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You have glaucoma in your left eye.

A few months ago I had a routine eye test at our local opticians in Tetbury, part of which was the normal visual field test. I stared into the eyepiece, waiting for the machine to whirr and flash a series of tiny pinpricks of light, to which I would respond by clicking a button whenever they appeared. All-so-normal, until it seemed my left eye wasn’t quite so good at noticing the dots. This was unexpected, and very different from just 12 months earlier, so the optician asked me to repeat the tests. The results were the same.

I can still sense the whirring of the machine as it flashes lights that I ought to be able to see. There’s a rhythm to it that I can recognise. With my right eye there’s a regularity to the button clicks as the lights register in my brain. For my left eye there are gaping silences where clicks should be. I’m staring, squinting, aching to see something that means I can click. I’m tempted to cheat. The test takes longer as the machine gives me more chances, makes the lights brighter, trying to understand what’s there and what’s not there for me. And while I know it’s only minutes it feels much longer. I sense the nurse knows what the silences mean: this isn’t normal.

Visual Field Tests Glaucoma

This isn’t mine… but it’s sort of similar

 

And so last week, after further tests, a precautionary MRI scan and a couple of months of eye drops, I sat with the consultant as he confirmed the inevitable, and talked about my glaucoma.

There are fairly significant differences in the visual field tests in your left eye, notable damage to and thinning of the optic nerve…

…but your IOP (intra-ocular pressure) is normal, much lower than often is the case with glaucoma…

…you’re really quite a lot younger than the typical progression, a bit of an outlier on that graph…

…nothing on the MRI scan, so we can definitely rule out anything like a tumour pressing on the nerve…

…there’s no increase in your pressures since taking the drops, no real progression since the last tests (3 months ago), so that’s pleasing…

…you probably won’t notice anything different, until you do bump into something (joke)…

…playing a wind instrument like an oboe or French Horn can cause spikes in IOP, although I’m loathed to tell someone who loves playing music to stop…

So the long and the short of it is that I’m now taking daily eye drops (painless, no hassle at all), and will have repeated tests every 6 months. And that’s it.

Except…

The following day, at my regular orchestra rehearsal, I was acutely conscious of sensations of ‘pressure’ when playing, especially loud and high notes. We’re playing Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, which has plenty of loud and plenty of high, especially for 1st/3rd horn. In fact there’s mostly a lot of notes that are both loud and high, in rapid succession, in violently percussive chords and fanfares. In exercise terms it’s high impact, like running up and down stairs. I could feel the impact inside my head, around my eyes, behind my eyes, in ways I’ve never actively noticed before. And all the time I was thinking

Should I be doing this? Am I risking my sight?

There were moments when I wanted to play quieter, or stop. There were moments when I didn’t want to play my Horn any more, at all, ever again.

Apparently the mean time for progression from early diagnosis to loss of vision is more than 20 years: for normal tension glaucoma and for younger (under 60) patients it’s even slower than that. So I’m probably being over-sensitive. But if the visual field loss starts in my right eye, I’ll have to tell the DVLA. And then I’ll have to be reassessed for driving.

So.

I’ll take the drops every morning, and play 4th horn instead.

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For years I’ve been an armchair cycling fan, following the Grand Tours on ITV’s excellent coverage, and everything else through a terrific range of podcasts including The Cycling Podcast (hosted by proper journalists) and Velovoices (run amazingly by passionate amateurs).  But for the last 6 weeks I have been the proud, obsessed, small-boy-excited owner of a spiffy new road bike. I have become a MAMIL.

Cannondale Caad8

My new favourite thing. No, not the chair.

Where’s the Harley?

Perhaps this is the third phase of my ongoing midlife crisis, which started with this blog just as I turned 40. I try not to think of this blog as a slightly crosser version of my teenage diaries, but with a name like What I Reckon and my built-in tendency to rant, I realise I’m not fooling anyone. The middle phase perhaps started with my fitness/weight loss drive a couple of years later, which then morphed into occasionally taking part in Obstacle Course Races. That has now become a more esoteric and possibly fair-weather pursuit along the gorgeous lanes of the Cotswolds.

