Monday, 11 April 2011

The Hell of the North (not Hamilton this time)

   Greetings folks. As ever it was an extremely busy sporting weekend, but today we've decided to bring you a couple of reports that you probably won’t find in your local news. Firstly Self-Proclaimed Tipping Guru (but in reality Office Pariah) and Cycle-Porn Aficionado Roby Towe chimes in with a story on the Paris-Roubaix Cycle Classic that was run yesterday. Cultural Correspondent Rand Abbott has also filed a piece on the concept of playing the Triangle for a living, and we’ll round up the major events from the last few days.
   Over to Roby.

The Hell of the North (not Hamilton this time)

   Yesterday saw the running of the epic Paris-Roubaix race, and it was definitely one to remember. The race is one of the oldest in existence, first run in 1896, and it is famed/notorious for its many encounters with cobbled sections of road and the effects this has on both rider and machine. The latest installment was typically brutal, producing one of the most unexpected winners in recent history. But before we look at results, a bit of info on the course.
   Although it has changed a little over its 115 year history, the basic layout of the race has been unaltered. The 2011 event was run over 258 kilometres, with the winner reaching the finish line in just a little over six hours. This sounds, and indeed is, a long time in the saddle, and a long way to travel, but the numbers don’t even begin to demonstrate just how extreme this Classic is. It is the surfaces that the riders race over that make this event so incredible.
   Cobblestones. Sounds nice, right? Maybe it evokes pictures of a leisurely ride through small countryside villages in bucolic surroundings. But just think for a second: even if you own a mountain bike with nice front and rear suspension, riding over uneven cobbles can quickly become energy-sapping. Now imagine a 258km ride on a road bike, with 28 separate sections of cobbles, totaling around 50kms. And not nice new cobbles like you might see in a redeveloped town square: these are old, uneven, and dusty country roads, barely a car’s length wide, rutted everywhere due to their primary purpose as back roads for tractors and the like. They are hugely inconsistent in terms of quality: rather like how mountain passes are ranked in terms of difficulty, the cobbled sections also receive ratings of 1 to 5. Suffice to say saddle sores are sure to be suffered.
   The other major factor related to the surface is dictated by the weather. If it rains, the cobbled sections become incredibly treacherous and slippery, with mud flying in all directions. And in the dry, huge clouds of dust are driven upwards by the 200 or so cyclists, and the scores of motorbikes and support vehicles. When the riders approach each cobbled section they engage in frenzied sprints to try and ensure that they are not at the rear of the peloton, vastly increasing the dangers involved. As if riding 258kms in a day isn’t enough, try doing it while being choked in a sand-storm. Vicious.
   So these are the conditions which have cemented the post-World War I nickname, The Hell of the North. And because of the massive challenge facing competitors, there is huge prestige attached to winning the event. This is not a race for the small, wiry mountain climbers, but rather for the long-limbed powerhouses of sprinting and time trialing. Two time winner, defending champion, and the rider widely regarded as the world’s premier time trialist, the Swiss Fabian Cancellara, was heavily favoured to win, along with World Road Race Champion and star sprinter Thor Hushovd of Norway. But in the end they beat each other, and a relative outsider claimed a famous victory.
   A group of around ten riders broke away early, and established an advantage of around a minute over the peloton. As there were no real threats in the lead group, the race favourites were happy just to try and mark them whilst surviving the first couple of hundred kilometers. Many didn’t make it though, and there were a huge number of falls throughout the pack. Some came on the cobbles, but there were also numerous falls in the sections just preceding them. Another strong contender for victory, the Belgian Tom Boonen, fell twice before eventually retiring. Motorsports enthusiasts often enjoy seeing crashes during the course of a race; cycling enthusiasts do not. There is something terrible about witnessing a rider going head-over-handlebars and crashing into the tarmac. Many competitors remount and continue, with huge, bloody, gravel-filled tears in their lycra bearing testament to their misfortune; an unlucky few remain prone on the roadside, with broken collarbones being the most common complaint.
   With just 40kms to go, Cancellara started attacking Hushovd over the cobbles, trying to lose him before the final few minutes. He knew that Hushovd was the superior sprinter, and should they enter the final stretches together, the race would be the Norwegian's. But he couldn’t shake him, and became exasperated with Hushovd’s tactic of just following behind without doing any of the pacemaking required to catch the breakaway group. They angrily remonstrated, and their speed dropped. Suddenly, one of the outsiders in the leading group had the race at their mercy if they had the courage and the fortitude to kick ahead one last time. And the man who did so was the Belgian Johan Vansummeren, a domestique, or team rider, whose job is to support the team leaders by leading chases or ferrying water bottles. A domestique rarely has a chance at the glory of a race win or even a stage victory, but on this day Vansummeren saw the opportunity and seized it. Unusually, this race actually finishes with the riders entering and doing a lap and a half around the Roubaix velodrome, which is always filled to capacity with spectators creating a remarkable cacophony for the first rider to enter. And despite a huge push from Cancellara, on this day it was the relative unknown, the consummate team man, Johan Vansummeren who received the adulation of the crowd, some six hours after setting out into the dust. It was a great result, and a great finish to a wonderful event.
-Roby Towe

   Longwinded as ever there from Roby, but good stuff nonetheless. There is a remarkable documentary about the 1976 Paris-Roubaix entitled A Sunday in Hell. It, along with several other wonderful cycling docos can be downloaded here.
   Next, over to Rand Abbott.

