Friday, 9 February 2018

Did Chris Froome cheat?

Asthma. A subject I'm reasonably familiar with as I have had the condition to varying degrees since I was a child. I can honestly say it's probably the only thing I would change about myself if I could.

Then there is Chris Froome, a subject I know little about, but in common with most armchair enthusiasts, it's not going to stop me having an opinion. I have admired his achievements but I'm not particularly a fan. He's too good, not enough frailty in a cycling sense, and lacks that approachability in his public persona for my taste.

I once saw him come past me at a frankly blistering pace atop the Port de Pailheres, on his way to winning the yellow jersey at Ax Trois Domaines, on a very hot day in  2013. He was so fast that I only caught his name from the typing on his jersey.

Of course, the asthma and Froome are now inextricably linked. I know that Salbutamol is often used as a masking agent for other performance-enhancing drugs, but I also know that if you have asthma it's nearly impossible to get an advantage over people who don't have it by taking more and more of the stuff.

Let me explain what Asthma is like. It's an autoimmune condition, meaning the body's own defences, designed to attack foreign invaders, actually attack the body itself, leading to a constriction of the airways in your lungs, a reduced lung capacity, and difficulty breathing. The allergic response can be triggered by foreign bodies, like dust, cat hair, or (in my case) a virus, like a cold or flu virus. Which is why I get a free flu jab on the NHS every year.

The allergic response is not consistent and can vary in intensity and duration. When I was a kid if I got a cold, I was bed-bound for a fortnight, as I could barely get enough oxygen into my lungs to walk to the end of the room. Every breath was a struggle. On a few occasions I have had to use the services of a nebuliser, a device where a mask is placed over your mouth and nose, and you inhale a gaseous form of salbutamol and steroids for a 10 minute period.

On quite a few occasions I have had to take oral steroids to cope with an attack, and on times too numerous to count I have had to resort to my blue reliever of Ventolin (the proprietary name for salbutamol). I also have an inhaler that pumps a little bit of steroid (50mg per puff) into my lungs. I'm supposed to take it every day, and when I do it does make a bit of difference. But I often forget, and I don't like taking drugs really, they remind me of my weakness.

Generally the fitter I am, the less severe the asthma. But if I put extreme stress on my body, it can trigger exercise-induced asthma. But no matter how fit I am, or how much sleep I have had, or how much weight I've lost, or how good my diet is, my lung capacity will never be as good as an equivalent specimen as me without asthma. Never. No matter what drugs I take.

So has Chris Froome been cheating? Of course it depends on how you define that. If he has been using salbutamol to mask other drug-taking then of course he has. Normally it would be easy, has he broken the rules? But because asthma is so complex, the rules around it are very ambiguous, shades of nuance on top of shades of grey, with multiple options. Which is why it is taking so long.

My gut feel is that he probably took too many puffs because he was gasping for breath. But that is a hypothesis with no evidence. Whatever the reality, we will probably never know and he will probably always protest innocence. But before you condemn him too harshly , try stuffing a few cotton wall balls in your mouth, wrap a towel over your mouth and nose and then cycle up a vey big hill in 30C heat. That's what asthma is like.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

My head's above the rain and roses

They say things come in threes. You know, them. Those that know these things. I hope they're right. I've had three bike-related incidents this year, one in the mountains, one on the ice, and one in a car with a garage door. Don't ask.

But this year has also three sad departures of people I have known and worked with. Not best buddies, but people I liked, respected and admired. One of whom used to arrive on his bike at about the same time as me at work, and work was the last thing we talked about.

48 years old. No words can really express the desperate sadness of this type of thing, no matter how often they are repeated. And as something I saw said recently, when you are dead, you don't know you are dead. It is difficult only for the others.

It is the same when you are stupid.

