Five years of “I do not despair” – revisiting our favourite posts

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On January 1st 2012 I published the first, tentative post on Idonotdespair.com To celebrate my fifth anniversary I have gathered together a small collection of favourite posts. Firstly your top 5 – the posts that have gathered the most visitors,some … Continue reading

My Ghent Six Day 2016.  If this was the Wiggins finale then “thanks for the ride, Sir Bradley”

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A couple of weeks ago I went to the Ghent Six Day cycle race with my Dad for my second immersion in this Flemish temple of cycling, cycle sport turned into pure entertainment. And once again I was captured by … Continue reading

Paris Roubaix – I Do Not Despair experiences the “Queen of the Classics”

Paris Roubaix 2014 Arenberg dust Arenberg Paris Roubaix 2014

“I didn’t really understand the point. Putting a race over all these all tracks just so they can race over cobbles. But now I have seen all this I know it has to be preserved.”

The words of my father as we joined the crowds to watch the Paris Roubaix bike race at the legendary Trouée d’Arenberg, the Arenberg Trench.

Occasional observers of cycle sport probably know that the way the fans watch cycling is to set off for the big hills so you can see the decisive moments and the riders spread out over a distance, just like I did last week at the Tour of Flanders. At Paris Roubaix there are no hills, their symbolic place in the race is taken by notorious stretches of old cobbled farm tracks and minor roads in the north of France. A hundred years ago when the race was founded they were the standard road surfaces but today sections have to be discovered or “restored” to retain the integrity of the route. Restored means “made lumpy, muddy and brutal to cycle on”.

Today the Arenberg is one of the stars of the show. This was a former service road to the old mines of Wallers-Arenberg, discovered hidden in forest by a former rider who not only lived nearby but had worked in the mines. When local roads were improved and made too easy Paris Roubaix diverted over this section and a legend was born.

The route is traffic free all year round and shaded by trees so moss grows on the stones creating havoc in wet conditions. The closeness of the fans and the trees gives it the appearance of a tunnel, heightening the impact. It was actually kicked off the race route for a few years because it became too dangerous for even Paris Roubaix but the local community rallied round and paid for the stones to be restored.

It isn’t the decisive moment in the race because there is still 100km to go but it is known as the place where the main action starts. So when I was choosing a place for us to watch our first Paris Roubaix I had no doubt at all where I wanted to be, I have seen it on TV so many times I wanted to be part of that atmosphere.

When my research found that there is also a fan village run by the community with the obligatory food, drink, hospitality area and big screen the decision was confirmed, we could watch the race come through and then follow it through to the finish on the screen. The backdrop is the mining museum which celebrates the heritage of the area.

Watching Paris Roubaix at Arenberg

We parked about an hour’s ride away and pedalled our way around and through the forest on some delightful car free roads and tracks until we popped out of the trees onto the course.

Foret de rasmes France

entrance to the Arenberg paris Roubaix

From here the spectators walk along the 2km of arrow straight road that form the route, or as we did they thread their way through the surrounding forest on foot and on bikes.

Paris Roubaix 2014

Almost by luck we found a great spot. Almost 2km from the fan village there are slightly fewer spectators and the line at the barrier was not as deep, plus we came out by an official service area which meant there was a bend in the barriers.Waiting for Paris Roubaix 2014

By standing on the corner of this bend we had an almost unobscured view right down the course which was great in itself, but what we realised was that desperate riders being battered by cobbles will seek any sort of refuge and even 20 metres of smooth path is a huge temptation so they would actually be riding straight at us for a few seconds.

And then the atmosphere built up rapidly to an explosion of colour, noise and yellow dust.

First a few service cars slewing sideways on the cambered cobblestones, then the police outriders on special trials motorbikes used only for this event. The arrival of the TV helicopter overhead says the race is upon us and the first three riders in a breakaway group hammered by, grimacing as their bikes bounced and clattered over the stones.

