It’s fair to say that, for once the “Beast from the East” actually lived up the hype and was extremely disruptive, with freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall from the Tuesday night, right through to Sunday evening.
[NB: just because doom-laden prophecies about dire weather from the Daily Heil, Daily Suppressed and their ilk were actually correct for once, doesn’t lend them any credibility, or excuse the 1,001 prior occasions when they’ve tried to whip up utter hysteria and shameful scaremongering on any number of topics. These publications remain utter trash.]
The resolute, club stalwarts still turned up for the Saturday club run, with everyone taking to mountain-bikes and going on an off-road for a grand adventure, though sadly without me. I figured a 25 mile or so schlep, by mountain bike, on dodgy roads, just to get me to the meeting point and back again, was probably a little too ambitious. So I stayed home and got some alternative exercise digging Mrs. SLJ’s car out of its snowdrift.
(My own car still remains entombed in its chilling cocoon of snow and ice and it’s being left to thaw out naturally. I’m in no rush.)
G-Dawg described the Saturday club run as the most fun he’s had on a bike in ages and I can understand why – I still managed my usual Wednesday-Thursday-Friday commute en vélo through the worst of the weather and, rather perversely, thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Some lessons learned and random observations:
The road conditions seemed to improve with every ride, so first thing Wednesday morning saw the worst conditions (and most fun) but by Friday evening my journey had became a fairly standard, if cold commute, with only one or two sketchy, skatey stretches.
I wore an old pair of overshoes on top of my winter boots, expecting to be passed by lots of cars dumping ice-cold slush onto my feet. As it was on Wednesday morning I was travelling at least as fast as most of the sparse traffic on the roads and only recall two cars actually overtaking me. My feet never felt cold enough to benefit from the additional layer and the snow wasn’t wet enough to “slush me up” – so I’m still not sure how effective my extreme measures would have been.
The conditions on Wednesday encouraged me not to clip in, so I could quickly dab my feet down in an emergency. The Wellgo flat pedals on my mountain bike, with an SPD clip on one side proved very handy for this.
When I did decide I could risk clipping in, I then found either the pedals or my shoes encased in solid blocks of ice and it proved impossible.
Although perhaps safer, I remembered how much I HATE riding and not being clipped-in. By the time I was heading home on Wednesday I was only unclipping when I hit one or two difficult stretches.
I should have worn a cap. I arrived at work on Wednesday morning with a solid block of ice wedged firmly between my helmet and specs … and a ferociously chilled forehead. Likewise, I had icy-cornrows in my hair caused by the accumulation of snow in my helmet vents.
The few people who actually made it into work were amazed I cycled in and opinion was split between those who thought I was certifiably mad and those who thought I was some kind of dare-devil. In reality, apart from it being hugely enjoyable, I actually felt safer than I would have been in a car, more in control, more aware of my surroundings and with more options if I wanted to bale and walk. I think travelling by car would have been much more difficult and uncertain.
I was especially happy I could get off and take to the pavement on the bank leading down to the Swing Bridge, when I encountered a massive articulated lorry that blew through a red light on the wrong side of the road. (I suppose that technically speaking, because he was on the wrong side of the road, the light wasn’t actually against him.)
Cycling on pristine, white and unblemished snow is fine. Cycling on heavily churned up, grey, dirty and heavily trafficked snow is fine. Somewhere between the two, when the snow varies between slick, heavy and compacted and just a little cut up, is like riding through sand. It takes a bit of concentration, involves a lot of sliding, wheel spinning and fishtailing and is hard work. I soon came to especially dislike this faintly beige snow.
I altered my route to follow some more trafficked, treated bus routes and tried a few alternative roads. Doing this, I occasionally encountered unanticipated traffic speed bumps.
Unanticipated traffic speed bumps hiding under deep snow can take you by surprise and come as a bit of a shock!
When people abandon their cars in the snow, they do so in the dumbest of places; on a blind corner of a long downhill, at the entrance to a busy junction, facing the wrong way on a one-way street and occasionally, slap bang in the middle of the road.
I don’t know what the cycle track over the Millennium Bridge is surfaced with and I expected the worst, but it was always snow and ice free and grippy. I found myself sharing it with more than the usual number of walkers who’d abandoned the slippery, snowbound pedestrian side.
Anyway, enough rambling … so long the Beast from the East, it was fun while it lasted and you had the good grace not to hang around too long. Hopefully things will have returned back to normal in time for next Saturday’s club run. We’ll see.
YTD Totals: 1,195 km / 743 miles with 13,977 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 89 km / 55 miles with 885 metres of climbing
Ride Time:3 hours 55 minutes
Average Speed:22.7 km/h
Group size:12 riders, 1 FNG
Weather in a word or two:Cold
Saturday brought a temperature that was about as low as you could get without the guarantee of encountering huge swathes of ice, lurking on every untreated and shaded surface. It was certainly cold enough to persuade many of my fellow riders that the roads would be too dangerous and the only sensible recourse was the turbo or gym.
I decided that, with a little prudent riding, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem, especially if we stayed on treated roads, at least until things warmed up a little (and a positively tropical 6°C was promised by mid-morning!)
It was definitely a day for wrapping up well though, an additional pair of socks, warmest merino base-layer and lobster-mitts to supplement tights, winter jacket and gilet. My hands got a little sweaty at one point, but for once I think I just about chose right.
I picked my way slowly down the Hill, hands constantly on the brakes to kill my speed, trying to stay as upright as possible around the corners and pick a straight line between all the manhole covers. There was a rime of ice in the gutters and banks of leaves, furred and bleached white by the frost, were spread across the pavements like cold ashes.
Dropping down toward the river, my new digital checkpoint on the side of a factory unit, flashed up brightly to inform me it was 8:11 and 2°C and it felt even colder with the wind chill.
The approach to the crossing was crowded with cars, there was a loud burble of voices from either side, accompanied by much clanking and clattering from the riverbanks and swarms of pedestrians were shuffling over the bridge. It looked like being a busy day for the Tyne Rowing Club.
I later learned I was in the midst of preparations for the Rutherford Head of the River Regatta, involving 278 crews and boats from all over the country. The event was still going strong when I returned the same way 5 or so hours later, the surface of the river dotted with boats, both upstream and down.
Reading up on the event, I especially liked the organisers stern warning: CREWS WITH INSUFFICIENT WARM CLOTHING MAY BE REFUSED PERMISSION TO BOAT. Given the prevailing conditions, I’m not sure what sufficient warm clothing would have looked like, or how they could have got it all in those skinny little boats.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I was pleased to see that G-Dawg had followed through on his promise to pack his brand new, fancy-dan, Sidi kicks up until Spring and had resorted to shoes he didn’t feel obliged to display and could cover with overshoes. I suppose his toes were pleased by the decision too.
Talk of overshoes lead to discussions about the knee-high, neoprene Spatz (spatzwear.com) overshoes that ex-pro, Tom Barras had developed, that looked like some kind of fetish wear. A snip and a bargain too at only, err £80 – which is more than I paid for my winter-boots. I did wonder if they came with a free gimp mask. There’s always one though – and the Cow Ranger declared he thought they looked ultra-cool and he wanted a pair.
OGL had lifted a pair of Giordana bibtights with wind proof panels from his own shop, much to Mrs. OGL’s chagrin (I think she grips onto the purse strings with a cold fury.) He declared they were exceptionally good, if anyone wanted to buy a pair.
“Yes” I suggested, “Especially now they’ve been broken-in for you.”
