By: Philip Gale Feb 10

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It is a moment we have all had: consumed in the now, something triggers a memory. It’s such a powerful memory that reality fades to black as we relive the moment. This is an unedited, high definition, 3D IMAX memory: everything as it happened and unedited. It differs from a memory recalled, where parts are left on the cutting room floor. As the moment relived comes to an end, you fade back into the present with eyes focusing from the middle distance back to reality. On your face is a look of pleasure and surprise at being once more back in the present.

The human memory is an incredible process. Through conditioning we link new experiences with senses which were present at that moment – sights, smells, tastes or sounds. When we experience those senses again, where ever we may be, the memory is triggered and relived. Sometimes the simplest things can trigger a memory – a song, a certain flavour of food, the way light glistens off of an object, the smell of a brand of perfume, or for me the small fibrous patches of skin on my body: my scars.

Thanks to the full range of senses involved, the moments when things fell apart for me and my bike have been fast-track conditioned to form strong memories. No bells, food or drool needed as in a Pavlov style experiment; just the sensation of soft skin grinding on the rough asphalt, as my kinetic energy is dissipated, firmly imprinting the moment into my memory. It is not uniquely my mind which has a perfect record of these events; like an engraving my body has been carved by friction to commemorate these occasions. After the injuries have healed the slightest glance in the mirror or question from a concerned person aimed at my scars brings back all of the tiniest details of the moment when they were formed; like lying on a chair in the tattoo parlour I am there again, lying on the road.

Left Shoulder: June 2003. Guidel, Brittany, France. On lap 18 of a 23 lap race the rider in front of me seemed to have forgotten the lane divider in the residential street. At 48 kilometres per hour I had pre-planned to go to the right of it. He clipped the piece of street furniture and fell blocking my already taken right hand route. As I approached him I remember deciding to hit him and not his nice Look bike which was skidding across the road. In the air I wondered how he had not remembered this part of the course, having already passed it 17 times previously.
Result: Broken right wrist, 6 weeks in a cast; trashed frame; dislocated left collar bone (rotator cuff). 6 weeks in a sling and 2 surgeries later I was left with a long red line to mark the moment my 2003 season ended.

Left Elbow: October 2006. Belle Ille, Brittany France. In last 25 kilometres of this the final race of the season I was sat in the lead group of 3 riders. A fellow lead group rider in front of me kindly decided to push a tired and lapped rider on a narrow section of road on the finishing circuits. With his fatigue and surprise at being pushed, the rider crashed, blocking the road. I had no time to react and hit his bike which was moving to the right as he slid left. As my elbow took the full impact, grinding along the rough chip-sealed road surface, I was happy to have not chosen the wall on one side, or house on the other as my exit route.
Result: A trip to the very small local French emergency room where I was told my elbow could not be stitched due to the thin skin. It subsequently got infected.

Right Upper Forearm: June 1998. Corfe Castle, Dorset, England. I was riding to a regional mountain bike Cross Country race as a warm up on a damp summer’s morning. Exiting the only roundabout on that route, my thin road tyres lost grip and I slid off. Skidding to a stop, with the smell of diesel in my nose, I was worried that the blue Ford Escort car behind me would not stop in time. I did not focus on the ripping sensation on my arm, wanting not to miss the start of my race.
Result: A quick dust off and headed to the race. With no time to dress the wound, it got infected and took a long time to heal. On a plus, I ended up on the podium!

Left Shin: June 1999. Newnham, Plymouth, England. 300 metres after the start of this National Mountain Bike Cross Country event there was a river crossing. In the melee of the start the rider in front of me crashed in the river crossing. I caught his chain rings, after riding over him, and crashed off of the shallower crossing into the full depth river. Up to my neck in the water the announcer was shouting “HE’S FALLEN IN THE RIVER”. I grabbed my bike and continued my race from flat last, 70th position. With anger and adrenalin fuelling me I climbed the first climb, with a rider commenting that I was still in the big ring. All the time feeling a cold sensation on my left shin, as unbeknownst to me the blood trickled from the wound.
Result: After finishing a satisfied 15th I noticed a deep cut in my shin. As a result I spent the rest of that Sunday afternoon with my parents driving me around Plymouth to find an open emergency room before heading home.

Left Eyebrow: September 2011. Bergamo, Italy. 500 metres from dropping my hire car back at the airport I cruised to the train station along a bike path under the warm Italian afternoon sun. On my back was my luggage; on my mind was how it had been so incredible to visit the Colnago factory that morning. A cat (not black!) decided to play chicken with me. Swerving to miss it, the momentum from my weighty luggage caused my bars to catch the railing at the side of the bike path. I was catapulted forward, my movement being stopped by my forehead hitting the road. As blood ran down my face I thought how quickly what was a perfect day could turn into one which you would rather not remember.
Result: An unharmed Italian feline, missed train, bent front wheel, bent saddle and torn bar tape. A nice 2 inch cut to my left eyebrow which was dressed with butterfly stiches, purchased from a pharmacy whilst getting concerned looks. With a broken bike I had to call for the assistance of Sara from Piton (my sponsor), who luckily are only the next train station east from Bergamo.

