Eurosport and Cyclist columnist Felix Lowe looks ahead at the pro cycling season and talks through some of his own personal riding goals for 2016.
For me cycling used to be very much a vicarious pastime – experienced from the comfort of my armchair as opposed to in the saddle.
Being that rare combination of a non-cycling cycling journalist all changed after Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and the Olympics came to London in 2012. A new column with Cyclist magazine required me to swap biro for bike and join the swelling population of those happy to put their privates on parade (let's face it, lycra's not a good look when you're as lanky as I am – unless you're wearing Svelte kit, of course).
A quick caveat: I'm even more of a fair weather cyclist than Wiggo. I've only taken my Felt Z4 out for a proper ride once this year even though it hasn't been that cold. But I have a sportive near Brighton – the Puncheur – looming at the end of February. There's also a potential jaunt to Flanders in the offing: a contact at Le Domestique Tours is cobbling together a day trip (leave 5am and return by 10pm) to ride some of the fabled pavé of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, guided by triple Flanders winner Johan Museeuw.
The Tour of Flanders is my favourite of the spring classics – more so than the other major cobbled classic, Paris-Roubaux, because of its brutal climbs. This year there'll be no John Degenkolb at either of these monuments after the reigning Roubaix champion and several Giant-Alpecin team-mates were taken out by a car while training. Although not fatal, the incident was a reminder to all us cyclists of the dangers of sharing the tarmac with four-wheeled vehicles. Particularly when they're being driven by elderly British tourists in Spain on the wrong side of the road.
In Degenkolb's absence, perhaps Swiss maestro Fabian Cancellara – a triple winner of both Flanders and Roubaix – can have a fitting swansong. Although following his performance on the cobbles in last year's Tour, I expect big things from Tony Martin in Roubaix. When it comes to classics, the German powerhouse has only previously ridden Liège-Bastogne-Liège – rather curious given his strengths.
Looking further ahead at the Grand Tours, I'm most excited about the Giro d'Italia. The prospect of Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde making his long-awaited debut in Italy is intriguing. Rangy Dutchman Tom Dumoulin will have the chance to prove his breakthrough performance in last year's Vuelta was no fluke, while 2013 winner Vincenzo Nibali will be the bookmakers' favourite.
For July's Tour de France it's hard to look beyond Chris Froome although I expect Nairo Quintana to run him even closer than last year. It will be interesting to see if Alberto Contador puts up a good fight: he'll be fresher after skipping the Giro in his final year as a pro. And there's Fabio Aru's mouthwatering Tour debut to factor in as well. As for the Vuelta, well, it's a fool's game making any predictions so soon – especially when we don't even know who'll be trying to save their season in Spain. What we do know is that the route has 10 hilltop finishes – perfect for us spectators watching on TV.
Sandwiched between the Tour and Vuelta, however, there's the small matter of the Transcontinental. I'm not sure if you've heard of this monstrosity but it's a 4,400-odd kilometre, self-supported, self-guided race from Belgium to Turkey – and you won't catch any of the pros mad enough to take part. No, because this is a grand tour reserved for us crazed amateurs (although Josh Ibbett's winning ride last year – rolling into Istanbul six minutes shy of 10 days – was something any pro would have been proud of).
The reason why I bring up the Transcontinental is that I was irrational enough to apply for a place in the pairs category alongside my mate Rowan. You can imagine our huge surprise – and minor trepidation – on learning our application had been accepted. We're under no illusions that we can win the thing (merely completing it would be an achievement) but we hope to give it a good crack.
Although now we're in our mid 30s and appreciate the simple things in life (a hearty meal, some wine, a good night's sleep), we both have a keen sense of adventure and some long-distance pedalling pedigree. Rowan has ridden down the west coast of America and I cycled from Barcelona to Rome a few years back (albeit my 2,800km jolly took the best part of a month, the longest day in the saddle a mere 185km).
The Transcontinental will be a whole different ball game. Apparently most riders sleep in a bivvy on the side of the road to save time. The thought of this alone makes me break out in a sweat. The race starts on the Muur Kapelmuur in Flanders on Saturday 30th July and ends in the Turkish port of Canakkale – to mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Gallipoli Campaign. In between, there are controls atop the Puy de Dome in the Massif Central, the Furkapass in the Swiss Alps, the Passo di Giau in the Dolomites and at Zabljak in Montenegro. A cyclo-tourist's heaven.
Mr Ibbett and his pals may laugh, but we've set ourselves a more-realistic-yet-still-pretty-daunting target of finishing in under three weeks. We'll have no choice: I'm due back at Eurosport to cover the Vuelta on Saturday 20th August.
A busy season will come to a close with the Rio Olympics and the World Championships (with Peter Sagan a shoo-in for Brazil and Mark Cavendish, perhaps, in Qatar). I also hope to do some more riding of my own in the Apuan Alps (my new favourite neck of the Tuscan woods). I'll then have to get writing. Because as much as the Transcontinental will be a life-changing challenge and awe-inspiring adventure in itself, I see it as ideal subject matter for my second book – think a young Michael Palin through the prism of gonzo cycling journalism. Wish me luck...
Felix Lowe is a London-based freelance writer and author of 'Climbs and Punishment: Riding to Rome in the Footsteps of Hannibal' (Bantam 2014). He covers all the major races for Eurosport.com and writes the website's popular Blazin' Saddles blog. A regular contributor and monthly Lasp Gast columnist with Cyclist, Felix also penned a chapter in the latest edition of the Cycling Anthology (Volume 6). When not cycling or writing about cycling, Felix likes to travel, take photos, read novels and watch films. He can be found on Twitter (@saddleblaze) and on Instagram (@blazinsaddles) and on his personal website, www.felixlowe.com.