For the past 4 seasons I've pulled out the Cross bike and thrown myself into a couple of B races during the season. The results are always identical - I get pummelled in the 1st race and improve a bit in the second race before packing it after the 3rd, promising to give it a better go next year.
As a result the only thing I find missing at cross races are large egos… and I quite like that.
I always start too late, everyone’s had 3-4 races under the belt and it’s a tall order not to get lapped let alone finish. This year (2015) I had a plan - a ropey plan but it’s a plan none the less.
Here it is:
- put in some off-road “training” over September.
- enter all the races I’m fit to ride.
- finish all races AND without getting lapped.
- get gridded at least once.
- aim to finish a race in the top 20 toward the end of the season.
- enter the Ulster Championships and not make a tit of myself.
Here’s what I’m starting out with. I know there’ll be additions.
GEAR: Lake MX330 shoes, light full finger gloves, base layer and club kit, few caps, 3 changes of clothes (warm up, race, dry change), baby wipes, towel, 2 litres of water (washing),
BIKE: Kinesis Crosslight 5T frame, Ambrosio Excellence rims and Zenith hubs, 32mm Michelin Mud 2 tyres, Tektro Oryx Brakes + Rim Wrangler pads, 9 speed Ultegra bits and bobs. 46 x 36 chainset. Cheap SPD pedals.
The bike was put together over a winter a few years ago from odds and ends lying about the shed. The only thing really CX specific is the frame and tyres. (see costs at end)
I’ve documented each race, what each course was like, what I learned and what progress I made and what I can take into the next race and next season if I’m still about. I’ve scored speed/mud out of a combined total of 10. The muddier the course the lower the speed and v.v. “Technical” refers to the amount of off-road “skill” required - 10 for break-neck technical - 1 for no real off-road skill required. Tyre pressures are recorded along with position and points awarded. Points are awarded for top 30 places which keeps it interesting and competitive.
CX Diary, 2015
I can’t ride off-road for shit. I like the idea of it but in practice I’m too timid. I ride off road like I ride on-road, trying to avoiding twigs, holes, stones… everything that looks slightly dangerous. I need to be able to ride in a straight line over everything. With no real dedicated off-road course locally (or anywhere for that matter) I use Peatlands Park a few miles from the house.
The goal here is to get used to riding a mix of terrain - and more importantly to do it at speed. Peatlands is essentially a park built on a peat bog with single track, bark paths, grass, lots of shin-deep leg sapping muck. There are bits where the bike has to be carried, lots of roots - essentially it’s got it all, in abundance.
There’s a 10km trail looping around the outskirts of the park - roughly the length of an average race. Takes around 45 minutes to cover it all. It’s ideal CX terrain. I’ve put in 3 sessions per week over September in the run up to the 1st race. Let’s see if there’s any payback.
Round 1: Lurgan Park
It seems a lot of people have also made plans. 1st race of the season usually attracts 30-40 riders. 100 have entered for Lurgan park. With no gridding all 100 riders are stretched across the park in one long line waiting for the gun. Think of the battle scenes of Braveheart mixed with the chariot race of Ben Hur and you’re close. The 1st corner ramps up to a section of banks and planks - it takes 1 minute for everyone to file through this section. Chaos but brilliant.
Speed: 8 - the course was fast, not necessarily me.
Mud: 2 - firm flowing course with some brutally tough switch backs on a steep bank at the back of the park.
Technical: 2 - nothing that called for much off road ‘skill’. A quick down ramp saw a lot of riders separated from their bikes at speed and with a fair bit of altitude.
PSI: 35 x 2 (could increase this to 40, 42 as course was firm)
Points: 1 (for finishing)
What I learned: Brutally hard from the off - nothing really prepares you. Pre race training helps - a lot. Finished without getting lapped. That’s one box ticked. Still not near fit enough. Skills nowhere near good enough but a massive improvement from last year.
Verdict: happy with that.
Upgrades: bike held up OK.
I’ve started training with the Island Wheelers in Windmill Wood on Thursdays - it’s a tough technical course that appears in Round 3.
Not a race I was looking forward to. I’ve seen races here before and they always look tough. Lots of off-camber corners with photographers (vultures).
