Ollie cycles Mount Fuji 15 times to save Japan's dolphins

BY GRAHAM HUTSON

You’d be hard pushed to find anyone who would cycle 15 times up Mount Fuji for the hell of it, and that includes Ollie Blackmore. 

It is certainly a challenge that demands attention - Fuji is 3,776 metres tall - a single ascent would, surely, have been enough. But Ollie needed people to notice and his choice of mountain was no coincidence. He picked Fuji because it is in Japan and if he rode up it enough times, the people might listen to what he had to say about their treatment of dolphins at the notorious cove at Taiji, in Wakayama.

For six months every year, fishermen use speedboats to corral thousands of dolphins into the secluded cove to either kill or capture them. On a ‘red’ day when the fishermen are successful in driving a pod of dolphins into the cove, the water froths with blood as a killing frenzy ensues. Taiji has had a strong whaling and fishing presence since the early 17th century and despite international condemnation of the practice, passes it off as tradition.

“The way they kill dolphins and that whole process is beyond doubt one of the cruellest things that an animal can go through,” says Ollie. He says he became aware of the killings after discovering the Oscar-winning film The Cove when he was sent it randomly by LoveFilm. “I thought it was a deep sea action thriller and I started to watch it and could not believe my eyes. From that point forward I have been making myself aware and felt that strongly about it that I wanted to get involved.”

The way they kill dolphins and that whole process is beyond doubt one of the cruellest things that an animal can go through

He set about organising his first trip to Japan, which was more of a tour of the country to raise awareness of the cove in Japan itself and also highlight treatment of captive dolphins, which often end up in tiny aquariums.

“I gained a lot of support for the first trip and that’s why this year I climbed Mount Fuji 15 times on my bike and then climbed to the summit on foot. Things like that get more attention than just saying I’m going to do London to Paris. Along the way I found people who respected what I was doing and why I was doing it and when you’ve got a jersey emblazoned with ‘save Japan’s dolphins’ on it, a few questions are asked and the conversation gets going.”

That conversation doesn’t always go the way Ollie would like: “It can sometimes be 50-50 whether people agree with what I’m saying. A couple of people have thrown the tradition side of it in there but you can show them photos and explain and they say ‘OK I didn’t realise that.’

“The trouble is that the culture is to not question authority in Japan. If you do, you can become ostracised from society. You could get your job taken away, and people have been listed on a terrorist website because they question authority over this very issue. This is the extent of the cover-up they’re trying to push on you. There are plenty of people there who don’t agree with this practice, they would just never say anything.”

Hunting is big business in Taiji. A single dolphin can command upwards of $100,000 when it is sold to an aquarium, says Ollie. Dolphin meat is sold by the kilo but catch quotas are by the animal which is why the young are released. “Rather than waste the quota on a baby that isn’t going to render too much meat they just drive them back to sea.

“But the suffering of the animals they let go is awful. They get to witness the horrific stuff that goes on to their family pod and they’ve got no chance of survival back in the pacific ocean because they are out there on their own and they are already starving hungry.”

Studies revealing the intelligence of dolphins and whales are well publicised, although the similarities in their nature to humans has only recently become apparent. A study in the New Scientist revealed that the evolution of these animals is driven by culture, the first time it has been proven in a species other than homo sapiens.

This was explained by the different hunting structures of orca whales: “Some herd fish, while others pick on seals,” the report said. “Biologists consider this a form of culture. New research reveals these cultural groups are genetically distinct, meaning culture has shaped their evolution. It’s the first time this has been seen in other animals. Killer whales are intelligent, long-lived, and social like us. Culture is one more reason to set them free.”

Dolphins and whales which are corralled into the cove are left for days without food before they are selected for captivity or slaughter. “Typically the fishermen will go out at 5am and they will all line their boats up on the horizon to try and find a pod and then they will chase them in. Last year was probably the worst report I have heard. They had been chasing about 60 to 70 pilot whales for about four hours. They had young in the pod and they got them in the cove and left them there for three or four days so they were distressed, starving and exhausted and then slowly they picked off and slaughtered the ones they didn’t deem any good, in front of the rest of the pod, took two or three out for captivity and then slaughtered the rest and the ones that were left they drove back out to sea.”

Ollie agrees that Taiji is not the only country that indulges in the mass slaughter of whales and dolphins but points out that Taiji fishermen hunt dolphins mainly for the purposes of captivity. “The reason for targeting Taiji is because a lot of the dolphins there are sold into captivity and it is that industry that drives demand. People go to Sea World and there’s an option to go and swim with them. Most people are unaware how that dolphin got there, what it is like in captivity.

“They capture them and train them and then they sell them to aquariums in Japan, Russia or all over Asia. You can’t send them to America anymore but the fact that America and places like Sea World have the marketing budgets to showcase all over the world is what sets the precedent. These other little places that set up in Asia, the dolphins are living in scummy tanks, they die, they replace them, nobody knows because one dolphin looks like the next dolphin.”

China remains the largest international buyer of captive dolphins. The fishermen at Taiji would argue that they hunt dolphins and whales mainly for the meat, but it has proven to be unpopular and contaminated.

“Hardly anyone in Japan eats dolphin because it is deemed to be not a very nice meat and is actually full of contamination, mercury and all the the other nonsense polluting the sea. Not to mention the fact that the sea around Japan is poisoned by radiation.

It is the audacity behind it, it’s the sheer volume [of the killings]

“The issue is the way they go about it in this particular case. It is not for tradition, they are using that as an excuse and a reason to get support in case anyone criticises them. It is the audacity behind it, it’s the sheer volume and also the complete smoke and mirrors game they play to stop people finding out.”

This, he says, extends as far as deporting prominent campaigner and former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry after holding him for two weeks on spurious grounds. 

The killings attract so much worldwide media attention that tarpaulins are dragged over the cove to prevent them being filmed. “They kill the dolphins by ramming a steel rod into their blowholes in an attempt to sever the spinal cord.  Then they shove a dowel into the blow hole to stop the bleeding.  

“They only changed to this method to reduce the amount of blood in the water which can be seen easily.  But video evidence shows dolphins writhing around in complete agony drowning in their own blood and suffocating.  A lot of blood still fills the water, but less than when they used to cut their throats.  It's horrific and upsetting to watch, these animals have been seen suffering for 20 minutes with their calves desperately trying to be with their dying mothers.”

Ollie believes his cycle trips are raising awareness of the cove. He regards this as vindication of the amount of time he spends not just on them, but in the planning and the training. “I have to dedicate a lot of time and money to make these trips and the training happen. My wife Kate cringes whenever I declare my next challenge ideas but supports me 100 per cent.”

It helps that he runs his own digital agency in Norwich, staffed by an understanding team, which must be used to this kind of thing by now. July’s trip was his second trip to Japan, in which he has spent 22 days in total. Prior to this trip the reformed 40-a-day smoker cycled Vancouver Island in Canada to raise money for Big C. He did that on a handmade Donhou gravel bike but Japan was ridden on a Specialized Tarmac. “Because of the nature of the challenge this year and last you don’t know where you’re going to end up. The Tarmac is light and built for climbing. I did 81,000ft in ten days.” 

He considers all that climbing well worth the effort: “This is a cause I feel passionate about and want others to feel passionate about and since doing it I would say I’ve raised awareness a hell of a lot and people are more sceptical of captivity in general not just in dolphins.”

The drive season at Taiji begins September 1 and continues until April 1. During these dates around 2,000 dolphins, porpoises and whales will be killed or captured. The Dolphin Project has declared September 1 Japan Dolphins Day and has organised protests at Japanese embassies around the world in an effort to shame the Japanese government into doing something about the annual slaughter.

