To each their own view of the mysterious cloud’s innumerable, shifting shades. For some it’s a brief distraction – snap, swipe, share – for others an excuse to party, a nuisance, an evil portent or an act of international terrorism. For an exclusive few the fog is an opportunity, a moment of enchantment and a chance to change. Continue reading “Polychrome People”→
At the start of this year I swapped my old skinny-tyred Scott CR1 for a fat-ish tyred Jamis gravel bike. If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, a lot of folk see the gravel trend as marketing bollocks designed to sell more bikes. In all honesty, mine has proved something of a revelation. Over the last couple of years I’d begun to get a little tired of tackling the same old, routine road rides in my local patch. Owning a bike that can take the rough with the smooth has allowed me to explore tracks, paths, old drove roads and the like to expand my route itinerary without the hassle of moving house.
Anquetil, Alone may not be the most comprehensive history of the first rider to win five Tours de France but if there’s one better written I’ll eat my chapeau.
To Maître Jacques in a minute. First, the author: Paul Fournel is a French writer, poet, publisher, and cultural ambassador. A few years back I stumbled upon his 2001 collection of essays on cycling, Need For The Bike (Besoin de vélo, in its original French). If you’re a cyclist and haven’t read it then do yourself a favour, open a new tab in your browser and order a copy. Now. Fournel may not have been the best cyclist ever (he describes his own two-wheeled talent as banal) but there’s no one who writes better about the sport.
Not just a cycling fan, throughout his childhood Fournel held Anquetil in the highest regard, and reading Anquetil, Alone you can tell. It would surely be impossible to write that well about a subject for which you had no passion. Anquetil’s palmares demonstates greatness in abundance (five victories at the Tour, two at the Giro, one at the Vuelta, etc, etc) but the way Fournel writes about cycling he could turn the career of Tejay Van Garderen into a literary epic.
Here’s Fournel imagining the pain-tormented thoughts of Anquetil mid-time-trial:
“I’m hurting. The nape of my neck, shoulders, kidneys, and then there’s the hell of buttocks and thighs. You have to resist the burning sensation, the knotted muscles, the stabbing pain that returns with every turn of the pedal, be alert to the instant where there’s a risk of paralysing cramp setting in. Resist the lead that is added to your muscles every quarter of an hour of the race. Keep your mind clear to make sure the movement is always complete: push, pull, lift, slam down, never forget to make the roundest circle. … Don’t listen to the body and head telling you this has to stop right now. Pedal in a world of pain of which only I know the secret, and convince myself that if I’m suffering so much it’s impossible for the others to keep up.”
Enough gushing over Fournel and on to the subject of his prose. I knew a bit, but not a lot, about Anquetil before reading this book. Here’s a little of what I learnt:
– Anquetil won so often that occasionally race organisers paid him not to win. As was the case one year at the Grand Prix de Lugano, where Anquetil accepted a payment not to win, but couldn’t resist and won anyway.
– Anquetil’s motivation most likely wasn’t a love of the bike. After retiring from racing he only returned to the saddle three times. One of those three was on the insistence of his daughter, Sophie, who’d only seen him ride in photographs. As a birthday treat to her he rode his bike across the garden and straight into their swimming pool.
– Despite his success, Anquetil was not universally adored by the French public, proving far less popular than his dogged but Tour-unsuccessful rival Raymond ‘The Eternal Second’ Poulidor:
“He is somebody it’s so easy to admire but so hard to love.” Writes Fournel. “Worse still, the more he proves his excellence, demonstrates his superiority, the more he pedals like nobody else, the more popular Poulidor becomes.”
– Anquetil doped and was open about it, saying so publicly in Equipe:
“You have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to think that a professional cyclist who races 235 days a year can keep going without stimulants.”
One year at the Grand Prix de Forli time trial Anquetil and Ercole Baldini decided to test that imbecilic, hypocritical idea and raced the event on mineral water alone. They finished first and second but were physically and mentally spent, and their average speed was 1.5 kph less than previous years. They vowed never to repeat the madness.
– Anquetil doped his goldfish, just to see what it would do.
– Anquetil had his only victory at La Doyenne, Liege Bastogne Liege, scratched for refusing to take a dope test.
– Behind every great man there is a great woman, and Anquetil was no exception. In his case it was Janine. Eight years older than Jacques, Nanou, as she was affectionately known, was the ex wife of his one-time mentor and doctor. She was no ‘mere’ wife, acting as organiser, fixer, trainer, manager, and providing physical and emotional support. She was also Anquetil’s driver, covering 100,000 km a year ferrying her man to events across the continent, often doping herself on Corydrane in order to stay awake and drive through the night.
– Anquetil was superstitious. Before each Tour he would spend time with a ‘healer’. His favourite was Jean-Louis Noyes a healer and ‘magnetiser’, whose wife was also a fortune teller.
– In his retirement role as a TV commentator, Anquetil interviewed Eddy Merckx directly after his successful attempt on the hour record. Asked how he felt by Anquetil, Merckx, unable to sit down for the pain, could only reply, “it hurts”. In place of sympathy, Anquetil castigated the Cannibal, calling him a blockhead for not having properly prepared for the event.
– Anquetil had a daughter, Sophie, with his step-daughter Annie (his wife Janine’s eldest child), and apparently with his wife’s consent. The presumption amongst the public was that Janine was the mother, but the truth was revealed years later by Sophie in her autobiography Pour L’Amour de Jacques.
There’s a lot more to the man, and a lot more in the book. Even if (for some daft reason) you’ve no interest in Anquetil, the writing alone makes this book a cyclist’s must read. Add it to your list.
