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Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: On Cyclists’ Psychology & Stage 4 Cambrai – Reims

July 8, 2010

With a workaday route for stage four, and no major upsets, it seems now is a good idea to offer some brief, and scientific reflections on cyclists’ psychology before the mountain stages, which I presume will offer a whole new avenue of inquiry on the crazy ways which the pros think. Broadly speaking, cyclists are crazy. Or at least, they have a mindset that leaves them utterly outside of normality. Other endurance sports just don’t compare to a Grand Tour. Up and down mountains, over one hundred miles a day, every day, for weeks. This doesn’t exist anywhere in sport; it doesn’t exist anywhere outside of sport. And it must hurt. It must have you want to cry. Why do it then?

I won’t even try to offer an answer for this question because nothing definitive presents itself. Of course, the sense of achievement at simply finishing must be a motivating factor for some, especially since so many cyclists are not racing to win. But for every amicable trier, you get a character like Mark Cavendish. Bent on winning the green jersey, the sense of achievement at finishing the whole Tour doesn’t seem such a major attraction for him; there was suggestion yesterday that he may drop out if his abysmal points score doesn’t improve; yet he enters endurance races like le Tour rather than just track cycling or shorter events. If the achievement of endurance isn’t a motivating factor for him, why bother?

Mark Cavendish attacking Petacchi after losing the Stage 4 sprint (artist's impression)

What seems to remain true of all these cyclists though is a disconnect with the real world which allows them to finish stages. They seem practically impervious to pain, finishing stages with fractures, looking like they might be entering shock and then jumping on teammates bikes, bleeding and cycling, never stopping. I would even speculate that this comes with a hallucinatory separation from the real world, as is manifested by the seemingly genuine belief in conspiracy theories that exists amongst the field: that bikes are being fitted with miniature engines, that the race organisers are out to hurt them as much as possible and so on. Witness too the complete lack of social skills that most of these guys seem to have. Yes this can be attributed to their exhaustion, but does not this hallucinatory nature come from exhaustion too? Does the multitude of locales in such a short time make everything seem less real, more real, neither? Does the presentation of huge fluffy teddy bears by two beautiful women and a group of men in ill-fitting tie-less suits make riders feel like they have any more a realistic grip on reality? Do cyclists even notice the surroundings that I have waxed lyrical about? Do they ever go insane?

These questions will perhaps play themselves out in the mountains, for Stage Four was a little dull. No big crashes, no terror of the cobbles, and a deeply unsatisfying sprint finish. I missed the highlights so I only saw the action of about the last 70km. Even the countryside, though pretty, was a little boring; the most interesting thing I learnt today was that people in the north-east of France just can’t get enough of carp fishing, though Reims Cathedral was, of course, majestic.

Reims Cathedral

The main interest for me then, lay in the breakaway group that led for the most of the stage. There seems to have been no real mention of them in the press coverage of the stage, and so I’m afraid I’m unable to give their names. The amount of time the peloton took to reel them in defied all the commentators expectations and as they hit the series of roundabouts in the last 5km, I wondered whether they wouldn’t just manage to retain their lead, especially if there had been a crash amongst the lead pursuers.
The relatively prosaic nature of this stage also afforded an excellent view of team tactics in the run-up to the sprint, with elbows out, teams jostling for position and this balletic movement across the road as groups separated and converged organically. The movement of cyclists in le Tour can probably be calculated with the golden ratio. Then Alessandro Petacchi  won. Sometimes the run-up to the sprint is more interesting than the sprint itself.

Would you have tried to console Cavendish after he failed?
Will Cavendish’s anger improve his performance?
Should the wearer of le maillot jaune be crowned like French royalty in Rheims cathedral?
What’s more boring – facts about the Dutch countryside or facts about carp fishing?

The Guardian’s write-up of Stage Four

Next time: Stage Five Epernay – Montargis. By the looks of things, a tiring stage, though there should be plenty of fascinating Francophile information as le Tour hits Champagne country.

Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Watching Live & Stage 3 Wanze – Arenberg-Porte du Hainaut

July 7, 2010

Sinner that I am, I expected live cycling to be boring, like motor racing only slower. Sure, the highlights would be good, capturing those moments of drama that derive from the human failings of mind and muscle, rather than the dull mechanical tinkering for the prize of split seconds that Formula 1 consists of. But live? Endless pedaling, gritted teeth, inclines so interminable it feels more like trying to bike to the next village in the Yorkshire Dales than watching the pros glide effortlessly uphill like the world’s been turned on its head. Of course I was wrong.

You still need a good book, or a magazine, or a laptop to fiddle with. There are boring bits, endless advertisement breaks, dodgy shots of nothing in particular (just how do men on the back of motorbikes manage to wield cameras so effectively?). But watching live allows you to experience more directly everything that is weird, but somehow strangely obvious, about an endurance event like Le Tour, and often these flashes of the surreal are the sort of things that get edited out of the highlights in favour of the high excitement of a sprint finish or a huge pile-up. The race doctor leaning out of a car window cleaning up the face of a bleeding cyclist, the inexplicable absurdity of the motorcade weaving in and out of the race, the shifting of the peloton as tactics change. No doubt this is all run of the mill to the seasoned viewer but to the newcomer it is charming.

And more: the French graphics on screen, proudly imposing francophone pictures onto the rest of the world in one of the few chances France has to insist on its cultural superiority on the global stage. The French words used being simple enough to provide no real problems, but still amusing in its insistence of calling the lead rider ‘Tete de la cours” rather than providing his name, giving the trailing time of the “groupe poursuivant”, seeming to conduct any press business in French and leaving the English commentators to provide rudimentary translations.

Watching live allows the extra fascination of seeing what goes on outside the race too. Odd glimpses of little villages, aerial views into peoples back gardens, tracksides lined with whole settlements and tourists who would never have thought of visiting except for le Tour and now immersed in some backwater, sharing what exactly with who? Just cycling?

Best of all, the shots of chateaux and little villages, churches and 19th century boulevards, canal locks and lazy rivers, their names in French on the bottom of the screen, the commentators giving facts about them which they awkwardly try to link to the action: “Fine Louis XV woodwork – not exactly what Lance Armstrong needs right now”, “The hometown of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot but the field is not nearly as complex as one of her mysteries”, or even (I imagine though le Tour does not hit Normandie this year), “I’m not sure Schleck camembert it any longer”. I said that the francophone pictures are all about France asserting its cultural superiority, but the whole nature of le Tour is not simply about cycling; it’s about being shown a carnival and pageant of French life which is impossibly more picturesque and fascinating that anything else on summer television, and all as a backdrop to the truly glamorous sport of cycling (which will itself be the subject of a later column).

Chest beating like the Norse God he is.

It is the cycling that remains to be spoken of, however, and Stage Three certainly didn’t disappoint. From Wanze to Arenberg-Porte du Hainault, the chief attraction was, of course, the cobbles. The rain didn’t materialise but they still looked truly fearsome to ride over. Often the view was entirely obscured by dust and most riders finished the day looking like they’d been working down a mine. On top of this, the roads were often barely five feet wide, surrounded by baying crowds, and with huge gaps down the middle, waiting to swallow a front wheel like a hungry road monster.

Frank Schleck became the first major casualty of the race, flying off the cobbles into a ditch before being surrounded by fussy Belgians. I wouldn’t like to speculate what part of his ordeal was the worst. My sympathy lay mostly though with Chavanel who, despite his significant lead, lost le maillot jaune as he entered his home country after a series of punctures. He just didn’t seem to have it in him after yesterday’s effort to catch up with the pursuing group, unlike Armstong’s frankly superhuman effort to catch back up with the field.

