Tuesday 28 November 2017

Movie Review: Inspired To Ride

The Race Across America (RAAM) was meant to be the ultimate long-distance bike race but spawned a number of imitators—the Race Around Ireland, the Race Around Austria, the Race Across Europe—which followed the same format. This means individual and team categories with support crews. But that clearly was too easy as we see the emergence of races over insane distance that leave the cyclists unsupported and entirely to their own devices. “Inspired to Ride” is a film about the inaugural TransAm Bicycle Race in 2014, an unsupported race across America for “the crazies,” as one contestant notes with approval. It is quite a story.

The rules of the TransAm Bicycle Race are simple enough. Each rider is equipped with a GPS that shows his or her location, letting the organizers and other competitors know who is where. There is no support allowed; no stages; no checkpoints; no drafting. The path followed is Adventure Cycling's Trans America Bicycle Trail, a route developed for the American Bicentennial in 1976, that runs from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virgnia. It is 6,800 km (4,200 miles) in length and crosses 10 states.

The film focuses primarily on two riders. British ultracycling legend Mike Hall rode the mountain bike ultradistance Tour Divide, from the Canadian border to the Mexican one in 2011, and finished 11th in spite of a knee injury. He went on to win the inaugural World Cycle Race in 2012, racing around the world in only 91 days, and going on to win the 2013 Tour Divide. That same year he organized the Transcontinental Race, another unsupported event that crosses year with a different route each year and quickly attracts its 350 rider limit. In 2016 Hall won the Tour Divide again.

Mike Hall
The other rider highlighted is Juliana Buhring, who owns the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by a female cyclist. She accomplished this in 2012, two years after learning to ride a bicycle at the age of 30. She had a bruising childhood, growing up in a cult environment, and is proud of her self-sufficiency. Crashing on the second day of the TransAm, she shrugs off her bruised knee and painful ribs and heads east at a remarkable pace. She casually explains that she really needs five days to get warmed up properly. She typically rides 14-16 hours each day of the event.

Juliana Buhring
There is a funny subplot featuring two Italians who Juliana Buhring is obsessed with beating to the finish. One of them cannot believe that a woman who has only ridden for such a short time cannot possibly be going faster than him, a racer with years of experience, and he accuses her of cheating somehow. Needless to say, she has the personality that thrives on this kind of outrage.

The 45 starters in Oregon are a mixed group of riders, with people who could not afford the steep expense of RAAM, or wanted to accomplish something special. The greatest challenger to Mike Hall is Canadian Jason Lane, who is delighted that he can do this and travel around the world, “pretending to be an athlete and not having to grow up.” Lane appears to ride with minimal sleep, stopping at post offices where he has mailed the ingredients for his liquid diet. Jovial actor Brian Steele is 6 foot 7 inches tall and specializes in playing monster roles for Hollywood.

The Trans America Trail does not appear to go through towns of any significance for the entire stretch. The cyclists face rain as they ride along the Pacific Coast, then turn inland to cross mountains. There is sleet and snow although the race is in June. Horrific winds greet the riders as they come into the Great Plains and make their snail-like progress across Kansas. Unlike RAAM, the cyclists need to arrange their own accommodations and find supplies or mechanical help. This often means sleeping at the side of the road and eating, well, pretty much anything they can get. Considering the scale of the enterprise, nobody is carrying all that much on their bike. Jason Lane says that the time for arranging food and shelter is much more time-consuming than he had expected. As the race unfolds the cyclists become gaunt and a lot less coherent than in Oregon. Mike Hall cannot recall what day it is—but then the organizers in their van can't either.

The filmmakers give us little vignettes of others on the road—a Vietnam war veteran on his bike; an Australian lady riding the Trans America Trail to honour the memory of Martin Luther King; two friends, one from Oregon, the other from Virginia, just riding the Trail for fun, with no plan; a bartender proud of his smoking and drinking and honest approach to life.

