Viva Cross-Vegas


Steve Jobs won’t be pleased. I failed to convert Lance Armstrong to the iPhone. The world’s most famous cyclist was warming up on a static bike next to his team bus in a parking lot in Las Vegas and was taking the opportunity to do some texting on his Blackberry.

Maybe the SMS was to Bill Clinton? Lance had been with him that morning at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York. It was at this meeting that the seven times Tour de France winner had officially announced his return to cycling, and revealed the ramping up of his cancer charity efforts.

As a recent convert to the cult of the Mac mobile I tried to iProselytise the Texan. Would he not prefer an iPhone, I asked.

“No, I like my Blackberry too much. You can’t type with the iPhone, the keys are too fiddly.”

This kind of pre-race small talk is unusual for Lance. Once in ‘the zone’, he’s generally monosyllabic.


Tonight, he was chatty. He was full of smiles. He was starting his comeback on a floodlit grass-and-dust soccer field, six miles from the Las Vegas strip, but he wasn’t in it to win it. He hadn’t even shaved his legs for the occasion.

“I just love racing my bike,” he said.

The next day it would be confirmed he was going to be riding for the Kazakh team Astana. Tonight he was in Livestrong livery, black and yellow kit to publicise his cancer charity. He might not have been planning on being a contender in his comeback race but he was in good shape, not an ounce of excess fat on his skinny frame. His yellow wristband – the rubber charity bracelet that spawned them all – was loose.

He was about to ride CrossVegas, the second running of a cyclo-cross race timed to coincide with Interbike, the annual North American trade show for bicycles. Cyclo-cross is a winter sport, associated with ice-crusted mud and beered-up spectators.

Event sponsor Dale’s Pale Ale lubricated the CrossVegas spectators but the City of Lost Wages doesn’t do winter. The thick and matted grass at the Desert Breeze Soccer Complex is sewn into the dusty ground, the night was hot, mud but a dream.


I asked Lance how many cyclo-cross races he had ever done.


Then he looked me in the eye, and mock fiercely, said: “Un…de…feated.”

It wasn’t to be three in a row for Lance. He had just got off a jet from New York an hour before the race and isn’t a born CXer so his 22nd position was respectable. The 15,000 spectators had cheered his every passing lap as if he was in the lead. The prodigal son had returned.

I was at Interbike to oggle the bicycles but had smuggled myself on to the start list for CrossVegas a couple of weeks previously, long before it was known Lance would make a place on the start sheet such a big deal.

Cross at CrossVegas
CR pic by Dan Ellmore.

I rode in the Wheelers and Dealers event, for industry whippets: people like Dave Lawrence of Shimano, Gary Erickson of Clif Bar and Ben Capron of Specialized.

I’m no whippet, but I felt like one for the night. Jake Heilbron, the owner of Kona Bicycles, supplied me with a 2009 Jake the Snake. I had a team trailer hang-out, a team mechanic to switch my brakes around (why do Americans insist on operating the front brake via the left lever?), and a team fridge from which I could snaffle as much Snapple as I wanted.

I was adequately hydrated on a boiling hot night, but I wasn’t a terribly impressive member of Team Kona. I shan’t be getting a pro contract any time soon. In short, I sucked. I came 79th out of 98 riders, although I was third in the media category. (There were four journalists riding).

A glass half-full scan of the nationalities of the starters revealed my chance for cycling glory. For the rest of my born days I will be able to brag I was the fastest British finisher in my race on the famous night when Lance Armstrong kick-started his comeback. OK, I was the only British entrant, but I’m not always strong on details.

Lance electrifies CrossVegas


I got a chance to talk to Lance Armstrong by the Trek caravan at tonight’s CrossVegas event in Las Vegas.

I asked him how many cyclo-cross races he’d ever done. “Two,” he said. Then he looked me in the eye, and mock fiercely, said: “Undefeated.”

His third race didn’t go well. He was well down on the leaders, but this wasn’t his natural terrain and he wasn’t expected to cream the opposition.

The eventual winner was my ‘team-mate’ Ryan Trebon. I was an honorary Kona rider for the night. Jake Heilbron – co-founder of Kona – had hooked me up with a Jake the Snake to ride. Team mechanic Mark Matson even switched the brakes the right way round for me.

Not that this helped much. I got round the Wheelers and Dealers event, but only just.

Interbike über-PR stars Rich Kelly and Uwe Weissflog found me looking dazed and confused a short while after the race and kindly gave me a VIP pass for the rest of the evening. It was Rich who discovered Lance was warming up by the Trek tent and we headed off that way.

Lance was totally relaxed and friendly, a million miles from his usual ‘race character’. He was out for some fun. For once, winning was the most important thing.

Here are my favourite shots from the night. The rest of my pix can be be found on this Flickr set.


Slight fuzz, but not totally clean shaven.







Armstrong 08 Cross Vegas
This great shot above was taken by Lindsay Thomson from the Interbike team.


I promised this security guard I’d publish his pic.