Thor Husovd’s chest beating provided one of the best TV moments of the day, pulling a face like the god from which he takes his name. But the real drama came not on the cobbles themselves, but in the run-up to the cobbles, where the sense of panic amongst the peloton is truly palpable. The jockeying for positions seemed nothing short of terrified, such is the fear that the cobblestones seem to instil in even hardened professional cyclists. I couldn’t understand why this fear manifested itself in needing to be at the front of the field. Surely, thought I, if you’re likely to fall off, you want to be nearer the back where everybody hurtling along behind you won’t squash you. No doubt I would have continued to be confused if I’d only watched the highlights, but I realised that going along the cobbles means no overtaking, and it’s so slow and unpredictable that the peloton breaks up into a string. If you’re at the back, you just end up further and further back. And then it all clicked why the cobbles might decide le Tour. Still, Geraint Thomas might even catch Cancellara’s lead of 23 seconds today if he gets going along what should be a short and very fast stage.

What is your favourite pun involving an aspect of cycling and French culture?

Have you ever seen something you shouldn’t in an aerial view of a Belgian’s back garden?

Can Geraint Thomas wear le maillot jaune before the mountain stages?

Have you ever cycled over cobbles?

The Guardian rounds up the day’s action

Next time:

An interested layman psychoanalyses professional cyclists and Stage Four, the first stage run exclusively in REAL FRANCE, Cambrai – Reims.

And a quick recommendation of The armchair sports fan who is providing far more articulate and informed opinion on le Tour than me, as well as offering some interesting comments on these very pages.

I can be followed on Twitter @Svejky

Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Recognising Cyclists & Stage 2 Brussels – Spa

July 6, 2010

All cyclists look the same. Yet, to enjoy le Tour more than I am already, I feel I need to start learning who the big names are, who is going to be good when, who has made a surprise move, who causes upsets, who is likely to win. Sure, I’ve heard of Lance Armstrong, apparently he had cancer or something and made an amazing comeback?! But as for the rest of them, well they’re just a heterogeneous mass.

There’s two basic camera views on ITV4’s coverage of le Tour: straight on at a groupe from the back of a motorbike, or the peloton from above. Neither of them makes for easy identification of individuals. From the front, we see nothing but white men with ripped hamstrings, skinny arms, sunglasses, unshaven faces and impressive bulges augmented with padding, that shan’t be dwelt on any longer but cannot be ignored. And from the sky, backs down like a shoal of fish, a multitude of faceless colours and out of focus brand names, shifting as though psychically linked to the contours of the road and expectations of good cyclemanship. Like fish, their individuality doesn’t touch the impact of the totality.

Still, after Stage Two, certain characters begin to emerge. How could Chavanel be ignored, riding three minutes from the peloton, a grin spread all over his face even as he races up the final ascent, buck toothed, plucky and from the excitement of the commentators, truly remarkable? Cavendish, Britain’s great hope from the Isle of Man, terrifyingly taciturn, constantly looking shell shocked into the middle distance as he’s interviewed in his strange accent, blamed for crashes, potentially violent. Cancellara, exacting a princely control over the rest of the field in le maillot jaune as he prevents them sprinting over the line as the peloton glides steadily down a Spa boulevard. Schleck, jumping on a team mate’s bicycle despite seeming to be in shock after a nasty crash on a slick corner.

I began to realise though that individuals aren’t particularly important at this stage of the competition. Instead it seems to be about the team’s ability to support each other and not lose too many members too early. This sense of it being an endurance event rather than a competition really came to a head at the finish in Spa when the peloton crossed the line together rather than take advantage of crashes to sprint to the finish. I can’t say I fully understood Cancellara’s decision and the commentators were suggesting that there would be some dissent about it, but it help me to recognise that le Tour is something far more than a competitive race. It’s a spectacle of endurance that just needs to be sat back and enjoyed for that: the personalities will emerge as events unfold.

The scenery of the stage was, in itself, worth tuning in for. Roads winding through little villages with tumbledown farm buildings, the elegant streets of Spa, rolling hills and wooded valleys. I can understand why people follow le Tour just to drive through this same countryside, regardless of the split seconds in which the cyclists whiz past. It was not without its human drama though. The big crash of the stage occurred as a damp corner where both of the Schleck brothers were felled. Andy Schleck seemed in considerable pain and shock, though was off again with remarkable rapidity, his face a mask of suffering for the rest of the stage, the sort of suffering a Renaissance artist would pay good money to paint.

