Farewell to Gareth Barry

I’m often asked what I miss about the UK, usually in anticipation of me reciting a long list which includes family and friends, baked beans, Branston pickle or other such cherished culinary icons. I’m sure you can understand that my popularity quotient has risen immeasurably since my move from central London to the Cote d’Azur. I have a guest bedroom (just the one mind), so family and friends can come and visit. Because there’s a lot of Brits living here, or who have second homes, most supermarkets have a UK section. Here you’ll be able to find Marmite, Wall’s sausages, baked beans, Branston pickle, Bird’s custard powder, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk etc etc However, I have no need to buy any of these products. Indeed, I never bought them when I lived in the UK.

No, I miss watching live Premiership football. Specifically, I miss watching my team: Aston Villa. I listen to their matches on the internet and watch them on satellite TV. But any sports fan will tell you, there’s no substitute for watching a live match, race, game, whatever. If you were to ask me to describe my perfect day it would most definitely include watching my team win LIVE.

Because this blog is largely about cycling, you might be forgiven for thinking it was my first love. But no, that’s football. My maternal grandfather was a Villa fan. My mother grew up a stone’s throw away from the ground. My father moved from Portsmouth to play for Villa’s youth squad. If you cut my arm off my blood would run “claret and blue”. My first date with my husband was a football match, which Villa won. He often jokes that when he married me he promised to “love, honour, obey and support Aston Villa”.

We were for many years Villa season ticket holders and we travelled all over the country watching them play, home and away. I now have a season ticket for my local team, OGC Nice, but I can’t work up quite the same passion and enthusiasm as I do for the Villains. You might be wondering what has occasioned this outpouring. It’s simple: today, it was confirmed that Gareth Barry has played his last match for Villa. He’s moving to Manchester City; coincidentally, the subject of one of my favourite sporting books “Manchester United Ruined my Life” by Colin Schindler.

After 12 years of faithful service, Gareth is moving on and taking a bit of me with him. He’s not my favourite player ever, that’s Paul McGrath for whom the famous violinist Nigel Kennedy (yes, him of Four Season’s fame), penned “God is Paul McGrath”.  He’s not even a local, he was signed as a youth player from Brighton but he’s played 440 games in a Villa shirt and, as is right and proper, he’s (at long last – well done, Capello) regularly donning an England shirt. I wish him well and every success at Man City, but obviously not at the Villa’s expense.

Unfortunately, when you’re trying to break into the Big Four (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea) and fail, you run the risk that all those players you’ve so cannily bought and/or developed will be cherry picked by those clubs with bigger wallets and/or more (recent) trophies in the cabinet.

Friends along the way

I took up cycling really on a challenge from my husband who said I either had to start playing tennis again, take up golf or cycle. He kind of snorted out the third alternative and I’m quite sure he never expected me to take up cycling. It wasn’t even a case of reverse psychology.

I had just gotten back from working as a volunteer at the World Road Race Championships in Salzburg. One of the few occasions when the guys, the gals and the youngsters all take part and one gets to see six races in a few days. I had originally intended just to go and watch but when I went on the site to buy tickets, I noted that they were looking for volunteers, so I volunteered.

I had said that I was happy to do anything and, given my relative availability the organisers asked me to turn up a week before the racing started. I found myself a small, family-run,  B&B just outside of Salzburg and set off into the unknown on what turned out to be the first of many solo, cycling-related, road trips.

One packed lunch or two?

I spent my time in Salzburg largely looking after the volunteers. Firstly, I sorted and handed out the uniforms. These had been made in China and the sizing was all over the place. For example, I wore an XL t-shirt, a small jacket and medium trousers. Caps and bum-bags were thankfully all one-size. Thereafter, my new-found friend Valeria and I were in charge of distributing the packed lunches each day to the 2,000 volunteers. Yes, an army of volunteers does march on its stomach.

Home sweet home

Fortunately, our billet was round the back of the podium, next to all the TV wagons and their chow truck. Needless to say we were sitting pretty with refreshments on tap all day long.

We ensured that the packed lunches were distributed well before any racing started and then settled down in our ringside seats to enjoy the action.