“There’s something big ahead, Brian”

Alwinton 22 - Version 2

I can’t quite believe I did this. Yesterday, on a six hour ride in the Cheviot hills of Northumberland, I mistook a map’s giant letter ‘i’ for a socking great obstacle, and said so to Brian, my ride partner.

The ‘i’ in question was a capital. Next to it were the letters ‘V’ and ‘O’. But I couldn’t see the full word: C H E V I O T.

I was zoomed in big on a SatMap Active 10, a brilliant GPS unit that uses genuine OS mapping. On a paper map it would have been obvious that the puzzling black oblong was a letter because I’d have seen the other letters, even though widely spaced apart. While riding along, in a biting wind, and without the context of a full paper map I really was expecting to soon see a large, unknown feature. Some sort of over-size Pennine Way stile, perhaps?


Luckily, Brian is intelligent and he realised my mistake. To his credit he didn’t immediately fall on the floor laughing, but I expect my map reading boob will be in his anecdotal armoury for years to come.

Anyway, it was a great ride. 24 miles in the middle of nowhere. Grassy descents. A few small river crossings. A peat bog just in front of the border with Scotland. Some wild goats. A ruined pub called the Slyme Foot inn. And some great weather despite the fact the hill tops still had some patchy snow.


Alwinton 51

Alwinton 52 - Version 2



Alwinton 41 - Version 2


From Romans to Rockets

Had a bit of an epic ride on Monday. Brian Smith, a fellow coach at Newcastle Phoenix cycling club, said he had a free day and would I like to join him on a ride.

It was cold and wet, and forecast to stay that way all day. I suggested we explore a small corner of the Spadeadam Wastes, close to an evocative section of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.

We started at Birdoswald Roman fort. I wanted to follow a submerged Roman road by using the SatMap GPS device for bikes (this uses OS maps, a review will follow).

The route was a toughie, it took two hours to ‘ride’ the first 10 miles. Close to the end there was a river that had to be waded. This was the first ride I’ve been on with Brian. He might not want to let me choose the route in future…

The route went close to RAF Spadeadam, which isn’t marked on OS maps. This is one of Europe’s top two electronic warfare testing bases. There are ‘do-not-enter-or-you-are-breaching-Official-Secrets-Act’ signs on the tarmac road leading to the base, but no such warning signs on the severely under-used bridleway skirting the site.

Why the rockets in the headline? In the 1950s, Spadeadam was the testing site for Blue Streak, the UK’s would-be intercontinental ballistic missile. Had it not been cancelled, it might have also gone on to become the start of Britain’s space programme. Don’t laugh, it was seriously considered at the time.

The RAF base is littered with dummy tanks and aircraft to make it look like a Russian airbase from the air. NATO jets use the base for electronic jamming training.

This is probably the only bike ride in the UK where you can cycle close to Russian surface-to-air missile launchers. There’s even a hamlet called Moscow.

Brian was on a Specialized MTB. I wanted to see if I could cope on my Kona Jake-the-Snake cyclo-cross bike. I could.

After this punishing short ride, the historical resonances continued. We took tea (in fact, hot choc and a fruit cake) in the faded Gilsland Spa Hotel. This is famous for being the location where, in 1797, novelist Sir Walter Scott proposed to his French wife.

More pix on this slide show, check out the Scotchlite flashing on the Altura jacket.

Click for Animoto-created slideshow on YouTube:

Cycling is fashionable

In the 1980s, cycle clobber had its fifteen minutes of fame. Lycra skin shorts – sans padded inserts – were considered cool. The BBC’s I Love…1987 programme said: “Cycle racing has always been regarded as a rather nerdy occupation, so how [cycling shorts] became fashionable is beyond comprehension. Some regarded cycling shorts as a huge turn-on, as they revealed even more than the hotpants of the Seventies. But that was until even the hugest, most cellulite-riddled backside was squeezed into neon-coloured skin tight Lycra.”

Being fashionable is good for selling hot cakes but stock goes stale quickly because fickle fashionistas need to be surfing the next wave not waddling around in past-its-sell-by date Spandex. Hardcore cyclists are in it for the long term and don’t particularly want cycling to become fashionable again. Cycle fashion shows such as last year’s Pret a Rouleur and Hackney’s Heels and Wheelsshow staged on Valentine’s Day would be anathema to them.

But the world of fashion doesn’t care what we think. In fact, fashion labels are quite happy to ride roughshod over underground bicycle campaigns. For New York Fashion Week – sponsored by Mercedes Benz – DKNY released a load of orange bikes into the wild, chaining them to lamp-posts. Not Orange as in belt-drives and Patriots but orange as in Dulex. The fashion label’s painted bikes were meant to “get people thinking and talking about bicycles as a healthy and fashionable way to get around the city.”

The campaign enraged bicycle advocates because it seemed to mirror the placement of white Ghostbikes across the city, symbols of fatal car-v-bike smashes. The Gothamist blog called the campaign “misguided and terribly executed.”

A DKNY commissioned video on YouTube rubbed salt in the wounds:

This vid features two ‘supermodels’ fighting with a cardboard car and actually riding the despised orange bikes. You’ve got to love the line ‘If supermodels can’t solve the world’s problems, then I don’t know who can,” but DKNY’s attempt at street cool didn’t generate much heat outside of bike blogs.

