Monday, 18 October 2021

Cycling in Paris - La vie est belle!


When I lived in Paris almost 30 years ago I never thought of travelling around by bicycle. Cycling was something I did while on holiday or as a special excursion out with friends. 
I only knew one person who travelled around Paris by bike, and he was a bit "bohemian" so I just saw it as part of his ways. Seeing cyclists go around the Bastille roundabout, or even worse the Charles de Gaulle Etoile roundabout with its 12 avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe made me think they must have a screw loose or are even on a death wish! 

But 30 years on, I have happily joined those folks. There is a difference though nowadays. I have just returned from a trip to Paris with my bike, and I must say it was very pleasant.

Commuting by bike is very much part of Parisian culture, and everyone seems to be doing it!

Over the years, various improvements have been made to the infrastructure to accommodate cyclists. I first noticed changes about 15 years ago, the first time I cycled from London to Paris. At that time the famous Vélib bike sharing bikes had just been introduced (the first major city in the world to have this system), and there was a segregated bike lane that went all along the boulevards north of the River Seine (the right bank) following the same route as Line 2 of the métro (Porte Dauphine to Nation). 



















It was great whizzing along there, even if you had to dodge the odd vehicle parked in the bike lane, or the errant pedestrian! Outside of this lane there weren't many segregated bike lanes - just cursory lines painted on the road. So it was no different from London. 

Personally, I was still happy to ride around Paris though, as by then I had started doing a lot of bike riding, be it my daily commute, training rides or cycle races. Also I felt confident navigating around Central London by bike, so I didn't imagine cycling in Central Paris would be much worse. 

The thing I did notice, and continue to see even now, is just how compact Paris really is. Back in those days I lived in the 12th district (arrondissement) next to the Marché d'Aligre. To get to Chatelet-les Halles would be about a half-hour by métro. But by bike you can do it in about 20 minutes. These days when I visit Paris I stay in Vincennes, a nearby Eastern suburb. To cycle there from Gare du Nord just takes half an hour.

Funnily enough when I lived in Paris back then, I thought any suburb was a long way away. But through cycling, I have realised that places really aren't that far away. 



















In the last four or five years there has been a massive growth in the number of cycle lanes in Paris. As well as the "line 2" cycle lane there are segregated lanes in many other places. My ride from Chatelet to Vincennes (via the Marais, Bastille, Faubourg Saint-Antoine, Nation, Cour de Vincennes) takes in separated lanes. Then there are cycle lanes along the "boulevard exterieur" (the boundary between Paris and the suburbs), plus along both sides of the River Seine. The right bank is actually a traffic-free path, the Voie Georges Pompidou, with various other activities going on - running, rollerskating, picnics, mini expeditions, and a few hammocks if you want to just lounge and watch the world go by. 

These days there are loads of people on all kinds of bikes - all shapes, sizes, genders, race, levels of fitness (and competencies), dressed however they want - some even with mini sound systems blaring out. It's great to see this democratisation of cycling. 

The improved infrastructure has largely been as a result of the policies of Paris Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who is aiming to reduce pollution in Paris by slashing motorised traffic, and promising a bike lane in every street in Paris.

Last year I interviewed Jean-Sébatien Catier of Paris en Selle, Paris's answer to the London Cycling Campaign and they had similar gripes to their London counterparts - not enough was being done. 

However, it was acknowledged that for changes to be made to the cycling infrastructure, the road layout is altered and this needs approval from the Home Office (Ministère de l'Interieur). So it's all in the bureaucracy - just like London Mayor Sadiq Khan has to get the green light from each London Borough before he can change the road layout. 

A couple of other points of interest around the Paris cycling network are a) they took ideas from the London Cycle Superhighway network when they designed their lanes, which is interesting considering that folks in London regularly slam the London Cycling network and b) Anne Hidalgo was up for reelection last year (postponed to this year due to the pandemic). She was unanimously voted in for a second term, and now she's just been confirmed as the Socialist Party candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections. 

Does that remind you of a trajectory of another Mayor of a capital city across the English Channel who put in place a decent cycle network and later ended up as head of state....?? 

