When you do and don’t want to ride, and gratitude

On the last day of my trip to the Pyrenees I woke up and looked at the sky. I couldn’t see it. Soft rain was blocking it out. Perhaps we’ll let it clear and go out a bit later, after all, today’s plan was to tie up one loose end rather than go off on some big jaunt. All we intended for today was to roll down to Luz St Sauveur, turn around and ride up to the top of the Tourmalet, and then turn round again and head back to the hotel. A 36km round trip that should take a little under three hours.

“It looks like it’s going to be like this all day,” said Rob, “so we may as well get going as planned.” Well, almost as planned. Rob’s first small, but noticeable, change was that he wouldn’t be riding. Instead he was going to follow me in the van; my very own support vehicle. I would feel like one of the professionals that are occasionally spotted on reconnaissance with a team car following behind. Except I’d be slower and colder and wetter.

The second change was that because it would be cold, and because he’d be with the van, I’d get a lift down to the start, and from the top back to the hotel. So it would now be an 18km ride but still take a little under three hours.

Oh well, it had to be done. Rule #9, and it did mean that I would have ascended this monster from both sides.

I don’t know if it’s the same for mountaineers but with cycling there’s a bit of a thing about going up a mountain using all available roads, so climbing the Tourmalet from Luz St Sauveur was something of a requirement, particularly as I had spent the past week staying half way up that side of it.

Having the support van meant I could shed various things that (psychologically) weighed me down. I only needed one bottle, dumped my tool bag and pump and left my jacket in the van. Such a pro.

But that didn’t make the ride much more pleasant. In fact it didn’t make it any more pleasant at all.

So why am I doing this if it’s not pleasant? I don’t have to, after all, and it’s not a climb that will enable me to prove anything to myself. I’ve ridden up several more difficult, and I’ve ridden in worse weather.

The reason, I think, is simply that I said to myself that I would do it, and seeing that personal commitment through is really what a lot of this sort of endeavour is about for me. Every time I put myself through a challenge when I don’t need to, it feels a little bit special.

Doing something painful when we’re not forced to is, a wise man once said, more virtuous than enduring that same pain when we have no choice in the matter. Not that I’m claiming to be virtuous about all this, but personal satisfaction can only really be derived if it’s done out of choice. If it were under duress I could only feel resent.

This valley, through which runs Le Bastan, was subject to torrential flooding in 2013. Houses and property were washed away as the stream became a fast river and burst its banks. Thankfully there was no loss of life or any serious injuries sustained. The road was washed away in several sections and the scars of the damage are very much visible today, although the rebuilding of the road and bridges was completed within just three years.

As a result the new road is silky-smooth but it lacks personality, so I was happy to take a detour just a little way beyond Bareges by going for three kilometres up the old, rather poor quality road, known as the Voie Laurent Fignon after the late cyclist who lived locally for a time. Here I was able to enjoy wonderful views down into the valley and traffic-free cycling (not that there was much on the main road to contend with), but not sheep-free cycling.

This brought me back onto the main road with about four kilometres remaining. By now the misty-damp air had dried out, but not warmed up, and the wind was gradually increasing in intensity. I ploughed on but the gradient had the last laugh by leaving its steepest kilometre to the very end.

Rob met me at the top, camera to hand, but we didn’t hang about for long. It was just too cold. I was, of course, tired after 18km of climbing in those conditions, but pleased and relieved. It had been a very tough week, and ultimately very rewarding. Now it was time to take my bike to pieces and pack it up.

But first, a Coke and a great big pizza.

A big thank you

I don’t typically use this blog to publicise or promote things but I wanted to on this occasion.

Rob and Rachel Williamson, owners of Les Sorbiers guest house in Bareges were my hosts for the week and it was an absolute pleasure to stay with them.

Along with their two daughters (and Pepper the dog) they made me feel very comfortable sharing their home and meals (excellent meals too – both Rachel and Rob are professionally trained chefs).

Pepper

As well as my being host, Rob was my guide for the week and I doubt I would have managed anything like the amount and variety of riding without his encouragement and knowledge of the area. You don’t have to stay at Les Sorbiers to book Rob as a guide.

Bareges is the perfect location for cyclists, nestled as it is within easy reach of most of the major Pyrenees climbs and passes, and for skiers, with 240km of piste within the Tourmalet area. It’s also fabulous for walkers and has a sulphur spa that probably got me through the second half of the week.

