Author Archives: Nick in Nets

How to Win at Five-a-Side: Player Audit

To win a social five-a-side football match, you need to play as a – prepare to yawn with joy at the stupendousness of this insight – team. OK, self-evident, but I still see plenty of teams, especially those newly formed, relying individually on their tricks, their pace, their previous experience and even their sense of nominal positioning. They walk off the pitch surprised they lost.


A pub in the background? Bad sign.

But we scored those amazing goals? What about that snooker shot through ball! And such unlucky goals to concede. We had rushed forward interchanging passes and were so close to scoring, then the ball comes out to some bumbling beach ball who jogs into the acre we’d left behind us. Or when we miscontrolled one pass in front of our D and they leapt on it.’

Luck is a great leveller, and horrible misfortunes will indubitably befall you on and off the pitches. But in five-a-side, you make and eat your own luck like half-time oranges. Both ‘unlucky’ goals described above are clearly avoidable. If I have to divide ‘playing as a team’ into two categories, they would be strategy and, what the strategy is based on, playing to your team’s strengths. Strategy is about knowing your individual responsibilities, knowing when these rotate during play, and making sure that everyone else knows too. I’ll not get into that here. Varied strengths and their influence on your gameplan, however, are underplayed. When I read about five-a-side tactics, there always seems to be a presumption that all are equal. All can pass accurately, all can receive the ball well, all have the vision to mark the player and the pass, and all can shoot without spooning the ball into a tree. While many teams are peopled with excellent, skillful, athletic players, no team is a clone army of identikit Stormtroopers. Accordingly, there is no one style of play that suits every set of players. It’s important to say I’m talking about social games. If this was at a professional academy, while everyone would agree players have different strengths, professional players are expected to acquire certain proficiencies or be hurled out onto their ear. The pros can bend to whatever the current thinking is on the most effective strategy. We can all perhaps learn and improve. But you and your 38-year-old mate Yevgeny from the pie shop are what they call in biology ‘frozen accidents’. Your motor skills and muscle memory for football, your habits, the way you kick the ball or always go for the dragback have become largely ingrained, however flawed, and your brain is less pliant or just plain unwilling to relearn how to play. It is not defeatist of me to say: accept this. To understand your team’s strengths, you need to understand your team. You will generally have one of these exaggerated archetypes in your ranks:

One player forgot his kit and ruined it for everyone

One player forgot his kit and ruined it for everyone

  • The lazy front player. Walking back across the halfway line fills them with nausea. They only want to attack, which they’re good at, but having lost possession they’re not in a hurry to track back or recover, preferring to offer an outlet for a counter-attack. But what goals they score. (In a professional 11-a-side context, imagine BERBATOV.)
  • The ‘technical’ midfielder. Strangely calm, they’re always in a position to receive the ball, and will not release it until a clear pass is on. They have a great first touch and have the vision in defence to mark out the danger in the centre. Perhaps not the fastest between two points. (ARTETA.)
  • The gung-ho runner. No lost cause is officially lost until it gets a certificate to prove it. This player will chase down any ball, and they’ll beat their marker to a pass or die trying. Their touch may be loose, but they respond to clear communication. (While a few PL players could fit this brief, it’s really a five-a-side thing.)
  • The psychic defender. They will never be nutmegged and the only way around them is to pass back. They are generally solid individuals who will back their physical strength in a one-on-one. Best of all they know exactly when to bullet forward and somehow be first to the loose ball. (KOMPANY.)
  • The running commentary. This guy is always talking, telling you what to do, where the opposition are, to mark the runner, to get in space, to get up off the ground and stop crying. (CARRAGHER.)
  • The goalie. Often seen wearing gloves … I don’t think you need any help with this one. Goalies of course come in a variety of forms, but that’s an article in itself.

All, and particularly the latter, are useful to have in their own way. I would suggest though a little mental audit of attributes. How many of your team have a good first touch, a good shot, a good pass, how many have pace, how many love to beat a player with silky skills, how many have defensive vision? The reverse audit is just as crucial: how many have an erratic first touch, a dreadful shot, a tendency to pass blindly under pressure, how many will only accept a pass to their feet, how many will never jink, feign or jelly-leg a stepover, how many will be slow to track back? For teams with the psychic defender (or with two of them) and some pace and touch elsewhere in the team, your strategy is likely to revolve around the one reliable player sitting back, while the other three outfield players run high with impunity but switch as necessary between attack and defence. If someone on the team has a finisher’s eye for goal, this is probably the ideal set-up. You’ll be able to hold a lot of possession in the attacking third and have options when it comes to the final ball. For teams with little pace, no one obvious defender, but a technical midfielder (or two), a counter-attacking model will work better. Everyone becomes a defender marking hard within their own half, soaking up the opposition’s passing until a loose ball is seized upon or the goalie picks up an easy shot from distance. No one from the opposition is allowed near the centre of your D, and they are instead shown to the flanks or back where they came from. Positions rotate as necessary for marking. Once in possession the counter-attack is assessed. If it’s not on, the ball is passed to the feet of the player in space, always selecting the safe option, probing, waiting.

The longest 20 metres you will ever run ...

The longest 20 metres you will ever run …

For teams with the lazy front player: fire them. Well, no. In fact this player can be very useful, but only when recognised as such. There is no point getting apoplectic about them being left behind by the player they were supposedly marking for the hundredth time. Obviously it’s not ideal, and everyone needs to defend. But while they’re on the pitch, station them as high as possible, moving in looped runs from left to right to lose any marker. Then simply get the ball to them. Everyone else needs to be primarily defence minded, and it will help to have one runner who dashes from attack to defence and back again, being the link between the zones. These three strategies: ‘carefree attackers’, ‘bus-parkers’ and ‘long-ball merchants’ fit different groups of players. Your group is different again, but it will always pay to have a sense of how you do things as a team, and for this to suit the players you have. Why were the goals described at the top so strategically poor? The first was a result of playing a carefree attack without a reliable defender stationed at the back. Possession transitions quickly in five-a-side and even in the heat and flash of a sublime attack, you need to consider your team’s defence. The second was the result of undervaluing the danger of the central zone in front of the goal area. No pass should be risked to a defender in this position if they are marked at all, and especially if you know them to have a random first touch.