That aside, I would certainly recommend taking a bike to Paris. It really enhances your experience of a trip to this beautiful city. Granted, it's not yet Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but it's definitely going in the right direction.


Friday, 15 October 2021

Excitement at the reborn Women's Tour de France - it doesn't need to be three weeks long!

At Palais des Congrès, Paris
Yesterday I attended the presentation of the 2022 Tour de France, at the Palais des Congrés at Porte Maillot, Paris. 

It's a pretty big affair with the auditorium being packed out with a couple of thousand people - among them, team riders, sponsors, dignitaries, community cycling groups, and journalists. 

This event always garners excitement - finding out what novelties there will be in the route, but the really noteworthy thing was the unveiling of the route of the inaugural Women's Tour de France. 

Yes, a women's version of the men's 108-year old event will take place next year. As the men finish their race on Champs Elysees on 24th July, the women will begin their event shortly afterwards at the Eiffel Tower.

The race will then consist eight stages, all in the North Eastern part of France, and will have use the infrastructure of the men's event organised by Amaury Sports Organisation, as well as being televised.

After the 82km-race around central Paris, the remaining stages will be around 130km, passing through towns like Meaux, Epernay, Troyes, Bar-le-Duc, with a 175km-stage to Saint Die Des Vosges and finish on the really challenging Superplanche des Belles Filles. 

Auditorium filling up at Palais des Congrès

Although they will only be racing for eight days, the women will have some pretty tough stages. A couple of stages will include steep gravel roads, and a couple of stages will go over the Grande Ballon, the Petit Ballon, and the Ballon d'Alsace - some infamously steep hills in the Vosges regions. 

The stage race will see an exciting end as women have to race up the 20%+ gradients of the Superplanche des Belles Filles, and sprint to the finish line along a 1km uphill stretch of gravel road.

These stages do look exciting, and it will be great to see them getting the scheduled two-hours' TV coverage that was announced, as women contesting for a share of the 250,000-euro (£210k) prize fund.

This is not the first time an ASO-organised women's Tour de France is taking place. This event took place between 1984 and 1989, with the winning woman being pictured on the podium alongside the winning man. The women did not win any prize money, and the event was not televised (though there was print media coverage). However, the event was not financially viable and was difficult to manage logistically.

Much campaigning has been done for a women's ASO-organised event that would get the same coverage, and be on par with the men's event. Since 2014, a one-day race, La Course has taken place during the Tour de France, on the route of one stage of the Tour de France, and that was televised. However, activists were quite dissatisfied with the event and saw it as a token gesture.

When this women's route was revealed, the audience response was positive, with spontaneous applause. The professional women racers I spoke to - Audrey Cordon-Ragot, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Elisa Balsamo, and Evita Muzic - for Cycling News, were glad to have Tour de France and saw the route as correct, and in line with their expectations.

Tour de France Femmes with Zwift 2022 route

Some observers have bemoaned the fact that this so-called Tour of France is only concentrated within one region within Northern France, and is only eight stages long. But it has to be understood that a) women's road racing teams are smaller than men's teams (~13 riders vs. 30 respectively) and so there is less rotation of riders in races. Riders end up doing different types of races back-to-back, where men's teams operate a double roster. So a women's team doesn't have enough riders to compete in three-week stage races; 

b) there are a few stage races taking place within a short time frame - the Women's Tour of Italy, the Women's Tour, and another new stage race in Scandinavia (Battle of the North), so rider well-being needs to be kept in mind when setting out the number of stages in a race (as well as following the UCI rules on the length of races); c) over an eight-stage race it would be impractical to move the whole peloton across large geographic areas of France within an eight-day time frame.

In the last nine years that I have interviewed professional women, I have never met anyone who said they wanted to do a three-week stage race with 200km stages. It seems that these calls have been from activists who are calling out for their ideals of what equality means, independently of what current professional women's peloton actually want.

So I would rather take my lead from the feedback of the professional women racers. For them, the rebirth of a women's Tour de France is a very positive thing, and so I am inclined to agree with that. Of course, there are a few outstanding elements like a lack of a time trial stage. 