I can’t recommend the place highly enough.

And by the way, I wasn’t paid for this. The branded phone case Rob gave me was a gift before I even thought about writing it.

Wait! Maybe something subliminal was going on?

Easy now

After four pretty full-on days of climbing today’s 45km jaunt was almost not worth getting changed for, although it was.

Rob and I set off down the hill to Luz St Sauveur, the turned left and climbed 14km to the ski resort at Luz Ardiden. Nothing as long or as harsh as anything we’d climbed so far, but again, a road with its own character. I counted twenty five hairpins, (on a map – I’d have lost count after about three doing it in real time), the second half of which you can see from below as it ribbons up the side of the mountain.

The villages in the mountains are particularly pretty and as I pass through I entertain little fantasies about buying a place in one of them. I won’t, but it’s another way to keep my mind off the puffing and panting.

I felt at ease today and rarely went without one or two gears to spare, which in itself is encouraging. If I know I’m cycling within my limit I somehow find a little extra strength and while we were passed by more cyclists than we overtook, (just an elderly English couple on a recumbent tandem), I kept up a decent pace and knocked down the kilometres without distress. Above us cruised a vulture showing off its three metre wingspan. It was keenly eying us up but was going to go hungry if it was hoping I’d expire on this climb.

Temperature was the problem. While my body warmed up the ambient temperature was always chilly. Once you get to the top and stop riding your body cools down quickly, your wet clothes become cold wet clothes and it’s all very uncomfortable.

Inaction photo

Arm warmers and gilet on and down we went, albeit cautiously because the road was gravelly for much of the top half. Another pleasure coming down off a mountain is feeling the temperature rise as the altitude decreases. Turning out of a shadowed stretch and receiving a blast of warm sunshine does wonders but while there was plenty of sunshine, there was no accompanying warmth. By the time we’d reached Luz St Sauveur my right hand was numb and it took man-made warmth in the form of a cup of coffee to recover enough for me to set off back to the B&B.

Now this was the section I bailed on the other day so I had some unfinished business with it. Known by Rob as “the daily commute”, because if you go anywhere from his place it’s up and down this 7km strip of tarmac.

Today couldn’t have been more different to last time – I fairly scooted up. I overtook an octogenarian on a mountain bike with what looked like the contents of his house hanging off it, was passed by a couple of blokes in team kit, and just about held off Rob who had given me a fifteen minute start. He needed to have given me fourteen and a half to beat me. I was that quick.

Not that I’m competitive, of course.

It gets more stunning every day

I’m realising that my guide, Rob, really knows what he’s doing. After something like 240km and well over 5,000 metres of climbing I was tired and ready to just suffer today as we set off for the Col d’Aubisque, a round trip of over 90km with another 1800 metres of ascent.

We were destined to ride in very high temperatures again after a much cooler day yesterday, nevertheless, Rob insisted that you can’t come to this part of the world and not climb the Aubisque – it’s too beautiful to miss. I was slightly sceptical because the previous two days had been as beautiful as any day on a bike I had experienced. And yet he was right.

Fatigue had addled me; I spent the first hour or so thinking that the summit would be 30km in. I was out by 18km. Learning that really hit me in the solar plexus and I needed to quickly recalibrate my expectations.

Our route up to the Col d’Aubisque was actually two climbs – a long 25km or so to the Col du Soulor, and then, following a short downhill section, another 7km up to the Aubisque. It was this section between the two cols that was truly spectacular. A balcony road hugs the mountain offering stunning views into an expansive, deep valley. It was breathtaking. These pictures hardly do justice to the place. You just have to go there, by car if necessary.

The balcony road between Col du Soulor and Col D’Aubisque

I mentioned yesterday how a 7% gradient doesn’t worry me too much, but when it’s the last three kilometres of over thirty it may as well have been 27%. Seeing the restaurant in the distance gave me courage. Often those landmarks don’t help, being so far away, but somehow this felt within reach and as I pushed the pedals I knew I was going to get there before too long and then I would be able to collapse without hindering other cyclists on the narrow road.

Coming down was, again, wonderful. After a rest and a large plate of cheese omelette and sautéed potatoes the 2km climb from the balcony road back up to Soulor was easy(ish) leaving the thrill of a long, fast 19km to the valley floor with smooth tarmac, few cars and visibility that allowed me take hairpins smoothly and quickly with minimal wear on my brake pads.