There is much of the kindness of strangers. A little bike shop in tiny Newton, Kansas, is open at all hours to help the riders; a lady forces money on Juliana Buhrling to buy food; a pair of enthusiasts in a small town offer Brian Steele a free dinner, which he is happy to accept. But even help from friendly people is not enough to overcome health or mechanical issues or just total exhaustion. In the end 25 of the starters make it to Yorktown. Mike Hall, unsurprisingly, has led almost from the first day and rolls up to the monument that marks the end of the race a full day ahead of his closest competitor. It has taken him 17 days and 16 hours. The 25th rider comes in at 116 days.

Sadly, the road can take its toll. The Australian lady doing her tour never reached the end, becoming another traffic fatality in America. And Mike Hall himself died in a collision in March 2017 after having completed 5,000 kms of the 5,500 km Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia and holding second place at the time.

“Inspired to Ride” shows what determined people can accomplish and the joy of each finisher as they come into Yorktown, no matter when, is infectious. The filmmakers have chosen to feature not only the scenic delights of the route but also the rather grim flatlands, with their endless winds and straight roads, to show the diversity of the race landscape. The riders are in their world during the TransAm and it is worth joining them through this well-made documentary.

“Inspired to Ride” is 128 minutes in length and may be purchased as a digital download at https://watch.inspiredtoride.it/. The website also has information about how to host a screening of the film, along with a selection of merchandise.

Learn more about the TransAm Bicycle Race at: https://transambikerace.com/

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Movie Review: MAMIL

The acronym MAMIL for “Middle Aged Men in Lycra” has, from its inception several years ago in a British newspaper, always had something of a derogatory air to it. To the majority of people, MAMILs are Caucasian males of a certain age who shamelessly jam themselves into ill-fitting and disturbingly revealing clothing to slowly ride their incredibly expensive pro-wannabe carbon bikes while selfishly blocking traffic. But as a new Australian-produced film--its latest single night showings to be across Canada on Thursday, November 30—indicates, there is so much more to the story.

One would think that the term MAMIL, when first coined, would cause some cheap laughs and disappear soon enough. In fact, with the explosive growth of high-end cycling and all its accoutrements, including those carbon bikes and flyweight components, Alpine tours, advanced training programs, and even better Lycra, the MAMILs did not disappear at all but in fact the word was included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014.

The MAMIL movie opens with a sequence in which a number of person-in-the-street chats in which the interviewees express their unparalleled revulsion at the wear of Lycra. We then go into the world of the MAMIL in Australia, with the Fatboys Cycling Club. The Fatboys, based in Adelaide and operating since 1995, are apparently the largest recreational cycling group in South Australia. The club looks like a pretty typical MAMIL haunt, with about 100 members, early morning group rides and a lot of socializing.

This is from the club's website:
Why do we ride? No one is really sure. With an average age upward of 50, it could be a late mid-life thing. We like to think it is driven by the need to keep fit, lose weight and spend time with our mates. But it is more likely the mix of endorphins, adrenaline and caffeine (and the need to talk crap) that hits us at the end of a big ride. This is when we all get together and remind each other what heroes we could have been and ponder why our families fail to appreciate our cycling prowess. 
But MAMIL is about much more than “cycling prowess” as it tells not only the Fatboys story but of cyclists in Britain, New York, Minnesota, Iowa, and California as well. All of those profiled have very different reasons for cycling and it is clear that MAMILs are a group of great diversity. Cycling is an end to find some kind of fulfillment.

 What are the different reasons for cycling? For many, like the Fatboys, there is camaraderie on the open road, the opportunity to push one's physical limits with others suffering the same effort, to sit around and laugh about it all afterwards. A barrister from Australia with a high-pressure job finds a release on what he considers a self-indulgent vacation as he follows the Vuelta with a tour group. For some it is finding like-minded people, such as the gay cycling group in New York City, or the devout church group in Minnesota. But for others cycling has a much more serious purpose. For example, the East Side Cycling Club of Los Angeles was formed when its founder, who was morbidly obese, asked friends to come with him as he started to ride and not only did his health improve but others joined in seeking the same kind of support. A British father of two seeing his fitness fall apart in middle age was determined to regain control of his life. Another in the UK learned that he had MS and discovered that while his unresponsive right side meant walking was difficult it did not affect his balance on the bicycle. A Fatboy found solace in his club as he suffered from depression. A paraplegic discovers a new world riding a tandem recumbent with his wife.

