Thursday, March 26, 2009

To Win Just Once

Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know… I’ve not written (posted) a darned thing in what seems like ages.

Actually, I have (honest injun) been writing – I’ve begun two or three and more of these little Voltaires but… nothing got finished off as somehow or other nothing much seemed to flow… writer’s block? Mmm, maybe – more like the block and tackle weren’t fusing like I wanted.

Besides, I’ve been caught up in a few other things… such as the boys in Blue and White hoops displaying such a dreadful lack of home form at the Mad Stad; Reading’s finest – who’ve been staring at immediate re-promotion back to the Premiership – are now looking like a team who don’t know where the goalposts are.

Perhaps if Chocolat hadn’t eaten most of my Reading FC bobble-hat a year and a bit ago, the team’s fortunes may be different… who knows?

Maybe… just maybe… its been down to the fact that I’ve – of late – pretty much eschewed caffeine. My normal daily intake of too many cups has dropped dramatically. Do I feel better… not really noticed much of a difference actually…

And then there’s been the little matter of filming myself… with those clips to be edited into short, talking-head, bite-sized chunks that’ll play part of the John the Baptist role for two awards at the upcoming Music Week awards in early April.

Shouldn’t be too much of a problem, couple of quick pieces to camera on both Rob and Chris Blackwell… a bit of a quick edit and then a rapid computer-to-computer ftp up-link and Bob becomes your proverbial.

Didn’t quite work out like that. Did you expect it to..? No, I thought not.

Place camera in position A, adjust focus having remembered to shave and brush bits of my hair (ok – a fib… I ran my fingers through it) and slide into position B and get ready to talk. Bollox…can’t think of a single thing to say; well not anything coherent anyway. Press pause.

OK, right… a script is needed. Sit down and write script… takes longer than I imagine it will – basically because I don’t want to sound like a complete imbecile. Eventually end up with something that’s half-decent. Print it off and attempt to prop it up in front of the camera; paper falls over and nothing works until I start tearing into a stack of post-it-notes and use only the sticky bits to attach said bit of paper. Its attached by so many bits of post-it-note that it resembles a piece of paper that’s cut itself shaving.

Settle back, press record and… Bollox the second time around… I can’t see a thing I’ve written since I’m way to vain to do anything like this with my glasses on. Try it with my glasses on – its still a blur. Bollox third time around. Back to the board that’s being drawn upon.

Print it out again having set the font-size at enormous. Bollox for the fourth time, its now three pages long. Ok… camera is on tripod in position A and… how the hell am I going to attach three pages to that? I know.... up-end a chair, find a tray, reverse tray, attach three pages with afore-mentioned sticky-bits from post-it-notes and… settle back into position B. That’s better, I can – at least – see what I’ve written for myself to say. Make sure that the stuffed cat is in view and… press record.

After thirty seconds and I know I’m sounding like a newsreader who’s – at best – under rehearsed. This is absolute crap. Start over again. Second time around I get to the end of the piece and still its rubbish… as dry as a bone, bereft of emotion and… I’m starting to get frustrated.

Time to adopt the Robert the Bruce cave and spider approach … if at first you don’t succeed then… you know the rest. Press record once again and all is going great guns… it even feels good… I’m looking pretty much straight at the camera and not making a balls-up of my lines… just a couple of sentences to go… and then… oh dear. The tray – attached to which are my three pieces of paper covered in large writing – slides slowly forward and falls noisily off the chair.

Big Bollox. I make a few adjustments to the set up that Heath Robinson would have been proud of – by which I mean employing a few more cushions, another chair’s legs to hold the damned tray in place.

Double-check that the stuffed cat hasn’t moved – it hasn’t – and finally, settle back into position B once again before pressing record.

I pressed it a further twenty-one times as each attempt was as lousy as the next.

Damn – I’m about to surf a few deadlines and… this isn’t going terribly well, even by my standards.

Finally, it dawns on me that I need what Rob would have called an attack monkey – assistance. One ‘phone call later and I’m in business, the photo-shoot is set for early evening. Only, a minor miscalculation since we forgot to factor in the fact that the light was fading fast as well as the camera’s microphone picked up all the extraneous noise around – meaning that take after take after take was required.

