Dulwich Riders – Bert and Bjarne go back to school

To the cultured confines of  Dulwich College last night; to the Charles Barry Jr designed Great Hall where 150 years worth of names of the old boys who went up to Oxford are listed on the vast wooden panels on one side of the room, whilst those who opted for Cambridge are recorded on the walls opposite. Famous alumni include Sir Ernest Shackleton and PG Wodehouse but the school also prides itself on its sporting prowess, honed on the pitches and facilities that make up much of the 70 acre site.

The names on the walls – which date back to 1865, although the College is almost 400 years old – are presumably there to inspire the current crop of Alleynians, who came to hear further epithets of inspiration from two men who reached the very pinnacle of their chosen sport.  Not Olympic champions these two – unlike at least one former pupil at this prestigious South London private school. Not World Cup winners (of either the round or oval ball games), Ashes heroes or Grand Slam victors. The boys came – many in their football, hockey or rugby kits but some wearing the lycra VCDC jerseys of the school cycling team – to hear Grand Tour winners Bjarne Riis and Alberto Contador, who were at the school as part of a corporate event hosted by team sponsors Saxo Capital. They had been at the nearby Herne Hill velodrome during the day, riding with the corporate VIP’s and gave an hour before dinner to the boys of the school and a few junior riders from the Herne Hill club.


I was in the Great Hall thanks to Herne Hill and my two young sons. The velodrome had been given a number of tickets at the talk and, as I was able to stump up a couple of the requisite Under-18 year olds that set the bar for entry, we had three seats in the packed hall. Following an introduction from the college and Matteo Cassina of Saxo Capital, Riis was welcomed to the stage before a short film of Alberto was shown to prime the audience for the arrival of the main event. Despite the fanfare he made it almost to the foot of the stage unnoticed – small, dark and impeccably dressed  – before he was spotted and applauded to his seat. 

Interviewed by Rouleur Magazine, initially the talk made efforts to place Contador’s achievement within the cycling pantheon and questioned both men about what it takes to become an elite athlete. “Is Alberto the best rider you’ve ever worked with?” was offered to the Dane who has coached four different riders to Tour success. Riis stared directly at the slight man by his side as if considering the question for the first time. “Yes.” he said after a few moments deliberation. “I think I could say that.” If this was Riis’ Great Hall, Contador’s name would have a wooden panel all to himself but then again maybe so would Bjarne himself.

“What is more important, Talent or Hard Work?” asked Mr Rouleur, simultaneously pleasing both the parents and teachers in the Hall. “Enjoy.” came back the answer in Contador’s surprisingly good – though heavily accented – English. “At this age, when you are young, you must enjoy whatever sport you do. Then later, you need both.” Riis, barrel-chested and broad in a dark knitted jumper, agreed. “To get the the very top, you will need talent and hard work. I have seen hundred’s of riders who had the talent but they didn’t have the mindset. Didn’t have the mental strength.”

Forty minutes into the talk the mental strength of my seven year old was waning somewhat and he had taken to doodling Minecraft characters in a sketchbook instead. My eight year old was still attentive though and I had to get him to sit on his hands so that he wouldn’t prematurely stick one in the air before questions were asked for. As it turned out he didn’t get the chance to air the one he had wanted to ask as the questions from the floor were pre-prepared too. I had cheekily thought about priming my kids with some testing queries about Spanish beef or how Tinkoff-Saxo now reassure young riders coming onto their team that the practices of the ‘bad old days’ are no longer part of the programme but both my son and the organisers had felt that their choices were better.


“Play Up! Play Up! And Play the Game.” The 19th century words of Sir Henry Newbolt are never far from mind when in such rarefied surroundings such as Dulwich College. The spirit and notion of fair-play courses through privately educated sports and, although it never raised its head directly last night, the asterisked history of the two speakers was not lost on all within the room. Instead the talk focussed on achievements, on the hardships of the life of a professional athlete, on the craziness of 100kph descents and the importance of the support of the family and ones own character to continue when things go wrong. Contador’s fall and broken leg in this year’s Tour de France and his return to win the Vuelta just eight weeks later was used as an example of fortitude and courage in the face of disaster. Not rising to the baited hook of celebrity and self glorification, Alberto himself spoke warmly about how it is his younger brother who is paralysed, and not he, who is the centre of his family life back home in Spain and also about how his favourite race win is his Stage 5 win in the 2005 Tour Down Under, which followed brain surgery on malformed blood vessels in his skull that had caused him to lose control and crash the previous year, and the long recovery that followed. 

