Place your bets please

There’s always a lively debate about whether it’s best to ride the Dauphine or the Tour of Switzerland and what one can read into the form of each of the participants.  Personally, I feel it’s unwise to draw too many conclusions. History is rarely an accurate predictor of the future, just ask any actuary. It’s entirely possible that the eventual winner of the Tour participated in neither race (Alberto Contador). It’s a question of which race best fits the ambitions of the respective teams and their riders.

Bradley Wiggins win in the Dauphine is to be applauded. Was that Sky’s ambition before the race? Who knows? Or, having seized the opportunity, and the yellow jersey, did Wiggo and Sky merely do what needed to be done to stay atop of the podium. I often feel that you’re in a much stronger position when you’re in the leader’s jersey. You get a huge confidence boost and someone then has to try and take the jersey away from you. You just have to defend it.  No doubt this win, the biggest of Wiggins’ career on the road, should not be taken lightly, nor should one assume that Wiggins is battling for no better than 3rd. Shorn of Riis’s strategic and tactical support, I feel the Schleck’s will be at more of a disadvantage. In addition, it looks as if Andy has kept faith with his mechanic – was this wise?

Of course, it’s not so much whether it’s easier to win a one week tour than it is a three week one, more that the pool of riders capable of doing the former is greater than the latter. Nor should one make assumptions about the form, or lack thereof, of those who finished further down the GC, such as Schleck Jr, Basso and Samu. There’s still a couple of weeks for riders to find their form. Some find it easier and quicker to find than others. Again, we don’t know what their ambitions were going into the respective races. Was it just a training ride, were they sand bagging, fine tuning their form or were they going for the win?

Generally, the two races give those on the teams’ reserve lists an opportunity to prove their worth. Riders want to be at the Tour, it’s the largest, global, annual sporting spectacle and an ideal opportunity to conclude a deal for the following year, particularly if you’re in the last year of your contract.  Again, speculation is already rife as to who’s going where. But as the UCI’s window is closed, neither side can officially confirm the rumour mongering.

This year will be the debut Tour for a number of riders, including some who have already invested a number of years in the professional ranks. Nice Matin today featured an interview with a rider who lives locally and rides for Cofidis, Tristan Valentin. After breaking his elbow in Paris-Roubaix in 2008, he’s had a torrid time of it over the past three years.  I’d like to wish him good luck for this year’s Tour and I’ll be rooting for him to at least get in a breakaway and snaffle some airtime.

Postscript: Get well soon Juan Mauricio Soler

Gripping stuff

My beloved left for yesterday’s pointage in the early morning fog. I rolled over for another hour’s sleep. Eschewing the ride up Ste Agnes to see one of my favourite one day races, the Tour of Flanders, where Belgian television coverage was starting at midday. I settled for a run along the sea front, followed by a quick coffee and collected the Sunday newspapers. Back home I prepared lunch before settling in for a marathon viewing session.

No where and no one is more passionate about cycling than Belgium and the Belgians. And this is their race,  their day in the sun. They line every kilometer of the course, standing over 10 deep on the bergs, quaffing beer and consuming their beloved frites with mayo. The sun was indeed shining, it wasn’t overly windy, near perfect riding conditions.

Rabid fans (picture courtesy of Getty Images)

The parcours starts in the beautiful city of Bruges and zigzags 258km to Meerbeke over 18 steep, sharp climbs and 26 sections of cobbles. The climbs come thick and fast after 70km of flat. If one can refer to cobbles as flat. The cobbles are smaller and more regular than those in Paris-Roubaix but, as the riders traverse them, their upper arms judder as if they’re undergoing some form of electric shock therapy.

The race is largely held on dirty, narrow farm roads which wind through the villages en route. To be in contention you need to remain vigilant and towards the front of the peloton. The slightly-built Spaniards from Euskaltel-Euskadi and Moviestar who would, no doubt, prefer to be riding in the Basque country, but they got the short straw, cling to the back of the peloton, grateful for assistance on the climbs from the beefier Belgian spectators, wondering when they’ll be able to climb off their bikes.

One innovation this year was cameras in four of the team cars (Quickstep, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Garmin Cervelo and SaxoBank Sungard). From time to time, you  could hear the instructions being barked to the riders, although you might not have understood what was being said in every instance, unless you understood Flemish.

