The pressure to express an opinion

I spent the morning reading the reaction to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s report into doping in sport, and there was plenty of it. Some of it was excellent, informed, measured and human. Some of it was absolute nonsense. And some of it was somewhere in between. I think that sums up the reaction to pretty much everything that happens, though, doesn’t it.

When stories like this hit the mainstream, I do have sympathy for people in the media who have to suddenly get to grips with professional cycling and all its peculiarities. The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show cut from pictures of Wiggins to some archive footage of Robert Millar riding a time trial in a Panasonic team jersey at either the 1986 or 1987 Tour de France, before going back to Wiggins. Whoever had to put that package together presumably just searched the database for ‘cycling’, perhaps saw a reference to the Tour de France, and thought that would be okay.

Even the DCMS report wasn’t immune, describing the Tour de France as one of the Classics. That might not matter in the grand scheme of things – after all, no one who’s ever written anything for a living can say they’ve never made a mistake, least of all me – but in a report that was asking to be judged on its attention to detail and trust in its veracity it showed a poor grasp of the basics.

I don’t know how other journalists feel but there’s often a pressure to say ‘something’ on Twitter when these stories break and a while ago I would have done, but I’ve learned that Twitter is just about the least suitable place to express a view on a complex, multi-layered issue. Any comment is open to misinterpretation, people read between the lines and see things that are not there and were not intended. Then there’s the round of, ‘Yes, but what about…’ type messages and before you know it the day’s nearly gone and you realise you’ve been frowning since lunchtime.

A couple of BBC radio stations contacted me asking if I wanted to take part in discussions on the story and I decided I didn’t. I used to do quite a few of these sort of radio appearances around Tour de France time and when big cycling stories broke but since starting the podcast I’ve felt less and less inclined. There’s less room to examine both sides or say ‘I don’t know,’ on the radio. Generally you’re there to put one point of view or the other and sum everything up in a few lines. But what if you see elements of truth in all sides of a story – as is usually the case with something that is complicated?

Instead, I decided I’d write a piece for my website. I’ve called it Eight Years of Covering Team Sky and part one is online now. I’m not entirely sure where it goes next but it’s certainly not going to be an attempt at a definitive, comprehensive account of the team’s history, because I don’t feel I can do that. What I can do is reflect on a few of the major stories I’ve witnessed over the years and write about them from my own perspective.

One thing that does baffle me, though, monitoring the traffic to this site over the past 24 hours, is this: How is it that more than 10 times the number of people are interested in a piece about Team Sky than about what sort of food it is appropriate to leave out for hedgehogs? I just don’t get you people.

Eight years covering Team Sky, part one

In the autumn of 2009, planning for Team Sky was at an advanced stage, recruitment was almost done and the big launch at Millbank Tower in London was only a couple of months away.

Excited by his new team, Dave Brailsford had done a lot of media and one line stuck out to me. He spoke of Team Sky having a zero tolerance policy on doping and that they would not hire anyone with ‘an association with doping’.

For context, this was late 2009. Lance Armstrong had come back and finished third in the Tour de France. The background noise about his doping had yet to hit the mainstream. Floyd Landis had not yet blown the whistle, Jeff Novitsky and the federal investigators had not started to take an interest.

However, cycling had lurched from one doping crisis to the next. In 2006, Operación Puerto, the biggest doping scandal since the Festina Affair eight years earlier, had snared the two contenders vying to inherit Armstrong’s crown, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, and many others. Landis then won the 2006 Tour de France before failing a dope test. Michael Rasmussen got to within days of winning the 2007 Tour when he was caught in a web of his own lies.

So Brailsford’s public statements, and then the one about Team Sky winning the Tour de France with a clean British rider within five years, interested me. Given the landscape of professional cycling at that time I admired the ambition but wondered about the practicalities.

I had asked Brailsford for an interview about British Cycling and Team Sky, both of which he managed, and we arranged to talk at Manchester velodrome during the track World Cup at the end of October 2009. When we met at the appointed time, we walked up into the seats in the velodrome and sat near to the Reg Harris statue, away from the people who were watching the afternoon session’s racing but in public where we could possibly be heard. I explained that I had wanted the opportunity for a more formal conversation. He said he wanted to watch the racing, which was fair enough considering he was British Cycling’s performance director, so we rearranged. We would talk in his office for around 45 minutes before the start of the evening session and later on that day I arrived with my dictaphone and a list of questions.

