One from the vaults: Postcards from the Basque Country – Part II

Continuing my Basque flavoured theme this week, here’s the second-part of my post on one of my favourite stage races, Vuelta al Pais Vasco #Itzulia.

Pretty much like the riders, when you’re following a race, your days follow a very similar format. Turn up at the start 90 minutes before the race start which, weather permitting, enables you to catch up with the riders and take photographs. It’s always easier if the team buses are parked close to the sign-on which isn’t always possible in some of the smaller towns. However, once the weather deteriorated, this became a bit of a logistical nightmare with the riders, understandably, not wanting to spend a moment longer than necessary in the freezing, wet conditions. Luckily, the weather doesn’t dampen the appetite of the fervent Basque fans who line the ascents in their hundreds and thousands.

The peloton departs and we race to our car or, in this case, our rented Renault Kangoo, to drive to the finish. We head first to the press room to bag our places, set up our laptops, enjoy the plentiful buffet and chat with a few of the photographers and reporters. Then it’s time to check our email and start writing up the summary of the day’s racing as it starts to unfold on the tv screen.

When the peloton’s 10km from home, the press room empties, everyone races to the finish line and listens to the two-handed Basque-Spanish commentary team, awaiting the arrival of the riders. Race over, we drift to the podium to congratulate and photograph the winners, then it’s back to the press room to finish the day’s report, download and edit the day’s photographs.

Job done, our thoughts drift inevitably towards dinner. We were staying in a charming family-run hotel close to a national park, in a town with a couple of restaurants and bars, one of which was excellent and where we ate most evenings. We didn’t manage to work our way through the menu as we often opted for the day’s specials. A relaxing glass of Rioja and we were both tucked up in bed, fast asleep, well before most of the riders.

Towards the end of our break, we popped in to see the owners of the hotel where we stayed last year. We couldn’t stay there this year as it was fully booked! I knew I shouldn’t have written them such a glowing review. We were greeted like long-lost family members and the welcome and cooking was as warm and as fantastic as we remembered. Given the dreadful weather conditions, my beloved is suggesting we opt for the Tour of Turkey next year. I’m not so sure. I really enjoy our sojourns in the Basque country and am already looking forward to our next trip at the end of July for the Clasica.

One from the vaults: Postcards from the Basque Country – Part I

I did say that I wouldn’t recycle too many cycling posts but, frankly, I’m having severe withdrawal symptoms with there being no live racing, anywhere. Ahead of what would have been this year’s Tour of the Basque Country, I’m recycling one from April 2013 which is lacking my trademark photographs – apologies! However, my husband provided plenty from the race for VeloVoices.

I know, I’m back home and I’ve not sent my postcards! We’ve all done it, haven’t we? But, to be honest, it’s the first time I’ve had any real opportunity to write about the trip and not the race which you can read about over on VeloVoices. Well apart from the shenanigans with the Russian visa application.

First up the weather was initially much better than anticipated meaning my beloved was able to ride for the first few days and I even accompanied him despite his unerring ability to find every steep climb in the neighbourhood. Admittedly that’s not difficult in the Basque country although this time he succeeded in finding one or two of the longer, more taxing climbs.

Of course, when I say I rode with him, I meant I trailed behind him. My beloved, despite our lengthy marriage, constantly fails to appreciate that if he runs, skis or cycles with me I’ll make an effort to keep up. Disappear 500m or more up the road, leaving me to my own devices, and I’ll amble along admiring the countryside or get into conversation with other cyclists. As a result, we rarely cycle together.

The first Saturday morning dawned bright, albeit overcast, after Friday’s torrential downpour,and my beloved wasted no time in hustling me out the door though, half-way into our ride, the heavens opened again and we turned tail and fled back to the warmth of our small family-run hotel.  In the afternoon we drove into Navarre to watch the GP Miguel Indurain where conversely the weather was dry with a chilly wind. The race weaves loops around the pretty old town of Estella where, after a truly magnificent lunch, we exhorted the peloton, surprisingly split into a multitude of small groups up the final climb.

Sunday morning we opted to further explore the countryside on two wheels. The sun shone although there was still an early morning nip in the air. The scent of word-burning fires, the bright lime-green shoots on the trees, the blossoming hedgerows, the sound of dogs barking and the tinkle of bells around the necks of goats and sheep gave everything a distinctly alpine feel but then we were riding at around 600-900m and some of the hills still had traces of snow.

