far from the madding crowd

thomas hardy

though my eventual induction into the world of further education was conducted at art college, and despite never thinking far enough ahead as to just what i would have done had my application been unsuccessful, there was a tenuous back-up plan. having survived my school years relatively unscathed, my final year at secondary school involved undertaking two sixth year studies certificates; art and english, along with a couple of other highers in order to round out my palmares. i think it extremely unlikely that the iniquities of the scottish education system will have allowed such studies to exist in the selfsame manner, so i cannot, i'm afraid, elucidate just how those compare with anything a sixth year pupil might depart with nowadays.

despite having my apparent failings in the art department pointed out to me by my art teacher (now sadly departed this realm), i was in fact the only one of my year to pass, a situation which gave me not just a little satisfaction. not everyday does the opportunity arise to prove teachers wrong in their assumptions. english, however, was an altogether more complex affair, involving a substantial dissertation based on a chosen theme, and the necessity to read a considerable number of books by a designated author. this latter requirement was chosen by the form teacher, and in the case of sixth year english in 1973 encompassed the complete works of thomas hardy.

i wish to point out at this stage, that i subsequently, in later years had/have great affection for hardy's wessex tales, but in the true style of an overburdened and put-upon pupil, i could have seen those books far enough at the time. and it was not just i who held this opinion, for it is to be noted that whatever school pupils are told they have to do, they will indubitably prefer to do otherwise. in books such as far from the madding crowd, jude the obscure, tess of the d'urbervilles and the mayor of casterbridge we soon sussed that almost without exception, the first hundred pages or so would be set aside for scene setting and could, in order to expidite the reading process, be safely ignored.

starting at the nearest chapter to page one hundred, it did not take too much interpolation to figure out who was who, where they were domiciled and which amongst them was about to cause personal mayhem for one or other of the principal characters. with so many books to get through in one academic year, along with the dissertation (i chose modern visions of utopia the reading list for which included lord of the rings, a not unambitious undertaking for even a seventeen year-old) and the study of several works by william shakespeare. it is perhaps not difficult to understand why my sixth year art studies involved drawing aeroplanes at the adjacent airport. i was wont to consider it light relief.

i find it somewhat difficult to reconcile the fact that i can read an almost endless series of cycling books (which i am currently in the process of doing, by the way), or watch a complete season of cyclocross without finding either particularly onerous. in fact, i welcome both with open arms. why then, was i not the only pupil who rolled my eyes to the ceiling on realising that nearing the end of jude the obscure meant that the opening chapters of tess of the d'urbervilles were only several hundred words away? i am keen to ascribe this to the fact that both cycling extravaganzas are embraced entirely at my behest and not those of an apparently imposed and imposing education system.

you may, hopefully, have inferred that my backup plan involved the thought of studying english at university. just think how frightening a prospect that might have been.

however, if you'd care to cast a glance at the photograph atop this article, the more astute amongst you will have deduced that it is the selfsame thomas hardy, demonstrating an affinity with the bicycle. despite the rather obvious observation that it is hardly a state of the art colnago, i now wonder whether my appreciation of the great man's written works would have been immeasurably promoted had i realised that he too was a cyclist.

in hindsight, probably not.

monday 17th september 2012


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a cautionary tale

nightrider lighting

this particular weekend is amongst my favoured portions of the year, because it brings the annual lagavulin islay jazz festival, an event which, for the last fourteen years, has brought the opportunity to play drums with some of the finest jazz musicians in scotland, if not the uk. as i never tire of reiterating, i have easily the best seat in the house. despite being way past my bedtime on a friday eve, my singing accomplice and i brought the ninetyfiveproof franchise to bear (an islay blues band that survived until the early part of this century) with a completely different set of (brilliant) musicians.

ennervating stuff.

nightrider lighting

one of the benefits of being a part of the festival as a performer is the freedom to attend any gig of my choice without having to hand over any pennies for the pleasure for doing so. thus it is a source of constantly changing strategies deciding which of the many on offer it would be intriguing, not to say practical at which to present oneself. not unsurprisingly, as title sponsor, lagavulin distillery are in the habit of hosting one or two gigs, a slightly disappointing prospect from my point of view, for lagavulin distillery is a 26 mile round trip from home. do not, for one minute feel that i am aghast at cycling such distances; the problem is more one of slotting travelling and concert time into a weekend schedule that has need of other more mundane tasks.

add to that, at least one or two of those presentations are of an evening, and i am less than keen on dodging the boy racers across the eight mile, dead straight road between here and port ellen.

nightrider lighting

however, come saturday eve, when alternative needs are less pressing, the choices available were far more amenable. rounding off the evening was a concert, featuring several musical friends, of james brown music. (yes, i know james brown hardly comes under the heading jazz but that's the appeal of a jazz festival). this took place in bowmore hall, but a few minutes walk from washingmachinepost cottage. i think it also worth mentioning that the drummer, stu hastie, was using my drum set.

prior to this, however, was a gig at islay's gaelic college (correctly stated as ionad chaluim chille ile, if you fancy a tongue twister for a sunday eve) by the neil cowley trio. this particular group of musicians - from australia, i believe - were billed as performing jazz for radiohead fans adding an intriguing twist to figuring out just what that might sound like. if stuff such as this is offered virtually on your doorstep, and effectively free of charge, i think it foolish to miss the opportunity.

nightrider lighting

so, with a bike ride of only one mile each way, and in the dark only on the return journey, i persuaded the cielo to leave the comfort of its bikeshed to transport me north for the gig. i have had one of those excellent little nightrider flashing rear lights affixed to this bike since last winter, just in case, you understand. rummaging in the little basket atop the microwave, it was an almost simple matter to find the nightrider front light and slot it back on the handlebars. this light provides a stunningly bright flashing option which i switched on along with the rear purely for identification purposes on the quick ride to the college.

