Riding the world’s oldest bike race, by accident

This is a new personal project I’ve been working on. Please let me know what you think, share with anyone who might like it and have a look at the charity link.

Climbing 100 Climbs

Chalkpit Lane (117), White Lane (16), Toys Hill (20), York’s Hill (15)

Many of the 100 Greatest Climbs have gained that status because they are the venues for club hill-climb races, which take place towards the end of the summer season. Those planning to ride them on a recreational basis would do well to take this into account.

Looking to add a little variety into my training, I spot a cluster of climbs in the Kent Downs and plot a 45km route to take in four of them, criss-crossing the same ridge just west of Sevenoaks.

Putting a metaphorical pin in the map, Oxted looks a good starting point so I park up in the town’s underground station car park. On a weekday I imagine this is rammed with commuters; on a Sunday morning the cavernous space feels like a scene in Mad Max but it’s as good a place…

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“I’ve been in a boat 11 days and I’m gonna win” – Olympic medal hope Graeme Thomas on how he started rowing


Graeme Thomas is remarkably calm and confident as he prepares to make his Olympic debut in Rio, aiming for Great Britain’s first ever Olympic medal in the men’s quad scull.

I spoke to the 27-year-old from Preston when the team was officially announced in Henley back in June and the full interview is in the latest issue of Rowing & Regatta magazine. There wasn’t space there, though, for some of the great chatty bits, of which there were lots.

In this audio clip he talks about first getting into the sport at Agecroft RC in Manchester, and about his attitude to pressure in his first Games.

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What’s The Rowlup all about?

Four months ago, I sent the following draft for a rowing blog to a friend who runs clothing company Hugga. He was looking for a feature to bring regular traffic to the company website and I was looking to do a bit more writing and blogging (as I did across a range of sports at the BBC a few years ago).

The blog was eventually named The Rowlup – a rowing round-up – and that first draft became the first post of the series. The format has changed a little as we’ve gone along but it remains a way of collating the rowing news and views that appears all over the internet now but maybe don’t get the sort of audience it deserves.

Obviously the format isn’t original. I enjoy reading Ollie Williams’ Frontier Sports Olympic links and drew some inspiration from it.

The Rowlup isn’t a place for spurious gossip. What appears has either been published elsewhere, is first-hand (ie published on social media by the person involved) or I’ve sourced and checked it myself.

There isn’t a lot of original content in there, admittedly. Original content takes time and therefore costs more money. I work on the assumption that people may have seen some of the content in there but – unless they’re glued to social media all the time and know all the nooks and crannies I’ve peered into over the last few years – they won’t have seen most of it.

If you haven’t seen The Rowlup before, please give it a click. It was published weekly through the British season but has moved fortnightly for now. We’ll make decisions on its future regularity in September.

As with any blog, it thrives on being shared so if you enjoy it, please tweet, like or share with like-minded people. You can also sign up to receive the blog via email.

And please let me know what you think – either here, in the comments on each blog or on Twitter. There’s also now a Facebook page to promote my journalism, where you can leave comments.

I’m always keen to hear suggestions for stories from readers. Dan Spring spotted the photo of the coxed Kiwi pair that led the 1 August blog and Rory Copus dropped me a line with his coxing video from Henley Royal which featured in the last issue. If you have an idea, please get in touch.

The next issue will be out on or around 28 August, with the action already under way at the World Championships in Amsterdam and finals weekend looming.

The Rowlup

Eyes were on Caversham last weekend, where the GB Rowing Team competed in their final set of selection trials for the year. Unfortunately spectators weren’t allowed at the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake, to the annoyance of some after the crowd-pleasing 2012 trials at Dorney.

There are reviews of the event on the British Rowing website and BBC Sport, which mentions “cold but sunny conditions” but not the raging headwind and forecast for worse on Sunday, which saw the event squeezed to three races in a single day and many male heavyweight scullers taking more than eight minutes over the 2k course.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning were reunited in competition for the first time since winning Great Britain’s first gold of the London 2012 Olympics, and they won in emphatic fashion.

Meanwhile, for the first time in nine years, neither Pete Reed nor Andy Triggs Hodge came away with victory in the men’s pairs. Moe Sbihi and Alex Gregory pushed Hodge and George Nash into second, while Reed pulled out through illness.

A few Molesey members took exception to club stawart Sbihi being pictured in a photo gallery named “Leander at Henley” and staged a black ops raid on the pink palace’s Facebook page.

Olympic bronze medallist Alan Campbell crossed the finish line third in the single sculls but was disqualified, having arrived late to the start then false-started.

