Back from the Basque country

I’m back from a number of days of unintended blog silence. Although the hotel we stayed in San  Sebastián had free WiFi, I decided not to take my notepad with me. On these short trips, I really want my beloved to have a break. If I start using my notepad he’ll get out his laptop and start working. I do allow him to remain in contact via his Blackberry but somehow that seems less intrusive.

I had so enjoyed my trip last year to the Basque country that I was looking for any excuse for another visit. The Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian was happy to oblige. It also gave me an opportunity to meet up with my friends Susi and Dom whose excellent photographs of the event you can find on www.cyclingnews.com. It was originally planned as a solo trip, while my beloved was in the Far East, but, when his trip was delayed for a couple of weeks, he decided to join me.

I flew from Nice to Bordeaux, took the bus to Bordeaux station and then a train to San Sebastian. The hotel was a 15 minute walk from the station and within sight of the start and finish line of the race. I could have waited for my beloved, who was going to fly into Bordeaux later that day, but experience has taught me never to wait for him unless there’s absolutely no alternative. In any event his flight was late and, still suffering from jet lag, he decided to stay overnight in an airport hotel and drive up the next morning. Meanwhile, I spent many hours happily wandering around San Sebastian enjoying it’s architecture, sights, sounds and smells. This place is foodie heaven.

On our trip last year we had made the pilgrimage to Arzak, a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars and rated 8th best restaurant in the world.  About three months before our trip it took me endless emails to finally secure a table one lunch time. This year it took just one. I always say when you can easily get a table in a city’s top restaurant, you know it’s enjoying tough times. Initially, unsure whether I would be able to secure a booking at Arzak, I also tried to book tables at two of the city’s other 3 starred restaurants. Again, there was absolutely no problem in obtaining a table. Yes, I know three x 3 starred restaurants is way over the top. I agree. I cancelled one of them.

Not only were there gastronomic delights in store but I found out  Bon Jovi were in town Friday evening for the penultimate date of their 2010/11 World Tour. There was no problem in buying tickets which ranged in price from Euros 20 (standing) to Euros 275 (Diamond VIP Circle). Now I’m not sure exactly what you got for your money for the top priced ticket but, at the very least, I’d want a night with Jon Bon Jovi himself. I plumped for tickets costing Euros 60, allocated seats. It’s official, I’m old. This is the first concert I’ve ever attended, and I’ve attended plenty, where I’ve deliberately opted for a seat.

Despite, or because of, his Garmin, my beloved arrived in San Sebastián, minus his jacket, which he’d left in the airport hotel bedroom, and with barely enough time to make our lunch date at Arzak. It was just as good as we remembered. It’s not a restaurant that you could eat at regularly because there’s a real sense of drama and theatre when you eat there which would be lost with regular visits. We had a mind-bogglingly fantastic meal (again) and left feeling truly sated. We’d work off those calories at that evening’s Bon Jovi concert.

After a long walk along one of San Sebastian’s beaches, cooling our feet off in the warm water lapping the sand, we drove over to the football stadium to see Bon Jovi. The boys didn’t disappoint, despite it being the end of a very lengthy tour, belting out 27 songs from their repertoire with gusto. I did however think that in the big screen close ups they looked tired, too many nights with the Diamond VIP circle perhaps?

Saturday heralded the main event and we were handily poised to soak up the pre-race atmosphere which is very relaxed and familiar, not at all like the Tour de France. The event is obviously well supported by the Basque riders who earned the loud, vocal support of the crowd. Equally well received were such luminaries as Sylvain Chavanel, Frank Schleck and Philippe Gilbert. This is an event typically won by an in form rider off the back of the Tour and merry go round of criteriums. Indeed, Phil Gil had flown in on a private jet in the early hours. Nonetheless, he looked as fresh as a daisy and once the orange led peloton had reeled in the early escapees, Sammy Sanchez launched his offensive to escape from the Belgian flag clad Walloon.

Check out those gloves!

A flurry of attacks, the leading contenders constantly splitting and re-grouping, but there was a certain inevitability as PhilGil soloed away on the Alto Miracruz, just a couple of kilometres from the finishing line. He gained enough time to sit up in the finishing straight and enjoy his win. Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo was the Spanish sausage in the Belgian sarnie, he’d attacked on the run in to the finish from the leading group and was book ended by BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, who won the sprint to the line. Spanish races give out prizes for pretty much anything and everything: winner, mountains, most courageous, most elegant, best-placed Basque, youngest rider, most aggressive. PhilGil bemusedly picked up 4 awards. My beloved suggested that one of which was for best hairstyle. Methinks he was joking, but maybe not.

Sunday heralded a visit to another 3 starred establishment, Arkelarre, situated beyond Monte Igueldo, with a panoramic view of the sea. This was pure Basque cuisine ratched up several notches. The only slightly jarring note was the ameuse geule: a clever idea but one at odds with the leitmotif of the restaurant. Again, it was a highly enjoyable meal in very relaxing surroundings. However, for me, the highlight was a guided tour of the kitchen by the chef and restaurant owner.

