Saturday 31 December 2011

A Year in Words

The weather in 2011 was quite memorable - from a snowy January in Yorkshire to a wet balmy December in Sligo. I got a good soaking on the Champs Elysees in July, though had enjoyed glorious sunshine on my bike tour of Cork and Kerry in April. We even experienced tropical temperatures on the North and South Downs in October. The weather did go a little topsy turvy in 2011 but it certainly wasn't dull!

With all this talk of revolutions and natural disasters, not to mention certain economic pressures on my purse it's not surprising that I didn't get out of the UK much. In 2011 I learnt to appreciate my home country that bit more. I did various trips to other parts of England - a boat trip along the River Ouse in November, riding around the South Downs in October and the New Forest in November, going to the Notting Hill Carnival for the first time in decades in August, Morris dancing in East Yorkshire in December, and walking the Three Peaks in June. I did a bit of English Theatre in February, French Theatre in March, and Italian poetry in May just by hopping on the number 3 bus to Oxford Circus!

2011 was a year in which I met lots of new folks - mainly through the cycle journalism. Jens Voigt (July), Victoria Pendleton (September), Mike Smith (December) were the more famous names, but I also met various cyclists when gathering vox pops for event features and through interviewing people. I found that no matter how confident you may be there's always that apprehension, during that first meeting, about making the first 20 secounds count. The pressure to have a stimulating conversation or get an interesting quote always lurks.

I have done alot of visualisation this year to get myself into the right frame of mind when leaving my comfort zone. I've visualised so much that I'm almost tuned out of the real world!

I don't know how much impact I actually made on the interviewees, or if these folks even remember me. Whatever, I'm happy with the way things went!

Of course this has been the year for lots of writing. In 2011 I had regular slots in Cycling Active and event features in Cycling Weekly magazines, as well as features in Cross-Crazy, Sportsister and Bike Magic online magazines. Thanks to the editors of the publications for taking a chance on me! :)

You may or may not have gathered that I do like putting pen to paper (albeit in a virtual sense). Sometimes it comes out abit waffly. Sometimes it's lucid. Occasionally it's higgeldy piggledy as I have been known to write my blog entries in the small hours of the morning after a tipple. Either way, writing has always been and always will be a pleasurable activity for me.

Huge thanks to you, for reading my bits and pieces during 2011.

Happy New Year!

Thursday 29 December 2011

Cyclist meets Huntsmen

I usually like to take a walk on Boxing Day and burn off a few calories before the next deluge of Christmas stuffing.

As I was up North on this occasion I decided to add a little more interest to the outing by stopping by at the gathering for the Holderness Hunt in Beverley.

I'm not a fan of fox-hunting but I was still curious to see what goes on at these events and what type of people attend.

The masters of the Holderness Hunt had actually placed an article in the local newspaper inviting people to come along for a meet and greet session prior to them galloping off with their hounds.
So at around 11am on Boxing Day I and around 2,000 other townsfolk rolled up into Westwood Pasture. There were around 70 horseriders out and about all dressed up in their best livery. Their horses had also been dolled up for the occasion - with plaited mains, some with tinsel on, their coats trimmed and hooves clipped.

I was struck by how many women were out. It seemed like more than half the riders were women, many of them dressed up like Zara Phillips lookylikies. Once I got talking to them though, there was no chance of mistaking them for a royal. They were just straight-talking Yorkshire lasses! To be honest, in a funny way it made them seem more approachable and less stuffy. The riders were polite and friendly, and many of them seemed to have just come along for the ride. It was a chance to have a Christmas chinwag with other horsey friends and a quick hack around the local fields in East Yorkshire. The hunt was scheduled to leave around midday and finish around 3pm, though many of them were not expecting to stay out that long.

For some, a combination of the Christmas hangover and being up grooming and preparing their horse had put paid to anything longer.