(Oops, apparently he didn’t mean the exact pair he was wearing.)
Carlton arrived, declaring himself just that little bit nervous about the ice, but talked himself into believing it was just “first ride nerves” and once he became acclimated to riding once again in frozen conditions he’d be good.
Plans to follow the posted route were abandoned, G-Dawg proposing a rough route, principally down major (well, by Northumberland standards) roads and more directly to the cafe, from where we could take an extended route home if conditions improved.
A fine, dirty-dozen then, in all our windproof, waterproof, winter warming, hermetically sealed, thermally insulated, impermeable but breathable, high-viz, cold weather, protective gear, of wildly variable effectiveness, pushed off, clipped in and rode out. Bugger, but it was cold.
I found myself riding alongside the Garrulous Kid, who passed the time talking at me as we rolled merrily along. It largely went in one ear and out the other, so I can (perhaps mercifully) recall only snippets about Dundee University, perhaps a mention of football here and there, Dennis Wise, Stranger Things, Ant & Dec, foul-mouthed teachers, the worthlessness of history and how the Garrulous Kid could be drafted by the Armed Forces of Uh-merca in the event of a global conflict. C’mon Trump, you can do it…
We stopped for a pee near the now abandoned Tranwell Airfield and (still) extensive bunker system and received a potted history lesson from OGL, which no doubt the Garrulous Kid deemed worthless.
We learned the airfield had been developed during the Second Big One (WW2) and, according to OGL, had been the joint home to an anti-aircraft training battery and a squadron of the Polish air force. This, he concluded, was why there was so many families of Polish descent now living in Morpeth.
The Colossus wasn’t the only one who sensed the potential flaw in the plan of having trainee, trigger-happy ack-ack gunners sharing the same air space as foreign pilots, whose native tongue wasn’t English.
“I hope the gunners never got that good,” he remarked dryly.
History lesson complete, off we rolled again, although for the sake of accuracy I have to report that while Tranwell Airfield was used for anti-aircraft training, it housed a French and not a Polish squadron throughout the war. Where the Polish population of Morpeth comes into the picture is anyone’s guess.
We had swung around and were heading straight to the cafe now, realising we were going to be there much earlier than usual and pausing only briefly to check it would actually be open.
At some point, up ahead, Two Trousers slipped, or slid, touched wheels, or shied from a pothole, I’m not sure what happened exactly, but as a result he started careening across the road, narrowly missing the Colossus, who took evasive action, swerved, spun to a stop and, contorting his entire body, calmly unclipped and just stepped smartly off his now prone bike. I don’t think I could explain it any better, even if I could watch it a hundred times in slow motion.
The Colossus ended up stood facing the wrong way, one leg over, one leg through his frame, looking down on his bike, befuddled and wondering how it got there. Meanwhile, Two Trousers carved deep furrows across someone’s pristine grass verge as he swooped up, off the road and toward a waist high fence.
I felt for sure he was destined to explode through the woodwork in a crash of flying splinters, or the bike would just stop dead and flip him over the top, but somehow he wrangled back control and slowed enough to merely smack the fence with a meaty thud, bounce off and topple slowly earthward.
Our unlucky pair stood up, dusted themselves down and determined there was, by great good fortune, no real damage. Two Trousers bashed his handlebars straight again and onward we rolled.
There was a general quickening as we approached the cafe, but no full-blooded sprint today, although I did chuckle when G-Dawg and the Colossus took up primary positions on the front, where they could keep an eye on everyone else, while warily eye-balling each other.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
One benefit of arriving early at the cafe was it was unusually quiet and we were able to dive straight into the queue and grab a seat beside the fire. One major downside however, was that G-Dawg and the Colossus had to forego their traditional ham and egg pie, which was still in the oven and wouldn’t be available for a good time yet. They had to go with the alternative, corned beef option, which apparently is still good … just not as good.
Cowin’ Bovril flashed a newly acquired, 100 trillion dollar bill and for one, brief moment I thought he was going to stand us a round of coffees. I didn’t realise we were in such exalted company and we were being accompanied by an actual trillionaire, although I assume if I ever time-travelled back to Zimbabwe, where his note was legal tender, I could rub shoulders with 16,684,615 more of them – and find Cowin’ Bovril’s note would barely buy a single cup of coffee, let alone a full round.
We found out the Colossus was coveting a new mountain-bike where, with one touch of a handlebar button, he could not only adjust the seat height, but actually change the bike’s geometry.
I suggested this was the kind of thing I’d only ever seen from Professor Pat Pending’s Convert-a-Car in The Wacky Races.
The Colossus acknowledged the connection and declared all he would need to complete the picture was some hairy, Neanderthal cave-man to ride along behind, trying to bash him repeatedly over the head with a club. I looked pointedly at G-Dawg, possibly the prototype for the original Slag Brothers, but luckily he was pre-occupied fielding inane questions from the Garrulous Kid.
It was then the turn of the Colossus to answer the Garrulous Kids quick-fire questions, which tended to tumble out, one after the other and leaving no space for an actual reply:
“When you were at university, did you play pranks on your flatmates?”
“Were they all Scottish?”
Did you go to the lectures?”
“Did you enjoy the lectures?”
“Were the lectures, like, in a classroom?”
And then, a final zinger …
“Why is Newcastle full of Malaysian students?”
I cracked at the last and had to withdraw from further communication for a while. Luckily I was saved by a discussion about Shane Sutton amusingly colourful description of Bradley Wiggins during a rough period as “flapping like a dunny door in a gale.” This then led to talk of Wiggins’ attempt to secure a place in the British Rowing team for the next Olympics.
In his favour, OGL stated Wiggins knew how to train and prepare to a specific goal, had a great engine and long levers and was capable of changing his body shape, seemingly at will. He also cited the precedent (albeit the other way around) of Rebecca Romero leaving rowing to become a successful cyclist.
The only major negative we could find was his age, but as G-Dawg argued, it hadn’t been a hindrance to Steve Redgrave, you just needed to pick a crew young and talented enough to carry you across the line. (Sorry Steve, only joking).
The Garrulous Kid was having none of it, declaring Bradley Wiggins would be a “rubbish rower” because he only had twig like arms and no upper body strength. We tried to explain that rowing was as much about the legs and lungs and core as arm strength and that the seats in the boats actually slid backwards and forwards so you drove them with your legs.
This seemed too complex a concept to grasp and the Garrulous Kid flatly refused to believe that leg strength was, in anyway, necessary to row fast, or even that the seats moved in a boat.
The Colossus asked if he’d ever been on a rowing machine in the gym.
”Did the seat slide back and forwards?”
What was it called again?”
“A rowing machine…”
”But that doesn’t move … a boat moves on the water!”
I couldn’t quite grasp why this was such a difficult concept for the Garrulous Kid to wrap his head around, so tried to counter his objections in simple terms.
“So, if you’re in a plane travelling at 700 miles an hour and drop a pen, does it just fall straight back down, or fly backwards?”
Luckily as a physics student, the Garrulous Kid was able to correctly identify and apply Newton’s first law of physics. Although I’m not sure if it helped him understand the mechanics of a rowing boat any better, we had great fun imagining the mayhem caused in airplanes if this law didn’t apply and any dropped object would shoot backwards with the velocity of subsonic munitions.
The cafe remained resolutely empty apart from itinerant bands of frozen cyclists, popping in for a brief respite and chance to defrost. I suspected it was going to be a quiet day business-wise and began tormenting G-Dawg with the thought they’d never sell all the ham and egg pie now and maybe, just maybe, they’d let him adopt it and take it home.