Some people say that descending is the reward for the climb. To me that’s like the person who discovers a cure for cancer being given a ten pound book token. The effort required to get to the top is never compensated for by coming back down, but I do love descending. The only connection it has for me with climbing is that when it takes 15 or 20 minutes to come off a mountain at speeds reaching upwards of 60kph you realise just how far you ascended.

Otherwise it’s the pure pleasure of sweeping down, at speed, understanding and trusting yourself and the machine well enough to feel confident that you’re not going to lose control, that really makes cycling downhill such a joy for me.

Dead man’s click

Every region and every mountain has its own character. This is my first visit to the Pyrenees and there’s no question that the landscape and mountains differ from the Alps and Dolomites. The valleys are so wide that at the turn of a corner you are taken aback by the glory of the vast view. I find all mountainous places wonderful to be in, so I’m not saying the Pyrenees are better, just different.

There are cyclists, but far fewer than I usually see on these trips. There are also fewer cars on the roads, and the mountains feel just a little bit harsher to climb.

Each mountain has a different feel as well. Today’s challenge was to ride up to the Hautacam ski station. Its gradient fluctuates constantly, which many cyclists don’t like. They want to get into a gear and rhythm and stay there, tapping out a regular pedal cadence. That was the consensus of opinion amongst the three guys I was cycling with: Rob, and the two guys from Eastbourne, Marcel and Justin.

I thought it was my opinion as well. Certainly one of the things I say to myself as I begin a big climb is: “just find your pace and tap it out”. That sort of thing is reassuring – I know I’ll get there if I just keep steadily moving. The problem is that’s also fairly tedious and what I realised as I climbed the Hautacam is that I rather enjoy the shifts in gradient: changing up and down through whatever gears the steepness allows for, sometimes having to get out of the saddle; enjoying even a little respite when the gradient drops from 9% to 6%, however temporarily; feeling encouraged when I see that the next kilometre will average 7% instead of 8.5%. All this is a plus for me.

So when I finally reached the top I was slightly surprised to hear the others, who had long since arrived, complaining about the difficulty of it. Of all three ascents so far I think the Hautacam is my favourite.

These climbs are taking me something between an hour and a half and two hours. That’s a lovely chunk of time to be on your own, enjoying nature, coaxing yourself along, thinking about family, work and why my bike has no more available gears (more of that later).

But to be honest mostly I go through a series of calculations about time and distance, pace, what happened to my gears, and whether I’ll make it home.

Some people don’t want reminders of how far there is left to go but it would drive me nuts if I didn’t have this data to chew over. I probably think about the other stuff – life stuff – for about 5% of the time. Another 20% is spent thinking about cycling and cyclists, and the rest is thinking about when it’s going to end. This all takes place while staring at the road immediately in front of me, staring the road a bit further ahead, glimpsing the road way ahead and noticing how much higher it snakes and how small those other cyclists are and how slowly they’re going, yet they’re still stretching away from me, and for a small part of the time, savouring the views. But that’s all for a matter of seconds before I’m distracted by distances and altitudes again.

On the famous climbs the authorities helpfully (or not) post kilometre markers providing various useful information for the cyclist who likes to pass the time with a bit of mental gymnastics.

Here’s an example:

I also use a bike computer that tells me how slowly I’m going which allows me to work out roughly what time I’ll arrive at the top. It also tells me far I’ve travelled since I last looked at it. This means I can check how accurate the distances between these kilometre signs are. There’s nothing more annoying than when the distance between two of these signposts is even ten metres more than a kilometre, and nothing more wonderful than when the distance is shorter. (It very rarely is).

I rely on these signs for the gradient info. I could use my computer for that too but then I’d be looking at it constantly, seeking confirmation for why I was pedalling squares. The gradient information on the signs gives the average for the forthcoming kilometre. 8% is very doable for me while less feels like a gift depending on how far up the climb I am, but the range can be quite significant within that kilometre section. There can be a short stretch of flat road or sometimes downhill, and if so my heart both sings and sinks. It’s a little respite for the legs, but I also know that I’ll pay for it with a sharp kick-up somewhere in the near future, or else apart from that short stretch, the average is really 9 or 10%.

I find myself approaching these signs willing the number to be something like 6%, but knowing that, given the distance remaining, it’s more likely to be 9%.

