Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Sign On

Nestled in a shallow valley in the countryside near Ipswich, Somersham is typical of many English villages. There are coloured thatched cottages often found in this area, a pub, a cricket pitch and fairly new village hall built on the outskirts. Despite some newer houses detracting from the idea of an English rural idyll, the village still retains a sleepy feel, where a steadier pace of life clings on despite the rush all around.

The village hall is new but obviously well used, that shiny new smell replaced by one redolent of school assemblies sat on the dusty floor. Empty, the hall would be a soulless place, just a shiny floor and an echo, but today it’s the home of the Stowmarket CC road race. On a table at one end, plastic race numbers, a safety pin at each corner, are piled neatly in front of two people, both of whom are wearing yellow club jerseys. Beside the numbers is a cash box, three or four signing on sheets and a card box full of race licences, all neatly separated by alphabetical index cards. 

Possibly inspired by the economic need for cheap transport, cycling is thriving in the UK, with an obvious increase in bikes on the road. This boom is reflected in the numbers racing, it can be difficult to get a place in a race, especially early in the season, when ambitions and spirits are high. It’s not just the fantastic successes of this summer which caused this increase in interest; there was the amazing performance in the previous Olympics, since when Mark Cavendish has been chipping away at the public consciousness. The sport is becoming increasingly mainstream; even BBC Radio 5 announces daily news from major races. The bottom of Britain’s road racing pile is a million miles from the world of cheering crowds, advertising hoardings and team cars seen on televised races. These events rely on volunteers to organize and staff them, with little in the way of resource or back up, relying on goodwill and commitment. 

There’s a buzz in the village hall: people stand in groups, some with the straps of their shorts trailing behind them, others sit quietly massaging embrocation into their legs. Jerseys hang on plastic chairs, shoes peek out from beneath, helmets and glasses on the seats. Through a hatch, in the kitchen, cups clank against each other and two middle-aged women busy themselves arranging metal teapots and plates of cakes.

Riders in their socks shuffle past a note taped to the door instructing, “no cleats in the hall,” leaving Ian Doe to brief the marshals before they head out on bikes or in cars to take their posts. He’s been a commissaire a few years now. His grandfather raced, he raced and the sport is in his blood. Work and family put a stop to racing but, when life gave him the opportunity, he returned to the sport as what is effectively the referee, though he sees his job primarily to ensure the safety of the riders. His grey shirt, branded with the British Cycling logo, is the only sign of professionalism in the room. It’s not that people don’t care or do a good job, it’s just the Corinthian spirit reigns supreme here, it’s done for the love of it, and perhaps because it’s a condition of club membership. 

On the road, a convoy of disparate race vehicles leads the riot of colourful jerseys through the village onto the 6 mile course for the first of seven laps. Under blue skies, passing thatched cottages, golden fields, through canopies of verdant green, the riders whoosh and clatter over typically varying surfaces, along narrow and slightly undulating roads. Marshals with red flags hold traffic by sheer will, and take the insults of those too red faced and impatient to wait a few seconds. 

Over the top of a small hill, the finish line is stretched across the road just by the entrance to a farmyard, which is full of supporters’ and marshal’s cars, ten or twelve of them. The crowd, if you could call it that, comprises of wives, children, mothers and fathers of the competitors, though a few local riders roll in late on to see the action. Two young boys play with the chequered flag they’ll wave at their Dad in a few minutes. Race organizer, Graham Berry occasionally glances down the road, as if willing the riders up the hill and over the line. He chats with those around him, occasionally stabs a foot at the finish line, ensuring it was stuck to the tarmac, then glances down the road again. He’s far from nervous, he’s been organising the race for eight years and has it off pat. 

With minutes of the race left, it’s obvious he’s done his job well: no crashes, no incidents and the riders are on their way. The race’s only accredited marshal strides over the line carrying his signs and enforceable powers to stop traffic, obviously aware of his own importance. He disappears round a slight bend in the road. We wait.

Orange lights flash on top of two nondescript family saloon cars crossing the line. Silence. Then, from the darkness of a tunnel of trees one rider emerges alone. He crosses the line with enough time to ease off and raise his arms, displaying not sponsor’s names, but that of his club. 

At the village hall Colleen Buckle serves tea and cake. She describes herself as the club Membership Secretary, Treasurer and a control freak, though she shares the first two with her husband, the second is the reason she does the teas: “If I don’t do it, no one else will.” Each club member is encouraged to bring a cake, women and family men bring home made ones, single men’s cakes are pre-packed. She explains that the club only had 25 members 6 or 7 years ago, but now has over 100. Meanwhile, Colleen pours another cup of tea and puts another slice of flapjack on another paper plate. 