The new edition has a great section on 5-a-side goalkeeping

The medium mountains of the Tour de France: How to lose money

Guessing the winners in the medium mountain stages of the Tour de France has no real-world hook to hang one’s guess on. One is left groping against a flat surface like a sleepwalker in a phone box. It depends. There are things it depends upon though, so I will try to help you out, and in an ideal world, this will put you in mind of a few bets that will lose you a great deal of money.

Our office has been involved in the online fantasy league for the Tour de France, and I’m taking it much too seriously. Here I am in second place in the Bloomsbury League (feel free to join for the next big race, the Vuelta a España in August, or the Tour of Britain in September) and I’m gnashing in vain at the heels of lackadaisical Tour-expert Kirsty in the yellow jumper spot. A few things have become clear. The time trial is pretty predictable. Expect the same top ten of Stage 11 to contest the same places in a similar order on Wednesday’s Stage 17. That is:

  1. Tony Martin
  2. Chris Froome
  3. Thomas De Gendt
  4. Richie Porte
  5. Michał Kwiatkowski
  6. Svein Tuft
  7. Sylvain Chavanel
  8. Jérémy Roy
  9. Tom Dumoulin
  10. Jonathan Castroviejo

A few of the top GC riders may also agonise their way into this top 10 (Valverde, Mollema, Ten Dam, Kreuziger and Contador) as they have the most to gain. But this also depends on the madness of the medium mountains on Tuesday’s Stage 16.

Flat stages are also an eye-rolling doddle to pick, if I may oversimplify sweepingly. Each team’s best sprinters will be kept in the peloton by their faithful colleagues and then released near the end. Things get shaky in the timing and organisation of the lead-outs, and the difference in ability is more marginal among sprinters than time-triallists (due to the distance of the final effort), throwing exact places into a blender, but betting on the likes of Kittel, Cavendish, Greipel and Sagan for the last race, Stage 21 on 21 July, would be far from insane. Sprinters can decide the medium mountains too, but quelle surprise, it depends.

The true mountain stages, especially those with a summit finish, again favour a particular flavour of rider. On Sunday’s mountain ascent, it was a surprise to no one that Froome and Quintana showed their superiority (Froome aided by colossal mountain pullers Kennaugh and Porte), with Nieve, Rodríguez, Kreuziger, Contador, Fugslang, Mollema and Ten Dam not too far behind. You’ll see a similar cast lolloping up the Alps in Stages 18, 19 and 20. These hulking pedal-metronomes can break away from the mortals in the medium mountains too, their uphill pace sucking the wind out of the sprinters before the final downhill.

And this is what kills me about Tuesday’s Stage 16, a bunch of different riders could be in the top 10. There is no medium-mountain expert as such, and there is even a degree of luck involved. Sure it helps to be a bit of an all-rounder, and quick on the downhills, but in a way, being out of contention, being a bit useless so far, is the most useful quality. I think officially it’s a mountain (as opposed to medium mountain) stage, but it’s the mediumiest of non-mediums you’ll find: with only 168km, no climb above Category 2, and only two of those, quite a long gentle climb to recuperate over before the high gradients of the final mountain, and the last 10km is all downhill. There are as I see it, three possible scenarios (and therefore likely a fourth, which is what will actually happen):

  • Scenario 1. Any breakaway leading group is hauled in before the final summit by the peloton, which is likely to contain a few hardier sprinters and their teams. Sagan is the favourite for this very reason, being hardy sprinter incarnate.
  • Scenario 2, and I believe a very likely one. A small group of riders that threaten no one in terms of the GC or points competition will be allowed to break from the peloton and streak ahead. This is their moment in the papers. The peloton will threaten to pull them in, but if they hang in over the final climb, no one will get them on the long downhill home. Picking this group requires a random number generator. Navardauskas and Niemiec may show some of their Giro form and rise from the pack like meerkats. Or expect one of the heretofore meek French to take a crack. I say go all-in on [throws dart at Tour de France wall chart] Vichot? Voeckler? Gilbert?
  • Scenario 3. The mountain men dominate. Their teams set too vicious a pace on the ascents and break up the peloton. One or all of Quintana, Froome, Porte, Contador, etc., lead over the final hill and remain un-catch-up-able on the bobsled to the finish.

I don’t know. There is still a lot of GC/points to contest and a lot of riders need whatever advantage they can wring from this race. The odds online put Chavanel as second favourite behind Sagan. Go with that.

Who to back in the Tour de France 2: Antipodes

Moving on from the USA


Just typing that made the blood run cold at my fingertips. As a kiwi I loathe people conflating New Zealand and Australia. That little country to our north-west is as far away from NZ as Turkey is to Britain. So not that far in fact, actually. But I conflate them here for two reasons: (1) I’m allowed; and (2) it’s just easier, isn’t it; and all the good riders are Australian. But it turns out if you are an Australander of Newstralia, there are plenty of top-of-the-pops riders to wave your very similar flags at. (I also include South Africa, because there’s only one rider and it’s fun to throw them in desultorily within an aside.) So who can the … eastern southern hemisphere be overzealously proud of?

Orica-GreenEDGE (Australia)

While the best Australian is Cadel Evans, and, bear-with, we’ll get to him, there is a whole gaggle of Aussies in one corker of a team.

