Paris Roubaix – the photos

Agincourt 2015

Agincourt 2015

This way

This way

Coffee done, back on the bike

Coffee done, back on the bike

Preparing the presentation

Preparing the presentation

Christian Prudhomme - le boss - and Gary Verity - t'boss.

Christian Prudhomme – le boss – and Gary Verity – t’boss.

Zdenek Stybar

Zdenek Stybar

The Sky train

The Sky train

A man in a hat and beard

A man in a hat and beard

Chavanel's inadvertent photos

Chavanel’s inadvertent photos

Prologue riders reach warp speed (1)

Prologue riders reach warp speed (1)

Prologue riders reach warp speed (2)

Prologue riders reach warp speed (2)

4 laps to go for the back markers

4 laps to go for the back markers

Neutral

Neutral

Motocross de la Republique

Motocross de la Republique

The race tyre

The race tyre

G starts the race to be last to the start

G starts the race to be last to the start

Suppose we'd better go then

Suppose we’d better go then

Pavé

Pavé

P1100008P1100010P1100012P1100016P1100026P1100031FP1100031HP1100031HP1100036P1100043
Winner

Winner

Knackered winner

Knackered winner

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Anything but Hell

“Nooooon. Tous les ans…!”

The elderly resident, leaning on her garden gate on the edge of Saint-Vaast-en-Cambrésis, wasn’t fussed about making the kilometre-long walk to the top of the pavé road to watch the bike race. If you’ve seen one edition of Paris Roubaix clatter past, she implied, you’ve seen them all. Less effort, and maybe more fun, to watch the clamour and confusion of British, Dutch and Belgian fans trying to negotiate the narrow road and park their cars and camper vans as courteously as possible.

From my point of view, the little exchange was a triumph. When I speak French to myself, I’m supremely confident, only a few weeks and a short application form from membership of L’Académie française. When I speak it with a native speaker, the sang-froid evaporates, and I’m only ever a jittering, misplaced sentence from Derek Trotter. This had manifested itself earlier the same day, when I had ended up with more baguettes and coffees than were strictly necessary due to the alarming similarity between the vocal sounds of “un” and “deux”. I managed to negotiate the thoroughly exasperated boulanger down from the original estimate, but still had enough spare food to delay the following week’s visit to Morrisons by a couple of days.

Yet here I was, asking politely if the lady was going to watch the race, understanding the answer, receiving the extra information that two of her neighbours were English, and making the appropriate appreciative noises. A more cynical traveller would suspect that a bakery trading at 8am on a Sunday had worked out a foolproof way of increasing revenue from slightly embarrassed tourists. Or maybe had the music turned up too loud.

This was my second visit to the Hell of the North. Last year, as I mentioned in a previous post, we had dashed into the velodrome after taking in a couple of the more northerly cobbled sections. This year I’d decided to make a weekend of it. I was pretty sure we could get from the start, via a section of pavé, to the finish in plenty of time, thanks to the excellent mechanism of running the race more or less alongside some fairly quiet motorways. And if we were going to be in Compiègne for silly o’clock on the Sunday morning, we might as well be there on the Saturday afternoon, when the riders are presented to the town and the press.

This turned into a three-day trip when I noticed that one of the larger Commonwealth war memorials was at Thiepval, just off the route from Calais. And so a quick blast down the toll motorway became a Friday afternoon trundle through surprisingly pleasant countryside, through fields, villages and small towns, across rivers, and past an unexpected proliferation of large banners in support of the Front National and Mme Le Pen.

If you’re on your way to a famous battlefield, it shouldn’t really surprise you to come across one. But we were expecting the Somme, and had no real notion of where in France we might find Agincourt. As it was, it found us, popping up on a road sign shortly after a fuel stop in Fruges. It’s called Azincourt now – maybe it always was – and the intervening 600 years have removed any trace of crying God for England and all that nonsense. Instead there’s a plaque, and a T-junction, and you need more imagination than if faced with hundreds of perfectly-placed headstones.

Who do you think you are kidding King Henry?

Who do you think you are kidding King Henry?

We arrived at Thiepval an hour or so before the museum was due to close. While the cemeteries in Flanders are notable for their horizontal scale, this memorial’s distinguishing feature is its sheer bulk, out of proportion to its surroundings in a way that isn’t as noticeable at the Menin Gate.

The only thing you can do in these places is to quietly contemplate the unimaginable, ludicrous scale of the conflict, and the excellent job the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has done in maintaining the remembrance. By the time we wandered away, the coaches had long gone and the museum was closing its doors.

Thiepval

Thiepval

We’d chosen to break our normal habit of chain hotels (which balance their blandness with a 24-hour uncomplaining reception desk, essential if your arrival time is less than predictable), and instead stayed at an auberge in a village a few miles outside Compiègne. As well as its rustic charm – which is probably an acquired taste – this provided another opportunity to practice panicked linguistics, something sadly lacking in the usual Ibis or Mercure, where the staff default to English as soon as you utter the first “bon soir”.