Nothing much was helped by the fact that we kept on getting fits of the giggles when either I stumbled over what I was trying to say or joggers ran past; each emitting large volumes of wind with every passing stride like so many race horses out for early morning exercise.

Eventually it go done and loaded onto the machinery meaning that I could start to edit it into some semblance of shape. There is a lesson to be learned here – don’t ever attempt to master a new piece of software – so complicated that it’d take a Professor of Complicated Things months to unravel its many complexities – whilst on a deadline. In short, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Investment was made in the book of words and progress went from slow to sluggish.

In the end it got done – and not before fielding one e-mail after another asking… have you done it yet? The FTP address is proffered and its time to transfer all my files across. No difficulty there – surely?

Oh yes there was… because, since this was all shot in HD, these weren’t small files.. even with an ultra-high-speed connection they were taking upwards of an hour… not just that but… the FTP connection kept on disconnecting minutes before the transfer was completed.

By this time, not only e-mails but ‘phone calls were flying back and forth and boffins the other end had to be coerced into explaining – in single syllables – precisely how this minor hiccup could be rectified.

I pretended not to be entirely stupid while they exhibited patience beyond that which I deserved. It took two days before, eventually, the last file – entitled Rob, The Chicken and Darth Vadar – landed safely.

In the meantime, two more key Project-x meetings had been confirmed and needed to be prepared for.

In the interim though… was Saturday… and La Primervera, the first real rendezvous of the cycling season; the first of the five great ‘monuments’ – the single day classics – is upon us. Global warming may be causing an unseasonal chill but Spring has officially sprung in Italy at least.

The course has varied little in a century or so of racing and comprises a wee jaunt in the order of a smidge under 300 kilometres. It kicks off from right underneath the arches and improbable domes of Milan’s magnificent duomo before heading due south and then west all the way to the final, twisting kilometre of tarmac, that runs alongside the via Roma in San Remo.

The initial long southbound sojourn will undoubtedly witness the obligatory break (escape) of the day comprising lesser-lights from lesser teams, all eager to repay their sponsors with a little bit of prime-time tv exposure, and gain time on the main protagonists as they roll toward the first big climb of the day – the Turchino Pass.

Then, following the long descent from its snowy heights, there’s that right turn onto the coast road – where the hare and hounds properly begins and when the slumbering peleton (the main pack of riders) wakes up. Lights, camera… action.

At this point, helicopters are chattering incessantly overhead; their tv crews being whisked out low over the Mediterranean sea to swing their cameras back and forth, taking in one glorious panoramic view after another as the huge peleton made up of 200 and more whippet-thin riders snakes its multi-coloured way along the coast… forbidding granite cliffs to their right; an inviting azure sea lapping gently against sandy beaches and craggy inlets on their left shoulders.

In front, within and behind are a phalanx of jostling motor-bikes containing more tv-crews and stills photographers – all eager for close-ups of the action. In amongst them are the race-referees also on motor-bikes… organising the chaos to ensure that no illegal pace-making or other infringements occur – whistles are constantly blown, there is a good deal of shouting and gesticulating… after all, its Italy.

Behind the main group of riders are the team cars, each dressed up in their sponsor’s livery and all festooned with immaculate spare bikes and glittering wheels a-top roofs and boots; the spit and polish lovingly given by the mechanics who’d have been working all through the previous night, glints back in the mid-March Mediterranean sunlight.

Close up or from a distance or viewed on tv, its one hell of an impressive sight.

While the entire race is a war of attrition; this part of the grinding down process and elimination of the weak takes on a new meaning as the domestiques (the worker bees) scrap and fight for position on the roads leading to the final hills with their team-leaders glued to their wheels – the domestiques role is purely to get their leaders into position to mount the final assault to the line. Domestiques don’t win, you see… that’s the job of the team leaders.

The race hots up here because this – the last 60 kilometres – is when the three capi are encountered; three short sharp ascents that serve as mere hors d’oeuvres to the final two climbs; the Cipressa and the Poggio, as legendary in cycle racing as Alpe D’Huez or the Col du Tourmalet in France are.

