Independence Day

Yes, it’s the day that Americans hold so dear. It was therefore only fitting that Tyler Farrar, led out by the maillot jaune, won today’s stage which he dedicated to his late-best-buddy, Wouter Weylandt. Garmin Cervelo rack up two wins in a row proving that nice guys do win, just not all the time. Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil) was 2nd while Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) took 3rd place and the points jersey. None of the other jerseys changed hands leaving Thor in yellow, Geraint Thomas (Sky) in white and  PhilGil with the spots.  However, Thor’s battle for the points jersey, as well as Cavendish’s, has taken a bit of a knock. They’ve lost the points gained in the intermediate sprint for a bit of playful pushing and shoving.

Today’s parade from the Vendee into cycling mad Brittany, showcased France’s beautiful coastline, countryside and wealth of historical buildings. Yes, it’s a race but it’s also touristic propaganda for the Hexagon as the race is beamed to 190 other countries. The globe’s fleet of camper vans were drawn up alongside the roads which were lined with spectators rendering it more and more difficult for the riders to find a quiet place for a comfort break.  The day’s breakaway of 5 riders earned plenty of tv time for their sponsors but, despite working well together, were, as anticipated, reeled in with 9km to go by those teams with aspirations in today’s sprint fest.

With under 8km to go, the boys were bowling along at 65km/hr. HTC seemed to have their train in place, albeit a little precipitously. Petacchi and Boonen were lying in wait on Cavendish’s wheel. A couple of riders took flyers off the front, with 600 metres to go the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin fell at the final bend which disturbed the train’s rhythm and played directly  into the hands of Garmin who guided Tyler to victory.

The GC contenders were kept well to the fore by their team mates today and out the way of any potential problems. The wind was not a factor although it was clearly a little stronger over the St Nazaire bridge, re-classified as a Cat 4 climb, a magnificent piece of French civic engineering which unites the two sides of the Loire estuary, as the peloton momentarily broke into several groups. On a lighter note, Antony Charteau was let off the leash for a quick greet and meet with his family in Chauve before remounting to join the peloton as they whizzed past.

Phil Gil has his eye on tomorrow’s stage from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne, but I’m sure he’s not the only one. If he gains more than 1 second on Thor tomorrow, Cadel will take over the maillot jaune. My beloved is in Australia and he texted me saying that the Aussies, particularly the press, are in 7th heaven over Cadel’s progress. He certainly would be a popular winner but there’s still a few more days and kilometers to go.

Garibaldi’s Giro VI

Unfortunately, due to more pressing commitments, I’ve only caught bits of the last few day’s of the Giro. Even worse, I have fallen asleep during transmission of the Tour of California. Why is it that when I watch transmission of the former I am entranced by the countryside, the honeyed stone-walled towns, the sense of history, the wide swathes of sandy coastline while in the latter I wonder why anyone would want to visit, let alone live there? I’m thinking, there’s a lesson to be learnt here. One of the aims of any Tour is to promote the region in which it’s taking place. The Americans haven’t quite got to grips with the concept. Of course, they’ve not been helped by the weather.  Meanwhile, over in the Giro, and in stark contrast to last year, the weather has been fabulous. Those pallid, concave,  pigeon chests are rapidly getting as tanned as their arms and legs.

The last couple of day’s has seen heroic French efforts sandwiched by two Cavendish wins. These wins were not without controversy as the winner allegedly had an assisted ride up Mount Etna on Sunday, thereby avoiding the cut.  Cavendish has hotly denied the accusations but my friends in the peloton tell me that not only does Cavendish get a ride from the team car but he’s often pushed over  hills by his team mates. No wonder he thanks them profusely after every win.  As we bade a fondish farewell to the sprinters, particularly Ale-jet, who are speedily exiting the Giro before the really big climbs, let’s return to the French.

Christophe Le Mevel (Garvelo) tried to seize the opportunity and the pink jersey yesterday. His team had been assured that Bert wasn’t fussed about defending it and decided to give it a go. Personally, I was willing Christophe into pink but had to leave before the end of the stage for my English class. It was only on my return I learnt that he’d sadly been unsuccessful. While SaxoBank would have been happy to let the jersey go, other teams wanted to preserve the position on GC of their riders and took up the chase. Thanks to a split in the peloton, Christophe lost time and dropped a place on GC. However, it was great to see him try. Too many riders ride just to defend their position, not to better it. Chapeau Christophe.