Saturday dawned foggy but promising. So promising, in fact, that the fog turned out to be the sort that stops abruptly after about half a mile, and leaves you wondering if it had been something in your eye. By the time we reached the town centre, it was a proper spring morning. The race infrastructure was beginning to set up around the imperial Château, and the gendarmes had begun a long day of turning cars around and sending them back in the opposite direction. After a quick stroll to get our bearings, we settled down for a coffee in La Brasserie Parisienne, one of those places that is constantly busy with streams of locals and tourists alike.

As we fought through the icing sugar to reach the crêpe beneath, the entire United Healthcare team pulled up at the end of their training ride and began ordering lavish cappuccinos and other assorted calorie-fests. Eating and drinking more or less whatever you like must be one of the benefits of cycling hundreds of kilometres every week. Passers-by stopped to photograph and chat to the team, none of whom would be recognisable to anyone outside their close circle but for the bright blue and white kit. Chris Jones, seated at the end of the group, seemed to display a bit of disdain for the interaction, but it might have been that the coffee was on the bitter side.

The closeness of the competitors to their public is one of the things that makes cycling attractive as a spectator sport. In general, Wayne Rooney, Jimmy Anderson and Lewis Hamilton will not sit down beside you at a random coffee house, or have a 200-metre walk through unfenced crowds from their car or bus to their team presentation, as happened with all the cyclists later in the afternoon.

Some take this in better humour than others. Czech champion Zdenek Stybar strode confidently through the square in his less-than-flattering team jogging suit, setting the pattern for most of his colleagues and rivals. French hero Sylvain Chavanel seemed less interested in getting to the stage then back to the bus, more than happy to stop to chat with people, and generally looked pleased to be there. Late in the proceedings, Team Sky arrived, and seemed to have perfected a completely blank look that said “I am here, but I am not here”. As on the road, Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins led the way, the former managing to look utterly vacant while staring into the selfie-lens of a young fan.

Geraint? GERAINT!

Geraint? GERAINT!

Ian Stannard, winner of the Het Nieuwsblad race earlier in the year and fellow citizen of Milton Keynes, seemed slightly more engaged in the world, but he was also less molested by the crowd. Obviously the blankness is a mechanism for the bigger stars to cope with the demands of their fame, but it can leave them looking a little diva-ish. Writing in the Scotsman the same day, Richard Moore pointed out that as far as Wiggins goes, this isn’t limited to random fans, but can extend to pre-arranged meetings. At least he didn’t go as far as Lampre rider Filippo Pozzato, who donned a puffer jacket with hood tightly fastened over and around his baseball cap, yet still failed to evade the attentions of the autograph hunters.

I normally have a bit of a rule of not pestering people who are (a) at work and (b) don’t know me, but I made an exception for Lionel Birnie, because I’m such a fan of the Cycling Podcast, which he and Moore host, together with Daniel Friebe and an assortment of Friends. There are some broadcasts I always recommend to people even if they know nothing about the subject matter, like Kermode and Mayo’s film reviews and Alan Davies’ Arsenal shows, and the Cycling Podcast has joined the list in the last year or so. What all of these programmes share is a combination of deep knowledge, irrepressible enthusiasm, and most importantly an eager willingness to take the piss just a little bit where necessary. The episode recorded the following day captured the breathless excitement surrounding the race perfectly. Because I know next to nothing about cycling, at least compared to a professional writer, the conversation mainly stuck to football. At the time of writing, we’re no nearer knowing whether one, both or neither of our teams (Middlesbrough and Watford) makes it to the Premier League without having to suffer the play-offs.

Once the team buses have packed up and headed off, Compiègne is turned over to a local race for the evening. By the time we had finished dinner (in La Brasserie again), about twenty riders were ready to spend an hour or so hurtling round a 1km circuit in the centre of town. The excitement was limited – the winner lapped the entire field – but the shouts of supporters and local families mingled with the rattle of bike chains and the clatter of wheels on cobbles to echo round the closed streets.

Leading the race

Leading the race

Race day is altogether more frantic for all concerned. In the Château forecourt, team buses jostled with TV crews and fans. Watching the general commotion from a position close to the Team Sky bus, I suddenly realised it was past the official start time. As the Sky riders emerged from their cave on wheels, I was sprinting the half-kilometre to the town hall – or at least, I sprinted the first 200 metres, before remembering that the length of time since I’d run anywhere could probably be measured in decades.

I needn’t have bothered, because it was another ten minutes before the peloton followed the scarlet commissaires’ car lazily around the square and off towards the river. As we retreated to the car, it felt like I’d ridden over ten sectors of cobbles myself, and I didn’t really recover all my breath until we were well out onto the motorway.

Underway

Underway

The thrill of the chase soon takes over when you’re following a bike race. Some fans try to “hop” to as many sectors as possible, but I was keen to get a decent spot in the Roubaix velodrome this year, hence the plan to just stick to one sector. The one I’d chosen was the second in the race, coming after 110km. For us, this translated to getting out of town, charging up 100km of motorway, negotiating the outskirts of Cambrai complete with road closures and farmers’ markets, another 20km of ever-narrowing country roads, parking in the village, restoring my faith in my conversational French, and finally walking the 1km uphill to the point where the race would pass, all in the space of two hours.