I was interested in several things – how the relationship between British Cycling and Team Sky and their respective staff would work, the structure of the team’s holding company Tour Racing Limited, who owned it, who was on the board and how it linked to both Sky and British Cycling, as well as how Brailsford envisaged handling running the national team in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics in London while trying to win the Tour de France with Team Sky.

The conversation was business-like. I had the impression that Brailsford was happier in the huddle with journalists, or talking off-the-record, where he perhaps felt he could speak his mind more freely. That’s not unusual. Interviews, particularly ones like this, are a strange and unnatural construct. In hindsight, an informal conversation, switching between on and off the record would probably have been more instructive and I’d probably have learned more but that was the approach I took at the time.

As the questions went on the atmosphere became a little more tense. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way, some interviews go that way for any number of reasons. By the end, though, things were pretty frosty and Brailsford brought our conversation to a close bang on 7pm when the evening session was due to start on the track.

I have chosen to reproduce here the final part of the interview, where I specifically address Brailsford’s recruitment policy and the unequivocal statements on anti-doping. This interview was edited for length and published by Cycle Sport magazine a month or so later.

Lionel Birnie: When you started out you had a clean sheet of paper and 12 or 18 months of planning to put it all together. With that clean sheet of paper, the first thing you set out was you were going to be a clean team, anti-doping is going to be at the core of Team Sky, no grey areas of compromise, so what was the recruitment policy for management and riders?

[Brailsford reaches for a huge folder with Team Sky's application for a UCI ProTour licence in it and starts referring to it.]

Dave Brailsford: Recruitment criteria. Certain characteristics should be seen as non-negotiable. English-speaking, no association with doping, enthusiastic and positive, fit and healthy, open to innovation, willing to try new things – massively important to us – not averse to change, excellent inter-personal skills, must be able to work in a rider-centred programme, supporting and mentoring not directing and controlling, trustworthy, and preferably single but I had to remove that last one under strict guidance from our HR department. You're not allowed to do that. The other thing is appointments from existing teams, the recruitment would be from a small pool in the UCI ProTour, otherwise where do you go? They are not walking round the streets of Britain are they. But because of that we wanted to limit the recruitment of people from any one given team, so we set limits of one DS, two mechanics, two carers, one operational staff and one senior management from any one given team, so that limited us to taking no more than four from any given team.

As your senior sports director, was Scott Sunderland your number one choice when you sat down?

I think we looked at who was available, where we were at. We wanted someone who could come in and work for us for 12 months.

Fill me in on the timetable. At the Tour launch last year he'd just left Cervélo. Had you had contact with him before that date?

We've known Scott a long time. The whole Jonny Bellis going to Saxo Bank for a couple of years, he's been watching our young riders. He knows Shane [Sutton]. There's been an ongoing dialogue, it's not as if two people met out of the blue. He was aware of what was going on. You know how these things go. When he became available we approached him.

And what qualities of his made him suitable for that job?

I think if you look at where he was at. He could speak English...

That's the most important quality? Or is that the first on the list?

No, no, no, if you want someone to come and integrate into this environment and help out there's no point taking a bloke who can't speak any English. What good would an Italian be here who can't speak any English? It sounds simplistic but what good would someone who couldn't speak English be coming here? We wouldn't be able to communicate with the guy. He [Scott Sunderland] worked with CSC, the team has done well, particularly in the cobbled classics. He'd worked with the team that had won the Tour the previous year [with Carlos Sastre in 2008]. You know, he had experience in those areas and certainly not just on the road, he's one of those guys who's quite good in terms of detail in terms of planning and service de course and all that kind of stuff, vehicles and buses, lorries and all those infrustructure things you need to get on board. He's very highly thought of by the ASO, and the UCI like him a lot too.

You mention there the Tour and the cobbled classics. Was the association with Ivan Basso's Giro a concern? Or not a consideration? [Basso had won the 2006 Giro convincingly before being caught in the Operación Puerto investigation and withdrawn on the eve of the Tour de France a few weeks later. Basso later served a suspension.]

Listen, anybody over the age of 35 or 30 years old in professional cycling is a concern. End of. End of.

So what does 'no association with doping' mean?

Well it means has he come out and, you know, has Scott Sunderland, you know, did he test positive at any point in time? I don't think he did as far as I'm aware anyway. And does he, er, has he said quite openly, like, has whoever, been convicted of x, y or z.

So it's a positive test...

What are you trying to suggest?

I'm not trying to suggest anything, I'm just trying to ask some questions that's all. I'm just saying the DS who was with the team [CSC] when one of the key achievements of the rider and his managerial team was Ivan Basso's entirely discredited Giro d'Italia win.