My bike has eleven gears at the back so you’d think that would be enough, right? Why is it, then, that despite my best efforts to avoid going through them all before I’ve completed the first kilometre of the climb, I invariably fail?

There’s a moment when you know you’ve no easier gear to use. It’s called the “dead man’s click”. You press your gear changer and nothing happens. You turn a corner, reach a hairpin, or the road just kicks up a little, but there’s nothing there and all you can do is grit your teeth, push harder and cry a little.

The dead man’s click is usually accompanied by a look down at the rear gears to see what’s wrong. There must be a mechanical issue of some nature, I assume. There never is. I’ve simply run out of gears again.

It’s so demoralising, and that’s partly why varied gradients are, for me, a pleasure. At least that way I get to change up a gear or two for a while, and then I’ve got those gears available for later when I need them.

And then I’ll get that dead man’s click again.

An easier day?

Today was supposed to be an easier day than yesterday, and with less than three-quarters of the distance to cover you’d have agreed. The main climb itself was certainly less of a challenge than the Tourmalet but by the end of it I was even more tired than I had been yesterday.

The plan was an out and back ride down to Luz St Sauveur then up to Cirque de Troumouse and back. About 75 km altogether.

There were eleven of us: Rob, our guide and host, a couple of guys from Eastbourne, a bunch from Tipperary and me pretty much bringing up the rear. All friendly and good company, when I finally caught up with them at the lunch stop, that is.

Looking back to Gedre, about half way up

Because the road up to Troumouse doesn’t go anywhere the climb isn’t used on big races so is not well known, but it’s a beautiful ride. Although much of the second half is steep, the gradient varies so it feels like you’re going up in three big steps, unlike the Tourmalet which just goes up in a monotonous straight line. The killer section comes right at the end when, after something like 25km of climbing you arrive at the restaurant, but then have another 2 to 3 km of twists and turns before reaching the summit. At each turn you imagine the end is just around the next corner. It isn’t, and it turns out it’s not around the next one either.

People often talk about this sort of activity as “cyclist against mountain” but that’s not true. No mountain ever challenged a cyclist nor did one ever accept a challenge from a cyclist. Mountains are just there and they don’t care about cyclists. I don’t pitch myself against mountains, I don’t try to overcome or beat the mountain. Also, I’m not a competitive cyclist so I don’t generally challenge other cyclists except my friends in an unspoken “I’m not racing you but I am” way, and even then rarely on these mammoth climbs where trying to cycle at a pace beyond your limit is invariably a big mistake.

No, it’s me that I’m challenging. It’s the voice inside that questions my willingness to fight the pain as I drag into my lungs every breath of air, wince at the stabs as my legs begin to cramp up and stand on the pedals in an arch in order to relive the ache in my lower back. It’s all about the internal conversation where I ask myself why I do it, then remind myself that I do it because I love being on my bike, in nature, and I need to periodically challenge my inner negative self-talk.

It’s good for the soul. It reminds me that I can control that inner voice and every time I get to the top of a mountain, with the pain that goes with it, I’m reminded once again that I’m in charge of me.

And there’s also a time to know when you have physically nothing left.

From the bottom of the climb back to the hotel is about seven kilometres at an average gradient of around 8 percent.

After the effort of the morning and in searing heat I knew I’d had enough and got off my bike. With barely articulated gratitude I climbed into the van and in five minutes we were back at the hotel.

According to Rob this is not a holiday, it’s a cycling trip. There’s a difference. He’s right.

Another obligatory photo with sign

A few days in the Pyrenees

I might not survive this trip. Seriously.

I’m staying in a small hotel run by a very nice English family. I chose this place because the owner doubles as a cycling guide. The deal is half board and rides every day except Wednesday which is his day off. Fair enough. Everyone’s entitled to a day off, except if I were to be given one I’d go cycling, so I’m not sure what Rob’s problem is.

That said, the weather forecast looks fairly grim for the middle of the week so it might just work out very neatly for me.

That’s if I last until the middle of the week. Day one wasn’t exactly the ease-in to the place that I’d expected. We were up and out by 8.15 for a 100km loop taking in the monster Col du Tourmalet.

Now the Tourmalet can, like most mountains, be approached from two sides. The hotel I’m staying in is 11km from the summit. Except that our route meant we would come down off the summit to the hotel. In other words we would not be hitting that peak until we’d knocked off 89km of cycling. On my first day.

