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Confessions of a Dot-Watcher
The moment it flashed up in my Twitter timeline I knew this photograph of Alexandre Bourgeonnier would be a defining image of this year’s Transcontinental Race.
The exhausted rider in tears, his face caked with the dirt and sweat of the long, hot days and the dark, lonely nights, held tight in his wife’s embrace. Her arms are wrapped around her husband and in her left hand is clasped the smartphone that she has been staring at for the past eleven days, eight hours and thirty minutes, watching the race tracker page as a legion of numbered orange dots creeps slowly from one end of Europe to the other. In case you’ve never heard of the Transcontinental (and it’s fair to admit, most people haven’t), it’s a non-stop bike race from Geraardsbergen in Belgium to Istanbul in Turkey, taking in some of the highest mountain roads in Europe. It’s a test of both endurance and self-sufficiency. Riders must carry what they need with them or find it on the roadside, fix their own mechanicals and navigate their way across five mountain ranges and ten international borders, languages changing every day.
With no televised or newspaper coverage, following the Transcontinental as a spectator is also something of a do-it-yourself affair. As I had last year, I quickly fell under the spell of the orange dots, each one representing a single rider, updated every three minutes. At midnight one night the barren slopes of Mont Ventoux were littered with two dozen of dots and I found myself trying to conjure the eerie, desolate scene in my mind’s eye.
Midnight on Mont Ventoux, busy with Transcontinental riders
I’d check the dots again first thing in the morning, measuring my own night’s sleep in a warm, comfortable bed, against the progress the riders had made pedalling through the darkness. I’d zoom in on a single rider, switching from map view to satellite imagery to Google Streetview and back again to figure out exactly which road they were riding along. If a rider I was following stopped for more than a few minutes I’d begin to wonder why. Was there a serious problem? Or were they just having a pizza?
Ultan Coyle ate here?
As well as watching the dots there were the riders’ Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds to monitor. Here tiny telegrams would appear from the road, along with the occasional photograph. Often they’d reply to my questions and tweets of encouragement. The dots spoke! The race organisers, following the race by car were not always fully appraised of what was happening everywhere in the race but shared what information they could as riders passed through the four checkpoints.
Leading the early part of the race across France was James Hayden, a young rider who only took up bike racing three years ago and had never entered a race longer than 100 miles. Not only was James first up Mont Ventoux he was live tweeting as he rode. By the Italian Alps four riders had pulled away from the main field: James in the lead, last year’s second place Josh Ibbett in second, former UK 24 hour time trial champion Ultan Coyle in third and Frenchman Alexandre Bourgeonnier in fourth.
Evil Genius: Transcontinental Race organiser Mike Hall (Photograph by Camille McMillan)
Last year, when I spoke to race organiser Mike Hall about the Transcontinental, he could barely conceal a sadistic pleasure at the inclusion of the Strada Dell’ Assiette in this year’s race. Besides making the race harder, the logic behind adding 40km of rough tracks in the high Italian Alps to the route was to tip the balance against the time trial specialists. It had exactly the desired effect, shredding Ultan’s tyres and reducing him to walking his sleek racing machine off the mountain as Alexandre Bourgeonnier sailed by.
Strada Dell'Assiette. Photograph by Camille McMillan
With no official race commentary, spectators had to come up with their own theories about what was happening. Why were some riders heading off course, down into the middle of Italy? Of course! They were heading for Ancona, and the ferry to across the Adriatic to Split. Instantly someone else on Twitter would look up the ferry timetable and try to figure out who was on course to catch the one sailing that day and who would be left kicking their heels and cursing their luck.
On the long drag across the Po Valley of Northern Italy, James and Josh pulled away from the rest, James’s lead yo-yo’d around the 60km mark and sleep deprivation soon began to play its part. At first, James’s sleep strategy was mere 20 minute naps but by Italy he had added a 90 minute night-time sleep. To save weight and keep moving he carried no sleeping gear, finding shelter as and when he could. He later revealed that on one freezing night in the Croatian mountains he had crawled into cubby hole behind a petrol station vending machine and rested in the warmth the machine was generating. This is not something that happens at the Tour de France. Meanwhile Josh, who had packed a bivvy bag and was taking slightly longer sleep breaks of around three hours a night, was confident his plan would work:
“I knew he [James] hadn’t slept properly yet and knew that his leading gap was essentially time that I had been asleep. In my mind I was already in a race winning position and all I needed to do was wait until James cracked and I was going to do everything I could to accelerate the process.”
