Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Water off a duck's back blazer - a review

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Once upon a time people who wanted to race their bicycles wore figure hugging outfits made of stretchy material. Everyone else just wore clothes; the same clothes that they would have worn at home or work, or to play tiddlywinks in the pub.

We live nowadays in boundary-blurring times. With the demarcation between classes, genders and political parties successfully rendered fuzzy the forces of confusion have set to work on cycling attire. Lycra has broken out of the bike racing scene and otherwise normal people on their daily commute now disport themselves in tights, padded shorts and team replica jerseys, seduced by the comfort they offer when astride a bicycle. There is a downside however; unless some part of their person is attached to a bike, anyone wearing lycra looks like a bizarre grime-bespeckled fetishist. Ever willing to innovate, the cycle industry has responded to this problem by creating cycling specific clothes made to look like normal clothes (henceforth referred to as CSCMTLLNC to avoid early onset RSI). They are all cut to accommodate the simian hunch of a rider sitting atop a racey (if not a racing) bike and are made from a fabric designed to repel repellent things; rain, oil and dirt from the outside and perspiration from the inside.

The retrograde Dutch have no need for such attire; they ride upright bicycles equipped with mudguards and chain guards at speeds slow enough to obviate the need to sweat, and (presumably) use washing machines to remove the dirt from time to time. Fortunately in the more enlightened UK we have no truck with such nonsense. We ride fast bikes in fast traffic, and consequently now have a plethora of companies producing CSCMTLLNC, most notably Rapha and Vulpine.

Comparative newcomers to the CSCMTLLNC scene are Water off a Duck's Back (WoaDB) who plough the same nostalgic furrow as Brooks, Pashley and Brompton. I am the proud owner of one of their cycle blazers (pictured above) courtesy of the ever lovely G. The jacket looks to all intents and purposes like an ordinary navy blue blazer. Pay attention though reader, there are one or two rather special accessories; no rocket launchers or ejector seat alas, but concealed under collar and lapels are Scotchlite reflective patches and the cotton cloth has been coated with Teflon. This latter causes water to run off the surface like coffee from a scalded cat (I'm sure there must be a better simile but for the life of me I can't think of one).

The fabric works brilliantly; water stands proud on the surface of the jacket, a glimmering translucent orb that scuttles away like a cockroach on a granite worktop (hmm). WoaDB are justly proud of this material and have a video on their site to display its properties, although at the moment they have replaced it with a seasonal one showing how the jacket performs in blizzard conditions.

Off the bike the cut of the jacket feels a little baggy on my spindly cyclist's frame, reminding me of my first school blazer. In actual fact the fit around the chest and shoulders is perfect; the sensation of bagginess stems from a combination of the very long sleeves and a generous amount of material around the waist, although this extra material is swallowed by the double vent at the back. There is extra material too at the back of the jacket which is pleated behind the shoulders. Once on a bike all of these design decisions make perfect sense; the sleeves reach no further than the wrists and there is none of the sensation of being squeezed into a straight jacket that accompanies riding in a normally tailored jacket.

But what of the waterproofing? I am originally from Manchester; I know a thing or two about rain. In that fine city the rain is elemental; it wraps itself around you like a cowl and slowly but surely inculcates its gelid essence through to your very marrow. In Brighton where I now live the rain is altogether more flamboyant. It flounces across the channel and hurls itself upon the city in a tantrum of rain. In an instant roads become rivers, junctions become lakes and every living thing is half-drowned. I tested the jacket in one such outpouring and it fared well, manfully holding off the worst extravagances of the rain. I didn't remain entirely dry; some water did make ingress down back of my neck and a little through the fastenings at the front. Short of turning the blazer into a hooded anorak it is hard to see how this could be avoided however.

Overall this jacket has convinced me to stop worrying and learn to love CSCMTLLNCs. It is no substitute for a cycling jersey and arm warmers or my trusty Gore Windstopper jacket on a proper bike ride. However if it's wet and I need to bimble into town and look presentable when I arrive it's just the ticket.

Please note that WoaDB have not paid a penny for the above review. I am however fantastically bribeable and blogs can be edited; if the above review is anything other than an excoriating diatribe you must assume that I am now the proud owner of a leaky inner tube and length of rusty brake cable.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Do I not like Chris Froome?