Chavanel’s breakout showed real verve but despite the treacherous conditions and assents, he seemed the picture of enjoyment as he cruised over the finish.  It was difficult to tell whether he was high on adrenaline at his first achievement of the yellow jersey or whether he’s just as fresh as a daisy. I’ll be keeping an eye on him to see if he continues to show that sort of stamina, though a lead of a minute and a half will apparently keep him at the head of the generale classement for a few days yet.

It was the peloton’s finish that most interested this novice, with a seemingly pointless protest lead by a headteacherly Cancellara even though the peloton had slowed earlier to allow stragglers to catch up. Apparently this was in reaction to the danger of the roads. The South African Robbie Hunter has been reported as saying, “no Grand Tour has any business in these northern countries and fuck anybody who says different. See how much you guys like hitting the deck at 60kph.” Exactly what is wrong with the Netherlands and Belgium is something of a mystery to me, since last time I checked, dangerous roads and the occasional wet day exist pretty much anywhere during the summer. I hope the organisers continue to plot the course outside of France, because it makes me smile, the idea that for three weeks of the summer France lays some sort of territorial claim to swathes of western Europe.

Would you have protested if you’d been in the peloton?

Will the protest have lasting ramifications?

Do you agree with Robbie Hunter?

Why are there so few ethnic minority cyclists?

Is your cyclist’s bulge as impressive as these guys?

The Guardian’s round-up of Stage Two’s action

Next time:

Stage Three Wanze – Arenberg-Porte de Hainaut, the cyclists ride of the cobbles and I have a go at watching the coverage live.

Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Introduction & Stage 1 Rotterdam – Brussels

July 4, 2010

I never thought I’d find myself watching ITV4. Hell, I try to avoid normal ITV as much as I can. Just the other day we were sat in the pub and I said to Kunlun, “You know, even though ITV4 is having that really excellent looking Clint Eastwood season soon, I’ll never watch it.”

“But Ingram,” outraged, “Le Tour is being shown exclusively on ITV4.”

“Le Tour?” I’m always a sucker for a come-on in French, even if it is from my hulking partner in crime.

“Le tour de france. It’s what all the cool kids are watching. To the French, it eclipses le foot like a dragon swallowing a primordial sun god. And it’s on ITV4 for the next three weeks.”

“All the kool kids,” I exclaimed, inserting the K myself, “I’d better start getting interested in it then. It always seemed like a slower, and therefore more boring version of motor racing to me. Does it have a witch house soundtrack?”

“I’m not sure. But if you’re lucky you might manage to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in between all that cycling action.”

Mr & Mrs Lance Armstrong

And here I am. One day of hard watching and hooked already. I’ve spent the last 24 hours getting my bearings in the weird and wonderful world of cycling. And it certainly is weird. Here are some ways in which it is weird:

-You don’t seem to win by winning.

-There seems to be several ways of winning.

-Most of the competitors don’t have any intention of trying to win.

-All the competitors seem to have vaguely psychotic tendencies.

And most fascinatingly of all, in a world where sport is big business but people remain obsessed with ‘keeping it real’.

-Nobody pretends it’s about anything other than money.

This I find particularly fascinating. I’ve read various ‘guides for beginners’ for us Tour de France virgins, and all of them are quite, quite clear that a common tactic is for a cyclist who has no chance of making a real impact on the outcome of the race, to go on some crazy sprint or something, just to get camera time for his sponsors. I feel like this should disgust me, but it is a key part of what has got me hooked so quickly. After all, the World Cup is the biggest business event on the planet, and yet FIFA pretends it’s exists for no other reason than to bring joy and long-term prosperity to the whole African continent, a fiction which ranges between deluded and sinister depending on how generous you’re feeling.

Dog incidents are numerous in the illustrious history of le Tour. This should bring a tear of nostalgia to the committed fan's eye.

Le Tour de France on the other hand seems to be nothing but an unabashed money making exercise with a little bit of glory for one or two elite cyclists, who wouldn’t be able to compete without big business anyway. Of course, it’s not that I’m a fan of big corporations, but there is something slightly charming and quintessentially Gallic about a bunch of telecommunication firms and tyre companies trying to get exposure through an expensive sport that hardly anybody outside of France watches. If anybody can explain to me why I think of tyres and telecommunications as being particularly appealing to the French, by the way, please get in touch.

