Sportsthoughts (128) – An afternoon at the Olympic veldodrome

On Saturday we had a family trip to the Olympic velodrome, to watch part of the Revolution series of elite cycle races, which take place in London, Manchester and Glasgow. It was an opportunity to see how things are looking at the Olympics site these days and to see some seriously good racing.

I’m pleased to say it was a big thumbs up for everything!

And the velodrome was looking good. This is a photo taken after the afternoon event finished. The weather wasn’t the best.

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The centrepiece of the afternoon was Sarah Storey’s  – one of Britain’s great Paralympic champions – attempt on the world hour record. This was set in 2003 by Dutch cyclist Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsen, in Mexico City; so at altitude. She had ridden 46.065 km; Sarah just fell short, managing 45.502 km. She broke a few records on the way, and the whole thing was a wonderful exhibition, with the tension and excitement building as the minutes ticked away. I’d wondered how you would sit through one person riding around a 250m metre circuit, for an hour; but it was genuinely engrossing.

Here are some photos of Sarah going for it, and doing a lap of honour after she’d recovered a little from the effort, and, no doubt, the disappointment.

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The afternoon session began at 1pm, with some men’s 200m time trials, ahead of knock out stages later. The timed distance is slightly less than the circuit, which is 250m. I know this because a 10Km race was 40 laps, a 20km race, 80. The races were over in a flash, but the acceleration through the last bend was impressive. Best time was from Eddie Dawkins of New Zealand, and he ended up winning the final. The quarter finals were fun, because you get that silly cat and mouse stuff, where both riders dawdle along, waiting for or planning, the first move.

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The programme of races is quite varied, to keep the interest of the audience. It works really well. The strangest race was the Derny (10km), where each rider has a lead man on a small motorbike. As well as adding to the spectacle, the lead riders create a slipstream, which which allows the cyclists to go faster. All I can say is that it was weird, but impressive. Peter Kennaugh, one of the British, Sky riders, won, so we were all happy.

First photo is the lead racers getting ready for the final. Not the most athletic bunch! A couple of the race and then Peter Kennaugh winding down.

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There was real skill involved, though. I couldn’t see how the cyclists could communicate with the leads about accelerating or slowing. It was too noisy to shout and they didn’t have radio, as far as I could see. I guess it was just feel; maybe if the cyclist’s front wheel got really close to their back one. And of course, all the practice beforehand.

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The women’s 20km points race featured one of Britain’s Olympic stars, Laura Trott. And she won on the day, to great acclaim.  The way this race works is that after every ten laps (out of eighty) there is a one lap sprint. The winner gets five points, second 3, third 2 and fourth 1. In addition, if you lap someone you get 20 points. There might also be something for lapping the entire field – this happened in the later men’s race. Having the sprint every ten laps adds to the excitement hugely. And brings in all sorts of tactics. You just have to remember who is in the lead overall, as lapped riders continue and participate in the sprints.

I didn’t get a very clear photo of Laura winning, but here are a couple on her journey. She is in blue. The first is just the women waiting for their turn. In the second photo, she is poised to overtake everyone and win the sprint. The third is a bit blurry as she is still riding quite fast with the flowers she got for winning, which were about to be hurled into the crowd.

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The men’s points race, also over 20km, had a lot more riders, but they were all comprehensively out-raced by the Australian, Glenn O’Shea. The most powerful display of the day. Peter Kennaugh beat him in the Derny; but he was supreme in this race, lapping everyone, and some people twice.

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The last race featured eight of the women who’d been in the points race, including Laura Trott. This time it was the Elimination. Every two laps, the rider at the back of the field was eliminated until two were left to slug out the final two laps. So you had to be very careful about pacing yourself at the back! The crowd were right behind Laura, of course, and she won this as well. A pretty good day for the British riders.

A great day’s entertainment. The venue is awesome, and the cycling befits it.

On the way back to Stratford station we walked through the Olympic site. I wanted to see how the future West Ham stadium was looking.

It’s alright!

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Have You Heard? – (61) Three songs that mention Rabbits

By a strange coincidence, three of the songs I’ve been listening to a lot recently mention our furry, big-eared friends in their titles. I’m glad to say none of the songs in question are the notorious Chas’ n’ Dave ditty “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit”!

Since I’ve finished writing my book on music, I’ve been listening to the radio a lot more in the evenings. That means BBC Radio 6 Music; and there is just so much good stuff. Two of the songs here come from that listening; the other is a revival. I’m going to start with the latter.