The win instead went to a diminutive grimpeur (another one who’ll never belong to that select sub-set who weigh more than me) John Gadret (AG2R-La Mondiale) who has a definite empathy with the climbs of the Giro and, with his bald head, a more than passing resemblance to Pantani. Fittingly, he dedicated his win to the late Wouter Weylandt, who’s funeral was held yesterday.

As tomorrow’s stage heads into Austria, can I suggest that the teams’ chefs prepare the boys a spot of post-race Kaiser’schmarrn which has to be one of the best things to eat after significant exertion. This dish is made from a rich pancake batter where the egg whites are whipped and folded into the batter to lighten it before cooking it in a frying pan. Once cooked it is shredded, sprinkled with icing sugar (and in my case, rum-soaked raisins) and served  with a fruit compote, generally apple or plum – enjoy.

Dig in, it's delish

Garibaldi’s Giro IV

Celebrating Garibaldi's Giro

Five, four, three, two, one and they’re away. It’s Omega Pharma-Lotto who kick off this year’s Giro. The team descends the starting ramp, rides out the gate of the Castello della Venaria Reale, 9km north of Turin, and speeds away in line along a road thronged with enthusiastic spectators, enjoying  both the fine weather and the spectacle. The pan-flat route is more technical at the start, challenging the team’s ability to establish a  rhythm, followed by wide straight tree-lined avenues with some 90 degree bends around the old town before ending up on the cobbles.

Route for Stage 1 Team Time-Trial

The key to team time trialling is consistency. Invariably you’ll have riders of differing strengths however you need to maintain a speed which everyone can follow. The more able members of the team take longer pulls on the front. Some teams opt for finishing with as many of the original nine as possible, while others progressively spit out riders, crossing the line with the bare minimum (5). Liquigas employed one rider to ride at the back of the paceline to shepherd rotating team members back into line in front of him – neat trick.

Italian television showcased the delights of Turin, home to Fiat cars, and its beautiful, old town, which I found quite reminiscent of Nice. Well, they were both part of the House of Savoy. The centre of Turin is the large quadrangular area lying between Corso Vittoro Emanuele, Corso Galileo Ferraris (shouldn’t that be Fiat?), Corso Regina Margherita, Corso San Maurizio and the Po river. Roughly bisecting this area is the fashionable via Roma, lined with wide arcades, which connects the main railway station with Piazzo Castello. It’s skyline is dominated by extraordinarily shaped Mole Antonelliana designed by Piedmontese architect Alessandro Antonelli. It started life in 1863 as a synagogue and was completed in 1897 as a monument of Italian unity. As to be expected there’s a via Garibaldi, pedestrianised and lined with 18th century palaces. The via Po, to the east of the centre, is full of funky shops, including many bookshops where you would have expected me to pick up a few cycling books and enjoy an espresso in one of the many fashionable cafes.

Alas, I never made it to Turin and am beginning to feel that all my Giro trips are jinxed. It  started to go downhill on Thursday afternoon at our Commission Kivilev meeting where I raised a number of as yet unresolved issues. Accordingly, I was given the job of sorting these out. I set to with gusto on Thursday evening with a view to leaving early for Turin the following morning. Inevitably, there were people with whom I needed to speak that I couldn’t reach until the following day. By lunchtime, I was still working away. I made an executive decision, I would cancel my hotel room and drive to Turin early on Saturday morning. I’d missed the team presentation, and wouldn’t have so much time to look around Turin, but I would still see the team time-trial. However, without my parking spot in the hotel garage, handily placed for a quick getaway, it was unlikely I would be home in time to collect my beloved from the airport.

The weather was fabulous on Friday so I nipped out for a quick ride over lunch, my path crossing that of Amael Moinard. He was descending fast (ergo I was ascending, more slowly) so we only had time to exchange greetings. I returned home refreshed by my ride and continued with my work. In addition, I was trying to organise a celebratory lunch for our friend who’s just signed a contract with a Pro-tour cycling team. The limiting factor in all such arrangements is the availability of my beloved. I had circulated dates, basically a few Friday, Saturday or Sunday evenings over the coming weeks. I had qualified this by saying, he was also available Sunday lunchtime. Later that afternoon, I received a call to say that everyone could make this Sunday lunchtime.  A few rapid calculations and I realised that something would have to give and it was going to be my trip to Turin.

