Cyclists lie to one another. They say they haven’t been training when they have. And if they can be forced to admit to a bit of riding, it’s never more than a few miles and, by the way, it hurt so much they had to stop to catch their breath. Practically chucked, in fact. And so it is with “les Ecrins”, the name given to my shambolic mates who have signed up for yet another Etape du Tour, a mountain stage of the Tour de France.
Everything’s ready. Entries bagged. Flights booked. Chalet rented. Man with a van press-ganged into carting our bikes over. Yes, everything’s ready apart from that niggly essential, the training. And there’s only a couple of months to go.
One Ecrin (the name derives — optimistically — from one of France’s most spectacular mountain ranges) claims he hasn’t got his bike out since returning from last year’s Etape. He doesn’t mention the turbo trainer in the garage that he has programmed with the hideous ride up Ventoux. He also lost half a stone with Delhi belly after being trapped in India by volcanic ash. I think he said ash. Bloody cheat, anyway.
Another fessed up to an “outing” in north London, which turned out to be the Rapha Hell of the North, a 60-mile tribute to Paris-Roubaix. Worse still, he did a good time. And he smokes. I just hate him.
I cheered up when one Ecrin — a true Mad Man — said he had been promoted to head an ad agency in New York. Fantastic news! He’d have no time to get on his bike. He’d arrive at the start line looking like the bastard son of Don Draper and Fatty Arbuckle, what with all those lunches at Le Cirque. No chance. He’s pulling out of the ride but may come along for the beers.
One of last year’s newbies, a modest South African anaesthetist, was given the benefit of all our patronising wisdom and then turned the ride into a blitzkrieg — crushing us by a huge margin. Magnanimous? No, we accused him of stealing drugs from his hospital. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it. If he does the same this time we’ll write to the health authority.
This year’s new addition is another Saffa, this time a vet, who waltzed up to the pub looking mean and biltong lean. How do they breed them so hard? They can’t all be descended from Voortrekkers. And who invited him anyway?
I’d been hoping for someone like me: a plump, soft desk jockey — a bit like those supermarket chickens that have never seen daylight and get injected with water on their deathbed. I deserve better in the year I turn 50. Where are the fat, wheezing cyclists with inhalers?
This year we’re facing the 6,939ft Col du Tourmalet at the end of what looks a very long day. Three Ecrins have climbed it before and it has always been windy, wet and thoroughly unpleasant.
Graeme Fife, the cycling writer, once said you had to work bloody hard to be average. Guy Andrews, editor of Rouleur magazine, put it better: “I know you have to work really hard just to be crap.” My ambition has only ever been to be honourably crap. I’d better put some miles in, then.
Cyclists and cabbies are not usually best buddies, but they do have their moments (Bruno Vincent)We know our enemies, us cyclists. White van man. Sweary minicab man. Out of control 4WD woman. Anyone in a lorry. But have relations between cyclists and drivers really broken down so far that even a seemingly nice old lady in a Polo will attack a poor, vulnerable two-wheelist just trying to go about his business in as carbon-neutral a way as possible?
Yes, they have.
The woman in question was putt-putting up to the traffic lights at the railway station last Thursday as I was waiting to pull out of a side road. At that stage, I had no feelings for her either way. It would have been weird if I had. That soon changed.
When she saw that I was trying to pull out, rather than slow down and let me, she gave a little tap on the accelerator, raced up to the lights and blocked me. Even though I was trying to get across into an entirely different lane. Even though the lights were red. Even though she clearly didn’t have anything to get to in a hurry anyway. Not unless you count taking the latest Mills & Boon out of the library as urgent.
I wasn’t going to react. I’m not one of those cycle louts who kick off at the most minor of indiscretions. Instead, as she sat there, staring at the red light, a thin, wrinkled smile across her face, I cycled past her on the left and then in front of her across the red cycle zone to get into the adjacent lane.
She reacted by sounding her horn. Continuously. My crossing in front of her, even though it had no discernible impact on her day, had hit a nerve. Sadly, it wasn’t a sciatic one. I looked back in astonishment. Then I looked at the driver of the car I was now in front of in that adjacent lane. He was a cabbie.
He smiled and shrugged. I smiled and shrugged. This was a wonderful moment. Minicab driver and me, two mortal enemies united. It was like Christmas Day, 1914, when we played football with the Germans in no man’s land. Or the handshake between François Pienaar and Nelson Mandela at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995. Sort of.