Visit here or visit Ollie Blackmore’s cycle challenges Facebook page here.
 
The Japanese Embassy is located at 101-104 Piccadilly, London W1J 7JT.

Q&A: Emily Chappell on being the first woman to complete the 2016 Transcontinental

Kristian Pletten

Kristian Pletten

Emily Chappell was the first woman across the line in the 2016 Transcontinental. She covered her 3,508km route in 13 days, ten hours and 28 minutes, almost two days ahead of second place Johanna Josten-Van Duinkerken. Emily had unfinished business with the Transcontinental - she was forced to withdraw from the 2015 race with chest pains after riding for eight days solid.

Emily has written a book, What Goes Around,  about her days as a London courier and is a member of the Adventure Syndicate group of female cyclists.

What was the first thing you did when you crossed the finish?

Submitted to a long hug from a friend who was volunteering on the checkpoint (brave of her, as I hadn't washed for many days), and was handed a beer by fourth-placed rider James Hayden.

Did it take as long as you expected? 

Kristian Pletten

Kristian Pletten

Yes and no. I did expect (and hope) that I'd finish in around 14 days. I also had a secret twelve-day plan that I knew was almost impossibly over-ambitious. In hindsight, had I done a few things differently, I could easily have knocked a day or two off my overall time.

You seemed to have taken an unusual route. Why? Would you take it again?

My Albanian detour was a mistake - I assumed everyone else would head south from Montenegro, as they have in years past - and I was originally intending to go east through Kosovo and Bulgaria, but decided to opt for plan B as I thought the roads would be easier on my (rapidly failing) tyres. It turns out I was the only rider who went that way, but I have no regrets. I avoided some bad weather and bad roads, spent a very happy day exploring Albania, and still came in almost two days ahead of my closest competitor.

Did you see any other riders on your route?

I went for long periods without seeing another rider, but at times they were everywhere, especially around the checkpoints, and we'd often end up leapfrogging each other for a few hours, or even a couple of days. It usually felt like running into a long-lost brother.

Did you have a strategy?

I didn't have a very detailed strategy. I'd planned my route, and knew roughly where I wanted to be and when, but I was prepared to let this slide if my speed turned out to be higher or lower than anticipated. And unlike last year, I knew I needed to sleep at least four hours every night, and to stay inside more often, because even though I prefer sleeping under the stars, I get a better quality of rest when I have a roof over my head, and that makes the following day's riding a little easier.

Did you get very lonely?

I never get lonely when I'm on the road - that's when I'm in my element.

Favourite food on the journey? Did you take enough?

I've been accused of being a food hoarder (by Juliana Buhring - see this video [left], from about 4:40), but I'm happy with the amount I carried. I had an emergency malt loaf on board, which came in extremely useful when the gravel section between Bosnia and Montenegro took longer than I thought it would, and I occasionally took longer than I planned to get to places where there'd be shops, and was grateful for the stale bread and melted chocolate I dug out of my food pouches.

Did you do a lot of riding at night? If so, how did you find it?

I prefer riding at night. It's cooler, quieter, and you can see cars coming a long way off, so it's also safer. Last year I tried to make the most of this, by riding all night and sleeping in the afternoon, but this time I gave in, and always had at least three hours' sleep while it was dark.

Where was the strangest place you slept?

Quite often I just curled up right beside the road (years of bikepacking and cycle-camping have made me extremely unfussy, and if you're tired enough, you'll pass out anywhere), but my most unexpected sleeping spot was a hotel I found at the top of a lonely mountain pass in Albania. I was the only one there, and I'm convinced it was haunted. I had a very good sleep though.

How often did you sleep?

I tried to sleep for four hours every night, though I reduced this towards the end. The main problem was that sometimes this was from 10pm to 2am, sometimes from 2am to 6am (depending on factors like when I got tired, and whether I could find a suitable place to lie down - occasionally mosquitoes, or big cities, meant that I had to press on), meaning that I could have up to 24 hours' riding between rests.

Was there a song or album that became your theme tune? Did you even listen to music?

I don't listen to music while riding. (I keep meaning to start, but I'm just not in the habit of it.) But I sing to myself, a lot. In the Alps it was mostly mountain-themed songs (Climb every mountainAin't no mountain high enoughThe bear came over the mountain), and towards the end it was Radiohead's Lucky and Queen's' Don't stop me now - because I didn't want it to end!

How did the kit hold up? Was there an item that you were particularly fond of?

Every single item of kit is essential, and singling out just one piece seems slightly unfair! I was, of course, extremely happy with the bike (Shand), which did everything I asked of it, and was a joy to ride. I was oddly attached to my Rapha merino knee-warmers. And I absolutely loved my latest acquisition - the Topeak Ratchet Rocket Lite. It was so much more effective (and fun to use) than an ordinary multitool. Unfortunately mine ended up being broken by a 'helpful' man who insisted on trying to disassemble my bike for me when I got to Canakkale.

Was there a point where you worried you could be heading the wrong way?

Oh yes! I took a more southerly route from CP4 than the rest of the racers (having mistakenly thought everyone would go that way), and had a horrible sinking feeling when someone pointed out on Twitter that I was now a long way from the rest of the pack, and said "I hope Emily Chappell knows what she's doing". But I worked out I could still get to Canakkale with a comfortable lead (although I slipped a few places overall), and in the end that was the section I enjoyed most. I've always wanted to visit Albania.

What overriding thought kept you going?

Quite simply, that all I needed to do was to keep going, and I'd finish. When I was riding well, and feeling strong, I'd make the most of it; when I was struggling I'd ride more gently, and take breaks, but still keep going; when I was completely exhausted I'd sleep, and I always found I had more energy (and a better mood) when I woke up, and could carry on.

Was it a surprise to discover that you were the first woman to finish?

seeing how I did, and knowing what improvements I need to make (mainly with routing), I’ll be targeting a top ten finish next year.

Not by the time I finished - I knew I had a good lead. But I was surprised earlier on in the race, to see that my closest competitors were so far back. I thought I'd struggle to stay ahead of Jayne Wadsworth, and I'd heard a rumour that one woman was planning to finish the race in nine days, so I thought I'd be a long way behind the leaders.

Did  you plan to come in the top finishers? Did that ever goal ever change?

I never thought I could challenge riders like Kristof and James Hayden, and when I started the ride my goal was simply to finish. Now, seeing how I did, and knowing what improvements I need to make (mainly with routing), I'll be targeting a top ten finish next year.

What do you think makes this kind of extreme cycling challenge attractive to women?

Well, it isn't attractive to many women, otherwise I'd have had more competition! I can only really speak for myself, but what attracts me to the Transcontinental is that it offers a combination of all the things I've come to love about cycling in the last few years - travel, independence, self-sufficiency, physical exertion, and the simple pleasure of moving constantly forward. I also love the opportunity it gives me to push myself. I found I got my second wind on about Day 11, and started to wish the race was about twice as long - so in future I'll maybe need to find a bigger challenge!

Did you ever feel in any danger?

Not at all. When I am travelling on my bike is when I feel safest.

What were your thoughts on the calibre of the other riders? Being such an experienced cyclist were you surprised by any of the riders taking part?

It's fascinating to see the variety of riders who line up for a race like this - and then to watch how they progress through it. Some of the people you suspect won't survive the first night make it all the way through to the end, and some of those you thought would make the podium end up dropping out with unforeseen problems. (like last year's winner Josh Ibbett, who ended up scratching on the first day, because of back pain.) I've long ago learned not to judge people on their experience - every year there are some people who are almost new to cycling who manage to complete the race.

