a number of you will already be aware of port askaig. if you arrive on islay off the afternoon calmac ferry sailing, nine times out of ten, this is where you'll arrive. it is something of a shock to the system after two hours of lolling about in a ferry, for it begins with a stretch of 9% gradient up to the first hairpin bend, then ramps up to 14% for slightly longer. there's a conveniently painted white line at the side of the road delineating the so-called cycle lane, but midst huffing and puffing on a likely well-loaded bicycle, you can pretty much forget that. after the hairpin, it's every man or woman for themselves.
in an ideal world, port askaig brae would conform to a different topography altogether. for the benefit of the relaxed sailor, it would be a descent, while for the temporarily land-bound, those gradients would appear at the end of the eleven mile ride from bowmore, or longer from elsewhere on islay. at that time, the earnest cyclist would be warmed up and fully in touch with their inner merckx, offering up a most gratifying end to the ride to the ferry.
sadly, physics does not work that way. if the ride worked in the manner just described, in the sound of islay (the narrow strip of water separating islay from jura) the water level would be somewhat higher than the surrounding land, and that's just plain wrong.
the disappointment need not last, however, for by pure chance, there's the 14% climb either in or out of kilchiaran, which ride of the falling rain participants will know as the opening gambit after port charlotte. to be honest, though, that too gives precious little time for the honed athletes amongst us to ready ourselves for a bout of breathless ascending. bizarre though it may sound, not everyone is enamoured of climbing; many, to be frank, find it the least approachable part of cycling, and you really have to feel sorry for such individuals.
one gentleman who sees this as the stuff of nonsense, is simon warren. having previously regaled us with 100 greatest climbs and another 100 greatest climbs, he persuaded his long-suffering family that a trip to belgium would be the very delight they'd always wished to experience. "You'll love it, the architecture, the steak frites, the beer...", all the while planning this third volume hellingen - a road cyclist's guide to belgium's cycling climbs.
as every well informed cycling fan knows, the climbs in belgium are pretty short and sharp, altogether nothing like those of the alps or pyrenees. but the finest commending feature of those, particularly in the northern region of flanders are the cobbles, or, as mr warren is keen to inform, setts. however, "...a 'settled climb' just doesn't have the same ring as a 'cobbled climb'.
all the major suspects are present, both in flanders and the southern region of wallonia, encompassing the climbs used in liege-bastogne-liege, ronde van vlaanderen, fleche wallone, gent wevelgem and all the others. simon has accompanied the description of each individual climb ("...do not, under any circumstances, unless you're a pro in a race, use the verges or concrete storm drains - that's just cheating.") with a full colour photo, a factfile, the climb's location in the area and more specifically just how to find it, as well as a profile of the ascent, badged with the maximum gradient. those are, not to be at all derogatory, the dry facts, but taken as a whole, this is a thoroughly inspiring compact and bijou volume whether or not the chance of each of us following in simon's wheeltracks is likely or not.
abridging the flanders section into the climbs of the ardennes, are a few pages featuring photos of the multiple variants of cobbles seen on the 'koppenberg', 'kattenberg', 'kapelmuur', 'muur', and several others. i don't mind admitting that i spent a more than inordinate amount of time all but drooling over these photos, which doubtless marks me out as a flanders anorak, but then i have long said that hebrideans are the flandriens of the west. given the opportunity, i'd have every last centimetre of port askaig brae's tarmac ripped out and replaced with cobbles, a predilection unlikely to put me in good stead with the roads engineer (particularly after we christened his latest cattle grid with the name of joop zoetemelk). then i'd spend every weekend of spring riding constantly up and down, from the linkspan to dunlossit gatehouse.
cycle jerseys come with three rear pockets, and if they've half a brain cell between them, the uci ought to issue a compulsory edict that makes it mandatory to place a copy of hellingen in the centre pocket of each and every jersey sold. owning a copy isn't an option, it's imperative.
sunday 14th april 2013