I love riding in the Basque country where cyclists always seem to outnumber the motorists who keep a respectable distance and toot in a friendly and encouraging fashion as you labour up yet another of those steep, sharp inclines. Sunday was no exception and we saw many groups from the local cycling clubs, I even cycled and chatted with a few of them after being abandoned by my beloved. Ride over, we settled down to a plate of tapas, a glass of red wine and, on the big screen, the rigours of racing over the cobbles in Belgium in the Tour of Flanders.

Monday dawned bright and fair, again contrary to expectations, as we headed over to Elgoibar and the start of one of my favourite races of the year: the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Accreditation secured, we headed to the team presentation and sign-on where I was able to catch up with a number of friends who were riding in the race. There’s nothing nicer than watching and encouraging someone you know. Our early start also gave us an opportunity to catch up with friends old and new in the press corps.

This race is extremely well attended by the bike loving Basques. The biggest cheers, not unnaturally, are reserved for the “home” team of Euskaltel-Euskadi and their lead rider and defending champion Samu Sanchez who obligingly had his photograph taken with hordes of dark-haired, dark-eyed moppets: inspiring the next generation. It’s also very evident that former winner Spaniard Alberto Contador is popular with the on-lookers.

The appreciative and knowledgable crowd also welcomes “old friends” such as Jens Voigt who was awarded a plaque in recognition of his support of this race. Conversely, Sky turning up with only six riders, and failing to attend the team presentation, was seen as disrespectful. As the race progressed, they made a point of arriving more punctually for the sign-on except for their gregarious bearded Basque Xabier Zandio who was an early starter most mornings. By the time they started winning stages, they were forgiven.

I love watching the pre-start interaction with everyone milling around the team buses in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of their heroes, a souvenir or two or just checking out the bike bling. Likewise those five minutes or so before the race starts where some riders wait patiently, composing their thoughts before the day’s challenges while others chat with their compatriots on other teams, no doubt comparing their experiences of the previous day’s racing.

The Vuelta al Pais Vasco follows a similar pattern most years, with the first and last days of racing centred on one town and the four stages in between setting off from the previous day’s finish town. It all takes place within a relatively confined geographic area allowing the teams to spend most of the race based in one hotel, close to the action, thereby avoiding long transfers and early morning starts. I think this is recompense for the fact that several stages take place in the freezing cold rain. This year’s been no exception, the rain started in earnest on Thursday with the Eibar summit finish shrouded in freezing fog. Friday morning we awoke to find a blizzard blowing. Why did no one tell me the locals’ nickname for Vitoria-Gasteiz is Siberia?? (to be continued)

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?

Sheree’s 2017 Sporting Highlights

I’ve been a bit slow off the mark here largely because I’ve been out enjoying myself in the snow!

As usual there were many lowlights in 2017 – no need to depress ourselves by listing them – but I’ve always been a glass half full kinda gal and still found much to enjoy, particularly on the sporting front. I’ve limited myself to five – early new year discipline is no bad thing!

Football

With my beloved boys in claret and blue languishing in the Championship, it was again down to OGC Nice to provide me with some much needed cheer. Punching well above their financial might, the boys easily finished the 2016/17 season in third place, qualifying for the qualifying round of the Champions League. Sadly that proved to be a step too far too soon, though we’re currently doing well in the Europa Cup. Inevitably we lost six first team players to better (paying) clubs though hung onto both our manager and Super Mario (Balotelli).

A very shaky start to the new season has largely been rescued but I’m hoping and praying we don’t lose any key players in the January transfer window. Yes, Mario, I’m specifically talking about you! Meanwhile, AVFC yesterday crashed out of the FA Cup to concentrate on finishing at least in the play-offs giving them the chance to return to the Premiership. So 2018’s looking bright for both my teams.

MotoGP


2017 saw us attend the Italian MotoGP at Mugello, a fascinating race won unexpectedly by an Italian who wasn’t Valentino Rossi  – racing but still recovering from his broken leg – it was Andrea Dovizioso. It was possibly one of the most exciting seasons in recent history with Maverick Vinales – such a wonderful name – initially igniting hopes on the factory Yamaha vacated by Jorge Lorenzo, then Dovi coming to the fore on his Ducati before Marc Marquez steamed back to lift the title, his sixth and fourth in the blue riband event prompting #BigSix.