A good splash of rain on race day meant it got slippy but not sloppy. The lack of a MTB race meant it didn’t get too cut up either
Sand featured heavily with 10-15m sand pit followed by a section of steps. I could hear my rims grind down to the tubes everytime I touched the brakes. Clipping back in was impossible. Fell on 1st lap and lost 10 places instantly but managed to claw them all back eventually. It’s a rooty gnarly course in and around the start/finish area where lots of riders came off.
PSI: 35 x 2
Points: none (separate competition not part of the league).
What I learned: good brakes mean you hold your speed and can brake late. I’m braking too early and scrubbing off too much speed into corners because I’ve shit brakes. 1 second a corner probably equates to 60 seconds per lap. That’s a lot of time. Sand needs power, steady, high cadence and a good deep furrow - managed OK.
Verdict: Happy with that - great racing and course. Atmosphere always brill on this course.
Upgrades: brakes need looking at. Ordered CX90 Cantis with some Koolstop Dura Pads. £60
Round 2: Necarne, Irvinestown
Bit of a trek up here today but a fantastic looking circuit, it’s dry if a bit cool. Didn’t fit brakes - not before a race day. So riding with practically no brakes - a firm, flat(ish) course meant brakes weren’t a major issue (apart from break-neck bank). Strange surface through horse arena and also a dozen steps to hawk the bike up. Looked bad but rode fine. Great twisty section in front of House to the finish - in the wet it would be a completely different course.
Technical: 3 - firm and fast.
PSI: 40 x 2
What I learned: Tighten cleats regularly - right cleat came loose and couldn’t clip out or clip in at will. A real pain.
Verdict: Got my first gridding of the year! That’s another box ticked. Remember to take your feckin’ scarf off before the race (Boilin’). CX starts are possibly the most chaotic thing you may ever experience on a bike - play the hand you’re dealt, try and hold your position as there’s always opportunity to move up during the race. Recognise your own race early and get stuck in - play to your strengths. Great race - right to the finish. Some superb battles right throughout the race. Inching closer. Picked up points too!!! (top 30). Equipment does take a bit of a severe beating from race to race - need to keep on top of it all.
Upgrades: bike held up OK but brakes need changed ASAP. My bars are shit - not compact enough. 100% riding on the hoods can be a bit sapping.
Round 4: Windmill Wood, Dungannon
a place I grew up in and know well. Raced here a few times and died a horrible death each time. Brutally hard course - probably the toughest and most technical of the whole series. Practiced the new course in the weeks leading up to the race. Quietly confident about getting close to that top 20 place early in the season as I can see technique improving slowly. This course is out to stop you - loads of options to lose time, fall and banjax yourself and the bike. It’s a course that favours really good technique as opposed to brute force and power but brute force and power is needed as it’s deceptively hilly.
PSI: 40 f 35 r (found tyre was rolling off front when coming at angle onto tarmac)
Position: DNF/80 - calf strain on 1st running section. Thought it would ride out. Got worse on lap 2. Bailed after lap 3.
What I learned: never be quietly confident. Warm up off the bike as well as on. Stretch everything well before the race. Should have fitted studs for the running section - a slip probably caused the strain. Get in the car and go straight home - not finishing isn’t worth sharing with anyone.
Upgrades: Brakes worked great - if noisy as hell. Front brake squealing like an intercity express train. New bars (from the shed) and bar tape, £10. New bars are just as bad as the old ones, I can see more money spent in the coming weeks. Pedals also need looking at - mud clearance is a factor. On 2nd lap I couldn’t get clipped back in and lost 5 places easily. M PD9000 - £60
Verdict:shite, shite and more shite! Pulled calf muscle doesn’t bode well for following weekend. Feet up and see how it goes midweek.
Round 4: Seapark, Larne
Position: DNS: the calf pull didn’t heal in time.
What I did: A light cycle on the Wednesday went OK. Did some offroad stuff on Thursday - went OK. New pedals feel so superior - incredibly so. Equipment is a major factor compared to road cycling. Flatted after 2 miles on Friday and walked back. Calf held up OK. Did small kids cycle on Sat and thought - “I’ll give this a good test” out of the saddle, pulled up and it snapped again. Sat spent with ice and leg elevated. Square one. I’ll be missing round 5 too. Need to keep up longer cycles and introduce running early in the Sept. That’s 3 races lost on account of a poor warm up! Big lesson there. STRETCH STRETCH STRETCH and light running earlier in the year.
