How to watch the cobbled Classics, an incomplete guide for spectators

At this time of year, I get asked quite often for tips on how to watch the spring Classics. I’ve been travelling to Belgium and northern France for twenty years now so I’ve accumulated a bit of experience and my advice is usually the same so I thought I’d post the answers to some of the most common questions here for anyone who is visiting the cobbled Classics this spring.

The Oude Kwaremont is a great place to watch and is used by several races.

The Oude Kwaremont is a great place to watch and is used by several races.

The first question is, where to stay?

The resident cat at Kortrijk’s De Dingen bar. Currently closed for a refurb but hopefully both the bar and the cat will be back.

The resident cat at Kortrijk’s De Dingen bar. Currently closed for a refurb but hopefully both the bar and the cat will be back.

I’ve stayed in Bruges (when the Tour of Flanders started there), Gent and Oudenaarde, but the most convenient base for all of the cobbled Classics is Kortrijk. It’s within perfect reach of many of the races – Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the E3 BinckBank Classic, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, the Tour of Flanders and even the Three Days of Bruges-De Panne (which is, naturally, a one day race now). It’s even easy to reach the back end of the Paris-Roubaix route and, without disparaging the north-eastern corner of France too much, is far more pleasant a place to use as a base than Lille, which is big, bland and sprawling, or Valenciennes. There are some great bars and restaurants in Kortrijk too, although a favourite, De Dingen (which has a cat that lives in the bar), was closed for a refurb when we visited for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier this month. We tried instead the cosy Gainsbar, which was recommended by Harry Pearson (whose book The Beast, The Emporer and the Milkman: A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands is out now). As for eating, I used to really like the Beethoven for its chateaubriand but it has started to feel old-fashioned lately. De Heeren van Groeninghe is not immediately obvious from the street (it’s at 36 Groeningestraat) but it’s a smart place for consistently excellent steak and beer.

The clock tower in Kortrijk’s main square.

The clock tower in Kortrijk’s main square.

Don’t try to do too much

My days of extreme hill-hopping and cobble-hunting are over. Ten or fifteen years ago it was still possible to criss-cross the countryside and see the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix half a dozen or so times, but the crowds are bigger, the traffic is worse and, frankly, my attitude to risk is more conservative. Dumping the car on a grass verge and running across a field was fun in my 20s but these days I prefer to prioritise fewer but better sightings of the race. If you’re a first-time visitor it’s far better to scale back your ambition and see the race well twice or three times on a famous hill or stretch of cobblestones.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Skip the start of the biggest races

If you want to go to the start of a race and wander round the team buses, go to one of the smaller events. Antwerp on the morning of the Tour of Flanders attracts huge crowds and it’s difficult to get close to the riders. The same goes for Compiègne on the morning of Paris-Roubaix. But Harelbeke for the start of the E3 BinckBank Classic Prix and Roeselare for the start of Dwars Door Vlaanderen are far less busy.

Apart from Paris-Roubaix, don’t bother with the finish either

The finish lines are dominated by barriers and grandstands for VIPs and, generally, not a great place to watch the race. The exception is Paris-Roubaix. Access to the André-Pétrieux velodrome is free and there’ll be a big screen in the track centre.

A giant cobblestone guards the entrance to the velodrome in Roubaix.

A giant cobblestone guards the entrance to the velodrome in Roubaix.

Kwak, a better beer than the novelty glass suggests. Enjoy in moderation because it’s deceptively strong.

Kwak, a better beer than the novelty glass suggests. Enjoy in moderation because it’s deceptively strong.

Take cash

There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a whiff of frites or hot dogs on the wind, patting your pockets, searching your wallet, and realising you don’t have any cash. Ditto if you pass a bar selling great Belgian beers.

Pick two or three vantage points in advance, but where?

The course at the Tour of Flanders tempts everyone to go to either the Oude Kwaremont (where the race passes three times) or Paterberg (twice). Of course, lots of other people have the same idea and in recent years the police have stopped public cars from getting much closer to the Oude Kwaremont than the village of Kluisbergen. It’s quite a hike from there to the hill but once you’re there you can settle in for the afternoon. The Oude Kwaremont is a great place to watch because it’s a long climb by Flanders standards and the bunch spreads out into a line. If you’ve never been to the Tour of Flanders before this will give you an idea of what it’s all about.

At Paris-Roubaix, it’s possible to see the race at Troisville (the first section of cobbles (Sector 29 – after 93 kilometres), then at the famous Arenberg forest (Sector 20 after 161 kilometres) and then make it to a third spot (I’d either Sector 5 at Camphin-en-Pévèle or Carrefour de l’Arbre) or make it to the velodrome in Roubaix to enjoy the atmosphere and watch the race unfold on the big screen. In recent years it’s become harder to chase Paris-Roubaix by car because several of the key motorway junctions are closed off. My advice is to see it well fewer times rather than attempt too much. A wrong turn at the wrong time can lead to missing the race altogether.

The E3 BinckBank Classic starts and finishes in Harelbeke, just up the road from Kortrijk and so it’s easy to go to the start, watch the riders roll out and then head down to the hills to watch the action on either the Taaienberg or Paterberg.

There are two obvious places to see Gent-Wevelgem but the timetable makes it very difficult to see both. They climb the Kemmelberg from one side (Belvedère approach) and then the other (Ossuaire approach), visiting the gravel Plugstreets in between. The Plugstreets are only ten or so kilometres away but by the time you’ve got back to the car and navigated your way between the two places (avoiding the race route) it’s likely you’ll have missed them. If you’ve never been before, the Kemmelberg is the place to go. Save the Plugstreets for a second visit.

The Plugstreets have added a new dimension to Gent-Wevelgem in recent years.

The Plugstreets have added a new dimension to Gent-Wevelgem in recent years.

Dwars Door Vlaanderen takes place on a weekday afternoon and, like the E3 BinckBank Classic and Three Days of De Panne, offers a chance to see some of the less well-known things Flanders has to offer. The Knokteberg (also known as the Côte de Trieu) is not cobbled but is tackled twice and the long Mariaborrestraat section of cobbles, which morphs into Steenbeekdries, is also a good place to see.

What else is there to do?

Take your bike. Riding the roads gives a deeper appreciation and understanding of the region and the place cycling plays in the culture. The bike paths and canal towpaths mean you can ride for hours segregated from the traffic. There are signposted cycle routes everywhere – so much so that it’s actually trickier to follow a set route than just decide where to go yourself. With a GPS or smartphone it’s never been easier to find where you want to go. I still remember the day 15 or so years ago when I rode up and down a main road and its tributaries for about an hour and a half looking for the Koppenberg, not realising it was just off a smaller adjacent road.

From Kortrijk it’s easy to ride across to the velodrome in Roubaix (although the suburbs of Roubaix and Lille are not the greatest cycling country because there’s a fair bit of traffic). From Kortrijk, the Kemmelberg is only 40 kilometres away (plan to have lunch iin Ypres). Likewise, Kluisbergen (25 kilometres) and Oudenaarde (33 kilometres) are within easy reach and form two points of the golden triangle that includes so many of the famous climbs. Even Geraardsbergen is only 60 or so kilometres from Kortrijk so it’s possible to ride out to the Muur and back without biting off more than you can chew. (Be wary of the wind direction though – I’ve flown in one direction only to blow up grinding back into the headwind later on many times, but that’s all part of riding in this region).

If you’re heading to Oudenaarde, check out the Centrum Ronde Van Vlaanderen – a museum and cafe dedicated to the Tour of Flanders.

In summary

Have fun – a weekend (or longer) following races in Flanders is to be enjoyed. I’ve always found the rhythm and pace of the Classics preferable to the grand tours. It’s all about the anticipation, the build-up and the moment. People live and breathe cycling until the broomwagon has passed and then normal life takes over and everyone potters to the nearest bar or back home. It really, really matters, the passion is real, but there’s also a sense of perspective. Perhaps it’s because everyone knows there's another race next week, or next year, I don’t know.

Further listening

The Lionel of Flanders, my podcast series for Friends of The Cycling Podcast, covers a week-long trip to Dwars Door Vlaanderen, the E3 Classic and Gent-Wevelgem in 2017.

Flanders Fever and Opening Weekend are my trips to the 2016 and 2019 editions of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Further reading

The Ronde, Inside the world’s toughest bike race is Edward Pickering’s book on the history and culture of the Tour of Flanders.

The Beast, the Emperor and the Milkman, A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands by Harry Pearson is also recommended. Both Edward and Harry made an appearance in The Lionel of Flanders.



The climate of fear

It’s been fascinating, and very revealing, to see the attitudes towards the young people taking part in the climate protests yesterday laid bare in the media, both social and mainstream.

So far, I’ve seen the protesters accused of simply wanting a day off school. Well, maybe, but every cause attracts people who just want to tag along and that doesn’t undermine the message.

One of them was criticised for holding a water bottle from a chain cafe. What are they supposed to do? Pop down to the Thames, cup their hands and put some water in their pockets for later? The idea that you can’t care about the state of the environment unless you shun everything about the way the world works is nuts. Ian Hislop made Louise Mensch look pretty foolish on Have I Got News For You a few years back when she suggested that a man protesting about the financial sector was ‘accepting everything capitalism had to offer’ by having a cup of coffee from Starbucks. This is the same as the nonsensical argument that says you can’t express sympathy for the plight of migrants without volunteering to put half a dozen people up in your own house.

They’ve been accused of not understanding enough about the subject. That doesn’t stop many adults.

They’ve been told they’ve been brainwashed. Right-o, Daily Mail readers.

Some of them were criticised for using cardboard to make placards. But cardboard is recyclable.

They’ve been accused of being hippies who will probably end up taking drugs. Weird argument.

They’ve been accused of swearing. So fucking what?

And they’ve been accused of not having a solution to the climate problem – the same climate problem that some insist doesn’t even exist, or isn’t exacerbated by human activity. The implication here is that if they can’t offer a concrete solution they should stay quiet. This is possibly the stupidest argument of all. For a start, they’re schoolchildren. It’s not their job – yet – to set or implement Government policy. They can’t even vote but they will be able to soon, and the fact that so many of them are aware of the environmental challenges facing their generation and the ones that will follow them is heartening.

I won’t list them by name here, but it’s interesting that the most vocal critics are all the sorts of people you’d expect them to be. And it strikes me that the accusations and criticism are all motivated by the same basic emotion. Fear.

Fear that young people might not fancy accepting things as they are. Fear that they might recognise some of the failings of the society they are being asked to inherit. Fear among older people that their own complacency and acceptance might not have worked out to be in their own interests. And ultimately a fear that they might have to change their behaviours or make some sacrifices.

The climate debate is exhausting and I’m not going to get into it here other than to say that arguing about whether or not it is man-made is really a waste of time. It is peculiar, though, that the consensus of 90-plus per cent of climate scientists is dismissed by so many people.

What is not in dispute is that the climate is changing and our environment is littered and polluted in all sorts of ways. A huge belt of the planet is getting hotter and less habitable. In the developed world the answer to that is to install air conditioning everywhere, making the problem worse. In the less developed world the answer will inevitably be migration, which has significant consequences for parts of the developed world.

But the thing is, it really doesn’t matter what is causing the ice caps to melt, the sea to rise, the insects to die out. There are about 60 harvests left (or 40, or 100 depending on who you read, but still not many). When the drinking water runs out or the crops fail to grow or great stretches of land are flooded it’s really not going to matter what caused it to happen. But if there is a chance that changing things may alleviate the problems why would any sensible person reject that idea with a bitter soundbite?

