Friday, 14 November 2014

The Road Uphill: Film Showing in Ottawa on November 16

On Sunday, November 16th at 1600 hrs at the National Archives in Ottawa the European Union Film Festival continues with a screening of the Luxembourg documentary about the Brothers Schleck, who have carried the nation's banner in pro racing for the last few years.  Although Frank continues to race, Andy announced his retirement from racing last month at the age of 29 as he has not been able to fully recover from injuries sustained over the last few years.  A brilliant prospect once and the official winner of the 2010 Tour de France after Alberto Contador's disqualification, Andy always seemed fragile and his palmares were never what they might have been.  Lots of second places (twice at the Tour de France, once at the Giro) but never quite the complete rider somehow.

Book Review: Bike Mechanic—Tales from the Road and the Workshop


 The big stars of cycling: the race winners stand on the podium on the inevitable three steps, waving to the crowds, kissing podium girls, throwing bouquets around and spraying innocent bystanders with champagne. But the riders on the podium are only the most visible evidence of a pro team and now a book has come out that shines a bit of light on those that never end up mentioned, unless a chain breaks at a bad moment: the mechanics.

Guy Andrews' and Rohan Dubash's new book, “Bike Mechanic: Tales from the Road and the Workshop” is a welcome addition to the cycling library if only because it offers an unusual point of view. Well, it is also praiseworthy for the really good photographs, most effective in classic black-and-white, by Taz Darling. There are masses of books about celebrity racers and an impressive number that deal with famous bicycle brands or artisanal builders but nobody has had much to say about bicycle mechanics before. This book goes some way to addressing this gap but it might be better to consider it as a book about the management of the mechanical aspect of cycling. The structure of the book is unusual, with the opening section, “On the Road,” dealing with pro racing while the second section (“Hardware”) and the last (“the Bike”) move away from this to a nuts-and-bolts discussion (literally) of bicycle maintenance.

The first section, which makes up less than one-third of the book, includes excellent race photos as well as short accounts of life as a pro race mechanic. This is enjoyable and illuminating. We know that the racer gets the credit when the race is won but when the race is lost through a technical failure the opprobrium attaches to the previously-ignored mechanic. The book mentions two specific cases, both involving chains: David Millar's coming apart as he was about to commence what should have been a stage-winning sprint at the Vuelta; the 2010 Tour de France when Andy Schleck's jammed at a critical moment.


We learn that in the Good Old Days racers usually had only one bicycle and mechanics were freelancers who showed up at races. Today's mechanics are faced with pro teams that have upwards of 200 bicycles plus masses of spares to account for. Each racing bicycle is built to the idiosyncrasies of picky pros and the mechanics need to stay abreast of this. Then during the race itself the mechanics are either moving the big truck to the next stage location or sitting in a team car, preparing to leap out for a quick wheel change or on-the-fly adjustment. When the racing is done each day and the riders off for their massages, the mechanics are busy washing, lubricating and adjusting the thoroughbred machines in time for it all to be repeated the next day during a typical stage race.


The authors have included interesting snippets of interview with mechanics, some background on the arrival of Shimano components on the European pro racing scene, an examination of a typical UCI World Tour team service course (in this case the Omega-Pharma-Quick-Step one)--laconically described as the “team garage;” a vivid description of riding along with the neutral support mechanics of Mavic and Vittoria. There is an account of the huge team trucks and their valuable contents and a chapter on bike washing. For those who have not seen pro race mechanics in action after a race it is worth staying around for the show. This writer recalls seeing the mechanics at the HEW Cyclassics race in Hamburg hosing down expensive racing bicycles at top speed and stacking them in team station wagons as if they were firewood.

The second section of the book moves us into the esoteric world of the bicycle workshop, with its range of specific-purpose tools. The photographs are the highlight of this section and even those with no mechanical aptitude will feel motivated to at least consider doing some work if one could only get one's hands on these beautiful items. Even tools that most of us will never use (head tube facing tools, anyone?) look irresistible here.


