Super Sunday

I seem to have spent the week end unsuccessfully dodging cloud bursts. Having decided to skip yesterday’s La Vencoise we enjoyed a lengthy ride along the coast, arriving home just after the rain started. Meanwhile, the 400 riders who started La Vencoise enjoyed mixed fortunes. If you were a fast rider, the weather didn’t trouble you too much. If you weren’t so fast, you experienced fog, hail and chilly conditions. We all know what would have happened to me, don’t we?

Today started brightly enough. I decided to ride with the club to the pointage in Menton but ended up dropping back to keep a potential new member company. He was clearly struggling and, after a short chat with him, I reached the conclusion that we weren’t the club for him. No, if you want companionable rides at a leisurely pace, club mates who wait for you and with whom you can enjoy a cup of coffee, you need to join a neighbouring club. He thanked me for my advice and, since he was finding it difficult to hold my wheel (yes, really), decided to turn around. I rode on alone, enjoying the sunshine and the silence. I passed Phil Gil at Cap d’Ail, clearly awaiting his riding companions. He gave me a cheery wave. He’s such a nice bloke.

On the way back, having already been soaked by a cloudburst in Monaco, I popped into to see how my friend, who was knocked off his bike last Sunday, was faring. He’s putting a brave face on things but clearly finding the inactivity testing. He’s got to wear a corset for 45 days to protect his broken vertebrae. I volunteered to take him to his hospital appointments this week. He was proposing to go on the bus. I was having none of it. As I left, the heavens opened once more. The rain abated as I approached Nice only to start falling again just before I reached home. My beloved had gone to a business meeting in Menton so I could enjoy a leisurely hot shower before slipping into something comfortable and reposing on the sofa to watch a packed afternoon of sporting action: Monster Energy Moto GP from Le Mans, the Giro d’Italia from the slopes of Mount Etna and Arsenal v Villa.

Nico Terol’s domination of this season’s 125cc ended on the final corner of the final lap of the Le Mans circuit after jousting with a 16-year old called Maverick Vinales (what a brilliant name) who didn’t look old enough to be out without his Mum, let alone ride a bike. In fact he was too young to be given a bottle of champers on the podium – very responsible of the organisers. Efren Vazquez rounded out the podium.  Reigning 125cc champion Marc Marquez finally managed to finish a Moto2 race, without crashing, to take his maiden win in this class. He worked his way through the field to take the lead from Thomas Luthi with 5 laps to go. Takahashi was 3rd with current championship leader Stefan Bradl in 3rd place. Bradl’s closest rival for the championship, Iannone crashed on the first lap.

In the blue-riband event, the fireworks started in the warm up lap. Pole position holder, Casey Stoner, had a dust up with Randy de Puniet which earned him a Euros 5,000 fine. Meanwhile, Jorge Lorenzo’s first bike went up in flames, literally. Initially, Stoner was overtaken by his front-row companions, Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso but he clawed his way back into the lead after 2 1/2 laps and stayed there to finish a massive 14 seconds ahead of everyone else and record his second win of the season. Watch out Jorge, he’s closing the gap. Meanwhile, all the action happened way behind his back. Pedrosa clashed with Marco Simoncelli on lap 17, who was pushing him for 2nd place. Dani crashed, breaking his right collarbone. He’s only just recovering from an operation to resolve issues with his broken left collarbone. Simoncelli was given a ride-through penalty leaving a 3-way fight  between Lorenzo, Dovizioso and Rossi for the remaining podium places. Lorenzo ran wide with 3 laps remaining and finished 4th. Rossi couldn’t get past Dovi who finished 2nd. This is Rossi’s first podium of the season, and his 175th in all classes,I’m sure it won’t be his last.

On yesterday’s stage, allegedly one for the sprinters, neither Alberto Contador (SaxoBank) nor Oscar Gatto (Farnese) had read the script. I couldn’t resist coming up with a red top headline “Contador catches competition catnapping”. Those among you who are linguistically gifted will know that “gatto” is Italian for cat. As a consequence of his second place, Alberto gained 17 seconds, setting the stage for today’s ride up Mount Etna on Nibali’s home turf. Fireworks were anticipated but it looked as if we were going to get just a damp squib. The diminutive Jose Rujano (Androni) who’s never, ever going to make into that hallowed group of riders who weigh more than me, however much I lose, had set off towards the summit. Everyone was seemingly happy to let him go. Not so Alberto, who rocketed up the slope with 7km to go. Scarponi tried to give chase but blew up. The others took turns in trying to chase him down but to little avail.  Having reached Rujano it took Bert three fierce attacks to dislodge him from his back wheel. Alberto took his maiden Giro stage, the pink jersey and the plaudits. Nibali is now 81 seconds down.

