Darts fever has been gripping the nation since Christmas week. First the stars of the PDC clashed at Alexandra Palace in one version of the World Championships. This weekend sees the final of the BDO World Championships from the Lakeside in Frimley Green.
Darts and cycling have long been happy bed-fellows. Many a cycling club's social calendar revolves around frequent trips to the oche in search of a double one finish.
Cycling Weekly's Matt Lamy is just one of the staff that enjoys a game of arrows now and again.
We look back at the Thursday before the Tour de France prologue when a team representing our sister magazine Cycle Sport challenged top pros Filippo Pozzato, Enrico Degano, Charly Wegelius and Geraint Thomas to a few legs of 501.
Forty-eight hours before the start of the biggest race in the world and four of the Tour's riders took time out to visit a pub in Croydon to play a game they were barely familiar with. This is what happened....
This article, by the captain of the journalists' team, Matt Lamy, first appeared in Cycle Sport
TOE TO THE OCHE
Now let's get this straight. Nobody was more excited than Cycle Sport at the prospect of the 2007 Tour de France coming to Britain. After 13 years of praying for the greatest race in the world to visit these shores, the news that London would host the Grand Départ was a dream come true.
But in the months running up to the big event we became a little concerned. We are used to promoting a minority sport, featuring precious few British competitors, to a largely uninterested British public, but then things started to change.
When even the Daily Mail started bigging up cyclists we felt the ?entente? was a becoming a shade too 'cordiale'. The last thing we wanted was our Cheddars overcome by pungent cheeses, our Earl Grays disappearing in favour of frothy lattes, and our women growing all giggly at suave Continental charm. Not on your nelly.
So in the days leading up to the big race we invited four Tour riders down to Cycle Sport's local in Croydon for a good old-fashioned game of British darts to remind them, and the rest of their visiting chums, just who the lords of this particularly green and pleasant manor are.
Filippo Pozzato's quirky arrows action was not without its success
The evening didn't start well. To be fair it was the Thursday before the prologue, so we were amazed any Tour competitors had agreed to this at all, but the scheduled meeting time of 5.30pm came and went with nary a sniff of a foreign body.
Although I'm sure the riders themselves couldn?t wait to get down the Surrey Cricketers for a sharp half and a tuck-in to our specially prepared cold buffet, they phoned to say they had spent all day doing PR duties and were running late. That in itself wasn't a problem, but due on the oche at 8 o'clock was a particularly important round of the local ladies' darts league, and our excuse to them - that one of the visiting team was having a massage - wasn't cutting much ice.
Massage does not feature in any accepted British reason for late arrival, and when we explained the situation to the waiting ladies squad they said to us that if any of their number pulled a stunt like that they would be told, in no uncertain terms, to have a word with themselves. We pointed out that the chaps we were waiting for were Continentals, rolled our eyes a bit, and good humour was restored.
Even so, we couldn't help wondering if the delay was a cunning piece of Euro-trickery to put us off our stroke. To the unwitting it might seem a good idea to let your adversaries stew - and get stewed - in a pub. Perhaps that would hinder their game, blur their vision, and break their nerve.
If that was our Continentals' ploy it was a rudimentary error of judgement. Darts is the one sport where alcohol is a permitted performance-enhancer - that's why former world champion Andy Fordham used to consume the contents of a small independent brewery on his way to the reinforced stage at Lakeside.
Ironically cycling is another sport where alcohol has been used as a stimulant, but rather than experiment with the lethal brandy and arsenic cocktail favoured by early Tour riders, on this occasion we decided to try our hand at the equally deadly combo of Carling and pork scratchings. So, if the riders really were having a massage, then we very much doubted they were getting as well lubed as we were.
SHELL-SUITED AND BOOTED
At 7.30pm, and with the ladies' team growing palpably nervous at the prospect of reduced oche time, our four Continental foes appeared. In all honesty it actually took three or four takes to verify that these really were our visiting rivals, such was the ease with which these shell-suited visions fitted into the Croydon landscape. The recurrent nightmares I had been having of playing darts in a packed pub with Lycra-clad waifs were banished in an instant. Admittedly their trackies were a tad on the bright side, but they had made the effort, and were dressed for some serious competition.