As a brilliant spoof article exclaimed, midlife crises ain’t what they used to be. Instead of a boozy trip to Vegas or the guttural roar of a sports car or motorbike, I’ve instead opted for losing 2 stone (and keeping it off), sessions of circuit training and paying for the privilege of getting filthy and knackered, and now Sunday morning outings on a very expensive, but beautiful piece of engineering and design.

Just set up a separate bank account…

Perhaps in an earlier century, middle-aged middle-class men would have sought outlets for their angst in the arms of younger women (OK, I’m thinking of Roger Sterling from Mad Men). Nowadays we’re still finding ways to spend our money, just in more family-friendly ways. There’s a lot of kit involved. Having not really cared too much for my gym/obstacle course appearance (we all look the same when we emerge from a filthy swamp), I now find myself getting very choosy about colour-coordinated tops and bib shorts, even socks and sunglasses… there’s always new tyres, gears, brakes, shoes to consider, not to mention the branding.

It appeals to my inner statto

While I’m less obsessed about the telemetry of my bike (give it time, I’m still a newbie), the whole process of planning routes and measuring my ‘performance’ really brings out my geek tendencies, and there’s no shortage of technology to help me. Apps like Strava are heavenly, measuring segments of rides where I can compete against myself or others. It’s like I’m 16 again, doing the scoring for the school cricket team, looking at patterns in bowling performances or great batting statistics (have you read my posts about cricket!?) .

A bit of self-awareness

Just a few weeks of being a MAMIL has made me more self-aware and aware of others on the roads. I’m understanding how I enjoy climbing hills for the challenge, but also regaining my exhilaration at speeding downhill (just not so much on the steeper, twisty, narrow, sandy lanes…).

When I’m driving I find myself much more aware of potholes and the state of the road surface. I’m more considerate of cyclists, but also more frustrated when they occasionally ride poorly (3 abreast on a busy road, really?).

It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster…

These words of wisdom were offered to me recently, after I had remarked that I could already feel I was improving after just a few rides on my new bike. I’m smoother in my pedalling and gear changes, maintained momentum better on rolling roads, and I haven’t got my shoes stuck in the pedal clips and fallen over while stationary for at least a couple of rides now…

…but last Friday my growing confidence was truly put to the test in the Tour de Creston, an annual event organised by my company’s ‘parent’ group. About 60 of us set out from our offices in Bristol to ride 57 miles to Amesbury (near Salisbury). This was easily the longest ride I’d attempted, and it also included the longest and steepest climb I’d ever encountered.

For the first 2/3 of the ride I was doing just fine. I took it easy to start with, I felt great on the long climb, I enjoyed flying downhill at every opportunity. As we climbed up onto Salisbury Plain, the terrain got lumpier and more exposed, and in 80º sunshine we also faced a breezy headwind that really made me understand what is meant by “leg-sapping”. It was harder to maintain 13mph in the afternoon than it had been to ride at 18mph in the morning. I rode with four colleagues who were both patient and brilliant at pacing This Old Man up the hills. I was broken as we rode into the finish, but my memories of the day are hugely positive. I want, I need to get better at this…

Tired. Happy.

Tired. Happy.

And now the 2015 Tour de France has started. There goes my productivity for the next 3 weeks. I’d better get route planning for their rest days…

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Almost exactly 3 years ago I stayed up late to listen to the live commentary from Sydney as England won the Ashes in dominant fashion. This morning every England cricket fan was finally put out of their misery, in that we will no longer have to dread the moment when we wake up and learn what calamities have happened overnight.

Australia have completed perhaps the most one-sided 5-0 thrashing I can remember. 5-0 doesn’t even come close to describing the debacle of England’s performances and the sheer exuberance and confidence of Australia. If it had been boxing, this would have been stopped after the 2nd test.

