Archive for June, 2012

Tour de France 2012 – Introduction

June 29, 2012 2 comments

Every year for the past 18 years, I have written a long email, or later, a blog, to a small number of people. This annual task is both a deep pleasure, as I love the velo, am obsessed with the Tour (and other races) and like to practice writing. The blog (tone and language) is aimed at “people I know”, who like summaries and interesting stories about the Tour. And about my bike riding and such during the Tour. NOT boy racer experts. I am on forums with those types and will transmit (steal) their notions when I think you should know something I learned from them know. This blog is written for people who are actually quite interested in high-level capitalist sport, cycling, or the Tour itself. So I “explain” some things that appear to be mysterious, even though many expert readers already know the stuff. Therefore I shall be a bit quiet on this regular blog until the last week of July.


Tour Time. Really early this year, it seldom starts on the last day of June. Must be to do with TV scheduling and the Olympic Road Race. Makes no difference as long as most of it is in July. Most of it is in France. They ride on Belgium soil during three days. And nip over to Switzerland. Otherwise it is the Alps first, then the Pyrenees. I shall be watching it live when they climb Mont St. Clair in Sete, then ride another 20k or so to the finish at Agde, on the Fourteenth of July. More on that later, with photos, no doubt.

Roughly speaking there are a number of flattish stages, before they get to the mountains on the seventh. A couple of the flat stages have uphill finishes, which will separate riders a bit before the mountains. Then a serious climb, a long time trial, followed by a rest day. The ride around a bit in the Alps. There are only three finishes at altitude this year. The climbers have to attack smartish if they are to win the Tour. I hope there is big action in the Alps, but maybe not. Then they come over to us in Sete, Mont St. Clair on 14th July, take on the Pyrenees and then scurry back to Paris, with a time trial second last day. In fact, Individual Time Trials are longer than usual, and there are two of them. In other words, the winner is going to be a climber who launches some incredible attacks and gains minutes in the mountains on all the riders who can time trial well. There really isn’t anyone obvious for that, and the time triallists can climb too. Or it might be someone who can keep up in the mountains with anyone but a serious attacker, and then turn in a time trial of excellence. As described by the Tour site, there are nine flat stages, 4 hilly ones (with one finishing in a climb), and five mountain stages, with two finishes on high (although it seems to me there are three). One hundred k of Individual Time Trial!

So who might win the whole thing? Two possible winners won’t even ride. Alberto Contador, who would be the overwhelming favourite, is serving the last month of a drug ban. No I won’t discuss it, it is boring. Andy Schleck, second three times, although a winner one year after Contador won and was busted, also won’t be riding. These two will meet in the Tour of Spain, end of August. That leaves two overwhelming favourites, according to nearly everyone including the odds makers. Both of them are actually quite interesting characters. No doubt I will talk about that side of things during the Tour. Cadel Evans won last year, the first Australian ever. He is a slightly strange guy who I like. The other big favourite is Bradley Wiggins, who has won three of the most prestigious week to ten day stage races this year. No other cyclist is human history as done that. Even those who have won two of the Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie and Dauphine Libere are rare, probably Eddy Merckx and some other immortal. Bradley is GOOD. Either of these winning would be a good ending for me. In fact, a third person might be quite interesting too. I just want a race. I already KNOW the scenery in HD will be outstanding.

Who might crack the top two? The Italian, Vincenzo Nibali, confirmed as a really good rider, needs to win the Tour to go with his other victories in the Vuelta and Giro. Then he will be a true giant of the road. His form has been unreliable, but often pretty good this year. He has an excellent team to help him, including Ivan Basso, himself a rider of grand class. The older of the Schleck brothers, Frank, is sometimes mentioned as a top three. As I said, there is a story there, but we will see what he can do when they get to the mountains. He can climb pretty well, but his time trialling is fairly rudimentary. Another outsider could be the mature Russian, Denis Menchov, who can often keep up in the mountains and can time trial well. In most races, he would be a strong favourite, having won the Vuelta twice and the Giro once. Even Levi Leipheimer, who is even older than Menchov, with the same characteristics, might end up challenging for the podium. One of my favourites, Samuel Sanchez, the Basque who won the mountains jersey last year, could possibly hang with the lads and surprise. The Spaniard, Alejandro Valverde used to be a good climber, with a kick at the end, although he cannot do TTs very well. Furthermore no one knows his form, he is just this year coming off a two year doping ban. The last guy I will mention is Andreas Klöden, the elderly German who can keep up in the mountains and also time trial. If nothing untoward happens, my favourite has to be Bradley Wiggins. We won’t know the winner until the end of the time trial on the second last day. Then the good time triallists will see if they can gain back time they might have lost in the mountains. I have no idea which climber will attack to gain that time, or even if anyone can do it. In the end, Evans or Wiggins. I just hope it is fun to watch, full of bold moves and interesting contests.