During the podium ceremonies we were entrusted with the handbag of the Lady Governor of the province of Salzburg. This was our equivalent of a backstage pass and, as a consequence, got to meet and have our photos taken with some of the winners.

On the last day, after presenting the medals in the men’s road race, the presentation party left the podium via the back stairs. We were standing at the foot of the stairs, undertaking our bag guarding duties, and we duly shook hands and were thanked in turn by the afore-mentioned Governor, the Mayor of Salzburg and the President of Austria.

The best thing about this event wasn’t meeting the riders, or even seeing all the cycling up close and personal, it’s all the people that you meet along the way that make it such fun. Like this gentleman in the photo, Super Mario Cipolini.

Super Mario

He’d retired before my interest in cycling was borne and was therefore fairly ambivalent until I met him – what a charmer!

I’m looking forward to meeting up with some of the people I met at Salzburg at this year’s Le Grand Depart in Monaco, where I’ll be a volunteer and they’ll be spectators.

Last one back buys the drinks

High, strong winds woke me at 04:00 and I found it difficult to go back to sleep. Thanks to my tree pollen allergy my lungs and head felt very congested, not an auspicious sign. Our plan had been to set off ahead of the scheduled 07:30 start but my beloved was feeling tired, jet lag. I let him sleep a bit longer.

We have these early starts now down to a fine art. We get absolutely everything ready the night before so that we can be up and out of the flat in less than 20 minutes.

We set off with everyone else at 07:30. I sat on Vino’s wheel, he was riding at what for him must have been a very leisurely pace. The main bunch stayed pretty much together until the climb to Gattieres where I dropped back through the peloton like a stone. Yes, my congested lungs were giving me problems and I knew straight away that I’d have to settle for the 100km parcours. Not even my Stars’n’Bars were going to get me out of this one. Despite that my husband kindly rode with me all the way.

As we climbed up to Bouyon, the wind appeared to have died down. The weather was pretty idyllic, as was the scenery. It’s a lovely route and there’s very little traffic. After a fast descent into Roquesteron, we topped ourselves up at feed zone manned by my clubmates who were duly supportive of my efforts and, as usual, had put on an excellent spread.

In fact, if there were a cup for “Best Refreshments” I’m sure my club would win it hands down. Considering that there’s a trophy for everything else, I don’t see why not. In addition, it just might encourage those clubs, whose refreshments generally leave a great deal to be desired, to make more of an effort.

Catch me if you can

Having crested the leg sapping rise to Gillette, we descended and made our way to the finish along the Var valley into a strong headwind. You may be thinking that at this point I was sheltering behind my husband or at least we were taking it in turns to pull on the front. But no, he took my wheel and stayed there until the finish. I was quicker than last year, but not by much.

We finished just ahead of Vino, who had ridden the longer route. Apparently, he’d rung M Le President part-way into the course when one of the lead riders had suffered a mechanical. M Le President had to break the bad news to him that the nearest support car was the broom wagon. Undeterred, Vino chased down the car at the front of the peloton for assistance. Not quite what you might expect from a soon-to-be-again pro-tour rider. But suffice to say he’s a very kind and generous individual.

Everyone had finished by 15:45. If I had done the longer course, the latter stages of which were very windy, I might have just gotten back in time for the eagerly awaited tombola. Then again……………………..

Will she, won’t she

Roche, Iglinskiy and Mizurov in front of poster of Andrei Kivilev

This week I’m preparing for Saturday’s Brevet Kivilev, an event held in memory of the late Andrei Kivilev, an honorary member of our club, who tragically died of head injuries on 12 March 2003 following a collision and fall in the 2nd stage of 2003 Paris-Nice.

Kivilev’s untimely death was the trigger for the UCI to implement compulsory wearing of helmets by riders in all endorsed races.

Commitments permitting, the Kazakhs turn out in support, which means that this week end I’ll get to ride with yet another Grand Tour winner. Though no doubt he too will be showing me a pair of clean heels!

I was, and still am, tempted to try to complete the 170km parcours. However, while I’m familiar with parts of the course, I haven’t cycled all of it. Nor have I cycled quite that far in one day. There’s also the vague concern that I’ll get back to the finish to discover that everyone’s packed up and gone home because I took far too long.

