Margins

Paul: Leave it up to Arsenal to score one goal when they need two.
Steve: You want them to score the second goal before they score the first?

Fever Pitch (1997)

When I watch sports margins take on different persepctives dependant on which side of the fence I am sat.

Yes, I am that sports fan who is never comfortable. Ever. I’m like a yo-yo, up and down off the seat until the final whistle, the last ball or the finish line has been crossed.  MrsAB finds it unbearable and amusing in equal measure. I’m never happy until the fat lady sings.

Put it this way, if my team are leading, no matter how commanding the lead, the opposition can come back and take the lead themselves. However, if the opposition are leading, no matter how narrowly, my team will never make it back in. I blame the years of supporting Wales in rugby and Stoke in football and the heartache this has brought.

So imagine watching a Tour de France where a British rider is within 5 stages of a historic win with a 2 minute margin over his nearest rival. Anybody else and it would be a dead cert. But not for me. I’ll take pragmatism over panache until I know the result is certain. Never before have I watch a Tour de France with so much vested emotional interest and by the second rest day I feel almost as exhausted as the riders. You can see why I might be worried.

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.

Uneasy Rider

I’m not the most relaxed person at the best of times as you have probably worked out by now. Anxiety is my enemy. And recently I have become overly anxious when out on the bike. So much so that it is now holding me back, taking away the enjoyment I once had. And why this anxiety? The actions of (an increasing) minority of drivers who seemingly feel the road is theirs.

When I was growing up and started cycling my parents told me to stick to the lanes. Keep off the main roads, they said, the lanes will be safer. So I’ve continued cycling with this in mind, trying to keep my routes to lesser used roads. But the problem is these roads are not so lesser used now. They have become short cuts, rat runs. And a growing number of drivers, often in expensive, powerful cars drive in a way which shows little consideration for other road users. They seem in a rush, unwilling to accept a cyclists right to space on the road, unable to wait to pass when it is safe to do so or in providing a safe space between them and me. Too often on some routes it feels like a battle.

So if you are reading this as a non-cyclist wondering what the issue is, take a look at the highway code. When passing, a motorist should:

162 Before overtaking you should make sure

  • the road is sufficiently clear ahead

  • road users are not beginning to overtake you

  • there is a suitable gap in front of the road user you plan to overtake

163 Overtake only when it is safe and legal to do so. You should

  • not get too close to the vehicle you intend to overtake
  • use your mirrors, signal when it is safe to do so, take a quick sideways glance if necessary into the blind spot area and then start to move out
  • not assume that you can simply follow a vehicle ahead which is overtaking; there may only be enough room for one vehicle
  • move quickly past the vehicle you are overtaking, once you have started to overtake. Allow plenty of room. Move back to the left as soon as you can but do not cut in
  • take extra care at night and in poor visibility when it is harder to judge speed and distance
  • give way to oncoming vehicles before passing parked vehicles or other obstructions on your side of the road
  • give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you  would when overtaking a car (see Rules 211-215)

The Freight Transport Association in association with the Institute for Advanced Motoring and London Cycling Campaign published a cycling code which states that cyclists:

“Your road position should not be less than one metre from the kerb and should be further out if it is not safe for a vehicle to pass. If someone does pass you inconsiderately then you have more room to get out of harm’s way. Keeping away from the gutter will enable drivers to see you and also help you miss the drain covers and debris on the side of the road too”

Together, these should provide a safe environment for us to share the roads. But unfortunately it doens’t. In the last week I have had 2 incidents which highlight this. They didn’t happen in London, they didn’t involve HGVs and they certainly didn’t involve advanced motorists. In both cases motorists overtook me inappropriately: in the first I was cycling down a single track lane and having waited on my back wheel the motorist overtook forcing me onto the grass verge, the second saw the motorist overtake me without sufficient clearance and with oncoming vehicles in the adjacent side of the carriageway. In both cases I shouted after the drivers and despite their apparent hurry to pass me both stopped to take offence. Neither seemed to appreciate their responsibility as drivers just their right to use the road.

It saddens me whilst at the same time making me more anxious to partake of a hobby that has given me pleasure and distraction in the past. It makes me think twice (if not more) about heading out. And the second incident almost brought me to tears and turn home. I’m an uneasy rider. I’m not asking for special treatment for anyone, just a bit of give and take, a bit of respect for responsibilities so we can all use the roads in some safety (as I’ve outlined before). It seems that this is beyond a selfish few and my unease is a hidden consequence of their ignorance.