3 years ago I wrote a piece in response to Will Swanton, an Australian journalist who, before that series started in November 2010, wrote a great article headed 10 Reasons the Poms won’t Win. I took him to task (with hindsight and stats) as to why he was proved wrong. Well, in deference to Mr Swanton, I Reckon he wasn’t wrong, just 3 years early.

1. Overrated (or perhaps Australia underrated?)
England won 3-1 at home last summer, with largely the same teams on both sides. But that scorecard didn’t begin to tell the story. 3-1 in Australia in 2010/11 was a rout, offset only by a freakish Mitchell Johnson performance in Perth. 3-1 last summer was a hugely flattering scoreline. Australia won more sessions than England across the series, but crumbled at key moments. Most pundits thought it would be closer Down Under, but Michael Clarke’s team have worked wonders.

2. KP
Last time KP was fantastic, averaging 60 with a top score of 227. This time he has been England’s 2nd best batsman, but that only goes to show how poor the whole team has been. Averaging under 30 with a top score of 72. Frequently he got in and got out. It’s not his fault that his wicket seemed to precipitate a collapse, but…

3. Speedsters
3 years ago the English supporters in Australia mocked Mitchell Johnson’s wayward performances:

He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson – his bowling is shite

For the whole of this series he has been virtually unplayable, at least to the English batsmen. 37 wickets at under 14 runs each, 4 of the top 9 innings bowling stats on either side, conceding under 3 runs an over for the whole series. He’s been amazing, and England’s bowlers, with only occasional exceptions, have looked pretty ordinary in comparison. Everything that I said three years ago about England’s attack can be reversed and applied to Johnson, Harris & Siddle, who took 75 wickets at under 18 runs apiece.

4. Passive Captain
Alistair Cook has had his first major failure on this tour, but it’s been a truly humiliating experience. His batting has failed,  averaging just 25 compared to Michael Clarke’s 45. He’s made 50 3 times but failed to pass 72. 6 out of England’s 10 opening partnerships have been under 10 runs. England have seemed devoid of answers, inspiration, leadership. They’ve failed to convert whatever strong positions they’ve managed to create, and their longest innings was just 103 overs.

5. No Superstars
This is a trickier one to simply switch last time’s performances around. In 2010/11 England played pretty supremely. But this time they lost two of their world-leading players of recent times during the tour, as both Jonathan Trott and Graham Swann left the scene. But Cook, Pietersen and Bell also all failed. Matt Prior was dismal and dropped. Anderson and Bresnan, so powerful last time, took just 19 wickets at over 40 runs each.

6.Over-analysis
I can’t even begin to understand what was going on in the England camp, but it clearly didn’t work. The Australians had a plan and they executed it brilliantly. Even when things went awry, players like Haddin and Smith stepped up and simply took the game away. Haddin has been outstanding – the best batsman of the series, scoring nearly 500 runs with over half of them in boundaries.

7. No Depth
Ben Stokes has been the glorious exception to the dismal rule of this tour. He’s topped the batting averages with England’s only century of the entire series, and (while being a bit expensive) took more wickets than Jimmy Anderson. This year’s bowlers who came off the branch – Panesar and Bresnan – took just 8 wickets in 8 innings.

8. Chokers
This has perhaps been the biggest sadness of the tour for me as a fan. In 4 of the 5 tests, England had Australia in some kind of trouble in the 1st innings. The Australian top 5 wickets averaged just 143 – hardly the bedrock for a 5-0 series whitewash, especially after batting first four times. But this early strong performance was fleeting, and never established any kind of control. The Australian middle order of Clarke, Smith and Haddin rescued the team, scoring nearly 1,200 runs at over 44.

While the top 5 wickets stats bear reasonable comparison; 142 runs for Australia vs 124 for England, the bottom 5 are in different planets; 214 for Australia vs just 70 for England. On average across the 5 tests, England conceded a first-innings lead of 162. How did we expect to win anything?

Australia’s bowlers were terrific as a unit, and England’s batsmen were powerless. Let’s not forget that despite the loss of Trott, we started this series with a lineup including Cook, Pietersen, Bell and Prior; not too shabby. But the repeated collapses have been almost too extreme to seem real.