My beloved boys in claret and blue took advantage of Arsenal’s defensive frailties to win 2-1 at the Emirates. The money paid for Darren Bent, who scored both of Villa’s goals, is looking like money well spent. But I have to ask, boys why couldn’t you play like that for the entire season? Danger averted. Not so for OGCN who lost a 6-pointer 3-0 away at Nancy.

Bountiful

My beloved departed yesterday afternoon which is probably just as well given how busy the last couple of days have been. The weather’s not been ideal: grey, chilly and drizzly. Not great for Carnival but the lower temperatures and more snow have assured great skiing in the mountains close to Nice.

Monday I collected Tom III. Who would have thought that a few extra horses under the bonnet (or, in the case of a Smart, in the boot) would have made such a difference? Why didn’t I get a Brabus version before? I am so loving driving the new car and putting it through its paces. It’s got all the boys toys, some of which I’ll never use, but they’ll serve to amuse my beloved.

Monday, is also administration day and, as it was also a month end, cue invoices, expenses and salaries. Yesterday, after my weigh-in, I continued with the administration, this time for the club, specifically ensuring that everything is in good order for the Treasurer’s return.

Only the truly faithful made it down to the club yesterday evening in the pouring rain. These are, however, the ones who always volunteer and turn out for the club whatever and whenever. As none of them are getting any younger, we do need to start looking for replacements in the ranks of the more recently retired and about to retire.

One of the professional riders, who lives locally, popped in with his other half, to hand over his spare and old kit for our youngsters. In recent years he’s raced for Cofidis, Agritubel and now RadioShack who have changed their kit for this season – thanks. We’re looking forward to seeing him, and some of our other local riders, in next week’s Paris-Nice which I am hoping will be a race to the sun. The long-range forecasts look promising.

This donation is really generous of him and all this kit will be a great boon to the parents. While the youngsters do receive free kit from the club’s sponsors, it’s really for race days. Riding every day soon takes a toll on the kit which, when you add it all up, particularly with the stuff required for winter riding, is not cheap, even at cost.

Article in March's Velo Magazine

Talking about our youngsters, as you can see from above, there was a small piece on one of them in this month’s Velo magazine. Sadly, he wasn’t wearing club kit in the photo, and they got the club’s name wrong (I’ve  since dropped them a line with the corrections). Let’s hope this is just the first of many mentions for our riders.

I had completely forgotten that Nice were playing their Cup game away at division 2 Reims yesterday evening. They managed to win 3-2 in extra time and are now into the semi-finals. The draw for the next round will take place this week end. A trip to Paris for the final in May would be very welcome so I hope we don’t get Lille or PSG in the next round.. I also see there was some consolation for Arsenal yesterday, Chelsea beat Manchester United: a silver lining to Sunday’s cloud.

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?

Handily poised

Having devoted yesterday’s post to a round up of the cycling, today I felt I should turn my attention to the football. I will, of course, firstly address the two clubs closest to my heart: namely, AVFC and OGCN. The former didn’t play at the week and as their would-be opponents were involved in a replay. Unsurprisingly, they’ll be playing Manchester City in the next round of the FA Cup. My beloved boys in claret and blue are the filling in a Midlands sandwich. They’re lying in 16th place with 30 points, the same as Birmingham who are above us thanks to a superior goal difference, and a game in hand. Below us, on two points less, are WBA. To put this in perspective, the league leaders, Manchester United, have twice as many points. OGCN lost 3-0 at home to PSG. They’ve played one game less than Villa and are on 27 points in 17th place, just above Monaco, who are in the relegation zone. The similarities are alarming but I don’t believe either will be relegated.

I will now turn my attention to the Champion’s League which tends to be a bit of a closed shop. There’s 4 English sides (Man U, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal), 3 Spanish teams (Real, Barca, Valencia), 3 Italian teams (Inter, AC Milan, Roma), 2 German teams (Bayern, Schalke), 2 French teams (OL, OM) plus 2 others (Copenhagen, Shaktar Donetsk).  Following the results of the first leg, there’s only one side which looks likely to be eliminated: FC Copenhagen who were beaten 2-0 at home by Chelsea.