This is however just an hors d’ouvre. Two minutes behind the breakaway comes the peloton and there are 100 riders going flat out, probably over 45km per hour despite the cobbles, the dust, the slight uphill. At the front the leaders’ team riders were grim faced, spread across the road hammering out an incredible pace each hoping that the centre ridge or one of the gutters is marginally smoother.

Paris Roubaix Peloton 2014 Arenberg Close up Paris roubaix cyclists

And at the back of the string the body language was one of complete desperation with riders going through hell just to follow the wheels of the hard men while being hammered by the surface. Noticeably many of the long tail were the small riders who suffer horribly in these conditions compared to the big power men at the front.

Paris Roubaix 2014 Arenberg

And all the time the dust, made worse for the later riders by the team cars trying to get through to people with punctures and mechanical failures caused by the terrain.

Within minutes it was over and the noise subsided to the excited chatter of the crowd as they melted back into the woods to trudge to their cars and head for home to watch the final two hours on TV. We expected a huge crowd to gather at the big screen however we were going completely against the flow as most French people left, having had their moment and knowing that there was still over an hour to go to find a place to watch. This meant that the crowd down at the fan village had a strong international flavour with the Belgians loudly cheering “Mr Paris-Roubaix”, Tom Boonen, and even a lot of Brits giving a shout when Bradley Wiggins featured in the final kilometres. Final shout of the day was left to the Dutch when their man Niki Terpstra broke away to win the race.

A lovely and unexpected feature was when Terpstra crossed the line our whole crowd just broke into applause. A huge appreciation of what we had seen, and knowledge that Paris Roubaix has never been won by a poor rider.

And then my final treat, if you can call it that.

With the forest quiet except for the service crews clearing the barriers and bagging the rubbish the Arenberg Trench was going back to sleep for another year. The crowd were clearing off towards their cars and I realised I had the whole road to myself. Time to ride the Arenberg!

Arenberg Trench Paris Roubaix

Dad made it very clear that he wasn’t going to ride the cobbles, but the side path was now open so he could ride on the smooth section while I went for it.

What a ride. I stuck it into the biggest gear I could turn and just hammered down the centre ridge as hard as I could, which was not very hard at all. More of a wobbly plod in fact. I could say I have ridden worse cobbles in Belgium. I could say I know some roads round my home with bigger potholes. But kept up for 2km, slightly up hill much of the way, funnelled into a relatively narrow width it feels unrelenting. I was puffing and sweating like I had just climbed a mountain for ten minutes.

Cycleottignies a Paris Roubaix

Then I imagined the riders doing 45kmph, after 150km, with another 17 sections of pave to come. They are super-human at times.

On 9th July Tour de France fans will see these roads in a special 1st World War commemorative stage from Ypres to Arenberg. The occasional watchers of the TV coverage may wonder what all the fuss is about but those who have seen the “Hell of the North” will know that they are witnessing something special. The favoured Tour riders who hate these hard roads of the north and spend these weeks of the cobbled classics riding in Spain and Italy could suffer a lot on a day like this.

For my part I will be glued to the coverage because I can say “I was there”. Another unique cycling experience added to my collection.

What an extraordinarily diverse machine the bicycle is. I do not despair!

#london2012 “I know I ‘cos I was there” – road cycling impressions

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I have posted for first impressions and the fans. There was actually some cycling going on amongst all this. As I said in my previous post I don’t have the equipment for proper sports photography, and frankly when the big … Continue reading

London2012 cycling “We know ‘cos we were there” – celebrating the fans

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Every time a world class bike race has come to the UK since the 1990s organisers have been blown away by the crowds – maybe a million in London for the Tour de France prologue in 2007. We don’t have … Continue reading

#london2012 – “I know ‘cos I was there”

Olympic Stadium London 2012It is not possible to compare my writings with the professionalism of the journalists and photographers covering the Olympic cycling and the energy of the blogging and twitter posters. And my little camera may be good for the blog – but it can’t cope with an Olympic athlete at speed or the size of a stadium.

