Chris Hoy and the body fascists

That article for GQ magazine.

Speaking as an over 80kg middle-aged man in Lycra, I agree with Cris Hoy.  Wearing team kit is naff. See Rule 17. So is wearing white shorts, an aero-helmet and undies under your padded shorts.

He’s also correct in saying that too much blubber under Lycra is not a good look, but that can’t be helped.  You don’t have to built like a rake thin pro to be a cyclist, and there’s no question that Lycra is the most appropriate clothing for a road cycling.  Moreover, Hoy may feel that Lycra does not look good on people weighing over eight stone but that didn’t stop his own cycling apparel brand offering gear in XXL size.

Chris Hoy

Chris is happy with his debut article for GQ, and so he should be.

Old men in Lycra may well be the subject of sniggers, but I can live with that. Cyclists do it weekly, so of course we’re going to want to wear the right clothing. Are we really expected to change mid-ride in order to be more appropriately dressed when we stop at a cafe?

But there’s a much more serious point to all this.

By picking up on one point Hoy made – that overweight people don’t look good in Lycra, and ignoring the very important qualification he made – that perhaps some of them were twice that size before taking up cycling, the shower of media disapproval adds to a real problem in society: body fascism. Hoy actually spoke positively about overweight people getting into Lycra but all the reports focus on the first part of his statement only. That’s not helpful.  So much more good might have come from emphasising his point that getting into Lycra will increase the health of the nation.

But that won’t bother GQ.  They will be delighted with the attention the piece has garnered.

Chris Hoy is a new columnist for GQ. He’s going to be writing a series of articles addressing cyclists’ dilemmas. GQ is a magazine for somewhat shallow young men who lose sleep over things like what brand of after-shave they should be using now that they’re growing a waist-length beard. It’s quite easy for Hoy to play to this gallery by taking a pop at Mamils, allowing some controversy to be manufactured by the wider media, and thus giving the mag far more publicity than it would have otherwise attracted for what is, after all, not exactly the journalistic signing of the century. Then just as the harrumphing gathers pace, our national treasure of the track tweets apologetically, thus feeding the story even more.

The original piece is about as bland a cycling column I have ever read.  It really says nothing of interest, so a hat-tip goes to GQ for creating so much out of nothing. Shame nobody took the opportunity to focus on encouraging people to get fit instead of looking acceptable.

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Inperceptably falling off a cliff.   C2C day three.

By the end of day two the trip was over bar the shouting. No more climbs, just a few miles on the plateau before dropping down for the last stretch on cycle paths through the centre of Newcastle ending at Tynemouth which to the ignorant like me, is still Newcastle. In other words today was a thirty mile valedictory ride.

A brief check of the elevation profile seemed to confirm this, but elevation profiles are deceptively cruel. They squash up distances so that climbs appear to be unfeasibly steep and very short.  They are not to scale and this lulls you into believing they are simply an indication of the normal ups and downs of any terrain.  In reality those hardly noticeably sawteeth turn out to be a series of more significant efforts than expected.

What’s more, after yesterday’s exertions nothing today could possibly be anything other than a pimple in comparison, so my assessment of the elevation profile was summarised as “gradual descent, big descent, flat” and psychologically I was about as prepared as if I were nipping up to the shops.

That gradual descent turned out to include a couple of lung-squeezing climbs and the big descent never seemed to materialise because it was hidden amongst a series of lights, sharp turns and heavy traffic entering Newcastle. The profile looked like I would be falling off a cliff but it was more like slipping down several dropped kerbs – most unsatisfying.

Once at sea level we progressed at a leisurely pace.  Partly because we were on narrow cycle paths and partly because only recently some psychopath had strung fishing line across this route at neck height intent on causing serious injury or worse to any cyclist who failed to notice it in time.  Fortunately nobody was hurt but who knows if a second attempt might be made? We rode the paths cautiously.

One of those bridges

Before long we were alongside the Tyne and its marvellous bridges. We stopped for coffee at the Cycle Hub cafe and then hopped on our bikes for the final tiny flat stretch to the sea at Tynemouth.  A tiny flat stretch that turned out to be about ten miles with more lumps.  This was turning out to be the most dragged out anti-climax of my life.

