my last Euro Adventure was back in 2011 when I was fortunate enough to get my butt kicked in some proper kermesse (aka interval training from hell) in Belgium and Holland and to take part in several post-Tour de France city crits, the highlight being the one in Maastricht, over wet cobbles under spotlights and in front of a good 20,000 people.
a whole city smelling of beer and french fries, ringing with cheers, the delight in the eyes of the spectators as their stars whizzed by and me being in amongst it all.
the 2014 Euro Adventure is of another flavor altogether. this time i’m visiting family in the UK, racing two events here, then heading over to Belgium on the 3rd of April to go work for PezCycling News at the Tour of Flanders, E3 Scheldeprijs and finally on to Mecca, otherwise known as Paris-Roubaix.
hallelujah, hellelujah, the bells are ringing and i am coming home. i know this is gonna sound delusional but that i am not actually racing these events is going to annoy me quite a bit. but heck, next best thing right? my remit from PEZ is to report on what it feels like to be there, which sounds like a Gonzo Mission to me if ever i heard one.
so i fully expect to be plastered on Rochefort 10 for the whole trip and writing according to the rhythms of that most beautiful of liquids as it works its magic on my central nervous system. if i awake the day after Roubaix in the Arenberg Forest in a tree with nothing on except a giant foam orange top hat and green galoshes, it will be Mission Accomplished
look out folks, i’m going Gonzo.
i will have to stay sober for at least part of it all though, as i’ll be taking part in the Tour of Flanders ‘Sportif’ (i call it the ‘sportif’ cos i’m gonna be racing all the way on that one, even if i’m the only one in the ‘race’), also riding the Gent-Wevelgem U23 course, and taking on 17 sections of the fabled cobbles of Roubaix.
the trip is part of a package tour supplied via Richard Pestes at PezCycling News and Velo Classic Tours, run by Peter Easton. you can see the ‘Cobbled Classics’ itinerary on their site, it’s mouth-watering… and maybe a little tear-inducing, considering all the cobbles and 30% climbs in there…
so, i’m back in the UK now, after 7 years on the run. all i can say is, man, people got fat. like, fat as flip. the Americanisation of our bodies continues apace.
Google Earth is out, it’s Google Girth these days, if you zoom in on any English town.
what else? the price of things – i say this at the risk of sounding my age – has gone nuts. 6 quid for fish and chips? 3 quid for a coffee? yet at the same time the government’s austerity measures (aka screwing the poor) and the stagnation of salaries combine to wreak havoc on people’s lives. it’s tangible, the hurt, and it is upsetting to see the places i know falling apart at the seams. England has always been shabby and dog-eared, as long as i’ve known it, but there was a whiff of solidarity and rebellion amidst the North when i was a kid, and that feels like that’s dissipated. or rather, been beaten down.
there is a violence within policy, in decisions made by bureaucrats who live in another place altogether, we see it everywhere, all over the world. it’s slow-drip, and often the most damaging of all because no one sees it until its effects are irreversible.
and then we come, awkwardly, to the riding. let’s just say the weather has been less than clement, and that i’ve been soaked to the bone twice now, had my iphone’s ‘waterproof’ case invade by H20 molecules (stuck it in basmati rice for 12 hours and rescued it, amazingly enough), but on two days the grey skies opened up and after the sun’s rays had only half-burned my retinas the beauty of the Lancashire landscape unfolded before me like an impossible promise made good.
the dry stone walls, architectural wonders in themselves, flank the road as ancient sentinels standing proud, behind which are fields of rolling green which seem designed to assuage the mind of its modern worries, flecked for miles with white dots of sheep and hungry gulls. the moorlands beckon further ahead, burnt orange and brown, the wind whipping over them creating its own music, haunting in a way yet nothing more than timeless.
you don’t listen to music when you’re riding here. the land takes you in, not the other way round. it is so beautiful and i had forgotten how much i missed it, or perhaps i’d forced myself to forget. 15 years away in Asia and filled with a lifelong yearning for experience that has taken me far and wide, this trip has confirmed to me that this is in fact my home. this land is in me, and i have no choice in the matter whatsoever.
the highlight so far has been seeing my family and my new little niece, Etta, but second was the trip to Chipping, a small village near the Trough of Bowland. in my memory for so many years, 25 in fact, was the carrot cake at the cafe there. i went in, sat down, ordered a pot of tea and a slice of carrot cake, and – you know how so often, when revisiting things or places that you’ve kept on a pedestal in your mind can disappoint when you eat, see or hear them again? well, this did not – it was still the best carrot cake i’ve ever had.
the staff had no idea of the momentousness of that slice of cake, and i liked that.
i wiped the plate clean with my finger, bid the waitress farewell, and then headed over country lanes and steep little climbs with a smile on my face.
without having discovered the bike, i’d have never met Eric Simcox, who took me to Chipping when i was 15. i’d have never gone into that cafe nor ordered the carrot cake without his recommendation. and i’d never have gone back there to revisit that picturesque little town either, without the bike.
thank you, bicycle, for more than you can know.
and so, i’m sat here writing this at 9:36am on Saturday morning. in a little over 5 hours i will be racing in my first race in the UK in 22 years, in the exact same crit event where i won my last ever race in England.
funny how things work out eh? wish me luck.
(that day i won 6 Eccles cakes and a Coca-Cola headband, i hope things have stayed exactly the same!)
the ride to Chipping, first time on the GoPro, got a tad foggy and lost the best footage. hopefully will improve!