The (Agri)cultural Olympiad


 

It’s not exactly thrill-a-minute stuff:
A straight-line dash at half-a-mile per hour.
A test of skill, not speed or human power
Played out on dry ground bristling with rough
And tawny stubble, under autumn skies.
No city raised a stadium so grand
As this, where our long struggle with the land
Is made a gentle game, and neighbour vies
With neighbour for rosettes. When we compete
On level terms for small rewards, we hold
Fast to reality. No one wins gold
Today – and no one truly tastes defeat.
For every man who took the start can say
He went out there and changed the world today.

 

Been working till all hours the past couple of weeks, but today I took The Guv’nor and rode an easy 15 miles or so to a ploughing match. Spent half an hour watching modern and vintage tractors, plus a couple of horse teams, striving to turn perfect furrows on the sunlit slopes of the South Downs, then trundled home again for lunch. Hard to think of a nicer way to spend a morning, really. And yes, I do know how lucky I am! N.

Hit and run

Dutch courage

Don’t know him –
Never met him. Probably never will.
Just another skinny guy
In shiny shorts and sponsor’s jersey
Getting paid for doing something
The rest of us do for love.

But in a breathless
I-don’t-believe-this instant
The car swerves
Wheels touch
And Johnny’s spinning off the road
Somersaulting into a barbed-wire fence
At forty miles an hour
While a billion stomachs
Take an express elevator down a hundred floors
And all France is swept
By a mistral of gasps and blasphemy.

And suddenly
I’m right there with him,
A brother in the hit-from-behind nightmare
Those of us who ride the road
Must smother daily;
Each of the three-dozen stitches
In his gouged and shredded skin
A tally-mark for a million times
It didn’t happen;
And a knot tied to remind us
That it can.

A truly horrendous – and unforgiveable – crash on yesterday’s stage of Le Tour, from which the Spanish rider Juan Antonio Flecha and Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland were lucky to escape with their lives:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYPDAry-A-s

I won’t post links to the images of Hoogerland caught up in the barbed-wire fence that have appeared on the web this morning; suffice to say they’re not suitable for those of a nervous disposition. It remains to be seen whether he’ll start on Tuesday (today is the Tour’s first rest day, thank goodness) but if he does, it’ll prove yet again just how tough these riders are; and, on a more troubling level, just how all-important Le Tour has become, and the pain and risks riders are now prepared to accept to stay in it.

The name of the game

Moral dimension

If I were a pro
Whose name and logo
Would I be prepared
To wear
In exchange for a berth
In the greatest annual
Sporting show on Earth?

A big foreign bank’s?
Thanks, but no thanks.

A car-hire firm’s?
Not on their terms.

Some Big Pharma name?
Spare me the shame.

Liquid gas? Coated steel?
Come on now. Get real.

GPS, smartphone makers?
Sorry. No takers.

Owned by voicemail hackers?
Not my ideal backers.

The national flag?
Not really my bag.
(And, while highly evocative,
The Cross of St George
Might be seen as provocative
Should Le Tour
Ever take in Agincourt).

But since my fate is
Amateur status
I’m free to remain
Plain
Unclaimed
And unstained.

Back in business

Yesterday, I rode a metric century (100km) – my first this year and my longest ride since the whole arthritis thing kicked off back in the spring. It was a local Reliability Trial; a classic-end-of-season cycling club event in which the aim is to complete the course as close to a set finishing-time as possible. I’d trained quite carefully and everything came right on the day. Having thought I may have to quit the sport a few months ago, it really feels as though things are back to normal. And not a moment too soon. This poem (bit of a long ‘un, I’m afraid) is dedicated to my good friend and ride partner Kev Smith.

TRIAL OF STRENGTH

Early. Quiet. Cold.
Firing up old instincts
I’d once feared dead.
We have the road
To ourselves; no sign
Of our 149 opponents.
We get the first hints
A mile from the hall:
Here they are, all
Parked up; late-model German estates
With vanity plates,
Antlered with roof-racks
Or the back seats down. On the roadside
Anonymous riders
Refitting wheels, shoving shoes on,
Slipping bidons into cages.
At the start, we gather
A curious brotherhood
In our ill-matched winter kit.
Best bikes and old hacks
Stand stacked three-deep
Against walls, propped on posts
As we make the most
Of the chance to chat, check
Equipment. No turning back
Once we’re over that line.
So we sign our names,
Roll down to the start,
With every heart
Tightened. And – go.
A hundred k ahead, so start slow
On the back of the bunch; sit in
And spin. First hill and we’re splitting
Into twos and threes. For some
You can tell there’s a long day to come.
Easy for the first ten
Or so, then
Hit our first real big one, and
In seconds the field’s flung to hell and gone.
Head down, drive on,
Spot a gap like a lift door
Just before it shuts: dive through
Straight up the middle, between two
Riders right on the limit.
Make it look easy. Just like old times
On these fierce, familiar climbs,
Putting clubmen to the sword,
Breezing by without a word
To ride alone to the summit,
Drink, draw breath, then plummet
Into the valley with fearless
Fury, carving through corners careless
Of speed and the laws of physics,
Held to earth by two hard, trusted slicks
And a deep belief it will never
Happen to me. Up again and over
The high point of the ride
Which I found cloaked in cloud
The day I chose to check
The route, but now the mists peel back
To flood the land with sun.
Here, halfway round, the real work is done
So settle down for the long haul home.
The wind that helped us out here has become
The enemy, cold and in our faces,
And the hot, hard chases turn to steady
Toil in the headwind
That slowly sucks the strength
From legs and lungs, wears down the will. At length
We cross the line, with just enough left in the tank
To get us home (at least, we think).

