Itzulia: I should be there!

One of my favourite bike stage races takes place in the Spanish Basque Country, usually after Easter, sandwiched between two great Classics’ races, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I saw the latter live in 2011, but for five years in succession (2012 – 2016), prior to my beloved breaking his leg, we have watched the Basque race live.

His leg is now mended but pressure of work has prevented us from attending the race for the last two years and, of course, this year’s edition has been cancelled because of you know what.

As you all know, I love the race’s location. The Basque Country is famous for its sunny beaches, scintillating modern architecture and for its feisty, cycling-mad natives. It’s also simply beautiful: bright white chalet-style homes with deep-red, blue or green shutters scattered across lush, rolling hills; the Pyrenees Mountains soaring high above the Atlantic; and surfers and sardines sharing the waves. The dazzling architecture of the major towns such as Bilbao and Vitoria-Gasteiz, plus the traditional and thriving small towns, help make the entire region colourful, fun and welcoming.

I’m going to indulge in a spot of virtual travel and bike racing by looking at what might have been in respect of this year’s race which will now be held in 2021. Fingers crossed, I’ll be there!

The details of the six-stage, 898km route of the 60th edition of the race were only revealed in late February. The individual time-trial has been pushed back to the final day of the competition but before, the riders face 18,845 metres of climbing on the preceding five stages. That’s 20 mountain passes: 4 – 1st category; 7 – 2nd category and 9 – 3rd category. Unusually, the race is front-loaded meaning the battle for the spotted mountain jersey would be fought out and decided early on while the 10 sprints to decide the green jersey are pretty evenly distributed.

Monday 6 April, Stage 1: Eibar – Arrate

The opening stage has only six summits (gulp) and will be raced around Eibar, so often the concluding town for this event. It’s a very pleasant place to potter around while the riders are cresting those climbs though much of it has been rebuilt since being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. It was formerly known for its armaments industry, and many of whose companies, such as BH and Orbea, now manufacture bikes.

For fans of the race, we’re in very familiar territory, particularly the final steep climb leading to the Arrate Sanctuary above Eibar. Both my beloved and I have cycled up here and it’s a tough, tough climb followed by a breakneck finish.

As you can see from the map above, the start is only a few kilometres from the finish line, so the riders are taking the scenic route via a rolling section along the coast towards the Bay of Biscay before they head back to Eibar and that testing finish.

Tuesday 7 April, Stage 2: Amurrio – Ermualde

Both of these towns are (unbelievedly) new to us though I’m pretty sure we’ve probably driven through them at one time or another. Again, the start’s not too far from the finish so the riders will be riding the long way round. This part of the parcours could prove to be quite windy and provide the viewers with some exciting echelon action. The stage tops out with an unprecedented uphill climb (av 11.1%) ending at the Ermualde finish line. The final 3kms are particularly tough. But again, this is just half the story. The first kilometre is at 10.7%, the second at 15.6%, and the rest of the ascent hovers around 7%. That’s gonna hurt!

Wednesday 8 April, Stage 3: Vitoria-Gasteiz – Ibardin

The longest stage in this year’s Itzulia, 200 km through Álava and Navarre. After the last two days of climbing, the kilometres could take their toll on the riders’ legs. And, of course, there’s yet another summit finish. The final ascent is just over six kilometres with an average gradient of 5.8%. This climb last featured in the race in 2012. I can still recall eventual race winner Samuel Sánchez outgunning Joaquim Rodríguez and Chris Horner in a three-up sprint.

Thursday 9 April, Stage 4: Bera – Errenteria

This stage is spectator friendly with a number of loops around the area. The riders head south from Bera and the first loop starts near Elogorriana, taking the riders over the Belate (11km at 5.1%) and Saldias (4.4km at 4.3%). The route returns to Bera after 107km and now heads north. Two more loops follow after Irún, the second of which includes the Erlaitz climb, which also featured in last year’s Clásica de San Sebastián. The riders should fly down the Erlaitz to the finish line in Errentería.

