Sodden Sheree’s sporting snippets

We may only have had 4 days of rain but Noah and his Ark could have been pressed into service to rescue the aquatic life in Marineland and a whole host of villagers whose houses have been flooded thanks to a number of local rivers bursting their banks. Despite having rain water cascading down the common parts of our apartment block yesterday morning, I’m so very glad we live in a flat, on a hill. Apart from the leaks, our only casualty appears to be one of the trees which upended itself in the gale force winds on Saturday evening. Fortunately, nothing and no one was damaged and the gardeners have had the chain saws out this morning chopping it into bite size pieces.

As we weren’t able to ride outside over the week end, or indeed go anywhere much, we increased our exposure to television sport and lapped up a number of events.

MotoGP

At the season’s curtain closer, GP Valencia, homage was fittingly paid to the late Marco Simoncelli by the competitors, the officials, the teams and the fans. There were tears too for the retiring Loris Caporossi who aged thirty-eight has spent twenty-two seasons  in GP.

Casey Stoner had already won the blue riband Championship but neither that nor the intermittent rain prevented him from winning his 10th race of the season, by the smallest of margins from Ben Spies. Andrea Dovizioso’s third place on the podium clinched his third place in the Championship, behind the absent Jorge Lorenzo who’s still recovering from an injury to his finger. Any thoughts Valentino Rossi might have had of rescuing his worst season ever disappeared on the first corner of the first lap as he and fellow Ducati riders, Nicky Hayden and Randy De Puniet, were taken out by Alavara Bautista’s Suzuki.

In the continued absence of Marc Marquez, Stefan Bradl won the Moto2 title despite falling on the 5th lap. Instead, three riders (Pirro, Kallio, Aergeter) made their maiden trips to the podium this season. Nico Terol won the 125cc Championship at a canter from Johann Zarco, who fell on the 3rd lap, despite finishing Sunday’s race behind the splendidly named Maverick Vignales. Hector Faubel was third. Roll on Qatar in April next year and 1000cc bikes.

Track Cycling

Sticking with two wheels, we watched the first round of the World Cup from Astana’s brand spanking new velodrome. There weren’t too many spectators but Alexandre Vinokourov was on hand, to lend a hand, with the presentation of the prizes, specifically the flowers. Is this the first time that Alex has been a podium boy? If so, he’s a natural.

Sir Chris picked up a silver in the keirin and sprint gold while Dani King won a silver in the omnium. Otherwise, it was slim pickings for the Brits. However a number of the favourites were either missing or missing in action. The next round’s in Columbia in early December.

Road Racing

Marcel Kittel beat a bunch of holidaying cyclists to take the Amstel Curacao race. As usual we were treated to the unedifying sight of topless cyclists, with scary tan lines and dodgy taste in swimming trunks,  frolicking on the beach. Absent from this year’s festivities, Alberto Contador who was instead racing down the aisle to wed his long term lady friend. I wish them both every happiness.

Football

Sir Alex’s 25-year tenure at the Theatre of Dreams was ackowledged with the naming of a stand in his honour. Those are going to be rather large shoes to fill when he finally steps down. No mention was made of their short-sighted attempt to get rid of him in 1994 before he started winning anything and everything with the Red Devils.

My beloved boys in claret and blue managed to preserve their lead and all 3 points by beating Norwich 3-2 at home. Goals were scored by the revitalised Gabby Agbonlahor and Darren Bent. AVFC are now 8th in the league one place above their week end opponents. OGC Nice were unable to keep a clean sheet in the local derby away at Marseille’s velodrome. Typically, one of goals was supplied by way of a penalty in 96th minute by OGCN old boy, Loic Remy.  We’re now occupying 17th spot in the Ligue and dicing with relegation danger.

Marathon

Kenyan Geoffroy Mutai (54kg) won yesterday’s New York marathon in an astonishing 2hrs 5′ 6″ without the assistance of a pace-setter, to add to his Boston title. Another Mutai, Emmanuel (no relative) was second, having previously scooped the honours in London. These two are part of a formidable Kenyan team of six who are competing for three marathon places in the London 2012 Olympics. Wonder what these boys would be like on bikes?

Garibaldi’s Giro VII

It’s perhaps only fitting that on the Giro’s rest day I quickly reflect on the 3 day festival of pain and suffering the riders have just endured. Frankly, it was pretty exhausting just watching, let alone riding: long days in the saddle, lots and lots of tough climbs and dramatically different climatic conditions from start to finish. Despite some spirited opposition, Contador has a lock on the maglia rosa which only TAS can retrospectively wrest from his grasp. However, the other two podium places are still up for grabs and will be hotly contested in the coming days starting in tomorrow’s uphill time-trial.