Well, if you have something to tell me that we don't know, please tell me and we'll be happy to take action straight away.

No, no, I'm saying does that count as an 'association with doping'. I'm not saying anything other than that.

No, at the end of the day you have to sit down with somebody and interrogate them about it, for sure.

Have you interrogated them all then?

Yeah, of course, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Who's the cleanest team in your opinion?

I have absolutely no idea. I don't know. But what I do know is that when you started out on this plan what you said was very exciting and very encouraging. There's also an awful lot of capital to be had in having an anti-doping team and what I'm interested in is an anti-doping team that talks the talk and walks the walk.

Hmm, and why do you think we're not walking the walk?

Well, did you ask Steve De Jongh about what it was like being in the TVM  team in 1998?

Of course we had conversations with Steve De Jongh, yeah.

What I'm trying to get at, what is an association of doping.

Are you making allegations against these guys? I don't understand.

I'm not making any allegations. Steve De Jongh was part of the TVM team arrested on the Tour de France in 1998 and spent a night in custody. They went over the line at the front of the peloton on that day to Aix-les-Bains where they all protested against the police intervention and the police investigation into syringes and EPO found in team cars. That did happen. I'm not making any allegations. Steve De Jongh was in that team. I am saying, what is an association with doping? What I mean is you could have chosen from a broad range of people within your criteria, so presumably the people you have chosen you are completely satisfied with?

Well if I wasn't I wouldn't have chosen them would I?


What's your view on Brian Holm?

Er, similar to Scott Sunderland, well, no actually sorry. Brian has admitted to...

And Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag.

They have actually come out and said ‘I took EPO’, and some have written books about it, and I'm not so keen about that...

Hey, listen, we're a clean team, and we're going to run it the same as we run here [the track squad]. If there's any suggestion we've appointed someone who is doing something or isn't working the way we want them to, yeah, that's when you'll see me walk the walk.

Sean Yates tested positive in 1989 [at the Tour of Belgium] and a week later it was negative.

So did he test positive then?

Well, yes he did and then it was declared negative a week later. I guess you'd have to look back at the contemperaneous reporting and make your own judgement.

I have made my own judgement and as far as I am concerned the guy is the only British guy with experience at grand tour level and if we want to have an international team with the support necessary to be able to compete then we've taken him on board.

So the management team, is it being impressed on the management team that anti-doping is one of the key strands to Team Sky and that they will be advocates for it?

I can't believe you're asking me that question. Lionel, come on, of course it fucking is. Come on.

Sean Yates hasn't spoken to me for three years because of the view we took on Astana.

That's not my issue. If you're asking me whether I'm just sticking my head in the sand so we can get people on board so we can dope, that's what you're trying to suggest.

That's not what I'm trying to suggest.

As I said to you, go out into the sport and try to find me people in the sport without anything that anybody could say about them. There aren't that many out there, I can guarantee you, because I've looked. There are not that many to choose from. So then you have to say what are you going to do. Risk assessment, who can fit into the system that we want to run, who will abide by the rules that we will place from the day that they join this team. That's what I am interested in and that's what we will do. And if they can't they won't be here.

You could have chosen someone who wasn't in the TVM team in 1998.


Well, anybody.

No I couldn't. Have you tried? When was the last time you went out to recruit them then?

Well I haven't. But no compromise, there has to be compromise because the people who come absolutely association and blemish free don't exist in cycling? Is that what you're saying?

I think if you look back at the sport over the last 20 years. Let's open our eyes, most of the people involved in it were involved in some way or form. The majority rather than the minority have been involved in a sport that was systematically doping.

Have you asked these guys individually?

Have I had a discussion with them about doping and whether they'll abide by the rules here? Yes, of course I have.

So whether or not they doped in their previous careers is not a concern?

Whether I know that they doped.

Whether you know they doped, yes.

Well of course it is, but I don't know, do I, how the hell do I know? I have to make a judgement call. If they turned round and said to me 'yeah, I doped, I used to dope, 100 per cent used to dope' then they wouldn't be here. It's a judgement call like anything else in life.

We know of people in Team Columbia, or Garmin, in the management, but from the outset they...

This will be a clean team.

Does that extend to members of the management being outspoken? Will the remit be...

The remit will be to fulfil their job descriptions as written in here [referring to the folder] and to adhere to our policies and procedures etc etc and we will run a clean team and that's it.

It's difficult to have a loftier ambition than that? That's the bottom line...