We all get the idea of relaxation but how many of us ever properly succeed? A few moments to savour a coffee, ten seconds before the traffic lights change, the five minutes of any day when you’re not being digitally nagged and staring at a screen. For most, the reality of relaxation is little more than a few stolen moments peppered throughout the rush of the daily routine. As for a whole weekend of it? Sure sounds like a magical proposition, but come on, who are you trying to kid?
I was watching my guilty-pleasure TV show, Come Dine With Me, the other night when one of the contestants opined their phobia-level hatred of the banana. What had the mellow yellow done to make him so vociferous? I probably didn’t want to know, but I did take an instant dislike to the hater. The banana, you see, is a pal of mine.
A 90-minute Seriously Stretchy Summer Release deep-tissue Thai Massage with rolling acupressure and passive stretches at Knot Stressed Therapies Clinic (40-42 Montrose Terrace, Edinburgh, EH7 5DL, 07540 809 944, www.knotstressed.com).
This treatment is based on a foundation of Thai massage, with the practitioner using their hands, elbows, knees and feet to apply yoga-like stretches to the receiver’s body. These Thai techniques are complemented by acupressure, whereby clearing pressure is placed upon the body’s “meridians”, junctions through which life energy is considered to flow. Price: £50.
I’ve been making a belated effort to tackle some of Scotland’s toughest/best (depending on your penchant for uphill) cycling climbs. Towards the end of the winter I sampled the Mennock Pass (nice but by no means nasty), a few weeks ago the Bealach na Ba (nice and nasty, thanks to hideous weather) and, just the other day, the Cairn o’ Mount (read on).
Thanks mostly to The Breakaway, when it comes to big-climb bragging among fellow cyclists I can usually hold my own. Ventoux? Not nearly as hard as I expected. Alpe D? It’s fun, like an uphill roller coaster. The Stelvio, Gavia, Mortirolo? Si, si, si.
However, one name kept cropping up that didn’t feature on my ‘palmares’, and its lacking left me a little ashamed. Sure, I’d ridden loads of the French and Italian climbs, but what about the big one in my own backyard?
Er, which one is that? The Bea-what now? I’d sheepishly admit to not having a clue.
Bealach na Ba, they repeated. Toughest in Scotland, they said, pleased to have caught me out, pleased at themselves for having completed that particular Caledonian challenge.
Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep – The Tale of the First Tour de France by Peter Cossins (Yellow Jersey Press) is part explanation of how the world’s greatest bike race came into being, and part sporting reportage of the inaugural Grand Tour’s monstrous stages. There’s a lot of historical detail packed in here but, thanks to Cossins’ telling and the nature of the events being told, none of it makes for dull reading.
What’s French For Madcap?
The concept of a Tour de France by bike was a madcap stunt so out there it was almost binned at the planning stage but, as Cossins explains, this was La Belle Epoque, an era of optimism and economic prosperity, when no idea was too big and the belief in technological and scientific progress made almost anything seem possible.
The originator of this particular piece of madcappery was Géo Lefèvre, correspondent for the newspaper L’Auto. His editor, Henri Desgrange, was looking to create and promote an event that would boost the flagging sales of their newspaper and, more nobly perhaps, revitalise French manhood and restore national pride. However, as Cossins puts it:
“…quite unwittingly, Desgrange and Lefèvre stumbled on to the public’s desire for entertainment at its most extreme, a contest that pushed the participants to their physical limits.”
In comparison to that first running, the modern-day Tour de France is a far more benign beast. The six stages of 1903’s debut edition took in around 2500km (that’s an average of more than 400km per stage) much of them ridden through the night with only dim, oil headlamps to light the way. The bikes of the period were heavy steel-framed, wooden-rimmed machines with a single fixed gear. The roads were mostly dirt tracks, meaning blinding and suffocating dust in the dry, treacherous mud in the wet. Many of the competitors had no team back up, and there were no domestiques to bring bidons or provide shelter from the wind.
Little Sweep, Big Balls
As Cossins highlights, for the likes of eventual winner, Maurice Garin, hardship was part and parcel of normal life. Nicknamed ‘The Little Sweep’ (the Sweep in the book’s title), it seems that he had led a life sufficiently tough to make any bike race feel like a holiday. I mean, who wouldn’t choose a bike ride (even one this insanely hard) to a life spent stuck up a chimney?
Most cyclists (myself included) have read about and watched our cycling heroes over the years and imagined ourselves in their cleated shoes. The first Tour reads like several hardships beyond even my imagined sporting limits. If someone asked me to ride 450 km across dirt roads on an ancient single-speed bike I’d need a year to train for the event, a hefty financial incentive, and I’d still say no — actually, I’d say, no of course not, are you f***ing crazy?!
Reading the detail in Butcher, Blacksmith… is a humbling, mind-blowing experience. You can discern the origins but modern cycling is a far more civilised affair.There are still saddles, pedals, handlebars, wheels and sore legs, but it almost doesn’t seem like the same sport at all.
It’s the details I enjoyed reading about the most, the fascinating little insights Cossins provides into the lot of cyclists 100 years ago, their equipment — from the primitive bikes to woolen jerseys — the tactics, the food and drinks consumed. Rest assured, there were no citrus-flavoured gels back in the day:
It’s no spoiler to tell you that despite the many doubters, and the many travails along the road, Lefèvre and Desgrange pulled off their crazy stunt. That first Grand Boucle was a success and, well, the rest is cycling history.
So, whilst the current peloton is busy whizzing around on 6kg carbon bikes, being fed by nutritionists and pampered by teams of personnel, take some time to read about the bad old days and the pioneers (organisers and riders alike) without whom there would be no yellow jersey, perhaps no Tours of France, Italy or Spain, and a sport vastly different from the one we know and (mostly) love today.