the cloak of invisibility

arran from claonaig

in the harry potter books and movies, harry is presented with a cloak of invisibility, enabling him to roam the corridors of hogwarts school unheralded, unseen and uninterrupted. such a garment, allegedly not made from merino wool, is, of course, a figment of the fertile imagination and narrative strategy engendered by jk rowling, but i may just have found the velocipedinal equivalent during a very recent percussive-led trip to the isle of arran.

possessed of a current total of eight malt whisky distilleries, islay outnumbers the distilleries on arran by quite some proportion, even though they currently have a second building under construction some 30 miles south of the existing example. but such a discrepancy notwithstanding, arran holds its own festival of malt and music on an annual basis at the end of june. the manager of the distillery at lochranza is a long-time friend of mine, a friendship borne primarily from making music, to which end he invited me to percuss in the house band for this year's event, necessitating a few warm, sunny days on arran.

saracen mountain bike

having arrived on the thursday for a quick evening run-through of the set list to ensure all was in order (no extraneous chords or beats), i found myself with a hot, blue-skied friday, free to do as i pleased. having ben neglectful in querying the weekend itinerary, my travel had been principally by calmac ferry, with a minimal entourage devoid of velocipedinal frippery, a situation i soon had cause to regret. however, staying at the excellent field centre in lochranza, they cheerfully loaned me one of their fleet of less than perfect mountain bikes. it's an experience i can only assume was once shared by jk rowling, for i now know that a less than well-maintained green and white saracen mountain bike was most likely the inspiration for harry's cloak of invisibility.

it would be tantamount to slander to imply that the mechanical status of the saracen had any real bearing on its apparent ability to make one all but invisible. if i'm completely truthful, the brand name is all but incidental to my discovery. to frame my conjecture more fully, having neglected to take my own bicycle with me, i was sorely unprepared for the near 100 kilometre ride subsequently undertaken. i had no bibshorts, no cycle-specific jersey and most pertinently, no sun screen (which was dutifully left sitting on the kitchen table at home. it's an age thing). thus, i rode south wearing a regular pair of clark's shoes, a pair of cycling jeans, a baselayer and a rapha hooded sweatshirt to protect my arms from the scorching sunshine. the centre had also loaned me a helmet, but i had no casquette and no track mitts.

velo cafe lagg

the word unprepared springs to mind.

therefore, despite my many years of scribbing these cycling musings, aided and abetted by many more years of cycling, my apparently slovenly attire aboard this green and white mountain bike with frequently malfunctioning gears had the ability to have me all but disappear from view. at least, as far as the many road-cyclists inhabiting arran's coast road were concerned. as a welcoming sort of chap without the benefit of observing my non-pelotonic appearance, i both waved and offered a series of "hail fellow, well met" salutations to each and every passing cyclist.

to cut an already lengthy diatribe a tad shorter, let me just say that if it says s-works or cervelo on your downtube, the chances are, i would not have disturbed your forward vision. lest all appear to be tarnished with the same brush, i had no trouble eliciting a response from other mountain bikers, nor from touring cyclists, but even casual observation would have noted that those on drop bars were inclined to stare straight ahead and pretend i wasn't there.

but, i hear you ask, why on earth did you undertake a ride of marginally less than 100 kilometres on such an inappropriately qualified bicycle? well, some of you may recollect a feature published in these very pixels in may of last year, detailing a thoroughly excellent cycling café forming a part of arran's lagg hotel. situated in the long-closed hotel public bar, the vélo café lagg is pretty much everything you'd want a cycling café to be: tons of space, vast quantities of appropriate wall and ceiling decor, superb vegan and gluten-free food, wonderful coffee and the sort of welcome, whether cyclist or not, that defines the phrase 'a warm welcome'.

velo cafe lagg

i know all this because that's exactly to where i cycled on my cloak of invisibility. for the benefit of the grimpeurs amongst you, if heading back in the direction of lochranza, the road leading directly away from the café's ceud mille failte, tops out at 20% and i encountered a short 17% rise around half-way home, though in mitigation, i had paid heed to the latter when descending en-route south.

if, as seems quite possible, you find yourself riding round arran this summer, make sure that, whatever else you do, you make time to stop at the vélo café lagg. irrespective whether you arrive on the ferry from claonaig to lochranza or that travelling between ardrossan and brodick, assuming you head south, the café is strategically sited to offer a healthy repast and watering hole to the hard-riding cyclist. however, for peace of mind, try not to follow my sartorial and velocipedinal example.

however, i would like to offer my grateful thanks to the staff at lochranza field centre for the loan of the saracen mountain bike. it's hardly their fault that there are still snobs riding carbon.

