Book Review: Climbs & Punishment by Felix Lowe

C&P Final Cover

Cyclists from elsewhere than the central lowlands of Scotland may not understand the ‘gringo’ reference, but it helps me explain the book very quickly. The author starts the book as what would be considered a ‘gringo’ & ends it an experienced cyclist, having suffered a multitude of cycling experiences condensed into a few short weeks on a ridiculous organised-ride from Spain to Rome. It’s a voyage of discovery & it’s the ideal Christmas present (to yourself) or to that hard-to-buy-for cyclist. It’s got something in it for everybody, from the die-hard racer to the complete newcomer, you’ll all recognise personal experiences & the personality types the book deals with, plus your non cycling partner (who pretends they don’t watch the Tour) will also likely enjoy it. This book, although at first glance not my normal cycling read, made me smile, it made me smile quite a bit.

The Author

This book comes with a warning, well, it’s not actually the book that has a warning, it’s the person who wrote it. If you ever go on an organised ride & somebody called Felix Lowe is present, go home or give a false name. When you read this book you’ll understand why, all your quirks & abnormalities may be magnified & published for all to read about.  The Author, Felix Lowe may be known to many of you, he’s the man behind the Eurosport ‘Blazin Saddles’ blog & can be followed on twitter @saddleblaze. He also writes the final article in ‘Cyclist’ magazine every month, so if you read about cycling a fair bit, you’ve undoubtably read some of his stuff.

The Review

I struggle to define ‘Climbs & Punishment’ as a particular genre of cycling book. It’s a mix of a travelogue, history book, gastronomy, cycling adventure & bike racing anecdotes from pro riders (including some fantastic ones he gleaned from chats with Greg LeMond), all written with plenty of humour, innuendo & not-so-veiled accusations. What makes this particularly interesting & different is the perspective it’s written from, the author first gained a deep knowledge of the sport of professional cycling by being involved in cycling journalism, before they ever became a cyclist. So this is his story of his initial voyage of a mans physical cycling discovery, potentially this is his unconscious quest to become a ‘proper’ cyclist. We follow his experiences during a rather bizarre (100km per day) organised ride which follows the route of Hannibal’s army into Rome from Spain, over a period of a few weeks. The full content of the book is probably not conveyed in the cover, but then, what could really.

You’ll also find some things discussed which won’t come up on your polite club-ride, mostly to do with bodily functions, body parts & the peculiarities of the effects of cycling’s motion & kit do to your body. Scrotums seem to be mentioned a fair bit, along with his ‘clock’ position in his shorts & the problem of eliminating that last drip, especially in his poor choice of shorts colour. We also get some descriptions of things he encountered on the way, dogs in a not so romantic embrace & an old man peeing in a car park. Normally the things we leave out of our descriptions of our wonderful cycling holidays we pass back to our families. Lowe experiences from a ‘newbie’ point of view what it’s like to get into cycling, but due to his journalistic experienced, Lowe does this with a knowledge which your normal sportive rider wouldn’t possess.

Competition is part of cycling at all levels, regardless of where we are in the sport. We see the authors competitive trait develop rapidly during the trip, with some full-on mountain battles later in the book when other groups turn up on the ride for a few days. Lowe tells you exactly what he’s thinking during his riding, which is especially revealing when the red mist takes over (although stopping to take a photo while having attacked on a mountain isn’t allowed in cycling etiquette).

His fellow companions get a bit of a pounding too, he didn’t know any of them beforehand, including his room-mate Terry, whose character is well & truly destroyed during this book. We discover far too much about these people (but you’ll find yourself wanting more), even people who helped him along the way get ‘the Felix treatment’, such as “Martin, the manager of the hotel and owner of a nose that could have hosted its own ski-jumping competition”. I won’t ruin some of the revelations you’ll discover, which is why I issued the warning at the beginning, it really is relevant (but it’s entertaining, you’ll laugh & your partner will ask what you’re laughing at, you’d probably would find it hard to explain without going into the finer details, just say “nothing”).

