Sunday 28 October 2007

Cycle Hero Campaign

Cyclists, much to my surprise, are not apparently considered cool here by the Public at Large, and commuting cyclists fall into the lowest category of the low. The Cyclists' Touring Club of the United Kingdom took matters into its hands and, taking advantage of all the buzz about global warming, prepared a message for distribution in cinemas across the country. "Cycle Hero," a short film shown before features, has now been seen by over 5 million moviegoers since it was released in summer, and it has of course made it into YouTube as well. You can see it here , and go for the 2 minute version. If this can't make us cool, nothing can.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Book Review: Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell

This review was written for

Greg Lemond famously said about cycling:” It doesn’t get any easier. You just get faster.” And for a sport that values the ability to suffer, the least easy of all races is Paris-Roubaix, variously feted as “the Queen of the Classics” and cursed as “the Hell of the North.” In 2006, L’Équipe published a gorgeous history of the race and it is this book, in an excellent idiomatic English translation by cycling historian David Herlihy, that has now been published by VeloPress. Compared to the vast tide of books about the Tour de France, this one appears to be the only substantial work in English about Paris-Roubaix, in spite of the race’s legendary status. This in itself merits its inclusion on a cyclist’s bookshelf, but the book has intrinsic qualities that make it a must-have.

Paris-Roubaix is a throwback to another age. When it began in 1896, the velodrome ruled the land and road races were the exception: difficult to organize and with only a few racers, unable to compete for the rich prizes of the tracks, available to participate. To enliven proceedings, some velodrome owners promoted road races to end at their tracks. This was the case of Paris-Roubaix, and at the first race was so novel and popular that part of the grandstand collapsed under the weight of spectators. The winner, the German strongman Josef Fischer, completed the race at an average of over 30 km/h. So this race had everything: an international field, a challenging route and an exciting sprint finish. It has gone from strength to strength as the other classics from that year (Paris-Mons? Paris-Royan? Bordeaux-Paris?) are long gone, along with most of the velodromes. This book covers the race from its beginnings, a time when cobblestones were commonplace and men and bikes seemed to have been made of iron, to today’s carbon-fiber age but the race has always been brutally hard, a merciless test of men and equipment.

The authors have approached the race in a clever and unusual fashion. Rather than following a chronology, the majority of the eleven chapters of Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell are divided into different aspects of the race These include: the cobblestones themselves; the impact of the weather; messed-up finishes; unexpected winners; the Roubaix velodrome; and a brilliant chapter devoted to the effects of getting a flat tire. There is a gallery of the most celebrated winners and the whole book is stuffed with marvellous photos taken from the archives of L’Équipe. There appear to have been photographers present at every dramatic crash, or else there are always so many crashes that you just have to stand around and wait.

The race has attracted cycling’s greatest figures, who seem to have always had a love-hate relationship. Bernard Hinault felt that Paris-Roubaix was a ridiculous race, a lottery where chance ruled but he knew that posterity demanded that he win Paris-Roubaix. He did it in convincing fashion in 1981, wearing the rainbow jersey of the World Champion, and crushing five opponents (four of them previous P-R winners!) in the final sprint at the velodrome. Although the race counts several other Tour de France victors among its winners, including Garin, Lapize Coppi and Merckx, it is more notable for its special “hard men,” who have specialized in beating the cobbles, such as four-time winner Roger de Vlaeminck, three-time champion Francesco Moser and the indomitable Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, who participated in the race seventeen times, finally winning on the 14th attempt and repeating the following year. Their stories are all told in loving detail in this book.

Details indeed. For example, there is a section recounting how Jean Stablinski, a former World Champion, suggested a particular section of cobbles to the race organizers and the famous Wallers-Arenberg stretch, a positively medieval piece of road, was added in 1968. The modernization of France meant the removal or paving over the cobbles that are such a characteristic (and feared) part of the race and by 1968 the race against time was on as the countryside was scoured to find more cobbled roads. At its lowest point in 1965, the Queen of the North had only some 22 kms of cobblestones in its 294 km route. Today efforts have been made to protect and preserve the famous roads and the pros can look forward to more than 50 kms of pavé in twenty-six sections. And the mud and the dust are with us always.

And the people who protect and preserve the roads are the subject of the last chapter, “The Angels of Hell.” Described as the “guardians of the temple,” these include journalists, fans and even the artist, who painted 12 kilometers of cobbles (using 18 tons of paint) as a work of art and a tribute in 1986. This is the kind of insight so lovingly presented in Paris-Roubaix: A Journey through Hell. There is no reference to the amateur version of the ride, held in September rather than in the third week of April as is the pro race, but the Everyman participants in that ride are given a piece of pavé when they reach the velodrome in Roubaix as a memento, echoing pro cycling’s most cherished trophy, the single cobblestone mounted on a plaque, that goes to Cycling’s Strongest Man every Spring. A beautiful book about a beautiful race.