Friday 10 April, Stage 5: Errentería to Sestao

Today’s the “flattest stage” in Itzulia and the sprinters’ last opportunity to shine. The riders battling for GC (General Classification) will appreciate being able to save their energy for tomorrow’s time-trial. Of course, in the Basque Country, there’s never an ideal stage for pure sprinters because it’s always so undulating but for those with stamina….this is where they could prevail. There are only two climbs of any note. The road to Areitio climbs for 2.3km at 5.8%, but the La Reineta climb is more likely to have an impact in terms of the stage victory. This 6.4km ascent at 5.6% is just over 22km from the finish which runs slightly uphill.

Saturday 11 April, Stage 6: Bilbao – Bilbao (21km ITT)

As in previous years, the time trial will decide this year’s Itzulia. A 21km ride between the Basilica of Begoña and Etxeberria Park. It’s a fast time trial with two uphill climbs. It’s a false flat downhill for the first couple of kilometres leading to the first climb. It’s short but there’s a double-digit ramp 300 metres before the top. The road then descends for 7km kilometres before heading onto an undulating section before a wall-like intermezzo takes centre stage. The 7km climb (av.12.8%), opens with a 17% ramp for the first kilometre. Then another false flat downhill leads to the last kilometre which starts as a gradual climb before peaking in the last few hundred metres to the line at 11%.

This is the stage which will decide who gets to wear the winner’s big, black floppy “txapela.”

Last year’s edition (summary video above) produced the first Basque winner for a while, let’s hope the tradition continues next year. Meanwhile, I’d better get cracking and book our hotel for next year!

 

Hurrah – Return of the Carrots!

In its heyday (1998-2013), Euskaltel-Euskadi was a legendary team of mountain goats guaranteed to animate uphill stages in any bike race. Nicknamed the #Carrots because of their bright orange jerseys, the team provided social media with plenty of ammunition and before its demise at the end of 2013 was pretty much everyone’s default favourite team because of its so-called plucky riders who had a tendancy to hit the deck with alarming regularity.

At the end of February, Basque telecoms company Euskaltel announced it would return to cycling team sponsorship as a title sponsor of the Pro Conti Fundación-Orbea squad, starting at this month’s (since-cancelled) Itzulia (Vuelta al Pais Vasco – Tour of the Basque Country).

Euskaltel-Euskadi were a lively team of caricature climbers tasked with animating mountain stages in grand tours. But there was serious intent. Only behind the scenes the reality wasn’t quite so glorious, like much of the 2000s. Riders tested positive; plus for all the attacks they never won very much. However, more importantly, they acted as a development team with the likes of riders such as Mikel Landa (bottom row, middle photo), Mikel Nieve, Ion Izaguirre and Igor Anton going on to bigger and better things.

The Euskaltel-Euskadi team was inextricably linked with both a visual and cultural identity. Riding locally-made Orbea bikes in highly distinctive orange kits, the team was one of the most recognisable in the peloton, enjoying an enthusiastic following in the cycling-mad Basque region straddling the French and Spanish border. They were a de-facto national squad for the nationless Basque, who have at various points and with varying degrees of violence, pushed for independence.

For the duration of the team’s existence the roadsides of the Pyrenees and beyond were frequently lined with Basque fans clad in orange, waving the green, white and red Basque flag (above). Euskaltel-Euskadi’s dissolution in 2013 was perhaps only a relief for English-speaking commentators of the sport, who’d spent the last couple of decades stumbling over the complicated jumble of vowels, Zs, Ks and Xs that made up the names of its riders, but the squad’s disappearance was nonetheless a poignant moment.

Mikel Landa, currently active on the road as one of Bahrain-McLaren’s star riders and simultaneously the president of Fundacion Euskadi, is spearheading the team’s return to the upper echelon’s of the sport. Meanwhile, Euskaltel’s president has confirmed:

The relationship of Euskaltel with cycling and Fundación Euskadi has been a success story. We want to repeat the great union and bring back the excitement that it generated in all the fans. This team is something unique; it represents an entire country, and we want to be part of it once again.