It was still early when we left, pie-less, but it had warmed up a few degrees, so all but the Garrulous Kid took a longer route back. The first few mile were hard and into a particularly chilly headwind that seemed to spring out of nowhere, but afterwards it was plain sailing. After looping round Darras Hall, I was within striking distance of my usual route back and struck out for home on my own.
Soon home, ice avoided, cold conquered and ride complete, it turned out to be not such a bad day, after all.
YTD Totals: 6,962 km / 4,326 miles with 79,909 metres of climbing
The last time Astana had an Italian champion in their ranks, a certain Vincenzo Nibali, they made a right pigs ear of his jersey and were rightly criticised for a horribly muted, understated, almost disrespectful design that did nothing to celebrate their riders outstanding achievement.
Great to see that this time they’ve done Fabio Aru proud with his stunning jersey that he showed off to great effect with a hugely impressive attack on La Planche des Belles Filles to take victory on Stage 5 of the Tour de France – an attack that was fittingly reminiscent of how he actually won the national title.
National champions jerseys are some of the most iconic in cycling and the wearer should be instantly recognisable. The Italian one is right up there with the Belgian and French ones in terms of class and style and deserves to be seen in its full glory.
The 15th Stage of the Giro from Valdengo to Bergamo, featured a select group of the top GC riders in a flat out, straight-up, drag-race sprint for glory and the win.
Quick-Step’s Bob Jungels finally prevailed, powering to the line just ahead of the surprisingly fast, quickly closing, pint-sized Nairo Quintana. In claiming a surprise second place Quintana handily beat “heavyweight contenders” such as Vincenzo Nibali, Thibaut Pinot, Bauke Mollema, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk.
This for me then raises some serious questions: If Jungels had been beaten in a sprint by Quintana, would he ever have been allowed back onto the Quick-Step bus? Would his career have recovered from such a disgrace? Surely this Giro’s peerless sprinter, Fernando Gaviria could legitimately have refused to share a room with such a loser?
And, just how much do the other GC riders owe Jungels for actually pulling off the win and deflecting attention from the fact they all had their backsides whupped in a sprint by the feather-weight climber from Columbia?
Sitting in the café and discussing cycling heroes, Crazy Legs said his all-time favourite sprinter was the Tashkent Terror himself, one Djamolidine Abdoujaparov. While I’m sure a lot of the appeal had to do with Abdou’s blazing speed, his ferocious, erratic and kamikaze bike handling and spectacular crashes, I couldn’t help thinking that his name probably played a part too.
Would Djamolidine Abdoujaprov have been quite so popular had he been simply Igor Petrov?
Djamolidine Abdoujaparov. DJAH-MOLLA-DEEN AB-DOO-JAP-AROFF. You could tell just by the way Crazy Legs savoured each and every syllable and let the name roll off his tongue that he found the sound pleasing. He was even more delighted when Richard of Flanders asked what was his full name was again and he had one more excuse to deeply intone:
“Abdoujaparov, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov”
Oh, come on, admit it, it’s so much better than stale, old clichéd: Bond, James Bond
We then had a chat about the rather more unfortunate Bauke Mollema – who we agreed also had a great name, but for all the wrong reasons. In Scotland and throughout the North East to bowk has an unpleasant meaning and association – defined by Urban Dictionary as – bowk:To puke, hurl, or chunder, especially after excessive intake of alcohol, curry, chocolate cake or all three.
So, Puker Mollema then. Oh dear.
This set me to thinking how much of my own, initial allure to cycling’s was tied into the exotic, unusual sounding names of the riders of the day, Joop Zoetemelk, Giovanni Battaglin, Francesco Moser …
And we can’t of course forget Lucien Van Impe – literally Lucien from the village of Impe, a small and otherwise boring and unremarkable town in East Flanders. This sounded not only exotic to me, but also seemed especially fitting for the mercurial, puckish grimpeur who would “bedevil” some of his great rivals in the mountains during Grand Tours.
The fact that writers could craft Sun-style, headline-worthy puns to match, was just an added bonus – the most memorable from the era being, of course: Van Impudence.
While the foreign and exotic sounding names of the continental riders had an attraction for cycling waifs and strays on Tyneside, we also used to wonder what the continental fans would make of our seemingly mundane, Anglicised monickers.
For example, the local hero around this time was Joe Waugh – multiple National Hill Climb Champion, winner of the Mountains Classification and 2nd overall in the Milk Race, two time Olympian and a National Time-Trial Champion to boot.
Toshi San and I would often amuse ourselves trying to imagine the conniptions his name might give to Eastern Bloc announcers when he lined up to start in the Peace Race:
“Lay-dees and jentleman, from Great Britaniya … Jowee Waah-ooghah!”
We could perhaps forgive those in continental Europe struggling with the pronunciation of Waugh, but what about the rest of the English speaking world?
As a native of the North East, Joe Waugh was, fiercely and rightly, Joe Woff to us, not Joe Worr as the softy southerners would have it. Still it wasn’t until I started trying to figure out Australian Batsmen Steve Waugh’s nickname that I realised something was truly amiss. Tugga? Tugga Woff? What’s all that about then?
At this point I realised most of the rest of the world were simply incapable of properly pronouncing the name Waugh.
Still, even though perhaps we should have known better, we held the BBC to higher standards. It was unforgiveable then when Joe had a very brief 30 seconds of fame and was interviewed by regular Grandstand sports presenter Frank Bough.
Confusingly, Frank Bough’s name was always, religiously pronounced as Boff, which was kind of ridiculous in its own right and sets him right up there with Puker Bauke Mollema in my mind
(Again, from the Urban Dictionary – boff:A term to describe quick sexual intercourse which includes the man not taking off his pants and a lot of dry humping.)
To have him refer to Joe as Joe Worr then, was, to us youngsters back in Tyneside an insult and an outrage and we were all willing Joe to answer, “Well, Mr Bore, the race was…”
Sadly, Joe was far too much of a gentleman to correct Mr. Bore. Or, maybe he accepted his name being mangled in this way as preferable to being known as Jowee Waa-ooghah?
Even today the tradition continues and there are riders that have an extra cachet simply because their name sounds interesting, weird, exotic or strangely melodious, for example I give you:
You’ll note I don’t include Tejay Van Garderen in this, although he has a suitably Flemish “hard-man” surname … but Tejay? T.J.? Really?
Anyway, I was reminded of my delight in unusual names during Stage 7 of the Giro, from Castroviillari to Alberobello. The highlight of the stage? An early break which featured both Giuseppe Fonzi and Simone Ponsi.
Fonzi and Ponsi working seamlessly together. It made my day. Well, to be fair it was an otherwise uneventful stage.
When we left Mr.T – who is also known as the Man with the Van and the Plan (well … sort of) – he had already invested far too much time and expectation into his dream of owning a vintage Citroën H van. The fact it had confirmed links to the Tour de France was simply the cherry on top of the icing on the cake. In anticipation of a successful van purchase he’d even even started wearing a beret and attempting (unsuccessfully) to cultivate both a pencil moustache and an air of insouciant indifference.
Then he’d had his dreams cruelly shattered by an American who plaintively didn’t understand the basic tenants of the Anglo-US “special relationship.”
As we pick up the story, the Damn Yankee, Stretch Armstrong has just outbid our plucky Brit and the dream is in danger of dying …
That Damn Yankee, Stretch Armstrong evidently had far more money than sense and a reach that might just have exceeded his capabilities. To be fair though, he had managed to extend his long, rubber arms out across a very large Pond and snatch away an historic H van right from under our noses. A van that lay so tantalising close, it was almost taunting me and sitting virtually on our doorstep.