As the talk drew to a close the parents and adults were asked to leave the Great Hall so that the College could get some photos of just the children with Contador and Riis. When my two came downstairs ten minutes later they were both grinning from ear to ear. The seven year old was just happy that he had been given a free bidon on the way out and that we were now heading for pizza but the eight year old had more of a story to tell. “I asked him.” he said proudly. “I asked him my question.” It seems that during the choreography of the photograph my intrepid cub reporter had sidled up to Riis and managed to ask the question he had wanted to say. “What are your aims for next year?” According to our four foot tall correspondent, Riis had looked down somewhat quizzically and the eight year old had had to repeat himself to make himself understood. “Ah, to win everything” came the reply, apparently accompanied by an old school hair-mussing of the kind that Bjarne may well have fondly remembered from his own (more hirsute) youth.

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Sadly the eight year old’s photography skills do not quite matching his investigative reporting endeavour as yet but it was an evening well spent and, despite my own slight reservations prior to it, I came away thinking better of both Riis and Contador for it. One must assume that, if my cynical old self can find something inspiring in there, the youngsters in the audience must have been well served. And that was the point.

photos via Dulwich College, Cycling Weekly and The Eight Year Old

Fat-Tire Flyer – Repack & The Birth of the Mountain Bike. by Charlie Kelly

Growing up in Hull, an English city that is so flat that driving instructors have to teach ‘hill starts’ on a flyover, I should have had no interest in mountain bikes as a kid. With no hills, peaks, passes or summits nearby (there was a rumour of a hillock a few miles away but our searches always proved fruitless) to ride on, and definitely no need of 15 or 18 speeds on my morning paper round, the whole MTB scene of the late Eighties should have passed me by without incident. But, in the late Eighties, to our teenage eyes at least, mountain bikes were new, mountain bikes were different, mountain bikes were cool. Of course I wanted one.

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The first mountain bike I lusted over was a Kona Lava Dome. I saw it in a catalogue and simply couldn’t stop looking at it. It had Jackson Pollock splash paint and a straight fork. It had a sloping top tube, a triple chainset and fat knobbly tyres that made me go weak at the knees. It was gorgeous. The GT Avalanche was another one that I cut out pictures from bike magazines and stuck on the cupboard door in my bedroom. I used to spend hours making charts showing how long it would take me to save up for one of these mythical machines. With the amount I earned each week delivering the papers adding up to the less than princely sum of £3.50, those charts were depressingly long pieces of art.

The actual ‘mountain bike’ I eventually ended up with was something far closer to the early ‘Klunkers’ that Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher and a few other northern California hippies had started out with about a decade and a half earlier. Single speed, heavy as hell and with brakes that were as much use as an altimeter in my home town, my bike was not much more technologically advanced than the 1940’s Schwinns and other vintage cruisers that were first hauled up and raced down the fire trails of Marin County before the sport even had a name. Looking back now I could probably just about delude myself that my Raleigh Bomber had a certain ‘heritage’ kudos with it’s bent top tube and all around deficiencies, but back then, with the world looking to mountain bikes as the cutting edge of the cycling world, I instantly knew I had bought a dog.

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The story of the birth of mountain biking is fascinating because just a few folks in mid-Seventies Marin were the crucible for the whole movement taking off. Much like the Dogtown skating scene of their LA contemporaries, Kelly, Fisher, Joe Breeze, Tom Ritchey and a handful of other semi-dropouts started taking to the Mount Tamalpais fire trails high up above their often shared houses below for a different kind of ride. Scouring junkyards for old, sturdy bikes that were the anthesis of the lightweight racing machines that some of them rode semi-professionally, they sought the quiet places where they could bomb downhill at breakneck (and usually break-bike) speeds. The place they found to be the best, and where they held their first official timed races, was a 2 mile long 1,200 feet roller coaster of a descent which they christened Repack on account that the punishing ride boiled the grease in their ancient coaster brakes away into clouds of smoke, requiring the grease to be ‘repacked’ after every run.