A bit of pre-planning helps, and the satnav took most of the strain, although the street market threw it completely, causing a brief strop from the driver’s seat and a bit of impromptu navigation of the “let’s head east and see if there’s another road” type. Having an extra map on the screen built into the car helps greatly for this sort of thing – it’s one of those things you never know you need until you have it.

So we got where we needed to be, when we needed to be there, and it was nearly as packed as Arenberg. Cars, vans and motorhomes of all ages and sizes lined the approach road, squeezing alongside team cars as we got nearer to the course. By the time we arrived, the first vehicles were passing, blasting people out of the way with the type of horn only ever heard on bike races, preceding a never-ending parade of urgency. Gendarmes standing on their special Paris Roubaix motocross bikes led photographers trying to hold their cameras steady, and finally a breakaway of eight riders clattered past, their arrival heralded by a TV helicopter grazing the trees alongside the road. By the time their train of cars and motorbikes had subsided, the next chopper was visible across the fields, and within a few minutes the main group was on us, arms and helmets vibrating as they tried to concentrate on staying vertical while avoiding the clouds of dust which made us cough and rub our eyes.

There had clearly been some sort of incident which had separated the pack , because a third group followed maybe ten seconds behind the back of the peloton, and then the stragglers wobbled past, a Lotto Jumbo rider almost bouncing off the bank beneath our feet as he battled what looked like a mechanical failure.

And then they were all gone, and the exodus began. Fans and team staff streamed down the cobbled trench towards the village as if discharged from the factory by the end-of-day hooter. One driver had parked facing the race, and now, confronted by a wall of traffic and humanity on a single track, did the only sensible thing and reversed the whole way to the junction.

Heading towards the motorway for the dash to the finish, the convoy became the attraction. The traffic lights in Iwuy weren’t designed for quite such an influx, and locals came to their doors and windows to gaze at the queue extending the whole length of their main street. My slight irritation was instantly dissipated by the cheery, cheeky call of “Bon appetit!” from a watching resident, perfectly timed as I bit into one of the morning’s excess baguettes.

The velodrome itself probably isn’t much to look at on most days of the year. But on the second Sunday in April, en fête, it is cycling’s Wembley. It sits in a wider sports complex, and local families play on the adjacent football pitches as they no doubt do every weekend. Over their shoulders, a massive TV screen relays the ongoing race to the thousands of officials, journalists and spectators who fill the temporary boxes, concrete terracing, grass banks and grandstand. A pair of announcers in the centre of the stadium alternate between commentating on the action and – well, doing whatever announcers at big events do. By this time we could pick up the 5 Live commentary, and over the next hour managed to fill in most of the blanks of what had gone on while we were on the road.

Finishing straight

Finishing straight

The last 5km or so go much quicker than you expect. I think this is largely because you forget that most of the last kilometre is actually inside the velodrome and its grounds. So by the time you’ve thought “ooh, they’re nearly here”, the motorbikes are streaming past the entrance, and then the crowd roars as the riders appear. Last year, Niki Terpstra entered by himself, the final lap and a half a valedictory ride that he couldn’t let himself enjoy until the last 100 metres. This time, seven riders were together after the full six hours, but there was only ever one winner. Etixx QuickStep had the extra man to lead out Stybar, but John Degenkolb never looked like being beaten. Not that we could see it in the flesh – even in the grandstand, the crowding and sight lines mean the telly is a better option.

From the replay, the winner’s utter, exhausted delight was obvious, and I remembered what I’d noticed from the previous year’s photos. As Terpstra held the trophy cobble over his head, third-placed Fabian Cancellara, a three-time winner, gazed straight ahead. Degenkolb, finishing second, glanced up above Terpstra’s head as if taking it in, saving it, either for future reference or in case he never saw it again.

Degenkolb 2014

Degenkolb 2014

Degenkolb 2015

Degenkolb 2015

This time it was his turn to scream in triumph, his turn to lift the cobble. As he did so, battered riders continued to stream in and complete their lap and a half, eight or ten or fifteen minutes after the lead group. We felt a bit guilty about not staying to applaud them all in, but we did have a train to catch. The strange thing is, though, that after only two years it would feel quite odd to NOT be there. Unlike the lady at her garden gate, I rather suspect that we’ll be back. Tous les ans.

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Red Bull Ranting


Earlier today, the excellent F1 journalist Will Buxton posted his thoughts on exactly why Red Bull should be allowed to leave F1 without too much more fuss if that’s what the company really wants. The post is here, and it doesn’t need any further embellishment from anyone else.

But this is the internet, and the complete lack of space limitations or editorial control mean that we all get to chip in if we want. I posted the link to Will’s post elsewhere, and it was met with the valid question:

don’t you worry that F1 (a sport I love) is in real danger of becoming formula Mercedes and that already there are signs that season like last could become a two horse farce?

The short answer is: at the moment, Mercedes are crushingly dominant, but these things never last long. My longer, more ranty answer, with slight modifications, went like this:

That’s what you get for building a better car. It’s no more of a farce than it was from 2000-2004, and at least this time the two leading cars are allowed to race each other.

Last season was one of the best I can remember in terms of racing. The worry for this year is possibly that, as Brundle said on Sunday, it looks like the aero developments might have made it slightly trickier for cars to follow closely.