The green jersey is for the rider who finishes well in many stages, on average. So finishing second on every stage is worth lots more points than two stage wins and several sixth places. Usually it is called “the sprinters jersey”, because it is nearly always a sprinter who wins it. This year it is sure to be a sprinter. The current World Champion, from the Isle of Man, Mark Cavendish, won last year. This year, there is a new wonder boy on the block, plus a number of familiar and motivated competitors. If it were not for this one guy, Peter Sagan, most people would pick Cav to repeat. Sagan has already won 33 races at the age of 22. At his age, Jalabert, Kelly and Fignon had won one or two races. This guy is GOOD. Oh yes, and Cav is losing weight (story below), maybe losing power (or not), and maybe has leadout train of two guys. Longer story below, but Sagan has been winning and beating everyone. If it is flat he wins, if it has a hill at the end, he wins. The oddsmakers pick him to beat Cav. We shall see. I don’t think they have ridden against each other this year. There are number of other riders who could easily win a stage or so, but who also could finish quite well every day. The guy who finished second last year ride better this year. I don’t really know and have heard nothing about his form. He is called Rojas. Two other guys who are nearly as fast as Cav, or maybe faster, are Andre Greipel, the German who is nicknamed the Gorilla, on account of his massiveness, and Matthew Goss, an Australian, who won the Milan San Remo race this year, and can also get up short hills pretty fast. There are other sprinters who might be on form and lucky, Like the ancient Allessandro Pettachi, who sometimes, along with Oscar Freire, finds some clever move to beat the others on a given day. The very young Marcel Kittel will be trying to make his mark, and in the background, Taylor Farrar, the American with Team Garmin will be trying snatch something. I think this points jersey competition will be the most interesting race to watch during the first week,and maybe throughout the Tour..

The “young rider” is anyone who was born 1 January 1987 or later (25 or less, roughly). The jersey goes to the rider who is highest on the overall General Classification. This includes some names that will surely pop up during the race. I have picked Rein Taaramae, an Estonian who rides for a French team, Cofidis, which is not a very strong one and which also sacked the old boss a few days ago and has a new one for the Tour. Not the best sign, but the guy is good. I hope young Thibaut Pinot, a brand new French climber does well. But in your first Tour, it is unlikely you will be the best young rider. Tejay van Garderen is an American, who I rather like, and I was tempted to pick him. Another rider who showed well last year was Steven Kruiswijk, or maybe that was in the Vuelta. In any case, he is a very good climber, and might well finish high on stages, since his job will be to help his leaders until the end. Last year, he was sometimes stronger than his leader, Robert Gesink. The odds makers give the nod also to Wouter Poels, but I don’t know enough about him to say much. One of those guys should take it. Usually this is never a real “race”, one guy takes it sort of unconsciously since he trying to do well in the GC.

The mountains jersey, for the best climber, is more complicated. Paradoxically, there is seldom a real contest for this one. It is not awarded to the actual “best” climber, who is the guy who gets ahead of nearly everyone else at the finish line of mountain stages. The quantitatively defined “best climber” is the fellow who has crossed each rated climb on the Tour, more points for harder climbs. So as the peloton is riding along at a very average speed, slowly going up the first of several climbs, the competitors for this jersey leap out and try to get over the hill first, even though they then just slow down and carry on with the rest of the peloton. They sometimes race hard for insignificant hills early in the race, gaining a few points for fourth, third or second category climbs. When it comes to first category and hors category (beyond categorisation), they are left behind. Those are the ones which win the tour, not the jersey (more later). One way that a climber can announce his intention to win the jersey is to go on a suicide attack on a hard stage with several mountains on it, gaining all the points on each climb. At the end, when it matters, up the last hill, this guy will be wasted, but he will have all the previously awarded points. I will alert you about this jersey, which won’t mean anything until after the first serious mountain stage. I will re-explain then. I have utterly no idea who is going to win the jersey, but I have picked a long shot called Johnny Hoogerland. If you watched the Tour last year, he is the guy who got knocked off his bike by a Tour car, and fell into some barbed wire. Some people go for Chris Anker Sorensen who rides for a team without a leader, and so will be free to mess about in the mountains for himself. He is a good climber. Samuel Sanchez, the Basque rider won the jersey last year, could easily do it again. I would be really surprised if he does not attack on every mountain stage. There is a mature Italian called Michele Scarponi who is very good, BUT has ridden the Giro full out. Most people reckon you can’t do well in both, so Scarponi is free to lose time for the GC, so he can attack in the mountains and no leader’s team will care. More on that later. I am looking to him to liven things up. Then there is Frank Schleck who might just try a big attack to make his employers happy, or Pierre Rolland, the youngish French rider who blossomed last year when he was the first Frenchman to win a big mountain stage since Hinault. Last guy I will mention is Jelle Vanendert, the last helper of a Belgian dark horse for the yellow jersey, called Van den Broeck. We will see when the mountains come.

There you have it. There is an award for the most combative rider each day. There is also one for the “best team”, which I usually wait until later to explain.

It is a Tour with a good deal of uncertainty. While Wiggo is the favourite, he has never won before. And while Evans is a previous winner, no one feels strongly that he will win again, even if he is very likely to win. If were a betting man, looking for along odds bet, I would look to Kloden at 113 or Chris Horner at 512. More realistically Samuel Sanchez at Menchov and Froome at 30. It is an open Tour. I think the race for the green jersey could be fascinating, full of good stories.

