Category Archives: Cycling

Leaving it all behind

I never thought I’d do it, but here I am, writing my first blog from Devon.

Leaving London after living there for more than 50 years was a wrench.

Having said that, I don’t miss the dirt, the crowds or the noise (all of which have increased over the years). Of course, I miss having galleries on my doorstep (or being able to go to one on a whim) and being able to go to the cinema without making it a planned activity based on bus timetables and what’s on. I miss living at the centre of national and international politics and debate. Big BenAnd I miss being able to shop for anything I’ve forgotten when I feel like it. I also miss some of the individuals I got to know (although many of them live, or lived, far from the centre of the action).

But, much more than generally speaking, life down here in Devon is far better than life up there in London. For one thing, the air is cleaner and it’s a great deal better to be woken by the squawk of seagulls – even though they still look bad-tempered and sound as if they’re laughing at me – or by the trilling of other birds than it is by the wail of sirens. I could do without the sound of the sea washing the pebbles clean each time it rushes out, instead of the swoosh of tyres on one of London’s wet main roads. But I can’t say I’d swap one for the other.

If I were many years younger, I would no doubt think differently. I would want  something going on all the time; clubs or discos to go to nearby, more young people my age around and willing to do much the same things. But, as an older person, the quieter life down here is just what I want. Goodness me, I can even shop in peace and buy The Guardian!

Doing what they said

Of course, I’m not the only one leaving things behind.

Donald Trump promised much in his campaign, pedalling a brand of patriotic rhetoric that got him elected to the highest office in the so-called free world. But he’s dealing in international pragmatism nowadays. Hell (as they say over there), he’s even stopped talking about building a wall.

Theresa May sat so firmly on the fence during 2016’s European referendum debate, refusing to say which side she was on, she must’ve hurt herself. It must be the reason why, today, she wears an expression of permanent pain whenever she extols what’s become known as ‘a hard Brexit’. She even has to peddle the same line as those she was supposedly against.

No, I don’t miss any of what I left behind. I can pick and choose what I want to pay attention to. I can even follow the fortunes of my favourite top-of-the-pile football club! And I will, eventually, be able to live the life I want to, once all the material things to do with moving have been sorted out.

It was a good move. Maybe even one I should’ve made some time ago. But, ‘there is a tide in the affairs of men’.

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A question of greatness

This morning all the world’s media was, rightly so and as I expected, full of the news of Andy Murray’s triumph in the Men’s Singles competition at Wimbledon.

There’s no doubt that his is an exceptional achievement – the first Briton to win the title for 77 years – and he deserves our congratulations.

Not only has he fulfilled a personal dream, he has relieved the nation of the ancient burden of hope – so often wrecked by despair – that it’s borne for three-quarters of a century.

As a result – and it is a great result – we can all share his joy.

But to liken his triumph to that of England winning the FIFA World Cup in 1966 or the Rugby World Cup in 2003?

This seems fanciful at best, hubristic at worst. And it questions the nature of greatness.

Clearly, Andy Murray competes in a fiercely contested one-on-one sport. Self-evidently he has a superb support team of trainers, dieticians and the like. Obviously, he’s good at what he does.

But the fact that is he is not the first Briton to have won Wimbledon’s supreme men’s prize, only the first for a long time, should mute the clamour of adulation and attention he’s received since Sunday evening.

He’s not, like Bradley Wiggins, the very first Briton to win the gruelling competition of his choice: the Tour de France, now in its 100th edition.

For me, Wiggins’s is a far greater achievement.

Andy Murray is undoubtedly a great tennis player and, for the time being at least, a national hero.

But for me, there is no questioning the fact that Bradley Wiggins has the edge, for he has no precedent.

There never was another Briton before him – not an Englishman, a Welshman, a Scot or an Ulsterman – who had ever won the Tour de France in all its 110 years of history.

Andy Murray has achieved greatness. But he wasn’t the first Briton ever to win Wimbledon.

Bradley Wiggins’s greatness lies in the fact that he was – and forever will be – the first Briton to win the Tour de France.

That is true greatness.

Chapeau, Sir Brad!

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On yer bike, Mr Armstrong!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asked a couple of times if I’m going to delete a particular image from my photographic website (www.glibberyphotographs.com).

The picture in question is in my Sporting Heroes gallery. It was made in 2010 and features Lance Armstrong, taking part in his last-ever Tour de France Time Trial.

I’ve decided not to delete this image, not because I don’t want to erase Lance Armstrong from history, but because I still like it.

Lance Armstrong, Bordeaux TT 2010

The Tainted Time Triallist, Bordeaux, France, 2010

For me, it represents a moment in sporting history: the last hurrah in Europe of a man who, for many, will always be some kind of hero, if only for beating testicular cancer and returning to competitive cycling at the highest level.

Never first among equals

I hope it will also always act as a reminder of what we now know: that  – when he won his seven Tour de France titles – Armstrong may have been first but was never first among equals.

He was, as he admitted to Oprah Winfrey and some 28 million people watching worldwide, a serial cheat who’d used performance-enhancing drugs since before he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Now, for me, he’s history. If he’s going to get on his bike at all, it should only be to ride off into the distance where, before too long I hope, he’ll become part of the distant past.

