Fresh and Wild

Yesterday I saw what can best be described as a charm offensive from tourist executives in the US. A folk singer beckons us to come to the land of the free to realise our dreams. No offence intended to my US readers but this struck me as a little fake. And this was reinforced by its screening in an ad break during the Giro d’Italia. As charm offensives go, the Giro is a total success in my book – great scenery, lovely weather, enthusiastic and expressive spectators, the only thing missing is the food and drink. As you can tell, I am hooked.

My love affair with Italy has been recent, a combination of honeymoon, simple veggie friendly cooking and of course the cycling. Though Italian cycling for many years didn’t mean much to me. Of course I knew about the Giro, I’d seen reports of classics like Lombardy and Milan-San Remo but it had never featured as much as the Tour de France. Maybe that is the product of growing up in the UK and following the limited cycling coverage available. To me the Tour de France came top but the Kellogg’s Tour and, if you remember them, the Scottish Provident criteriums seemed more real even than Miguel Indurain’s tussle with Tony Rominger down the boot of Europe. To be honest, these seemed like training rides in the build up to the big event. And that’s a feeling that has taken a long time to shake. Just as I’ve previously indicated how the season seems to end by August, the Italian races were an hors d’oeuvres to the main event, the cheap support act.  But no more.

This year’s Giro d’Italia has changed my thinking for good.  With its bold selection of route and in its acceptance of which riders who will come, this year’s race has been spectacular. Whilst there has been no one stand out moment like, for example, Lemond’s final day win in the ’89 (and my first) Tour de France (yet*), the twists and turns in all aspects of the race have been intriguing. And the riders have added to this. Mark Cavendish remains in the race long after others with GC ambitions have pulled out and his continued participation in what was considered a warm up to the Tour-Olympics dominated July should be considered a mark of how good this race is. It has offered a fresh approach to racing, one made all the fresher by the absence of some of the so-called big names. Ironically this is the definition of True Racing that others merely apply as a tag.

And a significant feature of this has been the selection of wild card teams. When this selection was announced there was some outcry in Italy at the teams who were left out.  In particular the exclusion of Acqua & Sapone and previous Giro winners Danilo di Luca and Stefano Garzelli was greeted with surprise and threatened retirements. Yet the teams included have done the wildcard tag proud.

Admittedly this did not start well. Androni’s Roberto Ferrari was certainly wild in his antics on stage 3 and questions were soon asked about his inclusion and the worth of his team. But over three weeks these episodes start to pale. Whilst the pocket climbers of Androni have been conspicuous by their absence this year, Ferrari has grabbed a stage and Alessandro Di Marchi has been in 2 main moves on high mountain stages. Far from being the “who are they” team when the wildcards were announced, Team NetApp have covered almost every break in the race and in so doing covered themselves in glory and reaffirmed their selection. Despite the loss of their team leader, Filippo Pozzato, Farnese Vini have been in the attacks, had 2 stages wins and surely the moment of this year’s race when Matteo Rabottini out on his own for the day and having looked totally spent hit back at Joaquin Rodriguez’s final attack by finding, from where we can only guess, a final burst to clinch the stage. And Colnago-CSF, whilst also having been in much of the daily action, have placed Domenico Pozzovivo in the heart of the battle for the pink jersey – whilst he may not take it he certainly made the battle tougher for the others tougher at the top of the Passo Giau. These are teams who have earned their way into the Giro and when there have done their inclusion justice with their fresh and wild approach to racing.

There’s still 2 days and a bit to go in this year’s race and things may change for the worse but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the Giro d’Italia is better than the Tour de France. Whilst its big it isn’t too big to go through – and finish in – the centre of towns. Its produced racing that has been non-stop, interesting and enthralling. It has shown that great racing doesn’t always need “big names”. Whilst last year I find myself looking back on last year’s Tour in much the same way now as I felt then, I can’t help but feel that even if it is not a classic this Giro has reignited my interest in racing.

So here’s to true racing, the Italian (and with Net App, the German!) way. I’ll raise a glass of Chianti to that.

* As I write this watching the 19th stage, Sunday’s time trial could yet produce similar!