Given the opportunity, I could happily watch every minute of this race from start to finish.  As television coverage commenced, there was a group of 5 riders out in front who were being gradually hauled back in. The second group of 18 riders on the road contained a lot of team leaders’ wingmen sparing their teams the effort of chasing them down. Although the pace was pretty frenetic with teams trying to keep their protected riders at the front of the pack, and out of harm’s way.

The main peloton splintered with a number of riders losing contact and there were plenty of spills but, thankfully, none looked to be serious. The group of 18 was hauled back in and the chasing pack now consisted entirely of favourites with their key riders. With 86km to go Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) takes off on the Ould Kwaremont, hotly pursued by Simon Clarke of Astana. With 79km remaining they bridge up to the lead group, initially giving it fresh impetus, but ultimately leaving it behind.

Meanwhile, behind them on the Taaienberg, Boonen (Quickstep), Flecha (Sky) and Van Avermaert (BMC) are forcing the pace. Others, such as Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) and Lars Boom (Rabobank) have pinged off the front, followed by Van Avermaert, Guesdon (FDJ), Hayman (Sky) and Leezer (Rabobank). Among the favourites, everyone seems to be waiting for Cancellara to make his move.

Up front on the Molenberg, Chavanel is now on his lonesome at the head of affairs with 44km to the finish, the gap back to the peloton is 55 seconds. Finally, unable to wait any longer Thor Hushovd (Garmin Cervelo), resplendent in his rainbow jersey, heads to the front of the bunch quickly followed and then overtaken by Tom Boonen (Quickstep) and his  shadow aka Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and  Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek).

Fabian goes into TT mode and rides away, the others start looking at one another waiting to see who’ll chase. Too late, he’s gone and swiftly heading for Chavanel. Wilfred Peeters tells Chavanel to stick on Fabian’s wheel as he goes past and to do no work. He does as he’s told. The bunch don’t seem to be making much of an inroad into the gap back to Chavanel and Cancellara, they need to get themselves organised. Back to the team cars, Peeters is telling Leopard Trek’s DS that Chavanel is unfortunately too tired to contribute.  Over at Garmin Cervelo, Jonathan Vaughters is telling his troops to do no work at all, just sit in and sprint for 3rd.

Finally, the bunch gets themselves organised and they catch  Chavanel and Cancellara on the iconic Muur, just 15km to the finish and the favourites are all back together again.  Phil Gil (Omega Pharma-Lotto) makes his trade mark attack on the last climb, the Bosberg, but is soon caught by Cancellara, Ballan (BMC), Leukemans (Vacansoleil), Chavanel and Schierlinckx (Veranda Willems).  Flecha (Sky), Nuyens (Saxobank Sungard), Hincapie (BMC), Boonen, Langeveld (Rabobank) and Thomas (Sky) join them. Ballan puts in a dig, Phil Gil follows. The attacks are coming thick and fast as riders chase one another down. With 4km left, Langeveld attacks,  a 3-man group of Cancellara, Chavanel and Nuyens follows and stays clear to contest the sprint finish which is won by the fresher man. The Belgians have a Belgian winner, Nick Nuyens, who rode a very intelligent race. Cancellara didn’t get back-to-back victories, but Bjarne Riis did.

The winners (photo courtesy of Getty images)

Vuelta Ciclista al Pays Vasco Postscript: There is something enormously satisfying in watching the professional peloton suffer on roads on which you too have suffered. The finishing line for today’s 151.2km stage around Zumarraga was just 3km from the top of the rather brutal Alto de la Antigua. Some of those boys got off and walked up. I knew just how they felt. Purito held off Sammy’s (too?) late charge for the line to take the leader’s jersey.

It’s fleeting

Pressing matters down at the cycling club have meant I’ve been mostly catching the evening highlights of the Vuelta rather than live coverage. This also means that I’ve made no inroads into the “To do during the Vuelta” list.  Nonetheless, it’s proving to be a gripping contest and I’m hoping for more viewing time next week.

Tuesday’s stage 10, 175.7km from Tarrgona to Vilanovi la Geltu started without Schleck the younger and hard man Stuart O’Grady. The two had been sent home by SaxoBank Team boss Bjarne Riis for breach of team rules. They had allegedly returned to the hotel at 5:00am that morning after a few alcoholic beverages. Probably, bang went any chance that Frank might have (still) entertained of a podium placing. 