So instead I am going to post a few personal reflections, things I enjoyed so much about the Olympic Cycling Road Races and Time Trial last week and my visit to the Olympic Stadium yesterday for the athletics.

I have ranted elsewhere about my disappointment with the poor treatment of cycling fans in some aspects of the ticketing but I have to say now that attending the whole thing has been an organisational delight. The national cringe that somehow we would blow it because of transport, weather, surliness or lack of service has been completely disproven, everyone I have spoken to has been unfailingly positive. Yes there were the early tweets about lost bus drivers for athletes but look at it in the context of the numbers who have experienced something they will remember for a long time.

Welsh comedian Max Boyce became famous in the 1970s as a populariser of Welsh rugby fandom. His catchphrase was “I Know ‘cos I was There” – a celebration of watching live. Now I can say “I know ‘cos I was there” for the Olympics, a most extraordinary celebration.

And in case it gets lost at the bottom of the post let me say that the thing that really made the Olympic Park special was the extraordinary attitude of the staff and volunteers in their purple uniforms. Whoever it was that said to them “be an individual” deserves the Knighthood that will go to some of the athletes because this group of all ages, all ethnicities and classes were still going late into the evening with cheerful banter and smiles. When did you last leave a public event where the crowd spontaneously felt the need to say thank you and wave goodbye to the stewards?Humour in the rain

So four events live for me.

Ever since the Olympics were announced for London I knew I wanted to be out at Box Hill for the road races. I was actually born in the shadow of the hill down in Dorking and although we moved away when I was very young I have memories of trips back from time to time. The whole ticketing fiasco annoyed me but somehow or other I would make it. I actually got tickets for the women’s race in the end which gave us access to the hill itself on Sunday. We watched the men’s race at the bottom of the hill in the village of Mickleham which was also on the main circuit of the race so we could see the field nine times and sense the whole race unfurling. In both cases we made a frantic dash for the big screen at a nearby winery – not as fast as the riders heading back to London but certainly quick enough to see the finale of both races.Photo Trevor Mayne

On Time Trial day off to Kingston upon Thames to get some pre-race atmosphere and then just south to Surbiton to find a relatively quieter spot and great views of the riders where a friend of my brother was also offering a dash to the TV after the event too. We were in high hopes – expecting medals for Bradley Wiggins and Emma Pooley, but also enjoying the way time trials can unfold in a very different way to the road races. Perhaps one for the cycling nerds, but I am happy to be characterised that way if you insist. To round it off I had some fun riding down the course with my son before our 30 mile ride home. That was fun in itself, we got applauded on some sections and one cyclist couldn’t help but join us and start chatting about the result. The mood was extraordinary. With over 20 gold medals in the bag now it’s almost impossible to recall that last Wednesday the nation was holding its breath because we hadn’t got there yet despite some near misses. Wiggins and the rowers were like a collective release of breath that let everyone celebrate.

Sorry Fabian Cancellara fans – not your day

And yesterday we got to use the two tickets that I got from the Olympic lottery. If readers are not from the UK you may not be aware of the national fixation with the tickets, but I applied for 22 tickets across 5 sports and I got two, actually better than many people did. Colleagues in Brussels were amazed by the idea of people effectively taking thousand pound gambles, but mine came up with the Olympic Stadium for athletics.So to follow over the weekend three photo and reflection posts – the road races, the time trial day and yesterday at the stadium.Nicole Cooke Team GB

Normal service will be resumed shortly

I was told by a cycling colleague here in Brussels that I am “unusual”.

He explained that he found it really rare to find someone who was working in cycling advocacy and transport cycling who was also connected to cycle racing.

I suppose this means I should apologise to my regular blog followers who had signed up to this thinking they were reading about about cycling culture and travel. Instead you have just had a series of raves and rants about British success at the Tour de France.

