Friday, 22 March 2013

Europe, the important stuff

When people in the US talk about visiting the monolithic pasta eating, beret wearing, beer hall singing, flamenco dancing stereotype that they perceive “Europe” to be, they often fall somewhere far short of capturing the essence of the Europe that I grew up in and that I know and love. I’m sure I could find a tour operator who would be willing to relieve me of thousands of dollars and give me a whistle stop tour from a pint in Brighton to a Paella in Barcelona if I wanted to but I’d be doing myself a disservice (for a start, Paella isn’t Catalan, try arros negre). I’ve been lucky enough to ride my bike and travel all over the world and I feel like that gives me a little perspective on the continent which will always feel most familiar to me. Where I can always slip back into being and be comfortable and not have to worry about making some cultural faux pas. As much as I try to understand the USA I still get things wrong mostly involving the ingrained puritanism which seems so deeply rooted in the US culture and often lands me on the wrong side of some harsh judgment for public nudity/drinking in the wrong place/ “swearing”. I’m not saying I don’t offend people in Catalonia (just ask the taxi driver who right turned me into the curb yesterday) but at least I do so intentionally.

In an attempt to facilitate intentional offence giving and to cut off stereotypes at the pass, I thought I would dedicate the rest of this blog to a back of the envelope guide to riding bikes, having fun and eating food across the old world for those of you who find yourselves more comfortable in the colonies.
England (not Britain, England)  
First up it’s important to remember that, by and large, we swear at our mates and consider it a badge of affection, you wanker. Fortunately there are some non linguistic clues to allow you distinguish between offensive and amicable swearing:
Colouration: As a rule English people’s skin colour ranges from “pallid” to “Pasty” apart from in August where it occupies the “hi viz orange” to “vermillion” range. One can tell an enraged punter from a more placid individual by the shade of red his face has turned as the torrent of four letter language issues forth
                Hand gestures: You Americans seem to like hoisting two fingers as some kind of victory gesture. For us, it’s swearing (in a specifically anti gallic way)
Physical violence:. Pretty obvious this one, fortunately we’re not that given to shooting each other but English people do have something of a penchant for getting inebriated and brawling FYI, a “Glasgow kiss” is administered to the nose with the forehead, and it’s not generally a gesture of love towards the recipient
On another note, English people, and their nearest neighbours share the alarming habit of shedding all non essential clothing once the mercury hits about 15 degrees Celsius (60 Fahrenheit) so if you happen to be in the UK on a day which is both cloudless and tepid or warer expect to catch some flesh on display, complete with football club tattoos.
Secondly there’s the food. We’re a tea drinking nation and we drink tea from dawn ‘till dusk. When arriving somewhere don’t be perturbed if your host “nips off to put the kettle on”. Contrary to what you’ve been told, there is plenty of great food to be had in England, you just have to seek it out. American people, despite their love for hand held fatty foods are yet to discover the Meat pie, I suggest you rectify this (Aussies have this one covered). Any country which doesn’t have marmite hasn’t a leg to stand on as far as criticizing anyone else’s cuisine goes. England is also the home to mushy peas, baked beans (proper ones), decent bacon, marmite and tunnocks caramel wafers.
Then there’s the bike riding, for a period of a fortnight after every major (and by major I mean the tour or the Olympics) victory by a British cyclist, expect to be treated like royalty. After this grace period expect construction workers in white vans to take enormous pleasure in driving through puddles in such a fashion as to get you very, very wet. You’ll probably be wet anyway, it rains a lot.