Round 5: Bangor
All that was missing form this course was a diving board.
Position: DNS. Calf not great. Few small tests off the bike.
Upgrades: New loofah for the shower (£5) - best upgrade all year: Bottom bracket gone £25 : £25 Ambrosio Wheel Equilibrator (brass plate) £12!! FFS! Tighten everything.
Round 6: Craigavon
Lots of stretching before leaving the house. Did a good warm up with lots of running. Felt slow but confident I could finish at least.
Mud bath of a course with lots of running. Uphills were unrideable - put the calf to a good test. 6th row on grid, that was a huge advantage! Started very sluggish. Fitness totally gone, spat out the back immediately but picked up the pace after the first lap. The back section of the course was firm and give good opportunity to start moving a few places through the field. HR got up and going eventually and I felt good enough to finish top half at least.
Avoided the steps on the second lap by taking the bank to the side - pinched a kerb and flatted instantly. Went straight to the car!
PSI: 40 f 35 r (more pressure in rear would have stopped flat - but needed for mud).
Position: DNF/70 - flat.
What I learned: definitely get stuck back in - as all interest had almost completely gone. Lack of fitness means nothing goes smoothly. Leg held up which was the biggest plus. Stick to the course and don’t be a smart arse. One mistake and it’s all over. Set of tubs would not have pinched flat but I’d still have made a mess of it somewhere along the line. Back on track anyway. Fitness is like a game of poker, the chips are hard won but very easily lost.
Verdict: Disappointed not to finish or get more of a race but happy to be back at it.
Upgrades: new tube. £5.
Round 7: Ormeau Park, Belfast
So after 4 weeks of limping, DNFs and DNSs I’m off to Belfast and Ormeau Park and expecting a damn good kicking. A new course this year with less single track and more open grass areas. The amount of rain falling this season has seen conditions getting heavier and heavier each week. The course was certainly on a par as most technical so far - lots of corners, break-neck descents, climbing, running and muck. No real opportunities for stupid mistakes.
Tried to make up for lack of fitness by being a smart arse (again) and cutting corners, avoiding running and in the process falling over, riding into bushes, getting tape wrapped around things and being incredibly shit. As with the previous week when you try and be a smart arse things go wrong. Early on it was plain to see that riders who i was competing with 4 weeks ago are now 10-15 places ahead. If there was any doubt about the benefits of riding CX - they were plain to see. I got a damn good kicking. I enjoyed every second of it.
Mud: 7 - this was more like plasticine than mud - straight out of the River Lagan. The bike ground to a halt on a number of occasions.
PSI: 40 f 40
Position: 49/87 (Lapped! FFS!)
Points: 1 (for finishing)
What I learned: I learned that I was pure shite, that a few weeks without a full race sets you back more than a few weeks. Getting frustrated doesn’t help - just need to accept what’s in front of you and deal with it honestly. There are life lessons there too.
Verdict: Disappointed to get lapped but better than last week - that’ll do.
Round 8: St. Colum’s Park, Derry
Weighed this up for a few days as it’s long oul trek up to Derry and the conditions (rain, rain, rain) hadn’t improved all week. I was fit to ride so I stuck with the pre season plan and packed up and set off early. The rain was coming in sideways over Glenshane with waterfalls springing out through every gap in the hedge.
Probably the best flowing course all season - up there with Necarne. Tough as hell. Long flat sections broken up with seriously steep down sections and uphills, massive off camber banks and a lap of the the all weather track to finish. Tons of opportunity to kill yourself. However with improving technique and fitness everything was rideable which made for a great, hard fought race. Still way, way behind the guys I was mixing it with at the start of the season. Calf went again on the run!
What I learned: stick to the pre season plan - in my case “go to every race you’re fit to ride”. Support the race organisers as they put a huge amount of effort in and deserve the satisfaction of seeing people out there racing. Got that top 20 that I’d been aiming for so well worth the trip but more importantly it was a great day out on a great course with great individual battles. I need to start running again - that needs serious attention next season.
