Olympic Torch

Now I’m fully aware of the controversy and issues surrounding the Olympics this year and the torch relay and I very much agree with most of them.  However this is another story that many who knock the games may not be aware of and that is the amazing dedication that countless thousands of primarily young people put into training into their chosen sport.

In Leeds for example if you go down to the John Charles Centre for Sport on any night of the week you will see the place packed with young swimmers, divers and athletes all putting in effort, training hard, learning new things, progressing and having a great time.  I’ve spent countless hours over the last few years watching this and have come to the conclusion that these young people are the complete antithesis of the general “oh young people today” mindset of some people and it is here that the papers should come if they want a reflection of young people today as this picture, which is no doubt replicated up and down the country, is a far more accurate reflection than is generally portrayed.

So for me it’s not the cost, sponsorship, ticket sales etc etc that I think of when I think of the games or the torch it’s these young people and the thousands like them that are simply putting in effort, having fun and doing the best they can which is symbolised by the torch.

Yesterday on the torch’s vast journey round Britain it passed about 20 yards from my house and I so I popped out with the kids to see it before school.  I must say the atmosphere was fantastic, there was a real community feel the like of which you don’t experience very often.  Staff from the local shops and factories came out, school children were there, residents young and old, the builders from the site nearby all packed a quite residential street on the outskirts of Leeds, chatting and having a good time.  It was simply good fun and we all need more of that I’d say.

My First Year of Cycling

Mark Cavendish wins the green jersey at the 2011 Tour de France. Photo credit: BBC

It started with a sweepstake.

Until last summer I’d never paid much attention to professional cycling. All I could have told you really was there’s a Tour de France, the leader wears a yellow jersey and it had been won several times by someone called Lance Armstrong. In fact, I knew about as much as Ned Boulting did when he started covering it for ITV (for more on that, see this earlier post). But last summer I took part in a sweepstake for the Tour de France, and having an investment in the outcome, I started to pay attention. I was hooked almost immediately. It wasn’t long before I was recording the 2-3 hour-long live programme while I was at work and the highlights show in the evening just wasn’t telling me enough. Some of the credit must go to the commentary team, who talk knowledgeably (or so it seems to me at least) and interestingly about what’s going on, as well as throwing in my favourite bits – the little snippets of history of the towns and regions they’re travelling through. But I was also caught up in the sheer scale of it all – the amazing feats of athleticism, endurance, dedication and ‘race craft’ of the riders, set against beautiful and, at times, ludicrous scenery. How on earth do they get up those mountains, or indeed down them without breaking their necks, at those speeds? And then do it all again the next day and the one after that? It’s all seriously impressive.

I like to think that I’ve been soaking up information like a sponge. I’m not an expert of course but I certainly know a lot more than I did this time last year; the terminology, the skills involved, some of the tactics. I’m getting to know the riders, so even if I don’t know all his strengths or what I’ve seen him in before, I at least know I’ve seen him somewhere, which is a start. The team sponsorship even works, sort of. I don’t see a Europcar rider and decide I need to hire a van from them, but see a Europcar van and I think of Thomas Voeckler holding off the competition for the yellow jersey for half the race. Or when I see an HTC advert, a company I’d never heard of before, I now remember the almost military precision of HTC-Highroad’s lead-out train for Mark Cavendish and think what a shame it was that the team was broken up for lack of a sponsor. But maybe we’ll see even better things from the Sky team instead.

I missed most of the Vuelta a Espana, but caught up with the Tour of Britain, a very different beast from the Tour de France. Relatively young in its current incarnation (returning in 2004) and obviously on a much smaller scale, it nevertheless attracts top teams and riders. And yet because it isn’t that well known to the Brits, it has a very different feel to it. In France, it’s obvious that the entire area around a stage shuts down for the day, whereas over here, it’s more a case of a queue forming at traffic lights as junctions are closed for a few minutes while the race goes by.

The pinnacle of 2011 was, of course, our very own Mark Cavendish winning the World Championship. What’s surprised me, given how recently I’ve come to the sport, is how much I’ve enjoyed seeing him wearing the Champion’s rainbow jersey this year. I can only imagine how he feels about it.

So, 2012. Another year brings another little competition for some friends as they follow the season – this time it’s a fantasy league (loser buys the drinks), featuring the big races of the year. This brings a whole new dimension to things and quite frankly it would be easier if I knew more about the world of cycling than I’ve managed to pick up so far. You select a new team for every race (there’s the option of making changes between the stages but we haven’t taken it), so a lot of thought (or guesswork) needs to go into which riders are most likely to do well on that course, and whether you can fit it into the budget allowed. Each rider has a different value and it’s not difficult to quickly find yourself over budget. I didn’t have a good start, mainly because I misread the instructions and limited my options. Things were a bit better at the Giro d’Italia, and I developed a taste for actually picking up points. With inspired selection, I then won the Criterium du Dauphine, with our very own Bradley Wiggins doing the business. The big challenge now is selecting a team for the Tour de France, which starts this week. Just how much information about riders, teams and tactics have I absorbed during my first year of cycling? We shall soon see. I really can’t wait to become absorbed in it once again. Roll on 30th June.

