Soubry sums it up

There’s been a lot of praise for Anna Soubry’s Guardian interview on Friday. Most of it is justified. It’s refreshing to have someone who’s prepared to call out the utter bullshit that dominates public discourse, about immigration in particular.

But hiding in all the admirable sentiment is the knife to the heart. You see, although she thinks the whole anti-Europe thing is “bollocks” – which it is – Soubry won’t actually vote against it. What? Why? Well, because…

Because I told people that if we voted leave, we would. And I can’t go back on that.

There you go. Politics. In just two sentences.

Even if the Right Thing To Do is so glaringly obvious that you need sunglasses every time you turn to face it, even if it’s the difference between keeping your country’s place in the world and relegating it to geopolitical insignificance and economic catastrophe, even if you know it will enrich the liars who got you there and encourage the racists you despise, even if you know all this in your conscious brain because you said it all in the same interview….

even if all of that, what you really can’t do is go back on something you said.

Yes, Anna, you can. You should. If you’re in Parliament for the good of your country, it’s pretty much your duty. You know it, and all your colleagues know it. This is to you and all of them: hiding behind Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t wash. Be brave. Say “the referendum was a stupid idea and we’re all sorry, but we can’t let it go on any more”. Put the history books ahead of the next ballot box. Put Britain’s future ahead of your careers. Knock it on the head while you’ve got the chance.

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An unusual situation

If there’s one thing I don’t do, it’s quick reaction posts. Especially if they’re reacting to football matches I haven’t seen.

If there are two things I don’t do, the other one might be extreme mood swings. I’m not in the habit of going from “yes, we’re world beaters!” to “shit, we’re terrible!” in the space of a few weeks, never mind four days.

All that said, Boro’s current approach to trying to avoid promotion really isn’t helping. Sometimes I think it’s possible for a manager to be too clever for his own good. Sometimes it might be better to let a winning team get on with winning. Develop an understanding. Be on the same wavelength. If one of them shows serious signs of flagging – not 5% down on the bleep test stats – then take him off.

On Friday, the performance, the spirit and the quality were all outstanding. There is absolutely no reason that couldn’t be carried on – without a change in personnel – to tonight’s game. Yes it might leave one of them blowing for Hull in 10 days’ time – but we could have been nine points clear of them by then. “We take one game at a time”, says the cliché – but we don’t. We cock about for three games in advance, trying to be the cleverest coach in the league.

I’ve seen managers who know what they want to do and can’t quite carry it off. I’ve seen managers who don’t have a sodding clue. Karanka is the first one I’ve seen who from time to time seems to actively make sure that any winning momentum is quickly arrested.

There’s every chance we’ll go up comfortably. It shouldn’t have to be so bloody difficult though.

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Fulham, eventually…

There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about early goals. An early goal settles the nerves. An early goal riles up the opposition. An early goal catches the worm.

There is, though, one set of circumstances where an early goal is definitely NOT a good thing, and that’s when you’re 150 yards from the ground. The Bishop’s Park is one of the nicer approaches to a professional football stadium, but two minutes past three is no time to appreciate it. The actual routing worked fine – the West London Line and some local parking knowledge mean you can get from Milton Keynes to Putney Bridge for less than a tenner without going anywhere near central London.

But the roadworks on the North Circular had gridlocked the back roads as well, and it was gone 2.15 by the time we got within spitting distance of a train. After two changes, and two infuriating waits, we ended up with five minutes to do a 15-minute walk. The only surprise was that the rest of the train was coming with us, mostly speaking either Italian or that strange blend of Estuary and Eston that attends so many Boro games in the capital.

The volume of the roar left little room for doubt as to who had scored. It was clearly a home goal. People around us looked at each other, wondering if their fellow walkers were people they could celebrate with, even without knowing who had scored, or how. I was secretly quite pleased, reckoning that an early Fulham goal would force Boro out in search of the win.

Then, as we were getting the tickets out of their wallet, the roar gave way to an E-I-O, and then quickly an assertion that the Mighty Boro were Going Up. The Boro contingent on the quick march looked at each other in something approaching shock – we’d all failed to account for the size of the away support and the fact we were approaching that end, and the possibility of a Boro goal hadn’t occurred to us.