However, the publicity stunt allows me to remark that fashion designers seem to be disproportionately attracted to cycling.

Fashion designers Jeff Banks and Sir Paul Smith are avid roadies. Smith’s company has sponsored cycle teams, and Banks Jnr owes his love of cycling to Banks Snr:

“My dad was a racer before the war. He bought me an Italian racing bike when I was 11, and I suppose I’ve never looked back. There’s not a major col in the Alps or Pyrenees that I haven’t climbed. I suppose I do it for the sense of achievement you get when you complete rides like that. It’s amazing.”

Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood co-created Punk and she cuts a dash on her daily cycle commute in south London. Because of her extravagent dress sense she’s pretty much unmissable but the giveaway is the wire-haired fox terrier in the basket.

Wayne Hemingway, the co-founder of 1980s label Red or Dead, famous for its recycled denims, is so pro-cycling his new company even markets a bike shed and a folding bike. The Shack-up bike shed is lower than a garden shed, can hold four bikes and there’s a compartment for garden equipment or bike stuff. And want a Hemingway bike to put in the shed? Cough up a deposit on flat in a social housing scheme, the Road Runner folding bike is only available in quantities of 250 and is targeted at housing developers. At fifty eight quid a pop the Road Runner is no looker, and is light on innovation, but it’s all part and parcel of Hemingway’s desire to get more people on bikes.

He helped to design a new housing development in Gateshead, the pro-bike Staiths South Bank. It’s Britain’s biggest HomeZone and has a bike pool facility for residents.

Another fashion designer with his head screwed on right is Giles Deacon, the British Fashion Designer of the Year for 2007. He has expensive tastes (favourite hotels: Hôtel Costes in Paris, the Principe di Savoia in Milan and the Chateau Marmont in LA) but he’s still a down-to-earth Cumbrian lad who knows bikes are best. On Sunday he told The Observer: “I adore London and, if I have time off, I’ll just explore the city – visiting exhibitions. I like cycling everywhere. I have done so since I moved here 20 years ago.”

But my favourite fasionista is GQ columnist Scott Schuman. His massively popular and worryingly addictive blog – The Sartorialist – is dripping with good taste. It features smartly dressed folks from cities around the world, all photographed by Schuman and with just the shortest of captions. Click on the ‘bicycle’ tag and you fall into a world of beautiful people on bikes, from “All Cute Girls in Europe Ride Bikes Everywhere, Wearing Cute Clothes, All Day!” to The Very Personification Of A Sexy Summer. Oh, and there are some pix of men, too.

I think Schuman’s personalised approach to what’s truly fashionable is eye-opening. And his liking for bicycles is welcome. As a bunch – and I know you’ll say ‘speak for yourself, mate’ – cyclists are not always the best looking clan out on the streets. Fluoro yellow isn’t terribly becoming and polystyrene prophalactics give you helmet hair. The Sartorialist shows it’s possible to look classy and still ride a bike.

Do CXers have 50 words for water-and-soil mixture?

Or is it just ‘mud’ prefixed with some localised adjectives? I ask because at the cold and wet USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships, being held this weekend in Kansas, Junior Men winner Luke Keough (CL Noonan) of Sandwich, Mass. said:

“I raced out in Portland two weeks ago and I thought that was the worst mud you could find. This stuff just put it to shame – it just sucked you in, it was slippery and sticky all at the same time.”

In ‘Cyclo Cross’, the much-reprinted CX bible, author Simon Burney writes:

“Just as Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow, so ‘cross cyclists should have a varied vocabulary to describe the different tyres of mud they encounter.”

But do they? Loamy, claggy, sticky, slippy, gloopy. They all end in ‘y’. Not quite perfect descriptors, then. And, of course, ‘Eskimos’ – more accurately, Inuit – do not have an unusually high number of words for snow.

A popular belief exists that the Inuit have an unusually large number of words for snow. This is not accurate, and results from a misunderstanding of the nature of polysynthetic languages. In fact, The Inuit have only a few base roots for snow: ‘qanniq-‘ (‘qanik-‘ in some dialects), which is used most often like the verb to snow, and ‘aput’, which means snow as a substance. The Inuit language can form very long words by adding more and more descriptive affixes to words. Those affixes may modify the syntactic and semantic properties of the base word, or may add qualifiers to it in much the same way that English uses adjectives or prepositional phrases to qualify nouns (eg. “falling snow”, “blowing snow”, “snow on the ground”, “snow drift”, etc.)

Despite taking onboard a course barrier stake and some tape on the first lap, Shannon Gibson clung desperately to leader Cris Rothfuss in the Masters Women 40-44 category.

Incredibly staying upright through the greasy mud, Gibson plucked the tape from her wheels and ejected it – and the stake – with a javelin-like throw to the side.

Gibson, a former ballet dancer, matter-of-factly compared the incident to a recital.

“If your costume falls off in the middle of a performance, you just keep dancing,” she said.