I won’t bore you with gradients and distances. (If you’re interested you can read plenty about the Tourmalet here) Just know that we seemed to be climbing for miles even before the climb started, by which point I had gone through all the gears. The temperature was well in the 30s the whole time, peaking at over 40. I couldn’t drink enough, and to add to it all I forgot to consume my gels, which would have been a small help.

The Tourmalet is consistently steep and, I must say, rather tedious to climb. I mean the scenery is just gorgeous but when all I could see ahead was the road rising relentlessly like a heartless torturer indifferent to my suffering, I felt very alone. Determination gets you up and I couldn’t help feeling a bit frustrated at having this as my first climb of the week. On the other hand, at least the days should be easier from now.

One reason for us climbing this mountain today is that it was the official opening of the road for the summer, marked by the installation of the Geant du Tourmalet statue, so of course we had to have that as today’s challenge, didn’t we?

Classic proof pose with Geant du Tourmalet

Without doubt this was one of the hardest climbs I’ve attempted. I landed back at the hotel absolutely wrecked, with back-ache and mild dehydration. I’m not the greatest at fluid management but in this heat we were all struggling.

I was promised a much easier day to follow. This is when I will discover whether Rob is a psychopath or not.

How the Dreyfus Affair led to the Tour de France

This is the story of a footnote to two major events in French history – the Dreyfus Affair and the introduction of the world’s greatest bicycle race, the Tour de France, that briefly, and ever so slightly intersected in June of 1899.

The tone of the new third republic that was set following a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 was a focus on the rebuilding of national pride – Revanchism.

The newly invented bicycle quickly became a symbol of health, fitness and modernity, and a national obsession with cycling saw races taking place all over the country by the 1890s. The insatiable appetite for cycling meant an increase in the desire for news about the sport while manufacturers of cycles and components needed the media in which to advertise. Competing newspapers created races to promote themselves.

In many senses the third republic was progressive but that didn’t inhibit growing anti-anti-Semitism as Jews enjoyed a degree of emancipation and political and commercial influence, which fed the anti-Semitic international Jewish lobby trope.

Four years after Dreyfus’s original conviction based on concocted evidence, the affair rumbled on.  The real culprit, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, had been identified but was quickly cleared by a military court determined to hold tight to the army’s position and avoid humiliation. By the time Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse” article was published, the country was deeply split between those who were for and those who were against Dreyfus.

On 16th February 1899 French President Felix Faure suffered a brain haemorrhage while in the arms of his Jewish mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. His sudden death presented an opportunity for the Dreyfusards as Faure was succeeded by Emile Loubert, a left leaning senator from humble origins who was very much a friend of the underdog. He was popular enough with other members of the national assembly to easily beat his opponent for the presidency, but not universally popular across the riven nation; Loubert was seen as an enemy of the anti-Dreyfusards because he supported reviews of the trials of Dreyfus and Esterhazy.

On June 3, 1899 the Supreme Court overturned the original court-martial judgement against Dreyfus and ordered a retrial. Tensions were high when, the following day, Loubert accepted an invitation to watch horse-racing at the Auteuil Race course.

Unlike the Longchamp race course which was frequented by the lower classes, and therefore Loubet’s core support, Auteuil was the playground of the wealthy, monarchist, anti-republican and mainly anti-Dreyfusard. Loubert’s presence was seen as provocative and he was confronted by hordes outraged by the order for a retrial. The demonstration turned violent almost as soon as the President took his seat. Among those who were arrested following the fracas was the wealthy industrialist Jules Albert Compte de Dion.

The pugnacious de Dion had two passions – engineering and duelling.  At one point, his automobile company, De Dion Bouton, was the largest manufacturers of cars in the world.

Pierre Gifford, editor of Le Velo newspaper, criticized the demonstration, as did much of France, appalled at the humiliating treatment of the President by these uncouth aristocrats. 

Politically, Gifford was on the left and wrote scathing articles criticizing De Dion and other anti-Dreyfusards, all while many of them were important advertisers in his newspaper.  Gifford’s reporting of the demonstration incensed De Dion and others industrialist such as Eduard Michelin, a vigorous anti-Semite, and Gustave Clement.