“Adomah”, said someone catching my eye as we entered the stand, and it didn’t take long to find a tweeted description of what sounded like a lovely goal. We were low down behind the goal, within touching distance of Dimi and with only a limited view of what was going on at the Hammersmith End, where all the action was as Boro probed and pressed, looking for the second.

At least we could see what was going on though, which is more than could be said for Fulham’s defence. Downing mesmerised two of them to play in de Laet, and the ball found its way to Nugent, who was unceremoniously upended by a defender who’d decided to just kick the first thing he could get near. Leadbitter did what Leadbitter does with the penalty – the last one was, thankfully, just a one-off blip.

Former walking conspiracy theory Ryan Fredericks went off after landing badly from an aerial challenge, and his replacement by Dembele coincided with Fulham coming back into the game. The substitute’s overhead kick was superbly pushed over by Dimi (who will probably have “We’ll Need To Look At The Goalkeeping Position” engraved on his Player of the Year award), and then de Laet arrived from absolutely nowhere to clear a Fulham header off the line.

Incidentally, if you ever find yourself asking “how did you not see that linesman, it was right in front of you?” – you’ve answered your own question. Something going on right under your nose is a lot more difficult to see than something happening at a similar speed in the middle distance. From four rows back at Dimi’s arse height, it was just a goal, and I had no idea de Laet was anywhere near in a position to get to it. Had I been twenty rows further back I’d no doubt have seen him coming. As it was, it was close enough for Fulham’s players to appeal to the non-existent HawkEye; the fact that the clearance went over the bar rather detracted from their confidence.

Once we settled down from that brief flurry, it seemed more or less like plain sailing. Fulham had chances but never looked like having the cutting edge to do anything about them. Adomah ran the show from right and then left, ably supported by the marauding Nsue; the Forshaw-Leadbitter twins swept up everything that needed sweeping up; Ramirez strolled around looking talented and imperious; Fry looked like he’d been impersonating Beckenbauer for ten years; and Nugent morphed into Rhodes with no obvious drop off in work rate or improvement in luck.

As ever, there was one incident that almost nobody else noticed but had me shouting all sorts at the referee. Bearing down on the away support, Ramirez passed the ball out to the right wing and continued his run. A couple of yards short of the penalty area, he had his heels clipped and hit the floor. The referee immediately signalled for play to continue, and then appeared to tell Ramirez that he didn’t give a foul because the ball wasn’t anywhere near him at the time. This suggests a certain level of improvisation with the Laws – if the ball’s in play, a foul’s a foul, and Boro should have had a free kick in a dangerous position.

In the last ten minutes Scott Parker – yes, that Scott Parker, from the early 2000s – seemed to be determined to talk his way into the referee’s book. Having vocally objected to Ramirez sitting on the floor to waste a bit of time, Parker was dragged to one side for a long lecture which I presume the ref delivered in the elongated tones of Clement Freud spinning out a round of Just A Minute: “Miisstterrr Parrrrkkkkeeerrrr, yoooou will now fiiiiiind yooooou have wasted moooooore time than the iiiiiincident about whiiiiiiich you soooooought to complaaaaaaain”.

The ex-McDonald’s salesman got another go within two minutes, as one of his hapless colleagues dragged Jordan Rhodes down well inside Boro’s half, but with only wide open space between them and Lonergan in goal. There was never any other decision than a red card, despite the defender trying to sit down for long enough to make the ref put his card away, but Parker inventively pointed to the Fulham player who’d wandered over towards where the ball ended up, and suggested he’d been covering when the foul was actually committed some hours earlier. I’d have booked him just for his cheek.

So that was that, and we wandered off towards Putney Bridge, past the line of three policemen trying to stop hundreds of people crossing the main road like a single security guard on the door at Asda on Black Friday, and into the back of a huge, unordered crowd staring at a closed gate. Not fancying the pushing, and being both stoic and relatively fit, we decided that Parsons Green was a better bet, and set off down the New Kings Road.