It was intended that the reborn Euskaltel-Euskadi would debut at the Itzulia stage race, 6 – 11 April, where they’d be hoping to make enough of an impression to contend for their first Grand Tour berth later in the year at the Vuelta a España. With the cancellation of much of this year’s scheduled races, who knows now what’ll happen. The team has a long journey ahead in order to regain the heights of its glory days, but those (like me) with a nostalgic memory of the orange-clad climbers animating the race will be happy to see Euskaltel-Euskadi returning to some sort of prominence again, and that’s a start.

One from the vaults: Down and almost out

Here’s a real oldie from March 2011 detailing my training on the roads near where I live and my main training hill, Col de Vence. I’ve since managed to reduce the time it takes me to ascend this challenge but I’m never going to get anywhere near the time of an average pro (20-22 mins).

If anything the ascent of Col de Vence was worse than I feared. We assembled at 09:00 in nearby Gattiéres. Club WTS generally comprises those of my cycling coach’s clients who are retired, or have their own businesses. I was the only female present. Among the group was one of the guys who had generously sampled my baked goodies on Sunday at the Gentlemen (a time-trial race). Despite my helmet and glasses, he had no problem recognising me and loudly proclaimed to the rest that I made the most delicious cakes and pissaladière. Buy that man a drink!

My coach ascertained beforehand everyone’s average ascent time. This varied from 32 to 50 minutes, excluding moi. When we reached the base of the Col, he urged those of us who needed more time to set off ahead of the rest. I needed no such encouragement? I was already heading upwards.

In any event, everyone had overhauled me well before hotel Chateau St Martin (within 3 km!). As my coach cycled past, he promised to wait at the top for me. I suggested that he should continue with the group, as I intended descending straight away in view of my Audax ride on Saturday.

The first part of the Col is the steepest and my middle finger, right hand kept searching for a nonexistent lower gear (I was riding my BMC with Campgnolo 53 x 39 gearing). I was asking myself why, oh why, had I not turned up on the BMC with the compact gearing? I slowed down to admire the progress of a rather magnificent modern house under construction and took a (much needed) short rest at the hotel to blow my running nose and have a good drink.  Galvanised, I continued to churn away.

I always divide ascents into manageable blocks, that way the task never seems so bad. Col de Vence is split into 2km chunks. 4km from the top, some of the group were already descending, including the marathon runner who’s only an occasional cyclist! Undeterred, I continued ticking down the kilometers.

The views down to the coast were fantastic and it’s too early in the year for any insects (thank goodness). There’s generally a flock of either sheep or goats towards the top of the Col, but not today. As the riding school hove into view, I gave a huge sigh of relief;  just 500 meters more. I got out of the seat and sprinted. To no avail, I had taken a whopping 60 minutes to get to the top: truly humiliating. I’m going to have to come clean when my coach calls me later today. I might be aerobically compromised, thanks to the lingering effects of my cold, but that was a shocking time. Fortunately, I’ll be back up there on Sunday’s club ride aiming to improve.  The descent, the most enjoyable bit, was achieved in a fraction of the time of the ascent.

One from the vaults: Postcard from Siena

I’m digging into my cycling repertoire for a tale about our maiden attendance at an early season race in Tuscany, called Strade Bianche. Its typically held in the first weekend in March and we’ve been fortunate to see the race live three times 2016-18.  I’m always happy to find an excuse to visit Tuscany. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this year’s edition has fallen victim to the Corona virus. The elite men’s and women’s races and the accompanying sportif have all been postponed.

My beloved and I recently enjoyed a romantic tryst in Siena. It wasn’t our first visit to the town but it was our maiden trip to watch the Strade Bianche races. When I saw this year’s edition started and finished in Siena, I knew we had to go. It was a very pleasant five-hour journey, in fine weather, in Tom IV, which was badly in need of a run out.

Duomo from Piazza San Giovanni
Duomo from Piazza San Giovanni

We were staying in a hotel opposite the cathedral in the old town which made use of a car valet service. You drive to the valet and then he drives you in your car to the hotel, drops you off and takes the car away. Fine, except it doesn’t work for a two-seater with two passengers!

Best press centre ever?
Best press centre ever?

