Astana au Tour

This coming week-

end we have once again a combined pointage and cyclosportif. I took part in this last year because, having already completed my maiden trip up Col D’Eze during Paris-Nice, I knew exactly what to expect. This, you may recall, was the year Astana were banned from the Tour de France as a consequence of events at the previous year’s Tour. The club had planned to cycle up to the summit of the Col wearing “Astana au Tour” t-shirts, thoughtfully provided by Vino, to highlight the team’s plight to one Christian Prudhomme.

Having refueled at Vino’s restaurant in Nice over lunchtime, we split into groups to head off up the Col. I was partnered with a much younger couple who promised to take it slowly on my account. It took us some time to find our way onto the Grande Corniche and I therefore anticipated that my club mates would arrive at the summit well ahead of me. The first few kms are quite tough and it was a very warm afternoon in early March. The younger couple started to flag, so I left them behind.

I ascended at my pace (painfully slow), stopping every so often for a quick drink. As I reached the last km, there were a number of club mates watching from the roadside who gave me plenty of verbal encouragement. Soon others had joined in and I felt emboldened to go as fast as I could: still pretty slow. At the summit there was no sign of the other riders.

A quick call to M le President confirmed they’d been delayed by a puncture and could no longer ascend to the summit, as the road had been closed by the police.  This was going to be a one woman protest: probably not so visually forceful. However, I did manage to attract the eye of Prudhomme as he was driven past and I featured prominently in the television coverage!

 

 

Old friends

Catching up with old friends is one of the more enjoyable aspects of attending the Championships. I first met the gentleman below in  Stuttgart (2007). He’s first and foremost a passionate and knowledgable supporter of cycling and has been to more world championships (road, track, masters juniors) than I’ve had hot dinners.

Bert and Me
Bert and Me

 I understand he was a keen cyclist in his youth and spent time in London after the war learing his trade before returning to New Zealand and taking up a number of key roles in NZ cycling. Nowadays, he’s NZ’s UCI representative and still does some media liaison work.

Bert is a real charmer, everybody knows and loves him.  Many years ago he danced with a young Princess Elizabeth. Maybe, he reminded her of this in 2007 when he received his NZ Order of Merit for services to cycling. Among his many other awards, he also received a special merit one from the UCI in 2005. 

We generally keep in touch via email and telephone but when we meet up I love listening to his tales of former riders. He’s seen just about everyone and I particularly enjoy hearing about Coppi and Bartali. As you can see below, he has an extensive archive on NZ cycling and a large library of cycling books.

Bert and his archives
Bert and his archives

It’s a challenge to know what to get him as a gift but so far have struck lucky with one of Rapha’s beautiful annual photo albums and, the most recent, a charming tale about Louison Bobet written by his brother and translated into English. I trust he had an uneventful trip back to NZ and I’ll be thinking of him on October 25 as he’s currently undergoing treatment for cancer. Here’s hoping and praying I get to see him in Melbourne.

Observations from Mendrisio

I think three world championships and one Tour de France allows me to label myself a serial volunteer. The attraction for me is not the proximity to yards of Lycra, more my fascination with the organization of major events. Naturally enough, I’m most interested in what works really well, what doesn’t and why. Here’s my take on a few things.

This year, in order to gain access to the start/finish area, spectators had to purchase a pin. This also entitled you to free travel on the local trains and buses. An inspired decision as it sped up the mass movement of spectators. Unfortunately, having encouraged the use of public transport, they then failed to lay on any additional trains and buses – much less good.

The catering facilities in the start/finish and exhibition area could only be described as woeful and an encouragement to bring your own. This may have been why many nationalities chose to hang out at bars in the town. The Dutch, for example, took over a bar on the Acqua Fresca climb while many of the French, Belgians and Italians set up camp around their mobile homes. Missed opportunities, I feel, for local businesses.

Shipping in a load of schoolchildren to fill the stands and provide a wall of sound was a great idea but why so few and why only on Thursday? It would have been much better to fill the tribunes, particularly on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday with OAPs and schoolchildren, rather than leave them empty. Indeed, Swiss TV (RSI) had real problems avoiding shooting the empty tribunes, where there were even seats going spare on Sunday. I was faced with a similar dilemma in Salzburg where I was on guard duty barring entry (to all bar VIPs) to the VIP Tribune for the Men’s TT. Realising this was not going to look good on the big screen, I surreptitiously shipped in a bus load of elderly tourists who were thrilled to have a grandstand seat. They obligingly made plenty of noise each time a competitor came past. 