arriving in the car park, i dismounted and went to switch off the rear to be met with a non-flashing rear light. dud batteries. oops.

nightrider lighting

the neil cowley trio were not as i expected; far less reactionary and avant garde which was a pleasant surprise. however, restricting themselves seemingly to a rhythmic backbeat rather than the more usual jazz noodling brought a modicum of tedium after around forty-five minutes of playing. not offensive in any manner but not stunningly inspiring either.

with only an hour before the james brown extravaganza was due to start, i thought it prudent to leave for home, park the cielo, and walk to the hall. there are no streetlights for abour half a kilometre between the college and bowmore village, a distance i knew i would have no rear light, but was decidedly disappointed to discover that i would also be bereft of a front light. despite the impressive flashing beam on the outward journey, i now had no illumination showing at front or rear.

perhaps i ought to have checked the charge on the front light and battery level on the rear before leaving? since neither have been used since at least march of this year, that would have been a logical thing to do, don't you think?

so, based on my unforgiveable double error, and with the nights fair drawing in, as billy connolly would say, allow me to offer you the benefits of my stupidity and have you immediately put the computer down and check those lights.

i know it makes sense.

sunday 16th september 2012


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showers pass skyline softshell

showers pass skyline jacket

mrs washingmachinepost and i spent a week of what we laughingly refer to as our summer holidays, giving the sitting room somethng of a refresh in the decor department. as her daily grind involves caring for a veritable team of little darlings, it will suprisise you not too much that certain parts of our wallpaper below a particular height had acquired a secondary pattern consisting mostly of little handprints, fingermarks and the occasional coloured crayon. it is what i believe might appropriately be referred to as an occupational hazard. since there is little likelihood of those tiny digita receding anytime soon, we were content to live with the situation as long as possible, but this past july, we both decided that our sitting room would benefit from looking more like a dulux catalogue than a corner of the early learning centre.

showers pass skyline jacket

colour charts were duly garnered, shades chosen more easily than you would ever think possible, and after several visits to the local paintshop and more than just a couple of diligent traipses up the hill that is bowmore main street, style was liberally applied. and in one of those once in a lifetime moments seen all too infrequently, we were both more than chuffed at the outcome.

however, i may have given the indication that the aforesaid process was as brief as such a short paragraph would suggest. you and i both know that life isn't like that.

several years ago, the size and ministrations required by the description home computer often necessitated some form of computer desk; the sort of thing that had a shelf for the monitor (which used to be of considerably larger heft than is currently the case), another for the keyboard and a large slot below to house what we technical folks like to refer to as the cpu. then the first fruity coloured imacs happened.

showers pass skyline jacket

to house this coloured delight, we purchased a self-assembly edifice that resembled nothing more or less than a wardrobe. yet the interior cunningly concealed the coloured lozenge, its keyboard and a slew of cables that joined it to apparently necessary bits. when computing (to give it its proper name) was over and done with, the doors could be closed and no-one other than ourselves need be any the wiser. to cut a long story short, i probably shouldn't have started it in the first place, but imac now gone, it was about time the cupboard followed suit.

so now we had a beautifully decorated and less cluttered sitting room that was bereft of one detail; a standard lamp. with one lamp almost parallel to where i currently sit, the corner with no cupboard now seemed unnaturally dark as the nights drew in. and of course, as we enter autumn/fall and head inexorably towards winter, it gets dark a tad sooner than was more recently the case, conjoined with a cooling of the ambient temperature.

showers pass skyline jacket

it may seem a tad convoluted to query whether there is such a situation as a double jeopardy as regards the prospect of rain, wind and lower temperatures when being sent an item of autumn/winter apparel for review. more often than not, point any piece of waterproof cycle clothing in my direction and almost immediately, clouds will part, rain will dry and blue skies will fill the horizon from one side of the photograph to the other. and conditions will remain that way long enough that i find it necessary to e-mail the sender to apologise for having yet no review to show for their largesse.

showers pass skyline jacket

this time, however, those lovely people at showers pass in south-east portland sent a sample of their very latest skyline softshell all the way over to their counterpart in precipitation. lo and behold, appropriate weather was ready and waiting the very next day. certainly not what one has come to expect. i cannot deny that my traversing of the interior of bridgend woods was particularly inclement; yes it was slightly damp, yes, the wind approached gale-force, but no, it wasn't insufferably cold. this latter aspect of my bike rides over several days was as opportune in the testing regime as was occasional heavy rain, for the skyline softshell is remarkably well equipped to cope with mounting internal temperatures. there are two zipped vents under each arm, while the cuffs feature another couple of zips that can effectively close or allow airflow at the wrists.

showers pass skyline jacket

an additional cooling slot and one i haven't seen on any previous jacket, is a zipped slot at the top of the jacket's back, just below the showers pass emblazoned collar. i was pre-disposed to consider this as something of a gimmick, for though operationally explained by showers pass, i couldn't see how the heck it could make any practical difference. discomfitingly, my assumptions turned out to be erroneous. though thinking i had managed to prove my original conjecture correct, it took only a closing of this zip to realise the difference it was making.


aside from cooling airflow, the skyline has other pragmatic aspects to its construct that ensure it will befriend any cyclist fortunate enough to own and wear one. there's a vertically zipped front chest pocket on the left, featuring a grommetted opening for ipod headphones. all the zips, including the main front closer are appended with short tags that considerably ease the procedure of opening and closing. it would not have been the first time that attempting to open vents and zip when riding had come to naught, but in this case, as the meerkat says, 'it is simples'.