The key thing to know about offending people in France is that by the very fact of your presence you are offending them. Your evident inferiority is an affront to the existence of republic and your pathetic efforts to master their superior (and globally relevant) language are pitiful. Despite numerous efforts you ALWAYS use “tu” where “vous” would be more appropriate (the French are so preoccupied with this that they have a verb for “ to speak in the informal form of address”). As for specific offensive words and gestures, anything you say will be regarded as completely unintelligible given your woeful accent so it really doesn’t matter. Once you have embraced this and become committed to causing equal offence in return I suggest winning premes in nocturne races and the use of the two fingered gesture above as particularly pointed weapons in your struggle against the nation which gave birth to a thousand Napoleons.
There are some nice French people as well, they should be cherished above all others as they have overcome a prevailing cultural tendency towards being a total cock and chosen the righteous path of being decent human beings. Case in point the Croix Rouge Francais and my Friends Marie and Jean. As a rule, the further South one goes the less pointedly rude the people become. Once in French Catalonia one is practically home free and, on occasion you even see people smiling at your somewhat adorable linguistic overfamiliarity.
The French would have you believe that they eat better than anyone but don’t be fooled. They love a good Mcdo (I believe France is the second biggest market for the golden arches outside the land of the free) even if they do eat it from a plate with cutlery. The snack of choice here is a Jambon Beurre, not exactly helping you along the way to 5 a day this admittedly quite delicious (depending entirely on the provenance of the jambon and the beurre) snack consists of bread, ham and butter. On the positive side you have fantastic pastry, decent (but not spectacular) coffee, ilky hot chocolate served in a bucket for dunking the aforementioned pastry and a panoply of cheese options. Bike racers can also enjoy the wealth of variations on brioche de poche, pain d’epices and pates de fruits instead of sucking down semi solid goop. And they should.
Bike riding in France is great, there are some wonderful roads and fantastic scenery,  generally cars are pretty patient and drivers relatively polite. However this all changes as soon as you pin a number on. Expect race announcers to give the entire peloton a lambasting before, during and after the race in order to ensure that “le rosbif” doesn’t have any chance of making off with enough prize money to buy himself a pair of the ridiculously high socks that French riders seem to favour. Also note that the officials here embrace the letter of the law with a fervor last seen in the Spanish inquisition, at least up to the point when the rules state that you can in fact legitimately race, at this point they employ a xenophobia which rivals the aforementioned board of judgement. Oh and one more thing, the French love racing bikes at night. And no, those are not fireflies, those are cigarette butts that people in the crowd are flicking at you, no really, they are.
If you wish to offend the Catalans you have a few options open to you: 1) tell them how much you are enjoying being in Spain 2) Wear a Real Madrid shirt 3) suggest that they are lazy, siesta taking peasants 4) ride the wrong way down one way streets.
The Catalans are a proud and industrious nation, they don’t take kindly to people conflating them with an Andalucian stereotype but in general they are pretty hard to upset and, once you crack their slightly gruff exterior they are the most friendly people on earth. Any effort at Catalan is embraced with open arms, so try si us plau
The food in Catalonia is fantastic, some of the best in the world. Poor quality products simply don’t fly here. Catalan specials include the tallat (a short coffee with a little milk) more sausages than you can shake your sausage at, ensaimadas (like croissants but bigger and made with lard, thus better in every way), the aforementioned arroz negre and a most delicious garlicky olive oil based concoction known as al I oli. All of these are best sampled at your local (and by local I mean within 500m of your home) café bar. It might look dingy and dusty but everything is mad eby hand and with care, avoid imported chains and it’s hard to eat badly here.
The bike racing is sadly on the wane. The organizers are great, the cost is zero (yup it’s free) and the prize money decent. Expect to receive a coffee and croissant on arrival and a sandwich afterwards. Sounds like a dream come true, and it is but a less and less frequent one as the impending crisis means that races are cancelled or turned into criteriums (which do not tend to suit the Catalan approach to steering, at oen a couple of years ago we had to stop racing when all the ambulances had been used up). The roads are my favourite in all the world, they even have stepped-up shoulders on mountain roads to allow you to sight the exit of a corner. I’m not going to tell you my secret rides, because there ar every limited supplies of very yummy baked goods at the top of very large mountains and I don’t want you getting them first.
Euskadi (the Basque country)
I have yet to offend a Basque person, although I don’t own a Real Madrid shirt. Every time I have raced in the basque country I have been unable to purchase a meal, a hotel or a coffee. These are some of the most open and welcoming people on earth. I stayed for a week with a total stranger who I met when I turned up at a local cycling café to ask about the hq for the next day’s race. He fed me like a king and subcontracted another chap I had never met to motor pace me for 5 hours around the classica san Sebastian. That’s hospitality.
You eat well in the basque country as well, somewhat more meat based than the rest of the peninsula, Basques love their pinxos (little snack on a slice of bread) and xidre (cider poured from a huge ladel type device). They are so exited about sharing their local produce that attempting to order anything is a waste of time, find somewhere serving food and place yourself at the mercy of the experts.
The bike racing and riding in the Basque country is great, greener than Spain and mountainous with winding beautiful roads watched over by old men in black berets. It’s the heartland of road racing in Spain and you can expect 3 races a week, mostly over 150k and finishing in the middle of a large town on closed roads. It’s the real deal though so don’t turn up fat and slow.

Again the Spanish are extremely welcoming, as Capt Mannering advised “don’t mention the war” (same goes for Germany) and you’ll be fine. Spanish people are pretty liberal in General (or hugely conservative in some parts) and nudity, drinking ad swearing pop up with astonishing regularity in the bigger cities. If you want to test people you might suggest some incredulity at the cleanliness of Contador or Valverde, eat dinner before 9pm or demand to know why everything is closed in the middle of the day.  Eating on the street will attract some odd looks too , sit down and enjoy your food. You’re not a horse and you shouldn’t need a nosebag.
In Spain, perhaps more than anywhere else people live to eat. Lunch is a prolonged affair taking up much of the afternoon . every café serves a 3 course seasonal menu del dia based on market produce bought that morning. Unlike the English speaking world this isn’t a bourgeois pretension but a universal appreciation of the value of good food. Each region has its specialties but Spanish ham is, in my opinion, the best in the world. Their fish is fantastic and everything comes bathed in the most delicious olive oil (including the people). Make sure to get a café con leche on the mornings you don’t partake in the delicious hot chocolate, so thick you can stand a spoon in it.
Spain has tremendously varied terrain and cycling is very popular. Cars give riders a wide berth and often horns are used to encourage rather than enrage. Sadly the racing scene is dwindling thanks to the persistent “crisis”