The thrill of the ride quickly outlasted their venerable equipment and some members of the group turned their skilled hands to first repairing and modifying the Schwinns before creating purpose-built downhill bikes to improve their Repack ride times. Joe Breeze may have made the first ones but Tom Ritchey quickly perfected the art of mountain bike frame building and Kelly and Fisher almost accidentally found themselves with a burgeoning business assembling and selling them. At first they were made for the other friends in the Repack group but the seed was quickly set and, inspite of the lack of anything remotely resembling a  business plan or grand scheme, this small group became the de facto instigators of a nascent global phenomenon. They were the creators, manufacturers, promoters, publicists and archivists of something that had finally found it’s moment. If you want to know about the birth of the LSD scene, you get on Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus and take the Acid Test. If you want to know about the birth of mountain biking Kelly is your man. Just like Kesey, he lived it, built it, rode it and (though his magazine Fat-Tire Flyer) wrote it. He even had a bus too..

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The richness of the writing stems from Kelly’s firsthand experience of the movement and his journalistic experience.  Little details like the taping of beer bottle caps over one of the buttons on the early timing devices so as to not accidentally cancel the count are gold dust for a historical read like this one and add weight, candour and feeling to every page. The richness of the book in general – and it is a wonderful thing to enagage with – comes from the homespun nature of the photographs, drawings and the slightly shambolic progress of the journey that Kelly does well to narrate. These people weren’t on a mission to turn the world onto off-road riding or sell shedloads of bikes. They just wanted to  beat each other down the mountain and have some fun along the way. In a passage that is typical of the whole book Kelly relates how they heard a story about a similar off-road scene in Colorado so they took a 3,000 mile road trip and drove out there, much to the surprise of the locals who now found a busload of Californian’s expecting a cross-country race over one of the highest passes in the Rockies. It says much for both sides that one was organised immediately and took place the next day and for many years after. Crested Butte, the town which the Californian’s invaded is now home to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame Museum.

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The book is exhaustive in it’s detail about the geographical, cultural and technological ingredients that were mixed together to create the potent brew that became known as Mountain Biking. The genesis of myriad things that a billion bike riders take for granted today are traced back and pinpointed in time and space. It is quite amazing. And all seemingly without a hint of bad feeling that their baby outgrew them so quickly and was taken over by bigger, more corporate concerns. 

I hadn’t been too sure about Fat-Tire Flyer when it dropped through my letter box. Like many of the bicycle industry executives of the time who looked at the big, heavy bikes, at the dress-down people riding them and who wondered what all the fuss was about, I harboured reservations about how much enjoyment I would get out of a slab of a book about off-roading. But then I tried it, and I just couldn’t stop. Just like the biking; it was too good, too fast, and waaay too much fun..

Fat-Tire Flyer. Repack and the Birth of Mountain Biking is available now. (VeloPress. RRP £20.95)

A Hard Day & Night – 24hr TT – Interview with 2013 National Champion Stuart Birnie


A little over a year ago Stuart Birnie became the 24hr TT National Champion. I was a little bemused when he missed the event this year but it turns out that he had bigger fish to fry.. He has been out in California this week for the World Champs and stormed to the title with a 493mile effort.. Chapeau! I hope to catch up with Stuart on his return but for now here’s a reblog of our first interview..

Originally posted on the jersey pocket:

Imagine, if you will, climbing onto your bike early on a summery Saturday afternoon and going for a 60 minute solo ride at a pacy 21.5 mph. Sounds good, nice even.. Now imagine staying on your bike, needing to maintain that speed, for another 23 hours straight. Doesn’t sound so good anymore, does it? Imagine how you might be feeling by 10pm on Saturday evening; with darkness falling, knowing that you will still be going hard at 10am the following day, having ridden right through the night with only burning muscles and an exhausted mind for company. And when 10am finally rolls around you still have four more hours to do. At the same viciously relentless pace.