I planned the menu and wrote out my shopping list. Our friend would be riding the Vuelta, so I went with a Spanish theme: tapas, paella, finishing with the ubiquitous orange-flavoured “flan” with strawberries. We would all be riding on Sunday morning, and our friend’s eldest son was racing, so I went for things which could either be  prepared in advance, or thrown together once everyone had arrived. I shopped early on Saturday morning, preparing in advance as many of the dishes as possible, before settling down to watch the time-trial on the television. I looked enviously at the crowds thronging the route in the sunshine and the hordes of Alpini in their jaunty feathered hats, I should have been there: one day.

Needless to say it was the well-drilled teams who held sway. HTC-High Road were fastest and contrived to put Marco Pinotti, the Italian time-trial champion and hugely popular rider, into the pink jersey. RadioShack, another disciplined team, were second, with Liquigas securing third place.  While the gaps were not, for the most part, significant, it’s still time that has to be won back at some stage. Of the leading contenders, Nibali is the best placed with Scarponi, hot on his heels, at just 2 seconds behind. Lampre arrived into Turin a day early specifically to practise the team time-trial. It paid off.  Contador is 8 secs off Nibali, with Menchov and Sastre at 31 secs and Joaquim Rodriguez at 42 seconds. Euskaltel-Euskadi were the team maglia nera, but team leader Igor Anton has revealed that he’s at the Giro just to hunt for stage wins and not the pink jersey.

Having garnered a large number of brownie points in Saturday’s time-trail, HTC-High Road might have hoped to cash these in on Sunday when Mark Cavendish was pipped on the line into Parma by an in-form Alessandro Petacchi whom they adjudged to have sprinted off his line, not once but thrice. In vain, two stages, two Italian wins: the Giro’s off to a great start.

We watched the action unfold on the screen television in the company of our friend who’s ridden the Giro himself and twice been on winning teams: with Marco Pantani (2002) and with Alberto Contador (2008). It was interesting to hear his observations on the riders, the parcours and the race. As is the case with television commentary, the most brilliantly observed remarks are those from past (or even current) riders who understand intimately the ways and language of the peloton. They add colour, insight and comprehension for the observer. Thus it was with us all gathered around the television after a relaxing and enjoyable lunch.

However, we’re going to have to do it all over again as one couple were missing from the celebration. The husband had been knocked off his bike early on Sunday morning and was under observation in the local hospital for facial and cranial injuries. It’s not serious, just painful, and we all wish him a speedy recovery.

If you’re seeking an excellent summation of the first two stages of the Giro d’Italia, please pop over to www.thearmchairsportsfan.com.

Full of promise

We’ve profited from the fine weather these past few days to log plenty of kilometers on the bike. The weather forecast keeps indicating adverse weather but it’s generally been holding off during the day. The combination of rain and warm sunshine has ensured that the countryside looks particularly green and bountiful, long may it last. We needed all that additional mileage to counter the effects of yesterday’s blow out birthday luncheon: my beloved’s. I quaffed champagne and ate asparagus, morilles and  lobster. All my favourite foods, beautifully cooked and served, in the relaxing surroundings of one of our local restaurants, which has a fabulous view of the surrounding area. Feeling decidedly sated we returned home to watch the Presidential Tour of Turkey and the Tour of Romandie.

Both races have given some of the peloton’s newest pros a chance to shine, as well as providing opportunities for those who are more established.  For example, the Tour of Romandie’s 3.5km prologue had Taylor Phinney’s name all over it, particularly as he rides for the Swiss BMC team. No one had thought to tell Basque rider Jonathan Castroviejo who registered the ride of his life to take it, and the leader’s yellow jersey, by a nano second. In yesterday’s stage, Pavel Brutt (Katusha) one of the peloton’s perpetual breakaway artistes maintained his advantage, in the wet and windy conditions, to win the 172.6km stage into Leysin, by a healthy margin, to take possession of the yellow jersey. After what for him would have been a disappointing Classic’s campaign, today Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) prevailed, ahead of Cadel Evans (BMC) and Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana). I anticipate that the latter two will be fighting it out for GC come the end of the race.

Meanwhile, over in Turkey, some of the world’s best sprinters have been losing out to a number of opportunists. Andrea Guardini (Farnese-Vini-Neri-Sottoli) – remember him from the Tour of Qatar – beat Tyler Farrar (Garvelo), among others, on the Tour’s first stage into Instanbul. Stage 2’s sprint finish into Turgutreis was won by  non-sprinter (or so the others thought), Valentin Iglinsky (Astana), Max’s younger brother and clearly not a man to be underestimated, certainly not by Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD). On stage 3, Manuel Belletti (Colnago-CSF Inox) notched up his 3rd win of the season. Yesterday, Petacchi, feeling he had a point to prove, surprisingly prevailed on the Tour’s queen stage, at the end of a wet and hilly day. While today’s stage, 218km  into Fethiye, was won by Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Neri-Sottoli), his first ever podium. Thomas Peterson (Garvelo) now leads the pack ahead of Cameron Wurf (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Alexander Efimkin (Team Type 1 – Sanofi Aventis).

