Even younger guns

Sadly there were no cameras or journalists to record my latest win. Yes, while everyone else was looking forward to today’s stage at the Eneco Tour, Tour de l’Ain or the Tour of Utah, we were holding our own Domaine Dash. I had gone for a warm up, a quick thrash around Cap d’Antibes, to prepare myself for the latest round in the Clash with the Teenagers. Arriving back at the appointed hour, I discovered the Group of 5 had grown to 7 (a couple of ringers??), all bar one were now riding road bikes, albeit in shorts and trainers. It’s bad enough being beaten by someone wearing all the proper kit, but to be beaten by someone who hasn’t would be way too humiliating. I was taking no prisoners. A few of their parents were on hand to keep an eye on the traffic. A great idea, as I, for one, didn’t want to get stuck behind a slow moving Domaine bus. One of the parents had also suggested that we start the race in the Commercial Centre and then ride up the hill (7% gradient) into the Domaine. He had arranged for the security guards to open the entry barriers.

I put on my race face, got in the big ring and we set off. No neutralised zone, just a quick dash across the Commercial Centre, a steep short descent to the right followed by a sharp 180 degree turn up the Domaine hill. It’s a tricky corner but I tackle it almost every day and wanted to ensure that I was in the lead hitting the hill. I had no intention of tangling with any of the teenage boys. My strategy was simple, I was just going to sprint for the line. I was out of the saddle, sprinting up the hill. It’s about 300m long. I had no idea what was going on behind me. I was wholly concentrating on the task in hand. I shot past the parent guarding the barrier who looked like a fish catching flies with his mouth wide open in amazement.

The road then levels for about 500m. It’s a false flat. I powered across it and attacked the hill, crunching across the dry pine needles littering the road. I could hear muffled shouts behind me, but I never looked back. Fittingly, and aping the Tour, there were a couple of camper vans parked on the side of the hill and someone preparing for a picnic. I took a quick glance at my Garmin, only 156bpm, I could now afford to go flat out and really give it some gas. This was where all that sprint interval training was going to pay dividends. Again, there’s about 500m of false flat before the final little climb to the finish line. In my 50 x 12, I sprinted past a couple of startled dog walking neighbours who cheered me on and crossed the line, hands firmly on the handlebars. I looked back, there was no one to be seen. Luckily they’d had another parent stationed on the finish line to witness my thrashing (again) of  a bunch of teenage boys. Finally, the pack hove into view. Red-faced, huffing and puffing, they conceded victory once again to a woman old enough to be their grandmother.

I stopped to have a chat with their parents who had driven back up in the “team” car. I advised that the boys should always wear helmets when riding their bikes and, if they were serious about beating me, should join a local cycle club. I could tell the parents were impressed. After all, they were considerably younger than me and claimed they couldn’t have aped my feat. One of the mothers likened me to Jeannie Longo (if only) but thought I was younger. I didn’t disabuse her.

More young guns

Monday’s generally a rest day and one where I apply myself to administrative matters for both the club and our company. However, having missed my Sunday ride, thanks to the subsequently cancelled La Ronde, I felt the road was calling me. According to the weather forecast, yesterday was scheduled to reach normal August temperatures of around 30C instead of languishing, as it has been, at around 23-25C. It was overcast and humid to start with but a very warm southerly wind blew away the clouds to leave an azure sky and a scorching temperature. I chose a well shaded route, hoping to postpone as long as possible the inevitable numbing and cramping in my feet. After only 40 minutes, my left foot started throbbing but I rode on trying hard to ignore the pain. After an hour, the right foot joined in.  After two hours, the pain was so bad I stopped for a short rest and a drink.

