Unfair advantage

We’re all at it
Though we don’t admit it.

No need for needles
No brandishing of TUEs:

To ride
Is to cheat –



Time –

And every day
I try my luck

To see how much
I can get away with

And so far I’ve never
Been caught



In his classic collection of essays Need for the Bike (or Besoin de Velo in the original French) my cycling-literary hero Paul Fournel says: ‘Thanks to the bike, there is a faster man. The bike is in itself a form of doping. Which doesn’t simplify things.’ Amid the scandals forever swirling around the sport, it’s good to remind ourselves that the bike is innocent, untainted, honourable and, as Paul goes on to say: ‘the tool of natural speed…the shortest path to the doubling of yourself. Twice as fast, two times less tired, twice as much wind in your face. It’s always right to want more.’  And I do. Time to go riding. N.

TUE = Therapeutic Use Exemption; a doctor’s note authorising the use of a prohibited substance. Controversial, to say the least. PED = performance-enhancing drug.


Cleats snap into pedals:
Two sharp raps of the judge’s gavel

And I’m committed:
Left without a leg to stand on.

Clamped in rigid ankle-irons,
Every movement circumscribed;

Yet in this captive moment
Power is released:

And locked in here,
I’m ready to escape.


My attachment to my road bike is more than just emotional. Like most roadies, I use clipless pedals, so-called because they dispense with the traditional (and fiddly) toe-clips and straps that everyone, including the pros, used until the 1980s.

Plastic cleats bolted to the soles of my shoes snap into the pedals, which (allegedly) makes my pedalling stroke more efficient and certainly prevents a foot from slipping off a pedal in the wet. Twist the heel sharply outwards, and the cleat disengages. Fortunately, this usually happens instinctively in a crash (as I’ve discovered) but every roadie has their own blush-inducing version of the ‘forgetting-to-unclip-at-the-traffic-lights-first-time-out’ story (I’m not telling you mine). Being locked to the bike by your feet may sound foolhardy at best, but once you’ve got used to it, you rarely go back.

My cycling-literary hero Paul Fournel writes about this technology in his wonderful book Besoin de Velo (‘Need for the Bike’): “Since toe-clips disappeared, the peloton makes a new sound. I became aware of it one morning in St-Etienne. There were about a thousand of us, and at the pistol shot of the starter, we all clicked into our two thousand clipless pedals. In the Sunday morning silence it was a good sound, and it said, ‘Time to get going’.”

And even though today is a ‘rest day’ at the Tour, pretty much all the riders will be clipping in again and riding for three or four hours. Convicts of the road indeed. N.

Tour 2010: Stage 2

Today’s stage through the Ardennes included roads that many of the riders would know from the one-day Classic, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Known as La Doyenne (‘The Oldest’), it’s one of the hardest races in professional cycling: over 250km long, it includes numerous climbs (some at more than 10% gradient) and is held in April, when the weather in northern Europe can be truly diabolical.
The riders could have been forgiven for thinking they actually were riding L-B-L today as, true to form, the rain teemed down. Sylvain Chavanel – a Frenchman riding for a Belgian team – claimed a doubly popular and well-deserved solo win from an epic breakaway of 180 km. However, after a series of crashes involving many of the big names, the peloton decided it was too dangerous to race for second place and rolled over the line as a group in protest. While I largely sympathise – the roads were certainly treacherous and the Tour still has a long way to go – I also feel slightly cheated. I don’t want to see anyone get hurt, but these guys are pros and were well aware of the route, conditions and potential risks. It’ll be interesting to see what happens on tomorrow’s, even more daunting, stage.

Incidentally, I’m indebted to Paul Fournel for the first line of this poem. Merci, monsieur.


Who’s gonna fall today?
Maybe the question
Grew too large
In the minds of men
Who, back in April,
Roared over these same hills
Like Flanders lions.
For when the rain came
Turning roads to glass
They forgot where
And what they were.

No sprint for second:
The leader spoke
And they rode to rule,
Killing the race
To save themselves.

Small consolation to the crowds
Who stood in rain six hours
To see them.
While the one who dared
And proved his courage
Is all in yellow.

Brussels-Spa, 201 km
Won by Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)
Maillot jaune: Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)