Also, the prize money, though significantly higher than other women's races is still a long way behind the 2.3M-euro (£1.9M) fund set aside for the men's Tour de France. This is something that can only really be addressed over time as media organisations gain confidence in televising women's cycle races and viewer numbers increase.

What has been announced is a good start, and I look forward to seeing the race play out next year. As Tour Director Christian Prudhomme says, I like to see it as something that will still be going in 100 year's time.

[I also wrote about the Tour de France reveal for The Times. Link here.]

Monday, 4 October 2021

Paris-Roubaix Femmes: Pre-thoughts and after-thoughts from the riders

It was great to see this big moment in history over the weekend, when women raced the Paris-Roubaix for the first time ever. I remember asking Christian Prudhomme, of Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) in 2018, when he thought there would be a Paris-Roubaix for women. He said, at the time that they were focused on a junior race for the male riders, and that they would put on a women's race but there were time constraints and it would be something to look for in the future. Naturally, campaigners for women's cycling were not impressed with this reply.

So it was great news to hear, last year, that a woman's race would be taking place. Finally it came to pass, over the weekend, and it didn't disappoint. Although the route was less than half the distance of the men's race, being 116.4km and without the infamous Forest of Arenberg cobbles, the race was anything but easy. With the women hitting the cobbles after just 30km and going into Mons-en-Pévèle as well as Carrefour de L'Arbre, the racers will have their work cut out for them. Many women were quite clear that they would be in for a tough ride - and it certainly was.

Photo: Trek-Segafredo

There was no bunch finish for first place, as Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) won from an 85km breakaway, with Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) who made a spirited attempt to chase down the British rider, entering the famous Roubaix Velodrome more than a minute behind to finish in second place. Deignan's team-mate Elisa Longo-Borghini not far behind in third place. There was a bunch sprint of around 10 riders for the minor placings and thereafter women finished in ones and twos.  

Of 129 starters, just 61 finished, with riders either missing the time cut or dropping out following a crash, notably Annemiek Van Vleuten (Team Movistar) who crashed and broke her pelvis.

Interestingly, the race was topped and tailed by British riders, with the first placed rider being Lizzie Deignan, and the last classified finisher, in 61st place being Abby-Mae Parkinson (Lotto Soudal Ladies). 

I interviewed a number of different women before the race. It is interesting to hear a few of their reactions after their first experience of the Hell of the North:


Alice Barnes, Canyon-SRAM Racing [26th]

Before: 

"I would say it’s [Paris-Roubaix is] one of the races on the calendar that suits me the most, with it being flat, but with the cobbled aspect which will make it a tough race. So I am glad that in my lifetime I will be able to race it. Hopefully I will have some good luck and good legs and get a good result. I heard a lot of people say that there’s nothing like Roubaix cobbles. I would say in Holland or Belgium I have ridden cobbles a bit like it but I think it’s the back to back cobbles and the relentlessness that makes it a much different race from any race on the calendar. Hopefully with it being the women’s first edition we can put on a good race, and it’ll be exciting and I’ll be there in the thick of the action with the rest of my team.

"I am really excited. I do like the cobbles – I don’t know if I will be saying that at the end of Saturday, but it’s just an exciting race and I’ve watched it for years and years when there’s been the men’s racing. I’ve been inspired from that, but hopefully having a women’s edition will inspire more women to want to race the event as well."

Photo: Tino Pohlmann

After:

"To be honest, overall I am disappointed. I just didn't have the legs. I tried to block this out and just kept pushing which seemed the common advice anyway. I found myself in a group that was working fairly well together, and when I got to the velodrome, I just had to ride for the best place I could.

"I wish I could have soaked in the atmosphere at the finish, but I couldn't help but feel disappointed with how my day went. As a team, we had bad luck with losing Kasia [Niewiadoma] early and the puncture of Elise [Chabbey]  as she was really well positioned when she got this and felt she had good legs."

