I had written extensively on my blog about how cycling had saved me from crippling anxiety. Illnesses and incursions had left me with a complicated distrust of my own body, and I became a paranoid hypochondriac. The slightest heart flutter sent me swirling into panic. But on a bike, the heart flutters felt like engine revving. I would whisper to myself, “this is your body working, this is your body getting stronger.” Bonking, wiping out, carrying my bike home three miles after ripping off the derailleur, riding 20 miles, 30 miles, 80 miles, I did it. A solitary struggle on the road, a battle with my body to gain ownership of it again, to prove who was in control. Cycling didn’t just give me nice calves, it gave me my life back.
But there’s a difference between proclaiming your love and proving it. Here I was shouting from the digital rooftops that I’d found something so precious, and Rapha showed up and asked to see it. I was nervous about adding up, about fitting in, about losing this thing that had become mine, that if it turned out I wasn’t good at it, if I didn’t know the right things to say or the right lingo, that it would disown me, that being discredited would take it right out from under me. I was being sent cost-free to a villa in Malibu with like-minded women to spend a weekend doing what I loved and I was scared out of my mind.
The ambassadors were being flown in from all over the country but Malibu was my stomping ground. It was where I rode canyons and dodged surfboards and doors on the Pacific Coast Highway. So, when they showed up one-by-one, starry-eyed by our surroundings, it was easy to hide I was starry-eyed by them. These women were people who won things other than participation ribbons. These women were athletes. And I was supposed to be one of them. What if they hear me panting up the hills? What if they can’t hear me panting because I’m so far behind them? What if I get dropped? Dear God, what if a car has to come get me?
It was a crisp Saturday morning when we were lining up for our first ride together as ambassadors. For 18 months I had been clipping in to SPDs with hand-me-down boys mountain bike shoes with broken buckles. This was my first ride in my own shoes and my first ride on road pedals. Someone was telling us about the route, about how very steep the descent was, about how there had been a bad crash recently, and I was shaking like a rattle. All I could think was, “I am going to humiliate myself.” I wasn’t even listening because I was trying to clip-in to my right road pedal, for the very first time, and then toppled over onto Rapha’s very own Jeremy Dunn.
“Sorry! First time on road pedals!” Everyone laughed.
With the humiliation section of the morning seemingly already begun, there was nothing to do but ride.
Women whooped and hollered, settling into their drops for a swift descent, and I was fumbling to clip in to my second pedal. My hands were frozen in a stiff grip, excited trigger fingers on the brakes. The familiar wind of a ride cooled the beads of sweat on my neck as I picked up speed. Ahead of me, each woman leaned into the turn like a ski racer and I smiled: it was the first time I was chasing ponytails down a descent.
Out on the ride that day, we switched positions throughout, leaders and tails, getting to know one another. Stories of injuries and kids and jobs and bikes, passions and heartbreak, stories that always somehow ended on the bike. Stories just like mine. I was telling Lindsay Knight, a fellow ambassador, about my broken buckle shoes and how the new road pedals felt.
“Oh, I thought you were kidding when you said it was your first time,” she laughed. I smiled, because we were riding together, in cadence side-by-side. She was a cyclist, and so was I.
Day two, we were leading a ride from Bike Effect in Santa Monica. We would be on the road as ambassadors in our matching kits. We were going into the canyons with strangers following our lead. I had spent hours and hours of ascents up serpentine canyons by myself, checking one more time that I really couldn’t shift down anymore. Coming around a corner to see at least one more winding climb ahead, yelling at the road, “are you kidding me?!” On this climb though, when I was struggling for air, two cyclists came up beside me. “You know, we can see when you hit this point,” offered one. “Fill your belly with air, like too much air if you’re not on the bike,” said the other. And they coached me up the hill. And with them, I was stronger. With them, I was faster. With them, I was powerful.
This power source I had held so dear to my heart, guarded so carefully, afraid it would be taken from me, it grew stronger next to those women. It was the first time I felt like part of a team, the first time that cycling didn’t feel like mine or theirs, but ours. And all of a sudden it felt profoundly selfish to keep that to myself.
It’s been three weeks since that weekend. I’ve been on my bike every day since, commuting, riding with Bike Effect, riding with men and with boys, with women and with girls, riding canyons and 70-mile PCH loops, up climbing neighborhoods and through busy thoroughfares. My heart flutters all the time and I love it. I’m having the time of my life.