We navigated our way to the hotel with our spare GPS, as Tom IV’s didn’t recognise a road that’s been there since 15th century. Unfortunately, we inadvertently drove the wrong way down a one-way street only to meet the strong-arm of the law who then walked in front of the car for the remaining 200 metres to the hotel. Fortunately the hotel owner, a man with connections in all the right places, talked the police officer out of giving us a fine. Once we’d checked in, the valet service collected the car, promising to return it later that evening. Meanwhile, we hot footed it around to the press centre, surely the most magnificent I’ve ever seen with views over Il Campo, where the famous Palio horse race is held.

Double trouble: two world champions
Double trouble: two world champions

At the press conference there were contrasting demeanours from the two UCI road world champions: Lizzie Armitstead, for whom these affairs are still something of a novelty, and Peter Sagan, a man who’s endured more stupid questions from the press than I’ve had hot dinners.

Later, as arranged, the valet service brought the car back and, with the aid of GPS systems in stereo, we attempted to find our way out of the old town which is riddled with very narrow one-way streets. Sadly, we merely succeeded in going round in circles until, ignoring the by now raised GPS voices, we followed our instincts. We’d been advised the town we were seeking was a mere 10 minutes up the road. I’d allowed thirty minutes to get there but we’d already wasted 20 getting out of Siena and the hotel was seemingly in the middle of nowhere down –  yes you’ve guessed it –  strade bianche.

Our late arrival meant the rider I had arranged to interview had already gone into dinner. We agreed to meet up back at the hotel later while we went in search of our dinner. More fruitless driving in circles until we spotted a small restaurant on an industrial estate serving wood-fired pizzas. After quite probably the cheapest dinner ever, we headed back to the hotel to interview Daniele Ratto of Androni-Sidermec.

It’s not the first time I’ve interviewed him, having gotten to know him well while working for one of his former team’s sponsors. We chatted for around 90 minutes, giving me plenty of ammo for my article for VeloVoices, before heading back to our hotel while studiously avoiding any one-way streets.

We woke bright and early to the sound of various church bells and, after a quick breakfast, headed to the start of the elite women’s race. Stupidly, I had handed the map to my beloved who took us the long way round, which included both a descent and an ascent of THAT hill leading to the finish. We arrived just in time to grab a few shots before they set off on the first race of the inaugural women’s WorldTour.

The world champion braving the cold in short sleeves
The world champion Lizzie Armitstead ((Boels Dolmans) braving the cold in short sleeves
Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5)shedding layers at the start
Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) shedding layers at the start

This meant my photographer had plenty of time to take photos of the boys signing on while I took refuge from the rain which veered from deluge to light raindrops.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) fresh from his recent victory in Belgium
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) fresh from his recent victory in Belgium
Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) prepared for rain
Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) prepared for rain
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) sporting a teeny, tiny ponytail
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) sporting a teeny, tiny ponytail
Who is that?
Who is that?
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) unmasked
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) unmasked
Race favourite Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) chatting to Southeast's Pippo Pozzato
Race favourite Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) chatting to Southeast’s Pippo Pozzato at the start

Once the boys were on their way we retired to a local coffee shop where my beloved had a heavenly hot chocolate and I had camomile tea. Sometimes I feel a bit frustrated with my newly imposed regime and then I remember the alternative (surgery) and realise it’s all worth while. We indulged in a spot of sightseeing/window shopping until the women’s race was due to finish whereupon we took our places on the last climb.

Lizzie powering up THAT hill with ease.
Lizzie powering up THAT final hill with ease
Nicole Braendli (Servetto Footon) giving her all
Nicole Braendli (Servetto Footon) giving her all
You can tell that it's hurting as these two weave all over the hill
You can tell that it’s hurting as these two weave all over the place. I can quite understand why!

Having cheered the women home we retired to a nearby Osteria for lunch, reappearing in time for the finish of the men’s race.

Gianluca Brambilla(Etixx-QuickStep) led up the hill
Gianluca Brambilla(Etixx-QuickStep) led up the hill
The leading riders went by in a flash.
The leading riders went by in a flash
Is Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in the right gear?
Is Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in the right gear?
Fabian Cancellara's (Trek-Segafredo) third win in this race
Fabian Cancellara’s third win in this race
Il Campo
The race finished in Il Campo

The heavens opened shortly after the conclusion of the podium ceremony and we returned to the Osteria for further fortification, largely because it was opposite the restaurant I had booked for dinner. To be honest, one is spoilt for choice in Siena where good restaurants serving local specialities abound. The following morning, after a bit of a lie in, we headed for home wishing we could have stayed for longer – next time.

