Rolf Rae-Hansen

Cycling Bealach na Ba – Britain’s Hardest Climb

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.

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Cycling Book Review: Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep – The Tale of the First Tour de France

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?!

Insane Origins

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:


No-spoiler Alert!

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.

Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep – The Tale of the First Tour de France by Peter Cossins (Yellow Jersey Press).

Ride’s The Weather Diaries: some things aren’t best left behind.

My first memory of knowingly hearing the band Ride was John Peel (Google him, kids) playing Vapour Trail on a Saturday night sometime in the winter of 1990 (if memory serves). I was taping the show (as you did back then, onto a TDK C90: Google it, kids), the tape stretched to breaking point over the following days, Vapour Trail on heavy rotation.

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Tour de Pharmacy & a Sensitive Cycling Soul

Am I too sensitive a cycling soul or does the new HBO film Tour de Pharmacy look (more than a bit) crap? It’s a mockumentary lampooning cycling’s doping culture. Wow, well done guys, only (at least) ten years late to the party.

It’s not that I’m blinkered to cycling’s issues past or present. I quickly realised that my new climbing idol Marco Pantani might not be riding pane e acqua. I was an Armstrong doubter from the first of his seven. I now watch the sport through irises scarred by Festina, Puerto, Landis, Rasmussen, various vanishing twins, EPO Cera, steakgate, Ricardo Ricco’s innumerable fuck ups, motor-doping, whereaboutsgate. You name it, I’ve witnessed a very large jiffy bag full of eye openers.

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Review: Ruffians Barber, Edinburgh

The Treatment

A haircut (£40) and Ruffians Refresher (£15) at Ruffians Edinburgh (23 Queensferry Street, EH2 4QS, 0131 225 8962 www.

A Ruffians haircut is a comprehensive 45-minute process, beginning with a consultation, to help match a style to the customer’s face shape, hair type and general style. Next comes a shampoo and conditioning treatment, a scalp massage, then the all-important cut, finish and style. The Refresher is an extra luxury that includes an exfoliating and moisturising facial treatment, soothing hot and cold towels, and a shoulder, arm and hand message.

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Book Review: Giro d’Italia by Colin O’Brien

Giro d’Italia – The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race, to give it it’s full title, is exactly what it says on the cover. It takes in all the major editions and events from the Giro’s 1909 birth right up to Nibali’s win in 2016.

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Top Tips For Visiting Rome

I’m recently back from a four-day visit to Rome, The Eternal City (it’s still there, still going) and thought I’d share some newfound wisdom.

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Review: Yin Yoga at Tribe Quartermile

tribe quartermileA 60-minute Yin Yoga session at Tribe Yoga Quartermile (1 Porters Walk, Edinburgh, EH3 9GJ, 0131 229 1619 Yin is a passive yoga practice from the Taoist tradition, intended to stretch and strengthen your muscles’ fascia connective tissues. Various prone and supine poses are held for up to 5 minutes in a studio that’s heated to 26 degrees C. An extremely meditative form of movement, the emphasis is on de-stressing body and mind, to leave both in calm harmony. £12.00 for a drop-in class (set of 5 for £50, 10 for £90.00).

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Review: Mini Break at Beacon Hill Shepherd’s Hut

Let’s go camping in Northumberland, in winter, said no one ever.

Glamping, I said, not camping, duh! Oh well, now you’re talking.

The Shepherd’s Hut at Beacon Hill Farm (near Morpeth) is a lot less hypothermia and a lot more Hygge. Built from a wooden kit, it’s modelled on, but isn’t, a bone fide ye olde working shepherd’s hut. (You may or may not be disappointed to learn that it doesn’t come with a crook, a collie dog, or any sheep.)

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