Contador’s not the only Spaniard, or should that be Spanish speaker, with a smile on his face. Together for 17 years, 5 participations in the Giro and no wins summed up Euskaltel-Euskadi’s record before Anton’s ascent of the Zoncolan. Mind you, only a very small rider was going to be able to squeeze through those crowds. The place was positively heaving. Of course, it might easily have been Rujano, who is showing signs of a return to his 2005 form, but he was fatigued after his (gifted) win on stage 13. Fortunately, he had recovered sufficiently by Sunday to repay the favour and give Alberto a bit of a helping hand. Then, just like buses, along comes another win for Euskaltel with Mikel Nieve in the queen stage (15) atop Val di Fassa. Oh, weren’t they the team that shared the work load with Saxobank on Friday? What goes around, comes around.

Honourable mentions, IMHO, should also go to:-

  • Stefano Garzelli who won the Cima Coppi (first over highest point) and a shed load of mountain points.
  • Johnny Hoogerland for another of his seemingly fruitless, but nonetheless entertaining, solo escapes.
  • Robert Kiserlovski for grinning and baring broken teeth to follow Martinelli’s orders, to the letter.
  • John Gadret, the best placed Frenchman, in 4th place.
  • Michele Scarponi for daring to attack.
  • Vicenzo Nibali for his virtuoso, dare-devil descending.

Finally, I was saddened to learn of Xavier Tondo’s demise in what’s been reported as a bizarre accident with his garage door. My condolences to his family, friends and team mates.

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.

My sporting week end

My coach has a company which promotes the health benefits of participating in sport. You can either join for a year or buy tickets to participate in events. The first go is free. This Saturday he was encouraging people to either start cycling or get back on their bikes. His existing clients are also invited to participate. I went in anticipation that there just might be a few people slower than me. No such luck! We were a fairly select group, composed largely of his existing clients and just one guy who “hadn’t ridden much recently”. No need to spell out who was bringing up the rear on the ride. One of my coach’s assistants came with us and solicitously enquired as to whether I was finding the parcours too difficult. My coach kindly stepped in to explain that I was his official Lanterne Rouge, a role I perform beautifully and to the very  best of my ability. Frenchmen are such charmers! We only rode for about 90 minutes, ideal preparation for Sunday’s La Lazarides, one of the more testing brevets and one which I rode well at last year.

I spent Saturday afternoon on numerous household tasks while checking out the sporting action on our three televisions. WBA v Villa was shown live on Canal+ and I have to say the boys played well. But, and it’s a big but, they were mugged by the Baggies 2-1 who played with greater purpose, despite being down to 10 men. Meanwhile, in the lounge I was intent on watching the qualifying for Sunday’s Portuguese GP from Estoril. Typically, the favourites all ended up on pole position. Finally, I watched the time-trial in the Tour of Romandie where Messrs Evans (BMC) and Vinokourov (Astana) were poised to knock Pavel Brutt (Katusha) from the top step of the podium. It wasn’t an easy course, although the winner Dave Zabriskie made it look easy as he posted the fasted time. In the post-race interview, I feared for the interviewer’s life when he unwisely suggested that Dave Z (Garvelo) had only won because of more favourably climatic conditions. While that was true, that’s cycling, it’s sometimes the luck of the draw. Superb times were posted by Tony Martin (HTC-High Road) and Cadel Evans lifting them into second and first place respectively. Vinokourov clearly gave it his all but fared less well. He still managed to round out the podium, leaving the race poised for an interesting finish on Sunday. Would Vinokourov attack Evans and Martin?

Sunday dawned with perfect weather conditions for cycling. We rose early and drove to the start in Cannes. We set off with the group cycling 150km although we intended to ride only 100km. I do this largely out of concern for those manning the broom wagon, I don’t like to keep them waiting. Within a couple of kilometers I was distanced from the peloton which had sped off into the wide blue yonder – plus ca change! My beloved kindly kept me company as we wended our way through the positively lush countryside in the L’Esterel, around  Lake St Cassien and up into the surrounding walled villages. I was not riding well and was feeling positively fatigued. On the climb up to Mons I gratefully climbed off and into the waiting broom wagon. I positively hate giving up but sometimes you just know it’s the right thing to do. I had a pounding headache and felt really tired, even though I’d only ridden for 50km. I chose to forgo the end of ride sausages and wine, I didn’t feel I’d deserved them.

