Thursday 30 May 2013

My moment of the week - 8

Hit and tweet!

A woman who hit a cyclist while driving along a road in Norwich failed to stop at the scene of the incident, but instead sent the following tweet afterwards:

Naturally her tweet went viral, and horrified people up and down the country. The local police sent the following Twitter response to her:

Norwich Police@NorwichPoliceUK
@emmaway20 we have had tweets ref an RTC with a bike. We suggest you report it at a police station ASAP if not done already & then dm us
The woman was questioned by the police and has been suspended from her job.
The cyclist, who was on his way to a cycle race, was thankfully, not badly hurt. He sustained a few scrapes and bruises when he was knocked into a bush, and was naturally badly shaken.
The motorist eventually apologised for hitting the cyclist, claiming she "only thought he had clipped her wing mirror," and is "sorry if he was injured."

So this woman somehow thinks it's ok to knock cyclists out of the way with her car because they don't pay road tax, and she does! Outrageous!!
The sad thing is that many people share this view.
Who knows whether cyclists should pay road tax or not? That's a discussion for another day.
This woman's behaviour gives no excuse to knock down a cyclist without stopping and then boast about it. The sad thing is there are people out there who subscribe to this abhorrent behaviour, and this is no way helped by high profile personalities who promote these attitudes.
What do Matthew Parris, James Martin and Jeremy Clarkson have in common?
Apart from the fact that they regularly appear on TV, they have all written newspaper columns boasting about driving cyclists off the road, and their articles have incited others to harm cyclists. One talked about how piano wire could be strung across country lanes in order to decapitate cyclists. One took great pleasure describing how, when test-driving a sports car he drove dangerously close to a group of cyclists to frighten them and push them off the road. The other one encouraged motorists to run cyclists down, claiming that they deserve whatever they get since they don't pay road tax.
These types of open proclamations in newspaper columns completely undo the work of cycle safety campaigners, and those who work tirelessly to improve the way cyclists are treated by other road users. The attitudes expressed in the newspaper articles are just wicked and go beyond any debate on taxes. I hope that newspaper editors will think twice before deciding to publish these views in their publications. They might also want to stop and think about the types of people Messrs Parris, Martin, Clarkson along with Ms Way would like to harm. 

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Bye Bye Giro!

So that's it - another Giro d'Italia done and dusted for this year. It was fun, it was exciting, it was eventful, with heightened suspense on the last day.

Work commitments had not allowed me to go out and watch any of the earlier stages of the Giro, but I was pleased to have made it to the finale in Brescia.

The sun shone, it was warm, and I managed to catch up with a couple of friends, including Yvette from Pinarello, who was working with a cycle touring company on the day.

Brescia was jam packed with people from all over the world, it seemed. I guess it is testament to the fact that the Giro has come of age. People are talking about it so much more than they did 10 years ago. The field has cyclists from a broader range of countries, giving the race a wider appeal. All the who's who of international cycling target the Giro nowadays, with this year having a particularly stella line-up of big hitters in the shape of Bradley Wiggins, Vicenzo Nibali, Ryder Hesjedal and Cadel Evans. The organisers have even made an effort to put their promotional messages and materials in English - hence the presence of the ubiquitous Anthony McCrossan doing live commentary for the English-speaking audience. The BBC even included the latest from the Giro in their regular sports bulletins - something we would not have seen a couple of years ago.

So, credit to RCS Sport for putting on a great event and for holding things together even when the weather was challenging.

And thanks to Marco from Gazzetta dello Sport for getting me a ringside seat to see the action, and to Mark Cavendish for providing me with something amazing to watch - especially in the final 200m!

Sunday 26 May 2013

Brescia Bound

This time last year I went for a bike ride around Lake Como in the morning and returned to Milan in the afternoon for rest, recuperation, a shower, lunch, and a bit of television. Then I popped out of my flat and went around the corner to watch the finale of the Giro d'Italia. I felt quite lucky to have just been able to walk 15 minutes up the road to Castello, Parco Sempione and the Duomo to see all the action.

This year is a different story. I now have to join the masses and travel! Granted, it's only a one-hour train ride to Brescia (+ getting the tube to Milano Centrale station and crossing Brescia town centre), but there won't be time for a good bike ride and a leisurely lunch!

The Giro d'Italia almost always finishes in Milan. But this year our city has lost out somewhat. None of the stages have even come close to here. I think the nearest it came, was last Wedensday's stage when it started from Caravaggio, not far from Bergamo. Hey ho! Maybe next year.