Seeing the politicians, columnists and commentators attack the schoolchildren for having the temerity to express an opinion tells us plenty. They may as well say, ‘Pipe down pipsqueaks and know your place.’ And that’s a short-cut to losing the argument.

Bring on the magic of the cup but not too much magic, please

Watford are playing away at Woking in the FA Cup tomorrow and I am nervous.

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One hundred and eleven places separate the two teams in the league pyramid. Watford are currently eighth in the Premier League, Woking are five divisions lower, in the regionalised National League South, although they are currently flying high, pushing Torquay United for the one automatic promotion place into the top tier of non-league football.

When the draw was made, I was delighted. I’ve never seen Watford play a competitive fixture away at a non-league ground and although it might seem like quite a specific and obscure one to tick off the wish list it’s something I always hope for every time the balls come out of the perspex drum when the FA Cup third round draw is made each December.

Cup magic feels like it is in short supply these days, not least because a perspex drum has long replaced the old velvet bag for the draw protocol. We can see the cards hidden in the magician’s sleeve, partly because the whole game is over-exposed and partly because the top clubs can afford to rest an entire first eleven for the early rounds of the cup and still not risk an upset. When a big side is knocked out, there’s often the mitigating factor of a weakened team or a half-empty stadium. Gone are the days when the FA Cup meant everything to everyone.

The giantkillings of my childhood – York City stunning Arsenal with a last-minute Keith Houchen penalty at a snowy Bootham Crescent in 1985, or Wrexham beating Arsenal a few years later or, arguably the biggest upset of all time, when Matthew Hanlan’s goal for Sutton United helped knock out Coventry City – are still images I can summon in a heart-beat. And although it happened before I was born, the sight of Hereford United’s Ronnie Radford striding through the mud to connect with the ball and send it flying past the Newcastle United goalkeeper is burned into my mind’s eye. It’s been played thousands of times since and has become a visual shorthand for the days when the FA Cup filled grounds and captivated the nation.

With 24 hours to go until kick-off at Woking’s Kingfield Stadium the thought of Watford being on the receiving end of an upset is beginning to feel a bit too real. I watch enough National League South football to know that Woking’s pitch will be in decent condition – even non-league clubs don’t have to play on patchy, sand-covered fields anymore, unless there’s a really sustained period of bad weather. I know that Woking will have plenty of players with at least a bit of Football League experience so the old cliché about non-league sides consisting of the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker no longer applies. From what I can gather, Woking are more or less a full-time outfit these days, and if their players have a sideline it’s probably more likely to be as fitness consultants or personal trainers.

I am looking forward to standing on a packed terrace and being part of a day that Woking’s supporters will remember for a long time whether they win, lose or draw.

I just hope it’s not too memorable. I am also hoping Watford don’t take their opponents lightly because I don’t want to see images of Woking’s players in their smart Feyenoord-esque red and white-halved shirts celebrating at our expense over and over and over again for the rest of time.

A cycling challenge for 2019

My New Year’s resolution this year was not to make any New Year’s resolutions – especially not where cycling is concerned. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve set arbitrary goals for the year – either a certain number of kilometres or hours to ride per week, or a set number of rides per week, or any number of monthly or annual targets. They all end up being pointless because I fail and feel faintly sad about that failure, which inevitably detracts in a small way from the enjoyment of cycling.

Who knows where the road will lead?

Who knows where the road will lead?

So my New Year’s resolution – not that it’s a resolution, mind – is to ride my bike when I want for as long or as short as I want and just enjoy the process of turning the pedals for its own sake.

One of the most enjoyable weekends of last year was going cycling with Ned Boulting and Simon Gill from Cambridge to Southwold and back over a glorious, sunny June weekend. It was a ride that was one per cent work and 99 per cent pleasure because I documented the journey for an episode of The Cycling Podcast’s new series, Explore.

Explore looked at the worlds of bikepacking, ultra endurance and endurance riding and I was nervous about dedicating an episode of the series to our pleasant weekend ride to the seaside and back. The series featured so many inspirational stories. Between us, Hannah Troop, Richard Moore and I interviewed James Hayden, who has won the past two editions of the Transcontinental; Michael Broadwith, who broke the 17-year-old Land’s End to John O’Groats record; Jenny Graham and Mark Beaumont, who hold the round the world records for women and men; and several others who have done some seriously impressive things on two wheels.

All Ned, Simon and I did was ride to Southwold for fish and chips and a few pints. And I made Ned and Simon carry my luggage. Hardly the stuff of legends. (Mind you, Ned rode a heavy old beast of a bike and was covering the ground quicker than me on my carbon-fibre machine.)

The 2018 Cambridge-Southwold-Cambridge Classic. Photo by Simon Gill.

The 2018 Cambridge-Southwold-Cambridge Classic. Photo by Simon Gill.

My reasoning was that I wanted the series as a whole to feel accessible to as many people as possible. There’s no way I’m going to cycle to Australia, or round the world. I’m never going to break a point-to-point record. And if I ever decide to take on something like the Transcontinental I’ll not be able to trouble the top 90 per cent of finishers. But I do love cycling, and especially the feeling of rolling out in the morning and finishing somewhere completely different in the afternoon.

Because Ned is such good company, and one of those people who has something interesting to say on more or less anything, I thought it would make a pleasant listen. And, in its own little way, I hope it’s been inspiring too. It’s certainly motivated me to think of a manageable challenge to tackle in 2019.

The idea I’ve come up with is the Magical Mystery Tour (with apologies to the Beatles) which will be a multi-day crowd-sourced luxury bikepacking adventure dictated to me (and whoever I can persuade to join me) by podcast listeners and people on social media.

The plan is to set out one day in June (probably) and ask people on Twitter to suggest our destination for the day. As Hannah has pointed out several times during the course of the debute series of Explore, my parameters are fairly narrow, so I won’t be riding 200 kilometres a day or anything silly but we’ll try to make it a challenging distance each day. At the end of each day we’ll ask for tomorrow’s destination. I’m not sure whether we’ll select from a short list or put it to a public vote, we’ll see.

At the moment the details are sketchy. It could be a three, five or seven-day adventure, it might just be me riding, or the whole thing might not work at all, but I love the idea of surrendering control and letting the imagination of others determine the journey for us. Who knows where it’ll take us – perhaps we’ll even leave the United Kingdom? (And with Brexit due to happen in March, maybe we won’t make it back).

So that’s my challenge for 2019.

Goodbye, Simon

My friend Simon Ricketts died yesterday and even though I’d known it was coming and we’d had time to say our goodbyes and brace ourselves, it still hit me like a half-volley to the solar plexus when I received a text message confirming the worst. I was at Vicarage Road, and it was half-time. The tears gathered in the corners of my eyes and I knew I had to leave the stadium and get home so I could let them roll free and seek solace in a warm hug.

The reaction on social media to Simon’s death from cancer has been overwhelming and shows just how many lives he touched, sometimes in seemingly small ways, sometimes from afar.

Great friends, terrible shirts.

Great friends, terrible shirts.

Simon helped me so much in the 25 years I knew him that I cannot possibly do justice to him or our friendship in a few hundred words. I could tell dozens of stories to show just what a funny, talented and kind person he was, and I may do that in time, but for now I’ll share one memory which will always make me smile and which, to me, epitomises his generosity and his humour.

We were young journalists at the Watford Observer who’d been promoted to the sub-editing desk – some might say too early – thanks to a round of redundancies. For those who don’t know what that entails, it was our job to draw the pages – positioning the columns of text and photographs and subbing the copy to fit. We corrected errors, tried not to introduce new ones, polished and buffed a bit here and there and wrote the headlines.

It was a brilliant job because we had space to experiment, we worked hard, were enthusiastic, learned from our mistakes and encouraged each other. It was through that work that our friendship developed. Although we weren’t paid well the money really didn’t matter until it ran out a few days, or sometimes a week, before pay day.

Then we’d run up a tab in the office canteen, settling it when our wages landed, before the whole cycle started again.

One day, a few days before pay day, Simon asked if I wanted to go into the town centre at lunchtime.

‘There’s no point,’ I said. ‘I’m out of money.’

‘Me too,’ he said.

‘So what’s the point of going?’

‘Well, it’s better than sitting around here isn’t it? Come on.’

On the way, Simon announced he had to pay the minimum balance on his credit card bill or else he’d get another penalty.

‘How are you going to do that?’ I asked.

‘Something will turn up.’

‘How much is the minimum payment?’

‘Thirty quid.’

When I think back now, the difference in our demeanour that day said a lot about our respective characters. I was sulking at the unfairness of it all and chiding myself for failing to manage my budget better, Simon was acting like he hadn’t a care in the world.

I guess that was also because he already had an ingenious solution in mind.

We headed to the bank, where he withdrew £50 from the cash machine using his credit card. Then he strolled into the branch and paid the £30 minimum balance off the very same credit card bill with the cash he’d just taken out of the wall. Finally, he emerged brandishing a crisp twenty pound note between his finger and thumb like a triumphant lottery winner. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ll buy you a burger and chips.’

And so we went to a burger place and had the lunch of kings and for half an hour or so didn’t have a worry in the world.

When people talk about the meaning of friendship, or just want to convey what a decent person someone is, they’ll say something like, ‘He’s the sort of guy who’d give you his last pound.’

Well, that is more or less what Simon did that day. He got one up on the bank – for a little while, at least – and shared his ‘winnings’ with his friend. Over the years, he gave me so many metaphorical last pounds that our friendship made me feel like a millionaire.

* * *

One of Simon’s many nicknames was Monkey Man. I’m not sure how it came about but he embraced it and it summed up his playfulness, his mischievousness, his reluctance at times to live anywhere other than in the present, and, yes, the fact he had quite a lot of body hair.

For Christmas, Simon and his partner, Andrea, gave our three-month-old daughter a cuddly monkey. I had worried I’d not be able to introduce Simon to our daughter because she had a lingering chest infection shortly after she was born and we were advised not to take her near vulnerable people. So we waited until it was safe and, fortunately, were able to take her to meet Simon a few weeks ago. There was a beautiful moment when they looked into each other’s eyes and she smiled. It’s a moment I will treasure for the rest of my days.

And although our daughter won’t remember that meeting, we’ll have Uncle Simon, the cuddly monkey, to remind us (not that we’ll need prompting) to tell her about him and to encourage in her Simon’s values of love, fairness, empathy and great, great humour.

Thank you, Simon, for everything.

A meeting with my MP

On Friday I met my MP, Bim Afolami, at one of his regular constituency surgeries in the village where I live. It was a meeting that came about after I’d emailed him a couple of months ago in response to a Tweet by the Conservative Party which said: ‘We’re cracking down on dangerous cycling.’

As I said at the time, my issue with this Tweet was that it was dogwhistling to the element of society who already feel dangerously entitled when they get in their cars and take to the roads. To certain people it’s an easy win to label cyclists as red-light-jumping Lycra louts but to anyone who is serious about improving safety for all it is obvious that the Goverment should tackle things in the order of the scale and severity of the danger they pose.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the meeting but it was a much more open and constructive experience than I had anticipated. Dare I say it was even enjoyable. It was certainly disarming to learn that Mr Afolami is well aware of the benefits of cycling. It turns out his brother-in-law is Oli Broom, who cycled to Brisbane to watch the cricket and wrote an entertaining book about it called Cycling to the Ashes.

So I didn’t need to fall back on my prepared arguments about the benefits of the cycling industry to the economy, the impact of cycling (and walking) on people’s health and tackling obesity, or the fact that our air quality is slowly suffocating us. It seems pretty obvious to me that the more people who can be persuaded to ditch their cars, particularly for short journeys, the better for everyone.