Cycling is where I found my strength, it’s where I found power not just on the bike but in myself. Because you don’t turn around. You don’t stop climbing. You just breathe deeper. On descents, I howl. I whoop in tunnels. I sing on straightaways. I found something better than freedom on my bike, I found a place I belong, I found confidence, self-assurance, bravery, and more than that, I found home. And all I want to do is welcome others in.]]>
Anyone else love poring over maps? Plotting, planning, remembering the roads you’ve been on, wondering about the one you’ve yet to ride? Spotting a landmark you’ve not noticed before, quickly looking up its history. Hearing about places from friends, then discovering that with a quick tweak to the route you can include them too?
This is what the plotting for the Manchester to London Challenge has been like. I stumbled upon a book written by C. E. Montague called The Right Place. Montague was an explorer and journalist for The Manchester Guardian; in 1924 he decided to set out to ride from the Manchester office to the Guardian’s London offices within 24 hours. Montague travelled down on the white macadam roads of the day, though they’re all tarmac trunk roads now. As I read about Montague’s route, it looks like he travelled down the A5, not much fun for today’s cyclist. I did, however, love his descriptions of the adventure.
“The land is the common run of the land, both the choice and the poor, barren place and fertile; everything that Caliban showed Prospero – “all the qualities o’ th’ isle. And yet you must come to know them as things connected and truly parts of a whole. To this later end there is no better means than to make friends with some one great trunk road. Get to know, for example, the road from London to Manchester, running through St. Albans, Woburn, Northampton, Leicester, Derby and Buxton. That done, your knowledge of England will have a backbone, something central, columnar and sturdy. Everything else that you come to know later will fall easily into its place as tissue attached to that spinal pillar”
This called for some re-thinking on how to harness the essence of Montague’s journey with its wonderful poetic view of the land whilst making the challenge a whole new journey for our riders.
With this in mind I rode down from where I live in West Yorkshire, skirting round the edge of Manchester to Mottram in Longdendale, to pick up one of the classic climbs of the Peak District, Snake Pass. This will be the first of the open landscapes that the riders will see. Snake Pass was not named from its winding nature but from the name of the pub on the Sheffield side, The Snake Inn, which had the serpent from the coat of arms of the Duke of Devonshire in its sign. In recent times, the Snake Inn was renamed Snake Pass Inn – so the inn named the road which became more well known and so then renamed the inn.
As I descended toward the Lady Bower reservoir I noticed some forest tracks just to the south side of the road. Leaving the main road and the traffic behind and into tall trees and hard-packed tracks was just amazing. I didn’t care about Garmins or time – suddenly I was transported back to how I began riding all those years ago, with nothing more than bits of string and a road map selotaped together to guide me. Not so long ago, mind, to have seen the villages of Ashopton and Derwent which now lie under the waters of the Lady Bower reservoir, invisible until a drought.
Onwards I rode. I’d heard about the Monsal Trail some time ago, but never really known where it was – only that it was in the Peaks – until pouring over maps I realised that we could fit it in the challenge’s route.
The Monsal Trail is an amazing thing, a totally traffic free cycleway with lit tunnels cutting under the peak itself. The tunnels were restored and reopened in 2011, and they’re lit all the way though. It needed exploring though, I wasn’t really sure about what the surface was like for road bikes. Passing down through Tideswell the Cathedral of the Peak and into Millers Dale where I picked up the Monsal Trail at the old station by the viaduct. It’s a hard-packed gravel track, pan flat and perfect for tapping out a good pace.
There’s something wonderful about passing through England’s industrial heritage, to think back to Montague’s time, these train lines would have still been running. The Duke of Devonshire would still be kicking himself for making sure the tracks didn’t come close to Chatsworth House, not yet knowing the importance and value of industry. Closed in 1968, they’re now transformed – a blend of manmade with nature reclaiming and reusing previous damage, birds nesting in the blasted stone sidings, lichen white and green growing in clean air where once coal and steam dirt would have coated the rock.
The National Park Authority has restored all the facades of the stations. It’s a little bit strange, as if you are the train – only there are no iron tracks, just a path. A peaceful step away from cars on roads to bicycle-only roads. I began to miss the speed of the tarmac though, as if I was jumbled between the ancient and modern world of the bicycle as transport and as pure adrenaline fun. Pulling off the trail at Bakewell and beginning to wind my way back north to home. I’ll pick the roads up here again to continue plotting, as we begin to leave the Peak and head into the industrial and rural midlands, the steelworks and beyond.
