Postcard from Sanremo

Saturday was just the most perfect spring day, perfect for a bike ride. Instead, I drove to Sanremo on the Italian Riviera to watch a bike race. I love the drive over there: 45 minutes on a motorway with one of the world’s best coastal views. I like to get over there early, in time for a cappuccino and custard-filled croissant, while I pore over La Gazzetta dello Sport’s run down of the race favourites. Obviously, coffee and croissant are off the cards for me but not for my beloved who freely indulged. After all it was going to be a long day with nearly 300km of riding. That’s a lot of television viewing!

image

Race coverage doesn’t start until just after lunch giving us plenty of time for a spot of food shopping followed by a stroll around in the sunshine, a spot of fare niente or, in my case, some serious window shopping. The fine weather and the race had combined to bring out the crowds all doing pretty much the same as us. Window shopping’s thirsty work so my beloved needed fortifying with an Aperol spritz, a recent addiction.

MSRFinish

We walked along the via Roma for a better look at the finish line where harried staff were still assembling everything while the peloton hurtled from Milan to the coast. After checking out a number of restaurants, my beloved decided to choose one I’d eaten at before and we were soon tucking into some delicious seafood. I’m particularly partial to octopus and our starter came with clams, waxy potatoes and artichokes. We followed it with lobster  spaghetti. Carbo-loaded, I was now ready for action just as the television coverage started.

After an hour or so, I had to head off for a meeting with one of the teams but fortunately they have television coverage in the team bus and I was able to watch it relatively freely while still taking notes and contributing to the discussion. I believe that’s called multi-tasking. The meeting was thankfully short and we could all return to more intently watching the race unfold.MSROldies1

MSROldies2

MSROldies3

The crowds had swelled, I’d missed the Old Timers who’d set off from Milan just after midnight. Now, that is an epic and heroic ride! They rolled across the finish line, posed for photographs and the cheers of the crowd. The participants provided many with a welcome diversion after several hours standing, watching the big screen.

With fine weather and no wind to speak of, once the early break had been reeled in, the leading bunch seemed larger than in recent previous editions, and nervous as it approached the last two obstacles before the mad dash through Sanremo. There had been a number of nervous spills, involving both Italian riders and some pre-race favourites, though the majority still seemed to be in with a shout and at the pointy end of the race.

Riders pinged off the front only to be swiftly brought to heel. The crowd became excited when Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian national champion, chased down escapee Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky). But it was all for nought, and the sprinters prevailed. As they approached the line, a number were in contention. Neo pro Fernando Gavira (Etixx-QuickStep) went down, hindering those behind. Former French under-23 world champion, 24 year old Arnaud Demare (FDJ) burst from the bunch and powered across the finishing line ahead of Britain’s Ben Swift (Sky) and Belgium’s Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal). The first French winner since Laurent Jalabert (1995) and only FDJ’s second monument after Frederic Guesdon‘s at Paris-Roubaix in 1997. The latter was in the following car, working as FDJ’s directeur sportif.

MSRWinner

MSRpodium

MSRWinner4

MSRchamp (2)

That’s what I love about cycling, sometimes it’s just so unpredictable. Demare had dropped out of Paris-Nice after winning a stage and had returned home to rest, recover and train. He’d ridden 205km on Wednesday, half of that behind his father on a scooter, but wondered whether he’d perhaps done too much.

Apparently not! We were left wondering how he would fare in the forthcoming Belgian cobbled Classics. A happy end to a wonderful day? Well not before another quick Aperol spritz to toast the winner.

 

L’Equipe poll

At the beginning of each year, L’Equipe journalists pose ten key questions about the forthcoming cycling season and ask their readership to vote “Yes” or “No” to each question. Here’s the questions and the all-important results:-

1. Are the Olympic Games going to be good for the French?   67% said YES

Leaving aside the road races, the French have always done well on the track and in MTB. Last time out they also shone in BMX. There’s no reason to suppose they won’t do similarly well in London 2012. They’ve been less convincing on the road and could only offer up the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin who finished 3rd in the pre-Olympic dry run. While it’s not entirely impossible that someone of the stature of Dumoulin – and when I say stature, I’m thinking palmares not size – or Feillu could nick a place on the podium. Just don’t bet your shirt on it.