Yes, it was a shame to miss the goal, but Craven Cottage is always a decent ground to visit, and some of Boro’s play was a privilege to watch. We’re now at the point where nine or ten more of those will see us into the Premier League, where we used to play Fulham , and where we’ll be able to find out if the combination of Gibson’s support and Karanka’s philosophy will look more like Leicester or Norwich.

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Striking differences

Over the last couple of days, in an ancient place where there are no graphics, we’ve been talking about whether Boro are better playing with David Nugent or Kike Garcia in the “lone striker” or “number 9” role.

We know that the favoured formation isn’t going to change any time soon, so it seems useful to find out which of them is the most productive. From the figures, it seems that Kike is the obvious choice; he has scored a goal every 247 minutes for Boro, while Nugent averages 334 minutes. Kike has got 0.47 goals per start for the club, against 0.28 for Nugent.

But the role of the number 9 isn’t just about how many they score. Their job is to make a nuisance of themselves, to hang on to the ball and bring the three attacking players in. The Mark Viduka role. How do we measure their success at doing that?

To try to get a better picture, I’ve looked at the total number of goals Boro have scored with each player on the pitch. If their ultimate job is to increase the overall attacking effectiveness of the team, this should be a fairly good metric. And, wouldn’t you know, it reverses the picture.

Goals per minute

Kike has had 852 minutes on the pitch this season, during which time Boro have scored 11 goals. That’s 0.013 goals per minute, or 1.16 goals per full game equivalent. Nugent, meanwhile, has played for 1581 minutes, and Boro have scored 27 goals in that time, at 1.54 goals per full game equivalent.

(In case 0.38 goals per game doesn’t sound like much, it’s the difference between 53 and 71 goals per season. Last year, with Patrick Bamford in place, Boro scored 68.)

Looking at the detailed data, it’s also noticeable that the team has only scored more than once in a game with Kike on the pitch twice (Bolton and Brighton), whereas with Nugent in play it’s ten times.

The graph above also shows that the whole thing is much closer now than it was in October, helped by the big win at Brighton. And in terms of points won where each player has played more than 45 minutes, there’s not much in it: 2.00 per appearance for Kike (20 points from 10 games) versus 2.06 for Nugent (35 from 17).

We all agreed at the end of last season that the difference between going up and messing around in the play-offs was the number of goals scored. It seems that David Nugent has been the better bet for achieving that – perhaps (given the differences between the individual and team goals) through a more unselfish approach than his colleague?

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Twitter and the non-bias of the Daily Politics

There’s been a lot of fuss this week about Twitter’s plan to allow tweets to contain up to 10,000 characters, rather than the current 140. The beauty of the medium is its brevity, nobody wants to read pages and pages of text from slightly unhinged commenters, and so on, etc.

There’s some merit to the sentiment, but it ignores the fact that there’s no limit on the number of tweets a user can send. If I’ve got 500 characters’ worth of stuff to say, I can (and very occasionally do) do it over four tweets. I get the same amount of information out, and people reading it get four tweets popping up rather than one. Allowing me to put all 500 in one tweet achieves the same effect for me and improves the outcome for them, whether they want to read it or not.

Conversely, the character limit does sometimes cause a minor version of what free speech campaigners call a chilling effect. Most of my tweets are on politics and sport. While the latter can usually be done in 140-character chunks, as part of a back-and-forth chat, the former has layers of nuance and presumed starting points that (I feel) quite often need to be restated and refuted, depending on who I’m talking to. And then I might decide that actually I’m not going to bother. As I’ve said before on this blog…

“You can say a loud, nasty thing in 140 characters. It takes longer to add the necessary qualification and say “I’m not a nutter, and I enjoy your writing and the insight it provides, and I don’t think you’re part of some elitist cabal, but I don’t agree with your point…”. If we try to condense it, we lose the nuance, and get dumped in the bin marked CORBYNITE. If we do it over five tweets, we dump ourselves in the bin marked “green ink”. So we don’t bother.”