What do you mean? Why is that lofty? Look, I've got integrity, right. I'm running a clean operation here. Everyone thinks we're doping here, we're not. Everyone thinks I'm fucking nuts saying Bradley Wiggins can win the Tour de France, or somebody can win the Tour de France clean. I know for a fact Bradley Wiggins is clean. I know for a fact he ran fourth in the Tour de France [riding for Garmin]. Christian Vande Velde for my money is clean. The difference between fourth and winning is a margin but it's not that big a margin in all fairness. I think it can be done clean and I think I have the wherewithall to run a clean team.

I'm not questioning your integrity.

It feels like it.

Well I'm not questioning your integrity.

Well it does feel like it.

Well, I'm sorry about that. I am not. The issue is when you assemble a team of management it would cross my mind to ask Scott Sunderland whether he knew Ivan Basso was doping in 2006.

If I wasn't comfortable with the potential integrity of er, if I thought there was any cause for concern in terms of their practice they wouldn't be there, and they know it. They know it. Same as anyone else. The reason we won't appoint foreign doctors. We've only appointed British doctors who have not worked in pro cycling before. We want to minimise risk. There are clear indications when doctors become very familiar with riders and try to support and help their riders the lines get blurred. A lot of these doctors get institutionalised. We've got a doctor who's spent seven years at Bolton [Dr Richard Freeman], come out of the Premier League, he's a brilliant guy. He's a top professional and he's going to come and work for us. And that whole team is overseen by Steve Peters, who I have absolute faith in. As a psychiatrist of his quality he knows when you're lying quite honestly. I am quite happy with the checks and balances we have in place.

Have the management spoken to Steve Peters?

Not yet, but they will do.

So is it the case that Team Sky is a Year Zero and what you do now going forward is all that counts. If so then people can accept that...

The point is to run a clean team. I can only run a clean team from the day that it starts.

You asked if I could name a clean team, there's not any I could bet my house on.

That's quite a strong statement.

Well, look at the last 13 years...

I hear what you're saying...

Even now the sport is riven by squabbles and scandal. When you say you're going to be a clean team...

I think certainly Garmin, they genuinely believe in it. I think those guys have integrity. I believe Dave Millar is doing it with integrity now, regardless of what he did in the past. We know Bradley is too. So as long as we can control things from day one, I have every confidence we can run a clean team from day one.

They [Garmin] have taken people who have been banned in the past, but you won't take them. But you will take people who say they haven't done anything. Dave Millar can ride for GB but he can't ride for Team Sky. That seems to be a strange inconsistency.

Why? There's a rule that says Dave Millar can't ride the Olympics, there's no rule to say he can't ride for GB.

So Team Sky's criteria is stricter than BC's?

Would we take Basso?

Well, would you take Basso?

No. We wouldn't take any of these guys with a doping conviction. Vinokourov and these guys coming back, would we take them? No. As much as we like Dave, as much as he's a reformed character, he's done what he's done.

We gather Brian Nygaard is going to be the PR man.


Is that correct?

If he is there'll be an announcement in due course?

Does he have the sort of experience you would want?

Well, if he is, we'll announce it then. Right, seven o'clock...

* * *

And with that, Brailsford got up, I switched off my recorder and we walked rather awkwardly down the corridor until we parted company. The last question concerning Brian Nygaard was possibly slightly inflammatory. I’ve since got to know Brian better but the fact was that when the Operación Puerto dam broke at the 2006 Tour de France he’d had the job of managing the PR fall-out resulting from Ivan Basso’s implication. He had to stand by Bjarne Riis and try to minimise the damage. The point I was making to Brailsford was whether he felt he needed someone with that sort of experience to run Team Sky’s public relations.

My conclusion from that interview was that while trying to put together his multi-million pound team Brailsford had gone on a journey that had perhaps dimmed the early wide-eyed enthusiasm. Trying to put together a team of people who had never had an association with doping was not easy and he perhaps realised even then that his eye-catching statements might come back to haunt him. It was pretty much impossible for him to recruit people who had experience of how the sport actually worked but had not come into contact with doping in some way either directly or indirectly. The problem was, effective PR requires a strong line, not a wishy-washy statement with caveats and disclaimers. Immediately there was a conflict between the publicly-stated ethos and the backgrounds of some of the people Team Sky had hired but he could not admit that.

Part two
Part three

Watching the snow melt

At least one person is reading this blog and I have proof that they got to the last line of the post before last because they emailed me over the weekend to point out to me that you should not give hedgehogs milk as it’s bad for them. This reference will not make sense to you unless you’ve read to the end of the post before last so go back and read it now.