showers pass skyline jacket

in addition to the front pocket, there are two substantially sized rear pockets augmented by another zipped version sited above the lowered rear hem. this latter part of the garment can be tightened by means of an adjustable drawcord.

though showers pass pointed out that the skyline jacket does not feature any taped seams, the softshell fabric itself is waterproof, offering up a pattern of little bobbles of rain on the surface even when considerably wet. surprisingly enough, despite living on an exposed rock on the edge of the atlantic, serious rain has yet to affect my bike rides, so i have no real knowledge of how sustained heavy rain would affect the skyline. i'll let you know if and when it happens.

showers pass skyline jacket

generally speaking i am very much not in favour of decorating any jacket with random, oddly shaped patterns, the sort of thing that either looks like an accident or proffers an affinity with robocop. i figure you know of which i speak. happily the skyline is almost entirely bereft of such markings apart from slightly inexplicable imprints along the length of both arms. however, as these are highly reflective and intended as a safety feature, i think it only right and proper to allow an appropriate level of slack. no doubt there are subtler ways to achieve the same, but in the grand scheme of things these detract only a smidgeon more than one whit from the simplicity of an unfettered softshell.

showers pass skyline jacket

despite the fact that the temperature has yet to lower sufficiently to confirm wearing of this showers pass softshell, i find myself drawn to its comfort and commendable fit. though i'd hardly describe it as roomy, something i don't believe ought to be in a cycling jacket's curriculum vitae, i did comfortably manage a baselayer, short sleeve jersey and long-sleeve without looking or feeling like that white chap that works for michelin. it is also a jacket that knows not the meaning of the word flappy. as autumn and winter progress as they undoubtedly will, this latest showers pass offering seems the ideal accompaniment to my forays into the highways, byeways and undergrowth of islay in the process of surveying the estates.

(a brief update:the day after writing this review i had the good fortune/appalling misfortune to be caught in very heavy rain for about an half-hour pretty much in the middle of nowhere. it gives great pleasure to report that, though there was the odd damp patch - partly because i failed to close one of the side-vent zips properly - in general, the waterproofing offered by the skyline softshell was extremely favourable. i'd be happy to wear this throughout the winter whatever the conditions.)

the showers pass skyline softshell (named after skyline boulevard that overlooks the city of portland) is available in either chilli pepper red (reviewed) or black, in sizes ranging from small to xl. the red should be available from 18th september and the black from 1st november, both costing $180. i think it worth pointing out that portland's showers pass make little other than waterproof and weatherproof clothing.

showers pass | nrg4

saturday 15th september 2012


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bike craft, design, innovation. the oregon manifest 2011. 228pp illus. $51.95 softcover; $71.95 hardback

oregon manifest

we have had, according to popular lore, a magnificent summer of sport. that's sport with a capital 's', but it would be someone with a head buried deep in the sand not to attribute similar sentiments to that of cycling, particularly if you happen to be british. bradley's sideburns taking care of the tour de france, with his best pal chris at his side leading to time-trial medals in the london olympics brought many a smile and one or two tears of joy to the liars amongst us who apparently knew they always had it in them. add to that the track success which overtook that of beijing four years ago, and suddenly cycling is not just the new golf, but damn near the new soccer.

well, maybe.

all the above involved not only superlative performances on road and wooden velodrome, but involved a substantial amount of dedicated carbon fibre, wind tunnel designed to be not only asymmetric, but slippery when dry. it is, as i may have mentioned previously, the modern way. much conjecture and rhetoric has since abounded, pointing to the inevitable vast increase in sales from the bike shop floor as would be chris hoys and bradders equip themselves as mamils or eye up their chances of joining british cycling's performance plan in time for a few more medals in rio de janeiro come 2016.

except, we all know the foregoing to be utter tosh and nonsense.

oregon manifest

inspirational the british cycling performances undoubtedly were, and i would not be at all surprised if there are a number of youngsters currently considering ways of emulating the heroes for real. but the majority of bicycles leaving the shop floor will be of less sporting pretension, suited more to pootling to and from work or shopping at a speed lower than a trackstand. for indeed, the principal purpose of the bicycle across the world is that of transportation. it may surprise many to know that the single malt whisky market is a tiny fraction of global whisky sales, perhaps (based on no statistics whatsoever) paralleled by sales of carbon fibre to that of plain gauge steel.

in other words, those spending their hard-earned on going really fast are likely dwarfed by spending on bicycle transport. take a look at images culled from the recent eurobike show, a presage of more to come from north america's interbike and you could be forgiven for being unaware that anything exists other than disc-brake equipped road bikes or similarly equipped mountain bikes. either could be utilised as mere transportation, but it's hardy what could be regarded as return on investment.

this is not to deny that the big corporations have sections of their catalogues and websites given over to more pedestrian cycology. it is conceivable that sales of these are the bread and butter of many a multinational, but it's hard to deny that the research and development departments are, to quote from the oregon manifest book "focused on shaving grams off already feather-light components for racing bikes." for many, that seems more than reasonable. however, a relatively small subculture are focused on the bigger picture, recognising that the majority of the world's population could care less about who stands atop the podium in paris at the end of july.

oregon manifest

comparing formula one racing to the plight of the ordinary motorist would seem a valid comparison.

several years past, the north american handmade bicycle show made its temporary annual home in portland, oregon. rumour has it that several influential folks expected it to stop in that location for more than just the one year. with a substantial number of builders inhabiting the portland area, the city was seen as the spiritual home of nahbs. perhaps because of this assumption, it never happened. leaving portland, however, left the door wide open for something home-grown to fill the gap, and that something was the oregon manifest.