Perhaps I should have left it there, resigned to my plucky, loser Brit role? Still I messaged the BMX Bandit to say that should the sale fall through, for whatever reason … well, you know…
And it did!
The fleaBay ad had clearly stated collection only and for Stretch over in the US of A that seemed … well … a stretch. Now he was pestering the BMX Bandit for shipping costs.
“Uh-uh… no … no way” was my polite interpretation of Bandit’s slightly more salty retort, which, even across 2,000 miles and entirely different cultural barriers seemed a quite emphatic response and one that was decidedly not open to interpretation or negotiation.
So the van was ours?
Well no, not quite.
Even though we’d been in constant contact with the Bandit throughout this, he only went and relisted it on fleaBay!
After a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing, effing and jeffing, cajoling and coercion, he finally agreed to end the listing early.
Yes! The van was ours.
But now, after many months of the van providing both exotic garden ornamentation and weed suppression, the Bandit and his Moll wanted it shifted. Like yesterday.
Bolleaux! As the French might say.
An emergency call out to the Club Facebook group for vehicle moving solutions rejected the idea of harnessing two score or more riders to tow ropes, for a more credible response from Dragster, who had a mate, Zander, who just so happened to have a recovery truck.
Bike commute day had rolled round again but was shelved for a lunchtime appointment with the BMX Bandit which meant I’d have to take the car instead. (Just the latest in a very long line of pitiful excuses: SLJ)
Zander, replete with his girlfriend (eh?) “in tow” was already on station when I arrived and sizing up the job. Things were tight. Zander had to pull up on the drive of the neighbour opposite, close enough so he was almost touching the brickwork and his winch controls inadvertently interfered with their electrics, flipping their TV channel over and setting the washing machine off on a spin cycle.
Finally though, winch and ramps did their thing and the van was hauled inch by inch up onto his truck. Good job it wasn’t a busy street as we made a great, if slightly exotic road block.
With the van on the back of the truck and Herman vee Dub’s postcode tapped into his Sat Nav, Zander and his girl set sail. As I watched van and truck disappear out of sight I idly mused about Zander’s companion and what possible reasons she had for tagging along on a routine pick up. Perhaps she was just a van fan, or perhaps they were going to make a day of it. Maybe have a picnic en route? The weather was good and Herman’s place was suitably rural and buccolic.
Some hours later in the office and still waiting for confirmation of safe van delivery, I was beginning to put even more credence in my picnic supposition. Surely it wasn’t that far to Herman’s?
A sense of foreboding was starting to build. What if the van had come loose? Would it be on the local news? An impromptu road block in a country lane. How damaging would it be to Anglo-French détente? Would I be liable? And, just how quickly could I round up two score or more riders with tow ropes to perform an unlikely rescue mission?
And then a text came through. It was from Herman and simply said “The eagle has landed.”
Panic over. Or perhaps picnic over. One of the two. Either way, our Historic H was now in safe hands.
So, spotted, bid for, lost, foreign bidder seen off, re-listed, negotiated, bought and transported in just over a week. That was one hell of a ride.
But what now? Well MGL hadn’t yet seen the eagle that we’d landed, so a road trip to Herman’s was in order. We were off to York that weekend and Herman’s place wasn’t that big a diversion … honest.
Arriving at Herman’s lock up, the French van stood out proudly against its German cousins, seeming to curl its lip in disdain at its muscular, Teutonic company. After some introductions (all communication had been by text or phone up until that point) MGL and I inspected our van.
I think MGL was beginning to wonder what exactly it was we’d “won” – Bandit had started and then stopped a camper conversion on the van that hadn’t gone that far – just some half finished bench seats and shelving above the windows.
Other than that the van was just bits and pieces – engine cover, cab seats and petrol tank cover all detached and lying round, as if we’d bought a random pile of bits from a scrap yard and they’d thrown in an old, rusted and useless van carcass just to store the bits in.
Up until now Herman and his crew had only seen the van on fleaBay. Having inspected it in the flesh so to speak, they declared the job a “good un”. That was reassuring at least. The H van would stay in the yard until there was space in the workshop and then work could commence.
At least Bandit had made the van water tight through the ingenious use of a pint glass, the perspex front of a washing machine door and copious amounts of silicone. Even with my less than expert eye I recognised that these weren’t original features, although I don’t know what it was that gave the game away- perhaps the fact that the glass was in Imperial measures, or maybe it was the word Zanussi stencilled on the washing-machine door.
We had a quick chat with Herman and impressed on him the three golden rules he needed to understand:
We were working on a very tight budget
We had a tight budget, and
The budget for the project was extremely tight.
We thought we had an understanding and the basis for a good relationship. Time would tell.
The first task was for the van to be stripped back and then for it to be bead blasted so we could see what work really needed to be done. By the time this was complete we’d need to have an idea of how we wanted to proceed with Historic H and we still only had half a plan.
After taking some more photos we bade Herman a hearty “auf wiedersehen, pet” and continued on to York. When we got back we’d need to firm up our plans and find the money to support them. Good job nothing was going to happen straight away as we had a pre-booked holiday which was looming in 3 short weeks.
So, no pressure then, what could possibly go wrong?
To be continued …
Spare 2 minutes and help Mr.T shape the future of his van by completing thisshort surveyhe’d be very grateful.
As threatened, my work colleague Mr. T has kindly agreed to chronicle his pursuit of something estimable, novel and worthwhile – the restoration of Citroën H van back from a wreck to full working glory.
The ultimate plan is to not only enjoy this unique piece of motoring and cycling history, but to have it grace cycling events, or serve as a support vehicle for riders and racers. In this role it will bring a note of the exotic – unique and redolent with associations to the Tour de France of the 1970’s and legends such as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Thévenet, Freddy Maertens and Bernard Hinault.
Seemingly inspired by the inane ramblings of Sur La Jante, or possibly just to show how easy good blogging actually is, Mr. T has agreed to file episodic, irregular reports outlining the pursuit of his dreams and his experiences wrestling with his own inner demons, dwindling bank balance, better judgement and the vicissitudes of dealing with the Great British Craftsman™.
So, without further adieu (as an old boss of mine is fond of misquoting) here is his tale.
[PS: I can’t decide yet if this is a salutary warning to those with grand ambitions, or a tale of heroic fortitude, perseverance and inspiration. Perhaps, once we know the (still unwritten) ending, it will all become much clearer.] SLJ 09/04/2017.
The Man with the Van and the Plan (well … sort of)
A Guest Blog presented by Mr. T
My ride: (according to my fallible memory and rather poorly kept diary)
Total distance: Not sure, but I know we’re not there yet
Ride time: 1 year, 9 months, 4 days and 8 hours and counting
Average Speed: 0 km/h. Unless you count how quick my bank balance has shrunk
Group size: 7
Temperature: Temperate. So far.
Weather in a word or two: Turbulent – but with a bright outlook?
It started as most stories do on this sorry excuse for a blog, on a random morning one weekend. It wasn’t planned. It was completely spontaneous. You know, David Hockney once suggested you have to plan to be spontaneous. Well, sorry David, but your wrong … and you’ve never been more wrong.
So anyway, there I was, a Saturday or Sunday morning, relaxed, sipping a fine coffee and fully enrapt in Cycling Weekly and only very occasionally wondering where my club run was heading today and what I might be missing.