The Manchester to London Challenge is on 7th September.
To find out more about the event and sign-up, see here »
“That’ll be them, they look skinny.”
Six Rapha Continental riders will embark on the first Rapha Continental ride in New Zealand: The Forgotten Highway.]]>
Not a shred. Not an inch, not an ounce.
There was no time for what hadn’t been, or what we’d left behind.
I took a fraction of a second to look behind at our six chasers, still bound to us, in their minds at least, by the elastic that hadn’t yet broken, by the straight road that still placed us firmly in their sight, and by the hope that never really leaves the hearts of the defeated.
There they were, six bruised egos kicking their last angry pedal strokes and I couldn’t let them get any closer; they would take the breath from my lungs if they could. Their image, bent double in the road behind us, reminded me of a spurned lover, drunk on fury and stood in the street screaming that it isn’t over.
Hush now, I thought, everyone is looking at you making that fuss, and I’m never coming back.
These were the survivors. The others – those who had been too weak to make it this far, who didn’t have the metabolism for the early crosswinds and the long chase behind the break, or for the series of sharp hills that arrived like a succession of blows – had conceded defeat long ago. In ones and twos they had given their best and, moving forwards as fast as they could, discovered it was no longer enough.
They were gone now. They would not be seen again until after the finish, when reality would flood the car park like a tidal wave, and they would all suddenly swarm around the team cars drinking cans of Coke and talking to each other about their bad luck, and how if only the rider in front hadn’t dropped the wheel when he did, or if things had just been in some little way different.
But I couldn’t spare a thought for that, then. In a bike race, you realise that you only exist if you are one of those who can still win. Right then, there was me and there was him, and if either of us paused or tried to hide some scrap of energy from the other – for even a second – then there would be them, too; those six indignant chasers, who still clung to us like betting slips.
You can’t blame them, I told myself. Inside the final kilometres a rider’s mindset changes. The sudden proximity of a conclusion means that the things he has previously given away he can no longer surrender without a fight.
Inside the final kilometres there are only desperate men in desperate times. The allegiances that have been formed throughout the day dissolve one by one. There were two of us then, but it couldn’t last. Our unspoken pact that distanced the rest of the break was always doomed; we were both bike racers, we’d always known that in our finest hour we are really alone.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’, I thought to myself, as we rounded the bend that took us onto the final twisty run-in to the finish, and away from the threat of the chasers. But as every bike racer knows, it isn’t just the other racers that disappear from your mind in those moments – now there was nothing spare, not a glance, not a thought and soon the world itself would disappear.
I knew so well that familiar run-in to the finish. I had ridden it so many times before and, when I had, had thought about life and racing and jobs I had to do in my apartment. I had thought of things to say in conversations to come. I knew the sight of the river that ran on our left, and I knew, too, the Mr. Bricolage billboards and the town signs on our right. These were my roads, and on any other day, every little visual clue would have been a reminder of another time that I had ridden here. But those days had been when I was passing in training, when I was just riding. Now I was racing and racing is something else.
Because in those exhilarating closing stages of a race, in that dying moment, there is nothing but the tunnel vision that stares ahead to the finish line. That was when I knew I was racing; two bike riders and a finish line and neither of us had a friend in the world and nothing else existed. And I loved it and I didn’t even need to know what happened next because no matter how good, or how much money and success the conclusion would bring, it would be over. And that moment when there was nothing but the racing, and there was nothing spare, was what I was living for.]]>
This was one of the key components in the Ambassador program. They will take these Domane 5.2 series bicycles home with them for the year and put them to the test. Through crits, long road rides, the Women’s 100 and even a little gravel, they will ride these sleek looking bicycles every day. There was a little trepidation, as to be expected, from the women that were riding the bicycles from LA to Sacramento as part of the reconnaissance of the Tour of California route. But that all faded away as they made their way across that glorious state and everyone commented openly about how good the bicycles felt and rode day after day. It should also be of note that there were a few women that were receiving their very first ever road bikes with these Domanes, and they took to them faster than anyone could have imagined.