The last section of the book covers the complete bicycle and provides advice on how to maintain your mechanical steed in the same way that pros do. There are explanations and suggestions for everything from tire installation to cleaning in a clearly-written and well-illustrated fashion. However, this book is not to be confused with manuals with exploded assembly diagrams (thinking of Leonard Zinn's here) and for really specific instructions you need to go elsewhere.


So the book is a bit of this and a bit of that—and I would have loved more “Tales from the Road”-- rather than a comprehensive look at the experiences of bike mechanics or a how-two book for those aspiring to be one. But the modest goal set by the author is easily reached:

So this book is a collection of stories with some tips and hints that we thought be useful to amateur mechanics and road cycling enthusiasts alike. It certainly isn't comprehensive; there just wasn't space.....We hope it inspires you to get the workstand out.

The book is a joint venture between VeloPress and Rouleur so as always the publication is of very high quality and many of the photos approach art. With the cycling season coming to an end for many of us, this is an excellent read for dark winter evenings, fun to just browse through, and would be a fine gift for any cyclist, even one with or without a workstand.


“Bicycle Mechanic—Tales from the Road and the Workshop” by Guy Andrews and Rohan Dubash,
with photography by Taz Darling
270 pp., ill., paperback
VeloPress 2014, suggested retail price US$24.95
ISBN 978-1-937715-18-2

For more information on this and other cycling books, check out www.velopress.com

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Book Review: Fat Tire Flyer


In all honesty, I will admit to no inclination towards mountain bikes. I am all about skinny tires, classic road races, white ankle socks and total Euro-style. So when the folks at VeloPress, who put out some of my favourite road cycling biography/history/training/ books pressed one of their latest publications into my hands I was not sure what to do with it. And that's because “Fat Tire Flyer” by Charlie Kelly is about the birth and early years of the mountain bike. Bikes with fat tires. Bikes ridden by long-haired freaks in California in the 1970s. Bikes that--shudder--even got really dirty. And this account is one of the most entertaining books I have had this year.

There are very few inventions where one can say there was a clear and definite beginning. Germans will tell you Philipp Reis invented the telephone, not Alexander Graham Bell; the French will say that Clement Ader's airplane was the first in powered flight, not the Wright Brothers'. The birth of the mountain bike (unfortunately described as “one of the most significant inventions in the 20th Century” on the book's inside cover) brooks no such foggy origin. We have all heard about the Repack Race on Mount Tamalpais in Northern California and the names associated with the “klunker bikes” still resonate in the bicycle industry nearly four decades later. These names include Tom Ritchey, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and the author of “Fat Tire Flyer,” Charlie Kelly.


Charlie Kelly is a man who has worn many hats in his life and the book opens with an account of how he got into cycling. In his very amusing and wry style he recounts the junk bikes he rode as a child, moving up eventually to one of the great bike boom-era road bikes, a Peugeot U0-8, described as the kind of bike people who don't own bikes would recommend. Now into riding more seriously but still clearly knowing not much he upgraded to another Peugeot, a PX-10 (a very collectible bike in today's market) before meeting up for the first time with like-minded spirits in the form of Gary Fisher and the drummer of the New Riders of the Purple Sage band. Kelly had become a roadie for a band himself and the group he associated with, musicians and cyclists, were long-haired free spirits.

Deciding that he wanted to race, he realized that it was necessary to belong to a club and since they thought of themselves as not suitable for the only bike club in the vicinity they ended up forming their own, rather anarchic group, the Velo-Club Tamalpais. To manage VTC, Kelly went to the public library and after mastering “The Clubwoman's Handbook” was able to establish some rules of order and determine enough of a statement of purpose that VTC was accredited and on its way.