A number of riders are using these races to hone their form ahead of the Giro d’Italia. Others, like Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard) are using the time to reconnoitre the more difficult stages, of which there are plenty, ahead of the race’s start in Turin on 7 May. I will be there.

Ducking and diving

It’s that time of year when caution needs to be exercised when descending  the Domaine on two wheels thanks to the birds and the bees or, more precisely, the ducks. Our feathered friends are in an amorous mood. There’s evidently a sexual imbalance as these sorties on webbed foot involve a lady duck being hotly pursued by a couple of drakes. Now, I’m not sure how this works. Do they strut their stuff and she picks which one she fancies, or is it less consensual? In any event, they freeze in the centre of the road as you approach on two wheels and then waddle back and forth making a duck for dinner the more likely outcome.

I have been trying to profit from the milder weather as the forecast for the week end and into next week is not favourable. That’s right, this year’s Race to the Sun will in fact be a race to the rain. Descending the Grande Corniche will be particularly treacherous. The drop out rate in this year’s race, despite the clement weather they’ve been enjoying, seems particularly high. If it’s not the effects of crashing, it’s raging temperatures or intestinal troubles.

Afternoons have been particularly busy with coverage of Paris-Nice being followed by that of Tirreno-Adriatico. Still, the wide screen television in the office (one of my beloved’s better ideas) means I can easily multi-task.

Wednesday morning’s L’Equipe was full of praise for French champion Tommy Voeckler (Europcar), venturing to suggest that more French riders should follow his example. Having been thwarted on Tuesday, Tommy returned to the fray and won Wednesday’s stage from a breakaway of largely French riders, who’d obviously decided to heed L’Equipe’s advice, helping Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil) to recover the yellow jersey.

Yesterday’s stage, another lumpy one, into Vernoux-en-Vivarais, was won from a late 8-man breakaway of contenders built up on the descent of the Cat 1 Col de la Mure, by 2000 Paris-Nice winner Andreas Kloden (Radioshack) just ahead of Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Andreas is now in yellow for today’s 27km time-trial from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence, with those in contention for the overall handily poised to pounce. This stage race is throwing up a few surprises and is all the better for it.

Proceedings got off the ground in Italy on Wednesday with a team time trial won by Rabobank, putting Lars Boom in the blue leader’s jersey for yesterday’s 202km stage from Carrara to Indicatore. Interestingly, man of the moment in yesterday’s L’Equipe was Garmin-Cervelo’s Tyler Farrar. So, guess who won yesterday’s stage? Yes, Tyler Farrar led out by his wing man, Thor Hushovd. Alessandro Pettachi (Lampre) was 2nd and JJ Haedo 3rd (SaxoBank-Sungard).

The bruises from my fall on the pavement a couple of weeks ago have started to fade so yesterday I added to them by falling off my bike. How did it happen? A momentary lapse of concentration and I was on the tarmac with skinned elbows, bruised knees and an imprint from my big chain ring etched on my right calf.

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.

Thrashing out team tactics

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.

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.

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.

The winner

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.

Hot and steamy

The current weather is putting me very much in mind of an old film noire by Laurence Kasdan. Called Body Heat, it was set in  a sultry Miami and  featured Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. I distinctly recall one scene where, thanks to ever-soaring mercury, they both got into an ice cube filled bath to cool down.

Sadly, my beloved and I will not be able to similarly indulge. I have only a small jacuzzi in my bathroom which is (deliberately) far too small for him, lest he ever be tempted to use it. While he has only an all singing, all dancing shower in his bathroom.  The bath in the guest bathroom is also too small for two. Yes, separate bathrooms lead to everlasting marital bliss.

However, after a  hot and sticky ride there’s nothing better than a soak in cold water. I’ve refrained from adding ice cubes. I’ve seen pictures of the Tour riders chilling out after a stage in what at first appears to be children’s paddling pools. In addition, during recent stages, they’ve resorted to ice on their helmets and pouring loads of water over themselves to cool down.