I did, though, make my case based on my experience of riding on the roads – the terrible surfaces and poor repairs, the level of aggression from some drivers, the fact that I find it grimly ironic that my attempts to avoid main roads feels futile when so many drivers duck into the lanes and use them as cut-throughs, veering from verge to verge and seeming to be surprised when they encounter cyclists, or horse riders for that matter. If I’m supposed to get off the main roads for my own safety and the lanes resemble a round of the world rally driving championship (particularly in the morning and late afternoon), where am I supposed to ride?

Anyway, Bim – I can call him Bim now, I think – said that he was not particularly enamoured with that Tweet either and he was not surprised that it was deleted shortly afterwards. I am paraphrasing here, but he explained that after the General Election the Tories realised their use of social media had been lacking so they hired a lot more people and as a result there was perhaps less supervision or sign-off on social media messages than might be ideal. I reiterated that the use of words is important and the governing political party should be prepared to be held to account for lazy stuff like this, especially if the consequence is to justify attitudes that risk the safety of others. He didn’t really disagree with that point.

It was a very constructive conversation and we agreed that we would go for a bike ride at some point – probably in the spring – to talk a bit more. He also expressed an interest in attending the next Fête du Velo, the annual festival of cycling organised in Redbourn by Simon Barnes, the former owner of the Plowman Craven cycling team and now owner of The Hub cafe and Bike Loft shop in the village.

The conversation took a more tense, and intense, turn when I talked about my recent experience with the NHS. I will write about that another time because I want to make sure I’m not misinterpreted or misunderstood. I would like to clarify, though, that my issue was not with the staff but with the conditions they have to work in, conditions that have been created by a series of political choices that we all have to take our share of responsibility for.

The Cycling Podcast at the Wimbledon Book Fest. Photo by Nick Gregan.

The Cycling Podcast at the Wimbledon Book Fest. Photo by Nick Gregan.

After the meeting, I headed to Wimbledon to meet Richard and Orla before The Cycling Podcast’s slot at the Wimbledon Book Festival. It was a beautiful event and a real privilege to be a part of it. In the other, larger tent were Sebastian Faulks, the author of the brilliant Birdsong, followed by Graham Norton. I joked with Orla about Ireland’s two biggest broadcasters being on the same bill and she laughed (little did she know I was referring to Graham and me), then suggested we should have had a tipping chair to propel us out of tent if any of our anecdotes got too boring.


Despite feeling a little out of practice beforehand – it’s been a while since we spoke before a live audience – it went well. My fuzzy, cotton-headed brain, addled by sleep deprivation and the sensory overload of becoming a parent, cleared just enough to be more or less coherent.

The Cycling Podcast will be live in Cardiff on November 27. Tickets are still available here

The pheasant that came for tea

A pheasant has taken up residency in our garden. It’s a young female, we think, and we first spotted it yesterday afternoon when I opened the back door and startled it.

The trapped pheasant.

The trapped pheasant.

It has a very upright sprinting style – like the former 400-metre world record holder Michael Johnson – although the way it darted around the garden looking for cover I suspect it might have trouble staying in its lane.

Finally it shot down the alleyway to the side of our house and, realising it was trapped, cowered in the corner looking frightened.

I can’t bear it when animals are in any kind of distress and I started to worry that it was a sitting duck (or sitting pheasant?) should any predators spot it. It was safe from our cat, who was asleep on the bed, but the two chickens were not impressed about the uninvited visitor and began squawking at the top of their voices.

I did what any normal person would do in these circumstances, I took a photo and asked Twitter for advice.

‘Open the gate,’ said a number of bright sparks who didn’t realise the gate only opened from the inside and to reach it risked upsetting the pheasant further.


Several others suggested firing up the oven and reaching for our biggest Le Creuset pot.

A few people suggested getting a blanket, gently throwing it over the pheasant and then carrying it to safety. Someone said, ‘Pick it up like you would one of your chickens.’ My attempts to catch our chickens usually end up with me gasping for breath, feathers everywhere and the chickens hiding under the hedge with a smug, triumphant look on their beaky faces.

The pheasant having made itself at home.

The pheasant having made itself at home.

Well Chuffed Comms offered the most practical help. ‘It’s a pheasant, they’re not very bright.’ So far, so encouraging. ‘Be bold, approach it with a large cloth or towel and throw it over the bird. You should be able to grab it fairly easily. The trick is to be decisive and firm. Don’t dither or hesitate. You’ve got it backed into a corner so you have the advantage.’

Unfortunately, dithering and hesitating are more my strong suit.

Anyway, by the time I’d found a suitable blanket the pheasant had found its way out of the alleyway and was strutting around the garden again.

Lionel 1, Pheasant 0.

I spent the rest of the afternoon worrying it was trapped in our garden, unable to get up to speed to get airborne enough to fly over the fence and so was separated from its pheasanty family.

Pheasant on the roof.

Pheasant on the roof.

This morning it was there again, sitting by the back door, where the chickens sit in the hope they might get some veggie scraps from the kitchen.

‘That pheasant is definitely stuck in the garden,’ I said to no one in particular. ‘What should we do about it?’

‘It’ll be fine,’ said a voice from the front room. ‘It’s got plenty to eat with all the acorns and the chickens’ food.’

Later on in the afternoon, I was on the phone upstairs, looking down at the garden, watching Margo the chicken dustbathing in one hole in what used to pass for a lawn and Hettie the hen dustbathing in another.

Something to my left caught my eye.

It was the pheasant, sitting on the roof, surveying the garden and surrounding area as if it owned the place.

I finished my call and shouted down the stairs, ‘That pheasant isn’t stuck in the garden at all! It’s sitting on the bloody roof. It’s moved in, hasn’t it?’

‘Of course it has,’ said the voice from downstairs. ‘It might be daft but it’s not stupid. It’s got plenty to eat here and it’s probably made friends with the chickens.’

Can pheasants make friends with chickens? I hope it leaves a good review on Trip Advisor, I thought.

Sowing the seeds for the Shaun Ryder Cup

About 15 years ago I had an infatuation with the game of golf and at the height of my mini obsession some friends and I founded the Shaun Ryder Cup, a competition mimicking the real thing but named after the Happy Mondays singer in an attempt to give it a slightly less stuffy and more irreverant feel.

Naturally I took it all very seriously and insisted my playing partner and I wore matching uniforms – with different outfits for the morning fourballs and afternoon foursomes.

The Shaun Ryder Cup.

The Shaun Ryder Cup.

To prove the old truism that sport doesn’t so much build character as reveal it, I’ll share an anecdote that makes my cheeks flush slightly. Before the inauguaral Shaun Ryder Cup I bought a little cup and took it to one of those key-cutting places to get an engraved plaque put on the base. I kept the trophy hidden in my golf bag to reveal and present to the winning team over a beer in the clubhouse after the match.

My team won the match – possibly thanks to some fairly generous handicapping, I couldn’t say for sure – and so I will never know for certain if I’d have been a good enough loser to present it to the winners had the winners not been me.

The memory of all this came to mind at the weekend because the Ryder Cup was on television and, after a few sleep-deprived nights, I spent quite a lot of time on the sofa watching it.

On Saturday morning, we drove into St Albans for a routine doctor’s appointment and on the way passed 5 Folly Lane, a fairly unremarkable terraced house, albeit one that would probably cost the fat end of six or seven hundred grand these days.

I’ve never been certain whether the house that stands on the site is actually the one Samuel Ryder lived in because it looks a bit too modern, but it is on the site where he lived in the late 19th century and where he started the business that would earn him his fortune which in turn led to the golf tournament that bears his name to this day.

Ryder had the idea of selling penny packets of seeds by mail order so people could grow their own fruit, vegetables and flowers at home, in their gardens or on their allotments. As the business grew, so did Ryder’s stature in the city. By the 1920s, he’d become hooked on the game of golf, joined the Verulam golf club and came up with the idea of a challenge match between the best players in America and the best in Great Britain and Ireland. He commissioned and paid for the famous trophy that is still presented to the winning team today and the first tournament was held in Massachussets in 1927.

If you’re ever in St Albans and fancy lunch you might walk down Holywell Hill to Café Rouge, which is in a striking Art Deco building that used to be more commonly known as Ryder Seed Hall. This was also commissioned and paid for by Ryder and was originally an exhibition hall for the fruits of the company’s seeds. He died in 1936 and is buried in a cemetery in the city.

Despite a few reservations, I love the Ryder Cup. Among the things I don’t like about it are the faux military music that Sky use and the hushed reverential tones the broadcasters and pundits all adopt to describe what is basically just a game of getting a ball in a hole. I also wish there was a rule that meant everyone who shouts ‘get in the hole’ after a tee shot is frog-marched off the course and dunked in sewage as a punishment.

But it is the perfect event for television because there is always something happening, and every shot (more or less) matters. The balance of the game can swing one way then the next so that a comfortable lead can be surrendered in an hour’s play.

It is tempting, in these politically febrile times, to see the clash between the United States and Europe through the prism of Trump and Brexit. I saw a report a few years back that said the majority of players on the USPGA Tour vote Republican. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise seeing as golf is (broadly speaking) a game that appeals to conservatives with both a big and small C. Trump is a golfer, of course, and it’s interesting that some of his playing companions allege that he is a terrible cheat.

After years getting hammered by the United States (just one win in 18 attempts between 1935 and 1977), Great Britain and Ireland became Europe, broadening the selection criteria and working together to give the Americans a stiffer contest. It tickles me to wonder how many golf club bores – those who have held court on Brexit over a pint in the 19th hole bar for the past couple of years – were cheering on Italy’s Franceso Molinari or Spain’s Sergio Garcia or Jon Rahm or the numerous Scandinavians in the Europe team this weekend. Or perhaps, with confidence swollen by Europe’s successes in the past three decades, they now have a sense that Great Britain and Ireland could go it alone again. Who knows.

From my expert vantage point on the sofa, it seems that the Europeans have a greater sense of team spirit and co-operation. The Americans are a collection of individuals who barely seem to share in each other’s good moments or offer a consoling or encouraging word when things go wrong.

It was quite revealing, in a way. You could almost see the Americans getting frustrated that their combination of big-hitting off the tee and accuracy when playing into the greens was not paying off. Their idea of golf seems to be to reward the two most basic elements of the game – hitting it a long way and stopping the ball where it lands on the green. There’s less room for the unexpected. Creativity, sideways logic and ingenuity seem almost to be considered underhand tactics.

The Ryder Cup was played on a deceptively tricky course near Paris and the Americans failed to adapt their game to the conditions. All weekend the course demanded they hit the fairway but they seemed to favour distance over accuracy. You could almost see them thinking, ‘I hit the ball further than this guy, so I should be winning.’

Dr Bob Rotella wrote a great guide to playing golf called ‘Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect.’ The theme that runs through the whole book is the importance of taking the rough with the smooth and accepting that sometimes a perfectly struck shot will have a bad outcome. The ball may take a funny bounce and end up in the rough or a bunker. The opposite is also true. My own golfing experience tells me that a duffed iron shot that runs along the ground and comes to rest a few feet from the hole may not feel as satisfying as a sweetly struck one that flies through the air and lands delicately but the end result is the same. As they say, there’s no room for pretty pictures on the scorecard.

Rotella’s book is as much a self-help book as a golfing manual. It subtly teaches the reader to change his or her attitude to the game and, perhaps by extension, life. The message is, if you end up stuck behind the trees you can either sulk and whine about it or you can take your medicine and hack back out onto the fairway.

I am – or was – a terrible golfer. I haven’t played for years now but there was a period during which I was seduced by the game’s capricious charms. In that time, I learned a few uncomfortable truths about my own character, especially my inability to cope with injustice on the course, and I could throw the occasional tantrum.