Welcome to the very singular pain-cave that is the 24 hour Time Trial.

On 22nd July, whilst most of the cycling world was focused on the casual Parisien denouement of the Tour de France…

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Bonne Anniversaire – Bernard Hinault


Le Blaireau is 60 today.. which means that the last French winner of the Tour de France is 60 today..

Originally posted on the jersey pocket:

Happy Birthday Blaireau

  • World Champion – 1980
  • TdF Winner -1978, ’79, ’81, ’82, ’85
  • Giro D’Italia Winner – 1980, ’82, ’85
  • L-B-L – 1977, ’80; Lombardia – 1979, ’84


Sporting crash-blackened eyes and baring his teeth in that familiar set-jawed snarl, The Badger takes on all-comers and ends up on top again in ’85

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The Race Against The Stasi – Herbie Sykes – Book Review

I do like a book with a map at the front. I’m a sucker for them. Starting a story with a visual representation of lay of the land somehow amplifies the experience for me. I blame Tolkien: those simple maps of Middle Earth in the frontispieces of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings were, I suspect, the start of a life-long love affair with literary cartography. The almost entirely barren map at the front of Herbie Sykes’ The Race Against The Stasi’ (Aurum Press. RRP £18.99 Hardback) may be a little lacking in the sort of “Here Be Dragons” elements that got me excited as an eleven year old but any cycling book which starts with a map of ‘Central Europe 1964′ has already gone a long way to win me over..

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The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last weekend was a timely adjunct to my finishing of this excellent agglomeration of politics, cycling and love set against the backdrop of the Iron Curtain. Although Sykes makes it clear that he didn’t set out to write about ‘a political book per se’, the pervasive nature of Socialism into every last aspect of East German life in the 1960’s made it impossible to do anything other. The chance sighting of a name in the 1967 Tour de France – a name which had no right to be there – set an extraordinary investigation in motion. Telling the story of Dieter Weidemann – who was pedalling just a few feet behind Tom Simpson when he collapsed on the Ventoux – and The Peace Race inevitably means also telling the story of the Warsaw Pact, the Berlin Wall and the GDR’s secret police force, the Stasi.

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Told exclusively through the means of first person testimony, contemporary newspaper report extracts and translated Stasi documents, the book follows the events that defined a young man’s life from a number of different perspectives. The author’s ‘voice’ is entirely absent – consciously subjugated in order to allow the characters to relay the narrative verbatim – yet atmosphere is never lost and intrigue and even suspense is ever present. The differing tones of the various spoken and written testimonies set up a dialogue that a screenwriter would give his right arm for. Indeed, at a recent appearance at The London Sports Writing Festival, Richard Williams – interviewing Herbie in front of an appreciative audience – suggested that the snapping-up of the film rights cannot be too far away. This is dynamite material, painstakingly researched and assembled, and the fact that it can stand alone without further author interpretation is testament to that and to Sykes’ humility in the face of it.

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Dieter Weidemann was an apolitical animal born into a entirely politicised world. A shy young man who just wanted to ride his bike and write letters to a pretty girl who he met briefly in his mid teens. All fine and good in most circumstances – even those governed by the stricter moral codes of the era. The trouble was that Dieter lived in East Germany and girl, Sylvia, lived in West Germany. So that should have been the end of that. However Dieter’s cycling prowess eventually presented him with an opportunity to escape the GDR – and that’s where the real troubles begin. Defecting was the gravest crime against Socialism and the penalties that were paid by the family he left behind were expectedly unforgiving.

As well as casting a welcome light on the little-known Peace Race – the annual amateur stage race between Warsaw, Prague and Berlin whose importance to the fledgling GDR state is almost impossible to convey to a modern Western readership – it is the extent of the invasiveness of the Stasi that commands attention. Even without the humanising context that the alternate testimonies provide, the petty double-speak of the official files and vast filing system send shivers down the spine. There are apparently over 180 kilometres of Stasi documents in existence. That’s slightly longer than the average length of the stages stages which Dieter rode in 1964 Peace Race and more poignantly the exact distance between his home town of Flöha and the Bavarian town of Mitterteich where Sylvia lived during their penfriend years..