The group's racing history did not sound particularly distinguished and Charlie Kelly's own palmares never reached more than a second place after he blew a lead. But the story really gets interesting when he and his friends determined that riding skinny-tired 10-speeds for errands and transportation was not very practical so they picked up old heavy singlespeed bikes to ride to club meetings and for other purposes. One day they visited a friend on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County and using their heavy old bikes rode around on the local trails, discovering, to their apparent surprise, that going downhill was much easier than uphill. Soon a course was determined, the Pine Mountain Loop, and more people joined in.


A particular section of dirt fire road behind Cascade Canyon became the site of the now-legendary Repack. The bikes used were never meant to handle the kind of abuse the VTCers aimed at them and the coaster brakes would smoke as the grease burned out, necessitating frequent repacking and hence the name. Charlie Kelly took on the task of organizing the Repack races and arranging for time- and record-keeping. As time passed the group made more and more modifications to their old bicycles but 40 year old bikes and parts gradually disappeared and as they become more and more modified the direction was clear. The Marin Klunker Bike, made of bits and pieces found in thrift shops and basements, metamorphosed into the first purpose-built off-road mountain bike with new parts, one of a small series constructed by Joe Breeze in 1977. The rest is history.

Ritchey Mountain Bike No. 1
Charlie Kelly was not only the organizer of the Repack races but he went into a partnership with Gary Fisher to build and sell the new style bikes, with frames constructed by Tom Ritchey, and actually used the name MountainBike for the product. The growth of the racing scene, the MountainBike story, the establishment in 1983 of NORBA (National Off-Road Bicycle Association) and Charlie Kelly's mountain bike publication, “the Fat Tire Flyer,” is covered in the book, with many period photographs and groovy counter-culture graphics.

There is much in the book that is counter-culture and one has the sense of a group of Californians who refused to grow up, semi-employed in their 30s and hanging around with bands like the Grateful Dead, having a great time crashing their bikes down Repack, while wearing what looked like construction worker gear. It was a world far distant from European-style road racing and in fact the Union Cycliste International (UCI) did not even deign to recognize the sport until 1990. In the meantime mountain biking has become a global sport, its manufacture a global industry. The bikes, with their fat tires, flat handlebars and friendly appearance, have brought many people into cycling who might never have considered it.


Charlie Kelly wrote for Bicycling magazine for a while—well, until he got fired—and other cycling publications and the book includes some excellent samples of his writing. There is even a chapter about his trip to the 1985 Giro d'Italia, far from the fire roads of Marin County, where he saw some of the greats of European road racing, including Francesco Moser, perform before the world. And in a life characterized perhaps by the unexpected after “the Fat Tire Flyer” ceased publication he turned his hand to a completely different line of work, that of piano mover, for three decades.


Considering the makeshift nature of the original “klunker” project, VeloPress has produced a very fine volume, with good photo reproduction, worthy of any cycling library shelf. It is the first book to provide a detailed insider's account of the birth of the mountain bike, a machine that had numerous fathers but was the product of a very particular time and place. “Fat Tire Flyer” may not be about road bikes and Euro-style but it is not just about a new technology coming to life. It is about unforgettable characters, good friends, good times and having fun on your bike. That is something all cyclists should be able to relate to and enjoy.

“Fat Tire Flyer” by Charlie Kelly, with a foreword by Joe Breeze
258 pp., ill., hardcover
VeloPress 2014, suggested retail US$29.95
ISBN 978-1-937715-16-8

For more information go to www.velopress.com

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Col Collective

Michael Cotty and crew have a new project underway: the Col Collective.  Highlighting many of Europe's greatest passes it will feature both a website and a YouTube channel.  The website is not really up and running yet but several videos can be seen already, including this one of the Galibier in France.  This is a monster of a climb, particularly if you get up to it after first riding the Col de Telegraphe as we did a few years ago.

The videos (introducing the Col Collective; the Galibier; the Stelvio) are beautifully photographed and there is nice accompanying music.  Designed to inspire and prepare you for the climbs, the videos have already convinced me to try to get back over the winter into the climbing form I once had.