Did your experience as a courier help you at all, maybe through town and city centres?

Thankfully I didn't pass through many cities, though I do think my traffic-handling skills probably helped a bit when I did. I think the main way my courier experience helped was that it meant I was used to getting up every day and getting on the bike, come rain or shine, no matter how tired or ill or fed up I was with the whole thing.

What home comfort did you really miss?

I don't really miss home when I'm riding - I miss riding when I'm stuck at home!

How much training did you do prior to the race and would you do any more or more strategically next time?

I intended to follow a strategic training plan, but life got in the way. Fortunately, for me, life tends to involve a lot of cycling! I did my book tour by bike back in January-February, I spent three weeks cycling down the US West Coast back in June (to get to the start of RAAM [Race Across America], in which I was supporting Juliana Buhring), and I never say no to a good long ride (much to the detriment of my writing career). In future I'll try and be a bit more structured, but I really think the most important preparation for a race like this is to do lots of miles, get plenty of rest in between, and really get to know yourself as a rider. I'll be joining the Deloitte Ride Across Britain next month, which should be a nice kickstart to next year's big mileage rides.

What SPF did you take with you? Did you find it lasted and worked well?

I carried SPF50, but actually had to use it less than I thought - it was a much cooler and cloudier Transcon than last year!

Did you bother taking hair products or take any makeup with you?

I never wear make-up, but as it happens I did take a small bottle of conditioner with me (my one luxury item!). Had I not, I'd have had to cut all my hair off by the end of the race.

Q&A: Neil Phillips on racing the Transcontinental

Watch the Transcontinental's Neil Phillips interview upon completion of the race, above

By Graham Hutson

Neil Phillips was the first Briton to cross the finish line on the Transcontinental race, completing the  3,696km route from Belgium to Turkey in nine days, 17 hours and 43 minutes. Here the 30-year-old Rapha ambassador takes some time out from eating everything in sight to explain what it feels like to race across continental Europe and how it affects the body and mind.

Describe your feelings having completed the ride.

So emotional when arriving at the ferry, the result didn't matter, it was just the achievement of finishing. Knowing that your body can eventually recover, totally indescribable as there was so much going on in my head.

How do you feel towards your bike (Genesis Datum) at this precise moment? Love or do you hate the sight of it?

Love it, it worked perfectly. I don't want to ride any bike for a week though. Let the legs and bum recover. 

How much have you eaten since you stopped riding?

Non-stop eating, especially breakfast, buffet at the hotel has been full-time sittings. Think they might charge us extra when we leave ...

What were your eating habits while on the road? Did you take gels or energy drink? They weigh a lot ...

I don’t think anyone comes away without some small ailment. It is not a sign of weakness, anything can happen when you push yourself that hard.

The first day I had some sports specific food in my supplies but typically it's just what ever you find along the way. Lots of croissants, cereal bars, coke and ice cream. Try to pick up bananas and fruit when passing shops that had them. You need to try and stay a little healthy but the diet generally gets ignored by most racers, who just eat whatever is easiest.

What do you think the biggest misconception is for people undertaking the Transcontinental for the first time?

That it can be a holiday. Yes you can enjoy it but it's a challenge like no other. The time alone, events along the way, the suffering your body goes through. I don't think anyone comes away without some small ailment. It is not a sign of weakness, anything can happen when you push yourself that hard.

What was your biggest fear?

At the time being caught in the storm that devastated Skopje [forcing many riders to abandon] and riding for cover in a hotel. That or the [packs of] dogs at night in Greece. My last night of riding throughout and I was being chased. Not sure they would actually bite but didn't want to test it.

Were there any times when you seriously considered scratching (abandoning)?

Never seriously but when tired, hurting and on rubbish road or when things weren't working out I did wonder whether it was all worth it. And of course it is.

Was there anything you wish you had packed?

I didn't take gloves, I never ride with mitts but in the mountains a pair of long fingered gloves may have helped one morning, when I was descending a pass at 4.30am.

Anything you wish you hadn’t?

Possibly my USB charger as I didn't use it this year due to a change in charging tactics.  But it was invaluable last year. It's only small though.

Any packing tips for people thinking of doing the Transcontinental?

They really need to be developed over your training. Understanding what you actually need and when. A frame bag is great for bits you need during the day, keep things organised and the saddle bag packed in an order that both fills it efficiently but also in order when you might need it. No point stuffing your  rain jacket at the bottom ...

Were you happy with the route you picked? How long were you planning it?

Overall I was. There were a couple of errors but I think there always are. I didn't spend as long as I wanted just reviewing the route on evenings and weekends throughout the year and could have checked it over more. 

What were your considerations when planning the route? Did you try to avoid busy roads or make sure you remained close to places you could stock up on food, for instance?

Unfortunately to race it, busy roads are sometimes a must. They are the most direct and as you move through the Balkans they are the best paved, or even the only ones paved at all. Just trying to balance a short but not too mountainous route is important.

Do you encounter many other competitors on the road?

Surprisingly yes. The further back you are, the more you see but even near the front I saw someone once a day.

What was your average speed?

Officially just over 15km/hr but actual moving speed was approx 25.5 km/hr.

What distance did you cover in an average day?

Between 310km and 400km on average I think, but the first and last days were big, 635km and 730km.

Did you get much sleep?

I had the tactic to rest more and ride faster, so typically got four or five hours sleep. 

Is sleep over or underrated on a trip such as this?

It is a huge part of how well you can perform. I should have cut mine back by 30-60 minutes a day to maybe try and be more competitive to Kristoff [Allegaert, race winner], but there were other areas where his experience took him out in front. But I feel lots of riders maybe tried to go without sleep and it slowed down their moving speed. Huge balancing act for each individual.

How often would you stop in a day?

I would stop for lunch and dinner for 30-60 minutes depending on efficiency, then try and have a short water/snack break at least every two or three hours.

What part of the body becomes sore first?

This year the legs and knees, so much climbing took its toll. But the bum obviously takes its fair share of wear and tear. People struggle lots with their hands as well, I was lucky.

Do you struggle to take a shit while out there?

Not really other than [dealing with] the antiquated toilet system of holes in floors in parts of Europe. Not a place to be in bibs, cleats and thighs that have cycled a long way. You always carry some emergency loo roll though, just in case. 

How do you keep your devices charged?

This year with a power bank that would do about five charges. Then top everything up on arrival to a cafe/restaurant and the power bank when in hotels. Worked well this year.   

Do you worry about getting robbed?

It always plays on your mind. Especially as you move east.  But everyone is always friendly and you just have to be careful. 

When did you start training?

I'm always training and actually this year most of my training was based around my road racing. But it's worth getting out early testing things and your body. If you haven't done the distances before, start building up to them. 

How else did you prepare other than riding?

Well outside of the usual weekend riding, I try and prep for riding at night. The mind changes, you become tired easily. Also a few bivvy bag sessions to get used to sleeping outside. 

Was there a mountain you thought would beat you?

Not really although there were a few that gave me a good kicking. The climb out of Mostar was long, not too steep but 42 degree heat and no shade. That zapped you. Check point four, Dermator, was hard on the legs being pretty steep and well into the race so the fatigue levels were high. 

What’s the next challenge?

Not sure, reflect and get back to road racing. Maybe there won't be a big challenge for a year or two but just to get more road points and race at a better standard.

While the lead riders have finished, the bulk of riders remain on their bikes. You can follow them via Trackleaders.  