The event at Mugello was tinged with sadness as tribute was paid to former MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden, a hugely popular figure in the sport who’d moved to World Super Bikes at the start of the season. Hayden was killed while riding a bicycle in Italy. Attendance at another, as yet to be determined, MotoGP event is definitely on the cards for 2018.

Cycling

Once again we managed to attend the start of all three grand tours which afforded us the opportunity to visit some new locations in Sardinia, Nimes and Uzes  plus visit some old favourites in Duesseldorf and Maastricht. My beloved’s broken leg prevented us from attending the Tour of the Basque country though thankfully not the Clasica San Sebasian. Prior to his accident, we spent another very enjoyable weekend in Siena watching both the ladies and gents’ Strade Bianche, two tough but absorbing races which are now firm fixtures on our racing calendar – any excuse for a trip to Tuscany! Sadly, we won’t be kicking off our season watching racing Down Under instead, this year, it’ll be the Tour of Dubai – a first  – followed by plenty of races on home turf. (See pictures above. For reasons best known to WordPress, I couldn’t insert them in the correct section).

Skipping the Tour of the Basque country once more, we’ll be visiting the Giro and clients in N E Italy, watching the start of the Tour in the Vendee and in the Pyrenees while (sadly) passing on the Vuelta to attend a family wedding. Also, after a two year absence, we’ll be gracing the World Championships in Innsbruck, just down the road from where we’re staying. As ever, at all the races we’ll be cheering on the riders we know and hoping that one of them will win a race or a stage, or two.

Easily my highlight of 2017 was watching Larry Warbasse (Aqua Blue), a key member of my crack cake tasting team, winning his first WorldTour stage in the Tour de Suisse, followed by him lifting his national championships. He’s a very fitting Captain America and I’ll be hoping that his winning ways continue in 2018. He features in my header image courtesy of Sirotti.

In 2018 we waived goodbye to two giants of the sport, and two of my favourites, Tom Boonen and Alberto Contador, and much less gloriously and more disappointingly, Sammy Sanchez. A dear friend in the peloton told me he didn’t trust Samu. He was so right and I should never have doubted my friend. The riders know best.

Cricket

Last year in Australia I fell in love with #BigBash aka Twenty20 cricket and this year I was fortunate to attend more matches and watch the rest of the series on television. My beloved and I supported the Melbourne Renegades, largely because we spent more time in Melbourne than elsewhere and because their red and black colours reflect those of OGCN. As ever it was great family entertainment and an exciting evening’s viewing. This year I’ve had to contend with watching snippets on the internet. It’s nowhere near as good.

My Beloved’s Health

Having returned to good health towards the end of 2016, I was looking forward to getting back in the saddle and regaining my former fitness. I was definitely heading in the right direction until my beloved fell off his bike and broke his leg. It’s been a long road back (for both of us), despite the wondrous care and attention from the French healthcare system which cost us absolutely nothing and included 70 physio sessions. My beloved has never had particularly flexible hips and this injury has worsened the situation leaving him with less control over his balance. He’s fallen over a few times this vacation on the ice but fortunately nothing more serious than injured pride. He’s also back riding his bike but he’s being so much more cautious, probably no bad thing given his advancing years. I am concerned about his lack of flexibility and will be dragging him along to yoga with me when we’re back home at the end of the month. I’ll be hoping and praying for a healthy and injury-free 2018 for both of us.

Bye bye Baby Blackbird bye bye

After Tom Boonen’s retirement earlier this year, yet another of my favourite riders has hung up his cleats. I am, of course, talking about Alberto Contador whose career I have followed with interest since 2006. On that year’s final stage of Paris-Nice, I was waiting behind the barriers at the start line in Nice when the rider nearest to me took off his helmet, removed his cycling cap and handed it to me. The elderly woman standing next to me tried to snatch it. However, I fended her off and gestured for the rider give the cap to the small boy standing next to me, and he did. The young lad, who looked to be aged about eight, was thrilled. The rider was none other than Alberto Contador and I wonder if that cap is still a treasured item. Sadly, Bertie didn’t get to strut his stuff at the Tour de France that year as he and five of his Astana-Würth teammates were barred from competing after their names were linked to the Operacion Puerto blood doping inquiry, though Bertie was later cleared of charges.