Verdict: Great day out, great course, great race, great finish and in the top 20, even though there was a small field.
Round 9: Falls Park, Belfast
Lots of talk from previous season about how good a course this was with many pushing it for the Provincial championships or even Nationals. The course had the potential to be fantastic but for a rider of such shit ability and fitness this was going to be a challenge. The relentless rain over the past few weeks had turned half the course into a thick, ankle deep soup of thick muck with the second half a blanket of leaves. The race is named “the race of the fallen leaves” - they were all stuck to me and the bike at the finish - It was like getting tarred and feathered. I knew I was fecked from the start so I reset the goal to (a) finishing and (b) not getting lapped.
What I learned: I now know why you need a second bike. Not getting lapped by fellas with 2 bikes and a team in the pits was a result for me. - I know what a really, really muddy course feels like to race in. The car wash at the BP Petrol Station opposite the course was choc-full of bikes getting hosed down afterward! If things are going shit, just readjust your goal - never bail out. You need to be able to run - on a course like this it’s as important as riding. I devised a new mud rating for courses.
New Mud Rating: Weight of bike before race (9kg) - weight of bike after race + mud (13kg). Work out weight gained (4kg), expressed as a percentage. Falls had a mud rating of 44.4%. I had to go back and regrade all the previous races based on this course
Verdict: I was pure balls on the Falls but was delighted to get the bell and finish.
Ulster Champs: Maghera.
DNS - I pulled a muscle in my back the week before - ruled that race out. I went up and took some pics instead. It was a lot easier.
Here are the pics.
Conclusion: How did the pre-season check list go.
• put in some off-road training over September: Yes, this paid off but starting in June would be even better - especially if you’re not racing at open level, running, competing XC or Duathlon/Triathlon.
• enter as many races as I’m fit to ride: Yes - rode everything I was fit to ride.
• finish all races AND without getting lapped: No - lapped in Ormeau.
• get gridded at least once: Gridded in 4 races. Getting gridded doesn’t mean a great pile, it’s encouraging, indicates that you’re going in the right direction plus it’s a bit of banter getting your named called at the start line.
• aim to finish a race in the top 20 toward the end of the season: Yes - top 20 in Derry… Just!
•enter the Ulster Championships and not make a tit of myself: No - wasn’t fit to but did get some good pics.
Points Total: 18 (I shook up the world, I shook up the world!!!!!)
Cleaning the bike eventually becomes chore, especially when it takes longer than the race took.
So where now? I’m just going to mosey about the club rides for a bit and get some enthusiasm back again. You lose touch with the club very quickly but it takes little effort to hook back up and start enjoying the bike again. Spring will hopefully see the start of running. I need a better engine all round. A few duathlons wouldn’t do any harm. Club races should keep things ticking over and maybe a few open road races toward the end of the summer… but I doubt it - the interest really isn’t there. New bikes are always the answer to every ill. I’ve had 4 years out of my current frame and it owes me nothing. Hope to encourage a few more club members to line up next year as well - although having read this they might decide against it.
Things start again 1st March - starting with a re-read of this diary.
Entry Level Costs:
So how much would it cost to get into the sport - real entry level costs.
This includes the bike and the costs of racing a typical season.
Bike: I’d built the bike up in 2012 for about £350 from a 2nd Ebay frame + tyres, 9 speed bits + training wheels in the shed. I’m certainly no bike mechanic but try and bodge as much as I can to keep costs down plus it’s all good to know. I’ve learned that equipment is important, more so than on a road bike but only if you really want to compete - a mixed bag of odds and ends from the shed certainly doesn’t stop you entering a race and competing.
Race fees: 10 x £12 £120
Limited Competition License: £60
Upgrades: Brakes £60, tape £10, pedals £60, pads £10, Tubes £5 (£165), BB £25.
Total: Call it £350
So all in all about £700 in total… give or take - throw in £50 for diesel over the season
rounding it up to £750 in total.
Not bad for a good rideable bike that’ll do you for years and 3-4 months of brilliantly organised events, great atmosphere and competition.