Eventually we arrived, dipped our wheels in the North Sea, looked for the van, found the van, changed, ate an undeserved but obligatory plate of fish and chips, jumped in the van and headed south.

North Sea dipping

As always, for me at least, the best part of these trips is being out in the open doing what I love doing most with and without my friends. One great thing about cycling is that you spend part of the time being sociable and part of the time in your own space, the beauty being that you can choose how much of each and when.

The terrain was challenging – that’s a primary reason for doing it – and glorious to look at for the most part.  This country offers scenery as majestic as anywhere in the world, I’m convinced. Thank you England. Your people may be separatist numbskulls, but I won’t argue against the claim that you are the New Jerusalem.

I discovered how to burn calories easily. C2C day 2.

As feared, we set off into miserable drizzle, leaving the Briery Wood hotel before the breakfast service began at the surprisingly late time of 8.30. Without food in me panic sets in.  For psychological reasons more than anything I needed to eat before any progress could be made, after all, we were heading away from civilisation – who knew from where or when the next meal might come? All I had on me was about eight energy bars and six gels. We therefore stopped at a friendly Ambleside takeaway cafe and I took on board a scrambled egg baguette and a large cup of coffee.

The way out of Ambleside is up a very steep road for a couple of hundred yards until you reach the beginning of a long, moody, heartless drag which, having brutalised you at the start, relents slightly for most of the following 4k, before punching you with another unfeasibly steep final section. They call it “The Struggle”.  In spite of that it’s the kind of stretch I like.  There’s a building that beckons from the top that you can see from way back. This sort of thing I find helpfully encouraging.

Lake Windermere from the top of The Struggle.

The pain of climbing is almost always rewarded with a fast and long descent.  The further you have to climb, the more enjoyable the drop down.  It’s a bit like skiing, except there’s the satisfaction of having reached the top under your own steam as well.  In this case the reward was not only fast and long, but also beautiful as we hugged the north bank of Ullswater before heading out of the Lake District National Park and on towards the Pennines.

Targeting Alston for lunch meant getting over Hartside Fell, the longest ascent of the trip at just under five miles, but what a joy it was. Never too steep, instead, a consistent baby-smooth slope that allowed me to find a comfortable rhythm and enter my own world of thought for 40 minutes or so. I think these are my favourite kind of climbs.  I loved it.

When middle-aged men, keen on sport and fitness get together, especially if one of them is a retired doctor, conversation inevitably turns at some point to the subject of health. Chuffed that we are relatively fit for our years, we are compelled to congratulate ourselves by talking about it. After the obligatory discussion about the pros and cons of the PSA test I steered the conversation towards calorie burning as we ate a slightly under-portioned lunch.

“Does the process of digestion burn calories?” I wondered. Rodney explained that the basal metabolic system means that just to stay alive we are burning calories, and that indeed our body burns calories when it digests foods.

“So the more we eat, the more calories we are burning?”  I suggested as I scooped up a mouthful of waffle and ice-cream. “And when we sleep as well.  What you’re saying is that the more I eat and the more I sleep the more I’m losing weight,” I concluded with a large creamy dollop of satisfaction.

Off we set, lunch immediately followed by another brute of a climb, Killhope Cross, which eventually brought us down to Stanhope, (pronounced Stanup) at the foot of perhaps the most dramatic climb of the day that took us up through Crawleyside onto Waskerley Moor. This just went on and on but thankfully it was the last of the day.  The only challenge that awaited us was the insult of the final mile and half into a 20mph headwind.

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Waskerley Moor.  It’s all downhill from here.  Well, sort of.

A cyclist needs to burn a lot of calories.  Today’s ride, including four serious climbs over about eighty miles, certainly justified all the fuel I shovelled into my stomach. In fact, just to be sure, I thought it best to have the banana split with aerosol cream and more ice-cream at dinner that evening. Well, I didn’t want to become suddenly hypoglycemic in the night. There were thirty miles of mostly downhill cycling to negotiate tomorrow, after all.

I lay in bed comforted by two things. One that I had successfully completed one of the hardest days I’d ever spent in the saddle, and the other that while I slept I would be shedding kilos. I fell asleep and dreamed of breakfast.