This generally does the trick and I rode for a further hour before again succumbing to another break. Yesterday was particularly bad because I had spent most of Sunday on my feet. I’m trying to rest them as much as possible but it’s really difficult to stay off them. By the time I reached home, I’d been out for about 4 hours. I had a 30 minute refreshing thrash about in the pool before settling down on the sofa, with my feet up, to watch the prologue in the Eneco Tour: a 5.7km technical course around Amersfoot in Holland.  Last year’s overall winner HTC’s Tony Martin was absent, but there was plenty of other strong time-trialling talent taking part. The course was smoked by BMC’s rookie, Taylor Phinney, a man with cycling in his DNA, to land his first [of many] ProTour win. He was the only rider to go under 7 minutes and finished 7 seconds ahead of Sky’s Edvald Boassen Hagen, the Norwegian time-trialling champ. Garvelo’s David Millar was 3rd. Lurking ominously in 8th place, and only 13 seconds back, was PhilGil, on the hunt for more points so as to finish the year as the UCI’s main man.

Rather than wait for the start of the Vuelta, I then decided to attack the post Tour ironing mountain. It’s awfully hard to iron while seated, there was nothing else for it. I was back on my feet. Numerous shirts and t-shirts later (all my beloved’s), I rewarded myself with a further rest on the sofa. Today was going to be my rest day but the weather was so glorious, I couldn’t resist going for a quick ride early this morning. I had a brief trip to the club this evening and, while watching today’s stage of the Eneco Tour, tackled the club’s accounts. While I’m not the Treasurer, and despite me spending many hours showing her how to reconcile the accounts and prepare the monthly analysis, she’s taken to having a half-hearted attempt and then handing it over to me.  As I’m going to be at my parents next week, I really needed to complete the task today so that I could hand her back the club’s records.

Today, the GC leader, Taylor Phinney, punctured with 20km to go and was paced up back to the front of the peloton by none other than Omega Pharma Lotto’s Belgian Classics King, Phil Gil. Phinney led out the sprint but faded to 7th. However, he hung on to his 7 second lead and his leader’s white jersey. Phil Gil’s team mate, Andrei Greipel took the win ahead of Katusha’s Denis Galimzyanov and Garvelo’s Tyler Farrar. Strong winds and narrow urban roads littered with street furniture had rendered today’s 192.1km stage, from Oosterhout to Sint Willebrord, crash prone. Numerous riders hit the deck, a number under the red kite, and five unfortunate souls were DNFs.

They weren’t the only DNFs today. I had last prepared the club accounts at the end of May only to discover the books were a complete dog’s breakfast. There were loads of cheques which had been encashed but were not in the manual cash book because the Treasurer hadn’t got the supporting documentation from M le President. This situation has not been addressed and, while I could make a pretty good guess, I’m not going to. They have to sort it out. So I reconciled the bank for the past two months and handed back the books this afternoon. They both became very animated when I explained the problem again, each blaming the other for misplacing the relevant paperwork. It’s quite possible that it’s a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other. The upshot is that I’m to become the Treasurer, while still retaining the bulk of my existing responsibilities.  Didn’t see that one coming but actually it will make the task much simpler as I’ll automate everything. M Le President is going to hand over his cheque book and the club credit card which should resolve the problem. They can sort out the mess they’ve made while I’m away and I’ll take over and do the accounts on my return.

I have another race scheduled  this week with the young lads who live on the Domaine. They reckon that having watched the Tour  they’ve worked out how to beat me. The race will be tomorrow morning as my outing with my coach has been postponed. I have no idea what their tactics will be but suspect they’re going to try and use their superior numbers to burn me off. However, given that the circuit is barely a kilometre long, I’m just going to sprint for it. I’ll be going for a good warm up beforehand, it generally takes me at least 25km to get into my stride, and then we’re rendezvousing at the entrance to the Domaine. I’m hoping there won’t be too much passing traffic. During August, as relatives arrive to spend time in the sun with their friends and loved ones, the Domaine resembles more a giant car park and obstacle course as people get ever more inventive as to where to leave their cars.