The former comes about 20 k’s before the end and the latter tops out at just 6 to go. If you’re not in the top thirty or so when cresting the Poggio its forget it time. Both are savage – not due to the gradient but because of the infernal pace that is set as the incline increases toward the small chapel at the top.

A number of years ago, one of my Belgian-based down-under buddies, Allan Peiper, was riding for the Dutch Panasonic / Isostar squad. A classics specialist himself – though, essentially, a domestique – he crested the Cipressa in what was left of the main field, attacked on the descent and, in company of one of the German pre-race favourites, made it onto the lower slopes of the Poggio with about a thirty second advantage over the chasing pack.

A few days later, we spoke on the ‘phone. Bloody hectic mate… on that run in to the Poggio we were giving it full gas and hit the bottom at over 55k’s an hour. It doesn’t look that steep and its not really, its just that… you’ve gotta go deep mate; its full gas the whole way up… I got to the third hairpin and my legs just started going… it’s a horrible sensation, knowing you’re going to get caught, knowing you’re not going to win.. ‘cos, up to then I really thought we were in with a decent shout.

I knew they were coming… you can feel it when they’re breathing down your neck… the helicopters are right over head, the people on the side of the road going mental…but… they’re looking just behind you as you go by… that’s how you know they’re on you… that’s when the motorbikes start coming by… the fxxxxxg noise mate. Jeez… it was like I was standing still, the speed they went by…they were all attacking each other… one went… then the next… it doesn’t stop and its full bloody gas the whole way up… I hung in… just… got over the top in the second group… but… y’know, it’s the speed that they go up it… fast mate, bloody fast. Got back on… and… descended like a kamikaze and still they were coming past me… made it… but… fxxxxd for the sprint… got caught about 8 k’s to go and…I can almost feel his Aussie-Gallic shoulder-shrug of disappointment tinged to reality coming down the ‘phone line. Ah well, Flanders in a couple of weeks eh?

Peiper went on to win stages in the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and many other significant races. Nowadays, he’s one of the director sportifs (team managers) for Columbia / High Road, one of the top teams in the world and, for the last two years, one of the boy-wonder Mark Cavendish’s mentors.

Throughout its illustrious history, La Primervera has been dominated by the Italians: schoolboys from Rome to Rimini dream of sprinting to victory in San Remo, their arms flung high and wide as the crowd, ten-deep behind the barriers either side of the road scream their name while the commentators shrill in expectant ecstasy like so many eunuchs in this cauldron of shaven legs.

To win this or any of the other four ‘monuments’ such as Belgium’s Tour Of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, the Hell Of The North that’s run across the worst cobblestones in Northern France (both of which occur in the next few weeks) is to be immortalised in global cycling.

There’s only ever been the one British winner – the late Tom Simpson who claimed the victor’s laurels in 1964 but this year, the boy Cavendish – just 23 summers under his belt that have witnessed multiple Tour de France and Giro D’Italia stage wins among numerous other victories – is making his debut in Milan-San Remo.

Without question, Cav is the fastest road-sprinter in the world today but newspaper pundits across Europe haven’t put him amongst the list of favourites that’s dominated by… yes, you guessed it… a shed load of Italian stallions all eager to flex their well-oiled stretchy sinews and shaven quads in anticipation of sea-front glory-daze.

There’s a few much-fancied Belgians, Spaniards and Russians as well as a German or two and the odd Scandinavian eager to spoil the Italian party unless… the young upstart from the Isle Of Man can upset the bookies.

I’ve been reading all of the pre-race internet news which has been filled with a lot of posturing from the pre-race big cheeses – most especially the Belgian Tom Boonen who’s been claiming Cavendish won’t be anywhere near the leaders when they get to the Poggio – errr, for why? According to Mister T, Cav’ll get dropped when the road goes upwards.

I’d have thought it rather depends on Cav’s team getting him to the start of the Poggio intact and in decent shape as much as anything else but… we’ll see.