While we’re heading back to the Basque country in early September to watch the stages of the Vuelta near Bilbao, I am already plotting my return to San Sebastian next year. I am hoping to combine the Tour of the Basque Country (early April) with a cookery course in Basque cuisine. As a consequence, I have been trying my hand at a few words in Basque. I just need the Basque made simple or Basque for idiots course, then I’ll be all set.

(Photo of Sammy [any excuse] courtesy of my friend Susi. My beloved has taken some great photos too but I’m still waiting for them.)

Postcards from the Pyrenees

We left home just after 09:00 on Monday morning in our Renault hire car and headed for Bagneres de Bigorre. Just past Carcassone, the car emitted a small cough and lost power. My beloved guided it onto the hard shoulder, we leapt out of the car and vaulted the security barrier. I rang Renault Assistance who were unable to assist and advised us to ring the police. I did and they gave me the number for the local constabulary who kindly sent someone to tow us to the nearest Renault garage. All well and good, but the garage advised they would not be able to fix the car that day, possibly the following one. I rang my Renault contact who advised that they were obliged to find us a replacement car and I should ring Renault Assistance. So I did.

Finally, after much toing and froing, they found us a Hertz hire car for 4 days. We would however have to return to Carcassone to collect the Renault. This solution did not find favour as we were heading in totally the opposite direction. The Renault garage staff, fearing an imminent and irrevocable schism in the entente cordiale, decided to put us out of our misery and fixed the car in 15 minutes flat.

We had planned to go and watch the peloton’s arrival into Bagneres de Luchon. Instead we had to settle for watching it on my beloved’s new mobile. Yet another French win, Tommy Voeckler looking radiant in his tricolour jersey as he crossed the line. Sadly his endeavours were overshadowed by polemics. Should Contador have attacked the yellow jersey when he lost his chain? Andy Schleck’s Dad admitted he’d have taken the same action as Contador: he’d have attacked. No matter, the two have now kissed and made up. Contador leads Schleck  by 8 seconds.

Tuesday morning, we were up bright and early for our ride up Col d’Aubisque. The roads were literally alive with cyclists in kit of all hues and hailing from the four corners of the earth. We rode companiably, side by side, enjoying the freshness of the air and the magnificent green countryside. It was starting to heat up as we reached the Col du Soulor whose incline starts to quickly ramp up to 12% before settling back down to a comfortable 5-7%.

Chasing leading group up Soulor

One of the many things I love about the Tour is the ability of anyone and everyone to attend the world’s biggest, best and longest street party. The roads were lined with enthusiastic spectators proclaiming their allegiances and what was surely the world’s biggest concentration of camper vans. While waiting for the real show to put in an appearance, they’re willing to encourage all of us amateurs toiling away up the inclines. I was high fiving small kids as I wend my way upwards. No mean feat given my lack of bike handling skills.

Towards the top of the Col, I made an executive decision to stop at the last outpost,  before the descent, providing refreshments, toilets and a TV. From here, in the company of a large number of Uruguayans, Americans, Aussies and Danes we watched the slow approach of the peloton. There was much excitement as Lance, having lost so much time on GC, had been allowed to escape and, with his fellow escapees, had over 3 minutes on the yellow jersey.

It looked as if the peloton had settled in for a quiet day  and was more than happy for Messrs Fedrigo, Casar, Armstrong, Barredo, Cunego, Plaza, Horner, Moreau and Van de Walle to duke it out. Barredo took a flyer off the front but was caught with 1km to go. The two sprinters fought for the line and the win went to Fedrigo, by a nose. The sixth French win and the 2nd consecutive one for Bbox!

The yellow jersey group came in over 6 minutes behind, led by Hushovd who gained enough points to regain the green jersey.  Otherwise, it was stalemate at the top, leaving Schleck one fewer opportunity to make  up lost ground. Thursday should therefore be decisive. Sadly, the weather has changed. It rained heavily overnight and it’s continued to drizzle on and off all day. The Tourmalet is shrouded in mist. Tomorrow, further rain is forecast. But whatever the weather, we’ll be there to see all the action.

Week one review

What a fabulous first week! Take a bow ASO. We’ve had confusion and controversy, thrills and spills, cobble calamity, tears and tantrums, rain, heatwaves, picturesque countryside, beautiful châteaux, fervent fans, the favourites are all still in contention and we’ve only just reached the first really lumpy bits.

As anticipated, Spartacus (Saxo Bank) won the 8.9km Prologue course around Rotterdam where, despite the rain, thousands of fans lined the course.  Sadly, both Mathias Frank (BMC) and Manuel Cardoso (Footon Servetto) fell heavily – Tour over for both of them.