Matt Goss (Aus, aged 26), Orica’s number one, is one of the best at the Tour, rated by all sources in at least the top 20 riders, even though he hasn’t quite been scooping up the palmares with both arms of late. A one-day road race specialist, he is more green jersey than yellow, i.e. a sprinter looking for stage and sprint wins to get points, as opposed to consistently loitering at the front of the peloton come slope, flat, switchback or sawtooth like those lazy GC types. He’s been the bridesmaid to Mark Cavendish, coming second to him for instance in the 2011 World Championship road race (the same year he won the Milan–San Remo), but he’s still young and much is still expected. Contrary to the rumours I have started, he is not the singer from Bros.

Simon Gerrans (Aus, aged 32) is currently sitting third in the general classification of the Tour after yesterday’s stage win. Of the six Aussies still hovering in contention he is clearly doing the best, and hopefully ruffling Evans’s feathers in the process. This should be no surprise as the man is in some form. He’s won other stages this year and last year won the Milan–San Remo, the Tour Down Under and the Australian National Road Race Championship. Will he stay high in the mix? That was supposed to be a rhetorical question. I don’t know.

Cameron Meyer (Aus, aged 24) has twice won the Australian National Time Trial Championships (2010 and 2011) and has won some minor races this year, and a stage at the Tour de Suisse. He’ll help the team in today’s time trial, but he’s languishing well out of GC contention already.

Daryl Impey (RSA, aged 28) is the lone South African, but clearly worth elbowing out some other Australian for his place as he’s currently well in the mix in 6th place on GC. He’s had a few stage wins recently (two years running in the Tour of the Basque Country) and was the time trial champion in his home country last year. How high can Orica climb in today’s team time trial one wonders. This will already be revealed by the time I upload.

Simon Clarke (Aus, aged 26) stole all of the king of the mountains points yesterday, that being his wont, pushing him into second for the polka dot jersey. Pierre Roland might have thought he had it stitched to his back, but clearly Clarke will give him a good run. Not surprising as he won the dotty mountain shirt in the other of the three grand tours 2012’s Vuelta a España. If your looking for an Aussie to actually win something, Simon Clarke may be the basket to stick all of your eggs into.

The two remaining Aussies in the team are out of big honour contention and will shoulder some serious domestiquage (I’m still hunting for the perfect ‘pertaining to domestiques’ noun). Brett Lancaster (aged 33), like Goss, is more of a green jersey, winning such a thing in the Tour of Slovenia this year. Clearly no slouch. Stuart O’Grady (aged 39) like most Australians has an Olympic gold medal, and as recently as 2011 was part of the Orica team who had a stage win in the team time trial at the Vuelta. Orica have to fancy a high finish in today’s race.

for BMC Racing (USA)

Cadel Evans (Aus, aged 36), currently in 9th place in the Tour is nicely poised. He is the number one of his team (providing he continues to better Tejay van Garderen) and will be lead to the front to do what he does best by a strong team. It is two years since he won the Tour de France, and has to be considered one of the favourites, if slightly darker of horse than some. He placed third in the Giro this year, and is consistently in the top bunch of any race he takes on. If you prefer to back the obvious, this is your Australian.

for Team Sky (UK)

Richie Porte (Aus, aged 27) is well in the mix in 24th place and only a second off the yellow vest. He’s in one of the best time trialling teams and is a bonza time-triallist, so expect him to scoot up the grid later today. His 2013 has been glittering in (mostly second) prizes: winning Paris-Nice; the green jersey in Critérium International, in which he came second overall; second in the Critérium du Dauphiné too; and second in the Tour of the Basque Country. I predict he will be second at least once in something or other in the Tour. You unfortunately heard it here first.

for Lotto-Belisol (Belgium)

Adam Hansen (Aus, aged 32) is the second-last of our Aussie contenders. He’s sitting in 23rd and after an impressive Giro this year, winning a stage rather gloriously and always revving for a breakaway, he’s one to keep an eye or two on. Also a mean time triallist, Hansen will be hoping to drag Lotto up the leaderboard today.

Greg Henderon (NZ, aged 36) at what in other sports might seem a cumbersome age is still a fine sprinter, as seen by his 7th place finish in flat old Stage 1. If there’s one New Zealander you want to paint your face up and yell at the TV over, it’s cuzzie Henderson. Go you good thinglet!

Team Saxo-Tinkoff (Denmark)

Michael Rogers (Aus, aged 33) our last Aussie contender is a time-trial legend, having won the worlds three times. Granted, the last time was 2005, but he hasn’t been dawdling in the meantime, eating up palmares like gluten-free hot dinners. This year he was second in the Tour de California and last year was second in the pre-Tour Dauphiné to Bradley Wiggins, notably beating Cadel Evans. He’s currently in 48th but still part of the one-second-behind group.

for Garmin Sharp (USA)

They’re good riders with much to crow about, but it must be said that Jack Bauer (NZ, aged 28) and Rohan Dennis (Aus, aged 23) are mostly in Garmin to be solid and domestiquy. Both are mean machines in the time trial, however, and should help Garmin to get a decent pozzy in today’s team time trial. Both are so whoa-nelly out of contention in the GC.

Next up Canadarrrr!

Who to back in the 2013 Tour de France no. 1: USA

I gave a Brito-centric guide to blind-eyed patriotism for the Giro d’Italia, but will spread my net a little wider for the Tour de France. Here’s who to back from all the interloping English-speaking nations. First up …

Yew-Essay! Yew-Essay!

You don’t often get to pity Americans. But after the epic Oprah-deploying conclusion to the Lance Armstrong saga, it must be difficult for US cycling fans to really get behind the sport, and I can’t help but pull a handkerchief from my waistcoat pocket and dab at their little eyes. Poor devils. No one does patriotism like Americans, oh-say-can-you-seeing at the bling-spangled roaming of buffalos and all that. I for one would hate to see such things doused by Lance and his beady-eyed self-serving. So puff out your chests, USA-ers, and slap a hand on that heart. Here’s who you can legitimately get excited about at this year’s Tour. They represent only three pro teams, the first two of which being true apple-pie-twirlin’ US teams:

from BMC Racing Team (the manufacturer is Swiss, ignore that)

Tejay van Garderen (aged 24) is the BIG American hope. He is second only to Cadel Evans in BMC, but if he starts faring better than Evans he could easily be moved to the number one slot. Van Garderen won the young rider (white) jersey at last year’s Tour and placed fifth in the general classification. He hasn’t started brilliantly, but then who has? Like the rest of the top 93 he is only 1 second off the yellow jersey, so everything will change quickly. He’s also up for the white jersey again this year, and probably not a bad bet. Young in the Tour is anyone under 26. This year Tejay has been in the front pack for everything he’s entered: first in the Tour of California, third in the Criterium, fourth in Paris–Nice. This is your man.