 A group of friends in Australia rallied around one of their number who was diagnosed with cancer and joined a charity ride and have formed their own club (yes, named MAMIL) that has raised a good deal of money. And an English rider, who regrets that he gave up too early on what might have been a pro racing career decades ago, grits his teeth and hammers away at local races determined to crush men half his age.

Of course, being a MAMIL is not without its downsides. The president of a local racing club has to juggle unpleasant administrative work and steps back, in spite of his success at it, when he realizes how much time it costs. There is time away from the family in order to train, the considerable expense of the equipment, and, worst of all is the risk of very serious injury. Several riders are rolling GoPro stations as they record encounters with hostile and dangerous drivers. There is an interview with what must be the world's unluckiest cyclist, an Australian who gets confused about what has happened in his chain of life-threatening accidents, but who is back out riding with his club while wearing a neck brace. The president of the Fatboys breaks his back in a mountain bike crash.

Being a middle aged male can be tough generally as it becomes an interlude to reflect on a half lifetime of accomplishment as well as goals unfulfilled. The clock is running and everyone in this often amusing but sensitive documentary is aware of it. The barrister, who is agonizing over his trip to Spain as he thinks it is short-changing his partner should be less stressed as she would only need to watch him in this film as he stands on the edge of the time trial course as Alberto Contador blasts by. He looks like the happiest man on earth as he watches.


“MAMIL” will be shown on one-time screenings in Canada on Thursday, November 30. For more information about these showings or to get the film into a theatre near you go to https://ca.demand.film/mamil/

Saturday 18 November 2017

Stage 17 of the 2018 Tour de France Recon

This is amazing.  I rode the Peyresourde a few years ago and loved it but this will be at a whole different level.  Formidable!  Now, if only I was in Mike Cotty's condition I would consider it but when you think that the first 30 kms gives you 1000 vertical meters of climbing already it is not for everybody...

Friday 17 November 2017

Book Review: The Art of the Cycling Jersey

“What is the well-dressed cyclist wearing these days?”, I hear you ask me. “Or back in those early days?” I am glad you asked because Rodale Press' excellent book, “The Art of the Cycling Jersey,” subtitled “Iconic Cycle Wear Past and Present,” shows us that looking good and going fast are not mutually exclusive.

Copenhagen 2011: The British National Team leads Mark Cavendish to victory at the World Championships
British author Chris Sidwell's latest book addresses an area that has been an empty shelf on my gargantuan bookshelf. We have books on famous races, famous riders, suffering amateurs, the training programs they suffer with, custom bicycles, vintage bicycles, components (yes, we have both the original and revised editions of “the Dancing Chain," a history of the derailleur) and even variations of road surfaces in Belgium, to say nothing of daunting climbs and disastrous around-the-world rides. It is about time that somebody recognized the role of the cycling jersey in our sport and this elegant and attractive book is welcome indeed.

The Tour de France King of the Mountains jersey, little changed since its introduction in 1975

The book is set out chronologically. In the early days riders did not really have cycling-specific clothing in the first races but there was a realization that clothing should be more form-fitting to offer less wind resistance as well as appropriate to the weather conditions. During the first Tour de France racers did not ride in teams and were free to choose their own gear. The winner of that first race in 1903, Maurice Garin, wore a distinctive white jacket to keep cool. In a pre-yellow jersey move, race officials gave him a green armband to distinguish him as the race leader. While jackets had their place, it was the sweater's evolution that began the march towards the jersey as we know it.