Lino Messori: Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

 Here is a very charming video portrait, "At the Speed of Heart," of a master Italian framebuilder, a native of Modena (city of Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani, excellent balsamic vinegar and Luciano Pavarotti) who clearly followed his own muse.  Now 88 years old, Lino Messori is the kind of person that makes the bicycle world, or at least one part of it, so attractive to me.  Enjoy!

Lino Messori - Alla velocità del cuore [at the speed of heart] from lucacampanale on Vimeo.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Spokesman

Here is a very charming little film, less than 3 minutes long, that came out last year (2013) on Vimeo.  The filmmaker, Dean Saffron, only had an hour to conduct an interview followed by a mere 30 minutes to shoot the video!  The protagonist is an Australian collector of bicycles, James McDonald.  In the words of Mr. Saffron:
I simply had to make this video after meeting "James" a very enigmatic man who has taken it upon himself to collect one bicycle from each developmental epoch for future generations to enjoy , a kind of time capsule if you will !

Hi Everybody ,sadly my friend James "The Spokesman" has passed away from lung cancer last week.
(postscript added by the filmmaker in 2014)
There are some iconic bicycles in the video, from an 1816 Draisine replica to a fine highwheeler, a classic Dursley-Pedersen and even a Moulton.  It is a shame that there was no opportunity for a longer video since the collection, which is probably dispersed by now, was superb.


The Spokesman from dean saffron on Vimeo.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Book Review: The Road Less Taken



Racing ahead of Mark Cavendish's two autobiographies, American/St.Kitts and Nevis pro cyclist Kathryn Bertine, 37 years old, recently launched her third book. The first covered her career as a figure skater with an ice dancing company; the second was about her attempts to become an Olympic athlete in a range of unlikely sports but “The Road Less Taken” is a different book again, a series of episodes in her life as a professional cyclist and journalist. In it she travels not just a road less taken but one that leads in surprising directions.

Kathryn Bertine appears to be a Force of Nature. Following her ultimately unsuccessful (but entertaining) attempt to get to the Beijing Olympics while writing for ESPN, she discovered her true sports love was not triathlon or rowing or distance swimming or pistol shooting but rather road cycling and to make it happen she became a citizen of the tiny Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis which she has since represented at several World Road Championships. Having designed her own national jersey. And arranged to get to various faraway countries to race. With no money or team support or much of anything, except an obvious unstoppable determination and more than a little talent and passion.

She has been the national champion of her adopted country several times and raced for a number of women's professional teams, which gives her credible perspective, and her degree in journalism gives her the skill to capture these interesting stories in an elegant, personal style. She has become a documentary filmmaker with “Half the Road,” an eloquent argument for equality in women's cycling and sports in general. Her activism on behalf of her gender saw her, with pro racers Marianne Vos (3-time World Road Champion), Emma Pooley (former World Time Trial Champion) and Chrissie Wellington (4-time Ironman World Champion), successfully petition Tour de France organizers ASO to put on a women's race. La Course was run in Paris on the Champs Elysée this year, to the Arc de Triumph and back in 13 laps, covering 89 kilometres, on the final morning of the Tour de France before the arrival of the men's teams. Kathryn Bertine, without a team, received a last-minute invitation from Wiggle Honda and was able to taste the triumph of participating in a women's pro race on the grandest stage in cycling.

Kathryn Bertine racing at La Course, Paris, July 2014
But most of this is not covered in “the Road Less Taken.” Instead the book, a series of short essays, covers the topics of what life is like for pro women cyclists (pretty marginal, it appears, although grimly funny in parts); stupid UCI rules; women in sports; women in sports treated unfairly; the stupid UCI and some of its idiotic rules; and stupid airline baggage charges. There is a good account of how women manage to get by financially in racing (barely, and holding down numerous jobs) and an amusing riposte to Bicycling magazine's piece on the hottest women in cycling who she names as “Watties” rather than “Hotties” for their impressive athletic accomplishments which seem secondary to their attractive appearances. (Although one must admit that a lot of female cyclists look terrific and are great advertisements for the fitness benefits of cycling. As calendar models they would appeal far more than, say, the Schleck brothers.)

