i might move over to the aura currently engendered by the e-bike phenomenon, it would appear that, not only is that bandwagon in danger of becoming overburdened, but it's threatening to demean and disenfranchise those of us quite content with our analogue bicycles. as evidence for the prosecution, i would like to point you in the direction of a new pair of wheels from a deliberately un-named italian manufacturer. though we of the pelotonese may rest easy at present, given that these new kids on the block are directed at the electric mountain bike market, one about which we are doubtless highly discriminating at present.

according to those responsible, the average e-mtb bicycle is likely to generate stronger impacts and sudden transfers of extreme power particularly through the rear wheel, necessitating something of a re-think in the rotational department. but somewhat disparagingly and almost insultingly, the manufacturer's marketing department has provided a word or two in favour of their colleagues' attention to detail. for instance, they claim that, in comparison to their standard mtb wheels, those designated as e-compatible feature headspokes that are 13% more resistant (though to what, they don't actually specify), the disc flanges are five percent more rigid, the hub body system is four times more reliable, the spoke nipples and housings are seven percent more reliable and the internal rim structure offers 12 percent more rigidity.

while the need for increased rigidity in a wheel is one reserved for endless discussion, the above does beggar the question as to why electric bike riders deserve hubs and spokes that are four and seven times more reliable than their analogue counterparts? and if such reliability was achievable, why did they wait until the battery arrived to provide it? though i'm as guilty as the next person of jumping to conclusions, does it not indicate that this particular wheel manufacturer favours its electric friends over its more traditional customers?

we have already seen the uk's bicycle association lobby government for a comparable subsidy on electric bicycles as offered to purchasers of electric cars, despite the standard pedal cycle being demonstrably more environmentally friendly than its electric peers. does this mark the beginning of a self-driven trend that will begin to marginalise the pedal cycle? do the luddites amongst us have possible cause for concern? is the electric bike going to hoover up all future technological development, leaving us to forage for the crumbs? do i ask too many unaswered questions?

honestly, i'll be truly delighted if i'm proved wrong.

wednesday 11 july 2018

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................

american pro; the true story of bike racing in america. jamie smith. velopress paperback 217pp. £15.95

american pro - jamie smith

in may of 2014, rapha kindly invited me to join their first foray into the world of cycling travel at le grand banc in provence, france. over the course of four days, those in attendance were treated to some incredible cycling throughout the surrounding countryside, including an abortive attempt to ride up the ventoux that changed into probably the finest day's cycling i have ever experienced along the gorge la nesque. i may have been the only rider there who wasn't disappointed not to slog my way up the giant of provence.

rapha had seemingly thought of everything; not only were we provided with pinarello dogmas, but there was a mechanic on hand to service and clean the bikes on our return each day. while out riding, even with yours truly taking on the daily mantle of lanterne rouge, there was always an accompanying guide, no matter how far back i was from the peloton. and behind us there was a brooding black jaguar xkf with spare bikes and wheels on the roof should any of us suffer a malfeasance en-route. there was even a renault mini-bus there or thereabouts, should anyone fancy climbing into the voiture balai.

on our return from the daily grind (probably for me alone), we'd leave our cycle kit outside the front door of our accommodations from whence it would be collected, laundered and waiting on the bed after the following day's riding. thor hushovd's masseur was in attendance to handout recovery drinks and, after our home-cooked sumptuous repast, would later rejuvenate those leg muscles, assuming we'd had the presence of mind to make an appointment prior to the morning's departure. in essence, we were all living the dream (as i believe is the colloquial terminology), being cossetted like the pros without the professional need to be particularly fast (though there were several who tried).