Chris Froome on Mont Ventoux

Isn't it always the way; you wait 98 years for a British winner of the Tour de France and two arrive at the same time. It is impossible to write about Chris Froome without also writing about Brad Wiggins; the one defines the other in the public imagination and their twin achievements will always bind them together in a marriage that is truly dysfunctional.

The aftermath of Wiggins's victory in the 2012 Tour was unprecedented; overnight he was promoted to the role of national treasure left vacant by the demise of the Queen Mother. Suddenly everyone was a cycling fan, and while their understanding of racing was patchy (one colleague at the time argued vehemently that cycling so close together was tactically flawed) their passion was beyond dispute. Honour followed honour; he rang the bell that started the London Olympics, was the runaway winner of the Sports Personality of the Year Award and was knighted in the New Year honours list. Froome is one of the nominees for this year's SPOTYA, but I suspect that this is a title that will elude him.

I share this general antipathy; I recognise that Froome was a very worthy winner of the Tour, but could not bring myself to support him. Part of this is undoubtedly because he is so good. I never supported Armstrong in his pomp, not because I thought he was cheating but because he was so dominant. There was never any apparent chink in the Armstrong armour; he was fast in the time trails, strong in the mountains, never had a bad day and almost never crashed. This made the races he won rather predictable. In 2012 Sky were unquestionably the dominant team but there was a fragility to Wiggins that maintained the sense of dramatic tension until the final stage; a physical collapse in the mountains or a mental collapse triggered by (for instance) an insubordinate team mate always seemed possible. Froome on the other hand looked utterly invincible this year; he gained time over his rivals in mountains and time trials alike and the only serious chunk of time lost was due to a tactical error on a flat stage.

Some will argue that this is merely an excuse for jingoism and that Wiggins is more popular than Froome in the UK simply because he seems more British. There may be an element of truth to this, especially for newcomers to the sport of cycling. More long term cycling fans have been starved of any serious British contender (with the exception of Robert Millar) to support in the grand tours for many years. Because of this for more dyed-in-the-wool fans (or post 1960 dyed-in-the-lycra fans), allegiances tend to be forged less by a sense of national pride and more by the character and racing style of individual riders.

Character is not something that Wiggins lacks. There are two things at which he really excels; time trials and press conferences. In an era in which sportsmen are trained to be dull and uncontroversial a Wiggins press conference is a treat. He can be charming towards the assembled journalists, loquacious and witty or open and honest or playful and facetious. Or, as he did on the first rest day of the 2012 tour he can call them a bunch of c-words. Froome on the other hand is more guarded, diplomatic and politic and is all the duller for that. This is not a bad thing - he simply suffers in the comparison.

Of much greater weight is that question of style. Wiggins, with his ramrod-straight back is a stylish bike rider; he has what French cycling aficionados call souplesse. This is an attribute that Froome lacks, in spades. Although the same build as Wiggins he rides his bike with an ungainly churn of thrashing limbs that brings to mind nothing so much as a gangly spider attempting to escape a slippery sink. If you think this is unfair compare one of the defining moments of the 2013 tour, his attack on Ventoux with Armstrong's pursuit of Marco Pantani in 2000 on the same mountain, or this from Cancellara in the Tour of Flanders (2m 43 in if you're impatient). Just winning is not enough; a great champion will ride with panache and elan to mask the effort they are making. To be beaten is irksome. To be beaten by a dilettante, a spinner of the pedals who at all times maintains the casual mien of a Sunday afternoon pootler is utterly crushing. Froome on the other hand rides up mountains wearing the rictus of a man being tortured with something both pointy and hot. There could of course be an element of cunning double-bluff to this but the fact remains that it is not a pretty sight.