Just before midday the master called everyone to order, ready for the off. Firstly he made the traditional Merry Christmas, "thanks to everyone for turning out etc," and then made the slightly controversial "please bear with David Cameron, I know he will repeal this unworkable hunting act, he's just got alot on his plate right now, please understand that the Conversatives are our friends and they have a strong bond with the Countryside Alliance."

And with that, the dogs were let out, the bugle sounded and the huntsmen and women rode over the Wolds in the December sunshine. Who knows what happened next....

I must say it was interesting to watch a few of the proceedings. I guess in that part of the world, these activities are part and parcel of their heritage and also the livelihoods of many folks in the area. It is still difficult to digest the brutality of what happens to the foxes though, so I can't say I am a supporter.
On a personal note, I was glad to meet the riders because I am likely to meet a lot of them on the local bridleways when doing my off-road bike rides. Speaking to the different horseriders in the area helps in maintaining good relations with other bridleway users - which is always a good thing.

Night Clubbing

You don't have to confine your weekend cycling to Saturday and Sunday morning club runs. How about a Saturday night?
That's what me and Higg did. Ok, so it was just a club run of two but then size doesn't matter as they say!

It's not always necessary to travel out so far to reach off-road trails. There is a pleasant circuit in nearby Banstead, so that's where we went. This was also the chance for me to use the Exposure Lights that I have on loan.
Good lights make such a difference to a night riding experience. I was using the Toro model on my handlebars and the Diablo on my helmet. As we weren't moving very fast it was possible to leave the Toro on the low setting and have the Diablo on medium. In fact, I found that if I left the Toro off completely it was still possible to see perfectly well with the Diablo alone. The Diablo has quite a powerful beam considering that it's just a helmet light.
Having two sets of lights is very helpful though when going round twisty trails, especially on a fast descent.

On we plodded through the Wallington small holdings and then on to Surrey Oaks Park and through to Banstead. It was great just riding along and not having anyone else around - not even animals. I think our presence scared away the most audacious of foxes - or maybe they just chose to have a night in with their mates! Ironically you notice so much more at night since your senses become heightened, and you see lots of lights in the distance from various places you had been unaware of by day - other buildings across Surrey, or the London skyline way in the distance.
There is also a night-time feel in the damp atmosphere which feels charged up as though something was about to happen, and you wait in anticipation. But nothing happens - it's just unassuming woodland in the London suburbs.

The ground beneath my wheels shows up as varying shades of black, and I can't tell what the texture is until I ride through it. Generally, the going is a constant medium to firm and easy to ride through. The fun gets thrown into the mix when the bike suddenly decelerates and pedalling becomes laboured - I keep turning the pedals, without really knowing when this interlude will end, or what it has taken me through. It is only when I get home that I find out whether it was mud or manure that I rode through! It's also interesting to check out the other bits and pieces I inadvertently pulled on my night out - dried leaves, pieces of twig, even the odd piece of rotten fruit.
When we started our ride at sunset the weather was still balmy and mild, but once the sun has well and truly retired I notice the drop in temperature more acutely and it's therefore better to not be out for too long. After about an hour we turn around to take the descent back home. It was a good way to spend a Saturday evening. We didn't do an all-night session and we weren't treated to pumping techno beats, but going out on a night ride is a rave - it rocks!

Photos by Higg

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Shoot Story - The Chilterns

My ride story on cycling around Great Missenden is in the current issue of Cycling Active magazine (The Dahling of the Chilterns, Cycling Active - January 2012).
The story's not bad if I don't mind saying (!). What I like best though is the "Big Picture" feature in the opening pages of the magazine. This month the photo chosen for that feature was one taken during the photo shoot for that ride story. Andy Jones, the snapper on the day did a great job on the photo and, what seemed like a rather tedious job at the time actually turned out very well.

The other photos featured in the article also look good too. So, with that in mind I thought I would put in a few memories of the day.
The ride was originally meant to take place one Thursday in October, but typically that was the one day that week when it poured with rain. Thankfully both Andy and I were able to rejig our schedules to do it the following day, which turned out to be lovely and sunny. Bad weather is one of the main occupational hazards when doing ride story photo shoots.

