Spring is just around the corner

Even though it’s much diminished in status (only three WorldTour teams), I much enjoy watching the Tour Cycliste International du Haut Var-Matin. Last week-end it was a cool, clear and sunny morning as I drove along the La Provençale motorway in the direction of the Var. Despite the bare vines and trees, the bright bursts of yellow from the flowering mimosa among the green pines made me feel as if we were on the cusp of spring. I parked up in Le Cannet des Maures, a pretty village just off the motorway, and enjoyed a pot of tea while watching the crowds amass and the teams arrive. The race generally attracts just a local crowd and only a smattering of press.

No occasion is too small for the local band and there were plenty of stalls – I picked up some early asparagus and a dozen free-range eggs – to entice the crowds. The race has moved from late February and now clashes with a number of more prestigious races, the  Tours of Oman, Algave and Andalucia, which explains the paucity of WorldTour teams. However, it’s sponsored by the legendary Raymond Poulidor, the race’s first victor in 1969, the commentary entices the voice of cycling aka Daniel Mageas out of retirement, former UCI President Pat MacQuaid lives close by and pops over to mingle with the great and good while Stephen Roche drives a few VIPs around the course.

There were plenty of kids autograph hunting and hoping pick up a bidon or cycling cap. Everyone wanted their photograph taken with the French national champion and pre-race favourite, Arthur Vichot (FDJ) who was happy to oblige. There were plenty of unknowns at the race from Continental teams, no doubt hoping to catch the eye of one of the Pro Conti or WorldTour directeur sportifs, but they struggled to make any impact here.

Ultimately, it was a race dominated by the French. The diminutive Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r) won the first stage while Cofidis’s Julien Simon worked with FDJ to thwart Ag2r and take the second stage. A second and third place finish was enough to see Vichot take the triple  in Draguignan, Simon was runner-up and Fortuneo’s Romain Hardy rounded out the podium. BMC’s Tom Bohli was best young rider and BMC were also adjudged best team.

Having skipped the finish in St Paul-en-Foret on the Saturday, I rode on Sunday morning and just put in an appearance for the latter stages of the race which finishes with a couple of circuits of Draguignan. The weather was glorious all week-end and looks set to continue for the next 10 days or so. Meaning, I’ll have ample opportunity to get out on my bike, something I’ve missed of late.

 

Season opener

I typically herald in the European cycling season at the Tour du Haut Var-Matin. If the weather’s fine, and it often is, it’s a glorious drive to the neighbouring Var: the racing green of the evergreens, the clear blue sky, the red rocky outcrops and the glorious burst of sunshine yellow from the Mimosa, at their peak. However, a mild winter  – I’m not complaining – has seen the Mimosa flower early and it’s now well past its best. Nonetheless, it’s still a great drive and one I did on my own as my beloved elected to cycle to the finish of both stages.

Mimosa decorated podium
Mimosa decorated podium

The race tends to follow a similar route. Saturday starts in Le Cannet des Maures and with a finish in one of the perched villages preceded by several circuits to maximise viewing pleasure. Sunday’s final stage starts and finishes in the town of Draguigan, again making use of several circuits around the surrounding towns.

The locals turn out in their droves but it’s unusual to travel too far to watch live racing. I recall club mates reckoning I was mad to drive an hour away just to watch a race! But it’s no ordinary race. I have friends taking part and there’s nothing nicer than seeing them race and maybe win. You may recall, we saw Amael Moinard  (BMC) win Sunday’s stage two years ago. Indeed, his eldest son recalled the moment and when he heard his Dad had escaped from the peloton he insisted on being hoisted on my beloved’s shoulders to better watch the action. Sadly a less than committed break mate and a headwind put paid to Amael’s ambitions.

After Tom Jelter Slagter (Cannondale) won Saturday’s stage, with a large number of riders on the same time, Sunday’s stage had everything to play for. Arthur Vichot, lying second, pounced to take his second overall victory here. It was especially nice to see him bounce back from a torrid 2015 and take FDJ’s 400th victory!

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?

Boonen’s back

Today, having safely delivered my beloved to the airport, I raced back home to get on with Monday’s usual pile of administration for both our company and the cycling club. The day started off a little damp and humid but the sun soon burnt through the cloud. I was very tempted to go for a ride but today’s a rest day and the outlook is for more of the same.

At 13h, I was able to check out the action in the Tour of Qatar, and continue working, thanks to the big screen in the office. Lars Boom surprised everyone by winning yesterday’s 2km prologue, 4 seconds ahead of Cancellara. All those kilometers on the cyclo-cross tracks this winter bearing early fruit. However, he was indisposed with a tummy upset today,  finishing well down and out of the gold leader’s jersey.

Today’s 145km stage finished on the Al Khor Corniche and was contested by an 18-man break away group, containing a number of sprinters, who had worked well together on the windy, sandswept roads to maintain their advantage over a splintered peloton. Actually, that’s not strictly true, it was more of a one-man show. Quickstep’s Tom Boonen took a  flier into the headwind and powered across the finish line to record his 18th stage win in the event, catching everyone else by surprise. He also took over the leader’s jersey.