9. Warmups
Frankly, this is irrelevant. Maybe the problem has been coming over the last 2 years, since England briefly ascended to be the Top Test Team in the World in August 2011. That seems a long time ago.

10. Scars
If the England team don’t bear some scars after this tour, they can’t care enough. This has been humiliating for the fans, let alone the players. They haven’t become a bad team overnight, nor are Australia world-beaters. But this has been a hell of a beating.

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I normally title my blog posts with song lyrics or quotes, a hangover from my diary-writing youth. Today I’ve taken liberties with a terrific line from The Usual Suspects. Sorry to everyone involved.

About 6 months ago I signed up to take part in the UK Tough Mudder South West event. Back then it seemed quite a long way off, a faintly ridiculous commitment with a few colleagues that could be kept firmly at the back of my mind. I started doing slightly different exercises at the gym, and even went along to a Bootcamp class, but that was that.

Three more sleeps…

It’s very real right now. On Saturday morning, while you good readers are sleeping (or whatever in your own time zones!), I will leave the house at 05.15am to pick up my colleague and drive to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, for an 08.40am start time. Just shy of 12 miles of trails, 500m of elevation to climb, and 18 obstacles await us.

Uk Tough Mudder South West Course 2013

Those zigzags in the top left corner of the map, between Mile 6 & 8, that’s pretty much straight up and straight down a very steep hillside, gaining & falling a couple of hundred metres each time in not very far. The blobs are obstacles, which include mud, very cold water, barbed wire, mud, monkey bars, 12-foot walls, mud, tunnels filled with muddy water, electric shock and mud.

The closer we’ve got to Saturday 21st September 2013, the more this has risen in our ‘watercooler conversations’. One person fell off his bike and hurt his knee quite badly, another strained a calf muscle playing football. Nerves?

Think of the Charity

But we’re doing this for a greater cause, not just for our own masochistic pleasure. Our nominated company charity this year is the National Autistic Society, a choice inspired by another colleague whose young daughter has autism. Our employer, The Real Adventure, will match every pound we raise up to £1,500. So any donations we get have a double whammy feel-good effect.

At the risk of getting worthy, there are countless good reasons to support this cause. Here are just a few…

  • Autism is much more common than many people think. There are around 700,000 people in the UK with autism – that’s more than 1 in 100, and virtually double the number of people registered blind or partially sighted. If you include their families, autism touches the lives of 2.7 million people every day.
  • Autism doesn’t just affect children. Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism.
  • Over 40% of children with autism have been bullied at school. and over 50% of children with autism are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them. One in five children with autism has been excluded from school, many more than once.
  • Nearly two-thirds of adults with autism in England do not have enough support to meet their needs, and at least one in three adults with autism are experiencing severe mental health difficulties due to a lack of support.
  • Only 15% of adults with autism in the UK are in full-time paid employment.

The NAS works to create a better society for people with autism and their families. These people deserve our support. You can help by donating to our team, to help us around the course and through the mud, at www.justgiving.com/TheRealMudders.

Thankyou.

But because I know most of you have no idea what Tough Mudder actually is…

…and the infamous Arctic Enema. Surely this deserves a donation…!

It’s like eating icecream and getting punched in the balls at the same time…

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I am no petrolhead: let’s face it, our family cars are a Ford C-Max and a Nissan Note. I’ve never been a big Formula 1 fan either: the engineering is impressive, and I don’t doubt the bravery and skills of the drivers, but, you know, meh…

So it’s within that context that I want to tell you that I Reckon Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna is one of my favourite films of all time. A triumph of storytelling, pacing and editing, it has a brilliant protagonist, and outstanding villains. The stakes are immense throughout, there are aspects of the heroic (almost divine) with moments of unbridled triumph and joy, yet at the same time Death is a constant presence and threat.

The film ostensibly focuses on Ayrton Senna’s life, career and tragically early death at just 34. But it’s not really about Formula 1. In the same way that Anvil! The Story of Anvil! is a love story that happens to take place within a Canadian Heavy Metal band, Senna should appeal far beyond petrolheads and motorsport fans. This is an extraordinary tale about an extraordinary human being.