it would be hard to deny that the manifest has not assumed at least a portion of the mantle started by nahbs, at least in respect of the fact that it's all about handmade bicycles. however, where the two exhibitions differ is in pitting free-for-all against restricted. perhaps a futile attempt on my part for comparison and likely a poor choice of words, but while nahbs allows builders to create anything their heart and brazing rod desires, the manifest issues a constructors' challenge, offering a set of rules and specifications that must be adhered to in order that the entries might be accepted in the first place.

the joy of this option is in viewing the wide variety of solutions proffered by (in the case of the 2011 edition) the 35 entrants, coming from all across the united states.

tony pereira

although every one of these velocipedes (some truly challenged our concept of just what a bicycle might look and behave like) could incontestibly be referred to as a concept bike, they all had to prove their mettle; all had to undertake a physical challenge over a testing course, partly to prove they actually worked and partly to provide an eventual winner of the challenge.

the 2011 challenge asked of the constructors that they include all the following features (omission of even one of these would have resulted in its ineligibility): Anti-Theft System; Lighting System (seeing and being seen); Load-Carrying System; Freestanding Under Load (while parked) System; Fender (mudguard) System. a further three sections required innovation, design and execution and the aforementioned filed test.

it would be naive to consider the oregon manifest as a one-off, something to be seen as one of the quirky facets of portland, a city not without a whole host of other quirks. though some of the entries might come across as a tad far-fetched, every one of them bears a greater relevance to the needs of the average cyclist than bradley's pinarello dogma, and a whole world apart from chris hoy's keirin winning track bike.

whether you choose to believe that someday the oil will run out, or middle east conflict will create the situation where it might as well have done is entirely up to you and which line of propaganda you choose to accept. it is hard to see how the roads of the civilised world can continue to support an ever-increasing number of motor vehicles, however future years define that concept. cities such as portland, amsterdam, sacramento and even london have successfully demonstrated that the bicycle is more than capable of providing a viable and economic means of personal transport. the oregon manifest demonstrates that there is a substantial number of visionaries with the technical capabilities to at least partially solve the conundrum of how to combine transport with the need to carry stuff. in some cases, quite a lot of stuff.

tony pereira

there is no denying that the oregon manifest book is one that will happily occupy pride of place on the coffee table. however, to confine it to such soul less employment is to miss the point by a country mile. every one of the 35 entries is dealt with in detail, both through copious and detailed photography, accompanied by interviews with each individual or group of individuals. winner of the challenge (for the second time) was portland builder, tony pereira who even opted to incorporate electric assistance in his design.

it is no accident that the word manifest is the major constituent of manifesto. that's exactly what this is, a manifesto for the future of the bicycle, one which does not include a peloton with a yellow jersey at its head, nor requiring several hundred metres of oval woodwork. in their own way, the entries are every bit as exciting to view as tommy voeckler's colnago c59 or alberto contador's specialized. the magic word, however, is that of relevance.

whatever your cycling proclivity; sporting, commuting or leisure, you owe it to yourself to peruse the contents of this book. time to turn the inspiration gained from our summer of sport into something approaching reality. carbon fibre can be considered as something for the weekend.

oregon manifest

friday 14th september 2012


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the secret race by tyler hamilton and daniel coyle. bantam press hardback. 290pp £18.99

the secret race

"Dad, if Iever have to take that stuff to compete, I'll retire."

let's be hypothetical for a moment. assume that you are a salesperson, one amongst many, and there's a promotion coming up that would allow progression to the position of sales manager. this would not only provide you with greater repsonsibility, but a substantial increase in remuneration, if only you had the wherewithal to ace the interview and had the credentials to back it up. you see, not unnaturally, the other sales people too have their eye on that promotion, so as of the moment, it's not a done deal.

called into the regional sales manager's office, he says that you general outlook and experience make you a shoe-in for the job, but your sales figures are lacking by comparison with the others who've applied for the job, and he's just giving you the heads up in advance that you might make suitable amends prior to the interviews. though hardly immodest, you cannot for the life of you figure out how your fellow salespeople are managing to return such numbers, as you well know you have better accounts to serve, have more experience and a better track record. yet no matter how hard you try, the numbers just don't stack up.

it's at this point, you discover, as the result of a tip-off from a friendly secretary, that the others are using nefarious means to massage the numbers presented at the end of each month. aside from feeling cheated and aghast that anyone would stoop so low, you are intelligent enough to realise that unless you play them at their own game and join the plot, the chances of ever achieving that sales manager position are pretty much non-existent.

so you join the club.

of course, that's not where it ends, for the minute the sales manager's position is achieved, there's unseen pressure to aim towards the position of regional sales manager. and though you may be happy to settle into the comfortable life, the nefarious means by which you achieved your current status, show every indication of having to be continued and increased as the months and years roll by simply in order to remain employed.

this is not meant to justify the art of wrongdoing in the furtherance of a career, and perhaps it's not even a valid comparison with the title under review, but sometimes circumstances place the individual slap, bang in the midst of a dilemma.

still talking hypothetically, if this was indeed the position you were placed in, and taking into account the financial responsibilities that life has burdened you with, what would you do? would you be happy to continue as ever and forget about such troubling opportunities such as promotions? or would the likelihood that accepting the latter perhaps jeopardises your current position due to a perceived lack of application mean that effectively the choice is not really yours to make?