Once back home and installed on the sofa, ready for an afternoon’s sporting action, I promptly fell asleep. My beloved roused me from to time to time to observe some of the sporting action or, more correctly, replayed sporting action. In the Rund um den Finanzplatz Eschborn – Frankfurt,  Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) greatly enlivened the race by attacking at every opportunity but Leopard Trek were determined to deliver Fabian Wegmann, last year’s winner, to the line. However, it was another German who took it on the line. John Degenkolb, last year’s world championship runner-up in the U23 catergory, took his third win of the season for HTC-Columbia. The U23 champion, Michael Matthews was 3rd. The roadside was thronged with spectators enjoying the action in the warm sunshine. Cycling clearly isn’t dead in Germany despite the efforts of the German television stations to banish it from air.

On the run into Geneva, on the final stage of the Tour of Romandie, as anticipated, Vinokourov made one of his trademark attacks but was brought swiftly to heel by Sky who set up the win for Ben Swift, ahead of Oscar Freire. The podium remained unchanged. Evans was clearly delighted to bag his second Tour of Romandie title, after the disappointment of missing the Ardennes Classics, in the region where he lived when he came over to Europe as a mountain bike racer and, fittingly, not too far from BMC’s HQ. However, it’s been a good week for Astana with stage wins for Alexandre Vinokourov and Valentin Iglinsky, and podium finishes in the Tours of Romandie (3rd) and Turkey (Andrey Zeits 2nd).

I managed to remain awake long enough to catch all of the re-run action in the MotoGP from Estoril where the track had been made more difficult by patches of wet from the morning’s rain. Nicolas Terol posted his 3rd consecutive win in 125cc class ahead of Victor Faubel and Sandro Cortese. He easily heads the championship rankings. In the Moto2 class, Stefan Bradl won his consecutive Estoril title but not before a tussle with Andrea Iannone who, having zoomed from 17th place into first, slid out of contention to finish 13th, leaving Bradl to record another win ahead of Julian Simon and Yuki Takahashi. It was an emotional podium place for Takahashi who had recemtly lost his younger brother in a motor racing accident. Moto2 rookie, and last year’s 125cc champion, Marc Marquez slid off into the cat litter (again) and has yet to score any points.

In the main event, Dani Pedrosa showed that the recent surgery on his shoulder has worked. He marked Jorge Lorenzo closely before using the slipstream to overtake him 4 laps from home. Casey Stoner was a comfortable 3rd. It wasn’t a classic race as such although there were exciting jousts within the main race. Andrea Divisioso overtook Valentino Rossi on the line for 4th place. Marco Simoncelli crashed out (again). Now there’s a wheel you don’t want to follow.

Finally, OGCN were trounced 4-0 at home to Caen. This was a six pointer and they now find themselves one place, and one point, above the drop zone. There are four other teams on 39 points all of whom have superior goal differences. Come on guys, please don’t fall at the last hurdle!

Fairy tales

Many of my French acquaintances were surprised to learn that I wouldn’t be watching today’s Royal Wedding. I certainly wish the couple every future happiness but, following my sister’s bash, have had my fill of weddings for this year. Instead, I spent a few pleasant hours mooching around Aix-en-Provence, while my beloved visited a client. It poured down en route but by the time we arrived the sun was shining on Aix’s cobbles. We breakfasted in a local hotel which serves the best breakfast I’ve ever had in France, outside my own kitchen. After my beloved had departed, I spent time discussing recipes with the lady who’s responsible for the afore-mentioned gastronomic delights.

Needing to walk off the calories, I strode around Aix, largely window shopping, though I did purchase dinner (asparagus and strawberries) in the local market. Architecturally, Aix is a beautiful town with plenty of honeyed stone buildings decorated with wrought iron balconies and impressive porticos over intricately carved wooden doors. The town’s been sensitively renovated and it’s a pleasure wandering along its narrow lanes, particularly in the old town, listening to the tinkling of falling water in one of  it’s many fountains.

I last visited Aix with my parents and it brought home to me how much they had both slowed up. Neither are particularly confident on foot, particularly on cobbles. I ended up leaving them to enjoy a coffee and newspaper in the famous Les Deux Garcons, so beloved of Cezanne and Hemingway, where we later enjoyed lunch.

