Act, Dream, Plan, Believe

Like many other cycling fans I spent yesterday sat on the sofa with the Elite Men’s World Road Race on in the background.  For me it was an enforced period of rest, laid up as I was with a throat seemingly wrapped in sandpaper and joints which felt they had been knocked about with a sledgehammer – the perils of looking after your young niece and nephews! So at times, the race was a kind of comforting wallpaper, but as with many other British cycling fans it ended with the delight of watching our first world men’s professional/elite road champion for 46 years – a fact I know has delighted one other cycling Manxman well known to this blog.

I also decided to avoid Twitter for the duration of the race. And I have to say it was much better for it. The urge to send a quick opinion bubbled but was kept in my own head. And for some this is a small lesson – we all have thoughts, we all have a right to air them but sometimes it is better to keep them in our own heads. Therefore in the run up to the race we saw opinions on the presence of Sky on GB jerseys, during the race an ongoing critique of Team GBs tactics (therein is a lesson in holding opinion until an eggy face can be avoided) and subsequently the way the course was made for sprinters and how Cav benefited from a “pro-team” set up due to the large number of GB riders from one trade team. I’m sorry folks but I’ve lost interest in most of these tired arguments.  So here’s a more considered take.

Clearly the race was made for sprinters. Whilst some nations complained, the parcours will dictate the eventual winner to a large extent as, as one of the more witty comments on Twitter pointed out, the Italians didn’t complain in Zolder when Mario Cipolini won. Not that the race was easy – whilst there were no decisive climbs, the rise to the finish in itself added interest to the sprint and the fast nature of the course made it difficult for breaks to stay away but equally brought a large bunch to the end and thus a hard race to control. That Team GB rode the race they did should be seen as a master-stroke in planning but more so a genuinely superb team effort on the part of Team GB. At times the armchair fan To accomplish great things...might have questioned the tactic to try and control the race almost alone but by 3.30pm that decision was vindicated – a brave move unseen in recent World’s.  All of which is underpinned by the bigger project, nicely summarised by Inner Ring’s blog but visually captured by Adrian Timmis’ photo. We can all have gripes with the backers of British Cycling and Britian’s own Pro-Team – Sky, BSkyB, call them what you want – but the fact is they have chosen to invest in cycling at all levels. At the top end this has paid off with track and now road success at World level. At the other end it continues to be a part of the growth in the popularity of cycling – as Richard Williams suggested this morning, bike shops are now “virtually recession‑proof”on the back of it. I’m not overly enthusiastic about the puppeteers behind this company but if they are willing to back a sport I love I’ll happily take the money.

Then there is a puerile suggestion that GB are using Team Sky to get around the trade team rules for the Worlds. In a two earlier pieces I highlighted the way in which British Cycling have successfully taken forward a focussed project to be successful in world road cycling and, in another, the contradictions that the world rankings system presents for World championship qualification.  Team GBs qualification points undoubtedly were helped by the performance of Team Sky. Yet Cav himself earned a fair share of the points and was further assisted by other non-Sky riders such as Adam Blyth of Omega Pharma-Lotto.  But lets look back at the history of this project. Richard Moore’s book on Team Sky, Sky’s the Limit, highlights how its foundations are in the Academy system set up by David Brailsford and run by Rod Ellingworth. And who was in the Academy together and the same time? Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas, Stephen Cummings and Ian Stannard. Add in Bradley Wiggins (whose 1.5 lap pull on the front makes up for any previous “disappearances”) as a key member of the GB track set up and 5 of the 8 riders out there yesterday had been integral to this project. Frome, Millar and Hunt all provided experience and determination.  When was the last time a national team from any nation looked so committed, focussed and together than this one yesterday.  With the intricacies and contradictions that road racing brings, Team Sky has taken a different approach in its aims and its execution. It has learnt a lot and it has developed a lot, but there is nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with a national team having a backbone from one trade team. More often than not the World’s has teams within teams, alliances between trade-teammates which undermine the national cause, something which Great Britain have not been immune. And there is nothing wrong or conspiratorial in one rider who doesn’t ride for the trade team making up the bulk of the squad to be assisted by or benefit from those who are. I’d actually say that was quite mature, whatever future rider movements suggest.  At the end of the day, the comments of all the team have indicated a huge amount of camaraderie which is something we should all look at with pride.