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It’s quite hard to quantify ‘The Race Against The Stasi’ but that is sort of the point.. Is it a book about cycling? Yes. Is it a book about The Berlin Wall? Yes. Is it a book about love? Yes. It’s all of the above and more.. It’s a window into a world that no longer exists but which conditioned the lives of millions of people directly on both sides of the divide and billions of others indirectly during the latter half of the Twentieth Century. It’s also book about a some of small voices trying to be heard amongst the deafening, ever-present political diktat. Whether you take it as a cycling history, an indictment of the geopolitical situation in the GDR, a tale of love conquering insurmountable odds, or a combination of all three.. it’s most definitely a book worth reading..

The Race Against the Stasi is available now.

The Write Stuff – The London Sports Writing Festival

On cold autumnal mornings the refined environs of the Grace Gate at Lord’s are expected to be quiet. The cricket season is long over and the security guard at the first gate I encountered, on the shadow-cast North side of the ground, was somewhat disgruntled to be disturbed from his newspaper. “Go back the way you came, turn right at the end, right again at the corner, and then right again just past the the red postbox” he instructed when I asked for the location of the suite of rooms that bears the name of the original owner of the land upon which this most hallowed of sports grounds took residence in 1825. Given that the entire perimeter is pretty much a solid red-brick wall, and given that I was asking for the location of a bunch of sports journalists, he could have just said “Above the pub” and been done with it. A few more minutes walk brought me to the Lord’s Tavern where a few tourists were milling around waiting for the next museum tour whilst inside a couple of old boys in ‘egg and bacon’ ties were reading the back pages of The Sunday Times, but in the main this residential backwater of NW8 was as deserted as the dressing rooms in the famous pavilion beyond.

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Étape – Richard Moore – Book Review

What makes a Tour de France? Is it the winner? The crowned champion who triumphs over all others? Is it the podium, which, by definition, speaks something of the hardest battles that the champion has had to win.? From a distance, the record book is often all we have but we all know that even this most final of interpretations can be re-written, crossed out or marked with the heavy significance of a simple ‘*’.

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Is it the geography? The spectacle of human pitted against Nature. Even when the champion elect has shed the pretenders to his throne he must still battle the terrain and the elements. The fight is never over: the strongest must conquer Nature once, dispatch their opponents next and then, only then, defeat Nature again to become a true champion. For many, the Tour is The Road – the eternal past of the story, upon which fleeting mortals come, conquer and disappear again. The Road goes on, awaiting the next players.

Or is it the disaster and scandal? The word “Festina” for example, is a loaded shorthand in cycling, not only for the 1998 doping scandal to which it specifically relates but to multiple Tours and races around that watershed. It has become shorthand for a generation of doped riders, a decade of tainted memories. Is this what makes a Tour?

Our desire to reduce complex narrative to a singular moment, place or phrase is as old as complex narrative itself. Richard III? “A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse..” And it’s no different for the Tour, itself a uniquely complex sporting narrative. The 1910 Tour is often reduced to Lapize’s vicious words, spat at the Tour organisers who introduced the high mountains to the already punishing early editions, “Vous êtes Assassins. Oui, des assassins!“. The 2001 Tour is usually presented as no more than ‘The Look’ Armstrong gave to Ullrich on the lower slopes of Alpe d’Huez before accelerating alway to yet more yellow-clad glory. The Inner Ring’s often excellent, precise précis of more recent races, “The Moment The Race was Won” is this same desire writ large. We love complexity in our sport but we love it even more when we can distill that complexity back into something simple again.

On the face of it, Richard Moore’s ‘Étape’ (Harper Sport, RRP £20) seeks to achieve that self-same distillation. At a recent event where he spoke about the book, he said that his aim was, “To tell the story of the Tour de France through a few of it’s finest stages”. An exercise in reductivism if there ever was one. But the opposite is also true. By focussing in on a single stage from a particular Tour he can, to a certain extent, ignore the narrative of the Tour itself and tell a story that is perhaps more of a wider truth. In some of the chapters in the book he is even able to ignore the result of the actual stage itself – for the truth that he is relating, be it one of suffering, or camaraderie, or hope, or despair (or even all four) is a more universal one. Instead of reducing the wider narrative down to that of a single moment, he seeks to use those microscopic moments to throw open the narrative as wide as possible, and encourage parallels, not only with those who have gone before, but of those who will come later. Contrary to all the surface evidence, this is not just a book of potted cycling histories. It’s also a guidebook charting the highs and lows of the endeavour required to try, fail, succeed or survive any trial of physical or psychological challenge.