The stage was won by one of the day’s breakaways, Imanol Erviti (Caisse d’Epargne) who caught his fellow escapees napping on the descent of the Rat Penat. The red jersey changed hands after Purito, riding into his home region of Catalonia, had hoovered up a couple of bonus seconds earlier in the day.   

On Wednesday, Igor Anton sand-bagged his way to a second stage win (and back into the leader’s jersey)  into Andorra. He had timed his come-back to perfection after he looked to be distanced by the attack of Ezequiel Mosquera, who finished 2nd) and Vicenzo Nibali on the final ascent of the day. Despite going with the initial attack, Purito lost a minute on Anton but the biggest loser was Denis Menchov who finished 56th, over 5 minutes down. Clearly, the Tour took more out of him than we realised: bye-bye podium.

Stage 12 from Andorra la Vella to Lleida was one for the sprinters. The only other time the Vuelta had visited Lleida, the stage was won by Malcolm Elliot, still the only Brit to win a points jersey in a Grand Tour and, more amazingly,  who’s still racing, against men half his age, on the British Premier Circuit. So it was only fitting that the race was won at a canter by the Manx Missile whose team  had done their homework on the run in. His poisson pilote, Matt Goss and he read the final corner beautifully and they came out of it several bike length’s ahead of everyone else. He now joins that short list of 5 men who have won sprint stages in all three Grand Tours and he’s back in the points jersey.

Stage 13 to Burgos was more of the same, another win for Cavendish, who had enough time to bunny hop over the line. Again, he and Goss read the last corner better than the rest and finished well in front of the also rans. As Cav so eloquently put it in his post-race interview: it is indeed better to have a star team than a team of stars. It’s easy to see that Cav has a much lower trajectory on the bike than the other sprinters which makes him more aero-dynamic, not forgetting, of course, his 5th gear. My favourite moment of the day was a bunch of slightly overweight Basques decked out in orange (of course) and time trial helmets trotting in single file alongside the peloton, clearly enjoying their 15 seconds of fame.

Tuesday postscript: Oops forgot to post this last week

Jilted

Yesterday’s big news in the cycling world was the much heralded signing of Contador for two years to the Sungard-Saxo Bank team by Bjarne Riis. Rumours had circulated well before the Tour that the brothers Schleck were leaving to set up their own Luxembourg based team.  Riis must have felt this was a hammer blow to his attempts to find a replacement sponsor as Saxo Bank had previously indicated that they would cease their sponsorship at the end of this season. It’s much easier to secure sponsorship when you’ve proven race winners on your squad, thank heavens that Fabulous Fabian’s contract doesn’t expire for another year.

With Riis in a quandry, Specialized to the rescue. The US bike manufacturer has made no secret of its ambition to have the world’s, two, best bike riders, namely Contador and Cancellara, astride their frames. As their recent adverts testify: “Two Teams, One Bike”. Here was an opportunity for “One Team, One Bike”.  It may also have helped Saxo Bank to reverse their decision and continue their sponsorship for a further season.

Obviously, some of the money saved by Specialized’s sponsorship of only one team will end up in Contador’s pockets. You can’t blame him for going to the highest bidder. A rider’s career is relatively short-lived and he has  to make the most of it.

There are two other issues which will have factored into his decision making. Firstly, there’s a team time-trial relatively early on in next year’s Tour. Who wouldn’t want Cancellara on their team? Remember how last’s year’s TTT ended the Tour aspirations of a number of big names? Secondly, Andy’s performance this year signaled an improvement on last year’s. He matched Contador in the mountains. If Contador is to beat him again next year, who better to ride for than the man who knows him best?

Astana seem pretty sanguine about losing Contador. He has after all won them the Giro, the Vuelta and two Tours – not a bad haul. He’s remained on good terms with Vino, even riding a criterium yesterday in France at his suggestion. There are a number of good riders still seeking a home for next year and I’m sure they won’t be short of suitors. They’ve already secured the signature of Robert Kiserlovski (Liquigas) who was 10th in this year’s Giro. Watch this space for further announcements……………………………

Brutal but honest

No 1 fan
My Swiss friend was a big CSC fan, largely because they rode Cervelo bikes. He had all the gear, as you can see in the photograph, and they’ve retained his interest, despite now riding Specialized, because of, fellow Swiss, Fabulous Fabian.  