So, I'm off to Brescia, and from what I saw a couple of weeks ago when I was there, the folks are looking forward to the arrival of the riders who have spent the last 3 weeks riding the snowiest, rainiest race in the most beautiful place in the world under a shroud of cloud and mist!
At least the sun is shining today!
So, what do I know about Brescia? Not loads, but here are a few facts for starters - some of them are care of the Giro d'Italia website, and others I gathered from my wanderings:

It is about 100km from Milan and 70km from Verona. It's population is 194,000, making it the second largest town in the Province of Lombardy (after Milan). The town centre (centro storico) is very old and pretty, with the main area being around Piazza Loggia. Nearby are two noteworthy cathedrals - an old one, and a new one. There's also the ancient Monastero di San Salvatore known as Santa Giulia, which houses a Roman museum. This was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When I was there a few weeks ago the proprietor of my bed and breakfast made a point of recommending this place. Oh, and one of the darlings of Italian football, Andrea Pirlo (Juventus player) hails from this fine town.

The Giro d'Italia has visited Brescia on 15 previous occasions - the first time was in 1983 when it hosted the start, and stage 13 finished there. The last time was in 2010 when Andre Greipel won there. Let's hope Mark Cavendish can do something there today.

And the biking for us ordinary folks? I wouldn't bother trying to replicate today's stage as it's nothing to write home about - though a trip around Lake Garda wouldn't be so bad if you could avoid the tourist traffic. And while racing seven times around Brescia town centre makes for something exhilarating and interesting to watch when the Giro is in town, if it is just you and some mates it could be somewhat exasperating for you, and annoying for busy shoppers and tourists!  There are better places to ride around nearby.

For instance, there is a network of cycle paths around the town which allow for family rides to nearby parks. Then, from the centre of Brescia, behind the Castello is the via Panoramica. It is a 10km climb to Monte Maddalena. You get great views of Brescia as you go up, and further up the climb you can also see across to the hills near Bergamo. That's quite a popular climb for the locals. Once at the top there are a couple of cafes. On the day I rode up this, some people were twiddling up it on hybrid bikes, while club cyclists were racing up it cronoscalata style.

If you are on a mountain bike you can easily ride down the other side to arrive in the suburb of Nave. I was on a road bike, and rode down the other side anyway. It was doable, but I must say the road is in very poor condition with loads of potholes, gravel, and in places, barely any tarmac at all. With decent tyres and a very moderated speed you shouldn't get too many problems - it's just a bit tedious. I saw one other person coming down on a road bike. I even saw a brave soul riding up this 12km stretch! Everyone else was on mountain bikes though, and it seemed that roadies would ride up it and then ride back down the way they came up. Still, it's a good work-out.

After that, there is an easy climb heading north east, up to Odolo from Nave, Colle di Sant'Eusebio. The gradient is steady and easy to pedal along.
In a north-westerly direction is the Passo Tre Termini. This is a little tougher, with stretches above 10%. The beauty of this climb is you are very close to one of the nearby Italian lakes, the Lago d'Iseo. When you are above you get a nice view of the sigma shaped lake. If you have the energy you could do a pleasant ride around the lake, or even press on to Bergamo. If you don't, well there are plenty of cafes in Iseo and nearby Sarnico.
A cycle event, Gran Fondo Valli Bresciane is held in the area, and that runs over the main climbs in the area.

So, off I go in a hope that what I lose in the convenience of popping round the corner to the Giro, I gain in an exciting finale on the sunniest day of the toughest race in the most beautiful place in the world - Brescia!

Thursday 16 May 2013

And Why Not Have Podium Girls?

The Peter Sagan bum-pinching prank on a podium girl at the Tour of Flanders opened the debate as to whether or not it was time to ditch this tradition of attractive girls handing out prizes and jerseys at bike races.
Many deem it at best as tired and outdated, at worst as sexist and degrading to women. As well as the Giro d'Italia organisers promoting their event as being the "toughest race in the World's most beautiful place" they even suffix this accolade by adding "....with the most beautiful girls. A promotional video boasts this fact. Furthermore the main sponsors of the Giro d'Italia organise a Miss Maglia Rosa beauty contest in which the winner becomes a podium girl as well as winning a cash prize, travel vouchers and a modelling contract. I guess the same people who are offended by podium girls will also find this rather offensive.

But really, what is so wrong with a lovely lady helping a handsome young man into his cycling jersey, handing him a cuddly toy and giving him a peck on the cheek at the end of his arduous 200km? If I were the bloke I'd feel honoured! And the girls doing the honours don't look like they are not enjoying it either!