(note: all photos courtesy of VeloPress)

Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell
by Philippe Bouvet, Pierre Callewaert, Jean-Luc Gatellier and Serge Laget
trans. by David Herlihy
VeloPress, 2007hardcover, 224 pp., $39.95

ISBN-13: 978-1-934030-09-7

Monday 22 October 2007

The Ride of the Falling Leaves

More Ups and Downs in Gatineau Park

Yesterday I returned to Gatineau Park after a week's absence due to the rain last weekend. I expected the colours to be past their peak but in fact a lot of leaves were still on the trees. Unfortunately the weather was a bit grim: overcast, cool and an ever-present threat of rain. But my coach wanted me to do a three hour ride, so off I went. I felt surprisingly good (maybe it is because I did not have to go and lift weights as usual) and when the forecast for today was sunny sunny sunny and 21C, well, you could not hold me back with wild horses.

After doing some of the shopping necessary to sustain what passes for normal life--and I got some nice McIntosh apples for 39 cents a pound!--I rode through the Byward Market, across the Alexandra Bridge and eventually to the park entrance. The weather was excellent, although a strong wind from the southwest was not so much fun, but no matter: I was just thankful to be able to ride at the end of October in Canada.

Ian on his new Tarmac

As I was climbing I heard someone behind me and soon after another rider on a Specialized Tarmac passed me. This is the first Tarmac besides mine that I have seen in Ottawa and I caught up with him and we began talking about the bikes and cycling in general. Ian lives in Westboro so his trip to the park is a bit shorter than mine. He was a runner who has gotten into triathlons and we talked about that for a while. He has had the Tarmac, an all-carbon one, for only a few weeks and it looked great in its red and white colour scheme.

Typical Gatineau scenery, with Tarmac Guy

We rode together to Meech Lake Road and then continued on the Gatineau Parkway until we began the climb up Camp Fortune Road past the ski area. Ian was stronger than me on the climbs but I could make up time on the descents. The Camp Fortune climb is a really excellent one but all good things come to an end. We soon came to Champlain Lookout and then headed back towards Ottawa.

Although the weather was gorgeous, the auto traffic was non-stop as all the non-athletes came to look at the Fall colours. We could not ride side-by-side very much as the cars came endlessly but the descents were fun, as always. At one point I was passed by a big BMW motorcycle and had no trouble matching his speed downhill.

After we left the park, I rode eastwards and went to Orleans to drop in on some friends. The wind on the Rockcliffe Parkway was terrible but at the moment I got to the worst part, a huge guy on a Cannondale passed me and I pulled in right behind him. Working together, we were hitting speeds of 42 km/h or so into the wind. It was fun but since my coach wanted me to keep my heart rate below 75 per cent of maximum today I had to back off a bit. At St. Joseph Blvd. we stopped to chat a bit and then I continued to Orleans. The ride back was brutally hard as I ended up taking the full force of the headwind. But still, 101 kms ridden, with 1100 vertical m of climbing. I doubt if there will be many more days like this before winter comes.

Friday 19 October 2007

Slow Cities: Back to the Future?

Orvieto, Italy

A recent piece in Der Spiegel talked about an outgrowth of Italy's Slow Food Movement, Slow Cities. Or in pseudo-Italian, Cittaslow.

The idea is to encourage the development of liveable cities, ones where people come before cars and where is there is a concentration on local products and industries and sustainable energy use. It is an attempt to ally medieval or Renaissance concepts of urban living with modern technology. Forty-two cities in Italy have already signed up to the Cittaslow manifesto, and the movement is spreading elsewhere in Europe. The cities all have populations of under 50,000. The mayor of Orvieto is putting together a manual that will be released later this year to explain the Slow City idea and how to make it work in a municpality.

One of the reasons that I enjoy cycling so much in Europe is that the towns are all to a human scale. I was struck by this recently on a business trip to Miami Beach, where I saw massive highways leading everywhere and realized that there was no way I would ride a bicycle there--although I did see two guys on racing bikes! On further reflection, I realize that in little Ottawa, for all its supposed bicycle-friendliness, I cannot ride the four miles from my house to the Ottawa Athletic Club to work out due to heavy traffic volumes and roads that I consider dangerous to ride on. Better to be able to ride everywhere conveniently and let people in cars be the ones that have to go the extra distance. Of course, the Europeans have to do something about those cobblestones...

Sunday 14 October 2007

Book Review: The Hour

The Hour: Sporting Immortality the Hard Way
by Michael Hutchinson
Yellow Jersey Press, 2006

In 2004, there were stories circulating suggesting that multiple Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong might go after the legendary World Hour Record of cycling. Given his immense power output and single-minded dedication to training, this seemed like a great idea. And the stories got better: he would do the ride at altitude; he would do it in a specially-built velodrome that would be only used once and then torn down. It would have been a sensation and I, for one, would have paid good money for a ticket to see Big Tex go round and round and round for an hour at insanely high speed. But it did not come to pass. The Hour Record has been a target of many of cycling’s greats–held by Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Indurain–but Michael Hutchinson is, in spite of being an excellent rider at the national level, admittedly not one of these. An academic, he came to bike racing very late and thanks to the support of a large bike company was able to turn his passion for cycling into a professional career, albeit one that focused pretty much entirely on time trialling in the United Kingdom.