The Shaun Ryder Cup was a short-lived competition – with perhaps three or four editions held over a couple of years. All the games were finely balanced thanks to the handicap system that allows players of different abilities to enjoy a meaningful contest.

It has always fascinated me that such a conservative sport would have adopted what is basically a socialist model – a system that helps the weak to compete against the strong. Drive into the car park at any golf club in Britain and look at the cars and you’ll see evidence of hard-earned and well-enjoyed status. And yet on the golf course the playing field is deliberately levelled for the benefit of all. A poor player enjoying a good day can beat a far superior player who is performing below par and everyone can go home happy.

If you’re wondering what happened to the Shaun Ryder Cup, it lives in a box in a cupboard in my office. When the competition was inaugurated it was decided by the founding fathers that the first winners should keep the trophy on a permanent basis. Naturally.

And then there were three...

A while ago, a friend said to me, ‘Until I had one of my own there was nothing more boring than other people’s babies.’

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I felt the same until very recently, although I can pinpoint the moment I began to feel like a father-to-be. It was in Annecy, at the start of stage 10 of the Tour de France. We had arrived early and so I had time to wander through the Village Départ, the tented area reserved for invited guests, media, riders and so on.

I was browsing the boutique stall, where they sell Tour de France t-shirts and other merchandise, and without really thinking about it found myself queuing up and asking for two babysuits – one maillot jaune, one polka-dot – and handing over €30. It was, I thought, the first of many purchases made unquestioningly and in spite of the nagging voice in the back of my head telling me the price was a bit steep.

Since then there’s been quite a lot of waiting, frequent pangs of nerves that started in my stomach and, I’ll admit it, some dark fears which all began with the ominous question, ‘What if?’

And then, in the very early hours of Tuesday morning last week, I experienced in the blink of an eye some sort of personality transformation that I had not anticipated. A midwife came out of the theatre into the little seating area where I had been banished to wait worrying – panicking, really – after a series of complications had turned a stressful situation into a frightening one, and said, ‘She’s beautiful.’

The relief flowed over me and out through my tear ducts, leaving big wet splodges on my jeans. I squinted through the tears and composed messages for both sets of grandparents and aunties and then waited again for mum and baby to be taken into the recovery room.

Because of some complications, we had a difficult first week and when I’m able to think more lucidly in a few days or so I intend to write about our experiences of the NHS – an institution we should cherish and yet which seems, to me at least, to be on the brink. But I’ll save that for now because I have other priorities.

In the past week I’ve experienced the full range of new parent clichés. In time I’ll be able to laugh about the first night, when my partner was unable to get out of bed and I was left in full control. I felt like a contestant on the Crystal Maze, locked in a room with a sequence of tasks to complete in a critical but unspecified order while my partner passed on (mostly) helpful tips from a horizontal position. I changed baby’s nappy, watched helplessly as she did a wee like the Wembley arch all over her clothes (impressive, really), changed her into fresh clothes and then watched helplessly but just a little more broken as she gently spat milky vomit all over herself.

Last night I opened a nappy and was greeted with a sight that I can only describe as being similar to someone having dropped a tray of tarka dall all over the floor. And I didn’t even mind. What has happened to me?

I won’t go on, because I know that for many there is nothing more boring than hearing about someone else’s baby but we are all home now and doing well.

So there we are. Two have become three and the meaning of life has shifted significantly. Things I had previously fretted about will now have to play second fiddle to more pressing concerns like, where are the nappy sacks, are the bottles sterilised and will I get to sleep for more than two unbroken hours tonight?

For one reason or another, I’ve left it all a bit fashionably late for this, although not quite as late as some of my friends, and certainly not as late as the CEO of one of The Cycling Podcast’s sponsors thought. When he heard I was about to become a dad, he replied, ‘Grandad, surely?’

I won’t take that personally because I’m sure a merino wool babygrow is in the post by way of an apology.

Inviting my MP for a bike ride

The Conservative Party Tweeted something yesterday that was so wrong in so many ways I lost count.

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Nothing unusual in that, I hear you shout, but no, let’s keep party politics out of this because this issue affects anyone who rides a bike on the road.

For a start, the photograph the clueless social media operative chose to illustrate ‘dangerous’ cycling shows cyclists on a clearly-marked, segregated cycle path, getting from A to B with the minimum of fuss and no pollution. Two of the riders are wearing the hi-vis beloved of people who think that cyclists bear a greater responsibility to be seen than drivers do to look out for them. It is a photograph showing one of the best urban and suburban transport solutions.

My first instinct was to criticise the Conservative campaign for what it was. At best, it was an attempt to appeal to the boorish, angry, entitled element of their support with a lazy, unfounded dig at cyclists. At worst, it may have dangerous consequences – giving the drivers encased in their big lumps of metal an even greaters sense that they are the kings of the road and that cyclists are merely obstacles in their way.

However, I decided on a more constructive approach, so I emailed my local MP, a Conservative called Bim Afolami, to issue an invitation.

Dear Mr Afolami,

I am one of your constituents and I am dismayed at the Conservative party’s announcement of a study into the feasibility of ‘clamping down on dangerous cycling’.

I have also extended this invitation on Twitter but wanted to make sure you didn’t miss it.

I’d like to invite you to come for a bike ride with me on the roads in your constituency so you can see for yourself what it’s like. Perhaps afterwards you could tell me whether you agree with your party’s line that it is the cyclists (the most vulnerable road users) who are the problem here.

We’ll meet up and then we’ll take in a range of different roads – quiet country lanes, suburban side roads and the busier roads that link Harpenden to the other towns and villages around. We won’t be going fast, so don’t worry if you’ve not done a lot of cycling before. We will negotiate tricky roundabouts, use our eyes and ears to stay alert of any potential hazards. We’ll be passed by cars, motorbikes, vans and lorries. Some might come past a bit close for comfort, but don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine. We’ll stop at red lights. We won’t go on the pavement. And at the end we’ll have a coffee and a nice slice of cake at a cafe somewhere.

I am very flexible so the invitation is open-ended. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,
Lionel Birnie

Shortly after I’d sent my email, the Conservatives deleted their Tweet. That was nothing to do with me because quite a few higher-profile people, including other MPs, had drawn attention to the flaw of focusing on cyclists when the conduct of vehicle drivers needs addressing first. After all, 1,700 people die in crashes involving vehicles every year.

Anyway, I received an automatic reply to my email saying that I will receive a full response from Mr Afolami in ten working days.

I have no idea what Mr Afolami's views on cycling and its place in the nation's transport policy are but I am keen to find out, and perhaps if he joins me for an hour or so I can persuade him of the need to change attitudes within his party and its support.

I will be pleasantly surprised if he takes me up on my invitation but I am not holding my breath. I suspect he'll say he's too busy but I'll keep you posted.

Home from the Tour

It fell to me to drive The Cycling Podcast’s Skoda home from the far south-west corner of France to Not Watford in Hertfordshire – the final 1,200 kilometres of a 6,700-kilometre trip that began on Thursday, July 5 with the journey from Not Watford to the Vendée.

So I set off from Biarritz at nine on Sunday morning, dropped François at the railway station in Bordeaux just after eleven and stopped for a break at the services somewhere on the motorway near Poitiers at about two in the afternoon. I took another break at around teatime, then stopped to watch the last half-hour or so of the final stage of the Tour de France on my phone and arrived at my extremely budget hotel in Isneauville, just north of Rouen, at about 7.45pm.

I’m not complaining about the budget hotel – I’d booked the cheapest room possible on the off-chance I felt like pressing on to Calais, or in case I got extremely weary and couldn’t make it as far up the Road to Rouen as I hoped and had to cancel it. After the luxury of two nights at Le Viscos – François’s favourite Pyrenean hideaway in Saint-Savin near Argelès-Gazost – it did feel like a bit of a comedown but the journey home from the Tour is never anything other than functional.

It felt a bit like cheating to skip Paris but the logistics were insane. Driving 800 kilometres from Biarritz into the centre of Paris in time for the stage might just about have been feasible but, as my journey to Rouen proved, I would have been cutting it fine. In previous years, when we’ve not enjoyed the benefit of a car supplied by a sponsor, we’ve dropped the hire car off at a railway station and taken the TGV to Paris on the Sunday morning but this year there was no such option.

After a functional meal in a functional chain restaurant on an industrial estate opposite my functional budget hotel I had a few hours’ sleep and woke early to resume my journey. A two-hour drive to Calais, a long wait to check-in for the Eurotunnel, and then a nightmarish drive from Folkestone round the M25 to Not Watford meant I was home in the early afternoon.

A typical budget hotel for The Cycling Podcast.

A typical budget hotel for The Cycling Podcast.

That the final 170 kilometres on English soil took almost four hours when the driving time to cover the whole length of France was around 10 hours was not lost on me. As I waited to drive off the train I searched for the quickest way round the M25 and was left with the dilemma of whether to sit in the jams just past the Dartford tunnel, or whether to sit in the jams past Clacket Lane and Heathrow.

Eventually I arrived home, emptied The Cycling Podcast’s car of all the empty water bottles, Tour de France results sheets and other assorted detritus collected along the way and noted that a plastic bag of fudge, given out in one of the press rooms somewhere, had melted and reformed like a lump of lava in the footwell of François’s nest.

I opened the front door and was greeted grumpily by the cat, who meowed for food, avoided a friendly stroke on the head, which was presumably his way of making it known he was none too pleased about my three-week absence and not all that chuffed about my return either, and walked in the direction of his empty lunch bowl. I looked out at the back garden and saw the grass had been scorched maillot jaune yellow by the sun.

I put the kettle on to make a proper cup of tea and opened my post.

Ahhhhh, home.

François Thomazeau, moments after telling me I'm wrong about something.

François Thomazeau, moments after telling me I'm wrong about something.

For the rest of the day and much of the next I felt exhausted, slightly wobbly and a bit lost.

François has a good way of describing the return to normality after the Tour. He says it’s like adjusting to life on land after three weeks at sea. I get what he means – for three and a bit weeks we are almost always on the move, hyper-stimulated by the work, the logistics, the discussions about the work and logistics, the problem-solving, the creativity and keeping up with the ever-moving, ever-changing race.

We see places that are brand new, and others that are familiar – in the case of Lourdes too familiar – and the Tour feels endless yet at the same time all over in a flash. Living in a car, hotels of varying quality and comfort, and working in a succession of sports halls, ice rinks, civic centres and marquee tents for three weeks is an odd but exhilarating way to make a living. By the end I feel almost institutionalised. It’s been three weeks of always looking for the team buses, or the finish line, or the press room, or following the orange arrows that mark the hors course route from the Départ to the Arrivée. Three weeks of checking the Google Sheet for details of that night’s hotel, of reading the Tour de France roadbook, of hoping to find a restaurant still serving dinner when we arrive and of trying to work out how the shower operates. Three weeks of croissants, mostly terrible coffee, ham and cheese baguettes and bottled water. If I never drink Vittel (the official water sponsor of the Tour de France and the only drink other than terrible coffee available in the press room) again it will be too soon. I was going to ask how it’s possible to develop an aversion to water, a neutral liquid with no discernible characteristics, but then I remembered the genius of François’s water challenge during last year’s Tour, when he correctly distinguished several brands of bottled water from each other.

Yes, I know how ridiculous it sounds complaining about the water given out for free while I’m working at the Tour de France but by the third week the sheer, numbing nothingness of the Vittel just adds to that sense of being instititutionalised. The feeling is that every day is different yet somehow the same. Ciro, our Italian colleague from La Gazzetta dello Sport, keeps a little countdown of the days in his notebook and crosses them off one by one, but I think that way madness lies. These days I can’t bring myself to count down to the end until after the second rest day.