Beloved of Cezanne

They say that old age is fine providing that you’re healthy, have a bit of money and your wits about you. However, to that I would add that you need your partner to be healthy and have their wits about them too.  Otherwise, like my Dad, your situation is totally compromised. He’s now reluctant to go many places or do many things for fear of what my mother might do. He’s very sensitive to the opinion of others and doesn’t want my mother to embarrass either herself or him. Her very unpredictability leaves him constantly on edge and unable to enjoy many of the simple things in life. Nonetheless, he’s unwilling to consign my mother to the care of others, unless they’re close friends or family. This is taking a toll on his own health and mental fortitude.  I’m popping back to the UK next month to spend a couple of days with them while my sister is on vacation. My father is very reliant on her and my brother-in-law which is not without its own stresses. However my own commitments, geographical location and lack of daily flights to Birmingham outside of the summer months make it difficult to be of much practical assistance.

Once back home from Aix, we were delighted to see Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), in true opportunistic fashion, nip off behind Tony Martin (HTC-High Road) in the home strait of today’s stage of the Tour of Romandie and win. He’s now just 38 seconds behind Pavel Brutt (Katusha)  and 10 seconds ahead of Cadel Evans (BMC). I’ve also been checking out the practice sessions at the MotoGP in Portugal.  There’s plenty of sporting action to enjoy this week end, as well as our own participation in Sunday’s La Lazarides.

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.

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)

In the bag

While I spend a lot of time cycling on my own, I am equally at home riding with my clubmates. Even so there are certain wheels I would prefer not to follow as their owners either have a propensity to kiss the tarmac with alarming frequency or tend not to keep their line, particularly when  descending. Of course, given my (still) superior bodyweight, I  descend faster and therefore prefer to be at the head of the peloton.

Such riders are not the sole preserve of the amateur peloton. Should I ever find myself riding with the pros, there are a number whose wheels I would prefer to avoid. Most notably, Frank Schleck who found himself on the ground (again) today. He wasn’t the only one. Heinrich Haussler, lost concentration, and slipped off the road into a ditch. Both got back into the peloton after some mechanical assistance delivered from the team car window.

Coverage of today’s 199km sprinter’s stage from Monfort l’Amaury to Amilly started with around 47km remaining and most of the peloton 50 seconds behind breakaways Maxime Bouet (AG2R) and Tony Gallopin (Cofidis). A few kilometers later the entire procession was halted by a level crossing and, after the barriers re-opened, officials were hard pressed to maintain the leaders’ advantage as riders tried to slip around the cars. A lot seized the opportunity to indulge in one of my practices whereby, whenever the club peloton stops, I ghost to the front of the bunch (again).

The breakaways were re-absorbed with about 30km to go. The bunch appeared quite nervous today as the sprinters’ teams were determined not to forgo one of the remaining opportunities for a stage win. To be fair most of the better-known sprinters have elected to take part in Tirreno-Adriatico as the more undulating terrain better suits their preparation for the Spring classics.

In the run into the finish, the helm was assumed in turn by a number of different teams: Astana, Movistar, HTC-HighRoad. But it was Sky who got their act together in the final stretch with Geraint Thomas leading out Kiwi Greg Henderson for the win. He finished ahead of Matt Goss (HTC) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil), who set off on his own with 1.5km to go, was taken back after 300km but  retained the yellow jersey making his recent sausage and salami sacrifice worthwhile.

As well as dealing with the week’s inevitable administrative burden, I have whipped up a delicious dinner for my beloved. I’m very fond of Indian cuisine but rarely make it just for myself. This evening we’re having tandoori spiced lamb with pilau rice and cauliflower curry.

Contenders

I had a good ride this morning with my beloved and, given the great weather, we decided to go out for a late lunch, followed by a long walk along the coast. As a consequence, I’ve only just had time to cast my eye over the start list for tomorrow’s 69th edition of Paris-Nice and think about who might win this year, in the absence of the defending champion, Alberto Contador, who won today’s 2nd stage in the Tour of Mucia ahead of Denis Menchov and Jerome Coppel (going from strength to strength at Saur-Sojasun).

L’Equipe devoted half a page today to last year’s revelation, Peter Sagan who, having shone in the recent Tour of Sardinia, is obviously on form and keen to seize his opportunities. He’s not the only young gun keen to cement his credentials. Over at HTC-High Road, there’s Tony Martin and Tejay van Garderen plus Ritchie Porte at SaxoBank-Sungard and Jurgen van den Broeck at Omega Pharma-Lotto. The latter’s team mate, Philippe Gilbert sparkled on the Strade Bianchi today finishing in Siena ahead of Allessandro Ballan, Damiano Cunego and Spartacus.

Let’s not forget the old guard,  those who have triumphed before in the race to the sun, such as Luis Leon Sanchez and Alexandre Vinokourov. The latter’s bought plenty of support with Tomas Viatkus, Robert Kisverlovski and Roman Kreuziger. Also in the reckoning for the overall, Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) and Levi Leipheimer (Team RadioShack).

