Day 2 – Bananas, Nutella and Ice Cream on Toast

We are just outside Reims, the Champagne capital of France, and what a pity, us all being tee-total we can’t enjoy it…

A little sickness in the camp today: Last night’s Buffalo was a little too rare and Guy, Tim S & Tim F looked fairly green this morning and made a late start. On the mend now though I gather!

Breakfast in Beauvais was quite a feast; someone must have told them that 30 cyclists have quite an appetite, so it was lashings of muesli and pain au chocolat all round.

The early kms were a touch chilly, but the peloton rolled easily into our first stop, another pretty village called Arsy. There was a small stir when it turned out the van had not stopped at the exact spot that Andy had so carefully planned, so the first arrivals (usual front runners, Neil, Max, Mike, Tim D, Dom) sat bathing their feet in the pond, waiting for the van to arrive, not knowing it was just around the corner.

Banana and Nutella

Tim D’s Banana / Nutella innovation


Reunited, we all enjoyed bananas before setting off back onto the RN and this time I joined the front-runners for a fast run via Compiegne into lunch stop at Soissons. The peloton soon arrived, as did the van, and soon we were tucking into lunch, with Tim D setting the pace once again with a banana/nutella combo that caught on like wildfire. Which reminded me of my dessert last night: billed as French brioche but as Jim pointed out it was basically ice cream on toast, which we all agreed would make a great addition to the student cook book.

A bit more sight-seeing in Soissons: Just across the park from our lunch spot was what I think would be politely called a ‘courting couple’, who lay motionless in missionary position for the full hour we were there. We tried to wrench the binoculars off Jamie but he clung on for dear life.

The afternoon was a hot slog into Reims, which my group whizzed through, but I think the Tim/Neil/Max/Ben group stopped off for some tourism. Hopefully they have the team photos, because it looked like a stunning town!

Day 1 – Weather’s lovely, wish you were here!

First things first. Everyone is safe and well.

The crazy antics of 30-odd Anglais spread bafflement through France however. I, for example, have just stepped out of the front door of the hotel, at 5:30am, and let it close behind me, only seconds after reading a sign that says “reception est fermée jusqu’á 0700″. It’s a good job the weather’s nice.

The morning start from the ferry was a bit surreal, with thick fog hanging over the river, and early miles passed through an industrial landscape of chimneys and oil terminals. A motorway flyover disappeared into the fog, as Leslie said, like the road to nowhere.

I had the team’s first puncture after around 20km, fixed quickly and I was glad to have the company of Tom G and Simon to help me back to the group at around 20 mph in stiff winds. Morning break arrived as the fog lifted and the landscape improved and we were truly in la belle France.

The van still being shopping we moved quickly on to a long and lovely wooded section, but tiring. A short but steep 12% climb had us all wondering if the Stelvio was really such a good idea! Steve, Tom E and I pressed on at steady pace and were surprised to see the breakaway group of Andy, Tim D and Simon reappear behind us. Wrong turning, and as Andy said at dinner, they “knew they’d gone wrong but just carried on to see what happened”. Yes, the same Andy who has spent the last 6 months poring over Google street view planning this magnificent route!

LD ferries continental breakfast was definitely running low as we arrived at the 103km lunch stop to find a hearty and very welcome feast. I was a bit breath-taken when I saw Hannah and Amy lighting candles in an apple tart. Waking up in a strange place I’d completely forgotten it was my birthday! Everyone sang Happy Birthday and I was completely gobsmacked. Thanks guys!

Refreshed by lunch, the young bucks set a fearsome pace led by the palmares pair of Tim D (fresh from two climbs of Mont Ventoux and a tour of the Pyrennees) and three-Etape Simon. Neil and Max were inevitably up front, with Mark, Joel and Ben for company. I was in no man’s land, the pace was too hot for me, but when I saw one figure in the distance I pressed on to try and catch. It was Mark, and we shared the burden for a while, though I think Mark did the lion’s share. Eventually Ben and then Joel fell back from the lead bunch as Tim F joined us from behind. We were on a wide Route National which went straight ahead regardless of terrain, and so the climbs were not steep but very long. It was a tough but exhilarating afternoon.

After a long lie down and Hannah’s fantastic flapjacks, we resumed for the last 34km of the day, at a pace everyone could maintain. Passing through a small town, we reached a no entry sign but decided to press on with the route with a mixture of pavement and cautious road cycling. As it turned out, it was one way “sauf velos” (except bicycles) but you could imagine the locals slapping heads and shouting “crazy English” as they encountered cyclists riding down the left hand side of a one way street.