Brent Bookwalter (aged 29) is not just at BMC because of his Dickensian-sounding name. (I call him Bent Brookwater, and chortle.) Bookwalter has had a good year, with a string of second placings: in both the US road race and time trial championships, and in the Tour of Qatar. His time-trialling skills will be key in Stage 4 for the team time trial if Evans and van Garderen want to stay high up the grid. He’s a domestique, but a top one, in a team of powerful domesticity, if that’s the word, and it isn’t.

from Garmin-Sharp, in order of importance

Andrew Talansky (aged 24) is a major figure for Garmin among some highfalutin names (Ryder Hesjedal, David Millar, Daniel Martin and Giro-surprise-star Ramunas Navardauskas) and in the one-second-behind group after the first two stages. Not faring as well as his top team-mates thus far, he is still a definite name-in-the-hat for the young rider cardigan, and is likely to rise. He placed second overall in the 2013 Paris–Nice with victory in the semi-mountainous Stage 3 with a sprint finish, third place in Stage 5 with a summit finish and second place in the individual time trial of Stage 7, showing real GC versatility.

Christian Vandevelde (aged 37) is an older gentleman these days, but still sitting second of the Garmin riders (in 36th) behind 35-year-old David Millar (currently third overall). He is considered the man responsible for dragging Ryder Hesjedal into the winning pink jersey of the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Coming back from a broken foot earlier in the year, he’s looking good. And I didn’t even mention the doping ban.

Thomas Danielson (aged 34) is the mountains man of the team and is still with the peloton, 1 second off the yellow jersey (but in 84th). He too is just off a doping ban, but it can’t have helped being labelled ‘the next Lance Armstrong’. It’s a while since he won a race but Danielson is a steady competitor in many of the minor races, and was part of Garmin’s team-time-trial-winning team of 2011 Tour. What do I know? He might just win the whole shebang and make us all look stupid.

from Cannondale (and though an Italian team, the sponsor is US bike manufacturer Cannondale)

Ted King (aged 30, which in bike-years is the prime.) He’s a domestique for Cannondale bigshot Peter Sagan, and is sitting almost last in the GC after Stage 2, suggesting either he’s doing his job well of working the legs to make it easy for Sagan early on then dropping back, or he was in the big crash at the end of Stage 1 (though he wasn’t named in this). Come on Teddy Longlegs! … No?

You Simply Cannot Be Big Enough: Simon Fisher on the Volvo Ocean Race

For The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges, authors Richard Hoad and Paul Moore interviewed a range of endurance athletes for their perspectives into their chosen competitions – ultra-triathletes, cross-continental cyclists, transalpine hang-gliders, rowers of the Atlantic, bedraggled saunterers of the Sahara, the Amazon, Patagonia, Antarctica, and of course long-distance Arctic huskie mushers. All provided an amazing glimpse into the wonder and madness of racing at the limits of human biological capacity. Some naturally had so much to say it had to be edited back. Simon Fisher’s account of the globe-circumnavigating Volvo Ocean Race is one such. But in this instance, especially considering his moving recollection of fellow sailor Hans Horrevoets’s death, it seems appropriate to reproduce the unabridged answers to two of the authors’ questions.

Volvo Ocean Race1_Ainhoa Sanchez

How did you prepare mentally and physically for the Volvo Ocean Race?

Typically preparations for the Volvo Race begin as much as one to one-and-a-half years in advance.

On the physical side you simply cannot be big enough or strong enough, so inevitably there are plenty of hours that need to be spent in the gym. Most of the sails on board weigh upwards of 100kg. In total there is about 800kg of sails sitting in bags on the side of the boat and downstairs there is around 1000kg of food, spares and equipment. All of this needs to be moved from one side of the boat to the other when you go from one tack to the other and at times this can be as frequent as every 20 minutes, so physically sailing these boats can be very demanding. Also the biggest sails are approaching 500m2, so trimming them requires you to put a lot of power through the winches. You honestly cannot be strong enough. However, time in the gym needs to be balanced with time on the water so it is impossible to spend every hour of every day smashing big weights in the gym.

On board we run a watch system which means typically you will do four hours on then four hours off and in that off time you eat, sleep, get your gear on and off (which can take up to 15 minutes if you are sailing in the southern ocean where temperatures are close to freezing). All being well, you get some rest, but if sails need changing or something happens on deck you may well have to get up in your off watch. If you are unlucky this can happen on consecutive watches so in some 24-hour periods you can quickly find yourself pretty short on sleep! I can speak from experience in saying that it sucks when you have finally got all your gear off, your head has touched the pillow, you are exhausted and then 10 minutes later you are called back on deck! To combat this lack of sleep good cardio fitness helps – the fitter you are the quicker you recover and the less sleep you need.

It is pretty common to lose quite a bit of weight, especially in the first legs of the race as your body gets used to the increased workload, lack of sleep and fairly bland diet of freeze-dried food. I have lost up to 10kg on legs before, so it is arguably good to pile on a few pounds before the start of the race. However, carrying extra fat around tends to slow you down so you have to strike a balance.

It is pretty hard to simulate the 25-day legs in the run-up to the race. It is more efficient for training to do shorter trips, which allows us to develop the boat, do repairs and work on other aspects of the campaign that can only be done on shore. We tend to do lots of shorter trips of two to ten days and that gives us a chance to learn about the boat, what we need on board and find a watch system and setup that works for the team, as well as developing the boat, rig and sails.