I arrived at Great Missenden train station feeling really good that I was going to do a shoot on a swish stylish new bike that my peers weren't riding. I had new cycling clothes, kindly sent to me by the cycling mag. I felt good in myself - and the sun was shining.

When I met Andy he told me straight away that my drop handlebars had been raised too high and it made my bike look stupid. He also said that one of the other writers had exactly the same bike and had been riding his for a few months. So I wasn't riding anything that original!

Like with other photo shoots, I had already recc'ed the area so I knew where to go for the shots. Our first spot was Great Missenden High Street, which had lovely quaint houses. When I had previously been there the road was nice and quiet - ideal for a country village shot. In fact on the day of the shoot it was not much worse than Piccadilly Circus! For a small high street there was alot going on. Even worse, it was the Friday of half-term school holidays and we were trying to get photos of the main attraction - the Roald Dahl museum.
Loads of kids were out with their parents going to visit the museum or its cafe. Some people politely stopped to allow Andy to take the shot of the building, but then a delivery van or a 4 x 4 or an Audi driven by a lady who lunches would pass by so everything was scuppered.

To get the shot I needed to wait, parked on my bike some distance from the cafe ready to quickly ride by and be photographed riding in front of the museum when the road is clear.
The folks who only saw me but not Andy must have thought I was a bit odd, just waiting on a bike in anticipation of something that wasn't actually apparent.
The folks who only saw Andy must have thought he was even odder. A bloke with 2 large cameras hanging from his neck, loitering around opposite a kid's venue! I assumed he had his explanation properly lined up if a police officer came along!

A man in one of the nearby shops came out and started chatting to Andy about photography. Andy, naturally very into his subject, talked quite knowledgably and enthusiastically and it was quickly apparent that the bloke didn't know much at all about this art. After a short while the man went back to his business. I guess he was just sussing out Andy, and the "conversation on photography" had been a pretext.

We finally got our pictures, thankfully without needing too many takes, and we moved on to the next part of the route.

Along many of the roads around Great Missenden are large "No HS2" posters giving out different messages of protestation to the Government. In case you don't know, plans are underway to route a high speed railway line from London to Birmingham straight through the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Looking at how beautiful the area looked on this autumn day it's hard to believe that anyone would want to destroy such an idyllic area. There are lots of nice cycling and walking trails (including the historic Ridgeway long distance trail) plus nature reserves. It would be a terrible shame to dig all this up.
On our travels through the woods we got chatting to local walkers and residents who highlighted the situation to us. Once they knew we were taking pictures for a magazine they encouraged us to take photos of the area to show the public what we would lose if this "monstrosity" were given the green light. One woman was prepared to give her name and be quoted in the article. Sadly, this didn't actually fit the brief of what we were doing.
Andy did take some great shots of the area and the beauty of the Chilterns certainly comes out in the feature. So if you look at the article, look hard at the pictures and enjoy them - who knows how much longer this will exist....

One of the conundrums of doing a shoot off-road is that you want to look stylish and neat on your bike in the photos, but in reality people don't look so well manicured when off road - especially when riding through muddy trails!

On a shoot with Andy we often just take photos in one area, dismantle the bike, put it in Andy's car and then drive to the next place. On this ride, I didn't think it was worth going through that palava just to drive relatively short distances so I rode to the different areas and arranged to meet Andy at the given spots.

Embarrassingly, in my wisdom I took one off-road trail that I thought would be a nice short cut. The trails we had been on that day were clear and dry. Sadly, this one wasn't. I got caught up in lots of brambles, it was extremely muddy and in parts the trail was too steep for me to ride. I ended up walking through the muddy trails and getting my hands cut on the brambles. When I met Andy in the next village my legs and shoes were all muddy and I was covered in catkins!

Also, the lovely new bike was not looking so swish and stylish anymore! This probably didn't impact on the shoot for this particular feature as we were at the end of the first session. The problem was the photos taken during the afternoon session were for another story that would be predominantly on road. So that won't look so good! Hopefully the picture editors will be able to salvage something decent. All the fun of a photo shoot!