road cycle racing has long been presented within the framework of pain and suffering, a sport that requires dedication, endless months of hard training and an ability to strategise either in a solo capacity or at the behest of a team leader. take the life of a sprinter, a designated rider who relies almost entirely on the selfless determination of several team members to do everything they have to do in order to deliver him/her to within a few metres of the finish line that they might repay with a win. a similar situation exists for stage race team leaders, except the prize arrives at the end of several days, usually incorporating one or two steep hills along the way.

tyler hamilton has laid bare the ghost in the machine. after reading the secret race there is not a chance you will ever look at those romantic images of road racing in the same way again. to concentrate for a moment on the superficialities, it is a highly compulsive read; my review copy arrived on tuesday afternoon, yet despite work intervening for most of wednesday, i finished all 290 pages by the time i went to bed. it is darned near impossible to put down. this may be much to the credit of co-writer daniel coyle's superb narrative style, but i'd be a fool to try and separate that from hamilton's dramatic revelations.

this is not a tyler hamilton biography. there is little by way of introduction to hamilton's formative years; both he and daniel coyle seem well aware that we're looking for spilt beans without the window dressing and both are ready and willing to accede to our demands. it is presumably no real coincidence that the book has been released as usada's lengthy attempt to bring armstrong to justice seems to have turned the corner, with lance declaring he will no longer put up any resistance. hamilton's exceptionally detailed (and largely corroborated, apparently) two hundred odd page confession undermines any defence of innocence armstrong has provided,and serves to make apologists (such as commentator phil liggett) seem somewhat at odds with reality.

if, for you, road cycling holds any degree of romance and deeds of derring-do, i would respectfully suggest that you leave this book on the shelf, but i'm willing to bet that curiousity won't let that happen. hamilton lays to rest any suggestion that the team managers, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, mechanics and pretty much everyone else associated with professional road racing (at least during the period under discussion) were ignorant of what their riders were doing in order to win races. but it also returns us to my hypothetical situation outlined in the opening paragraphs.

"It was around this time that I started hearing the phrase 'riding paniagua'. Somtimes it was delivered in a slightly depressed tone, as if the speaker were talking about riding a particularly slow and stubborn donkey. 'I might have finished higher, but I was riding paniagua'. Other times it was mentioned as a point of pride. 'I finished in the first group of thirty and I was paniagua.' I came to discover that it was actually 'pan y agua' - bread and water. From that, I made the obvious conclusion: riding without chemical assistance in the pro peloton was so rare that it was worth pointing out."

the secret race is scary. i dread to think what this would do to any youngster considering professional cycle racing as a career. once the confessions start, they just never stop, all the way to the end of the book. all is portrayed in a matter of fact manner; this is not sensationalism by anyone's standards

though the book follows hamilton's pro career, he leaves little doubt that it was lance armstrong that initiated and orchestrated the doping regime that he subsequently followed till the end. armstrong has maintained the same defence of innocence throughout his tour de france successes and beyond. he maintains the same poker face to this day. a part of that defence is that he is the most tested athlete in history, yet has not failed even one. hamilton's confessions show exactly how that was possible; not testing positive does not necessarily equate to squeaky clean. according to tyler, armstrong did, at one point, fail a test other than the cortisone incident in 1999, but such was the texan's control over his own circumstances, that he made it go away.

hamilton finally came to grief as leader of the phonak team during the 2004 vuelta a espana. he failed a blood test taken during the race, results showing that he had transfused blood other than his own. his b test also showed positive. as if that were not enough to bring the world crashing about his ears, two days later he was informed that a blood test taken prior to his time-trial gold medal in that year's olympic games, had also proved positive for the same reason. he was, however, allowed to keep his gold medal because a mistake at the lab meant the b sample could not be tested, rendering the first test legally inadmissable.

i've often been guilty of accepting cycle racing as a form of entertainment (which it is) figuring that if all the top riders were doing as hamilton and armstrong were, then they'd simply created a faster yet still level playing field. however, as is clearly pointed out, using epo to increase a rider's haematocrit to under the uci's magical 50 cut-off level, worked better for some than others. clearly the lower the natural level of haematocrit, the more room there was for legal improvement. add in cortisone, blood transfusions and one or two other dodgy dealings, and the entertainment value recedes quicker than a rider on paniagua

i've no idea if it takes guts to break the professional riders' omerta or not. has it all made a difference? well, according to a footnote (all footnotes are printed on the same page as their narrative reference, making it far easier for the reader to follow) the uci's internal testing numbers reflect a specific change. in 2001 13 percent of riders were classified as having abnormally high or low levels of reticulytes, or newly formed red blood cells (signs of epo use and/or transfusions). by 2011, that number had dropped to two percent.

so maybe we can judge hamilton's expose as that concerning a period of cycle racing that is now all but over and done with. maybe the only one that ought to be concerned is lance. i fervently hope so.

every member of the contemporary pelotonese, whether actively racing or not, simply has to read this book. unless, of course, you prefer your racing to remain in glorious and grainy black and white. it has often been said that you should never meet your heroes; the secret race simply underlines that contention.

thursday 13th september 2012


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mud, snow and cyclocross by molly hurford. deeds publishing 226pp illus. $19.95

mud, snow and cyclocross cover

"Cyclocross starts as a road race and ends as a boxing match"

the old adage would have it that america and britain are two countries separated by a common language. while this may continue to be true, in the sporting realm, it seems this may have extended to encompass cyclocross. it is now a case of two continents separated by a common form of cycle sport. not as snappy and humorous a comparison as the original i grant you, but true nonetheless. though not an admission i'm particularly proud of, given my side of the atlantic, but my first real contact with cyclocross as a modern day sport was through association with friends in portland who seemed to be having a ball each autumn and winter at something called cross crusades.