The Swiss army had been heavily deployed but, since most were not local, had no real idea of where things were situated and many spoke only Swiss-German. It might have been an idea to provide them with detailed maps, a more thorough briefing and put the more linguistically gifted in key areas.

Many of the shop windows in Lugano and Mendrisio had a cycling theme, but not all. This was much better executed last year in Varese where the town totally embraced the championships. But then the Italians are more passionate than the Swiss about most things.

Everything was spread over too wide an area. Accreditation was based at a hotel in Mendrisio well away from the race circuit. The UCI were billeted in Lugano and used the University there for their Congress and other meetings. The start/finish and exhibition area, just outside of Mendrisio, was open air,  set up on agricultural land with no nearby facilities and a good 20 minute (my pace)  walk from the train station. There was no sign of the promised shuttle buses although I did see one or two VIPS clambering inelegantly in and out of army jeeps.

I learned that the Organising Committee had decided not to accept volunteers from outside the region on ecological grounds. Indeed, roles were allocated to volunteers based on where they lived: not on prior experience, linguistic ability or any other rational reason. Many of the volunteers (both Swiss and Italian) had worked at Varese 2008 and they concluded that last year’s Championships had been both better organised and more enjoyable.

Lake Tessin, Ticino
Lake Tessin, Ticino

The cinematography of the race was very disappointing. Far too many overhead shots from afar so no one, including the broadcasters, had any idea what was happening at key points in the race. RSI had plenty of time to prepare for this event. Could they not have learnt from the masters of this, the French? Ticino is a beautiful area with lakes, mountains and charming small towns and villages but all the viewers saw was the roads and industrial estate around Mendrisio. Do you not want to boost tourism in the area? Obviously, not.

Postcards from Mendrisio III

I drove home from Mendrisio yesterday evening having had five very enjoyable days with my most hospitable Swiss friend and his mother. I had watched ALL of the races, ridden the parcours and met up with friends old and new.

Cadel crowned champion
Cadel crowned champion

Local Boy, Cadel Evans (he lives in Ticino), is the nearly man no more. Having ridden away from the other favourites, who were all marking one another,  in a solo attack a few kilometres from the line. He’s the first ever Australian world road race  champion. His team worked tirelessly for him and he’s probably wishing he could avail himself of their services for next year’s Tour de France.

It was a thrilling race, particularly in the final rounds when both Cancellara and Vino launched trademark attacks but failed to  maintain their momentum, probably thanks to their efforts in Thursday’s TT.

I had ridden into Mendrisio on Saturday to watch the Women’s Elite and U23 Road Races. Unfortunately, it had rained heavily in the early hours, giving the girls a few tricky rounds before the roads dried out. I should mention that the GB team were fortunate to even be on the starting line. The previous day, I had followed them down the one technically difficult descent. At a T-junction, our route was suddenly blocked by a policemen.  I yanked on my sometimes suspect Campy brakes and squealed to an abrupt halt, narrowly missing piling into several GB riders. That would have made for an interesting headline.

Saturday I rode to where I had previously enjoyed spectating only to discover an entire UCI Hospitality Village had sprung up overnight. So I retreated to the other side of the track, next to the platform for the handicapped spectators with a good view of the track and TV screen. The Italian ladies proved to be strong, sandwiching a Dutch former world champion, while the French boys more than lived up to their billing.

U23 road race podium
U23 road race podium

Romain Sicard, the recent winner of the Tour de l’Avenir, proved to be the strongest and no doubt will now be hailed by the French Press as a future Tour winner. Truthfully, the entire team were strong which bodes well for the future of French cycling.

Postcards from Mendrisio II

I rode into Mendrisio this morning ostensibly to meet my friend Ute for a coffee. She’s working as a part-time volunteer in the Press Centre. Of course, the real reason was to ride on the same course, at the same time  as the Elite and U23 riders who were just out spinning their legs and checking  the parcours. While the roads weren’t closed, there were police at every junction waving us through.

Who did I see? Who didn’t I see might be an easier question. Undoubtedly the highlight was riding behind Fabulous Fabian for the last 5km of the course. I saw Vino and the rest of the Kazakhs and, while I would have liked to say hello, I had no spare breath as I was scaling the bottom half of Monte Generoso; short and sharp.  I appeared to be the only non-elite, female rider on the course and therefore on the receiving end of plenty of support from the roadside spectators. This is always tremendously encouraging.

On the way back to Lugano, I was passed by the Spanish squad who had evidently decided that it was way too dangerous to lodge, as previously planned, in Como. As we were going downhill I was able to smile at Messrs Valverde and Sanchez, congratulate them on their performances in the Vuelta and wish them well for Sunday.