Photos by Andy Jones

Monday 12 December 2011

Boardman teams up with Dallaglio and Flintoff

This Autumn I have mostly been riding Boardman bikes.
Earlier in September I had the pleasure of riding the Boardman Team Carbon Fi (female informed) road bike at the CTC Champions women's cyclo sportive. It was a challenging hilly course but the lightweight bike coped well.
Since October I've been riding the Boardman CX Team cyclo cross bike. Again it handles well thanks to its sturdiness, and the disc brakes are very helpful when on undulating technical terrain. (See the reviews I wrote for Sportsister and Bike Magic)
I will soon have the chance to ride the Boardman Urban Mountainbike Team. Hopefully this will be just as much a joy to ride as the other Boardman bikes I have ridden.
It seems I'm not the only one riding Boardman Bikes.
Former rugby international Lawrence Dallaglio and cricketing legend Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff are embarking on a 2,817km gruelling cycle ride from Olympia (Greece) to London next year. It will be for their Cycle Slam 2012, in aid of Cancer Research UK and children’s charities. They too will be riding Road Pro Carbon bikes, as well as receiving mechanical support from Halfords.
The two sporting heroes are due to start their epic ride on 23rd April (St George's Day) in Olympia, and finish one month later in the Olympic Park, London. The terrain won't be easy. Who knows how they will fare! But at least they will have pretty decent kit to get them through the challenge. Best of Luck guys!
To find out more on how Dallaglio and Flintoff are getting on, and to help with their cause check out the DallaglioFlintoff2012 website.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

SPOTY - It's not about the BBC

There's been a lot of furore over the lack of women featured on the nominations list for BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY).
Twitter has been virtually ablaze with fiery emails from female sports pundits and personalities, while others have branded the BBC as disgraceful and called on women to boycott the show.

I must admit that I was a little disappointed at the sight of an all-male shortlist, especially given that some of the men listed, eg Andy Murray have never won a major tournament, while the likes of four time World Ironman Triathlon champion Chrissie Wellington did not get a look in. True also that Sarah Stevenson should have been given credit for her inspirational victory, winning the World Tae Kwon Do championships shortly after losing both her parents to cancer a short time before (maybe she will honoured with the Helen Rollasson award). I could go on....

But let's look more closely at the situation. In its 58 year history BBC SPOTY has had 13 female winners (including ice dancer Jayne Torvill). Swimmer Anita Lonsbrough was the first woman to win this accolade in 1962, and Zara Phillips was the last female to win the award, back in 2006.

Every year there have been female nominees. I am therefore not in a rush to brand this award scheme as sexist when women have had a history of being recognised and celebrated in the BBC SPOTY awards. This year is the first time ever that no female sports star has been nominated under the current voting system. This year is showing as the anomaly.

Of the panel of editors from 27 publications 10 (The Independent, The People, The Irish Times, Metro, Evening Standard, Nuts, Daily Post, Western Mail, Daily Star Sunday, and Zoo) did not vote for a single woman. The Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Voice fared best by each voting for 3 women.
Rebecca Adlington received 6 votes, Keri Anne Payne had 5 and Chrissie Wellington got 3. After that there was a spread of various names mentioned - Jessica Ennis, Sarah Stevenson, Victoria Pendleton, Kath Grainger, Shanaze Reade, Hannah England, Stef Reid and Nicola Adams.

People have been outraged that the nomination panel included editors from Nuts and Zoo magazine. According to a spokesperson from the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation a woman would definitely have been among the nominations if these strongly male dominated publications had not been on the panel, and women's sport magazine Sportsister had been included.

She may have a point. Boxer, Amir Khan, who is among the shortlist of nominees received just one vote more than Rebecca Adlington. But then again, why should we be worried about such and such a publication. Is it not a question of attitudes and awareness?