But mainly Melbourne was a combination of daft factors. Valtteri won’t always have a bad back, Felipe won’t always screw up his out lap, Kimi won’t always have a wheel bolt shear, Honda will get the engine working if it kills them, and if Manor can keep the lights on there is a *chance* they could be competitive.

There is always an argument for equalisation in motorsport. BTCC does it with ballast and randomly-drawn reverse grids, and it produces close racing and lots of bodywork damage. IndyCar does it with a spec chassis and the various manufacturers stick on limited aero kits (which are BONKERS this year). Sportscars have banks of Balance of Performance regulations to try and keep competitors as closely matched as possible.

F1 has always argued that it’s for pure innovation and racing as far as possible and resisted all of that lot. It’s a nonsense argument in that, as Horner rightly says, if someone develops something completely unforeseen it tends to get banned pretty quickly (F-duct, double diffuser, wacky engine maps that use more petrol when you’re off the throttle than on it). But I’m not sure reverse grids are the way to go either.

What I DO know is that if anyone is going to make suggestions for the future of F1, it shouldn’t be Horner, who never fails to come across as simply a mouthpiece for whichever of Mateschitz and Ecclestone he’s been talking to that day. As Will Buxton says, they whinged so hard about the tyres in 2013 that they got them changed and won every race in the second half of the season. That’s just Montezemolo-style spoilt brattism of the highest order.

The difference with previous changes in technical regulations is that Red Bull (blown floor), and McLaren before them (F-Duct), were doing something that was technically legal but considered outside the spirit of the rules. Personally I’m generally all in favour of that sort of thing – it gave Jenson a world championship – but equally if those in charge want to specifically change the rules to stop it I’m happy with that as well. In the case of Mercedes this year, and the Pirelli thing a couple of years ago, they have done exactly what was intended by the requirements, and then a competitor who hasn’t done such a good job is complaining about it.

My solution would be the same as it has been for a few years now. The FIA should completely get out of regulating car design beyond things that are directly safety-related, and should impose a fossil fuel limit and a cost cap on all teams. An old F1 engineer, Frank Dernie, said on James Allen’s podcast that if you let a team spend £300m and restrict development to wheelnuts, you will get a £300m wheelnut. By the end of 2016 they will have had three years with these engines, so use the next six months to draft some technical regs that just say “don’t kill anyone, injure as few as possible”, then ban them from spending more than £70m [plucked from the air, but balances current extremes] in any year. We’ll see some weird designs, maybe some covered wheels, maybe some diesel cars, maybe some solar panels for the desert races, and it’ll be innovative and competitive and fun.

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Consistency and ‘form’

Around this time of year, football fans across the country start looking for indicators of what’s going to happen over the next two months.

The prophets of doom will point out that their strikers haven’t scored a goal on an east-west aligned pitch since the Renaissance. The eternal optimists will counter that their manager has never failed to be promoted when the year is divisible by 5.

Then you have the form. Norwich are on a roll. They’ve got momentum. They’ve peaked at the right time. Brentford are doomed, their inexorable downward spiral to the West London Leagues precipitated by the intervention of an owner who wants one of his senior managers to look at facts from time to time.

Which of the seven teams at the top of the Championship actually IS in unstoppable form at the moment? Maybe we could look at the points gained over the last six games.

Norwich have 15 – but before the Wigan game it was 18. So their form must be heading downwards. Watford? 13, but it’s been 15 several times in recent weeks. Middlesbrough and Brentford both have 10 from their last six, but the Bees’ line on the graph has ticked upwards while Boro’s took a dive into the Trent.

Then we get down to the dead men walking. Derby only have eight points from their last six, as do Bournemouth (up from only a point per game before their visit to the Royal Oak Fulham Sunday XI this week). Finally, languishing in the deep recesses of form we find Ipswich, with only seven points from six games.

But hang on. The league is as tight as David Coulthard’s jeans. Four of those seven teams have the same number of points, and the other three are within five points of them. Two of the three teams with the worst six-game form sit in first and second positions.

Is there any way of making sense of this? Can the desperate fan look forward to a productive spring? What about consistency?

If we look at how the six-game form has fluctuated over the season, a smoother picture appears. Bournemouth and Norwich are the only teams to have won six in a row – but they’ve also been down as low as three and five points respectively. Out of an available “swing” of 18 points, theirs are 15 and 13.

Watford have shown an 11-point swing, Ipswich can fluctuate by up to 9 points, and Brentford manage a perfectly respectable swing of eight points, from seven to 15.

That just leaves us with the two most consistent teams in the league. Boro and Derby’s six-game points total hasn’t varied by more than seven points over the course of the season. Neither team has managed six wins on the bounce, but neither has hit the depths of despair to the same extent as their competitors.

That’s that sorted then. Just one thing left – who gets the trophy? (The proper League Championship trophy, by the way.) Well, only one team’s six-game form has NEVER dipped below nine points. Hope the champagne doesn’t mess Aitor’s hair up.

Update: you can never check your data entry enough, it turns out. Also, I should stop doing numbers-based posts.

