Scant consolation

On today’s stage, another hot one, 157.3km from Marbella to Malaga, I was willing one of the original 7-man breakaway to the finish line. But sometimes even our combined wills just aren’t enough.

Serafin Martinez (Xacobeo Galicia) having accelerated away from his breakaway companions on the big climb of the day, the Puerto del Leon, looked to have enough in hand over the peloton to win the stage, the leader’s jersey and the mountain’s classification. A holy trinity which would surely have ignited his career. Unfortunately, the peloton had other ideas and he was caught just under the flamme rouge.

The final ascent was reminiscent of the Cauberg and sure enough here was the winner of this year’s Amstel Gold, Philippe Gilbert, accelerating away from Vicenzo Nibali and Joaquin Rodriguez to cross the line in an imperious fashion. The stage and the leader’s jersey for Philippe and precious GC seconds for Rodriguez who finished ahead of Igor Anton. Serafin hung onto the mountain’s classification jersey.

Philippe looked mighty powerful today. He will be one to watch in Geelong where he now won’t have to share leadership of the Belgian team with Tom Boonen who, thanks to slower than anticipated recovery from knee surgery, will be watching events unfold from his armchair in Monaco. 

So how did my “men to watch” do today? Sadly, Ben Swift, and team mate John-Lee Augustyn, have gone down and out with a stomach bug. However Arthur Vichot, a viral superstar with a huge fan base in Australia, finished 10th on the stage.

Not in the script

I have spent an enjoyable week end with my beloved who’s back from his transatlantic jaunt. Yesterday we rose late, as a consequence of his jet lag, and, after a leisurely breakfast,  set off for a ride. We had just exited the domaine when my beloved punctured. I said I would continue on our trajectory and he could catch me up after he’d returned home and swapped bikes.

I rode for an hour and then waited for ten minutes. Surprisingly, still no sign of my beloved. I continued and indulged in some interval training: low gear/high cadence. I was still bouncing around but probably not as much as before. It’s a surprisingly tiring exercise. I stopped by the fountain  to replenish my bidon and along came my beloved. He’d decided to mend his puncture, hence the additional delay. We continued on enjoying the heat of the day and the quietness of the roads. The tourists have gone home.

I spent the afternoon pottering in the kitchen before settling down, after dinner, to watch the opening team time trial of the Vuelta a Espana. This was won by HTC-Columbia, putting Mark Cavendish in the red leader’s  jersey. Surprisingly diffident performances from SaxoBank, Sky and Garmin-Transitions but, as anticipated, no big time differences between the leading contenders.

This morning we rode together, eschewing the club ride. In truth, we’d overslept again. A strong breeze sprang up before midday which seemed to suck some of the heat out of the day, leaving it altogether fresher. Perfect riding weather. Having collected the Sunday newspapers on the way back, after a cold shower and lunch, I settled down on the sofa to read said newspapers and enjoy today’s 173km lumpy stage from Alcala de Guadaira to Marbella. Despite the climbs, the final descent I felt would ensure a bunch sprint finish.

Everything was going according to plan. HTC-Columbia had worked on the front to pull back the escapees before the run in to the finish. The other sprinters teams then shared the work load, the protagonists were all well positioned as they hit Marbella. Tyler Farrar led the sprint with Cavendish in his wheel, leaving the others flailing in their wake. Cavendish overtook Farrar and was poised to cross the line first, when up popped Yauheni Hutarovich on his left hand side. The Belarussian hadn’t read the script and crossed the line a wheel ahead of Cavendish. If you’re wondering Yauheni who? This is the lanterne rouge from 2009’s Tour de France. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall his palmares. He won a stage in the recent Tour of Poland but this is his maiden win in a Grand Tour.

Bring it on

Hours before the start of the 65th edition (and 75th anniversary) of the Vuelta a Espana, I’m all set and raring to go. Unusually, there’s no pile of laundry to keep me occupied when I’ll be whiling away my afternoons in front of the television. No, I’m going to be sorting out my dressing room, all the drawers and cupboards in the lounge and dining room and rearranging my collection of cookery books. If you’ve visited my apartment you’ll know that these are all mammoth tasks befitting a three-week Tour.

Many more gifted than me have previewed at length the fancied riders and the stages. I’m not going to add to this. Instead, you’ll get, as usual, my take on things: less objective, more subjective. A consensus seems to have built up around perm any three from Nibali/Menchov/Mosquera/the Schlecks/Arroyo/LL Sanchez/Sastre/Rodriguez.

