Highs and lows

My Premiership side, AVFC, started the season by losing 0-2 at home to Wigan! Wigan! Then lost  in the Europa Cup 0-1 away to Rapid Vienna. All in all not an auspicious start to the season. Last week end, they won 1-3 away at Anfield. We’ve not won there since 2001. Villa nearly always play Liverpool early on in the season and despite  good performances from the lads we would generally be undone by a goal of the month (if not the season).  Things were now looking a whole lot better.

Villa won 2-1 on Thursday in the home leg against Rapid Vienna. They could have, should have won by more. An aggregate score of 2-2, with away goals counting double, meant Villa were out for the count. Not even a case of falling at the first hurdle, more a failure to get out of the blocks. Yesterday they beat Fulham 2-0 at home. Never playing beyond themselves, just doing enough to snuff out Fulham. Nerves steadied once more.

My local French side, OGC Nice  started the season brightly with an away win (0-2) at St Etienne and a home draw against Rennes: so far, so good. Last week end they played away at Bordeaux: last season’s league winners and a team in impressive form. A team who are home to one of the best manager’s in the league and easily (IMHO) the best looking player, Yoan Gourcuff, pictured here.

Yoann Gourcuff
Yoann Gourcuff

OGCN suffered what every commentator agreed was a 4-0 crushing defeat. This Saturday, they were home to Montpelier, a recently promoted side. They lost 0-3! Commentators again concluded that it was a crushing defeat which could have been oh so much worse had it not been for our Columbian goalkeeper, Ospina. The only man to be awarded a score over 5 in the newspapers for his efforts. In fact some commentators went so far as to say that they had never, ever seen such a pathetic performance. The defence went missing. Literally in the case of Apam, usually our most reliable defender, who was sent off for two yellow cards. Remy tried hard, but as the lone striker ahead of a clueless midfield, his efforts were never going to amount to much. I wasn’t there (too busy watching the Vuelta Prologue) but I would guess that they were roundly booed off by the crowd.

The boss is back

I sat down yesterday afternoon to watch the Vuelta Prologue from the Moto GP track in Assen. What a great idea, it put me in mind of a lot of the old photos in my cycling books where races often finished in stadia. The place was packed and the wall of sound was amazing everytime a Dutch rider or a rider on a Dutch team took to the track.

It was a real shame about the weather although most of the favourites benefitted from similar climatic conditions, a drying course, except David Millar who took to the track during the deluge. Probably just as well that bike handling maestro Denis Menchov had passed on the Vuelta this year, otherwise the bookies would have been taking bets on how long he would stay on his bike. I felt particularly sorry for Carlos Barredo whose bike slid down the start ramp ignominiously dumping him on his rump. Thereafter, the ramp was cloaked in what I assume was some sort of artificial grass to give the wheels some traction.

Heading for the gold jersey
Heading for the gold jersey

It was no great surprise that this man won yet another Prologue, it’s his forte. Next on GC were a whole host of sprinters. Again, no real shock on a short flat course. Then, there were a whole load of GC contenders, headed by Roman Kreuziger.

Personally, I was delighted to see this man in 7th place. Just look at the absolute

He's back!
He's back!

concentration on his face and doesn’t he look lean and mean? According to Nice Matin he was booed by some of the crowd. Why? Like Basso (and Millar), he’s done his time and is entitled to ride once again. He was the highest placed Astana man on GC and that’s where I expect him to remain. Don’t bet on him not getting on the podium.

Who would you be?

Recently while watching a stage of the Eneco Tour my husband asked ” if you were a professional rider, what type of rider would you be?” Now it would be nice to think of oneself as a multiple Grand Tour or stage winner, but that would just be wishful thinking, particularly in my case.

I decided to give the matter some serious thought. Of course, while I have the right attitude and mind set to compete at the highest level, I’m sadly lacking in that all important requirement: talent. Also, let’s not forget the almost total absence of the requisite bike-handling skills. I get skittish riding in a small group, riding in the peloton would totally freak me (and them) out. No good sending me back to collect the water bottles for the team. I don’t know about sticky bottle syndrome, I’d be off my bike and under the car’s wheels before the first handover had even taken place. I’d never be able to pick up a musette, much less empty it into my back pockets. Let’s face it, drinking one-handed is the sum total of my accomplishments.  The peloton would soon learn to give me a wide berth, lest they end up all going down around me like dominoes.