The course reminds me of an Ardennes Classic. So we should be looking to riders who have previously performed well in those and who showed form in the Vuelta: Cunego, Valverde, Sanchez, Evans, Vinokourov. Nor would I discount Cancellara, after last year’s performance on a more difficult course in Beijing. Of course, given the strength and depth of the Spanish and Italian squads, it’s hard to bet against them.

Postcards from Mendrisio I

I arrived in Lugano on Tuesday evening after a 5 hour drive from Nice. No sooner had I arrived than we were out on our bikes enjoying the warm summer evening. We cycled around the lake and then headed towards Mendrisio to check out the parcours. It’s a tough course, particularly one of the hills which, while not long, reaches gradients of 12% and which is bound to be leg sapping in the road race. It was dark by the time we got back home, my first nightime ride.

Wednesday morning, I was up bright and early ready to head down to the finish area to watch the U23 and Elite Women’s TTs. I found an excellent spot to watch the races, just in front of the podium, to the right of the large TV screen and about 50 metres from the finish line.

The two Tribunes opposite, particularly the VIP one, were largely empty. In fact, the volunteers outnumbered guests 3:1. Gradually, folk trickled in but you could still count them on the fingers of one hand. The winners of both races were predictable but I enjoy watching emerging talent in the U23s and seeing the ladies race since both feature so infrequently on the TV.

My Swiss friend was helping out on the Santini stand where I indulged my husband with a pair of their latest shorts and a transparent windproof top – much cheaper than Assos. Their ladies line however was not at all to my taste, so it’s not about to wean me off my Rapha and Assos habit.

After a long day standing in the sunshine, I was looking forward to dinner and an early night. One of the problems with watching races on one’s own is that, having secured a good spot, one has to stay put for the duration. The trick is to drink enough to stay hydrated but not so much that you need a comfort break.

I caught up with one of the girls with whom I worked as a volunteer last year in Varese. She was working in the VIP stand but  was kinda bored as there were hardly any VIPs to look after. Ah yes, one of the perils of being a volunteer is periods of terminal boredom.

Thursday morning, I took the train into Mendrisio with my friend’s mother, herself a keen cyclist and extremely spritely for her age. I stood in the same spot as the day before. The Men’s Elite TT comprised 3 laps of the circuit and, with Cancellara in the line-up, the stands soon filled up. The organizers had shipped in a load of schoolchildren who obligingly raised the roof everytime a cyclist passed adding an encouraging cacophony of sound.

Fabulous Fabian
Fabulous Fabian

What can I say that hasn’t already been said by those more eloquent and articulate than me about Fabian Cancellara’s performance? It was truly out of this world. I kept checking his bike on the big screen to spot the jet propulsion engine, but it was just his heart, lungs and legs. He was always going to win on home soil but it was the manner of his victory. He quickly overhauled Larsson, his minute man. Next up was  Bradley Wiggins, who was subsequently undone by a mechanical and a missing in action support vehicle. Cancellara then overtook Sebastien Rosseler who shook his head in disbelief, checking his speed on his monitor and ultimately finishing well down the pack.

The roar from the spectators was amazing as they watched Fabian on the big screen. It’s the first time I have ever seen someone celebrate a TT win 100 metres from the line, but he had time to spare. Larsson, who also overtook Wiggins, was 2nd and Tony Martin 3rd. Martin was later pictured slumped on the ground totally exhausted by his efforts. My man Vino finished a hugely creditable 8th, beating the gold and silver medallists from last year, in a very strong field.

The World Championships gives those emerging cycling nations an opportunity to compete with the best. There were two competitors from St Kitts & Nevis and, while they finished well down on the rest of the field, this will have been a huge learning experience for them. I feel I should also mention the performance of one Edvard Novak, from Romania, who beat his two-legged team mate. That’s right, Edvald is a below the knee amputee – chapeau!

Puppy love

Finn
Finn

Dorothy Parker once said ” I like children, but I couldn’t manage a whole one”. That kinda of sums up my feelings about both children and pets. I like them, but I don’t want one 24/7. I’ve lumped them together because I suspect that there’s a lot of similarities between the two. I could be wrong but the evidence rather supports my theory. 

Two years ago, a friend acquired a Labradoodle puppy and, as you can see from the photo, he’s become quite the handsome fella.  She has kept her friends entertained with stories about his escapades in her regular newsletters. However, this is a dog with a dog walker and a dog sitter who attends a creche. Nothing is too good for him. If I were to substitute, child minder or nanny, in the above sentence, you might be forgiven for thinking I was talking about a small child. When they want to go on vacation, Finn goes to a dog minder. Whatever happened to kennels? Please, don’t bother to answer that question, it was merely rhetorical.