 At the week end he brought me the DVD “Overcoming” . This is a, warts and all, behind the scenes documentary about Team CSC from their early season training camp through to the end of the 2004 Tour de France. This you may recall was my first Tour.   

While the film pays homage to the whole crew, its stars are Riis, Sastre and Basso. It focuses in particular on the relationships between the team’s two leaders and their relationship with Riis. Overcoming shows Riis not only to be a very skilful tactician but also a man enduring the psychological strains and stresses of the Tour. He clearly expects too much of his riders and questions everything. This environment of sparse praise and high expectations takes its toll on everyone which Riis recognises towards the end of the film.   

Sastre is shown to be an uncomplicated, laid-back guy on a high at the start of the Tour after the birth of his second child. The contrast in approach between Riis (logical) and Sastre (instinctive) is also clear in the early season training where Riis tries (and fails) to convince Sastre to use a power meter. Instead, he prefers to listen to his own body.  

By contrast, Basso comes across as very eager to please and, as the documentary progresses, it becomes clear that Basso is the star of Team CSC.  Sastre sacrifices himself to help Basso win at La Mongie where he dedicates the stage to his mother who, he’s just learnt, has cancer. Basso consults with Lance who, as the Tour continues, demonstrates his formidable mental fortitude in the face of any and all competition.  

Seeing Riis’ reaction in the team car to Basso’s win is priceless. Nonetheless, he doesn’t forget to thank Sastre for his selflessness. This is in stark contrast to Riis’s knee-jerk disappointment a few days later on the L’Alpe d’Huez time-trial where Basso is cruelly and easily overtaken by Lance and drops to 3rd place on the podium.  

All in all, it’s a grim but honest look at the life of a professional bike rider: only Jens Voight provided a few light-hearted moments. The documentary starkly reveals the fraility of riders bodies  and the work required each evening to get them back on their bikes the following day. The most notable take aways are: 1)  the team spirit among the riders and their willingness to do whatever it takes for one another and 2) Bjarne Riis’s recognition and admission that he was often too quick to criticise and didn’t dish out enough compliments.

Extra time

I’m typing this during the action packed second-half of extra time at Stade de France where the score is one apiece. The Irish started the match strongly and Robbie Keane, deservedly,  fired one in from a Damian Duff pass on 32nd minute.  The match was still tied at the end of full-time.

Govou’s goal in 102 minute was ruled off-side then Gallas scored a minute later, from a double Henry hand ball, much to the disbelief of the Irish present. At the end of extra time cue huge sighs of French relief all-round accompanied by much gallic hugging and kissing. Yes, the French, along with the Slovenians, Greeks, Algerians and Portuguese are off to South Africa.

Obviously, L’Equipe has been building its coverage since Sunday and I’m thinking they’ll easily fill 6 pages tomorrow plus a couple of full-page adverts from grateful sponsors.

I was somewhat mystified to learn that Yoann Gourcuff had been voted (only) the 3rd best looking footballer in France until I learned that it was by the readers of a gay magazine – that explains it. Don’t worry Yoann, you’re still top dog with the girls.

I’ve finished reading Jens Voigt’s book “Man Muss Kaempfen!” (one must fight) and it’s pretty much what one would expect but I was left wanting more. Most of the narrative surrounds his Tour de France rides for firstly Credit Agricole and then CSC, where he’s equally complimentary about Roger Legeay, Bjarne Riis and his teammates. I’d have liked a bit more nitty, gritty. But in Germany, post-Puerto, I guess something anodyne was just what the doctor ordered. Jens comes across as a hardworking, reliable team mate and devoted family man who believes that if you don’t give it a go, you don’t stand a chance of winning – very true.

For a complete contrast, I’ve turned to “Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani” (Life and Death of Marco Pantani) written by L’Equipe’s own Philippe Brunel.

Il Pirato in pink

This’ll be the third book I’ve read on the topic and it appears to give more of an insider’s view than the other two: The Death of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell and, the compilation, Marco Pantani: The Legend of a Tragic Champion. Shame I never got to see him dance on those pedals.