And yet, 24 hour after returning home, the sense that something is missing hits hard. After three weeks with a vague pang of homesickness in my stomach I now feel homesick for the Tour. Last night I caught the last ten minutes of ITV’s final broadcast and watched the thrills and spills montage of the race. Condensed and stripped down to the basics like that shows what the Tour de France really is. Brutal, joyful, painful, dangerous, beautiful.

There’s a void and it’s hard to know what to fill it with. Having spent much of the final week craving a day off, yearning for the chance to just sit and do nothing for a while I find myself restless and under-stimulated, which is probably why I’ve written this.

Anyway, the Vuelta a España starts in four weeks’ time.

Tracing my dislike of VAR back to a childhood lesson

The World Cup has started and, just as happens every four years, I feel like a ten-year-old boy again, just without the sticker album these days on the grounds of cost.

Russia v Saudi Arabia was the opening game – a clash between two of the world’s great democracies* – and I noted that the Saudis had a player called Salman Al-Faraj. With a chuckle, I nicknamed him ‘Nigel,’ then had a look at Twitter and realised hundreds, if not thousands, had got there before me.

I’ve been braced for the first significant intervention by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and didn’t have to wait too long because in the fifth match of the tournament France won a penalty against Australia thanks to the technology.

We’re told VAR is always watching, like a jobsworth CCTV, but we only ever hear about it when the referee is advised to review an incident on the pitch-side telly.

I’m really not interested in the debate about whether or not Griezmann was fouled (even though I became embroiled in just such a debate on Twitter after unwisely commenting) because I can feel my shoulders slump and the air involuntarily leaving my lungs. A sort of grey sadness washes over me while we wait for the referee to watch on the telly and give us permission to cheer or remonstrate.

I think back to when I was ten and just beginning to play ‘proper’ organised 11-a-side football at primary school. One afternoon we fidgeted with excitement in the classroom because we knew we were going to play a match at the end of the school day.

The referee was our headmaster, Mr Blake, who in my mind’s eye was seven-feet tall and wore for the occasion grey flannel shorts and a green, woollen fisherman’s jumper with patches on the shoulders.

At one point he gave a throw in the wrong way. The decision went against my team so we all protested.

‘Sir, that came off Nathan,’ we said.

‘Blue throw-in,’ said Mr Blake.

‘But Sir, it came off Nathan. It should be a red throw-in.’

He blew his whistle sharply and, it seemed, more loudly.

‘No arguing. Blue throw-in. Play on.’

The sense of injustice burned to start with. Some of us sulked, others showed renewed determination.

When the game was over, Mr Blake asked both teams to sit round in a circle.

‘Red team,’ he said, ‘that should have been your throw-in but sometimes in life a decision will go against you and it will be obvious to everyone except the person making the decision that it’s wrong. It is up to you to decide how to deal with that, just as it is up to you to decide how to react when you see an obvious case of injustice.’

I couldn’t say for certain whether Mr Blake gave the throw-in the wrong way deliberately so he could impart this bit of wisdom but I wouldn’t put it past him. In a way, it’s not important.

But it did leave a mark on me, although I am still conflicted about what I’ve taken from it.

In my darker moods I’d be tempted to think he was preparing us to settle into line and unquestioningly accept authority, although that wouldn’t fit with my other memories of his teaching style. I prefer to think he was using the opportunity to show us, via the medium of sport, what the world is like. You win some, you lose some and life is not always fair.

Back to modern football then. The laws of the game are there to be interpreted by the officials, who are reacting in real-time to a fast-moving game. VAR reduces a game of split-second decisions to a sort of line-by-line examination of the small print. It’s as if the chartered surveyors have been put in charge – no offence to chartered surveyors.

And I say all this as a Watford supporter who is still raw from the injustice of Steve Sherwood being fouled by Andy Gray for the second goal in the 1984 FA Cup final and by Ian Rush’s dive in the penalty area in a quarter-final two years later.

Those in favour of VAR say that although the system might not get every decision right it will be more ‘right’ than ‘wrong’ over time. That may well be so, but I struggle to see why that’s even important in the grand scheme of things.

I can hear the arguments already.

‘If the technology exists to help the referee then…’

And with that the tide of grey sadness washes in over me, covering my mouth and nose and sending me to sleep again. Give me the human error, the injustice and the emotion every time because we’re talking about sport, not conducting an audit of events.

(For the avoidance of misunderstanding, and at the risk of sounding contradictory – I do think that having the technology to determine whether the ball has crossed the line is a good idea, because it either has or it hasn’t. Everything else, even contact in the penalty area, is a matter of interpretation, whether viewed in real time or on a screen afterwards).

Twenty years working in cycling

Twenty years ago I took the train into London for a job interview at Cycling Weekly. I had seen an advertisement for a sub-editor in The Guardian’s media supplement a few weeks earlier, had sent off my CV with a covering letter and then received a phone call inviting me for an interview.

Back then, there used to be a race among the staff at the Watford Observer to get the copies of The Guardian’s weekly media supplement, which was in the G2 section of Monday’s paper, and the industry magazine Press Gazette, to have a look at the job ads in the back before everyone else.

It wasn’t that people were desperate to leave the Watford Observer – I wasn’t, at least – but there were a lot of young, ambitious people among the reporters and subs who all felt there was a bigger world beyond the windows of 124 Rickmansworth Road.

I was 22, with a reasonable amount of experience at local newspaper level and I was getting a little impatient to move on. However, if I was going to move it had to be the right move.

A couple of years before this, I’d been interviewed for a job as press officer and programme editor at Watford Football Club and not got it, which in hindsight was a blessing in disguise, not because it was a bad job but because I’d have been terrible at it. I’d applied for a couple of jobs in America, one at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and one in Sydney, partly because I thought that if I was going to move I should make it a big move.

I realised that I had probably been applying for the wrong jobs – doing the equivalent of the people on that BBC daytime programme Wanted Down Under, who are dissatisfied with life in a two-up, two-down semi in Coventry but can’t understand why their budget doesn’t stretch to a detached bungalow with a swimming pool and a view of the Sydney opera house.

As an aside, local papers have declined so much, and offer so little opportunity for young journalists now, that I feel the need to explain what the Watford Observer was like in those days. It was a respected two-section weekly broadsheet paper with a decent circulation and a large editorial team. The same team also produced two weekly free newspapers, a monthly lifestyle magazine and a whole host of supplements that were distributed with the papers, so we were always busy. We worked three long days from Monday to Wednesday, press day was Thursday, and on Friday we came in late, sat around drinking tea, and then went to the pub at lunchtime and often came back only to turn off the our computers. In many ways, it was the end of the old days.

One of the first (if not the first) issues of  Cycling Weekly  I worked on.

One of the first (if not the first) issues of Cycling Weekly I worked on.

In the mid-1990s the first of a series of hatchet men had swept through the place making many of the older, more experienced (and more expensive) staff redundant. That had given me and my contemporaries some fantastic opportunities although we’d had to learn fast, often by making mistakes on the way. I’d gone from junior reporter to junior sub-editor in one step simply because I’d shown an interest in page design and typography and because there was no one else to fill the role. It was an exciting time working in a vibrant, energetic newsroom and it’s quite sad that so many newspapers like that have scaled back dramatically. It was a place where the reporters could be writing about a couple’s golden wedding anniversary one minute and heading to Crown Court to cover a murder case the next.

I’d been subbing for about three years when I saw the advert for a job at Cycling Weekly. It seemed to have been written for me. I’d been a regular reader of the magazine since I was a kid and, looking at the criteria, I had more or less all the skills they were looking for. The interview seemed to go okay and I felt pretty confident I’d done well in the subbing test. I have no idea how many other people went for the job and I didn’t know at that time that the magazine was actually looking for three new sub-editors but when I got the call to say they were offering me a job I was delighted.

It’s fair to say some of my colleagues at the paper were surprised.

‘A magazine about cycling? And it’s weekly?’

I’d explain that the magazine covered the Tour de France.

‘And what’s in it the other 48 weeks of the year?’

Most people had heard of Chris Boardman because he’d won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics on a bike made by a racing car designer and he wore a ‘funny helmet’, but cycling was not part of the nation’s sporting lexicon then.

I gave the newspaper my notice, took two weeks’ holiday to watch the World Cup group stages, and returned to see out my final few weeks while the Tour de France was on. This was the Tour that was shaped by the Festina affair, police raids and protests by the riders. At once point it looked like the race might not even make it to Paris. During stage 17 to Aix-les-Bains the peloton stopped several times and when they finally reached the finish hours late the TVM team came to the front of the bunch and led the way over the line. Several of TVM’s riders had been questioned by police and had their hotel rooms searched the previous day.

That afternoon, I was at my desk when one of the paper’s photographers came in from a job. He’d been listening to the radio while he’d been out.

‘Have you heard what’s going on in the Tour de France?’ he said. ‘At this rate there might not be a Tour de France next year. It’s not too late to cancel your notice, you know.’

At my leaving do, one of my ‘gifts’ was a box with a label stuck on it that read ‘DRUGS FOR CYCLING’.

Back then, Cycling Weekly was based on the sixth floor of King’s Reach Tower on London’s South Bank in the same building as a host of lifestyle, TV and women’s magazines, among them Marie Claire, Loaded, Country Life, Woman’s Weekly and the NME. I’m not sure what this says about the magazine’s position within the company’s pecking order but Cycling Weekly shared a floor with Cage and Aviary Birds back then.

What I didn’t know until I’d accepted the job was that there had been a mass exodus of writers and subs from Cycling Weekly and its sister magazine Cycle Sport because they’d all left to set up Procycling magazine. Procycling, of course, has outlasted Cycle Sport, the title it was established to rival.

When I started at Cycling Weekly, I was part of the sub-editing team correcting and rewriting copy, cutting stuff to fit the gaps drawn up by the designers, writing headlines and captions and proof-reading the pages. The diet of copy was the same most weeks – extensive race reports from home and abroad, news, bike and product reviews, features on performance and coaching, interviews, plus a hefty section on mountain biking, which I must confess I didn’t enjoy as much as the rest of the work.

There were also despatches from correspondents dotted all over the country and the Scottish racing scene was covered by someone called Richard Moore. I wonder whatever became of him?

The homemade World Cup wallchart

I’ve put my back out, which is incredibly irritating but has at least given me the time to jump-start this blog, which had puttered and stalled a month ago.

On Saturday I took a load of junk to the tip then went for a two-hour bike ride. Late in the evening I felt something was not quite right in my lower back and the following morning I was unable to get out of bed without enduring quite a bit of pain.

The past couple of days I’ve been laid up and my physical discomfort has not been eased by the task of going through The Cycling Podcast’s end of year accounts. I now have a strained back and strained eyesight. One thing I can confirm is that no one starts a media business dreaming of sifting through bank statements, receipts and spreadsheets.

The rest of the time I’ve been mostly watching the official FIFA World Cup films on the History Channel.

One of the things that signals you’re getting older is when events from 20 years ago suddenly feel like they were yesterday. I’d watched the films from 1982, 1986 and 1990 – the World Cups of my childhood – with a nostalgic eye. Wasn’t the Admiral kit England wore in 1982 a design classic? Ditto Denmark’s Hummel strip four years later. I remember worrying that my mock GCSEs would interfere with the 1990 World Cup (rather than the other way round).