2. Will Arnaud Demare be the seasons’ revelation?   56% said NO

This is the lad who won the U23 Road Race in Copenhagen and who’s now a neo-pro at FDJ where he’ll have an opportunity to grow without too much pressure being placed on his young shoulders too early. He’s only 2o (21 in August) and one shouldn’t expect that, like Marcel Kittel before him,  he’ll rack up 18 sprint victories in his first season. But he will win races, just not yet. Remember, he was 4th in U23’s in last year’s  Paris-Roubaix and will no doubt benefit from Frederic Guesdon’s guidance.

3. Are we going to see a duel again between Cancellara and Boonen in the Cobbles Classics?   56% said NO

Go Tom go

The sentiment was that these two will play a role but there are others who will enter the fray. They’ll probably never repeat their respective golden years of 2010 and 2005 respectively. However, I sensed, that nonetheless, this was exactly what everyone was hoping for. Kitty Fondue and I are going to be hotly debating this very topic over on www.velovoices.com.

4. Will TAS exonerate Condator?   67% said YES

Now I’m not sure whether readers felt this was the most likley and most expedient outcome for cycling or whether, as time has gone on, Contador has impressed everyone more and more with his demeanor thus they’re more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. The French are not overly fond of what we might call “the authorities” and this may have just tipped the balance in Bertie’s favour.

5. Will Evans succeed in retaining his Tour title?   56% said NO

Despite his excellent team, experience and the favourable parcours, readers felt his age would count against him and, in particular, his declining powers of recuperation. If he takes part, most expect Contador to win.

6. Will Thomas Voeckler get onto the Tour podium?   89% said NO

The French know their cycling. Voeckler ended up in the leader’s jersey when he profited from the misfortune visited on Messrs Hoogerland and Flecha. His defence of the jersey was heroic, but he was in it by chance. The verdict: top 10 placing is the best he can expect.

7. Will Bruyneel get Andy to win the Tour in 2012?   89% said NO

Most recognise that Bruyneel does have what it takes to make Andy win the Tour, but not this year. He needs a more favourable parcours, the absence of one Bertie Contador and to be uncoupled from his elder brother. Like I said, the French know their cycling. They’re not wrong about this.

8. Will Cavendish become Olympic Champion?   56% said YES

While most agreed it would be more difficult than winning the World Championship’s Copenhagen – fewer team mates, hillier parcours – they felt his experience in winning Grand Tour stages, his mental strength and home advantage might just see him grab gold.

9. Will Team BMC crush everything it its path this season?   100% said NO

Can’t get more emphatic than that! History has shown  – Teams Sky and Leopard-Trek – that it takes a while for a team to bed down. In addition, when there are changes to a number of key personnel, it takes time for them to become cohesive. A case of too many chiefs and not enough (red) Indians perhaps?

10. Will Valverde give Gilbert a run for his money?   67% said YES

Readers think that this could well be the duel of the season particularly in the Ardennes Classics. PhilGil may be numero uno at the moment but let’s not forget Valverde occupied that slot in 2006 and 2008 plus he’s got a point to prove – always dangerous.

Be careful what you wish for

In addition, L’Equipe asked each of the 10 journalists who had posed the questions what they would like to see happen this season. Their replies, in no particular order were:-

  • Frederic Guesdon to win Paris-Roubaix  – sadly he won’t be doing that after crashing in 1st stage of the Tour Down Under. Curse of the Journo!
  • Juan Jose Cobo to ride up the 25% incline of le Caitu Negru (16th stage of Vuelta) in his big ring.
  • Bruyneel to stop Frandy from waiting for one another.
  • Peta Todd, Cav’s partner, to become the front woman for Cochonou (cold meat producer) in the Tour caravan.
  • Lionel Messi to take French citizenship and start cycling. (With those sublime feet, he could be a shoe in).
  • David Moncoutie wins Milan- San Remo in a sprint after having headbutted Mark Renshaw (Now they’re getting silly!)
  • Another’s a rather saucy reference to the fact that Mark Cavendish got his partner pregnant during last years Tour. However, it does acknowledge that Cav’s a brill Tweeter.
  • Tom Boonen wins a fourth Paris Roubaix title and snubs Roger De Vlaeminck on the podium. (I know exactly what SHE means, but I’m sure Tom’s too nice to do that).

