Unknown soldiers

I’m writing this on the train trip back from a marvellous week end in Roubaix with truly magnificent weather for the spectators of 109th
running of Paris-Roubaix, one of the oldest events on the cycling calendar. But allow me to rewind. We arrived on Friday evening and settled into our charming, bijou B&B, much lauded (and rightly so) on the internet. I had made the booking back in January and had elected to stay close to the race finish in anticipation of the usual adverse weather conditions.

Friday evening we strolled into Roubaix in search of dinner. The Town Hall, churches and numerous grand Art Deco houses told a tale of more
prosperous times. Indeed, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the axis of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing represented the world’s second most important place for wool production. Occupied twice by the Germans and blighted by the slump in the 1930s and competition from the Far East for cheaper textiles in the 1950s and 60s, Roubaix had fallen on hard times.

It’s now a town in transition. The Neptune inspired municipal baths have been reborn as an art gallery. Inward investment through far-sighted political partnership with local businesses has increased employment opportunities for the largely immigrant population in call centres and shopping outlets. Attracted by the grand housing stock, families have moved out of Lille and embarked on massive renovation projects. However, the terraced houses and semi-commercial properties leading to the Roubaix velodrome still speak of poverty, despair and decay.

Back to dinner, which we ate in a restaurant in the town square, where the food was surprisingly excellent. I wouldn’t call Roubaix a one-restaurant town but we weren’t exactly spoiled for choice. Saturday, we hopped onto the tram to Lille and renewed our acquaintance with that town. This had been a regular overnight stop on our many skiing trips to Switzerland and Austria. We would stay in the Hotel Carlton and eat in the restaurant opposite. Both were still there but Lille too has been the subject of significant renovation and pedestrianisation.

Sunday morning, dawned fair and unseasonably warm. After an excellent breakfast, we walked to the velodrome and found a spot within sight of the big screen, giving us a clear view of the track with easy access to toilets and refreshments: perfect. Television coverage started just before 13h, and, as expected, there was a group of escapees. The pace was high largely, one assumes, because of the fine weather. It was reminiscent of 2007, when Stuart O’Grady won, with clouds of dust billowing around the riders.

Our first taste of live racing was the arrival, just over an hour later, of junior Paris-Roubaix raced on a similar, albeit shorter, terrain. It was won by a local French boy (Florian Sénéchal) who, having attacked in the Carrefour de l’Arbre, arrived on his own into the velodrome to finish arms aloft across the line. A second French boy (Alexis Gougeard) won the sprint out of the chasing group to finish 2nd ahead of a Dutch boy. All the finishers were covered in dust and many bore the scars of skirmishes with the pave.

A collective groan echoed around the stadium as over on the big screen Tom Boonen (QuickStep) was seen stranded at the roadside with a puncture seemingly waiting forever for his team car to reach him. Finally, he got going again only to be felled moments later. He was down and out. Meanwhile, further up the road three of the favourites were making their move. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek), Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC) were within 25 secs of those still up the road: Manuel Quinziato (BMC), Baden Cooke (SaxoBank), Juergen Roelands Omega Pharma-Lotto), Lars Bak(HTC-High Road) and Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Cervelo). However, neither Ballan nor Hushovd, with team mates up the road, were willing to share the workload.

In the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Vansummeren made the decisive move, leaving behind his companions, time-trialling to the finish and entering

The winner Paris-Roubaix 2011

the velodrome ahead of the pursuing pack which by now included Cancellara, who sprinted to finish 2nd. Martin Tjalingii (Rabobank), one of the original escapees, completed the podium. The winner celebrated by asking his long-term girlfriend to marry him. Over half the peloton finished, everyone was covered in a thick layer of dirt and, like the youngsters, many bore the scars of their encounters with the terrain.