Sadly for lovers of a happy ending, it turns out that Middlesbrough actually lost at Sheffield Wednesday last week, rather than winning as my spreadsheet thought. That changes the numbers slightly. Boro are actually at the bottom of their worst six-game run of the season, with only seven points.

The consistency argument suffers as well. Derby and Brentford have never been as low as seven, and Boro’s consistency record AND current form matches that of Ipswich – so something will have to give next week.

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Dog-whistle democracy

I said earlier that this piece by Owen Jones was a repetition of the old “vote xx, get Tory” argument, employed by Labour for many years. It’s a depressing argument for those of us who would actually quite like to vote for the party nearest to our views, rather than whichever of the big two comes “closest”.

Owen pointed out, emphatically, that the piece is specifically clear that it is not using that argument. This is technically true. There are two paragraphs of detail on exactly how voting Green would get Tory, followed by a line and a half saying “but Labour shouldn’t say that”.

If this were a right-wing commentator, explaining exactly how immigrants could be taking your jobs and drinking your beer, followed by a line and a half saying “my party does not support this view”, we would call it “dog-whistle” politics. Even as direct advice to Labour, the piece reads “you SHOULDN’T do this, but if you DID here are the facts…”. As a piece for public consumption, it plants the idea before attempting to head off the allegation.

I should say, for the benefit of the more binary among us, that I’ve got nothing at all against Owen Jones. As media politics commentators go (or at least those that get on the mainstream channels with any regularity), his is one of the very few voices that gets me anywhere near a nod of agreement. It’s just this particular argument seems to be recycling old failures.

I think “vote Green, get Tory” probably is one of Labour’s stronger arguments, so tactically for a Labour supporter the piece is perfectly sensible. For someone like me, who now couldn’t stomach any of the three current largest parties for various reasons, it simply won’t be enough to say “vote for us – we’re the least worst and you might have more of a chance of voting for your favourites in future”. As I said in the tweet – we tried that last time, and look where that ended up.

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Being Quizzical

This blog was never supposed to be for me to write down random thoughts that occurred to me. That’s what Twitter is for, apart from anything else. But some thoughts are longer than 30 or so words, and I still feel the need to write them down. So I’ll pretend it’s a serious TV review.

The problem is, I think I might be TOO quizzical. Some family members have been telling me this for years, but today’s unlikely catalyst for self-analysis is Sir Christopher Meyer, whose series “Networks Of Power” was recently rerun on Sky Atlantic.

We’ve got to the stage of Christmas where I feel that trying to work is more pointless than not, so I embark on a general tidying-up, and one of the things to tidy is the 20% of the Sky+ Planner that isn’t really there for Mrs Q and me to watch with a cup of tea and too many Mint Cremes. Meyer’s series falls into this category, partly because it’s politics, but also partly because we both started watching one last night and very rapidly reached our collective tolerance point for gratuitous references to “beautiful women”.

I tried again this morning, probably due to a sense of duty that this is the kind of thing I should watch if I want to know what’s going on in the world, as opposed to any real hope that it would be genuinely revelatory. But Meyer’s first meetings were in a cliched black Mercedes with a cliched ex-KGB bloke, and then with a socialite journalist in a flat which managed to be minimalist yet convey opulence, who tutted about ranks of military vehicles “spoiling the view”. Fortunately for Sir Chris, she arranged a meeting with “a young woman – beautiful of course”, who was apparently his next step on the road to meeting the people who matter.

At this point, the quizzical bit kicked in. Firstly, was this all bollocks? Secondly, how had the rest of the world reacted to it the first time it was shown? Because what I was seeing was a sub-Palin rehashing of stereotypes, laced with plenty of excuses for leering (albeit mainly in voiceover – presumably less likely to get a slap that way).

I flicked through the episode guide to see what the others promised. My fear that Meyer was leading us – or being led – up the garden path was not in any way allayed by the presence of Louise Mensch in the London episode. Here, in the one place I know anything about, our host talks to a (then) Member of Parliament who is renowned for, to put it kindly, inconsistency and a lack of empathy. How can I have any confidence that he’s presenting a balanced picture of the other places?

At the time the series was released, Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian interviewed Meyer. Unsurprisingly, his producer (unnamed and unable to stand up for themselves) is blamed for the “beautiful women” thread – more pleasingly, the interviewer captures my concerns perfectly with the sentence “There is a curiously fictional quality about Meyer’s charisma”. That’s exactly it – there isn’t any real sense that the man or his subjects are anything other than parts of a story that someone wished to construct.

It’s unfair, of course, to condemn a six-hour series on the basis of the 30 minutes that I managed. But that’s the problem – once the quizzical chip takes over, I can’t “enjoy” the rest of the show, because I’m constantly working out which bits are embellished or “editorially framed” (like Top Gear putting the scenery shots in in the wrong order in their “races”).

I don’t know if that’s a fault or not. It makes some things quicker to watch but less edifying than they might have been. Sometimes it might be nicer to disconnect it, but I don’t think “Networks of Power” warrants much further investigation.

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Grant of authority

I took a bit of a gamble today, on my first visit to Huddersfield for a football match.

