All shook up

We set off yesterday lunchtime for Aix-en-Provence. I let my beloved drive Tom III, largely because I was feeling lousy with my head cold. We arrived, easily parked and went to stand at the finish, within sight of the big tv screen. The team cars and buses were parked behind us and I realised I should have liberated “the shirt for signature” from my LBS, as I’d have had no trouble collecting further signatures – damn. I’ll do that today and see if I can collect a few over the week end.

Sky's Geraint Thomas cooling down
Sky’s Geraint Thomas set the earliest best time only to be superceded by Vacansoleil’s Liewe Westra. Obviously, if you’re riding for a team with GC ambitions,  you’re probably advised to ride within yourself, saving something in the legs for this week end’s stages. As a result, riders come and go without unduly disturbing the results. However, I enjoy time trials as it’s one of the very few occasions you get to see individual riders. On the big screen, you can also appreciate the differences between the time-triallers and the others. The former keep rock solid still on the bike with the legs working like pistons. However, with 25 riders within 90 seconds of the leader, this time-trial was going to finish with a flourish.
Serious bike bling

Richie Porte (SaxoBank-Sungard),  or as he’s called by the French Ritchee Poorty, set the next best time. He ultimately finished 3rd, 29 seconds behind the eventual winner. Yes, this was one stage that went according to expectations. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) wearing his GB champion’s kit blasted around 9 seconds faster than Richie Porte to finish 2nd on the day. The winner, as widely anticipated, was Tony Martin whose fluid pedalling style is a joy to behold. He rode at an average speed of 48.5km/hr and finished 20 seconds ahead of Wiggo.

As predicted, the time-trial results shook up the GC. Martin is now in yellow 36 seconds ahead of Kloeden (RadioShack) and 39 seconds ahead of Wiggins. Locally based Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) is 70 seconds back in 4th, and holder of the best young jersey, with Jean Christophe Peraud (AG2R), the highest placed Frenchman, in 5th, a further 4 seconds down. Given the week end’s topography and forecast weather conditions, the top 12 placed riders can still challenge on GC, but Tony Martin looks pretty determined to hang onto yellow. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) looks to have a stranglehold on the points jersey, as does Remi Pauriol (FDJ) on the spotted one.

Something left in the tank
It’s official, I have a cold which probably wasn’t helped by my standing in yesterday’s humid and chilly conditions watching the racing. But a girl’s gotta do, what a girl’s gotta do. My tip for today? Alexandre Vinokourov wasn’t totally blown when he finished yesterday. He’d like to win a stage to honour his late friend, Andrei Kivilev, and maybe today’s the day. We’ll see.

In the bag

While I spend a lot of time cycling on my own, I am equally at home riding with my clubmates. Even so there are certain wheels I would prefer not to follow as their owners either have a propensity to kiss the tarmac with alarming frequency or tend not to keep their line, particularly when  descending. Of course, given my (still) superior bodyweight, I  descend faster and therefore prefer to be at the head of the peloton.

Such riders are not the sole preserve of the amateur peloton. Should I ever find myself riding with the pros, there are a number whose wheels I would prefer to avoid. Most notably, Frank Schleck who found himself on the ground (again) today. He wasn’t the only one. Heinrich Haussler, lost concentration, and slipped off the road into a ditch. Both got back into the peloton after some mechanical assistance delivered from the team car window.

Coverage of today’s 199km sprinter’s stage from Monfort l’Amaury to Amilly started with around 47km remaining and most of the peloton 50 seconds behind breakaways Maxime Bouet (AG2R) and Tony Gallopin (Cofidis). A few kilometers later the entire procession was halted by a level crossing and, after the barriers re-opened, officials were hard pressed to maintain the leaders’ advantage as riders tried to slip around the cars. A lot seized the opportunity to indulge in one of my practices whereby, whenever the club peloton stops, I ghost to the front of the bunch (again).

The breakaways were re-absorbed with about 30km to go. The bunch appeared quite nervous today as the sprinters’ teams were determined not to forgo one of the remaining opportunities for a stage win. To be fair most of the better-known sprinters have elected to take part in Tirreno-Adriatico as the more undulating terrain better suits their preparation for the Spring classics.