The Vuelta organisers were hoping to tempt Contador to his home Tour and devised a  parcours which would suit him. As he’s shown, it’s possible to do the Giro/Vuelta double, but it’s much more difficult to double up with the Tour de France. It’s not so much the racing itself more the mental demands. In addition, he had concerns over the quality of his support. Valid concerns if you look at the Astana team sheet. My favourite Spanish rider, Samu Sanchez will also be missing, as will last year’s winner, Alejandro Valverde, who’s on an enforced sabbatical. As a consequence, Inigo Cuesta, of the soon to be defunct Cervelo Test Team, riding his 17th consecutive Vuelta, will be honoured with the No 1.

While it’s rare for there to be surprises on the podium of a Grand Tour, I am hoping that maybe either Igor Anton or Benat Intxausti, both from Euskaltel-Euskadi, will shine in their home tour. It’s also an opportunity to look out for talent of the future (Tony Gallopin and Arthur Vichot) and talent that’s shone over the past two seasons, to shine more brightly (Tejay van Garderen and Ben Swift). Of course, there will also be a whole host of riders, without contracts for next season, looking to catch the eye of a Directeur Sportif or two. And, let’s not forget, a whole slew of sprinters, in fact pretty much everyone bar every girl’s favourite bad boy, Tom Boonen, who’ll be battling for supremacy over a possible 8 sprint stages, ahead of the World Championships in Melbourne.

So, stand by your television sets for this evening’s 13km team time trial around Sevilla. Footon-Servetto are off first with teams going at four minute intervals. Local team, Andalucia-CajaSur, will go last. SaxoBank have the advantage of going after other potential winners HTC-Columbia, Garmin-Transitions and (remember the Giro), Liquigas. I do not anticipate any decisive time gaps.

While the first week is uncharacteristically hilly, the key stages are at the back end of the Vuelta: specifically, Stage 15 on 12 September to Lagos de Covadonga, Stage 16 to Cortobello, Stage 17’s 46km pancake flat ITT at Penafiel and, the penultimate test, Stage 20 to Bola del Mundo.

My pick for the podium: 1-Menchov, 2-Nibali, 3-(F) Schleck

Climber’s Jersey: Moncoutie

Point’s Jersey: Cavendish

Combined Jersey: Mosquera

Hit and run

After Tuesday’s hazardous ride, I was hoping for something less stressful on yesterday’s 3 hour training ride. Where shall I start: lorries driving past perilously close, a bee sting on my lip and woeful ignorance of the mantra “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”. This last occurred on a stretch where there’s some new traffic calming measures: an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Traffic calming measures were invented/started by the Dutch who, you may know, confine their cyclists to off road adjacent paths. Road furniture is generally created to slow the speed of traffic at junctions, roundabouts, hazards and through urban areas. It’s the stick approach to encouraging good habits. During races such as the Eneco Tour, which finished on Tuesday and was won by Tony Martin, the riders have to concentrate at all times so as not to fall foul of these many islands, bollards, humps, curbs, whatever. 

The offending piece of road furniture occurs just after a roundabout which gives way to the right and where I almost met my maker some time ago, thanks to a clapped out red Peugeot driven by a middle-aged woman. The thick white line denoting that I have right of way however remains, but the gentleman driving the clapped out Renault didn’t care. He just drove across the white line, while performing a u-turn, and cut me off. Luckily, I was alert to the potential danger and managed to avoid the car.

Likewise, a few minutes later, a car parked (as is their wont) in the cycle lane and the driver flung open the car door narrowly missing me.  Solely because, having just seen her park, I took evasive action.

The bee took me totally by surprise. For the past 5 kms or so I had been riding with a gentleman who overtook me on every rise only for me to overtake him on the subsequent descent. I had just overtaken him again when a bee stung me on the lip. I stopped and pulled out the sting. My lip was starting to feel like it does when the dentist has given you an anaesthetic. My beloved advised me only last week that if I was ever bitten I should lave the area with saliva. I followed his sound (for once) advice and my lip didn’t swell up. It, however, remains sore.