With the peloton looking for a little rest and recuperation after the Alps, and before the Pyrenees, Wednesday was the perfect opportunity for a rider, sitting well back on GC, to get in a breakaway, stay away and win the stage. As it was Bastille Day it should by rights have been a French rider but, with three stage wins, two days in yellow and the spotty jersey, the French aren’t faring too badly.

The early escapees, including a couple of Frenchmen,  built up a commanding lead but 14kms out they attacked one another leaving Sergio Paulinho (Radioshack) and Vasili Kiryienka (Caisse d’Epargne) to fight it out. Fortune, and a successful background in track sprinting, surely favoured the Belorussian, but the wily Portuguese won stage 11 by a whisker.

On the run in to Gap, Wednesday’s stage passed over the same roads where, in 2003, Joseba Beloki (ONCE) in hot pursuit of Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile) fell heavily, thanks to a melting road surface. Beloki was left screaming in agony from his injuries, while Armstrong (US Postal) avoided crashing  by riding across a field to regain the road. This remains one of the worst falls I have ever seen.

Thursday’s stage 11  was one for the sprinters and the escapees, including Stephan Auge, without whom surely no echapee is complete, were pulled back by the sprinters’ teams well before the finish. Riding into cross-winds,  Saxo Bank tried to force a split in the peloton and distance Bert who was riding in the middle of the bunch, seemingly on his lonesome. Cue one Alexandre Vinokourov to the rescue. He led Alberto back to safety near the head of the peloton.

Of course, yesterday’s big talking point was Mark Renshaw’s expulsion from the Tour following a head-butting incident with Julian Dean in the final dash for the line. A hat-trick for Cavendish, while Garmin-Transitions were initially left fuming at Renshaw’s treatment of both Julian Dean and Tyler Farrar. Having viewed the footage, I feel Renshaw was too harshly treated while Dean seems to have gotten off lightly.

A cast of thousands (ok, only 18)  finally escaped  on today’s stage 12 but never built up too commanding a lead. Indeed, most were taken back by the peloton before the final climb of the day, a wicked 3km at an average of 10%.  That man Vinokourov distanced  the other three remaining escapees and seemed to be heading for a stage win but was overhauled before the top of the climb by Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador. The latter seized an opportunity to put 10 seconds into Andy Schleck but, more importantly, struck a  psychological blow. The former took his maiden win, on his maiden Tour, outsprinting the latter.

Meanwhile, it’s been hard keeping track of the green jersey which has been hopping from the shoulders of Alessandro Petacchi to Thor Hushovd and back again. Thor got into today’s breakaway, grabbed the intermediate sprint points and put some daylight between himself and Ale-jet. Similarly, the spotted jersey has been swapping daily between Jerome Pineau and Antony Charteau. It’s now in the possession of the latter.

The heavens opened after today’s stage so temperatures may be cooler tomorrow, or not.

Week one review

What a fabulous first week! Take a bow ASO. We’ve had confusion and controversy, thrills and spills, cobble calamity, tears and tantrums, rain, heatwaves, picturesque countryside, beautiful châteaux, fervent fans, the favourites are all still in contention and we’ve only just reached the first really lumpy bits.

As anticipated, Spartacus (Saxo Bank) won the 8.9km Prologue course around Rotterdam where, despite the rain, thousands of fans lined the course.  Sadly, both Mathias Frank (BMC) and Manuel Cardoso (Footon Servetto) fell heavily – Tour over for both of them.

Wind didn’t play a part in Stage 1, 223.5km from Rotterdam to Brussels, but the peloton was very skittish. In the run in, the last sharp right turn took out Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), among others, while two further crashes saw a large number of riders hitting the deck. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) avoided the carnage and was first across the line.  Adam Hansen (HTC-Columbia)  bowed out.

Stage 2’s 201km stage from Brussels to Spa mirrored an Ardennes Classic but rain and diesel-slicked roads saw riders falling like nine pins, particularly on the descent from the Stockeu. Injuries to Michel Delage (Omega Pharma Lotto) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) put an early end to their participation. Meanwhile, Fabulous Fabian, still in yellow, cooled the tempo in the leading bunch to allow the contenders (particularly one Andy Schleck) to get back onto the peloton which then rode together to the neutralised finish. Up front, Sylvain Chavanel, having helped team mate Jerome Pineau to seize the spotty jersey, had pedaled away from the rest of the breakaway bunch for the stage win, snatching yellow from Fab’s broad shoulders. These two have  rescued Quick Step’s dismal season and are now well poised to negotiate contract extensions.

