Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Where does the time get to? It’s now UNDER(!) 24 hours before we turn our pedals in anger – setting out from Greenwich Park to Calais.

Our London to Paris training has ground to a halt like a derailed Eurostar train. One Gurning Grimpeur is carrying an ominous injury (which started as some red hot tendonitis in the heel/ankle). Both ‘athletes’ (ahem) are relieved this has started to clear up and the patient's tortured, pain-induced, gurning has abated. 

There'a also been the threat of contracting RSI from the frantic bout of emailing, Facebook-posting, tweeting and blogging that’s been going on, to drum up further sponsorship on our Justgiving page . The show, however, must go on.

We’re all packed at least - give or take. All that remains is to cram into our bags, all the ‘essential’ last-minute items we’ve bought in a retail frenzy at Sigma Sport (I scoured the shop but they had no, ‘new sets of legs’ on offer).

We hope the pre-booked taxi (‘big enough for two adult bikes’, they’ve assured us) will turn up at the crack of dawn as arranged. If there’s any mix-up we could miss the whole event – Greenwich is nowhere near our front door.

Now we twiddle our thumbs; worry about being dropped en route to the French capital; fret over the prospect of strong winds on the other side of the Channel; chew our nails over the prospect of getting caught in a crash and, of course, nervously, watch the clock.

It seems like eons ago that we discussed the idea of doing the ride with our brother-in-law Mike. He was in hospital in central London at the time, preparing for a bone marrow transplant which it was hoped, would lead him out of the shadow of leukaemia. Sadly Mike’s treatment did not achieve its goal and he passed away in February this year.

We are delighted however, at the number of people who have so generously donated to our Justgiving site which is raising money off the back of London to Paris ( with the Surrey 100, a junior triathlon and scootathlon, still to come) for Leukaemia and Lymphoma research. It is an important charity which relies on generating about £20 million every year to continue its work, developing treatments and researching into possible cures for blood cancer.

When it comes to charity cycling, all roads it seems – or a growing number of them at least - lead to Paris. And ready or not, we’re about to turn our cranks on our very own Parisien cycleway. We’ll be unstoppable until we get to the Champs Elysees.     


Friday, June 13, 2014


We’ve already ‘got the t-shirts’. But we haven’t yet, ‘been there’ (Paris); or, ‘done that’ (cycled to the French capital).

Of course that’s all about to change. Team, Gurning Grimpeurs, are less than a week away now from the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research (LLR), fund-raising ride from London to Paris. And 500km in 4 days is certainly something to gurn about. It will require considerably more effort than the daily 23 mile bike commute to work, or a rigorous RPM class in the local gym.

As mentioned elsewhere, we’re doing the ride to raise money to help the fight against leukaemia after that dreadful disease touched our lives recently.

A tag line on the charity’s website reads, "Closer to a cure thanks to you”. And that just about sums up our motivation to raise as much money for LLR as we possible can – through the imminent London to Paris ride, the Prudential Surrey 100 sportive in August and other assorted events.

Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research has been working in cancer research since 1960. It now boasts centres of excellence around the country and only invests in, "the best research that brings the most benefit to patients".  

For the last fifty years LLR has been striving, “to improve patient diagnosis, develop new treatments and personalise treatments for all blood cancer patients”. To maintain this vital work in the fight against blood cancers it needs to raise over £20 million every single year.

That’s the biggest reason we’re going to stop gurning and start pedalling towards Folkestone on 19th June.

Watch this space for updates on our progress.

You can find out Justgiving page here:

Monday, February 17, 2014


No huge explanation needed. My brother-in-law Mike died on 1st February after being treated for leukaemia for the previous ten months. He had been intending to take part in the London duathlon in September 2014 to raise money for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research charity. Sadly, that will not happen now - but his young son and daughter are doing a triathlon and scootathlon. My wife and I are going to raise money by cycling with the charity from London to Paris this June.

You can donate money at   

Monday, September 24, 2012


The streets of Avignon in mid-September are spotless - thanks, not to the zealous attentions of municipal road sweepers, but to the unbelievably violent winds which had been scouring the roads and fields clean since we'd arrived. The fabled mistral had taken hold of Provence and was shaking it heartily by the scruff of the neck.