We shook hands and did the pleasantries, first with Geraint Thomas - a good honest Brit yet to be tainted by European life; then Charly Wegelius - fully converted to the ways of the Continental with fancy specs and highlighted hair; Enrico Degano - your typical rustic-looking Mediterranean; and finally Filippo Pozzato - tousled blond locks, pretty boy looks, and a certain Continental cockiness; we knew we'd have to watch him. To make matters worse Pozzato was making the ladies? team swoon.
It would be churlish not to admit that even CS's menfolk were a little overawed by the Milan-San Remo winner's presence, but we couldn't let it get to us. We were here to do battle and uphold British honour. So the drinks orders were taken - orange juice for young Thomas, Guinness for Wegelius, and halves of lager each for Degano and Pozzato - then it was down to business.
We decided to play a full team game of 501, finishing with a double. Thomas grabbed the bully by the horns and stepped up first. Despite using borrowed darts he seemed to instinctively have a feel for the board, and popped in a smart 75. Crikey, I thought, if this guy can finish we might be in trouble. We countered with a rather weedy 40 ? still, early days.
Next came Wegelius, and a technique of seemingly random throwing bagged him a decent score. The Continentals hadn?t opened up a massive gap on us, but already we were faltering in comparison. The mental strength of professional sportsmen was making the difference and our pre-match prediction that they would crumble under the pressure of the oche was beginning to look hopeful. Surely the fact that three out of the four of them had obviously never touched a dart in their lives before would give us the advantage that we needed?
Degano was the third foreigner to throw his arrows, and he also did enough to help extend the visiting team?s lead. By now our darts were flitting between the 5 and the 1, but rarely landing at the 20 betwixt. But our confidence was rebooted as Pozzato stepped up for his go. He was using a set of loaned Norwood Paragon darts, and while that may have been a coup for the South London club, it did Pozzato no favours at all. He had one of the worst actions you are ever likely to witness at an oche (see box), but even he was at least hitting scoring sections of the board.
Slowly both totals were whittled down, but the Continental oche novices were well ahead when it came to reaching a possible finishing shot. They got down to needing 17. Wegelius faced the board, legs firm, back straight, and let fly an arrow that landed plum centre of the single 17 bed. ?Is that it, have we won?? he asked quite sincerely. I must admit to a moment to weakness and I was fully prepared to let them have the victory, until one of their entourage told them that they had to finish on a double. Game back on.
Meanwhile, we were left with 40 ? ?double tops? ? to finish. I stepped up to the oche and, bang, in she flew, first dart. I couldn?t believe it. There was an explosion of applause from the CS squad, matched by an equal implosion of confusion from the Continental contingent, so I made my way nonchalantly back to the electronic scoreboard to prepare for game two.
Barloworld's Enrico Degano ? not bad for a foreign sort
THREE IN A BED
I didn't want to make a big thing of it and embarrass our guests ? there should be no gloating, for that is not the British way - and luckily the atmosphere of the situation was altered as our good publican chose this moment to bring out the cold buffet. For some reason our guests looked upon it with less than admiring glances. I can only guess it was down to the lack of Continental fare on display. No Quiche Lorraine or vol-au-vents here, mes amis, oh no ? in Surrey we class a Scotch egg as foreign food.
Just as I was digging in to a good honest egg sandwich, the evening witnessed a rather nasty turn of events. Let me be clear, what I am about to describe was not instigated by any of the visiting team or their companions, but somebody said, aloud: ?So that was just the practice game, wasn?t it? The next game is the one that counts, isn?t that right?? Before whispering in my ear ??and make sure you don?t win this one.?
Now this somebody was obviously unaware of the sanctity of the oche. No man would dare sully the game of darts with this sort of funny business. Those kinds of shenanigans might happen on the Continent, but not in this country, not in this pub, not on my watch. And besides, I had yet to feel a roll of crisp notes pressed between my bling-encrusted digits. I?ve heard about the way foreign competition works and, as far as I was concerned, until I saw the ?Duane Eddys?, it was game on, again.
So the ?real? game started much as the first. We were slow to score while Wegelius seemed to have found some form and was popping in a collection of big numbers. Every arrow was counting for the Continentals, even if it wasn?t necessarily netting a high score. We were only kept in the game by an inspired, some would say out of character, contribution of 92 from CS man Richardson.
Before we knew it, and well before anybody could have reasonably predicted, both teams were down to a finish. First in line, the Continentals, needing 65. Wegelius stepped up to the oche and planted an impressive 62. In any other circumstances that would have been a superb score, but right here, right now, that left his team with a target of 3 ? the most horrific challenge that can face any amateur arrowsman ? a single 1 followed by a double 1. The dreaded ?Madhouse?.
