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Rolf Rae-Hansen

Rolf's a freelance copywriter based in Edinburgh

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tour de france

Review: Colombia Es Pasión! by Matt Rendell

An affectionate and insightful look at the current generation of Colombian professional cyclists and the country that made them.

From Rigoberto Uran and Nairo Quintana, to Fernando Gaviria and Egan Bernal, Colombia has of recent been a production line of gilt-edged cycling talent. Matt Rendell’s latest book is a detailed introduction to these, often enigmatic, stars. It’s also a great overview of their homeland’s chaotic modern history and its current political situation.

Narcos
There’s more to Colombia than cocaine

Colombia is a complex nation that many non-natives have only a cartoon knowledge of through tales of Pablo Escobar and TV shows such as Narcos. Rendell’s affection for the country shines through in his writing and is a vital aspect of this book. These riders aren’t Colombian in the way that Froome is ‘British’, because that’s the designation on his racing license. These men are products of the place, forged by the land like the terra makes the wine, by their culture, their people and politics, a very real sense that if born in Europe they would not have become the cyclists they are.

Nairoman, enigmatic even in victory

And there’s a paradox here too, in that as much as their nation has undoubtedly shaped them, many of these riders made it to the heights of the World Tour despite their country’s best efforts, and especially in the case of Quintana, despite his national federation’s best efforts.

Theirs is a country that has battled poverty, drugs, paramilitary forces and political factions, that has recently used sport, and cycling in particular, to bolster its self-image and portray a softer, more positive vision of itself to the world.

These are young men who learned how to work hard (and had no choice but to work hard) from a very early age. As boys they used whatever bikes and equipment their limited resources allowed, the rest begged and borrowed. Training was squeezed in around school work and actual (poorly) paid work, their formative cycling miles most certainly not a hobby in which they were indulged.

You are strong mentally because you come from below. Not having many resources is an advantage, because it brings out your mettle. It gives you one or two points on the others. You are brought up on hard knocks. If you want something, you have to put your back into it.” EF Pro Cycling’s Dani Martinez on how his upbringing shaped his sporting fortunes.

But that’s not to say that there is any sense that these riders are telling their truths in order to seek sympathy. They come across as immensely proud of where they are from, what they and their families have been through, and where they are presently at.

We have all been eating food we have grown ourselves, and drinking the milk from our own cows. It is very healthy, very natural. As kids, we always had to be doing something practical, learning new things, not lying around playing video games or watching television. All this makes us different from the other riders.” Astana pro, Miguel Angel Lopez, on what makes him.

Whilst British riders of the same generation were in receipt of lottery-funded support, Colombians were making tough decisions, such as deciding whether or not to sell the cow which was their only source of income, in order that they might be able to afford a half-decent racing bike.

There are no indulged rich kids amongst the Colombian crop. These are riders who chased a dream and an escape, who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds, whose cycling successes transformed not only their own lives but the lives of their families back home, whose salaries have improved the lot of generations.

Every story Rendell tells here is a variation on that theme, of upbringings that involved hard work and very real poverty the likes of which Western Europe hasn’t known for generations. I was reminded of books I’d read on the very early Tours de France, boys from peasant roots, steeled by the ardour of the lives from which they sought refuge.

An illustrative example comes from Egan Bernal’s recalling that his father couldn’t afford to give him the entrance fee for his first race. The sum in question? 50 pence.

bernal_bandera_tour6415649112361841358.jpg
Tour-winner Bernal has more than 50p to spare these days.

Pick any chapter and it could be the basis of a heart-warming, tear-jerking Hollywood script. These real-life stories are humbling and inspiring, and if reading them doesn’t turn you into a fan of Colombian cycling it can only be because you already were a fan or because your heart is made of stone.

It’s safe to say that when the next Grand Tour rolls around I will be rooting for the Colombians, each and every one.

Colombia Es Pasión – the Generation of Racing Cyclists Who Changed Their Nation and the Tour de France is out now on hardback.

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Review: We Rode All Day by Gareth Cartman

We Rode All Day is a fictionalised account of the 1919 Tour de France, told from the riders’ perspective.