“The first cycling jerseys were plain wool, but bicycle manufacturers who sponsored early professional riders soon saw the publicity possibilities of having their names on the jerseys. So in the early years of the twentieth century, bike manufacturers' names were embroidered onto some woolen jerseys, often in a rough copy of the script used in the manufacturer's logo. They were stitched by hand, using the same think wool the jersey was made from, although in a contrasting color. This relatively crude method was improved with the introduction of lighter, thinner wool yarns to make cycling jerseys. The embroidered letters on some of these were quite exquisite.”

1926 The three Pelissier brothers riding for Dilecta-Wolber

The first chapter of the book covers this early evolution and focuses on some of the notable teams that made their mark, at the finish line and in fashion statements. These included the blue jerseys of Alcyon, the French team whose riders won a dozen Tours de France on the way to victory in 120 world-class races; Legnano, the team of Gino Bartali, with its green jerseys with red sleeves; and Atala, a team that existed from 1908 to 1989, with striped jerseys (“reminiscent of the clothing you might expect jail inmates to wear”) and the company name in a flourished italic script.

The next section of the book deals with the World Champion's rainbow jersey, created in 1927, and a number of celebrated National Champion jerseys from the Promised Lands of Cycling: France, Belgium and Italy. It is clear that the author pines for the days of simpler jersey designs and disapproves of the watering-down of the impact of these iconic symbols, notably the Italian one which seems to have become subsumed in the colours of the team sponsor.

The Grand Tour jerseys, on the other hand, still retain their power, although it seems as if Vuelta organizers have not always been ready to settle on a particular colour for their race leader so the three jerseys of the Tour—yellow, green, and polka dot—and the Giro's maglia rosa get subchapters to themselves. The Yellow Jersey, introduced in 1919, may be the single most celebrated article of clothing in sports.

1966 Tour de France: eventual winner Lucien Aumar following Raymond Poulidor

There is so much in this book that is of interest that it is surprising it is only 224 pages in length. It covers national team jerseys, special track jerseys, and jerseys from particularly notable epochs of cycling: the 1920s and then each decade on from the 1950s. The greats of cycling were always closely identified with their jerseys: Poulidor with Mercier-BP-Hutchinson; Coppi with Bianchi; Hinault with La Vie Claire; Indurain with Banesto; Boonen with QuickStep; Merckx with Faema and then Molteni; De Vlaeminck with Brooklyn; Simpson with Peugeot. There is a fine selection of photos of these riders in their prime and the accompanying text is packed with unfamiliar facts or some that are just good to savour again:

“The man with the most yellow jerseys to his name is Eddy Merckx, who wore it 96 times between 1969 and 1975, on the way to winning five Tours de France. Another five-time winner, Bernard Hinault of France, is second, with 73 days in yellow....Only four men have held the Tour de France yellow jersey every day from start to finish of a single Tour...”

Jacques Anquetil (left), one of France's greatest cyclists, never won the French National Championship
Along with the history of the teams we are given an enlightening look at the development of the jersey from the sweater to a sort of polo shirt with front pockets, from wool to not-entirely-succesful wool/synthetic blends to the current clothing made from high-tech materials that fit the form exactly, so that time trial skinsuits, meant for the aero position, are actually awkward to walk in. There are different weights for different weather and a range of designs that vary from simple and elegant to garish and, well, embarrassing. The book concludes with modern jerseys, and a set of the jerseys used in the 2016 UCI World Tour.

Les bleus--the 2016 French National Team
It is perhaps to the author's credit that he does not single out the worst jersey designs of the past (and present). The famous saying “de gustibus non est disputandum” (“there is no disputing about taste”) probably applies here since everyone has their own views. For example, the Mapei jersey, with its vibrantly coloured plastic blocks, seems to annoy many but is also considered a classic. Mr. Sidwells is keen on the Carrera outfit, with its psuedo-denim look, and worn most effectively by Stephen Roche in his miraculous year (the Giro, the Tour, the Worlds) in 1987. So we are not given a chance to ridicule bad designs; I leave it to the reader to look up the 2010 Footon-Servetto team kit or the Castorama ones that made the riders look like housepainters or toys from Gepetto's workshop. Brrr...