I'll let that sink in for a bit.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Meanwhile, keep breathing.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Six reasons why a mandatory helmet law is a bad idea

Beliefs. Opinions. Values. Attitudes. All that malarkey, I fear I'm about to be engulfed by a tidal wave of them. But before that happens I thought I'd turn my keyboard to a little solid evidence from some research.

On the subject of cycle helmets. This article gives more background, and included within it are its sources, links to various other articles, and critically, the real research behind the six reasons I'm going to set out below. I've chosen six because there are never any lists with six things in it, but in reality the true number is a lot bigger.

I hope my more logical friends will be proud of me.

Six reasons why introducing a mandatory helmet law is a bad idea.

1. It puts people off cycling

Study after study after study, shows cycling is good for you. If you make it harder, or people perceive it is, they won't do it. "As easy as riding a bike", isn't that what they say? If you make people have to wear helmets, fewer will ride bikes. And all the evidence from places where they have done that proves that. The cost of that is more heart attacks, cancer Type 2 diabetes, with all the health damage that ensues.

2. They don't help that much

Helmets don't actually protect you from the injuries you are likely to get from falling of by yourself, in those circumstances it's broken arms, hips, collar bones and (as I know) dislocated shoulders. They do help you if your head hits a windscreen, but not if a car wheel goes over your head. Most injuries sustained by cyclists where motor vehicles are involved are to legs, abdomen and chest. And making a cyclist wear a helmet isn't going to help there, better to focus on the cause of the accidents - driver behaviour.

3. They cause no reduction in head injuries

Evidence from Australia, New Zealand and other places with mandatory laws has actually shown head injuries to cyclists going up...

4. Other groups are more at risk

Like car drivers & passengers, pedestrians, even football players. If one activity is singled out, what is that about? Some perception of the need for fairness, rather than carefully thought-through requirement for public safety?

5. Rotational force

Most severe head injuries that cyclists suffer are to do with rotational force not impact. Helmets might actually make this worse, they certainly can't protect you from it

6. Risk compensation

Lots of evidence that cyclists alter their behaviour because they perceive they are actually protected by their helmet, which actually makes them more likely to have an accident and an injury. (see also - a helmet saved my life!)

I wear one? Why? Well for the same reason that I wear anything on the bike, to fit in with the tribe, colour-co-ordinate and look stylish of course. I am under no illusion that it will help me much if a brain-dead idiot runs into me, or if I mis-judge that hairpin on the way down the Peyresourde.

Happy pedalling!

Sunday, 12 November 2017


Dream. What a word that is. A command? A noun? A hope? The stuff that goes on in your head in the night, weird, wonderful or frightening. Sometimes all three at the same time.

Right now I should be putting some air in my tyres and water in my bottles and heading out into the fresh air I purport to love. I popped my head out the door twenty minutes ago and the biting wind and bitter temperature was enough to snuff out my wilting enthusiasm for a bike ride. It wasn't high to start with. Such a contrast to this time last year.

And I have big dreams of accomplishment on the bike for 2018. Right now these seem a long way away, as I slothfully type away and contemplate my increasing waistline and conjoined heart disease risk. Especially as I've done fewer miles so far this year compared to any year since forever. 2013 anyway.

Part of this was by design. Fewer but better miles accompanied by gym work, losing weight and a focus on power. For a time it was all working. And the results came with it. But like most examples of under-performance and decline, it starts in your head.

And that's where it still rests.

The search for excuses is easy, and I have a good selection to choose from. There's a lot going on. This week has been very busy and crashing the car into a garage door doesn't help. Especially as it was all my own work. Or all of the other busy, stressful and complicated and things going on around me. I remarked this time last year that life seems to be getting faster and more complicated as I get old. Which seems to be a reversal of what I perceived to be the natural order of things.

I've always needed new experiences and get bored easily. And when faced with a cold wind, how easy is it to turn to the comfort of the TV and the sofa?

I'm not complaining. No, really. I have a very good life in comparison to 99.99% of the people on this planet.  I still have a life, a good one. I really know its preciousness. November 5th always reminds me of that. Yes, I meant the 5th.