In the end, it happened sooner than Josh expected.
James had developed a mysterious condition known as ‘Shermer’s Neck’, a curse of ultra-endurance bike racers. After a night’s rest James not only got back on his bike but began to eat away at Josh’s lead. With James riding hard and a navigational slip by Josh, the gap fell from nearly 200km to less than 5km (if you’re really sad – like me – then you can watch an ‘action replay’ of their close encounter over here).
Sadly for James, it wasn’t to be and his bad neck forced him to abandoned the race. This left Josh with the task of holding it together alone across Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and western Turkey: a distance of around 1200km that took him just over 70 hours. It would be an extraordinary performance under any circumstances but positively superhuman given the lumpy terrain, the poor roads, the headwinds and the miles already in his legs and Josh proved himself a worthy winner, finishing in just under ten days.
For a while it looked as though the race for second place was developing into a thriller as time trial specialist Ultan led the chase and second place Alexandre began to falter. But Ultan experienced yet more bad luck in the form of a crash with a taxi in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and lost time as he had his buckled front wheel repaired. Though he came close to quitting with just 100km to go, Alexandre managed to hang on to second, reaching Istanbul just an hour ahead of Tomas Navratil in third.
Podium of the Transcontinental Race 2015. Photograph by Camille McMillan
Over the next ten days between eighty and ninety riders made it to Istanbul, fewer than half of the number who set out. The high rate of attrition that makes the Transcontinental one of the toughest challenges in cycling and turns every finisher into a hero. And every rider, whether or not they finished, returned home with their own memories of a unique and unforgettable bicycle adventure.
A group of early finishers in Istanbul (Photograph by Camille McMillan)
It’s far removed from the slick, televised world of professional bike racing but the appeal of the Transcontinental is to be found in the sheer scale of the endeavour, the Corinthian spirit in which it’s raced, the dedication and good humour of the riders and the huge amount of fun there is to be found trying to figure out even the very basic facts of what is going on. It’s a bizarre, horrifying and strangely compelling spectacle, exactly how I imagine the early editions of the Tour de France. I can’t wait until the dots are on the move again in 2016.
Photograph by Camille McMillan
Creams, Balms, Etc.
It could all have been avoided with a judicious slathering of chamois cream.
We’re only too painfully aware of the care needed to be taken with that most ample point of contact between rider and machine. The “naughty bits”, as it were. And normally the use of a Brooks saddle is, of course, a sure-fire way to prevent nether-regional discomfort.
But when cycling in extreme weather conditions, or over extremely long distances, many people find it wise to take a step further than our Imperial line and employ an additional precaution against what Mr. Brooks tactfully described a century ago as “perineal pressure”.
Chamois creams and other preparations which supposedly carry out a “chamois-cream-like function” have been hungrily snapped up by bikers since shortly after the first bicycles went into production. In fact, long before that time, anybody who spent an inordinate amount of time on horseback also tended to be on the lookout for any relevant new treatments hitting the market.
Now, as then, when it comes to useful cycling-related stuff, we at Boultbee Towers cast a wide net. Often, this results in a catch not necessarily cycling-specific. But no need to throw them back in the water, when perhaps in no other area of cycling is there such recourse to products initially designed with other purposes in mind.
At any rate, nowadays, a rider looking to go the extra mile in pressure prevention can choose from among other remedies, the Pun-tastic, the Alp-Evoking, or the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-A-Chamois-Cream. We take a look at a few today. Rest assured that anyone who uses a bike regularly will be delighted to find any of the following tubs or tubes nestling at the bottom (no pun intended) of their Christmas Stocking later this month.
Say howdy to Chamois Butt’r. For many years on the other side of the Pond, this has been the go-to paste for happy cyclists keen on staying that way. And in case the wordplay isn’t spelt out clearly enough for everyone, the Butt’r's “B” has been helpfully rendered on the tube by a commercial artist in the form of a cyclist’s rear-end.