In 2007, Bertie won Paris-Nice. I was standing on one of the slopes on stage 6 when he applied the after burners and just dropped everyone. It was as if he had another gear to everyone else. I marveled at the amount of time he could ride with ease out of the saddle. That was the year he won his first Grand Tour, the Tour de France. Ostensibly riding in support of team-mate Levi Leipheimer, he quickly outpaced his leader. Though for much of the race  he seemed destined for second overall, until Michael Rasmussen was thrown off the Tour after lying about his pre-Tour whereabouts. Baby Blackbird assumed the maillot jaune and carried it all the way to Paris.

Stade Laurentin protestors

He didn’t take part in Paris-Nice in 2008 where I staged what ended up as a one-woman protest about the exclusion of Astana from that year’s Tour de France. The protest had been organised by Alexandr Vinokurov, who provided us with the t-shirts. The plan had been to cycle up Col d’Eze and stand on the top of the mountain classification line thereby attracting the attention of ASO’s Christian Prudhomme and the television cameras. I was the only one from the club to make it up the climb in time, the others got stuck at the junction so it was a rather muted protest. I appeared only briefly on camera and while M. Prudhomme probably noticed me, he didn’t change his mind.  Unable to compete at the Tour, Bertie won a Giro-Vuelta double becoming the youngest rider ever to complete a full set of Grand Tour victories. A glittering future surely awaited him.

Bertie returned to Paris-Nice in 2009. But he didn’t win after spectacularly bonking on stage 6 into Fayence. If only he’d said? I was in the village and had energy bars to spare. His effort to gain back time on the final stage won him a lot of French fans who loved his attacking style. The French adore riders with “Panache.” On the Sunday evening, after the conclusion of the race, we attended a small, intimate dinner organised by Vino in his restaurant in Nice, where the guest of honour was none other than Bertie. After dinner, my club-mates were queuing up to have their photos taken with him, but not me. As I reminded Vino, there’s no way I wanted my photo taken with a guy who weighed less than me! I did have a brief chat with him in my poor Spanish and was left with the impression of someone who was both very humble and shy, and had a sweet tooth.

Post Paris-Nice dinner

In a move he probably now deeply regrets, Lance Armstrong emerged from retirement to join Astana in 2009, but Bertie had the mental fortitude to see off that internal challenge and add a second Tour de France title to his palmares. We stayed in the same hotel as Astana on the eve of stage 4’s team time-trail in Montpellier and you really could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Bertie won Paris-Nice again in 2010, a year which left an indelible stain on his mighty career. At that year’s Tour de France, Bertie emerged victorious over Andy Schleck only for a positive test for Clenbuterol on the second rest day to scrub it from the record books. News of the positive test broke in September 2010. I was at the World Championships in Melbourne at the hotel where the Spanish team were staying and I well remember their collective shock and disappointment.

It took more than 16 months of investigations, hearings and appeals for Bertie to finally be sanctioned with a retroactive two-year ban. He’d continued to race and win while the debate raged and his 2011 Giro d’Italia triumph was perhaps the most dominant of his entire career, even if the title would eventually pass to the late Michele Scarponi.

The 2011 Tour de France was, in light of Bertie’s resurrection as attacking shaman, perhaps his defining race. He arrived for the Grand Depart as the overwhelming favourite, still uncertain whether he would be sanctioned for his 2010 positive test. I clearly remember he was roundly booed by spectators at the team presentation at Le Puy de Fou. Three weeks later, it was a different matter and he received a notably warmer welcome when he rode into Paris in fifth place overall. A crash on the opening stage, not to mention the exertions of his (revoked) Giro d’Italia win the previous month, meant he was a much reduced presence on that Tour. But his startling, all-or-nothing attack on the short stage to l’Alpe d’Huez almost turned the race on its head. In many ways, the rehabilitation of his reputation began there, even before the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided to hand him a retroactive two-year ban the following February.

Post-Ban Career

Vuelta Spagna 2012 – Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) – Alberto Contador (Saxo – TinkoffBank) – Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) – foto Graham Watson/BettiniPhoto©2012

Following his return to racing in 2012, it seemed as if Bertie would never again scale such giddy heights, even despite his surprising victory in the 2012 Vuelta a Espana with a trademark attack on the road to Fuente Dé. It was perhaps the greatest heist of his career and set a pattern for performances in future grand tours.  Bertie’s racing continued in a similar vein in 2013 where he struggled to finish fourth overall at the Tour de France.