So I guess I’d probably be either up the front as one of the regular escape artists or out the back endeavouring to make the cut, forever the lanterne rouge.  I’d be viewed as “courageuse” by commentators and spectators alike and probably prove popular with the team’s sponsor thanks to the amount of television and press coverage I would garner. I would of course need this to make up for my total lack of results.

I would also have to lose an awful lot of weight, again not my forte. Knowing my luck, I’d end up on a team that wore white shorts. Does my butt look big in this? You bet it does! Frankly, this is looking more and more like a nightmare scenario. Patently, I am unsuited to life in the professional peloton and I haven’t even mentioned the pay, which truly sucks for all but a handful of riders. There are much easier ways to earn a living.

Grilling tonight

What is it with guys and BBQ’s? Could someone please explain. Many years ago I allowed my husband to purchase one. There followed many unfortunate evenings of half-cooked or alternatively burnt food until I suggested a modified menu: fillet steak or fish (in tin foil parcels). Of course, as my reward, I always got to clean up the not inconsiderable mess left behind by his culinary pretensions.

When we moved to a flat in central London, my husband gave the beloved BBQ to his brother, but he has always hankered after a replacement. We still live in an apartment and, even though we’ve already had one close brush with death by fire, my husband is always looking longingly at them in the garden centre.

While on vacation earlier this summer in Austria, I found a suitable halfway house. It’s a powerful electric grill, easy to clean (yes, I’m still in charge of cleaning up) and quick to use. Ideal for all cuts of meat (without bones), fish, sandwiches, vegetables, French toast etc etc. We have found it particularly good for duck breasts. It renders the fat, but doesn’t overcook the meat. My husband is now as happy as Larry and, on those rare occasions when he’s home, is happy to experiment with his new toy which he has on a special table out on the balcony, to add authenticity to the experience.

Yesterday evening, a girlfriend came over for a swim and stayed for dinner. My husband was able to demonstrate the full range of his domestic capabilities by cooking her duck breast “a point” and opening a bottle of wine. I’m sure she was suitably impressed. Even better, it took me less than 5 minutes to clean up after him.

Everything and nothing

A combination of my recurring chest infection, the heat and a whole load of work has meant that I’ve probably spent more time than I would have liked indoors over the past week or so. On the plus side, this has allowed me to watch the Eneco Tour, Tour du Limousin, Tour of Ireland, GP de Plouay and some of the action from the athletics in Berlin.

Specifically, I had to check out how Romain Mesnil fared in the pole vault. You may recall this was the gentleman who ran around Paris naked, with only his pole for company, in order to attract a new sponsor. Apparently, it had the desired effect plus, according to L’Equipe, he now has a large female fan club. There were three Frenchman in the pole vault final, with Mesnil finishing second. This was sufficient for him to get his kit off yet again though his modesty, in the photos I saw, was safeguarded by the French flag.

The live racing I watched was notable for a couple of things: Boonen back to winning ways as the Eneco Tour went through his home turf; Cavendish notching up his 21st win of the season in Ireland; Russell Downing holding off a stellar bunch of names to clinch the overall in the Tour of Ireland and Simon Gerrans coming nicely into form with a win at GP de Plouay.

I am of course now looking forward to seeing Messrs Valverde, Sanchez and Vinokourov duking it out in the Vuelta. I already have an hors category mountain of ironing to keep me occupied during the first few days, while the Vuelta is in N Europe.

Cycling, even at a gentle pace, in this heat is tiring: doubly so with my cough. Last Friday, I rode up to Tourrettes-sur-Loup and had there been no one around I could have quite happily dived fully clothed into the village fountain. Instead, I had to be content with dousing myself with several bidons worth of cooling water.

It’s also been very humid which has a disastrous effect on my hair, when it’s not confined under my helmet. Do you remember that episode in Friends where Monica plays table tennis in the Bahamas and her hair looks as if she’d stuck her finger in an electric socket. Yes, well mine’s not quite that bad but you get the general idea.

A girlfriend has likened the effect of the current weather conditions as one big, long, hot flush. Since I’ve never had one of those, nor do I want one, I’m prepared to take her word for it.