MGL (My Glorious Leader or My Good Lady – she who must be obeyed, or Mrs. T if you like) was quietly passing the time in companionable silence, flicking through fleaBay, apparently just for want of something better to do.
“There’s a van here, the type you like. It’s in Newcastle.”
Fully engrossed in an article about the rolling resistance associated with different tyre widths, I gave a Mr Delaney-type, distracted response, “Huh?”
MGL continued: “It says here it was used in the Tour de France”.
And that’s how this ride started…
fleaBay did indeed show a Citroën H van dating from 1973 and the copy did claim links to the Tour de France. After discussion with MGL about the benefits (I know … seriously?) owning such a van might bestow and what we might do with it, I was given permission to contact the vendor and organise a viewing.
The vendor, the BMX Bandit, gave the all clear and so I arranged to pop round one day after work. It was a cycle commute day, so it not only added a few welcome miles to my (paltry, by all accounts: SLJ) Strava totals, but seemed appropriate too.
Somewhat fittingly, given its poor overall state of health, the van was parked up in the BMX Bandits front garden within sight of the local hospital. It looked strangely alien and out of place next to the neighbours fine collection of eclectic garden ornaments, but the BMX Bandit had an almost identical H van that showed what could be achieved.
Look, I say the vans were almost identical, but only in the same way those before and after pictures in women’s magazines claim to show the same person. One was beautifully and painstakingly restored, taxed and tested, white and gleaming and in full working order.
The other … well, the other, the van I’d come to see, looked like it needed a heart op or maybe even a full transplant. So, noting the need for what I euphemistically deemed some “engine work” I had a look around, not that I knew what I was looking for, but I took plenty of photos anyway to share with MGL on my return to base.
This van definitely need some TLC and I’m useless at mechanicals as anyone in the bike club will tell you. So if we were going to take this on then it wouldn’t be me. Aha! What about Enzo? Our friend Enzo had rebuilt an historic Italian small car for us. He might fancy a challenge.
Before any excitement with fleaBay, a quick call to Enzo was required. The response was a little disappointing, “Merde!”said Enzo, “I don’t do French …”
“But … I know a man who might.”
It transpired that Enzo, the man who did Italian, but didn’t do French, knew a man, Herman Vee-Dubs, who did German and might do French. This maybe has to be one of the great unwritten benefits of closer European integration!
I left it with Enzo to put a call into Herman, who “normally did German but might do French” – if only for the novelty of attempting something different. Enzo knew we had a time limit and the clock was ticking.
Good news came through while I was out for an evening leg spin with Toposan. Herman, it seemed was was up for the challenge.
But, later that week we were outbid on fleaBay.
By an American.
To be continued...
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I’m not alone within our club in wanting to continue to ride throughout the year, and some of our best and most enjoyable club runs take place against the typical backdrop of winter in the sometimes inhospitable far North East of England – in other words freezing cold, soaking wet and impossibly windy.
There’s something about being out with a smaller, select group of foolhardy mates and battling everything Mother Nature has to throw at you. In one sense, the worse the weather is, the more challenging the ride becomes and the greater the sense of personal achievement. On top of this the difference in form and fitness between those who ride and those who hibernate until the Spring is always quite marked.
Oh and as an added benefit, the queues in the café are generally much, much shorter in winter too.
Winter rides actually give us some of the best the weather has to offer, crisp, clear winter days under sparkling blue skies. There is of course also a fair share of rain, drizzle, sleet, hail and snow, gales and gusts of wind, frost and deadly ice and filthy-dirty, hacky-mucky, muddy-clarty road surfaces, liberally dotted with craters, crevasses, splits and fissures, pools, puddles, swamps and lagoons of freezing cold rainwater.
There’s lots of websites offering tips on winter riding, although I don’t think any of them have ever changed what I do, so I guess a lot of what they purport to teach you is just common sense and a bit of a waste of time.
Anyway, no one ever accused me of originality, so for what it’s worth here’s my one one-hundred-and-twentieth of a pound and hopefully, 1 or 2 tips that actually make it beyond the: “Yeah, so what, tell me something new” filter.
Dress the Part
Make sure your extremities are well covered – feet, fingers and ears are the bits of me that suffer the worst, so they’re the bits I pay most attention to.
Invest in a good pair of socks. Apparently the trick here is not to pile on so many layers that you have to squeeze your feet into your shoes, restricting blood flow and actually making things worse.
My own personal favourites are Prendas Thermolite socks, which I’d heartily recommend, even if I always think Thermolite sounds like some kind of extremely dangerous and volatile explosive.
Thermolite fibres, I’m continually being told, mimic “polar bear fur” and you’ve never seen a polar bear shiver have you? That’s because they wear Thermolite socks their fur is hollow and provides excellent insulation – and so apparently are Thermolite fibres.
Of course socks actually made of polar bear fur would ultimately be the best, but good luck trying to shear one of those suckers. (Now there’s a challenge for Rapha, and something that might actually justify their elitist pricing policies).
I’ve tried other Thermolite socks (Agu do a relatively cheap pair via Planet X) but haven’t found any that are near as good, but your mileage may vary. The best thing about the Prendas ones are that they retain their warmth even when wet through – something that seemed to be a worrying trend last year as we saw extensive flooding and forged through some impressively deep puddles.
In extremis, a thin pair of over-socks, or Belgian booties worn over your shoes, but under neoprene, waterproof shoe covers can provide an additional bit of insulation. It’s even a simple enough task to make your own Belgian booties from an old pair of socks, just remember to cut a hole in the bottom to accommodate your cleats!
It has the benefit of giving you something else to do with old socks, once you’ve had your fill of sock puppets and if you’re wearing them under overshoes, Auntie Vera will never know her hideous, unwelcome Christmas gifts have been cruelly desecrated to fuel your cycling obsession.
Up top, I find wearing a hat under my helmet a little too warm, so wear a headband that covers my ears, but leaves the rest of my head uncovered for ventilation. Of course I’ll admit the drawback is it makes me look like sad disco diva from the 80’s (I’ll admit I can be a bit of a diva, but disco? Never!) Still, I feel it’s a small price to pay for toasty ears.
In heavy rain, a cycling cap worn under the helmet also works well, the peak will divert a lot of the road spray out of your eyes and it can also be useful to combat a low winter sun.
I have various different weights of glove depending on the temperature outside. Mightiest of all are some “Mr. Krabs” lobster mitts that look utterly ridiculous, but are the warmest I’ve found yet and, again keep their insulating properties even when completely waterlogged.
For less extreme days I choose the gloves to suit, often paired with a thin pair of silk glove liners that can be worn for added warmth, or quickly pulled off and tucked away in a back pocket. The glove liners were only a couple of quid on eBay and well worth the price. They were however dispatched from China seemingly by an over-worked, under-nourished, asthmatic carrier pigeon, so are probably best ordered before July if you want to wear them through the winter months.
A few club-mates have taken to carrying a spare pair of gloves so they can swap them out if the originals get soaked through. This certainly beats the singed-wool and wet-dog smell of gloves steaming on the fireplace at the café, or the utter horror and impossibility of trying to pull cold, wet gloves back on after they’ve been abandoned in a sodden, muddy heap on the floor.
A buff or tube scarf is another useful, inexpensive article – (I’ve seen it referred to as a neck gaiter in some quarters – please don’t use this term I always read it as goitre and it makes me feel very queasy.) Anyway, this is supremely practical to plug the gap between collar and neck, or it can be worn as a head covering, or pulled up to cover your chin, mouth, nose or lower face (if you’re feeling particularly bad ass and gangsta).