Giro Helmets and Shoes
Giro have been a partnering with us for a number of years, such as the Rapha-Focus cross team and a product that continues to amaze and delight, the Grand Tour Shoes. So, they were a natural selection to help provide helmets and footwear for the Ambassador program. Black and white Factress shoes coupled with their Amare women’s helmet did the trick nicely. The polka dots on the rear of the helmet were a nice touch and were remarked on by more than one passing rider.
To try and break down the eyewear choices of these ladies would take all day. But when it came time to ride their bicycles, the decision was almost unanimous – the Oakley Radar Lock Path with its large surface area and multitude of lens options covered all the angles. Plus, they have the effect of “making us look like a badass group…” said Julie Krasniak. She also added “…just make sure that you put the arms of the glasses over your Giro helmet straps. That’s a pro tip for you.”
Nutrition and Education from Skratch Labs
This, of course, was one of the fun parts of The Calling weekend. Any time that you get to spend with the dynamic duo of Allen Lim and Biju Thomas, especially in the context of food, is going to be a lot of fun. Aside from taking the time to fully explain their real foods philosophies, they also took to the kitchen to whip up some home cooked meals. But, the kicker was the message behind the menu — why some foods were better pre or post ride, what was the best thing to eat on the bike (white bread?) and of course, how to make those wonderful rice bars. These women were fueled for the ride. And bacon, always with the bacon.
And of course, clothing from Rapha
Everyone was excited about the Women’s Lightweight Bomber Jacket and what it says for the development of the Women’s City Riding Collection. More on that later. However, the real news of the weekend and of The Calling, was that we had our Women’s apparel designer on hand to speak directly with everyone about the inspiration and direction of the clothing. Emma Green has been with Rapha for going on three years now and has had a hand in nearly everything that has come to see the light of day. With feedback from the Rapha Women Ambassadors she will continue influencing the ways that people view cycling clothing. She also happens to be a DJ, so pleasing an audience came naturally.
We keep finding ways to partner with great people here at Rapha, whether it be with our Rapha Continental program, our professional racing squads, or even to help with photo shoots. It is these partnerships and the people behind them that help tie the room together, as they say.]]>
This year Rapha’s Hell of The North V features a brand new and very special Roubaix-themed section, requiring a touch of legwork to piece together a route worthy of the name. A note on the new course, without giving too much away: it will be special. The new secteurs will be exhilarating if dry and hellish if wet. After a weekend of sunshine the gravé – the trails, bridleways and farm tracks that make up the meatiest part of the Hell of the North – is firm and fun, allowing just enough traction through the corners to stop you losing the front wheel. After a storm, though, these paths will test even the most capable of bike handlers and might inspire a few to ask how this sort of riding can pass as humane.
So, why is the Hell of the North the way it is? It’s a chance for riders to celebrate parts of the sport that are often overlooked later in the summer – a mastery of your bike, a racing line that is millimetres away from carnage, the rivalry of chasing down a complete stranger in one of the most adverse sectors, the seeming perversity of finding a course that deliberately makes your day harder.
The lure of a good beer and a serving of frites doesn’t harm the cause either, and the celebration kicks off in earnest when all Hell of the North riders sit down together to enjoy the Queen of the Classics with an appreciation keened by the route they’ve just completed.
See all the films and more »]]>
There are no tactics approaching this corridor of pain, apart from to make sure you’re as close to the front of the group as you can be and to go as fast as you can. One more helpful tip: don’t crash.
Arenberg represents something more than it is. For one Sunday in April, it’s not just a straight and tree-lined stretch of cobbles in a rural area, it’s one of the most iconic and hard-fought 2.4km in professional sports.
After Arenberg there are still 16 sectors of pavé left, but it’s hard to understate its strategic importance. Riders outside of the first 40 or so to cross its threshold have no hope of winning, but still ride for the honour of being a Paris-Roubaix finisher. Even for those inside that blessed top 40, the odds of the winner coming from a rider behind the first 15 wheels fall off precipitously.
Why? Because la Trouée d’Arenberg is volatile, and will happily upend a rider for even the most momentary lapse in concentration. One touch of the brakes, one hesitation, one fall in the wheels ahead of you, and you’re relegated to applauding while a rival receives his winners’ cobble. Strength isn’t enough, focus and mental fortitude also count.
