Phil’s the man

Worth the pain!
I’m back from a 4-day trip to Varese and a 4-day enforced internet silence. Yes, we took my beloved’s laptop. Yes, we had WiFi on tap. My beloved forgot to take his charger. Yes, we bought a spare charger in MediaMarkt. No, it didn’t work, but the instructions said they’d sent us the correct Dell connector if we identified it on line. We didn’t bother. It did of course mean that my beloved had a real break from work (no bad thing) and was able to answer the most pressing emails and calls via his Blackberry.

The purpose of our trip was 2-fold: check out our Swiss friend’s new bike shop and afore-mentioned break.  We stayed in the same B&B I stayed in for the 2008 World Championships’s  in Varese. Indeed, we’re now quite regular visitors and the owners (and their cats) treat us like family. They’re very busy with their flower shop over Easter, so generally don’t accept guests during this period. We therefore had the run of the place which feels pretty much like home.

Our friend has opened his shop on a busy stretch of road between Lugano and Mendrisio along which absolutely every cyclist in the area travels. In the three weeks that he’s been open, he’s been exceedingly busy and has sold a complete bike and a set of carbon wheels each week, along with assorted repairs and sundries. More importantly, he’s enjoying himself. I’m sure he’s going to make a success of it.

The riding around Varese is different to the Core d’Azur: not better, just more undulating. On Tuesday, we rode along the lake from Como to Bellagio, up the Ghisallo and back. The route is constantly up and down and therefore it’s difficult to establish any kind of rhythm. Despite it being the run up to Easter, there was little traffic and the roads were peaceful. The weather was gorgeous. Warm enough to encourage me to wear my bib-shorts for the first time this year. The climb up to Ghisallo is brutal, it hits over 18% at one point. My cadence was so low, the legs were barely turning. The view was however worth it.

Wednesday, we opted for a gentler ride around the eastern side of Lake Maggiore which, while still undulating, is much kinder on the legs. Again, there was little traffic. We returned to base after lunch to watch La Fleche Wallone. La Gazzeta dello Sport favoured a Spanish win largely on account of the finish being on the brutal Mur de Huy. They speculated that this would suit either Contador (SaxoBank Sungard) or Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). But mostly, they bemoaned the lack of an Italian challenge.

The Italians were enjoying better luck in the Giro del Trentino which had started with a 13.4km time trail around Lake Garda the day before. This had been won by Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack), his 4th win of the season. He was a second ahead of Andrea Malori (Lampre-ISD) and a couple ahead of team mate Tiago Machado. Another man in fine early-season form, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), had taken Wednesday’s 184km stage ahead of Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) to record his 6th win of the season. The Italian moved into the lead on GC where he remains going into today’s final stage. Yesterday’s queen stage, which finished atop the cat 1 climb of Fai della Paganella, was won by the latest Columbian climbing sensation, Fabio Duarte (Geox-TMC), former 2008 Varese U23 world champion.

Meanwhile, back in Belgium, the peloton had reeled back in the early escapees and was steeling itself for the final ascent of the Mur. The favourites were pretty much all in contention but who would prove to have the best legs? It was Phil Gil, again. With 300 metres to go, he powered off the front of the peloton leaving himself ample time to celebrate, as he crossed the line ahead of Roaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), his third win in a week and his first in this particular classic. So, there you have it, two of my favourite smiles atop the podium. Who’s going to have the will to beat him this Sunday?

Good save

It’s always enjoyable watching the professional peloton suffer on the same routes and roads that one regularly rides. This week end was no exception other than to say none of us would willingly ride in this sort of weather. Not even if someone were paying us. For the first time in many years, riders in Paris-Nice were welcomed to the Cote d’Azur with snow, gail-force winds, rain and cold temperatures. It’s at times like these you have to admire their fortitude and perseverance in the face of so many climatic obstacles.

As forecast, it started raining heavily just as the peloton hit the descent from Gourdon, a broad, sinuous and steep road which dangerously narrows at Chateauneuf. Roads are always at their most dangerous with a little rain: they’re greasy and very slippy. Many were cautious, indeed one could say over cautious. But with good reason, no one wants their season compromised.

Yesterday, it was a case of right team wrong rider, Alexandre Vinokourov had said that they were going to put an Astana rider on the podium. I assumed he would be that rider. I was wrong. It was instead, Remy di Gregorio who, after a couple of years in the FDJ wilderness, showed that he’s been revitalised by the Astana lifeline.

Right on Remy

Remy set off with around 13km to the finish with no one quite believing that he would manage to stay away, particularly given the narrow margin of his advantage.  His team had controlled the peloton for the first 80km or so and by the time we had television coverage, Garmin-Cervelo were on the front picking up points to preserve the green jersey of Heinrich Haussler. In the final stretch, Movistar took over, one assumes, to catapult Xavier Tondo up the GC. Instead, he slid off his bike just before the finish line.

The favourites all looked to be in preservation mode, not willing to gamble in the perilous conditions. Haussler fell over three times, the last time sliding into a wall. Robbert Kiserlovski (Astana) ended up under a parked van. Those two weren’t the only riders to fall. With 2km to go, Remy’s back wheel slid and  his right leg shot out of the pedal, allowing him to steady himself. Miraculously, he remained upright and continued to press his slim advantage.

Sammy Sanchez decided to use the work done by Movistar to move up on GC, finishing behind di Gregorio to record his 33rd runners-up position. Does this make him a Spanish Poulidor? There was no change to any of the jersey holders, nor the podium.