Senna movie

A triumph of storytelling…

The film is made up entirely of archive footage, with some historical commentary and some more recent recordings, but no ‘talking heads’. Much of the footage reflects the equipment it was filmed on and the context in which it was filmed, which could make for a jarring, inconsistent experience, but instead adds hugely to the authenticity. We are treated to immaculately sunny hand-held home videos of the Senna family on a yacht, or grainy, unbelievably real footage from in-car cameras. The film-makers have raided the F1 archives for astonishing fly-on-the-wall footage from drivers’ briefings and inside the team garages. Even if we thought we knew the story of Senna, this adds new layers we couldn’t possibly have imagined.

Through brilliant editing we hear commentators describing Senna’s style while we see his car flying around a circuit. When he wins an epic race we hear Brazilian commentators exploding with joy. There are countless interviews with Senna in both English and Portuguese. We get a crystal clear picture of the man, what moves him, his goals and aspirations. We also meet the people and things that stand in his way. This sets up an incredible narrative, a story-arc that compels our attention with tension and conflict. Asif Kapadia has used screenwriting techniques and tropes to structure his retelling of a real life, and it is so much richer for that. The true marvel of the story is that, despite everything, Ayrton Senna at the end of his life and career in F1 racing seems utterly true to the ideals of the 18-year-old we meet at the start of the film.

A man, a Superman, or truly touched by the Divine?

Ayrton Senna was a national hero in Brazil, in a way that surpasses almost anyone in any profession in any country. More than 3 million people came out in Sao Paolo to witness his funeral procession: 200,000 filed past his body as it lay in state. Many ordinary people in his funeral crowds talk of Brazil’s joy being lost with his death, and the footage of his family is wonderfully intercut with flashbacks to his life. It’s unbearably sad.

Kapadia illustrates the majesty of Senna’s achievements and driving through episodic sequences that each focus on a single, often pivotal race. At the Brazilian Grand Prix of 1991, Senna is leading by a distance with a few laps to go, his gearbox fails and the car is stuck in 6th gear. It should be nearly impossible to drive, let alone finish and win, but somehow he succeeds. The outpouring of emotion is sensational as he screams across the line, as he collects a flag, as the entire crowd and indeed race stewards celebrate. As he stops the car, the effort of keeping his car on the road overcomes him. He passes out: his entire back and shoulders are in spasm. He is lifted from the car, his gloves & helmet are removed for him. He’s in such pain he cannot bear to be touched, even by his Father. He has truly emptied the tank in a superhuman effort, and he explains later that he knows that God gave him this race. This sequence overwhelmed me: I was in tears.

Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus

The inscription on Senna’s headstone (“Nothing can take me away from God’s love”) says everything we need to know about his faith. It’s remarkable that we never see an interview where he talks about his religion in English, only ever in Portuguese, but it comes back again and again, as though his faith fuels his desire and his abilities to race and win.

In the last race of the 1988 season, in Japan, he stalls on the grid and drops back to 16th place. Fighting his way through the field he ultimately wins the race with a beyond-daring manoeuvre in the dying moments. His recollection is as though he’s had some kind of ecstatic experience, seeing God’s face during the last lap, as though God was guiding Senna to victory.

Two Amazing Villains

But every hero needs a nemesis, and Ayrton Senna had two. They were his team-mate and racing companion Alain Prost, and the man in charge of his sport, responsible for managing the races and things like safety, Jean-Marie Balestre.

Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mclaren

They were team-mates?!

Alain Prost was a fantastic F1 driver. He won three world championships (like Senna), but that’s where the resemblance ends. After the film’s opening sequence where a young Senna is karting, reminiscing in voiceover about pure racing without money or politics, we jump to the Monaco Grand Prix in 1984, just Senna’s 6th race in F1. The conditions are appalling, but he shreds the field, moving from 13th to 2nd. He’s charging behind Prost and a remarkable win seems inevitable until Prost, leading the race, waves to officials as if to say “stop the race”. He abandons, the race is called off and Prost declared the victor. Senna leaves the podium quickly, a look of thunder clouding his brows.