There are plenty of character types you’ll recognise from your cycling club, or at least recognise some aspects of their personalities. Lowe is a people watcher & is able to describe this to you in graphic detail, which is why you shouldn’t go on holiday with him. Under twitter questioning he has assured me that they took it all very well, having joined the Tour in 2014 for a few days where he met some of his 2013 ‘crew’, who shook their first in mock castigation.

Pro riders are mentioned frequently too, like Quintana, “with a birth certificate that makes a mockery of his crinkled-as-an-elephants-knee face”. The best ‘pro’ bits are with Greg LeMond, although some of that includes graphic bodily functions (as we’ve come to expect from this book) & Greg’s story of accidental Giro race food of parmesan, sausages & beer.

Hidden behind all the character assassinations is an incredibly well researched book, which perhaps is easy to forget amidst the humour & witty observations. Each significant area or road we visit has a brief resumé of what happened to Hannibal, with plenty of stories of grand-tour battles on the same terrain. This is where Lowe’s knowledge of the sport shines through & we can relate his struggles compared to those of our hero’s & villains of cycling (there’s plenty of doping innuendo here too). There’s also some analysis of a cyclists psyche hidden away & discovered by Lowe, such as “You only ever ride a climb like Ventoux alone anyway, even when in the presence of others”.

Who’s This Book For?

This is almost as hard to define as the book, it’s really not aimed at anybody in particular but will appeal to cyclist & non-cyclists alike. I’d suggest it’s a ‘must read’ for anybody about to book, or having recently booked a training camp in the new year.  You’ll meet plenty of the characters described in ‘Climbs & Punishment’ during your trip to warmer climes, it might even help prepare you for dealing with a trip. I’d suggest that you should have a little cycling knowledge to get something out of this book, but just occasionally watching the Tour over the last few years would be enough.

I’d also recommend Climbs & Punishment as a ‘catch-all’ Christmas gift for your cycling partner or friend (or a stocking filler suggestion for those asking what to buy you), everybody will get something out of it. I enjoyed it, now I need to catch up on some of his equally character destroying ‘Blazin Saddles’ blogs.

Climbs & Punishment is published by Bantam Press & is available HERE for £11.99 if you use Amazon.

(I only publish reviews of books I really like, I was sent this by the publisher, I have others than won’t appear here. Just because they’re not my cup of tea doesn’t mean I should slag of folks who are better writers than I am. Please don’t send me any more, I’ve no time to read any more!)

Book Review: Domestique, by Charly Wegelius

It’s not too often I read a book I can’t put down, the last one was ‘A Dog in a Hat’ by Joe Parkin, about an American becoming a Belgian & his experiences of racing in ‘the heartland’. The same happened with Domestique, by Charly Wegelius, I had to keep reading it. I have to say I expected something along similar lines to ‘A Dog in a Hat’ from Charly Wegelius’ book, but in fact, it was much, much more intriguing than Joe Parkin’s story, which is saying something. The Wegelius book is a must-read for any cycling fan, any aspiring racer, or anybody interested in the human psyche, to find what motivations & drives people to extraordinary things, this is special book.

Most of us who started cycling at an age when time was still on our side, dreamed of becoming a professional rider, it looked like an extraordinary thing to do with your life, incredibly rewarding & steeped in the spoils of victory. What we don’t realise at that age, is that we barely know the names of the star riders team-mates, the riders who allow their chosen leader to go for glory, some of whom are just as capable physically of performing at a high level, but for many reasons choose to take a different approach to their profession, they work & suffer incredibly hard for a career as a domestique. The rewards in this chosen path are only realised by people who possess a strong work ethic, we can all relate to this in our work & personal lives, where something you know played a part in was applauded & recognised by others, regardless of anybody’s knowledge of your involvement. This is the life of a domestique, rarely praised, but respected within their profession & valued as an integral part of every team, without dedicated domestiques, the stars wouldn’t shine, and the teams wouldn’t function.

This book opens up that world to the reader, it’s incredibly well written, a collaboration of Wegelius’s experiences & Tom Southam’s ability to take these insights & build them into a compelling story of the real life of pro riders. The book is littered with stories of sacrifices, moral issues, hardship, suffering, more suffering, but mostly suffering. It’s not a book that asks you to feel sorry for Wegelius, quite the opposite in fact. It feels like you follow him through his character development, from boy, to man, to a normally functioning adult outside the world of a professional athlete, it allows the reader to fully understand the transitions between these areas of life, it’s very honest.