The world won’t suffer without my input, but on the other hand I like to have a contribution to a debate where I can. Perhaps a few more characters in a tweet wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

The case of Steve Doughty’s resignation provides an up to date example. Before Thursday evening, I was vaguely aware that a chap I wasn’t sure if I’d heard of had resigned from a junior shadow cabinet role live on the telly. Fair enough, I no doubt thought, if that’s the kind of showboating he thinks will help his party or himself in future that’s entirely up to him.

Then came a blog from a member of the BBC’s Daily Politics team, of the type that lots of BBC production staff put out from time to time, giving viewers an insight into how their programmes are put together. The team were very busy on Wednesday morning trying to confirm rumours of resignations, and very proud when they got exclusive news of one on their programme.

Some, however, questioned the process. Has the BBC finally abandoned all pretence of impartiality and hoisted the Conservative flag above Broadcasting House? Or is this a fine example of the traditions of the scoop, allowing Andrew Neil and Laura Kuenssberg to line up alongside Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the journalistic pantheon?
Neither. Obviously. And this is where the nuance comes in. On Twitter, if I say “Do you not think the BBC should at least look at whether that breached its obligations?” (87 characters, plus probably at least one username), I need to qualify it at some length. Which is pretty much what happened here.

Since that exchange, I’ve read a lot from people saying “Kuenssberg is incapable of hiding her bias”, and a lot from people saying “This is what journalism is. Why can’t you see that?” Both are, in my view, varying degrees of wrong.

I don’t believe that anyone at the BBC sets out to use their position at the corporation to advance their personal political beliefs or biases. If they did, they wouldn’t last long. I’ve got some experience of people who work in positions that explicitly require them to be neutral, and I reckon that most of them will, if anything, err slightly against their own viewpoint in order to be seen to maintain fairness and neutrality.

But I also don’t believe that it’s the job of the BBC to “make an impact” in the way that the Daily Politics team clearly set out to do. The blog, now deleted, twice mentions making a big impact. Yes, the journalists will argue, this is precisely what we intend when we break stories. We want to make public something that has current importance, to bring it the maximum attention.

Of course the Daily Politics wanted to keep the scoop for themselves. That’s why they were relieved to have Doughty “safely in [their] green room”. And that’s why they led their programme with the news as soon as they came on air….no, wait. They didn’t lead it. They didn’t even trail it in the “coming up later” way that every programme does ad nauseam. They waited until 11:55am, five minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions began, to introduce Doughty, and for Neil to ask “Are you considering your position?” *innocent face*

That seems to me like moving beyond bringing a story the maximum attention within the boundaries of your own programme, to timing it to deliberately “wrong-foot” something happening in Parliament, and to actually influence the outcome of events rather than reporting them. “Do you not want the BBC to break its own stories?” ask several journalistic tweeters. Yes, but do I want it to enhance or create them, especially in a political context? Probably not.

Why was the blog deleted? Somebody in authority must have thought that it was problematic. (Although, as an aside, deleting anything from the internet these days is next to pointless, at least when it comes to stuff that won’t end up in a courtroom.) I’ve seen a couple of references to sections and paragraphs of Codes and Charters, but none of them translate to something I can paste here to say one way or another if anything might have been breached. The relevant paragraphs on impartiality are all concerned with having all viewpoints on the programme, and indeed this defence has been used given the presence in the studio of Lisa Nandy.

But the nuance is such that even to attack or defend on the basis of impartiality misses the point. A good question to ask is “would you raise the query if this happened to the Conservatives?”, and for me the answer is “fairly sure I would, yes”. The fundamental point is whether the public service broadcaster, with all its special responsibilities, should orchestrate the method and timing of its breaking of a story in order to exert an influence on related events.

It’s an incredibly fine point to consider. It doesn’t sit anywhere near either end of the argument. It’ll almost certainly get lost in the shouting, and everyone will be able to slope off under cover of artillery fire. Maybe internally, though, an editorial committee somewhere will just tweak a guideline to make clear what’s acceptable and what’s not.

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Save Our Steel?