My training this week has been impaired by lungs congested by the very high levels of tree pollen, for which I have been slathering on the Vick’s Vapour rub, as permitted under WADA/UCI/FFC/UFOLEP regulations. Though, obviously, I have been monitoring my ingested level of eucalyptus, so as not to breach the limits.

Thursday Postscript: Just popped into my LBS to collect my secret weapon: “Stars’n’Bars” energy bars, made to a top secret recipe. They are totally delicious. Now I’ll have no excuse for not lasting the distance.

La Sisteronne

I drove over to Sisteron early on Friday afternoon, deciding to forego watching what I was sure would be yet another Mark Cavendish sprint fest in the Giro. More importantly, I wanted to pick up my number that afternoon and check out the start of the course.

The temperature rose steadily as I drove inland and the air was hot, heavy and humid. Indeed, there were several small downpours which I hoped were not indicative of the forecast for the following day, but indeed they were.  Having checked into my hotel on the outskirts of town, I drove into Sisteron to collect my number and check out the course in more detail.

I was undecided which course to ride but given that the route was common to both up until the first feed zone, felt there was no need to make a decision just yet. On the longer orange route, the climb up the Mont de Lure looked worryingly steep and, although I had checked it out on the map, could discern neither its length nor its gradient.

A local told me it was around 7% average. In itself not a problem, the issue was that it came after about 100km. This is generally the point in any ride where I am looking forward to descending rather than further ascending.

The following morning, the hotel was full of riders enjoying a hearty breakfast. Everyone else was in groups of twos, three or fours. I was the only “Billy-no-clubmates”. I rode to the start, arriving in plenty of time to greet fellow riders from a number of clubs local to me and see Lucien Aimar and Stephen Roche who, having instigated the event and designed the routes, were also taking part. That was of course the last I saw them. Still, I can legitimately claim to have ridden with two ex-Tour de France winners.

The cyclosportif riders were due to set off ten minutes ahead of the randonneurs: an excellent arrangement. I was in no hurry, I already knew that the course quickly wound up from the Town Hall, went round the back of the town and up a narrow, steep hill before bursting into the surrounding countryside. Consequently, most of the randonneurs had to walk up the hill, in a scene reminiscent of some of the cobbled Classics, much to the bemusement of a number of horses who were eyeing the ungainly procession from an adjoining field.

I was soon dodging support vehicles, no drafting necessary, and making my way up the back of the field. The roads were quiet, the marshalling impressive, the crowds appreciative and the countryside was lush and verdant, bejewelled with wild flowers, after all the recent rainfall.

I took stock, and a decision, at the first feed zone electing to ride the shorter course: with hindsight, a wise decision. Freed from the necessity to hold something back for the monster climb, I could now throw caution to the wind and give it my all.

I finished in a respectable time, behind Messrs Aimar and Roche, 10th in my class and far from last. Eschewing the post-race feed zone, I dropped off my timing device, rode back to the hotel, sunk a couple of cokes and drove home.

Postscript Tuesday: I went onto the La Sisteronne web site today to print off my certificate (very hi-tech) and discovered that there were no fewer than 18 photographs of me! Given that the camera adds 10lbs (5kgs), looking at the photos, I have to ask just how many cameras did they have trained on my person? Answer, far too many. The photographs were taken by a German company called Sportograf for whom I have a heartfelt message: Wenn Sie mich eine Fotographie kaufen wünschen, benutzen Sie bitte das Kamera das mir dünner, nicht fetter zu sein macht!

Legs 11

Recently somebody said he could tell I was a cyclist from my legs. No great omniscience as I was in cycling kit at the time. However, my husband has always maintained that I have the legs of a tight-head prop (rugby). In truth, the best you can say about them is that they’re “sturdy”, a bit like the rest of me.

In fact, in the next life I have asked if I could have longer, slimmer legs and an ability to eat anything I like without putting on weight. Not, I think, an unreasonable request. But if I had to choose, I would go for the latter over the former.

Now, if he’d seen me in a swim suit, the silly suntan lines would have been a dead give away. I have white feet up to my sock-line, much tanned shins up to where my ¾ tights end, then a less tanned strip to mid-thigh as I’ve only recently started wearing my cycling shorts.