There is a more serious charge to lay at Froome than dullness and ungainliness though. For me Froome's defining moment came when he went on the attack against his own team leader on stage 11 of the 2012 Tour. Sean Yates has subsequently confirmed that the excuses given at the time about a faulty race radio were exactly that - excuses. Ruthless ambition is an essential element of the emotional makeup of any successful sportsman. Cycling however is a team sport and the role of the domestique is to sacrifice every available watt of energy in the execution of team orders. Cavendish is a sterling example of ambition done well; vaulting ambition yes, but tempered by a healthy dose of humility and a willingness to throw his all behind his colleagues when the situation and team orders demand. Froome on the other hand was clearly bewitched by the image of a dagger as he rode to La Toussuire and was too weak to resist the urge to show his strength. (If there is a touch of Macbeth to Froome his fiance, Michelle Cound, unfortunately reinforces this by behaving like Lady Macbeth with a Twitter account.) For me this one act colours everything he does and has irreparably sullied my opinion of him.

That said I accept that Froome is a very talented rider and I wish him well. I am sure that this year's win will not be his last Tour de France victory. At the same time I will not be urging him to victory next year, and hope that another talent emerges to challenge him, a dashing mercurial rider of raffish demeanour with a penchant for reckless solo attacks who looks good on a bike and wears the right type of socks.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Oi mate, your wheels are on fire!

Why is it that the simple act of riding a bicycle provokes so many people to advise, admonish and abuse? I have never once been shouted at when walking down the street, and am rarely castigated while driving (to the best of my knowledge - two layers of glass probably muffle a reasonable amount of dissent). Whilst out and about on my bike on the other hand I am heckled on a weekly basis.

I find that the heckling tends to fall into one of three categories. The first is the complimentary heckle; by far the most pleasant to receive but also the rarest. I have had a total of two positive heckles in my entire cycling career which I wish to record for posterity:

  1. The builder who shouted 'Go on Wiggo' as I sprinted past him on my way to work (I was late as usual)
  2. The motorist who congratulated me for averaging 25mph on a flat stretch of road (I had a tailwind). This was especially welcome as when he pulled up next to me at a set of traffic lights and wound down his window I thought he was going to complain as he had been stuck behind me for the preceding mile or so. 

Category two is by far the most common type of heckle and these can be loosely grouped together under the general heading of 'advice'. A prime example of a type two heckle came on my way home last night when a driver honked their horn, flashed their lights and gesticulated in the direction of the cycle path on the other side of the road as they overtook me. The Highway Code is actually quite clear about use of cycle lanes and cycle tracks - rules 61 and 63 both state 'Use of cycle lanes is not compulsory and will depend on your experience and skills, but they can make your journey safer'.

This particular cycle track is a classic of the genre and works like this:

First you are taken onto a narrow pavement. After a hundred yards or so you are forced to stop, wait for traffic and then cross onto another narrow pavement before, after another hundred yards it stops abruptly. At that point you have to enter a t-junction and once more wait for a gap in the traffic to turn back onto the road and continue on your way. 

Clearly the track does not exist to benefit cyclists and 'make your journey safer'. Indeed I can only think of two possible reasons for its existence; one is to irritate pedestrians and the other is to inculcate a sense of self righteous indignation in motorists. This latter certainly seems to me an area that would warrant further research; if drivers are encouraged to be particularly riled by their fellow road users for the duration of specific short stretches of road they may become more tolerant at other times. If this theory were to be proven a network of Intolerance Zones could be established across the country. We could have a new road sign:

In this instance my intolerant motorist did me a favour. I decided to give chase to explain the error of her ways and the finer points of the Highway Code at the next available set of traffic lights. As the road has a gradient of about 7% at this point and I was heading uphill this chase was both utterly futile and very good exercise.

Category three is the random heckle. This is most often straightforward abuse. 'Poofter' or its multifarious similes are understandably popular monikers for anyone with a predilection for skin-tight clothing. Happily I have found that the residents of Sussex can be much more imaginative than this however. My partner, G, is a particular magnet for inventive invective; stand-out moments came from the urchin who informed her that her wheels were on fire (they weren't) and the portion of McDonalds fries flung (accurately) from a passing car.

The most frustrating thing in all this is that I never have a good riposte; my normal response is stony silence, and the next few miles are inevitably taken up with the rehearsal of a series of ever more witty or withering put-downs. The problem is that there is no time for a lengthy exchange; if anyone knows of a catch-all response that consists of no more than three or four words I would love to hear it.