Cards from Copenhagen I

As a cycling fan I’m fortunate to often venture where I’ve never been before or, as in the case of Copenhagen, renew my acquaintance with places I haven’t visited in a while. Though the trip didn’t get off to a propitious start. I took the low cost flight option, which doesn’t have on-line check in facilities, so that you do really need to get to the airport 2-hours ahead of departure. A coach load of octogenarian Danes had however beaten me to it and I was sandwiched between them and a coach load of spotty adolescents. I then circumnavigated the long queue through security with my [free] airport premier card and fled to the sanctuary of the lounge where I browsed through the day’s Press and enjoyed a few non-alcoholic beverages.

Once on board, it was soon evident that there was a problem. The staff wandered up and down the plane counting and re-counting heads. Eventually they came clean. They had issued 144 boarding passes but there were only 143 people on the plane. It took a further 20 minutes to identify our phantom passenger who had been erroneously checked in by the travel company but who, fortunately, had no luggage. We breathed a collective sigh of relief: too soon. Ground staff were unable to decouple the plane from the loading bridge. The captain made a few off the cuff jokes about using explosives to blow the bridge off. His humour was not appreciated by his largely elderly passengers who were queuing 20 deep for the toilet.

Finally, we were underway. I fell asleep, as I do on most flights, only to be woken on a regular basis as my travelling companions needed yet another comfort break. We arrived and there followed a 2km hike to retrieve our baggage. I’m sure airports do this to reduce waiting times for luggage. Our luggage soon arrived. Or should I say, everyone’s luggage soon arrived, apart from mine. Just as I was thinking that this was the cherry on the icing, my Tumi hove into view. I grabbed my bag and legged it but was too late for the complimentary shuttle to my hotel. I reluctantly got a taxi. On arrival at the hotel I was advised that I was being upgraded to an executive room – good news. Ten minutes later, my head hit the pillow and I was in the land of nod.

This morning I easily made my way on public transport to Rudersdaal for today’s races. It was cold, largely overcast, at times windy, sometimes sunny but ultimately dry. I easily found a good spot on the barriers, near the 50m to go marker, in sight of the large screen, not too far from facilities and refreshments and directly opposite the great and the good in the UCI’s hospitality facilities which had colonised the entire other side of the road.

The girls, who had to ride just 5 times round the 13.5km circuit, started nervously, with crashes marring the first three. Once the peloton settled, Germany’s Mieke Kroger and Italy’s Rossella Ratto escaped and built up a reasonable lead before being reeled in with only 600m to go. The winner, having kept her powder dry, launched her attack with just 150m remaining and easily showed the pack a clean pair of cleats. Britain’s 17-year old Lucy Garner had won Britain’s first gold of these championships. Belgium’s Jessy Druyts and home-girl Christine Siggaard completed the podium. Not an Aussie in sight, they’d been felled in the falls.

The Men’s U23 race sometimes, but not always throws up surprises. Freed from her duties in the Press Centre, I was joined by my friend Ute who was hoping for further medals for Germany. The race was relatively relaxed until the final couple of rounds with numerous breakaways, all of whom were absorbed before the final round. It was largely those teams without a recognized sprinter who animated the race, such as the Italians and Danes, and it was heartening to see riders from Eritrea holding their own. To become a truly global sport, cycling needs to embrace competitors from every continent.

Finally, the much fancied Aussies took control of the race with their gold medal TT winner, Luke Durbridge driving the peloton. But there was a sense that the Aussies had done too much, too soon. Their train fell apart as Durbridge swung off. GB’s Luke Rowe led out Andy Fenn for the sprint but, as he faded, he was overtaken by the French duo of Arnaud Demare and Adrien Petit who impeccably timed their sprints to take gold and silver respectively. Fenn, who took bronze, can take heart, last year in Geelong, 20 year-old Demare committed a similar error and faded to finish 5th, but not this year. He will turn professional next year with FDJ. Just reward for his impressive results (below) this year.