Meanwhile the CS squad had finally found the ability to point their darts where they wanted and had used some effective on-the-hoof maths to get within range of a decent double. Our man, Ben ?the Stoat? Smith, whittled it down to perfection to leave me with the pro?s finish of 16, double 8.
Back to the Continentals? target of 3. I couldn?t see it happening, and I certainly didn?t want to see it happen, but in the spirit of traditional British sporting behaviour I pointed out to Degano, the next Continental due to attack the board, where he had to land his darts. Degano had already been impressive with accurate arrows in the first game. Seeing as he had doubled his total lifetime darting experience in the 10 minutes since then, I held my breath. And it was another sterling effort, but he just pulled his arrow over the wire and into the 18 bed. The way was open for me to relax, take my time, and sew this little challenge up.
In hindsight, it?s pretty poor form to invite people out for a drink and then beat them at a game they have never played before, and it probably would have been a fine example of British decency if we had let them win. But ever since that moment I have tried to convince myself that the only way our guests could have won would have been to a) kept playing until the morning of the prologue by which time the laws of probability dictate that they should have scored their 3; or b) scrapped the scoring game in favour of a winner-takes-all, nearest-the-bull competition. I simply refuse to decide a game with nearest the bull, so I decided it was best to try to finish it in the time-honoured fashion.
In reality my ire had been raised, and with those menacing, hushed words: ??and make sure you don?t win?, mentally taunting me, I cried God for Harry, England and Bobby George and stepped up to the oche.
Geraint Thomas ? The Lakeside surely beckons
I took a deep breath and aimed for the double 8. The dart almost glided out of my hand, and it immediately felt good. But it missed the target, scraping along the inside wire and nestling in the single 8 bed. That meant I had two darts to attempt double 4, a far more difficult proposition that the double 8. Still, I didn't think about it.
Time triallists say that when you're really in the zone in a TT you barely register what is going on around you. When you're at the highest level of darts it is very much the same. I was almost in a trance as I let that arrow fly and it sailed straight and true into the double 4. We had won, and this time our foreign friends knew it. Mumbled congratulations were followed by ?grazie?s, Wegelius sucked some more froth off the top of his Guinness, and then there was an obvious desire to get out of this refuge of vice back to their hotel.
After they had posed for some photos, we took the opportunity to show our new Continental chums 'what they could have won' - a borrowed Menorcan hill-climb trophy with three darts Sellotaped to the back. It's a testament to cyclists? insatiable thirst for victory that they looked genuinely disappointed - dream on boys, maybe next year.
Charly Wegelius, not a natural on the oche but a handy scorer
|TALE OF THE TAPE|
FILIPPO '180' POZZATO (Liquigas)
Cycling career: Winner of stage three of the 2007 Tour, past winner of Milan-San Remo, Het Volk, HEW-Cyclassics Cup and Tirreno-Adriatico
Darting pedigree: In the British army, officers must be able to do double the work of the soldiers in their command. Pozzato may be something of an officer in the peloton, but his habits at the oche would have had him cleaning the toilets with his toothbrush. After letting his arrows fly he repeatedly committed the cardinal sin of retiring with his darts left where they had landed, still in the board. Poor form.
His throwing technique itself was questionable. While he initially impressed some of the female fans with his glinting teeth and chiselled features, any woman who knew her arrows was disappointed when he got some tungsten in his hands ? we almost needed to employ the Heimlich manoeuvre to one member of the waiting ladies? team who choked on her chicken-in-a-basket when she saw his action at the oche. (Ladies, stop fooling yourselves ? a man can have the looks, or he can have the arrows, but never the twain shall meet.)
Yes, the arrow did reach full distance, but with ?180? that involved employing a technique that was all but a javelin throw short of a run-up. Indeed, he assumed the nickname ?180? not because of an ability to knock in three treble 20s, but because that was the angle his throwing arm moved through to launch the dart. The power came directly from the shoulders, and it made for some pretty wayward targetting.
Having said that, when I offered to swap the Norwood Paragon flights he was using for some that depicted a 1970s topless woman he seemed to unconsciously employ much more of a wrist action and the grouping got tighter.