Prost is nicknamed “the professor”. He knows the season is a marathon, not a sprint, and he does what he has to do to collect enough points across the season to win. In Japan in 1989 he knows Senna must win to deny him the championship. They’re racing neck-and-neck, and there’s a collision at the entrance to the chicane with just a few laps to go. Prost stops, but Senna restarts, driving through the slip road back onto the circuit. He needs repairs to his car but still wins the race, including an astonishingly brave piece of overtaking at the same chicane, where the other driver (correctly) concedes the corner…

Meanwhile, however, Prost has run back across the circuit to the Race Stewards’ office to protest against his own team-mate. The stewards and Jean-Marie Balestre are seen discussing the affair with Prost present in the room. Almost inevitably, Senna is disqualified and Prost becomes champion. Press conferences are conducted in French, Senna is blamed for causing the crash (despite having nothing to gain and everything to lose from it), and is sanctioned by the fearsome Balestre.

Jean-Marie Balestre looks like a nasty villain. Roald Dahl couldn’t have made him up. He sneers from behind tinted glasses, lectures the drivers in briefings like they are naughty schoolchildren and uses his position of authority as a weapon, telling them to ‘respect the regulations’ and asserting that “the best decision is my decision…”

Jean-Marie Balestre

Scary man…

Prost and Balestre were almost a perfect double-act against Senna’s ideals. A formidable driving talent in the best car would have been a ‘fair’ contest for Senna, but Prost knew how to play the system, and because he did, the system supported him.

“there’s only one word that describes Ayrton’s style, and that is fast…”

Ayrton Senna loved going fast. Much of the home video from family holidays shows him on a jetski, or a speedboat, or waterskiing. He was addicted to racing, and he loved winning. The amazing in-car cameras and F1 footage bring the visceral experience of hurling these cars around at unbelievable speeds to life. In Portugal in 1985 he lapped all but one car in atrocious conditions. In Monaco in 1988, he was leading by almost a minute in the closing stages: his pit team begged him to slow down and preserve the win, but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. He crashed. Alain Prost won the race.

The introduction of computerised traction control by the Williams team in 1992 shattered Senna’s ideal of ‘pure racing’, as it created a car that could clearly go faster than the others. Racing became “an electronic war” rather than a test of driving. Senna had to cede championships to first Nigel Mansell and then Alain Prost, who came out of semi-retirement to join Williams on the proviso that Senna would not be his team-mate: he really did know how to win.

But by the time Senna joined Williams, the FIA authorities had banned the computers to try to level the playing field, which left the Williams cars inherently less stable, as their set-up was predicated on electronic control. The handling was erratic, and from this point on, frustration appears large in Senna’s outlook; the cars simply don’t work the way they should…

Imola, 1994

The inevitability of Ayrton Senna’s death is a dark shroud hanging over the film as it progresses; at some point we know he is going to die. There are frequent comments alluding to his faith (does God ‘protect’ him? Does he believe he can’t die?), and to the risks inherent in driving very fast, very light metal boxes around a track at 180mph. From 1990 Death enters the film more overtly. Martin Donnelly survives an horrific crash, the drivers’ briefings start referencing safety. Senna crashes in Mexico in 1991, overturning his car but walking away virtually unscathed.

The weekend of the Italian Grand Prix at Imola in 1994 seems almost unreal now. The atmosphere was extraordinarily tense, with Senna ever more frustrated with his car’s performance, or perhaps his inability to go as fast as he wants. He spins the car in practice, then Rubens Barrichello, a young Brazilian driver who hero-worships Senna, literally flies off the track into the barriers that for a second makes his car look more like a missile than a vehicle. He survives, but his car is in pieces.

Then on Saturday, Roland Ratzenberger’s car crashes at almost 200mph. Truly shocking aerial footage shows his car finally coming to rest, but his head rolls sickeningly as the car spins. He dies at the scene. Senna is distraught. Sid Watkins, the legendary medical & safety officer for F1, recalls talking to Ayrton…

…I said to him “you love fishing. Why don’t you just quit, and I’ll quit, and we’ll go fishing.”