Over in Mallorca, the UCI’s attempts to ban race radios fell on deaf ears. Tyler Farrar won the stage but it won’t count as UCI officials had walked off the job. Also, this week end, Elia Viviani (Liquigas-Cannondale) won the GP Costa degli Etruschi while Antony Ravard (AG2R-La Mondiale) wrapped up his first stage race win in the Etoile de Besseges. It’s worth noting that Johnny Hoogerland was 3rd, Jerome Coppel 5th and Arthur Vichot (2010’s viral star of the Tour Down Under) finished 9th. These boys will probably be riding the Tour of the Med, the final stages of which I’ll be watching this week end.

Scant consolation

On today’s stage, another hot one, 157.3km from Marbella to Malaga, I was willing one of the original 7-man breakaway to the finish line. But sometimes even our combined wills just aren’t enough.

Serafin Martinez (Xacobeo Galicia) having accelerated away from his breakaway companions on the big climb of the day, the Puerto del Leon, looked to have enough in hand over the peloton to win the stage, the leader’s jersey and the mountain’s classification. A holy trinity which would surely have ignited his career. Unfortunately, the peloton had other ideas and he was caught just under the flamme rouge.

The final ascent was reminiscent of the Cauberg and sure enough here was the winner of this year’s Amstel Gold, Philippe Gilbert, accelerating away from Vicenzo Nibali and Joaquin Rodriguez to cross the line in an imperious fashion. The stage and the leader’s jersey for Philippe and precious GC seconds for Rodriguez who finished ahead of Igor Anton. Serafin hung onto the mountain’s classification jersey.

Philippe looked mighty powerful today. He will be one to watch in Geelong where he now won’t have to share leadership of the Belgian team with Tom Boonen who, thanks to slower than anticipated recovery from knee surgery, will be watching events unfold from his armchair in Monaco. 

So how did my “men to watch” do today? Sadly, Ben Swift, and team mate John-Lee Augustyn, have gone down and out with a stomach bug. However Arthur Vichot, a viral superstar with a huge fan base in Australia, finished 10th on the stage.

Bring it on

Hours before the start of the 65th edition (and 75th anniversary) of the Vuelta a Espana, I’m all set and raring to go. Unusually, there’s no pile of laundry to keep me occupied when I’ll be whiling away my afternoons in front of the television. No, I’m going to be sorting out my dressing room, all the drawers and cupboards in the lounge and dining room and rearranging my collection of cookery books. If you’ve visited my apartment you’ll know that these are all mammoth tasks befitting a three-week Tour.

Many more gifted than me have previewed at length the fancied riders and the stages. I’m not going to add to this. Instead, you’ll get, as usual, my take on things: less objective, more subjective. A consensus seems to have built up around perm any three from Nibali/Menchov/Mosquera/the Schlecks/Arroyo/LL Sanchez/Sastre/Rodriguez.

The Vuelta organisers were hoping to tempt Contador to his home Tour and devised a  parcours which would suit him. As he’s shown, it’s possible to do the Giro/Vuelta double, but it’s much more difficult to double up with the Tour de France. It’s not so much the racing itself more the mental demands. In addition, he had concerns over the quality of his support. Valid concerns if you look at the Astana team sheet. My favourite Spanish rider, Samu Sanchez will also be missing, as will last year’s winner, Alejandro Valverde, who’s on an enforced sabbatical. As a consequence, Inigo Cuesta, of the soon to be defunct Cervelo Test Team, riding his 17th consecutive Vuelta, will be honoured with the No 1.

While it’s rare for there to be surprises on the podium of a Grand Tour, I am hoping that maybe either Igor Anton or Benat Intxausti, both from Euskaltel-Euskadi, will shine in their home tour. It’s also an opportunity to look out for talent of the future (Tony Gallopin and Arthur Vichot) and talent that’s shone over the past two seasons, to shine more brightly (Tejay van Garderen and Ben Swift). Of course, there will also be a whole host of riders, without contracts for next season, looking to catch the eye of a Directeur Sportif or two. And, let’s not forget, a whole slew of sprinters, in fact pretty much everyone bar every girl’s favourite bad boy, Tom Boonen, who’ll be battling for supremacy over a possible 8 sprint stages, ahead of the World Championships in Melbourne.

So, stand by your television sets for this evening’s 13km team time trial around Sevilla. Footon-Servetto are off first with teams going at four minute intervals. Local team, Andalucia-CajaSur, will go last. SaxoBank have the advantage of going after other potential winners HTC-Columbia, Garmin-Transitions and (remember the Giro), Liquigas. I do not anticipate any decisive time gaps.