We Rode All Day is a work of fiction based on the historical fact of the 1919 Tour de France. Gareth Cartman has used historical archives, and sometimes artistic license, to conjure a ‘voice’ for each of the featured riders and then set their stories around the events of that year’s race.

Continue reading “Review: We Rode All Day by Gareth Cartman”

Review: The Yellow Jersey by Peter Cossins

The Yellow Jersey by Peter Cossins is a fitting commemoration of the 100th anniversary of one of sport’s most iconic prizes.

Conceived, and first worn, in 1919 as a means of helping spectators at the roadside more easily identify the Tour’s leading cyclist, the maillot jaune is one of the most coveted prizes in the sport of cycling, only rivalled by the World Champ’s rainbow bands.

Continue reading “Review: The Yellow Jersey by Peter Cossins”

Review: Full Gas by Peter Cossins

It’s a long time since I last pinned a number to my cycling jersey. Back in my day (when MTB wheels were all 26 inches and fluro lycra wasn’t retro) I entered a lot of cross-country races. The only tactic I observed, with mixed to middling results, was to ride flat-out from start to finish. My only ‘glorious’ road-racing memory involves failing to ride my breakaway companions off my wheel on a climb, then leading out the sprint, ignoring my inner monologue, which was breathlessly shouting, “you shouldn’t be leading out, you shouldn’t be leading out!

I have no immediate intention of returning to competitive ways and so picked up Full Gas – How to Win a Bike Race: Tactics From Inside the Peloton, to give it its full title, unsure if this book was really for me.

It didn’t take long for those doubts to be dispelled.

Continue reading “Review: Full Gas by Peter Cossins”

Review: The Invisible Mile by David Coventry

The Invisible Mile by New Zealand author David Coventry is a fictionalised account of the five Australian and New Zealand cyclists who, in 1928, formed the first English-speaking team to ride the Tour de France.

Continue reading “Review: The Invisible Mile by David Coventry”

Cycling Savoie Mont Blanc

I’m recently back from a few day’s riding in the Savoie Mont Blanc, the lumpy, Alpine part of Eastern France that borders Switzerland and Italy. The area, hugely popular with winter skiers, is making a big push to promote its many mountainous delights to summer cyclists. Not that cyclists haven’t already discovered the place. I stayed in Morzine, which has already hosted 19 Tour de France stages, including this year’s Tour’s penultimate etape (the soggy stage won by  Ion Izagirre’s demon descent off the Col de Joux-Plane). The locals clearly took the Tour to heart and a month on from the big event the whole area was still decked out in white with red polka dots to match the maillot a pois rouge worn by the race’s best climber. 2016-08-20_17.25.00.jpg

Continue reading “Cycling Savoie Mont Blanc”

The Season’s Cycle

I live my life by the season. That’s not a spelling mistake, I don’t mean seasons, plural, I mean the cycling season.

Continue reading “The Season’s Cycle”

Cooked on the Casse Déserte

Stage 14 of the this year’s Tour de France takes in a wee hill called the Col d’Izoard. Here’s an extra from The Breakaway on the day that very climb very nearly claimed us: Continue reading “Cooked on the Casse Déserte”

Never Meet Your Heroes – Redux

Back in June last year I wrote this short blog about ‘meeting’ the polka dot jersey won and worn by one of my cycling heroes, Robert Millar, at the 1984 Tour de France. 

I’d encountered it after stumbling into Billy Bilsland Cycles on the way home from an afternoon watching the British Road Race Championships at Glasgow Green.
Well it seems as if another trip west (surely a pilgrimage?) is on the cards. Billy Bilsland Cycles have this week unveiled an addition to their Millar tribute. Alongside the signed and framed spotty jersey you can now see the actual Peugeot bike upon which Millar rode to that famous victory.
Apparently the bike hadn’t been seen in public for 30 years, having been in the ownership of a private collector. Well now (but unlike it’s ilusive original owner) the bike is very much back in the public eye — and in one of Scotland’s best bike shops too. Definitely worth a trip to Glasgow, if only to marvel at the size of the inner chainring — what, no compact?!
There’s more info and a full gallery at Billy Bilsland’s Facebook page.

(Still reckon retro Peugeots look better in fluro pink, like my old steed.)

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