In the run into the finish, the helm was assumed in turn by a number of different teams: Astana, Movistar, HTC-HighRoad. But it was Sky who got their act together in the final stretch with Geraint Thomas leading out Kiwi Greg Henderson for the win. He finished ahead of Matt Goss (HTC) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil), who set off on his own with 1.5km to go, was taken back after 300km but  retained the yellow jersey making his recent sausage and salami sacrifice worthwhile.

As well as dealing with the week’s inevitable administrative burden, I have whipped up a delicious dinner for my beloved. I’m very fond of Indian cuisine but rarely make it just for myself. This evening we’re having tandoori spiced lamb with pilau rice and cauliflower curry.

Opacity obscures objectivity

A certain amount of disquiet is being expressed in the French sporting press about the UCI’s new ranking system for the 2011 cycling season. For the first time the UCI is using a deliberately “secret” system which takes the points earned in the two preceding seasons by each team’s top 15 riders plus some consideration of the team’s ranking in Grand Tour events. The end ranking guarantees entry for the top 15 teams to cycling’s 1st Division providing said teams meet the UCI commission’s ethical, financial and administrative criteria. These are rather more clear cut as they’re set out in the UCI’s Rules and Regulations. The remaining spots will go to 3 of the 5 teams ranked 16-20th: namely, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Geox-TMC, Quickstep, Cofidis and AG2R.

The French are concerned and I’ll explain why. If we look at the teams in turn. FDJ is 21st therefore, under the new system, it is automatically denied entry to the 1st Division. Bbox, along with Cofidis, were relegated last year and have decided to remain in the 2nd Division with their new sponsor Europcar. I assume they’re gambling that with the Tour starting next year in their backyard (Vendee), they’ll get a wild-card. Cofidis and AG2R are fighting it out for the remaining slots. It’s possible, though unlikely, that if neither Cofidis nor AG2R are successful that France (horror of horrors) will not have a team in the 1st Division.

The press are talking about parallels with football because French clubs, who have to balance their books, and have small budgets, constantly lose their best players to clubs in England, Spain, Italy and Germany which have greater wherewithal. By and large, those cycling teams with small budgets are unable to attract the better paid, big point’s scorers.

The UCI made a preliminary announcement on 3 November confirming the 1st Division status of Omega-Pharma Lotto, Garmin-Cervelo, Rabobank and Team Sky. The other 11 teams (in order) are:

  • Unnamed Schleck Luxembourg Team
  • HTC-Highroad
  • Lampre-ISD
  • Katusha
  • Liquigas-Cannondale
  • Saxo Bank SunGard
  • Radioshack
  • Vacansoleil – DCM
  • Astana
  • Moviestar
  • BMC

The definitive list will be published on 20 November.

You can understand the concerns of  management of the individual teams. When seeking sponsorship they cannot give potential sponsors certainty that the team will be present at the prestigious events. I was involved in a project last year with a group of potential sponsors. While they wanted to enter initially at the Continental-Pro level, their long-term aim was Pro-Tour status and “guaranteed” entry into the all important Tour de France. After significant ground work and due diligence, my advice to the potential sponsors was to co-sponsor an existing Pro-Tour team. While this doesn’t afford them the  same level of involvement and control, it does give them exposure at the desired level.

Postscript: UCI announced today, 22 November, that the two teams to lose out in the battle for a place in the 1st division are Geox (with Sastre and Menchov) and Cofidis. The French can heave a sigh of relief that they have one team (AG2R) in the 1st Division.

It’s probably safe to assume that when it comes Grand tour wild cards, preference will be given to domestic teams. So, if you’re a 2nd Division side, from a country other than France, Spain or Italy, it’s unlikely you’ll be riding any of the Grand Tours. Progression into the upper echelons won’t be easy without a big budget to buy in those stars who have earned plenty of points in the preceding seasons. However, I do worry that the increased pressure to win could have unfortunate side-effects.