In the email there was also a link to the RSPCA’s advice about hedgehogs which says that the ideal foods to leave out are minced meat, tinned dog or cat food, crushed cat biscuits or chopped boiled eggs. The last one surprised me but it’s all good news because we have a cat and we also keep three chickens which are currently producing an egg each per day. My other half does not eat eggs and so there’s always a surplus, even if I make my way through quite a lot of them and we give plenty away. Maybe this week I will chop up some boiled eggs and leave them in the garden overnight and see if they are still there in the morning. If the eggs are gone it won’t necessarily be proof that a hedgehog has visited but I will be fairly certain my other half hasn’t been out into the garden for a midnight snack.

I had a quiet weekend watching the snow gradually melt. I spent a very cold Saturday afternoon at Vicarage Road with my Dad as Watford handed West Bromwich Albion a footballing lesson. Admittedly, the state of WBA at the moment meant that anything beyond ‘Lesson 1: This is a football,’ would have added to their knowledge of the game.

On Sunday, I received an embargoed copy of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee report into combatting doping in sport, or more specifically combatting doping in athletics and cycling. Presumably as far as Damian Collins MP and the rest of the committee are concerned there’s no doping in any other professional sports, which came as a heck of a relief. We’ll discuss its contents at length in The Cycling Podcast this week and I may return to the subject in a future blog.

Anyway, the report arrived in the morning and, as I explained to Daniel by text, I planned to read it over brunch.

‘Brunch?!’ replied Daniel. ‘FFS, Napalm.’

Given Daniel’s insistence about the hours during which cappuccino may or may not be enjoyed, I was surprised he objected to my reference to such a specific mealtime.

‘It’s a traditional Home Counties meal,’ I explained. ‘It must be taken between 10.30 and 12. Very popular at weekends. If you ever visit England and try to order brunch outside those hours people will laugh and sneer at you.’

He then said something about brunch being breakfast for Instagrammers but I was already 10 pages into the DCMS report by then. There was plenty to digest and a few lines leapt out at me, although a lot of the information was already in the public domain following the Fancy Bears hack in September 2016 and the subsequent DCMS parliamentary hearings. Anyway, there's plenty to talk about when we record The Cycling Podcast on Tuesday.

Snow 2, Podcast 1

A couple of weeks ago in an episode of The Cycling Podcast, I had made a joke (meant affectionately) about the brevity of the typical Scottish summer accounting for the nation not being a cricket-playing hotbed. What I actually said was that the Scottish summer extended to as many as two days most years, not even enough for a Test match. Well, who was having the last laugh about Scottish weather now? Scotland was.

The snow failed to clear enough for the train lines to Glasgow to reopen and so we had to postpone our second Scottish show and make plans to get home. The Signet Library in Edinburgh and the people at Penguin Live, who organised the bulk of the tour, moved quickly to work on alternative dates. We’ll now be going to Edinburgh on April 12. Unfortunately, Òran Mór in Glasgow is not available for the rescheduled date so Penguin are sorting out another venue and we’ll announce that very soon. Happily François and Orla will be able to join us for the rearranged dates.

So, after the high of Wednesday night in Salford, when I think we were all buzzing from the experience, we had a strange day and a bit living Alan Partridge-style in a hotel waiting to see if the shows would go on before heading home.

Postponing two nights was a shame but it wasn’t even a choice. We simply couldn’t have got there. Even if we’d somehow managed to make it to Scotland, it would still have been the right decision to postpone. Having sold out Edinburgh, and got close to doing so in Glasgow, we didn’t want to end up in front of a couple of dozen hardy souls who’d made it through the snow. A quick look on social media suggested that 99 per cent of people who commented thought it was the right call.

The journey home went smoothly until I got to my local railway station. Snow had been falling for a while in Hertfordshire so when I arrived there were no taxis at the station, meaning I had to ring home for a lift. The roads were gridlocked so the final five miles home took almost two hours to complete.

The Cycling Podcast’s book tour will resume at the Arts Theatre in Nottingham on Wednesday, when Richard and I will be joined by Daniel. If you’d like to buy tickets for any of our remaining dates, go here.

Whiling away a day in Salford Quays

I found it hard to wind down after our event at The Lowry in Salford and it took me ages to get to sleep. I woke at least twice in the middle of the night and then felt exhausted when my alarm went off just before eight.