In America, they also sell a “European-style” version of the Butt’r, which differs from the domestic one by being minty. Plans are now afoot for a new U.S. Edition of Proofide. Details to follow. (Hint- “Fruits-of-the-Forest”)
Of course, any self-respecting (and universally respected) cycling brand with a name like Assos could be justifiably charged with colossal dereliction of duty were they not to enter the perineal ointment fray. And so it is that everybody’s favourite Swiss purveyor of cycling stuff has its own cream, or, beg pardon, creme. And a very fine (many say the finest) creme it is, too.
A cream inspired by such a landscape can only be good. Photo by Ben Ingham for Rapha.
Lavender… Juniper… Patchouli… the stunning vista of Mont Ventoux, the poetry-inducing aromas of the roadside flora… it can only be Rapha weighing in with their take on how to avoid squirming in the hotseat. With ingredients like Shea Butter and Rosemary, the buyer might easily be tempted to slather this stuff on a baked potato, but we have been assured that this is certainly not one of Rapha Chamois Cream’s recommended “off-label” uses.
Around the 1890?s, not terribly long after John Brooks’ horse died, causing him to borrow a neighbour’s bike and thereby setting in motion the chain of events which leads us to this morning’s post, dairy farmers’ wives all across America were becoming increasingly (and pleasantly) surprised at the strange, new-found softness of their husbands’ normally rough, be-callused hands.
The answer lay here. Bag Balm quickly developed from mere agricultural lubricant to veritable Panacea for the Ages, its many “off-label” uses still widely documented all over the Information Superhighway. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Balm moonlights as chamois cream.
There has been no shortage down the years of other companies getting in on the act of selling cows-teat-ointment and thence diversifying into the chamois cream game on the back of their earlier success. Some of them even bring wordplay to the table. Exhibit A. Udderly, um… never mind.
The timeline is maybe getting a little stretched, but it is none the less true to say that not long after the American Housewife was discovering Bag Balm, the German Hausfrau was becoming acquainted with Ballistol. Developed before the First World War as an all-round cleaning and lubricating material, Ballistol was a mineral-based, biodegradable fluid primarily used to oil guns, and to weatherproof leather. Like a continental Proofide, really, which incidentally also goes down rather well on Christmas morning…
Ballistol is still available nowadays in various states to pour or spray, and generally held to be wunderbar in German-speaking parts of the world, for all sorts of non-munitional purposes. And while it cannot be specifically sold as a “medicine”, Ballistol’s makers suavely point to its disinfectant, and widely remarked-upon wound healing qualities when the question arises of applying it to a chamois or skin.
We’ll leave you in this spirit of multi-purposing with a final pair of non-typical approaches to cycling soreness and Yuletide present-giving; for the Carnivores (see bottom of article) and also for any readers with offspring still in their nappies.
More gift ideas to follow…
Brooks Historical Timeline
The next time you find yourself perched comfortably atop your favourite Brooks-equipped bicycle, enjoying a smooth ride and experiencing no discomfort due to inadequate or even downright unsuitable seating arrangements, take a moment and spare a thought for your earliest bicycling forebears. At the time of the first craze for two-wheeled locomotion in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the new-fangled devices were dubbed “bone-shakers”, being reliant upon a bar of iron (that famously supple material!) across the top of the frame to support the seat!
Food for further rumination whilst enjoying your ride in Brooks-supported comfort, here are a few further milestones in the history of the company which have perhaps done the most to reduce the shaking of your bones. Alas, this being a Blog somewhat hampers any depiction of these events as a ‘Timeline’. None-the-less, this chronology of events culminating in the supreme comfort from which you benefit each time you mount your bicycle serves to illustrate our dedication to your posterior comfort.
1865 – The young John Boultbee Brooks, 19 years of age, aquires a new-fangled velocipede, upon which he cuts a dashing figure. However, that was not all that he cut, the wooden saddle proving to be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Fortunately, his father produced leather for the manufacture of horse saddles, still the most common mode of transport for JB Brooks and his contemporaries. Young Brooks set about designing and developing a comfortable leather bicycle saddle at his father’s workshop. The rest, as the somewhat timeworn expression goes, is history:
1866 – JB Brooks (1846-1921) establishes a works in Great Charles Street, Birmingham, for the manufacture of leather strapping for horse harnesses and general leather goods.
1870 – Having noted that ever more of his customers were indulging in the new pastime of cycling, JB Brooks began to concentrate on the manufacture of bicycle saddles.