Flanders, not Belgium
The Flandrians are a wonderful and wonderfully honest people. The most commonly used English phrase might just be “sell your bike” but the second is surely “well done” and I’m pretty sure they only occur in this ratio because of the amount of collateral damage inflicted by the brutally hard races. It’s pretty easy to cause offence here, Belgian people are very honest and don’t pull ay punches. If you come to Belgium to race, expect to race if you don’t try your best don’t expect any respect. No excuses fly in Flanders
The flemmish manage to keep their spirits up in such a bleak, rainy, windy landscape with baked goods. If you've never had a rijstart your life is not complete. Frites from a frituur are the height of post race indulgence (with mayo, natch) and carbonade is where beer and beef combine, so it can do no wrong. They also eat horse, but then so, apparently, does everyone else!
Cycling in Belgium is what football is to the UK and power ranger rugby is to America. You see Tom Boonen selling razors and the entire population of a town will turn out for a given Kermesse. I’ve written about this before (here and here)so I won’t bore you again but it’s fu**ing awesome. Sadly it’s also flat, wet, windy and cobbled and thus entirely unsuited to my limited capacities turning the glass cranks on my bike. 

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

monkeys, elves and fickle form

There are things in cycling which can be quantified, balanced and measured. You can put a number to watts, to weight, to kilometers and calories, to gradients and drag. Riders obsess over these numbers, they try to maximize some and minimize others. They look for the magic ratio, the mix which will give them the edge over their competition, be that on the way to the café or on the road to Paris.

The most important factor in racing, the sine qua non of “good legs” (I’m not going to fall for the half translated “good sensations” nonsense) isn’t watt’s or weight or cadence. It’s form, form isn’t fitness, it’s something more ephemeral and hard to quantify. It’s not a metric it’s a mood.  Like obscenity you can’t define form, but you know it when you feel it. When one has form, the pedals feel light, the turnover easy and the corners flow without need for braking. Shoulders easily relax and the drops feel moulded to your palms. everything is easy, light and fast. racing makes sense and flows.

Form isn’t the same as fitness; fitness is the sum of the numbers. Ride this much, weigh this much and you can be fit. Form is tangentially related to fitness, it’s a necessary precursor but not a sufficient cause. One cannot have form without fitness but one can have fitness without form.  Fitness is how hard you push on the pedals but not how smoothly. Fitness might tell you how much your legs will hurt, but not how much that pain will affect you, or how it’ll turn into results.

Unlike fitness, form is’t something you can predict. Spending hours looking at a powermeter, wearing a little strap around your nipples. Climbing in big gear and sprinting in tiny ones will bring the body to fitnesss. After a few years of racing you learn what the specific combination is that makes you fit, that gets you to the line of your first races with a big enough engine and a small enough ballast to be there or thereabouts at the end. But form is illusory.  Years of training diaries yield not the slightest clue. I fool myself that it’s a lucky penny or s tattered old charm pinned inside my jersey, mainly because, after failing to find a scientific explanation, these make as much sense as anything else.
Good form changes the way you think as well, it's like you have a slot machine in your head, sometimes 2 or 3 symbols line up and you give it a try, riding off the front just because you know that it won't take its usual toll. Sometimes all 4 line up, and you don't know why, or how, but it's the time to go. It's not any harder than any other attack but it's th eone that sitcks and you know it'll stick before you launch it. all the symbols line up and you hit the jackpot. But if asked again you wouldn't know what you did to get there.

Like some kind of spandex wearing elf, form is mischevious, for every day that you have great legs in a race, there are three when you’re out on your own feeling like the king of the bike. But come the next time you pin on a number the elf was wandered off to help someone else and you’re back in the spot where every gear feels one tooth too big or too small and your saddle feels too high AND too low during one 4 hour race.

The only thing I can say for sure about form is that it rewards persistence, keep at it and keep pinning on a number (Maybe with your lucky gold pin….) and one day, you’ll clip in off the start and you’ll feel like you could walk on water. The challenge then is to hide your form, and your feelings until the right moment. And sometimes that’s the hardest thing of all, but when you get it right, good legs, good tactics and good luck. That’s what gets you through the days when the monkey’s on your back and you’re chasing that mischievous elf.