There is also a strong technological element to the race, and together with the design team it is up to the sailing team to make the right design choices with respects to the boat, sails and equipment on board to ensure the boat is as fast as possible. Some of these decisions need to be made as much as a year in advance of the race – these choices can define your campaign. If you are slower than the others then it makes for a very long and difficult nine months. The only way you can get around being slow is taking more risk tactically, which comes with its own ups and downs, so I guess you have to be confident and strong mentally, and this comes by doing thorough research and making well-considered decisions. Sometimes you only know if you have made the right decisions several weeks into the first leg so you have to be confident in your preparations and the path you take early on in the campaign.

Volvo Ocean Race6_Ian Roman

Were there any issues that you faced during the race, and how did you overcome them?

One thing with the Volvo you can always be sure of is that there are going to be issues. Often it is the team that deals with the issues the best, or at least minimises them through good preparation, that comes through to win in the end.

These issues can range from breaking something such as a sail, which you have to fix on board without losing too many miles to the opposition, a crew member getting injured, which the on-board medics have to deal with using the limited gear they have, to something more serious that forces you out of the leg and unleashes a whole load more logistical challenges just to keep the campaign on track and ensure you are in a position to start the next leg.

I have to admit I have seen my fair share of issues in the race. As I write this we are just coming to the end of a saga, which began on the first day of the first leg out of Alicante. After a good start, six hours into the race our mast came crashing down around our ears, a part of the rigging failed and we found ourselves motoring back to Cape Town rather than sailing on a course to Cape Town. We then had to get the spare mast to Alicante, get new parts made and fix the damage to the boat and sails that had been caused by the mast coming down. All of this took a massive effort from the whole team, both the sailors and the shore crew, to ensure we were in a position to restart the race three days later. Sadly when we set off again we quickly came to the realisation that in order to be in good shape for the rest of the race our best option was to retire from the leg and put the boat on a ship to Cape Town. It was a tough decision to make, in our hearts we all wanted to carry on to Cape Town and finish the leg as we had originally set out to do, but our heads told us the smart option was to pull out, regroup and come back stronger. By putting the boat onto the ship (which of course presented its own set of challenges), we were able to gain ourselves the valuable time we needed to replace the rigging for the mast to ensure we were at 100% again and could race the boat hard out of Cape Town and into the Indian Ocean.

The last race had its fair share of issues too. With the Telefónica team we faced a number of breakages that probably cost us a higher step on the podium than the third we eventually walked away with. We also hit a rock in Marstrand, which personally was very tough for me: as the navigator on board it was my responsibility to keep us away from exactly that sort of stuff, so it was a tough thing to bounce back from mentally. It was pretty horrible to see the fleet sail off into the distance as I faced the reality that repairing the boat would mean finishing that leg in last place several days after the others. Despite the wave of support that came from all corners of the sailing community it took a few days before I felt like leaving the hotel room and starting the race again irrespective of whether the blame fell entirely in my lap or not.

That said though the toughest thing I have faced in this race happened sailing on board ABN AMRO TWO in the 2005–06 edition of the race and to be honest it puts all of these other issues well into perspective.

Losing someone at sea is the worst thing that can happen to any sailing team. It was a dark night, the wind was getting up quickly and the crew on deck were one by one leaving their posts on deck to quickly get the life jackets and harnesses on to carry on with things on deck. Sadly, before Hans got his chance to pop down and grab his life jacket a freak wave broke over the boat washing him off the sail stack. We were already over a mile away from where he fell in by the time we were in a position to turn the boat around; this was good given that the speed of the boat in these conditions is easily over 30 knots. However, we were all acutely aware of the fact that in the cold waters of the North Atlantic time was working against us and we would be lucky to find Hans in the confused seas, let alone find him alive. Thanks to some great seamanship by the crew we were able to find him, but he had received a blow to the head when he was knocked from the boat and despite 40 minutes of CPR from the medics on board we were unable to revive him. That night we lost a team-mate and a good friend, something that no amount of training can prepare you for.

We had to slowly make our way towards the UK and face what we knew would be a media storm when we hit the dock and face the world – until then we could come to terms with things on our own terms. Either way it wasn’t easy. However, things didn’t end there, and as we were nearing the coast of the UK we were forced to turn around and head west again to rescue another boat in the race that was sinking. After locating Movistar and following them for a number of hours, it became clear that their boat would soon be taking on too much water for them to manage and they would have to get off. We had to organise a transfer mid-Atlantic. Turning around when the crew were finally coming to terms with getting the leg over with was difficult, however hard the arrival was going to be. I think though when those guys stepped on board our boat we were all very pleased to see them, and of course they were pretty happy to see us too! It was good to see some friendly faces and share the ordeal of our last few days. It also marked the end of a very stressful 48 hours in which I got no sleep as we organised the rendezvous with the stricken yacht, and both teams on board our now busy boat shared an interesting 24 hours as we headed for land.

The welcome in Portsmouth when we finally arrived, having dropped off the Movistar crew and the body of Hans in Falmouth bay still to this day was one of the most powerfully emotional moments of my life. I can feel the hairs on my neck standing up as I write but struggle to put it into words. The whole of the Volvo Ocean Race – sailors, shore crew, the Volvo event management – had surrounded the marina to welcome us in and show their support. I remember several days after, a sports journalist said to me that in all his years it was the most emotional thing he had ever seen in sport. This is maybe why this race is so unique – one minute you are competitors, the next the guys you are racing against may be the ones who save your life. Losing someone to the sea, however hard, showed how close knit the sailing community is.


Giro d’Italia, keeping Italy British

Italy’s great cycling stage-race is well under way. Where have you been? Well, if you want to be a flag-draped rose-nosed idiot-patriot, like me,* during the running of this year’s Giro d’Italia, allez-ing Wiggo and his confrères, drunkenly singing barmy-vindaloo-army songs at your television (or minute-by-minute commentary), who exactly should you be cheering? That I will tell you.