So far the major Spring Classics have sprung a few surprises with the so-called favourites losing out to less fancied team mates but who have nonetheless clearly merited their wins on the basis of “he who dares”. Fabian has been undeniably the most consistent but his team needs to be reinforced; he cannot be expected to win on his own. Quickstep was beset with a whole season’s bad luck on Sunday with an excessive number of punctures, falls and broken bikes. Not exactly the best advertisement for Eddie’s bikes. Sun burned, but happy, we made our way back to the B&B to freshen up before heading into Lille for dinner.

Gripping stuff

My beloved left for yesterday’s pointage in the early morning fog. I rolled over for another hour’s sleep. Eschewing the ride up Ste Agnes to see one of my favourite one day races, the Tour of Flanders, where Belgian television coverage was starting at midday. I settled for a run along the sea front, followed by a quick coffee and collected the Sunday newspapers. Back home I prepared lunch before settling in for a marathon viewing session.

No where and no one is more passionate about cycling than Belgium and the Belgians. And this is their race,  their day in the sun. They line every kilometer of the course, standing over 10 deep on the bergs, quaffing beer and consuming their beloved frites with mayo. The sun was indeed shining, it wasn’t overly windy, near perfect riding conditions.

Rabid fans (picture courtesy of Getty Images)

The parcours starts in the beautiful city of Bruges and zigzags 258km to Meerbeke over 18 steep, sharp climbs and 26 sections of cobbles. The climbs come thick and fast after 70km of flat. If one can refer to cobbles as flat. The cobbles are smaller and more regular than those in Paris-Roubaix but, as the riders traverse them, their upper arms judder as if they’re undergoing some form of electric shock therapy.

The race is largely held on dirty, narrow farm roads which wind through the villages en route. To be in contention you need to remain vigilant and towards the front of the peloton. The slightly-built Spaniards from Euskaltel-Euskadi and Moviestar who would, no doubt, prefer to be riding in the Basque country, but they got the short straw, cling to the back of the peloton, grateful for assistance on the climbs from the beefier Belgian spectators, wondering when they’ll be able to climb off their bikes.

One innovation this year was cameras in four of the team cars (Quickstep, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Garmin Cervelo and SaxoBank Sungard). From time to time, you  could hear the instructions being barked to the riders, although you might not have understood what was being said in every instance, unless you understood Flemish.

Given the opportunity, I could happily watch every minute of this race from start to finish.  As television coverage commenced, there was a group of 5 riders out in front who were being gradually hauled back in. The second group of 18 riders on the road contained a lot of team leaders’ wingmen sparing their teams the effort of chasing them down. Although the pace was pretty frenetic with teams trying to keep their protected riders at the front of the pack, and out of harm’s way.

The main peloton splintered with a number of riders losing contact and there were plenty of spills but, thankfully, none looked to be serious. The group of 18 was hauled back in and the chasing pack now consisted entirely of favourites with their key riders. With 86km to go Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) takes off on the Ould Kwaremont, hotly pursued by Simon Clarke of Astana. With 79km remaining they bridge up to the lead group, initially giving it fresh impetus, but ultimately leaving it behind.

Meanwhile, behind them on the Taaienberg, Boonen (Quickstep), Flecha (Sky) and Van Avermaert (BMC) are forcing the pace. Others, such as Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) and Lars Boom (Rabobank) have pinged off the front, followed by Van Avermaert, Guesdon (FDJ), Hayman (Sky) and Leezer (Rabobank). Among the favourites, everyone seems to be waiting for Cancellara to make his move.

Up front on the Molenberg, Chavanel is now on his lonesome at the head of affairs with 44km to the finish, the gap back to the peloton is 55 seconds. Finally, unable to wait any longer Thor Hushovd (Garmin Cervelo), resplendent in his rainbow jersey, heads to the front of the bunch quickly followed and then overtaken by Tom Boonen (Quickstep) and his  shadow aka Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and  Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek).