It was anticipated that some of the favourites might come a cropper on the cobbled sections on Stage 3’s 213km from Wanze to Arenburg. It was a truly spectacular stage, hot and dusty, reminiscent of when Stuart O’Grady won Paris-Roubaix in 2007. The first crash of the day took out David Le Lay (Ag2R – La Mondiale) while falls yesterday for Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) left both nursing hairline fractures of the wrist: pretty painful on the pave. Nikki Terpstra (Milram) was a non starter with the flu.

Frank Schleck’s fall (collar bone broken in three places) precipitated splits in the peloton. The smart guys were on Fabian’s wheel and got a tow to the finish. The stage was won by Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team), fitting given that he’d forfeited sprint points the previous day at the behest of one Fabian Cancellara. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) worked with the guys from Sky to bridge up to the group behind Cancellara and minimise the time lost by Alberto Contador (Astana) and Bradley Wiggins Team Sky). Lance (Radioshack) had been in this second group but an untimely puncture saw him surrender time to a number of the other contenders. End result, Cancellara was back in yellow and the World Champion, Cadel Evans (BMC) was now up in third place, 1min and 1 second ahead of Alberto Contador.   

The contenders must have breathed a sigh of relief, the first obstacles had been conquered and they could keep their powder dry for the next few sprinter friendly days. Stage 4’s 153kms from Cambrai to champagne producing Reims, saw Alessandro Petacchi record his 2nd stage win of this Tour. Next up, 187.5km from Epernay to Montargis saw Mark Cavendish win  by a mile. Queue floods of tears as the monkey was now off his back. A bit like buses, stage win no 2 followed on the morrow, on the longest stage, 227.5km from Montargis to Gueugnon. Meanwhile an altercation with a musette saw Amets Txurruka (Euskatel-Euskadi) bid farewell to the peloton. A couple of small girl’s blouses traded blows and bike wheels. The judges awarded a points decision to Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) over Rui Costa (Caisse d’Epargne). Both were fined. 

Let’s just pause and put in context my own endeavours: 550km and 27hours in the saddle. Spartacus, still in yellow, has taken 93minutes longer to complete 1,215km. The conclusion: I’d have missed the cut-off on Stage 1 and joined the non-walking wounded!  Today the boys hit the Jura and a rejuvenated Chavanel, who I feel has usurped Michael Boogerd and Mikel Astarloza to become “The Teeth of the Tour”, recorded his second stage win and again seized yellow. This is going to cost Patrick Lefevre dear.

Cadel Evans has moved into second place  so we could see him in yellow as early as tomorrow. I’m sure it would suit Astana to have BMC working their butts off to defend the yellow jersey.

Another year, another day

We arrived in San Remo before 11:ooam, parked the car, bought La Gazzetta dello Sport and went for a coffee to read who the pundits in Gazzetto and L’Equipe favoured for a win. La Gazzette favoured Boonen while L’Equipe hedged their bets with Boonen, Gilbert and Boassen Hagen. After Boonen, La Gazzetta plumped for Boassen Hagen, Bennati, Pozzato, Cancellara, Paolini, Gilbert and two-time former winner, Freire. Cavendish, it was felt, was pretty much out of the running following his lack lustre performance in Tirreno Adriatico.

We scouted out a good location, opposite the TV screen and podium, just past the finish line and took up our positions at around 01:00pm, two hours before the television coverage started. Watching cycling is not for the faint-hearted or for those who lack patience. To be fair we were entertained with some sporting action albeit cross-country skiing. The time passed quickly and the crowds got thicker. Only the early birds get the front rows. Super Mario arrived: queue frisson of excitement amongst the crowd.

Before

As the transmission went on air it was evident that the boys had been enjoying some inclement weather en route. However, it was dry in San Remo and, while the sky looked menacing, rain was not anticipated. In any event, we’d both dressed warmly and comfortably: we’re old hands at this. The favourites all looked to be well placed and well protected by their team mates. I always think that you need patience to win Milan-San Remo, you have to wait for the right moment. Go too soon, like Pippo and Philippe,  and your bolt is shot.

Riders started to become distanced on the Cipressa and Poggio but again the favourites were still in touch coming down into San Remo and the final kilometres. Bennati was being led out with Freire on his wheel followed by Boonen. Freire shot out from behind Bennati like a rocket and there was no catching him. Third-time lucky for Freire (previous wins in 2004 and 2007) who recorded his 4th win of the season. Boonen hung on for 2nd (his best finish to date) while Petacchi was 3rd, which cheered the largely Italian spectators. We couldn’t resist one more delicious coffee before heading home, job done.

After