It’s also supremely useful just to wipe sweat, dirt and accumulated crud from your face, hands, specs, or even your bike.
In direct contravention of Velominati Rule # 34, I use MTB pedals and shoes on my winter bike. The recessed cleat gives you at least a fighting chance if you need to push or carry your bike over any distance.
For example, just last year we had to clamber over walls and trek through the thick undergrowth of a wood when a felled tree blocked the road and a ride which ended in a snowstorm saw me pushing the bike uphill on the pavement as the only way to avoid the cars sliding sideways down the road toward me. Both these incidents would have been infinitely more difficult to cope with in my road shoes with their big plastic cleats and super-stiff soles.
Of course there’s a bit more expense involved if you need to buy both MTB shoes and road shoes, but decent MTB shoes are relatively cheap, last forever and save you destroying your best, carbon-soled racing slippers by riding them throughout the winter.
A few riders in our club use dedicated, waterproof winter boots rather than overshoes. This also might seem like an expensive option, until you consider the fact that overshoes tend not to last much beyond a year and are in almost constant need of replacing. I would imagine the investment in a dedicated pair of winter boots would not only keep your feet warmer and drier, but pay for themselves in the long run. Hopefully I’ll soon find out, I’ve added a pair to my Christmas list.
Of course, if any water does get in to these boots, it tends to stay there, which is what happened to Crazy Legs on one of the more extreme, rain-swept Wooler Wheel sportive rides. He eventually had to stop to take his boots off and pour out all the accumulated water, which I guess was a better option than a developing a severe case of trench foot.
I also use a range of good base layers of varying thickness and insulating properties and have even been known to wear two at a time. For the extreme cold a thick merino version has yet to be bettered.
My go to winter jacket is my Galibier Mistral, which is at least water-resistant if not downright waterproof. If it’s looking like a lot of rain, I usually put a waterproof over the top of this jacket. I’ve just bought a heavier Santini “Rain” jacket for just this purpose, and I’m reasonably confident I’ll get a chance to field test it very soon.
On the legs, tights or legwarmers made of that Roubaix fabric with the brushed back always seem a reliable choice. I quite like tights without a pad so they can be worn over shorts. This provides a bit more protection to the thighs through the double layer of shorts and tights. It’s also useful because I have half a dozen or more pairs of shorts, but only 3 or 4 pairs of tights. I can wear the same leggings for all my weekly rides by simply changing the shorts underneath for a clean pair everyday.
Some people suggest tights with a bib can serve better to keep your lower torso a little more protected and warm, but I can’t honestly say I’ve ever noticed that much of a difference, although they do as a rule seem more comfortable for longer rides.
I use a pair of “waterproof” tights for commuting, but haven’t found them particularly effective and faced with a downpour I’m more likely to take a spare pair of shorts in my backpack so I have something dry for the ride home, even if the tights have become soaked through and don’t dry off in time.
Winter means winter bikes for those that can afford them, or more precisely those who’ve been riding long enough to have bought a better bike and consigned their original steed to winter hack duties.
In some ways a true winter bike is more interesting, unique, more colourful and will have more character and more anecdotes attached to it than your more refined, “best bike.” Many will have long and varied back-story and an uncertain pedigree and provenance.
The incomparable, always entertaining Doc Hutch, writing in Cycling Weekly suggests, “a true winter bike is the one that just coalesces in a corner of the garage. Long forgotten and usually deeply-flawed components quietly gather themselves together until one day you find there are enough to build a bike. It’ll be a bike like no one else’s.”
He goes on to suggest, “It will be uncomfortable and it will rattle, but it will be yours in a way your summer carbon wonder-bike never will be. You will hate it, of course you will. But you’ll love it too.”
And here I think is the nub of the issue. The more you hate your winter bike, the less likely you are to ride it and given our long winters and poor weather is likely to last at least a quarter of the year, that’s a whole lot of riding to miss out on.
Even Taffy Steve can just about tolerate his thrice-cursed winter bike, although maybe he just tolerates it in order to keep his titanium love-child safe from harm and to build the anticipation of returning to it once the weather improves.
At worst then, I feel you need to lavish enough care, attention and unfortunately money on your winter bike to at least make it a neutral if not total pleasurable riding experience, even if it’s too unlovely to fully embrace.
The bare essentials I would insist on are a decent, tried and tested, comfortable saddle, full mudguards and winter specific tyres.
A few personal pointers:
Valve caps. You know those useless, little bits of plastic that the Velominati rules declare as useless and never to be used? How unseemly an impact do they have on how your bike looks? How much additional weight and drag do they add? How much quicker can you repair a flat without having to remove them? The answer to all these questions should of course contain the word “negligible” and you’ll find they’re actually a very valuable and useful asset in winter.
Without them the valves can become encrusted in salt and mud and crud, and almost impossible to open without resorting to mole grips or pliers, or in desperation teeth. Not a good place to be if you need to add (or remove) a little air from your tyres.
Similarly, it’s a good idea to drop your wheels out of the bike regularly when cleaning, just to check your quick release or wheel bolts haven’t seized solid. Bad enough to give your own personal spanner-monkey fits at home, but an absolute nightmare if you puncture in the middle of nowhere and can’t get the wheel out to change the tyre.
Our Glorious Leader even suggests that you occasionally remove, lube and replace your brake callipers, as he’s finding more and more bikes coming into his workshop with the brake fittings seized into the frame.
It’s worth buying spare brake pads so you have a set “in stock” ready at any time. The winter seems particularly harsh, chewing through them with great relish, often accompanied by that awful, gritty, grinding noise, that seems to signify your rims being ground to fine aluminium space dust before your eyes.
Your braking is likely to be compromised anyway by the fact that you’re on a heavier bike, with less effective equipment and often in wet and slippery conditions. That’s bad enough to contend with before you throw badly worn brake blocks into the mix.
Mudguards are often seen to be more trouble than they’re worth, ruining the aesthetic look of your bike and constantly and irritatingly rubbing and squeaking. But they’re worth putting up with for the benefits they can bring, most especially to anyone else you’re riding with.
Again, Doc Hutch through the auspices of Cycling Weekly suggests, “anyone whose winter bike doesn’t feature mudguards is both a fool and a blackguard.”
He adds that, “the carefree joy of guard-free riding is further enhanced while riding in a group, where the pressure hose of crap coming off the back wheel of the rider in front means you can pass the subsequent winter evening in front of the fire gently exfoliating your eyeballs every time you blink.”
As with all things winter bike related, I think the trick is to actually embrace them, rather than fit them grudgingly. Then again, once you’ve experienced the difference mudguards can make to your posterior, feet, bike, laundry and the disposition of your fellow riders after a wet, chilly ride, you’ll never go back. An asssaver might look hardcore, but it’s ridiculously ineffective in comparison to full length mudguards.
Really there’s no excuse for not using guards, given the wide variety of choice and fitting systems available – there must surely be a solution for every bike out there. My own advice would be:
Make them as wide as your frame will allow so you have the option for wider winter tyres and there’s less chance of them rubbing and driving you slowly crazy.
If they do start to rub, don’t try and adjust them on the fly. I tried to do this riding up a hill and caught my hand in the front wheel, getting a vicious, stinging slap for my stupidity, and very bruised, lacerated, bent and sore fingers too. It was a minor miracle I didn’t fall off to fully compound my idiocy.