Panacea for post-Tour blues

While the Tour is over and many of it’s protagonists take part in a seemingly endless round of criteriums, the racing rolls on. This week I’ve been watching the Tour of Poland generally an opportunity for the young guns to shine, and shine they have. While fellow Brummie and defending champ Garvelo’s Dan Martin put up a spirited defence of his title and won the queen stage, it’s been pretty much one way traffic at the Pete and Marcel show.  After putting in a highly determined performance to win two stages and, more importantly, the overall, I’m looking forward to see what Liquigas’s Peter Sagan can do in his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta. I appreciate he’ll be riding in support of Vicenzo Nibali, but should the Shark falter…….. The other four stages were won in imperious fashion by Skil Shimano’s Marcel Kittel whom I last saw on the podium of the U23 ITT in Melbourne. He has a turn of speed to match Cavendish, but doesn’t seem to require a train, and he left names such as Tom Boonen, Romain Feillu and John Degenkolb trailing in his wake.

I’ve also been dipping into the Vuelta a Burgos where riders were fine tuning their performances ahead of the Vuelta which starts on 20 August in Benidorm. The first stage stage was won by defending champ, Euskaltel’s Samu, who won’t be riding the Vuelta, ahead of Katusha’s JRod, who will. JRod also took out the 2nd stage and the overall. Samu was undone (again) by the team time trial and tired legs on the final stage where the boys in orange were attempting to rip the field apart and put time into JRod. Sadly, Samu was unable to keep pace and the stage was won by his rookie team mate Mikel Landa, recording his maiden win. Purito is looking in great shape for the upcoming race which, with plenty of mountain top finishes and few time-trialling kms, clearly favours the climbers but Igor Anton and the orange-clad boys are looking equally strong.

Over in the Tour of Denmark, Sky’s Simon Gerrans took his first stage win since the Herald Sun Tour in 2006 and his first win this year thanks to some clever mopping up of intermediate sprint points (and seconds) to remain ahead of Leopard Trek’s Daniele Bennati.  Elsewhere, the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin won Paris-Correze.

The football season commenced this week end in France and Nice were served up a tough opener, home to Lyon, against whom we’ve enjoyed some great results in recent seasons largely thanks to OL’s Champion’s League commitments. No such worries this time for OL, we lost 3-1 and languish one from the bottom of the league. With such a high turnover of players, it’ll take the team a while to gel but there were some promising signs, though we’re still lacking firepower up front. Finally, work has commenced on OGCN’s new stadium which should be finished in time for the 2013/14 season and where we’ll be hosting some matches in Euro 2016. I’m hoping my beloved boys in claret and blue have a better start to their Premiership campaign this week end.

After a few days off the bike last week, I was keen to get back into my training plan. My coach has introduced some new home-trainer based exercises where I have to pedal while holding my breath. Not sure what that’s all about but I’ll get a chance to quiz him when we ride together on Wednesday. It’s only for a short period, but it’s more difficult than you might think. He’s also making me do a series of push ups. Probably trying to firm up the non-areodynamic batwings. He’s also persisting with the swimming to assist my legs to recuperate. But my legs rarely get tired and I never ever, suffer from a build up of lactic acid. My feet, on the other hand, are not faring so well. I spent much time on them while walking around San Sebastián and have been on my feet most of this week preparing for yesterday’s La Ronde and pointage where we usually cater for over 500 cyclists. It was a wash out. The race was cancelled as the course was too dangerous with water lying on the circuit’s corners. Still around 60 people turned up and enjoyed my home baked goodies. Of course, most of the provisions can go back into the club store cupboard to be brought out for the re-scheduled event while I can put my remaining cakes into the freezer, disaster averted.

