Underdogs on top

Woke yesterday morning to find it was raining, rolled over and went back to sleep. When I finally woke, it had stopped raining but I was too late to set off for the pointage at Beausoleil. I decided to go for a run along the seafront before heading to collect the Sunday newspapers. A quick coffee (quelle surprise, OGCN had beaten St Etienne away from home) then it was off to the airport to collect my beloved on his return from Chicago.

After a light lunch, we both changed into our matching Qatari Airways jimjams and settled back for an afternoon of full-on sport. Firstly, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and then the League Cup Final: Arsenal v Birmingham City.

The sun was shining (weakly) in Belgium and most of the Dutch and Belgian riders were in shorts and short sleeves with a couple of notable exceptions. Tom Boonen (Quickstep) was no doubt feeling the chill after his trip to the Middle East and was wearing leg warmers, arm warmers and thick gloves. I was mesmerised by Stijn Devolder’s (Vacansoleil-DCM) thick fluorescent yellow gloves which clashed with his Belgian Champion’s outfit. Try black next time, Stijn.

There was the obligatory group of escapees who, having ignored the barrier at a railway crossing, were subsequently disqualified. The mild weather and lumpy parcours seemed to encourage breakaways but none stuck, the sprinters’ teams were too strong and too determined. In the end, Chris Sutton (Team Sky) had the best organised train and, with 200 metres to go, was launched across the line  to become the first Aussie winner. He finished ahead of Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ) and Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto). Interestingly, none of the leading trio had raced the day before.

Meanwhile over in Switzerland, Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) dedicated his win in the GP Lugano to his late trainer, Aldo Sassi. The French racked up yet another win in Les Boucles du Sud Ardeche. It was none other than last year’s viral star, Arthur Vichot (FDJ). Yesterday, according to Sport+, the French had won 24 stages to date while the Italians are in 2nd place with 19 wins. I’m not sure how this has been calculated, they didn’t explain.

After the excitement of the cycling, we settled down to what we were sure would be an Arsenal win. Frankly, as AVFC fans we were bound to support whoever played against the Blues, our arch-rivals. The Blues got a goal against the run of play, in the 28th minute. Arsenal equalised 11 minutes later with a terrific goal from Robin Van Persie who was later to retire with a knee injury.

During the second half, Arsenal had their chances but couldn’t convert any of  them. In 89th minute, a miscleared ball by the Arsenal defence gifted the winner to the Blues. Truly, it really was one of those balls from which even your granny would have scored.  Unbelievably, our bitterest rivals, who had knocked us out of the competition, had won and will be playing in Europa League next season. On the one hand, it’s good to see the underdog win but why couldn’t it have been us last season against Chelsea?

Divine intervention

I was saddened this week to learn of the untimely death of Aldo Sassi, one of the most reputable cycling trainers, based at the Mapei Centre in Varese. It was he who had worked with Cadel Evans to lift the rainbow jersey in 2009 and had assisted Ivan Basso in his quest for an untainted maglia rosa.

I had recently read an interesting article on his training methods which are markedly similar to those of my own trainer.  Sassi worked initially from the VO2 max and power output at the rider’s anaerobic threshold. From this he built a training programme based on a 3-day algorithm:

  • Day 1 – strength and resistance training on hills
  • Day 2 – anaerobic threshold work
  • Day 3 – long rides with climbs

Additionally, Sassi believed in a rider’s clear commitment to goals which needed to be shared with and understood by his team. Lastly, he believed that mental and inner strength were the all-important factors.

He likened a cyclist to  Formula 1 saying that while a rider has certain physiological attributes, “if you only have the driver and no car you cannot win. You have to have the driver as well as the car. Some might try to show that if you have a good driver you could still win with a bad car. This is not true in cycling. You have to be able to produce 6 watts per kilogram on the climbs or you will eventually lose.”

Sassi was recently criticized for working with Riccardo Ricco. Frankly, I thought, given Sassi’s sterling reputation, it was a stroke of genius on Ricco’s part to commit to working with him. Sassi said ” I think I made a good choice in selecting Riccardo Ricco. I am sure of it. He has the motor, the car, but the driver is not completely there. I am going to help him build his mental strength and self-belief.” Sassi is to be lauded, Ricco has paid the price and, like everyone, deserves a second chance.

If  it was left to Pat McQuaid, UCI President, he wouldn’t, however, be getting a second chance. McQuaid was quoted in L’Equipe this week as saying if he were a team manager, he wouldn’t hire Ricco. I suspect that Vacansoleil have hired Ricco because he will garner them plenty of points in the all-new UCI ranking system and help them stay in the sport’s first division. Remember, Mr McQuaid “what gets measured is what gets done”.

I’ve already blogged on this very topic but frankly it’s hard to support a system that seems to drive away rather than attract sponsors. It’s even hard to get sponsors to commit if you can’t guarantee inclusion at the world’s best races. Pegasus Cycling recently lost a sponsor but have fortunately been saved at the nth moment by another. Rumours abounded that Geox, both a new sponsor and a global brand, might pull out after being excluded from the first division, despite ranking ahead of teams that have been included.

This problem has been best articulated (IMHO) by Jonathan Vaughters in his blog on the cyclingnews.com website entitled “The Geox Paradox” where he highlights the current issues in sponsorship. This man knows what he’s talking about, you cannot say that of everyone involved in the sport.

My deepest sympathy goes to Aldo Sassi’s family, friends, clients  and colleagues: the world of cycling has suffered a grave loss.