If we look at the results from the remaining first legs, there are at first glance some surprising results: most notably Spurs winning 1-0 away at AC Milan and Manchester United drawing 0-0 away from home at OM. In other instances,  while the favoured team lost, they do have that all important away goal as in Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona, Lyon 1 – 1 Real Madrid which should provide the platform for a home, and overall, win in the next leg.

At this stage, it’s not easy to forecast who will win. There’s so many variables not just the opponents in the forthcoming rounds, domestic situations but,  more crucially, the availability of key players. However, I’m all for sticking my neck out and I’m going to predict that the last 8 teams will be Spurs, Schalke, Shaktar, Barca, Real, Chelsea, Man U, Bayern. I would have liked to include Arsenal in that list but cannot see them beating Barcelona at home. I hope, in this case, I’m proved wrong.

 Of course, it’s difficult to work up enough interest if your own team isn’t playing, nor shows any sign of qualifying to play Champions League in my remaining lifetime. I will however always be able to treasure the moment when Peter Withe’s knee struck the ball in Rotterdam and put in the back of the Bayern net enabling my beloved boys to bring home the trophy in 1982. I watched the game after barracading myself into the tv lounge of the hotel where I was staying in Taunton while auditing Somerset CC.

Lightweight

The weather’s been a bit of a curate’s egg this week as we slide inexorably towards winter.  Rain on the coast has translated into snow in the mountains where they may well be about to experience their third consecutive great winter. Many of the resorts are opening next week end. This has spurred me on to go cross-country skiing this winter – great cross-training for my cycling.

Despite the almost incessant rain, I have managed to fit in my training thanks largely to the sunshine on both Wednesday and Friday. I had feared for Sunday’s pointage, after torrential rain overnight, but it had stopped by the time we awoke. Indeed a stiff, chilly breeze rapidly dried the wet roads although the sky looked threatening all morning. As a consequence, only the die-hards turned up. Normally the roads are thronged with cyclists but it was play “spot the cyclist” this Sunday as large numbers chose to remain under the covers.

We returned home to a bowl of hearty vegetable soup and my beloved boys in claret and blue away at Ewood Park. Sadly, the roll-call of injuries is such that Houlier has had to decimate the ranks of the youth squad. While they proved to be a match for the Red Devils last week end, their efforts fell on stonier ground today.

Friedel, normally so reliable, had a poor game and was constantly under pressure from the set pieces which characterise all of Sam Allardyce’s well-organised squads. If my memory serves me correctly, didn’t Houlier sell Friedel to Blackburn when he was the Liverpool manager?

Man for man, my beloved boys in claret and blue, with few exceptions, were head and shoulders smaller (and hence lighter) than their Blackburn counterparts who effectively muzzled both Gabi Agbonlahor and Ashley Young, thereby snuffing out any potential Villa threat. Key to the result however, aside from Pedersen’s two goals, was Blackburn’s control of the midfield.

Robert Pires came on after the second goal to inject some much needed experience and Gallic flair but had no impact whatsoever on the game. It’s still early days, but I’m sure he’ll prove to be a valuable addition to the squad.

Villa are now 13th with 17 points, just one more than their blue-nosed neighbours who, incredibly, beat Chelsea at the week end. Equally amazing was Spurs win at the Emirates. However, the top of the table  is starting to look all too familiar. Chelsea lead with 28 points, the same number as Man U in 2nd place, while Arsenal are 3rd with 26. Man City, after beating Fulham today, are 4th with 25 points.

OGCN went down 0-1 at home to Montpelier. Once again, Ospina was our “man of the match”. Knowing that he’ll be lured away (sold for as much money as possible) at the end of the season, and with goalkeeper number 2 retiring, OGCN have already bought his replacement. The boys are lying in 15th place with 16 points, just one less than AVFC.

Hot money

At the beginning of the season, Martin O’Neil, AVFC’s wondrous football manager attempted (unsuccessfully) to manage the fans’ expectations. He cautioned that with the teams around us having strengthened their squads, we would do well to hold onto 6th place. We’re currently lying 7th, 7 points behind Spurs who are in 4th. Liverpool are 5th and Manchester City are 6th.