There are many little side stories that animate conversations about the Tour. I will try to tell you some, as time goes on. One is the suggestion that Bradley Wiggins, the British favourite, has come to a peak too early. He won’t be able to keep his form during the whole Tour, maybe get dropped badly in the mountains or lose big time to Evans in the Last Time Trial. Most riders these days, although there are exceptions, don’t try to race from January until October, non-stop, trying to win each race. Some people claim that in the old days, riders raced hard all year, winning races from March (there was no January in Australia and Malaysia in those days) until October. A few did. But nowadays the normal story is that you have to peak for an event, and then drift down, to peak for some other event. So when Evans was not quite as fit as Wiggins in the Dauphiné not everyone panicked, he was coming to his peak for the third week of the Tour. Those peak events could be the Tour, the Giro, The Vuelta, the Olympics, the World Championships, the Spring Classics, the warm weather sprinting races in January and February in places like Australia (very important for Australians), Malaysia, Qatar, Oman. Wiggins has won shorter big-time stage races, from March until June. In fact no rider in human history has ever won Paris-Nice, Romandie and Dauphiné in one year. Cav is being trained by a guy with a swimming background. Swimmers do peak, but they peak many times with a base that is always 90% or 95%. They never relax and eat bad food, or slob around during the winter. Training hard all the time. Soooo … the traditionalists say he has peaked too early. Won early races and maybe not fit enough in week three of the Tour. He and his coaches say his form is perfectly, exactly correct. So in some way, this is the conflict between the old ways and the new ways. Most teams use a lot of the new ways too. The Sky management experts and the riders brag a little more than most riders and teams. They tend to go on about how great their measurements are, their methods, their psychological dimension guys, their collaboration with spectacularly excellent product manufacturers … in short they think they are the best in the world, and they are going to win the Tour. There is some kind of line between quiet confidence and rah rah bragging. Crossing that line makes some people uncomfortable. Cav does this sometimes, simply and clearly stating he is the fastest guy in the world (“arrogance”). I don’t think anyone much is going to help Sky, make any kind of alliance with them. If Bradley gets caught on a hill without anyone to help him, the rest will mercilessly attack.

 Another story is about Mark Cavendish, the (acknowledged by all) fastest sprinter in the world. He has won twenty stages of the Tour in four years. If he wins three stages a year for three years (making him 29) he will have won more stages than any rider in history, except Eddy Merckx. To beat Eddy Merckx, Cav needs to win three a year for FIVE more years, which will take him to 31. Hard to do really. Anyway this year, he does not have a big leadout team, that is, riders who sacrifice themselves in the last part of a race so Cav can win. They protect Cav from the wind. They guide him through the pack to a good position in the front, at just the right time. They bring him back to the bunch if he has a puncture. Almost all sprinters have at least one helper, but a sprinter’s train consists of five or six riders controlling the race completely in the last 30k, so that there will be sprint finish. Cav has won most of his stages using a train, but he changed teams this year. The train’s sprinter just follows the wheel of the right team-mate until, with 250 metres or so to go, the top sprinter pops out from behind the last leadout rider, and wins the race. Another way to win is ride just behind another team’s top sprinter and pop out just before he does and win the race. One requires many helpers, the other one or two. This year Cav has only two dedicated helpers. Most of Team Sky, is devoted to making sure Bradley Wiggins wins the Tour. Wiggins does not need to be first in a sprint, he needs to be in the main cluster of riders who are right behind the sprinters. Wiggo needs to be protected from crashes if possible, from wind, from another leader getting too far ahead on a stage and so forth. In addition, Cav has been losing weight. Four kilos they say. What he is trying to do is shape up for the Olympics. Most sprinters can’t climb very fast. Although these days, guys like Peter Sagan and Edvald Boasson Hagen can make it up little hills easily AND sprint to a win at the end. Cav used to have a bit of trouble on hills. The Olympic race course will involve climbing a legendary climb south of London called Box Hill. Never been there, but I know the kind of hill, short, fairly steep, 2.5k with 120 metres climbing. Normally, Cav just could not climb that hill NINE times nearly as fast as the fastest guy. He would get dropped. But if you lose weight, you climb better. So Cav has lost some weight, carefully, without losing power. Keep all the muscles and such that make him fast, but make him lighter so the same muscles might take him up a hill faster. NO FAT. That might mean he is with the leaders the ninth time up the hill, or close enough to catch them in the forty k or whatever it is to the finish in London. Then Cav wins the Olympic Gold Medal in the UK. While he has lost his big leadout team for the Tour, he has the dedicated help of the four other guys on the team for the Olympics. Including Bradley Wiggins, who can probably pull back any break off of Box Hill all by himself, with Cav in tow. So will Cav win his “usual” five stages? Probably not. Maybe three this year. However, on stage one and three, there are flat stages that end with a bit of a climb. Sky will have to decide if they let Cav try (with his new slim but powerful body), in which case Edvald Boasson Hagen will be his leadout man. EBH is a not quite top level sprinter who can also sprint very fast up a steepish hill. So maybe Sky will designate the World Champion, Cav, to lead out EBH, just for the story and photos. Also to spread the wins, reward the workers. EBH will leadout Cav on the flat stage finshes. Just watching those two in action should be worth it during the first week or so. I should mention Bernard Eisel, Cav’s big buddy, and the guy who will deliver Cav and EBH to the last k where EBH will take over normally. I shoujls say there are stories like this for every sprinter, how they operate, who rides for them, and so forth. I now most about Cav since there is lots of stuff on him in English and French.