through the excellent photography of and their subsequent 'build to order' book 'dirty pictures', resident portlandians seemed to be having way too much fun for this to be classed as sport. at least, not in the european terms we have come to understand. the iconic black and white photographs seemed bereft of pain and suffering, though i don't doubt there are a few competitors who would take exception to such blatant dismissal of their efforts. to make matters worse (or better), the cross crusades appeared able to attract colossal entries of over 1,000 riders in a single event.

contrast that with our own european-based experience of the sport, and there's the rub. professionals such as sven nys, bart wellens and lars boom invariably have their own fan club and personal trailers at each event in the super prestige tournaments as well as uci sanctioned series, ride for 'cross offshoots of professional road teams (landbouwkredeit, rabobank etc.,) and attract crowds that are substantially in excess of anything seen across the pond.

molly hurford, author and contributor to cyclocross magazine has subtitled mud, snow and cyclocross with how 'cross took over u.s. cycling' presenting us with a mountain of substantiated reasoning that might explain that very statement. hurford is in perhaps the ideal situation to be judge and jury on any contention she wishes to make. having immersed herself in 'cross during the early days of its development in north america, she has become an established figure in the 'cross scene, though more through the written word than any personal competitive edge.

"on a borrowed bike in pouring rain, I did my first race at Granogue in Delaware. And despite the fact that I got last, or maybe second to last, in the Women's 3/4 field, I was hooked."

as hurford herself explains in her introduction to the book "when work is also your passion, you're the luckiest person in the world." molly has successfully managed to make her passion look like very little work at all, a statement i mean in the nicest possible way. while her position in the 'cross community provides almost unfettered access to many an elite north american rider, the substantial number of brief interviews and quotes are smoothly incorporated into her narrative on the state of the nation. it's a dissertation that draws you in chapter by chapter.

she successfully analyses the principal differences between the european scene and that of north america, both through her own interpretation of the evidence and that of the sport's top american riders. i can't help feeling this would have been aided more had she co-erced at least the occasional quote or interview with bona-fide european 'cross professionals, but that may have been one international flight too far. as it is, her sounding board consists of riders known even on this side of the pond; jeremy powers, molly cameron, ryan trebon and amy dombroski to name but a few. i do think that occasionally the book's format does not necessarily favour the reader's patience. in a chapter entitled 'the pros weigh in on how to describe cross', i'm not sure it was such a marvellous idea to simply list each rider's comments. i would have preferred those to have been interspersed with a few comments from the author, though in point of fact, aside from an inevitable degree of repetition, these are mostly pertinent statements worth airing.

the point worth considering, however, is whether the upsurge of cyclocross in north america is truly worthy of dissection in the first place, to which the answer has to be a resounding yes. even if looked at from a sociological point of view, it is a phenomenon worth investigating; to return to my opening paragraph, though the sport is essentially the same no matter the continent, why has it garnered such participatory success in the states? as hurford points out in the book, the notion of a belgian or dutch civilian taking part in a cross race purely for the hell of it is about as likely as a windless day on islay. yet, using the example of molly hurford herself, it is quite common in the usa to grab any bicycle and take part in cyclocross without fear of disparagement.

"It is a feasible sport to incorporate into a life while managing a full time job and family. To train right for cyclocross requires far less time since the race is 45 minutes to an hour long. It really only requires about ten to 15 hours a week to train and prepare fitness to be ready to race."

it would be uncommon for a female writer not to champion the cause of the women's side of the sport, and it is truly for this aspect that mud, snow and cyclocross deserves its space on the cycling bookshelf. following on from chapters concerning elite male and junior racers is an entire discourse on elite women in u.s. cyclocross. unlike continental europe, women's cyclocross racing is not regarded as second string in north america. though it may be harder to acquire sponsorship for women than for men, often the prize-money is of equal value. definitely not the case in europe. katie compton, kaitlin antonneau, nicole duke and laura van gilder midst others are profiled both by their current skills in 'cross and how they entered the sport in the beginning. it lends the book a satisfying balance.

however, the running order of the book achieves this to a far lesser degree. though it would be inordinately critical to disparage the content of any of the individual chapters, the entire edifice comes across as somewhat disjointed. though the photographs, courtesy of pedal power photography are quite exemplary and of a standard rarely seen in a publication of this type, often the only common theme seems to be that of the sport of cyclocross. you may well ask what else it is i'd expect from a volume expressly concerned with this division of the sport, but there is a tendency for unnecessary repetition, while i had the impression of reading a series of individual articles rather than a book.

hurford discusses the intrinsic nature of cyclocross, provides a brief history of the sport in the usa from its beginnings in the early sixties, through the first nationals in 1974, considers the state of cyclocross in the present day before listing the various races and series currently in play. at the book's end, hurford considers the future of cross, given the propensity for bicycle and component manufacturers to add hydraulics and other more commonalities from the world of mountain biking. is it a sport in danger of losing its identity?

what is cyclocross? places the sport in context with comments from those who have been sucked into the mud. a beginner's guide to cyclocross offers a brief overview of the skills required to get through that selfsame mud, preferably without tasting any of it. again there are plenty of tips and hints from the pros throughout this chapter, to my mind rather negating the need to add an entire subsection entitled tips from the pros. perhaps a book slightly overkeen to be all things to all people. i fear it may have served its purposes better had it excluded the how to examples and stuck to its claimed raison d'etre how 'cross took over u.s. cycling. that said, the sections dealing with how to are actually pretty darned good.