This book focuses entirely on professional racing and does not cover the clothing choices of enthusiastic amateurs. The introduction by former Bicycling Editor-in-chief Bill Strickland is more tuned to this element:

“The jersey! The most dominant value of the cycling aesthetic, and one of its simplest components, yet also the one most laden with subtext and potential ironies and sincerities and affiliations and memories and references often unknown to the wearer A jersey can be a nod to a team, a racer, an era, a fabric, a design sense, a remembrance, a personal experience, an aspiration, or else simply come in a color we really like and that happened to be in our size.”

We are not going to enter the argument of whether it is good or bad form for amateurs to wear pro team kit—fans in other sports have no issues with this—but just remember that in his early racing days Greg Lemond showed up in a yellow jersey to the amusement of other competitors whom he then thrashed.

I would like to admit that I have a 2001 Mapei World Championship jersey (Oscar Freire's second title) that I wear but I only wear it while on my home trainer in the basement and never, ever outdoors where someone could see me.

Except for the jersey I look nothing like this.  Photo credit: Mapei Madness

All photos courtesy of Rodale Books unless otherwise noted

“The Art of the Cycling Jersey—Iconic Cycle Wear Past and Present”
by Chris Sidwells
224 pp., hardcover, profusely illustrated
Rodale Books, 2017
ISBN: 978-1623367374
Suggested Price: US$27.99/C$32.50

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Le Ride: A Cycling Movie!

Many sports—baseball, football, hockey, soccer--offer fans fantasy camps to let the average person get a feel for what the Real Thing is like. Every cyclist's fantasy, perhaps, is to ride in the Tour de France but sometimes it might be better for that wish to be unfulfilled. The recent film, “Le Ride,” shows what happens when two enthusiasts decided to honour the first English-speaking team in the Tour and duplicate that 1928 event today.

New Zealander Phil Keoghan is highly visible as the host of CBS' “The Amazing Race” reality show and has many exploits to his name, including some spectacular underwater dives and even a bungee-jumping world record. In 2009 he rode across the United States, averaging 100 miles daily, for a charity event that raised $500,000 for multiple sclerosis research. He made a documentary, “the Ride,” about that 3,500 mile trip.

Mr. Keoghan learned about the Australasian team (three Australians, one New Zealander) at the 1928 Tour de France and was surprised that the Kiwi rider, Harry Watson, had come from his hometown of Canterbury. After considerable research he decided to honour that team by retracing their route in 2013, starting on June 17 and ending on July 15, the same dates as the 1928 Tour. This meant riding 5,376 kms (3,340 miles) over 22 stages, or 244 kms (151 miles) daily. There were four rest days. And he was to do this with his riding partner Ben Cornell using period bicycles.

The resulting film is a highly entertaining mixture of accounts from the 1928 race and Phil and Ben's Really Hard Ride. The Australasian team arrived in France expecting to be joined by six Europeans to make up a ten man team but this did not happen, nor did their French support crew ever materialize. Led by famous Australian rider Hubert Opperman, they nonetheless were ready when the peloton rolled out of Paris, although the local press gave them no chance of winning and predicted they would be out after the first stage.

Hubert Opperman receiving flowers during Stage 6

The Tour de France was quite different from the race we know today as the Tour's founder Henri Desgrange was constantly fiddling with its format. In 1927 it had consisted of nothing but team time trials across France and the 1928 race retained those in 15 of the stages. There was no rule about how many men would be on a team except a maximum of 10, which would be an obvious disadvantage to the four Australasians as several teams had a full complement, although the ultimate winning team, Alcyon, did not. Even stranger, fresh riders were allowed into the race as domestiques part way through, although not allowed to officially win a stage or the race overall! 162 riders entered the race, the highest number to date, but 111 of those were “touriste-routier” cyclists who rode along as independents and had to be self-supporting. Phil Keoghan, in his narration, does not mention the difference between the pro riders and these amateurs, not a single one of whom completed the race.