Then back on the main road to our resting stop at Beauvais. Riding the RN is very different from the equivalent English A road. Lorries cross to the other carriageway to over-take, preferring to risk themselves or approaching drivers rather than drive too close to the cyclists.

Beauvais welcomed us with classic French tree-lined Avenues, and Jamie, propelled by a new chain after he broke the last one through sheer power, kept muttering “Buffalo Grill” like a man in the desert dreaming of water. Eventually the Buffalo Grill appeared, and next to it our hotel for the night. Welcome arrival!

Raleigh Racers Brochure 1983

Raleigh Royal 1983
I recently came upon this 1983 catalogue of Raleigh’s high-end bikes, built (as I understand it) at their Ilkeston ‘special products’ division. In those days Raleigh was walking a tightrope between high-end aspirations (successful racing team in Europe, and great hand-built racers and tourers) and the pile ’em high shoppers and Choppers. Nevertheless, they did get plaudits from the cycling press for these good-value quality models, which led to me buying a lovely Raleigh Royal that I rode from 1983 until this year (when I bought my gorgeous Paul Villiers Sportif).

Anyhow, I’m posting this PDF of the catalogue, mainly for its archival value, so for Google’s benefit, I’d better mention that it contains the following models:

Raleigh Team Replica, Raleigh Gran Sport, Raleigh Road Ace, Raleigh Competition, Raleigh Record Ace, Raleigh Royale, Raleigh Royal, Raleigh Clubman, Raleigh Rapide, Raleigh Record Sprint, Raleigh ZenithRaleigh Stratos, Raleigh Silhouette, Raleigh Europa, Raleigh Medale, Raleigh Supersport, Raleigh WispRaleigh Winner, Raleigh Ace, Raleigh Micron.

Phew. Finally, a link to a really good history of the Raleigh company.

Robert Millar – Tour de France 1983 Stage 10

I’ve spent the last week with my nose in Richard Moore’s book: In Search of Robert Millar. It’s a sad-making life story of the greatest British racing cyclist. I call him that despite a decade following his performances with increasing frustration and disappointment. Moore points out that daily Tour de France TV highlights, on the newcomer Channel 4, only began in 1985, the year after Millar’s greatest achievement: King of the Mountains and fourth place in the general classication of the 1984 Tour. After that it was mostly defeats outrageously clutched from the jaws of victory. The Vuelta (Tour of Spain) of 1985, which he utterly dominated, only to lose on the penultimate day through a multi-team conspiracy of Spanish riders and his own team manager’s tactical blunders. The 1988 Tour de France stage to Guzet-Neige when, with 500 metres to go, poised on the wheel of the leader and looking certain to sprint for stage victory, both riders misinterpreted a marshall’s signal and took a wrong turning.

In highlighting these disappointments, I overlook some oustanding success over 15 years of professional riding, but the truth is, with his massive talent, we longed for him to achieve more than he did. The Cycling Weekly hall of fame is symptomatic. Having published a their ‘all-time list of Britsh pro winners’, in which Millar was placed only 9th, they devised an alternative ranking scheme with an elaborate points system to place Millar first.

And the reason we feel so passionate about Millar? Cavendish’s four stage wins from massed sprints in the 2008 Tour were amazing, but the mountains are where the heroes come out. There is no more glorious sight than a rider who can crack the will of cycling’s strongest men over four colossal climbs, then dance away to victory like a flea. Just watch this!

Go Down Easy, John Martyn

John Martyn created a music that was all his own: fitting his personality like a pair of worn-in shoes; slavishly-imitated but never matched. In the ramshackle recent years his physical deterioration was sad to watch but the passion in his music never dimmed. Tonight, I’ll remember when, with Danny Thompson, he transfixed us in a tent in a rainy field in Cambridge, and most of all this glorious clip. Stick with it for the last ten seconds. Sheer joy in music-making.

Appearing Now at the Underachievers Stage

KC rules OKThe WOMUD festival this year featured a new ‘Under a Tree’ stage. With my innate ability to mis-hear public announcements (does anyone else hear that message in Sainsbury’s: “cleaner to aisle 8 for a wet spinach”) this filtered through to me as the ‘Underachievers Stage’. This would make such a perfect venue for many of the great pleasures of our musical lives, we have mentally been booking artists ever since.

First to sign were Pooka, a storm at WOMAD 1993 in Carlyon Bay (a perfect beachside location now sadly lost to development), they signed a big record deal with WEA but never made any waves and folded a few years back. Their masterpiece second album Spinning is mostly available in Amazon’s ‘used and new’ listings.

We are keeping a slot open for Katell Keineg, also with a big WEA album under her belt, the wonderful Jet, and still plugging away but willfully reclusive now. Look out for occasional appearances in tiny London venues such as the 12 Bar Club.