Heaven

Looking back on some of my recent posts, I realise that my one regular reader now probably thinks that I don’t enjoy cooking. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although to be fair, it’s a passion that was almost extinguished in home economics classes at school.

I fortunately come from a long line of great cooks and parents with a background in food. My maternal grandmother had one of those old fashioned corner shops that was the hub of a small community, not a stone’s throw from Villa Park. While my father, having moved from Portsmouth to Birmingham to play for the Villa youth squad, ended up working for (and eventually owning) the  Chairman’s wholesale fish business.

As a child, I ate out frequently in some of the best restaurants in Europe. A habit which has persisted down the years and it’s my proud boast that, thanks to years of extensive training from my Dad, I can locate a good restaurant with my eyes shut.

I never cooked a great deal, or indeed with much success, until I got a part-time Saturday job in a restaurant. Initially, as a waitress, but later I started cooking breakfasts on Saturday mornings and soon received a ringing endorsement from the local press by being voted the provider of  “Best Breakfast in Birmingham”.

I continued cooking at University, where I pleaded for and got self-catering accommodation.  It’s said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Particularly true in the case of my better half, whom I met at University and wooed with my burgeoning cookery skills. Fortunately, he was an easy catch. His mother is, head and shoulders, one of the worst cooks I have ever had the misfortune to meet. I’m fond of saying “her cooking should carry a government health warning”. 

When we first married, I was still at University and we had very little money. As Xmas presents, I made up hampers with my home made preserves, Xmas cakes and puddings. I just loved spending hours in the kitchen. At one time I recall making over 20 Xmas cakes. It was almost becoming a cottage industry.

When we relocated to London, and I was working in the City, I rarely had much time to indulge myself in the kitchen. Though, whenever possible, I enjoyed entertaining friends and family, I still do.

For me one of the joys of living in France is daily access to some of the finest seasonal produce and having the time to experiment in the kitchen. For the first time in I don’t know how many years, I have started making my own preserves again, most of which get distributed among friends, neighbours and family. I enjoy baking cakes for my club’s pointages and afternoon tea with my neighbours. But probably, most of all, I just enjoy sharing wonderful produce with family and friends.

Hot, hotter, hottest

The weather this week has been very hot and steamy. Indeed, yesterday was officially the hottest day of the year. However, I have been holed up indoors thanks to the return of my chest infection. I can only attribute this to to my husband’s overenthusiastic use of the air conditioning in the car and our hotel bedroom last week. My lungs do not respond well to savage swings in temperature. Of course, I could have said that as a finely tuned athlete my immune system is compromised, but we all know that’s not true!

While it’s no fun being home alone and feeling ill. I can tell you it’s a lot better than being home with my husband and feeling ill. Since I am always so capable, any incapacity on my part seems to render him totally incapable. Yes, I could be at death’s door and he’ll still expect to be fed at regular intervals. My mother in law (aka the outlaw) is fond of saying that Richard arrived in time for breakfast and hasn’t missed a meal since – too right.

He’s in Canada until Sunday and has been emailing me regular updates on his horse fly bite. Yes, that is bite singular. Now, I admit, he was probably bitten by the jaws equivalent of the horse fly world but I really don’t think there was ever any danger of sepsis or loss of limb.  

I feel much better this morning and am hoping to get out on my bike

Tourette-du-Chateau
Tourette-du-Chateau

 tomorrow and Saturday for a couple of gentle rides. Gentle being a technical term for a Zone 1 training ride. Sunday’s pointage involves my first time up a steep climb to Tourette-du-Chateau via Bonson. I will need to get an early start, probably ahead of the club, as the pointage closes at 11:00am.

Postscript: I see I’m in good company. Bert “big brown eyes” Contador has pulled out of this week end’s GP de Plouay with a cold while Bert “too much to” Grabsch is out of the Tour of Ireland thanks to a bout of bronchitis.

Unwanted

I have worked as a volunteer at the last three Road World Cycling Championships making lots of new friends and much enjoying the experience. I volunteered this year for Mendrisio, offering, as requested, to work once again in Accreditations where my prior experience, multiple languages and knowledge of the cycling world was deemed to be a big advantage.