For the record, I won that sweepstake.

Merckx – Half Man, Half Bike

No matter what the field, science, art, literature, sport etc individuals come along that stand so head and shoulders above all that have come before or since they shine like the brightest of lights displaying an Icarus effect on all those who try to emulate them.  In the world of road cycling one man shone brightest of all – Eddy Merckx who between 1966 and 1976 was so good that the records he set will never be surpassed and his relentless desire for victory earned him the nickname of The Cannibal.  He must have been good as when I started to get interested in cycling I would profess to my dad my admiration for whoever was the top dog at the time which got the simple retort, “yes but he’s not as good as Merckx” which from an early age instilled in me an admiration for this seemingly mythical god of two wheels, so much so that one of my first objects of material desire was to own an orange Eddy Merckx bike.

In William Fotheringham’s fantastic study of Merckx he looks to find out what made him tick and drove him to such lengths to be the best and to earn him that moniker.  Who was the man behind the nickname and was he as fearsome off the bike as he clearly was on it?  I’m always interested in reading about astonishing individuals written by people who have a passion and knowledge of the subject they are writing about and this is absolutely the case with this book backed up with painstaking research into the main people, events, rivals and confidants in Merckx’s career.

For me what became clear was that Merckx is and was clearly a quite, anxious, and humble man and I’m reminded how often this is actually the case, warriors on the pitch are often quietly spoken off it, perhaps not needing that big personality as they have already shown the world what they are capable of and need no other outlet for their expression.

Merckx was born a Flandrian but moved at an early age to Brussells so spoke both French and Flemmish, although as Fotheringham explains he was not as comfortable in either of them as he was in his Bruxellois dialect, mostly French with some Flemmish mixed in.  These linguistic differences matter in Belgium to such an extent that it became a national issue there what language his wedding vows were in and when he met the King not what they said but what language they said it in.  I found the whole issue and explanation of Flandrian culture in the book really fascinating perhaps because of where I’m originally from as explained thus:

One parallel for Flanders’ place in cycling would be rugby and South Wales. In both sports and regions … a people who feel themselves exploited and outsmarted have come to use sport as a means of demanding recognition of their worth and separate identity

picture credit: velorunner

Merckx announced himself to the world as a 20 year old in 1966 by winning the classic Milan-San Remo one day race with less that a year’s professional racing behind him, a race he would go on to win a further 6 times in the next 10 years as part of his collection of over 30 Classics victories.  It is incredibly difficult to compare sportspeople from different eras as tactics, teamwork, sports science, training methods etc all make comparisons difficult but it is unlikely that we will ever see such a complete rider as this again.  He was not a pure sprinter but won sprint finishes, not a pure climber but won on the mountain tops making him the complete all rounder.  What really set him (and still sets him) apart was his remorseless desire to attack which he would do seemingly against all better judgement and in almost every circumstance imaginable.  His approach became clear when asked by a TV journalist after one attacking victory:

Did you have it in mind to go for the win today? His answer

Why do you ask me that ? Why do you think I’m here ? To watch the others win ?

For Merckx it was clear that he aimed to go for the win every time he raced.  This of course gave his rivals severe problems and effectively left them racing for second place.  His main early rival the Italian Gimondi was one of the youngest winners of the 3 Grand Tours as well as winning Paris Roubaix and Giro di Lomardia but was left helpless by the emergence of Merckx and between 1968 and 1972 did not win a single head to head confrontation in a major race which left him to reflect:

I had had a vertiginous rise and suddenly I had to be happy winning far less. I can’t say that I hated him.  It was tough.  I had trouble adapting to the problem he set me because all he wanted to do was win.  That was all.  I had to change my mindset.  There were a couple of years when it was very hard to get used to .  I had to begin again from nothing, take the initiative less in a race because when he was there it was hard to get a grip on things.

Cycling is a sport in which your ability to live with pain and suffering will to some extent differentiate between those who are successful and those who aren’t and Merckx was someone who could suffer more than most as Fotheringham painfully details throughout the book with several wince inducing examples.  His style as well was not one for the purists but was based on power:

He wobbles his shoulders, grapples with the bars, stands on the pedals, moves his hips like a madman…  He doesn’t fight like a stylist but like a thug.  It’s like the difference between a boxer sparring and a whirling Apache horde.

picture credit: velorunner

Yet despite this insatiable appetite for the battle and victory a clear sense of honour and the right way do do things comes across in the book.  In the 1971 tour Merckx was a long way behind his bitter rival at the time Ocana and was seemingly going to be beaten.  Ocana crashed severely and was out of the race effectively handing the victory to Merckx who felt that his win was devalued claiming he didn’t win it by fighting for it claiming he would “rather finish second than win in this way”.  A few years later while he was badly injured he refused to pull out so as to ensure that Bernard Thevenet’s victory could never be doubted.  Despite the bitter rivalry between the two they became good friends after finding themselves sat next to each other on a flight.  Ocana asks Merckx “are we going to glare at each other for all our lives” and they proceed to have a long drinking session together and after Ocana’s retirement it is Merckx who helps him find buyers for his business venture.

