Friday, July 17, 2009

Le Tour for Commuters

Cyclists are an unusual bunch (no pun intended) in many ways. Not least, in the UK, is the tendency for those following the sport of Pro Cycling to be cyclists themselves. (I could be wrong, but I don't see the same proportion of fans of other sports participating and spectating).

In the cycle commuter, the excitement of a grand tour, like the Tour de France, can bring out a certain enthusiasm for the course, and a desire to emulate your heroes in a way that can be inappropriate on the public highway.

Being a civic minded monkey, I thought it might be useful to outline a few ways to relive the Tour on your commute in a responsible way, rather than Silly Commuter Racing.

The Early Years

Maurice GarinMaurice Garin (centre), Image from Wikimedia Commons

Given that the tour De France began over a century ago, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you had little hope of emulating the very first riders. But don't despair!

The Spares and Repairs Experience
"The sky is gloomy and washed out. Huge, grubby clouds extend to the horizon. It is as if nature itself were grieving. In the outskirts of Valenciennes, Eugene Christophe stands on the pavement. He pushes in front of him, the saddle towards the earth, his bicycle: the fork is broken. It seems to me a mighty lyre whose broken strings sing his final misery." -Henri Desgrange
In the early years of the Tour, riders were expected to carry their own spares, and effect any repairs required themselves. Obviously most of us bicycle commuters do this already. However, do watch out for people offering to lend you tools or assistance as you crouch by the road refitting your punctured tyre - should they help you, the commissaire will undoubtedly impose a hefty time penalty upon you.

You should also beware of allowing anyone to pump the bellows of the local forge for you if you need to fix your broken fork.

The Second Tour (1904) Experience
"The Tour de France is finished and the second edition will, I fear, also be the last." -Henri Desgrange
There are several ways the bicycle commuter can relive the uneasy atmosphere of the 1904 tour.

Instead of gesticulating futilely at the car that passes too close, imagine yourself to be Garin, or Pothier, who were attacked by masked men in a car trying to delay them on the first stage of the race.

Cycle paths (or the Etape Caledonia) provide ample opportunity to relive the 1904 tour's fifth stage, during which nails were strewn on the route. Users of cycle paths will have to substitute the (usually) ample broken glass for nails, but isn't it the spirit of the thing that matters? Extra authenticity could be gained by finishing your commute on two flat tyres, like eventual winner Henri Cornet, although this monkey advises that there is authenticity, and there is buggering up your wheels, and the former should be sacrificed in favour of not doing the latter.

The Octave Lapize Experience
"++Have crossed the Tourmalet on foot stop ++
++Road passable to vehicles stop ++
++No snow stop
++" -Telegram from Adolphe Steinès to Desgrange
Relatively few of us have a commute including anything much resembling the Tourmalet and Col d'Aubisque, beyond a general trend upwards. However, if you have a hill that leaves you knackered and grinding away in your lowest gear to ascend it, why not shout "Assassins!" at the top, to relive a moment of tour history from 1910?

"I still feel that varable gears are only for people over forty-five.
Isn't it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailer?
We are getting soft...As for me, give me a fixed gear!"
-Henri Desgrange
Those of you using fixed gear bicycles can be smug in the knowledge that you're reliving cycling early years, although if you're not also rocking tweeds and an enormous handlebar moustache, you've only gone part of the way. All is not lost for those of us with variable gears though - why not pretend that you're Stéphanois Panel, who experimented with variable gears in the 1912 edition of the tour? For full authenticity, ride a fixed for the next 25 years, as variable gears were banned in the tour until 1937.

The Modern Tour

Very much a feature of the modern tour, the doomed French breakaway allows riders that are French, or Jens Voigt to ride ahead of the pack for most of the stage, only to be reeled in and passed with 5-10km to spare (usually).

The Doomed French Breakaway Experience, #1
".... just discount this breakaway right? It has Voeckler in it, thus 99% doomed" -Poster on PodiumCafé (Voeckler went on to win the stage)
Easily done if you're a city rider.

Inevitably, there will be times when you find yourself ahead of a group of cars, simply because the motor vehicle isn't that efficient at getting through cities. Ride away, and then allow the "catch" to occur once the roads have cleared enough for the "peloton" to get to you.

The Doomed French Breakaway Experience, #2
Again, more easily done in the city.

In this case, the cars passing you are the break, and you're the peloton. Inevitably (unless you're riding at three in the morning) the cars will choke the street and slow to a stop - at which point the "peloton" makes the catch.

A fortuitous combination of traffic conditions can sometimes mean that you get the rare (although less so in the 2009 tour so far) occurrence of the successful breakaway, with your pursuers left fuming in your wake. In such a case, you're welcome to zip up your jersey and roll to the end of your commute with your arms aloft.

Although you may never live this down if your workmates catch sight of you.

The Mountains Experience
Again, the poor state of Britain's cycle paths comes to your rescue here. As you're unlikely to encounter crazed fans waving flags in your face, why not pretend that those branches and bushes the council fail to trim back every year are the flags of the Basques, or the trident of the devil? Ride through them with a grumpy look on your face, but don't get carried away and throw your bidon at them, there's usually nettles in the bushes as well...

Added authenticity can be gained if you can bring yourself to believe that the frequent graffiti along the path names famous local cyclists, in the style of the names painted on the roads of the tour. Hard to do when all you have to work with is a spray-painted Dazza, or Wayne, but needs must.

The Marcus Burghardt Experience

Lots of Britain's dog walkers seem keen to recreate this, with you in the position of Burghardt.

DON'T - it's not the dog's fault their owner is an idiot.

(See also, The Sandy Casar Experience)

The Astana Experience
For this, you'll need some sort of group ride - if you have a "Critical Commute" or similar organised ride with a dedicated leader, that could work.

Ride until the group splits while the back markers wait for traffic to pass, or a green signal. At this point, ride like fury on the agreed route, ignoring the protests of the designated leader. If possible, put "your people" on the front, and either;

a) explain to anyone that asks that "the road has decided who is the leader".
b) explain to anyone that asks that "my legs felt good, and it was a spontaneous attack to gain a few seconds".

Coming Soon;

The Denis Menchov Experience
In which you forget which way up your bike goes.