(Read time; 1 grab bag of McCoys crisps)
It’s that time of year again.
I’m not referring to the New Year, post Christmas lull, where January seems to drag more than a modern day football match. Nor am I referring to the long dark nights, with frosts and occasional spells of sleet that we think might turn to snow. Equally I’m not thinking about the post Christmas bank balance, extra girth from festive excess, or silly commitments I’ve made to myself about what I will or won’t do, or could or could not care less about doing in the next 365 days.
No. It’s that time of year when I become the worlds leading authority in Ski Jumping.
Yes, the New Year period means the Vier Schanzen, or the Four Hills as you might know it. If you are new to the Four Hills, it is an annual Ski Jumping tournament that takes place in Oberstdorf and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany, before moving onto Innsbruck and then Bischofshofen in Austria, across the New Year, and is fortunately (for me) broadcast on Eurosport throughout the tournament. At each venue, incredible athletes head off down a purpose built ramp as quickly as possible, trying to jump as far as they can off ‘a table’, legs akimbo, landing with ‘style’ (preferably a ‘Telemark’ (important ski jumping term!)) having jumped further than everyone else.
I have actually attended a day of the Four Hills when I lived in Austria in 2011, and went to the qualifying day in Innsbruck. You might be excused for thinking these athletes are bonkers. Having seen them jump in person, I can confirm that you are excused for such thinking and they are completely mad. And yet they are incredibly brave and talented, that absolutely deserve the accolades and many thousands of Euro’s that are available by jumping further than everyone else, and landing with a ‘ta-da’ (I like to think they shout this as they land), arms spread wide, with a telemark stance – it is an incredible feat!
Despite being the worlds leading authority in Ski Jumping at this moment in time, and doing so for a brief period each of the last eleven New Years, I still have no idea how they measure the length of the jump. The commentator sees something different to the official measurement, and I see something completely different to both of them. The scores for style make more sense… if you miss the ‘ta-da’ telemark landing, god forbid landing two-footed, it’s going to cost you 4 points out of 20… while if you look like a flapping flag in the air expect a score available on a pair of dice… if you land it. And sometimes they don’t land! Well they all land in the end, but perhaps not in the ‘style’ that is expected, and sometimes without all of their equipment in tact. It really is an engaging watch if you take the time to understand (or not) what is going on. It is one of the reasons that I personally love it… it is an intellectual scrap to try too figure our what is actually going on – and yet no-one argues with the scores. Yes the commentator will have a brief debate about what they did or didn’t see compared to the judges, however the jumper lands, stops, undoes his ski’s looks at the distance and score and walks away like they’ve just picked up a loaf of bread from the corner shop. This is sportsmanship only normally reserved for Rugby Union – no petulance here.
One thing that I note is quite cruel about the Four Hills, is that the Garmisch-Partenkirchen event always takes place on the 31st December (Qualifying) and 1st January (Competition). It’s always struck me that it’s an additional test for the athletes, whose performance, both physical and mental is so critical to the end result, and yet they sleep mid-competition in a hotel in a ski resort on New Years Eve surrounded by revelling ski jumping fans, parties and fireworks when the next day they’ll be doing over 90km/h, jumping 140 metres off a table. 😳
Ski Jumping is one of my highlights of the New Year – though I can fully understand why others love ‘New Year’. Whether reflecting on last year, thinking about the next year, or forgetting who you are in a mist of bubbles and canapés as the clock strikes midnight, it is something of a watershed. If nothing else, it certainly announces the arrival of our old friend January. I feel sorry for January, being renown for misery (much like Stephen King) it arrives like a kick in the undercarriage. Following the joy, nee hysteria, of our time with its cousin, December, we descend into ‘returning to work’ and ‘staying dry for a bit’, while the nights (and days) remain dark, cold and miserable. Yet, each year we find something we like about it, and safely meet up with February, which may only actually be about 9% better because it’s 9% shorter, plus we have detoxed sufficiently for it to be perfectly acceptable to cave in to meeting a mate for a drink at 6pm on a Wednesday.