When the Tour riders went out, they had modern equipment for the day, although “modern” still meant very heavy bicycles by our standards. While the first Tour winner in 1903 had a bicycle that weighed 18 kg (39 lbs), by 1928 a more typical weight was 11.5 kg (25.3 lbs), still hefty compared to today's 6.8 kg (15 lbs) limit but actually about the same as bikes used in the early 1960s. The difference was clearly in having variable gearing and effective brakes, the lack of which obviously added to the trials of the Keoghan party who, it must be remembered, were riding 85 year old antiques.

The difficulty of these early Tours cannot be overstated. Along with their primitive bicycles, rides had to contend with massively long stages, very poor roads—many unpaved—and nutritional issues. Tires constantly flatted and Desgrange's rules were designed to weed out almost everyone. During Stage 19, race leader Nicolas Frantz's bicycle broke and he ended up riding the last 100 kms on an undersized woman's bicycle. Incidentally, as the previous year's winner, Frantz started in the yellow jersey on the first day and kept it until the end, the only time this has occurred in the race's history.

At least the modern adventurers had LED lights and helmets, as well as GPS and cellphones to help. One of the other issues, of course, is that in 1928 the racers simply took the main roads from town to town but in 2013 many of those roads were now limited-access highways and closed to bicycles so often getting lost, even with the support team, added to the woes. And the mountain stages, where navigation was not so much of a problem, were terrible—we watch Keoghan descend the Galibier at what appears to be 7 km/h and the squeal of the quasi-useless brakes are a constant part of the film's soundtrack.

The mountain stages are incredible and the fabulous scenery is balanced with Phil and Ben's epic suffering. Leaving in the dark and arriving in the dark almost every day, they took 23 hours to complete one of the 1928 stages. Those four rest days must have seemed very short. And while Phil Keoghan mentions that the oldest Australasian team member was 38 and had to drop out, he does not mention that he himself was 46.

41 riders finished the 1928 race and the three remaining Australasians of the Ravat-Wonder-Dunlop team confounded the critics by placing well enough, with Opperman best at 18th. Amazingly, the sole rider who entered the race as the Thoman-Dunlop team, placed fourth. Belgium's Jan Mertens also won the Tour of Flanders that year.

While a lot of this historical background is underplayed, it is commendable that Phil Keoghan's enthusiasm for that 1928 team has led to this film to honour their efforts. All four riders lived into their 90s, a seemingly impossible actuarial result, and they were harbingers of the non-Europeans who would come to the Tour so many years later. But one must give a tip of the hat to Phil Keoghan and Ben Cornell as touriste-routiers who did not quit in spite of the many obstructions they faced and the remarkable physical demands they were able to meet although I was not convinced it was really necessary to do the ride in this way. Still, an enjoyable evening for cycling fans; the cinema in Ottawa was packed to overflowing when I saw it.

“Le Ride” screenings took place across Canada last week. They are arranged via Demand Film,which organizes screenings of independent films in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Italy and Germany upon request. For more information, go to: https://ca.demand.film/le-ride/

Saturday 15 July 2017

Back in the saddle again...finally

Tom in his RSV Vagabund 13 wool jersey; me celebrated Canada Day two days late

Ruediger and I enjoying our ride along the Rhine bike paths

After more than a year's silence here at Tin Donkey, I am pleased to return to writing about my favourite subject: cycling!  It has been a busy year, albeit not so much from the riding standpoint but I retired on June 10 from my day job and am looking forward to getting back on the road on two wheels more.  I have been writing regularly for Pezcyclingnews.com and I hope you have seen my book reviews and my recent pieces about the start of the 2017 Tour de France in Dusseldorf, Germany.

On July 3rd I was able to do a 42 km ride along the Rhine to Duisburg and Krefeld with my good friends Tom and Ruediger, using a lovely Mondonico borrowed from Tom.  It was great to ride the rural country roads on a beautiful day and now that I have returned to Canada again I am inspired to do more, much more!

You can check out our route via the wonderful Relive software here but I have also included a map of the ride.