Tuesday 23 August 2016

Dear Grafton Centre and Vue Cinema - why do you hate us?

I promised you a local blog article for local people. So here it is. 

Please bear with me while I get through the ranty bit. I promise you I'm ending this with a constructive proposal to make things better for cyclists in Cambridge. 

We (my better half and I) went to the pictures last week to see Suicide Squad after work. The Vue cinema up at the Grafton is maybe a little more convenient for us than the other place down on the leisure park, so we went there. There's no dedicated cycle locking provided by the Grafton centre, which is a downer in a city like Cambridge. None. There are some rather out of the way bike locks at the East Road entrance in the bus station, but that's an urban motorway, vaguely rideable during the day when the traffic isn't moving but not at cinema kicking out time among speeding night time taxi drivers. So we locked up by the main entrance - Fitzwilliam Street, where there is safe, well lit bike parking.

After the movie we were stopped by a security guard while en route back to our bikes, instead being directed via a side door to a dingy, dark, intimidating narrow alleyway that stinks of urine. The kind of place Batman's parents go to die. You wouldn't go there alone at night, you would rather not go there even in a group. 

Needless to say we did protest. But the security guard would have none of it.

Whats that you ask? You want to know what the car parking is like? Massive, pervasive, convenient, opening straight on to the cinema concourse. Step out from the pictures, step straight in to the car park.

I mentioned this to various people who ride bikes here, they gave me a simple enough answer for how they handle the whole 'going to the pictures at night' thing - they go to the other cinema.

I contacted the Grafton, got the standard 'its our policy to...' spiel. Then I contacted the cinema chain and got the 'its them, not us...' nonsense. Yes, I understand, you want to keep homeless people out because, oh, I don't know, reasons. Yes, I get that you need security. But at the expense of customer safety to the point where a cyclist (we're half your potential customers here) will go elsewhere? That's just stupid.

Look, guys, you're in the middle of a big redevelopment at the Grafton. Why aren't you making positive noises about cycle parking? We make shopping trips and we're good spenders. Don't insult is by actively looking the doors on the only good bike parking that you don't even provide. Want our custom? Great, lets talk.

You, me, the guys from Cambridge Cycling Campaign, maybe the cycle officers from City and County councils, let's sit down and talk about how to deliver better cycling access. I'll bring cake. Let's do this. Are you game? Will you meet with cyclists or do you not even want our custom?

Friday 19 August 2016

Team GB on the Velodrome - how good are they?

This isn't normally a blog about sport cycling. Don't worry, my next post will be a good old fashioned rant about local cycling issues for local people. But I do occasionally touch on the subject. I'm a bit of a nerd for track cycling, I have been since Channel 4 started showing it on television back in the '80s. And in this post I'll look at Team GB track cycling at the Rio, London and Beijing Olympics. And, by comparison, ask how good has the Team GB performance been this time round?

Track cycling has had a long history at the Olympic games, with medals awarded at Olympic games since 1896. And like many sports we've seen much chopping and changing of events, with the program continuing to evolve until today. And while Britain has long had a reputation for producing strong pursuit riding, the age of Britain really dominating on the velodrome started in 2008. While we saw some success with the dawn of the Queally/Hoy/Wiggins era in 2000 and 2004, the seeds of this success were sown in the early '90s rivalry between Obree and Boardman (with Boardmans medals in '92 and '96 coming just at the right time to secure vital lottery funding), it was at the Beijing Olympics that Britain started to dominate.

So how have we progressed from 2008 until now? While there has been some change in the events over the three games, we can make some comparisons.

Pursuits (Team and Individual)

Beijing saw GB individual and team pursuit wins for men, and an individual pursuit win in the women's competition, while in London there were only team events for both (4k for men with 4 members to each team, but 3k and 3 members for women in London). GB dominance over these years has been absolute, but its getting harder, and winning margins are narrower. In the Beijing final the British mens team very nearly caught the Danes in the final, in London they comfortably beat Australia, whereas in Rio we witnessed a nail-biter with the Brits and Aussies slugging it out right until the end. Likewise, in the womens event the win in London was more comfortable than the absolute corker of a final we've just seen in Rio. Add that to individual gold medals for Wiggins and Romero in the individual events in Beijing, with silver for Houvenaghel in the womens and bronze for Burke in the mens, and you've got a scene of total (but increasingly contested) British domination at the Olympics. 

Sprints (Team)

The team sprints for men and women are real 'blink and you'll miss it' affairs, and are usually decided by fractions of a second. This wasn't an Olympic event for women back in '08 which is a real pity, especially we consider just how dominant Pendleton and Reade were at the time. In 2012 the women's team sprint was the biggest disappointment for Team GB on the velodrome, with their (I still believe overly-picky) disqualification leading to this being one of the three events they didn't win.. Pendleton and Varnish were a strong pair, but it wasn't to be on the day. Since 2012 there has been a lot of much publicised chopping and changing in this lineup, and GB didn't qualify to compete in this event - the only velodrome event we've not had a competitor in at any of these three games.