But watching the film of the 1998 World Cup and realising with shock that not only was it narrated by Sean Bean (why?!) but that it was 20 years ago this summer pulled me up short. It feels like yesterday because I can remember whole days in their entirety.

I was working as a sub-editor at the Watford Observer at the time and I took two weeks’ holiday so I would not miss a single group game. Yes, yes, I know.

A week or so before my holiday, which commenced at lunchtime on the day of the Brazil v Scotland match, one of the reporters put The Sun’s World Cup wallchart up on the office wall. It was a really sorry-looking thing. Cheap, grainy newsprint, terrible fonts, awful cartoons of the top players and barely enough room to write in the scores let alone fill in the knockout stages coherently. Even the offerings from the quality newspapers were poor and my quest for the perfect wallchart went on.

One evening I stayed late in the office to start work on something which was later described by others as ‘a masterpiece’. I set about designing a huge World Cup wallchart. I’d not intended for it to be so big but it ended up the size of four A2 sheets of paper which I spray-mounted on some board. Another part of our newspaper group had produced some kind of World Cup supplement that was going to be given away with all the titles and that featured its own terrible wallchart but it did mean I had access to high-resolution photographs of Zinedine Zidane, Alan Shearer, Ronaldo, Dennis Bergkamp and, er, David Batty, as well as a cracking image of the World Cup trophy, which were stored on the servers somewhere.

I’d not intended for it to be such a huge project but it ended up taking me a few evenings, not least because it proved tricky to print out. I was using the fancy printer in the advertising department which was used to produce high-quality proofs for big-paying clients. It used some sort of luxurious ink that left a pleasant raised surface on the paper.

Those of us in editorial were strictly banned from using this printer without permission. I assume because the ink was expensive.

Anyway, it took me several attempts to print out the four quarters of the wallchart so they lined up seamlessly. One night I had a bit of a shock because the printer ran dry. The next morning I overheard a conversation in the canteen. The fancy printer was absolutely burning through ink, apparently, and no one could work out why.

By this time, a few colleagues had cottoned on to what I was doing and had ordered copies for themselves so there was a couple of days of black marketeering as I printed out and delivered copies in various sizes to them.

And then, the game was up. The editor called me into his office.

‘What time did you leave last night?’ he asked.

‘Er, about quarter to nine, I think.’

‘Why so late? What are you working on?’

‘Oh, er, just making sure I’m up to date with everything.’

‘So it’s nothing to do with these World Cup wallcharts you’ve been making?’

Damn. Rumbled!

‘Er… Yes, it might be. How did you find out?’

‘The advertising department are wondering why they’ve gone through two hundred quid’s worth of ink in less than a week.’

‘Ah. Right. Sorry.’

‘So…’ He paused for dramatic effect while I pondered whether the cost of the ink was about to be deducted from my wages.

‘Can you do me one?’

The editor’s copy was the last one to come off the production line.

And what happened to my copy? It hung on the wall of our flat and was filled in after every match until England’s penalty shoot-out defeat to Argentina in the second round, after which it was left symbolically blank.

Flying to Tel Aviv

This blog has been a bit quiet lately, partly because I was busy prepping for a two-week stint at the Giro d’Italia and now because I’m at the Giro d’Italia.

I had considered keeping a diary at the Giro but we’re in the early stages of planning a second volume of The Cycling Podcast’s book and, although we’ve not settled on the format yet, the first critically-acclaimed edition featured diaries from the three grand tours. Just in case we do something similar again, I don’t want to use all my best (!) material online now and have nothing left later in the year.

Instead of writing an account of life on the road at the Giro, or documenting the meals and incidents concerning the race, I’ve decided to just write a few things as they occur to me. There’s not a lot of time to spare at the grand tours, so these may be sporadic posts. ‘What do you mean, there’s not a lot of time to spare?’ I hear you ask, ‘Surely all you’ve got to do each day is jabber on about cycling for half an hour or so. What do you do the rest of the time?’

Well, it’s surprising how quickly the day whizzes from breakfast at eight to dinner at nine, or sometimes ten.

Anyway, here goes.

* * *

A few years ago now I went on one of those courses to overcome a fear of flying. My anxiety about being strapped into a long tin tube propelled into the sky by means of passing thousands of litres of extremely flammable liquid through a jet engine had worsened over the years and my natural tendency to over-visualise and fear the worst combined to the point that I found it impossible to get on a flight without being a quivvering wreck.

Several unfortunate experiences had led to this point. On a flight to New York once we overshot the runway slightly, ended up on the grass and because they couldn’t get the stairs to the door, or move the plane, we had to use the emergency slide to disembark. On a flight home from New York on another trip we turned round after about an hour in the air because a passenger was being very aggressive and had been shouting unpleasant things about the US government.

We made an unscheduled stop at Bangor in Maine to the sight of a dozen police cars with their lights flashing on the runway and the sound of armed officers rushing onto the plane shouting at everyone to remain calm and not move. Then there was the flight to Marseille when the Mistral wind played havoc with the landing and the man next to me gripped my arm and said, ‘I do this flight once a week and it’s never been this bad. We’re going down this time!’

There there was a flight to Poland which was supposed to be on a British Airways plane but was switched at short notice to one of their ‘partner’ carriers. We got onto a rattling old plane with worn seats and strange noises coming from every direction. As we thundered down the runway about four of the overhead lockers sprung open and bags and cases flew out. I thought the whole thing was going to shake apart before we’d got off the ground.

Then there was the late night landing that was aborted when we were (it seemed to me at least) within touching distance of the tarmac. Without warning we suddenly accelerated and climbed steeply into the black away from the lovely reassuring earth to do another lap of nowhere in particular before having another go. As we got off the plane, the captain or first officer was standing outside his cabin saying a cheery goodnight to everyone. ‘What happened there?’ said my travelling companion.

‘Oh, there was a plane on the runway a liddle too close for comfort so I thought we’d bedder go round again. Bedder to be safe than sorry. It was nothing out of the ordinary though. Quite roudine.’ He spoke in that peculiar accent all British pilots seem to have. It’s posh but all the Ts are substituted with Ds and words run into each other as if to suggest that the whole business of having to converse with anyone who can’t fly a plane themselves is a lot of unnecessary bother for them. In a way, it’s quite reassuring.

Over the years, I’d tried all sorts of things to rid myself of the jitters – hypnotheraphy, acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine – and each thing was effective for a while. I had a hypnotherapy session before a flight to southern Spain once and it worked a treat on the way out. Unfortunately, the spell had worn off by the time I was ready to fly home and I ended up taking five trains home instead.

In the end, my partner booked me a place on a Flying With Confidence course run by British Airways. It consisted of a series of lectures and demonstrations from pilots and cabin crew followed by a flight from Heathrow round the Isle of Wight and back.

When I arrived I could sense the anxiety in the room as everyone made small talk over coffee. You could almost hear the cups and saucers clattering in nervous hands.

I had a chat with a few people and more or less everyone said, ‘I don’t know why I’m here. I’m not going to get on a plane.’ There was one man who was almost in tears at the idea of even setting foot inside a plane. He explained that his son now lived in Italy and he wanted to visit more often but each trip meant spending as much time driving as with his son.

Being a slightly sceptical type, I initially wondered if some of the most extreme cases were actually actors put in the room to make the rest of us feel less anxious but I don’t think that was the case.

At the end of the day, everyone on the course got on the flight – including the man who had been on the verge of tears in the morning.

All this came to mind midway through my flight to Tel Aviv. After a couple of hours, with three still to go, one of the cabin staff made an announcement.

‘There’s a problem with the flight.’

It perhaps wasn’t the most sensitive choice of wording and there were a few craned necks and nervous glances.

‘The toilet waste tank is almost full. We think they forgot to empty it in Luton. So, we have two choices – we either stop using the toilet at the current rate or we divert somewhere to empty it.’

I spent the last hour of the flight gripping the arm rests, although not for the reason I would have done in the past.

Snooker and The Crucible in our dining room

On a swelteringly hot Saturday morning I found myself glued to the World Championship snooker on BBC for longer than I’d like to admit. I justified this decision to myself by saying that I was just waiting for the chickens’ house to dry after I’d cleaned it out.

These days, I’m the same every year when the snooker comes round.

Day one: Urrrgh, snooker. I hate snooker. It’s so boring and I don’t know any of the players.

Day eleven: I can’t believe he missed that red but if he can get among the balls again he can stil win this. I’ll stay up for one more frame.

I am a member of the ‘Black Ball Final’ generation, in that I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch the 1985 World Championship final between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis. Not late enough to see it reach its conclusion, admittedly, because it was school the next morning.

I got up early to check the result on Ceefax [which was a bit like a website on your telly, only the pages changed when you weren’t ready unless you pressed the ‘hold’ button – basically the opposite of clicking on a link]. Then I saw the brief highlights on breakfast telly – Davis’s under-cut shot followed by Taylor’s long winning pot, his victorious grin under the upturned glasses and the now legendary fingerwag at the trophy.

Such was the grip ‘the Embassy’ had on me each April it’s a wonder I’m not a 40-a-day chainsmoker now.

I then spent years hoping Jimmy White would win the title just the once. More recently it’s become one of those sporting events I get sucked into when it’s on although I don’t really identify with the players as much as I used to. I know the defending champion Mark Selby is nicknamed the Jester From Leicester, but I’ve never seen him do anything remotely funny.

Snooker is not cool these days. They’ve tried to cater for the attention-free generation by introducing a shot clock system at some tournaments but what I like about the World Championships is the sheer relentlessness of it all, especially when it gets into the latter stages and the matches last days.

These early days are just as good, though. The arena is split in two by a screen and when you’re watching one match you can hear the clicking and clacking of balls and sporadic applause from the other side. It always seems like they are watching the better match.

It’s the BBC at its best and worst. Everyone is a credit to their sport. The atmosphere at The Crucible is electric – which seems strange to me when it’s basically just silence and coughing. And it all ends with a three-minute montage of the best bits, which involves a clip of every time the cue ball bounced off three cushions and into a pocket and that time Ronnie O’Sullivan puffed out his cheeks a bit when a red clipped the pink and ran safe.

There’s something incredibly captivating about those evening sessions when everyone’s gone home and Peter Ebdon is taking 90 seconds between shots as he grinds his way to a gritty 43.

I Tweeted something similar earlier today and to my delight someone called Jack Billyard liked it. As I said in response to that, all I need now is for Colin Baize, Jane Chalk and Ron Screwbackbehindthegreen to see my original Tweet.

If you’ve read The Cycling Podcast’s book or listened to our Friends of the Podcast Road Trip episode from last year’s Tour de France you may be familiar with the fact that when I was a child I used to organise my own stage races during the school holidays. It is how the Sex Shop Time Trial was born. (You’ll have to buy the book or listen to the episode if you don’t get that reference).

Well, around the same time, perhaps a bit earlier, Simon the Photographer and I held our own snooker tournament in Simon’s dining room on his miniature 3ft x 2ft table. I say tournament but there were only two entrants which meant we could do away with the tedious early rounds and get straight to the final.

As I remember it, we made posters and tickets and forced our parents to attend, making sure that they upheld the very best of order and didn’t put off the players by tutting and looking at their watches.

Just as we were preparing for the electric atmosphere of a suburban 1980s dining room on finals night, Simon’s dad gave us each a ludicrous velvet bow tie, which we clipped on round the necks of our white school shirts.

Once in the auditorium, we each poured ourselves a glass of water from a jug, tossed a coin and then one of us or other broke off for the best of 19 frames match.

The tiny balls were incredibly reluctant to go in the pockets and so the first frame lasted about 20 minutes. Our parents, confronted with the prospect of this match finishing even later than the famous 1985 Black Ball final, insisted we reduce proceedings to best of three and Simon won 2-0 with a maximum break of about nine.