 I won’t go into Johan Bruyneel, the Radio Shack Team and the Schlecks today. Frank is riding and Bruyneel is not at the Tour, so the story will continue. I won’t speculate about who might attack in the mountains, time for that later. I won’t detail the other people who will be riding in the sprints, that will come in time. I certainly won’t mention drug stories or Europcar, idly speculating about all this. I have become very much uninterested in doping stories. I say test ’em, bust ’em, but don’t blather on about it. Later I might mention my Fantasy Team participation, but not yet. That sort of thing is not to everyone’s taste.

 Must end this for today. I should post my Tour blog nearly every day, except rest days and days when I see it live.









Roquebrun Return

June 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Yesterday was a very good day on the bike. Which means it was a good day. I rode further and climbed more than on any day in 2012. Strong cyclists, for whom my ride would be a slightly truncated quickie, will not be stunned by my data. I know two good pals who just rode hundreds of kilometres in the Ardeche, rode the Marmotte route, climbed thousands of metres, and lived to maybe tell me about it. However today, I climbed nearly 400 metres all told, and rode 70k. The return trip to Roquebrun is a classic example of a morning ride for the less strong riders in the winter. Leaving at nine, one can ride down there and back in about three hours, without forcing anything. However, I have not done that ride this year. Perhaps I did it last year. Anyway, this ride was a minor big deal for me in my nth “comeback”. I actually stopped to take three photos, and had a coffee in Roquebrun. Riding with the club guys, we just fill the water bottles and “faire le demi-tour”.

So I got off pretty early for me, 8.30, and the temperature was lovely for an hour and a half. Must get up and get going by 8 or even earlier. The first fifty minutes up the Orb valley I have done a hundred times or whatever. Hard to avoid it if you are going in a westerly direction. It is the only road. Turning the corner at Poujol to see the rocky-looking mountains is bliss on a bike. Even if you know it is coming. I think I have written a wee thing about riding up that valley, if not, I must do so.

The essential part of this ride begins where the Orb River is joined by the Jaur and together they have carved a very tasty little valley before the Orb continues to Beziers and “throws itself into the sea”. The road, as you have already guessed, follows the valley, although it is a gorge valley, not a flat valley, so one climbs and descends a bit. Quite a bit actually, for such as myself. As I cross the rather attractive suspension bridge, I always remember renting a kayak just above the bridge, and drifting or paddling down the river to Roquebrun. Great trip. Pretty much the same on the bike, with different views. One drifts down the valley scenically, but biking wise, you have to do a bit of work. Quite a job building some bits of this road, I thought to myself.


From the Suspension Bridge at Tarassac 

I sometimes get off my bike to look at the perspective below. There are just a couple hundred yards when you can see the dramatic difference between these last foothills of the Cevennes, the last bit of the Massif Central, before the flatter wine country takes over all the way to the Med. Although of course there were vines all along the route. That gorge in the background, near the pointy rocky mountains, which I might have told you about, is a local tourist attraction. Gorge d’Heric. Check out a few photos.’Héric If one has visitors and they can walk, that is a world class walk. Small, but you get the feeling of “a dramatic gorge”. You can walk 6k, on a easy narrow road, to a kind of semi-abandoned hamlet, repopulated a bit with “outside type people”, who run a B and B.

Looking back at the Gorge d’Heric

Sometime coasting a bit, sometime working a bit, you eventually get down that valley to Roquebrun. The valley starts to get flatter near Roquebrun. Roquebrun is another place you take visitors, especially if they like nice views, a lovely micro climate, lots of mimosa trees, and a huge Mediterranean Garden that nearly everyone likes to wander about in. Google Roquebrun. Five or six years ago, before some of my medical problems happened, I could ride further, and make a full circle back to Bedarieux taking one of the two other roads leading out of Roquebrun. I think that would end up about 90k. Not ready for that yet, but it is a lovely ride. More of the very rolling roads. I always like the cafe in Roquebrun, although I notice there is more than one competitor growing up. If you sit in it, you can see the arrivals and departures of everyone in all three directions. Excellent location. Today I had a coffee, and headed home. No need for pix, I had enough, so I rode back almost without stopping. Low gear, no stress. I was already a little tired, knew that it would not be that great riding back. There is a very slight uphill bit soon after you leave Roquebrun. If that is a piece of cake, just press harder or drop one gear, then the road back will be fine. It was actually a bit harder than I remember. Riding back a little whacked is a fine experience, no complaints. But its not quite the fun when you are just gliding along. I think George Hincapie is quoted as calling that “no chain”. Instead, I frequently wished I lived just around the next curve and would be home. I prefer feeling relatively fresh, if honourably tired.

On the way back, I got passed by three guys, then two more, all with the same maillot. They just motored past me. It looked like three of them were younger and fitter and two others were older, and less fit. But the three, then the two, motored off in the distance, slowly creating a gap. But when one of those 2 or 3 k “climbs” topped out, as we crossed the very bridge from which I take this photo, the two older guys had stopped. I didn’t say anything, except bonjour. It could be for a pee, or for a photo, or just because they were going a bit too fast up the slightly longer than they expected non-climb. So a few k further on, I looked left at the only turning on the road, and the three others were waiting on the bridge.