Not the best conditions in which to be preparing to cycle up and down Mont Ventoux by three different routes in the same day. But that's exactly what I was doing.

My goal was to become a member of the Club des Cinglés du Mont Ventoux (Club of the Madmen of Mont Ventoux), the same challenge I'd produced a short film about in 2009. This time I was going to be suffering in the saddle rather than observing from the roadside.

Our gite in the village of Mazan was almost in the shadow of the 'bald mountain'.  I could see Ventoux, looming ominously in the near distance, every morning as soon as I stepped out of the front door.

 It was a daunting sight with the wind howling like a banshee and whipping the branches of the trees outside our kitchen into a demented frenzy.

My total lack of training - and in particular, training going up hills - was a niggling worry at the forefront of my mind as Jackie and I headed for Malaucene to pick up my hire bike. It's true I'd got considerably more miles in my legs cycling to and from the Olympic Park in east London for work. I'd even done some spinning classes - but, would pretend hills in a gym session and a series of 40 mile commutes on flat city roads really help me tackle the Giant of Provence?

As I wheeled my rented Cervélo S2 onto the street outside Ventoux Bikes in Malaucene, I was about to put those theories to the test. Immediately conscious of how much lighter the S2 was compared to my two aluminium bicycles at home, I made decent progress at first - trying to stay in the big ring for as long as possible. 

This didn't last. But once in the small ring, I vowed to avoid hitting the 'granny gear' until absolutely necessary. This resolve too petered out after about two kilometres. It was a revelation to ride without my heavy work bag, carrying clothes, tools, packed lunch etc... on my back. And there was no mistral to tussle with. The weather was grey and cool - ideal conditions.

Having driven up and down this route in 2009 as we tried to keep our riders stocked up with water bidons, I felt very familiar with it. And with a fevered office-based reccie using Google maps firmly at the forefront of my mind, I pedalled upwards as if chasing a giant cursor, mouse-clicking its way to the summit. 

The road markers each kilometre were useful not least because they gave the gradient you were fighting at that particular point. I soon realised that 7% wasn't so bad but anything above that and my thighs started heating up painfully. Where I habitually turn my pedals, the earth is still stubbornly flat. 

The Bedoin ascent is the public face of Ventoux. Famous for the dramatic backdrop it has so often given the Tour de France. And famous too, for the tragic death just below the summit of Britain's Tom Simpson. 

There's no doubt that it does look impressive, especially the last 6 kilometres where you're out of the trees, pedalling for the most part, in a straight line with the summit and its weather station prodding upwards like a cold-war-era Russian rocket on the launch pad, always visible ahead of you. The last section of the Malaucene route however, with it's breathtaking hairpins, is equally stunning to look at. 

With some surprise I found myself on top of Ventoux for the first time - relatively unscathed. I got my brevet card stamped in the gift shop after buying an expensive €6  Mont Ventoux pen. I persuaded a perspiring, thickset Dutch cyclist who'd just ridden up from Sault to take my picture in front of the 1912 metres sign. "Are you doing more?" I asked him. "No way," he grunted with a wan smile. "I died three times on the way up." I'm sure he was speaking metaphorically.

The Cinglés club requires riders to climb Ventoux's 1912 metres three times staring from the three base villages of Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault. Conventional cycling wisdom has it that the Bedoin climb of 22 kilometres through a forest is the hardest of the lot. But having visited in 2009 and following an RSI-inducing computer session, mouse-clicking my way over the route using Google Street, I'd decided Malaucene looked much harder with a couple of steep ramps, particularly after the Chalet Liotard restaurant, just after the barrier which closes the road to the summit when the snow gets too treacherous in winter.

Unfinished business

I descended to Bedoin in a trice, noting the steep sections I'd have to tackle after lunch on my way back up. 