There is a thoughtful piece on the Lance Armstrong legacy as well as some very personal stories about friends and family of which “the Pinarello,” about a racing bicycle hanging on a wall, its owner deceased, is most commendable. Sad but beautifully written.

One of other essays that is particularly enjoyable albeit alarming is entitled “On Taking” about participating in a pre-Olympic race in Venezuela, seeking elusive points. Assistance from the Venezuelan federation was obtained using pantomime and the author was driven by a complete stranger on a seven hour trip from Caracas to the hinterland:

“...the roads were harrowing, twisty, and without lighting. Many South American highways—Venezuela notwithstanding—are rather frightening, as lane lines and stop signs appear to be nothing more than decorative. Taillights are optional, and overtaking trucks by crossing the double yellow line is a common practice. Adding to this conundrum, the man driving me was texting, drowsy and constantly misplacing his glasses. He also had early-onset Parkinson's.”

In spite of the awful hotel and lack of food, she somehow psyched herself up enough to race like a demon and in the end, although admitting to not being a big sprinter, managed a sixth place finish and taking eight points towards her dream of Olympic qualification. It is a glorious moment in the book but soon after everything lands with thud as the UCI rescinds all the points from the race and then fails to recognize her St. Kitts and Nevis national champion points due to a clerical error. The author is an ambitious and competitive athlete and the disappointment is palpable. The Olympic dream is over.

But Kathryn Bertine has accomplished a great deal following this different road, seemingly through a combination of stubbornness and humour. As sympathetic as one is to the undeniable arguments she makes in favour of women's cycling we know that men racing in anything below UCI World Tour level do not have roads paved with gold either but at least they have a slate of races and some recognition, if not much money (see my recent review of  Phil Gaimon's “Pro Cycling on $10 a Day,”). But the author has made the most out of the hand she has been dealt. In her introduction she writes:

“I also understood that this professional cycling goal wasn't a journey of sport but a further expedition of a life less ordinary. One that would chronicle five years of my mid-thirties, no less. Who, at 33, chooses bicycles over babies? Highways over husbands? Carbon fiber over fortuitous careers? No one, surely. That is, no one chooses. It is simply who we are to heed our What-Ifs. And the call of the What-If is hardly specific to athletes.”

Not everyone can win three World Road Championships like Marianne Vos or four Ironman World Championships like Chrissie Wellington but not everyone can look as critically at one's own life as an athlete and what that means in terms of pleasure gained, opportunities foregone and lesson learned as Kathryn Bertine has done in “the Road Less Taken.” And with the recent announcement of a three day women's race to run concurrent to the Amgen Tour of California, perhaps for women cyclists there will be a road more taken ahead.

“The Road Less Taken” by Kathryn Bertine, with a foreword by Lindsay Berra
234 pp., ill. Paperback
Triumph Books,Chicago 2014, recommended price US$16.95
ISBN 9781629370125

DVD Review: Half the Road



"Half The Road" trailer from kevin tokstad on Vimeo.

Kathryn Bertine is a remarkable multitalent. In addition to having worked as a professional figure skater, journalist, triathlete and pro road cyclist she has become a strong voice in the call for greater visibility for women in sports. It takes reckless courage for someone scraping by on the less-than-poverty wages of a female bike racer to decide the best way to promote her sport is by making a full-length documentary video but, astonishingly, “Half the Road,” featuring an impressive cast of athletes and experts, is the result and has been playing to packed cinemas at special screenings throughout the United States and other countries. What is remarkable is not so much whether it is good or bad (and it is pretty good!) but that it exists at all.


In the modern age of global connections there are novel ways of raising money and Ms. Bertine turned to crowdfunding, pitching her passion for bike racing in May 2013 to the world after a year of effort and working with cinematographer Kevin Tokstad to get things launched. The campaign aimed to raise $65,000 and by close of the offer in July had squeaked by as 579 funders pitched in $65,808 and Kathryn and modest team were off to the races.