On the way back we decided to leave the motorway in search of somewhere for lunch. We chanced upon a packed restaurant just outside of Sarzana where the owner promised to squeeze us in. While waiting for our table, my beloved noticed the karaoke machine and musical instruments in the corner and joked I should just start singing to clear the restaurant and our table.

We had just started lunch when, lo and behold, the band started to play and the largely elderly clientel sprang to their feet for a local version of “Strictly.” My singing, not much worse than that of the band leader, would have had the restaurant’s customers on their feet to leave, not dance. It was an amusing intermezzo on our journey back home.

 

We’re at Wembley today

This afternoon at Wembley, my beloved football team Aston Villa FC take on the might of Manchester City, a team whose market value greatly exceeds that of ours, in the Carabao Cup Final. While we’re languishing in 19th place, embedded in the drop zone, second-placed Manchster City have been chasing their tails and Liverpool in vain.

As a fan, I am hoping my boys will prevail. After all, anything can happen on the day even though the statistics indicate otherwise. The two teams have met 171 times in all competitions, including their first encounter way back in 1899. Villa have won 57, drawn 41 and lost 73 of the meetings between the two clubs. In their most recent clash back in January at Villa Park, Manchester City easily scored six goals to Aston Villa’s one. That’s a whitewash!

Manchester City have won the competition on six occasions, boosted by their recent domination of the trophy that has seen them win it in three of the past four seasons. Consequently, the bookies have them as huge 1/14 favourites to lift the trophy once again – even going as short as 1/33 in some places!

Moving swiftly on, let’s instead focus on the positives. Aston Villa have scored the most goals in the Carabao Cup this season, finding the net 19 times in six matches. Twelve different players have scored: Conor Hourihane, Jack Grealish, Ezri Konsa, Fred Guilbert, Keinan Davis, Jota, Jonathan Kodjia, Wesley, Trezeguet, Ahmed Elmohamady, Matt Targett and Anwar El Ghazi.

My beloved team do have an ace up their sleeves. Namely Jack Grealish, a life-long Villa fan, who is quite honestly indispensable. In this season’s Premier League he leads the way in most goals, assists, key passes, touches of the ball and minutes on the field. Grealish is Aston Villa’s most booked player and their most fouled player, the player who has made the most passes and been dispossessed the most. Small wonder Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s manager, describes him as one of the best players in the league – hands off Pep!

The manager, Dean Smith, a lifetime supporter of the team, perhaps said it best at the Press Conference:

When I saw the team sheet [against Real Madrid] and saw David Silva wasn’t playing, Sergio Aguero wasn’t playing and Raheem Sterling wasn’t playing, I thought they must be worried about playing Aston Villa!

They’re a fantastic team, whichever 11 they put out, and they have a fantastic coach. That’s why they’re such massive favourites in the game and why they can go to a place like the Bernabeu and get a result like they did.

We also know that we can push them. We went there earlier in the season and there was an absolute belief that we could beat them that day. I like being the underdog because we can go out and play without anyone expecting us to win, but we have also have that drive to prove people wrong.

We’re most definitely underdogs and we should therefore just go for it! We should remember our venerable League Cup tradition – its first winners, in 1961, and victors of memorable finals in 1977, 1994 and 1996. Despite a trophy drought which stretches back a long and lonely 24 years, Sunday will be Aston Villa’s fifth Wembley appearance in six seasons, most recently overcoming Derby County in last May’s Championship playoff.

Sunday’s showdown will be our ninth appearance in the League Cup final – a tally bettered only by Liverpool – while Villa’s record of five wins is only one behind Liverpool and Man City in the all-time list. Indeed, while there are a plethora of daunting recent statistics which Man City can boast in this competition, Villa still hold the distinction of being the team to have won more League Cup matches than any other team in history (140). I’m holding onto that!