As a cyclist, I find that traffic calming measures prompt vehicles to behave in an opposite fashion to that which is intended. Generally, the road width prevents them from overtaking, so they sit behind you revving their engines until they can buzz past. However if they know the road, they’ll do anything and everything in their power to overtake you before the traffic calming measures, so as not to waste 15-30 seconds idly behind you. Should the opportunity arise, I like to point out that if they knock me off my bike it’ll delay their journey by a lot more than 30 seconds. Always assuming, of course, that they’d stop.

My mojo’s back

Yesterday was one of rest and relaxation ie no cycling. However, I managed to clear a lot of administrative stuff and ready myself for the onslaught involved in the renewal of cycling licences. This year, thank goodness, I will be flying solo, and using my own (foolproof) system.

On a regular basis my coach programmes an hour-long ride in a fasted state. Allegedly, a tried and tested method for increasing fat burning. This may work for finely tuned athletes but I’m more of a dromedary (two-humped camel) and it takes more than an hour’s exercise to stir my adipose. However, I’m always willing to give it a go.

Bearing in mind my rather sluggish riding over the week end, I elected to ride one of my regular circuits. When I first managed to ride up this, 2 1/2 years ago, it took me 75 minutes.  I gradually chipped away at the time until, at the beginning of this year, I went under the hour with 59 minutes and 32 seconds.  Thanks to my training programme, I have over the last 6 months reduced this further by, give or take, 4 minutes.

Mind you, I nearly didn’t make it at all. First off one of my elderly neighbours shot out from in front of the bus, right into my path, as I was descending the Domaine. Luckily for her I had slowed on account of said bus, which was picking up rather than  dropping off passengers. Generally, I find the elderly to be a little hard of hearing so, given that racing bikes don’t have bells, I shouted “Attention”  (Watch out!). She looked taken aback and I imagined that my ears would be burning at that afternoon’s bridge session when she recounted how she had nearly been mown down by the speeding, mad, English woman.

Next hurdle was at the first set of traffic lights where I took the left hand filter to turn left however, the Parisian registered Audi TT, on my inside, in the same lane, decided to go straight on. While I was signalling my intentions, he was not. Another close shave and I’d only gone 2km!

I headed on up the hill past La Colle sur Loup and towards St Paul de Vence where I encountered hazard number three. I had slowed  just past the roundabout to enable a coach party of tourists to cross the road. As they headed towards St Paul an oncoming group unaccountably stepped off the curb and into my bit of the road. Figuring that English might be a wiser option, I opted for ” Watch where you’re going” and they hopped smartly back onto the pavement.

Maybe it was the three brushes with mortal injury, or more probably plenty of bumps and bruises, that got my adrenaline racing. Despite the setbacks, I realized I could be on for a new, best time ever. And so it was. I reached the end of my circuit in a time of 51 minutes and 4 seconds. I should have more off days!

Heartsick

I awoke Friday morning to the sound of falling rain. Never mind, a quick go on the home trainer and I was off to the airport to collect my beloved. By the time he arrived, the roads were already starting to dry out in the warm sunshine. However he elected to go for a swim, rather than a ride, Friday evening.

Saturday morning we were up and out early for a ride in the hills but I was feeling unaccountably sluggish and was riding about 2km/hr slower than normal. Not wishing to hold my beloved back further, I allowed him to continue without me while I pottered along at a positively pedestrian speed.

After sorting out everything for my husband’s week long trip to the US, and clarifying arrangements for the next few weeks, we decided to brave the hordes along the sea front. Once a month, the sea front is closed to traffic to enable everyone to enjoy the space be it on foot, bike, scooter or skates. This is always hugely popular. 

This evening there were three DJs, equidistant from one another along the promenade, playing three totally different styles of music. This is one of many free events in the Alpes Maritimes during the summer months.  Aside from a number of small stalls selling food, all the restaurants and bars were doing a roaring trade. In addition, a number of families were enjoying picnics on the seashore.

After a fish dinner, we had a leisurely stroll and returned home for an early night. Today’s pointage is one of my favourites but my beloved had to be at the airport by midday. Given that  he’s been abandoned to taxis a few times recently, I decided to have a shorter ride with him this morning and then take him to the airport. I still wasn’t riding well. It’s unusual for me to have two consecutive off days.

3 toque pointage!