GERAINT 'WELSH WIZARD' THOMAS (Barloworld)
Cycling career: Winner of Flèche du Sud; World Track Champs team pursuit gold medal; youngest rider in 2007 Tour de France field
Darting pedigree: Immediately after a human baby is born it possesses an amazing ability to hold its own weight with a natural clinging strength, which is a biological remnant from when we were all monkeys. Modern human babies do not need this ability and gradually lose it in the weeks after birth. When a Briton is born, he too possesses an amazing natural ability to throw an arrow straight and true, perhaps a remnant from Agincourt and all those centuries when we had heated debates with our European cousins. Modern Britons do not need this ability, and hanging about with Continentals will cause him to lose it.
Thankfully the ?Welsh Wizard? has had only a relatively short period abroad, meaning his in-born talent has yet to be supplanted by an advanced boules action, and he was obviously the most naturally proficient at the oche. Anyone could see he knew his way round the board, and his initial three-dart salvo scored an impressive 75, including a treble 20.
I don?t know if it was the embarrassment at outshining his more experienced day-job comrades, or wistful reminiscences of long days spent at the board in hometown pubs back in the valleys, but the youngster lost a little bit of concentration as the match progressed. I think I noticed his eyes grow ever so slightly moist when he popped in that first treble 20 and perhaps the emotion got to him ? and when that happens there is nowhere to hide at the oche.
Geraint, remember: if you keep a secret it can destroy you ? keep playing your darts loud and proud.
ENRICO 'DOUBLES' DEGANO (Barloworld)
Cycling career: Stage winner at Tour of Langkawi, Star Elektrotoer and Tour of Britain; first man down the starting ramp at this year?s London prologue
Darting pedigree: Before he stepped up to the board the most obviously foreign-looking member of the Continental quartet had little to recommend him as a potential arrowsman. Born in Italy, and having spent his life racing for European teams, I thought he was a journeyman here to make up the numbers. I don?t mind admitting I was wrong.
?Doubles? is a pro cyclist, so he is a thin fella. But I could sense that behind his Team Barloworld shellsuit, a beer-belly (or natural darts ballast, as we like to call it) was just begging to be developed. His initial technique wasn?t far behind that of ?the Wizard?, but more importantly he seemed to revel in the pressure of the oche, and had the good grace to pay close attention as we offered him darts pointers.
He was without doubt the only member of the Continental team that I feared when it came to finishing, and while he didn?t quite pop a dart in the correct doubles bed ? he remarkably hit the doubles bed just to the side of his target ? ?Doubles? was by far the closest marksman when it came to banging in a winner.
CHARLY 'DEAD EYE' WEGELIUS (Liquigas)
Cycling career: Liquigas?s top mountain domestique
Darting pedigree: Unlike the ?Welsh Wizard? old ?Dead Eye? has a birth heritage that is a tad more convoluted. He has a funny surname, he was born in Finland, and he has been mixing with the Continentals for far longer than can be considered healthy. My hopes for him weren?t high as he approached the oche.
Although nowhere near as Continentally flamboyant as ?the Power?s full-arm extension, ?Dead Eye? didn?t quite have the correct wrist work needed for tidy grouping. He was obviously sighting the board well, and aiming his arrows with due care, but they just weren?t flying straight enough. However, his technique seemed to come good just as the match was drawing to a close, with scores of 41, 53 and 62 forming the most impressive contribution in the final game.
Sadly ?Dead Eye? was also the author of the worst shot of the game, when he let fly a half-hearted dart that not only missed the board but took out one of the pub?s decorative vintage-style Guinness posters.
Finally the Cycle Sport boys find their calling. James Shrubsall, Ben Smith, Simon Richardson and Matt Lamy with their trophy.
OCHE: the line at which the darts player stands to throw his darts ? generally set at 7ft 9in from the board
CHECK-OUT: a final score that can be achieved by three darts, the last one of which must be a double
FLIGHTS: the plastic, four-bladed
stability aid at the back of the dart
FINISHING: games can only be won on a double. For example, the highest finishing score is 40 ? ?double tops? or double 20
MADHOUSE: needing a score of 2 ? double 1 ? to finish
BED AND BREAKFAST: a score of 26 achieved by hitting 20, 5 and 1
Champagne breakfast: a score of 78 achieved by hitting treble 20, treble 5 and treble 1
To Rory Mason and the guys at Cannondale who managed to convince our four riders to visit an English pub two days before the Grand Départ.
"James, you require two." Cycle Sport's Shrubby takes aim at double one. Again.
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