Hung out to dry

Part I of my marathon viewing session over, I replenished the refreshments before settling back to watch Part II, the Spanish Moto GP from Jerez which must be in a plain as it was raining. The damp, slippery track was to provide plenty of spills and thrills, and a wee bit of controversy, in front of the King of Spain, just one of  123,000 spectators jammed into the track.

In 125cc, Nico Terol continued his dominating run of form. He leapt from 2nd position on the grid into 1st, and stayed there. He spent much of the race jousting with his Aspar team mate, Hector Faubel, the 2007 series runner-up, who slid out of contention on the last lap, finally limping home in 11th position. The podium was rounded out by Jonas Folger in 2nd and Frenchman Johan Zarco, who claimed his first-ever podium place, in 3rd.

In Moto2, Andrea Iannone moved up from his 11th place on the grid to assume control of the race mid-way, take his first victory of the season and lead the championship. Swiss, Thomas Luthi, a former 125cc champion, was 2nd and Simone Corsi, who was in 18th place on the grid finished 3rd, providing the only Spaniard free podium of the championship. Rookie Marc Marquez’s bad luck continued when he was tail-gated in the 6th lap by Frenchman, Jules Cluzel. They were both out of the race. Poleman, Stefan Bradl, finished 4th on the track where, a few years ago, his father Helmut enjoyed his first senior win.

Onto  MotoGP, where Julian and Toby helpfully explained that  key to winning today were tyre management and engine settings. They felt the Ducati, with its good rear traction, would start well but that Yamaha would deal best with the wet conditions. They were not wrong.

Stoner, starting on pole, maintained his lead until he was taken out by Rossi who had screamed up the course (on his Ducati) from 12th into 2nd. As the two struggled to right their bikes and resume the race, the track officials, to a man, ran to assist Rossi, totally ignoring Stoner. Rossi re-started coming in to finish 5th. Stoner, not a happy bunny, was out of the race.

Of course, it’s interesting to wonder why Stoner, the championship leader, was patently ignored in preference to Rossi. A couple of years back, I met someone who worked as a hostess at MotoGP races. Her favourite racer, by a mile was Valentino Rossi. I asked her why?  She said that he treated everyone the same, whatever their status, he was kind, charming, thoughtful and remembered everyone’s names. Sounds like a nice bloke.

With Stoner out, Marco Simoncelli assumed the lead,  2010 champion Jorge Lorenzo, on a Yamaha, was 2nd,  Rossi’s team mate, Nicky Hayden, was 3rd, Ben Spies was 4th and Dani Pedrosa, riding very conservatively, had slipped back into 5th. The curse of the commentator struck, Simoncelli went down due to “rider over-enthusiasm”. You need a cool, calm demeanour in these conditions.

Pedrosa recovered and by half-way was back into 2nd, behind Lorenzo, with the Americans, Hayden and Spies, battling for 3rd place. Spiess made it into 2nd, before sliding off the track. Pedrosa back into 2nd. Colin Edwardes moved into 3rd before he too was out of contention. Meanwhile, Rossi was battling back from 18th.  It finished Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Hayden. I love it when they do wheelies over the line. That’s another skill I can’t perform on my bike, not that I’ve ever tried, even unintentionally.

Gripping stuff

My beloved left for yesterday’s pointage in the early morning fog. I rolled over for another hour’s sleep. Eschewing the ride up Ste Agnes to see one of my favourite one day races, the Tour of Flanders, where Belgian television coverage was starting at midday. I settled for a run along the sea front, followed by a quick coffee and collected the Sunday newspapers. Back home I prepared lunch before settling in for a marathon viewing session.

No where and no one is more passionate about cycling than Belgium and the Belgians. And this is their race,  their day in the sun. They line every kilometer of the course, standing over 10 deep on the bergs, quaffing beer and consuming their beloved frites with mayo. The sun was indeed shining, it wasn’t overly windy, near perfect riding conditions.

Rabid fans (picture courtesy of Getty Images)

The parcours starts in the beautiful city of Bruges and zigzags 258km to Meerbeke over 18 steep, sharp climbs and 26 sections of cobbles. The climbs come thick and fast after 70km of flat. If one can refer to cobbles as flat. The cobbles are smaller and more regular than those in Paris-Roubaix but, as the riders traverse them, their upper arms judder as if they’re undergoing some form of electric shock therapy.