Meanwhile Constantine Louloudis was able to raise a wry smile after capsizing in the B-final. After his Boat Race success a Standard reporter had mistaken his mention of a single scull as an aim for the Rio 2016 Olympics, rather than a route to selection for big boats.

Some interesting stats and discussion afterwards on the relative strength in depth of the men’s and women’s pairs. Women’s coach Paul Thompson boated his strongest combo while Jurgen Grobler split the talent, so is it any more than a statistical exercise?


Some statistical suggestions too in this Rowing Magazine article offering 10 tips to get your novices up to speed. When coaching newbies on the ergo, how about using watts rather than 500m splits?

“Watts are easily understood—more is better—and they are easier to compare. The difference between 1:59 and 1:57 splits doesn’t seem as significant as the gap between 203 and 218 watts.”

Sunny Sarnen

As we come to the end of the training camp season there are plenty of videos around, and some outstanding scenery in this montage of Westminster School’s trip to Sarnen in Switzerland.

We found that on RowHub, along with this challenge to find your rowing name. I’m Sloppy Swimmer, which is true but not really rowing-related.

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Twenty four hours away from the sporting spotlight

Even though it is just 10 miles south of Chester and 35 miles west from Stoke-on-Trent, Farndon Sports and Social Club feels about as far from civilisation as it is possible to be.

It is certainly a long way from mainstream sporting civilisation this weekend. Eyes are on the second Ashes Test at Lord’s or the Open golf at Muirfield.

Most cycling fans are watching the Tour de France, which will finish on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday evening, after a three-week race that has covered 2115 miles. The top four riders around Farndon will combine to cover 2110 in the next 24 hours.

We’re at the Mersey Roads club’s annual 24-hour race, which first took place in 1937 and which again this year doubles as the national championship. There are 91 individuals and three tandems set to start at one-minute intervals from 1pm on Saturday, with a long day, night and day ahead of them.

Riders mill around the sports club car park, eyeing rivals’ carbon frames and solid wheels, bantering cautiously on a humid morning. I’m part of a support team for Simon, who is taking part in his fourth 24, and our itinerary looks like this:

  • Sit by a roundabout for six hours, in the middle of a 40-mile out-and-back circuit that starts 16 miles away from race HQ in Farndon.
  •  Move to another roundabout for four hours, at the tip of a smaller circuit keeping riders away from the evening traffic.
  • Head back to the original roundabout while the riders go up to five times around the 40-miler again through the night
  •  North to the smaller circuit for six circuits during the morning rush
  •  Further north to HQ and the finish circuit on Sunday morning

That’s going to be pretty arduous in itself, and we’re not even on a bike.

George Berwick

George Berwick is still competing aged 72, 39 years after his first win

There is a sign on a small road just east of Farndon that reads “Wilko 525.07 miles”, marking the finishing point for the record-holder, Andy Wilkinson, in 1997. He  also set the national record – 541.17 miles – on a Sussex circuit in 2011.

Normally 500 miles is enough to secure victory but it soon becomes apparent that there are more candidates for victory than in a normal year. About 10 riders start quickly enough to be in with a chance but the lead man is Sean Childs of Royal Navy & Royal Marines CA who three hours in, is averaging 23.9mph and going like a train. “He’s about on course for where he wants to be,” says one of his support crew.

Stops for the top riders are infrequent. Some are followed by support vehicles but most have a bottle or bag passed up from the roundabout every hour while they roll on. Simon stops with a loose tri bar after a couple of hours but we fix it quickly and he’s back on his way.

Not everyone is in it to win it, obviously. George Berwick won in 1974 and is still going at the age of 72, although he now rides as stoker on a tandem as his eyesight isn’t up to going solo.

Why do they do it? George Mallory’s line about Mount Everest seems most apt: Because it’s there. Some do it because they’re good at it, some for the sense of achievement, some for the sense of fellowship that is obvious throughout.

As it gets dark, we see fewer riders out. Already 10 hours in, perhaps they’ve stopped to sleep, ready to have another go in the morning. One rider is being supported by his wife in a campervan. Approaching midnight, she shuts the door and goes to bed, leaving his food and water on a chair outside.

Why do the riders do it? Because it's there

Why do the riders do it? Because it’s there

The night hours are what count, says John Warnock, a former winner who is supporting Simon and another club-mate this year after injuring his thigh in a fall from a mountain bike. You might go out hard but if you can’t push on at a good speed through the lonely night it will all come apart.