 

 

Coast to coast, sea to sky. Day 1.

The coast to coast ride, or C2C (sea to sea, geddit?) has been on my bucket list for a while, but that’s the “wouldn’t mind doing that one of these days” section of the bucket list rather than the “don’t die before doing this” section.

Obligatory dipping of wheels in the sea at the start of the C2C

There are several versions of the C2C depending on how much off-road or main road cycling you wish to avoid, but they all set off from the from the Cumbrian coast and end up somewhere in the north east.  All of the suggested routes, however, deftly avoid the big hills of the Lake District rather like the person who surrupticiously sticks a tenner into the drinks kitty when everyone else puts in twenty.

We did it differently. When we sat down to plan our trip we did so with Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Climbs and Another 100 Greatest Climbs books to hand.

That was Brian’s idea.

Our first stage, therefore, was a brutal 40 miles taking in, amongst other ascents, the Hardknott and Wrynose Passes as we picked our way to Ambleside.

Hardknott is certainly the toughest climb I have attempted in this country.  I know that because it’s the only one that has defeated me so far.  Approaching it is frightening enough.  From quite a distance it’s obvious how steep and long it is.  At the bottom you are greeted with warning signs about the gradient and unsuitability of the road for certain vehicles, along with what appears to be a wall but which is actually the road itself. The thing about Hardknott is that while other roads that head out of villages over hills often have immediately steep gradients that tend to ease off to something manageable before long, this one is stupidly steep at first, 30%, then it eases off to ridiculously steep, and then, after about a mile and a quarter you hit a couple of hairpins that are back up to stupid.  

Let me express those numbers in other terms.

Hardknott Pass is so steep that I had to lean forward over the handlebars in order to stop the front wheel lifting off the ground in my battle against gravity. It was so steep that the camper van in front was wheelspinning on the rutted and gravelly tarmac, which becomes a mild concern when you speculate as to whether it’s going to slide back into you.  I tell you, Hardknott is so steep even Dieter looked like he was struggling for a moment or two.

At that second 30% kick I got off and started walking.

Would I have got off had I not seen Brian just up ahead do the same?  I don’t know.  I do know that by the time I reached those switchbacks I was virtually at a standstill anyway, and it required all of my energy just to maintain my balance as I wheeled and wobbled my way, somewhat uncontrollably up and into the path of oncoming cars.  

As I contemplate an impending tough climb my internal dialogue goes something like: “I’m coming for you mountain, and I’m going to beat you.” Then I imagine the mountain’s response: “Meh. Couldn’t care less. I’m here, I’ve always been here and I always will be here.” It’s not you against the mountain. You’re not defeated by mountains, you’re defeated either by your own lack of will power or lack of ability.

As I reflect on it now I still can’t imagine successfully riding up that section; it’s was hard enough walking, so it must have been lack of ability, and I’d rather it were that than lack of determination.

Cresting Wrynose. That’s not a smile, that’s pain.

The saving grace was that Wrynose Pass, which follows immediately after the long and tricky descent of Hardknott, is also considered to be one of the more difficult ascents this country has to offer, but in comparison it feels little more than a speed bump (well, not quite, but you know what I mean). 

Coming off Wrynose would usually lead directly and swiftly into Ambleside, our stopping point for the night. Instead Brian had identified another climb, Blea Tarn, so we made a detour for that.  It was pin sharp but thankfully short with a wonderfully smooth winding descent that took us circuitously to our hotel and a glass of equally smooth local beer.

This passage through the south western lakes is staggeringly beautiful. I know because I was able to enjoy it from time to time in between periods of staring at the tarmac under my front wheel and wiping the stinging, salty sweat that was draining into my eyes. In this respect we were lucky to have such fine weather and good visibility.  Throughout the week ahead of our trip the Met Office promised heavy rain which would have made those climbs utterly miserable going up and utterly treacherous coming down.

I was grateful for that, but the Lake District is capricious and the weather on one day is no predictor of the weather the next. It took me a while to drop off to sleep and when I did it was to the rhythmic pulse of rain gently drumming against the Velux window.

The sugar-free, low-fat Tour de France.