Many years ago when I lived in Paris, in a fit of being swept along by the whole "I'm loving being in gay Paris" vibe I went to sign up with a casting agency that specialised in providing models for various types of promotional work. There was a long line of women queuing up hoping to have their name added to the ever increasing list of women hoping to get their break on TV or in some other high profile place. The young women were desperate to get bookings anywhere - whether it was for washing powder, motorcar shows or cycle races.

I wasn't selected, though I was relieved as I realised I didn't want to pursue this line - mainly because I couldn't guarantee my availability to do the work, and the pay was alot less than my day job.

Around 500 women will apply to a casting agency to become a Tour de France podium girl each year. Of these, 50 of them will be selected for interview. Of these 50, four will be selected to present the yellow jersey. Then pairs are selected to present the green jersey, polka dot jersey, and white jersey. There may be up to 10 vacancies, but you don't need to be Einstein to see that the odds of bagging such a job are very slim - slimmer than the podium girls themselves!

For an activity that is considered degrading there are alot of takers for this role. It appears that being a podium girl is a well sought-after gig!
Many woman would see this as a gold star to add to their modelling CV, and it could be a launch-pad to bigger and greater things - including becoming the wife of a high-profile bike racer!
Certainly the women who have become podium girls really enjoy it.

So why should folks be so outspoken about wanting to deprive women of what for them could be a very positive career move? Surely if the work is so terrible no one would do it? The Giro d'Italia organisers would still be crying out for women to get up on the dias at the end of each stage of the competition.

At a stage cyclosportive I rode in Italy a few years ago the organisers invited women from the audience to hand out prizes to the male winners of the stage each day on a voluntary basis. 
On one of the stages I was asked to play this role. I was quite happy to be asked. In fact, I felt quite honoured to air kiss the likes of Emanuele Negrini and Max Lelli, who were renowned cycle racers at the time! 

I had been a competitor at the same event and I was interviewed about my sporting activities on the stage. People complimented me on my riding (though I was not in contention), and for me I was happy with that. I did not feel in any way that my talents as a cyclist were being overlooked or that I was just seen as a "podium girl." 

I applaud the work of women's groups and others that campaign for women's rights and campaign against sexism, as well as equal pay. But who should be the moral judge on having or not having podium girls?

Why should certain folks decide that this is sexist? Some women are blessed with good looks and long legs and they would like to flaunt that, and they don't want some "do-gooders" to decide that what they are doing should be abolished. It's hardly as if being a podium girl were the equivalent of being sucked into an exploitative prostitution ring, or as if the podium girls are showing off their breasts when on the stage!

Surely there are double moral standards going on when women's equality groups who claim they are trying to outlaw sexism are at the same time depriving women of their right to freedom of expression and choosing to do something they enjoy. These women would like modelling to be seen as a legitimate career path which, according to them does require hard work and training.

Podium girl activites are no worse than the models who hang around the stands during Formula 1 practice, cheerleaders at American football, or even the Pirelli calendar models. I haven't heard calls to ban those activities!
In fact, why not ban all instances where a beautiful woman is included in a promotional/marketing campaign!

I think there is something a bit simple and outdated about podium girls, in the same vein as bingo halls, fondu parties, women watching the Chippendales and Miss World beauty contests.

There are plenty of folks who like those things, but they shouldn't be outlawed because I and a number of others don't find them to our tastes. Just live and let live is what I think. Let these aspiring models get on with enjoying their moment during the podium protocol after a cycle race. It's hardly sitting on Hugh Hefner's lap - which would be a different story!

I think that we will have made a real step when a beautiful woman can make the most of her looks without it attracting comment or criticism; and she can also be appreciated on the basis of her intelligence and character attributes.

Like I said, I have no interested in this type of work. I don't feel that podium activities have any effect on the way folks see me as a woman. What those women to do is up to them, I have no business to be the arbitrator over their right to pursue their career choice.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

My own private cronoscalata - Mori to La Polsa!

On a recent trip to Lake Garda I decided to try out what is effectively stage 18 of this year's Giro d'Italia. I picked up the cycle path from Riva del Garda, where I was staying and followed the signs for Rovereto. After around 10km I arrived in a small town called Mori. From there it was an uphill ride to the mini ski resort of La Polsa.

I had been quite apprehensive about taking on this challenge since I had no idea what the route would be like, and from my knowledge of the Giro d'Italia, organisers make the hill climb stages, or cronoscalata pretty tough. I still remember how riders had to use a 34 x 29 gearing in order to ride up the 25% Plan di Corones on a wet day a few years ago.

The area in the immediate vicinity did not appear to have any serious hills, however the upper sections of the climb are only just in the shadow of Monte Baldo - the main mountain range in that area. So this climb would certainly be challenging towards the end.