I switched on the television and the first thing I saw was that Scotland was closed for business because of the snow. All trains to Edinburgh were cancelled until at least midday and, as François said, that would be pushed back and back as the day wore on.

‘I know this from covering Alpine skiing,’ he said. ‘They say the race will be at 10 o’clock, then they say 11.30, then they say 12.45, then they call it off.’

True enough, all trains to Scotland from Manchester were cancelled and any thoughts we’d previously had of hiring a car and driving were dismissed when we saw footage on the television news of cars that had been parked on the M80 all night.

François again. ‘I love The Cycling Podcast but I don’t want to spend 13 hours stuck in a freezing cold car with you guys.’

As Richard said, ‘The travel advice is unambiguous.’ And so, after speaking to our hosts at The Signet Library in Edinburgh, we reluctantly took the decision to postpone Thursday night’s show.

We agreed with our book publishers, and the organisers of our tour, Penguin Live, to stay in Salford for an extra night in the hope that things would improve enough for us to make it to Glasgow for Friday night’s show.

That meant we had a day to idle away in the Salford Quays Marriott. With its little library-style work space on the first floor and a gym in the basement there are many worse places to spend a day, although I’d decided not to bring any sports kit because I thought the itinerary was too full to allow even half an hour in the gym. Richard went off, rather smugly I felt, to run on the treadmill and afterwards declared himself revitalised and refreshed for it.

I felt the same way I feel on some Tour de France rest days. Sluggish. The adrenaline of the previous night needed to be replaced one way or other, preferably with more adrenaline and the prospect of another nerve-wracking night in front of an audience, but instead I felt increasingly drained as the day wore on.

We reconvened for lunch in the hotel’s restaurant and Richard, Orla, François, The Cycling Podcast’s agent-slash-directeur sportif David, and I spent a very pleasant hour or so talking and laughing. Richard and I had both ordered the spaghetti with meatballs and when our meals arrived Richard spotted that my dish had more parmesan cheese on it than his and made a playful grab for my plate, which I fended off with a jab of the fork worthy of an Olympic fencer.

It reminded me of a late night near Lyon a few Tours de France ago when we’d struggled to get off one of the Alpine mountains and thought we were staring a McDrive meal in the face when we spotted a pizzeria next to a roundabout. We did a cartoonish double lap of the roundabout to check the place was still open.

We went in, were shown to a table and ordered a couple of beers, which the waiter put down in the middle of the table, rather than one definitively in front of Richard and one in front of me. One glass – the one marginally closer to me – was full to the brim. The other, marginally closer to Richard, was a distinctly short measure, topped with at least an inch of foam. Richard was on the phone but as I reached out my hand for the full beer – my beer, as I saw it – he reached across and beat me to it, taking a satisfying gulp as I shook my head in disbelief.

Well, revenge is a dish best served piping hot.

Midway through our lunch, Richard peered across at my plate.

‘How many meatballs did you get?’

I counted them. ‘Six.’

‘I only got four.’


Orla had noticed that I had saved the meatballs until last and I explained that having started two meatballs up on GC I was keen to make the most of my advantage. When you’re stuck in a hotel in the middle of the worst start to spring for several generations you have to take the small pleasures where you can find them.

In the evening we headed into Manchester for dinner at El Gato Nero, the black cat, a tapas restaurant which did a very fine selection of dishes. It was François’ choice, having consulted the Michelin guide online. As he always does, François picked a very good wine – a Rioja – that nestled smack bang in the middle of the sweetspot between quality and value, and we put the disappointment of not making it to Edinburgh behind us.

We were a bit giddy in the taxi on the way home, by which I mean our hotel. Having learned only recently that Orla had been all-Ireland triple jump champion I was keen to know if anyone still felt they had any possibility of sporting glory still ahead of them. I revealed that Simon had bought me a set of crown green bowls for my 40th birthday but that I was yet to try them out.

I can see myself getting really into it. Give it a couple of years and I’ll be saying, ‘Sorry, Richard, I can’t do the opening week of the Giro because it clashes with the mixed doubles quarter-final and we’ve got to get our match played before Beryl has her hip replacement.’

‘What would be your sporting nickname?’ asked François. He didn’t leave me time to answer before he came up with a suggestion. ‘The hedgehog. Lionel ‘The Hedgehog’ Birnie.’

Everyone laughed a bit too much for my liking but I had to concede it was a good one.

‘Perfect,’ I said. ‘Prickly on the outside and rolls up into a ball when attacked.’

By the time everyone had stopped laughing (with me rather than at me, I’m almost certain) we were in the hotel foyer. ‘It is a good one, François, because I do like a slice of bread soaked in milk.’