His book is about his attempt to go after the Hour Record at the Manchester Velodrome, a record which he felt was attainable and could be accomplished by the rather modest Team Hutchinson, which seems to have numbered no more than six people. This is a shoestring project but the author puts in an enormous effort to succeed. After recounting the history of the Hour Record, of which the international cycling governing body, the UCI, has, through its bizarre rule changes, reduced the lustre, he writes of his own career and how he wished to go out with some glory. Seizing on the idea of the Hour Record, suggested by a friend, he sets about organizing his training and equipment in a methodical, even obsessive manner, that does not seem to equate with reality very often. It is clear that self-reliance has pitfalls. Pursuing a record at a velodrome is hard enough, but when you need to do it on a bicycle similar to that ridden by Eddy Merckx in 1972 it becomes a serious issue just in terms of acquiring materiel. In an ideal world, Mr. Hutchinson should have been left to focus on his training preparation, rather than chasing around for parts and, in the book’s grimmest chapter, picking up frames from a courier at Heathrow and dragging them home in their gigantic box.

Geeky, obsessive and seemingly more terrified of losing than inspired by winning, the author is not so good at dealing with the inevitable setbacks. His description of the war between road racers and time triallists in post-war Britain suggests that there might in fact be a difference between the two tribes. And in the background is the goofy UCI, which decided that it did not like Graham Obree breaking the record in 1994 and decided in 2000 that all the records after Merckx’s effort in 1972 did not count. The post-1972 records became classified as “Best Hour Performance” and the rules now mean that it is unlikely that Chris Boardman’s 1996 distance of 56.375 km can be bettered. The Merckx record has now become the benchmark for “the Athlete’s Hour,” which does not permit any aerodynamic features on bike or rider. Chris Boardman, riding at the Manchester Velodrome in 2000, broke Merckx’s record with a ride of 49.441 km and then ended his career. It was this record that Michael Hutchinson wished to better.

The book is certainly quirky, befitting its author, and the climax seems to come with the chapter featuring the Heathrow handover, rather than the record attempt ride itself. Mr. Hutchinson is a gifted athlete who can do a 40 km time trial in 48 minutes but he is often so self-deprecating in the book that he begins to sound like one of those bungling amateurs, a sort of two-wheeled Scott of the Antarctic, so beloved by the British. This conflicts with the impression given by the amount of time he spends training for the attempt and dilutes that story of someone who, with minimal resources but clear talent, wants to accomplish something big. The book, which is primarily of interest to cyclists, is rather basic when talking about training and rather sparse on technical information. And it would have been nice to have some photographs of the principals, including the author’s valiant girlfriend, Louisa.

For those of us who open themselves to the challenge of athletic competition and believe it is better to set a high goal and fail than a small one that does not test us, the book could be more inspirational. The Athlete’s Hour has become of little consequence now in the world of pro cycling but it is enjoyable to read about Mr. Hutchinson’s struggle with Mr. Murphy’s Law.

Sunday 7 October 2007

Not so impressive: my duathlon debut

So much for good intentions. My plan to end the season was to participate in my first duathlon, a 2.5 km run/19 km cycling time trial/2.5 km run. I had two sessions with a very experienced coach to go over training and transition techniques, I practiced riding my bike with my feet on top of my shoes, I bought a number holder and cool things to lace up my running shoes instantly, I paid the $65 (!) entry fee and even drove out to Cumberland, Ontario to check out the cycling course last weekend.

Since I came back to Ottawa the weather has been gorgeous, with nearly four weeks of sunshine and temperatures pushing up in the high 20sC. Friday was no exception, and I enjoyed riding to work again. I have put in around 160 km on Blackadder during my bike commutes. Then someone in the locker room at work mentioned that the weekend weather outlook was poor.

He was right. After a good night's sleep, I woke up this morning to the the sound of rain on the windows. And it was cold--only 10c. By 8:30 am it was pouring, and there was even a thunderstorm. I need a full hour to warm up for an event and I was not thrilled about the idea of driving for forty minutes, doing a so-called "warm-up" in cold rain, followed by the race itself, also in cold rain. By 9:30 it was obvious that I did not need to get packed up to go and so I waved goodbye to the entry fee. At noon the weather actually looked decent, if cold, but since the race only started then I would not have had a comfortable warm-up. Life is just too short to spend it cold and soaked on a long weekend. I will attempt to salvage something of my Canadian Thanksgiving workout tomorrow and Monday by getting on the bike again or at least going to the gym. Bah! Humbug! No finisher's medal...or even Yet Another T-Shirt.