So as ever, what's to be done. A rest? Some mountain biking? More music?

I'm not looking for your answers, well-meant though they will be. I'm trying to understand my complex, devious and clever self-sabotaging mind, and writing about it helps. This is not a time for incisive analysis through asking the right questions. I don't want platitudes, helpful but well-meant suggestions, or any parallels with your situation.

Only I can do this.

I might start by going for a good walk after breakfast. At least I'll be in the fresh air I purport to love.

Or I might just wallow for a bit. And dream.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

"Despicable Scroat kills Mum"

The headline might as well be "Despicable Scroat kills Mother of two", and on the face of it Charlie Alliston looks like a pretty unpleasant character. Especially when portrayed next to his victim. But look a bit deeper and there are very disquieting factors and undercurrents at play in this case.

Martin Porter, QC, has written an excellent piece on his blog and goes into some depth about the various legal aspects of it. I strongly urge you to click this link and and read it. It is also covered in the Guardian.

I have a slightly more visceral take on the whole thing. This evening in the five miles of urban cycling commuting between my office and the edge of Long Ashton, seven pedestrians stepped out into my path while I was cycling on the road or on a clearly designated exclusive and separate cyclepath (ie not a shared path). That number excludes over a dozen who walked across a pedestrian crossing when the road light was green and pedestrian "man" was red, as I approached it. It also excludes the group of girls strung out across the road as I approached Long Ashton estate (they'd chosen to walk on a quiet road rather than the pavement) nor does it include the runner listening to music on earbuds who ran across my path in Long Ashton.

I also had to brake hard and swerve around the bonnet of a car that pulled out from a side road, who also fortunately saw me as I shouted loudly at the driver through his open window. He was looking the other way. He stopped as he heard me, his car half in and half out of the junction. If he had failed to stop, and he had not seen me, I would have been unable to stop in time and would have rolled across his car. If I was lucky.

That was not an untypical commute.

Whilst Charlie Alliston may be a particularly stupid and immature man, he has been harshly treated. Had his saddle height been a fraction lower his bike would not have required a front brake, and would therefore have been road legal, like many other fixies. And though remorse does have an impact on sentencing, it should have no place in charges and prosecution.

I expect pedestrians to be stupid so ride accordingly. But one day my luck may run out and I may hit and kill one. If this prosecution and its consequences are allowed to stand, it could be any of us that face furious cycling or manslaughter charges.

And if the criteria for manslaughter charges are now to be applied consistently, can we expect more of the (on average) 500 drivers a year that kill pedestrians to be charged with that offence?

Friday, 18 August 2017

We need new dreams tonight

Have you ever been on a plane, and just as you are getting into the film, the plane lands and you have to get off?

Well, that happened to me this morning, or last night, or sometime in the strange time-zone warp I was in. I may have to go and buy the film on DVD to find out how it ended. And of course this is a metaphor for the trip to the States we've just made.

But telling stories about America never ends.

So much has been, is being, written about America, it's almost impossible to say anything that is either new or prescient. I have hundreds of photos, Museum tickets by the dozen, memories a-plenty. All in a line, waiting for the elevator to take them to be smacked out of the ballpark.

I'll just focus on three things for you. If you are interested in more, come to the slide show...

The flag.

It's everywhere now. 22 years ago, when we last went, I just don't remember it's ubiquity. Is it strident nationalism running amok? Civic pride? Some kind of reclamation of a pride in its overseas adventures? I don't know. And although these pictures are mainly on public sites, the flag seems to be outside at least 30-40% of private houses, and all over many other places.

And the glorification of the military is treading on a thin line between healthy appreciation, and outright glorification.


No pictures on this one. But people are as massive as the portion sizes. We only ate twice a day, we couldn't keep up with the relentless conveyor belt of high carb, high sugar and grain fare that came with every order.