Opening night in Salford

As forecast the snow fell, meaning travel disruption across Britain on the day we needed to make it to Manchester for the opening night of The Cycling Podcast’s book tour at The Lowry Theatre in Salford. François was flying from Marseille, Richard from Paris, and Orla and I were travelling from London on the train.

As I was waiting for my train into London, a text from Richard arrived to say François was stuck at Marseille airport. For several hours I didn’t realise that this was a joke because the snowpocalyptic weather had made me wonder if any of us would make it north.

‘The contrast in tone in yours and Orla’s travel updates is 😂,’ said Richard in another text a few minutes later. [That's a crying-with-laughter emoji, by the way, in case it doesn't come out on your computer or phone].

‘Yes, but has she been looking at the actual travel information? In the past hour, Virgin Trains have cancelled two Manchester trains,’ I replied.

‘Of course she hasn’t. She runs on pure optimism and positivity.’

It made me think of what happens when you fill a diesel car with unleaded. If I tried to run on optimism and positivity I’d just break down irretrievably. It’s just not my natural way.


Orla’s optimism clearly cancelled out my Eeyoreish tendency and then some because we left Euston on time and we whistled through the whitescape with a Marks and Spencer’s bag of train tapas to help speed the journey along. Train tapas, and its equivalent car tapas, is a phrase coined by Simon Gill. It’s a simple definition for a lunch bag purchased from M&S (or Waitrose). A good train tapas consists of some or all of the following – a sandwich, perhaps some sushi, sausage rolls or a samosa, crisps or sometimes pistachios, fruit, chocolate, a smoothie, and no change from twenty quid. It's designed to be grazed through over the course of a good journey.

Before heading to The Lowry we made a quick stop at the Rapha cycling cafe in Manchester where we signed and sold the first physical copies of The Cycling Podcast’s book and then it was off to Salford Quays and the striking theatre building. It was particularly nice to be at a theatre named after LS Lowry because I've absorbed a liking for his paintings. My parents have a print of Lowry’s A Country Road on their wall and he is one of my mum’s favourite artists. I remember drawing my own versions of Going To The Match when I was a child, copying Lowry’s little figures and adapting the football ground so it looked like Watford’s Vicarage Road.

I won’t write too much about The Cycling Podcast event just in case anyone reading this has tickets for one of our other shows but my feeling was it went well and people enjoyed themselves. I certainly did, and that’s the main thing, isn’t it. After all, I take the view with anything – whether it be a podcast I’m making or something I’m writing – that if I’m not enjoying the process on some level then I can hardly expect anyone else to.

Of the four of us, I seem to be affected by nerves and an impending sense of doom more than the others. Daniel, who is not with us on this leg of the tour but will join us next week, once said something after a live event that summed up the experience for me. ‘Another catastrophe averted.’

François is incredibly relaxed about absolutely everything and in the dressing room beforehand he said, ‘I don’t get nervous about speaking to an audience anymore. I used to get a little bit nervous about going on television, but everyone’s on television now.’ Orla laughed at that, possibly because she actually is on television. Richard has the added pressure of being the host, the one who has to hold it all together and jump start things if we lose our thread but in his buffalo-like way he stands firm and absorbs this without giving off much sense that the nerves are getting to him.

As eight o’clock neared everyone got just a little bit quieter, perhaps running through a few last-minute ideas or half-lines in their head (I know I was) so perhaps I’m not the only one who feels a bit jangly around the midriff on these occasions.

My highlights of the evening were that Mandy Jones, now Mandy Bishop, the 1982 world road race champion, was in the audience and François’ rendition of La Marseillaise, which he had done so brilliantly on our Bastille Day podcast during the Tour de France.


It was a great crowd, particularly considering the terrible weather, and there was a long line of people waiting for us to sign copies of the book. To have people come up and say they not only enjoyed the evening but had also enjoyed particular episodes of the podcast still catches me a bit by surprise but it's always very nice.

However, a quick check on my phone told me of the weather warnings for Scotland overnight and made me think that not even Orla’s optimism would carry us on to Edinburgh the next morning.

The difficult second blog post

Someone said to me yesterday, ‘Only you could start two separate blogs on the same day. Talk about setting yourself up to fail.’ *

I lied in the first line. No one said this to me. My own brain said it to me but I think it sounds better if I pretend I had an actual conversation with someone rather than reveal a snippet from the incessant coffee shop babble that goes on inside my skull throughout my waking hours.