<Shuffles through printouts like truffle pig> Hmm. It turns out there are only six British riders, and of course a British team in Sky Procycling. You know these guys, and if you don’t (1) for shame; and (2) me too! So here’s a little recap on the who and how many palmares they are draped in like little caesars on push bikes.

  • Bradley Wiggins of Sky Procycling. Yawn. We all know this 33-year-old superb (Belgian-born) Briton. He won the Tour of France last year, and didn’t he win the entire Olympics as well? That he did. As I type he is sitting 6th in the GC of the Giro. Moving swiftly on.
  • Mark Cavendish of Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Yeah yeah, the Manx Merckx. Cav hasn’t had quite the recent glory of Wig, but the 27-year-old’s achievements are impressive. No one has won as many mass-start stages in the history of the Tour de France. He won the Milan–San Remo in 2009. And in 2010 he took the green jersey (points classification) in the other of the three Grand Tours (along with the Giro and the TdF), the Vuelta a España – a feat he repeated at the Tour de France in 2011. Having won the Tour of Qatar earlier in the year, he barnstormed the first race in the current Giro, winning it, but has been flagging since [doubtless this will be incorrect at the point I hit UPLOAD … aarrgh he just won stage 6, blogfail]. He’ll be looking to prove his place as his sprint-specialising team’s number one. Andiamo Cavo!
  • Alex Dowsett of Movistar Team. Like Cav, Dowsett has recently defected from Sky to be a bigger fish in a … differently shaped? … pond. The 24-year-old haemophiliac is currently the British time-trial champion (and has been for two years). He missed the classics last year with a spifflicated elbow, but is now back and burning serious rubber. Like Cav he’s had one good run so far in the Giro, the stage 2 team time trial, when, with still-high-flying team-mates Benat Intxuasti and Giovanni Visconti, Movistar rolled in 9 seconds behind stage winners Sky. His role is more as a team player for Movistar, and is not in contention for honours.
  • Adam Blythe of BMC Racing. At 23 years old, Blythe is looking to really move beyond promising youngster, and seems to be managing it. In 2010 he won the 2.1 event (i.e. the equivalent in UCI’s ranking as the Tour of Britain) the Circuit Franco-Belge, and was fourth this year in the Tour of Qatar (which Cav won). So far in the Giro, he’s had the one great race, coming 7th in stage 1, the one Cav won. Significantly he beat BMC’s big gun Cadel Evans. Now however he is near the very back of the pack, almost 50 minutes behind off leader Luca Paolini. Presumably because his role is, like Dowsett, as a domestique for his team. But what do I know.
  • Steve Cummings of BMC Racing. Team-mates with Blythe and the mighty Cadel Evans, Cummings is an older hand at 33 years old. Like Dowsett he is reappearing in 2013 after much skeletal mangling: his pelvis and wrist from the Tours of the Algarve and the Basque Country respectively. He has come 2nd in the Tour of Britain twice (2008 and 2011) and his greatest achievements are probably his tricolor of non-road race medals: the bronze in the individual pursuit at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, the gold in the team pursuit at the same games, and the silver at the 2004 Olympics for team pursuit. Again, he’s at the rear of the field and presumably working as a slipstream-sweeper for Evans.
  • David Millar of Garmin Sharp. The even older hand at 36 years old, Millar has done it all, been banned for it, and come back again. He’s the only British rider to have worn the leader jersey in all three Grand Tours, including of course the fabled pink number of the Giro. He is the most interesting of the six as evidenced by his (non-Bloomsbury!) autobiography Racing through the Dark, and by the fact I missed him out on the first version of this blog (pointed out on the Guardian minute-by-minute commentary to my colossal shame). Millar also broke a bone last year (collarbone) and is also currently malingering at the very back end of the GC.

Interestingly there is (and perhaps can be?) only one Brit in the Sky team, namely Wiggins. And in fact if you really want to be a daft patriot, there are few very fine Johnny Foreigners in the Sky team you can squeak under your nationalistic-fervour blanket. The two I would suggest you jump toot sweet on the bandwagon of are the Colombians: Sergio Henao (age 25) and Rigoberto Urán (26). After stage 5, Urán was sitting in 2nd place and Henao in 8th. They are both hot dogs on the climbs and the mountains await us in today’s stage 7.

The Colombian equivalent of vindaloo? The ajiaco. Thank you Siri.

Maglia Rosa
*I am, like Wiggo, a plastic Briton, and will take my jingoism from country to country as I please, just you try and stop me.

A Month on a Mountain Bike

Guest writer Rob Lee marvels at the endurance challenge Clive Forth set himself in order to write The Great British Mountain Bike Trail Guide. Clive had to hurl his big-tread wheels up and down the single track and forest roads of the 50 best trail centres that Britain and Ireland had to offer. To make it fun, he gave himself a month to complete the lot.


When Clive told me that he was going to ride 50 trails on one big road trip I was instantly jealous. It had all the right ingredients in all the right quantities for a wild, enjoyable, yet massively challenging adventure. It was also the perfect culmination of everything that we’d worked on together, that he’d worked on with others, and many of the things that Clive himself had achieved and developed to that date.

Just being able to complete this many trails in so few days was going to require mental strength, a degree of endurance and a dose of fortitude. In this, the challenge reflected the many accomplished rides that Clive has supported in the endurance arena of mountain biking. He knows the pains of endurance all too well, both in life and sport, as witness and participant. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen him put a rider back on their bike – after issuing what came to be known on our team as the ‘dad chat’ – and sending them out to deliver the goods on a long ride or endurance race. Having worked an endurance race pit on so many occasions there can’t be many people who have provided as much support, both physical and psychological, to victorious solo racers as Clive has.