This time last year, having dallied with 4th position and the prospect of Champion’s League football, we simply ran out of steam. Sadly, we’re in danger of a repeat performance. Excellent cup runs (Final of League Cup and semi-final of FA Cup) have left us playing 5 matches in two weeks. We’ve won one, drawn three and lost on Saturday, away at Chelsea. Actually, that’s not strictly true. After a brave first-half performance(according to a friend of mine, who’s a Chelsea fan), we were thrashed 7-1 by Chelsea. An ominous portent for our forthcoming FA Cup semi-final clash at Wembley on 10 April.

On the bright side, we’ll have had at least two trips to Wembley this season our first trips in 10 years. It’s hard to see what more Martin O’Neil can do to break into the top four. Maybe, it’s simply not possible as the monetary divide gets ever wider.

Over here, OGCN, having dispensed with the services of its coach, has now won three consecutive matches and looks to have a firm grip on 16th spot. The prospect of relegation is fast receding. 

The season seems to be rushing towards a conclusion and, before we know it, the World Cup will be upon us once more. However, there’s still the small matter of the Champion’s League. It’s being contested by two English sides (Arsenal and Man U), two French sides (Lyon and Bordeaux), one Spanish (Barca), one Italian (Inter), one Russian (CSK) and one German (Bayern).  If I were a betting woman (I’m not, I leave that to my two sisters), I’d put my money on Inter, Barca, Man U and Bordeaux to reach the semis.

Postscript: Lucky I’m not a betting woman! I do hope it wasn’t the curse of the pundit but the semis are Bayern v Lyon and Inter v Barca. Still 2 out of 4’s not too bad. Given the incredible form of Messi, I’m going to plump for a Bayern v Barca final, with Barca to win.

Thank heavens, I’m back

It feels like I’ve been away for weeks, not four days. I’ll never moan about the weather here ever again. Coming in to land at Gatwick, I found myself looking out on a bleak wintery landscape swirling with snow. I bought myself a salad lunch at M&S to eat on the Gatwick Express. It was the same price as a 2-course “menu” with coffee here. At Victoria I bought a Zone 1 tube ticket – £4 for 4 stops. It had only been £1.60 the last time I’d been in town – talk about rampant inflation. Or should that be daylight robbery?

En route to Birmingham New Street I kept thinking that I wanted to go home – now. I finally arrived at my parents late that afternoon ready to catch up with their news before settling down to watch the 2nd leg of that all-important League Cup semi-final, Villa v Bolton. It was a 10-goal thriller! Yes, when was the last time you saw 10 goals in a football match? It started with Villa going down two goals, putting Bolton in the lead on aggregate, fortunately only briefly. Villa levelled the score with a penalty and Bolton were reduced to 10  men. Thereafter, the goals came thick and fast. Finally, after a 10 year absence, Villa were on their way back to Wembley.

Thursday, I had offered to look after my Mum to give my Dad a break. It’s tough being a carer 24/7. I honestly don’t know how he does it. I decided that Mum and I should do something together. As she’s got a bit of a sweet tooth and enjoys a coffee and cake most days, I thought we would make a couple of cakes together.

Mum and I had never cooked together when I lived at home. I didn’t start cooking until I went to university. It’s always a bit of a nightmare cooking in someone else’s kitchen. They never have the same tools as you or use the same ingredients. My sister had kindly provided the baking tins, raisins, butter and baking powder. The rest was in the cupboards. My Mum had an old set of scales but it was in pounds and ounces so I reverted to an old tried and tested recipe: use the same weight in eggs, sugar, flour and butter. We made a Victoria sponge, sandwiched together with cream and apricot jam, and a raisin and apple loaf which we sliced and put in the freezer.

She seemed to enjoy the activity though it’s sometimes hard to tell. From time to time she says something that makes you wonder but most of the times it’s complete gibberish. I just try to look as if I understand, nod and say something affirmative.

Friday, we took a taxi into Birmingham to have lunch at a Michelin starred restaurant. It was intended to be a treat for my Dad but they both enjoyed the meal and the trip out. It rained all day Friday. I had forgotten just how damp it can be in the Midlands and I was soon coughing – break out the Benylin.

We left Saturday lunchtime. It had been lovely catching up with my parents but, after four days off the bike and having spent so much time indoors, watching tv, I was desperate to get home.  We got back late evening and headed straight to a local restaurant for dinner. Fortification for today’s pointage in Antibes, by way of Roquefort les Pins to pick up a ticket (more points).