For more information on the Transcontinental visit http://www.transcontinental.cc/ or follow the Twitter feed here https://twitter.com/transconrace

For pics of the race follow the Instagram feeds of James RobertsonCamille McMillan and the Transcontinental

 

The only tyres your bike should be seen in this season (dahling)

Fashion. We’re beyond that, right? As cyclists we transcend the whims of mere mortals. We have reached a higher plain, closer to the gods. At least when we stand up on the pedals. We spit at trends, they’re for people who shop at Primark. 

Maybe so, but there are trends and then there is progress. Two entirely different things. Progress would get nowhere if it didn’t look half decent. Enter the Vittoria Corsa G+ tyre. A more gorgeous piece of gumwalled rubber you would struggle to find. And it's hard. 

Through the history of cycling, gumwall tyres have represented quality. In the 1950s companies used gum for the sidewalls because it improved flexibility and rolling resistance. These were gradually replaced by skinwalls, which were tyres with cloth sidewalls. These tyres with tan sides became the hallmark of a racer’s tyre, the high-performance option. Black sidewalls were for choppers, basically.

Even up to the present day, tan sidewalls on race bikes would indicate a tubular, and therefore serious, tyre. It wasn’t that tubs were exclusively of that manufacture, but more that most clinchers weren’t.

Recently, the likes of Vittoria and Veloflex and Challenge have challenged the common thinking and been releasing clinchers with tan sidewalls, renaming them "open tubulars" in order to preserve the mystique. 

Which brings us to the tyre of the season, and it’s the Vittoria Corsa G+, built with Graphene running through it like a stick of rock and a sidewall that’s not so much tan as very lightly tanned. 

Graphene, in case you’ve been under a rock for the past couple of years, is a recently discovered variation on graphite, but the thickness of an atom, bonded together into a honeycomb lattice. Graphite, or pencil lead, is actually layers of graphene stacked on top of each other. 

This stuff is ridiculously strong and a wonder discovery. It is one million times thinner than a human hair, the thinnest material known to man, the lightest (a square metre weighs around 0.77 milligrams) and the strongest compound discovered (between 100-300 times stronger than steel and with a tensile stiffness of 150,000,000 psi). 

On top of that, it is abundant. Carbon, from which it is derived, is everywhere. We are mostly carbon. It is the basis of all life on earth. So graphene has been around since the dawn of time, since the big bang. Then in 2004, two researchers at Manchester University,  Prof Andre Geim and Prof Kostya Novoselov, discovered how to extract it from graphite. They won the Nobel Prize for physics for that. 

Thanks to their discovery you will soon be enjoying sex with thinner and stronger condoms, be able to go fly fishing with a super lightweight rod, enjoy thinner, stronger TV and phone screens, in fact there’s not much that graphene can’t improve.

Which leads us to cycling. Catlike have already used graphene to strengthen their helmets and now Vittoria have used it in their Corsa tyres. Vittoria was established in 1953 and claims to be the leader in cycle tyre design. That’s a tall claim when you’ve got the likes of Continental banging out rubber but Vittoria do seem to have been ahead of the curve on this one. 

We’ve been testing the Corsa G+ for a good few weeks now and without tempting fate, have yet to experience anything close to a failure. Not only that, they seemed faster, which could have something to do with Vittoria’s claim to have reduced rolling resistance by 19 per cent. 

Which is all well and good but when it comes to the fickle world of fashion it’s the way they look that counts, and these are proper head turners. They have the ability to turn an average bike into a real stunner.

Which is why your ride shouldn’t be seen in anything else this season.

Around £40 per tyre, visit https://www.vittoria.com/tire/corsa-open/ for more info.

Hunt push ahead of the pack with tubeless-ready wheels

Tom Marchment lives and breathes bike wheels. That much is evident when the conversation turns to mandrels and injection moulding of hard nylon rim inserts.   

All of which are essential for the development of a tubeless-compatible carbon wheel, and also why, according to Tom, many wheelbuilders haven’t really got round to it yet.   

Tom and his brother Pete have made tubeless compatibility their speciality. This is a new method of attaching a tyre to a bicycle wheel which does not require an inner tube and instead uses a sealant to prevent air escaping. The benefits compared to the standard tubular or clinchers rest in the reliability. Get a thorn in a tubeless tyre and the sealant comes along to plug up the hole before any air has had the chance to escape.   

It isn’t the only reason Hunt Wheels was such a success from the moment it launched in August 2015, but it is one of them. The brand is one of three under the Sussex-based ITS Cycling umbrella, which the brothers also own. They started with Innertubeshop.com before launching Hunt, which some could find a little ironic given the tubeless nature of Hunt wheels. ITS employs six people and pride themselves on a “cloud-based” operation. “If any of us loses a laptop we we can be operational again from any other machine within ten minutes.” They’ve also got their 63-year-old dad on board to help develop a pair of gloves. “He’s a mechanical and production engineer as well as an avid cyclist, still achieving sub 24 minute ten-mile time trials.”   

Quality is another factor for the success of Hunt, and the price. Hunt have priced themselves at the middle of the market in the sort of bracket that would get you a reasonably decent but largely unremarkable wheel for your money. Hunt has now changed all that.   

The brothers developed a capsule line of aluminium wheelsets - four suitable for rim brakes and four suitable for discs, with rim depths varying from 24mm to 28mm. The carbon wheels are a new line which Tom says require a whole new level of production: “We know a lot of the suppliers and that gives us the flexibility to choose who we think is best for each product. It is hard to manufacture a carbon wheel suitable for a tubeless tyre, it has to be very accurate.”   

Quality of manufacture and design is more typical of wheelsets at triple the price - another reason for Hunt’s seemingly instant success. Hunt has been able to price its wheels so competitively thanks to the way the brothers have set up the business. 

Tom Marchment

Tom Marchment

“We have unleashed ourselves of the constraints some other companies have,” he says of Hunt’s direct selling model. Products are sold for the most part via the company’s website and only to a select few independent bike shops. This allows a lower price point because margins are lower. Hunt can therefore offer you an alloy disc-specific wheelset and you’ll still have change out of £350. 
“We understand there are riders who are like ourselves. A large section of the market are not affluent people. If they spend £2,000 on a set of wheels they can’t spend it on a training trip but if they buy a set of wheels from us it means they still get to go on that trip.” 

Tom and Pete have a deep knowledge of their customers, thanks again to their direct sales model, which Tom says also offers unrivaled market insight. No need for market research when you have face-to-face contact. 

“We actually want to deal direct with customers because that feedback and communication is so valuable to us. Every time you add a layer between you and the customer you lose a bit more information about what it is the customer wants and how the products are performing.” 
They are performing, by all accounts, remarkably well. Most notably when they carried Josh Ibbett and his Mason bike to victory over the 4,000km Transcontinental race across central Europe in the summer. 

In the Hunt customer’s eyes though, there’s always room for improvement, or at least a new model. 
“We record all the feedback that comes in and we take a lot on board - quite often it’s new product suggestions,” explains Tom. “The gravel disc is a good example. We have tailored that wheel a bit more for heavier riders or long distance gravel riding which is particularly harsh. So we test those wheels with heavier weights and they have 28 spokes instead of 24 and accommodate a wider tyre.” 
Aspects such as actually listening to customers seems to be paying off. Pre-orders gave Tom and Pete reassurance when they launched. All the same, it was still a nail-biting time. 

“When you place that first order and you’ve got to persuade the missus that it’s the right idea to be spending tens of thousands of pounds on all these wheels that you may or may not sell. That was the only time it was a bit scary. But the pre-orders put us in a much stronger position. We were re-ordering two weeks after we launched our pre-orders.” 