Bridge over the Orb, looking upstream

By now I wanted to be home. I think that is why I didn’t stop and take any more photos. I was reminded that the other day I was writing to a friend giving “unasked-for advice” on climbing and being a “strong cyclist” on hills. I said they should have a bike with right gears (a triple preferably), lose some weight (but have good legs, heart lungs etc.) and be able to suffer. If you want to be big time, like the lads in the Tour, you have to suffer big time. Me, I don’t suffer like they do. So I never get very good on hills. But if you have twenty k to ride, you have twenty k to ride. Mind you, my “last twenty k” speed is getting a little bit faster, and I didn’t suffer THAT much. But I know that my minor suffering will pay off. One day, I might be fit enough (again) where I can ride at different speeds. Slow, medium, fast would be nice choices, for example. It would be good to contemplate a biggish climb or TWO with the certainty that I would be fine. Yesterday it took me half an hour more to ride the route home, two hours instead of one and half. Still, I don’t think a guy of my age should aspire to immense goals, although I would like to climb Ventoux one day when I am fit. Climbing our local Col de Frontfroide would be pretty hard. Takes an hour to get to the foot of it. 12K at average 6.6%. One can dream around here.

One thing that most cyclists would like to have is someone who has made the lunch, at least on Sunday. On my first ride with my club, years ago, having delayed everyone a few times while they waited for me, there was one guy who voiced the deep concern probably shared by others. Due to my rather slower riding style (not fit enough), he and others who foolishly waited for me, might not be home by 12h00, on the dot, ready to shower and have the Sacred French Sunday Dinner. You can’t ride your bike for three or four hours, and then cook a meal. Well, I can’t. Naurika makes our lunches, which makes some rides possible. One slight niggle about my club, the only one in town, is that there have never been women in it. It’s all lads. When I first joined and rode every Sunday, there was Betty. Wife of one of the strongest cyclists, she rode in our group, the slower but steady ones. Other than her, there are no feminist, female or even feminine vibes in the club. No one but me even cares. The club sometimes is a slightly too extreme example of down home country French men, for my taste anyway.

I am clearly wandering. It was a very good ride overall, very good for my recovery. The next step is to do a couple longish rides that take in more than 500 metres of climbing, maybe 600. I know the roads, so I will think a bit about the next rides. I am so looking forward to these longer rides, although I know they might not happen. We shall see. Maybe when the Tour starts. Although it is nearly time to make my dinner, and I am not yet asleep.

You all might not know that it is less likely I will write anything on this blog during the Tour de France (30 June-22 July). I will still be writing, I hope, on Same style, but “about the Tour”.

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Legislative elections June 2012

June 18, 2012 2 comments

We went voting again. This time it was for the “députés”, the national legislature, the MPs, the Representatives. This election happens one month after the Presidential election. The first round has the usual vast range of candidates, including some groups I have never heard of, and never will hear of again. We vote one Sunday and eliminate all those who fail to get significant numbers. Although we still all get, in the post, a two sided A4 from all groups and candidates. Each candidate also has a “replacement”, stand-in, substitute. The next Sunday we vote for one of two, or sometimes three, top vote getters.

I have never fully understood this need to elect two people to do the job of one. I guess it is because so many of the national representatives, also have one or more other jobs, an outrageous practice that the French think is “normal”. When I have asked French people, they say, as if it were obvious, that sometimes the stand-in takes the place of the representative, when the representative can’t be present. Obvious but unhelpful. Why elect someone you know needs a substitute, because they can’t do their job all the time? But in France, a person can be elected to be city councillor and regional counsellor and mayor and national representative, and get full pay for each job. They supposedly do them all at the same time. The is called “Cumul des Mandats”, and means something like having more than one full-time job at the same time. When you see, quite frequently, that someone is “Deputé Maire”, that means they are BOTH the mayor of a city and a national deputy. By the way, the mayor of our town of 7,500 has a budget of 22 million euros to spend, as well as quite considerable local power, so it is NOT a trivial job. MPs make about 160,000 euros a year, before taxes. Plus they have good expense accounts, and they have spectacular pensions. So if they are both a mayor and deputy, they could be among the most well paid normal people in France. “Everyone” in France seems to think this is normal, not strange, or at least not strange enough to stop it. The current Presidential Line (PS) is that this will end.

An election is also a time to meet and chat with various people who are also going to vote. There was quite a cluster outside one polling place. I don’t know if there are any rules about chatting about politics just outside the voting place, but for sure you cannot hand out party political information. All the political propaganda (TV, newspapers, handing out leaflets, meetings) stops on the Friday, leaving a full day on Saturday for us to reflect, unbothered, about our choice of rulers. But with the Euro foot, Criterium Dauphine, Roland Garros final, and Saturday night activities, it was hard to find time to reflect.

What kind of choice did we have in the first round? From my point of view, there were only two choices. Would I vote for the Front de Gauche, the ones who unite much of the lefty type political groups or the Greens. The Front de Gauche is the group who I voted for in the previous elections, as they seem to be the ones who embody most closely the generalised forces that I have supported for many decades. There are also two Green parties, one that I could vote for, supported by big names like Dany Cohn-Bendit, Jose Bove, Eva Joly, Noel Mamere, Dominique Voynet and others. I am for most things they are for, but the local candidate is the same old one, and they really don’t have the edge of radical anger the Front de Gauche has. On the other hand the Front de Gauche is a little bit overly “lefty militant” for my taste.