I’m a fan of Chris Froome. He doesn’t have a lot of charisma but he strikes me as honest, hard-working, determined and decent. He has humility, shows appreciation for his team and is respectful of people. I like those qualities in a person.

The problem is that the Tour de France demands something else. It demand heroism. It wants its winner to be gallant, swashbuckling, daring. Froome and Sky are not that. Hauling himself back to the leaders when his bike failed was a heroic act but it didn’t make Froome a hero. Leaving his rivals on the side of a mountain would have made him a hero.

The Tour this year was not won by a hero. The hero came third wearing brown shorts. Instead the tour was won by efficient scientists. That’s the way professional cycling is going, and there’s no stopping it. The money, as always with sport, has ensured that.

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Romain Bardet:  My Tour de France 2017 hero

Cycling fans, and especially French ones, will never love a person who wins by marginal gains. They will never love a champion who doesn’t win at least one stage. They’ll never love a team that is quite as calculating and cold as Sky, but just as with football, it’s not the fans that matter any more, it’s the sponsors.

Chris Froome may appear to be the best but the truth is that it’s the Sky team that won this year’s Tour de France.  It’s just that they only give out one yellow jersey. Sky won the Tour and they did it by computer readouts.

I watched the Tour avidly and enjoyed it. There was plenty of excitement and incident, and Froome proved himself to be a great defender of the jersey when mishaps befell him, but he didn’t shred himself to win a stage. He just did enough, stage by stage, to keep his nose ahead of the rivals.

Well done Chris Froome. It was an efficient, well executed victory but it will not last long in the memory.

I Have Been Having Unholy Thoughts

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but every year I set myself a new challenge, usually a learning challenge.  Last year it was ballroom dancing.  A couple of years ago it was TIG welding. Sometimes I take something up for a reason, and sometimes I do it just for the sake of learning.

This year I have decided that to function as a fully rounded fifty three year old human being I ought to be able to swim. I’m not saying this one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is my life would make it complete and perfect. There are one or two other pieces that need putting into the right place, no question. Besides, I can already swim. Sort of. I can swim to save my life, if necessary, assuming that the difference between life and death is no more than the width of a standard cycle path.

Being able to swim is important. Interestingly, Jewish law states clearly that a parent must teach their children three things: the bible, a trade, and how to swim.

It may be a matter of life and death according to the Jewish sages, but what use is being able to swim to a cyclist?  As I have been saying for many years (admittedly, as an excuse for my inability), if God had wanted us to swim he would have given us gills.  Instead he gave us legs to pedal, arms to steer, fingers change gears and those little canals in the inner ear to keep us from losing balance. We are clearly a species designed to ride bikes, not to splash about in water.

Well forgive me father but for the past two or three years I have been having impure thoughts. I have been thinking it would be interesting to have a go at a triathlon.

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Improper dress

There. I said the T word.

For non-cyclists reading this, what I have just confessed to is a bit like a member of the Cradle of Filth fan club turning up for a group head-bang with his favourite Nana Mouskouri album.

I’m not sure why the idea appeals. The only component of the three I like is cycling, and the only one I can actually do is cycling. I’ve already said what a poor swimmer I am and if I run for more than about five minutes I suffer from stabbing shin splints. So learning to swim still leaves me with another major problem to overcome.

Add to that how boring swimming is.  I know there are many health benefits associated with consuming chlorinated water that doubles as communal bath and lavatory, but these benefits, to me, are outweighed by the sheer tedium of the activity. If I were able to swim a mile in 45 minutes, that’s 45 minutes of seeing nothing at all while my head is being pounded by a cacophony of children shrilling in what is essentially a giant echo chamber.

In that 45 minutes I could, instead, cycle at least twelve times the distance in bucolic peace, and consume a nice banana while I’m at it.  Furthermore, I’d be able to do it while suitably attired – shoulders covered and feet socked.

I know. This triathlon thing is an insane idea but I can’t get it out of my head. That inner voice is telling me to learn to swim and to run without crippling myself, and that I should then bookend my bike ride with those activities.

So I’m going to take swimming lessons in the hope that if it enables me rid myself of this unnatural desire I can finally return to being a happy, triathlete-sneering cyclist who happens to be able to swim as well.