Actually I’m as surprised as you are!

When I started this blog I expected to put up the occasional post about racing because it is part of my world and my roots in cycling. But when Eurosport commentator David Harmon said on during Tour de France commentary on Saturday “I never expected this in my lifetime” I was with him. Despite loving the success of the British track cycling team in the last 12 years and cheering all Cavendish’s wins on the road winning the overall in the Tour is something that is almost impossible to conceive for a British fan. Amazing being in Brussels this week and getting big celebratory handshakes off an Italian and being gifted a copy of Monday’s L’Equipe with Bradley Wiggins on the cover by an American.

I don’t feel unusual, but if I look around my community I guess I am. I have used bikes for both sport, travel and transport throughout my life, but in a country with only 30,000 racing cyclists and a transport mode share of 2% you are part of a fairly exclusive community to do either cycle racing or transport. In the high transport cycling countries like the Netherlands and Denmark the racing cyclists are of course a tiny minority even if the orange jerseys are part of a continuous successful racing tradition. And in reverse in Belgium, France or Italy – here the sport is king in terms of media and profile and they are struggling to rebuild a transport culture even if the numbers of daily cyclists actually outnumber the racers.

So I hope you will forgive me. “Normal service will be resumed shortly” probably means sometime after the Olympics, because despite my moaning and groaning about the tickets I will be by the roadside on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday with fingers crossed for the British team.

But for the moment let me enjoy my Tour de France moment. We have had to adopt almost anyone who spoke English as a champion for so many years – Irish, American, Australian and then a Canadian at the Giro d’Italia leaving the British celebrating crumbs from your table.

My Dad and I were sharing our reactions on Sunday and he immediately flashed back to his first entry into cycling in the early 50s when names like Coppi and Bartali were exotic gods read about in obscure magazines with black and white photos. Tim Hilton’s book “One more kilometre and we’re in the showers” (reviewed in the library) tells the story of being a cyclist in that period and paints the picture really well.

My own personal journey into Tour mythology starts at age 6 when I recall my dad freaking out when he was told “Simpson is dead”. I had no idea who, where or why Simpson mattered, but I still remember his response. We were of course by the roadside at a race start point at the time – it was a fixture in my childhood.

Then grainy TV coverage – just 10 minutes per week on World of Sport to cover the whole Tour for so many years, but much better to get the poster pages from Cycling magazine or Miroir du Cyclisme. I had a great picture of Merckx climbing in the classic Molteni colours on my wall for many years – British success was rare.

And the visits to the great event – Paris twice as a teenager, Alp D’Huez as a student and then two Tours in the UK were mainly exotic foreign fare. Sean Yates leading the peloton up Ditchling Beacon in 1994 was brilliant, as were the million people that came to London in 2007. But travelling hundreds of km across France to St Brieuc to watch Chris Boardman in the Tour prologue was more typical. He never even made it to our spot on the course, crashing out and fracturing his ankle on the wet road after less than 5km of a three week event.

I rode L’Etape du Tour in 2001 over the Aspin and the Tourmalet, then watched Lance destroy the field once again over the same terrain.

Other occasional heroes – Barry Hoban, Robert Millar, Sean Yates, Graham Jones, Paul Sherwen and the ANC Halfords team.

Dave D and fan

A fan who had travelled to meet David at the 2006 DD Challenge

When Channel 4 started covering the Tour every evening at peak time we learned so much more about the race under the smooth tutelage of Phil Liggett and later the ramblings of David Duffield on Eurosport. I certainly would not have dreamed that I would work  with Phil and David later on, nor that the occasional commentator that worked as CTC’s Mountain Bike Officer would go on to be the same David Harmon who was moved by Bradley Wiggins last week

The current generation of riders changes everything for us fans, culminating in the yellow jersey this week. It’s been a long road, so forgive me for a week or two.

.#allezwiggo

Chapeau

On Sunday I wore yellow