There are also three or four conservative groupings, ranging from The Centre to the Extreme. They have various policies to make France bigger, better, stronger, more autonomous, more in touch with its roots, more “French” and best. One of the other eco groups, The Independent Ecologiste Alliance, seems semi-OK, but we notice they have no real leftist tendencies. The Independent ones are “neither left nor right”, but “ecological”. The other rightish folk are often quite suspicious of the Euro, maybe even a tad critical of the banking system, suspicious of global markets, and very suspicious of people who are objectively French, but who are not obviously white or “from” France for more than one or two generations (immigrants). They might be for French employment, small business, reducing the debt, greater security, protecting rural areas.

So in our area, we get a lot of choice, but for me it boils down to a couple of candidates, neither of which will win. The Straight Socialist will win. The same guy who has won for the last two elections, and is also the mayor of a small town of about 2,000 people, at the end of our valley. He is also a Regional Councillor, and a Vice President of the Conseil General to boot. Plus a number of other serious jobs. It turned out that the Sarkozy party had no campaign here, and came third in our area. In the second round, we had only two choices, National Front or the party hack Socialist.

It should be added that there can be three candidates in the second round, although usually there are two. To make it into the second round you have to have at least 20% of the votes, and you also have to 12.5% of the expressed votes. What this means is it has to be a very close race for there to be a “triangulaire”. We had two choices, as do most voting districts.

So that is roughly the story. Lots of choice, but they are all pretty much within the bubble of acceptance of the current economic and cultural system. And yet, if you read all the leaflets you would get the impression of a thriving anti-capitalist tendency in France. I do like how they manage to construct a national election where small voices can actually be heard quite widely. The money spent on advertising and election campaigns is not completely insane, and private individuals and rich people do not have immense influence.

The results came in. The Socialist Party of the President of the Republic, Francois Hollande, won a clear majority. More than they had hoped for. They should be able to pass any legislation they wish. Let’s see what they do. There were individual stories of defeats for famous politicians, as not all the big names have safe seats. The one that really ran was Ségolène Royal’s defeat by a stubborn local Socialist who refused to stand down to let her win. She would have been the President of the National Assembly, a big deal, but they all made a mess of it. Now she has only the job of Presdient of her region (one of 23 in France). I still don’t know how this mess happened. She was parachuted into this district, even though someone must have known it was the wrong place, that the current Socialist wold not give up. Something went wrong. There are 17 Greens, ten Front de Gauche and two National Front.

All in, all I can’t get very excited about this election, its not a great spectacle. And to be honest, I really don’t think these people run France. They just don’t. I have done my reporting duty and now I shall go back to reporting on real local politics, non-electoral, the kind I am active in.

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Plants and Social Movements

June 12, 2012 2 comments

This is a plant in front of our house.  It looked like the winter killed it.  Not so.  I thought of social movements.  Of Occupy.  And thought this photo might save me a thousand words.  It goes for most of the social movements of recent time, plus loads of other social and political groups.

Going to a Quaker Meeting

You might have noticed a bit of a gap in writing while I was visiting Lancaster and District, immediately before and after. Although I had notions of finding the time every day or two for a bit of reflection, it never happened. I was totally occupied by the three days of work and saw, if only for a short time, many old friends. Seeing old friends from decades back, one after the other, being with them as totally as possible, was joyful, but tiring. And then, the pleasure of returning to my host’s home, and having a bit of natter with them, over breakfast or lunch or in the evening late. A real nice trip, but no space for writing.

One of the things I did was to go to the Quaker Meeting that takes place at the Low Bentham Meeting House, built in 1687. I won’t go into the very little history I know of the place, but lately the Meeting has grown a bit, streamlined itself, put in some new fixtures (like a kitchen), so the facility is pretty modern. You could even push the benches aside and have a good old dance in the Meeting Room. Right on top of a hill, with views in all directions of one rural scape or another.

It happens that three of my local friends are now fairly regular attenders. Since they also are quite serious about Buddhism of one sort or another, they are not REAL, birthright, long-term, practicing Quakers. They are new to the game. It was clear that I was going to go the Sunday Meeting, with them, from the moment I came upon a practically theological discussion about whether you had to believe anything particular to be a Quaker. I have not seen this document, unpublished for complex reasons. I felt very much at home, not just because they were old pals discussing a practical matter of correct behaviour, but because I am a Quaker of sorts.

Very old friends don’t always know that, as I have attended maybe two Quaker meeting in the past decades, and don’t talk about it a lot. Anyway, I felt compelled to tell my short story about being more or less “brought up” as a Quaker, I have a still-active Quaker sister, and I was, for a year or two, the Clerk of the Green Pastures (Junior) Quarterly Meeting. I didn’t realise it was founded in 1957, I guess we didn’t go until I was 12, but we did go to weekly Meetings in Detroit. That Quarterly Meeting regroups several Meetings in Michigan, usually in some kind of State Park or Forest, in wooden cabins, with a main building. The Quakers were very shrewd, they let us kids go off on Sunday mornings, have our meeting outdoors, anywhere we liked, far from prying eyes. We did the same thing as they did. Just sat for an hour, saying something if it came to us. I think we usually walked some distance, so it killed a bit of the hour. We also had Square Dancing every Saturday night, which was hugely successful and a gas. Everyone danced together, even little kids. They danced in special chaotic squares, with little kids in them. Adults and kids who could follow instructions well danced in more focussed squares, as I recollect. We had fun, but you were also supposed to do it right.