Cyclocross is unique and it’s honest (apart from the odd motor here and there). To be a great cross rider you need superb bike handling, incredible power/fitness and good maintenance/knowledge/selection of your equipment - all 3. To win a road race you don’t necessarily need the bike handling or for that matter the quality equipment. There’s no “sitting on a wheel” or “finishing in the bunch”. It’s you against the course, first and foremost. There’s loads of shoulder to shoulder racing but take your eye off the course and it’s over in a fraction of a second. Times and positions are published so there’s no kidding yourself. There’s no “I rolled around in the bunch”, “I finished in the group” malarkey. Bail out, finish last, get lapped…. it’s all up there in black and white… second by second, lap by humiliating muddy lap… for everyone to see.
As a result the only thing I find missing at cross races are large egos… and I quite like that.
Me… going fast… in reverse.
The Phoenix Trofee, Lady Dixon Park, Belfast
"My cigarette is the mild cigarette, that's why Chesterfield is my favourite" - Ronald Regan
The density of the road network coupled with lower number of cars suddenly strikes an almost perfect balance.
I started smoking in 1986. I was 16. Everyone smoked. My Da smoked. All my teachers smoked - in class, constantly. At 16 you could bring a note from your parents giving you permission to smoke in school. Friends smoked, brother smoked, girlfriend smoked. I started work at 18 in a local newspaper, I smoked at my desk. I could smoke on the bus to work. I could smoke on a train. I could smoke in a plane. I could smoke in a hospital. I could smoke in a bar. I could smoke in a restaurant. I could smoke in McDonalds. The Embassy World Snooker Championship was on TV. Snooker players smoked. Darts players smoked. Footballers smoked in dugouts and managers smoked on the touchline. Marlboro hung over the gantries in F1 racing, JPS, Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges plastered the cars and the drivers.
In many ways I was lucky though, at the start of the 90s smoking culture began to be dismantled. It still took me another 10 years to quit though.
In the 25 years we've spent raising the bar on access and opportunity to tobacco we have lowered the bar on our access and opportunity to use cars. We now live in a society where it's almost seen as a human right to own a car. Easy finance and a saturated 2nd hand market mean it's not just one car, 2, 3 and 4 cars isn't uncommon in some households. In most schools, student cars now outnumber those of staff in the school car park. Vehicles once used by the military now drop children off to primary schools. Children don't play outside, instead they're driven to swimming clubs, football clubs, youth clubs and driven home again - ironically because the roads are now too dangerous for children to walk or cycle. In the same 25 years the simple VW golf has become twice as heavy, twice a powerful, considerably longer and wider. The new Mini is a mini in name only.
The right tool for the right job.
"City fathers have to choose. Cars or bicycles. And in Copenhagen they’ve gone for the bike.The upshot is a city that works. It’s pleasing to look at. It’s astonishingly quiet. It’s safe. And no one wastes half their life looking for a parking space. I’d live there in a heartbeat." - Jeremy Clarkson.
The car's a great thing. Covering long distances in short time they're an amazing invention. But they were never intended to solve the problem of short distances. They were invented to replace those long journeys where railways didn't run. Where horses still pulled carriages long distances. 100 years ago trams, buses, bikes and walking had solved the problem of transport in inner cities but somehow a car culture left unchecked has eroded these systems and turned all city and town centres into car parks and traffic jams. In a similar way car culture eroded a rural public transport system. The train network was scrapped 60 years ago and isn't coming back. We have a patchwork public transport network in rural areas - in rural communities the car is now essential.
The solution for transporting large volumes of people efficiently in inner cities is the same in 2013 as it was in 1913 - trams, buses, bikes and walking. In terms of efficiency, value for money, health benefits and environmental benefits there's a clear winner - the bike.
World class cycle infrastructure - free of charge.
“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Albert Einstein.
The current demand is for a bridge across the Lagan to the Gasworks in Belfast. In Belfast there are currently 8 bridges across the river Lagan where cycling is possible. All along a relatively short stretch of river. Most have 2 lanes some have 4 lanes. All have footpaths. They're all fairly modern and well maintained. Why do we need another bridge solely for cyclists? Why can't we claim one of the existing bridges, or a lane or two at no cost? And while we're there a few of those minor roads, currently used as 'rat-runs' where a car has no business being. We can create dedicated cycle only roads in and out of the city linking up with Greenways, towpaths at no cost. The call for more 'cycle infrastructure" is always met with "we can't afford it". But we've already paid for it - it's all in place we simply need to shift our thinking on how we allocate it. Rather than continually calling for segregation of bikes, we should rapidly integrate bikes into a ready-made infrastructure. Segregation may still be needed between Greenways and inner city but within the city centre reduced car usage should make segregation largely redundant.