Jackie was poised with her camera on the outskirts of the small town which was coming to the end of its market day. Phil's Pizza provided sustenance and a second stamp for my Cinglés card. On the return ascent up through the forest - I recalibrated my opinion. This was steep and unrelentingly so - and therefore definitely harder than the Malaucene climb after all.

A coffee stop at Chalet Reynard was surreal. It is a small ski station in the winter and with the temperature cooling outside - there had even been a spot of rain - it was easy to believe I was in skiing mode inside the café with its distinctly alpine feel. The only difference was that the punters were decked out in Lycra shorts and cleated shoes rather than ski boots and salopettes.

The road from Chalet Reynard to the top is the part of the ride which gives it its much-vaunted 'iconic' status. This is the bald, treeless, section of the mountain where the mistral takes no prisoners. You also pass the monument to Tom Simpson just over a kilometre from the summit. Before that though I was on the lookout for the 'Allez Bushell' slogan we'd had painted on the Tarmac for our filming three years previously. 

I knew exactly where to look, just after the first bend beyond Chalet Reynard - but the words had been washed off without trace. That's not to say there was no writing on the road. There were the usual names of amateurs written in encouragement no doubt. The odd famous cyclist's name was visible and I spotted a couple of 'Wiggos' to boot. 

On the long haul up from Bedoin through the forest, some wag had drawn a massive snail on the road on a particularly steep bend. Another representation of the ultra-slow creature was visible a bit further on just to hammer home the point and taunt those of us finding it hard to turn the pedals. 

Another wit had daubed the word 'fixie', writ large, across the carriageway. I take my hat off to anyone with the guts and muscle power to tackle Ventoux on a single speed bike - just like the early Tour de France competitors used to ride. But it's not something I'll be trying in a hurry.

The weather was closing in with cloud covering the road ahead and sweeping off down the slopes to my left. At times my visibility was reduced to just a few metres. I became aware of bells clanging off the road and saw a couple of shepherds up on the hill.

They were directing multiple sheep dogs to push their flocks along. One group of these not so dumb animals congregated around a drinking fountain at the roadside and noisily slurped the eau potable on offer. I opted not to refill my bidons at that stage.

I made a stop at the Simpson memorial - and felt genuinely moved. It's so tantalisingly close to the summit. 

The words on the plaques there from his widow and daughters, and the simple tokens left by fellow cyclists - including water bottles, caps, even inner tubes - speak eloquently. It's a bleak, tragic and truly evocative spot.

The final turn up to the weather station at 1910 metres kicks up cruelly but briefly and once you've put a spurt on to get round it, you're at the top.

I'd felt really good on the section of the climb after Chalet Reynard. It was not as steep as the forested part of the ride and I was spared the ravages of Ventoux's worst weather. But I calculated that to get back down to Sault and up again - would push me into late evening. With no desire to make my final descent in the dark, I decided to abandon plans to do all three routes. 

I flew down to Malaucene, pulling on the brake levers most of the time - worrying that the brake blocks would work loose or spontaneously burst into flames - it felt I was going so fast! That's not to say I wasn't overtaken by several cyclists who had literally thrown caution to the wind. Cyclists talk in doom-laden terms about their fear of tackling the steep climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees. But what really fills me with dread is the prospect of descending these mountains, with feet like blocks of ice and unresponsive fingers trying to get a meaningful grip on the brake levers. Give me an uphill slog any time.  

As before, Jackie was waiting for me at the bottom - with a beer! The best part of the experience was the feeling of being able to do the climbs without too much agony - this was not Alpe d'Huez in 2006 at the height of a summer heatwave. The worst aspect was the steady stream of speeding motorcyclists going up and down the mountain at ridiculous velocities. 

My own velocity wasn't too bad coming down. The bike computer supplied with the Cervélo informed me that I'd hit a top speed of 66.5 kilometres per hour on the descent - crawling along by Tour de France standards - but quite fast enough for me thanks very much.