In the mens we've saw a colossal half second advantage for GB over France in the final in Beijing. In the rematch in London four years later they'd cut the advantage. In Rio it was the Kiwis in the final, and they were shaded out by a tenth of a second. A brilliant, but hard won win which required beating the Olympic record!

There's work to do in women's team sprinting, but Britain have the talent. But for both men and women the world has moved on over these 8 years, and winning margins are ever tighter. Brilliant for the chaps to have won again, breaking the Olympic record, but on current trends that's going to get harder and harder.

Sprints (Match Pair)

Dominance of the men's sprint has been absolute. Hoy gold, Kenny silver in Beijing. Kenny won Gold in London where only a single competitor was allowed per country, and Kenny and Skinner won gold and silver in Rio. Its not really an event best judged by times, that only being necessary for qualification, but by finishing fastest and second fastest in the qualifying part of the contest our cyclists have been able avoid each other until the final. Bluntly, at the Olympics our men have been peerless in this event.

In the women's event, the 2008 and 2012 Olympic cycle was best defined by the Meares-Pendleton rivalry. The Aussie and the Brit pushed each other on to great things, making their meeting at the edge of the track in Rio really touching. And they shared the honours - Pendleton won in Beijing, Meares in London. However in Rio team GB really kicked on, losing the gold medal to Vogel from Germany but capping off a difficult Olympic cycle for women's springing in Britain with silver for Becky James and bronze for Katy Marchant. Women's sprinting is now an event where we've got real strength in depth - the future looks bright. 


This was first held for women in London, and being a sprinters event its fate has more or less followed that of the sprinters - Victoria Pendleton won in London, Becky James exceeded expectations by winning a silver in Rio. 

In the mens event Britain has been almost as dominant as in the men's sprint - Hoy won convincingly in Rio and more narrowly in London, whereas Jason Kenny dominated the event in Rio. One would have to be very picky to point out that the last time we were allowed multiple entrants in Beijing, Ross Edgar also win silver. Callum Skinner also competed in Rio, failing to reach the final but performing well - a tactical error in the heats repercharge sent him out for a rules violation. Skinner is one to keep your eye on - if he can stay fit he could turn out to be a very special athlete indeed.


Not everyone is a big fan of the Omnium, it being a new addition to the Olympic program seemingly designed to keep a bit more variety on the track while some classic events were lost to get gender parity in events, and to make room for BMX medals to be awarded. I'm a fan of it - its a shame to have lost some of the other events but cycling just hasn't been given any more medals to play with, and the omnium adds some variety to the program.

Its really an event for an endurance athlete with an impressive turn of speed, and in the women's omnium Laura Trott has been the star. Sarah Hammer, the American also known for pursuit riding, has pushed her, but it seems Trott has managed to step up for London and Rio and somehow made the Omnium look easy.

In the Men's event we've had the greatest British multi-medallist the man in the street has never heard of and a road legend - the now three time Olympic gold medallist Ed Clancy competed in London and took bronze, whereas Mark Cavendish (a.k.a. the 'Manx Missile', the most decorated sprinter in the history of the Tour de France) was entered in Rio and won silver. It would seem to be an event either of those gentlemen would be ideally suited to, and while by Team GB cycling standards a silver or bronze medal might seem disappointing, these are still fine results in complex, highly competitive events.

Other Events

Two track events haven't been repeated since Beijing, the points race and the Madison (the former being 25k for women and 40km for men, the latter being a 50km insane tag team event only held for men - a disparity that I believe still exists at world championship level).

In the men's point race in Beijing we got our last Olympic look at Chris Newton, who picked up his third olympic medal (a bronze), whereas in the women's Rebecca Remero finished some way down, this distance event with sprints every few laps perhaps not being one she was as well suited to as the pursuit (in which she won gold). 

GB went in to the Madison with high hopes - the tremendous acceleration of Cavendish and the stamina of Wiggins had brought them gold in the world championship in Manchester, with the pair gaining a lap on the field in a stunning solo effort, but having ridden multiple world record rides in individual and team pursuit this was maybe asking too much of Wiggins in the much tighter Olympic schedule. They were also marked men - no one would work with them to help gain a lap on the rest of the field at the end of such a dominant GB track performance in preceding events. They finished 9th.

Total Medal Hauls - How good has Rio been compared to London and Beijing?

Britain dominated all 3 games, in Beijing winning 7 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze, London 7 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze and Rio 6 gold, 4 silver, 1 bronze. Now of course we can't directly compare the numbers because there was only 1 entrant per country in London, but the achievements across all games were similar. In Beijing there were 2 occasions where British competitors failed to win medals, in London 1 and in Rio 1. Measured by this rate of success, its a near faultless record.

The times posted by British riders also continue to improve - with Olympic and World records falling across all 3 games. But the winning margins are getting tighter and tighter - this is more apparent in the 'against the clock' events like team sprint and pursuits. It would appear that the famous 'marginal gains' are getting ever more marginal as the rest of the world catches up.