2014 saw a marked improvement as Bertie was undeniably the outstanding rider of the opening half of the season. He won Tirreno-Adriatico in spectacular fashion followed by an emphatic victory in Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Disappointingly, he was forced to abandon the Tour when he suffered a fracture of the tibia in a crash on the road to La Planche des Belles Filles. Amazingly, he returned in time to ride to victory in the Vuelta.

Seven times a grand tour winner: Alberto Contador’s signature

Bertie then set himself, or had set for him,  the lofty goal of winning the Giro-Tour double in 2015. I met up with him in the garden of his hotel, just before the press conference, to secure his autograph on the illustrated page of Book de Tour which showed him leaving the previous year’s Tour de France. He was happy to sign the page and showed a keen interest in the book. Bertie achieved the first part of  his goal but paid for his exertions with a fifth-place finish in Paris.

In the final two years of his career, Bertie has raged against the dying of the light by seeking to replicate his Fuente Dé display across the entire calendar.

Vuelta Pais Vasco 2017 Podium – Alberto CONTADOR, Alejandro VALVERDE, Ion IZAGUIRRE and daughter © Tim De Waele

In both 2016 and 2017, he animated Paris-Nice with final stage attacks that brought him to within seconds of overall victory. His aggression at the 2016 Vuelta helped  tip the balance in Nairo Quintana’s favour. His attacking on the road to Foix at this year’s Tour de France brought Mikel Landa into play as a contender for overall victory. Contador, however, had to settle for ninth overall in Paris and the realisation that he would never again win the Tour. He had the option of a second season at Trek-Segafredo, but decided to bow out with one final tilt at the Vuelta rather than continue as a reduced version of himself.

Bertie managed to go out with a final flourish in the Vuelta with victory atop the Alto de l’Angliru and well-deserved a hero’s welcome into Madrid the following day.

Baby Blackbird left professional cycling with seven Grand Tour titles to his name even though he (and I) likes to count nine victories.  It’s a succinct epitaph for a career that is both controversial and complicated. For some, he’ll be remembered as the greatest stage race rider of his generation and arguably the most exciting talent to grace the professional peloton in the 21st century. For others, he will forever be tainted.

What’s Next

I no longer have to go out on the bike every day but you can put that energy into other things. I have lots of great opportunities for the coming years. Pretty much everything will be cycling-related – apart from the work I’m doing with stroke charities. I’m motivated; I have lots of projects and lots of different motivations. You have to have something to motivate you when you get out of the bed in the morning, and I have many.

 He no longer has to watch his weight, so can indulge his sweet tooth.

Enjoy your retirement Bertie, it’s merited! However, you’ll be sorely missed…………….

Pre-Tour chat with Trek-Segafredo’s Haimar Zubeldia

Typically I’ll make a point of talking to riders participating in their first ever grand tour, or their first Tour de France, because their slightly nervous excitement and sense of adventure is intoxicating.

The youngest (and coolest) rider in the race, Elie Gesbert (Fortuneo), handling French television with aplomb

This time though I thought I’d head for the opposite end of the spectrum and talk to the oldest, most experienced rider in the race, one taking part in his 16th Tour and who had been literally called off the substitutes’ bench at the last moment.

In previous additions of the Tour, Haimar Zubeldia (Trek-Segafredo) has managed five top-10 finishes almost without anyone noticing. The Basque cuts a tall, elegant figure in his all black casual clothing and he’s long been one of my favourite riders. I always enjoy watching him race in the Basque country where family and friends turn out in droves to support him and when, inevitably, he wins the prize for Best Placed Basque Rider, his two daughters, whom he refers to as his angels, love getting up on the podium with him and holding his bouquet and cup.

Pre-stage planning in the Village Tour de France (l to r Alberto Contador, Carlos Betancur, Haimar, Jarlinson Pantano)

It was clear that he was bitterly disappointed not to have been first-choice to race in what will be his final Tour de France, particularly as he’d ridden the recent Dauphine as road captain for Alberto Contador, with whom he’d participated in the Tour much earlier in both their careers (Astana in 2009 and RadioShack in 2010), and was keen to repeat the experience. However, he told me he’d suffered some dark moments before the telephone call summoning him to Duesseldorf.