We can all relate to Charly’s story, it’s about growing up, about getting to a place in your life where you feel comfortable in your own skin. Bike racing is just his catalyst, but that’s what makes it so interesting, we all have a path. In one way it takes away any regrets you may have about making it as a pro bike rider, you realise that unless you are one of the tiny percentage of chosen winners, it’s not the glamorous life that we imagine it may be. The insights we get into some of those stars, like his positive experiences with Cipollini or Di Luca as team leaders, also make you realise that the stars situation is also not an easy choice, but involves another type of responsibility.

Buy this book, it’s well worth the read, I’ll even read it again.

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Scottish Cycling: Review & Renew (Part1)

Following the recent ‘Strategic & Governance Review’ of Scottish Cycling by ‘Renaissance & Company’, a strategic management consultancy, we finally have some idea what exactly is going on inside SC, along with some much-needed answers. In this blog & the following parts of ‘Scottish Cycling: Review & Renew’, I’ll be tackling the tricky questions that arise & look at some ideas of how things can be moved forward. In some of my previous posts, you’ll have seen that sometimes I’m echoing the widespread frustration in the sport with regards to SC (historically SCU), this review now shows some light at the end of the tunnel. If Scottish Cycling do not take on board what has been said, act on it in an open manner & listen to the membership, they will cease to exist in the not too distant future. Our sport needs a strong governing body in what could be potentially a massive growth period, across all cycling, not just the traditional road & track scene, we need solutions looking into the future. I’d like to commend Scottish Cycling on implementing the review & making it available for public consumption (although it’s not exactly easy to find on the website, an initial worry about transparency is brought about by this, although I can see why they wouldn’t want every visitor to read it).

Before continuing, I’d advise you read or skim through the review, keep it open on another browser tab & refer to it if needed.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE FULL REPORT

Who Wrote The Review?

I don’t know exactly where the pressure to commission this came from, perhaps Sport Scotland who fund the majority of SC’s activities, but the management consultancy chosen, Renaissance & Company, are an ideal choice having dealt with many sports governing bodies in the past. They specialise in helping sports bodies, HERE & HERE are some links to sporting bodies they have worked with previously. We can have faith that what has been said by them is credible, they’ve seen plenty other sporting governing bodies & they know how they work, or should work.

What the Review Said?

It’s probably beneficial to read it yourself, but the findings are quite scathing, possibly to those who’ve dealt with SC regularly, there are no surprises whatsoever. I’ll not dwell too much on these, looking more towards the future, we all know there have been mistakes & issues, some will feel vindicated, so a short paragraph resume of some of these is valid, here we go..

The report recognises that cycling is complex, supporting various disciplines. SC displays plenty of logo’s of other organisations they have a relationship with, but it says these relationships do not actually exist (British Cycling, Cycling Scotland etc). Middle aged men interested in road racing dominate the membership, the membership don’t know what SC does. It’s an unhappy place to work, they lack effective leadership & there is no master plan!

Please read the report linked further up the page if you want the full story, it’s quite grim regarding what they found.

Solutions

The report flags up a number of solutions, they start on page 9, under section 3, if you’re following the review, skip to that part now.

The first area they look at is ‘Reforming the Business of Scottish Cycling‘, with the following key areas:

  • Strong Participation
  • Excellent Competitions & Events
  • Scotland Winning
  • Excellent Communities of Cycle Sport
  • Effective Leadership, Service & Governance
  • Working in Real Partnership

For increasing participation, we’re seeing that a plan is recommended (we’ll be seeing a lot of this, there currently are no plans), along with an executive in charge of this area. It seems that currently there is no strategy aimed at this, the membership demographics need a serious overhaul, if it continues as a middle-aged man’s domain, then the progress we require in order to develop cycling will not transpire. It will stay as the same old, same old, with an ever ageing emphasis on veteran racing & APR’s, this isn’t the future & whether you like it or not (I assume if you’re reading this, the chances are that you are a middle-aged man, based on the review findings) things are going to change, dramatically.