Fabian goes into TT mode and rides away, the others start looking at one another waiting to see who’ll chase. Too late, he’s gone and swiftly heading for Chavanel. Wilfred Peeters tells Chavanel to stick on Fabian’s wheel as he goes past and to do no work. He does as he’s told. The bunch don’t seem to be making much of an inroad into the gap back to Chavanel and Cancellara, they need to get themselves organised. Back to the team cars, Peeters is telling Leopard Trek’s DS that Chavanel is unfortunately too tired to contribute.  Over at Garmin Cervelo, Jonathan Vaughters is telling his troops to do no work at all, just sit in and sprint for 3rd.

Finally, the bunch gets themselves organised and they catch  Chavanel and Cancellara on the iconic Muur, just 15km to the finish and the favourites are all back together again.  Phil Gil (Omega Pharma-Lotto) makes his trade mark attack on the last climb, the Bosberg, but is soon caught by Cancellara, Ballan (BMC), Leukemans (Vacansoleil), Chavanel and Schierlinckx (Veranda Willems).  Flecha (Sky), Nuyens (Saxobank Sungard), Hincapie (BMC), Boonen, Langeveld (Rabobank) and Thomas (Sky) join them. Ballan puts in a dig, Phil Gil follows. The attacks are coming thick and fast as riders chase one another down. With 4km left, Langeveld attacks,  a 3-man group of Cancellara, Chavanel and Nuyens follows and stays clear to contest the sprint finish which is won by the fresher man. The Belgians have a Belgian winner, Nick Nuyens, who rode a very intelligent race. Cancellara didn’t get back-to-back victories, but Bjarne Riis did.

The winners (photo courtesy of Getty images)

Vuelta Ciclista al Pays Vasco Postscript: There is something enormously satisfying in watching the professional peloton suffer on roads on which you too have suffered. The finishing line for today’s 151.2km stage around Zumarraga was just 3km from the top of the rather brutal Alto de la Antigua. Some of those boys got off and walked up. I knew just how they felt. Purito held off Sammy’s (too?) late charge for the line to take the leader’s jersey.

Place your bets please

The sun burnt through yesterday’s early fog leaving  perfect conditions for riding. My beloved and I decided to head up to La Turbie and lunch at one of our favourite restaurants. The chef used to work in a Michelin-starred establishment but left to run the perfect neighbourhood restaurant. The menu is chalked up daily on the blackboard: 5 starters, 5 mains and 5 desserts. When a dish is sold out, it’s scrubbed from the board. It’s a modest establishment which punches well above its weight.

We rode the short cut to La Turbie from Cap d’Ail to avoid the numerous traffic lights in Monaco. Skip one and you’re sure to incur a fine. This route includes a particularly steep bit 11-12% near Monaco football club’s training ground. I was struggling with the 39 x 27 but, nevertheless, managed it. Lunch was a fitting reward.

After lunch we climbed up Col d’Eze. Down on our left-hand side,  Eze village was shrouded in mist and looked like something out of a fairy tale. I have fond memories of my very first ascension of Col d’Eze for my one-woman protest against Astana’s exclusion from the 2008 Tour de France during Paris-Nice. It wasn’t supposed to be a solo effort, but my teammates never made it to the summit after falling victim to a couple of punctures. I am constantly amazed at how many punctures they suffer and can only assume they keep patching their inner tubes. Ours get sent to Burkina Faso.

After arriving home I started on the serious business  of  studying the form for today’s race. My middle sister, renowned for enjoying a flutter on the horses might have been able to impart some of her wisdom. She wins far more than she loses. But, unlike a horse race, one has to take account not only of the form of the team’s leader but also the strength of his support. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Fabian Cancellara who has to be odds on favourite whatever the state of his support. Setting him aside, there are a number of other riders one has to consider, although, I appreciate that they might only be fighting it out for the minor places.