The other day, travelling into work, I fancied listening to a bit of The National. They are a band I know should be right at the top of my list of favourites, given what they do. But it has taken me time to break in. So, anyway, I put on the latest album, “Trouble Will Find Me”. It’s an excellent album. When it first came out I listened a few times then rather forgot it. And forgot there had been one track which stood out. It came on as I was walking from Pimlico station to the office. And immediately, I went wow. What a beautiful, moving song this is. I liked it so much, I put it on again, and again. The last time, I delayed going to the office so I could hear it finish. The song was “Pink Rabbits”. Sounds like a title that could be about hallucinogenic drugs; but, in fact, it’s the name of a drink. A cocktail presumably. Singer and main man Matt Berninger refers to it as he laments a break up which wasn’t at easy as expected.

It’s a simple song, with the classic sad chords: a mix of G, D, C, Am and Em. But with a lovely Elton John-like piano and some wonderfully off-kilter lyrics, which, for me, make the song more poignant. The lines that really get me are these:

You didn’t see me, I was falling apart – I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park – You didn’t see me, I was falling apart – I was a television version of a person with a broken heart…

Weird, but very affecting. And where do those metaphors come from?

Here’s a video of The National playing the song.

Next is Caitlin Rose, a young American country singer. I saw her perform at Hyde Park last summer, at the Neil Young Concert (which The National were also at). She was really good, maybe the most enjoyable concert I saw that day. Basic country rock’n’roll, but beautifully delivered. I’d already bought her most recent album, “The Stand In”. I liked it; but the best music, for me, of this type is still Lindi Ortega. A couple of weeks ago, Marc Riley on 6 Music played an old session track, from a couple of years ago, by Caitlin, called ‘”For The Rabbits”. It was arresting. I had to have the original. That was on her previous album, “Own Side Now”. Duly downloaded.

I’m delighted to say that when I checked on YouTube, the 6 Music performance of the song was there. So here it is.

And then, something very different. “Rabbit Hole” by Jamie T. Popular with the youth. Quite hard to categorise, and I’ve not really listened to a lot of his music. But I probably should, as the punks, reggae, rap and dance are clearly all inspirations. Anyway, I kept on hearing this song on 6 Music and the chorus lodged in my mind. So I had to buy it.

Not surprisingly, this one has an official video.

So many other good songs I’ve heard recently, and I’ll try to share a few more.

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Sportsthoughts (127) – Managerial madness at the Irons and Bees

By which I mean the madness directed at the managers…

Now, regular readers of this blog will recall that I’ve not been a big fan of Sam Allardyce at West Ham. Last season, I was in the Sam out camp, more for the style of football than the results. His results have been OK – more than OK really. He got us back into the Premier League, consolidated the position, and this season has taken the team to a level not experienced for a decade at least. And this season, perhaps under the instructions of the joint Chairmen – Davids Gold and Sullivan – his team has mostly played fluent attacking football, which has warmed the cockles of the East End hearts.

Results have faltered a little bit recently, although, objectively, draws against Spurs, today, and Man Utd a couple of weeks ago, are pretty good. The only thing is, we were winning both the games until the last couple of minutes of added time. So disappointment was high. Four points lost. And then there was the abject 4-0 defeat to West Brom in the FA Cup. The distrust of Sam, always just below the surface, bubbled up again. Some fans – diehard fans; going away to West Brom is diehard – abused David Sullivan for leaving the game early (to see his ill mother) and it got plastered all over YouTube and Twitter. The bitterness re-emerged. Really didn’t take much.

What this shows is that there is only a fragile peace between Sam and the fans, and the Board. Some of the people in the know have been saying on Twitter that the Board are already looking for a new manager, for when Sam’s contract runs out at the end of the season. The names being mentioned are ludicrous. Rafa Benitez, currently at Napoli; Diego Simeone – yes Diego Simeone! – manager of Atletico Madrid, who won the Spanish League last year, breaking the duopoly of Real and Barca. Why on earth would he want to come to West Ham, much as we love them?

Well, there’s one possible reason, which might just kick in, in about a year’s time. In August 2016, West Ham move into the Olympic Stadium, in Stratford. That could lead to a step change in the club’s fortunes – as long as we don’t relegated next season! It might be the moment when a very rich owner, like Sheikh Mansour at Man City, steps in. A London club, based in the Olympic stadium – that has to be attractive. Truly iconic. Now, Sullivan and Gold have been great for West Ham. They rescued the club, sorted out the finances, made money available for good players. They are fans. But they are also astute businessmen. They know the score. They could sell out and make a fortune. May keep a small share so they stay on the Board. It all makes sense. And then, Diego Simone, with promises of a huge budget, might answer the call.