A cause of these high stakes is the seriousness with which the teams treat the approach to the secteurs. The pace will rocket from 5 km away, and a rider without a train of supporting riders will use a well-judged elbow to make space in a line of better placed opponents. The bunch will be strung out by the efforts of obedient riders who, by virtue of putting their noses in the wind, have given away their shot at victory. Their race is purely to the start of the next stretch of pavé.
If you’ve ever seen Jørgen Leth’s classic cycling film A Sunday In Hell, one of the most distinctive things – apart from the wool jerseys, the modified support cars, and the crashed riders – is the way Merckx takes to the front to chase down the breakaway: The whole peloton is strung out behind him with simply no room or no will to move up the bunch. Each rider’s face is a picture of picture of exertion and pain. That’s what the pavé does to you.
Buy the Team Sky Arenberg T-Shirt »
The Roubaix Grip is the reason the pros seem to handle the pavé like a butcher his meat. It involves forcibly relaxing your hands and resting them on the tops, but still holding on. The natural human reaction to pavé is to hold the bars as if in a vice, finding security in the familiar roundness and solidity of the bars, but this will likely leave you felled emotionally and possibly physically by the first irregular cobble.
The pros aren’t imbued with some secret ability, their seeming weightlessness over cobbles is not god-given – although they might have you believe so. The key to floating over the cobbles* is in the grip, or lack of it.
*Practice riding the cobbles is of course crucial.
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Pedal stroke rarely translates well in TV coverage, which can be said about many of road racing’s nuances and idiosyncrasies, but is unmistakable and blatant when seen in person. The difference between a climber on steep slopes and the straggling grupetto is probably the most radical example of this, but there remains something to be said about the way a classics specialist turns a gear over cobbles. Not forced, but not gentle, not heavy and not light, a measured and smooth display of power that contrasts heavily with the surrounding chaos.
Buy the Grand Tour Shoes »
Last year’s Paris-Roubaix was run in 5 hrs 45 mins. It was a fine day, with little in the way of wind or bad weather, but that’s still time enough for each rider to drink their way through 10 bidons, and ample time for the same bottles, on touching the ground, to transform from vital sources of refreshment to vicious obstacles intent on getting between your spokes.
It’s why, more than any other race in the calendar, riders will jettison an empty bidon as soon as it is finished, because empty bottles are easily shaken from their cages. Imagine being the rider who, as he powers along in service of the team’s protected riders, notices his bidon working its way free from its cage and sees it pass out of the bottom of his field of vision, only to work its way under the wheel of his team leader. Careers have ended for less. Many team mechanics apply grip.
Buy the Rapha Bidons »
To win Roubaix is an accolade of the highest order. But to win Roubaix in the wet is even higher. The pros call it a ‘Gran Cru’ because it isn’t just the cold it brings with it, or the lack of traction in corners, or the loss of visibility – these are problems any pro on a classics squad should be able to ride through with little more than a good jacket and lower tyre pressure. The problem occurs when the rain meets the packed dirt between the cobbles, where it forms a hard-wearing scum that clings to lenses, the teeth and the valves of bidons. This mud is inescapable, reducing the varied colours and graphics of the peloton’s jerseys to one grey-scale hue. When you see the winner dragging his fingers across his jersey, trying in vain to reveal the sponsor obscured by mud, it’s the race’s way of reminding us that, for this one day, all the riders are branded ‘Roubaix’.
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The Queen of the Classics inspires devotion in riders just as it does the fans. Perhaps the most celebrated example of this devotion is Franco Ballerini. The race had given him two victories and a handful of placings and, in 1993, a tooth-and-nail sprint against Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle. Much has been written about Ballerini’s base layer, but it’s worth noting that in his final Paris-Roubaix he, and his team, were out-ridden and out-classed by Domo-Farm Frites and Team Sky’s Servais Knaven. Ballerini rolled over the line in 32nd, helmet-less and mud-caked, eight minutes down on Domo’s podium sweep and revealed his base layer with the message: ‘MERCI ROUBAIX’. Gratitude from a true hero of the sport.
Buy the Pro Team Base Layer »]]>
Selected items from the Rapha Classics Collection will also be available from the Cycle Club to test throughout the week.
We have also reserved a limited number of rooms at our partner hotel, Sis Pins in Port de Pollenca, which are available purely on a first-come, first-served basis. To book a room, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.]]>