So off I went up the numerous hairpins. This was all very straightforward with unchallenging gradients and parts of the climb went through the trees so on a warm day it would be nice and shady. As I rose further and further up the mountain the town of Mori became smaller and smaller. Eventually, after 9km I reached the town of Brentonico which had more life going on than I would find for the whole 20km - which wasn't that much at all. I imagine that there'll be alot of crowds here on the day, of the race given the number of cafes and hotels, but on the day I rode up the place was quite deserted.

It was nice to get a little respite on my arrival at Brentonico, for in this town the road levelled off and then dropped downhill quite steeply for around half a mile. Some climbing specialists might feel a little short-changed finding some downhill during a hillclimb, but I wasn't complaining!

Once out of Brentonico the road began to climb gradually again, and after 5km I reached the village of Prada. If I were spectating this event, I would hang out here. It's not a very big place, but there are a few shops and bars. There is also a great view back across the valley where it would be possible to see the riders snaking their way up the road way in the distance. There are also some areas where you can sit in the woods and enjoy a picnic. Even though it was nice and sunny on this Sunday afternoon, the temperature was a little bit too cold for a picnic though. So I pushed on.

Once past Prada, the proper work began. The narrow road rounded a corner and the gradients became steeper, as Brentonico was well and truly left behind and my views were now of the mountains near Monte Baldo.

As I rode up the climb I felt myself become more tired as my breathing became more laboured, and the air became crisper as I scaled past the 1000m altitude mark. There were more and more switchbacks, there was a greater abundance of fir trees, and the carpet of snow showed no sign of going away any time soon. It was a pretty desolate road. Once at the summit I was glad to see a little life at Polsa - even if it was just a handful of sledgers!

Overall, the climb had not been so tough. I have had worse experiences on hills in the south of England! It was a nice and steady climb, with pleasant views of pastures at the bottom and an alpine resort at the top - nothing horrendously challenging, but nothing spectacular to look at, like what you might find in the Dolomites proper either.

One memorable thing did happen though - as I was riding up I saw a BMC car riding down the hill, with a certain Cadel Evans zooming down to Polsa. I smiled and said "Ciao" to him and he managed a quick wave back as he negotiated a hairpin. Surely he should have been the one going up the hill?? Well, I can only imagine he was finishing off for the day after having done a few reps of this road earlier in the morning! I'll let him off!

My planned onwards itinerary had been to drop down the other side of the hill towards San Valentino and San Giacomo and then rejoin a the high road back to Desenzano del Garda (possibly with a stopover for some Bardolino)!
Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. I'd been struggling to find the road back to San Valentino. According to my map I should have been able to ride through the resort to continue my journey, however I appeared to be in a cul-de-sac. On asking a local for directions he said, "You want to go to San Valentino? That's the road over there!" And he pointed to a ski track through the snow! Err, that wasn't going to be an option for me on my road bike! My plan B and plan C alternatives were also dead in the water (or rather in the snow) for they also made up part of the network of pistes for La Polsa ski resort! I hadn't expected to see quite so much snow on the roads in mid April. Hopefully that snow will be gone by May or the team cars will need snow ploughs on the front!

So I resorted to plan L - lunch in Rovereto, but not before enjoying the long descent back to Mori. I wasn't complaining about that! 

This climb, like all climbs in the Giro will be interesting to watch. The fact that it is a time trial means lots of time to see lots of riders grinding up the road, as opposed to seeing 200 riders zoom by very quickly. Even if this cronoscalata is no Plan di Corones or Alpe d'Huez it will still make for an exciting scenario by that stage of the competition when the likes of Signori Nibali, Evans Uran Uran and Co battle for vital seconds so close to the end of the Giro d'Italia. 

Out of interest, I timed myself. Including stops for taking photos, eating, fettling my bike and general faffing, the ride up with a rucksack, took me 2 hours and 20 minutes. Most people will do this quicker than me, as I am the queen of faff and fettle, much to the irritation of my ride partners! Anyway, this snail pace will be no comparison to the 40mins or so that the pros will take! That's why they will be riding up the hill on 23rd May and I will be putting my feet up and watching!

Saturday 4 May 2013

And the April Yellow Jersey goes to.....

Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven

She's not exactly a cyclist, even if her Employment Minister famously said in 1984 that the jobless population should "get on your bike and find a job". The story goes that when Margaret Thatcher ran into financial difficulties at Oxford University some of her upper class friends had a whip-round and raised money towards the purchase of a bicycle.