The cold and hills will not prevail.
We took the test. We did not fail.

Tour 2010: Stage 20

The final kilometres of this year’s Tour were played out in traditional fashion in Paris. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) won his fifth stage, and also became the first rider ever to win on the Champs-Elysées two years running. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini) was second, which gave him overall victory in the green jersey competition.
Alberto Contador (Astana) won the Tour without winning a stage and having been pushed every inch of the way by Andy Schleck. Could we see a change at the top of the sport next season? One man who’s definitely heading for the exit, this time for good, is Lance Armstrong, who finished an anonymous 23rd – not the glorious last hurrah we’d have liked to have seen from the seven-time winner.
It’s been a great Tour, and for the first time in years, I’ve enjoyed it from start to finish. So, inspired by my blog-pal Chloe, my closing entry in this three-week poetry marathon is a retrospective of the entire event in haiku; one for each of the 20 stages.
Thanks for joining me on the road to Paris.

PROLOGUE

Twenty-two times nine
Slaves to the clock. One stands; cries
‘I am Spartacus!”

STAGE 1.

Stage, one; countries, two.
On the run into Brussels
Petacchi sprouts wings.

STAGE 2

Spa cure for the blues:
Chavanel is in yellow;
France is feeling good.

STAGE 3

On a day in Hell,
Cobbles claim men’s bones and souls.
But Thor’s in heaven.

STAGE 4

As the Champagne flows
For Petacchi once again,
Has Cav’s bubble burst?

STAGE 5

So the lead-out train
Gets it right. And suddenly
Cav is back on track.

STAGE 6

First Cav couldn’t win
Now it seems he cannot stop.
Two down, three to go.

STAGE 7

Second time around
Taking yellow the hard way.
Chapeau, Chavanel.

STAGE 8

As the road heads up
Schleck breaks free of gravity.
Shades of Charly Gaul.

STAGE 9

On the Madeleine
Sandy’s out there on his own.
Still is at the line.

STAGE 10

Where Beloki fell
Paulinho makes no mistake
Keeps his winning Gap.

STAGE 11

Cav makes it thirteen
Beats Robbie, Cipo, Zabel
Along with the rest.

STAGE 12

Alberto goes clear;
Andy loses by a hair.
Shape of things to come?

STAGE 13

Vino’s comeback win,
But his past means this is not
One to Revel in.

STAGE 14

Riblon wins alone:
After three lean, unseen years
The Ax man cometh.

STAGE 15

Centenary day
In the Pyrenees. Vockler
Leaves them on a high.

STAGE 16

Peyresourde, Aspin,
Tourmalet, Aubisque. Such names
Don’t scare Fédrigo.

STAGE 17

And then there were two.
On the highest, hardest road
They are on their own.

STAGE 18

Sprinters call it home.
Cav blazes into Bordeaux,
Claims a vintage win.

STAGE 19

Schleck is cast to fail.
Doesn’t read the script. Almost
Forces a rewrite.

STAGE 20

Number five for Cav,
Three for Contador. For Lance
It’s seven and out.

Longjumeau-Paris Champs-Elysées, 102.5km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)

Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)
Maillot vert: Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini)
Maillot au pois: Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot blanc: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Team classification: Radio Shack
Lanterne rouge: Adriano Malori (Lampre-Farnese Vini) @ 4h 27m 03s

Tour 2010: Stage 19

The form-book suggested Andy Schleck could lose minutes to Alberto Contador in the only individual time trial of this year’s Tour. As things turned out, it was a lot closer than any of us – including the protagonists themselves – ever imagined. At the first time check, Schleck was actually slightly ahead of the maillot jaune; on the line, he’d lost just 31 seconds, giving Contador a winning margin of 39 seconds – the second-closest finish in Tour history.

A CLOSE-RUN THING

Thirty-nine
On the line.
First check:
Schleck
In front by a nose;
Too close
To call;
Left it all
To Alberto
To do
Or die.
But a guy
With four Grand
Tour wins in hand
Doesn’t crack
So easily
And finally
The man came back
But he was spent
And what it meant
Was clear
From his tears.