1880 – The first safety bicycles became available, and with them the requirement of more comfortable saddles. Riders then were as unwilling then as today to suffer undue discomfort, and were scornful of the painful ‘shaped piece of wood’ variety of cycle seating.
1882 – Brooks filed his first patent for a sprung bicycle saddle, itself a first. He went on to file further patents for bicycle saddle designs, as well as motorcycle saddles and a veritable multitude of other goods. These included galoshes, snap-on leggings, handlebar muffs, folding footrests, toe-straps, gents and ladies cycling shoes, oil-skin clothing and of course bags. Many of these items can be seen today in cycling museums in both Wales and Cornwall. It is less well known that Brooks also manufactured furniture – chairs, tables, desks, cabinets and mirrors for home, hotel or business use, as well as stools, lockers, cupboards, bins, shelves and tables for commercial and industrial use. Many of these items are chronicled in the Brooks England collection of historic product catalogues and sundry publications.
1900 – By the early 1900?s Brooks Ltd. offered an astonishingly broad range of bicycle saddles and sundry accessories such as saddle bags, tool bags, inner tube cases, motorcycle belt cases, pannier bags, hat cases and even bicycle-mounted cigar trays.
1920 – Brooks took over the Lycett Saddle Company, and in the same year became the established first choice saddle of cycling champions. This marked the beginning of a period during which every rider in the Tours rode upon a Brooks saddle. Indeed it is this pedigree which is the focus of our current marketing campaign, which features images of famous racing cyclists of yesteryear riding the great stage races with Brooks saddles.
1926 – The B66 saddle was introduced, going on to become our best seller and still accounting for over a third of the company’s total saddle sales. This despite the subsequent introduction of ever more refined saddle designs!
1930 – Brooks took over the Leatheries Cycle Saddles company, as well as purchasing a motorcycle company named, coincidentally, the Brookes Company.
1935 – No fewer than 60% of the 2,733,000 cycle saddles produced annually in Great Britain are the products of J.B. Brooks and Co.
1939 – With the advent of war the Brooks’ skills and plant were rapidly harnessed to assist the British war effort.
1945 – The war over, Brooks entered a period of rapid expansion on a greater scale than all years previous.
1955 – Brooks experiences a boom period, with a workforce of over 1,500 manufacturing some 55,000 leather saddles plus 25,000 mattress saddles every week.
1958 – The saddle division of Brooks Industries Limited was acquired by the Raleigh Cycle Company.
1960 – Raleigh Cycles was in turn acquired by British Tube Investment Group, who subsequently transfer both Brooks and Sturmey-Archer first to their automotive division, then to the bicycle division.
1962 – Brooks relocates to the Downing Street Works, Smethwick, Birmingham, there to be amalgamated with the Wright Saddle Company to become the Raleigh Saddle Division of TI. The current Brooks facility is only a few miles north west of the original Smethwick site.
1969 – During July the Brooks facility is ravaged by fire, and completely gutted. Undaunted, Brooks staff salvaged what remained of the plant and stock and recommenced production.
1987 – Brooks, as part of the TI Bicycle Division, was taken over by the American Derby International Group.
2002 – Brooks England is acquired by Selle Royal, Italian saddle giants themselves who manufacture a staggering 80,000 foam padded saddles a day, which is more or less the number of leather saddles which Brooks puts out in an entire year. Despite the marked difference between the highly technologically advanced products of Selle Royal and the more traditional manufacturing skills involved in the creation of Brooks leather saddles, the intentions of the new parent company are to respect and maintain the traditions and history of Brooks, which will continue to be made only in Smethwick, Birmingham, England.
Today – Brooks saddles are available in over 20 countries. A unique range has been newly developed for Japan, where Brooks enjoys a highly regarded position as the choice of the cycling connoisseur. In Scandinavia Brooks is enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity, having not been represented there for over two decades. Germany continues to be the largest consumer of Brooks saddles by quantity, the Netherlands per capita. More and more high-end manufacturers of bicycles are now specifying Brooks saddles as original equipment, including the likes of Cannondale and Koga Miyata. Of course we still enjoy the support of highly reputable framebuilders such as Roberts, Mercian and George Longstaff, to mention but a few.