I Now Know About John O’Groats

The Altnaharra Hotel sits in an idyllic spot in the northern Highlands overlooking the western end of Loch Naver. It is a favourite place for anglers to stay and, it seems, anglers are the favoured type of stayer.  Cyclists are not.

At dinner, one non-meat eating friend explained that he had not requested the venison he had been presented with, and was sharply told that he had ordered the wrong dish, while another was shouted at, yes, shouted at, at for not paying attention when the server was speaking.  This is when I knew that we were staying at the Faulty Towers of the north, with added menace. We agreed to make sure our rooms were locked during the night.

As might be expected towards the end of a trip like this, our planned morning departure time of 8.30 was tending to slip back by a few minutes each day. Not today. Either due to the excitement of completing the journey or, more likely, fear of the hotel manager, we were raring to go, and what a start it was. We rode alongside the loch and then River Naver all the way to the sea at Bettyhill, encountering no more than ten vehicles for the entire 24 mile run.

Reaching this point was quite a moment for me.  I had cycled the entire length of the country, and seeing the sea at the northern coast completed the set for me.

Along the coast road heading eastward, the wind pushing us along, we quickly passed through a number of weary looking villages. The people appeared to be no less so.  I imagine it’s not easy to live joyfully out here. As we settled down to eat at a dockside cafe in Thurso, drizzle coating out bikes outside, I asked our waitress if it rained a lot. “Always,” she replied with resignation.

The rain eased and we pressed on for the final few miles. Today’s leg was just over 75 miles but without anything like the amount of climbing of previous days, the tailwind, and with almost a thousand miles in our legs, it felt like twenty.  We cruised into John O’Groats, swung left for the famous totem pole, whooped, hugged, congratulated each other, took pictures and sipped a glass of bubbles.

Along with the scenery, without question, what made this trip so special was the people I shared it with.  Some I knew well beforehand, others hardly at all.  By the end I felt a strong bond with them all. There had been plenty of banter, playful and never offensive (I hope), and we had laughed a lot. We supported and encouraged each other on difficult days and we celebrated each other’s success at completing the challenge with as much pride as we did our own.

After a while I looked around the place and it dawned upon me just what I had done. I had, over nearly two weeks, ridden my bike to one of the most miserable places I’d ever been to.  John O’Groats is a place to arrive at and then to leave as quickly as possible.

It proved something I have long believed: what’s important is the journey, not the destination.

Something of a Symmetry 

In various ways today, our penultimate of the journey, reminded me of the first. As we worked our way through the northern highlands from Inverness to Altnaharra we climbed up on to a beautiful moor in weather not unlike the rain we fought our way through on Bodmin Moor not two weeks ago.

I also fell victim to my second puncture which Guy, our guide and mechanic, seemed to fix in less time than it had taken me to fish around in my back pocket for the inner tube he used.

Another symmetry is the remoteness of the counties of Sutherland and Cornwall. Both act as a sort of buffer between the sea and civilisation. A place where you could disappear without fear of pursuit.


I don’t know their stories, but on two separate occasions today I saw middle-aged men in vans converted to accommodate makeshift beds and basic cooking facilities. What, I wondered, had been the life path that took them to remote parking spots, one to boil a kettle, the other to lie down in the windowless back of his vehicles for a nap? What might have been the moment of chance that meant my life had turned out as it did and not as theirs did. I’m not saying that their lives took a wrong turn, or that they are not happy people.  I have no idea.  I am, however, increasingly aware, the older I get, that people born around the same time as me often have complicated, strange stories, that would not easily have been predicted forty or so years ago when we were school age.


At the risk of tempting fate with a day to go, I want to say thank you to the weather gods for their good grace these last 11 days.  At the start of the trip I thought that if we had no more than four days bad weather we’d be doing well.  Apart from day one, a couple of hours as we left Eskdalemuir early on Sunday morning, and light rain with some stiff winds today, the weather has been perfect for cycling. If we are fighting our way through horizontal rain and a headwind for the entire seventy five miles of our final day tomorrow it would be churlish to complain.