I am not sure how much Margaret rode her bicycle in the end. She was always keen to show her femininity and wouldn't engage in anything that would make her appear "less ladylike". (She was reportedly never seen without a handbag, and she didn't possess a single pair of trousers.) So the idea of riding a bicycle didn't come naturally to her. Mrs T was conservative with a small c as well as with a big C!

But that's not the reason why she gets this month's yellow jersey. Like her or loathe her Margaret Hilda Roberts has had an enormous impact on British politics and British society in a way that no other prime minister since Clement Atlee (1945-1951) has had.

She infamously destroyed the trade unions, and the closure of numerous coal mines under her watch had a negative impact on various communities, largely in the North of England and Wales. The Scottish have never forgiven her for introducing the Community Charge (aka Poll Tax) north of the border ahead of everywhere else in Britain. And don't even get the people of the Emerald Isle started on her influence on Anglo-Irish relations. Margaret Thatcher died a few weeks ago, 23 years after leaving office, but many people have never forgiven her for her policies against them and their own.

However, some of Thatcher's policies inspired a generation. One of my favourite groups when I was growing up was Soul II Soul. By lead singer Jazzy B's admission the birth of his group was assisted by the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by the Thatcher governnment during the 1980s. This scheme also gave financial help to a number of Britain's most popular comedians, "Britart" artists, recording studios and musicians that pass themselves off as staunchly left wing.

On the day Margaret Thatcher's death was announced four weeks ago people gave a variety of reactions. Mayor of London, Boris Johnson paid tribute by saying that "This country is deeply in her debt. Her memory will live long after the world has forgotten the grey suits of today's politics." At the same time in Brixton, South London an impromptu party was held to celebrate her passing. Thatcher certainly did not leave people feeling neutral about her!

For me, Thatcherism meant the chance to move up in the world - the chance to own your own home and, if you wanted, open your own business or be creative. It instilled into people a "can-do" attitude. Furthermore,  many say that Thatcherism formed the blueprint to the Labour Party that we have today!

How well all her policies really worked is debatable. There were some policies that I did not like at all, for instance her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and her lack of interest or investment in sport. However, the pure principle of effecting a much needed change to the economical and political landscape in the UK, is in my opinion, commendable. That is why Maggie gets the yellow jersey for this month.   

Thursday 2 May 2013

My moment of the week - 7

The end of two eras

In the last couple of weeks two giants of cycling have announced their retirement from professional competition. On April 18th Britain's greatest olympian cyclist, Sir Chris Hoy announced that he was quitting racing. This was then followed by Italian super-sprinter, Alessandro Petacchi who, on April 20th announced he'd be hanging up his bike for the time being.

I hope it's not something in the water! There are some commonalities between the two athletes though.

In a way, it is probably no coincidence that these guys are ending their professional careers. At 37 years of age, Sir Chris Hoy did not feel that he could be on top of his game for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year.

Ale-jet had started his 2013 campaign with solid performances at the Spring classics, including Paris-Roubaix, but he too realised that at almost 40 years old he could not hold his own against other sprinters. It is also a shame for Petacchi, as it would have been great to see him illustrate his "gentlemanly" brand of sprinting to win at the Giro d'Italia this weekend.

Both of these cycle racers have had hugely successful careers, and are both seen as national treasures in their respective countries.

They are both polite in their behaviour, to the point of being a bit too "goody two shoes" and not very "rock'n'roll". Hoy is very placid and straight-laced in his appearance compared with other great British cycling champions and fellow track cyclists, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. The same can be said when Petacchi is compared to that other great Italian sprinting champion, Mario Cipollini.

There are couple of subtle differences between Sir Chris and Ale-jet though. While both of them are very correct in their behaviour, Petacchi has served a competition suspension for overuse of the asthma drug, Salbutamol. Hoy has never tested positive for any banned substance.

Also, while Chris Hoy leaves behind a few sprinting heirs at the velodrome, notably in the shape of Jason Kenny, the sprinter from La Spezia doesn't seem to have any obvious stallion to succeed him from the Italian stable. There must be a bit of headscratching going on in the Italian cycling federation as they search to identify a strong contender who can produce consistently impressive results.

I guess this also leaves a convenient space for Petacchi to step in as a mentor or an ambassador for a future generation - something which Sir Chris has already sounded out as an activity he will be engaging in over the coming months. We may even also see a range of Petacchi bicycles, rather like we have seen with Hoy and other retired professional cycle racers.

All that sounds great, and positive. I just hope the guys don't go down that well worn path to image denigration by appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, Celebrity Big Brother, or some other trite "celebrity" reality show!

Thanks for your contributions to sport, guys. All the best for the future!