I’d read horror stories of waits of an hour or more to get out of the car parks, and I never normally pay to park for football if I can help it. You can usually get somewhere within twenty minutes’ walk of the ground which allows a reasonably easy exit, and today’s gamble was that nobody else would be daft enough to park 200 feet above the stadium if they didn’t have to. Sure enough, there was plenty of space at twenty past two, and I was out of town by half past five. Detailed planning can pay dividends.

So, too, can hard work. I don’t speak from personal experience – I’m the laziest person I know, by some distance – but it’s evident in the efforts of Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton. Boro’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation has its critics, and it can leave wide open spaces around opposition defenders, but when the two holding players work hard and work together they protect the back four to great effect. Clayton was particularly noticeable today (perhaps predictably, given the venue), time and again popping up to dispossess a Terrier and feed the ball to Tomlin or one of the wingers.

Ah yes, the wingers. They started on the “wrong” wings; Adomah left and Reach right. I can see the point of this, but it can tend against the tricky “get to the byline” width that can cause chaos in defences. The right side dominated in the first fifteen minutes, then the personnel swapped over to their “normal” sides – and the right side still dominated. I can only think this says more about the Huddersfield full backs than the Boro wide men.

This meant Adomah had the potential to be devastating. His pace and control are undoubted, but his crossing, at least today, was ineffective. One cross stood out, only just too high for Kike at the far post, but all too often the first defender proved an insurmountable obstacle.

Elsewhere, Konstantopolous provided a bit of relief from the recently-acquired Flap Anxiety (one inadvertent spill notwithstanding), and Ayala stood out for his unflustered interventions and distribution. Huddersfield huffed and puffed, and Butterfield looked to be keen to prove a point, but less able than Clayton to actually do it. Vaughan dived in and was rightly booked, Dimi rolled around a bit too much and was lucky not to join him. All in all, a pretty even, mostly non-descript game. Except nobody told Grant.

If you get a free kick in a central position, 25-30 yards out, it’s tricky to get it on target, because of the wall and the lack of angle. Except nobody told Grant. Whether he surreptitiously inserted a boomerang into the ball before thumping it with the outside of his boot, we may never know. But from behind the far goal, it was in as soon as he hit it. People were celebrating a full minute before it hit the net. Roberto Carlos might even have nodded his approval.

What always happens in these situations, of course, is that Jon Stead scores. The esteemed, self-styled rabble rouser Anthony Vickers refers to Football’s Inevitability Drive – in fact, I notice he has done so in the opening line of today’s post – and Stead is its MS-DOS boot record and its uninterruptible power supply. He always scores against us (and very rarely against anyone else), and he always costs us points.

Except nobody told Grant. Referee Kevin Wright, who had an excellent game, controlling it with calm authority, said he saw a pull on Reach, and nobody really seemed to dispute the assertion. Leadbitter, who also hadn’t been told that late penalties at 1-1 mean EYE-POPPING PRESSURE, picked the ball up, waited for the keeper to stop pretending to be a cross between Derren Brown and Bruce Grobbelaar, and rolled the ball into the empty bit of the net.

He can be a bit of a liability, old Grant. He seems to think his day hasn’t been validated unless it’s punctuated by a yellow card. But on days like today, when he’s the difference between a half-decent game sunk by predictability, and glorious last-minute victory, he’s SO worth it.

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The Silverstone premium

Last week I read an excellent piece on dailysportscar.com, which you should probably read before continuing with this. It’s here: DailySportsCar

If you’re far too busy to be clicking secondary blog links, allow me to summarise the main points here:

– the FIA (world motorsport’s governing body) runs two different high-profile World Championships, one for “single seaters” – Formula One – and one for sports cars of various types over longer distances – the World Endurance Championship;

– at Silverstone (“The [self-proclaimed] Home Of British Motorsport”), the WEC is vastly cheaper to get in to (like, a quarter of the price);

– when you get in, the WEC seems to want you there, while F1 would rather you weren’t;

– fans want to be as involved as possible, not (necessarily) sipping champagne at £stupid000 per Paddock Club ticket.

I don’t disagree with any of that. I’ve not been to a WEC event, but I’ve been to plenty of F1, BTCC, British GT and so on, and all the other series are far more welcoming and open than the deliberately closed shop that is F1. I just think the author, Richard Leach, is being a little too lenient on the circuit itself.

I need to add what I can legitimately call “The John Hindhaugh Disclaimer” here. I love F1. I watch every session, fascinated by the drivers, the technology, the circuits…but knowing it could be so much better.

The first time I went to an F1 race, I was a kid and it was on corporate hospitality, a decade and a half before such things were banned under the Bribery Act. In my memory, I actually saw Mansell giving Senna his famous lift back to the pits, but I’m pretty sure there were no Jumbotron screens and we were in the pit straight grandstand, so I’ve probably superimposed the image from the 876 times I’ve seen it on TV since.

When I’ve been paying the bill, I’ve been to eight races: Silverstone four times, Spa (Belgium) three times and Monza (Italy) once. And it’s the European experiences that make me less than impressed with the Northamptonshire version.