As well as learning a little on the economics of the sport, I also learned some useful terms to help me make sense of what’s going on. Apologies for the lists, there will be fewer of them in coming weeks.

-The peloton is the pack of cyclists. They arrange themselves in various charming formations depending on headwinds, number of testosterone and anabolic steroid injections making them feel all alpha male, whose sponsor is giving them most grief etc.

-Les domestiques are the members of the team who ain’t trying to win. They ferry tasty snacks and drinks to the lead riders, and are probably their bitches on and off the course.

-Classement generale is the standings in the main competition. Who is doing best in the race as a whole.

-Maillot a pois/maillot vert/maillot jaune are the (polka dot, green and yellow) jerseys given to the leaders in the king of the mountains, time trial and classement generale competitions respectively. Le maillot vert looks the best, whilst a pois is faintly ridiculous and jaune is a horrible colour.

Armed with this useful knowledge I settled down to watch the highlights. Today’s stage was from Rotterdam and Brussels, which seemed a pretty long way but it didn’t seem to faze any of these guys too much. I hope to expand on cyclists cracked mental states later in the week so look out for that one!

I was expecting to become hooked because of the crashes, and these certainly didn’t disappoint. There was a dog on the track! There was someone dragging someone else’s bike along! There was a dam-like pile up made by velo-beavers somewhere near the end which meant that everybody’s time was the same as the winner because they were all prevented from finishing near the finish properly. Which begs the question – why doesn’t some sore loser deliberately crash near the end everyday?

But crashes weren’t all there was to it! A feeling of electricity, or at least a vague sense of smug recognition oozed through me as a I identified some of the tactics I’d seen on the Guardian’s little animated guide. I still can’t tell the teams apart and I have no idea who is going to win, but I felt the pleasing sense of superiority possessed by somebody who thinks that they understand a sport.

And as for the landscapes! Giant atoms, giant dykes, giant roads. I could watch it all just for the landscapes. And the dogs on the tracks. And the feeling cool. Kunlun was right, this sport is awesome.

Do are you watching le tour?

Do you understand cycling?

Who is going to win?

Is there any aspect of cycling I should be writing about?

Tomorrow:

-An attempt at a Stage 2 (Brussels – Spa) report, though I will link to a proper report each day and mostly keep all this for discussion on getting your head around the awesome sport of cycling.

-How to recognise different cyclists, and who are the competitors?

Useful links:

The Guardian’s interactive guide for the Tour de France where anything remotely factual that appears here will be stole from

All the action from stage one. In articulate word form

A Cult of the Ageless

December 1, 2009

I was drinking coffee in town yesterday and looked up from my book to see a woman stride across the room to a free table. She was wearing a closely fitting woolly hat, which made her look like a flapper going on an arctic expedition, but with long, slightly scruffy Pre-Raphaelite hair emerging from beneath; she was wearing a floor-length fur coat. Her face with slightly grey, certainly colourless, and there were bags beneath her eyes; her face was lined,  with shallow but definite tracks running from the creases of her mouth, and she was wearing little makeup. Her age was impossible to place. She could have been anywhere between fourteen and sixty: timeless clothes, tired face, but sparkling, sparkling eyes. Age is contained within the eyes and if they do not agree with the face, one is deeply disquieted.

Soon after she sat down and her friend, definitely about twenty-two, arrived from the counter with steaming coffee. Our ageless heroine burst into bitter tears (probably because she was in Caffe Nero…). I averted my eyes but began to think:

The ageless state is a state of perfection. Consider the alternatives: Mortality, but we all, at some level, fear death or dying. Yet, immortality is terrifying, who would truly want to live forever? Who would even want to remain perpetually young? But to encapsulate both youth and experience simultaneously, if only for a fleeting instant, must be one of the true zeniths of human desire. To simply live forever would mean a ceaseless decline into deeper and deeper decrepitude, to remain young forever would mean to never accrue experience of humanity, to be forever childlike in perspective. Truly then, the most beatific state would be to encapsulate both experience and youth simultaneously, to forever shift and shimmer in a perpetual play of ancient and fresh; to see the truth of experience and the wonderment of the child.

