Flamme Rouge

And so we reach the end of this particular journey. In cycling parlence I am under the red kite and in the final kilometre of this stage of the reclaim. For some a while now I have been contemplating how to keep this blog going. After much thought, various ideas and endless procrastination I reached the decision before Christmas that Reclaiming the AbandonedBicycle had reached a natural conclusion. Since then I have been waiting for the last few moves to be reeled back in, for certain pieces of this jigsaw to fall into place before writing this final piece.

Over the last 3 years I have tried to be honest with you all about the journey I have been on. Looking back the journey has been an interesting adventure. It’s been traumatic and painful at times but I also have to admit that it has been fun.

I started this blog in the build up to my first sportive but overtime it became something more than that, a place for me to put my own feelings down on paper and to share my experiences. I’ve explored lots of thoughts and concerns, reflecting on the world around me and commenting on issues which have made me think. Cycling has never been far away from the topic of conversation and it has proved a useful focus and apt metaphor.

Some of you have been along for the duration of the ride (which must be like watching the entirety of a rather long and mundane Tour de France stage on Eurosport) and I thank you for your kinds words of support and encouragement here and through other communication channels. Others have dipped in and out or caught the occasional post because of the subject matter. I have never ceased to be humbled by the support you have all provided. I never wanted to become nor do I want to be now a standard bearer for mental health or depression. But one thing has become clear, this blog has been a help to others in similar circumstances. I hope that this blog remains here to be a resource for others in the future to know they are not alone and to speak up to themselves and to those around them. And to think that 3 years ago I thought it would be cyclists who would find it an interesting read.

And so we near the end. Today I can say with more confidence than when I started that I am a happier person. I am a different person.  know myself better though not perfectly. I am aware of what I don’t want and am taking more pleasure in finding out what I do want. I know how to handle stress and anxiety better, I can deal with more of what life throws at me and accept that this sometimes – often! – means avoiding certain situations and dodging some of balls that life throws in my direction. That no longer feels like failure, in a peverse way for some this is success. As I read in an interesting blog yesterday, this is me.

What now? As ever cyclist and cycling fan knows the end of the stage is but a respite before the next action begins, be that the next stage the following day or the next race in the weeks to come. For me this means some new challenges. In December I became Dr AbandonedBicycle as I passed my PhD – a small milestone which tops off a 13 year research career. And with this under my belt I am moving to a new job in April which builds on the expertise of this but takes me in a new and challenging direction. I continue to take photos, finding a new enthusiasm and a re-emerging creative streak now I feel less pressure to “make it work” (keep an eye on www.abandonedbicyclephotography.co.uk for new blogging adventures). I now bake bread once a week, it is my attempt at mindfulness. And though the bike has been abandoned for the last few months in favour of Shanks’ pony I’m sure the spring will see me hit the roads once again. I think that’s plenty to be getting on with.

And so this is not the end but another beginning. Hopefully we will all meet at some point during the next stage. Now where’s that start village coffee and newspaper?

A visit to an American Zero

Today’s post is a tale of two parts.

Last Wednesday night, with MrsAB arriving home late from London and reminding me that I should do more to please myself (code I think for “get off your arse!”), I took myself off to the cinema. I’m lucky, I have a great independent cinema near where I live and like all independents it shows some great and lesser screened films – and you get to take your drinks in with you. With all that going for it there is only one snag: I hate going on my own. It’s quite irrational when you think about it: you go to a cinema to sit in the dark, in silence and watch a film – what other activity is better suited to solitude?  So on Wednesday, for the second time, I pushed through that wall and it felt good.

Andy why? Because, in the second part of this tale, I saw an inspirational and touching story, Searching for Sugar Man. The film tells the story of Rodriguez, a Mexican-American folk musician, born in Detroit and described as being better than Bob Dylan. With these things stacked in his favour you’d be forgiven for wondering how his success had somehow passed you by. That’s the twist: it hasn’t. He released 2 albums, neither did well. In an ironic nod to one of the last song recorded for his second album he was dropped by his record label two weeks before Christmas. The story finishes with his apparent suicide – some say he doused himself in petrol and burnt himself on stage, others that he shot himself after his “final” gig. That seemed to be the end of Rodrigeuz.