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Admission is more than half the battle

Dealing with the inner gremlins first requires self recognition, though preferably before the problems get too big.

On firing up the computer this morning I noticed this tweet from Adrian Timmis

Every athlete should read this, male as well as female RT @Hollie_Avil: I’ve decided to end my career as a triathlete.. http://t.co/OpFpzCdf

Out of curiosity I took a look. Although Adrian’s tweets are always informative and interesting I had my suspicions it would be about training, coaching or worst still saddle positions. So I was even more pleasantly surprised to read Hollie Avil’s story of how the pursuit of her sporting dreams led to misery. As she says herself

Don’t get me wrong. I have had some amazing experiences in triathlon. I leave the sport as an Olympian, a double world champion, a national champion and also someone who was once ranked world No 1.

But those great times do not outweigh the miserable times. I don’t want to risk my health again, not just my mental health, but my physical health.

I want to be happy.

For me this article is important for three reasons. The first is that, again, it highlights the role that expectations – and especially the expectations of others – play in shaping who were are and what we become. The second is the feelings of isolation that are brought on by both the cause of the problems (in this case the expectations of coaches as well as the feelings of lack of control) and . But the third, and for me the most poignant, is the role that self admission plays in finding a way out. Whatever the problem, without owning up to it yourself there are few ways to let others in who can help, especially when the problems are often locked inside your own head. But with alarming familiarity Avil admits that her cry for help cam, if not too late then at a point which made dealing with it harder.

In February 2011, I finally made a cry for help, admitting everything to Joce[Brooks]and my parents. This time I was too far gone and we had to work so hard to get me better.

Admission is much more than half the battle. By the time you’ve reached that point the problems feel ten, maybe a hundred times worse and the way out seems so hard. It can feel like you’re being attacked from all sides. But in admitting to these problems yourself you open up a world of possibilities even if they don’t seem so clear at the time. I know, I’ve been there and some of you have been with me on all or part of the journey. So here are some words of encouragement:

I believe life has chapters and this is the end of one of mine.

Although I am sad to be hanging up the race shoes, I’m proud of what I’ve overcome.

Failure, redemption, life at the top

Is it lady luck or the onlookers who are fickle?

Tom Boonen

Unsinkable Sports Idol?

This month’s Procycling magazine fanfares the return of Tom Boonen, or as they put it

The revival of Belgium’s unsinkable sports idol.

Quite some sub headline for a rider who in recent seasons has been dogged by poor form (both on and on the bike), injury and who the very same magazine and its sister website, amongst others, had seemingly written off. But like they say, this guy is unsinkable, right?

Sure, Boonen has had a stellar spring. He picked up his second Flanders-Roubaix double as well as a double in the E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. Merely riding both of these last two races together is little done today – a fact bemoaned by Roger De Vlaeminck in Daniel Friebe’s Eddy Merckx The Cannibal – let alone win them both. For a guy whose spring has been better than his last 2 seasons combined this is certainly a resurgence and one built on his strengths in the one day classics of the spring.

Yet Boonen’s purple spring is very similar to the rich vein of form shown by another Belgian last year. Remember a rider called Gilbert who won all four Ardennes races in the space of two weeks (10 days if you are really counting)? I am not the first to note the stark contrast in fortunes – the see-saw as one commentator has quite aptly put it – and I doubt I will be the last. But what made me stop and write this piece was a reflection on the reporting of Gilbert’s seemingly terminal decline or as they say “looking like a cycling god stripped of his powers”. These turns of phrase used to be reserved for the autumn years of cycling greats yet today are bandied around with ease at the slightest whiff of an off spell.

Philippe Gilbert

Our expectations?

If you were expecting insightful reportage then the more you read the more disappointing an article it becomes: is it Gilbert’s own excesses or the demands of the team – “the truth clearly lies somewhere in between”. Maybe the reason is fatigue? “I’ve learned that John Lelangue [Gilbert’s BMC Directeur Sportif] really put them all through it in Spain,” says a source in the article, “For Lelangue, only one date matters: 30 June and the Tour.” A little more insightful, possibly, except this source is “One member of Gilbert’s fan-club. It’s like asking a Brosette from Stourbridge where Matt and Luke Goss went wrong in 1990 and any chance of them reforming.