The original goal of the project was described in this way:

Half the Road is a documentary film that explores the world of women’s professional cycling, focusing on both the love of sport and the pressing issues of inequality that modern-day female riders face in a male dominated sport. With footage from some of the world’s best international UCI races to interviews with Olympians, World Champions, rookies, coaches, managers, officials, doctors and family members, Half the Road offers a unique insight to the drive, dedication, and passion it takes for female cyclists to thrive.  Both on and off the bike, the voices and advocates of women’s pro cycling take their audience on a journey of enlightenment, depth, strength, love, humor and best of all, change & growth.

It is apparent that this already ambitious goal was eventually superceded by a another broader idea. Kathryn Bertine wrote:

I began this documentary with the assumption it was about women’s professional cycling. A few months in, I realized the film was about equality and society, as told through the medium of cyclists. Half The Road is my hope that someday the whole world will see sports not as “men’s” or “women’s” but as equal athletes on equal playing fields.

There is a lot of wonderful material in this video. We see some exciting bike racing and have the opportunity to hear an impressive selection of women athletes talk about their careers and, often, the struggle to make ends meet, let alone get recognition. One cannot help but be impressed by racer Nichole Wangsgard, a university professor with a Ph.D, who had to keep her racing secret from her employers, and dealing with with must have been a very difficult situation in being part of a gay couple in Utah. Many of women cycling's star riders have their turn in front of the camera including the Netherland's Marianne Vos (three time former World Road Champion) who is one of the few to be a genuine sports celebrity in her home country and Kristin Armstrong, who came back from having a child to win the rainbow jersey in the time trial. It is an indication of how tough things are for women that Armstrong, winner of two Olympic gold medals and twice World Time Trial Champion, is usually confused with Lance Armstrong's wife of the same name when mentioned at all. Many of the cyclists are probably known to fans of women's pro racing but barely to the greater universe of fans of men's racing and pretty much invisible to the sports world beyond that. These women train hard, race hard and put on a good show on the road. Why is their sport in the state it find itself in?

Kathryn Bertine points an accusatory finger (well, more like waves a clenched fist) in the direction of several culprits. The Union Cycliste International (UCI) is the sport's governing body. It has historically shown no interest in the women's side of the sport except to invoke ridiculous rules such as the one limiting the average age of women pros on a team. This rule, which certainly would be detrimental to someone like Ms. Bertine who is in her 30s, is stupid and the point is made. Not once but several times.

And this is the major drawback to this film, otherwise commendable in so many ways. It obviously comes with a message but rather than simply leaving the women to tell their often compelling stories the producers add too much to underscore the message that there is inequality out there. Poor Brian Cookson, elected to reform the UCI in 2013, looks rather gormless as he is shown looking uncomfortable while lamely suggesting that women might be “weaker.” This is a “Gotcha!” moment. Cookson was the key figure in the revival of near-bankrupt British Cycling, which has had terrific success not only in men's racing but also seen a generation of fine women competitors develop. The UCI, it is revealed at the end of the film, has dropped the average age rule for women's teams and this too weakens the message.

The other culprits besides the UCI are race organizers who do not give opportunities to women to compete and take advantage of the infrastructure established for men's events. This is a fair enough suggestion but, playing the Devil's Advocate here,(disclaimer: I was one of those 579 funders of this video) it is not clear how this would work in an era when even the men's races struggle for financial support. For example, after disillusionment set in following revelations about Jan Ullrich, Germany went from three top-level men's teams to none and lost most of its top-level races, with only the dreadfully boring Cyclassics in Hamburg still on the UCI World Tour. The United States, where bike racing remains a marginal sport at best, was once host to stage races like the Tour DuPont and the Tour of Georgia but the highest visibility event remains the Amgen Tour of California which, while not on the UCI World Tour, still draws top racers from Europe. And the structure of men's racing is far deeper, with the World Tour at the top with “farm teams” at the UCI Pro Continental and UCI Continental levels below. In 2014 there was a total of 32 teams in the single UCI Women's Teams division. Of course one reason there might be comparatively few women is the sparse selection of races: in the UCI Women's World Cup in 2006 there were 12 races; in 2014 only 9.