He was a hero once, but – as we now know – a deceitful winner of his palmarès. Shame on him for that.

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Armstrong: hindsight vs foresight

How many times have we heard it said?

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing.”

In the case of Lance Armstrong’s doping misdeeds, we can probably say – with the benefit of hindsight – that, even from his earliest days as a competitive athlete, the Texan was so determined to win that he would do anything to come first.

We don’t know for sure, but hindsight suggests that, as a hard-riding, hard-running, swift-swimming triathlete whose thirst for victory seemingly knew no bounds, he might well have been using performance enhancing drugs for years before he became a professional cyclist.

So now, with hindsight, we can say we saw his downfall coming.

But can we, and did we?

And – if we did – would foresight have set off alarm bells so loud that even Armstrong would’ve heard them above the clamour of his adoring fans and the sound of cash registers ringing all over the world? And would he have changed his methods?

I doubt it.

For as much as Armstrong was – as others have said – a serial cheat, he was also a serial winner; a man so driven that such foresight as he might’ve had would have been scattered to the outer fringes of his peripheral vision as he focused intently on his plans for winning.

For him, the prize was everything. Nothing else was ever in sight. Over and over and over again.

Now, of course, hindsight tells us that – with foresight – he should have seen the eventual outcome long before it arrived.

But in Armstrong’s head-down, pedal-for-all-you’re-worth, win-at-any-price, the-prize-is-worth-the-pain world there was never any room for foresight.

It’s as if it was only for losers; people who, by thinking ahead, try to anticipate what might be round the next corner and take appropriate action. And then don’t win.

And that’s a shame because – with foresight – even Armstrong could’ve guessed that the discovery of his serial cheating would destroy his reputation and the exalted place he’s occupied in the only world he’s known for the last twenty years.

And, with foresight on his side, we might – even with hindsight – still be blind to his misdemeanours and see him for what he is: a very determined man.

Ultimately, neither hindsight nor foresight will come out as winners.

For hindsight has taught us nothing and we’ll learn nothing from foresight.

Perhaps Armstrong is the real winner.

After all, he was first in his time and seen to be first.

It’s only the wisdom of hindsight that’s condemned him for his lack of foresight.

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In praise of Tommy V

In all the fuss surrounding Lance Armstrong’s use of illegal performance-enhancing substances and techniques, one man’s contribution to the fascinating sport of cycling stands in danger of being overlooked.

In 2004, a young French rider – Thomas Voeckler –  brought an unexpected level of excitement to the Tour de France when, at the finish of Stage 4, he took the leader’s yellow jersey and held it until the end of Stage 14. It was an exceptional, enthralling effort, with Voeckler yielding only at his last gasp in the French Alps and having to pass the jersey to Lance Armstrong as the new race leader.

To most of us who follow the sport, Thomas was then still a comparatively unknown quantity.

Armstrong was Le Patron. He’d won the race five times and – despite Voeckler’s audacious stint in yellow – was on course for his fifth victory.

I was in France for that 2004 Tour, to watch the individual time trial up and round the 21 hairpins of the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez, and saw the excitement for myself.

I had gone to bear witness to Armstrong, but straightaway saw that Voeckler might well eclipse him.

To begin with, Thomas was young, he was French and, at a time when doping was less of an issue, he was presumed ‘clean’. Desperate for a home-grown hero to match the by-then-discredited Richard Virenque, the people of France had taken little Tommy V to their hearts and have adored him ever since.

I, too, was enchanted.

Standing at a hairpin bend on the lower slopes of L’Alpe, photographing some of the athletes as they rode by one-by-one, I waited until he came in sight and got off just one frame. He was in the coveted white jersey awarded to the youngest, highest-placed rider in the peloton. And he looked like what he was: a courageous boy in a man’s race.

The boy on the Alpe

Minutes later, Armstrong hove into view. Not wanting to miss a moment of the experience of being in what had become his commanding aura, I stood transfixed as he rode powerfully towards the hairpin, his face a mask of concentration. As he raced towards it’s apex, I darted across the bend to see him power out of the turn and up the next part of the climb.

I didn’t take his photograph, but the memory is etched on my mind.

Last year, little Tommy V captured our hearts all over again.

Seven years older, and against all the odds, he once more animated the Tour de France with his plucky riding and his never-say-die attitude.

Taking the yellow jersey at the completion of Stage 9, he held it all the way to the end of Stage 19, which – in an intriguing twist of fate – finished at the summit of L’Alpe d’Huez.

Once again he had animated the race. And yet again he had done it without a hint of doping or cheating of any other kind.

He simply rode his heart out to finish fourth when the Tour finally ended in Paris.

This year, after thrilling contests in the Pyrenees, he won the King of the Mountains competition, having won two Stages along the way.

Today, while Tommy V remains a hero at least to the French if not the rest of the world, Lance Armstrong – once acknowledged as an exceptional athlete – now looks like an exceptional cheat; the leading man at the heart of a drama described by the US Anti-Doping Agency as “the deepest, most sophisticated and successful doping programme [cycling] has ever seen”.

Voeckler may – for some – have an unpronounceable name, but Armstrong’s duplicitous behaviour begs the question: shall we ever understand the true meaning of ‘clean’?

It is, after all, an anagram of Lance.

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