So this one really goes out to the doom merchants out there: for the British cycling fans it is a lesson in grumbling less and enjoying more – we’ve waited a long time for this and the guys did us proud; for the overseas fans you’re time will come, probably next year, that’s the rich merry-go-round of cycling results.  Despite feeling lousy all day yesterday, that race brought a smile to my face. But as well as Cav’s win, there are a lot of positives which can be taken from yesterday and a new chapter in cycling history, both British and International.  I’m already looking froward to next season.


I’d rather not have the money and have my lovely Ed

Knowing what is important in life is always tricky. Balancing material and non-material needs seems easier said than done, especially when the former is often underpinning the latter.  It is something I find difficult, very difficult in fact. Too much seems to revolve around money, or rather having enough money to do the things that are less material/more non-material. Not having enough money therefore feels a threat to the rest of my existence. This might sound shallow to some, and it certainly does to me, but it’s actually more like a vicious circle from which I’d like to break free.  Therefore I was interested to read an interview with Peep Show actress Olivia Colman where she briefly discussed this very topic.

Throughout their married life, Colman has been the main breadwinner. Isn’t he a writer? “He’s not published. He gets terribly upset when I say, ‘Ed, my husband, is a writer’ because he’s still sitting in the shed writing his book. He’s a perfectionist, I suppose. He’s taking his time.”

How long has he been writing? “Ten years.” He also does the brunt of the childcare for their two children, aged five and three. “He’s always wanted to write. We went to drama school together, and he did law at university. He did two weeks’ work experience as a student and was offered a place with a big law firm, but I’ve never known him so grumpy and miserable. We were 21, 22, and at the end of the two weeks he said, ‘I don’t want to do law’ and I was like, ‘I don’t want you to do law.’ I’d rather not have the money and have my lovely Ed than have shitloads of money and never see him. I said, ‘I’m working enough for both of us at the moment, so let’s make the most of it. Rather than you on your deathbed when you’re 90 saying, I wish I’d written, why don’t you just do it?’ If I’m living the dream, it’s not fair if he’s not.”


Do they ever worry about money? No, she says, because they’ve never had a great deal and they’ve always made do. “We are very lucky because we have each other. We’re fine, and if all else fails we can sell our house. We’ve got a massive mortgage on it, but we’ll be OK. And we’re lucky in that my mum and dad will never let us be homeless. We can always move back home.”

It struck a chord. There were many similarities. Most of all it was the love that one person can show another in letting the other do what they want, to let them “live the dream”.  It is certainly something that MrsAB tries desperately to instill in me and something which I seem to resist to the extent of actively pushing it away. But like Colman deep down I know that MrsAB wants her Rob back and that what I am best doing is working to make that happen. Without wishing to sound crass, money worries should be secondary to our happiness. Money is a means to an end.  We spend only in a cautious and considered manner, our interests are mainly cheap and we haven’t even got the huge mortgage Colman and her husband have. My identity is better shaped by what I love rather than what I do. Taking a leaf out of the Colmans’ book might seem alien and scary but as MrsAB said again to me this morning, what is there to lose by trying.

Need help? Yes, but not like that.

I must admit I first saw reference to this in the Metro, run under some nauseating yet attention grabbing headline. I saw it re-run in the Expressly Fail which never instills confidence that the article is what it might first seem. But then I saw a link to this video on the BBC website.

In it, Gail Porter talks to Radio 5 Live’s Phil Williams about being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.  It is a compelling listen. Not only does Porter talk about the shock and anger of the experience (her partner signing the forms to section her, the drugs and the two Jesus on her ward), she also highlights the difficulties for any one struggling with fragile mental health to express their needs and the failure of the health service to offer help in the way that it is needed by the recipient.  Let me pick up two of her points as something I can closely relate to.

Part of Porter’s sectioning related to a text she sent that she was feeling suicidal. To those who have not felt this way this evokes strong emotions: the feeling of wanting to end it all is equated with an executable plan and will to do so.  The law in this case certainly saw it this way and as such there is an urge to “protect” that person from the harm they are intending to do to themselves. But in all walks of life there are different degrees of feeling and intention.  As was explained to me, the feeling that you want to kill yourself is not the same as making plans to do so. What seems a subtle distinction on the outside is a huge leap for the person in that position.  Explaining this can be a huge relief, it was for me.

Yet explaining this is all part of offering appropriate help, support and care. As Porter also highlights, her partner was signing the forms out of love yet the response of the system seems far from this. She was taken to a secure hospital, given drugs and queued up to see a doctor.  I have expressed my views on the approach of the health service before but again this case highlights the way in which mental health problems must reach crisis point for the sufferer before help is given. Porter’s words illustrate this better than me rehearsing my own experience again (click here, here and here to revisit them if you so wish). For Porter, as with so many others, asking for help is difficult and is expressed in what the wider world sees as a worrying and inappropriate manner. And when the response is as harsh as this is it any wonder we hold it in through fear.

