Summer of Sport

{Beth’s Note: We interrupt my very sporadic coverage of Christmas in London 2018 to bring you this guest post by M that takes us back to last summer.}

The Summer of 2018 will be one of those things that, 42 years from now, kids will roll their eyes about when their English grandparents regale them with the same stories they’ve heard a dozen times before, just like I rolled my eyes when all the English reminded me about how great it was in 1976.

But those future grandparents will tell these stories for good reason. It was sunny. And hot. For weeks at a time. And England made the semifinals of the World Cup! They even won a knock-out round match on penalty kicks. This summer was so great, my grandkids will probably roll their eyes when I tell them about it, and I grew up in that magical land (America) where summer is sunny and hot every year, just like summer should be.

Beth has already shared some of the great activities we experienced as a family this year—a bank holiday weekend in Dorset, tennis at the Queen’s Club, and a proper English family holiday to Cornwall—so I’ll keep this one limited to just four things: weather, bikes, football (world, not American), and cricket.

The Summer of 2018 saw record-breaking temperatures for England (warmest on record) and the U.K. as a whole (matching 1976, 2006, and 2003), but what really set it apart was how dry and sunny it was, too. Here in London, Clapham Common dried up and turned into “Clapham Beach” (because so many people lie out sunbathing).

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Playing catch on Clapham “Beach”

While in western parts of the island, long-lost ancient ruins were revealed by crop marks left by drought. With the long days—sunrise comes as early as 4:44 a.m. and sunset as late as 9:20 p.m. in June, and the low sun angle gives nearly an hour of usable twilight on either side of that—a dry summer in northern Europe is really something to be savored.

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Cycling in Richmond Park in June

Bicycling is a great way to savor summer in London. I spent several evenings riding around Richmond Park near sunset, as well as taking in the classic weekend rides through the Surrey Hills.

The summer’s cycling highlight, though, was easily the weekend I spent in France with two of my Pedal Pals riding the legendary cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and taking in the action of Stage 9 of the Tour de France.

After taking the Eurostar to Lille on Friday afternoon, we rode to Douai, a small French city that served as our base for the weekend. After a welcome dinner of crepes and beer (I love France), we spent Saturday riding all over the Hautes-de-France region.

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My two pals are much more knowledgeable of cycling history than me, so many of the sector paves (cobbled sections) were bucket list items for them. I was just happy to be along for the ride, ready to enjoy some sunshine, and test myself against some of the same roads the pros would be riding the following day.

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My naïveté would cost me dearly, for the cobbles are brutal. The pros ride special bikes, wear special gloves, and wrap their handle bars with two layers of tape. Though I at least knew to bring the better suited of my two main bicycles, no gloves and thin bar tape was a bad decision. It’s tough to explain just how brutal the cobbles are, but imagine riding your bike across the most potholed road you can think up. Now add 6-inch rocks to the entire surface of the road. And crown the road severely. And make it narrow. And bendy. That’s the basic picture. There’s a reason that the annual Paris-Roubaix race is called the ‘Hell of the North,’ and when Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet tear through Carrefour de l’Arbre and Mons-en-Pevele next year, I will have a newfound appreciation for the pain they are experiencing.

After the cobbles and the required laps of the velodrome in Roubaix, we crossed the border into Belgium for a lunch of steak frites and beer (I love Belgium), and then it was back to Douai for an evening celebrating Bastille Day with the locals. The beer was good, the weather warm and pleasant, and the everyone was in a great mood because of the holiday and the fact that the following day was an important one for the region and the country: the Tour was coming through, and France was playing in the World Cup Final.

Having ridden much of the route on Saturday, we were very excited to watch the race, however briefly, on Sunday. We staked out a mostly shady spot along the Pave Willems a Hem, about 100 meters from the very end of the day’s cobbles. This would figure to put us in a good position to see the day’s break—from which the winner would likely emerge—and then give us a brief moment to recover before the main peloton arrived.

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The thing about watching a bike race in person is that it is a terrible way to watch a bike race. You arrive early, wait, wait some more, wait a bit longer, and then the riders whiz past at 30 miles per hour and are off, not to be seen again. The other thing about watching a bike race in person, though, is that it is a great way to spend a day in the sunshine. You ride your bike for a little while, hang out with your mates, drink some beers, follow the race on Twitter, and get really excited for those few seconds of pay-off. The whole scene is pretty great. People bring camper vans (RVs), tents, flags, grills—it’s the European equivalent of an American football tailgate. And, fun fact, bike cleats double as bottle openers.

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When the racers finally arrived, we screamed like crazy for the breakaway (Greg Van Avermaet in the maillot jaune, John Degenkolb, and Yves Lampaert), winced at the pain on the riders’ faces, and tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to pick out our favorite riders. My personal favorite, Romain Bardet, suffered three punctures on the day, the last of which must have come only a few meters from where we were standing, and had to burn too many matches to get back in the bunch in order to avoid losing too much time. He was never in top form for the rest of the Tour.

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Le Tour de France

After the excitement, it was back on the bike as we had a train to catch from Lille back to London. As we rode into Lille, all of a sudden, car horns began blaring. It took a second to register, but we realized that France must have just scored a goal in the World Cup.