Like all the brightest of stars however they eventually burn themselves out and this is clearly what happened to Merckx who from the moment he turned pro and adopted an almost manical intensity to his training and racing schedule with one estimate that he trained for 15,000 miles a year, raced about 30,000 and travelled another 80,000 and did this consistently every year competing in 1,413 races between 1967-77.  With such a prodigious workload it is inevitable that as strong and tough as Merckx was it would take it’s toll.  I found the last few years of his career sympathetically and heartfelt in their description but also painful to read of this great man stepping down from the temples of the gods and becoming mortal.  Even at the end though it was carried out with dignity, he could have carried on for 5 years picking up paycheques for appearance fees but that was clearly not his style, he had to be the best and when he could no longer be that then he no longer wanted to compete.

This book is a truly fascinating read, not just for cycling fans, but for all those fascinated by those who burn brightest and in winning over 400 races including the hour record, world championships, one day classics and grand tours Merckx shone the brightest of them all.  What marks the book though is not simply the record of these achievements but the look into the man himself and what made him The Cannibal.  In doing so Fotheringham has produced a gem that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Picture: by Ricardo Guasco

What are the odds ?

I love cricket, it’s strange customs and beguiling rhythms and the fact that it appears to be almost completely anachronistic to the world that we now live in that demands instantaneous reaction and scorns contemplation and reflection.  I cannot imagine that a game that can last 5 days and produce no result at the end of it could ever be invented now and for that I love it all the more.  Living in Leeds means that I have one of crickets’ iconic grounds on my doorstep – Headingley, which despite some recent modernisation is, to be honest a pretty ramshackle affair when compared to other modern stadia but again holds a certain charm.  This means that I get to watch international matches which for me is where the main attraction lies.  Of course this now requires almost militaryesque planning to get a ticket, months and months in advance the fixtures worked out, date in the diary when tickets go on sale, seating plans checked for optimum preference etc.  The downside of all this is that they aren’t many international days cricket played at the ground so you don’t want to miss them when they happen.

3 years ago the West Indies were scheduled to play a 1 day international here in mid May, which when it was announced had the local sages scratching their chins knowing that a match in May carries a risk of a weather interruption or two.  We were informed that all would be well as fantastic new drainage systems had been installed.  Unfortunately they had not had time to bed in as the torrential rain that took place in the morning led to the farcical afternoon with the sun blazing down but no play due to a waterlogged pitch.

Today the West Indies were back in town.  Now I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the West Indies greats over the years but have not seen Chris Gayle in full flow so was really looking forward to him keeping the crowd on their toes with some lusty blows.  The weather forecast was not great but with tickets bought months ago, I along with thousands of others took the day off work and headed to the ground.  It’s not May but the middle of June but I don’t think the rain abated for a second and after a few hours stoically waiting and hoping the match was called off.  Now I’m no statistician but I would love someone to calculate the odds on two games against the same opposition separated by 3 years both being called off by rain.

Still you’ve got to look on the bright side, it was great people watching, from the ever more elaborate fancy dress outfits that seem de rigueur for many at matches these days (my favourite being the Jack Sparrows), the Steel Band getting people wiggling, the British stoicism of sitting under your umbrella watching rain, friends young and old meeting and chatting and laughing.  So yes I wish that I’d seen some play but you make your own fun and I still had a great day out.  Oh yes and I’ve got tickets for the South Africa test in July so can we have a nice warm sunny day please.  Cheers.

 

The Genius of Danny MacAskill

 

If you open your eyes as you wander round wherever you live then there is a fair chance you have seen young guns on slightly strange looking bikes (often without saddles) attempting to jump off and onto walls and other street furniture.  They are taking their cues from one man – Danny MacAskill a seemingly nice unassuming bloke from the Isle of Sky who used to work in a bike shop in Edinburgh by day and rode every other second he had.  Thing is he didn’t just ride, he became an internet sensation after being filmed doing some of his amazing street trials and a pro contract and global fame followed.  There’s stacks of footage out there of him riding but I particularly like this short film of him riding in various locations from Edinburgh back to his home on Skye.  For me it’s not just the jaw dropping skills on offer it’s the style as well, there is a balletic grace and fluidity to his movements that is breathtaking.  I also love the way that everyday objects – phone boxes, walls, railings, pipes, seats etc become something different from their intended purpose as Danny sculpts his environment into his ultimate playground.

 

 

 

Incredible long exposure shots from space

NASA astronaut, Don Pettit took these stunning long exposure photographs from the orbit of the ISS during Expedition 31. The images were created by combining 18 separate long-exposure photographs of star trails and city trails from the International Space Station.

Pettit explains: “My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do: I take multiple 30-second exposures, then ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.”

They are beautiful.