One of the things you realise when living in a rural area is, there's really enough room for everyone. The density of the road network coupled with lower number of cars suddenly strikes an almost perfect balance. To do the same in inner cities we need to reduce car access in key locations. The density of roads exists but there are too many cars allowed unrestricted access.
Here's a quick one. Botanic Avenue, Dublin Road, Linenhall St should be totally car free. Scrap on-street parking in Ormeau Ave, Donegal St, Castle St and Clifton St and use the freed up space for 2 way bike lanes. Pinch a lane in Sunnyside Street and another on the Kings Bridge and instantly you have a high-speed, 10 minute network from one side of the city to the other.
Knowing isn't enough
"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” Leonardo da Vinci.
Knowing tobacco was a killer for decades wasn't enough. I was 100% clear of consequences but still willingly bought into the smoking culture. Putting stickers on fag packets didn't work. TV commercials didn't work. Poster campaigns didn't work. Only when access and opportunity to cigarettes began to be restricted did the shift begin. I stopped smoking because i knew it was affecting my health, but crucially, it began costing too much and I couldn't smoke in all the places I used to.
Knowing that cars are a problem in towns and cities isn't enough. Painted lines and kerb stones without a cultural shift isn't enough. Painted lines and kerbs is the equivalent of putting a 'smoking kills' on fag packets, it's not persuading drivers out of their cars. As we did with tobacco we must do with cars, continue to tell people it's not good to use a car for every journey but we need to start restricting access, parking and raise prices.
When governments crunched the numbers, smoking was costing the NHS more than it was raking in in tobacco tax. If we can start boiling it down to 'value for money' then the argument and the culture shift will start.
Making cultural shifts.
So what measures do you introduce to start making the shift?
• Transport should be de-centralised and devolved to local authorites, it's not a one size fits all solution.
• Local authorities must produce a 5 year plan to reduce car usage in agreed areas and be forced to implement it.
• Proper, clean, extensive, reliable trams in Belfast, subsidised by expensive in-town parking and metered residential parking.
• Smart working from home. Victorian work practices that worked for industrial factories aren't applicable in a modern connected world. Over 30% of jobs in NI are in the Public Sector with the vast majority based in greater Belfast accounting for a lot of traffic each day. All the technology is in place to reduce the need to be in the office every day, can we start using it?
• No on-street parking in the "centres" of cities towns and villages.
• Cheap multi storey car parks just outside an agreed zone linking to, trams, bus and cycle network - "park and ride".
• Limited, very expensive multi storey car parking slightly further in, want to take your car into the city centre? You'll have to pay.
• Pay for parking in residential areas (residents with cars get a pass) - no more parking outside a strangers house all day without paying (visit the Holy Lands, Stranmills, Ormeau etc for examples).
• Visible bike culture - on street bike parking, stands outside shops, bars, cafés, pubs etc.
• Higher fuel costs in cities, lower fuel costs in rural areas.
• Trains/trams/buses that can take lots of bikes, at any time of day. Proper, covered, secure free bike parks at all stations
• Congestion tax.
• Park and ride (bus) at every motorway exit.
• More affordable, accessible car hire schemes - I don't need a car every day of the week.
• Bike hire at key locations - Universtiry, Titanic, City Hall, Waterfront etc.
• 20mph within all towns and cities.
• 50mph speed limit on all minor roads.
• 80mph on motorways - this is where the car works, free it up and compensate for lowered speed limits elsewhere.
I realise it all sounds very radical but these are measures employed in other parts of the world.
How will we know the shift has happened?
We'll know the shift has happened when we can say some of the following.