While New Year isn’t exactly my bag (largely swayed by the passing of time invariably not bringing ‘better things’, lets be polite and just call them ‘different’) I do think it is quite natural to take the time to reflect, and also think about the coming year as the outgoing one draws to a close. And while writing this blog I thought I’d share a reflection of one learning from 2021, that actually underlined a crap decision I made in 2019.
In 2021, I brought a Cervelo R5 into my ownership. I didn’t necessarily NEED another bicycle, and this is clearly rarely ever the reason for anyone buying another one. If we only bought bicycles that we needed, the industry would collapse in months, if not weeks. What was a very solid reason for buying another was the fear instilled inside me on a very wet day in Yorkshire, as I pulled on the brake lever of my rim brake equipped Look 785 (that I had custom built in 2019), now running Mavic carbon rim wheels and began to pray that both I and my bicycle would stop in vertical position without hitting anything. While ALL of my friends were using disc brakes, which did make an awful noise when wet and dirty, they did at least perform the desired function of bringing both rider and bicycle to a controlled stop in a reasonable distance. I’d resisted discs on the last purchase as my Look would have been heavier in a disc format, and rim brakes were easier to maintain. This was a foolish decision, as the weight I saved was similar to that of a cereal bar… and the Look’s ridiculous single piece carbon crank and oversize bearing design meant it’s spent more time having bearing changes than it would have needed brake ‘tweaks’. Plus, I don’t care what Mavic say – their carbon rims are simply dangerous in the wet, and given that disc brakes are now on trend, finding a decent set of wheels with an alloy rim brake track is like finding Lord Lucan sat at the bar safely supping a pint in your local pub. Therefore my rim brake Look 785 was definitively a crap choice, taken very much in the vain of whenever anyone has ever walked into a garage and knowingly purchased an Alfa Romeo. For one brief second it’s a great idea… and every second that passes thereafter, it was a bad idea.
Another reason this 2019 decision was a crap choice, was my choice of groupset, with SRAM Etap. On the right bicycle without ridiculous overly clever crank designs and frame geometry to accommodate, Etap is indeed brilliant. On my Look 785 it does not work, resulting in additional spacers to move the chain rings away from the crank arm to make the front mechanism work properly and avoid connecting with the crank arm whenever in ‘big ring’… and you can not use a SRAM Red rear cassette (costing the same per gram as plutonium) because the tolerances are too fine for the Look geometry, resulting in the chain dragging on the 3rd and 7th cog – a stupid feature in anyone’s book. Clearly I didn’t know this feature when I specified it – but crucially I also wanted to avoid Shimano because everyone else has Shimano (metaphorically speaking).
My Cervelo is a standard manufacturer build (not custom) and came with Shimano. I now understand why everyone has Shimano… it’s brilliant! (Don’t let my cycling buddies hear I said this… I’ve been whining on about SRAM for years and am now eating a particularly tasty humble pie!) Yes, I am spoilt as the Cervelo is Dura-Ace Di2, but I understand Ultegra is nearly as good, and the way it works is truly sublime with every shift being reliable, sweet and precise. With how Di2 interfaces with my Garmin head unit, the riding experience is night and day different with the entire bicycle now behaving like a real system. Just unbelievable! I didn’t want deep section wheels either. The Cervelo came with 50mm rims. I was reluctant – I am an idiot. They’re magnificent, and I swear actually act like a sail in all but a 90degree crosswind, pulling or pushing the bicycle forwards with you.
Even 8 months on, the Cervelo continues to melt my head whenever I ride it, and is significantly quicker than any other bicycle I have ridden. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that a ‘tour spec’ bicycle is faster than my custom built French mongrel… but the cost wasn’t vastly different. I’ve frequently been told that you can’t buy performance. That’s rubbish! By making the right choices, you bloody well can.
And so to my conclusion (that you can do with as you choose…) a well engineered package is truly greater than the sum of its parts – a pedigree, perhaps.
While a mongrel, will always be a mongrel… and while you might love it, it’s never going to win Crufts.