Cycling enthusiasts, pundits and cognoscenti talk of cycling being a European sport, it’s heart in Belgium, Italy, France and the Basque country. Grainy monochrome photos of grimacing heroes, tyres wrapped around their tortured bodies as they grind along unpaved gravel roads, snowy mountains their backdrop, give this illusion life. But ask a British Cat 3 road racer. Their sporting life is spent in village halls like the one, their races organised and policed by volunteers, they ride on bumpy country roads, pass thatched cottages and flint churches, then laugh and drink tea afterwards. The sport takes on the characteristics of its place and British racing is a British sport. The soul of the sport may be elsewhere, but its beating heart is wherever numbers are pinned on and battle joined. Sipping his tea after the race, the day’s winner explains, “I love the atmosphere of racing at this level, its Englishness, village halls and cakes, it gives me hope.”

this was first published on

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Top of The World (Nearly) and Beyond. Motorbike Trip 2012

After our long trip south to the Alps, the ensuing days fell into a pattern, with either the morning or afternoon being massively tedious and the other part of the day memorable. Except Tuesday of course, when the bikes stayed resolutely behind the garage door and we remained equally resolutely hungover. 

We walked into Chamonix, led by Peps who seemed remarkably sprightly considering the previous night’s alcohol mix, mind you, she hadn’t spent all Monday on a motorbike. We had a coffee, Peps returned to work, then Ian and I wandered vacantly, in and out of shops, eventually finding somewhere to eat a pizza so large it made me feel sick. Throughout, the heavy cloud obscuring the mountains crept lower until rain began pattering the awning above us, deepening our mood. We’d hoped to take the cable car up the Aiguille du Midi, but a sign at the ticket office saying that it was -2° with zero visibility, made it pointless. So we had another coffee, wandered some more and somehow frittered the rest of the day. 

That evening, high above our host’s terrace where we ate, needle pointed mountains stood proud above a deep feathery quilt of cloud; on the low slopes fronds of cool mist crept silently between dark green trees clinging to the steep slopes. We ate barbecued meat and salad washed down with a fine Barolo, amongst others. It was cool, but the wine, food and laughter warmed us. Another perfect night.

As forecast, the next day brought a sky so blue it hurt, and air so clear it magnified the contrast of the deep azure and shocking white of the mountain tops. I could have stood and stared forever, but time was pressing, so leaving our luggage behind, we rode to the cable car. It was 7.30 and there was no queue, just some giggling Japanese tourists, a couple of more stoic Europeans, and some hardy climbing types, each fully loaded with ropes and a back pack the size of a 15 year old boy. The cable car costs €39.60 but is worth every cent.

The Aiguille du Midi really is an incredible place, at 3842 metres you are above an awful lot of neighbouring peaks, making the view as spectacularly impressive as you could imagine. The altitude means it is cold, about 2° when we arrived, snow and ice still clung to the steel steps between levels. A massive structure has been built containing a museum to les Alpinistes, those climbers brave enough to take on the peaks, there’s a café and a lift to travel between the various viewing stations. How on earth they built it is beyond me. Immediately to the South is Italy, looking north you tower above the town of Chamonix and the lower peaks beyond. Look east and you see a series of aiguilles - needle like peaks, a line of which curve round towards the Swiss border. It is a beautiful and captivating place, though sullied by hordes of tourists from all over the World, two of which, of course, we were. It is also the staging point for many of the expeditions which set off to climb Mont Blanc, indeed in one such expedition a few weeks later an avalanche claimed nine lives. It may be a dangerous place, but Western Europe’s highest peak towers beautifully and majestically into the deep blue sky.
The Needles
South towards Italy
Back in Chamonix, sweltering under the now baking sun, hundreds of people queued twice round the building to take the trip we’d just enjoyed. We had a coffee in a Chinese restaurant, then headed back to load up and set off. After another coffee and chat, we said our thank yous and goodbyes. You have only really visited a foreign country if you have seen inside their society, and we did. Peps and Benja already knew Ian, but they invited me, a complete stranger, into their house, giving priceless hospitality, more than I could ever have asked for.

Soon enough though we were over the border into Switzerland. We crossed the Col de la Forclaz, which is a pretty decent road, tightening up at the top, like most mountain passes, though wide, well surfaced and fairly traffic free. The border is at the top and we left France after a quick stop for a drink. The road then flows down to Martigny, before tightening up as it passes through the vineyards of the Valais.

If you were to look on you’d see the road which runs between Martigny and Brig is marked with the silhouette of a pig. Only a fool would assume that this was a good thing but, when I was researching this trip, I assumed that it couldn’t be too bad, besides, Ian and I had discussed all the route permutations possible and decided it was the best way. We were wrong. The first bit is a reasonable drag on the motorway, where good speeds are possible, though always be wary of Swiss Police. As the valley narrows, the dual carriageway ends and things become more tedious.