of course, if, like me, you've been brought up on a diet of 'cycle sport', 'procycling' and 'rouleur' magazines, you will have gained the (ultimately erroneous) impression that life as a racing cyclist was exactly the way rapha's travel programme asserted it to be. for the nairo quintanas, chris froomes and adam yates of the world, that may well be true, but cycling, like many other sports, has its own pecking order. those at the opposite end from the tour de france heroes might be a deal less likely to agree with our appraisal of the idyllic world we imagine them all to inhabit. some of this may be due to the use of the generic term 'professional cyclist', an all-encompassing description that author jamie smith cleverly, sympathetically and frequently humorously dismantles over the course of american pro's 217 pages.

i cannot lie; on receiving my review copy from velopress in boulder, colorado, the book's subtitle had me thinking this was mr smith's paean to the history of american bicycle racing. while that may well be a book that would also make for compulsive reading, the contents of american pro are far more insightful, entertaining and downright essential than i at first thought i held in my hands. for within its pages is a blow-by-blow account of the five years of existence suffered (frequently) by a lowly cycling team that spent most of its career sponsored by astellas, a large american pharmaceutical firm specializing in oncology.

the team arose as the brainchild of a young pharmacist named matt curin. lacking the physical ability to make it as a professional cycle racer, curin attended the michigan college of pharmacy, taking the path, as the author states, diverging from that of a pro cyclist. "...one leading to a comfortable bed, a full refrigerator, a car that starts, six fully functional bikes in the garage, a wife nad kids, medical benefits, a dental plan, and a steady paycheck." taking over the presidency of the university of michigan cycling team, he grew this from a low ebb of eight to almost twenty riders by the time he departed academia.

within two years of leaving college, curin began working at the swedish-american pharmacia pharmaceutical company, very quickly continuing to follow the cycling dream by persuading the pr department to free up $15,000 to fund a five person team consisting of four men and one woman. in smith's first referral to the less glamorous aspects of cycle racing at this level, the team initially raced as the 'detrol la cycling team', so named to promote a drug that treated the symptoms of urinary incontinence. so began curin's path towards stress, sleeplessness, worry, travel and many other joyous aspects of running a cycling team on a shoestring budget, while trying best to represent the sponsor by curating a professional approach.

"Even if there are only two riders wearing the (team) kit in a race, other racers will draw the conclusion that there exists somewhere a complete team of highly trained and well-supported riders, and that the rest of those riders must be racing elsewhere this particular weekend...thank goodness."

curin, however, was not content to remain at the first trading post and through dogged persistence was able to relieve pharmacia of an increased $60,000 budget for the team's second year, providing him with the financial wherewithal to include the team's roster and expand its race programme. however, before having even the luxury of spending this considerably improved largesse, pharmacia were absorbed by pfizer and the sponsorship deal was cancelled. curin left the company to join another pharmaceutical company called lilly where he was once again able to garner a budget equivalent to that promised by pharmacia.

by now, i think it likely you can see where this is heading; just what is likely to transpire over the next four years of american cycle racing at the incredibly humble end of the stairwell. but by this time, jamie smith has us all well and truly hooked. though the book commenced by providing the end, american pro is utterly compulsive in its narrative excellence; it's a very, very hard book to put down, even when there are more pressing matters to attend to.

the author fleshes out his true story of velocipedinal success, failure and everything in between, by providing a backdrop to all that transpires, such as how the uci hierarchy works and how usac racing operates within that framework. he is also remarkably clear on the realities of sports sponsorship, especially that relating to the lowly sport of cycle racing.

"Considering the net worth of a corporate giant, it's easy to assume that, [...] A measly $200,000 would not be missed. This is, for the most part, a fallacy. Large corporations may waste money in creative ways, but they have a team of accountants keeping close tabs on where their money is wasted."

subsequently working for astellas pharmaceuticals, curin realised that, if there was to be a cycling team bearing the company's logo, he would be unable to run it single handed and so contacted former pharmacia team member, andrew fray who agreed to come onboard. reprising his earlier incessant internal campaigns to garner an appropriate amount of money from with astellas to find a cycle team, he once again succeeded in receiving a budget of $60,000 and thus was born the astellas cycle team.

the remaining chapters detail pretty much every twist and turn of the next five years, a tale that is never less than fascinating and at its very best is brilliantly captivating. though i can hear sharp intakes of breath from the knowledgeable cycling cognoscenti, i'd be inclined to place this book on a par with tim krabbe's the rider, despite american pro being very far from fiction. by way of support for such an apparently outrageous contention, i might cite the author's almost insouciant ability to sweat the details, frequently with a smile on his face. describing curin motorpacing a rider back to the peloton after suffering a puncture...

