The team and the results
A Favourite Test
“North. Swains?” is Baroudeurs shorthand for a 90km route out of North West London via the infamous Swains Lane and interminable A1000 out onto the country lanes of Hertfordshire. It involves the kind of punchy, gnarly mixed profile riding that belies its modest miles and makes this something of a test, and a favourite. Ridden regularly, discrete sections emerge: “the bit before the bridge”, “Bucks Alley”, “Lions”, “TT or Cycle-path?”, “Essendon Church”, “TTT” and *various unprintable names* for the rolling, exposed hills and false flats of the final 10km; before the A1000 leads back to Swains and coffee. The distinct challenges of these individual sections, the narrow, rutted lanes, the climbing, and the differences in surroundings, (woodland one minute, fast straight drags and open fields the next), all give this route the flavour of a one-day classic in miniature. And like those longer, more legendary parcours of Flanders and Ardennes, the Herts Loop demands to be ridden hard and with little thought of conservation or sensible pacing. Baroudeurs often note that after this ride, the remaining hours of Sunday pass in a state of exhaustion out of all proportion to the relative brevity of the efforts of the morning. In short, the Herts loop hurts.
Recently, Strava has been making things better and worse, as it does. A segment, named ‘Non-Stop Herts with Chronos’ introduced a ticking clock that has hung over the entire ride, and whilst it’s still theoretically possible to take it easy, to stop and admire the lions at Paradise Wildlife Park for instance, or to generally take notice of the beautiful scenery, that Strava segment with its KOM is always there, noticing, and quietly slipping away, a reminder of what might have been…
Last weekend, three of us set out early to beat the traffic and see how fast it could be done. The KOM was mine, the recent result of a solo effort on a summer bike, but it was a vulnerable record. With more than one rider more or less evenly matched and working together, the bar could be set far higher. That was the plan as we set off at 0630 on Saturday morning, and it was a successful one. Dave, Glen and I knocked 6 minutes off the previous KOM, and whilst according to Strava the title still rests with me, the victory was shared – Dixon in frightening form and Glen’s punchy diesel making perfect team mates that morning, and we finished at Swains after a typically hairy descent of Highgate West Hill buzzing happily with endorphins and the sense of a job well done. The bakery where we stopped for coffee was celebrating 1 year in business, and it was as if they’d put the balloons out just for us.
Celebrating with coffee and balloons
Highs and Lows
The euphoria lasted until shortly after lunchtime when the news about Michele Scarponi came through. Riding out alone early that same Saturday morning on the lanes near his home of Filottrano in central Italy, with head no doubt still buzzing from his successes in the previous week’s Tour Des Alpes, he was hit by a van whose driver ‘didn’t see him’ and who had failed to stop at a junction. Michele died at the scene. Photos published by Italian newspapers showed his white sheet-covered body laid out on the road, his grieving widow Anna kneeling over him. He leaves two small twin sons.
Many words have and will be written about the highs and lows of Michele Scarponi’s long career by the time you read this, and this is not the place for Wiki facts; but for many of us, Scarponi was a real racer, an exciting Italian pro in the pink and blue of Lampre who liked to attack when the mountains were steep. There was an outpouring of grief for him from the pro peloton too of course: Alejandro Valverde announced that if he won Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he would give his prize money to Michele’s family. He subsequently dedicated the (inevitable) win to him with the words “Que uno fue para ti, Scarponi” – this one was for you, Scarponi. He was a happy, much-loved rider and his loss is keenly felt.
One incidental effect of this tragedy was, I suspect, that many people who returned from a ride that Saturday morning to the news that Scarponi had been killed, found themselves reflecting on their own ride, the moments of danger, that close-call, the risks taken in the heat of their own private competitions, and found themselves thinking what if? If something so random and out of the blue could happen to him, a seasoned pro on his quiet home streets early one weekend morning – then what of us?
There will be a new Hertfordshire segment on Strava from today, named LBCC Herts for Heroes. It’s much the same as the old favourite, but with the A1000 cut out of it – no more racing back through traffic trying to snatch seconds from the jaws of death.The effort will start when you pull off the main road, and end 60km later, just before you rejoin it. This is not to say that the new route has lost its teeth. It might be shorter, but it’s still the gnarliest route around, not least for the way it makes you want to ride. There are plenty of hazards remaining, too – blind bends, loose gravel, sudden dips, cars and horses. If you want to ride this one at speed, make sure you’re with someone who knows it, who can warn you of the dangers until you know the route well enough to put the hammer down. It’s not going to change the world, but it might make a small bit of it a little safer.
As for ‘Non-Stop Herts with Chronos’ – we’ll leave it up there for old time’s sake, and to remember him.
Michele Scarponi, 25 September 1979 – 22 April 2017.