Yesterday’s big news in the cycling world was the much heralded signing of Contador for two years to the Sungard-Saxo Bank team by Bjarne Riis. Rumours had circulated well before the Tour that the brothers Schleck were leaving to set up their own Luxembourg based team.  Riis must have felt this was a hammer blow to his attempts to find a replacement sponsor as Saxo Bank had previously indicated that they would cease their sponsorship at the end of this season. It’s much easier to secure sponsorship when you’ve proven race winners on your squad, thank heavens that Fabulous Fabian’s contract doesn’t expire for another year.

With Riis in a quandry, Specialized to the rescue. The US bike manufacturer has made no secret of its ambition to have the world’s, two, best bike riders, namely Contador and Cancellara, astride their frames. As their recent adverts testify: “Two Teams, One Bike”. Here was an opportunity for “One Team, One Bike”.  It may also have helped Saxo Bank to reverse their decision and continue their sponsorship for a further season.

Obviously, some of the money saved by Specialized’s sponsorship of only one team will end up in Contador’s pockets. You can’t blame him for going to the highest bidder. A rider’s career is relatively short-lived and he has  to make the most of it.

There are two other issues which will have factored into his decision making. Firstly, there’s a team time-trial relatively early on in next year’s Tour. Who wouldn’t want Cancellara on their team? Remember how last’s year’s TTT ended the Tour aspirations of a number of big names? Secondly, Andy’s performance this year signaled an improvement on last year’s. He matched Contador in the mountains. If Contador is to beat him again next year, who better to ride for than the man who knows him best?

Astana seem pretty sanguine about losing Contador. He has after all won them the Giro, the Vuelta and two Tours – not a bad haul. He’s remained on good terms with Vino, even riding a criterium yesterday in France at his suggestion. There are a number of good riders still seeking a home for next year and I’m sure they won’t be short of suitors. They’ve already secured the signature of Robert Kiserlovski (Liquigas) who was 10th in this year’s Giro. Watch this space for further announcements……………………………

Postcards from Pays Basque IV

Saturday morning we rode down to the start of the Classica San Sebastian and secured a position as close as possible to the sign-on and team presentation. This is a race which attracts a great field and almost all the big names who rode the Tour were here, save Alberto  Contador, Dennis Menchov and Cadel Evans. Not unnaturally, the mainly partisan crowd’s loudest cheers were reserved for the Spanish and particularly the Basque riders. However, it was clear that Andy Schleck and Alexandre Vinokourov are also held in high regard.

Andy Schleck

This is also a race which is generally won by a rider who’s just completed the Tour as they’re in fine racing form. Having seen the peloton set off, we headed out of town to watch them ride the final loop around the Altos de Jaizkibel and de Arklare. Our vantage point allowed us to watch the peloton advancing through the village of Oiartzun and up the Arklare twice before we sped back to San Sebastian, over the same finishing straight as the peloton, to watch the finish. We were not alone. A large number of riders, whose day was done, headed back into town with us.

We found a tv screen in a local bar just 75 metres from the finish and watched the final and decisive attacks. One of the things I love about watching Vinokourov race is that he’s never there to make up the numbers, he always tries to win. The leading trio of Gutierrez, Garate, Verdugo and Florencio had been whittled down when Vino attacked and formed a leading group with Rodriguez, Roche and Sanchez. Richie Porte had tried to bridge but was eventually caught by a larger group who were leading the chase.

As the two groups were about to merge on the second ascent of the Jaizkibel, Luis Leon Sanchez accelerated away. Only Vino and Sastre were able to stay with him. These three worked to establish a sensible lead on the last descent into San Sebastian. While the chasing group was larger, it was less organised, and despite the efforts of Gesink, it failed to make any impact on the leaders.

Almost there

Vino attempted to time trial away from LL Sanchez where there’s a slight uphill drag on the run in, but couldn’t shake him off. As they rode the final few kilometers to the finish, the three re-grouped and Luis Leon just pipped Vino on the line. Later I learned that Vino had arrived in San Sebastian in the early hours of Saturday morning having competed the night before in a criterium in Belgium. He wasn’t the only one, but the others, including Andy Schleck, were DNFs.

Triumphant trio

We watched the podium celebrations before cycling back up that hill to the hotel. The assembled throng were delighted with the Spanish win. As ever, my beloved and I had enjoyed riding over the same terrain as the professional peloton, albeit at a much more sedate pace.