Bordeaux-Paulliac, 52km ITT
Won by Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 18

Stages into Bordeaux almost always end in a bunch sprint, so a fourth win for Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Cav duly delivered, but only after a high-speed chase to bring back a four-man breakaway. Daniel Oss (Liquigas) resisted until the 4km-to-go point, but against a headwind and the combined powers of Sky, Lampre and HTC-Columbia, he had no chance whatsoever.
While part of me wants the escapees to succeed, there’s something compelling about the way the peloton gradually raises the tempo, closes the gap and makes the catch to set up the sprinters for the final dash to the line. It’s tightly controlled, immaculately timed and ruthlessly executed – the same order of professionalism we saw from Contador and Schleck on the Tourmalet yesterday, but at 70km/h. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to have been off the front all day, then to look back and see the bunch bearing down on you…

DON’T LOOK BACK

This seemed a good idea
Three hours ago:
Flat roads ahead
A truce behind
And nothing at all to lose.
But now
The blackboard
Is a death warrant,
Ticking off the seconds
Until the hue-and-cry
Must overwhelm us.
A glance
Under the shoulder:
Across the road, so long
Empty,
A roaring breaker
Of speed and colour
Driven on by lust for glory,
Grows, and any moment
It will break upon us.
Panic. One last desperate drive,
But all the forces concentrated
So few seconds from our wheels
Sap our strength, pull us backwards
Drag us down.
And in our loss and vanishing
The natural order
Is restored.

Salies de Béarn-Bordeaux, 198km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 17

Well, we got our showdown between Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Alberto Contador (Astana) on the final climb to the summit of the Col du Tourmalet. Apart from a couple of accelerations by Schleck, and one sharp attack by Contador, it wasn’t the knock-down-drag-out fight many had predicted: rather, it was an exhibition of nerve and professionalism in dreadful conditions by the two greatest climbers in the sport. Schleck took the win, Contador kept his yellow jersey, and barring catastrophe, the top two places in Paris look to have been settled. Perhaps best of all, relations between the two men, so strained in the aftermath of Stage 15, seem to be fully restored. And chapeau, too, to Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions), who thoroughly deserves his eighth place on the GC after a brilliant Tour so far. Let’s hope he hangs on for the last three days.

HIGH DRAMA

Out of the mist
They come:
The ruler
And the one
Who would take his crown.
Their war,
Fought along
A front a mile high
And ten miles long
Ends here,
Half-lost among
The grey rocks and rainbow crowd.

Matched in strength and will
They watch and wait
Sticking close as brothers
As they tear themselves apart.

And at the line,
Their forces spent,
They lay their arms
Across each other’s shoulders,
Each knowing he has conquered,
Content to share the spoils.

Pau-Col du Tourmalet, 174km
Won by Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Répos 2

A curious reversal of roles today: while the Tour riders are resting, I’m going racing. Tonight is the last in my local bike shop’s annual series of ‘have-a-go’ time trials, and marks the end of my (exceedingly modest) competitive riding for this year.
It’s a simple 10-mile dash against the clock, fastest time wins. As always, I have no illusions about winning, or even a high finish: my sole aim is to beat my mate Kevin. In three years, the only time he’s finished ahead of me was when I foolishly decided to ride The Guv’nor and the chain fell off after two miles.
OK, so it’s not Le Tour. But I still get a thrill every time I pin on a number and make the subtle change from bike-rider to racing cyclist. Three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond once said of being a pro, ‘It doesn’t get easier, you just go faster’. Even downhill with a following wind, I won’t match the speeds Fabian Cancellara sustains on the flat. But I’ll have some idea of what he goes through, and that’s good enough for me.

MY OWN RACE

There will be no crowds
Straining to see me start,

No cameras to capture
My grimaces and smooth pedal strokes,

No helicopters overhead
Shadowing me through the lonely miles,

No team car in my slipstream
Loaded with spares and moral support,

No fans along the barriers
Shouting, waving, urging me in,

No soigneur at the finish
With drinks, towels and strong arms waiting:

Just the pain, desire, isolation
And fear of falling short

In my own race.
With only myself to beat.

Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)
Green jersey: Thor Hushovd (Cervélo Test Team)
KoM: Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)

Tour 2010: Stage 16

Another French stage win, no change in the GC: the peloton aren’t making it easy for me, are they? So I make no apology for writing a second Armstrong poem. In 1999, I was in Pau when it hosted the finish of Stage 16 from Lannemezan. As we made our way back to the car after seeing Lance receive his eleventh maillot jaune, we passed the US Postal team car. Lance’s Trek bike was on the roof, so close I could read his name on the top-tube. Then and there, I vowed I’d get one some day. I had to wait five years, but it happened. I still have it: it’s a bit scuffed and tired-looking after more than 25,000 miles, but the magic is still there. Which made Lance’s rather desolate efforts in Pau today all the more poignant. Maybe the champion will finish his Tour career as he began it: as a hero.

FADED GLORY

Eleven years and
Several lives ago
I saw him
Pull on yellow here
And take the crowd’s applause;
Another day done
For the resurgent star
On the long road to Paris
And the first of seven.

Today
I watched him
Chase grimly into town
Among the hopeless hopefuls
Beg his body
To summon up the old fire
But fade
Fall back
And finish nowhere.

Would I sit now,
As I did then,
Five hours in the sun
To see him?
Or maybe I should simply look
At the carbon bike, just like his,
Now hanging on my garage wall
And remember where I saw it first
And why I had to have it.

Bagnères de Luchon-Pau, 199.5km
Won by Pierrick Fédrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)