I still feel that the basic Quaker form of Sunday Worship is completely tolerable, and even a positively excellent practice. Admittedly it lacks that religious singing side of things, but hey, no one is perfect. After the Meeting, someone makes tea and biscuits and everyone hangs around for a bit. Have a wee gossip, introduce yourself to the newcomers (me, in this case). In some meetings they eat a meal together, a “pot luck”.

There were no kids in Low Bentham that day, just twelve adults, including my three pals. But when I was a kid, we had to go to the Meeting and sit quietly for half an hour or so, all together, except maybe the kids who were on a bad day. After a rather long half hour, we could go to First Day School, which always seemed a good time, while the adults carried on in the Meeting. I admit I fidgeted in Meeting, but I don’t ever recall being one of those totally out of control, wild-child-oriented kids who could not stay still and had to be removed by their parent(s). As I recall, there were not many of those, even kids can learn to be quiet. So for me, going to the meeting is as satisfactory as I can imagine for a Sunday going-to-church type experience, in the North of England. Or in the Midwest of America. Nothing is perfect, I have been to Meetings where people brought poems to read. Not spontaneous, of-the-moment at all.

While I was at the Meeting, I picked up the leaflets that are at every Quaker Meeting. Extremely low-level, low-key raps on what the Quakers, or the author anyway, think of Peace, the Quaker Way, Quakers and Peace, Your first time at a Quaker Meeting, Silence, and the more ancient classic Advices and Queries. I don’t think I picked up all of them. Recently I finally read them, and thought that I was still very much a Quaker, spiritually speaking, as I felt when I read the Quaker leaflets at my sister’s Meeting in the USA. I suppose there is a dash of Taoism in my Quakerism. I found this on the web, explaining about Quakers, it is American, and it is only one version.

For my taste, there was a bit too much use of the word “God” in the English leaflets I picked up (especially the Advice and Queries). But then again, what they call “God” is something I am comfortable with. As I understand it. You do God at the Sunday Meeting. Together, everyone. Although, and Quakers are quite serious about this, one should conduct oneself in a seemly and moral manner every day. In my view, the use of God is very culturally based, that’s what they call that experience in the culture Quakers come from. They are English based, an opposition to the dominant church, I guess Anglicans. They just have got into the habit of calling it God.

However, during the First Day (Sunday) you gather together in the spirit of love and peace. It says almost exactly that in one of the pamphlets. How is that for an objective? And you sit silently, kind of opening out to whatever. Listening in some way. Attentive waiting. The idea is that if you hear anything, and you are doing it right, then it is some combination of the Inner Light, which each individual possesses as a matter of fact, or it is God talking through you. The point is that it comes from you, but in a social context. This silent, attentive and social waiting, almost meditation, is Quaker religious worship.

Quakers also talk a lot about peace and justice and act on their talk. I am proud of that, even when I have not been a practicing Quaker. I met more than once in a Quaker Meeting House during anti-Vietnam and SDS days. It was the only welcoming venue, with decent facilities, but nothing fancy. In the some parts of the USA anyway. But these British Quaker leaflets, and the many sites always mentioned that it was in the world that changes were needed, and that Quakers should get down and do it.

Just quickly, the Quakes have been operating on a no-leader, horizontal model through consensus, getting on for 400 years. Their practice flourishes still. There are no really powerful or important religious structures, beyond what you might think are the very basics. Everyone knows there is an end to the Meeting on Sunday when one or two “elders” shake the hand of the ones next to him, which carries on around the circle or square until the meeting is over. Then the Clerk announces things happening, what needs doing, discusses business very quickly. The Clerk also convenes Monthly Meetings, where Quakers deal with “business”. The Clerk tries to sum up the “sense of the meeting” (one of my favourite Quaker concepts) on any question that has come up. If he or she gets it right, a decision is made. If on the other hand, someone says that this is not at all the sense of the meeting, then discussion carries on. Roughly the model of “consensus” that is the key to many contemporary political opposition movements over the last decades. I always feel proud and superior that I was a Quaker, although this does not mean I can facilitate a meeting, and don’t sometimes get upset at “bad meeting behaviour”. Sometimes you don’t disagree strongly, just enough to say a few words, and something might become the “sense of the meeting”, even if you are not totally at ease. The Quakers sometimes use the word unity,which does not mean that everyone totally agrees.

You can be pretty sure to trust a Quaker. They are usually quite honourable, there are not too many bad stories about how Quakers acted. Quakers refuse to swear to tell the truth in the USA and Anglo traditions. They do not distinguish a legal sphere of life and a personal sphere life where you tell the truth in one and not in the other. They always “tell the truth”. Although Richard Nixon was a Quaker, but a non-practicing California Quaker. Quakers are usually quite interesting as individuals too, although there are exceptions. Usually Quakers are at the forefront of any oppositional movement of a “peace and justice” nature, as long as it is non-violent. Quakers are quite big on non-violence. As far as I know, there is no “higher authority” in Quaker religious life, although I am sure that leaflets coming out of the London headquarter address have more weight that maybe a local leaflet. No doubt such a document might be discussed widely.

There is lots more to say about Quakers, and originally I was going to cite various passages from leaflets and so forth. But you can find most of that stuff if you want to do a little exploring.

There are even Quakers in France, a Meeting only an hour and half from my house, in Congenies.

So there you have it. Re-rooted in being a Quaker. Nice bit of the trip to Lancaster and District.