10 hottest men of the Tour de France

When people ask me why I like cycling, I know they’re not fans themselves so I tend to come up with a snappy answer, such as  “What’s not to like? Lots of cute guys and gals in lycra”. This week I received an email with the above title from Bicycling Magazine, an American publication. One of their female writers had compiled a list of her 10 Tour favourites. Immediately, and in one fell swoop,  she’s whittled down the list of suspects to under 200 riders. Not something I’m sure I could achieve. Her limiting criteria were as follows: who looked good in yellow (only 5 contenders), who has a great smile and the best looking Italians. I’m not sure exactly why the Italians were singled out for this honour rather than say the French, Spanish or Russian. Interestingly, a large number of her picks fell into that select (but ever growing) sub-set of riders who weigh more than me but there were also a  couple who fell into the category of “Cute, but could I get him in a larger size?”

Her list was as follows:-

  • George Hincapie – it’s an American magazine and if one closely examines the list of contenders, he’s the most worthy candidate.
  • Linus Gerdemann – small, German, blonde haired but a bit too girly.
  • Thor Hushovd – wearer of the yellow jersey, the world champion and all-round cycling god.
  • Ivan Basso – Italian but a wee bit too sharp featured.
  • Bernard Eisel – Cav minder.
  • Tom Boonen – a man who undisputedly looks good in lycra.
  • Manuel Quinziato – another Italian, smoulders more than Basso.
  • Alessandro Petacchi – another good looking Italian but worryingly the author singled out his brown eyes for comment: they’re blue.
  • Edvald Boassen Hagen – she’s got a bit of a Norse theme developing here.
  • Ben Swift – best looking Brit.

It’s fair to say that her readers were not wholly in agreement with her choices and it provoked much debate. So the article achieved it’s purpose. The most commented upon ommission by far was Fabian Cancellara, awesome on a bike, great hair but a bit long in the jaw IMHO, but equally there were votes for, in no particular order:-

  • Johnny Hoogerland
  • Jens Voight
  • Mark Cavendish
  • Philippe Gilbert
  • Jakob Fuglsang
  • Andreas Klier
  • Andreas Kloden
  • Frank and Andy Schleck
  • Dave Zabriskie
  • Nico Roche
Winning smile

To my mind there are a number of startling omissions. Firstly, there are no Spaniards nor Frenchmen in the list. Meaning she’s ignored or wilfully discarded a large percentage of the peloton. Surely, PhilGil who graced the yellow jersey and who has a lovely smile was worthy of inclusion on two counts? Or what about my own favourite smile who looked so cute in the spotted jersey? What about hidden gems, after all it’s not often that you get to see the riders without their helmets and glasses and it’s very unwise to select on the basis of their dodgy photographs on the team websites which all look as if they were taken in airport photo booths. Clearly this is a debate that could rumble on forever and it’s just as well that everyone has different tastes otherwise, based on some of the comments, I’d be advising Mrs Cancellara to lock up her man!

Washed out

When we first moved to France, I made a point of thoroughly exploring my new surroundings. Although we’d had a holiday apartment close by for over 2 years, there were still plenty of places we’d yet to visit. I would generally head to my chosen spot on a Wednesday. I can’t recall why I chose this day but maybe because I regarded it as a mid-week treat. I would  arrive in time to enjoy a morning coffee with my L’Equipe in a local cafe in the Town Square before wandering around everything on offer. Some places, because of their size and location, were lumped together. A lot of the perched villages are very pretty and sympathetically restored but a couple of hours will suffice to see their treasures, shops and market. I would also eat out at lunchtime, sampling the daily special at one of the local restaurants. My golden rule, “when in doubt, pick the (only) one with cloth tablecloths and napkins”. Of course, occasionally, none of the restaurants meet this criteria. In which case I plump for the busiest one.

This groundwork stood me in good stead when we had our first visitors. Either I knew where to show them around or I could, at least, point them in the right direction. Guide books are all very well but you can never beat current, local knowledge. Once I took up cycling, I visited these places on a regular basis. Many of them became  focal points in my training plan. Now, pretty much everywhere is accessible. However, it’s foolhardy to cycle around the narrow cobbled, and often steep pathways, difficult to ascend the same in cleated shoes and well nigh impossible to browse the shops and markets with a bike in tow. As a consequence, I have decided to reinstate my days out. Each month, during my “rest week” I am planning to reaquaint myself with some of my favourite places. In the summer it’ll be the shops and markets, in the winter the museums and art galleries.