Tom and Pete have years of bike industry knowledge as well as cycling miles under their belts. In Tom’s case working with established wheel brands that have become household names. Pete, who concentrates on ITS Cycling, is fluent in e-commerce. This industry knowledge meant a lot of doors were already open. 

“My background is working with some of the people in the far east,” says Tom. “One of our key partners is someone I met eight years ago at a dinner in Taiwan when I was working at Kinesis. I met a lot of suppliers and understood how things work. It’s that thing where they trust you because they understand you are someone who has a bit of experience.” 

All Hunt wheels are handbuilt in Taiwan. Tom is quick to point out that this is common practice. It’s just that a lot of manufacturers would rather not mention it. 

“Probably 80 per cent of wheels and bikes are probably built over there,” he says. “We are very honest about what we do and we feel like we’re just telling people about the facts of the production process.” 

If you ever wondered if honesty is the best policy you only need take a look at ITS’s numbers - £500,000 turnover in the past 12 months. “We are on target to almost double that next year in terms of our growth rate and the way we are looking we are aiming to be in the region of £10 million turnover in the next eight years or so not massive but a good size. 

“It’s difficult because when you’re small, you can put these plans in place, although we’re not kidding anyone, it’s only our own business. We are investing our own money but that has to work very hard for us - we’ve got some great ideas but we’re not going to compete with Mavic in five years’ time.” 

The way Hunt are going they might not be as far off as they think. 

Review: Hunt x Mason 4-Season disc wheelset

The thing that goes through your mind as you are riding along, apart from whether your tyre is going down because the road feels unusually smooth, is how did they do it? How can you create a pair of wheels this good and sell them for £350? And if they can do it, why doesn’t everyone else?

Hunt despatches its wheels with a pair of branded skewers, spare spokes, nipples and enough adapters and attachments for most eventualities, many of which you shouldn’t need, especially if the discs are already fitted to your wheels. The idea is of course that you should have nothing to worry about other than attaching the wheels and riding. 

Which is precisely what we did, both on, and off-road. The first noticeable aspect is the weight. If you’re used to a chunky set of winter wheels, then a 1.585kg wheelset is up there contending with the best of them and when you pick your bike up after you’ve fitted them you’ll be amazed at how this transforms the weight of your machine. 

Hunt wheels are manufactured from a lightweight 6061-T6 heat treated anodised alloy with a 17mm tubeless-ready rim bed (They will fit Schwalbe tubeless tyres for you for £99 per tyre). This might not mean a lot to many until you start riding. The wider rim bed (the bit the tyre fits on) allows for a wider tyre which subsequently results in a lower rolling resistance and a smoother ride. The tubeless-ready nature means you can run traditional clinchers or the new, more expensive but less prone to puncture tubeless. Hunt has laced these with PSR reinforced Round Triple butted J Bend spokes and brass nipples which won’t rust. Then at the centre they used dependable Japanese Ezo hubs. 

The build offers a stiff, solid, comfortable ride with the feeling that you got some decent value for money. And that’s before we even start on how they look. These are far from a flashy, extravagant looking pair of hoops. Hunt have instead decided to go with a design ethos veering more towards the understated. The branding is low-key but noticeable and the rims that matt-anodized black offers the sort of stealth treatment every cyclist longs for. 

“You do want to present a good image,” said Tom Marchment. “It’s like the clothes you wear. Those things about our qualities and ethos are important but also it has to make my bike look good.” 

If you’ve set a grand aside for a wheelset, take a look at Hunt before you part with your cash. You might find exactly what you’re after for a third of the price. 

If you’re after carbon, Hunt is about to launch a range of those has been launched, too. 

5 / 5
£349
Available here

This article first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk/onyourbike on December 11 2015

Millar turns a new leaf with Chapter 3

The former party boy of the peloton has turned his attention to kit and released a collection designed for cafe rides

Even as a professional cyclist, David Millar was regarded as one of the better turned out in the peloton. So well dressed was he that the French press named him Le Dandy, which could be considered a compliment from one of the most stylish nations in the world. 

A year after his retirement from a career tainted by a two-year doping ban, the former rider for team Garmin Sharp, which he also part-owned, has drawn on his penchant for putting together a decent outfit and launched his own cycle clothing brand. 

Working with Italian manufacturer Castelli, Millar, 38, has launched dm: Chpt III (to give it the full title), or Chapter 3 - a reference to what he sees as the next chapter in his life, with the first being his ban from the sport for doping, and the second his redemption and subsequent return to racing. 

The only clue to Millar’s involvement from the brand name is the initials: DM - a move Millar says was entirely intentional. “My own name carries so much history and it’s a bit ubiquitous and clichẻd to use your name anyway, it’s like there’s not much thought has gone into it. Plus it confines my brand to the cycling world,” he says. 

The collection marks yet another iron in the fire for Millar. He has become a regular face on television, commentating on cycle races such as the Prudential Ride London-Surrey 100, is an ambassador for Maserati cars - “I’m still driving one, living the dream” - and has written a follow-up to his book, Racing Through the Dark - “It’s about the racing this time.” 

He says he regards his new kit venture as a labour of love: “This is the sort of thing I enjoyed most about being a professional - the design side of things, testing kit and having an input with development of equipment.” 

We’re not racing, these are not racing clothes

Millar has been working with Castelli on the venture for the last 18 months after identifying a “gap in the market” for cycle clothing. “I wanted something that didn’t exist so I said why don’t I try and create it? I had this great relationship with Castelli which I have had for years.” The result is a nine-piece capsule collection which together comprises a full cycling outfit. “I wanted something that represented what I like off the bike but could wear when I’m on the bike.” 

Each item is designed to function together with the other and draws on elements of tailoring. As well as working with Castelli, he has enlisted his friend and Saville Row tailor Timothy Everest for some of the finer details. “He has helped me cut some of the elements, such as the collars to make them fit properly. I think people forget how hi-tech bespoke tailoring is, making one of those suits is engineering, it’s architecture and I think that’s what we do with cycling clothing.” 

It is some of these details, such as a button collar on the jersey, that have raised eyebrows among rival brands, who wasted no time offering opinions over Twitter. Millar is unrepentant: “We’re not racing, these are not racing clothes,” he says. “We’re using racing tech, I mean some of the materials we are using are materials that they can’t even use for racing because they’re either too expensive or can’t be justified. For example the jersey is a third lighter than the lightest TDF jersey - something like 50g per sq m. They can’t use the fabric for racing because you can’t put sponsors’ names on it.” The shorts, Millar adds, are manufactured from the “highest quality lycra, which is slightly heavier. Again you wouldn’t use them for racing because you would overheat but they’re incredibly comfortable, almost like compression.” 

Millar has based the palette of the collection around muted blues, greys and greens, as if someone went to town with a Farrow & Ball colourchart. “You look at mens’ suits, the polos we wear, the shirts, we are always using similar palettes, and I thought why don’t we do that with our sportswear?” 

He has a long-running interest in all things sartorial. He cites Paul Smith, and Sunspel as influences and likes the way Hermés has maintained references to its saddlery background. It is evident that Millar has had more input than simply putting his name to a bit of Castelli kit. It’s a whole new direction for the Italian brand, which is known for producing out-and-out racewear. 
“Castelli stuff is very much pure performance whereas this is more cafe-stop kind of stuff. I mean you could race in my clothes but it is more … essentially to go back to the origins of this, we designed a kit that I wanted, and I needed now I’m retired so we designed it as one set of kit.” 

One of the oddities of the collection is the coding. Each piece is given a number. The shorts, for instance, are numbered 1.11, which signifies the first piece of the first generation of Chapter 3 clothing, or something like that. It is a system which at once marks each piece out as a collector’s item while bestowing upon it the sort of grandiose which will make it a prime target for ridicule among budget-conscious cyclists, the type who source their kit from German supermarkets. 