(All photographs courtesy of my beloved)

Postcards from Pays Basque III

For the last few days of our vacation we moved to a hotel in San Sebastian or, more specifically, a hotel on a hill (10% gradient) overlooking San Sebastian. The morning we arrived it had just started to drizzle. Undeterred, my beloved set off on his bike to explore the neighbourhood with me in hot pursuit. As you know, I greatly dislike cycling off into the great unknown without either a map or a specific route in mind. My beloved shares none of my inhibitions and after we’d twice circumnavigated an industrial estate and the university, it started to pour down in earnest.

Enough, I decided to beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel but not before my beloved managed to leave me stranded at a traffic junction. Fortunately, the rain cleared in the afternoon and we were able to explore the town on foot, descending via a rather quaint funicular railway. I also managed to persuade my beloved to acquire a map of the area so we wouldn’t get lost again.

Harbour view

Friday dawned bright and sunny and, with the aid of afore-said map, we set off to explore the roads west of the hotel. It was a truly scenic ride along the cliffs to the town from whence cometh Txakoli. As is normal in this region the road was particularly undulating. In fact on the reverse trip my beloved advised that I’d scaled short inclines of  22% and  20%. I can’t wait to get back and ride Col de Vence.

Friday lunchtime we dined at Arzak, a three Michelin starred restaurant which has been in the same family for a number of generations. Getting a table had not been easy. After a number of rejections I had finally told the restaurant when we’d be in San Sebastian and they had advised when they had a free table. They had then rung me no less than three times in the last ten days to confirm the booking.

As the taxi drove up outside the restaurant, I had a frisson of alarm. From the outside, it resembled an Italian restaurant stuck in a 70s time-warp. Fortunately, the interior was much more reassuring. Everything was beautifully and thoughtfully put together. Nothing jibed and the whole performance was wonderfully choreographed by the staff.

We were able to assemble our own tasting menu by having halves of two different dishes for each course. The pre-lunch nibbles and petit fours were truly divine (my long time bell-weather test of a good restaurant), as indeed was each of the courses. It was so delicious I was almost (but not quite) tempted to lick the plate so as not to waste a single drop. It was truly a feast for the senses. My beloved said it was like visiting a modern art gallery where you got to eat the exhibits.

I’ve bought the cookery book (fortunately in Spanish not Basque) so that I can marvel once again at the ingenuity of the dishes and incorporate a few of the ideas into my own cooking. However, these are not dishes that you can easily replicate in a domestic environment, even if one had the requisite skills. As a nice touch, we were presented with copies of the menu of our meal as we departed, replete and happy.

After a long walk, we returned to the hotel still sated. As we did so we saw a number of riders for the following day’s Classica San Sebastian out stretching their legs on the bike and familiarising themselves with the run in to the finish.

Postcards from Pays Basque II

My beloved and I have been spending a few days in the Basque countryside. He was in charge of this leg of our vacation and he outdid himself. We’re staying in a delightful, small, family run hotel, south-east of San Sebastian which has an excellent restaurant and is well placed for cycling around the many hills. My beloved has also been responsible for planning our cycling itinerary and with unerring efficiency has managed to locate the steepest ascent of each of the hills. While  they’re not particularly long, many have average inclines of over 10%. I just get in the zone and keep cycling while my beloved delights in reading off the percentage inclines from his Garmin. Frankly, when your cadence drops below 40 and your speed below 5km/hr, you don’t need a computer to know it’s really steep.

We’ve seen surprisingly few cyclists, though we were overtaken by a couple of guys from the Euskaltel team today. They sped past far too fast to work out their identities. Cycling also appears to be a sport of young men. We’ve seen few retirees and no women. I guess it’s on account of the steepness of the hills. To be honest we’ve probably seen more mountain bikers than roadies.

I would urge any cyclists reading this to come and visit the region. The scenery is spectacular and the roads are in excellent condition. More importantly, drivers (cars, lorries, white vans but not buses) are very respectful and considerate towards cyclists: no tooting of horns or exasperated revving of engines or overtaking too close. You will however need to lather yourself with repellant if, like me, you’re the insect world’s favourite snack food. A rural location with livestock equals plenty of hungry mosquitos and horseflies.

While the climate is more temperate than in Nice, it’s really warmed up in the last couple of days. I even persuaded my beloved to chill out on the beach in St Jean-de-Luz for a few hours yesterday afternoon. However, I have not relinquished total control, I’ve still retained power over where we eat. While my husband’s ability to spot a good restaurant has improved in recent years, he’s still light years away from me. I, of course, have been groomed from an early age by my father and can be relied upon, like a truffle hound, to sniff out the best restaurant. We have had some spectacular meals. Not difficult in a region with more toques than just about anywhere else in Europe. Aside from those restaurants, at lunchtime, the menu of the day varies from 9-20 Euros a head, including wine, water and coffee. In the evening, we have been enjoying Pintxos (Tapas) washed down with a local beverage called Txakoli: a young, petillant, white wine.