As a supporter it’s difficult to keep up with what’s going on. Riders, understandably, are struggling to stay alert. The timekeepers – posted at regular intervals around the course – ask them to shout out numbers as they approach in the dark. Many shout it at anyone, timekeeper or not.

A supporter springs to life as a rider passes, dashes to the road and shouts, “Well done Michael.” Then admits, “Oh, it’s Stephen.”

At 2am, John and his rider fumble a bottle exchange. The rider shouts “next time” but John – with his injured thigh – sprints across the roundabout to meet him successfully on the other side.

“You wouldn’t see me doing that if I missed mine,” says an onlooker, whose rider promptly passes unnoticed. “See?”

I opt for a bit of a snooze in the back of the transit van and miss Spiderman. One supporter has decided a costume change will help keep his rider mentally alert in the middle of the night and crosses the roundabout to hand a bottle up as the webbed wonder.

It’s 3am and we’ve lost a rider. He was due through about 15 minutes before Simon but hasn’t shown. Could be anywhere on the northern 20 miles of the course, in any kind of state. We hop in the van to see if we can spot him, which is a thankless task. Only the areas around the three roundabouts are lit; otherwise the pitch black is broken only by bike lights at regular intervals, and the occasional huge HGV powering along the A41. Stopping for a cup of tea we get a call to say he’s turned up on schedule; must have just missed him as he passed by last time.

Night time may be tough but dawn must be pretty bad mentally, as riders realise they still have another eight hours to go. As an extra treat, it has started to drizzle. We head for a fry-up in a huge truck-stop cafe that has stayed open all night for the event, and several of the riders do the same.

Scores for the first 12 hours are available at about 9am and the leader is Alex Kirk from Dulwich Paragon CC. Those results were compiled by 3am though and things look very different in daylight.

Simon appeared off the pace in 10th but by our reckoning is sixth now, having kept plugging through the small hours. Sean Childs has just taken 87 minutes to get around a 13-mile circuit and it just one of those now sporting a thousand-yard stare.

“Well done Steve,” shouts John to one rider. “Seventy-five,” he replies.

This circuit took about 35 minutes last night; this morning it’s more like 42. Last year’s winner, Ultan Coyle, is looking strong, as is Stuart Birnie of Willesden CC.

Car drivers on Sunday morning appear pretty bemused by the massed ranks of supporters in laybys, even without knowing that they have been in similar positions for the previous 20 hours.

There is a road race taking place around Farndon during the morning but once that has finished, the time trailers are routed north to the finish circuit. Marshalls are placed every two miles around it; riders are logged by each and their 24-hour score is taken from the last one passed, plus a calculation based on average speed for the extra few hundred yards.

There has been a friendly atmosphere throughout but it is here that the camaraderie between supporters and riders is most obvious, as every rider past HQ receives a cheer and many respond with a smile and a wave.

“What a charming bunch of people,” commented one rider on a forum afterwards.

Simon Bever

Riders slump in the car park at race HQ after 24 hours of racing

“Virtually everyone who passed me had at least a friendly ‘dig in’. Some of the spectators became people I looked forward to seeing each lap. I won’t ever worry about being ‘unsupported’ again because it turns out I was supported all the way.”

Less serious riders stop at HQ as their finish time approaches. Others roll in from around the course having clocked their last few miles. We find Simon slumped next to a parish church, pretty confident of a new PB, and head back to Farndon, where the car park is full of riders slumped on deckchairs, staring into the middle distance.

Two riders have topped the 500-mile mark, Birnie’s 518.372 trumping the 513.655 ridden by Coyle, who won last year with 25 miles fewer. Lynne Taylor wins the women’s event for the 13th time after covering 423.428 miles.

We make it home in our transit van just in time to see Chris Froome cross the finish line in front of the floodlights and flashbulbs in Paris. But the fulfilment of competition is the same at whatever level you compete, and whatever distance you cover.

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What was your #rowingmoment2012 ?

After an outstanding year of rowing, it’s tough to pick just one moment out as better than the rest. Katherine Grainger’s victory with Anna Watkins would probably edge it for me as the pick of the Olympic regatta, just ahead of Great Britain’s first ever women’s rowing gold – for Helen Glover and Heather Stanning – a brave bronze for GB’s men’s eight in their all-or-nothing battle with Germany and Alan Campbell’s gut-busting push for bronze in the single.

There was more gold for GB at the Paralympics, though, and an action-packed domestic season, including the debut of schoolgirls at Henley Royal Regatta and the Diamond Jubilee Rowing Championships, a forerunner of a new, beefed-up Nat Champs.