The Le Velo newspaper which covered sport and politics, dominated the sports paper market, enabling it to command high advertising rates. It was also financially backed by the Darracq motor company – a rival automobile manufacturer to De Dion and Clement.

Giffard’s criticism following the Auteuil incident was the last straw.  The anti-Dreyfusard businessmen were already frustrated that Le Velo had a virtual monopoly and was controlled by one of their rivals. Dion and his allies decided to withdraw their advertising and to launch their own rival paper, L’Auto-Velo, under the editorship of Henri Desgrange, a man with significant experience in journalism and the world of cycling.

De Dion chose Desgrange to be his editor for his hard-headed, opinionated and autocratic style.  He left the running of the paper to Desgrange with a single instruction: to drive Le Velo out of business.

L’Auto-Velo was launched on October 16th, 1900 and was printed on yellow paper to distinguish it from the green of Le Velo, a decision that was to have lasting significance.

 

In November 1902, as the renamed L’Auto struggled with circulation at consistently around a quarter of that of Le Velo, Desgrange held a crisis meeting.  At this meeting a young reporter, Geo Lefevre, allegedly desperate to suggest something, spontaneously floated the idea of the Tour de France. 

Desgrange initially received the idea with skepticism but after consulting his finance manager, launched the race in January of 1903. To his surprise “Le Tour” was an immediate success for the paper with circulation rising from around 25,000 to 65,000 after the first edition of the race, spelling disaster for Le Velo which ceased publication in 1904. 

L’Auto went on to enjoy massive benefit on the back of the Tour de France, and, by the time of the 1923 tour, it was selling 500,000 copies a day during the race with a peak at over 850,000 during the 1933 tour.

Desgrange stayed in charge until his death in 1940 when it was taken over by a German consortium.  During the war period the paper was not unsympathetic to the Nazis allowing it to continue operating under the Vichy government, but after the war it was shut down along with all other pro-German publications. From the ashes of L’Auto emerged the now popular French sports paper, L’Equipe. 

A day at the races 16th December 2018

The UCI Track Cycling World Cup is a series of tournaments that rank just below the World Championships and Olympics, although you might have thought it was little more than a club outing to the local velodrome given how many unsold seats I saw.  The place was far from empty but I was surprised that, given the UK’s recent success in track cycling, the velodrome wasn’t a sell out for this final session.

Following a short delay caused by Brian arguing with a somewhat officious steward about why he couldn’t take his bag of nuts in if he promised not to open them, we entered the velodrome just in time to see 21 year-old Jack Carlin begin his pursuit of the sprint gold in his semi-final bout with Harrie Lavreysen.  Sadly he was to lose that contest after winning the first leg, and also the battle for the bronze against Lavreysen’s Dutch team-mate, Jeffrey Hoogland. Nonetheless, Carlin’s was a world class performance and he is surely a serious prospect for the future of British Cycling.

This disappointment that unfolded leg-by-leg through the afternoon was more than offset by spectacular racing including two of my favourite events.  First was the Elimination stage of the men’s omnium, won majestically by Italy’s Elia Viviani on his gold-painted bike. I don’t think there’s anything quite so bum-clenchingly thrilling in track cycling as watching the back markers squeeze their way over the line every two laps in their attempt not to be the hindmost rider who, as the name of the race makes clear, is eliminated from the contest until one rider is left as the victor.

Then came the women’s Madison contested on behalf of Team GB by Laura Kenny and Katie Archibald who dominated the race in magnificent style to win the gold medal.  I’ve been a big fan of Laura Kenny since first seeing her win an elimination race in her inimitable style by coming from behind each time to just poke past the next rival who must have thought they were safe until that very last moment when it was too late.

What I admire, perhaps more than anything about Kenny, is her unwavering commitment to winning. This was highlighted to me after the victory yesterday when she left BBC presenter Jill Douglas shooting the breeze with Archibald while she threw up in a trackside waste bin.  Kenny gave absolutely everything and it was a privilege to witness her evacuate her guts at the end of it all.

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Kaite Archbald patiently waits with Jill Douglas while team mate Laura Kenny, possibly, looks for her car-keys in the bin.