One from the Vaults: Postcards from Seefeld I

I’ve decided that once a week I’ll re-post something from my extensive archives. Obviously many of my early posts 2009 – 2012 heavily feature cycling. I’ll try to keep these to a minimum as I know not everyone is a cycling fan. This one’s from 2015 and features skiing!
My beloved and I spent last week in one of our old stomping grounds, Seefeld in Austria, where we both first learned to cross-country ski. We’ve been visiting the resort regularly for many years, summer and winter, though not so much since we moved to France. Our last visits were back in 2009, when we went cross-country skiing in February and cycling in June.

Seefeld
Seefeld

The resort has changed very little over the years and it’s like slipping your feet into a well-worn and favourite pair of slippers. I should at this point add, I never wear slippers. Along with cardigans and reading glasses, I think they shreak “middle-aged.”

That track has got my name on it
That track has got my name on it

We’ve skied all the resorts 250km of cross-country tracks, several times, just not on the same day! The tracks are graded just like alpine slopes from easy (green) all the way up to most difficult (black). My beloved always makes a beeline for the black  ones whereas I like to get my snow legs back first and will religiously practise a number of exercises before hitting the trails.

Exercises in front of iconic Seefeld church
Exercises in front of iconic Seefeld church

Cross-country skiing, particularly skating, is all about technique. Get that right and you can glide along using the minimum of effort. If I’m obsessed with technique, my beloved is all about power. Combine our talents and you’d have a formidable athlete!

It's even nice walking in the snow
It’s even nice walking in the snow

Aside from the cross-country trails and downhill slopes, there’s around 250km of walks. There’s nothing I like better than working up a head of steam crunching through the woods on virgin snow. It’s so peaceful. Well, apart from the noise I’m making.

This has our names (and forks) on it!
This has our names (and forks) on it!

Then, having burned off copious calories walking and skiing, it’s time to refuel with an Austrian speciality: Apfelstrudel, Germknodel, Kaiserschmarr’n. I’ve tried them all in the name of scientific research.

Bliss!
Bliss!

Last week we were blessed with that nirvana combination of clear blue skies, plenty of new snow and tons of warm sunshine. Ahead of the half-term vacations and Carnival,  the resort was busy but not overly so. No fighting with the Germans to bag the best and sunniest seats!

One from the Vaults: Worrying trend

I’ve decided that once a week I’ll re-post something from my extensive archives. Obviously many of my early posts 2009 – 2012 heavily feature cycling. I’ll try to keep these to a minimum as I know not everyone is a cycling fan. Here’s one from February 2014 and no it doesn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day!

Finding brochures with shoes and garments for the older woman in my letterbox troubled me last year but this year’s much worse. Indeed, it could hardly have gotten off to a worse start. I’ve been receiving spam most days with offers of cut price funerals, exhortations to pre-pay for mine and, which I think is even worse,  a tempting funeral comparison website! A sort of permanent www.Hotelscompare.com. I’ve had so many of these emails that I’m beginning to wonder what it is they know that I don’t?

Okay, so the grim reaper can strike at any time. He’s no respecter of age but it’s got me wondering whether these sites have been surreptitiously following me on my recent rides? I only venture this explanation because I’ve recently had a couple of very close scrapes. Mostly perpetrated by motorists who blithely ignore the mantra of “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre” and head straight to “Manoeuvre”  bypassing the other two steps. To add insult to injury, one of my neighbours in the Domaine perpetrated one of these close encounters. And, yes, I have added their vehicle registration number to my Black List.

The weather has been partly to blame. It has washed lots of sand, stones and rubble into the cycle paths meaning that I occasionally have to venture onto that part of the road which many motorists think only they are entitled to use. Of course, they show me no such compunction when making use of the cycling lanes to overtake or park.

I haven’t ridden outside as much as I would have liked thanks to the rainstorms that seem to have swept most of Europe. Indeed, six weeks into the New Year and I have completed as many kilometres on the home trainer as I have on the road. An almost unheard of situation. My normally cheery disposition takes a bit of a dip without my daily dose of sunshine and cycling. It goes without saying, I am a fair-weather cyclist.

I find that if I have something to mull over you can’t beat a couple of hours on the bike. Inspiration  – and not a vehicle – will likely strike and I return to the office fired up and even more ready for action. It starts when I first awake.