monday 2 july 2018

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the call of the road: the history of cycle road racing. chris sidwells. william collins publishing hardback. 426pp illus. £20

the call of the road - chris sidwells

for the majority of time with which i have been enthralled with road cycling, particularly the racing aspects, it has been impressed upon my psyche that it is not only the 'beautiful sport' but possessed of an enviable heritage. stories and anecdotes abound, many of which owe their origins to the lack of official scrutiny applicable to many of the sport's early races. with several arising as a result of a desperate need to sell more newspapers. it's no wonder that journalists were somewhat liberal with their hyperbole. why let the truth stand in the way of a great story?

but separating fact from fiction when related to the history of road racing can be a somewhat thankless task; there is no dvd with phil and paul to place everything in some form of logical order. but many of those stories have been reiterated so frequently in the years since i first clambered aboard skinny wheels, that one could seriously question the need to offer just one more reprise. i confess that such was the frame of mind with which i approached chris sidwell's 'the call of the road', only to be more than pleasantly surprised.

yes, many of those stories are repeated here, but when placed in a historical context such as this, they no longer feel like watching an episode of the big bang theory just one more time. sidwells has also contrived to arrange his chapters thematically, mostly in some form of chronological order, but perhaps in more of a relational manner; perfectly justifiable as far as i'm concerned.

my subsequently undermined misgivings were not immediately quashed, however, on reading the author's openng chapter, one which begins with a loose description of just how cycle road racing might be defined.

"A road race is many things. It includes many aspects of life, but magnified; a maelstrom of ambitions, plans, desire,co-operation and treachery. A road race ebbs and flows through the countryside like a living thing, a kaleidescope of colour [...] a chess game played on wheels."

sidwells goes on to appraise the earnest reader of the variations of which road-racing is comprised, essentially that of the single-day event and stage racing "Some single-day races have more history or more notable terrain, and they are called the classics." maybe a tad simplistic, but essentially true. yet rather disappointingly, though probably inevitably, before the second page has ended, we have already entered the three weeks in july that are the tour de france. granted, it probably is one of the greatest single sporting event in the world, but i had hoped it would be subsumed into the greater definition of the sport, rather than being singled out quite so soon in the narrative.

the remaining eleven pages of this introductory chapter are concerned with little other than le tour, but thankfully, that is more or less where this over emphasis ends. without appearing disrespectful, 'the call of the road' seems intent on educating the less knowledgeable as to the arcane nooks and crannies of our sport. thus, it's hard to argue against introducing the tour de france quite so early in the book, possibly the sole race that appears on many folks' horizons. however, despite arrogantly placing myself at the head of the line of road-racing cognoscenti, allegedly well-versed in all aspects of the sport, i found the book far more interesting and intriguing than i had expected.

the author begins with the historical aspects in chapter two, entitled 'the first road races', perhaps betraying the smugness that most of us in the uk can muster when relating that "The first proper road race of which there is a record happened in November 1869. It went from Paris to Rouen on normal roads. But since (Englishman) James Moore also won that race (an earlier victory in paris the previous year has already been mentioned) he is the father of road-racing".

it would be hard to trace the history of road-racing without bringing into play, the parallel history of the bicycle itself, commencing with the ordinary or penny farthing, alongside the so-called boneshaker, which also sported differing sizes of wheels, to the eventual invention and acceptance of the safety-bicycle with its equally dimensioned wheels and eventual pneumatic tyres. in weight and athleticism, these machines were a far cry from the carbon lightweights of today, yet it is surely testament to the grit and determination of their riders that they managed such impressive speeds over terrain that would scarcely qualify for the definition road in modern parlance.

writing about paris-roubaix: "...a lot of the roads in Picardie were cobbled, and the cobbles and weather conditions grew worse as the riders went further north. [...] The reason they were worse... was that the north was the heart of heavy industry in France.
[...]"Josef Fischer won the race in a time of 9 hours and 17 minutes, an average speed of 30.162kph (18.742 mph)"

to illustrate chris sidwells' agreeable manipulation of historical chronology, we need only take a look at chapter 5, entitled 'growing the roots of tradition' which commences in the second decade of the 20th century and ends with robert millar's 1984 polka dots and the troubles in spain the following year. yet, there are 14 more chapters to go. to my mind, this is a logical way to deal with road-racing's history, for what better means of underlining the scot's climbing prowess than to follow it with the introduction of mountains to the grand tours?

father of the tour de france, henri desgrange, was perhaps the instigator of the grimpeur, but his faith in adding the spectacle of the alps and pyrenees seems not to have initially been widely shared. "...people who knew the mountains said that sending raceing cyclists over their high passes was crazy. The mountain roads were blocked with snow for most of the year." [...] "But Desgrange was more intrigued than put off."