Perhaps what is most disappointing about the coverage of both Boonen and Gilbert is the level of expectation which creates the see-saw. As viewers we revel in the short terms domination of riders (though we seem to bemoan anything longer term). And the cycling media put on a papier-mache pedestal these new kings only for them to crumble under crocodile tears. But whose tears are they? If Procycling is to be believed, Gilbert is in the pits of despair. So how about looking at it another way: April 2011 was a uniquely fantastic spell of good form for Gilbert, April 2012 just didn’t quite go to plan. That’s all, he wasn’t quite there. But that’s bike racing.

So why is it an issue? Reflecting on this from personal perspective it is fair to say that  expectations drive life both from the inside looking out and the outside looking in. At times they create a perfect storm and the inside and outside are hard to distinguish. By this I mean our expectations, the expectations others have of us and the expectation we think they have of us can blend into one. And when one or more of these expectations is not met someone feels let down. In the case of Gilbert it is clear that the media and, possibly, some fans have not had their expectations met. Yet the flip side to this is to ask whether our expectations are realistic? In the case of Gilbert our expectations were artificially inflated by a superb yet extraordinary Ardennes campaign the previous year on top of which we all know how many variables can change in bike racing, its like cracking the Enigma code.

Rather than hailing the return of a dethroned emperor or over analysing the bad patch of another, over analysis fails to help, especially when it is misplaced. There will be another spring classics campaign next year and no doubt the see-saw will tip again. Therefore instead of rasing them, maybe we need to lower our expectations just slightly. It’s not just a lesson for watching cycle sport but one to heed in our everyday lives.

The square peg which surprised the round hole

Many is the time, particularly in recent months, I have felt at odds with the world around me and I have felt like a square peg being battered into a round hole. This analogy has grown on me for they way it encapsulates way I feel most days, especially from Monday to Wednesday when I’m sat at the day-job desk. And it was an analgoy that sprang to mind over the weekend.

Martyn Williams, stuck on 99 caps. Not bad for a square peg.

Saturday’s Guardian published an article on the growing internet campaign to ensure Welsh rugby player Martyn Williams gains is 100th cap. Stranded on 99 caps for over a year and with retirement imminent there is a emotive angle to this which even a hardened Newport fan should find difficult to be touched by, especially when you consider the story. Williams has made an enormous contribution to Welsh rugby for almost 20 years, yet he’s had his obstacles in getting there, not least at the start. Starting out as a player he wasn’t your typical openside flanker. He recalls,

“I remember when I was in the academy system that, if you could not bench press a certain amount, they said you would never play for Wales. It was not my strongest area in the gym and I had to develop my game to ensure I got the best out of myself. I wish I had been a couple of inches taller and a couple of stone heavier but, as Scott Johnson used to tell me, you cannot put in what God left out.”

That seems to have a familiar ring to it: have some skills but not necessarily all in the same package that the onlooker is used to seeing them in. And what would have happened if Williams had been overlooked for being the “wrong” package? As Paul Rees highlights in the article,

…there were those who questioned whether Williams was big enough to be an international open-side but what he lacked in size and height he made up for with his pace, athleticism, technique and reading of the game. [Yet] There have been few players, in any era, as effective as him at the breakdown.

Apparanlty the Springboks were “surprised and delighted” when both Wales and the Lions left Williams out of the team. That’s flattery of a strange kind but illustrates the impact he’s made. A square peg who’s made the number 7 shirt fit and in many ways contributed to the changing role of the open side flanker.

Not that Williams is the only example. As I rode (or should I say grovelled) up Gun Hill this weekend I noted with my companions how this particular hill has its place in British Cycling history. It’s the place where Mark Cavendish almost gave up and went back to banking.  That’s right, if Cavendish had climbed into Rod Ellingworth’s car that day there would have been no Tour de France stage wins for us to become complacent about and defintiely no end to British Cycling’s pursuit of a first world road race champion in 46 years. But the story goes back a little further than that fateful climb. When Cav applied to the British Academy he almost wasn’t taken on.