Put Down Again

Well that stirred up a few comments then. When I wrote my last post I was anticipating a response but not quite the response I received. Thank you to those of you who provided some technical insight around horse racing and particularly the welfare of horses. Whilst I understand the logic for the decisions made, I remain sceptical as to why in a multi-million pound industry the easy way out is ll too often followed. That debate will rumble on and it is not the heart of the issue that I was highlighting. Revisiting the post I can see I’d put the emphasis on the wrong detail. So let’s try again.

In Put Down, I was trying to highlight the way in which disposability seems all too easy in life unless there is some value in the thing which might be disposed and at the same time the almost arbitrary way in which that value is bestowed.  My urge to write it was from personal reflection. In all honesty, many is the time that I feel on the scrapheap myself.  Having pursued a traditional career I often now feel rudderless, put to one side – sometimes in cotton wool, sometimes in a bin liner – and given up for, if not useless then could have been better. A host of contextual factors shape this but I can’t help feeling in a last chance saloon far too often.  What do I do now? How do I reshape my life?

This is a theme – a series of recurrent questions – that has sprung up remarkably often this week. Yesterday I read Daniel Friebe’s interview with Italian cyclist Ivan Basso (unfortunately only available in hard copy in this month’s Procycling magazine). Some of you will know that Basso was the next Italian Grand Tour star until his admission to associating with the wrong “sports doctors” led to a 2 year ban. Coming back from that ban he has shown glimmers of the form which gave rise to those great expectations but has all too often failed to reach those heights again. Put aside your views on doping, riders who have doped and the appropriate length of punishment, there is something more important here. He is 34. His best years are arguably behind him. He made a misdemeanour, paid the penalty and now has a second chance. Basso comes across as a character shaped by his past, as a rider who won the Giro d’Italia, who’d finished second in the Tour de France. A rider who was expected to fulfill his career by taking the big prizes.  That he hasn’t, that time is running out, that he seems ill at ease with what that means was a familiar tale to me reflecting on my own position. Friebe outlines in the article a series of choices which Basso might make, reshaping his career in a variety of ways – again, familiar territory – but Basso seems most at ease talking not about cycling but his new project owning a Blueberry farm. A lesson for me and others (though he does have some resource to fall back on).

Today, Barcelona FC announced that their coach, Pep Guardiola, announced what had been long anticipated: he was leaving his post as manager. Guardiola is 41. He’s been manager of the Barcelona for 4 seasons. In that time he’s won the Spanish cup once, the Spanish league three times, the European Cup twice and the World Club Championship twice. An enormously successful though short managerial career. In various media outlets there was speculation about impact of the job on his life, Sid Lowe’s article spelling it out quite clearly. And today enough was enough. Why? Because Barcelona isn’t so much a football club, its an all consuming passion, a quasi-flag bearer for an autonomous region/wannabe nation. It’s motto is “Més que un club” – More than a club. And for Guardiola the vultures have been circling – they’ve lost the league title to bitter rival Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, then they lost a supposedly unlossable European Cup Semi-final to faltering Chelsea.  As is so common in football as elsewhere, memories are often short and despite past glories there is the expectation of more to come. Yet for Guardiola I can’t help feeling that there is major personal question of what to do next. He hit the heights so young, what is there left to do? Where does he go from here?

Where this takes us I am not quite sure. For me, the reflection on these two is prompted by the similarities of the environment in which I am, where world class has been the baseline, where the job is almost expected to be your life and where deviation from these parameters is seen as odd. For those looking in from the outside making a change, moving  and changing career seems like the obvious course of action. Being in that position is somewhat different with all the inherent pressures, both real and self-created. Yet there still remains the question of what to do. Feelings of low, diminished or little worth in one position can be a brake on moving forward, undermining confidence and seemingly limiting choices. And whilst work isn’t everything, unfortunately most of us have to and it therefore becomes a prominent feature of life. Admittedly improving life balance would help but being happy (happier) in work would help.

So whilst my initial post was about our disposable attitude to so many things in life, it was really underpinned by my own anxieties and fears. Hopefully this made some sense.