This year, as Richard said, Silverstone were trumpeting their “Centre Access”. For the first time in living memory, said the breathless blurb, fans with General Admission tickets would be able to stand on the bit of grass inside the circuit as well as the bit outside. GASP as you see the right-hand side of an F1 car. SWOON as you step aside for a Finnish man in mirrored shades and checked shorts before he hits you with his rucksack. GIVE THANKS as you part with an extra £60-odd for the privilege for the weekend.

In Belgium, the footpaths criss-cross the circuit. If you want, you can stand in the trees on the inside at the point where the track crosses L’Eau Rouge; the viewing bank at the Pouhon “Double Gauche” is entirely inside the circuit; the walk from La Source to L’Arrete d’Autobus (sorry, I’ll stop now) involves filing past the support race paddocks and last year watching Ted Kravitz filming his notebook.

Spa

Spa

In Italy, the track winds around the General Admission, rather than the other way round. The paddock exits into GA areas at both ends, so Ross Brawn strolls through the crowds with his briefcase, Lewis Hamilton signs autographs without a ten foot fence in the way, and Kimi Raikkonen still barges through in mirrored shades and checked shorts. The impression is much more of a park that happens to have a racetrack in it, than a military airfield behaving like, erm, a military airfield. This is probably why The Supreme High Ringmaster has started making noises about abandoning the place.

Parco di Monza

Parco di Monza

Then there’s the pit walks. Again, Silverstone trumpets its accessibility. LOOK! We’re letting you in to the pit lane on Thursday! Form an orderly queue, don’t loiter, move along please, everyone must have equal time to study the nose on the Caterham and admire the whine of the Red Bull driver – sorry, transmission. This is the first time EVER that such access has been allowed.

Unlike in Belgium. Or Italy. Where it’s been a well-known part of the weekend for years. And where you can stand outside Ferrari all afternoon if you want, until Fernando comes out and signs something for you. We decided on a less populated area…

20120906_172007

Quick! The safety car!

The point is, F1 manages perfectly well to be a little less aloof and untouchable outside the UK. And, comparatively, it also manages to be a lot less expensive.

Mrs Q and I are lucky enough to live within 20 miles of Silverstone’s front gate. We can go to a Grand Prix weekend and spend the nights in our own bed. If we want to drive our car there and park, the whole weekend (cheapest admission, fuel and parking) will cost us £425. Four hundred and twenty five pounds. £350 for the ticket, £60 for the parking, and a bit of diesel.

If we lived a similar distance from the Circuit Spa Francorchamps, the same thing would cost £258, even if we booked now, a few weeks before the event. If we’d got the early bird discount, even less expensive.

And if we had an apartment in Milan, we could do the whole Monza weekend for £197. Well under half the cost of Silverstone’s offering, with much less notice.

Let’s say for a minute we wanted to stay on site, to soak up the atmosphere, stock up on calories and be pestered by a slightly deranged Irish former team owner (Silverstone) or musically anaesthetised by a dozen completely deranged Dutch techno fans (Spa). And let’s say we were driving to the European races, not from a theoretical home 20 miles away, but from our actual home in Milton Keynes.

Silverstone including camping: £512. Spa including camping, driving there and back and a return Channel crossing: £508. Monza, ditto: £539. OK, that’s cheating a little bit, because you’d need an extra night either way to get to Monza and be comfortable, but you get the idea. In price terms, it’s no different to go to Belgium or flaming Italy than it is to go to somewhere on our doorstep.

OK, F1 as a sport doesn’t help itself. But Silverstone is complicit in making it appear even more inaccessible and expensive than it needs to be.

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A developing obsession

I had warned myself and my nearest and dearest beforehand. I know everyone says this, but I was genuinely watching mainly for the scenery. France is a land of breathtaking variety, only enhanced in the summer by vast sunflower fields and acres of lurid Lycra.

I also knew what I’m like, though. If I get interested in something, I get REALLY interested in it. I never find a Formula 1 race particularly boring, even if it’s not exciting as a single spectacle, because I watch every session all season, competitive or otherwise, so I have an idea about what’s going on, and the nuance and dynamic behind it. If I switched on at 12.55, and off as the champagne started flying, I wouldn’t understand any of that, and would probably find it boring.

As it is with F1, so it is with Test cricket. I can’t dip in and out, because no matter how Boycottesque the innings, I might miss THE controversial moment of the summer. Or the sparkling interview with a legend of the game. Or the painfully contrived innuendo which finally displaces 1991’s “leg over” comment as the cause of the longest giggling fit in radio.

You can see why this completism might be a problem. Test cricket, if it’s reasonably competitive, takes up maybe 60 days a year. F1 consumes at least half of another 60. And here I was, approaching my mid-thirties, sitting down to see if I could drum up a passing interest in something that lasts three weeks at a time.

At the time, I only knew what anyone who listens to the sports news on Radio 5 knew. Lance Armstrong won everything. Before that, Miguel Indurain won everything. (Don’t forget that as far as the sports news on Radio 5 went, the Tour de France was “everything”.) Sometimes everyone got caught taking drugs, and pretended to stop.

So that first Tour was only ever going to be a learning experience. I vaguely remember some fuss near the start about riding over some cobbles, and one of the favourites for the race fell off and broke something. They wouldn’t repeat THAT mistake, I probably thought.