Asked if she would like to return to next year's edition, to be held in April, Barnes was quick to reply. "Yes, 100%. I know this can be a good race for me. I can see myself and Paris-Roubaix having a love-hate relationship for the rest of my career."


Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, SD Worx [10th]

Before:

"The cobbles are bad. They are flat, but there are holes everywhere and you need to have speed to ride over it, and that’s the problem because if you are tired you won’t have the speed anymore. And also the rests [on the tarmacked roads] in between cobbled section are so short – sometimes only 2km or 3km before going into the next section, so that makes it hard. 

"I didn’t really dream about this race when I was younger, as you don’t really know what kind of rider you are. But in the last years I have seen that I am a pure classic, one day racer. I am normally good in the Spring. I have won Flanders and Strade Bianche and those kind of races. So then you know you are able to do it; so of course when I saw this race on the calendar I was directly super-happy. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was I probably can do it, but I didn’t really know, so that made me nervous. I think I prepared well, and in the end we will see how it goes. Maybe I’m not made for it, I don’t know!" 

Photo: Tornanti
After:

"It was super tough, but what a cool race this is. I think everyone is completely empty. It was a really chaotic race, but we were sitting pretty comfortably in. I did not expect [Lizzie] Deignan's attack on the first cobblestone section, however. Super clever of her that she could stay ahead until the end with so much wind and such a tough course. Hats off."


Jolien d'Hoore, SD Worx [Finished outside time limit]

Before:

"Paris-Roubaix is just beautiful. I love it. It’s a hard race. We never experienced anything like this before so it’s going to be new for everybody and I’m really looking forward to it.

"I live on the course of Tour of Flanders and so we have cobbles, but you can’t compare them with these ones in Paris-Roubaix. The cobbles in Paris-Roubaix are more like a bunch of rocks thrown together, whereas the cobbles in Flanders are still pretty smooth.

"I am more a fan of a dry race, where it’s safe for everybody. When it’s raining it’s just going to be a matter of surviving and not crashing. And that has nothing to do with cycling anymore; I just want the best rider to win on Saturday and not the ride who has the most luck.

"Paris-Roubaix is the race I remember the most when I was a little girl. I was watching it on the television from the start until the finish. I can still remember riders like Johan Museeuw and especially Tom Boonen. I can remember 2012 when Boonen did a long solo, so it’s crazy that I am now riding on the same cobbled sections as he did. That just gives me goosebumps."

Photo: Cor Vos

After:

"It was literally hell. We explored the course in dry weather, now the cobblestones were super slippery due to the rainfall. One brake and you crashed. That's Roubaix.
Mentally it was difficult to continue the race after my second crash, but there was never a moment to give up. In my last race [of her career before retiring] I didn't want to get in the broom wagon. I had only one goal left: ignore the pain, get to the finish, and enjoy the last kilometres."


Lizzie Deignan, Trek-Segafredo, [Winner]

Before:

"Paris-Roubaix Femmes is something that should have happened long ago, but it is a big step forward in women’s cycling, and it’s great to see the respect women are gaining in cycle racing. 

"I think the course is fine as it is. When designing the course we have to think about the race and the various teams and riders involved. The most important thing is to have a women’s Paris-Roubaix. Which cobbles should or shouldn’t be included can be looked at in the future."

After:

"I feel very emotional. I am just really proud....I cannot believe it happened.... At the start of the day we said, 'you know the rulebook: anything can happen'. It was a case of just fighting to be at the front in those first cobble sections, and I knew that Ellen [van Dijk], one of our [team] leaders, was not in such a good position. And I thought, 'well if at least I am there [at the front] I can cover something'. And when I looked behind, no one was there, and I thought 'well at least they will have to chase me down, so I carried on.' I was riding with the assurance that my team-mates Ellen, Elisa [Longo-Borghini] and Audrey [Cordon-Ragot] were behind me. We had the best team in the race and that's why I won. 