World Champion’s watershed – What if things had been different on Gun Hill?

Established in 2004, the Olympic Academy was further piece in the evolving Lottery funded plan to deliver Gold medals in Olympic cycling. Its foundations were firmly in the mould of Peter Keen, focussed on the science of sport and notable for its keen interest in “numbers”. HAd it been down to the number, Cav would have been out. As Richard Moore highlights in Sky’s the Limit

He wasn’t hitting the ‘numbers’ in the physiological tests; his scores in tests in stationary bikes were not up to scratch. Performing well in a laboratory was not his forte.

And why should it be. Like a job interview artificial performances give artificial impressions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but as he has gone on to show Cav has performed on the road and the track, producing results even when the going is bad. In this case the foresight and acumen of two individuals illustrates how rather than changing the shape of or battering into place the square peg, adjusting the hole and easing the peg in can be a more fruitful course of action. The first to see this with Cav was John Herety,

“He’s the only guy who’s won twenty races. You’re only saying no to him because he doesn’t fit the criteria – but maybe the criteria are wrong.”

Seeing beyond the initial requirements at what somebody offers takes courage yet opens doors to a range of possibilities. Herety’s intervention posed a challenge not just for the selection panel of that first Academy intake but for the British Cycling way of doing things. Had they adhered to the numbers the recent past for British Cycling would have been somewhat different.

Look in the distance – bikes shouldn’t have 2 legs.

Yet it also takes encouragement and coaching for those different talents to bear fruit. And here we come back to Gun Hill. I know it well. Too well. On both occassions I have encountered this hill, I have come off worse. It looks benign – not the wall of a Winnats Pass or the visible slog of a Holme Moss – but it is brutal. I’m not surprised Cavendish was reportedly in tears in a ditch one. And just as I had support to get up and on, so Cav did in the shape of Rod Ellingworth. As Daniel Friebe reports, Ellingworth’s words to the “pudgy teenager whose ambition, to paraphrase a famous movie, was writing cheques his body couldn’t cash” were:

“What are you doing to improve? Are you riding your bike and sticking to a good routine? Yes. OK, you’re already doing that, so there’s no need to apologize. Just stick at it. Now get back on your bike and let’s carry on working…”

The simplest thing for Ellingworth (save for the ear bending from an unexpected passenger) would have been to let Cavendish into the car, taken him back to Manchester and let him go from the Academy. Yet he took the hard route – some might say for both. It recognised the strengths already there, it provided encouragement, it recognised what needed to be done and put Cav on the path to achieving those things. Four quite simple stages which are so often overlooked in so many walks of life, but it take a good manager of people to recognise that and articulate it if the benefits are going to be seen.

These are just two high profile examples of where people have at first looked like they don’t fit the criteria or specification of the role they applied for. There are many others across everyday life. Where the selection criteria – the expectations of the perfect candidate – are rigidly adhered to there is a danger both of never finding that ideal, utopian figure and of missing the unique and beneficial qualities that the less obvious candidate can bring. Realising these benefits may require coaching and caring, but look at what those benefits can be.

I know from looking around me that some of the places I have worked in have missed these benefits by looking for the ideal “person on paper”. I increasingly know that I am not that paper person, that I cannot be everything some of these people want me to be. Faced with this what do we do? Giving up is one option, be that as the peg or the hole. That might seem the most efficient, effective and cost effective approach in the short-term. But what about appointing the candidate who doesn’t fit all of the bill yet displays real qualities in some areas and possibilities in others you hadn’t thought of might be another. Sure, it is a risk but if you don’t speculate you don’t accumulate and what is the worst that can happen? Look at it the other way, what could it end up delivering? It is all a question of give and take, about pragmatism over idealism, of realising how the straightforward isn’t always the best. But it is also about vision, about taking a risk and making an investment in a person. Round pegs in round holes come and go but overlooking the square ones just because they don’t at first seem to fit risks missing out on the other opportunities they might bring. Just ask Martyn Williams and Mark Cavendish.