If we’re looking for stage winners, we should look to the French who are always “en forme” in the early season: Voeckler, Fedrigo, Le Mevel, Moinard, Peraud, Moncoutie, Pauriol. Personally, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the boys in orange: Sammy Sanchez, Romain Sicard and Gorka Izagirre.

The 1,307km route kicks off tomorrow with 154.5km from Houdan to Houdan. Yes, they’re going round in circles. Monday’s one for the sprinters too. Look out for Grega Bola (Lampre-ISD) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). The rest of the sprinters, with an eye on the Classics, are doing Tirreno-Adriatico.

After two flattish stages, it gets progressively lumpy on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday. (I’ll be there), sees a 27km ITT from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence. This could be the decisive stage. Next up is 215km, and the longest stage, from Brignoles to Biot followed by 124km around Nice, including the Category 1 climbs up La Turbie and Col d’Eze. Never one to miss an opportunity to watch live racing in my backyard, I’ll be seeing both of these stages.

There are no testing climbs in the race and one wouldn’t expect them at this stage of the season. The winner will be a puncheur who can time-trial. I would suggest we should look no further than Alexandre Vinokourov who last won the race in 2003 (homage to Andrei Kivilev) and 2004. He’s made it one of his priorities this year and he’s a guy who can focus – go Alex go.

Surprisingly popular

Yesterday’s presentation of the club’s national junior and espoir teams passed  without a hitch. I like to think that this was entirely due to the amount of forward planning and preparation. All the club’s sponsors were in attendance along with the local dignitaries and the teams’ “Godfather”. We chose a locally based rider with an impressive palmares and an exemplary work ethic which we hope will rub-off on our youngsters who, not unnaturally, are thrilled to enjoy the patronage of a Grand Tour and Classics winner.

Sadly, the designated club photographer, my beloved, was marooned in London by the extreme weather conditions. Another club member kindly took some photographs for me but I cannot extract them until my beloved returns. At the moment, I’m not sure when that might be: hopefully, prior to Christmas. So, for the time being, here’s our first newspaper report featuring a photograph of M Le President and the Team’s Godfather holding a maillot jaune from this year’s Tour de France. Obviously, we’re hoping that one day, one of our riders might grace this jersey.

The Teams' Godfather and M Le President

The afternoon tea was well received and everyone was most appreciative of my modest efforts, fondly imagining I had spent hours in the kitchen. Most fail to understand that it takes pretty much the same time to prepare tea for 5 as it does for 50, plus, I love cooking. There’s nothing nicer than the fug of home baking permeating the apartment.

As anticipated, a number of the young riders did inhale their bodyweights in cookies and cake, others showed more restraint, including those in attendance from the professional peloton. But I did spot Alex enjoying a piece of fruit cake. I should have enquired whether Astana would need an additional chef for next year’s Tour.

We did not thankfully run out of food, although they did eat my edible table decorations! Interestingly, the egg mayonnaise sandwiches fell on stoney ground. The ham ones proved to be the most popular while there was about a third left of both the herbed cream cheese and the smoked salmon ones. I took these along to the nearest shelter for the homeless where they were all gratefully received.  I also garnered brownie points with the Domaine’s duck population as I fed them the crusts.

On the cake front, the chocolate cookies and brownies proved as popular as the fruit and lemon cakes: the coconut macaroons, less so. However, these will keep and be enjoyed at club night this Tuesday and at my English class on Wednesday. 

Although the forecast was for rain today, and it was indeed overcast, the rain stayed away and it was warmer than it had been for the last few days. I enjoyed pottering over to Menton for the pointage, taking in all the Xmas lights and festivities along the route and exchanging seasonal good wishes with all the cyclist whose paths I crossed. Imbued with the spirit of the season, I returned home, slipped into my jimjams and settled down with the Sunday newspapers – bliss.

Postscript: In the absence of any positive news from BA ,and unable to get a seat on Eurostar  before Wednesday, my beloved has taken affirmative action. He took a train to Dover and hopped on a ferry to Calais, from where he’ll take a train to Paris via Lille. He has an overnight booked in Paris, close to the Gare de Lyon, and will leave tomorrow morning on the TGV to Nice, via Marseille. If all goes to plan, he’ll be at Antibes station by 14:15 tomorrow. Thank heavens for 3G+.

Postpostscript: Just had a text from my beloved, he’s due to arrive 2 minutes early into Antibes. Yes, despite Northern France and Paris receiving just as much snow as southern England, the French have managed to keep everything moving as per timetable.

Yet another Postscript: Further newspaper article!

Is there a future Tour winner here?