Make your mudguards as long as possible. I recently laughed at Son of G-Dawg for wearing a full-facial mud pack which I was convinced wouldn’t help his complexion in the slightest. I was surprised when he told me it was the result of riding behind me, despite my standard issue long mudguards. I’ve since added additional mud flaps and have people squabbling to get on my back wheel now, knowing they’re going to be well shielded from spray and crud.
You can of course make your own mud flaps and I particularly like those homemade ones where you can still see the provenance of the plastic used – bright blue with a big label reading Domestos or the like.
For the lazy and cack-handed (like me) however there are store bought solutions readily available. I bought a front and back set from RAW that were a doddle to fit and I’m hugely pleased with. As well as adding additional protection for riders behind, I’m surprised how much drier the front one keeps my feet.
RAW also do mudflaps in a whole host of different colours and designs. These not so humble flaps can even be customised with your club colours and logo, although I’m already on record as declaring such frivolities as exceedingly gauche.
A few of my clubmates switch to fixies or single-gear when the weather gets really brutal, with the obvious benefits that there’s so much less to clean and maintain and fewer things that can go wrong. There’s also an appealing simplicity to riding a bike without gears.
I haven’t tried a club run on my single-speed yet, but perhaps with some heavier tyres I might give it a go, although I suggest it’ll probably be the end of me.
It’s worth investing in a decent set of winter tyres, even if it means more weight and rolling resistance. Fixing a filthy tyre in the freezing rain has no known positives, so the more you can do to avoid this scenario the better.
As far as tyres go, fatter seem to be better, offering more grip and a more comfortable ride at lower pressures. I’ve ridden Continental Gatorskins in the past but switched to Schwalbe Durano Plus to try and find a bit more grip without sacrificing too much puncture resistance. Others swear by Continental Four Seasons or Schwalbe Marathon’s.
I’m semi-tempted to try Schwalbe Marathon tyres once my current ones are past their shelf-life, although I’m somewhat leery of them too, as they are notoriously difficult to mount and I have the upper body strength of an anorexic, prepubescent girl, coupled to a grip akin to what your Grandad’s aged and massive Y-fronts exert through their perished elastic.
I’m also a little put-off by the fact that their advocates constantly refer to them through the much over-used term “bombproof” – a phrase evidently employed by people much given to hyperbole and possessing a very poor understanding of the destructive powers of explosive ordnance.
Some winter hazards to watch out for:
Cross winds and unexpected gaps in hedges – the two simply don’t mix. Beware the sudden gust that can scatter a group of well-organised cyclists like a bowling ball smacking the king pin full force.
Ice, ice baby. Ice is about the only thing that will keep large numbers of our group indoors, turning grip and traction into a lottery. Crazy Legs has a patented pre-ride ice test involving running out into the street in his slippers and taking a running jump into the nearest puddle. If he lands with a momentous splash and drenches himself in frigid water, all well and good. If he skids across the surface of the puddle and falls on his arse, it’s probably too cold to ride.
If you do think the roads are likely to be icy, its best to try and stick to main, bus routes which have a greater chance of being gritted. You should also be particularly wary of ice lingering in the shadows at the side of the road, even on the brightest of winter days. It goes without saying that any hazards when wet – white lines, fallen leaves, gratings and manhole covers, are likely to be even more hazardous when icy.
Experience has also taught us that, if you stop to help push a car out of a ditch after it’s skidded across the road on black ice, it’s probably best to assume that the road will be equally as unforgiving to cyclists (and most especially to Dabman’s brittle bones) and it’s probably best to turn around and find a different route.
Thorns. Farmers seem to take great delight in hacking back their hedges at this time of the year and liberally scattering the roads with their cuttings and numerous unavoidable, steel-tipped, mega-thorns. These are probably the cause of more punctures in our group than all the glass, flints and pinch flats combined. I haven’t yet found a tyre they can’t defeat and can’t see how they can be avoided. The best you can do is be aware and be prepared for the worst.
Finally, beware assorted toffs, often found milling aimlessly around in the middle of the road in winter – often in tweed and silly hats, occasionally carrying firearms and invariably accompanied by packs of barely-trained quadrupeds. They’re generally very jolly, but it’s best not to startle them too much, or get in their way.
So, there you have it all the encouragement and advice needed to keep you riding though the winter and the worst of the weather, it beats another torture session on the turbo every time.
Dragging my tired and sorry ass up the Heinous Hill on my commute home yesterday, I was effortlessly overtaken by a middle-aged woman on an e-bike – a sort of electraglide in beige.
“Hey!” I shouted, “That’s cheating.”
“You still have to pedal.” She laughed. I would have joined in, but I was much too short of breath.
It transpired she had asthma and couldn’t ride a normal bike, but the e-bike was ideal for her and allowed her to zip up the worst climbs without even breaking sweat.
I have to say being passed by an e-bike is a lot more pleasant and a lot less stressful than jockeying for road space with any other kind of motorised vehicle. If an e-bike is suitable for an asthmatic, middle-aged woman on a fairly arduous climb, then it seems like just about anyone could use one, just about anywhere.
Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if even just a tiny fraction of car journeys were made by e-bike instead?
I’ve seen the future and it looks electric – even if it means being shamed by grannies who can climb like a super-charged Lance.
Trying to find some clever way of segmenting buying behaviour within the cycling market for a colleague developing a new business concept, I half-jokingly suggested we could measure attitudes to spending on a scale where one end was represented by Rapha and the other end Planet X.
Then the more I thought about it, the more I realised that perhaps my mad idea held more than a grain of truth, and the two brands do in fact occupy completely opposite ends of the price spectrum.
Rapha is a brand that so desperately wants to be seen as niche and elitist that it almost hurts, and I suspect the overblown prices are very much part of its appeal to a certain type of customer. While I don’t doubt its products are high quality, well-designed and built to last, I do have trouble believing they are 7 or 8 times better than the competition, which is what some of the pricing implies.
Planet X on the other hand trumpets no nonsense prices and its website and stores are replete with some astonishing deals. In fact they first came to my attention through one of their clearance sales, when I picked up a pair of my favourite Vittoria Corsa tyres for £9.99 each instead of the rrp of £49.99. Everyone loves a bargain, right?
But it’s not just the product and price positioning that sets Rapha and Planet X apart, they also seem fundamentally different on many other levels.
Take the brand names for a start: Rapha sounds like a somewhat louche, semi-successful, minor British film star. One of those slightly posh, thespian gentlemen with limited acting ability, who carefully manage to just about play themselves for most roles and manage to retain celebrity B-list status only by dint of constant tabloid headlines earned for all the wrong reasons.
On the other hand, where do you begin with Planet X? It’s a corny, half-baked, creaky, black and white Sci-Fi movie that wants to achieve “so bad it’s good” cult status and cool, but is just ultimately cheesy and unremittingly nerdy.
Rapha borrows heavily (some would say steals cynically and unashamedly) from the iconic heritage of vintage, continental cycling, the epic pain and suffering of cycling’s classic races and hardmen racers, all shot in black and white: straining bodies, serious faces and nary a smile to be seen. It’s such an overly-serious, po-faced approach – where’s the fun and the joy that’s so inherent to cycling?
This is a mythological version of cycling as it never was, all suffering and gladiatorial combat – and to me it’s so obviously a parody and fake in its own right that I’m surprised it’s still being parodied by others – and all without even the slightest whiff of irony.
Planet X on the other hand is all gruff, straight talking, down to earth stuff. A spade will always be a spade, never a lovingly hand-crafted, ergonomically designed earth shearing, turning and excavation tool, forged from high impact, low carbon tensile steel with a close-grained, oiled and carefully pollarded English yew shaft that’s been lovingly nurtured to maturity in the ancient and Royal Forest of Dean. Phew! And breathe. Planet X is the Ronseal of the cycling world – doing exactly what it says on the tin.