I should start this piece by saying, as I mention a lot throughout its length, that I’m not an expert on any of this stuff. It’s a thought experiment based on a pre-existing opinion, and it’s one that includes people’s livelihoods. I’m starting from the point of view that it’s the people and the locality that need support, not the specific business.

Today it’s been announced that Sahaviriya Steel Industries, a Thai steelmaking firm, is to close its plant at Redcar on Teesside. The company statement tells us that “poor steel trading conditions” make the plant unviable to operate, and that they are unlikely to improve any time soon.

Clearly, people are still using steel. According to the World Steel Association, global production increased by 3% in 2013, from 1559m tonnes to 1606m tonnes. SSI UK had the capacity to produce 30% of the UK’s steel, but lost £200m over the same year. Today’s statement mentions that this position improved over the following year, but without published accounts it’s difficult to tell exactly how much.

About half of the world’s steel is produced in China, and in February 2015 Chinese steel sold for about 70% of the price of that produced in Europe, according to figures from MEPS. I don’t know how much transportation and duties affect final costs to the end user, but that’s a hell of a gap to close if steel produced in the UK is to be competitive in a global market.

The focus of the local campaign has seemed, from the outside, to be on a Government bail-out of the loss-making plant. Many have repeated the point that a bailout would cost a fraction of the hundreds of billions of pounds provided to the banking sector since 2008. It would take someone with more economic knowledge than me to say whether the UK steel industry is as integral to the country as its banking system, even in proportion to the sums involved.

But at the time of the bank bailouts, I believed that, if possible, the Government should do what was necessary to support the essential function without rewarding the owners and shareholders who had made, or invested in, the mistakes. I don’t see any reason why SSI should be any different. For whatever reason, be it genuine market conditions, mistakes in management, or something else entirely, the company is not able to run the Redcar plant at a profit. It is a private company, responsible to its shareholders, and if it can’t see a way it is going to make money from an activity then it needs to stop doing it.

The Government’s responsibility is not to the company, or even to the steel industry, but to the people and the area. Could it, perhaps, reopen the plant, having bought it at a “fire sale” price from SSI? Leaving aside whether the current Government would do something like this, would it be a sensible policy?

The problem is, I wouldn’t expect this or any Government to be able to run a steel plant at any more of a profit than SSI, or Arcelor, or any of the other companies that do it for a living. If the state took over the running of the plant, we would have to assume that it would run at a similar loss. Those with more knowledge might tell us that there are obvious savings and improvements in competitiveness to be made, but looking from the outside I think it’s fair to take the current position at face value.

In this case, the Government would effectively be keeping it open as a social service. The facility exists, the trained people exist, and the logistics are in place, even if the iron ore which originally fuelled the local industry has long since been imported from elsewhere. Assuming no better performance than SSI’s latest accounts, the country would pay £200m per year to support the workers, their families and their local area. And at some point in the future, the same problems may well roll round again.

Could the annual £200m be better spent? At its most ridiculously simplistic, the quoted figure of redundancies is 1700. The losses at the steel plant would pay each of those people over £117,000 per year, without the need to run the plant. Adding in the 150 people made redundant at the South Bank coke ovens, and the 1000 contractors the Evening Gazette says rely on SSI for their income, the Government could still keep the plant closed and pay everybody affected £62,500 per year.

That won’t happen, of course. But it’s an interesting context when asking whether the Government should run the steel plant at a loss. And then there’s the environmental impact. Figures from Tata Steel suggest that UK production costs around a tonne of carbon for every tonne of steel, which means up to 3.6m tonnes of carbon arising from capacity production at Redcar. That’s less than 1% of the UK’s total emissions, but it’s a similar figure to the entire UK rail industry (albeit that this may involve an element of double counting, if Redcar steel is used for British rails).

Surely the most attractive option would be for the Government to commit a number of years’ steel plant losses to specific measures to offset the impact of the closure. Incentives for newer, cleaner industries (whether in the energy sector or otherwise) to open their next plants or offices in the area, making use of the deep water port and local logistics; guaranteed retraining and preferential interviews in the new businesses for those directly affected; significant unconditional funding for those wanting to start their own businesses; special transport or relocation subsidies for those who would prefer to travel or move to a different town to work – these are all things that would help towards a sustainable future for everyone, and that surely even a Conservative government could get behind.