I hadn't done all three routes as planned. That really requires an earlier start than 10am (and possibly a shorter lunch break too). But we vowed to return for that piece of unfinished business - and until then, I'll remain just two thirds of a madman.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Alien attack?
Working on the edge of the Olympic Park for the duration of the London 2012 Olympics forced me to more than double my bike commute. My leisurely 9 mile jaunt through Richmond Park and across Hammersmith Bridge, turned into a 20 mile slog along the Thames embankment, past Big Ben, round Trafalgar Square, on to the City via St Pauls and along the Whitechapel Road.
Off my beaten track - the view from Bow Interchange
A 40 mile round trip every day was going to do wonders for my fitness but could the bike and the nerve hold out?

A studio with a view
I thought it prudent to invest in new tyres and give my ageing Trek a bit of a once over before starting this new commuting regime. I didn't want to end up 15 miles from home, late at night (my shifts finished at 0200) - scrabbling under a street light outside the Blind Beggar pub trying to deal with a flat tyre. It took me no time at all to strip off the old Continental Gatorskins which had served me well for at least two years! Once I'd fitted brand new Armadillos, I put the wheels back on the frame and started inflating with my track pump.

The resounding crack, of the wheel popping was like the report of a rifle. I cursed the cheap inner tube, thinking it had burst under the 80psi I'd applied. But closer inspection showed that a long section of the wheel rim itself had blown and ripped outwards. It looked like a tiny, internal explosion had destroyed the wheel. That's precisely what had happened.

The mother of all punctures
Exploding wheels are a common occurrence apparently. That's according to the guy in the bike shop. Letting the wheel rims wear down to the thinness of a cigarette paper often results in loud bangs, heralding the disintegration of the wheel's structure.

Luckily my single speed bike was on hand, replete with new back wheel and tyres, so I did my epic 40 mile commutes on a bicycle without gears.

The ride through London from west to east, is reminiscent of the New York City Marathon, which takes runners on a mesmerising tour of the Big Apple's five boroughs. The run from the leafy avenues of Kingston upon Thames, to the gritty bustle of the Mile End Road offers snapshots of several distinct versions of the capital.

Torch tower
The city's rich diversity is most apparent in the east end where I cycled past hedonistic, teenage night clubbers at one am, swilling alcohol on the pavement, snogging each other and staggering noisily about. As they indulged themselves in summer revelry, I also pedalled past crowds of men in Muslim dress, emerging  from East London Mosque, heading for street-side eateries, where the late night Ramadan trade was in full swing. The tantalising aromas - reminiscent of kebab stalls on the streets of Khartoum, Cairo, Marrakesh and Istanbul - nearly caused me to stop for a quick snack more than once.     

Sprinkled amongst all this local traffic were the visitors. Official Olympic cars stuck in gridlock (full-on traffic jams at two in the morning), Olympic buses no doubt taking sleepy security workers off for some much-needed rest, Olympic tourists strolling past the worshippers and the revellers. And everywhere you looked on street corners, at night bus stops, coming out of 24 hour groceries, were 'gamesmakers'; the much-lauded 2012 volunteers in their purple livery who had done so much to embody the spirit of the Olympics, out on the streets, as well as inside the official venues.   

The Olympic Park looks truly amazing - not least from the vantage point afforded by our work location. Let's hope the velodrome, the stadium and the landscaped areas still look this good ten years from now.

Friday, November 04, 2011


Professional cycling is deeply rooted in the written word. All three grand tours - Spain's Vuelta, the Giro and the Tour de France itself - were created to boost flagging sales of newspapers.

In Italy it was La Gazzetta dello Sport that instigated the Giro d'Italia in 1908. John Foot, in Pedalare, Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling relies heavily on the contemporaneous writings of Gazzetta journalists and others - dubbed 'the second peleton' - to add context and colour. Tracing the sport's transition from a heroic pursuit practised by riders from largely rural backgrounds at the start of the twentieth century to what he denigrates as the current 'moribund farce' in which riders pump 'their bodies full of... dangerous substances in order to win', Foot argues that Italian cycling's past - when the sport resonated on multiple levels with large sections of the population - is where its true heart and soul still reside.