"I didn't know I was going to win until I entered the velodrome! I couldn't hear anything, my legs were cramping, and I knew that even on the last section you could lose two minutes if you cramped and blew up. I really just tried to keep a regular pace. At this point in the season, I am tired and I knew the best thing for me was to keep a steady pace and stay in front for as long as I could. Paris-Roubaix has always been a men's race and I am just so proud that women's cycling is on the world stage now. I am proud that my daughter can look at the cobblestone trophy."




Thursday, 30 September 2021

Photo of the day - 30: Joss Lowden, new hour record holder

Photo: Matt Alexander/PA Wire

Congratulations to Drops-Le Col rider, Joss Lowden who broke the women's hour record at the Velodrome Suisse, in Grenchen, Switzerland. The distance she covered in one hour, 48.405km, beat Vittoria Bussi's hitherto record of 48.007km achieved in 2017.  

The 33-year old from Lewes, East Sussex had had her eye on the record for many months since she unofficially broke it last year while training at the Derby Velodrome, so she knew she would be capable of doing it again. However, doubts always set in during the preparation. Lowden, who is a road racer and one of the team captains at Drops-Le Col/supported by Tempur team, has been having a good season having won the Tour Feminin in Czechia and placing 5th at Brabantse Pijl. A week before her world record attempt, as part of her preparation she competed in the mixed relay time trial, the time trial and the road race at the World Road Cycling Championships in Flanders, Belgium. 

What is impressive about this record is that it beat other records that were achieved at high altitude. Apart from Bridie O'Donnell who cycled at 46.882/hour in 2016 in Adelaide, all the other hour records were broken at around 2,000 metres altitude - either in Mexico or in Colorado, USA. Joss Lowden's record was not completely at sea level as the Velodrome Suisse is at 450m altitude, but it is far from high altitude. This record also beat the ultimate speed of 48.149/hour, set by Jeannie Longo in 1996 but was not recognised by the cycling governing body (Union Cycliste Internationale) due to her having adopted the banned "Superman" position.

Given that Joss was constantly ahead of schedule throughout her ride, it seems that she would probably be strong enough to break her own record in the future. So who knows, we may see her again in the Velodrome Suisse.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Photo of the day - 29: Catching up with SD Worx ahead of Paris-Roubaix Femmes



There's been a buzz this week as folks gear up for the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes race. The Paris-Roubaix is one of the oldest professional bike races, and arguably the most gruelling one-day race. The full distance is 258km (161 miles) and the last 160km include 30 sections of cobbled roads (pavés) with most sections being between 1.5 and 4 km long - a total of 55km of pavés. These cobbles aren't of the neat variety that you find in quaint touristic towns or even the ones you see during the Tour of Flanders bike race. They are just jagged, irregular rough and ready cobbles of all shapes and sizes on old narrow roads. Riding your bike along them is a massive test in bike handling and resilience on your body. When it rains it's treacherous, as has been seen over the years in the men's race. 

After a lot of campaigning for a women's race, the organisers ASO finally decided to stage the race last year. Unfortunately, like with many events during these coronavirus times the race had to be postponed twice, and so we now have the race taking place this coming Saturday. It's going to be a real moment in cycling history.
The women's race will be a shorter version of the men's race, with the distance being 116.4km (70 miles) and 17 sections (29.2km) of pavés. The women will tackle iconic sections of Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de L'Arbre, though it doesn't include the Trouée d'Arenberg.

Given the magnitude and excitement of the occasion, I was keen to talk to as many women as I could in advance, as part of an article I was writing for Cycling News website. One of the teams definitely worth speaking to was SD Worx, with its star-studded riders and a couple of riders who could be in with a realistic chance of winning.

So today, for my article in Cycling News, I spoke to Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, Christine Majerus, and Jolien d'Hoore, who is retiring from professional racing straight after the Paris-Roubaix Femmes. As expected, all three riders are very excited at the prospect of competing in this race. 