But before you write Chapter 3 off at this point for disappearing up its own backside, there is method in the numbering system. “One of the things I found as a pro was I had sets of clothing designed to go together and I wanted to maintain that simplicity. Even the colour schemes we’ve got, the greyish blue shorts, the green jersey, they can all interchange and they all look great together.” 

Millar’s experience as a racer has led to some clever detailing on the kit. The jersey has armwarmer pockets on the inside back, for instance: “We’d take our arm warmers off and stuff them up the jersey before we’d throw them in the car except we can’t drop them off in the car anymore so I put arm warmer pockets in.” 

The Rocka, however is the clear standout garment, the one that will have purveyors of cycle kit salivating. This is essentially a version of Castelli’s famed Gabba jersey “but it is made from a material which is 30 per cent lighter than the Gabba so it can fold up and go in the central back pocket,” says Millar. “Normally the Gabba is a bastard to carry so people end up wearing it all day but it was designed as a protective outer layer so we have gone back to the roots of what it was supposed to be.” 

It might have been developed with Castelli, but it is clear that Chapter 3 kit is as different from its parent as you can get. This fact goes as far as the sizing. Kit will not be labelled as small, medium or large etc, “because I got a bit sick even as a pro of all the sizes being different between companies.” Instead Chapter 3 will be sized as per suit and shirt sizing. “We go from 36 to 44 which gives you a massive spectrum and very accurate and consistent sizing.” It’s the same with the shorts, “It’s essentially a jean size because everyone knows their jean size.” 

The Chapter 3 collection will be limited in production and availability, with runs restricted to 300 of each size and retail partners carefully selected. Mr Porter and Rouleur will be the only online stockists. The kit comes with a price tag to match the exclusivity - the full outfit will set you back more than £1,000. Millar, however, insists this does not mean big profits: “We really have pushed the boat out, it is almost the most expensive cycling jersey in the world to manufacture. We just had to say it’s going to be this expensive and people are going to buy it or they’re not.” 

Whether they buy it or not, Millar’s foray into premium clothing is unlikely to stop there. More lines are planned, with off-the-bike essentials such as tracksuits and jeans being considered. 

“I do believe that cycling clothing is now the most cutting edge sportswear in the world, the punishment we have to put it through in races is bonkers, hence why it has got to the level of tech we now have and I don’t see why we can’t take that tech and know-how into every area of fashion.” 

The cycle racing might be over but for David Millar a whole new chapter has just begun. 

www.chpt3.com

The article first appeared in The Times on August 14 201

Using their heads: how Poc became a $65m phenomenon

Impacts are something Swedish brand Poc has made a business out of trying to prevent, but that hasn’t stopped it from making a dent on the cycling scene.  

Waving its safety credentials proudly aloft and making no apologies for its distinctive styling, Poc swept into pro racing in 2014, signing a three-year equipment deal with the Cannondale-Garmin Pro Cycling team. 

Nothing quite like its quirky, retro-influenced helmets had been seen before. There were comparisons made to Playmobil toys. Some cyclists were reluctant to ditch traditional cycle helmet styling and even today the kit still polarises opinion. 

Poc has had the last laugh. The brand was in October 2015 bought by Bahrain-based private equity company Investcorp for $65 million (£42 million) from previous owner Black Diamond. It is a deal between investment groups that indicates a graphic vote of confidence. 

For the people at Poc it could signal a new era of much needed investment: “Investcorp is one of those private equity firms that has been around for a long time and it seems to be super serious,” said Jonas Soderqvist, marketing director. “They are happily supporting our ideas and are happy to invest in our business. Now we can grow.” 

Poc is looking at the marketplace in a little bit of a different way”
— Jonas Soderqvist, marketing director, Poc

Poc was launched in 2004 by Stefan Ytterborn, who remains founder and chief executive. From the off, the brand’s mission was do the best possibly to save lives and minimise the consequences of accidents in what it calls “gravity sports.” But it was Poc’s unique branding and product design that stuck in people’s minds. 

“The company designers and engineers are always looking into ways of breaking the wall in terms of new products for the market place,” continued Jonas Soderqvist. “When the company started ten years ago in the alpine skiing scene the first helmet that came out was a bit different and people were like ‘oh this is something new, we have never seen that kind of design before.’ I think it was the same entering into the bike scene. It is a different concept, a different helmet. Poc is looking at the marketplace in a little bit of a different way.” 

As well as pushing the envelope in terms of safety, the Octal, the cycle helmet that really got Poc noticed in cycling, has a retro styling. This was intentional to an extent - none of the designers had ever owned a road bike, and at the conception stage they were given an old leather ‘sausage’ type helmet and a styrofoam example by Bell and left to their own devices. 

The offbeat approach appears to have worked: “We are trying to look at it with a scientific innovation but as well looking into it from a design perspective. We tend to understand that people want to look great in the mountains or on the bike as well,” said Mr Soderqvist. 
Say what you like about the styling, Poc is deadly serious about safety. It is working closely with Volvo on a project to prevent cars and cyclists “crashing into each other” through a vibrating helmet that wakes up when a car approaches. 

Poc plans to devote a lot more time to cycling, according to Mr Soderqvist, from safety to kit. The company will release its new Fondo line aimed at the growing army of weekend road cyclists in time for the 2016 season, and there are more initiatives in the pipeline, including commuter clothing. 

“The growth in the product line will mainly come for bikes in the next two to three years,” he said. “Today 65 per cent of the business is snow, 35 per cent bike. Within two to three years we will have a 50-50 split, and in five to seven years we are looking at 70 per cent bike and 30 per cent snow. So we are widening the bike range, both in MTB with two new helmets this spring and also a clothing line.” 

Everything might appear to have progressed well for Poc, like a well maintained bicycle, but there have been one or two potholes along the way: “I think we learned a lot from the eyewear launch four or five years ago. The eyewear biz is much different from the traditional sporting goods business, there are different buying patterns and different ways of looking at the supply chain. We learned from it, and when we launched the new collection we did it successfully.” 

Poc’s launches tend to eschew traditional advertising. The brand has for a long time chosen social media to get its message across, with remarkable effect. 

“There are two corner pillars of our marketing strategy - first is to collaborate with great athletes, and have ambassadors wearing our products in the right atmosphere. The second is to work with PR, editorials, to create storytelling about the brand. We believe it is a more trustful way of communicating our brand. The whole social media thing is becoming more and more important.” 

Poc certainly have a handle on publicity. They make it all sound very easy, a piece of cake even, which for years is what many believed Poc actually stood for. Apparently not. 

“Stefan, the founder and CEO who is driving this machine will say no, it has not been a piece of cake. It has been challenging, it has been a hell of a ride. But it doesn’t really stand for that - the symbol is taken from the crash symbol from the car industry which looks like a cake and looks like different pieces of a cake and then the Poc name came out from that but it doesn’t stand for ‘piece of cake.’ 

“The brand and the brand mission has to do with how we can make people’s lives safer out there.” 

While Poc might not stand for piece of cake after all, they do have the best interests of your loaf in mind. 

This article first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk on October 29, 2015

Pro teams call for better peloton safety

Vehicles accompanying a pro race can often outnumber riders themselves. There were no vehicle-rider incidents at the Dubai

Vehicles accompanying a pro race can often outnumber riders themselves. There were no vehicle-rider incidents at the Dubai

You’d think cyclists would be reasonably safe from traffic in a pro-race, seeing as the roads are closed. There’s enough to think about with the vagaries of the race itself, let alone bringing car dodging.