What reader could resist delving into that past, after being led by the author, at the start of the book, into the interior of ex-professional rider Renzo Zanazzi's modest Milan bar? It's decked out with photographs and memorabilia from the golden age of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, when Zanazzi himself raced. Foot says the bar is like 'a lost world, a piece of cycling mythology', and he proceeds to take his readers on a journey through the ages of Italian cycling and its wider history, as if travelling in Zanazzi's 'time machine'.

Italy was once a major producer of bicycles and the handiwork of some of its best manufacturers is included in Michael Embacher's luxurious Cyclepedia: A Tour of Iconic Bicycle Designs.

It's a coffee-table book aimed squarely at bike nuts. If you don't see the attraction of drooling over pictures of a bicycle with right-angled cranks, a tandem with side-by-side saddles or a 'convenience' cycle that takes an hour to fold up, then Cyclepedia is not for you. But if you're not ashamed of high-end bike erotica, the book will not disappoint.

The author says he's ridden all the bicycles in the book - no mean feat when you consider the Austrian-built CAPO Elite 'Eis', which boasts an ice skate instead of a front wheel and a rear tyre studded with metal spikes. Many of the machines featured are now curios rather than realistic riding options. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to go for a spin on the elegant KIRK Precision, with its fatal design flaw - a frame cast in highly-flammable magnesium. The manufacturer's factory actually burnt down after magnesium dust in the air spontaneously combusted.

It's not surprising that Bella Bathurst, the author of an acclaimed book on the engineers behind Scotland's lighthouses, should turn her attention to one of the world's most significant feats of engineering: the bicycle. The first section of Bathurst's The Bicycle Book is devoted to her initiation into the 'magic plumbing' and 'alchemy' of traditional frame-maker David Yates's craft.

But this is no dry manual on spot welding. Bathurst also wants to celebrate 'the straightforward childlike joy in riding a bike, the urge to yell, "Whheeee!" on the way downhill'.

She ranges widely, covering the rickshaw jams of Delhi, the cycle-friendly roads of Holland, the life and times of Flying Scotsman Graeme Obree, and the world of bike messengers. Bathursts's research is solid. But she is also very strong when observing events at first hand. At the Earls Court Cycle Show she imagines that most of the men eyeing the exhibits 'have a private life on their laptop full of tubular things they'd like to stroke'. It's impossible to dislike The Bicycle Book when it quotes from the mighty Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman. It's doubly difficult to criticise a bike book that manages to include in its bibliography a history of the Victorian corset.

In her chapter of the Tour de France, Bathurst describes professional cycling as 'the day job of masochists'. One professional cyclist who knows all about suffering is the Scot, David Millar. A world-class time triallist and now a super-domestique in the self-avowedly 'clean' Garmin-Cervélo squad, he may not be this country's best ever rider, but he's by far Britain's most intriguing cyclist.

A cursory glance at the front of Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar signals that this is no ordinary memoir.
His face, sheened in sweat, stares out from the book's jacket suggesting a junkie in the throws of cold turkey rather than an athlete in prime condition.

In a uniquely candid account - to which only Paul Kimmage's Rough Ride comes close - Millar wastes no time in declaring, 'I am a professional cyclist, an Olympic athlete, a Tour de France star, a world champion - and a drugs cheat. And I want to start again.'
It's ironic that Millar was strongly attracted to the sport of road cycling because 'winning wasn't really everything. It appeared to be as much about panache as about winning.' In the event, the elusiveness of wins as he raced exhausted, against so many doped opponents, pushed him into the arms of thos who facilitated his own cheating.

This is an extremely rare first-hand account of what drugs and doping have done to the sport of cycling over the last two decades. Millar writes about his own redemption with total disregard for the omerta that has meant cyclists never talk about the issue. Millar has talked, eloquently, and is still - post doping ban - winning honours at the highest level, by riding his bike clean, with plenty of panache.

Cycling, as evidenced by these four books, is absolutely not just 'all about the bike' (to misquote Lance Armstrong). It's a sport, a pastime, and a passion, rich in stories that are thrown up like spray from a wet road wherever bicycle wheels are spinning.

Published in Literary Review, August 2011