Football and drugs part two

The Telegraph today published a revealing interview with the former Southampton and Norway defender Claus Lundekvam, who talks about how he depended on alcohol and cocaine to replace the adrenaline rush of playing football once he’d retired.

That chain of events took him to some dark places – a heart attack, drug overdoses and a long road to recovery. Now 45, he is working to help others with drug, alcohol and mental health problems. The interview, by Jeremy Wilson, is well worth a read.

But the thing that jumped out at me was a good two-thirds of the way down the article. ‘He seldom played injury-free,’ writes Wilson of Lundekvam, before Lundekvam says: ‘I was using quite a lot of painkillers and cortisone in some parts of the body to numb the pain. A normal week was being exposed to opioids and pain-killers. It was to perform in training and to be ready for the game. I didn’t think much of it. I was young, quite naïve. For me it turned out badly. I built a tolerance and acceptance for opioids and painkillers.’

I wrote a month or so ago about how reluctant the sport is to have a conversation about the way players are prepared so they can step onto the pitch and get through 90 minutes, especially considering the way drug-taking is covered and perceived in other sports. Football, it seems, gets a free pass. In cycling, operating in the grey areas between legal and illegal medication is seen as simply the last step before the rules are inevitably broken – and with good historical reason, I should say. In football, the attitude seems to be, if it’s not banned what’s the problem. It is an article of faith that no one would cross the line, despite the clear abuse of legal (but nevertheless dubious) substances to the detriment of the individual’s long-term health.

Stories like Lundekvam’s tale come round every now and then and it’s impossible not to feel for the depths of despair.

But it seems to me that the emotive aspects of the story, the dramatic spiralling out of control, the emptiness, the excess, is used as a masking agent for a bigger issue. Focus on the cocaine and booze benders, don’t look at the journey that led there.

Football subscribes to the ‘bad apple’ theory. I am not describing Lundekvam as a bad apple, here, to be clear. But a case presented in isolation is seen as just that. There doesn’t seem to be an appetite for the follow-up.

Among Lundekvam’s team-mates at Southampton were Mark Hughes, the current Saints manager, and Matt Le Tissier, a pundit on Sky’s football coverage.

I wonder if questions will be directed towards either of them this weekend. In his press conference before Southampton’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, will Hughes be asked if he knew Lundekvam was given cortisone as a matter of routine? Were painkillers given to other players? What were Hughes’s experiences? Is cortisone still a drug that is given to footballers? Which players have been treated this week, and with what? Can we see some paperwork to show the medical need? What protocols are in place to ensure the drug isn’t abused? And where does the medical treatment at football clubs end, who draws the line and where precisely is that line?

That is what would happen in cycling, and you’d possibly think that the journalists who cover both sports would be leading the questioning because, whenever I hear the line relating to cycling, ‘We’ve seen this movie before,’ I wonder why people don’t notice the similar plot points in football.

Perhaps it’s because people assume that drugs can’t help all that much in a skill-based sport. I hear this all the time too – ‘You could give me every drug under the sun and I’d not be as good as Lionel Messi.’

Of course that is true, but it also misses the point by a country mile. If a player cannot run without a substance but then can get through 90 minutes is that performance-enhancing or merely levelling the playing field?

The nature of professional sport is to fix people up and get them on the pitch or the start line. The importance of their physical welfare in the present far outweighs the importance of their physical and mental welfare in the future. Once they’re off the wage bill they’re more or less on their own.

The football media operates in the present too. Today’s press conferences will all be about Arsène Wenger leaving Arsenal at the end of the season, and understandably so, it's a big story.

But football news is ubiquitous and when there isn’t any a story will be generated by someone saying something. A feature writer will have the opportunity to tell the story of the next Claus Lundekvam at some point in the near future and in the meantime everyone can carry on looking the other way.

48 hours (or so) in Belgium

I can’t say too much about the purpose of my two-day visit to Belgium at the moment because it would reveal the subject of my forthcoming Friends of the Podcast special episode but it was a fun – and at times surreal – trip. I’ll write more about the actual work I was doing when the episode is released in a couple of weeks’ time.

My trip took me to Ghent, a monastery in the Flandrian countryside, and the Belgian capital and it was strange to realise that I was in the same country the whole time so different were the three places.

Ghent is a great town. I love the trams and the canals, the students on bikes, the cobbled streets and the ancient architecture. It’s got an historic authenticity to it that Bruges, though equally attractive, lacks somehow. I think it’s probably because the tourism has been overdone a bit in Bruges, whereas Ghent feels like a real place that lives and works perfectly well without the weekend trippers.

Ghent at night.

Ghent at night.

I had a beer in each of my two favourite bars. First was De Trollekelder – a dimly-lit place decorated with hideously ugly trolls that sit on the window sill and above the bar and hang from the walls, although don’t let that put you off. Then it was on to Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a cosy place that overlooks the water and which has a big menu of beers.

* * *

After criss-crossing the Flandrian fields as part of my assignment, I headed to my hotel for the night. As I approached Het Godshuis I feared the worst. It looked austere and unwelcoming from the front, perhaps because the building was casting a shadow on itself, but the sight of a few guests enjoying an early evening drink in the sunshine at the back eased my fears a bit.

It didn’t take a genius to realise that Het Godshuis was an old monastery but what I couldn’t work out was whether it was operating as a religious-themed retreat now.

I went to the bistro for dinner where they told me that in order to have a meal from the buffet I needed to make a reservation at reception. I looked across at the dining area where two people were eating in silence surrounded by empty tables. I asked if it was really necessary to make a reservation but the waitress was insistent, so I walked back to reception.

‘What time would you like a table?’ asked the receptionist.

‘Now please.’

Monastery.

Monastery.

‘Now?’

‘Well, in five minutes, then.’

‘Okay, I have booked you a table for 7.40.’

Buffet for one would be 29 euros 50, she said, which made me wonder if I was being charged the non-believer’s tariff.

I’d been away maybe 90 seconds – two minutes at a push – and when I returned to the dining room it was almost full, giving the impression that a coach load of pensioners had just arrived. They were making their way through the buffet the way a combine harvester goes through a field of wheat. With each passing second I was in danger of getting less and less value for my 29.50.

I was shown to a table in a roped-off area (the non-believer’s table, I presume), sharpened my elbows and jostled my way to the front of the buffet.

* * *

Whenever I’ve visited Brussels, I’ve never felt like I’ve seen the best of it. The Tour de France went there in 2010 and all I remember is a long, tiring walk up the hill towards the King Badouin stadium (previously Heysel) where the stage finished, followed by a strange meal at a place that had the ambience of a kebab shop.

On my way into the city this time I stopped at a petrol station to fill up the hire car and had a contretemps with the lady behind the desk. It was pre-pay, she told me, but as I wanted to fill the tank up to the top I couldn’t give her a cash figure. Guess too low and I risked leaving the tank below what the hire car company would consider ‘full’. Guess too high and I’d be paying for fuel I couldn’t fit in the tank. She insisted I leave my credit card with her while I put petrol in the car. Having recently had some data compromised I was reluctant to do that but I relented in the end, albeit without much grace.

The areas immediately around many major railway stations in Europe tend to be pretty depressing places but Brussels Midi beats even the Gare du Nord in Paris. After dropping off the car, I walked round the side of the building and there was a constant and overwhelming smell of dried urine in the air. I was heading to a hotel where I thought I might get lunch while waiting for my Eurostar home.

Just as the hotel came into view, I saw a group of people sitting around on benches drinking from cans of lager. All of a sudden, one of the men in the group shoved a women firmly with both hands, sending her flying. She hit the ground with the resignation of someone who was used to being treated appallingly one way or another, although she seemed more concerned by the amount of liquid that had spilled from her can than anything else. A number of the other men surrounded the pusher angrily. A few bystanders rushed over to see if the woman was okay.

It was a depressing scene, especially when contrasted with the hotel's menu, which looked preposterous to me. The prices weren’t horrendous but the pretension was daft. Maybe some people want foie gras and fancy sauces at lunchtime but I’d have been happy with a burger or club sandwich so I dragged my wheely case round the obstacle course of dog mess to the Mercure, where I was told that the only thing available was salmon. This gave me the excuse to go round the corner where I found a square with a couple of reasonable looking café-restaurants.

Calling Captain Birdseye.

Calling Captain Birdseye.

I ordered l’Americain, thinking it would be a burger. I was told it came sans bun, which was fine by me. What arrived was a meat patty that managed to be greasy and dry at the same time, topped with crispy onion fragments possibly scraped from the fryer and all swimming in a brown gravy. The first bite of burger made me think we’d all been defrosted and transported back to 1985 by Captain Birdseye.

Back at the hotel, I watched Flèche Wallonne on my laptop and earwigged the conversation of a group of British people at a nearby table. One of the gems I picked up was this. ‘The thing is, our nanny has quite a strong accent and Archie is starting to pick it up. That’s genuinely the only reason we want a British nanny next.’

Finding the tricky balance between editorial and advertising

Up early to get the 8.31 Eurostar to Brussels because I was off to make an episode for friends of The Cycling Podcast. For those who don’t know, the Friends of the Podcast episodes are behind a paywall and are available only to our subscribers and, if all goes well, this project should be released at the end of the month, just before the Giro d’Italia.

The Friends of the Podcast episodes are a mix of things – in-depth explorations of a subject, documentary-style pieces, exclusive interviews, recordings of live events (which sometimes include things we perhaps wouldn’t want to release to our much larger free-to-air audience), and other odds and ends that we haven’t had room for in the regular show. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to take an idea and see what direction it takes me in and the episodes of mine I think turned out the best were Ventoux: Heat, Wind and Fear from the 2016 collection and last year’s Lionel of Flanders series. Hopefully this one will go well too, although you can never be sure.

We charge £15 for a guaranteed 11 episodes (although we aim to over-deliver on that – the hope being that people will notice that each episode is theirs for much less than a pound). In terms of value, we hope people see that we charge for a year’s content the equivalent of about a week’s worth of coffees from a high street chain, or the cost of a couple of magazines, or a trip to the cinema.

Although we offer episodes in exchange for that £15, the revenue generated pays for so much more than just the specials. Without that income, we’d not be able to produce weekly episodes that are free to listen to, or our free coverage of the three grand tours. We are very grateful to our major sponsors – Rapha and Science In Sport – too, because we rely just as much on that income. The fact is, no single source of funding comes close to covering the costs of producing The Cycling Podcast. I was going to qualify that by referencing the modern, fractured media landscape but the more I thought about it the more I realised that no single source of income has ever sustained the media on its own. The bottom line is that without the financial support of sponsors, advertisers and listeners we would not be able to produce hundreds of hours of free shows over the course of the year.

* * *

A few days ago, I saw a review of The Cycling Podcast on iTunes which was criticising the amount of advertising in the shows of late and it made me want to address the issue of funding and the fine balance between editorial and advertising.

Generally, my attitude to reviews is that people can say more or less what they like about my work because everyone is entitled to an opinion. But unless they had access to my head space while I was making whatever it was, they cannot know which factors influenced the creative process. All that matters to the reader, or listener, is what is on the page, or in the episode – and rightly so. They’re not interested that an interview I’d planned fell down at the last minute or that an idea I’d had led down a cul-de-sac and had to be scrapped. They’re not interested in the financial or time constraints – and why should they be? All that matters is whether they thought it was any good and they (you) are are free to judge because I have put it in the public domain to be read or heard. I am not saying I don’t care what people think of my work because I do, often deeply, but once something is done, it’s done. I can’t go back and change it, and explaining or justifying why something is the way it is usually constitutes a waste of energy that could go towards the next thing. So I tend not to pay too much attention to reviews that critique the work.