For those of you who believe that in the next life we come back to earth in a different form, this is clearly the sort of heavenly existence to which you should aspire.

On top of the world

Today was my first time up Mont Chauve, a short but steep climb between

View from Mont Chauve
View from Mont Chauve

Falicon and Aspremont. I had not done this one before as in previous years I would have already headed off to the World Cycling Championships to work as a volunteer. Their loss this year is my gain. I momentarily flirted with taking part in the race up the hill but eventually decided against it. Maybe next year, now that I know what’s involved. I passed the race in progress on the way down. There were no female participants and immediately regretted not having taken part. Of course, I would have been last overall but the first (and only) woman. My husband broke a spoke on the ascent and so, rather than head back  via Aspremont, we descended back into Nice and rode home along the coastal road.

Valverde
Valverde

The Vuelta finishes today and this man is going to win his first Grand Tour.  He’s looked pretty secure in gold and has ridden a smart race; for once,  sacrificing stage victories for the bigger picture. Joining him on the podium will be Sammy Sanchez (2nd) and Cadel “Cuddles” Evans (3rd). Commentators have unfairly been referring to Cadel as the “nearly man”. Wholly unjustified. Aside from the inopportune timing of that puncture, you’ve only got to look at the composition of his team and compare it to Valverde’s to understand their respective placings. 

ToB 2009 Podium
ToB 2009 Podium

The Tour of Great Britain concluded yesterday in London. Columbia HTC hoovered up most of the stages, and the overall, with Edvald Boassen Hagen, already a firm favourite with the crowds,  who will be riding next year for Britain’s new Sky Team.  Two riders, the afore-mentioned EBH and Thomas De Gendt, Topsport Vlaanderen, swiped all the jerseys. 

My beloved boys in claret and blue easily beat Pompey, my Dad’s former team, at home. Fittingly, the man of the match was Pompey’s goal-keeper, David James, one of my favourite footballers. I still rue the day that Villa sold him to West Ham. Meanwhile, Nice have continued their slide to the penultimate place in the league (thank goodness for Grenoble). Beaten 1-3 at home in the local derby with Monaco, a team whose fortunes are going in the reverse of ours.

Bring me sunshine

As I woke up this morning I could see the clear blue skies and feel the heat of the sun coming through windows. There wasn’t a moment to waste after two whole days stuck indoors. I was up, washed, dressed and out on the bike all within 20 minutes. The roads were just starting to dry out from the deluge of the past few days.

One consequence of the heavy rain tends to be rather more dirt, debris and stones on that bit of the road normally used by cyclists. Fortunately, it was early and the traffic light. I decided to choose a route which would give me a dry descent in the sunshine. Another hazard to avoid on the roads at this time of year are figs. They fall onto the road and make a sticky, squishy mess rendered more dangerous by the rain. Explaining that your road rash was caused by skidding on a fig is more likely to raise mirth than sympathy.

Gourdon
Gourdon

I was feeling wonderful this morning, riding at a good pace with a high cadence. There were not too many other riders out on the roads. At Pont Sur Loup, I  opted to ride up to Gourdon, via Pre du Lac, before descending  the Gorges du Loup, back down to Pont sur Loup. I then rode up to Tourrettes sur Loup before descending back home via Vence and La Colle sur Loup. Unfortunately, the forecast is for more rain tomorrow.

Soup, glorious soup

This week it’s looking increasingly as if I will have to resort to the home trainer to meet my training requirements. The weather has truly turned. Last week I was wearing tongs, linen shorts and t-shirt, this week I’m in trousers, trainers and a warm fleecy top. With the onset of torrential rain, the temperature has fallen ten degrees. The Col de la Bonette has been closed to all traffic,  thanks to the 20cms of snow covering the summit! The outlook is for more of the same.




Deluge on the Cote d'Azur

Deluge on the Cote d’Azur

Now, I don’t mind riding in the rain once the first downpour has removed the greasy diesel slicks from the road. I rode in the rain along the coast last winter and spring. Plus, I rode in the Pyrenees and Austrian Alps in the pouring rain. It’s only water after. The trick is to wrap up warmly and not stay out too long. Once your hands and feet are cold and sodden, it’s time to get back home for a hot shower and a mug of soup.


I love soup while my husband regards it as merely a starter, a promise of better things to come. I can and do happily dine off a pot of soup all week. At the moment I’m brewing up separate pots of bortsch and spicy butternut squash. Just think, only last week I was still enjoying watermelon gazpacho and chilled cucumber and mint.