So how do we change the demographic? There isn’t going to be any kind of exodus of middle-aged men, the Mamils will stay, only we’ll add everybody else into the mix. The report states that SC has only 7000 official members, of the estimated 200,000 regular cyclist in Scotland, the reason that they are not members is likely that they believe SC does nothing for them, or they have no idea that SC exists. Basically SC do not currently provide the service they should in the modern world, they are outdated & stuck in the past, it needs to change, some won’t like it, but cycling is changing & if we (you, your club, your governing body) don’t change, you won’t have a governing body left to cling onto. What everybody outside of the progressive areas of our sport in Scotland (youth development & coaching etc) is that change is inevitable, cycling has got much bigger, we need a strong governing body to look after it and guide it, this review sets out a plan to achieve that.

I’m slightly uneasy with the review comments about events, the calendar stuff is great, but it appears to suggest that it’s OK for SC to organise events. This has gone very badly for the UCI, putting them in direct competition with established race organisers & seemingly using UCI anti-doping funding from pro teams rumoured to fund events in China, these events run by a company funded by the UCI but run by their controversial figurehead, Pat McQuaid & family. Governing bodies shouldn’t be running events other than their championships, it creates competition between the governing body & others, in Scotland’s case, between SC & clubs. There have been moves by groups of clubs to run a track league at Glasgow, but this was stopped for some reason. It’s hard to work out how clubs could raise the funds to block book expensive track time, while its common knowledge that SC are still negotiating their hourly track rate & haven’t actually paid for any yet. We’re not going to get any progressive race organisers getting a look in with that kind of set up.

The calendar does need to be completely demolished & rebuilt, as the report says, it’s got far too clogged up with ‘traditional dates’, if we want a modern sport this needs categorised, with championship events given priority & the other events slotted in around them. I can see some conflict with clubs & organisers over this, but if the clubs have valid reasons for when their event should be on they need to put that across, “it’s always been on that date” isn’t a valid reason, everybody has to accept change.

There’s plenty of solutions involving ‘regions‘, this would involve a complete rethink regarding the ‘centres‘. For some information on how out of balance these are, I wrote a blog on a potential regional road race league system a while ago, ‘Out of Our League‘. The old ‘centres’ simply don’t work as they should, finding ‘less-mature’ club representatives to go along to these would help, but many of the people who actually have any spare time to travel to these meetings still think 6 speed down tube friction levers are state-of-the-art. The regions need to be split evenly into areas with a similar amount of clubs, with a similar projected growth & the meetings need to be modernised. We are in the bizarre situation that some regions cover such a vast area that it’s impossible to get everybody to turn up. Why would somebody from Shetland travel to Aberdeenshire for a ‘centre meeting’, or somebody from Oban visit Glasgow, it’s just not practical. There’s really very little need to actually meet in person, if big business can carry out meetings by Skype, it’s absurd that you can’t decide who’s running your regional ’10’ champs by the same manner, it’s not exactly tricky, you can all sit at home and have a meeting, even on the train, time to move things forward, if you’re shy just do voice meeting rather than video. That’s the only way you can have effective meetings over the geographic distance of the 4 to 6 regions the review advises. The harsh reality of this, is that if you don’t have a computer, you’re not going to be a productive part of a sport trying to modernise & rebuild, you’re also not reading this, so I’ve not offended anybody!

What’s in Part 2?

So that’s the Part 1 basic overview on where we’re going with this over the first part of the review, we need a new SC, a modern sporting governing body with progressive clubs & a strong regional structure, a completely rebuilt calendar.That’s probably enough for Part 1, in Part 2 we’ll start getting into the nitty gritty, looking in depth at where the growth is coming from & there are also some problems with lobbing all the disciplines together where you ‘get a bit muddy’, those are where the real participation growth is coming from, so they need a little more individual attention than that. SC have to be very careful that they don’t change winning formats that are actually attracting their new target demographics.

I can see this drifting into 4 or 5 blogs, we’ve still got to look at how to grow each discipline, bmx, road, sportives, track, cross country mtb, downhill mtb & cross! We’ve only just scraped the surface, I’ll let you read the review yourself before I release Part 2.