I have a similar graduated tan on my arms and the obligatory chin strap lines on my face and neck. I have however managed to avoid the Sammy Sanchez Beijing white line across the forehead.

It soon became apparent that the reference to cycling had nothing to do with the shape of my legs, but rather the state of them. Yes, they are looking a little battered. Two reasons: I bruise easily and I’ve had a lot of accidents, not just as a consequence of cycling. As a child, I was rarely seen without a couple of bandages or plasters. Frankly, my fear knew no bounds and I was a regular at the local cottage hospital where I was known by name. Even though I am accident prone, I have had no (touch wood) serious injuries. I broke my arm falling off a stationary horse and have sprained both ankles and a couple of fingers, falling over things. However, I frequently had skinned knees and elbows. One of the most prominent scars on my knee was incurred when I fell down a hole that some workmen had literally just dug in the pavement outside an office in Frankfurt where I was working. I was distracted waving to some colleagues on the other side of the road and never saw the hole coming. One minute I was there and the next I had disappeared from view.

I was so accident prone that my mother enrolled me in ballet classes thinking that it might me more adroit. Unfortunately, I was probably the only child there who didn’t dream of becoming a ballet dancer and  persevered because my father always took me out afterwards. My reward, for doggedness in the face of an obvious lack of talent, was afternoon tea at The Queen’s Hotel (long since demolished to make way for Birminha’s New Street Station) on a Wednesday afternoon and Thrussel’s for lunch on a Saturday, where I always had a cheese omelette and chips, followed by a meringue glacé.

Just another

Today is yet another French May Bank holiday. I had planned to drive to Sestri Levante to watch the monster Giro ITT. However, six hours (there and back) in the car and another eight hours standing in the sunshine, getting dehydrated, is most definitely not ideal preparation for Saturday’s 150km La Sisteronne. In my experience, I’ve found it’s generally better to attend such events in pairs, that way there’s someone to keep your place should you need a comfort break, food, refreshments etc. In addition, you need to arrive way before the start to bag a decent spot so it’s good to have someone to chat with so as to mitigate the boredom before things get rolling.

There was also an official club ride today: official, in that it counted towards the Club “Championat du Regularite”. I’m leading the “Categorie Feminine” thanks solely to lack of competition. I arrived at the bus stop this morning, our usual rendez vous point, to find it deserted. Had I missed the email advising that the club ride start time had moved to 07:30am? Just as I was contemplating heading out, a couple of the boys put in an appearance. Clearly, they were all having a bit of a lie-in this morning and by 08:00am there was over 20 of us. I set off at the head of the peloton but the boys were really fired up and we’d probably gone only 5kms before I was off the back.

Not  needing a full-bore 100km ride this morning, and knowing that they wouldn’t miss me, I took a left turn up to Gattieres and rode along to La Gaude where I met another club member who’d just punctured. He lives in La Gaude and so I rode back home with him where he swopped his set of wheels and was soon on his way. Meanwhile, I decided to have a cup of tea in the sunshine with his wife, who kindly first encouraged me to cycle with the club over 18 months’ ago. She’s only just getting back on the bike after a 3 month lay-off following operations on both wrists. She’s also been incredibly helpful with my fund raising. She’s put lots of the La Ligue contre Cancer collection boxes in her local shops. As a cancer survivor, she understands.

Heading back home I passed Maxime Monfort, who shares my birthday, going in the other direction. You know that Columbia kit is growing on me. I should add that seeing pro-tour riders out training is pretty much a daily occurrence round here. They’re easy to spot. The give away isn’t their matching kits and bikes; rather it’s the ease with which they handle their bikes: seeming at one with them. Something which I am unlikely ever to achieve but that doesn’t mean I should give up trying.

Onwards and upwards

You may have gathered that if I do something, I like to do it to the best of my ability. Having taken up cycling somewhat late in life I’m constantly looking for marginal gains which might just translate into making me faster on the bike. With this in mind, I decided that my husband and I should spend Easter at the Laurent Fignon Centre (www.centrelaurentfignon.com) in the Pyrenees for 4-days of training.