At a petrol station, in a village called Susten (nothing to do with the Susten pass), the open door of a VW was blocking my way to the pumps, its driver obliviously chatting on the phone. In a hurry and frustrated, I barged my way through, my pannier banging the door shut. No sooner were we filling up than the driver came over for a chat. Guilty for hitting the car, but not enough to admit it, we chatted with him about his time as a deck chair attendant in Swanage. Interestingly, though we were only a couple of miles into German speaking part of Switzerland, he didn’t speak a work of French.

The pig of a road now showed its well earned reputation. Mile after mile of straight Tarmac and heavy traffic made progress difficult and slow, preventing the wind from cooling us. It was hard going. Eventually we arrived at Brig, a town which has developed into bit of a transport hub over the last hundred years. The first car successfully  negotiated the nearby Simplon Pass in 1906, the same year as the rail tunnel opened, the opening of a further tunnel and the connection with the Furka-Oberalp railway ensured the town’s place as a bit of a staging point. This status the reason the road is so busy, but also means that what follows is both narrower and more quiet.

Famous for its French vineyards, The Rhôneis born high up in the glacier above the Furka pass, at the head of this wide valley, and the road follows the river east towards its source. Mountains stretch high into the sky on either side, cattle survey the road from high grass meadows where dark wooden barns stand, looking like agricultural relics. It is certainly beautiful. The road is scattered with fast open bends, but plenty of villages and speed limits slow progress, which made this wonderful place that little bit under-whelming from a motorcyclist’s point of view.

An old man in a blue felt jacket looked up from threshing grass at the road side to wave at us as we entered the village of Ulrichen, where we stopped for a rest and to find some food. There didn’t appear to be anywhere open, or indeed anywhere to be open. Turning right up Nufenenstrasse, we found salvation at the Hotel Walser on the village outskirts. Though the menu lacked anything savoury, though if ever there was only one course available, pudding is the one I’d choose. The only thing wrong was our lack of Swiss Francs which meant panic, followed by a nervous wait to see if the card machine would work.

At 2440 metres the Nufenenpass is a high one, but isn’t too technical a ride, at least on the way up. The hairpins are well surfaced and the remainder of bends predictable. Going down the Italian side isn’t quite the same, with concrete surfaces cracked by winter ice and scarred by impacts not worth thinking about. There’s a large café at the top and the rutted car park was full, though most of the vehicles’ occupants seemed to be stood around waiting for something to happen. The scenery is unimpressive by alpine standards, a bit bleak, but a minor Alpine pass is like being in another world, quiet, majestic and beautiful. They are all special places, which made the bottom, where the road joins the Autopista as it emerges from the St Gotthard tunnel, all the more depressing. 
Descending Nufenen
The moment we rejoined reality, I noticed the driving was markedly different. To the north drivers had been steady and conservative, now, south of the Alps, we were in Latin Europe and the driving matched the hot blooded stereotype. Even at 80mph you could feel the humidity and heat. Earlier slow progress meant we had been on the road for a long time and I was tiring. To make this worse the sat nav indicated over 150 miles to go, something I was not expecting, so we stopped to check the route. Sat navs are clever things, but they can’t think for themselves, they’re only as good as the buffoon operating them, and it seems I’d omitted to add the map for this little area of Italian Switzerland. The Garmin was desperately trying to avoid the black hole in its knowledge, so we battered our way south, downhill most of the way, through the beautiful, if densely populated landscape around Lago Lugano, before reaching the Italian border. Here, swarthy looking Police officers stood around smoking, inscrutable behind their Ray-Bans, only marginally interested in our bikes and less interested in our passports.

I unzipped my jacket for the steamy final few miles through the rush hour suburbs of Como. As we wound our way through unfathomable traffic priorities and dusty, battered Fiats, we suffered the ignominy of being overtaken and out-manoeuvred by a bare-chested youth on a tatty, matt black scooter, held together only by peeling Valentino Rossi stickers. Despite twice stopping at the place the Garmin told me, I couldn’t find the hotel, and was becoming angry. Visions of waking up next to my bike in the pale light of an Italian dawn flashed through my overheated brain as I rummaged through my tankbag looking for my paperwork, before glancing up and, above two glass doors, read Hotel Continental. Well, Ian hadn’t seen it either.

The old town of Como is lovely; cafés and restaurants populate streets and piazzas from which you can admire beautiful buildings, statues and fountains. The first restaurant we found was good enough for us, in fact it was quite posh, so we had pizza and beer, before wandering down to Piazza Duomo. We sat at the front row of tables outside a bar and ordered beers. It was still warm, though the cobbled square was now in shadow as night approached. An orchestra sat around their conductor warming up, smart middle-aged couples wandered arm in arm, dragging ornamental dogs panting behind, occasionally they’d pause for the proud husband to photograph his wife, whilst birds screeched from their roosts in the cathedral. Gorgeous young women whizzed up on breathless scooters, parked, dashed off, only to return minutes later. Another beer, the orchestra started with ‘Abide With Me’ and all was well with the World.