Am I proud of my scars?
Not really. They are marks made by moments when things fell apart. When I look at them I am reminded of these moments, the frustration at what could have been still there. They trigger memories which are more powerful that any of my victories. I do not see them as Renommierschmiss or bragging scars, which were seen as a sign of courage by the European social elite in the early 1900s.

Do I cover them or try to remove them?
No. They are fibrous marks that show that I have had an eventful life, marking the challenges that I have faced when I have been pitched a curve ball. They are a record of my journey.

Someone once told me that “Chicks dig scars”. A cliché I know, and sadly I do not think they do (if there are any ladies out there who do, then drop me a line!) Like Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man each of my marks tells a story. His marks were tattooed onto his skin by a gypsy lady and told the future, whilst mine were made by my own tattoo artist, the road, marking the past. I have sometimes been tempted to get a tattoo, but glancing at my scars soon makes that idea fade. My body has already been painted by 19 years of racing bikes, and I know that those scars, which replay the memories of when they were created, are 100% unique.


Gregorian Calendar

By: Philip Gale Jan 2

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10, 9, 8…The crowd becomes a single body as the countdown begins. 7, 6, 5… Tension builds as zero grows ever closer; 4, 3, 2… This is not the countdown to the start of a race or even the launch of the next NASA rocket, this is the countdown of the last moments of one year and the beginning of the next. ZERO! With embraces, cheers, songs and fireworks, the passing from the 31st of December to the 1st of January is marked, and the New Year, with all its potential, is warmly welcomed; but there are some who work to a different time schedule.

A year is the measurement of the amount of time it takes the earth to do a full orbit of the sun. Like the circular motion of a pedal stroke, once turning, it’s down to anyone to determine where this cycle starts and ends. The western world has adopted the Gregorian calendar to mark when one year ends and the next one begins. After many revisions it’s still not a perfect system. With its complex changes in days per month—thanks to the egos of those for whom the months are named—it’s necessary to add an extra day to every one in four years to keep in sync with our planet’s orbit.

The humble bicycle, a very young invention when compared to the age of the earth and any notion of time, has developed a calendar of its own. This simple two-season calendar is followed by supporters and racers alike. New Year’s Eve has always been something of an anti-climactic celebration for me, the pre-celebration hype never quite living up to the event, and the last day of one year feeling very much the same as the first day of the next. I often feel out of place during these celebrations, not because of an inability to party, but because as a road racer I follow the bicycle calendar and my year ends and begins in October.

As Big Ben strikes twelve midnight on the 31st of December and Auld Lang Syne rings out, I’ve already had my moments of reflection and celebration at the changing of years, 3 months earlier. For the racer, September is the month which is the start of the wind down towards the end of the year. With fall’s cooler temperatures my mind would always look back at the past 8 months of racing, reflecting on achieved and missed goals. I would look forward to a break to recover, and sort out the logistics for moving back to the UK after 9 months in France, whilst also starting to plan for the following year. Most of all, I would be focused on getting one last result to complete the season.

Ending the final race of the season, either by finishing, climbing off, or crashing out, is the true New Year’s for the cyclist. Normally taking place in October, the year’s last race marks the end of the racing season and the start of the off season. The cycling calendar simply has two seasons, but as with the Gregorian calendar there is a moment of celebration between the two. Like the festive season at the end of December, it’s a time of excess. There is a brief moment when Le Metier (the monastic life led by a cyclist in order to race at their best) is not followed, opening up a full menu of beverages and sustenance to the racer. This period is short and the mind is soon refocused on the preparation for the next racing season.

For modern pro’s the “Off Season” is when the work takes place, and due to the higher level of competition they are normally back into training by the 1st of November, not the 1st of January as with the early pro’s who were more in sync with the Gregorian Calendar. For the full-time elite, the following season is worked towards, financially and also physically, with a balance achieved between work and training. As the New Year’s celebrations takes place in Times Square, the racer has already been focused on the soon-approaching racing season for two months. Training whilst others recover from the excesses of their Gregorian celebrations, the racers have been sticking to their own resolutions, already set at their New Year in October. For them, the 1st of January marks the start of more intense training to prepare the body for the rigors of racing again, just two months away.

There are also the Cyclocross racers. Their calendar marks their year-end as February. As the midnight fireworks light the sky and glasses chink in toast during the first few moments of the 1st of January, they are focused on the most important prizes of their season. January sees National and World titles up for grabs, so they look beyond the Gregorian New Year as they focus on a potential jersey.