For now though, I think we should keep the faith with Sam. He’s shown, this season, that he can adapt. Still, in some of the big games, he reverts to the over-defensive mentality. But I’m hopeful that he and the team will grow in confidence – sustained confidence – from what they’ve achieved this season.

But football is a wacky business – he could be out on his ear, come the end of the season.

At least at West Ham it’s all still speculation. At Brentford – my favourite lower league club, the one just down the road – developments have been truly bizarre.

Brentford are having their best season since the 1950s. They are in with a good shout of being in the Championship play-offs this season, having only been promoted to that league this season. They are, for the first time that I have ever known, in about twenty years of watching them, playing really good football. Things couldn’t be better.

So the manager, Mark Warburton, is being relieved of his duties at the end of the season. Unbelievable! Warburton is not a conventional manager. He didn’t play at a high level; and, in fact, spent time working in the City. But he loved football, worked his way in, and used his intelligence and man-management skills to good effect. Hence where he is now, and where Brentford is now. Obviously time to show him the door!

Why is that? Well, the diplomatic story is a difference in philosophies between him and the owner, City trader, and sports betting specialist, Matthew Benham. Like Gold and Sullivan at West Ham, Benham is a fan, and has pumped a lot of money into the club. His partnership with Warburton seemed like a match made in heaven, but it has suddenly fallen apart. I heard Warburton on BBC Radio 5 Live last week, articulate as ever, saying that it was just a different view of how to run the club. Benham apparently wants a director of football and a coach; Warburton prefers to have overall control of the playing side of things. Benham believes in stats (with his gambling heritage), Warburton puts faith in seeing a player, assessing his character. Actually, if the two of them could see it, those views could be complementary, cover all the bases. A great partnership. But I guess the egos have clashed – and the man with the money always wins.

I hope Benham doesn’t get seduced by the aura of the foreign manager, and one that is unproven, incapable of adapting to Championship football next season. Otherwise the Bees could easily get relegated and the future, even with a new stadium in the offing, could take a bit of a downturn.

It’s madness, really. I hope Benham doesn’t think he can get Diego Simeone!

Two clubs – my clubs – on the verge of something special. And eminently capable of screwing it up!

Naturally, I fear the worst….

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Sportsthoughts (126) – Two Angry Men

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Christmas is a time when I stock up on books for the coming year. A couple I asked for this year were sports autobiographies which had hit the headlines in the months running up to the festive season. Irish footballer Roy Keane’s second effort, “Roy Keane – The Second Half; and South African-turned-English cricketer Kevin Pietersen’s “KP – The Autobiography”.  The reviews of both portrayed men with a grudge and some amusing assaults on erstwhile colleagues. I have massive respect for both as players – the very best of their generations – and thought all the sounding off could be amusing; so I requested them for a bit of light reading, amid all the histories which were the main features of my list.

In the new year I decided to read them before anything else. I knew they would be entertaining and sail by easily. And yes, they did both. But they also surprised me. Because they both revealed a vulnerability and self-criticism which you would not necessarily have expected from these two supreme sportsmen.

Roy Keane’s heyday was in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, first at Nottingham Forest, and then at Manchester United. He was the supreme battling midfielder; but creative too, with a knack for scoring crucial goals. A box-to-box player, if there ever was one. Perhaps his most iconic performance was in 1999, when he led United to victory against Juventus in the semi-final of the Champions League, when he’d been yellow-carded and knew he would miss the final. There was not a trace of self-pity. He fought magnificently for his team and guided them through. Truly awesome. He was a difficult man and had a major falling out with the Ireland team manager, Mick McCarthy, on the eve of the 2002 World Cup in Japan, which led to him walking out. Eventually he fell out with the Man Utd management too, though the sense in his book was that he was manouvered out by Fergie and deputy, Carlos Quieroz.

Kevin Pietersen is one of the finest batsmen ever to play for England. His test debut was in 2005 against Australia, and he played a big part in the team that won the Ashes back from Australia – the biggest moment in England’s recent cricket history. Really, he should still be in the team – we don’t have a lot of great players at the moment – but he fell out with just about everybody in the management team, and paid the price. He earns the epithet swashbuckling: a man who will always go for the big chance, the six, when it presents itself. More often than not it will succeed; but from time to time it gets him out at crucial moments, and the press descends on him. I suspect that reaction is, more than anything, because he is South African by birth and upbringing, although his mother is English.