Could this be the moment when peace broke out between cyclists and drivers? The cabbie could tell his cabbie friends that not all cyclists are idiots. I could do the same to all the people I know who like to dress up in Lycra. Before you know it, we are all living in harmony.
Sadly the lights changed, the old biddy accelerated off and the minicab driver was hooting me to get a move on. And we were enemies again.
Sometime around the age of nine I fell in love with bicycle shops. Not only did my local shop bring my two-wheeled pride and joy back from the dead at regular intervals, but all the equipment hanging on crowded walls provided a cornucopia of potential upgrades, if only my pocket money would stretch to it. It’s an addiction I still suffer from today.
No surprise, then, that my first reaction to the news that Tesco has started to open bicycle sections within its stores was one of horror. If the giant retailer — which is testing a specialist bike section in eight shops around the country, including Chesterfield in Derbyshire, and West Durrington in West Sussex — turns its buying power and retailing nous to the bike trade, then won’t independent stores be doomed?
Surely, they will go the way of the butchers, bakers and — after last week’s announcement that Tesco is planning to build “mini villages” clustered around its stores — housebuilders and estate agents. RIP high street cycle shop; hello aisles full of pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap made-in-China disposable bikes?
There is nothing new about supermarkets selling bikes, of course. All the big chains have offered discount bikes at one time or another, and last year Asda even enlisted Sir Chris Hoy to front up its offer of bicycles for as little as £50.
Most serious cyclists have stayed away, however. That’s because the supermarkets have tended to sell low-spec bikes that come in boxes for self-assembly. That might be handy for buying your five-year-old a bike but if you wanted to deal with properly trained staff and buy a high-spec branded bike it was no good at all.
Tesco has tried to up the game. Its range is still aimed at family and children’s bikes — priced between £100 and £200 — but it also has a dedicated space within each store and a separate customer till. Qualified staff are on hand to advise potential customers and undertake the necessary preparations and checks. The kind of post-sale service that hitherto was the exclusive domain of “real” bike shops is also included, promises the giant retailer.
With the steep rise in interest in cycling, it is a clever move. But will it sound the death knell for traditional retailers? On balance, I suspect not.
In its annual survey of bicycle retailing, the trade magazine Bike Biz found that more than 70% of bicycle shops saw their turnover increase by 10% or more during 2009 — which was hardly a banner year for high street shopping in general. A fifth of bike shops saw turnover rise by 30% or more.
Not only that but new small stores are also opening in record numbers. So although the big boys are starting to target the market, it seems the smaller stores are still in rude health, and growing.
To survive and prosper, small bike shops need to recognise the devotion that they attract from people such as me — and maintain the kind of service that keeps us coming back.
There’s not enough room for all of us in those narrow little strips of road (Susannah Ireland)Cycle lanes are for cyclists. There’s a clue, right there on the road – a great big graphic of a bicycle in thick, white paint. Through some strange and unexplained sight defect, though, motorcyclists cannot see this. On my run into work, dozens of them roar up the cycle lane at 30mph, missing us pedallers by inches. They’re irresponsible fools who deserve to be strung up by their TCX boots until they learn the meaning of the words highway code.
At least, that’s what I think when I’m on a bicycle. But I spend half my two-wheel time on a scooter, and then my view magically changes. Those pretty graphics are just advisory, aren’t they? I can’t resist that tempting rat run past the queues: it’s safer and quicker than squeezing between the juggernauts, and as long as you always give way to cyclists, what’s the harm?
The harm, obviously, is that many bikers don’t give way to anything at all, and having them hemmed in with pedal cyclists is just lethal. The solution, equally obviously, is to give our city streets another lane.
Pedestrians have one (it’s called the pavement), cyclists have one, and those greedy four-wheeled things have loads. None for bikers, though, which is why the 500cc kamikazes veer insanely across all three, looking for gaps.
Sure, it’ll cut down the amount of space allowed for cars, but spending another half an hour a day sitting in queues might convince more drivers to change over to the faster, greener and more efficient two-wheeled alternatives. Which will mean we’ll need yet another lane. Or two. With luck, we’ll drive cars off the city streets completely. Now there’s a plan.