Calendars have become a central part of our modern society, having evolved from simply being used to tell farmers when to plant their crops, which transformed us from hunter-gatherers to farmers. They also allow the racer to plan their year’s goals and targets in the following race season in order to maximise their achievements, and they mark the passing of time, with all the major historical events recorded on them. I’ve raised eyebrows many times when I have politely turned down an invite to a New Year’s Eve party on the 31st of December. The issue is that I have already celebrated the end of my year 3 months earlier. I’m sure that the response would be the same if I asked my would-be hosts to a celebration in October with other cyclists.

Like the spinning of a wheel as you ride, the orbit of the earth around the sun is continuous. Wherever you deem the end of one cycle and the start of the new one, I hope that the following year is full of happiness, new roads and great rides. Oh, and of course, many tail winds.


A Change‘ll Do You Good

By: Philip Gale Nov 23

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As with any major bike event, the arrival of the riders is forewarned by the noise of helicopter blades cutting through the air, and the shrill sounds of Police sirens with their frenetic tones. Their message is clear: this road will soon become the territory of bike racers.

Far below, the first riders come into view, their pace unrelenting as they climb the mighty Passo Gavia. Many times this climb has been the site where the world’s top riders have done battle. Today it is just the starter for the Gran Fondo Internationale Giordana (formally the Marco Pantani), which has the more than substantial main course of the Mortirolo and dessert of the Passo Santa Cristina.

Sat in that very same lead group I glanced up at the brilliant white glacier above us, with its cool air refreshing our hot limbs, and thought how far removed this was from my last six seasons spent racing as a full time elite amateur in Brittany, France. Though not technically racing at a Gran Fondo, I was still riding at a high level against top competitors. Now our arena of battle was the mountains, not the cross winds, rolling hills, heavy roads and in-the-gutter racing of Brittany. (Think the first few stages of the 2011 Tour de France).

Six years is a long time and they had taken their toll on me. As each season passed and a higher level of racing was attained, I would return to the UK for the off season drained from the mental, more so than physical, demands. During each winter my passion for cycling was somewhat reduced due to the sheer hard work and frequent second-guessing which resulted from racing full time. I still loved cycling, just that the repetition of racing in terrain that was not my forte had dulled my excitement for riding. Many times a good friend and training partner in the UK would suggest I race Gran Fondos, “They suit your riding style and Italy…….. You’d love it!” was his pitch.

2011 came, and I finally decided to do just that. A Gran Fondo team was found through a Swiss friend: Piton ASD, sponsored by Piton Cycles based in Brescia just south west of Lake Garda. From day one, even facing the challenge of another new language, the team made me more than welcome. I felt like a member of their family and that passion that I felt when I first started to race 19 years ago was re-ignited.

No longer were races a blur, where I was sometimes just going through the motions. Piton and their family-like atmosphere, plus this new and inspirational terrain, had re-focused me. Even though climbing a mountain pass is tough, when you feel that crisp mountain air on your face, heart pounding, surrounded by peaks and able to see the world below, the pain is worth the effort.

Don’t get me wrong, Gran Fondos are not the same level as a UCI 2.2 stage race or the 35 elite races (out of the 70 in total) that I did in my final year in France. But along with the challenge of forging a new life as a Freelance Journalist, I still have to train and ride very hard to get a top 20 in one. Like any race there are still those moments when the pain tunnel is entered. Your life’s focus suddenly becomes the 23mm of rubber in front of you as your peripherals fade to black with the effort. I have just found it easier to suffer in the majesty of the mountains, over the cross winds and short power climbs of Brittany.

I have no regrets about my time in France. Brittany is my second home where I have many great friends and feel their warm welcome when I am there. The racing was tough and living in a foreign country a challenge. Often I would sacrifice my own result to help out team mates, and I am now fluent in French and fully used to their culture. The time was right to move on, find a new life after cycling, yet still have the challenges and thrill of competition.

As our lead group arrived at the summit of the Passo Gavia, I zipped up my vest and hit the descent to face the mighty Mortirolo with a smile. The Australian team mate who I lived with in my final two seasons in France used to say, “A change is as good as a holiday.” A saying which is a cliché I know, but even with my legs and lungs burning, facing the rest of the challenges that the Giordana held for us, I certainly felt that Bella Italia and her Gran Fondos were very much a holiday for me.

My love affair with the bike started in ernest when I started to race mountain bikes at the age of 12. 9 years later I left the fat tyres behind to concentrate on roads cycling, spending time racing in the UK and Arizona until 2005 when I moved to main land Europe to follow my passion. After spending the last six seasons racing as a full time Elite Amateur in Brittany France, riding in the gutter at 55 kilometres an hour with my teeth on the bars was loosing its appeal. Feeling it was time for a change, but still loving cycling January 2011 saw me sign for an Italian Gran Fondo team and take on the new challenge of mass participation events in the mountains. I am also starting to combine my passion for writing with cycling and starting to write as a journalist, looking for a future after cycling. Now I roam Europe with my bike, pen, and camera in search of the perfect road, as well as great stories to share. Follow me on twitter @1_in_the_gutter.

*Images by Janet Pearch


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