One of our challenges has been making sense of the Basque language. In San Sebastian, or to give it its Basque name Donostia, there’s always the Spanish equivalent but, in the countryside the signs are all in Basque and that’s what everyone speaks. We can get by in Spanish and, thanks to the other languages we speak, rarely find ourselves flummoxed in Europe.  Hungary and Finland being the two exceptions to date, to which we must now add the Basque country. I have been speculating on whether the Basque version of Scrabble assigns values of only 1 to every X, Z and K. I must go into a toy shop and check this out.

However, allow me to better illustrate the issue. Here’s a piece in Basque, with its Spanish equivalent below:-

Bizi ezazu meatze galeria batean sortzen duen zirrara, 2000 urtetan zehar mendia zulatua izan den ingurune batean.

Descubre la sensacion que produce endentrarse en una galeria minera en un entorno en el que se ha horadado la montana durante 2000 annos.

For those of you who don’t speak any Spanish, here it is again but in English:

Discover the feeling underground in a mine where the mountain has been worked for over 2000 years.

See what I mean?

Postcards from Pays Basque I

This morning we set off 50km south-west of where we’re staying in Oiartzun in order to watch the LXXXVII edition of the Ordiziako Klasika. A 165,7km circuit on the UCI Europe Tour, around the town of Ordizia, which takes  in 5 ascents of the Alto de Abaltzisketa and 2 of the Alto de Altzo.

The participants included teams from Euskaltel-Euskadi, Footon-Servetto and Caisse d’Epargne and well-known riders such as Igor Anton, Benat Intxausti, Romain Sicard, David Arroyo, Francisco Mancebo and Ezequiel Mosquera.

There was a huge, local, crowd to welcome the riders which swelled considerably as the race progressed. Most proclaimed their support for the Basque riders by either wearing the Basque flag or the orange of Euskaltel-Euskadi. The spectators watched the peloton pass before retreating once again to their local bars, of which there were aplenty.

The breakaway

A  3-man break away was quickly established which was whittled down to just Romain Sicard and Egoitz Garcia (Caja Rural) but they never gained more than  3 minutes on the peloton which broke and then came back together again.  The break away was  finally absorbed but another Euskatel rider soloed to victory ahead of the mass sprint uphill to the line.

The winner

To the delight of the spectators, the winner was local boy, neo-pro, Gorka Izaguirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) who finished ahead of Manuel Ortega (Andalucia Cajasur) and Pablo Lastras (Caisse d’Epargne) to record his 2nd win of the season. His first was the last stage of the Tour of Luxembourg in June.

Burgos 2016 – Castilla Leon won the team prize, Sicard carried off best U23, most aggressive, the mountain’s classification and the longest escape while Garcia won the points. The winner, Izaguirre, also won the prize for the ¨Most Elegant Rider¨ (I kid you not). I hope Euskaltel bought a large van to carry off all the swag: 6 trophies, 6 bouquets, 6 cheeses, 6 Cava, 1 red beret and 1 framed certificate.

We then hopped  in the car to head back to the hotel to watch the last stage of this year’s Tour de France. While I appreciate that it’s largely a procession, there was still the points (green) jersey to be decided.

As I watched the peloton riding over the cobbles on the Champs Elysees heading, towards the l’Arc de Triomphe, I was reminded of my own recent ride in London-Paris. Those cobbles are painful; no wonder they try to ride in the gutter. To no one’s surprise, Cavendish won at a canter to make it 5 wins this Tour and 15 in total but Petacchi retained the green jersey and becomes one of only 4 men to have won the points jersey in all three Grand Tours.

Radioshack had started the stage wearing unsanctioned special black Livestrong shirts but were obliged by the UCI to revert to their usual authorised grey kit: cue quick roadside kit change. However, as winners of the Best Team, they reprised the Livestrong shirts for the presentation. These shenanigans garnered plenty of column inches which I’m sure was the intent.

Easy, easy, easy

I don’t know about the UCI checking out Cancellara’s bike for an engine,  they should check Cavendish’s for an extra gear. He won yesterday with ease, even having time to check behind him twice. He truly is the world’s fastest sprinter and has already exceeded the number of sprints won by that perennial green jersey winner, Erik Zabel. He could possibly accumulate as many wins in the Tour as Super Mario did in the Giro. Alessandro Petacchi is back in green but this is a jersey, unlike the others, that’s going to go to the wire.

Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise followed yesterday’s 198km from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux and were presented with signed, yellow jerseys by Alberto Contador. I have seen a number of photos of the trio in the press and it’s interesting to note that where Cameron is standing next to Contador, it’s just a head shot, while the full-length photos show her keeping her distance. Do you think she’s been reading my blog and specifically the entry “Don’t stand so close to me”?

Today, like Alberto Contador, we were on the edge of our seats as, quelle surprise, Andy Schleck appeared to be putting time into Alberto in the final time trial: 52km from Bordeaux to Pauillac.  However, it was simply a question of difference in approach. Andy understandably gave everything from the start, while Alberto better measured his effort.

Sadly, and as anticipated, Denis Menchov put time into Sammy Sanchez and replaced him on the 3rd step of the podium.  Also, as anticipated, Fabulous Fabian, the Olympic and World Champion, won the time trial.

Alberto looked close to tears as he received the maillot jaune today perhaps realising that it had been a closer shave than he would have liked. Andy however was left to reflect on what might have been if only he’d had the support of his elder brother Frank for the length of the Tour.

Double or quits

We had to abandon our plans to cycle up the Tourmalet to watch yesterday’s Queen stage on account of the thunderstorms. Instead, we settled for watching it from the foot of  the Tourmalet. We arrived early to secure a parking place beside the road and tried to set up our portable TV. The signal was too weak, ditto for our portable WiFi. Undaunted, we left the safe confines of the car and braved the elements to find a bar, appropriately named Le Refuge, which had a large flat screen TV.

Not long after Sammy Sanchez had regained the peloton, following his fall at around 24km from the start, the thunder and lightning started again. This time it struck the local relay station taking out all the digital transmissions. Time to invoke, Plan D. We returned to the car, turned on the radio and watched the action on my beloved’s mobile while awaiting the arrival of the peloton.

Finally, it was starting to dry out, although the fog was still swirling around the final ascent. The road was lined with spectators of every age and nationality. The sense of anticipation in the air was palpable. The children, having consumed all the edible freebies dispensed by the caravan, were practising their encouragements with the inflatable batons.  After a veritable procession of cars and bikes the all important cavalcade hove into view with the lead group just behind. Sky were leading the charge up the Tourmalet, closely followed by Carlos Sastre, on his tod.

Sastre solo

The  peloton was over 3 minutes back where Contador and Schleck were eyeballing one another. Andy had promised to attack today, recognising that his options were running out like the sands of time. Attack he did, 10km from the summit: not once, not twice, but three times. He couldn’t shake Bert who, to demonstrate his strength, also launched an attack. Game over. They rode to the finish and, having overhauled those in the break, Bert graciously allowed Andy to take the stage. The war was over.

Postcards from the Pyrenees

We left home just after 09:00 on Monday morning in our Renault hire car and headed for Bagneres de Bigorre. Just past Carcassone, the car emitted a small cough and lost power. My beloved guided it onto the hard shoulder, we leapt out of the car and vaulted the security barrier. I rang Renault Assistance who were unable to assist and advised us to ring the police. I did and they gave me the number for the local constabulary who kindly sent someone to tow us to the nearest Renault garage. All well and good, but the garage advised they would not be able to fix the car that day, possibly the following one. I rang my Renault contact who advised that they were obliged to find us a replacement car and I should ring Renault Assistance. So I did.

Finally, after much toing and froing, they found us a Hertz hire car for 4 days. We would however have to return to Carcassone to collect the Renault. This solution did not find favour as we were heading in totally the opposite direction. The Renault garage staff, fearing an imminent and irrevocable schism in the entente cordiale, decided to put us out of our misery and fixed the car in 15 minutes flat.

We had planned to go and watch the peloton’s arrival into Bagneres de Luchon. Instead we had to settle for watching it on my beloved’s new mobile. Yet another French win, Tommy Voeckler looking radiant in his tricolour jersey as he crossed the line. Sadly his endeavours were overshadowed by polemics. Should Contador have attacked the yellow jersey when he lost his chain? Andy Schleck’s Dad admitted he’d have taken the same action as Contador: he’d have attacked. No matter, the two have now kissed and made up. Contador leads Schleck  by 8 seconds.

Tuesday morning, we were up bright and early for our ride up Col d’Aubisque. The roads were literally alive with cyclists in kit of all hues and hailing from the four corners of the earth. We rode companiably, side by side, enjoying the freshness of the air and the magnificent green countryside. It was starting to heat up as we reached the Col du Soulor whose incline starts to quickly ramp up to 12% before settling back down to a comfortable 5-7%.