While the first week is uncharacteristically hilly, the key stages are at the back end of the Vuelta: specifically, Stage 15 on 12 September to Lagos de Covadonga, Stage 16 to Cortobello, Stage 17’s 46km pancake flat ITT at Penafiel and, the penultimate test, Stage 20 to Bola del Mundo.

My pick for the podium: 1-Menchov, 2-Nibali, 3-(F) Schleck

Climber’s Jersey: Moncoutie

Point’s Jersey: Cavendish

Combined Jersey: Mosquera

Putting your foot in it

I got back from my trip to St Raphael feeling pleasurably fatigued and sank gratefully into my spa bath to soothe my aching parts. I really don’t use it often enough. Generally because, when I return from a ride, I’m endeavouring to produce sustenance for my beloved as soon as he emerges from his ablutions.

Given that a little R&R was in order, I donned my fleecy tracksuit, flopped onto the sofa and picked up this month’s copy of Velo Magazine which had been delivered  LAST WEEK and had remained unread. What can I say? Too much to do.

There’s a picture of Cav on the front, sporting a beard, endeavouring to look mean and moody and failing. This month’s a bit of a bumper issue as, among other things, it contains details of all the French cyclosportifs, a team guide, the season’s calendar, features on afore-mentioned Cav and Boassen Hagen plus a list of the 50 top cyclists most likely to be hitting the headlines this season. I thought I’d check out this list to see if we’re in accord.

Their top 3 are Bert, Cav and Lance. I think that’s wishful thinking. Whichever continent you’re on, Lance generates more news than all the other riders put together. This is obviously a French perspective and they’re assuming (and why wouldn’t you) that Bert is going to retain his Tour title while Cav is going to win loads of sprints.  The next three, in order, are Schleck the Younger, Fabulous Fabian and Cuddles Evans – hard to disagree there. They’ve ranked Philippe Gilbert (7th) ahead of Tom Boonen (11th). I’m not sure I agree with that one. Though, to be fair, Tom is probably hoping for more coverage of his cycling, rather than non-cycling, activities than last year.

Surprisingly, there’s a dearth of Frenchmen in the top 50. First up in 25th place is the U23 Road Race Champion, Romain Sicard who this season will be riding as a neo-pro for the boys in orange, Euskatel-Euskadi. Just behind him in 28th place is Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), the so-called French housewives’ favourite. Christophe Le Mevel (FDJ), 10th last year in the Dauphine and Tour, is only in 37th place. There are three further Frenchmen bringing up the rear: Brice Feillu (Vacansoleil), the younger of the brothers, is 42nd, 45th is Pierre Rolland (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) and Anthony Roux (FDJ) is 48th. No place for Amael Moinard, David Moncoutie, Tommy Voekler, Pierrick Fedrigo, Romain Feillu or, indeed, the Frenchman who’s garnered the most column inches to date, the viral celebrity, young Arthur Vichot (FDJ).

Turning next to the team guide, I check out the new teams and kit changes. By and large, I favour simple colour schemes which are easy to pick out in the peloton: such as, Cervelo, BMC, Sky and FDJ. Omega Pharma Lotto’s shirt is a big improvement on previous years.  I rather like the retro styling and black shorts for Quick Step, but the shorts are too short. Quel horreur, what were the folks at Footon-Servetto thinking? There’s an Italian team (Carminooro NGC) who wear a black kit edged in gold which looks quite classy. Though it would look even classier if  they dropped the outline round the crotch. 

Better in black

If only Footon-Servetto had gone for all black shorts. I really feel for those boys. You just know that those “gold” shorts are going to look “nude”  and turn see-through in the wet. You have been warned.

Viral celebrity

A charming tale caught my eye in yesterday’s L’Equipe. Apparently, the Port Adelaide Cycling Club decided to pick a completely unknown European rider to support during the Tour Down Under. After some deliberation, they selected Arthur Vichot, a neo-pro with FDJ taking part in his first professional race and who, more importantly, was on Facebook. The club’s intention was to make a huge fuss of Vichot throughout the race with hordes of fans on the roadside calling out “Allez Arthur”, wearing “Allez Vichot” t-shirts, waving French flags and, of course, daubing his name on the road. Indeed, rumour has it he was better supported than one Lance Armstrong.

Allez Vichot

Prior to the start of the Tour, one of Arthur’s new found fans asked Lance if he’d ever heard of Vichot. When he said he hadn’t, she told him that he would do by the end of the Tour. Not only was all this support a tremendous boost to young Vichot, who finished a creditable 48th, just over 3minutes down on Greipel, but it also bought a smile to the lips of the more seasoned pros whenever they saw Vichot’s fans. In addition, the story has attracted the attention of the press worldwide.

Arthur’s Australian fan club has garnered more than a thousand members  and they’re eagerly going to follow his progress throughout the season. Some will even be coming over to Europe to watch him ride.

I thought this was such a lovely idea and The Port Adelaide Cycling Club are to be commended. Young Vichot will never forget his first professional race nor the kindness of the locals with whom, in time-honoured Aussi tradition, he shared a beer.