Besides, if you’re going to suffer wind and rain, there’s nothing better than to be rewarded with a beautiful rainbow just as your reach the final destination for the day, and the sun smiles as if to congratulate us on reaching the last stage of the trip.

High on the Highlands

Day 10 and we are now further north than I’ve ever been in the UK.  I’ve been looking forward to visiting the Highlands the entire trip and the lead in to it over the past couple of days has not disappointed. Scotland is stunning.

imageWe have been working our way through the Cairngorms which means climbing.

Climbing provides the most immediate and compelling challenge to a sports cyclist.  Fighting my way up, being thrilled at making it, and being rewarded with a long, fast descent, is what cycling is all about for me.

There are essentially two types of climb, short and steep, by which I mean anything up to about 30% gradient, and long but gentle, where generally speaking the climb may go on for a few miles but the gradient rarely goes above 10 or 12% for any significant amount of time, and is usually in single figures. How steep is 12%? If you’re driving a car you will almost certainly need to drop into second gear on that gradient.

"There's a weird white house and the Lecht starts soon after."

“There’s a weird white house and the Lecht starts soon after.”

I’m happier on the long and steady.  I like tapping out a rhythm over time, rather than trying to haul my heavy body up a short but brutal lift. Today gave us a fair amount of both in The Lecht, a two and a half mile climb up to a ski station at an average gradient of 6% but with a 20% insult to send you on your way.

They say that one of the wonders of nature is that a mother forgets the pain of childbirth soon after the event in order to maintain her desire to go through it again. I wouldn’t presume that the pain of a 20% or greater climb is the same as giving birth, but it’s true that a cyclist would also probably never attempt a second big climb if the pain of the first remained.  Almost as soon as we reach the top we forget the lung burning intake of air as we draw as much oxygen as possible into the blood stream, the salty sweat dripping into the corner of our eye, helpless with our inability to take a hand off the bars to wipe its way, and the internal dialogue that curses and pleads alternately with every turn of the pedal.

The Lecht. Photo:Doik

The Lecht. Photo:Doik

The peak cannot come soon enough. A vehicle passes and you pray it will disappear over the top never to be seen again, although invariable you watch it continue up and up. When the hill does desist the reward is spectacular views and fast, long, sweeping descents. By the time you are 20 metres down you have forgotten the pain you endured that brought you to this point.

Tonight we stay in Inverness.  Tomorrow we venture deeper into the Highlands – that small triangular bit right at the top of the map.

More climbing.

An up and down day in the saddle

This was the profile of today’s ride from Perth to Ballater: about thirty eight miles up to the top of The Cairnwell, and another 30 down to the hotel.  Hardly a left or right turn the whole way. It was just like some of the great European passes I’ve had the pleasure of riding over.

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Probably as Alpine as it gets in the UK. What you can see is the final 2 miles or so winding up to around 10% gradient. That’s after several miles of very gradual climbing.

Not as high perhaps, but with the last mile or so at a 10% (ish) gradient, bright sunlight, a chilly breeze and a series of chairlifts guarded by glum looking attendants at the top, one could very easily have confused this for somewhere in the French Alps.

it was another tough and exhilarating day in the saddle, which, for those of you who care about such things, is not making my bottom sore at all. This is just as well because we cycled past Balmoral Castle where HM The Queen is currently holidaying and my strong view is that it is not nice to turn up there unannounced, wearing Lycra and with a sore bottom.

In fact my whole body feels good, which is surprising after so many arduous days.  The Pilates classes must be working.

 

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That’s correct.  They do skiing at the top of this mountain. 

We are just three cycling days from the end of the trip now.  I can’t quite believe how quickly the days have passed. The bubble we’re in means I have hardly found time to check the news.

Here is how the days basically go:  wake up, eat food and drink coffee, ride, eat food and drink coffee, ride, eat food and drink coffee, ride, eat food and drink coffee, arrive at hotel, shower, eat more food, sleep.

As our bikes take us towards the top of the mainland I’m contemplating  returning to everyday life and it all feels a bit other-worldly, as if I will have to re-learn a long forgotten way of being. Even with emails coming through, some of which need to be dealt with, I feel a very long way from real-life most of the time.

It’s wonderful.