He said, “Sid, I can’t quit.”

Despite this tragedy, the race goes ahead. Senna asks God to talk to him and he decides to race, but we get several lingering close-ups of his face before the race, silent, furrowed brows. This doesn’t feel like the same man who won those epic, heroic races. There’s a crash in the opening seconds as a car stalls on the grid. After the safety car leaves the circuit, we’re into Lap 6, and for virtually a whole minute Kapadia shows us in-car footage. No sound except the shriek of the engines, and my rapidly accelerating heartbeat pounding in my chest. We know what’s coming. The car approaches a sweeping curve, and for a split second we realise it’s going straight on.

It cuts away to a long shot as the car shatters into the barriers and quickly comes to rest. There is no movement. Half the car is missing. Aerial shots show the teams doing CPR, track the broken car’s slow journey back to the pits, watch the helicopter take Senna to hospital. Sid Watkins gave his friend what first aid he could, but immediately recognised he had suffered a tremendous brain injury.

he sighed, and his body relaxed. His spirit departed…

Senna isn’t just one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, it’s genuinely one of the best films I can remember in years. I’ve watched in three times in a month, and could easily watch it again right now.

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Both before and after our fantastic trip to Dorset a couple of weeks ago, I seemed to find plenty of reasons to be downcast. But in the big scheme of things, my life is pretty OK, really. I have plenty of reasons to be cheerful. I have a job I enjoy, working with people I like and respect, a load of great friends and a terrific family. And I get wonderful things from my daughters like this, that I was given on Fathers’ Day last weekend…

BecauseyouaremydadAnd so I should be grateful for what’s still around, and all the things I’ve been privileged to experience in the last couple of years, that I’ve been able to write about in this blog…

I’ve been to some pretty amazing places…

The Alhambra, the Orangerie & Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Swimming in lakes and rivers in France, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of camping and basking in the sunshine of the Jurassic Coast in Dorset

I’ve experienced some fabulous events…

More than 11 years after the first time, I saw Radiohead in concert, Thomas Voeckler at the Quillan Criterium, and marvelled at the delicate beauty of the songs of The Bookshop Band (twice)

I’m proud to be a cinephile and aficionado of classy TV…

We rewatched then entire 7 series of The West Wing, we roared with laughter at Green Wing & Horrible Histories. We’ve rejoiced in the surreal joys of Amélie, gasped at the spectacle of Skyfall

All this, plus I’ve become a bit of a MAGA (middle-aged gym addict)… I feel fitter than I have in years, and have lost (and kept off) the 25lbs I promised myself I would at the start of 2011.

So, in all, not too bad. Consider this the start of me getting over myself.

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Over the last few months we’ve been joyfully re-viewing the whole boxset of The West Wing. In one episode, the White House Press Secretary C.J.Cregg was asked about Something Very Bad Happening in Saudi Arabia, and she replied

I’m not outraged, I’m barely even surprised

This almost exactly sums up my detached, unimpressed, resigned state of mind regarding Lance Armstrong.

I was going to wait until after his full interview with Oprah Winfrey, but it’s become clear to me this morning that there’s not a whole lot my words can add to the discussions. I’d recommend you look to excellent writers and journalists like CNN’s Bonnie Ford, The Sunday Times’ David Walsh, or the BBC’s Matt Slater. Nevertheless, for the record, this is What I Reckon…

Lance Armstrong Jan Ullrich Tour de France The Look

The Look of Someone Who Knows Something…

I worshipped Armstrong during his career. I discovered the TDF in the 1980s as Greg Lemond rose to the top, Miguel Indurain then dominated, and Lance was the next hero. His story and his performances were amazing. That look he gave Ullrich, the improvised ride across the field, everything. I kind of resented L’Equipe and those who constantly sniped and sought to knock him, just because he was better than all the French riders. Except he wasn’t. He was a cheat, and more than that, a (now self-confessed) bully. He perjured himself under oath on countless occasions, won damages in courts by lying, earned millions in sponsorship and inspired a generation. Except he lied, over and over again.