Chasing leading group up Soulor

One of the many things I love about the Tour is the ability of anyone and everyone to attend the world’s biggest, best and longest street party. The roads were lined with enthusiastic spectators proclaiming their allegiances and what was surely the world’s biggest concentration of camper vans. While waiting for the real show to put in an appearance, they’re willing to encourage all of us amateurs toiling away up the inclines. I was high fiving small kids as I wend my way upwards. No mean feat given my lack of bike handling skills.

Towards the top of the Col, I made an executive decision to stop at the last outpost,  before the descent, providing refreshments, toilets and a TV. From here, in the company of a large number of Uruguayans, Americans, Aussies and Danes we watched the slow approach of the peloton. There was much excitement as Lance, having lost so much time on GC, had been allowed to escape and, with his fellow escapees, had over 3 minutes on the yellow jersey.

It looked as if the peloton had settled in for a quiet day  and was more than happy for Messrs Fedrigo, Casar, Armstrong, Barredo, Cunego, Plaza, Horner, Moreau and Van de Walle to duke it out. Barredo took a flyer off the front but was caught with 1km to go. The two sprinters fought for the line and the win went to Fedrigo, by a nose. The sixth French win and the 2nd consecutive one for Bbox!

The yellow jersey group came in over 6 minutes behind, led by Hushovd who gained enough points to regain the green jersey.  Otherwise, it was stalemate at the top, leaving Schleck one fewer opportunity to make  up lost ground. Thursday should therefore be decisive. Sadly, the weather has changed. It rained heavily overnight and it’s continued to drizzle on and off all day. The Tourmalet is shrouded in mist. Tomorrow, further rain is forecast. But whatever the weather, we’ll be there to see all the action.

Surprising result

The alarm went off at 06:00 this morning. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was not. My beloved turned off the alarm and went back to sleep. I, on the other hand, never even heard it. We awoke two hours later, too late to attempt the concentration at Venanson. Instead, we decided on one of our favourite summer rides which takes in the perched village of Gourdon, home to the baker of my favourite pain d’epice.

Today was just as hot as the previous one but there was a cool, rather than warm, breeze which was deliciously refreshing on the run in to home. We had picked up the newspapers on the way back and, once home, I had a cold shower and slipped into something cool and flimsy. I fed my beloved and settled down to watch stage 14: 184.5km from Revel to Ax-3 Domaines. The showdown in the Pyrenees was about to begin.

I was expecting things to kick off on the Port de Pailheres. Astana took control on the ascent and their pace shattered the peloton while leaving the contenders together. The remnants of the day’s breakaway were still up the road and a number of riders, including Carlos Sastre, had set off in hot pursuit.

A rider who lives locally, Amael Moinard, was one of two riders still up ahead from that morning’s breakaway but he’d been distanced by the other, Christophe Riblon, probably better known for his exploits on the track. Riblon hung on to give the French their 4th stage win. Meanwhile, Alberto and Andy were eyeballing one another, but neither was prepared to concede. Sensing a stalemate, both Sammy Sanchez and Denis Menchov decided to profit from the stalemate.  They gained 13 seconds. Roll on tomorrow.

13, not unlucky for everyone

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This could be Alexandre Vinokourov’s leitmotif. After the disappointment of yesterday’s 3rd place, Vino seized his chance again today and was deservedly rewarded.

Today’s 196km stage from Rodez to Revel was probably the last opportunity for a baroudeur to win ahead of the Pyrenees. While it wasn’t billed as a difficult stage, the final climb up Saint-Ferreol, close to the finish line, rather predicated against a mass sprint.

But nor was it an easy stage. A high pace and wind, made it more of a nervous one. Vigilance was the watchword. Alexandre Vinokourov kept protectively close to Contador for most of it.

After the peloton had caught the day’s escapees (Fedrigo, Flecha and Chavanel) with 10km to go, the sprinters’ teams, who had done most of the work on the front today, were getting themselves organised for the run in to the finish. At 8.5km to go,  Alessandro Ballan took a flyer off the front and established a small lead. Others followed, including Vino, who passed Ballan with 7.5km remaining  and set off towards the summit. He quickly established a lead of almost 20 seconds over the peloton.

Thomas Voeckler also tried his hand but, like Ballan, was soon reeled back in. Vino was still just ahead of the advancing riders, who were lining up their sprinters, as he approached the finish line. Fortunately, he had enough time in hand to enjoy the sensation of winning.

Brothers in arms

I had been shrieking at the top of my voice at the television, encouraging Vino, just willing him across the line. OK, I know he couldn’t hear me but it’s so exciting watching someone you know win. And what a well deserved win. I was so pleased for him, and so was Alberto Contador who was the first of his team mates to warmly congratulate him. Chapeau Vino!