The final treat of the day was the last leg of the Men’s Omnium  – the points race:  100 laps of the track with points to be won every ten, and the additional bonus of twenty points for anyone who could lap the field.  Matt Walls entered the final stage in pole position after finishing second to Viviani in the elimination race, but his overall lead was quickly taken by Mexican Ignacio Prado Juarez who lapped the field. The rest of the race was a real ding-dong with a number of riders in contention for gold, but Walls prevailed with a superb performance in which he proved to have superior endurance over his rivals and finally winning the contest by a margin of 8 points. Viviani, having crashed, remounted on a new bike to finish third overall behind the Mexican.

A terrific afternoon’s sporting entertainment, and at this time of year sitting in a velodrome at just under 30 degrees celcius has got to be better than sitting out in the freezing cold watch your football team getting beat.

Here are a few more pictures.

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Women’s Madison

 

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Carlin and Hoogland in a track-standing show-down

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Men’s points race

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The good thing about a 100 lap event like the points race is a photographer gets plenty of opportunities to take arty pictures.

Commemorating the kindertransport day 6: Harwich to London

There’s footage and there are photos of the kinder stepping off the ships at Harwich and onto free British soil for the first time. I imagine the children would have felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation, not speaking English and not knowing where they would be going next. They were fostered by family all over the countries, siblings were often separated, some reported positive experience with the families that cared for them, others were not so happy.

I expect many of them were psychologically affected by the trauma of what they had seen and left behind, and this will have made them a challenge to look after. It must have been difficult for the families who took the kinder in to ensure that they felt safe and comfortable. Some of the children and teenagers were evacuated or relocated several times during the war adding to their sense of instability. Meanwhile representatives of the CBF (Central British Fund for German Jewry, now World Jewish Relief) kept in touch with all the kinder, reporting on their well-being and making recommendations for the improvement of their care.

Those feelings of trepidation were not present for me as I disembarked the ferry, only relief having eventually found my way after getting lost on the wrong staircase.

Before setting off we attended a small reception with the mayor of Harwich and one or two other local dignitaries. The town cryer shouted a welcome and good luck message, the mayor expressed the town’s pride at having been part of the kindertransport story, while Paul Alexander, one of our riders, spoke of how emotional and meaningful it was for him to be here again after 80 years.

After photos (for which the mayor asked to borrow my overtly pro-Europe cap) we set off for London, encouraged by a local trumpeter playing a fanfare / trad jazz mash-up. I have asked the leader of our Sunday morning cycling group to institute a similar arrangement.

It was now approximately 7.30am and our plan was to be at Liverpool Street Station by 4pm for a welcome reception. That gave us plenty of time to ride the 90 miles or so but there were tricky logistical considerations today as well as several miles of slow urban roads so we needed to get a move on.

Following yesterday’s “bonk day” for me and several others, mojos had returned and we flew along, which was a shame in one sense because I didn’t take the opportunity to truly appreciate the Essex countryside which provided, without question, the prettiest scenery of the entire journey. Narrow, high-hedged country lanes, woods, beautiful views and hills featured heavily. That’s right, it wasn’t flat, and other than one time saving stretch on a rather busy “A” road, we meandered our way from point to point between hedgerows to the outskirts of London, rather than ride in straight lines across windy, unprotected plains.

Orange Tree Hill, Romford.

On the other hand this was England, and so a hitherto hardly-used word entered our vocabulary of calls: “hole!” This, of course, accompanied by a hand dropped to the side in order to point out the unfilled death-trap crater in the road.

Also, in contrast to yesterday’s battle against the hurricane that was trying to blow us back to Berlin, this was the perfect sunny and warm day on which to finish our ride. It all felt very good.

The last gathering point was just by Aldgate station from where we were sent off in small groups for the final half a kilometre or so to the finish line at the station. For this part of the journey 92 year old kind, Harry Bibring, joined his son Michael and grandson Lee, both of whom had ridden from Germany, another three-generations crossing the finish line along with the Alexander family.

Harry, Michael and Lee Bibring

We were cheered in by friends, family, and several other kinder while curious commuters passed by our cordoned-off area at the third of the Frank Meisler bronze sculptures that had punctuated our journey. We remembered those who had perished in the holocaust, we celebrated those who survived thanks to the extraordinary initiative that our ride commemorated, and we thought of refugees around the world today in similar situations to European Jews of the 1930, who live so precariously between life and death.

Not every child of the kindertransport took the route we made. Trains went from various parts of Europe and indeed not all came to the UK by train at all. Some, like Sir Erich Reich, who, along with others spoke movingly at the ceremony, travelled by boat from Poland.