I first saw Demare race in Mendrisio which was won by fellow Frenchman, Romain Sicard who now rides for Euskaltel-Euskadi and whose most recent season has been blighted by injury. The French team bossed the race and one was left with the impression that any one of the team could have won. They worked similarly last year but lit the blue touch paper too early.

From my perspective today was extremely satisfying given that I support both GB and France. What else can I say, Sheree 4 – 0 Ute.

2011 Palmares Arnaud Demare  

  • 1st Boucles Catalanes
  • 1st Vienne Classic Espoirs
  • 4th on 4th and 5th stages of Tour of Normandy
  • 1st in La Cote Picardie, U23
  • 4th ZLM Tour
  • 2nd on 4th stage of Tour of Brittany
  • 4th in Paris-Roubaix Espoirs
  • 1st in 1st and 4th stages of Coupe de Nations, U23
  • 2nd on 3rd and 4th stages of Tour de L’Oise
  • 1st in GP de Pont a Marq
  • 2nd in GP Cristal Energy
  • 1st on 3rd stage and 4th on 4th of Tour Alsace
  • 3rd on 1st and 7th on 2nd stage of Tour du Poitou-Charentes et de la Vienne
  • 19th in GP Fourmies
  • 1st on 3rd stage of Tour de Moselle

Postscript: This is my 500th post!

Memories of Melbourne II

I know, I know, my second day in Sydney and I’m still reminiscing about Melbourne, or more specifically, Geelong. In Melbourne airport I met some of the Lithuanian squad on their way back to Marseille. Obviously, they had more modest ambitions than some teams but overall were pleased with their performances. So few have either the ability or opportunity to win that they have to set themselves more realistic goals.

The Moroccan squad were no doubt delighted that their rider Mohammed Said was part of the original breakaway group and featured strongly in the television coverage. Likewise, Esad Hasanovic from Serbia, the rider stranded in no man’s land for a large part of Sunday’s race, was probably being cheered on by lots of Serbs around the world. Yukiya Arashiro was the first Japanese to ever finish in the top ten in the Men’s Race. The Japanese team were staying in our Geelong base camp and they were delighted with that result. I know road racing is becoming more popular in a country that already has a significant cycling culture, albeit in Keirin racing.

My beloved, who flew back to Milan via Doha, was on the same flight as Philippe Gilbert and the Evans’. He talked to both of them and said they were pleased with their respective performances. They tried their best and that’s all anyone can expect.  The Belgians came away empty handed, not so the Australians, who collected three medals: one of each.

The Germans topped the medal table. A country that’s fallen out of love with cycling and which, at the end of this season, will no longer have a Pro-Tour team. But that didn’t stop them picking up four medals: three silvers and a bronze.  Great Britain’s hardware was picked up in the time-trials. Silver for David Millar and gold for Emma Pooley who was also a formidable presence in the Road Race. Who knows what Alex Dowsett might have achieved if he’d had a mechanic as deft as Tony Martin’s. Next up USA, whose Taylor Phinney won both a gold and a bronze medal.

Scandinavia garnered a full-house with Hushovd, Breschel and Johansson. Italy and Switzerland each collected one gold. Vos won her 4th consecutive silver, after gold in Salzburg, and looked on the verge of tears, she’s not a lady who likes to lose. Canada and New Zealand each picked up a bronze, or should that be half a bronze in the case of Canada?

Spain’s performance was disappointing. Their highest placed rider in all the races was Freire, who finished 6th in the road race. However, I do know that the team was much affected by all the doping news, particular that relating to Alberto, who is close to both Luis  Leon and Samu Sanchez, fanned by McQuaid’s pointed comments about Spain. I seem to recall they rather faded into the background when Valverde faced similar approbation in Stuttgart in 2007.    

I didn’t get a chance to ask JaJa if he was pleased with the performance of the French, Jeannie aside, but the 5th place of Arnaud Demare in the U23 road race and they way they animated the Men’s Race, not forgetting Romain Feillu’s 10th place, must have shown the team’s heading in the right direction.  

McQuaid has declared the Championships a success and said over 156,000 watched from the roadside on Sunday. How to they know? Does someone go round and count them? Or is there some agreed formula which takes account of the length of the course and the depth of the crowds?