Having applied, I received confirmation of my application and then an email in mid-May advising that I would know my role by the end of July. I’m in regular contact with a number of those that I met last year in Varese, 10km down the road from Mendrisio, and they told me at the end of June that they would once again be working in Accreditations. Prior experience being much sought after. When I still hadn’t heard anything in early August, I sent a gentle and politely worded reminder to one of the organizers. I heard nothing.

Meanwhile, one of my German friends Ute, a veteran of volunteering, heard that her services would not be required. Having already booked her vacation, paid for her travel and accommodation, she successfully threw herself on the mercy of the organizing committee, who relented and gave her a job on the Press Centre Welcome Desk. She advised me to do the same.  I did, but was advised that the Committee had made an executive decision not to take any volunteers from outside the region.

To some extent, I can sympathise and understand. They already had plenty of volunteers with prior experience on their doorstep. Looking again at their mid-May email, I see all the addressees were from outside the area, so why not let us know early on, not 6-weeks before the start? Who knows?  Anyway, today I received official confirmation that I would not be required in a letter addressed to “Signor Sheree”. Shows how much notice they took of

Mendrisio 2009 pin
Mendrisio 2009 pin

 my application! To soften the blow they sent me a pin which would grant me free transport on the regional buses during the Championships. I shall of course still go and, to be honest, am now looking forward to having time to catch up with all the people I know who will be attending and, more importantly,  having both the time and the opportunity to ride the course.

Of course, this has not dented my enthusiasm for volunteering. Indeed, I have already pre-registered as a volunteer for Melbourne 2010.

First game

Yesterday evening I went to my first home match of the new season where OGC Nice were taking on Rennes and facing not only the curse of a returning

Nice v Rennes
Nice v Rennes

player in Rod Fanni but also a returning manager in Antonetti. Watching the players line up at the start, I had forgotten that Rennes are one of the biggest sides, in terms of the height of their players, in the 1st division while we’re one of the smaller sides.

The first half started in a lively enough fashion, and with the ground at almost capacity, the fans were very vocal. But it then descended, possibly thanks to the heat, into a bit of a boring kick-around. Incredibly, Nice scored just before half-time: a real screamer from Ben Saada. This was cancelled out two minutes later when Nice conceeded a penalty in a hand ball, goal mouth bundle.

The second half was much livelier, but neither team looked capable of scoring again and Nice were unable to profit from their numerical advantage once Rennes were reduced to 10 men. The draw was a fair result. To my mind more worrying was the number of scouts sitting behind us watching and taking notes on the players. I know the transfer window hasn’t closed but, please, hands off our players, particularly Remy and Apam.

There are two glaring differences between watching Premiership football and the French first division: alcohol and away fans. Yesterday’s match took place at 17:00. No one would have gone for a drink before the match though it’s entirely possible that fans may have stopped off on the way home to share a glass of wine and discuss the finer points of the match. This means I’m not leaping to my feet every five minutes during the match to let someone get past me to go to the toilet. Nor am I overcome by alcoholic fumes from those in the neighbouring seats.

There are away fans at the match. Generally, there’s so few that it’s possible to count them. They are segregated on their own in a corner of the ground and guarded by a couple of stewards. These will be the fans that have travelled to Nice on the Stade Rennais coaches. The biggest away crowds are generally Marseille and St Etienne. Equally, there will be a number of away fans sitting with the home fans. You would never be allowed through the home-side turnstiles of a Premiership game wearing a strip from the opposition. If you did, you would immediately be ejected by the stewards. Here there’s no problem, the French, largely family, crowd is very laid back.

In conclusion, while the standard of football in the Premiership is superior to that of the French, alas the behaviour of the fans is not. I much prefer the easy, non-threatening ambiance of French matches.

More of the same

We’ve just gotten back from 4 days riding in the Vaucluse. We had thought about making another assault on Mont Ventoux, this time by way of Bedouin, but it was just too darn hot – late thirties. So we rose early, ate a quick breakfast, before setting off along the quiet country roads riding from one walled village to another before the mercury rose too far.

Gordes
Gordes

The terrain tends to be undulating with a number of false flats or steady climbs, puntuated by the odd short, steep climb.

The jungle drums must have been busy. In no time at all, the insect world had been informed of our arrival and were feasting on both of us. Yes, just as the last lot of horse fly bites were beginning to subside, I had a new batch. The Vauclusian ones were even bigger, but not as itchy.