I wonder…

That is unless you are South African. Whilst the rest of the world paid scant interest, South Africans started to take an interest in his music. The lyrics spoke for young people growing up in an expressionless society. Under apartheid social control was everywhere, as one person in the film alludes to, it was a military state. A song that includes the line “I wonder how many times you had sex” was taboo for a government which thought television was communist and became an unlikely source of rebellion for South Africa’s youth. His records were censored on radio and were passed around on bootlegged tapes. Rodriguez had become a (seemingly) posthumous anti-apartheid icon.

Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this morn

But that’s not the end of the tale. The film charts the musicological search by two South African’s to find out what happened to Rodrigeuz. Were those stories of a public suicide true? It won’t spoil the film if I tell you that he is alive and well – any internet search will reveal that for you. And whilst the search is interesting but it is the end that moves. Here is a man who for three decades has been living a normal Detroit existence, an American zero, but who for millions of people on another continent is a hero. Ultimately it is these feelings which come through in the film. The awe with which Rodriguez and the two thousand in the crowd in his South African “comeback” is mutual, both surprised yet excited to see each other. Yet there’s a more moving side to this story. Rodriguez remains an unassuming character, living life in a Detroit suburb in an ordinary house. Despite his records sales in South Africa he has never had much money. He has few possessions but he has his family and friends, he has his self spirit and a concern for others and he has his love on music.

The film struck a chord for me. I find it strange the way in which many of us (by which I mean me in particular) search for elusive success and assume that if we don’t see that success then we’ve failed. Here is a moving and inspirational story of someone who tried and failed in those conventional terms. Yet he succeeded in so many other ways and in taking that trip to the cinema, so did I.

And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams

Living through the dark – a reflection on David Millar’s Autobiography

“The man is greater than his victories and defeats, the man is worth more than the cyclist…In the champion beats the heart of a boy…a heart that needs normality and cannot be sacrificed to exploitation.”

Bishop Antonio Lanfranchi’s eulogy at Marco Pantani’s funeral.

Like Marmite, David Millar splits opinion. Unlike Marmite the categories of opinion don’t split neatly into a neat like/hate split. I know, I’ve got various shades running through the other 3 members of my family. So his biography – Racing Through the Dark – was always bound to please and annoy people to varying degrees. For me, this book made a lasting impact as much for its lessons in life as its revelations about cycling culture. Long awaited by some, bound to be dismissed by others, I was interested to read what was rightly or wrongly billed as the confessions of a poacher turned gamekeeper. What I didn’t expect was the honesty with which the book is written (though I appreciate some of you will immediately question that) and the insight into the life of someone under immense pressure. Nor did I expect any of this to relate to my life in such a strong way.

Millar’s choice of preface for his book is quite apt and shouldn’t be dismissed as trite. It is the euology from Marco Pantani’s funeral, the sentiments of which show that whilst a man is culpable we should not ignore the context in which he makes his mistakes. I can see why some would object to this. For some it smacks of a cop out, the dopers’ club feeling absolved through divine intervention.  But read those lines again and they make a lot of sense. The pressure of modern life in general and in particular a job which shapes them into something they hadn’t necessarily wanted to be is not just the stuff of professional cycling. It is something that touches many of us and is most definitely something that I have strongly felt in recent years. And whilst some will point out that if we feel like this we should go and do something else, this course of action is not so easy to do. And when you feel that what you are doing is in some way your calling, a devotion if you like, breaking the chain might almost be seen as a failure.

Racing through the Dark is not only an open account of the dark side of professional cycling but an honest account of how it affects the athlete psychologically, the pressure placed on the athlete to succeed (by themselves, by team management and sponsors and by team mates to name a few) and their abandonment by those who pushed them into their moment(s) of madness (see previous list). It is an honest account of the frailty of being human and our abilities to act irrationally – even if our action at the time seem to us rational in the context.