And then The Thing happened. Two of the other leading contenders were riding up a hill when one’s chain fell off. (It turned out he was the brother of the chap who fell off on the cobbles.) What happened next will shock and horrify you. The other leading contender, chain still attached – wait for it – TRIED TO WIN.

This single incident was probably responsible for hooking me in to cycling for life. Why was there such a reaction? What kind of unwritten code made someone try their hardest to beat everyone else for three weeks, until it looked like they might have a chance to do so? Why, if this was not the correct thing to do, did Michael Schumacher never pull up at the side of the circuit and wait until Fernando Alonso’s engine was fixed? And just how bloody good was the little stroppy bloke who kept winning the sprint stages?

I haven’t stopped learning since. And I never will. I feel like I have known cycling for about four minutes, not four years – and yet this weekend, I felt like a diehard. Last year, in Tours and in Saint-Amand-Montrond, where I achieved a short but burning ambition to see Cavendish win in the flesh, I was an outsider in a land of pompiers and gendarmes, organisers in smart blazers and old ladies wilting in the heat, and the previously unknown hazard of projectile packets of Haribo.

A successful sprint

A successful sprint

Earlier this year, I was a novice, in awe of the Belgians thronging the Arenberg trench, shouting good-natured abuse at each other just because of which side of the road they were standing, wondering whether I would get in trouble for parking on the hard shoulder to scramble down a bank at the start of the Orchies secteur, wandering into the Roubaix velodrome with half an hour or so to spare until Niki Terpstra charged in alone and elbowing my way as near to the front as possible.

Trouée de bière

Trouée de bière

Vantage point

Vantage point

And then suddenly I was a veteran. On Saturday in Harrogate, standing for hours opposite the podium in an ever-decreasing personal space, almost nobody else seemed to recognise the red-haired middle-aged man fetching the coffees for his Eurosport commentary partner. Almost all the “why do they do that?” “who is he?” “why do they keep saying Shut Up Legs?” questions from the crowd were ones that I knew the answer to (not that I chipped in and answered them, of course. There’s only one thing worse than not knowing the answer, and that’s having a smart arse tell you it).

"Do we have to keep bringing William?"

“Do we have to keep bringing William?”

I couldn’t be in York, Sheffield or Last Of The Summer Wine on Sunday, for no other reason than the fact that F1 still takes precedence, but by 10:15 on Monday I was in the centre of Cambridge, and five hours later in east London, surrounded only by a smattering of internal auditors and maintenance workers from the adjacent Excel conference centre. While everyone else speculated about the time the riders would arrive and looked nervously at the approaching rain cloud, I compared the time schedule in the road book with the Eurosport feed on my phone, noticed a helicopter high in the sky to the north, and got my camera ready.

And I knew that a short walk to London City Airport, followed by a nice cup of tea and a cake, would yield not only an opportunity to dry out, but also a pleasing array of cyclists in varying sizes of headphones wandering through on their way to one of four flights chartered to whisk them beyond the Eurotunnel chaos to a place that calls itself “Paris Plage” like Luton Airport claims to be in London.

Gorilla beatz

Gorilla beatz

As they came through, in their teams as in the race, I watched a wiry chap moving between them with an autograph book, and it hit me. Out of all the eighty-seven million reported spectators for “Le Tour De Yorkshire et un peu de Derbyshire avec Les Departements du Maison” ™, only three were in the airport. Him, me, and the long-suffering (but secretly moderately interested) Mrs Q. Cycling, it seemed, had achieved the same level of interest/completism/obsessiveness in my psyche as the other sports I’ve known for so long.

I should say several things in mitigation. I wouldn’t have gone to the airport if I’d been watching in The Mall, but I didn’t fancy a third enormous crowd and I guessed that the Beckton Badlands would be relatively quiet. I needed to marvel at the genius of an organisation that could route its race DELIBERATELY to have the roads closed from the finish to the airport, so everyone could get back quickly. If I’m going to spend time following a sport obsessively, my taste for croissants and artisan markets means I’m better off in Chateauroux than Chesterfield. I have yet, after four Tour stages, a Tour of Britain and a Paris-Roubaix, to pay a single penny for entry to a cycling event. And best of all, my wife, who I’d do more or less anything to make happy, actually appears to enjoy coming along (or at least doesn’t fall asleep, as she spent most of the late 90s doing in various football grounds).

In short, cycling has the potential to be the most civilised, exciting, pleasurable obsession I’ve yet found. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to book a hotel in Compiègne for next April.

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Getting a good start

Two quick graphs for people wondering what a difference a change of manager can make to a football team – in this case, Middlesbrough. Obviously.

These assume that everyone starts from the same point – namely, the ten-game points total that their predecessor left them. This means that everyone starts from a notional “100%”, whether the team had gained 0 points or 30 in the previous ten games. It’s a relative comparison of what difference the managers apparently made, in their first twelve games.

It’s worth noting that some of these took over mid-season, and some in the summer. I haven’t taken any account of that – my hypothesis would be that you would give *more* allowance to someone taking over mid-season.

The only reason there are two charts is to allow the scale of the managers who aren’t Terry Venables to expand a bit. Clicking on them will give you a bigger version.

Comparative starts

Comparative starts without Venables

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