They had just finished doing the reconnaissance of the course, and it was fair to say that they all found it a very tough course, that is going to be risky if it is raining. None of the women were concerned by the fact that they won't be doing all of the iconic stretches of cobblestones, or even that the fact that the race is less than half the distance of the men's race. For them, it was the fact that there is a women's Paris-Roubaix at all, and that in itself is a good thing.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Photo of the day - 28: More Italian cycling success, even ahead of the mighty Dutch

 

Getty Images

Continuing the theme of Italians winning things this summer, this was once again repeated at the Women's World Road Racing Championships. The noteworthy thing was that it was Elisa Balsamo who managed to outsprint Marianne Vos, the greatest female bike racer of all time. Those who have followed the season will not be surprised that Elisa was in the mix at the end, given that with her sponsored team Valcar Travel & Service she has tended to contest sprints and be in the minor placings.

But to get ahead of the great Marianne Vos was an achievement at another level. I think the difference between Marianne and Elisa was that Vos probably launched her sprint a little late, and furthermore Balsamo had a very strong cohesive lead-out team in the shape of Elisa Longo Borghini, Marta Bastianelli, Marta Cavalli and Maria-Giulia Conflonieri. Interestingly, the Dutch team was also very strong on paper. People have been talking about them for the last couple of years being a formidable team, and the team to beat.

Given that a number of these riders have been Olympic Champion or World Champion, it isn't without reason that the world is talking about the team from the Netherlands. The question isn't will they win? It's more - which one out of  Marianne Vos, Annemiek Van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen, Demi Vollering, Amy Pieters and Ellen Van Dijk will win? 

Unfortunately, the team has lost out in recent major competitions. At the Olympics, they totally failed to spot that a relatively unknown rider from Austria (Anna Kiesenhofer) had done a breakaway off the front to win. In fact, when Annemiek Van Vleuten crossed the line in second place she did a victory salute, thinking she had won! Apparently, some members of the Dutch team new that there was already a woman ahead on the road, but this doesn't seem to have been communicated between them. (Radios weren't allowed during the race.)

Then at the World Championships communication was better, but they still didn't manage to get organised to launch Marianne into the best position at the right time for the sprint for the line. So their most decorated rider failed to catch the young speedy Italian in the home straight. 

Marianne looked extremely disappointed - more so than I have ever seen her after a race - and she was in tears on the finish line. I must say, I felt bad for her and would have like to see her win.

But I think here, it is a case of the strongest team isn't always the team that wins. What counts more is using your resources wisely and working better as a team. And I think that's where the Italians were able to make the difference. So the buzz word is "team work". And that's something that the Italians seem to excel at where the Dutch need to do better.

Monday, 27 September 2021

Photo of the day - 27: Bike to School Week

 

Photo: J Bewley/Sustrans

At a time when we are looking for ways to reduce pollution and carbon emissions, and even more now that there are issues with fuelling at the filling stations, it is worth considering providing a favourable environment for children to ride or walk to school.

As it happens this is the start of Bike to School Week, a time to encourage children to go to school on two wheels. However, there is an issue in getting children to go to school by bicycle. In a recent survey involving over 1300 children aged 6 to 15 years old, only 2% of them children currently cycle to school. The YouGov survey commissioned by the walking and cycling charity, Sustrans, also found that about 14% of children would like to ride to school. 30% of the children said they were worried about cycling to school, and 57% felt that there were too many cars in the immediate area around their school.

Some local authorities have decided to close roads to traffic in the areas around a school first thing in the morning and at school closing time (known as School Streets). Southwark Council have done that near where I live, in some of the roads around schools in Dulwich. 

I have noticed that there are more children on bikes on those roads. As a car driver (as well as a bike rider) it does sound a bit irritating that some of the roads I normally drive on are out of bounds at rush hour. But I must say, there are alternatives including taking the train or cycling too. I think it's more important to give children the opportunity to ride to school in a clean, safe environment, and enjoy bike riding. It's that sort of thing that can help girls and boys develop more of an appetite for bike riding, and in future we can become a nation more geared towards bike travel and active transport.

Also for those who would like to improve their bike riding skills and confidence when riding on the roads, Bikeability is a scheme that provides free training. I must say that the earlier you learn to ride a bike on the road, the more confident you will be on the road through the rest of your life. I have certainly found that through taking my cycling proficiency test - many many moons ago!