And on the TV the ad breaks are filled with medical remedies that "you should ask your physician about". Although half of them spent longer talking about the side effects of treatments that most Americans probably will soon not be able to afford, and could be rendered pointless by a good dose of riding a bike.


Almost everyone we met was friendly. OK some of it was commercially-driven, but most wasn't. I particularly enjoyed chatting to people about things I was interested in, they were always happy to chew the fat. Be it about their new President, the Battle of Gettysburg or why the security outside the White House has gone nuts (although not outside the Capitol, which tells a story I think), from ordinary folk, to officialdom, pretty much everyone was nice.

Which kind of makes me wonder why America has become so unpopular. As a nation they really have done more for Liberty than just about anyone. Think about the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Civil War, the Second World War and (eventually) civil rights, and the ideals they embody, and it adds up to a lot. I know there have been some bumps along the way (and they do try and airbrush a lot of that - like slavery, and the decimation of native American populations and rights), but even that is changing as we saw at the African American Museum.


Combine that tradition of freedom, with a bit more of the natural charm, and a bit less of the swagger, maybe some more exercise, and I'd say that might make a recipe for a damn fine nation.

What do you think?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Nobody knows the way it's going to be

There is a much deeper hue to the blueness of the sky in the Pyrenees. I think it may be something to do with the latitude and the angle of the sun, but it's one of the things I always look forward to about visiting the South of France.

Of course, I have some deep ancestral memories encoded into my DNA, and given my ancestors flight from religious persecution, I retain that sympathy and romantic association for the doomed Cathar cause. Nothing symbolises that better than the ruined stump of a castle that sits just off the Route des Corniches.

This was taken two years ago, on my third, and probably worst-performing ride across the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Med. I'm not sure this picture captures the blue though. Unfortunately I didn't get time to capture a better picture when I cycled up there last Saturday.
Our bodies are wonderful things, and if we look after them, put the right things into them, rest them and test them in the right proportions, they will generally tend to function pretty well. This year I had changed quite a lot in relation to my cycling, with the underlying desire to get more enjoyment from riding, and through that, more enjoyment from life. I had employed the services of a Power meter, which had certainly had an impact, and been a bit more focussed at both the gym and on the road.
I'd even had the sense to ride a bit less, not get caught up in churning out the junk miles, and ridden my heavier steel bike for most of this year in order to build a bit more leg strength. I'd been more disciplined with eating, cut out chocolate (mostly) cut down on sugar, lost weight (not much but a bit) been better but not perfect on getting more sleep.
Although I'd set myself a few targets on performance, I'd not been too stressy about it, but had nonetheless seen some good progress on power, and some of my targeted hill-climbing was coming along nicely. The weekend before I left for the Pyrenees, I'd done my second best-ever performance in the Dartmoor Classic (missing out on the best by a minute). 

Most of all we had set no huge challenge for our time in France, other than to simply enjoy ourselves, ride some nice climbs, watch the Tour for a day, relax, have a laugh. All in all, I was pretty pleased with myself.

Everybody's on the Run

I hate airports. I'm not very keen on flying, it's the residual parental conditioning my Dad had about death in a plane crash. So I treated myself to some new headphones, ones that cut out all other noise. They worked pretty well too, screening out the stag parties, the duty-free offers, and flooding me with the soothing tones of the Boy from Burnage. After all the preparation, it was finally time to escape to the deep blue skies of the Ariege.

After the flight, it was time to meet up with Monmarduman, and go for a quick spin around the block to Foix, lucky I did as we discovered one of my tyres had deformed in transit. We also discovered a castle!!! Always a bonus, and one that dominates the town and the view from our accommodation and hosts at Cycle Pyrenees in Vernajoul.

A better place to play

The Plateau de Beille has been described as "an invasion of human rights", personally I found it tough and long, but not too bad. Certainly the views are spectacular from said Route des Corniches. And of course the view at the top is always better than the one at the start of the climb. Let's face it, no matter how hard these climbs are, it's much, much better than being at work.