Perfect day for a ride
Perfect day for a ride

I look out the floor to ceiling windows to find out what the weather’s going to hold for me that day. If it looks miserable, I’m far more inclined to roll-over and go back to sleep. If the start looks promising, I leap out of bed, with a spring in my step, and work in the office until I adjudge it warm enough to venture forth.

One from the Vaults: Heavenly

I’ve decided that once a week I’ll re-post something from my extensive archives. Obviously many of my early posts 2009 – 2014 heavily feature cycling. I’ll try to keep these to a minimum as I know not everyone is a cycling fan. Here’s one from February 2013.

The cold snap appears to be over and since returning from my trip to the UK I’ve been enjoying being out on my bike. I rode with my cycling coach this week who asked if I minded whether one of his other clients joined us. He assured me that she was at a similar level to me. Of course, I didn’t believe him. Experience has shown me otherwise. The lady in question was a triathlete thinking about training for the Embrun Ironman – one of the toughest ones. She’d apparently not ridden much lately and wanted my coach to assess her form to see if this tough event was achievable.

We picked her up in Beaulieu and she easily rode me off her wheel up the short sharp incline to Cap Ferret, thereby proving my point. Now, I’m suffering a little congestion after my trip to the UK but nonetheless it’s always annoying to be beaten by someone who claims not to have ridden for ages.

I have a girlfriend at another cycling club which has a very large female membership. They often join after their husbands have ridden at the club for a while, turning up in trainers on a bike that’s clearly seen better days. Three weeks later they’re leaving my friend for dust. Typically these ladies weigh under 50kg, rode extensively when they were younger but have always kept themselves fit and trim. It doesn’t matter how long either of us train, we’re always going to be at a massive (weight) disadvantage. However, we can gain back time/put the hurt on rolling along on the the flat and, in my case, going downhill.

With my coach we did some of my favourite uphill sprint intervals. As always the legs were fine while the lungs were found wanting. By the time I’d gotten back home, I’d been out for almost four hours and was in need of sustenance and a nap! Thursday also dawned bright and fair and I couldn’t resist going for a quick thrash around Cap d’Antibes. If on a scale of one to ten, yesterday was a four Thursday felt more like a seven.

Friday is the day I do, among other things, my housework so I generally don’t ride. However, I decided to make an exception today as the weather was so mild. It seemed a shame not to go out. There’s just something so liberating about getting on my bike and thinking “Mmm, where shall I go today?” As if the world were my oyster. The answer, as always at this time of year, was along the coast. I wasn’t the only one with the same idea. The roads were pretty busy for a Friday with throngs of riders in both directions.

On the way back, still feeling a seven, I stopped to drink in the sunshine and enjoy a quick coffee. As I sat there with the sun warming my face I reflected that I never, ever want to live anywhere else. I came back down to earth with a bump as, sadly, the housework was still waiting for me when I got back.

One from the Vaults: Are you gonna go my way?

I’ve decided that once a week I’ll re-post something from my extensive archives. Obviously many of my early posts 2009 – 2012 heavily feature cycling. I’ll try to keep these to a minimum as I know not everyone is a cycling fan.

Frankly, if Lenny Kravitz were to ask me, my answer would be affirmative. Sadly, Lenny wasn’t asking but I continue to live in hope rather than expectation. I’ll explain the connection, but first I have to back track.

The mercury had risen a few degrees, the sun was shining so my beloved and I decided to venture up into the hills for a ride. It was still chilly in the shade, and one had to exercise caution in the corners, but I was riding really well.  I suspect Peter Sagan (winner of today’s stage in the Tour of Oman) and I had the same breakfast this morning.

My husband turned round early to get back for a conference call while I pressed onwards and upwards. I was riding strongly even though I was doing high cadence intervals. I was channelling my inner Alberto [Contador] and spinning without too much movement on the bike. Not quite as supple as Alberto, but I’m getting there. I even overtook a few groups of cyclists but almost came to grief as a Monaco registered black Porsche passed by me way too close. Still, on the positive side, he’d have been able to afford to compensate my beloved for losing the woman who makes his life heaven [and hell] or, at best, replace my beloved bike.