Maybe I’m talking out of my hat, and all the Government needs to do is bung SSI a few million quid to keep the place open. To me, though, the alternatives seem to make more sense.

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Amplification

We hear a lot about how Twitter is an “echo chamber”. This is usually pointed out with a slightly patronising tone, by those who are keen to make us aware that although they engage on social media (sometimes to extreme levels of length and repetition), they also know that it is Not Representative, because they speak to Other People as well.

I’m not quite sure why this point needs to be made. I have yet to follow a single account on Twitter without making the conscious decision to press the button. I choose who and what I want to follow. According to the echo chamber finger-wagging, I should presumably carefully select a representative sample of society, making sure that 20% would
be likely to vote UKIP, a handful would like to sell the local hospital to a firm from Des Moines, and at least one or two would agree with the notion that MK Dons is a legitimate football club.

In practice, I can get that by going to work, or going shopping, or going to the football, or doing anything where I don’t get a choice in the people who turn up at the same time. When I go home, I don’t, if at all possible, do things I don’t like, which include eating carrots, watching “talent”/”reality” shows (except ones involving food on the BBC), and listening to Conservatives.

Perhaps, then, the constant reminders are not so much “choose better”, but “be careful with what you read into the result”. This makes more sense. I don’t have to listen to those who, in my careful and considered opinion, talk bollocks; but I must be aware that the people I DO listen to might not be enough to, say, win a General Election. I know this. I learnt it most forcefully in my twenties, when George W Bush was re-elected for a second term DESPITE four years of incessant mocking on the News Quiz and the Now Show. But, for those less experienced, perhaps it’s a decent warning.

Which brings me on to the Labour leadership election. Jeremy Corbyn is clearly the best choice to lead the Labour Party. We don’t need to go into why or how, that’s not the point. The point is that I am, unequivocally, a Jeremy Corbyn supporter. Or, more accurately, a supporter of anyone who is prepared to voice the opposition to the current status quo in the way that Corbyn and his campaign have over the last few months.

Over recent weeks, this has become something to be viewed as dangerous. There has been a feeling among media commentators that they are receiving too much abuse for questioning the campaign or the candidate. And today we are told that “Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters risk undermining their own cause”.

The tl/dr is that a lot of people on the internet are unpleasant nutters. Really, evilly, viciously unpleasant nutters. And that some of these nutters have chosen to attach themselves to the campaign of someone seen as an “outsider” (even though he’s a longer-serving Westminster MP than any of the competition).

This should not be news. There have been enough “characters” brought to prominence by being nasty on the internet for us to know that such behaviour can bring its own rewards. I shan’t list them here, but if you don’t know who I mean, follow the Zelo Street blog for a few weeks – you’ll soon come across three or four.

So we know that shouty nutters shout nutty things. And we know, because we learnt earlier, that we really shouldn’t rely too much on things said on Twitter for a balanced view of the world. So why should that not work both ways? If I shouldn’t take my self-selected skewed sample of opinion as representative, why should someone getting lots of nasty @ replies take them as representative of those backing the campaign? They are just as self-selecting, albeit inadvertently and uncontrollably, because of the format of the medium. You can say a loud, nasty thing in 140 characters. It takes longer to add the necessary qualification and say “I’m not a nutter, and I enjoy your writing and the insight it provides, and I don’t think you’re part of some elitist cabal, but I don’t agree with your point on Richard Murphy’s economic plans”. If we try to condense it, we lose the nuance, and get dumped in the bin marked CORBYNITE. If we do it over five tweets, we dump ourselves in the bin marked “green ink”. So we don’t bother. The nutters don’t worry about these considerations, so their voice is amplified, and suddenly they become representative of the online campaign.

Appealing to them to think of the effect on the campaign is as useful as appealing to a 1980s hooligan to think of the effect on the team and league he happened to attach himself to. If he’s mainly there for the aggro, it’s not going to make a blind bit of difference. And in the meantime, those who just want to watch the match will continue to suffer by association.

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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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