The drive for success has been all consuming for many professional cyclists.The physical consequences of a professional career can be seen in many an ex-rider. Yet despite the repeated patterns of depression, drug and alcohol abuse and even suicide amongst ex-pros, the psychological impact is somewhat ignored.  This is true of most professional/elite sport as exemplified recent events in football. And it is equally true in everyday life.  Pushing ourselves to the limit to do “our best” (working long hours, taking work home (literally and mentally), constantly networking) often takes it toll in all to readily unforeseen ways besides the physical symptoms. In this book, Millar makes a a clear recognition of the hitherto unstated link between the two.  Millar was lucky to realise before it was too late, others have not been so lucky. Take the case of Frank Vandenbroucke:

“That experience [taking EPO] had an impact on me. I began to think of myself as two separate entities: mind and body. My body was a tool that was capable of things that I previously hadn’t thought possible. Now I know why Frank Vandenbroucke was always pushing the envelope and seeing how far he could go. It was a game, in which he played God with his own body. And in the process, Frank lost his mind.”

No excuse is offered for what Vandenbroucke did – Millar reflects on the implications of VDBs actions for him as a teammate – but it tries to place what happened to him in an objective context. It is quite easy to see how and why professional athletes cheat and dope. It is part of the drive where the conscious and unconscious become blurred and a fight or flight response develops to the environment.  Many have put this down to selfishness but whilst cyclists are self-driven to succeed many have self-doubts and are surrounded by others who want to assist in this success. Although many of these helpers do so by fair means there are some who adopt the foul.  Millar quotes Matt White (ex-pro and one time Garmin directeur sportif whose employment was terminated after questionable use of a non-team doctor) on his coaching of non-cyclists:

“It’s easy. Athletes are all the same…They’re all insecure. You just gotta make ’em feel good.”

The insecurity is the key. Build up confidence and make the athlete believe in themselves. And if certain products are needed then so be it. So what insecurity do we mean? Insecurity that you are not as good as others think is one, insecurity that you can’t win is another. But what about job insecurity? Professional sport is not reknowned for its stability of employment and to keep your job there is pressure to do what you are told.  For Millar there was pressure to win to keep a sponsor for a team and employer for his teammates, a team within which there was an established culture of doping and in a sport where at that time drug taking was seemingly not only tolerated but expected. When faced with the need to win, with support provided by those who already cheat and with an employer prepared to turn a blind eye until things are found out, the reasons why a rider might dope no longer come down simply to ego. Whilst this is no excuse how many of you can say you have not been put under pressure at work to do things which bend if not break the rules? Recently I was told by someone working as an electrician for a large “solutions provider” that although there are set safety procedures which include turning off the power before doing work, electricians are regularly told to carry on on live circuits to save time and inconvenience. There are few qualms about the safety of the worker in the face of competition. Yes the worker can do the job by the book but what happens when they don’t hit the targets they are set? For me this is a similar situation that faces professional athletes. It is not an excuse for doping per se but begins to explain the pressure leading to that decision. There is a context to every action yet so often we fail to see the whole picture.

For me Millar is a good guy who did a bad thing. To that end he is human. And whilst some will question if Millar is telling the whole truth in this book, Racing Through the Dark goes a long way to providing an insight into the wider context of doping in professional sport and cycling in particular. It exposes the psychology of the athlete, the pressures from those around him and the continued lack of focus by the authorities on the systems which enable this to persist.  Millar doped, he confessed and he did his time. He apologised, returned to the sport and is now working to make a positive difference. There will remain those for whom his past misdemanour is enough for some to write him off for good but hold your hands up if you’ve never made a mistake and been given a second chance. His sometimes messianic words rankle with others but this is equally his passion. And though Bradley Wiggins and other British riders can be upheld as clean and commendable examples for young people, for me Millar is equally a positive example and one we need to learn from. In making a mistake he learnt a lesson and in working hard to make amends he is exposing the realities of why athletes dope and exposing many of the unanswered questions which have to be addressed if cycling is to win it’s battle against drugs.

But Racing Through the Dark is more than a sporting autobiography, it is an enlightening tale of the competing pressures made on us by everyday life. And though it provides few answers, in exposing the wider context in which we make our decisions and our mistakes, it is a useful set of lights when riding through the dark of life.

Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar is published by Orion (ISBN 9781409120384)

On days like this

On days like this I’d rather be outdoors, soaking up the sun and generally feeling better about most things in life. Instead, I’m sat at the desk, finishing a PhD for which I have minimal motivation and only a modicum of devotion. Add to this a dash of feeling physically rotten and we have ourselves a recipe for frustration. As you will have gathered I don’t rest easily on the decisions I’ve made. Therefore turning down a time on the bike in order to recuperate, though the logical decision, leaves me mulling over the what-ifs. One day I will learn. Until then I will sit wondering about the time I could have had in the sun.