Riding with a stranger

June 7, 2012 1 comment

Yes, it has been a long time. I talked to a few bloggers or writers about what to do when you just don’t find the time for writing. They said many things, including “be more disciplined”. This would require a change of life style and character. Not gonna happen. Some said that if you really want to write, then the time will come again, whether it is poetry or blogs or whatever. I liked that advice, slack, waiting. There are many topics and even short notes that never made it to the blog over the last weeks. I suppose it will always be thus. Pretty soon, I do the Tour blog every day. I usually manage that. Disciplined.

It is a cycle ride that inspired me today. For a wide variety of reasons. After the break of two weeks in England, and a bit before and after, as I got ready and took care of urgent things when I got back, I was once again starting over in the quest to get a bit of “form”. Managed to get out about five or six times in the last two weeks. The usual very quiet, well-surfaced roads, mostly out and back rides. No speed, no power, no sense of physical ease or flexibility, but some very fine feelings as I gazed around me.

When I am getting back some fitness there are about three hills around me that I climb in a sequence. All of them take a few minutes, enough for me to get into some kind of “climbing rhythm”, no matter what the speed or gear I am pushing. None of them have much traffic, very quiet. After I can ride up those hills with a little bit of ease, then I know I am ready to make some semi-serious expeditionary cycling, up to 60k maybe. Dreaming of 80k and 800 metres of climbing, which would open up a new range of rides that I have not done for ages. Today, I had a quite impressive ride, considering, 48k and 394 metres of climbing. You could say 50k and 400 metres, but that’s not what my digital device said. I feel well enough to write something in the afternoon, so I must not be as seriously wasted, as I have been after one or two of my preliminary, much shorter rides.


In addition, I validated the proposition that sometimes one is not enough, two is more and better. I rode with a guy, let’s call him Phil, who I had never met before yesterday. His sister-in-law and brother live down the valley from us. We vaguely knew our neighbours, but had not yet had a proper social occasion. It turned out that Phil wanted a ride when he found out about me. It’s not that I am famous throughout the area, but he and I both rides bikes and have a kidney transplant. So we talked a bit when he arrived, while the others enjoyed a South of France Balcony Summer Moment. Isn’t it fun to ruminate about various rides that might be done with someone who does not know the area? He seemed a fit enough guy, ready for big challenges. So I first wanted to send him alone up a very hard climb that I have not done for several years. But in the end, since he had only one day to ride, he seemed to prefer an easy ride, but with me. An easy ride is all I can do. I invented one I have often done, with two early exits if I was not feeling strong enough.

The short story was that it was a great ride, even though it was “a normal everyday ride”, in some sense, for me anyway. We seldom stopped chatting, except for a few moments when he was either climbing or descending faster than I could. But he was one of those riders who can comfortably, without personal anguish, without obvious wishes for a stronger cycling companion, who can comfortably ride with a slower guy. If you think about it, it’s a a totally necessary cycling relationship, but one fraught with difficulty. “Riding together” can be almost as complicated as “having a holiday together”. Although I laughed inwardly a bit when we were rolling down a slight incline and his bike just rolled downhill faster and the poor guy had to feather his brakes a bit. More aerodynamic bike, probably ceramic bearings, carbon wheels with tyres blown up to a high pressure, of course he would drift past me. Nice bike, nice clothes, nice gadgets. When one of the MAMIL people (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) buys the gear and gets serious, it is a pleasure to watch. VERY tasty bike. Should post a picture really. I am sure that with a bike like the one he has, I would be way faster and go up hills really quickly. Just kidding. Anyway, the more people on bikes the better, and I am glad my bike companion was comfortable going slowly. MAMILs, who alone are worth a blog, generally come back to cycling or start cycling when they have a bit of time (kids not in house), and a bit of money to buy good kit. I have several friends who are MAMILs. I love their kit. Today I saw my first Garmin 705.

So although we had never met before, we managed to chat a fair bit about diseases, kidney transplants, medication, cycling, Spain, motorists and who we had been and done before we were two “mature gents” riding up a river valley. Actually he is a bit younger than me, genuinely middle-aged, not “old”. I have always enjoyed the relations you make with people because you ride bikes with them. The ride could be a half a day, a full day, or several days. The length of time riding does not guarantee that you have “the experience”, but the longer one rides with someone the more likely a “fellowship of the road” happens. I am firmly convinced that I would be lifetime friends with someone I already knew, and with whom I, say, climbed Mont Ventoux. What I mean is that one thing about cycling that I like very much does not come from the actual cycling, but the “riding with another”. This happens in many work, social, religious or sporting situations. I have no idea at all if Phil and I will have anything to do with each other in the near future. But sometimes one is not enough and two is more and better. That’s what I like about the bike. It’s not about the bike.

That really was one of the longest rides I have made in months. I recognise that maybe I “might be getting fitter”. Plenty else going on in the bike world though, plenty to write about. I am helping a local guy with an English language booklet to accompany a weekend event for cyclists starting and ending in Bedarieux. A regional group of some kind is doing the work, just borrowing “our” roads. The Criterium Dauphine is going on at this minute. Needs a bit of time in front of the screen, neatly timed, each day. The Tour is already part of my everyday thoughts, and two very good pals are doing the Ardechoise next week. But mainly what is going on is I am trying to ride very single day of the week, except when I can’t.

Have I said that before?