"Curin slowly accelerated to 37mph and held it there until he reached the back of the caravan where he resumed race speed. [...] Jake jumped out from behind the car, sprinted ahead, and played leapfrog with the team cars until he reconnected with the peloton. Avis never intended for their rental cars to be used this way."

american cycle racing falls into two distinct camps: road racing (including stage races) and criterium racing, the latter is often compared to belgian kermesses, but played out over more angular, shorter and more repetitive parcours. making best use of the team roster in the latter years of the team's existence, along with an almost equitable sponsorship budget, curin and frey's astellas team pursued both channels to potential victory. achieving the latter in one of their first forays into street racing provided them with hard-won credibility with their peers. it's a factor that the author portrays as every bit as important as a matching professional appearance and attitude.

even when a british member of the team is involved in an horrific training accident, being sideswiped by a car while travelling at race speed, smith is able to bring his own brand of levity to a serious situation. "The medical report was horrific. He had broken every bone in his left leg. Twice. He had also broken his back, collarbone, and arm. His femoral artery was torn. And his hair was mussed up pretty badly."

long and frequent have been the discussions relating to the parlous state of cycling sponsorship. without any means of monetizing the sport through ticket sales, professional and serious amateur riders must rely on the benevolence of someone else paying the not insubstantial bills. unless that someone is less than concerned about a tangible return on their investment, attracting commercial sponsorship to cycling at the bottom end of the food chain is a hard sell.

"There is a sense that the sport is flawed and therefore impossible to correct. And a belief that it could be so much better of we did A instead of B. Or that USAC could be doing more, (the) UCI needs to change something. [...] There's nothing that an infusion of cash coudn't fix, yet the sport ambles along relying on a shaky revenue stream."

oddly, yet coincidentally given my own percussive proclivities, smith compares the unreliable model of funding cycle racing with the considerably more successful and even lucrative means of keeping afloat most of america's bugle and drum corps. "The glaring difference is that the top drum corps have operating budgets of $2 million with no reliance upon financial sponsors whatsoever." as a former band director, the author continues to explain that even the smaller corps have annual budgets more than triple that of the astellas cycle team, predominantly achieved by "grassroots fundraising", recruiting dedicated volunteers to runn their fundraising programmes.

pointing out that santa clara's vanguard drum and bugle coprs has existed for 50 years "...free from the woes of fleeting sponsorships...", smith does not necessarily promote this as the solution to all cycling's funding woes, but one that might well prove successful at the lower levels. though the book and narrative is american through and through (the title rather gives that game away), substitute the scarborough festival of cycling for milwaukee's schlitz park and the song remains the same.

the astellas team's swansong came after the title sponsor had informed of their intention to withdraw at the end of the 2016 season. a surprise invite to the chinese 'tour of fuzhou' led to a quick scramble to recruit six riders willing to travel and compete in a race that ultimately provided them with a stage victory, plaudits, yet no hope for a future. "The local media interviewed (stage winner) Eamon following the race. Even in the final moments, he told the gaggle of journalists that the team was available for sponsors.
"There were no takers."

every road bike sold should have a copy of 'american pro' zip-tied to the drop bars, with the condition that the bicycle cannot be ridden until the book has been read cover to cover.

jamie smith's 'american pro' can be obtained in the uk from cordee books and in the usa direct from velopress

tuesday 10 july 2018

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................