My family like cycling a lot but last week was not easy for me when I was not selected in the first moments and my wife she really showed me something more.

I complimented him on the length of his career and asked whether it was due to anything in particular. He said not and, of course, at the start of his career he’d never dreamt he’d still be riding at this age. But he’d stayed fit and competitive and still loved riding his bike. He said:

I don’t know how I stay here this long but always I say I’m here now. Obviously, I do something well and I now can teach the younger riders, giving them advices like I received 20 years’ ago. For example, now I’ll say to them to try and sleep an extra hour each day because by the end they’ll appreciate the 21 hours’ extra sleep.

I asked whether he’d given any thought to what he might do after he’d retired from racing competitively. It was clear that whatever it is, cycling will still feature. He reiterated:

Fortunately, in my career, I have a lot of help around me and my idea is to have time to ride but at another level. I have a lot of experience and I would like to continue in cycling. I don’t know now in which side but maybe help in clothing?

I don’t know exactly when I’ll finish my career but afterwards I’ll need to organise my life, spend time with my family specially because in the last few years with the days spent racing and at camps, I miss a lot.

We also discussed neo pro Ruben Guerreiro, newly crowned road race champion of Portugal, who I’ve been following over on VeloVoices. He’s spoken appreciatively of the advice and guidance he’s received from Haimar with whom he roomed in the recent Amgen Tour of California. Haimar remarked that he enjoyed this aspect of his role and was one of the reasons he’d resigned for 2017 with the team. He spoke fondly of Ruben whom he said reminded him a bit of himself when he was younger. I can see the similarity neither talks for the sake of talking but when the floodgates open, stand back and listen.

I can’t help feeling that, given the nature of this year’s parcours, the team and Contador in particular, will be better served by Haimar’s presence on the squad.

(Header image: Haimar Zubeldia, stage 1 Tour de France 2017 ©Kristof Ramon)

 

 

12 days of Christmas – day 9

This is photo of the Tour de France peloton as it passed by Coutances on stage 2, a 183km largely flat coastal route from Saint-Lo to Cherbourg won by Peter Sagan, which gave him his first-ever yellow leader’s jersey.  He went on to take his fifth consecutive green jersey. I wonder how many he’ll rack up during his career?

xmas13

I love watching a peloton snake past in full flight. It’s an amazing kaleidoscope of colour and I’m always surprised at how fast they’re travelling, even early on in a stage. You can see the teams protecting their lead riders from the wind and the main protagonists endeavouring to stay near the front so as not to get caught by any splits in the peloton, particularly important when there may be cross winds.

How many riders can you name? Look carefully and you’ll see two former race winners (Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali) and a former world champion (Rui Costa).

 

Postcard from Pais Vasco

Despite the wet and windy weather we had a great time watching the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Typically, the weather was fine both before and after the race.

Fine weather in Pais Vasco
Fine weather in Pais Vasco

With this year’s race falling after Easter, I thought I’d have no problem booking our usual hotel in Getaria.

Getaria
Getaria

Sadly, there was no room at the inn and I had to look elsewhere. That’ll teach me to give it glowing reviews on booking.com! Instead, I decided to head for the hills and picked a hotel slap bang in the middle of the race’s parcours. My beloved said I’d found possibly the wettest spot in the entire Basque country – no mean feat! However, he also agreed it was a wonderfully relaxing place with a fabulous restaurant and great WiFi.

Home from home
Home from home

We typically go the start and finish of all the stages but this year there was no WiFi available in any of the press rooms which posed rather an issue for us. On the wetter stages, we watched the riders set off, found somewhere for lunch and then headed back to the hotel to work and watched the stage conclusion on the television. Usually, we eat lunch in the press room but the lavish pintxos buffets were much more modest this year. I like to think that savings made on the press pack were expended on better safety measures for the riders.

Lesaka
Lesaka

In any event, it gave us an opportunity to try out a number of restaurants’ midday menus which are typically 11-15 euros per head for three courses, including wine, water and coffee. I fared well, though I often had to skip dessert, with plenty of mixed vegetable platters, salads and assorted fish dishes. I even found a restaurant in Lesaka which served a quinoa salad!