and so the narrative continues, offering the reader an immensely readable story, featuring all manner of road racing stories, facts and figures. sidwells has even the nonchalance and wit to entitle his chapter introducing the brits to the european racing scene 'Brentry, Britain Joins Cycling's EU'. he has preceded this with an explanation as to why the time-trial had become almost the sole preserve of british riders under the umbrella of the national cycling union, before the british league of racing cyclists began to entice riders with the prospect of massed start road events and their eventual slow and painful incorporation into european road racing.

neither is women's racing excluded from the discussion, reiterating what we've all known for years "Women have had a bad deal in sport, and there are generations who never got the chance to fully explore and exploit their talent. [...] It's almost unbelievable, but there were no official women's world titles at all until 1958...". sidwells points out how strange a set of affairs this is, "...when you consider that a woman took part in the first ever proper road race."

if you find yourself sitting mute within the sunday morning peloton when the discussion turns to the ubiquitous great heritage that is an integral part of road riding (competitive or otherwise), or perhaps have need of finding the year in which the aforementioned james moore won at parc st. cloud in paris (via the extensive index at the back of the book), then this would undoubtedly be £20 well spent. even if it's simply a case of re-appraising yourself of the context in which your random knowledge exists, chris sidwells offers a comprehensive and enjoyable read before bed each night.

however, my one serious request to the publishers would be that they dispense with the appalling typography featured on the cover and spine when printing the paperback. it really is a worry that someone thought that was a good idea.

'the call of the road' by chris sidwells is published on 28 june'

wednesday 27 june 2018

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during my years at college, the uk had two distinct levels of value added tax, depending on specifics relating to the purchaseable item under consideration. though i'd be hard-pressed to offer verifiable lists relating to this vat discrimination, as a would-be megastar in the making, it left me with a distinct financial advantage over my electrical colleagues. the government of the time had seen fit to apply 8% to acoustic instruments and 12% on those requiring electricity. thus, drums and cymbals attracted the lower rate, while electric guitars and their like suffered from a higher level of duty.

this led to the truthful anomaly whereby the manager of the music shop where we were inclined to make nuisances of ourselves and drink all the coffee, once asked a customer whether his intended purchase of a plectrum was for an acoustic or electric guitar. it transpired that he was only kidding, but the veracity of his query was surely left untested? mind you, in an associated anecdote relating to electric guitars, a gent who had purchased one of the latter for his son, returned to the shop a few days later to inform the manager that he had been provided with an incorrect guitar cable. all the sockets in his house were three-pin.

while i leave you to cogitate on the heady implications of that, i will move onto the principal subject of my scribblings, namely the contention that the electric bicycle will soon consign the pedal bicycle to the dustbin of history. however, in the meantime, there is still the small matter of how to cogently refer to the non-electric bicycle. the two principal suggestions, according to a recent article on by carlton reid, are the acoustic bicycle, or the m-bike, the latter presumably referring to its mechanical means of propulsion. in the interests of uniformity in the face of all-enveloping conformity, i would like to add a third option to these considerations and recommend that we refer to all non e-bikes as 'analogue' bicycles, principally on the basis that almost everything electrical either is, or will soon become digital.

but on the whole, i think it would be perfectly in order to simply refer to them as 'bicycles', given that they have always been known as such and the addition of a battery and motor to some of them need not render change in that direction.

but i am rather intrigued and ultimately dismayed by the contention of e-bike evangelist, hannes neupert that the fully human powered bicycle will ultimately go the way of the manual typewriter. neupert, who has apparently been proselytising uptake of the e-bike for nigh on 26 years, is quoted as saying in 2010 that "Electrification will kill the mechanical bicycle within a few years like it has killed many other mechanical products..." though there is no doubt the e-bike is on the ascendancy, wouldn't you think that eight intervening years would count as "within a few years". and is there any evidence to support the not unnatural supposition that e-bikes are supplanting analogue bicycles? no research whatsoever on my part would think that the majority of e-bike sales are to those who did not previously ride bicycles at all.

given their current range of approximately 60 miles at best, and an inherent substantial weight factor, to say nothing of lengthy charging times, are any of the sunday morning pelotons across the country likely to see an insidious influx of e-bikes anytime soon? mr neupert describes the pedal-powered cycle as likely to become a "fossilised cult object" a description with which i find it hard to agree, but then i've been wrong before. i would think, however, that the e-bike will fill a need in the commuting market, even after the likelihood of improved battery life and diminishing weight of same.

the analogue bicycle has always offered an unfettered sense of freedom, one that doesn't rely on necessary digital display watching and mental calculations on whether there's enough juice left to return home if undertaking a slightly lengthier trip than originall envisioned. it also offers the rider endless opportunities to test themselves against the topography and the elements. achieving the monthly strava challenge by means of battery power rather undermines the point, don't you think.

perhaps hannes neupert will read this article and suspect that i am living in denial, but on the contrary, i've never once been to egypt. and did video really kill the radio star?

tuesday 26 june 2018

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