Farewell to Gareth Barry

I’m often asked what I miss about the UK, usually in anticipation of me reciting a long list which includes family and friends, baked beans, Branston pickle or other such cherished culinary icons. I’m sure you can understand that my popularity quotient has risen immeasurably since my move from central London to the Cote d’Azur. I have a guest bedroom (just the one mind), so family and friends can come and visit. Because there’s a lot of Brits living here, or who have second homes, most supermarkets have a UK section. Here you’ll be able to find Marmite, Wall’s sausages, baked beans, Branston pickle, Bird’s custard powder, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk etc etc However, I have no need to buy any of these products. Indeed, I never bought them when I lived in the UK.

No, I miss watching live Premiership football. Specifically, I miss watching my team: Aston Villa. I listen to their matches on the internet and watch them on satellite TV. But any sports fan will tell you, there’s no substitute for watching a live match, race, game, whatever. If you were to ask me to describe my perfect day it would most definitely include watching my team win LIVE.

Because this blog is largely about cycling, you might be forgiven for thinking it was my first love. But no, that’s football. My maternal grandfather was a Villa fan. My mother grew up a stone’s throw away from the ground. My father moved from Portsmouth to play for Villa’s youth squad. If you cut my arm off my blood would run “claret and blue”. My first date with my husband was a football match, which Villa won. He often jokes that when he married me he promised to “love, honour, obey and support Aston Villa”.

We were for many years Villa season ticket holders and we travelled all over the country watching them play, home and away. I now have a season ticket for my local team, OGC Nice, but I can’t work up quite the same passion and enthusiasm as I do for the Villains. You might be wondering what has occasioned this outpouring. It’s simple: today, it was confirmed that Gareth Barry has played his last match for Villa. He’s moving to Manchester City; coincidentally, the subject of one of my favourite sporting books “Manchester United Ruined my Life” by Colin Schindler.

After 12 years of faithful service, Gareth is moving on and taking a bit of me with him. He’s not my favourite player ever, that’s Paul McGrath for whom the famous violinist Nigel Kennedy (yes, him of Four Season’s fame), penned “God is Paul McGrath”.  He’s not even a local, he was signed as a youth player from Brighton but he’s played 440 games in a Villa shirt and, as is right and proper, he’s (at long last – well done, Capello) regularly donning an England shirt. I wish him well and every success at Man City, but obviously not at the Villa’s expense.

Unfortunately, when you’re trying to break into the Big Four (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea) and fail, you run the risk that all those players you’ve so cannily bought and/or developed will be cherry picked by those clubs with bigger wallets and/or more (recent) trophies in the cabinet.

Friends along the way

I took up cycling really on a challenge from my husband who said I either had to start playing tennis again, take up golf or cycle. He kind of snorted out the third alternative and I’m quite sure he never expected me to take up cycling. It wasn’t even a case of reverse psychology.

I had just gotten back from working as a volunteer at the World Road Race Championships in Salzburg. One of the few occasions when the guys, the gals and the youngsters all take part and one gets to see six races in a few days. I had originally intended just to go and watch but when I went on the site to buy tickets, I noted that they were looking for volunteers, so I volunteered.

I had said that I was happy to do anything and, given my relative availability the organisers asked me to turn up a week before the racing started. I found myself a small, family-run,  B&B just outside of Salzburg and set off into the unknown on what turned out to be the first of many solo, cycling-related, road trips.

One packed lunch or two?

I spent my time in Salzburg largely looking after the volunteers. Firstly, I sorted and handed out the uniforms. These had been made in China and the sizing was all over the place. For example, I wore an XL t-shirt, a small jacket and medium trousers. Caps and bum-bags were thankfully all one-size. Thereafter, my new-found friend Valeria and I were in charge of distributing the packed lunches each day to the 2,000 volunteers. Yes, an army of volunteers does march on its stomach.

Home sweet home

Fortunately, our billet was round the back of the podium, next to all the TV wagons and their chow truck. Needless to say we were sitting pretty with refreshments on tap all day long.

We ensured that the packed lunches were distributed well before any racing started and then settled down in our ringside seats to enjoy the action.

During the podium ceremonies we were entrusted with the handbag of the Lady Governor of the province of Salzburg. This was our equivalent of a backstage pass and, as a consequence, got to meet and have our photos taken with some of the winners.

On the last day, after presenting the medals in the men’s road race, the presentation party left the podium via the back stairs. We were standing at the foot of the stairs, undertaking our bag guarding duties, and we duly shook hands and were thanked in turn by the afore-mentioned Governor, the Mayor of Salzburg and the President of Austria.

The best thing about this event wasn’t meeting the riders, or even seeing all the cycling up close and personal, it’s all the people that you meet along the way that make it such fun. Like this gentleman in the photo, Super Mario Cipolini.

Super Mario

He’d retired before my interest in cycling was borne and was therefore fairly ambivalent until I met him – what a charmer!

I’m looking forward to meeting up with some of the people I met at Salzburg at this year’s Le Grand Depart in Monaco, where I’ll be a volunteer and they’ll be spectators.

Last one back buys the drinks

High, strong winds woke me at 04:00 and I found it difficult to go back to sleep. Thanks to my tree pollen allergy my lungs and head felt very congested, not an auspicious sign. Our plan had been to set off ahead of the scheduled 07:30 start but my beloved was feeling tired, jet lag. I let him sleep a bit longer.

We have these early starts now down to a fine art. We get absolutely everything ready the night before so that we can be up and out of the flat in less than 20 minutes.

We set off with everyone else at 07:30. I sat on Vino’s wheel, he was riding at what for him must have been a very leisurely pace. The main bunch stayed pretty much together until the climb to Gattieres where I dropped back through the peloton like a stone. Yes, my congested lungs were giving me problems and I knew straight away that I’d have to settle for the 100km parcours. Not even my Stars’n’Bars were going to get me out of this one. Despite that my husband kindly rode with me all the way.

As we climbed up to Bouyon, the wind appeared to have died down. The weather was pretty idyllic, as was the scenery. It’s a lovely route and there’s very little traffic. After a fast descent into Roquesteron, we topped ourselves up at feed zone manned by my clubmates who were duly supportive of my efforts and, as usual, had put on an excellent spread.

In fact, if there were a cup for “Best Refreshments” I’m sure my club would win it hands down. Considering that there’s a trophy for everything else, I don’t see why not. In addition, it just might encourage those clubs, whose refreshments generally leave a great deal to be desired, to make more of an effort.

Catch me if you can

Having crested the leg sapping rise to Gillette, we descended and made our way to the finish along the Var valley into a strong headwind. You may be thinking that at this point I was sheltering behind my husband or at least we were taking it in turns to pull on the front. But no, he took my wheel and stayed there until the finish. I was quicker than last year, but not by much.

We finished just ahead of Vino, who had ridden the longer route. Apparently, he’d rung M Le President part-way into the course when one of the lead riders had suffered a mechanical. M Le President had to break the bad news to him that the nearest support car was the broom wagon. Undeterred, Vino chased down the car at the front of the peloton for assistance. Not quite what you might expect from a soon-to-be-again pro-tour rider. But suffice to say he’s a very kind and generous individual.

Everyone had finished by 15:45. If I had done the longer course, the latter stages of which were very windy, I might have just gotten back in time for the eagerly awaited tombola. Then again……………………..