The difficult situation that women's pro cycling finds itself in is tough enough but the filmmakers brought in the issue of inequality in women's sports as a whole. There is a bit too much coverage devoted to the belief that once upon a time that women were simply too weak/ladylike/modest to compete it the rough-and-tumble world of competition. There is an interview with the remarkable Kathrine Switzer, who entered the 1967 Boston Marathon when women were not allowed to do so and roused the ire of officials. A great story but women have been allowed to run marathons (Switzer won the women's class at the 1974 New York Marathon) for four decades so there is not really an issue there as Kathryn Bertine is arguing, it appears, that women should have bike races that parallel men's events rather than unisex ones. And this brings us to the unspoken question of why women's sports, with the possible exception of tennis and golf, have never managed to achieve the financial status or visibility of any men's sports. As to team sports, of which cycling is one, there are no women's sports approaching the level of men's at all. The FIFA Women's World Cup, to be played in Canada in 2015, will see many teams competing with players who are only semi-pros or amateurs as there is no money either in what is for men the most popular sport in the world.

The third theme that enters the story is Kathryn Bertine's own attempts to obtain a berth at the 2012 London Olympics in women's road racing and while this underscores how difficult it is for small nations to compete (Bertine rides for the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis) this parallels the problems that poorly-funded teams just can't compete with ones rolling in dough. This is a problem not just for small nations or women's teams but appears throughout sports and while it is an issue for consideration it burdens this documentary, muddying the message by just piling on too much in the 106 minutes of running time. The video would benefit from a more focused story but it is understandable that a first-time director, with no video experience at all, would be enthralled by so much excellent footage that punchier editing would fall a bit by the wayside. 

But forget the nitpicking since “Half the Road” is valuable for exposing us to some great athletes and interesting people we would never get to know if we had to wait around for a major network or pay-channel to provide some exposure. With the Amgen Tour adding a three day women's event in its next edition and this year's successful La Course at the Tour de France in Paris we might be seeing a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel that is opportunity in women's sports. There is much food for thought here, if not many proffered solutions.

Returning to the director's words, her goals are truly worthwhile and she must be commended on what must have been a very difficult project to complete within a budget that represents three or four of Team Sky's Pinarellos:

I wondered if any other female pro cyclists might talk to me about their obstacles, their ambition, and their unconditional love for a sport that was often thankless, cruel, and unresponsive to change.  What is the true joy of cycling, and how do we fix the wrongs?  I’ve always considered  “sport” a euphemism for “society”– I believe by changing one, we affect the other.


“Half the Road” is available as a download at iTunes or as a DVD directly from the producers at www.halftheroad.com for the nominal sum of $18.71. Even better, head out to one of the screenings and show your support for women's sports as well. A list of these events as also at the Half the Road website.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Book Review: Pro Cycling on $10 a Day


Men's professional cycling: it's all about glamour. Jaguar team cars; on-demand massages; garages full of the latest super-light carbon wonderbikes; worshipful fans; exotic locales with breathtaking scenery; breathtaking podium girls; the big bucks and global recognition. But then again perhaps not and for an entertaining albeit rueful look at this Real World check out “Pro Cycling on $10 a Day” by American pro Phil Gaimon, the man with with Sad Clown Face on the cover photo. That's earning the $10, not spending it by the way...