In the past, people like Paula Radcliffe, Kelly Holmes, Liz McColgan, Princess Anne and Fatima Whitbread have all been presented with the famous television camera shaped trophy.

What else do these women have in common? They all took part in sports which already had a high profile (apart from Princess Anne, who is high profile). So when the editors of the various publications have to submit their nominations they will automatically think of women in high profile sports - names that are already in the public consciousness.

Sports like triathlon and tae kwon do not quite fit that bill, let alone the names of the people who take part - still less the folks in these sports who could be dubbed sports personalities! Note that no male athletes from these sports made it onto the shortlist either.

The work to nominate a sportstar for the SPOTYs needs to be done a long time beforehand - at least before the request for nominations reaches the editor's desk. The role of the sports federations, governing bodies and sports marketing PR companies needs to be called into question here.

Nominations are made on the basis of the diet the editors and public opinion has been fed over several months - even years.
Cyclist Mark Cavendish appears to be a favourite among the nominees this year. It is only really this year that he has become a household name - despite claiming many victories in the Tour de France and in other major cycle races over the last 3 years. In fact it has only been in the last 4 years that the general public have renewed their interest in cycling as a sport.

In short, the most notable achievements by women sports stars this year have either been in minority sports or sports that do not have such a high profile.

Furthermore, the athletes in question have not been backed by a significant publicity machine.

Without these key elements athletes like Keri Anne Payne, Rebecca Adlington or Chrissie Wellington would not be absorbed so readily into the public consciousness.

So, let's look at those high profile sports that the general public follow - tennis, athletics, cycling, football, cricket, rugby, motorsport, golf, boxing. Have there been any outstanding performances by British women on the world stage in these sports this year? Tennis? absolutely not! Motorsport? Golf? Cricket? Cycling? Victoria Pendleton failed to keep her sprint title at the World Track Cycling Championships despite being the favourite. Nicole Cooke finished outside of the medals at the World Road Race Championships. Football? The England ladies made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup this year. A little disappointing considering they had high hopes - speaking of which, Hope Powell must surely deserve manager of the year for being the longest serving manager of a national football team in the Britain. Boxing? Interestingly Nicola Adams received one vote from the panel of editors. Athletics? Jessica Ennis literally threw away all hopes during the heptathlon. But hey, Hannah England won silver in the 1500m. The England women's rugby team, under their impressive captain Maggie Alphonsi beat the All-Blacks twice this year - a feat that their male counterparts can only dream of, and would have filled column feet of the back pages. But the public barely heard a peep out of the sports writers regarding the achievements of the rugby girls.

So, women's versions of these sports do exist. But there's just not that much coverage of it.

Which leads to another very important point - investment in women's sport. A recent report by the Commission on the Future of Women's Sport revealed that between Janary 2010 and August 2011 UK Sponsorship of women's elite sport was a paltry 0.5% of the total sports sponsorship market. Small wonder that public awareness of women's sport is low.
According to the BBC, the SPOTY award goes to the sports person "whose actions have most captured the public's imagination." It's hard to capture the public imagination if the public is unaware of the actions!

So, if this is the landscape in which women's sport exists, how can you expect to reap a healthy crop of female SPOTY nominations when it is ultimately down to a handful of esoterics and experts on minority sports to come up with some names?

It is not wholely down to the BBC to change prevailing attitudes. There needs to be a concerted policy across all quarters to shift public opinion of women's sport in general. Investment, sponsorship, greater support from sports federations, and a joined up communications plan.

Meanwhile, the BBC stands to gain out of this polemic. As a result of the countless comments and analyses on SPOTY, this award ceremony which was previously perceived as a dreary, cringeworthy display of mutual back-slapping has instantly become a cool, must-be-seen-at gig!

Who knows, as a result of all this talk we may see a change in the nomination patterns. Or might we see something new borne out of this along the lines of the Edinburgh Fringe? An alternative women's SPOTY could be set up which becomes bigger and more coveted than the stuffy bland original! And maybe that would change perceptions.