Here we are, then, the difficult second blog post.

Earlier I ran through a quick shortlist of potential subjects and my brain gave me the following feedback: Too personal; too boring; too depressing; too soon.

I haven’t worked out what this is even going to be yet, or even if it’s going to be anything at all, so for now it may just be a run-down of what I’ve been doing, which is currently not all that much other than getting ready for the first three nights of The Cycling Podcast’s Grand Tour of (Parts Of) Britain.

We added the (Parts Of) in brackets when we started getting comments on social media asking why we were neglecting the south west, Wales, East Anglia, the north east and so on. The short answer to that is that the publishers of our book (A Journey Through the Cycling Year), who organised the tour, were juggling many different factors including, but not limited to, our availability, venues that were the right size, affordable and willing to be our hosts, and the travel logistics. If the next week or so goes well and we ever do anything like this again we will ask the tour organisers to prioritise areas we’ve been unable to reach this time, but in the meantime I’ll never make a smart comment about the Tour of Britain route or the length of transfers on that race ever again. The planning and logistics of our little tour have made me go cross-eyed at times and I’ve barely had to do anything apart from say yes or no to things.

If I lose the document with all my train ticket reference numbers on it between now and a week on Saturday you’ll find me rocking backwards and forwards weeping on the platform of a railway station somewhere in (a part of) Britain.

That’s if the trains are running, of course. Tomorrow night we are at The Lowry theatre in Salford. Richard and François will fly in from France and Orla and I will take the train from Euston. With the weather people forecasting heavy snow across parts of the country we could be in for a bit of an adventure but with a bit of luck we’ll get there in time to go on stage and if it goes spectacularly wrong at least I’ll have something amusing to write about in the slightly less difficult third blog.

Our Edinburgh show on Thursday has sold out but if you want to come to Salford, Glasgow, Nottingham, Hackney, Leeds or Sheffield check out the details here.

* For anyone who is interested in football, and more specifically Watford’s attempts at football, I’ve revived my blog about the Hornets. It’s here if you want to read it.


Starting as I mean to go on, but probably won't

I went to see the comedian Richard Herring at the Alban Arena in St Albans with my sister last week and aside from being a very amusing evening it reminded me that he has kept up a daily blog for almost a decade. It's called Warming Up and I think he started it because he wanted to get into the habit of writing something every day so he had his brain nicely heated before sitting down to write a book.

There were a number of things in his stand-up routine that struck a chord with me, particularly as we're about to embark on a tour of our own to promote The Cycling Podcast's new book. He wrote in his own blog of being disappointed by the size of the audience in St Albans. It looked a decent crowd to me, although the Alban Arena is a big venue and if he’s anything like me I’m sure he noticed the empty seats before the expectant faces.

He dealt with the issue of receiving and dealing with complaints from the public about his work, something I have to do from time to time (incredible, but true). He also did a very funny bit about posting books to his customers and annoying the local postal workers by filling every pillar box within about a mile radius of his house with envelopes. Having spent a large chunk of December in my village post office picking up extremely frosty vibes from the staff, despite the fact I’d paid them hundreds and hundreds of pounds for postage, I identified with that and so it reassured me in a way. I think of Richard Herring with his quarter of a million Twitter followers and imagine he has a little army of workers behind him so to find out he does so much of the leg work himself made me feel a bit better about spending all that time before Christmas at the kitchen table with piles of books, envelopes and sticky labels.

Of course, while the idea of writing this blog is inspired by Richard Herring, keeping a diary, whether privately or publicly, is nothing new. I've always enjoyed reading diaries, whether they be by Tony Benn or Alan Bennett or someone else, and I’ve often written accounts of life covering the Tour de France, starting out with something called Tales From the Broomwagon for Cycling Weekly’s website during the 2006 and 2007 Tours, which then evolved into the Gourmet de France, which focused on the food I ate along the way but also offered a bit of insight into what happened on the road. That, in turn, has sort of led to The Cycling Podcast’s book because the central core of it are diaries from the three grand tours – the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España – with each of us (that's Richard Moore, Daniel Friebe, François Thomazeau and Fran Reyes) covering a week before handing the baton on.

So this blog is perhaps an extension of that. I have no idea at this stage what I’ll write about on a regular basis or whether it’ll be mostly professional or partly personal. I have no idea how long it’ll last but like everything I’m setting out with the best intentions knowing I will probably get distracted and switch to something else soon enough. But while I don’t have a book project on the go I thought it would be useful to keep my writing brain at least lukewarm.