Rai TV in Italy cover this spectacular spectacle although their coverage is limited to that nation… something to do with a huge falling out with other Euro-countries and stuff like that over the years… so… knowing that… and what with one thing and another, one’d have thought that access via the good old www would be easy-peasy. After all… its free – for now at least – so why not make hay while the sun shines.

Not quite. I’ve figured out what time transmission is due to kick in – despite the fact that my Italian is about as useless my ability to transfer files via ftp. Rai’s own web site has a snap of a bloke on a bike next to a word that looks suspiciously like cycling – equals… that looks pretty much like kick-off for their transmission… So far, so OK.

Thus, once that’s been established, I start the trawl through one PtoP web site after another, searching for the elusive feed. And, am stymied at every attempt. Bollox… all the time, I’ve got a live text update running in the background from giving minute by minute progress reports… and, while the riders are hurtling toward the Cipressa I’m jumping from this to that forum chasing the impossible. Looks like Cav is too as each report is showing that he’s sitting comfortably in the leading group of riders.

Plus, it seems its not just me who’s searching for this needle in a European haystack… Dozens of other folk all over the globe are posing the same question… where do we find the link..? All manner of possibles are posted – but the golden thread that’ll transport us to that long road along the coast leading to San Remo eludes me.

In between the Cipressa and the Pogio I give in… this isn’t gonna work… drat. I’m left with a live text feed that… eventually… shows that the boy wonder nails it by a tyre’s width on the line… he just about got over the Pogio… descended like a maniac… got hauled to about 500 metres to go by slip-streaming his one remaining team-mate and… burst out of the handful of riders still in contention and just… just beat the German, Haussler on the line.

An hour later and a YouTube link is up for all to see… bloody brilliant. So bloody brilliant that I replay it time and time again. Sad eh?

But not so sad as the following day’s British papers that – by and large – ignored this level of extraordinary achievement… yes, Chris Hoy – winner of that many Gold Medals in Beijing – rightly claimed all the accolades that he did during the last few months. No one, but no one could deny him the acres of newsprint and the many public honours that his extraordinary achievement deserved.

Yet… how is it that Cav’s own remarkable triumph – that made the front pages of very many European papers – barely got a mention in his home country. The first British winner for 45 years… his first attempt at the race itself – some debut, eh… showing a clear pair of heels (or should that be wheels) to the world’s elite and… more or less nothing.

A fact borne out on seven-time Tour winner, Lance Armstrong’s Twitter feed… a tweet (which is an individual Twitter so I’m reliably informed) that he posted the day after the race while en route to Spain from his BlackBerryTwitter device at 8.17am on March 22nd which said… Read the Sunday Times Sports Section on the flight and pages and pages of rugby, soccer and cricket yet barely a mention of Cavendish. Pitiful.

Exactly 45 minutes later, Armstrong’s next Twitter tweet was about Jane (sic) Goody… ah yes… the strangely strange but oddly normal soap opera that became a nightmare.

Oddly normal – yes… who else but the British could see fit to pump this level of drivel into every home via every conceivable form of media feed. So much so that even the BBC are under fire… people complaining about the blanket coverage.

Can I comment… dare I comment… damn right I can and shall… because, the next again day what do my beady eyes see… that self-righteous prig, the first minister of part of England, some of Scotland, not much of Wales and even less of Northern Ireland wades in with an – oh, dear isn’t it awful about poor Jade… such an example… so much missed… etc et-bloody-cetera.

Bollox, bollox, bollox… dangerous precedent you’ve created there old fruit… since, by going as public as you have about a non-entity, doubtless you’ll be acknowledging every single person in the British Isles who dies of any cancer-related disease in the future. Won’t you..?

Or… were you just trying to be a ‘blokey-bloke of the people’, in touch with the average man and woman on the street? Don’t kid yourself, you’re so far out of touch you wouldn’t know contact if it was inserted where John Sach’s grand-daughter suggested Jonathan Ross’ BAFTA should live within Russell Brand.

And then, thanks to the Grauniad, I discover something almost as disturbing. It appears that this government have a beezer new scheme afoot… they not just content to release convicted felons so that they – someone called Tweed in this instance – can go off and spend their marital night with their ‘so-called celebrity’ bride.. yet another hugely dangerous precedent wouldn’t you say… but… wait for this… because its almost as incredible.