"It's going to hurt more than you thought it would, and you're also going to really, really enjoy it. And you'll learn all the things you didn't realize that you didn't know."

however, if we accept that cycling remains a minority sport in north america, cyclocross is a tiny minority within that venn diagram and it's hard to fault molly hurford's enthusiasm to pass on every last iota of information she and her peers wish to send in our direction. overall, it's a publishing triumph; my criticisms in no way detract from a book that is essential reading for american bike riders of whichever discipline, and one that might serve as a lesson to the british cycling community. given that 'cross is so immensely popular in european countries such as belgium and holland, is it not to our eternal shame that rapha's supercross series finds it necessary to import some of the american je ne sais quoi to give a much needed boost to the sport in the uk?

do not misunderstand, i think rapha's efforts to be very much in the right direction, it just seems a shame that we haven't inherited the enthusiasm from europe. maybe ms hurford could be persuaded to pen a volume two: how 'cross struggled to stake its claim in britain. there's a story i'd love to hear the solution to.

either way, you do need to read this book.

"Do everything that you're not good at, all the time. There's no sense training at the things that you're good at, you need to focus on the things that you're not good at and make those weak points your strong points. Because that's ultimately what will make you a better rider." -Jeremy Powers

copies of this book can be ordered direct from molly hurford's website. the only difference is postage outside the continental united states.

wednesday 12th september 2012


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the impending mud

richard sachs cyclocross team

i'm not that keen on mud and even less so of sand. several years ago i'd to strip down ten pairs of hubs, scrub up the bearings, re-grease and re-assemble. i can assure you, there are more cheerful ways to spend an autumn day. the cause/reason? the guy who then owned the post office, hired bikes to anyone with the appropriate cash and will to do so, and in similar manner to hired cars, those doing so really couldn't give a stuff for the well-being of those particular velocipedes. i know from the personal acquaintance with forty sets of bearings.

richard sachs cyclocross team

the reason for such substantial bearing maintenance rests with the two elements of sand and mud. though most hirers were requested not to ride the bikes across the sands of the big strand on the shores of loch indaal, few, it seems, paid any attention. come the end of the hire season (september weekend usually), there was nary a wheelset that ran without sounding like motorhead's lemmy in full voice. a couple of years of this, and it is perhaps comprehensible as to why sand, mud and i are not entirely on speaking terms.

it would be unfair to level the drudgery of routine maintenance at each and every set of hubs; those of higher quality rarely suffer to the same degree. simply a matter of quality. so why now has my disaffection with gloop softened somewhat? it's many a long year since i had a set of knobblies and a propensity to fall off midst a scattering of sheep droppings. aside from the iniquities of having to ride for miles on big chunky tyres in search of appropriate locations to carry out my falling over routine, mud and a variety of agricultural substances rather undermined the experience in my increasingly road-focused eyes.

richard sachs cyclocross team

but along came cyclocross, leaving those drop bars in place, tyres that made road riding less of a chore and the fabulous imagery that was and is photos such as those seasonally seen on the pdx web pages were almost by way of dispensation to not only have a bit of fun, but seemingly sanctioned the art of falling off. not only that, but it seemed more than possible to enjoy all those factors without pinning a number on a back pocket. the internet and eurosport provided more than sufficient hours of coverage to satisfy the armchair combatant.

so now i can enjoy my autumns and winters getting muddy but in a manner for some reason, not redolent of mountain biking. presumably a simple state of mind. or simply a state of mind. however, some folks are old hands at this, and rather than making the best use of an opportunity to go play off the street, there are more serious aims afoot. taking everything a stage further than that, suppose you're the bloke responsible for building the darned bicycles in the first place? richard sachs needs little, if any introduction in these pixels. an inveterate poster of photos to flickr, richard has displayed an impressive array of red frames ready and waiting to be kitted out for the coming 'cross season. does he ever find it a progressive chore to ready the bikes for each season, or is the emotion closer to excitement?

richard sachs cyclocross team

"I do all the RS 'Cross Team frames and forks in batches so that the larger task interferes as little as possible with my orders from paying clients. Nearly all the prep work is done at nights or on weekends, or in rare instances when I am bored with work and need a change. At some point in the late Spring I'll take the requisite number of tubes, miter them, and place them in a box. Other times I might grind the lugs and fittings for the batch - they get tossed in the box too. Rear stay to dropout assemblies. Fork blade assemblies. All are done en masse (that's French for in the mass...) and in numbers corresponding to that season's team needs, so that when I do block out the time to make the complete units, the per-frame time is about five to six hours. The sub-assemblies usually become frames by late July. That gives team sponsor Joe Bell Custom Paint time to get them finished and returned so that I can build the bicycles for the season."

richard sachs cyclocross team

my sole concession to readying myself for a world famous impersonation of sven nys was to swap out a pair of panaracer 28mm road tyres for a set of continental 'cross variants (i may also have tightened up the cantilever brakes along the way). thus, there is little, if anything in the way of unbridled excitement and hours of unfettered mudslinging. this, however, is a solo expedition in my case, sachs has an entire team to prepare for and work with. does he still harbour the same enthusiasm for the sport as in previous years?

Yes. That has never changed. I believe this season will be my 30th contiguous (I love using that word, contiguous...) year of sponsoring and running teams. The 'cross team became a full time effort in 1997. Some of the same motions, and body English, and muscle memory (hey - are they all the same thing?!) that I feel when it's let's-go time are the same ones I have felt for decades. One season ends. Winter and Spring pass. And all of the sudden my days are consumed with prep work for the team and the season ahead. It's part of the routine.

richard sachs cyclocross team

though i intend to maintain my stance as a conscientious objector to the realms of competitive cycling from a participatory point of view, this does not stop several friends and colleagues from urging me to take baby steps into the world of cyclocross on the basis that i might just enjoy myself and what harm could it possibly do? all this despite the knowledge that my bike handling skills would trouble the course tape far more than any fellow competitors. this seems not to matter much; cyclocross seems naturally inclusive. from richard's experienced point of view, does 'cross present itself as a more participatory branch of the sport than, for example, road racing?