I read “It’s not about the bike” last summer under the cloud of accusations and imminent publication of USADA evidence. Almost immediately afterwards I read David Millar’s autobiography, and the differences between the two books and men couldn’t be more clear.

When I read Armstrong’s book I was immediately struck throughout that it was a very partial version of his story, told on his terms, to create the memory and legacy he wanted. So many people he mentioned were described as “very good friends”. It’s as though the only people he ever met were very good friends. Anyone else simply isn’t important, or even worthy of comment. You’re either with him, or you’re nobody. This has been reiterated in the Oprah interview, in which she named all the names and he responded. Pretty much only George Hincapie emerged as a “good friend”. I wonder how George feels about that.

In complete contrast, David Millar lays everything out, from the doping to disagreements with Bradley Wiggins, from his own hero worship of Lance, to being ignored later. Millar talks openly about how his long journey to the dark side started, with vitamins and iron tablets, then injections, then everything else. He talks about the shame he brought on everyone who supported him, including Dave Brailsford, who was in the restaurant when he was arrested. Even now on Twitter he talks about what he has lost (his gorgeous house in Biarritz), and acknowledges that’s all his own fault. He describes his duty as an ex-doper to educate the sport and its leaders as well as new riders.

Armstrong doesn’t seem to accept, understand or even seem like he’s lost anything. He seems proud of his life, of his achievements. His tweets immediately following the publication of the USADA dossiers said he’s “unaffected” and merely linked to more news about his charity raising pots of cash for cancer. A few weeks later he came over all American Psycho and posted this stunningly arrogant picture:

Lance Armstrong Tour de France Jerseys

It feels to me that he has felt his legacy isn’t about the bike. It’s all about the cancer. Because he can control that story. In that story he’s a hero.

But now, in a twist that even a hack Hollywood script couldn’t begin to justify, he now seems to blame the cancer for his behaviour; it was the cancer that made him a bully, that made him destroy fellow riders in the peloton who dared speak out against doping, that made him call his own soigneuse a whore and trash her name through the courts.

I don’t even begin to know what he hopes will happen now. He seemed to throw a line to the cycling authorities about testifying in the context of ‘truth and reconciliation’. He’s barely said sorry, merely admitted that he has done things wrong. But in his own mind that doesn’t actually mean cheating, merely doing what he had to, to achieve a “level playing field”. In that moral universe, does that mean I could steal money to put me on a level playing field with the very rich?

I was given Bradley Wiggins’ book My Time for Christmas, and while it’s certainly not the greatest work on the subject ever published, it again highlights the ‘unusual’ psyche of Lance Armstrong. Wiggins, like Millar and others before him, and the tremendous documentary Chasing Legends, recognises throughout everything he says how cycling is a team sport. Dirty or clean, no man can get through the Tour de France without a lot of people to help; team-mates prepared to sacrifice themselves for the team, support cars, coaches, drivers, mechanics, soigneurs, doctors, physios, management and sponsors.

Now on the one hand, that entourage that surrounded Armstrong during the years he was systematically doping must include people who knew what was going on, and haven’t come clean. More to the point, the sport of cycling then was so riddled with doping on every level, it seems impossible that the authorities were completely ignorant. I’m hoping some of this might even come out in the second part of the the Lance/Oprah broadcast…

…but on the other hand, I’m not holding my breath. From the very start, from the first words of his first book Lance Armstrong has told his side of the story, and it’s a story that focuses entirely on himself. With near psychopathic clarity he seems oblivious to ‘normal’ morality, and utterly lacking in empathy. He is a liar and a cheat on a massive, almost sociopathic scale. He was my hero, but I hope this is my last word on him. He doesn’t deserve any more of my time. I’ll point my daughters to newer role models.

Bonnie Ford’s piece for ESPN at the time of the USADA dossier is a brilliantly detached, but very sad summary. Case closed.

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