Feeling let down?

Ask MrsAB and it is an understatement to say I was disappointed on Saturday afternoon. A hard day’s work photographing a wedding and I receive a text with the news that Mark Cavendish had not won the Olympic road race. Not only that but the gold medalist is a cyclist who, despite his panache, is clouded by controversy. No, I was pretty dejected. But if I was, imagine being in the shoes of the five Team GB riders who put their all into that day’s racing. And then imagine being told that despite working so hard and against the spoiling tactics (for want of a better phrase) of your main opponents, you are labelled failures. And this, less than a week after one of those riders had won a certain French bike race, one had finished second and another had capped off 3 stage wins with his 4th in a row on a Parisian Boulevard. Fickle barely does this justice.

So let’s look at this from two perspectives of how to let down your nation.

The first is the way that teams rode the race. The British quintet rode with one thing in mind: getting Mark Cavendish to the line in a position to unleash his trademark sprint. They rode on the front of the race for most of the day and once the break had gone worked tirelessly to bring this back. In doing so they were helped little by others in the race. Put quite bluntly, some nations chose to lose the race themselves so that Cavendish didn’t win  either. If I was a fan from one of those nations rather than gleefully celebrating the disappointment of your opponent I would be feeling slightly let down by my team’s negative tactics. But that is bike racing, of which more in a moment.

The second persepctive is through the eyes of our own nation’s media. In the days leading up to the race Mark Cavendish had been portrayed as not just an odds-on favourite for the gold medal but a dead cert. How the press fuel the fires of confidence. Even the IOC President was reported as wanting Cavendish to win. No pressure there then.

Criticism of Mark Cavendish & Team GB

Voluminously negative headlines

So what happens when we “lose”. WalesOnline described Cavendish as a “flop”. The Sun’s well known cycling commentator Steven Howard claimed “the much-hyped home road race team miscalculated woefully to ruin our first big Golden dream”. The Daily Mail’s take: “In the morning they had already hung the gold medal around his neck. By the afternoon Mark Cavendish had sloped away from The Mall, his Olympic dreams in tatters.”  Build them up and throw them down.

Yet the BBC gets top marks for letting us down the most.  “Cavendish and co disappoint in road race” was the headline of the BBC Sports Editor’s blog piece. Cycling has consistenly delivered, he say, but “something clearly went wrong for the ‘Dream Team’ on the 250km circuit”. For us cyclists there was no one thing that went wrong, the race unfolded and the games within games within games unravelled. For those new to cycling it looked messy and that’s preceisley what a bike race is. But our journalists are more used to reporting on the success of our teams who play in more simple sports like football: two teams on a pitch defending one goal whilst attacking the other. Only cycling isn’t like that. Follow this analogy and you have upward of five or six teams and goals on the pitch, you know you have to strike at one and defend another but you aren’t sure which is which. And then they throw a few more balls at you to make life “interesting”. That’s cycle racing. Add in the weird alliances formed by differential team sizes and having your normal work colleagues riding for the other sides and it is clear to see the complexity of this “game”. I doubt David Bond has paid much attention to these complexities as they get in the way of a suitably critical and pithy piece.

Rather than report on the facts and provide measured and informed analysis, our press in large parts chose to drive heightened expectation and blame individuals rather than events when this failed to materialise. It seems some of our journalists have a lot to learn when it comes to sport, just as some of their colleagues have much to learn when it comes to everyday life. The success of the Olympics is measured in precious metal collections rather than effort, another colonial push, another expected right. A nation is left expectant and let down when it fails to deliver. Of course we want success but let’s savor that when it happens rather than before. And if it doesn’t instead of blaming our hard working athletes, the decision of officials, the course on which they ride or even the weather, let’s accept that this is sport, it is life, that we cannot plan its every turn.

The only people who have let us down are those sections of the press who build our athletes up and drop them when they fail to meet those expectations. Under a veneer of respectability they act like cyber trolls but get away with it unless we begin to ignore their callous calls. Whilst I feel disappointed by the result of this one race, I feel great pride in our riders. I just feel totally let down by our press and media – but what’s new with that?