Having dropped him off the airport, I returned home to enjoy the Sunday newspapers and watch GP Ouest France – Plouay: a 13 lap circuit race held in Brittany, not far from Lorient. With the ladies race, a cyclosportif and the men’s race all being held on the same circuit over the week end in cycling mad Brittany, the crowds (and camper vans) were out in force. Emma Pooley won the ladies race while Matt Goss made it two in a row for the Aussies.

While this race was taking place, my beloved boys in claret & blue were playing the Toon army at St James’s Park, one of the most intimidating football stadia. However, I was not in any way anticipating the score line: they lost 6-0. I haven’t yet summoned up the energy to find out why.

Meanwhile Nice, at home yesterday to Nancy, conceded a goal in the last five minutes of the match to record yet another draw. Loic Remy has been signed by OM, rather than a premiership side. However, not all has gone well. His medical revealed cardiac irregularities. A fuller report is anticipated on Monday. I do hope for his sake that it is nothing serious.

Playmates

I generally ride alone, that way I can go out when and where I want. The exceptions being club rides on Sunday, rides with my beloved and rides with my coach. Yesterday I chanced upon a chap who’d had an “Andy Schleck”. That’s right, his chain had slipped. I got off my bike and quickly had the offending item back in place. He was impressed. Probably thinking if only she’d been standing on the roadside when Schleck lost his chain, things might have been different………………..

He then decided to ride with me  and regale me with some of his cycling adventures. When we reached the top of the hill, he said he had to turn round as his Mum wouldn’t let him ride beyond this point – well he was only 10! I explained that I was doing interval training and I too was riding back down the hill, only to ascend it again. We set off together, although I did have to modify my speed. I told him that if he was really keen on riding, he should a) get a helmet  and b) join a cycling club.

He did tell me that he wished his Mum would ride with him but she was too old to ride a bike. I had to choke back my laughter as I’m old enough to be his Grandmother, let alone his mother. However, I decided not to enlighten him about this as we rode back up the hill again. He attempted to emulate my sprinting out of the saddle and then showed me how he could ride without hands. Feeling I could not be bested by a 10 year old, I too rode for my longest stretch ever without hands.  

As we parted company he solemnly shook my hand and said he’d really enjoyed riding with me and if I was ever in the neighbourhood again to knock on his door to see if he was available to play! That one’s going to be a babe magnet before too long, mark my words.

Wednesday Postscript: Descending at speed today, I saw my new best friend in the distance, so slowed as I approached.  He said he had been hoping to see me again and wanted me to meet his mother. To say she was quite taken aback would be putting it mildly. Either she had assumed I was an imaginary friend or, more probably, someone nearer her son’s age. I introduced myself to her as I high-fived my friend who was at pains to point out to his mother that I was a real cyclist – bless.

Jaws holidays on Cote d’Azur

I am not a fan of horror or scary movies, not even slightly scary ones. For example, I only have to hear the opening bars to the theme tune to Jaws for my blood to chill. I might be going to Australia in September, but I won’t be putting a foot on any beaches, much less dipping any of my 10 toes into the sea. So it was with great surprise, and much trepidation, that I read a shark had been sighted off my home town’s shores.

Yes, the red flag has been flying over the beach for a couple of days since  two lifeguards thought they saw a shark offshore. It’s now been assumed that it was probably only a dolphin and that they overreacted. Well, much better to be safe than sorry!

I hardly ever swim in the sea, despite my cycling coach suggesting that I spend some time swimming. He’s never seen me swim otherwise he’d realise its futility. Thirty minutes of my frantic, thrashing doggie paddle uses under 100 calories. In truth, I’ve not even been down to the pool this summer.  But, after the so-called shark sightings, I may never venture onto the seashore again. Much safer to stick to cycling.

Today’s training ride included yet more of those low gear, high cadence exercises of which my coach is much enamoured and are really tiring. Still if, as a consequence, I achieve 100th of Alberto’s fluency on the bike, it’ll all have been worthwhile. My coach has also re-introduced solo leg training on the home trainer after he realised that I couldn’t do the exercise out on the road. Well, I could but at such an embarrassingly slow pace. Much better to perform these exertions in the privacy of my bedroom and away from sniggering onlookers.

I got back in time from today’s training ride to watch the ever spritely, Robbie “Pocket-Rocket” McEwan kick ass in stage 1 of the Eneco Tour and win with a well-timed surge. He’s going to be in fine form for the World Championships in Melbourne, for which I have volunteered and where I have been allocated an interesting role. As usual, I volunteered for most things while giving details of what I’d done at past championships. But the organisers have  elected to give me something I’ve not done before which I suspect may have more to do with my linguistic skills. So far no news about the requirement to attend a couple of training days beforehand which could scupper my chances, as I won’t be able to attend.