Criticism of our business model is different to me, particularly when it seems little thought has gone into a comment. It makes me question whether we have communicated clearly enough why something has been available to listen to for free in the first place.

I am aware it may sound defensive writing this, and also that I may be drawing the issue of advertising to the attention of people who had not previously been bothered by it, but I spend so much time thinking (and worrying) about how we fund the podcast that I wanted to tackle it.

There’s no right of reply on iTunes, but I felt it was worth reiterating that just because something is free to consume does not mean it has been free to produce.

* * *

I understand there is an issue of perception here. People may assume that we have the backing and support of a large media company. We don’t. The Cycling Podcast is owned solely by Richard, Daniel and me. Every penny we have spent we have raised one way or other. That is both a tremendous strength and a weakness. The strength is that we have the editorial and strategic freedom to develop as we want; the weakness being we have to fund everything we do somehow. In the early days that often came out of our own pockets. I covered my own expenses at Paris-Nice in 2014 and 2015 because I wanted to produce content for The Cycling Podcast but knew the company could not afford to cover it. I know Richard and Daniel have made similar contributions or sacrifices over the years too. People may wonder about our association with the Telegraph, but that is a mutually-beneficial media partnership and has never included a financial arrangement.

We have been very fortunate to attract two medium-term sponsors – Rapha and Science In Sport – and the strength of these associations is that they are brands likely to be of very strong interest to most of our listeners, because they are associated with cycling.

This year, we have added one additional advertising slot to our regular free-to-air episodes, and the brands being promoted have not been related to cycling.

The reason for this additional slot is straightforward. Early last year the company that hosts all our audio told us that they would soon have to start charging for that storage space and server capacity. Since we started in June 2013, they had hosted us for free but we knew that could not last for ever.

If you think about it, every episode is in excess of 40MB and during the grand tours there can be hundreds of thousands of downloads a week, sometimes rising above a million. In five years, I cannot remember a single glitch when we have been offline because, I assume, Audioboom has servers and back-up servers and servers that back-up the back-up servers to ensure that reliability. I am not a technical wizard but it strikes me that’s some serious server capacity and it costs them money.

We entered into negotiations that went on for the best part of a year and in the end they offered us a choice – either we pay a five-figure annual subscription fee or we make one ‘live read’ slot of approximately two minutes’ duration available in each episode. The advertising would be sold on a revenue-share basis. The choice – pay out a large sum or money, or generate some revenue – was, on the face of it, not a difficult one to make, but it was not something we took lightly either because we wanted to make sure that we struck the right balance.

That has led to us advertising beer, a current affairs magazine, razors and mattresses so far, and it has given me something to wrestle with because, until now, I’ve managed to sail through my career in journalism without having to handle the grubby advertising dollars myself.

* * *

I think back to when I worked for a newspaper. The journalists pretended to themselves that the paper’s 30 pence cover price was paying for all their work. It wasn’t, of course. It was the pages and pages of classified ads, the property and motoring sections filled with adverts for estate agents and motor dealers. We looked down our noses slightly at the freesheet – the sister paper which shared our office space – because we thought our editorial was pure in a way theirs was not. Ludicrous, really. The demarcation of editorial and advertising was as clear in their paper as it was in ours.

However, back in those days there was an iron curtain between the editorial and advertising departments themselves. I can remember an ad rep coming into the newsroom to ask me what I was planning to write about a second-hand car dealership, which happened to be a big advertiser, and he was more or less marched back to his side of the ‘wall’ by the news editor and told it was none of his business.

Whenever there was friction between editorial and advertising staff they’d tell us they paid our wages and we’d tell them they’d not get their bonuses if it wasn’t for the quality editorial their adverts appeared among.

The iron curtain was dishonest really because the relationship between editorial and advertising was symbiotic. Although we were independent of one another we were also entirely dependent on the other.

* * *

Don't let anyone tell you that life on the road is all glamour...

Don't let anyone tell you that life on the road is all glamour...

On the journey to Brussels, I started thinking about what my episode would cost to produce… The trip would involve a two-night stay in Belgium, so there was a taxi to the train station and a train to London; a return trip on the Eurostar (with departure times chosen for maximum cost efficiency, hence the red-eye start), a couple of coffees on the way, a hire car (the smallest car that was available with unlimited mileage), lunches, evening meals, fuel for the hire car, a budget Ibis in Ghent and a cheap B&B in the Flemish countryside, a return train from St Pancras and a taxi back home. Then there were other costs such as batteries for my recording equipment, a fee for some translation we would need doing and a producer to edit the whole episode, possibly also a fee to allow us to use some music. And, lastly, a fee for me for making it.

Without getting too deeply into the figures, I calculated that it would cost the fat end of 100 Friends of the Podcast subscriptions (remembering we have to deduct VAT and transaction fees from the £15, plus pay for our servers and paywall, because they are hosted separately from Audioboom, before we could put what was left into the editorial piggybank) to make this one episode.

Of course, there is no advertising in the Friends of the Podcast episodes, but I use it as an example because the content we produce for the regular episodes costs money too. It is not cheap to travel to the grand tours and while I may post pictures of beautiful vistas and lovely meals on Twitter and Instagram I can assure you that we work to a strict budget knowing that if we exceed it we are only eating into the pool of money we can use to pay ourselves. Every time I blow the budget on three delicious courses, I am literally biting the hand that feeds me.

* * *

It has been encouraging that companies have wanted to advertise in The Cycling Podcast because they know we have a large, smart audience who might like to buy their things. But it would be wrong to think that we have no say in the advertising we carry, because we have the final say on everything. We can say no, if we wish but, so far, have not had reason to do so.

Each time a new proposal is made, we speak to someone from the company to get an idea of the message they want to get across. We also want to ensure they know about us, what we stand for, and what we will and won’t do, so the lines are clear.

In terms of delivering the messages, we are always treading a fine line but we certainly can’t be accused of pretending advertising is editorial. We are also clear about why we appreciate the support of all the companies who have sponsored or advertised with us – because their backing keeps the podcast going.

In terms of how the adverts have been received by the listeners, we’ve had a handful of comments, and I usually make the assumption that if someone is voicing an opinion there will be others who feel the same.

The number of ad slots has increased from two per episode to three this year. However, the average running time of our episodes has also crept up, so it’s not like the adverts are taking up time that could have been used for editorial. The ads are not replacing anything. And, taken as a percentage of our overall output, I don’t feel it’s an unreasonable amount of time to spare.

After all, you wouldn’t want old Napalm to have to cut down to only two courses, would you?

An evening at the library

The majestic Signet Library in Edinburgh was the perfect place to finish The Cycling Podcast’s Grand Tour of (parts of) Britain. It wasn’t until Richard mentioned it that I realised it was the success of our event there back in December 2016 that had given us the confidence to attempt a tour like this.

When we were first invited by Vincent Guérin of the WS Society we were unsure there’d be enough demand to fill the room but he had been confident, he worked hard to promote the event and it was a great evening.

Returning lived up to expectations. The building itself is stunning. Beautiful and grand but warm and welcoming too, which is a tricky balancing act for buildings to strike, although it has to be said buildings aren’t conscious of such things, they just stand there.

Photograph by Orla Chennaoui

Photograph by Orla Chennaoui

As we sat in one of the rooms overlooked by paintings of 18th and 19th century legal eagles in their wigs and shelves groaning with old law books, we were told the room was haunted. I don’t believe in ghosts but I did notice that of the dozen or so chairs at the long table, all but one of them was tucked in neatly. The other was at a jaunty angle, as if a ghostly occupant had left in a hurry when it heard us coming. Or perhaps that was the joke.

Minutes before we went on, Richard spilled water on his jeans – the result of an over-enthusiastic tap and a small hand basin. We all chortled a bit, not appreciating Richard’s anxiety.

‘Does it look bad?’ he said.

‘No, it doesn’t look too bad,’ I said.

‘Are you sure it doesn’t look like I’ve wet myself?’ he said.

‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘It definitely looks like you’ve wet yourself.’

Orla came to the rescue by suggesting Richard call his brother, who was in the audience, and swap jeans. Problem solved.

Photograph by Albie Clark

Photograph by Albie Clark

The event went well. A photographer called Albie Clark took some great photos that really captured the atmosphere, even if I look like Dr Bunsen Honeydew from The Muppets in almost all of them. You’ll have to Google that reference, I’m not doing the work for you.

At some point, I told the story of when I played golf with two-time Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon at Hampton Court Palace. Fignon had agreed to be interviewed by Edward Pickering, who edited the magazine I wrote for at the time, only on the condition that he could play golf at a decent  course. A four-ball was hastily assembled and I found myself walking up the fairway behind one of my childhood sporting heroes.

He was not in the most talkative mood – he took his golf too seriously and perhaps was a bit grumpy to be in the company of some hacker who was on course to shoot about 105 after the first two holes. (Me, if that's not clear). I nearly took his head off midway down the first fairway when I shanked an iron shot that flew off at close to right-angles in his direction. He ducked just in time and shot me a well-practiced look of contempt.

But I had some reasonable moments. On the front nine there was a par five and I stuck it on the green in three and then bagged a putt from about 20 feet to make birdie. Fignon, who had been swearing and thumping his sand wedge into the turf on the previous hole after taking three to get out of a bunker, skidded his approach shot through the green and into the trees. I don’t think he appreciated me enjoying my birdie as much as I did.

On the back nine there was another par five and I had such a nightmare I picked up with about 150 yards still to go to the green. Fignon, who was finishing strongly, rolled his eagle putt up to the lip of the hole and tapped in for a birdie. He came hopping over to the edge of the green, where I was standing, arms folded, watching the others putt out. ’No birdie for you zis time, eh?’ he said, smiling broadly. It was just about the only English he spoke all day.

After the event, we signed some books and someone presented me with a bottle of Kwaremont beer – named after the Oude Kwaremont climb that features in so many of the Flandrian classics – which was incredibly thoughtful and much appreciated.

Afterwards we headed to a restaurant Vincent had booked. When I’d arrived earlier in the evening he said, ‘We will be going for some cheese, ham and wine afterwards. I hope that is okay?’ I must admit I feared cheese and ham might not be substantial enough but my worries were unfounded. If you’re ever in Edinburgh and have a chance to go to L’Escargot Blanc in Queensferry Street, do because it was really good.

We ate downstairs in the bar and the food was simple buffet-style stuff but it was done so well. There was a fabulous selection of cheeses, ham, saucisson; a jar of crunchy, vinegary cornichons; some raclette with boiled potatoes; some pâte en croute and a really good black pudding pie; plus some tinned sardines and other gems. The food hadn’t been prepared so much as curated and it was a real joy. My concern that I was stuck at the end of the table a fair distance from some of the delights was eased by the fact Vincent and François were reassuringly assertive in making sure everything got passed round.

François revealed that it would be his birthday the following day but implored us not to sing Happy Birthday on the basis that it would be bad luck. So we waited until the clock passed midnight and gave him a stirring rendition – although it was nothing compared to his Flower of Scotland on stage at the Signet Library a few hours earlier.

Orla headed off a bit before us as she had to be up at silly o’clock to fly back to London. Richard went to stay at his brother’s place. François, David Luxton (our literary agent) and I took a taxi back to our hotel and as we said our goodbyes in the corridor I suddenly felt sad that it was over.

All being well, though, we will go back on the road at the end of the year, and we hope to make it to some of the places we were unable to reach this time.

Photograph by Albie Clark

Photograph by Albie Clark