Last Wednesday, having cleared the administrative backlog, prepared everything for my trip to San Sebastian, made a batch of cakes for La Ronde and tidied the flat, I decided to visit St Paul de Vence and Vence. Two towns I regularly ride past or through but where I haven’t dallied for a while. However, the weather gods conspired against me and it poured down for most of the day. So, I decided to re-visit Foundation Maeght, a centre for contemporary art in St Paul.

The Foundation’s fairy godparents, Aime and Marguerite Maeght, art dealers and friends of Matisse and Bonnard, built the centre near a chapel dedicated to St Bernard in memory of their son, of the same name, who tragically died of leukemia in 1953. The centre was designed by Catalan architect Jose-Luis Sert, a pupil of Le Corbusier and a friend of Joan Miro, as an ideal setting and environment to showcase contemporary art. In addition to its permanent and temporary collections, the whole place, including the grounds, is dotted with little gems from Fernand Leger’s mosaic, Braque’s stained glass window, a mosaic by Chagall, Giacometti’s sculptures and garden furniture in Miro’s labyrinth garden. It’s the sort of place where you can happily while away an entire day. It’s a little oasis of peace. It’s not unnaturally popular with tour parties but they rarely have enough time to appreciate the depth and breadth of the Foundation’s treasures, let alone its garden cafe and extensive art library.

By the time I’d finished browsing, the weather had cleared paving the way for an evening out at one of the free concerts in the next village.These concerts, which are held all around the region in July and August,  are intended to tempt both locals and tourists. You need to arrive relatively promptly to secure a parking space and a seat. I like to grab one on the end, near the back. Then, if the concert’s not too my taste, I can slip away quietly without fear of giving offense. It’s also a good idea to bring your own refreshments. Sometimes there’s a bar close by but often times there’s not. No point in some enterprising soul pitching up with refreshments to sell, the French bring their own: much cheaper.

Back from the Basque country

I’m back from a number of days of unintended blog silence. Although the hotel we stayed in San  Sebastián had free WiFi, I decided not to take my notepad with me. On these short trips, I really want my beloved to have a break. If I start using my notepad he’ll get out his laptop and start working. I do allow him to remain in contact via his Blackberry but somehow that seems less intrusive.

I had so enjoyed my trip last year to the Basque country that I was looking for any excuse for another visit. The Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian was happy to oblige. It also gave me an opportunity to meet up with my friends Susi and Dom whose excellent photographs of the event you can find on www.cyclingnews.com. It was originally planned as a solo trip, while my beloved was in the Far East, but, when his trip was delayed for a couple of weeks, he decided to join me.

I flew from Nice to Bordeaux, took the bus to Bordeaux station and then a train to San Sebastian. The hotel was a 15 minute walk from the station and within sight of the start and finish line of the race. I could have waited for my beloved, who was going to fly into Bordeaux later that day, but experience has taught me never to wait for him unless there’s absolutely no alternative. In any event his flight was late and, still suffering from jet lag, he decided to stay overnight in an airport hotel and drive up the next morning. Meanwhile, I spent many hours happily wandering around San Sebastian enjoying it’s architecture, sights, sounds and smells. This place is foodie heaven.

On our trip last year we had made the pilgrimage to Arzak, a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars and rated 8th best restaurant in the world.  About three months before our trip it took me endless emails to finally secure a table one lunch time. This year it took just one. I always say when you can easily get a table in a city’s top restaurant, you know it’s enjoying tough times. Initially, unsure whether I would be able to secure a booking at Arzak, I also tried to book tables at two of the city’s other 3 starred restaurants. Again, there was absolutely no problem in obtaining a table. Yes, I know three x 3 starred restaurants is way over the top. I agree. I cancelled one of them.