Phil Gaimon, whose palmares not only include the Redlands Classic race but also columns in some of the bigger US cycling magazines and, putting his English degree to further use, a blog.  He seems to have been a particularly unlikely candidate to become a career bike racer. Born in Columbus, Ohio, he writes about how he grew up sedentary and obese in Atlanta until at 16 he obtained a used hybrid bike for transportation and within two years had dropped 40 pounds and saw his waist size melt from 36 to 30 inches. Compared to the typical European racer he had a very late start but worked hard to make time good. He joined the collegiate cycling club at university in Florida and slowly learned about race tactics. He began to move up the ranks, joining a team funded by a Bahamian billionaire (private jet! Caribbean training camp!) at the princely salary of $2000 (and two bikes) which was quadrupled for no apparent reason. The whims of team operators, billionaires and others, are a constant theme of the book but his Bahamas adventure is something he must look back to with longing considering what was to come.

In 2007 he joined the second in a series of seriously underfunded teams and managed to take the white jersey for Best Young Rider (and 7th overall) at the Univest Grand Prix. 2008 and on to another team, sponsored by an organic jam company and paying the still-princely sum of $2000. 2009 saw him ride with Jelly Belly, a team that also forked over $2000 (and jelly beans). And on it goes as he recounts all the races where he seemed happy just to finish, all the terrible lodgings he had to use, all the miles he put on his unglamourous Toyota Matrix and a whole lot of disappointments, a major crash or two and plenty of broken promises. Pro cycling in the United States is an outsider sport, with on-off races, laughably amateur team management, tight-fisted sponsors and little community support. You can feel the frustration as he moves further up the US pro circuit as his abilities climb too, reaching the summit with the Bissell squad and earning $45,000 after leaving a team that reneged on paying him the miserable salary it had contracted with him.

Cookie-enthusiast Phil pulls no punches when describing his messy, disorganized life, sometimes in too-detailed biological form. But in between these tales of struggle and sheer awfulness and balancing life as a university student/coach/t-shirt tycoon are many entertaining stories told with wry humour of great teammates, juvenile fraternity practical jokes and the beauty and challenges of the racing itself. He loves cycling and over his career managed to shake off everything that was extraneous to that. Of his decision to go pro he writes:
When I set my goal I knew of a lot of talented guys who'd tried to make it as bike racers and had failed or given up, and I'd gotten a later start than most of them. How could I succeed where they hadn't? Simple. I 'd have to outwork everyone around me. I'd have to be more focused, more dedicated, and more disciplined than they were. The plan was so distant it was almost abstract, but I thought I was up to it. Sometimes, I wish I could go back in time and slap myself.”
In this respect Phil Gaimon matches the old European racers, those men from Belgium or the Netherlands, who got by on grit and determination. And, in his case, many cookies. To race at the top level is the dream of every pro cyclist and in 2014, at 28, Phil Gaimon rode for World Tour team Garmin-Sharp. Sadly, the reorganization of that team means he will be returning to the US circuit again in 2015 but we can look forward to his wisecracks and positive outlook as he continues to cut a sympathetic figure in the harsh world of the pro peloton. And when he won that stage at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina (and second overall behind Giro winner Nairo Quintana) this year for Garmin-Sharp we would like to think that he was mobbed by podium girls, and not for the last time.  Enjoy Phil's Thrill Ride!

Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro” by Phil Gaimon
295 pp., illustrated, paperback
VeloPress 2014, suggested price US$ 18.95
ISBN 978-1-93771524-3
For more information about this and other cycling books, check out www.velopress.com

For Phil Gaimon's own blog and the stories direct from the horse's mouth, so to speak, go to www.philthethrill.com

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Alessandro Zanardi: A Tribute to the Human Spirit

Injured in a terrible accident on the Lausitzring in 2001, Alessandro Zanardi lost his legs and was told he would never race again.  Yet he came back and competed with specially-equipped cars in touring car class racing between 2003 and 2009.  Then he became a medal-winning handcyclist and took two golds and a silver at the 2012 London Paralympics after winning the handcycle class at the New York Marathon in 2011.  In 2014 he raced a BMW Z4 GT3 in touring car racing again.  Some people just don't give up!