Of course, each individual has a different case and it would be inappropriate of me to suggest that we all suffer in the same way. But at the same time there are many shared stories of both the way in which talk about our problems is difficult and the failure of statutory authorities to provide effective help at an appropriate stage. As much as it is about individuals feeling less fearful of speaking out it is up to the health service to demonstrate that the help is there.

In the jungle

There has been a growing crescendo of opinion voiced over the last few weeks amongst the cycling Twitterati concerning team ownership, team loyalty and, it would seem, a team fandom. And this crescendo seems to have reached a natural apex this morning with the emerging news that Leopard-Trek will be no more next season.  In many ways this is hardly surprising given its history: it has always been essentially a personal project for the Schelcks, a means to “escape” the Riis empire and do things their way; the team has had high ambition and been overly confident despite the poor return in terms of results; and importantly it has always lacked a headline sponsor. In sport the first two of these have always been a fact of life. In professional sport it is the latter which is crucial – it is a business.

The initial discussions I followed were linked to the fluidity of team identities and the fickleness of team benefactors.  Whilst the criticism of these discussants appears to be levelled at team directors for accepting the “gifts” of seemingly capricious backers, the implicit issue seems to be one of “who do we support”.  This is an interesting issue given the fluid nature of cycling teams but raises an interesting question about the relationship of cycling fans to the sport.  For me, one of the attractions of cycling is the far less partisan nature of the support. Growing up in England the peer pressure to pick a football team to follow was immense. Choosing the “right” team even more so. It took a move to Wales before I realised that my Father’s instilled belief in me that I was Welsh was incorrect. This tribalism has been largely absent from cycling: yes, we all support various stars and have preferences for one team over others but by and large we give our support to the entire peloton. One of my good friends used to say at the time Welsh rugby adopted regional “super teams” that she was “a fan of rugby at Rodney Parade”. At the time this made little sense to me but looking back on the days I’ve spent on hillsides watching racers toil against the gradient I can see exactly what she means. And cycling has always had this.

For team backers this is part of the world that they are entering into and to describe their decisions as fickle or capricious belies the economics of this business environment. It is also in danger of comparing apples with pears. Cycling is not football or rugby or any other sport with a fixed location. It attracts crowds who the vast majority of the time do not pay any entrance fee to watch. Even where teams do build a following, there is only limited financial return for the backers and much of this is indirect return through sales of their products. Of course, this can turn quite mundane products (e.g. adhesives and sealants) into glamorous sports sponsors (e.g. Mapei) but I’m sure I’m not the only cycling fan not to know or even care what some of these sponsors do. You see, as humans we are fickle too and care only about what we want to take from the occasion. As cycling fans we want the race to watch (and for some, to moan about). Therefore team backers are reliant on exposure in the media where a recognisable brand catches the attention of the wider public.  It is amazing how HTC phones and Skoda cars have become popular amongst cycling fans but the economics of this business mean that they have to reach beyond that audience. HTC pulled their sponsorship of the “world’s most successful team”.

And so for a team whose major backer has no visible identity in the team’s name, its brand or its jersey, what is the point in being involved. For the backer of a World Tour ranked team the costs run into 7 figures.  True, cycling sponsors in the past did enter the sport for the love of it thought the costs of entry and involvement were much lower in an often nation-based calendar. And if we compare this with football at least the club chairman/owner has some tangible return on investment, if not in a net profit on gate receipts then through the returns available on property in and around the ground, as well as the personal ‘honour’ which goes with the position. Again, cycling is simply not the same and offers few such opportunities.

It is therefore little wonder that in the jungle, the leopard is about to sleep.  Whilst some will deride Flavio Becca for his involvement he gave rise to a potentially great team. That it didn’t reach the heights that might have been expected of it are the result as much of the nature of sport as to any deliberate flaw in the riders. Becca gave it a chance and it didn’t work. Shouldn’t we as cycling fans be grateful for that? Equally, many deride the UCI for its World Tour (for which I am as guilty as the rest) yet this is precisely the type of certainty which sponsors want in order to commit large sums of money to backing a team. The fact that neither the ProTour/World Tour nor “philanthropic” team sponsors is as much to do with economics as it is to do with organisation and bureaucracy. It is difficult to see how professional cycling can buck a trend in wider global economics on its own.