Today’s stage was much shorter and took in the usual sights of Nice which, one has to say, still looked magnificent on the television coverage despite the constant falling rain and huge waves crashing onto the beach. Sheltering under our brollies, warmly wrapped up, we watched the riders depart and them promptly retired to a bar to warm ourselves and watch the tv coverage. We were joined by many of the walking wounded: riders who have retired thanks to niggling injuries, colds and stomach upsets.

Only 134km to go!

Seizing the opportunity of last year’s last stage winner’s absence (Amael Moinard has retired with a heavy cold), Thomas Voeckler rode away from his breakaway companions to record his 2nd win (3rd French stage win) of this edition of Paris-Nice. You would be hard pressed to find a more popular winner. Sammy set off again, this time with a team mate from the breakaway,  to pull back a few seconds which moved him up another place on GC into 5th. That aside, there were no changes on the podium nor with the jerseys. Tony Martin rode a well judged race to record his first stage-race GC win and provide HTC with another Grand Tour card to play. Andreas Kloeden was 2nd and Bradley Wiggins 3rd. Jean-Christoph Peraud was the best placed Frenchman in 6th place. Rein Taaramae (4th on GC) was the best young rider, Henrich Haussler won the green point’s jersey and Remi Pauriol the spotted mountain one.

(all photographs courtesy of my beloved)

No room at the Vuelta

Fans will be denied the chance to see a repeat of Johnny Hoogerland’s daily daring escapes during this year’s Vuelta a España. Yes, that’s right Vacansoleil weren’t invited to yet another grand tour and neither were Skil Shimano.  However, to give Unipublic their due they have invited two smaller Spanish outfits,  Xacobeo-Galicia and Andalucia Caja-sur, whose very existence probably depends on their annual appearance in the Vuelta.

The organisers have however made the (brave?) decision not to invite either BMC or The Shack as neither Cadel nor Lance respectively were scheduled to ride. I understand BMC didn’t seek an invite but The Shack had proposed a pretty strong  line up which included recent Criterium Dauphine winner Janez Brajkovic, Andreas Kloeden, Chris Horner, Haimer Zubeldia and  Levi Leipheimer – not too shabby. Instead rsvps have been sent to those 16 teams covered by the September 2008 agreement with UCI (which expires at the end of this season) and Team Sky, Garmin-Transitions, Katusha and Cervelo Test Team.

Merely mislead

According to the club website, last Sunday’s pointage was at Andon. However, every other club, at least according to the Nice Matin was going to Canaux. A quick check on the map before we left revealed that the two were not too far apart.

My husband and I set off very early while it was still quite fresh. To be honest, I would have worn arm warmers had I realised it was going to be that chilly through the Vallon Rouge and Gorges du Loup. The super fast group from the club over took us on the climb up to Greolières where they subsequently stopped to refill their bidons. We checked. The website was wrong. The pointage was at Canaux.

This week end, we’re off to Marie sur Tinée. A delightful perched village and the setting, IMHO, of the best ever pointage feast. If I was to award a cup, and I’m still toying with the idea for next season, this would win it hands down: definitely worthy of 3 toques.

Mindful of the fast approaching Rondes de la St Laurent, I have been working on my sprinting for the past week or so. I rather like the period post-Tour, when everyone is inspired to get out on their bikes. A bit like the UK post-Wimbledon, when, for two or three weeks, you can’t get on a tennis court for love nor money. Generally, of course, this means there are more riders I can overtake. For example, on Tuesday I overtook one yellow and two spotted jerseys. Immensely satisfying, particularly as they were all overhauled on a climb.

I’ve convinced my husband to take part in the Rondes though have advised him that I expect him to pace me back up to the peloton, à la Lance and Kloeden, should (or should that be when) I get dropped, as us girls get to race with Les Grands Sportifs.

At this point, I should add that my husband is not too good at pacing. If it’s really windy he will gallantly offer to ride in front of me. He then sets off at a pace I can’t sustain and is forced to slow to let me get back on his wheel and, as soon as I do, he sets back off again at an unsustainable pace. This is far more tiring for me than having to ride on the front into a headwind.

 Somehow, I suspect that neither Cav, nor anyone else, is quaking in their boots at the thought of my improved sprinting prowess. Though, to be fair, the finish is uphill, so it probably wouldn’t be to Cav’s taste. Perhaps he could lend me his lead out train.

Edited Highlights

Thank goodness for rest days: a whole day to catch up with everything I haven’t done over the past week while watching the Tour. And what an interesting week it has been. I’ll just touch on what have been my highlights.

 Tom Boonen concluded the only way he might beat Cav was to get into a break which stayed away. Heinrich Haussler decided to follow Tom’s advice and, in the cold pouring rain, threw caution to the wind to drop his fellow escapees and solo to an impressive victory. Meanwhile, Tom’s gone home with a virus – get well soon.

Christophe Le Mevel, who moved this season to the Cote D’Azur, has delighted the French press by catapulting himself up the GC into the top 10.

Alberto finally showed Lance who was the “Boss” on the road. Pretty impressive when it’s clear the rest of the team are under orders to help Lance who would have lost much more time yesterday if it hadn’t been for Kloeden.  Klodi – what were you thinking? Bert’s now got the yellow jersey and a St Bernard dog – it was the stage prize, non?

However, for me, the performance of Bradley Wiggins has been just superlative. Of course, losing 7kg is not, unlike Wiggo, going to increase my VO2 by 30watts. But it’s a pretty good incentive. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if he made it onto the podium?

Finally, a word for Kenny van Hummel who, having been dropped by the peloton after only 10km, riding all on his own, narrowly avoided the cut off to incontestably cement his position as The Lanterne Rouge – chapeau!