Postscript: AVFC’s opponents in the League Cup final will be Manchester United who today (31 Jan) demolished Arsenal. The boys are going to have to pull out all the stops and more if they’re to defeat the red devils.

Quelle surprise!

Yesterday evening, Ryan Giggs (PFA Player of the Year) was voted BBC Sport’s Personality of the Year. He’d obviously not expected to win as he’d not prepared, or even thought to prepare, a speech. Nonetheless, it was a well deserved and popular award. He’s always struck me as the “model professional” footballer having spent the last twenty years or so loyaly toiling on Man United’s wings and, very regrettably, as he’s Welsh, never on England’s. He’s a scorer of great goals, rather than a great goal scorer. Indeed, his goal a few year’s back against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final makes it into my top 5 goals of all time.

Cavendish was one of the ten contenders but never really in with a shout among the likes of Jensen Button (2nd) and Ryan Giggs. But I’ve no doubt his time will come. 

I’m not sure why they call the award the “Sports Personality” when, with few exceptions, that’s exactly what they are patently not. Please don’t take this as anything other than censure of the title. Winners need to be focused and self-centred, not well-rounded, witty, and amusing dinner companions.

Of course, some develop into sporting personalities after retiring, others simply never do. Whenever I’ve been lucky to meet one I’ve found the safest topics of conversation to be themselves and their sport.

Chilled

A brave baker’s dozen set out from the club’s rendez vous point this morning. The sky was leaden and it was cold, damp, still wet under foot from the storms the night before and the hills behind were now dusted with snow. We rode briskly to keep warm each trying to take shelter from the chilly headwind which surely must have originated in Siberia. I rode at the head of the peloton, sheltering behind club mates half my size is pretty pointless.  Other cyclist’s were rarer than hen’s teeth.

At the pointage in Golfe Juan, I felt chilled and decided to return home. While riding, I’d paid particular attention to my posture and there was no re-occurrence of my earlier troubles. Sadly, I may have to replace my saddle. I cannot get another of the same model as it’s one that’s only made available to the pros. It’ll have to be a Bontrager, the same as I have on my Orbea, but in white to match my bar tape.

I picked up the newspapers on the way home and was glad of the additional warmth as I stuffed them down my winter jacket. I wanted to get home, and finish off the tidying up in time to watch Arsenal v Liverpool. If Arsenal lose, AVFC stay in 3rd place. I’d been so buoyed up by the boys’ win that I’d forgotten to check on how OGCN had fared away at Lens: badly. We lost 2-0, our 3rd consecutive loss. Christmas can’t come soon enough for Les Aiglons.

Journalists have been attending the camps of Astana and Team RadioShack, respectively in Pisa and Tucson, and attempting to keep the Lance v Bert rivalry stoked.  The latter is wisely not rising to the bait. Yes, Lance on paper your team has by far the stronger riders but do you have the stronger team? This story is going to run and run until its conclusion on the Champs Elysees next July. We’re just going to have to wait and see.

Good news comes in threes

Yes, I’ve had three pieces of excellent news this weekend. First up, my cycling club has retained its departmental championship (2eme series). We were 3rd overall, just behind the two much larger local clubs. Seventy-three team mates turned out for the pointage, just over 75% of our cyclists.

Second, I have reduced my percentage  body fat with the 6-week challenge, despite the blow-out meals in Paris. I will, of course, be continuing with the works outs over the winter months. 

Man U 0 - 1 AVFC

Best of all, my beloved boys in claret and blue became the first team to win at the Theatre of Dreams this season. A header from Gabi in the 21 minute secured all three points. Both teams had chances and it was an exciting match right to the final whistle. The last time we beat Manchester United, Becks was a promising young player. We won 3-1 at home in 1995 at the start of 1995-96 season. Conversely, we haven’t won at Old Trafford since 1983.

It was a key match for both teams. With Chelsea drawing 3-3 at home to Everton, winning would allow Man U to draw level on points, albeit with an inferior goal difference. While, AVFC’s nearest rivals, Spurs lost at home 0-1 to Wolves, Villa’s neighbours – thanks boys! Villa  now go 3rd and will stay there if Liverpool beat Arsenal tomorrow.

I spoke to a friend’s husband before the match and he revealed himself to be a supporter of the Red Devils. Since he doesn’t hail from Manchester, I just had to call him a glory hunter, though he claims to have supported the team from boyhood. So he’ll remember when Villa beat Man U in the 1957 FA Cup Final, the very last time we won it.