Not only were there gastronomic delights in store but I found out  Bon Jovi were in town Friday evening for the penultimate date of their 2010/11 World Tour. There was no problem in buying tickets which ranged in price from Euros 20 (standing) to Euros 275 (Diamond VIP Circle). Now I’m not sure exactly what you got for your money for the top priced ticket but, at the very least, I’d want a night with Jon Bon Jovi himself. I plumped for tickets costing Euros 60, allocated seats. It’s official, I’m old. This is the first concert I’ve ever attended, and I’ve attended plenty, where I’ve deliberately opted for a seat.

Despite, or because of, his Garmin, my beloved arrived in San Sebastián, minus his jacket, which he’d left in the airport hotel bedroom, and with barely enough time to make our lunch date at Arzak. It was just as good as we remembered. It’s not a restaurant that you could eat at regularly because there’s a real sense of drama and theatre when you eat there which would be lost with regular visits. We had a mind-bogglingly fantastic meal (again) and left feeling truly sated. We’d work off those calories at that evening’s Bon Jovi concert.

After a long walk along one of San Sebastian’s beaches, cooling our feet off in the warm water lapping the sand, we drove over to the football stadium to see Bon Jovi. The boys didn’t disappoint, despite it being the end of a very lengthy tour, belting out 27 songs from their repertoire with gusto. I did however think that in the big screen close ups they looked tired, too many nights with the Diamond VIP circle perhaps?

Saturday heralded the main event and we were handily poised to soak up the pre-race atmosphere which is very relaxed and familiar, not at all like the Tour de France. The event is obviously well supported by the Basque riders who earned the loud, vocal support of the crowd. Equally well received were such luminaries as Sylvain Chavanel, Frank Schleck and Philippe Gilbert. This is an event typically won by an in form rider off the back of the Tour and merry go round of criteriums. Indeed, Phil Gil had flown in on a private jet in the early hours. Nonetheless, he looked as fresh as a daisy and once the orange led peloton had reeled in the early escapees, Sammy Sanchez launched his offensive to escape from the Belgian flag clad Walloon.

Check out those gloves!

A flurry of attacks, the leading contenders constantly splitting and re-grouping, but there was a certain inevitability as PhilGil soloed away on the Alto Miracruz, just a couple of kilometres from the finishing line. He gained enough time to sit up in the finishing straight and enjoy his win. Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo was the Spanish sausage in the Belgian sarnie, he’d attacked on the run in to the finish from the leading group and was book ended by BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, who won the sprint to the line. Spanish races give out prizes for pretty much anything and everything: winner, mountains, most courageous, most elegant, best-placed Basque, youngest rider, most aggressive. PhilGil bemusedly picked up 4 awards. My beloved suggested that one of which was for best hairstyle. Methinks he was joking, but maybe not.

Sunday heralded a visit to another 3 starred establishment, Arkelarre, situated beyond Monte Igueldo, with a panoramic view of the sea. This was pure Basque cuisine ratched up several notches. The only slightly jarring note was the ameuse geule: a clever idea but one at odds with the leitmotif of the restaurant. Again, it was a highly enjoyable meal in very relaxing surroundings. However, for me, the highlight was a guided tour of the kitchen by the chef and restaurant owner.

While we’re heading back to the Basque country in early September to watch the stages of the Vuelta near Bilbao, I am already plotting my return to San Sebastian next year. I am hoping to combine the Tour of the Basque Country (early April) with a cookery course in Basque cuisine. As a consequence, I have been trying my hand at a few words in Basque. I just need the Basque made simple or Basque for idiots course, then I’ll be all set.

(Photo of Sammy [any excuse] courtesy of my friend Susi. My beloved has taken some great photos too but I’m still waiting for them.)