Here are a few of your top rowing moments of 2012 from Twitter. Please add yours using the hashtag #rowingmoment2012 or leave a comment below.

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My highlights from the summer of sport

As the nights draw in and the weather worsens, the glowing summer of sport already seems a long time ago. The video montages will display the headlines and big names but – like no British summer before it – the last four months will have left every spectator with their own set of personal memories.

I’ve spent some of the summer working and some of it as a fan in the stands, cheering for Great Britain and many of the athletes I’ve encountered over the last few years.

Here are my personal highlights – please let me know about yours.

Henley looks to the next generation

Over 170 of Great Britain’s rowing Olympians, going back as far as 1948, attended the final day of Henley Royal Regatta – and it can be pretty disconcerting when the scruffy bloke you’ve been working with all week introduces himself to someone else as Britain’s oldest living Olympic rowing champion – but the focus of the week was on the future as none of the Brits bound for 2012, and very few from other nations, competed over London’s last Olympic rowing course.

The latest group invited to the Henley party were schoolgirls, competing in quads for the first time and surprising some with their quality. Henley RC won the inaugural title and dealt with the media attention like professionals.

Also determined to look to the future was Alex Woods, the Oxford oarsman who collapsed from exhaustion during April’s controversial Boat Race. His crew weren’t successful but it was good to see him back in action.

As reporter for the regatta’s news service it was also lots of fun talking to those around the boat tents, asking rowers and coaches about their secrets of success.

Wiggins’ Tour de Force

The view on TV may be better but Tour de France is best experienced after a lengthy road trip and a few hours by the side of the course.Final climb during the time trial in Chartres

A time trial at least lengthens the experience but Bradley Wiggins still ascended the final hill through Chartres in a flash, before punching the air at the finish to acknowledge finally that he would be the first Brit ever to win the Tour de France.

Lacking a big screen, I was struggling to remember schoolboy French while listening to the announcer at roadside. Surely he had not just announced Wiggins as 53 seconds ahead of any other rider at the second time-check, two-thirds of the way into the course. He was, and he won by 73.

Armitstead lights up London gloom

A day after Wiggins and GB’s men proved unable to deliver Mark Cavendish first to the finish line in the Mall, Lizzie Armitstead came much closer in a classic sprint with Dutch great Marianne Vos.

Soaked to the skin while on Box Hill, a large crowd made it to a local vineyard in time to watch on a big screen, joining the 7.6m people who watched on TV as the duo made a mockery of suggestions from some quarters that women’s road racing is more boring than the men’s version.

After taking silver, Armitstead touched on the debate that has appeared on this blog in the past, and world governing body the UCI recently approved a plan to promote women’s cycling more heavily. If you want to get involved, follow the Twitter hastag #FanBackedWomensTeam.

Girls come good with rowing gold

Dorney Lake was transformed during the Olympics into a cauldron of noise and Great Britain’s rowers played their part by topping the medal table.

Women’s rowing has only been part of Olympics since 1976, their events have only been rowed over the full 2km course since ’88 and Great Britain only won their first womens’s medal in 2000. Twelve years later, they won their first gold, and two more for good measure.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning kicked things off with gold in the pair, Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins ended Grainger’s 12 years of hurt in the double scull then lightweights Sophie Hosking and Kat Copeland crashed the party too.

Despite the tremendous physical effort required in the race, sometimes it looks easy when you watch from the towpath, but Glover gave an insight into the sacrifice required when she told me about a time before funding kicked in when she was unable to afford petrol and had to run between work and training.

A week later, the women’s squad’s Aussie head coach Paul Thompson was still smiling broadly and tremendously proud.

There were also two brave bronze medals, from GB’s men’s eight and from Alan Campbell in the single scull. As a junior, Matt Langridge from the eight once told his coach that silver was for first loser; his crew personified that attitude with a gold-or-bust approach desperate to take the title from Germany ending in exhaustion. The race also brought an end to Greg Searle’s storied comeback.

Paralympics comes of age

If anyone else was lucky enough to see Great Britain’s first gold of both the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, I would love to hear from them.

Action in the velodrome during the ParalympicsSarah Storey brought the first bling at the Paralympics, winning the individual pursuit on the track with a display of dominance she would repeat three further times, becoming in the process Britain’s most decorated Paralympian of the modern era.

Arguably the memory that will live longest from the Paralympic velodrome, though, was the sight of Jody Cundy exploding after being denied the chance to ride for gold in the 1km time trial. It banished any suggestion that Paralympic sport was purely about participation; it was never more clearly about competition at the highest level.