And yes, he, like Keane, is outwardly very arrogant. As many great sportsmen are. Apparent fools are not tolerated. The team ethos is adhered to, as long as it is their version. Mostly that works because they win games for their teams. But when the pressure is on and they aren’t happy, they can be very divisive. And Keano and KP are great examples of that.

I say outwardly, because in both books they are brutally honest about their insecurities, their regrets about actions and decisions. This honesty is what I found so refreshing about both books; and for me, it’s what made them fascinating reads. Yes, the slagging off, the bouts of paranoia and self-justification are amusing; but Roy and Kevin both open themselves up to the reader. They know there are times when they could and should have done better. But they are both impulsive, strong-willed, and sometimes that makes them act before they have really thought things through. They are hard on themselves about all of that. My respect for them grew as a result. Great players and honest men.

Roy Keane’s book is mostly about his experiences as a manager. It starts with his being forced (in his mind) out of Man Utd. He starts well at Sunderland as a manager, but when the team hits a sustained dip, his living in Manchester still comes under attack. He puts his family first. Once again he appears to be out-manouvered by the top management. Unfairly treated or serves him right for not compromising? The book obviously goes for the latter; you sense he is not great in negotiating a middle way. He is very self-critical about his time as Ipswich manager. Wasn’t sure he really wanted the job; didn’t seek out the right players; doomed to failure. It’s interesting that he always gave the impression that he was an uncompromising manager, probably because of his reputation as a player. But in fact he wasn’t decisive enough as a manager, in his own estimation. He’s now deputy to Martin O’Neill in the Ireland set up. One assumes he will be an inspiration to the younger generation. But I’m sure he is itching to get another management job and really prove himself.

KP’s book is fascinating on his journey from South Africa to England; on his philosophy of the game; on his development of his technique, especially against spinners; and, of course, his relationship with his England team mates. At the time that England became World No1, it started to deteriorate. He didn’t like the management once Duncan Fletcher moved on; his period as captain was a bit of a disaster. He became the tortured genius; tolerated because of his brilliance, but seen by the establishment as a problem rather than the solution.  He should have been the latter because he was our best player. The team should have been built around him. It wasn’t; and in the end he was turfed out. He is self-aware in his account of all of this. He acknowledges he made mistakes, that he didn’t always think of the team first. He is very honest about his need to be “loved”, appreciated, and how he reacts badly when he isn’t. He writes about how he could be racked by uncertainty going into bat at times. Who, who has played, can’t relate to that? And he describes beautifully those moments when he gets in the zone and plays as well as any batsman in the world. There are exhilarating moments in this book.

But, but. KP loses me when he allows his animosity towards the England manager, Andy Flower, and wicket keeper, Matt Prior, get the better of him.  What you get here is the sense that KP is unable to empathise with them;  understand where they are coming from. They are all bad. And they can’t have been. Matt Prior is pilloried for his bragging in the dressing room, calling himself the “Big Cheese”. This does sound a bit gruesome; but does it deserve a chapter and a half of vitriol? Ridiculous metaphors about camembert and the rest. This seemed to me to be the ghost-writer, David Walsh, a highly respected journalist from The Times, getting a bit carried away. To me, it was to the detriment of an otherwise very good book.

This ghost-writer business is interesting. KP gets one of the top sports journalists around. Roy Keane gets Roddy Doyle, a very fine author of great Dublin stories like “The Van”, “The Commitments” and “Paddy Clark, Ha Ha”.  His writing style informs the Keane book. There’s lots of swearing – presumably authentic – but with phrases on repeat, for effect. Simple, looped expression – very like Doyle’s novels. In the end, I found myself saying, come on Roddy, leave it to Roy.

But, you know, I’d recommend both of these books highly. They aren’t works of art; but they are fascinating insights into the minds of two of the greatest sportsmen of our age. Forthright, daring, fragile. Human.

 

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lovelondonscenes – 88

The tranquil Thames from Hammersmith Bridge at 10.30 am this Sunday just gone. Much earlier than I usually manage. Had to get up to take an IKEA delivery! Made the best of it. Had even more time to assemble flat pack furniture. Knocked ten minutes off the usual cycle route time though – because no-one was around!