Where were you when we were getting high?

Did I mention the Tour de France? The toughest annual sporting event on the planet, synonymous with French culture, a beautiful spectacle and coming to a town near me. Well Stage 13 was wholly in the Ariege, by coincidence too, as our booking had pre-dated the announcement. It would have been rude not to ride the course.

Some nice valley riding heralded a new climb for me, Col de Latrape,  but it was a gentle warm-up before the misty and tougher-than-it looks Col d'Agnes. The Col de Peguere is well-known in these parts, but I'm pleased to say that I was hitting PBs on all of the segments I had done before and feeling particularly joyful about the prospect of the long, sinuous descent into Foix.

A great day.

Whatever you do, whatever you say, yeah I know it's all right

Cycling in France is a hideously joyful experience, that sometimes pushes you to the very edge of bliss. Had it been sunny on this day I might well have died of happiness. We decided to have an easy day, cycle over to a local village called Mirepoix, have a coffee, a baguette, see a church or two, cycle back, watch the highlights.

Which is what we did. But we may have laughed out loud a lot as well....

You can't give me the dreams that are mine anyway

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. A cycling trip with no cycling? Whatever next? Freedom? Happiness? Relaxing? What do you think this is, a holiday?

Not every day the Tour comes to a town you are in on Bastille Day, so time to soak up the atmosphere, have lunch, watch the racing over the route we did a couple of days before, and, whisper it quietly, enjoy ourselves. The day was all topped off nicely by joining in the village celebrations, warding off questions about Brexit, and preparing for the big day of the week.

The wheels of your life have slowly fallen off

I only took two pictures. The day had been going so, so well. Another PB up to the Route des Corniches, the plan was to ride its entire length before dropping to Ax, up to the Col de Chioula and into the remote areas near Montsegur, the greatest of all Cathar strongholds. The weather was hot but not blistering, forecast was perfect, it was tranquil and we were both at the top of our game.

I don't exactly know what stung my earlobe. A wasp, or a bee, or a hornet most likely. But it was big, noisy and quickly painful.

Within three minutes I knew I was in trouble, within five minutes I could see and feel it. Swellings, hives, hot skin, across all of my body, not just the place I was stung.

I've had allergies in the past, I've even had severe ones, a full-blown anaphylactic shock was how I discovered my nut allergy. My whole thigh once swelled up after a bee sting, but that had taken three days, not three minutes.

I was just pleased that Stuart is both so calm and practical in a crisis, and also a very, very good liar. He told me I looked a bit ropey, but essentially OK, and that helped. The next day he told me I looked like I'd been beaten about the head, but that was in the future.

I won't plague you with the full detail of how we ended up in Luzenac, about 15km from where I was stung, suffice to say it was the most nervous bike ride of my life. The helpful tourist official in the office there, Stuart, the Sapeurs Pompiers and the ED at Foix hospital, combined with anti-histamines and corticosteroids all got my rampant immune system under control, and out of any possible danger. I'm told the adrenaline whilst cycling was helpful too.

Keep on chasing down that rainbow, you'll never know what you might find

The Doctor told me not to ride my bike for a few days, so the big long ride into remote areas was out of the question, but a little café ride? Of course that would be fine. Anyway, it was our last day, and most of the allergy had subsided, just a bit of a rash on my neck, chest...I'm sure it will be fine.

And it was.

We even got the sky. On a lovely rolling day in the foothills to the impressive Grotto at Maz d'Azil.


I've got a lot of things to learn

One of which is that it might be a good idea to carry my Epipen with me at all times. But is there more?

A great holiday. Gratitude. The colour blue. Good music is timeless. The importance of calm friends. Most of all, take your blessings where you find them. Know what is important, and what isn't. Usual stuff.

A bientot.