A pro race does involve motor vehicles though, and quite a lot of them, which makes it almost surprising you don’t get more collisions with riders such as those recently with BMC’s Danilo Wyss hitting a motorbike that had stopped on a bend and before that Stig Broeckx of Lotto Soudal who was taken out by a medic motorbike, of all things.

This has led to calls for the UCI to take control of race vehicles. BMC Racing manager Jim Ochowicz told Cycling News the environment for riders was “discraceful” and called for the UCI to reconsider the size of the peloton.

“The riders deserve far more respect than what they are receiving from those who are responsible for protecting their safety,” said Mr Ochowicz. “We all understand that there exists an element of danger in the sport of cycling from a number of places and conditions but no rider expects to be run down from behind by an over-enthusiastic pilot on a closed race course.”

Crowded roads come with the territory in a pro race and in a grand tour you can get as many as 250 vehicles on each stage. Just for starters you’ve got the race director and the VIP cars and various media vehicles which run ahead of the race, then the team cars which bring up the rear. In the middle is the peloton, comprising more than 100 riders - the race itself - and everyone wants to get a look at it.

That includes the viewing public, which is where the motorbikes come in. Photographers and cameramen sit on the back of them as they ferry up, down and around the peloton, trying to get involved in the action without interfering. On top of that there’s the neutral service motorbikes which hover around in case a rider suffers a mechanical and the team car is out of reach. Then the medics.

In between all these are the VIP and media cars, which often contain sponsors and people who either feel they are entitled to get a look at the race or who actually have a practical need to. These cars tend to set off slightly ahead of the race dropping back to roll alongside the break and back further still to snatch a glimpse of the peloton. This is fine on wide motorways where there is room for cars and bikes on the same stretch of road, not so good on narrow country lanes. It was one of these cars that took out Juan Antonio Fletcha in the 2011 Tour de France.

A lot of these cars and bikes are driven by former pro cyclists who understand the peculiarities of the peloton, how a cyclist could suddenly peel away from the bunch for no apparent reason. However there is at present no requirement for race drivers to possess advanced driving skills or have any experience of driving in the vicinity of dozens of vulnerable cyclists.

Speaking on the 2013 Tour of Britain, Roger Hammond, then of Madison Genesis and now Dimension Data said race vehicles including team cars needed more regulation.

“The UCI governs every other aspect of racing, but anyone can drive a team car,” he says. “That’s OK if you’re an ex-rider who knows how a peloton might behave, such as when it chevrons in windy conditions, but if you are a driver who doesn’t know these things you are in charge of two tons of steel amongst a bunch of unpredictable bike riders.”

To date the UCI has introduced no additional driving regulations.

Rider-vehicle incidents:

2011 Tour de France: France TV car swerves to avoid a tree and causes crash with Johnny Hoogerland Juan Antonio Flecha

2014 US championships: Taylor Phinney collides with a motorcycle stopped on a descent, resulting in a compound fracture to his leg

2015 Vuelta a España: Peter Sagan and teammate Sergio Paulinho each taken down by motorcycles

2015 Tour of Flanders: Jesse Sergent crashed after being hit by a passing Shimano neutral support car

2015 Tour de France: Jakob Fuglsang taken out by a motorbike.

An uphill struggle, and that was the easy bit

Joolz Dymond

Joolz Dymond

The front wheel went first, losing traction on the mud and slipping from under me. I slammed on the brakes and that was when I went over the handlebars. 

It was the first time I had fallen off a bike in years and it didn’t hurt a bit, because I was going at around 0.5mph, perhaps slower, and the grass cushioned my fall. My pride was another matter entirely. I had fought hard to achieve my place in the race and with each passing second I spent floundering on the ground and trying to get back on my bike while sliding further down the gradient the course was crossing, my position was slipping away from me. 

What’s more I should have been ready for that corner. It was the very one I had been told to watch, steeply sloping and already slippy from a few previous races. I could have come a cropper on any of those turns, though. Dozens did. 

Spills are part and parcel of cyclocross. Mud and grass and the smells of the countryside characterise a sport that is actually more than 100 years old and takes place largely in the winter months. The first documented race dates back to 1902 in France, and was called the National Championship Cyclocross race. The sport soon spread rom there, to Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Italy. In the 1950s the UCI got involved and it gained a foothold in the US in the seventies. It has taken a while but cyclocross in the UK is now almost as popular as road racing. Such is its inclusivity that races have become family days out, with kids’ races held ahead of the adults and the sort of light-hearted atmosphere that can only come with skidding around in the mud. 

The first heats of the 2015 Rapha’s Supercross series took part at Shibden Hall, just outside Halifax in Yorkshire on a bright, breezy autumn day with leaves dropping from the trees like confetti. A prettier sight you’d have been unlikely to see, especially the view down the hill to the boating lake - the steep hill upon which the majority of the course ran. I, along with 150 or so other competitors were expected to traverse this hill on switchbacks that folded back on themselves tighter than a lower intestine. 

It was never supposed to be easy, and the course designed by Emma Ossenton, who has something of a reputation for tough circuits, made sure there was almost no respite. Those switchbacks ran down to about 50 yards of pavement before veering up through the woods on an incline that hit 21 per cent at its steepest and which Emma latter conceded had been compared to the Koppenberg in Belgium. At the top of this was a mud bank and then a set of steps which you had no choice but to dismount and run up before the course looped past the hall and the race village along a path and down through the switchbacks again, which, I neglected to add, also incorporated hurdles. It was the classic cyclocross course, but tilted. 

It would have been so easy to have just pulled into the race village, with its whiff of coffee, pancakes and pizza, families milling around, shaking cowbells in support. There was even beer. The thought crossed my mind on each one of the seven occasions I passed. 

Kati Jagger from Rapha chacterises cyclocross as “type-2 fun”, something you enjoy only after the event when looking back on it with relief it is over. For a few minutes I considered it type-3 fun - something that you thought you would enjoy but ultimately wonder what the hell you were doing. Like Pooh sticks. I was definitely having a type-2 time of it as I scooted along trying to gain purchase on my pedals again. 

The race had started uphill to minimise start-line carnage, presumably, before peeling off into the lower half of the course proper. I had positioned myself towards the back of the field, partly because I had no level of experience or fitness to place myself further forward and also because I was a bit late to the party, rolling up only seconds before the start. As soon as the race began it was clear I had made the right decision. The front bunch set off like greyhounds out of a trap, yards ahead before I had even started pedalling. By the time I was midway up the big Belgian-type hill for the first time my heart was beating at a rate I had never previously thought capable. And that was essentially it for the rest of the race, red-lining in terms of effort. Muscles were aching in places I didn’t know I had muscles, my lungs burned, the urge to throw up was overwhelming, strange things were happening to me physically. 

A cyclocross race is a physically draining experience. It is all-out from the beginning and there is virtually no respite. It is an exercise in exhaustion management, made worse by the fact that you set off without a bottle of water because you’ll basically have no time to drink it and there’s no point carrying the extra weight. The fact I was inwardly screaming and outwardly grunting and apparently getting no further up the field merely signified that there are a hell of lot of people who are fitter than me. 

It got to the point, around the third time around the circuit, when the lead riders began to lap me. “Coming past on your right / left” they would say in quick succession as they rattled past spraying chunks of mud into my face. At first I felt humiliated and then a little bit annoyed and then relieved when it dawned on me that in a race which finishes when the lead rider crosses the line after an hour, every time he lapped me would be a lap I wouldn’t have to complete. Towards the end I was willing them past. 