One cannot exclude the usual suspects: Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Alessandro Ballan, Juan Antonio Flecha,  Heinrich Haussler, Stijn Devolder, Thor Hushovd, Filippo Pozzato and rookie, Peter Sagan. The papers have been suggesting that a coalition against Cancellara might be the only way to defeat him. It’s true that teams who have two or even three strong candidates should seek to tire out Spartacus’s troops by having them chase down constant attacks. My advice: just don’t take your eyes off Fabulous Fabian, not even for a second.

L’Equipe, who have Cancellara as their 5 starred favourite, have added a few more names into the mix: Sylvain Chavanel, Greg Van Avermaet, Juergen Roelandts and Nick Nuyens. Their advice is however pretty much the same as mine. They too suggest a coalition of interests, staying with Fabian and beating him in a sprint finish, or praying for a mechanical a la 2009.

Yesterday saw the traditional start of cycling in the Basque country with the GP Miguel Indurain won by none other than Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Olympic Champion, Sammy Sanchez. His first win since last August and his team’s first of the season. I note from the results that a Columbian called Robinson Eduardo Chalapud Gomez was 6th. Is this the longest name in cycling? The Tour of the Basque country starts tomorrow and I’ll be tuning into Basque tv to watch proceedings. The commentary will be incomprehensible but the pictures tell their own story.

This week end also sees the second MotoGP race in Jerez, Spain. Pole positions have been seized for today’s races by Messrs Stoner (MotoGP), Bradl (Moto2) and Cortese (125cc). Since the races run concurrent with the Tour of Flanders, I’ll settle for watching the highlights on Eurosport.

Just what was ordered

Having waved farewell to my beloved on Tuesday afternoon, I have spent the last few days enjoying the warm, sunny weather which I hope is here to stay. I’m trying to rebuild my form with some longer rides.  At the same time, I’ve a whole host of paperwork to deal with as it’s the end of the first quarter, plus  deadlines for filing accounts and tax returns are fast approaching. Additionally,  the club is keeping me busy as we attract ever more members.

I have found time, thanks to the tv in the office, to keep abreast of proceedings in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. This is generally a race for those whose ambitions have to be put aside on Sunday while they support their team leaders, although Ballan did win both this and the Tour of Flanders in 2007. It’s raced around the Belgian coastline which is prone to fierce, peloton splintering, cross-winds.

Riders who have showed promise elsewhere this year largely prevailed. The first stage on Tuesday, 194km from Middelkerke to Zottegem, was won by Andrei Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), the lone sprinter in a 4-man break. He assumed the leader’s jersey only to lose it on the following day’s lumpy  219km to Koksijde. It was gratefully assumed by Liewe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) although the stage winner was  Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha) who managed to hold off John Degenkolb (HTC-High Road).

This morning’s 111km sprint stage around De Panne was held in the rain, consequently a number of riders opted not to start : most notably, Alessandro Ballan (BMC), Peter Sagan (Liquigas), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM). The sprint for the line from the leading bunch of around 50 riders was won by Jacopo Guarini (Liquigas) who managed to stay just ahead of Galimzyanov. Over 70 riders finished outside the time limit,  so there were only 56 competing in the afternoon’s individual time-trial.

Last man off was Bert De Backer (Skil-Shimano) who had taken the leader’s jersey with a sprint bonus that morning. But there were 27 riders within 10 seconds of him, including some notable chrono men. The sky was overcast and there was some rain on part of the course towards the back end. The biggest factor was once again the wind on what looked to be quite a technical course.

Sebastien Rosseler (RadioShack) comfortably won the time-trial and the overall. Westra was runner-up, once again, despite the frenzied and manical urgings of his DS from the team car. Although, for consolation, he had the climber’s and most combative jerseys.  De Backer won the sprints jersey and Galymzyanov the points one. Third-placed man on the podium was Rosseler’s team mate, 20 year-old Michal Kwiatkowski who had turned in a very fine performance in the time-trial. A Belgian winner on Belgian soil, just what the organisers and spectators wanted.

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!