"Yes - on every level. Without even touching on the first group, a typical 'cross race has a separation almost when the entrants leave the pavement and start lap one. There are normally cats and kittens all over the course by the time the second lap begins. Some folks are there to win or be near that first group. Others get jettisoned by an obstacle or a mechanical and lose contact. Others still may lack the skills and fitness but still pin on a number. All of this becomes a spectacle that is quite interesting and even beautiful to watch (as well as be part of). It's also the consummate spectator sport as far as cycling disciplines go."

richard sachs cyclocross team

Apart from Richard, Mrs Sachs and Buddy (the dog) who else is in this year's team? "For 2012, we are supporting three riders in the Elite Men's field. They are Dan Chabanov, Christian Favata, and Dan Timmerman." and in how many races does the team intend to compete? "All of them atmo. Ha. But really, I think we start about 40 UCI C2 and C1 races beginning Saturday September 8th and ending at the National Championships in Colorado in January. Should one of the cats get a Worlds Team selection, increase the number to 41."

cyclocross is hardly immune from the march of technical progress, with many a component being improved, replaced or superseded. richard sachs, however, is a creature of habit; has he made any technical 'improvements' for this year's bikes, or is it a case of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'?

richard sachs cyclocross team

"I have made eight new bicycles for 2012 and we also have some spares from the 2011 season. The only significant difference on this year's batch is that I now (finally) use the Richard Sachs Piccoli Gioielli (that's Italian for Little Jewels...) frame and fork dropouts. I continue to use a lightweight version of the PegoRichie tubing that Columbus supplies for me, along with all the Richie-Issimo castings that I have used for years. The bicycles are all Sram Force equipped, with Zipp stems, 'bars, and seat posts, Cole-Richard Sachs T24 CX wheels with an assortment of Challenge tubulars, Selle San Marco Aspide saddles, Crank Brothers Candy 11 pedals, Connex chains, and Cane Creek headsets and cantilever brakes. We'll race in Northwave footwear, protect our heads and eyes with Rudy Project helmets and sunglasses, and - has has been the case since 1997 - all racing kits are from Verge Sport. The entire mother lode will fit in specialty duffel and apparel bags made for us by Bailey Works.
"Huzzah, huh."

richard sachs cyclocross team

times, we are constantly reminded, are hard at present, with allegedly less and less money available for other than the necessities of life. for those who race cross, that would be easily included by such a word. however, transporting several bicycles plus spares plus personnel up and down the east side of the united states is never going to be cheap, and though there's always the prize money, form and fitness rather presages whether that's something that can be counted on or not. which brings us neatly to the subject of sponsorship, the monies paid by businesses eager to associate themselves with cycle sport and, in this case, with richard sachs. have all his previous sponsors re-signed for the 2012/13 season?

"Yes - all of the sponsor and industry suppliers are back for 2012. The title sponsor is RGM Watch Company and I often refer to the organization as the RGM Watch Company - Richard Sachs 'Cross Team. Also, we have House Industries, The Radix Group, Rajanaka Yoga, and Rex Chiu as official sponsors. I want to add that the team also benefits from financial support of several who wish to remain either anonymous or for whom there is no reason to place a marque on the team kits. We're both lucky and thankful for all of this."

richard sachs cyclocross team

the t-shirt says it, the advert in cyclocross magazine says it (black on yellow), but is it still true? does 'cross still fugkinc rule? "Not only does it still rule, it pays dividends atmo. At the core, we are here to 1) represent the sponsors, suppliers, and support system superbly well so that they can grow their brands with us and, 2) make memories such that every weekend can be looked back upon by each of us and make us wish it could have lasted forever and, 3) achieve our personal goals as athletes. To be candid, nothing else matters."

cyclocross, particularly in north america, tends to be a smidgeon more inclusive than the traditional homeland of middle europe. in other words, it is not an entirely male dominated sport in the usa. however, whether male or female, both are often dependent on their other halves cutting them some slack when training is involved yet dutifully travelling to each and every race with cowbell in hand. having met deb sachs at nahbs this year, she seemed happily resigned to her husband's place in the cycling firmament and equally as happy to support from the sidelines. it therefore seemed not entirely unseemly that i ask if she enjoys the 'cross season as much as does richard?

richard sachs cyclocross team

"I will reply for TLD (The Lovely Deb) so that she can remain in Garbo mode - Deb is about personal connections and face-time more so than is afforded by the ones and zeros of the internet. Anyone can come visit us (her) at the race venues and chat about the cyclocross weekends, our team-mates, the lifestyle we cling to each Autumn, or about her impending studies that involve getting a Master's Degree in Writing For Children from Simmons College. Just make sure it's not near to the time we need to get to the pits so we can crew for Dan, Christian, and Dan."

i know richard is not alone in his enthusiasm for 'cross season, but in view of the singular preparation and investment of time and effort required against that of competing teams who are quite literally handed their factory bikes from a willing sponsor, it is impressive to see the hold that 'cross has on richard sachs'. and, of course, the enjoyment he has received in return for the last thirty years of his involvement.

i will never complain about having to inflate both tyres on the same day ever again.

richard sachs

tuesday 11th september 2012


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