Playing the Triangle for Bucks

   I had the pleasure of attending one of Korea’s foremost orchestras on Saturday, and it was a superb experience. Though not a huge follower of classical music, to see it played live is so vastly different from merely listening to a recording that I leapt at the chance to attend the performance. I was kindly offered tickets through a contact who is closely acquainted with one of Korea’s most renowned violinists. I had attended and enjoyed one of her recitals previously, and whilst receiving the tickets from her and her retired Air Force General husband for the orchestral performance in Seoul Concert Hall, we were constantly interrupted by people seeking her autograph. I was aware that she had some degree of fame, but was nevertheless impressed by the amount of recognition she received.
   The first half of the performance was a Beethoven Piano Concerto, the highlight of which was witnessing the exquisite display by the pianist. She is a small woman in her early sixties, but her presence dominated the stage as she gave a note-perfect rendition of what appeared to be a hugely complex piece.
   The second half was quite different, with the full orchestra performing various Themes, based around Faust and Mephistopheles (I apologise for a lack of clarity here, but my Korean language skills are sadly lacking). I thoroughly enjoyed this, and was reminded that watching a full orchestra is such a thrilling experience. There is just so much to see. A huge variety of instruments and performers, each with their own quirks and nuances. Being a fan of percussion, I paid particular attention to this aspect of proceedings, and was reminded of something else too: just how specialised some peoples lines of work can be. There was one gentleman who sat behind the massed ranks of violinists and on occasion arose to clash together two symbols. This was his sole role in the performance, and in the first fifty or so minutes he was required to play just six times, each time clashing the symbols together in a burst of four. What a job! What an existence!
   It was only then that I noticed the woman seated next to him, who after all this time had yet to even stand up. It wasn't until the last few minutes of the piece that she arose, grasped a triangle and rang away triumphantly. I do not wish to diminish her contribution or her skill, for her timing and the resonance of the notes was exemplary, but I was left wondering if this was her profession, and whether this was all it consisted of? I am deeply envious if this is indeed true.
   Lastly, I have a question for readers who are more educated on this subject than I: just how important is the conductor? Would everything fall to pieces if they weren’t there? I studied the array of musicians closely and on the whole they paid scant, if any attention to him. I would love to be enlightened on this, so please don’t hesitate to deplete my ignorance.
   Best regards.
-Rand Abbott

   Thanks Rand, you mustachioed twit.

   All that remains is a quick roundup of some of the events that you might have missed:
-Scott Dixon finished second in the Indy Car race in Alabama overnight
-Marina Erakovich continued her return to form after an horrendous bout of injuries by winning her third consecutive Challenger Event over the weekend. We hope NZ’s top female tennis player can approach her highest ranking of 49 again at some stage in the future.
-The Grand National Horse Race was held in England over the weekend, with two horses being killed. Maybe enough is enough here, eh?
-and the NZ Breakers, after a terrible loss in their opening game of the three games Playoff Series against Perth somehow overcame the huge travel involved to win game two in Perth yesterday, only the second time the Breakers have ever won there. Fingers crossed for the decider in Auckland on Wednesday night.

   That’ll do for now, we’ll definitely be back later this week. And if you could do us a favour and try to post a comment below, even if it just consists of one word, we’d appreciate it as we have no idea whether this page is functioning correctly. Cheers.


  1. Hey, I'm interested to know what bicycles are being ridden for that race? Conventional racing bikes or something a little stronger to deal with the cobbles and general knarleyness?

    Also, on the Breakers. Perth to Auckland. Auckland to Perth. Perth to Auckland...

    Earth to Basketball-organisers! Climate Change is a fact and is in no way helped by excessive air travel. I guess fans will reply that it's necessary for them and their team to have the opportunity of home advantage for one of the first two clashes. I would argue that it's important for future generations to inherit a planet whose climate isn't completely broken.

    High Horse.

  2. They were using cycle-cross bikes, but still with slick tyres- I think the regulation was something like the tyre width had to be between 24-29mms, but don't hold me to that.

    And yeah, the travel issue in sport is largely/completely overlooked in climate change terms, and most likely will be for some time. Or at least until governments start putting serious carbon taxes on things. In other words don't hold your breath. Or actually maybe you should...

  3. MySky recorded Paris - Roubaix even tho I didn't know it was on. Must have been the series link to Paris - Nice and the 2010 Tour. Fantastic race.

    And at the half the Breakers are up by 9.

    And go the mighty Bombers!!!