This year’s race visited regular stage venues such as Etxebarria, Markina-Xemein, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Eibar with a couple we’ve not previously visited during the Vuelta such as Lesaka (in Navarre), Orio (a fishing village just outside of San Sebastian) and Gerrastatxu (a new summit finish). That said, we did spend a memorable vacation in Orio a couple of years ago and welcomed the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the town.

This year’s edition of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco seemed particularly tough and, of course, the biting cold weather and rain made it even more treacherous. Tension was maintained until the final stage, a hilly time-trial won by Alberto Contador who also took the overall. He’s a very popular figure in Spain even in the Basque country where they have plenty of their own riders to support. He delighted the crowd by saying he might not retire at the end of the year.

Tolosa
Tolosa
Basilica
Basilica

On our travels we also visited a couple of new places, such as Tolosa and, in particular, Azkoitia and Azpeitia with their magnificent churches and basilica, many honouring Inigo de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.

San Sebastian
San Sebastian

We also found time to have a quick wander around the old town of San Sebastian, to which we’ll return at the end of July for the Clasica San Sebastian. But that’s not all. We’ll have a third visit to the Basque country, to Bilbao, in early September during the Vuelta a Espana.

 

Postcard from Nice

Yeah, I know it’s just up the road but it occurred to me that I don’t bang the drum enough about my home region and, this year, the final two stages of Paris-NeigeNice were both around Nice and the Niçois hinterland, and it WAS a race to the sun.

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Every time I attend an ASO organised event I am reminded of what a superb job they and their staff do to make the race run seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly. However, if like me, you’ve been involved in arranging or managing any mass participation events, you’ll appreciate how much work goes into it. In addition, ASO are constantly innovating. This year there was a sizeable village with plenty of stands and activities for all the family.

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And that’s not all. Last year ASO organised Challenge #ExploreNice, a multi-stage sportive showcasing the area. This year the one-day Paris-Nice challenge saw amateur riders, including my beloved, tackle Sunday’s stage on Saturday. I dropped him off nice and early in Nice on Saturday morning, well before the sign on for that day’s stage, leaving me to hang around to collect him later. He calculated he would be back at 13:30, and he was.

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Meanwhile, I watched the start of the queen stage of Paris-Nice where anyone who harboured GC ambitions would have to make their move on a parcours which proved probably more difficult that many imagined: a summit finish, seven climbs and barely any flat, apart from the roll-out on the Promenade des Anglais. The stage didn’t disappoint with the leading protagonists enjoying a ding-dong battle royal up La Madone d’Utelle where, cruelly, the steepest section is in the last 500 metres. It’s a deceptively long and difficult climb and I’m speaking from experience.

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I had whipped up my race-winning brownies for a couple of my friends (and their teammates) who were taking part. I felt they deserved a treat given the cold and snowy conditions they’d had to ride through on Wednesday. You might wonder why I call them race winning brownies. Suffice to say those who have eaten them in the past have won the stage or gone on to win the overall race. This time the teammates of my friends won the overall and finished third on the podium. Ironically, I was rooting for runner-up Alberto Contador. I really must make him some of my brownies.

At most ASO events, while the race unfolds, someone will engage with the spectators and ask them questions about the race. If you answer the question correctly, you get a prize, typically a bidon. I love Cycling Quizzes. After an embarrassingly large haul of bidons, my beloved pulled me away before the quizmaster started saying: “Does anyone other than Sheree (yes, he knows me by name) know which of today’s participants has won the most stages?” Easy, peasy that’s Tom Boonen with six stages. Am I the only person who knows the correct answer? It would appear so…………….

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Sunday morning we were down bright and early to enjoy breakfast in the Cours Saleya in the Old Town, always worth a visit. There’s a flower, fruit and vegetable market every morning save Monday (antiques) and the better stands with local producers are to be found at the far end of the market.

Paris-Nice2016Kivi

Suitably fuelled, we headed back to the start area to catch up with friends and acquaintances all enjoying the warm spring sunshine and the prospect of another day’s great racing. Before the riders signed on, ASO and Astana held a touching presentation in memory of Andrei Kivilev who, while riding for Cofidis, crashed and died 13 years ago last Friday. It’s a nice touch and helps young Leonard Kivilev, who was born after his father’s death, and his mother keep his flame burning bright in their and our collective memories.

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While my beloved took photos of the sign-on, I looked around for riders to have a quick chat to for VeloVoices or team press officers to set up future longer interviews with certain riders.