All in all, the record of team GB on the velodrome has been consistently excellent - the only snag going forward is that the rest of the world edges closer all the time. But there's much to be optimistic about here - experienced multi-medallists like Trott, Rowsell Shand, Burke, Hindes and Kenny are all in their twenties and could be stronger still in Tokyo, and don't be at all surprised if Clancy (31) remains a power-house in the mens team pursuit past Tokyo. And then riders like Doull (who's off to team Sky), Skinner, James, Marchant, Horne, Barker and Archibald are comparative youngsters. 

It'll get harder and harder for GB to maintain this level of dominance on the track - but with the available talent? They've as good a chance as possible. The future, like the recent past, looks bright.

Monday 1 August 2016

Sport Cycling for Men and Women, and the rest of us...

Another Tour de France goes by, and like in 2012 we're heading in to another Olympic games where, with luck, we'll follow up amazing British success on the Tour with a grand medal haul at the Olympics.

And as we see every year following the Tour,  two questions arise on social media. Is sport cycling a significant driver in every day cycling? And, why isn't womens sport cycling as big a deal as it deserves to be?

For the former question I am as ever in two minds - I don't think sporting success harms us if our goal is to get more people out riding. I recall during the London Olympics two little girls playing out in front of our house on their bikes, one of them shouting at the other 'I'm Laura Trott, you're Victoria Pendleton'. Ok, a small amount of confusion about how each might be competing, but its a great sign. Kids emulate fun things they see, and having high profile role models in cycling can't hurt. And, again, after the 2012 Olympics people in bike shops were telling me there'd been a certain increase in sales of high-spec road bikes and accessories after the Tour and Wiggins victory in the Time Trial. And thats fine - doesn't mean more people are riding every day but many a hobbyist becomes a utility cyclist in time.

But is there any wider impact than that? I don't know. Does there have to be? Isn't the fact that kids can now name major cycling stars enough for some of them to get on two wheels? Do we really need or expect sport cycling to have a bigger impact on how people travel than that? We don't criticise football because kids play the game but don't dribble a ball in front of them everywhere they go. We don't mock Greg Rutherford because kids will practice long-jump at school but not leap across roads. Yes, there's an impact of sport cycling on behaviour but I think the criticism of that impact not being even greater is based on inflated, unrealistic expectations.

As for womens sport cycling, I find it hard to express how much it annoys me that the ladies don't get the respect or even the races they deserve. In the days of Boardman and Obree when people in the UK were just beginning to discover sport cycling, I was the kid who responded with Beryl Burton in discussions where everyone else would say that Tom Simpson was the greatest British cyclist of all time (and even after all these years of British success I'd argue she's still got one hand on that trophy). In my ideal world there'd be great coverage of both Mens and Womens cycling, we'd see prize money being equal, and sponsors would be keen to support both. For my money the spectacle is similar, so the event should have similar status. 

I'm going to throw an idea into the ring here, this is very much just thinking out loud. Hear me out and rip the idea apart if you like. Is the fact that womens cycling doesn't reach the same audience predictable based on the format of the sport and the suffering of the competitors?

Three things came to mind while watching the closing parts of stage 9 of this years Tour, up the majestic, massive mountain Andorre Arcalis in driving rain, then hail, just when Froome was trying to attack in the most atrocious of conditions. Road cycling, especially the grand Yours, isn't like, say, running a marathon. The conditions are harsh, horrific on occasion, and the punishment taken day in, day out, is extreme. The duration of suffering endured, and the degree of risk, is higher in road cycling than in nearly any other non-contact sport.

That got me thinking about a blog article I'd read about something entirely different, a dissection of one of my favourite action films 'Long Kiss Goodnight' that talks about the risk involved in releasing action films where women are subjected to extreme suffering - the same kind of torture, when its James Bond, gets a lower rating when the film is classified for release. Audiences are, Angela there argues, more shocked when a woman is tortured than a man

And then I recalled Nicola Adams brilliant gold medal win in Womens Flyweight boxing at the last Olympics (if you know nothing about Adams, go look her up, she's great, and I do hope she repeats her win in Rio!), and discussions I had about that at work the next day. Many people, especially he women I talked to, didn't (and don't) like womens boxing, and if you ask them why they usually answer in a wrinkled up nose sort of way, they're turned off by the idea of it in a way they're not turned off mens boxing.

So I wonder, is the appeal of mens road cycling, of the grand tours where great riders slug it out on the highest mountain roads, laying down days of pain on their rivals in the most gruelling of conditions, is this sport more akin to boxing and James Bond being beaten up than it is to, say, Wimbledon Tennis or the New York Marathon? And as such, for womens cycling to reach the heights that the tremendous athletes competing therein deserve, does it need to be something other than that? And if it does need to be something other than that, what? Does the sport need to look at how the races are constructed? Does cycling need to consider backing womens road racing regardless and just hope to push through the reticence sponsors have to put the same kind of money in? Will peoples attitude to womens road racing change or harden if that happens?

I dunno. This is me thinking aloud, coming up with a different pesspective because just saying 'this isn't good enough' year in, year out isn't changing much. What do you think?