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Have You Heard? – (60) pinkshinyultrablast

I’m sure for the vast majority of readers the answer will be no! It would have been for me a week ago. I was listening to BBC Radio 6 Music late one night as I made myself some lunch for the next day at work (my new habit – saves a lot of money and is much nicer). 6 Music has a series where some of their DJs play an hour of their favourites of the moment. This one was by Lauren Laverne, who is great, though I rarely hear her show, as it is on from 10am on weekdays.  Her whole selection was excellent; but towards the end this track came on which sounded immense. It was from a band called pinkshinyultrablast, from St Petersburg, Russia.

The track was “Wish We Were” and it was off their album “Everything Else Matters”, which was released earlier this year. I was getting Cocteau Twins meets The Horrors from the sound, and that was an intriguing combination. Lauren declared it her favourite album of the year so far. That was good enough for me. I downloaded it the other night and yeah, I love it. It’s all atmosphere, riffs and beats. Not that many songs. Sigur Ros might be another reference point, along with the so called shoegaze bands of the 1990s, like Ride. Blimey, there’s even a bit of U2 in there!

I like it.

Here’s a YouTube clip of “Wish We Were”. If you like this, get the album. Otherwise steer well clear!

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Sportsthoughts (125) – Quins’ season so far/ Six Nations kicks off

It’s that time of year again. Early February. Crap weather, freezing cold… and the Six Nations rugby to warm the cockles of our hearts.

I’m delighted to see so many of the Quins boys in the England squad: captain Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, Joe Marler, Danny Care and, at last, Nick Easter back there. He was one of the scapegoats for the fiasco at the last World Cup, in 2011 in New Zealand, when England hugely underachieved and got themselves tangled up in some embarrassing media stories. There’s another World Cup, this time on English soil, in the autumn this year, and it’s great to see Nick back in contention,  at least for the second slot at No8. His form has been so good this season that when Ben Morgan recently broke his ankle, he was the obvious choice to come into the squad. In his mid-thirties, not the paciest; but incredibly strong and blessed with a real guile. Always in the right place at the right time, usually just on the right side of the law, great hands, indefatigable.

Quins will really miss the five of them over the next couple of months; but all the top teams face the same challenge. It’s why the depth of the club squad is so important.

Quins’ squad is full of promise, really exciting. But still a bit prone to inconsistency. It’s been a bit of an up and down season. There have been some brilliant performances, notably the victory over Leinster (Dublin’s province in Ireland) in the European Champions Cup (ECC) and the demolition of Leicester in the Premiership recently. But there have been some pretty awful performances too – the nadir being the 0-39 home defeat to Saracens. And we slipped agonisingly out of the ECC at the group stage on head-to-head points with Wasps. Serves us right for that crazy defeat at home when we dominated the game, couldn’t break through the Wasps defence and gave away two really sloppy tries.

So, after winning the Premiership in the 2011-12 season, Quins have slipped a little, but stayed in the top four. This season, top six will be a good outcome. We’re in that perpetual promise mode: some fantastic young players, but can they compete with the hardened pros recruited by a lot of the other big sides? I think it’s great that Quin’s first choice team has 14 English players, mostly graduates of the academy. (Kiwi Nick Evans at fly half is the exception). The most exciting breakthrough this season has been wing forward Jack Clifford, England U20 captain. Destined for great things. Quins still aspire to play the best attacking rugby around – and often succeed. But, like Arsenal in the football, they just lack that killer edge to win the League at the moment.

Benefit of the doubt. They are still a joy to watch….most of the time!

So what about the Six Nations? I haven’t got a clue! England are capable of winning it, but Wales and Ireland might just have the edge at the moment. France, as ever, could be brilliant or rubbish. Scotland look to be getting better and Italy improve every season, but not enough to be any better than second bottom if Scotland blow it. If I was going to bet on the winner, I might just put it on Wales. Their back line is awesome. Ireland might be the main challengers. England have a lot of injuries, but still have a good squad. But do they know their best team? This Six Nations could be more experimentation before the World Cup crunch.

Yes, crunch. There’s a lot of crunching in rugby. The tackling these days is frightening. How even more players don’t get injured, I don’t know. What I do know is that these next two months will spring surprises, great games, dull games and a tremendous competitive spirit mixed with real camaraderie. Fans and players. The old spirit of rugby lives on.

Get those beers in now. Wales v England starts it all on Friday evening!

 

 

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