Of course, there is a lot of history to be found within the twenty chapters. Cannily, Moore imposed a time limit on how far he might look back and also demanded of himself that he get a new interview for each chosen tale to offer a fresh perspective. He spoke about this as well saying that, “There are two hundred riders on every stage. That’s two hundred stories. And generally we only hear one or two versions of a stage. I wanted to find some of the other stories.”

One of the obvious places to look for ‘other stories’ is at the ‘other end’ of the peloton.. Whilst the action rages at the front for honours and glory, there are equally gruelling battles being fought at the back. For team mates, for pride, for survival. Moore’s decision to ask Mark Cavendish about his hardest day on the Tour, inevitably one of the high mountain days, is a window into a world that we rarely see. And is all the better for it. His duet of pain with his mountain minder Bernhard Eisel is a touching picture of friends suffering together, falling out together, making up together.

Elsewhere we find that the untold stories are, in fact, at the very front of the peloton. The story of the second biggest winning margin on a single stage – told in apparent fullness by the press in print at the time – turns out to be quite different from the recorded facts. An overly long lunch stop by the press corps in 1976 meant that the details of the stage win by little known Spanish rider José Luis Viejo was, in many respects, fabricated by the journalists when they realised that they had missed the action. So even when there is a story out there, we find there is sometimes another version of it.

Of course the more well known Giants of the Road are represented as well. Bernard Hinault acts as a recurring touchpoint throughout the book, which goes back as far as Merckx, but Lemond, Ocaña and, potentially controversially, Lance Armstong also figure along with Fignon, Roche, Maertens, Chiappucci, Pantani, Schleck, Herrera and Boardman. The inclusion of Armstrong makes more sense in this book than it would in an equally celebratory volume with a different set-up. In his interview with Armstrong, poignantly held on the golf course, the banned Texan makes a fair point, “Those Tours happened.” Although the results have since been deleted (much to Armstrong’s ongoing chagrin) the story of the actual stage remains as relevant and fascinating as it was the day we first watched it.

Armstrong is a central pillar in the book. Just like the other five-time winners covered – Merckx, Hinault and Indurain – his dominance at the time cannot be ignored. But here, as with real life of late, he doesn’t get the last word. Moore gives that to Greg Lemond, the boy who came back from the dead to conquer the Tour twice more. Along with the opening chapter on Chris Boardman’s exploits in the Prologue Time Trials of the Indurain era, these sweet-tasting book-ends do much the counter some of the sourness that needs to be covered elsewhere. In other chapters it is the fruits of Moore’s new interviews that add the flavour – as well as a feel good punchline to Bobby Julich’s story about his tussle with Pantani and Ullrich in 1998, there’s a peek inside the diabolically soft-furnished world of Chiappucci’s Italian apartment and an uncomfortable revelation by Freddy Maertens about the true location of Pollentier’s infamous bulb of unadulterated urine..

Étape is an unusual (but excellent) book. I had thought I would be able to pick it up and put it down at will, reading a chapter here, a chapter there, in splendid isolation from the others. But that proved difficult. There is a structure that binds the stories together, a hidden narrative that swells as the pages turn. But each chapter also has to forge a new beginning, introduce new characters and goals, reveal new alliances and enmities. It’s like the sea coming in, wave after wave hitting the shore. We can choose to see it as a number of waves or more simply as one turn of the tide.. But it’s also more complex than either alone. Each tide has its waves and each wave has its own stories; different and unique from the last, the next, or another. And if you just catch a few waves, as Moore has brilliantly done in this latest offering, you’ll know that there are millions more stories out there waiting to be found.

Étape is available now