After a spectacular opening ceremony – with an overt political agenda that set it apart from what had gone before in the Olympic Stadium – the Paralympics also offered the chance to encounter new sport and lesser known stars:

  • Wheelchair rugby, originally known as “murderball” because of its regular bashing and crashing, with Great Britain’s mohawked attacked David Anthony.
  • Goalball, where crowds at the Copper Box arena had to be quiet during play so that visually impaired competitors could hear the bells in the ball. Known during the Olympics as the Box that Rocks, the venue became the Box without Vox.
  • Events in the athletics stadium that included the high jump for leg amputees, a fact you struggle to take in as competitors ditch their crutches shortly before leaping over the bar.

Cav on the cobbles

The Prime Minister heralded the end of a “golden summer of sport” at the athletes’ parade in London on the day after the Paralympics finished, but Mark Cavendish was determined to make it last one more week.

Marginalised by Team Sky and unable to capture Olympic gold despite the efforts of his team, he capped his season with victory in an uphill sprint over the cobbles of Guildford High Street to win the final stage of the Tour of Britain.

He was watched by thousands, with crowds eight or 10 deep on that final hill having to be content with screaming at the big screen after seeing the riders flicker by through a mass of bodies.

The other star that day was Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, winner of the Tour overall, before making an impressive senior debut for GB at the world championships in the Netherlands to mark him out as one for the future. The summer of British sport may be over but the sports themselves never stop evolving.


Those are my personal highlights from the sports that hit the headlines in 2012. Please let me know about your favourite bits – there is so much to chose from.

My real summer highs, though, came from the performances of the rowers I coached over the season. I don’t blog or write about them because I think doing so would compromise the coach-athlete relationship, and because they haven’t grabbed any headlines, yet at least. That’s why I am about to start doing far more coaching than writing, hoping to play a part in more sporting highlights to come.

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Should Locog get more people jogging?

Have London 2012 organisers failed to deliver on their promise to “change the face of British sport” when the Olympic Games were awarded to the city seven years ago?

“Legacy” and “participation” were the watchwords in the 2005 presentation that won Lord Coe and London the Games.

The new age of austerity has hit some of the more high-profile initiatives to boost those, such as the £162m Schools Sports Partnership in England but – as this straw poll in January hinted – governing bodies and clubs  have realised that the Games provide an unmissable opportunity to promote their sports.

That, according to athletics great Steve Cram, is exactly what they should be doing.

Steve Cram“I don’t think the Games should or will have a remit for developing legacy,” said the 1984 Olympic 1500m silver medallist when I spoke to him a fortnight ago.

“I don’t think it’s [London 2012 organising committee] Locog’s job to get people jogging. The Olympics are about elite sport – a showcase. Locog has got too much else to do.

“I would look to local sports clubs and say, ‘You’re in the shop window; what are you going to do?

In 2006, funding body UK Sport made requirements of governing bodies before cash was released, forcing each to have a clear performance pathway, showing that funding meant to produce Olympic medals would go towards just that, with grassroots funding for sport development a completely separate issue.

The performance goal looks likely to be achieved, with one study forecasting 27 gold medals in 2012 – from a nation that won just one in 1996.

Perhaps the separation in approaches has helped to make clear that participation is just as important as performance. In programmes such as Back to Hockey and Explore Rowing, governing bodies seek to promote enjoyment, opening their sports up to those who may be put off by a win-at-all-costs mentality.

Cram was speaking to me as an ambassador for independent website Findarace.com, which aims to help potential competitors discover running, cycling, triathlon and swimming events that are nearby and suit their level of competition.

He has witnessed the explosion of mass participation in his own sport over the last 20 years and does his bit by organising the Marathon of the North in his home city of Sunderland.

Many more people want to get involved in sport, he reasons, but don’t know what to look for. It is easy for those within a sport to forget how complicated it is to get involved in the first place.

The 2012 Olympics will provide the shop window to attract new competitors to each of the 26 sports. Then it will be up to clubs, governing bodies and enterprising initiatives like Findaraceto get them involved.

“It’s important that youngsters see a sport and want to go to their local club, whether it be athletics or canoeing, taekwondo or boxing” said Cram.

“I hope that in 10 years’ time there will be people on the podium who say, ‘I saw the sport for the first time in 2012.”

Do you agree with Steve Cram – should clubs and governing bodies be responsible for promoting their own sport or should London 2012 be doing more? Please let me know what you think – either here or via Twitter to @martingough22

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