And then it was over, the course closed, we were ushered off and into the finish area. I had finished in 99th place, 38th overall. There weren’t many people behind me, ten I think, but I didn’t finish last, which was the aim. Around about then, as my friends and my beloved rushed over to greet me with a bottle of electrolyte drink, telling me I looked “grey” which would have been concerning if I wasn’t too knackered to worry about it, I started to understand the concept of type-2 fun. I was exhausted but glowing, and buzzing with the thrill of the previous hour, and the knowledge I could descend on the food stalls of the race village in a frenzy of guilt-free eating. 
That tumble was already a distant memory. 

Many thanks to Emma for the use of her Kinesis Crosslight. A superb cross bike even if the brakes would appear to be a bit sharp. 

Rose tinted goggles make the world a nicer place

“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark... and we’re wearing sunglasses,” said Elwood in the Blues Brothers. 

Bar the cigarettes, presumably, it’s a sentiment that is echoed throughout the land every weekend morning in winter as cyclists set off into the pre-dawn gloom with a pair of shades on that are designed to filter out bright sunlight. 

While this might not entirely equate to riding out blindfolded, it’s pretty obvious that your vision is going to be seriously impaired. It is, after all, why they banned tinted glass in windscreens. 

But on the other hand, some sort of eye protection is necessary, even more so in the winter months when the filth that gets kicked up from the road reaches epic proportions. This is where clear or slightly tinted lenses come in, on those grey days where you’re not sure if the day ever got past dawn. And the most effective shade of lens? Pink, of course. 

 “Pink lenses are a really effective lens choice as it neutralises parts of the green colour spectrum,” says Jonas Soderqvist marketing director of Poc Sports. “This in turn allows your eyes to enhance the other colours, such as reds and browns and will allow you to have a better overall balance of colour and vision.” 

Poc Do Flow are available with pink lenses

Poc Do Flow are available with pink lenses

So seeing the world through rose-tinted goggles actually can make it a better place. Pink helps the eye to pick out nuances of terrain in an otherwise visually flat landscape. They will help the potholes stick out, the obstacles come into view that little bit quicker while at the same time offering a filter when or if the sun does eventually come out. 

None of which is a bad thing, and that’s before we touch on the subject of protection, which is why we really need sunglasses in winter in the first place. The “season of the little stones” will kick up all sorts of little nasties into your face. Covered eyes are therefore protected eyes. 

When Rapha released its range of sunglasses, a low-light version was essential, says Miles Gibbons, hard goods designer at the brand. “We realised the importance of giving riders a lightly-tinted lens option alongside the more usual brown and grey. Pink proved the ideal solution due to the way it allows the eye to pick up more detail in low visibility conditions.” 

You’re not going to suddenly develop night vision capabilities but pink makes the bright brighter and the dark darker, so it is great in flat light as well as low light. 

It’s not all about the pink, however. For some eyes yellow can be as effective - it depends on the individual. If you’re unsure, consult an optician. Otherwise look forward to seeing the world through rose-tinted goggles. And in case you’re wondering, a good pair of sunglasses will offer 100 per cent UV protection, regardless of the level of tint, and that includes pink. 

Featured: 
Rapha Classic Sunglasses: £195. 
Handmade in Italy with an acetate frame that is stylish enough to be worn on an off the bike, Rapha have overlooked nothing in the pursuit of cycle eyewear excellence. The lightly-tinted pink lense is the product of some lengthy R&D by Zeiss. 

Available here 

Poc Do Flow Uranium: €170
The Swedish brand that puts safety and cutting edge design on an equal footing offers a pink-lens variation of its Do Flow, or if you already have a pair, a relacement lens. Frames are manufactured from tough grilamid (plastic) and as Poc says, they “look just as good for the after-ride hang out.”
Available here 

Make mud your friend with cyclocross essentials

It’s the cyclesport that gets you filthy, that leaves you needing a hose down with a pressure washer and feeling like you’ve just run a marathon. 

But cyclocross is also just about the most fun you can have with a bike and a field for an hour on a weekend. 

While spending the day in a field on a winter’s day might not obviously necessitate any particular kit, the peculiarities of the sport demand otherwise, as does the mere act of spectating. 

If you want to look your best in the mud, consider these essentials: 

FOR THE RACERS:

Challenge Baby Limus

Challenge Baby Limus

Spare bike: A lot of people don’t realise it’s actually a good idea to take two bikes to a particularly muddy cross race, so you can swap them over every lap and your pal in the pits can whack the mud off ready for the next lap. Consider: Focus Mares 105 disc

Sidi Drako

Sidi Drako

Tyres: Tyres: Knobbly tyres might be knobbly tyres but once you’ve got over the fact that they have to fit a roadbike-sized wheel and be not an awful lot wider than slicks you’re going to start thinking about which is the best. A quick straw poll of people who know what they’re talking about has revealed Challenge to be the best. They do an open tubular (clincher) in their Baby Limus tread. All the sturdiness of a tub in a clincher. And they look amazing. Consider: Challenge Baby Limus Open Tubular available here.
 
Jersey: Any jersey will of course do but come on, you want to look a little bit like you know what you’re doing so get yourself a jersey designed for cyclocross. These used to have pads on the shoulders for bike carrying but now they just look great. Consider: Rapha cyclocross pro team jersey. 
 
Shoes: Cycleshoes for off-road riding are completely different to road shoes - they have studs, a bit like football boots and take a different cleat, in Shimano’s case called an SPD cleat (as opposed to the SPD SL road shoe cleats - confused? Yah). They are also considerably more sturdy, with rubber toe guards and a certain level of protection. That doesn’t make them ugly, far from it especially not when they are .... Sidi Drako MTB shoes available here.
 
Gel: You won’t have a second to take anything on board while you’re racing but if you can get a gel down you beforehand you’ll perform all the better for it. Consider: Stealth banana energy gel available here

Stealth energy gel, Strip hygiene wipes

Stealth energy gel, Strip hygiene wipes

Dry wash: Do yourself and your compatriots a favour after you’ve finished racing and give yourself a freshen up before you start on the beer and frittes. If you’re not too muddy, Secret Training do a dry wash kit that allows you to freshen without the need for a shower, among which you will find hygiene wipes, available here

FOR THE PIT CREW / SPECTATORS

Intrepid pump stand

Intrepid pump stand

A huge bobble hat: In the winter in the country it is invariably cold and very often windy. You need a bobble hat and you need it in the Belgian national team colours, because that’s who invented cyclocross. Alternatively the Flanders colours. 
Consider: Big bobble hat, £20, available from bigbobblehats.co.uk
 
Wellies: Standing in wet mud is no good for the feet or the soul. At the very least take a pair of shoes you don’t mind getting messed up, but if you can, stick a nice cosy pair of wellies on. You can even get special socks for them these days. Consider: Speedvagen pit boots, $74.95 available here
 
Pump with bike stand: While your partner is waiting for you to come back round with the other mud caked bike he might want to check your tyres - many a race has been ruined by a mid-lap flat and there’s no way you’re going to be able to stop to repair it. Consider: Cero Intrepid pump stand available here

Big bobble hat

Big bobble hat

Umbrella: A field might not feel like the place but you’ll soon be laughing when the heavens open. Consider: anything cheap. It’s going to get filthy. 

Beer and frites: Lashings of beer, specifically Belgian, and a big box of chips. It’s what cyclocross is built on. Consider: Whatever is available. 

Things you won’t need when racing:
Glasses: They’ll just steam up
Gloves: You’ll get really hot
Hat / cap: See above
Water bottle: You won’t get the chance to take a sip
Wet weather gear: You’ll boil in it. Just expect to get filthy