Negotiations are underway for a surprise Friday headliner slot. I can’t say too much, but babysitters have been arranged for Harriett Wheeler and David Gavurin.

But I feel we have found our Saturday night headliner for the Underachievers Stage. We spent Friday night auditioning him at the Joiners in Southampton, and I don’t think we could ever hope to find a better fit for the ethos we are cultivating: sheer talent held back by unwillingness to conform. For almost twenty years he has been home-producing CDs from a base in the little seaside town of Anstruther, Fife, at the same time nurturing an enviable roster of local artists; the Fence Collective. As befits the monarch of Fence, he is King Creosote. Like a shy hedgehog coming out of cover for a plate of food, he is getting out a little more these days. In 2005 he cut KC Rules OK a kind of Greatest Hits album of songs from his notebook, better recorded and better promoted, it’s gorgeous. There are sad songs and very sad songs and some with a modest hint of optimism, all sung in his warbly, tenor, honest, beautiful Fife accent. My favourite is an unrequited ditty that goes like this:

i invested it all; you threw in a dime. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.
i ran half marathons and you ran a mile. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.
you gave up on easter for your vegan chums. it’s not good enough.
you gave up on cigars and still you smoke like a lum. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.
i gave up on my liver trying to keep up. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.
i gave up half of my heart and you gave a half-hearted shrug. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.

King Creosote’s new album Bombshell came out last week, and it promises to be a breakthrough of sorts. As the boys boasted on Friday, it entered the charts at number 71. I’m eagerly awaiting my copy, having obsessed over KC Rules OK for the whole weekend. I wish KC every success in the world, while hoping that he doesn’t get too big for the Underachievers. His song 6-7-8 could be our anthem:

no i never was going to be first out of the stalls
no i never was going to be 6-7-8 feet tall
no i never was going to be signed up big
no i never was going to be dressing up slick
but at the back of my mind i was always hoping i might just get by.

Fruits of our labours

Tom's room
Spent the half-term holiday decorating. Painting from morning till night. However the end result was quite nice. This is before the clutter was reintroduced.
Clara's room

The Perfumed Garden

I’ve alluded previously to my great debt to John Peel. For several years in my teens I listened with religious devotion to Peel’s show. Finger poised on the pause button of my reel-to-reel, I recorded anything that piqued my interest. These were the days when brilliant new singles from likes of The Cure, Buzzcocks, Jam, Undertones and Specials seemed to emerge each week. Typically though, it was the mavericks who inspired me. Obsessions with Captain Beefheart, Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, Loudon Wainwright, Black Uhuru and Misty in Roots were initiated by Peel’s shows. I was infected with Peel’s affection for great soul singers: Millie Jackson, Bettye Lavette, and ‘Starting All Over Again’ by Mel & Tim, which JP played on his 40th birthday show. I was first exposed to African music, via Pablo’s ‘Bo M’banda’; in our ignorance we were satisfied with the generic description, African, years before we learned the subtleties of Malian, Zimbabwean or, in this case, Zairean pop.

Now I find a contingent of Peel obsessives are blogging the praises of the great man. The John Peel Tape & File Project, and right place, right time, wrong speed are both publishing whole shows from private collections. The Perfumed Garden runs a complete Peel session each week.

Perhaps it’s time to dust off the reel-to-reel.

"Gotta get through January, gotta get through February…"

January is bitter. It sometimes feels as if you spend the month locked in a darkened room. 3 foot square. Fed on nothing but white bread. Nothing ever happens. The exception is when something bad happens.

Perhaps it was the imminent end of the month, but a chink of light entered the room on my long drive north yesterday. Something reminded me of Woody Allen’s famous soliloquy in Manhattan. In his own pit of despair, Woody reminds himself of all the reasons why life is worth living:

“Groucho Marx; Willie Mays; the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony; Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato-head Blues; Swedish movies; Sentimental Education by Flaubert; Marlon Brando; Frank Sinatra; those incredible apples and pears by C’zanne; the crabs at Sam Wo’s”

As I drove, my own list took shape:

A live recording by Van Morrison with the Caledonia Soul Orchestra; a brisk walk on a cold clear day in Dorset; the Glastonbury sauna; a play by Stephen Poliakoff; sunshine on my skin on a secret beach; old friendships renewed; establishing clarity from confusion at work; a goal scored in front of the Chapel stand at St. Mary’s; Clara’s smile when I return from working away; Tom’s joy at seeing a bittern; making lists; the kindness in my lover’s eyes and the touch of her cheek.

February’s a little brighter.