• I remember being able to park on the street close by the City Hall for £1 an hour
• I remember being able to park outside a complete stranger's house all day - free
• I remember being able to drive straight through the city centre, anytime day or night - free
• I remember being able to take the car to school and park in the staff car park
• I remember being able to drive at 30mph through residential streets and past primary schools
• I remember being able to drive any size of car, anywhere, at any time without any restrictions
• I remember being able to own as many cars as I wanted
• I remember when you rarely saw a bike in the city centre
• I remember when Government announced rising car sales as a good thing
• I remember we used to own a car
Cigarette butts, Writers' Square, Belfast.
The UCI's sudden relish in enforcing rule 1.2.019 seems to have come as a bolt from the blue to race organisers in the USA and beyond. It's a rule no one seems to have heard of and the UCI was not too fussed on enforcing until recently. So why the sudden change?
The UCI's biggest problem is that cycling is now awash with creative people - all outside the tent pissing in.
Many of the (unsanctioned) organisers argue that the boom in cycling is a consequence of their work on the ground unhindered for the past 10 years, rather than a bunch of press releases from Aigle.
Pat McQuaid is claiming the boom in cycling to be his doing, pointing to the million spectators at the Olympic road race. So who’s right?
To try and explain the boom lets take a cross section of World Cycling, a snap shot of 1 country over the past 30 years, Ireland.
It’s your average cycling nation, some big names over the years but its membership would indicate that it’s not a hotbed, it’s not a national sport as it would be in Holland, Belgium and France. I’ll look at why the numbers have risen here and draw broad conclusions as to where the growth in world cycling has come from. Stick with me.
So here’s the chart as it appeared on CI’s website, they’ve added their own labels to point to the growth triggers at various times. I’d challenge them.
The first upturn happens in 1985. Why?
Boom years 1985-1990
TV and English.
Between 1980-84 membership remains fairly consistent at around 2000. This represents the core membership below which numbers never fall. You could call this the cycling bedrock. All countries have it. The first spike above 2000 members is in 1985 when a new UK broadcaster, Channel 4, spotted an opportunity, took a gamble and started covering Le Tour in 30 mins slots every evening. Cycling and TV are the perfect combination - suddenly there’s a spike in membership.
LeMonde was the first native English speaker to win the TDF in 1986 - coinciding with C4 coverage. We get the experience first hand, straight from the horse’s mouth not via an interpreter or captions. Making the experience more immediate and tangible. LeMond was quickly followed by Roche, then LeMond’s comeback. Over the span of LeMond’s TDF wins, membership doubles. (From 1986-2012 native English speakers have won the TDF 13 times (ok minus 8 but we’ll get to that). 50% of TDF winners have been native English speakers in that time. This can’t be ignored.)
Bust years 1991-2001
Drugs and drama
We all thought of road racing as a gritty realist documentary. Hinault blowing up on Superbagneres, Roche collapsing at the top of the La Plagne. Fignon folding on the Champs. However, drama dried up as Indurain terminated his was to 5 straight wins at Le Tour in the dullest fashion imaginable. The lack of a native English speaker mixed with the increasing stench of doping began to see an effect on cycle growth. Cycling was a switch off. Festina showed us all that gritty realism had been replaced with big budget special effects. Pro cycling was and has remained a mess ever since.
During the Indurain era membership steadily declined and failed to recover for the next 5 years. Even with Pat McQuaid at the helm of Cycling Ireland from 1996-99, the ship failed to turn around. Even securing a TDF start in Dublin didn’t have much success in raising membership nationally. By 2001 cycling was clearly back to square one.
Failure baked in.
Cycle clubs are made up from very hard working volunteers, badly funded and de-motivated by poor management and a lack of support/funding by their national federation. Most creative, innovative thinking gets driven out at this early stage.
National federations are made up from hard working volunteers, badly funded, badly managed and largely demotivated by poor management and support from the UCI.
National Federation members eventually reach top table at the UCI and eventually we get a president, Pat McQuaid. You can’t really complain when we end up with Pat McQuaid - the culture guarantees a lack of imagination. I’m not blaming the people - far from it, I’m blaming the system. It’s a system that weeds out innovation and imagination at the grassroots. To quote LBJ it would be much better ‘having them inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”.