That gave me my idea for next year’s challenge: Gdynia to Harwich by canoe. Who’s in?

Thanks for reading these blog entries over the past few days. If you’d like to make a donation to World Jewish Relief for the humanitarian work it does here’s a link: https://www.worldjewishrelief.org/nickberlintolondon

And here’s the route graphic for the last stage: https://www.relive.cc/view/g21876562470

Epilogue

Like many cyclists, when I’m in a new place I think about the cycling possibilities, and having ridden point to point for charity in the past, Berlin to London sprung to mind when I visited for the first time in 2016.

I sat on the idea for a while to let it percolate, and in the subsequent weeks realised that the 80th anniversary of the the first kindertransport from Berlin to London was upcoming. Now the idea really appears to have legs, or wheels.

Nonetheless, I really only thought it would be a bunch of my cycling friends and maybe a few others quietly riding though Europe while raising a few quid for charity. My idea was very simple: we would set off on a Sunday morning and reach London by the following Friday afternoon, having followed the route of the railway as closely as was practical.

I took the idea to World Jewish Relief, the charity originally behind the kindertransport programme, and they liked it. I introduced them to the cycle tour guide company, Saddle Skedaddle, with whom I had previously travelled several times, and left it to the two organisations to work out the rest of it.

I had no idea that the idea would be so inspiring, bringing kinder and their descendants from far away to participate, gaining so much media attention, and attracting 42 riders who between them raised over £150,000 for the work WJR does today to help refugees and impoverished people around the world.

More important, perhaps, what began as a simple fundraiser became a way to education thousands of people about the kindertransport story and to remind people that we are currently living in worrying times with a European refugee crisis asking us the same questions as in 1938. Do we offer people safety and freedom, or do we abandon them to an unknown, but probably terrible, fate?

We finished the ride on the day when the American government was being severely criticised for separating children as young as babies from their parents and detaining them in caged areas. Dehumanising people in this way – treating them as if they are unworthy of the dignity that any person is entitled – is how genocides begin.  I’m not saying this is the path that America is on, but I am asking us, as is WJR through rides like ours, to be vigilant.

Never again.

I’m immensely proud of my part in this project but I’m not a completer-finisher and rely on other people to make things happen. Huge thanks are due to all the professionals from Saddle Skedaddle and WJR who made the Berlin to London ride a reality, to everyone who supported us before, during and after the ride by social media and at Friedrichstrasse Station, Harwich and at Liverpool Street Station, to our generous sponsors, and especially to the cyclists with whom it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to ride.

Commemorating the kindertransport: stage 5 – Arnhem to Hoek van Holland.

It’s the end of possibly the worst day of cycling I’ve ever endured. Around 140km into either a full-on headwind or a full-on crosswind, on a route that was mostly urban cycle paths. This is entirely my fault. We had a ferry to catch and the stipulation that the ride needed to start on a Sunday and end on a Friday afternoon meant that there was very little flexibility over logistics for our excellent tour guides from Saddle Skedaddle.

A rare section of today’s route that was actually worth photographing

There’s usually a day like today on these trips. A day when people just don’t want to get on their bikes in the morning. When the saddle sores are starting to really hurt as opposed to just hurt, and when you feel you have absolutely nothing left to give because all you have is tiredness in every part of the body.

But this is all sounding very negative and no matter how uninteresting the ride has been for large parts, the incredible stories I have heard from people, and their reasons for signing up to the ride, have blown me away.

Stories like that of Ian, who knew from childhood that almost all of his father’s family perished in the Holocaust but hadn’t been told that he was Jewish and only made this connection later in life. When, in 2016 Ian started to make further enquiries about Robert, his now long deceased father, he discovered amongst his belongings a school set-square with the address of an orphanage in Hamburg and a Star of David scratched into it.

Looking to learn more Ian contacted World Jewish Relief who furnished him with the full story of Robert and his brother, Brian, including pictures and several years of reports about the boys’ progress and health. Robert was on the very first kindertransport that arrived in the UK on December 2nd, 1938. He was 13 and his brother was 12.

And because of this Ian, along with Robert’s grandson, Tim, are riding with us this week to commemorate the 10,000 children who survived thanks to the kindertransport.

Accounts like that put headwinds into perspective, I’d say.

With Paul Alexander at Hoek van Holland, who was last here nearly 80 years ago as a 19 month old baby.