So a test of endurance for sure, but with a true devotee of the mountain bike at the helm this challenge was never going to be as simple as endurance. Endurance racing and riding is straightforward: ride smooth, stay safe, don’t go too fast too soon, don’t do anything outrageous and just keep going. If this was solely an endurance challenge then the name of the game would be simple. Any endurance athlete designing and riding this challenge would go the same way: long trails, medium-to-high technical difficulty, play it safe, ride conservatively. Looking at the list of trails, the endurance mountain biking rule book has been thrown out the window, or perhaps Clive was just too busy riding to read it? Jump parks and downhill tracks thrown into the mix? I know what you’re thinking, or at least you are if you’ve never been riding with our man. He doesn’t do conservative riding, and while this is an endurance challenge, the likelihood that he’d have kept his tyres planted firmly on terra firma were about a million to one.

So now we have skill and without a doubt a massive element of speed. We are looking at an endurance challenge with lots of mini attacking moves, rapid accelerations, big air-time and tough technical trail sections. The number of riders capable of pulling such a thing off just went down about 80%. The element of danger involved in riding fast, taking air and increasing the technicality of the trails to be ridden, while tired, is something no one who has ever ridden a big endurance event would question. It’s simply not done because the risk of bringing the whole endeavor to a screaming halt in a split second is a serious possibility. But that’s something you only think about on the level of endurance racer, and Clive has skills that most of us can only ever dream of. His eye at speed is exceptional and I’ve marvelled many a time at his ability to take everything in his stride whatever the terrain.50GBT-329 50GBT-440

I look at the adventures I’ve been on and the journeys I’ve taken by bike and I start to realise that the main ingredients missing from most of them were the element of speed, and the element of fun that travelling much faster off-road can deliver. But this challenge didn’t suffer from that loss and likely, if anything, increased in enjoyment due to their addition. Of course there was an element of rest, while getting from one trail to the next by car or van, that pure endurance doesn’t have, but this in itself I suspect only enriched the experience. Something everyone dreams of, the classic road trip, is suddenly added to a mix so exciting you can feel the adrenalin course through your veins at the very prospect. And with that road trip, and the need for images to accomplish the telling of this story, came the final magic touch that enhances anything we do: companionship for the adventure.

Such a cocktail that many, myself included, have commented that they wish it had been themselves and not Clive that had been on this adventure. But that in itself holds the truth: it could be you, or I, if we just take the inspiration laid out in The Great British Mountain Bike Trail Guide and plan for something fun and outrageous. The pace of life can be fast, it passes by in a flash, but putting the time aside to take on a creative challenge is as good a way as any to create memories you’ll never forget. Clive did, and I think he’d be the first to say: you can too. Read and enjoy, this story can only lead to inspiration and adventure.

Rob Lee is an endurance cycling champion and founder of Seven Deadly Spins.


Nudists vs Cannibals


I have been reading a good book on the evolution of human nature and culture that I’ll not provide a link to here as Bloomsbury don’t publish it and I’m that petty. One piece of social science research it unearths troubles me, and it’s something it seems has long been taken for granted when psychologists discuss the supporters of team sports. We are all desperately, unthinkingly and arbitrarily tribal. Which is to say, we are concurrently members of as many tribes as we can find connections to: from people, say, of the same religion as us to those that like the same guitar-strewn ne’er-do-wells or brand of cat litter. And once in a tribe, we will bias favouritism towards anyone we feel that tribal link to. Uh-huh, me too! I like GrittyKitty! You’re all right, you!

When it comes to supporting a sports team, the biases of tribalism explode. Various chin-strokers suggest that the mini-wars of sports teams, facing each other in packs and defending a home structure, fit so easily with our Paleolithic wiring that we experience the same fervour and bias as if it was in actuality our small band of spear-wielding nudists taking on the appalling cannibals from across the river (i.e. Millwall). This they say explains the popularity of round and oval ball sports, and even prim-white-jumpered cricket.

It’s all in good fun of course, so why bother to give pause? No one is actually getting a spear through her netball bib after all. Perhaps, but a couple of things still stick in my craw. The delusion that the accomplishments/failures of the team I support directly transfer their glory/shame to me creates a worryingly arbitrary pendulum to which to fix my emotional life. No, actually, this I’m OK with, glory being otherwise hard to come by. It is odd though, the unreality of my link to the team, and the fact I would NEVER consider shifting my allegiance. Jerry Seinfeld sums it up well:

Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify. Because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city, you’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it. You know what I mean, you are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now. Boo! Different shirt!! Boo. [intro to the Seinfeld episode ‘The Label Maker’]

If there proves to be any truth to the preposterous rumour that Liverpool’s goalkeeper Pepe Reina might be transferred to Manchester United I would respond like that I think. Boo! Different shirt!! A traitor would’ve crossed a line that I personally could never even consider pretending to sniff like cocaine à la Robbie Fowler. Bringing me to the other worry: the unthinking approval-bias towards the behaviour of fellow tribespeople (fans, players) and its corollary, the unthinking bias against the behaviour of the enemy.  … I have just deleted a paragraph or two as I dove knees-first into a few of the illustrative sticking points between Liverpool FC and Manchester’s second best club. I delete as I want to move past the bias – as level-headed and good-natured as I imagine my bias to be. There are at least two sides to any story, and since I would want people to be open-minded toward ‘our’ side when it contradicts public or media opinion, I should be prepared to be just as open-minded in the reverse situation. I’m not quite there yet.

SOTSOGThis blog arises as we are soon to publish a book on Manchester United’s history: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. I was sick at the thought of it and made sure that all related work was pushed onto my long-suffering colleague Sarah. And have since been hiding my arms under my desk. But no, give them fair credit, the club’s rise is a powerful story, and their achievements continue to break records we should all be impressed by. They have had many excellent players, and also David Beckham. Ho ho. No, he too was more than the shrill stripper naysayers mock. His boots had a genius for spatial geometry, and his best free kicks will be long remembered.