The race is largely held on dirty, narrow farm roads which wind through the villages en route. To be in contention you need to remain vigilant and towards the front of the peloton. The slightly-built Spaniards from Euskaltel-Euskadi and Moviestar who would, no doubt, prefer to be riding in the Basque country, but they got the short straw, cling to the back of the peloton, grateful for assistance on the climbs from the beefier Belgian spectators, wondering when they’ll be able to climb off their bikes.

One innovation this year was cameras in four of the team cars (Quickstep, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Garmin Cervelo and SaxoBank Sungard). From time to time, you  could hear the instructions being barked to the riders, although you might not have understood what was being said in every instance, unless you understood Flemish.

Given the opportunity, I could happily watch every minute of this race from start to finish.  As television coverage commenced, there was a group of 5 riders out in front who were being gradually hauled back in. The second group of 18 riders on the road contained a lot of team leaders’ wingmen sparing their teams the effort of chasing them down. Although the pace was pretty frenetic with teams trying to keep their protected riders at the front of the pack, and out of harm’s way.

The main peloton splintered with a number of riders losing contact and there were plenty of spills but, thankfully, none looked to be serious. The group of 18 was hauled back in and the chasing pack now consisted entirely of favourites with their key riders. With 86km to go Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) takes off on the Ould Kwaremont, hotly pursued by Simon Clarke of Astana. With 79km remaining they bridge up to the lead group, initially giving it fresh impetus, but ultimately leaving it behind.

Meanwhile, behind them on the Taaienberg, Boonen (Quickstep), Flecha (Sky) and Van Avermaert (BMC) are forcing the pace. Others, such as Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) and Lars Boom (Rabobank) have pinged off the front, followed by Van Avermaert, Guesdon (FDJ), Hayman (Sky) and Leezer (Rabobank). Among the favourites, everyone seems to be waiting for Cancellara to make his move.

Up front on the Molenberg, Chavanel is now on his lonesome at the head of affairs with 44km to the finish, the gap back to the peloton is 55 seconds. Finally, unable to wait any longer Thor Hushovd (Garmin Cervelo), resplendent in his rainbow jersey, heads to the front of the bunch quickly followed and then overtaken by Tom Boonen (Quickstep) and his  shadow aka Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and  Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek).

Fabian goes into TT mode and rides away, the others start looking at one another waiting to see who’ll chase. Too late, he’s gone and swiftly heading for Chavanel. Wilfred Peeters tells Chavanel to stick on Fabian’s wheel as he goes past and to do no work. He does as he’s told. The bunch don’t seem to be making much of an inroad into the gap back to Chavanel and Cancellara, they need to get themselves organised. Back to the team cars, Peeters is telling Leopard Trek’s DS that Chavanel is unfortunately too tired to contribute.  Over at Garmin Cervelo, Jonathan Vaughters is telling his troops to do no work at all, just sit in and sprint for 3rd.

Finally, the bunch gets themselves organised and they catch  Chavanel and Cancellara on the iconic Muur, just 15km to the finish and the favourites are all back together again.  Phil Gil (Omega Pharma-Lotto) makes his trade mark attack on the last climb, the Bosberg, but is soon caught by Cancellara, Ballan (BMC), Leukemans (Vacansoleil), Chavanel and Schierlinckx (Veranda Willems).  Flecha (Sky), Nuyens (Saxobank Sungard), Hincapie (BMC), Boonen, Langeveld (Rabobank) and Thomas (Sky) join them. Ballan puts in a dig, Phil Gil follows. The attacks are coming thick and fast as riders chase one another down. With 4km left, Langeveld attacks,  a 3-man group of Cancellara, Chavanel and Nuyens follows and stays clear to contest the sprint finish which is won by the fresher man. The Belgians have a Belgian winner, Nick Nuyens, who rode a very intelligent race. Cancellara didn’t get back-to-back victories, but Bjarne Riis did.

The winners (photo courtesy of Getty images)

Vuelta Ciclista al Pays Vasco Postscript: There is something enormously satisfying in watching the professional peloton suffer on roads on which you too have suffered. The finishing line for today’s 151.2km stage around Zumarraga was just 3km from the top of the rather brutal Alto de la Antigua. Some of those boys got off and walked up. I knew just how they felt. Purito held off Sammy’s (too?) late charge for the line to take the leader’s jersey.