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Once the boys had ridden off, I got to see my little cupcake race around the Promenade des Anglais in the Louis Nucera. He’s a little lacking in form having spent three months off the bike due to growing pains in his back. It was a tough event to debut his season thanks to the presence of a few ex-pros, now riding for amateur teams.

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Once the race was over, my beloved required feeding (again) so we headed to one of our favourites, the roof terrace at Le Meridien which affords a great view of the finish line, though we were back down in time to see the television coverage and the unfolding of an absorbing final stage. Despite his efforts, Alberto Contador couldn’t put enough time into Geraint Thomas to take the title for a third time and was noticeably disappointed on the podium.

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All in all it was a magnificent weekend and there’s more to come on 14-18 September 2016 when Nice/Monaco hosts the European Road Championships which will be organised by ASO.

 

 

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A Culinary Adventure

I’m enjoying a few, rare days of peace and quiet while my beloved is on a business trip to India. Recently he’s been home underfoot a lot which has had its benefits, particularly as I’ve been ill. In truth I hadn’t been feeling well for some time and a recurrent bout of what I had assumed was gastroenteritis left me listless and in bed for a week. Friends kindly, and fortunately, frog-marched me to see their doctor, a holistic practitioner.

A series of blood tests and scans later and the verdict was in. I had a large stone blocking my bile duct in my liver which the doctor described as “chronic”  – never a favourable description. I opted to try and cure the problem with a different regime rather than opt for a quick solution with micro-surgery.

My new diet can best be described as vegan with fish but no coffee (sob) or alcohol. The doctor told me to breakfast like the English. While that may conjure up visions of a full English fry up, she meant protein for breakfast. Lunch should include grilled or steamed (yuck) fish and either steamed vegetables or salad. Dinner, to be consumed early, should be a delicious vegetable soup. If I feel peckish, I can have an apple to two. Don’t all rush to join me on this culinary adventure.

These restrictions have posed one or two challenges particularly when we’ve travelled to the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain to watch live racing. Generally I’ve managed to find something on a menu that I can eat though it’s fair to say I’ve been a very cheap date. At home I’ve enjoyed seeking out and trying new recipes and I’ve bought myself some new toys to better dice, slice and liquidise said vegetables. There’s no end to the things I can produce with quinoa, including a delicious vegan chocolate cake!

Here’s a few pictures of recipes taken from The Grand Tour Cookbook by Hannah Grant. If it’s good enough for Alberto Contador et al, then it’s good enough for me.

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2015-gtcb-bean2015-gtcb-gazpacho2015-gtcb-salm--06-28 19.18.10 HDR2015-gtcb-cauli-06-28 18.58.412015-gtcb-chickpeas

My beloved has stuck resolutely to his usual fare though he’s not been above trying some of the delicious new recipes I’ve whipped up. Nor has it prevented me entertaining or cooking for others. After all, I can hardly inflict my regime on them.

The good news is that after nearly three months the stone is much reduced in size, my thyroid function is slowly getting back to normal and my former hi-energy levels are returning. It’s always been my proud boast that I’ve yet to meet the kid who can wear me out. Luckily no one recently took me up on that challenge otherwise I’d have been a goner.

One of the more visually unpleasant side effects of my disorder has been the eczema on my hands, arms and face. It first started on my wedding finger last September. I removed my ring, applied a soothing ungent and that did the trick. The eczema returned in early February and required a more liberal application of the soothing lotion to get it under control. Sadly it returned with a vengeance in May. So much so that I’ve spent the entire summer hiding under a straw hat and shades lest I frighten people.

The eczema made my skin very soft and I found it almost impossible to open bottles or cans and carry heavy bags as the handles bit into my skin. All jobs which my beloved has undertaken. When I was first ill, he even had to shop and cook his own meals. Needless to say he was mightily relieved when normal service resumed. On the plus side, my skin has been spared the ravages of a very warm summer and I’ve had the equivalent of a cheap chemical face peel. My eyelids are still a bit scaly but once they’re back to normal I should look radiant.

The doctor isn’t sure what caused the stone as I don’t exhibit any of the other symptoms more commonly associated with such problems. She believes I’ve had it for some time and that it’s been caused by stress. There’s only one person who stresses me out and he’s fortunately away for a few days.

Photographs of recipes all taken from The Grand Tour Cookbook by Hannah Grant