Rapha colours are unremittingly flat and dull, relying heavily on over liberal and much imitated use of black (as the new white, brown, grey, orange, black etc. – just delete as appropriate). They are minimalist to the point of bland. Their signature; the single, contrasting coloured band on the sleeve, leg or whatever, no longer looks clever to me (was it ever?) – just strangely unimaginative and rather tired looking. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
Planet X designs on the other hand have none of the studied cool of Rapha and tend toward the garish and over-the-top – check out their Carnac team kit and bikes as a prime example.
Once stalwarts of the British pro scene via the RaphaCondor outfit, Rapha have moved up to the big time and are now the kit providers of choice to the elite of the elite pro teams, the one with allegedly the biggest budget in the peloton, and a team that is perhaps as divisive as the Rapha brand itself.
You don’t have to stray too far into the troll infested backwoods of the Internet to find that Sky are unremittingly seen as the bad guys, sucking the soul out of cycling through (shock! horror!) meticulous planning, innovative methods, spending as much budget as they can prise out of sponsors hands, employing the most talented riders, structured training, organisation, attention to detail and riding to their strengths, (all ladled with lashings of dark, innuendo about cheating and drug-taking.)
Rapha themselves have managed to take one of the duller team kits in the pro ranks and somehow make it even more boring and bland, (or understated, cool and minimalist, depending on your own point of view.) Oh, and then they’ve added those shudderingly hideous national flags to the sleeve cuffs for good measure … well, only one sleeve cuff, obviously.
Planet X on the other hand are unheralded sponsors of a host of domestic, young, up-and-coming, teams and individuals, kids, men and women, all flying pretty much under the radar, all in real need of support. They appear to do this with the sole intent of nurturing the grass-roots of the sport, although, if they’re really clever, perhaps they might be able to squeeze some small marketing return out of their investment.
Rapha are the perfect, text book example of how to build a premium, niche brand and as a marketing man I should be much, much more appreciative of their tight control over product and image and how they’ve created a brand with a real and enduring cachet. Their heritage may be at best overstated and at worst manufactured – but it’s obviously working for them and their target market.
There’s a lot to admire about Rapha – they are a relatively young, dynamically growing, internationally recognised and highly successful British brand that is seen as world leading and is much loved and valued by the only people who actually matter – their customers. I’m sure on many levels their devotees (Raphalites in my jargon) enjoy the scorn of their detractors as much as the product and brand image they are actually buying into.
From the outside Planet X sometimes appear a bit disorganised and all over the shop, willing to jump at any opportunity and conveying the wiles and opportunism of a wheeler-dealer market trader, a Del Boy made good? They appear content to be seen as bumbling along with no particular destination in mind and without any kind of blueprint for world domination.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone actually coveting a Planet X product, and if they do the value for money pricing means it’s an itch that’s fairly easily scratched. Many, many people however will be more than happy to buy and use and endorse their products wholeheartedly.
Both companies have owners who profess a love of cycling, but for Simon Mottram of Rapha it’s the pure and unalloyed love of road racing. His avowed aim is to promote the sport he loves, and he wants it to be as big as football. It’s an interesting point of view, but I’m not sure it’s remotely attainable, or more importantly, even the least bit desirable.
I also struggle to forgive him his man-crush on Marco Pantani, who Mottram sees as a tragic icon of style(!) and the epitome of cool, while I just think of him as a fragile, ungainly, rocket-fuelled cheat, deserving as much approbation as a certain gentleman from Texas.
On the other side of the coin, Planet X is owned and run by Dave Loughran. A bit of a mongrel in terms of cycling background, first and foremost a triathlete, and then a mountain biker who has dabbled in dirt bikes, mountain bikes, fixies, or anything else that’ll turn a profit. By all accounts Loughran is an abrasive, hard-nosed, salesman and a bit of a wheeler-dealer who admires Mike Ashley of all people.
This is a man with (judging purely from what I’ve read, you understand) so many traits I don’t admire that I can’t say I have an interest in meeting him and I certainly can’t imagine myself ever working for him. Despite this he’s made a good impression on me (ironically in an excellent article written by Jack Thurston in Rapha’s “corporate” magazine Rouleur) and I’m really interested in seeing what he does next. It was while being interviewed for this article that, almost in an aside about business growth really stuck and resonated with me.
I can remember way back in my university days trying to write a Marketing Communications assignment and weave into it the universal truths of Nietzche’s writings and the startling insight of W B Yeats poetry, wrapped around a lengthy discourse on the largely unreported hijacking, total control and manipulation of the free press by the military during the American invasion of Grenada. (Pretentious. Moi? Look there’s only so much you can write about J.K. Galbraith, Drucker or Kotler without becoming deathly boring to yourself and, surely your tutors too…)
Around this time I unerringly stumbled across a lecture by E.P. Thompson which either coloured my thinking, or simply gave life to already ingrained beliefs. Thompson argued that the establishment controls the frame of reference in which all the political discourse takes place and stifles true debate so that, for example, it becomes a very narrow argument about which political party can best deliver economic growth and never an exploration of whether the blind pursuit of growth is actually necessary, or in the best interests of the country and its populace.
He likened this to a car, “bumming down the motorway with an accelerator pedal, but no steering … we rush on, faster or slower, but can’t take exits, go somewhere else, or even stop and turnaround.”
In 30 years of working for and on behalf of dozens, if not hundreds of businesses, both massive and micro, corporate conglomerates to Mom & Pop family-run affairs, I’ve seen the same single-minded, determined obsession with growth and never yet encountered an organisation that strayed far from the strategy of making as much money and profit as humanly (and occasionally inhumanely) possible.
Every business and many other types of organisation too, seem to have a default setting that says they have to measure themselves purely on financial performance. Year on year they set themselves bigger and bigger growth targets, regardless of whether this is necessary or actually in their best interests, regardless of the mental and physical well-being of the workers and the management and ignoring if this will actually improve what they deliver to their customers.
Now, many, many years later I’ve actually found a successful business man with a different view and judging from the articles, growth for growth’s sake also seems to be a bit of a bugbear for Loughran too.
He’s quoted talking about the plans to sell off his company, “All I’ve had for the last three years is ‘what’s our growth plan’: growth, growth, growth, how are we striving for growth? Growth became a number. We grew phenomenally in the last year and it became a pressure cooker of: ‘How do we build 300 bikes a week, how do we build 350, how do we build 400?’ It was all because my management team was driving for a buy-out and they had to show to all the vulture capitalists a £10, £15, £20, £25 million success story”.
And then he capped it all with this piece of what sounded like very heartfelt, hard-won wisdom. “We can build 300 bikes a week now and everyone can have a great life and the mechanics don’t have any pressure and we can have good availability. If we strove for 500 bikes a week we wouldn’t have the supply chain, everybody would hate each other, it wouldn’t be a nice company.” (My emphasis).
He then went on to talk about setting up an employee share ownership system that will eventually mean the company is co-owned by staff and an independent trust set up to safeguard the workforce. Sounds great – I’ll be watching.
And there you have it, a very rambling discourse on why I’m more interested in what Mr. Loughran does next, rather than Mr. Mottram’s next step toward world-domination. It’s also one reason why I’m more X-traterrestrial than a Raphalite – you see it isn’t just because I’m as tight as a wallaby’s sphincter.