My beloved, who was coming with me to Australia for the whole two weeks, is now cutting short his stay by one week to head for the US. So I will be sightseeing on my own, plus ca change! Though, obviously I won’t be spending any time on the beach, or in the sea. My one outstanding issue is how to get back to Nice with the bike (and my luggage) on the train from Milan airport.

Down, but not out

Check out that gradient

After spending the best part of a week, three days of which in the Luberon, with three of my favourite boys, it’s good to be back home. The purpose of the trip was to ride up Mont Ventoux though my Swiss friends ascended all three ways, on successive days. Sadly, the day we chose to ride up via Bedoin, was both cold and humid.

My Swiss friends

At my request, we set off over very undulating countryside from Gordes, before stopping to fortify ourselves with a coffee close to Bedoin. I rode up the slope ahead of the boys who had decided to sample some baked goodies at the local bread shop. Maybe this is where I’m going wrong, I should eat more!

The lower slopes are just 2-4% and one can ride along at a reasonable pace. There weren’t too many other riders, just a handful of the obligatory Dutch and Belgians. As I rode through the woods, the incline turned up and the road became quite damp and slippery. It was at this point I wished I was wearing both leg and arm warmers. However, I persevered and was cheered on by clusters of onlookers from the side of the road enjoying  lunchtime picnics.

I found this section through the woods, which is an average 9% incline, to be particularly hard going. To distract myself, I read the names painted on the road from last year’s Tour and, probably, a more recent cyclosportif. As I neared the mid-way point, I was overtaken by a bunch of Germans who were sponsored by a bakery. As the last two cut in front of me, one of them slipped off the tarmac at the side of the road onto the verge, clipping my wheel as he fell. He didn’t knock me off my bike, but I was obliged to put a foot down on probably the steepest bit and thereafter struggled to get clipped back in.

Muttering evil thoughts about Germans with poor bike handling skills and large bottoms in white cycling shorts, I continued through an unchanging landscape. By now my favourite boys (including my beloved) had overtaken me and were probably nearing Chalet Reynaud. I overtook the bunch of Germans who seemed as one to be suffering. Clearly, too much time spent with their sponsor. 

The night before my beloved had gotten over-enthusiastic with the air- conditioning in the hotel bedroom. I had awoken that morning feeling chilled,  as if I had a head cold. Throughout the day this had necessitated frequent snot stops. My Swiss friends had demonstrated the correct procedure for on-bike blowing of the nose. But, sadly, this is yet another technical skill I have failed to grasp. As the road flattened slightly, I dismounted to blow my nose and my beloved appeared from above. His recent transatlantic travails meant he too was not feeling at his best. We took an executive decision to descend. Mont Ventoux will still be there for another day.

Nice views

My Swiss friends have documented their three ascents for me to put on the blog but our technology was incompatible so they’re going to send the videos and photos to me later this week.

Postscript: The photos and videos have arrived and while I have uploaded a few of the photos, sadly WordPress won’t accept the media used for the videos!

What next?

I rode yesterday with my coach. As part of my programme he rides with me once a month and I regard this as important for two reasons. Firstly, he can help me improve technically and, secondly, he can better assess my progress. Yesterday we rode one of my regular circuits which was surprisingly busy with holiday traffic and practised riding high cadence intervals. At over 100 I do tend to bounce around bit in the saddle. My coach advised that I should try to avoid this and aim for Contador like suppleness. I pointed out that if Contador had a 38F chest, he too might bounce!

I learnt that one of his other clients will become one of our cycling school apprentices in September, so unless I manage to chat to him first, news that I have a coach will inevitably leak out. I suspect most will not comprehend why and advise that now we have a Directeur Sportif, I can save myself the expense. They will, of course, fail to appreciate that not all coaches are made equal. Mine is well qualified and has significant experience in his field. Our Directeur Sportif, while a talented amateur rider, is just starting on the first rung of his new profession.

I’ve also charged my coach with seeking out a challenge for me for next year. Ideally I’d like it to be over a number of days, involve a few mountains, be well supported and not have too many other riders. This one won’t be easy. Any suggestions would be gratefully received.