I will say no more lest I chew through my own tongue, but this is a start. Biases should remain on the field, giving us our vicarious jollies through the length of the ritualised skirmish. Go our colourfully dressed little war-party, sack and plunder! Beyond that, let calm and sense be the things of greatest value.

Unboxing Boxing


This is a guest post written by Sarah Johansson

British boxing has become less exciting for fight fans in recent years, with the retirement of both Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe and the decline of Amir Khan. However, the Olympics brought with it an upsurge of interest for the sport, and 2012 marked the first inclusion of women’s boxing in the games. Does this mean that boxing is on the up?

I’ll admit I’ve never been a fan: it’s always been too violent for me. Maybe I’m a big old wuss, but I like sports where people are nice to each other. Not only have I not liked it, I’ve dismissed it with a passion, usually citing words like ‘barbaric’, ‘primitive’ or just ‘stupid’. So imagine my horror when I was forced to sit through a Prizefighter tournament recently. I say forced, but when you’re sharing a small flat with an obsessed boxing fan, it’s pretty difficult not to absorb the sweaty aggression emitted from the screen.

Yet I was fascinated, which leads me to preconception no. 1 about boxing: it’s all about the aggression. Sure, professional boxing is scored based on the most effective punches, style, aggression and knockdowns. Amateur boxing, however, is judged by landing the most clean punches on the target area (a glorified game of tag, if you will). This, ironically, didn’t mean much to me until I had a go at Fight Night on Xbox.

Several hours and two blood blisters later, I came to the realisation that: (a) boxing requires some serious skill and technique, and (b) I was definitely capable of letting out a whole lot of aggression myself. So I’ve started to view amateur boxing in a different light: rather than focusing on the violence, I’ve come to admire the amount of dedication and discipline required, which reaches a level that few other sports could hope to equal. Lack of funding usually means having to work normal day jobs too, trying to fit in exercise and fights whenever there is time.

That was the case for Nicola Adams who worked as a builder and Corrie extra before taking home the first female Olympic gold medal in the flyweight class last year. Before 2009, funding wasn’t readily available for female boxers, and now, after the five-medal success in London, funding and opportunities are growing exponentially and universities are endorsing the sport to a much greater extent.

This is set to provide a whole new environment for a sport that is becoming more and more popular. Some of Britain’s ‘flagship’ athletes are now amateur boxers, which lights a torch for a bright future in Britain’s professional boxing game. This transition is already in motion now with Olympian Anthony Ogogo recently turning pro.

While I admit my previous dismissal of the sport probably involved very loaded words for someone who professes they couldn’t care less for it, I guess that’s what boxing does to people; it stirs and fascinates, repulses and excites. And even though I’m struggling with some conflicting emotions about boxing, you can’t deny the obvious fitness benefits. A boxer at their peak easily ranks among the fittest athletes in the world.

Boxing exercise is guaranteed to take you to the next level in your exercise regime, regardless of whether you train or compete in a different discipline. And if you want to get fit, focused and fighting, put on the gloves and try a boxing-fitness class. They provide non-contact cardiovascular workouts with boxing-style exercise, which perfectly suits those of us who want to get toned and gain physical and mental strength – but who might want to keep the violence at a safe distance.


boxing fitness

Sport Is Bad for You

The legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics some have hoped aloud is that more of us, still all geed up and whooping, will take part in sport. When I say ‘us’ imagine instead the unspoken target: some pre-teen lazybones hunched over her smartphone. Suddenly she’s shot-putting her pillowcase of junk food out the window and joining squadrons of her kind in the streets, hurdling bins, moonwalking like dressage horses, going all Beth Tweddle on lamp-posts. Healthiness being the age’s religion, this is seen as a good thing. Sport is good for you. It makes you a fitter biomechanical machine, and a fitter body is happier, lives longer and, though I have gone too far already, contributes more to society. Here I am at a sports publisher, and such a groundswell of interest in sport should have me licking my chops – moo-ha-ha! Allow me instead to pooh-pooh.

But why? Why emit a sales-sapping grump of a blog? Am I so cynical, so sour of puss, so easily prepared to kill joy and rain on the parade of something community-spirited and optimistic, something right-headed and good. I would hope so, yes.

And now I hold up exhibit A, my left ring finger in a splint. This is what sport has done to me. A detached tendon suffered while keeping goal in five-a-side football. Do not, I suggest, try to block a cannonball using your ring finger like a pool cue, tip first. The digit has contracted the deformity known as mallet finger and is now permanently bent at the top joint. It may never fully heal, and in the meanwhile I am forced to wear my plastic finger hat of shame – for weeks.

My question is this: In the light of such a catastrophe, how can anyone of passing sanity suggest that sport is good for you?

Like most people involved in such things I have an atlas of injury remnants across my body: from bone bruises and dicky joints to multiply shucked toenails. We are not alone. Sport leads to a continuous barrage of impacts, crunches, wrenches and body damage. They don’t call them tennis elbows nor swimmer’s shoulders for nothing. One of the Olympic equestrian team was discussing how commonly they break fingers after being thrown. A recent crash in the Tour de France was called the Massacre at Metz for the mangled piles of bodies and bikes it left behind, all their skimpy little bike vests in tatters, with gravel-rash oozing horribly through the holes. None of this is strictly speaking good for you, is it. And I suspect it is only the very luckiest of sportspersons who will not wear the brunt of some injury or other to the grave.

Sport is bad for you. So should we wish it upon pubescent slobs and those less disposed towards physical movement? I don’t know. The only reason I can imagine, and probably the real impetus behind our participation anyway, is – no not self-esteem, goal-orientation, team-cooperative-learning-enhancement or some other policy-speak codswallop – fun. Sport is fun. Play it if you want. Unfortunately I will continue to.

I could break your leg, Nadal, just like THAT

For grisly close-ups of the Massacre at Metz see the brilliant and otherwise pretty Allez Wiggo!


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