With this in mind, I propose a Cult of the Ageless. No plastic surgery, giving up smoking, or childish giggling for us, for we want even the lines of age, but yet we must forever keep our eyes wide and sparkling, never give up infatuations, charm, obsession, even if experience tells us otherwise. Agelessness then is a strange, paradoxical interplay of physicality and sensibility, or the ‘superficial’ and the ‘intellectual’ if you insist on denigrating the importance of appearance in our conception of the world. The young must age themselves in looks, and yet retain the playfulness of the frolicking lamb, whilst the aged must open their eyes wide to the world and offset (not hide) wrinkled skin with the sartorial elegance of the discerning youth. Of course, few, if any of us will ever truly reach this sort of agelessness, and if we do, it may be in fleeting expressions that dissolve to nothingness or through times in our lives when we care about our self-projection least. Most often, agelessness is attained not by actors, but by the characters they play, with fakery and play in temperament, clothing and appearance at their disposal and so I present some icons (and I invite additions to this list):

Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan

Heath Ledger/Colin Farrell/Jude Law/Johnny Depp Nexus in 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

Tilda Swinton

What does the Cult of the Ageless offer us then? A model of beauty which is based not on youth, but on some strange, indefinable combination of youth and experience; An attainable state to aspire to that will perpetually preserve us, as the ancients preserved their writing in weathered stone or even wax; A sense of appreciation of the dislocations and disquiet that make life so fascinating, for this is a sort of mysticism for our times: a worshipping of the inexplicable, the sometimes even scary, the god-like fascination we are faced with when a face in a crowd shifts our knowledge of what we can and cannot say for definite, the god-like ability of a human to seem extra-human and to encapsulate everything we both will be and want to be and are afraid to be, as an anonymous face on a wet winter afternoon.

Please bear in mind these are preliminary thoughts and I will endeavour to develop the Cult of the Ageless over the next few weeks. I’d appreciate any thoughts anybody has on this.

By Irkutsk Station, I’ll Sit Down and Grin

November 6, 2009

My friend once took the train from Moscow to Beijing. She passed the southern tip of Lake Baikal. She said it went on forever. That’s because Lake Baikal is really big; really, really big; a third bigger than Wales, in fact. I’m going to take the train there myself, in spring next year.

Maybe there will be the final patches of last year’s snow, like hanging shelves of ice in a badly defrosted freezer, crystallised and crumbling. I’ll take binoculars and scan the impossible expanse of sky-grey glass looking for the only species of fresh-water seal in the world. I’ll be momentarily captivated by the steam and smoke from the paper mills, spewing out toxic sludge for endless paperbacks and government documents, so the too-clear water encapsulates curling mists of chemical smoke which move with the moon and the wind across that chilly blue. I’ll drink so much vodka I’ll go blind, but I’ll have no hangover the next morning. Mark my words for it.

What else will I find those lonesome depths, three miles deep, close enough to run in twenty minutes, too far to ever be seen again? Perhaps I’ll find a monster, a giant sturgeon, and slit it open, giant caviar gleaming like pearly-black snooker ball treasure. Or perhaps some giant pinniped, a monstrous seal that sometimes roams the land on its fin-feet, barking, gnashing, gobbling up cattle and raping women to create who knows what monstrous kelpies that roam the depths.

Here is some chick buying some fish from Lake Baikal. I can only presume she's so uncool that she's made a 270 degree turn and accidentally become cool again. Or has fashion got over the Urals now? LOLZ

I suspect though, my visit will be more prosaic. In some seedy bar I’ll play chess with some old man and he’ll tell me about the old days, through the mediation of my friend, speaking broken Russia and sipping on a rough local beer. I’ll find wonders of my own though: the wonder of looking out over a fifth of the world’s fresh water, of some folk dress in a provincial museum, of geese in flight in the Siberian sky, of vodka that wakes you up fresh and clear headed in the morning.