A gentleman, probably in his early sixties, rode up to me and expressed concern with antics of the Porsche. We exchanged a few disparaging words about foreigners and tax dodgers. Then he accelerated gently away. I was determined to keep him in view. I picked up my pace and maintained the distance between us. As we crested the hill, at the entrance to the village, the road flattens out and I shot past him. I was well ahead as I started the descent but he caught me as I was delayed by a small traffic jam. He stayed on my wheel until the roundabout. I turned left after the roundabout, while he cut it. This was war! I tracked him. I didn’t know where he was going, but I was going too.

I stayed on his wheel until the next roundabout. I was hoping he was going to turn right. He did. I followed him up the slight rise, shifted into my big ring and then attacked on the downhill: game over. I know this descent like the back of my hand and I powered down it. I never saw him again.

This is one of my favourite games when I’m out riding. I like to get someone in my sights, ride up to them and past. Guys generally don’t like being overtaken by a female and will often give chase. I can hold my own on the flat, am vulnerable on any climbs but will crush anyone on the downhills.  Most rides around here involve a long ascent, then a few ups and downs, followed by a long descent. If you’re still in my sights come the descent, you’re toast!

Of course, some resolutely refuse to play ball and ride me off their wheels on the ascent, never to be seen again. But if I don’t at least try, I’ll never get into a winning position. I wonder if Lenny cycles?

One from the Vaults: Back in the groove

I’ve decided that once a week I’ll re-post something from my extensive archives. Obviously many of my early posts  2009 – 2014 heavily feature cycling. I’ll try to keep these to a minimum as I know not everyone is a cycling fan.

There’s storm clouds just back from the coast and, if we’re to believe the weather forecast, we’re in for a few more wet days. I’m not complaining as last week was incredibly mild and I rode every day. There’s nothing better than an hour or two riding in the fresh air to restore one’s equilibrium though I might just have to settle for the home-trainer the rest of this week.

I rode today with my beloved, who’s due to fly away tomorrow morning, and he said that finally I’d gotten back up to speed. He had complained about my laggardly progress all over the Christmas holidays but not so today. Mind you my progress was almost halted in its tracks when a large piece of machinery popped off a lorry and fell (fortunately) just in front of me at a roundabout in Antibes. By chance, the local police were close by and remarked upon my near miss. I retorted that it was the lorry driver who’d had the close shave, not me. Imagine how much his negligence might have cost him? A new BMC racing bike at the very least and, at worst, a sizeable compensatory lawsuit from my beloved. The policeman nodded sagely, he could see my point.

My training for 2014 has gotten off to a good start. Initially with the Rapha #Festive500, where I just managed to sneak over the limit. More importantly, since New Year, I have managed to  maintain both momentum and enthusiasm. Of course, it’s helped that daytime temperatures have not dropped below 10ºC rather it’s been a few degrees warmer. I find when temperatures fall I’ll still ride but two and half hours is my limit before I start to feel chilled to the bone.

In the winter months, all cyclists are largely confined to cycling up and down the coastal roads.  This means that one’s constantly crossing the paths of other cyclists. Of course, most are heading back home by the time I venture forth. Locally resident professional riders aside, most cyclists set off at 8:30, the time designated by the clubs for winter rides thereby ensuring that they’re back ready in plenty of time for lunch at 12:30. Everything and everyone stops for lunch at 12:30 in France. I prefer to avoid the early morning traffic and the early morning chill, rarely leaving the Domaine much before 10:30. Equally, I’m happy to have lunch whenever I get back, even if it’s after 12:30. Sacre bleu!

I’m looking forward to the start of the professional cycling season which kicks off next week with the Tour of San Luis in Argentina and the Tour Down Under in Adelaide. It seems such a long time since Il Lombardia. I have dipped in and out of the cyclo-cross season, a discipline that’s quite rightly growing in popularity. It’s just under an hour of lung-busting racing in generally muddy conditions where you need to get out of the start gate quickly to put time into the chasing pack. Like all bike racing, you can be undone by spills and technical fails but it’s a great spectacle and particularly popular in Belgium where I hear  it goes down nicely with a pint or two of beer.