THE BOOM 2001-2013
Whilst pro-cycling was busy disappearing up its own backside - American bike enthusiasts with time on their hands and little regard for road racing, rules or the UCI had been racing old cruiser bikes down the sides of mountains in the late 70s. They were innovative, risk-takers some of them turned out to be savvy business people. In 1980 Specialised launched the Stumpjumper. Disc brakes, suspension, high gearing, rapid-fire shifting followed. Whilst road bike sales were dropping off a cliff, the technology and innovation going into MTB was driving a market and a sport that the UCI had no hand in and no means of controlling. The USA began outsourcing to Asia and inevitably MTB production moved to Taiwan. Eventually these innovative, entrepreneurial Taiwanese companies began producing their own bikes and developing their own brands.
In 1997 Giant (Taiwanese bike company) spotted a huge gap. Road bikes were always a tailor-made Saville Row affair, bespoke, expensive, exclusive, elitist. Giant, following the MTB model, simplified sizing giving us off-the-peg S M & L. You could now do the research, buy a bike on-line and get it delivered to your door. No need for a club or a bike shop or the UCI. Decades of innovation, unhindered by the UCI, coupled with the internet, easy credit and bikes now costing less than £1000 off-the-peg kick-started road cycling again. Look at the graph in that light.
Yes - it’s Lance Armstrong! He was spotted by innovative, risk-taking business people with no regard for the UCI or its rules & regulations. We couldn’t get enough of the yellow wristband, the Livestrong logos, the books and the quotes. It’s now emerging the UCI was not only on the Gravy Train but actively stoking it. Armstrong generated more bike sales, more TV coverage, more column inches and more UCI licenses than was ever thought imaginable. Look at the graph in that light.
Fat blokes in Lycra.
What to do with the dreaded ‘leisure’ cyclist (that’s what CI call them). The UCI wants champions not fat middle aged blokes in Lycra.
Give them the odd ‘reliability run’ a few ‘leisure tours’ that’ll keep them happy while we get on with the serious stuff, developing champions.
Not happy with this, innovative club members with a head for marketing and a desire to encourage more people to cycle, turned tired old ‘touring’ events and ‘reliability runs’ into Grand Fondos and Sportives inspired by the French and Italians. Sportives are a phenomenon, once again not of the UCI’s making and outside their control.
The awful phrase ‘leisure cyclist’ is still used. It’s patronising, snooty and ignores the largest cycling demographic.
Fat blokes in lycra who rode drop-bars as kids in the 70’s have saved the Cycling Ireland/UCI’s bacon not Brad and Vino. Statistics from one of Ireland’s largest Sportives show that 75% of cyclists taking part are not members of the UCI. Potentially 75% of the million roadside at the Olympic road race have no idea what the UCI is/does.
The future champions will be the sons and daughters of fat blokes in Lycra.
Stop creating - start curating.
The UCI’s biggest problem is that cycling is now awash with creative people - all outside the tent pissing in. Creating new clubs, new products, new bikes, new bike shows, new web platforms, new clothing ranges, new magazines (with old journalists digging up older dirt), new race formats and new races. The UCI are terrified the ‘next big thing’ is going to happen and they won’t control it.
What the UCI and most of us fail to realise is that Cycling isn’t sport, it’s art. Digging out Rule 1.2.019 is akin to announcing (in an Irish accent) “There shall be no more movements in modern art without running it past us first - we don’t want another Picasso on our hands!”.
Cycling is an art form with many ‘movements’. One day racing is a ‘movement’ and Paris-Roubaix is its masterpiece. Stage racing is a movement and the Tour De France is its masterpiece. Cyclocross is a movement. Mountain biking is a movement. BMX is a movement. None of them created by the UCI. Masterpieces can be revisited countless times and still deliver a new experience, that’s what these great races do - deliver something new every year. Rather than think of themselves as ‘creators’ of events they should see themselves as ‘curators’ of a rich cycling heritage. They are the Tate, The Guggenheim and MOMA rolled into one. Their business isn’t creating art it’s protecting it, promoting it and nurturing new movements. Until the UCI realise their job is not to create but to curate they will continue to make a mess of it.
The UCI are not going to develop the next big thing, they never have, it’s not their job. That job belongs to cyclists, wanting to create something different, something better and something new. Let them do the creating. That’s why cycling is art, that’s what makes it different.
An old institution bolts the door, Dungannon, Co. Tyrone