Sure enough, as we rolled past the bars lining the road near the station, the French were dancing in the streets celebrating a 1-0 lead over Croatia. We got to the station and attempted to check in our bicycles so we could watch some of the match, but, well, it seems the World Cup took priority over making sure that a few Londoners could get their bikes across the channel. For a long time, no one seemed to be manning the baggage office and then once someone arrived, it was a pretty hapless performance by Eurostar customer service. At least they were honest about being distracted by the football match.

 

When France won, there were hugs all around in the pub at the station, and though we were indoors, we could hear an incredible amount of noise from the outside—blaring car horns and singing that must have continued long after our train departed. Even when we got back to London, I was cycling through Clapham and sprayed with water by French fans celebrating their victory.

For the English, though, this year’s World Cup will always be remembered as one that got away. The English have a tortured football history, generally regarding the ability level of the national team as perhaps a bit better than it actually is and ending up disappointed when things don’t quite go to plan. This year, though, expectations were low. A lackluster victory over Tunisia in the opener did little to get the home fans excited, but a 6-1 drubbing of Panama in the second match ensured advancement to the knock-out rounds. With surprise losses for Germany, Argentina, Portugal, and Spain, the bracket had been blown open, with England needing to down a feisty Colombian team in order to advance.

An early goal gave the English the lead, and they were still ahead 1-0 at the end of 90 minutes. Victory was close. But somehow Colombia found a way to equalize during injury time, and the two sides remained tied after the extra time.

Now, for those unaware, the English have a long and inglorious tradition of choking during penalty shoot-outs. I’m not sure that anyone anywhere in the country truly believed they were going to outduel the Colombians to advance, especially once Jordan Henderson missed the third kick and Colombia led 3-2. It was like all those times the Red Sox had come so close only to fail once again on the big stage. But, just like the Red Sox in 2004, the English mounted a comeback and vanquished their shoot-out demons. With a bracket that now only included Sweden, Russia, and Croatia, the English were primed for a run to the finals.

A relatively easy 2-0 victory over Sweden in the quarterfinals—which took place during our 4th-of-July-cum-England-Watch-Party—put England through to the semifinals, and London was ripe with World Cup fever.

‘It’s Coming Home’—the rather endearingly terrible song that has become an anthem for the national team—was sung ’round the clock, E’s primary school class had lessons in football cheering, and venues across the city were set up for communal watch parties. I met up with my friend Laurence at POP Brixton to watch on the big screen.

I fortunately arrived early enough to get into the venue and secure a place to stand with a view of the screen, and Laurence thought ahead and filled his pockets with extra beers so we wouldn’t lose our spots. Rounds of ‘It’s Coming Home’ and ‘Come On, England!’ filled the time until kick-off, and when England took an early lead everyone was drenched in beer. A few missed chances to extend the lead should have perhaps been an ominous sign, but England took a 1-0 lead into halftime.

Croatia’s equalizer dampened spirits a bit, but the crowd still expected victory. Alas, it was not to be as another Croatia goal in extra time sent England, and all of us at POP Brixton, home.

While I will never be a football fan, the collective experience that is a deep run in the World Cup is unrivaled by anything American sports have to offer. When your team makes a Super Bowl or the World Series or a National Championship game, it’s a blast. But you are virtually guaranteed to know someone rooting for the other side, and unless you are in the city of the team playing, you probably can’t go out to watch the game surrounded only by people cheering for the same side. In the World Cup, everyone in the whole country is supporting the same team, and when that team performs well, it makes for a tremendously fun few weeks.

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In August while the girls were back in Oregon, the Pedal Pals organized a night out to The Oval for Twenty20 (T20) cricket. Cricket comes in two main forms: 1) test cricket, which is the traditional form of the game and 2) a new, modern form where overs (we’ll get to it) are limited. Test cricket takes, literally, days (the minimum for a first-class match is three days). There are breaks for tea. The players wear all white. You could watch for hours and sometimes see very little of consequence. Since that sounds like it might get boring, a new, faster-paced version of the game has gained in popularity over the last 15 years, in no small part because it is television friendly; T20 is played over about 3 hours.

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For T20, each team gets one inning to bat, and one inning to bowl; think of this as if an away baseball team took all nine of its turns at bat consecutively and then the home team received all nine of its turns at bat to try and catch up. The innings are then limited to 20 overs, each of which consists of six balls bowled. So, in total, each team gets 120 balls bowled to score as many runs as possible. There are also several rule differences to test cricket that encourage aggressive batting and thus run scoring; apparently test cricket is very conservative.

Having no knowledge of cricket before attending a match, I didn’t really know what to expect other than having been told by many people that since I enjoy sitting in the sunshine and drinking beer, I would have a good time. Those people were right.

The Friday night match we attended between Middlesex and Surrey (won by Surrey with 222 runs) was one of the highest scoring of the season for the whole T20 league, filled with ‘sixes’ (when a batter hits it over the boundary) and ‘fours’ (when the ball crosses the boundary after hitting the ground first). And also with beers.

I’ll put it this way: cricket is just close enough to baseball that I can grasp and appreciate the game easily, but just different enough that I can not care about who wins and just enjoy a night spent having beers with friends. If you come visit in the summer, I will happily take you to see some cricket!

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