The Centre is situated next to to a charming and friendly hotel with an adjoining restaurant where all the meals were geared towards cyclists’ nutritional requirements.

We rode every morning, whatever the climatic conditions. Yes, we all chose to ride in the pouring rain, not wanting to miss any of the trainers’ words of wisdom or training exercises. There were 10 riders and 2 trainers so, based on ability, we were often split into two groups. This of course meant that in my group the ratio of trainer to pupil was nigh on perfect, being 1:1. It’s rare that not being very good at something is a distinct advantage.

In the afternoons we were free to explore the charming surrounding towns and countryside. Late afternoons and evenings were given over to video analysis of that morning’s exercises, stretching and advice on training zones, interval training, nutrition and, finally, our individual report card and training plans for the next 4 months based on our personal goals.

So, did I get a “could do better”? You will be unsurprised to learn that they were impressed with my descending but much less so with my ascending. Yes, I have been squandering my power in too high a gear so I am now spinning along in a much lower gear but higher cadence. However, while they were far too kind to say, it’s clear that the extra 10kg will have to go. Look how well Bradley Wiggins has been climbing in the Giro and he’s only lost 5kg. Now I’m working hard to improve my power to weight ratio.

In conclusion, I feel it was money well spent. I have faithfully been following not only “The Training Plan” but have also taken on board the advice of the two trainers. It’s probably too soon to tell whether it’s working but I believe it is and, frankly, that’s all that matters. I’ll be going back again next year to learn how to tackle some of those mythical cols.

Love of my life

Some might say I was fickle. Less than a year after acquiring my first road bike, an Orbea Diva, I fell in love with another.

It was a true “coup de foudre”. We spend hours together out on the road enjoying the glorious weather and spectacular scenery. I lavish plenty of loving care and attention on it: indeed, nothing is too good for it. We’re rarely parted and it lives in the “Bike Room” aka the “Laundry.”

It won’t be going to Austin. No, I fear that, with multiple plane changes, the chance the love of my life and I might be parted is too great. So I’ll be taking the Orbea to Austin which for the past year I’ve  ridden only on the home trainer.

But, mindful of my slow-motion ascent of that 10% average gradient hill in Italy, I decided to give it, and its triple chain ring, a second chance. So I took it out last week, over a course I ride on a regular basis, in order to compare the results with my recent training rides, diligently noted down in my training log. First off the set up of the bike felt totally wrong: seat too low, handle bars too narrow and too close to the saddle. I won’t bore you with the entire list of faults but suffice to say, despite the additional gears, it was my slowest time on that course for over six months.

The Orbea is now down at my LBS being set up like my BMC. Of course some things won’t change. Most notably its additional weight and handling. Plus, I have Shimano Ultegra group-set and wheels on the Orbea and Campagnolo on the BMC. But the intention is to replicate, as far as it is possible, the feel of the BMC.

Silver linings

Yet another Bank holiday week end in France, hence two sorties with my club mates. I had checked out the parcours on the club site the evening before Friday’s ride: it was the club championship course. We set off from the club at a gentle pace, which picked up as soon as we crossed over the Var. As usual we were riding into a headwind, and with the club’s better riders on the front of the bunch, I was soon distanced. The boys disappeared from view at around 20km. You see, it’s never a question of if, merely when.

As I rode alongside the river, I indulged in a spot of interval training, as per my Training Plan. As the road rose gently, I tried to keep my cadence above 80 for as long as possible. The weather was warm and sunny, the views wonderful and all was well in my world. I passed a few cyclists going in the opposite direction but generally had the road to myself.

Between Tourrettes-Levens and Aspremont, I was overtaken by a triumvirate of pros, including one Thor Hushovd, a member of that favourite, select, sub-set of riders who weigh more than me. We exchanged a few pleasantries but I made no attempt to wheel suck, we were, after all, on an incline. I know my limitations.

After the ride, I had arranged to meet my husband in our usual café. He was looking quite concerned by the time I arrived and wondered whether I’d gotten lost or had a mechanical. No, indeed I thought I’d made quite good time given the distance. It appears that I hadn’t fully read the parcours; the boys had taken an early right turn and cycled a good 30km less than me. Still, if I’d followed them, I wouldn’t have met Thor.