Apparently… Primary School children are about to no longer study things like the Second World War, the Nazi terror, the Holocaust, the rise and fall of the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria and later but… instead…wait for it… yes, they’ll learn about Twitter and blogging; Wikipedia and pod-casting.

I mean… c’mon… when is someone, anyone, going to get real?

It appears that this – draft (shouldn’t one say daft in capital letters) – curriculum has been drawn up by a Sir Jim Rose. He’s a former schools inspector and his plan is to replace the traditional bakers dozen of subjects with just six for five to eleven year olds.

How terribly modern.

Apparently… the six ‘core’ areas of primary education are: English and languages… mathematical skills… science and technology… humans and the environment… physical health and well-being.

Hasn't anyone told this ijut that Wikipedia is about as unreliable and inaccurate as its possible to get. What a superlative, properly thought through, medium with which to teach the next generation.

Is it any wonder… I wonder… that very recent statistics also prove that the vast majority of kids suffer from ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder.

Oh… and while we’re at the Theatre of The Absurd and on the subject of the non-sensical here are two more little gems… first, bars and pubs across the UK may soon be forced to sell wine in smaller glasses. For why..? Obvious, isn’t it… its all part of a new Government initiative to curb binge drinking. Yeah… like that’ll really help. Now, I may well be in a minority of one here because… someone called Dawn Primarolo – what a cracking surname… Dear, dear Ms Prim (and terribly proper) – reckons that… Glass sizes have increased over the years and so has the strength of wine. Too often the only size available is a large glass – that’s a third of a bottle of wine – which takes a woman beyond the recommended daily allowance of two to three units. That, by the way, is / was a direct quote and its clear she doesn’t got to French France on her holidays…

Gosh… what larks… I mean to say, do any of these people live in the real world?

Oh… and the other… almost as much fun this one…

A truly magnificent piece of irrelevance that I spy with my little eye… something beginning with SB… oh yes… Spandau Ballet are going to reform… hold my breath? My lungs aren’t big enough.


Does anyone care..? I can but assume their egos believe that people actually want to pay (again) to hear the dreadful Tony Hadley vocally challenge himself (and loose disastrously) by warbling True… Gold… and all the other tosh that they plagued the airwaves with twenty-plus-something years ago.

Take a note out of Paul Weller’s and The Smiths’ and the Stone Roses’ notebooks lads… disband and don’t bother re-forming… the legend is far more becoming when kept at a distance.

At least the MEP Daniel Hannan is on the right track – he gave a truly brilliant speech in Brussels within the last twenty-four hours that – I’d imagine – had the piggy-eyed Scottish emigrant premiere squirming in his hot-panties… its well worth a squint and can be found on YouTube.

And Project-X… ah yes (as if I’d forget)… I did meet with the Education Strategist… we had a pleasant lunch although my choice of the chilli-burger was ill-informed – the chillis being of the red-hot, pain-inducing, nostril-cleansing variety. We talked for a couple hours beside an inner city river in a blaze of sunshine but his somewhat blinkered take on the whole didn’t come close to coinciding with my vision of the onward march… No matter, you win some, you loose some.

The new name is more or less formulated; the next of the key meetings is tomorrow and there’s another equally important one being re-scheduled from today into next week… budgets have been revised and… tomorrow, the sexy sexy boots may very well re-appear to clickety-clack their way across the marble floor atrium that houses… wait and see.


Anonymous said...

Well worth the wait.

Thoughtful and incisive as ever.

Mixing a hilariously self-deprecating account of your filming and editing exploits to an expose on cycling shouldn't work - somehow, with your penmanship, it does.

More please.


Drew said...

Immense read, Neil.

I suppose we could never have expected Lance to compliment the Sunday Times, and with good reason on this occasion.
We could also be forgiven for expecting all the popular arms of modern culture to capitalize on the obscene Goody industry, but surely not our political betters.

Spandau Ballet? One of the most evocative names for a group ever, in my opinion. Sadly, now proving to be one of the most cynical, Take-That phenomena-chasing bands around.