Tag Archives: culture

Watching Le Tour

For a variety of reasons I have not been at sea nearly as much as I had hoped or expected on this assignment – hence my more regular-than-expected posts. Instead of riding the waves I have been killing time day by day in small town hotel rooms feeling alternately like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day and the travelling salesman Norman Rockwell painted for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, 19 August 1950, showing a lonely guy sitting up in bed in a dumpy hotel room playing solitaire on his sample case – ‘Solitaire’, I believe, was the title of the painting.

I’ve no sample case with me, but I do have a laptop balanced on my knees in my Spartan hotel room and a TV set on the wall and for a couple of hours each afternoon I get to watch the Tour de France, something I rarely have the time or opportunity to do back home in England. To be sure, it is broadcast in a language I can only barely understand (at least at the rapidity with which it is being spoken by the cheerfully garrulous presenters) but that is no matter. Their animated voices are a pleasing counterpoint to the dullness of my room and anyway isn’t the Tour de France is all about the grand spectacle? The rainbow swoosh of nearly two hundred cyclists spinning through the French countryside? The attacks on the climbs, the solitary breakaways, the sprint finishes? Who needs the commentary?

I am not into racing, as anyone who has been following this blog will have figured out long ago. Nor am I into watching TV. Everything I don’t know about Tour tactics, personalities, teams and the Continental racing scene in general you could just about crowd into an Olympic Velodrome, but ignorance hasn’t seemed to detract from my enjoyment of the coverage. In my muddled way I have formed my own pantheon of heroes and goats – helped along, I should add, by the more in-depth race analyses I read each evening in a blog called In the GC – and developed a modest rooting interest in a few favourites, the usual suspects, I suppose – Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans, Mark Cavendish and, in a Francophile sort of way, Sylvain Chavanel, to name but a few. In the main though I am sitting here in my far-from-home hotel room taking vicarious enjoyment in these spins through the sunlit French countryside, imagining myself out there – not racing, you understand, but simply pootling along at an agreeable rate of knots on my Pegoretti, as free as air.

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A Friday Matinee

In what is bound to be a delight for history buffs and lovers of old-style bicycles and craftsmanship, the British Council has this week posted 120 classic newsreel-style ‘heritage’ films on its website and made them available for download – including one on how Raleigh bicycles were made back in the glory days when the company’s Nottingham factory was turning out more than 200,000 bicycles a week.

The vintage films, which were shot in the ’30s. ’40s, and ’50s and which have been preserved in the British Film Institute’s archives for the past few decades, were supposed to offer snapshots of British cultural, industrial, political and sporting heritage and were shown to schoolchildren at home and abroad, and at British embassies and consulates around the world. The one on Raleigh bicycles was filmed in 1946 and takes the viewer through every step of the manufacturing process, from the raw steel being fashioned into components right there in the factory, to the rows of assembly-line women who could work a tube and a tyre onto a rim in under fifty seconds – and did so all day long.

The world and Britain have both changed a great deal since then. Raleigh hasn’t built bicycles in Britain for over twenty years. The sprawling bicycle factory on Triumph Road that features in the film was demolished in 1996 and the site is now the Jubilee Campus of the University of Nottingham. Last month Raleigh, the brand, was sold to the Dutch company Accell for £62.2 million.

But right here in this seventeen-minute feature you can see just how it was back in the day.

The clipped accents with which the story is told are worth the admission price alone! Enjoy.

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My Heck of The North

I felt a bit churlish this morning, grousing as I was about the chilly rain that was pattering down around me as I set off on my ride and the raw gusty winds that were blowing along the seafront and out across the marshes. After all, what had I to complain about? My damp and chilly 58-kilometre outing was but a Sunday stroll compared with the legendary 258-kilometre Paris-Roubaix spring classic which is being run today through the mud and wind and rain and along the ancient cobbles in Flanders.

One of the oldest one-day races on the pro cycling circuit (it was first run in 1896) Paris-Roubaix is also one of the most brutal, famously and deliberately so, taking in as it does stretches of rough cobbled roads, known as pavé, that have been kept aside and preserved by local authorities specifically to maintain the classic’s pre-war atmosphere and character. And given that the race is always run in the spring, over the Easter weekend, the weather is almost without exception rainy, blustery and cold. But then that’s the point. These vile conditions are part of the legend as well.

The race starts in Compiégne (despite the name the Paris-Roubaix hasn’t started in Paris since 1976) and finishes with a loop around the velodrome in the Belgian town of Roubaix. The course varies year to year, and is stitched together with whatever colourful remnants of the old pavé can still be found and ridden upon – 27 sections of it in this year’s edition.

Between the mud, wind, rain, the legendary pavé, the sheer length of the event – and at 258 kilometres it’s near the outer limit of what is allowed for a one-day race in pro cycling – and the necessity of racing an unhealthy percentage of those kilometres en masse and at high speed over horrible, juddering surfaces, Paris-Roubaix is famously destructive of men and machines. Broken bones and broken bikes are literally par for the course. Photo essays of the race, and there have been many, are character studies in anguished muddy faces, pain and exhaustion. Not for nothing is this known as The Hell of The North. (On the other hand, of course, the guy who wins it is cloaked in glory and will probably never have to pay for a beer in a Belgian pub for the rest of his life.)

Against the backdrop of the Calvary unfolding in the mud of Flanders, my own cold grey soggy ride through the mist and rain this morning and across the desolation of the Pevensey marshes was more like, well, the Heck of The North. To get a (vicarious!) taste of what the real Paris-Roubaix is like you need look no further than In the GC, a nicely written, insightful and well-presented blog devoted to racing that I discovered by chance the other day, and whose author posted a couple of clips from a classic documentary about the race, titled The Hell of The North, as a teaser for his readers who would undoubtedly be following the race this weekend. While I’m nobody’s idea of a road bike racing aficionado, I do have a dilettante’s fascination with the sport, its legends, colour and spectacle, in the same sort of way, I suppose, that I like to follow cricket or baseball, without ever actually having played either game myself. And to that end, this stylish blog is just the ticket. Intelligently put together by a cyclist who clearly knows his onions, has a lot of passion for his subject and better still, can write, this is a blog that I sense I could follow through the season, enjoy reading and learn much, snippet by snippet. I’ve enjoyed the discover, as I enjoyed coming back home this morning after my own fifty-odd kilometre Heck of The North, and brewing up a pot of strong hot Ethiopian coffee and listening to the rain fall harmlessly outside.

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