My first experience of riding what is probably the world’s most expensive bike made me feel slightly sick. Not because it was a poor ride. But because I broke it. The Beru Factor 001 bike (asking price: about £20,000, or as much as a Mini Cooper S convertible) is built by bf1systems, whose day job is producing electronics and composites for F1 motor racing and the aerospace industry.
Why does a high-tech company want to build a bike? Well, much of the work Beru does for F1 is hidden inside wiring looms in carbon composites deep in the bowels of the cars. At least a bike gets them proper exposure for their alchemy.
It’s not the first motor-racing company to try designing a bike without preconceptions. Lotus built Chris Boardman’s 108 bike, on which he won the prologue of the 1994 Tour de France in the fastest time yet. Porsche and Peugeot have turned their hand to bikes but none has been a radical design; Saab lent its name to a mountain bike that was just a throwback to a 1990s Slingshot.
Back to the Factor 001. It is not aimed at pros (it breaks the UCI design rules, which govern world cycle sport, in umpteen ways). Rather, it is supposed to be a custom-built carbon-fibre machine for the amateur sportive rider with money to burn.
So let’s get the accident out of the way. The first gleaming white Factor 001 frame was a little small for me, so the saddle was heightened with a stack of spacers.
Less than 1½ miles into the ride I heard a crack and narrowly avoided a medieval disembowelling as I was left with a jutting carbon-fibre prong where the saddle should have been. The taxi driver who picked me up loved the story so much he almost forgot to charge me. “Tell me again,” he said, “how much did the bike cost?”
Beru duly delivered another, this time bigger and finished in unpolished black carbon. Very prototype. At first glance it was reminiscent of a Look time-trial bike circa 1996 with a few cute differences. The downtube and seat tube both split and flared out into twin vanes; the front forks pivoted in front of the headtube rather than inside; all cabling was internally routed; and the eight-spoke carbon wheels had disc brakes.
Out on the road the Factor 001 was astonishingly stable. It felt thoroughly planted on the road. It was compliant enough to soak up all the potholes of Kent and yet still felt like a tight racer.
I wasn’t a fan of the disc brakes — there didn’t seem any need for them; modern callipers are still lighter and pretty efficient. Also, my big feet rubbed the rear chainstays, which are 6in wide to fit the disc hubs. The latest Shimano electronic shifting was, as expected, utterly precise and neutral. But the experience was uninvolving and almost separated you from the bike. It’s the future of racing — but it makes riding more like driving a car.
I wonder who would spend this much on a motor-racing-component firm’s first bike when, for half the price, you could buy a custom-made carbon-fibre Serotta MeiVici from folk with a wealth of experience. It’s your choice, moneybags — you can see the Factor 001 and the MeiVici at Cyclefit in Macklin Street, London WC2, next month.
Two months ago, I watched a man with a wheelbarrow and a high-vis jacket pitch up at a pothole near where I live, chuck three spade-loads of tar into it, pat it down a bit with his spade and then light a cigarette. He spent the next 15 minutes leaning against an adjacent fence, looking exhausted. You can’t blame him. Well, you can but not entirely. It must be hard knowing that your life’s work is not only never ending but also futile. And he knew. I could tell by the look in his eyes.
According to potholes.co.uk, one of my all-time favourite pothole websites, the average English road is only resurfaced once every 65 years. If authorities were given the funding they required to fix our holey highways, it would take them 11 years just to catch up with the backlog. And they’d need an awful lot more wheelbarrows. And an awful lot more men in high-vis jackets.
It’s pretty clear that chucking some tar in a hole is not the answer to our monumental pothole problem. We need proper steam rollers.
But before the problem of potholes slips any further up the national agenda, may I sound a small and entirely self-interested note of caution: cars drive faster on nice, new shiny roads. And as we know, fast cars and bicycles mix even less successfully than bicycles and potholes. Since all the new potholes popped up this year, I’ve noticed traffic has slowed considerably. There’s a lot more weaving, of course, but at least everything’s a bit calmer.
So we have two potential courses of action. We can set Sir Chris Hoy on the Department for Transport and get budget not just for fixing roads but also for a lot more cycle lanes and speed bumps. And that would be wonderful, even if it is a long shot. Or we can sack the wheelbarrow guys, lock Sir Chris up in his velodrome and let things get worse, faster. Give it another winter or two, and all the boy racers won’t be able to leave their garage for fear of a spannered alloy. Us cyclists will simply switch to mountain bikes.