Wind didn’t play a part in Stage 1, 223.5km from Rotterdam to Brussels, but the peloton was very skittish. In the run in, the last sharp right turn took out Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), among others, while two further crashes saw a large number of riders hitting the deck. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) avoided the carnage and was first across the line.  Adam Hansen (HTC-Columbia)  bowed out.

Stage 2’s 201km stage from Brussels to Spa mirrored an Ardennes Classic but rain and diesel-slicked roads saw riders falling like nine pins, particularly on the descent from the Stockeu. Injuries to Michel Delage (Omega Pharma Lotto) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) put an early end to their participation. Meanwhile, Fabulous Fabian, still in yellow, cooled the tempo in the leading bunch to allow the contenders (particularly one Andy Schleck) to get back onto the peloton which then rode together to the neutralised finish. Up front, Sylvain Chavanel, having helped team mate Jerome Pineau to seize the spotty jersey, had pedaled away from the rest of the breakaway bunch for the stage win, snatching yellow from Fab’s broad shoulders. These two have  rescued Quick Step’s dismal season and are now well poised to negotiate contract extensions.

It was anticipated that some of the favourites might come a cropper on the cobbled sections on Stage 3’s 213km from Wanze to Arenburg. It was a truly spectacular stage, hot and dusty, reminiscent of when Stuart O’Grady won Paris-Roubaix in 2007. The first crash of the day took out David Le Lay (Ag2R – La Mondiale) while falls yesterday for Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) left both nursing hairline fractures of the wrist: pretty painful on the pave. Nikki Terpstra (Milram) was a non starter with the flu.

Frank Schleck’s fall (collar bone broken in three places) precipitated splits in the peloton. The smart guys were on Fabian’s wheel and got a tow to the finish. The stage was won by Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team), fitting given that he’d forfeited sprint points the previous day at the behest of one Fabian Cancellara. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) worked with the guys from Sky to bridge up to the group behind Cancellara and minimise the time lost by Alberto Contador (Astana) and Bradley Wiggins Team Sky). Lance (Radioshack) had been in this second group but an untimely puncture saw him surrender time to a number of the other contenders. End result, Cancellara was back in yellow and the World Champion, Cadel Evans (BMC) was now up in third place, 1min and 1 second ahead of Alberto Contador.   

The contenders must have breathed a sigh of relief, the first obstacles had been conquered and they could keep their powder dry for the next few sprinter friendly days. Stage 4’s 153kms from Cambrai to champagne producing Reims, saw Alessandro Petacchi record his 2nd stage win of this Tour. Next up, 187.5km from Epernay to Montargis saw Mark Cavendish win  by a mile. Queue floods of tears as the monkey was now off his back. A bit like buses, stage win no 2 followed on the morrow, on the longest stage, 227.5km from Montargis to Gueugnon. Meanwhile an altercation with a musette saw Amets Txurruka (Euskatel-Euskadi) bid farewell to the peloton. A couple of small girl’s blouses traded blows and bike wheels. The judges awarded a points decision to Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) over Rui Costa (Caisse d’Epargne). Both were fined. 

Let’s just pause and put in context my own endeavours: 550km and 27hours in the saddle. Spartacus, still in yellow, has taken 93minutes longer to complete 1,215km. The conclusion: I’d have missed the cut-off on Stage 1 and joined the non-walking wounded!  Today the boys hit the Jura and a rejuvenated Chavanel, who I feel has usurped Michael Boogerd and Mikel Astarloza to become “The Teeth of the Tour”, recorded his second stage win and again seized yellow. This is going to cost Patrick Lefevre dear.

Cadel Evans has moved into second place  so we could see him in yellow as early as tomorrow. I’m sure it would suit Astana to have BMC working their butts off to defend the yellow jersey.

The boss is back

I sat down yesterday afternoon to watch the Vuelta Prologue from the Moto GP track in Assen. What a great idea, it put me in mind of a lot of the old photos in my cycling books where races often finished in stadia. The place was packed and the wall of sound was amazing everytime a Dutch rider or a rider on a Dutch team took to the track.

It was a real shame about the weather although most of the favourites benefitted from similar climatic conditions, a drying course, except David Millar who took to the track during the deluge. Probably just as well that bike handling maestro Denis Menchov had passed on the Vuelta this year, otherwise the bookies would have been taking bets on how long he would stay on his bike. I felt particularly sorry for Carlos Barredo whose bike slid down the start ramp ignominiously dumping him on his rump. Thereafter, the ramp was cloaked in what I assume was some sort of artificial grass to give the wheels some traction.

Heading for the gold jersey
Heading for the gold jersey

It was no great surprise that this man won yet another Prologue, it’s his forte. Next on GC were a whole host of sprinters. Again, no real shock on a short flat course. Then, there were a whole load of GC contenders, headed by Roman Kreuziger.

Personally, I was delighted to see this man in 7th place. Just look at the absolute

He's back!
He's back!

concentration on his face and doesn’t he look lean and mean? According to Nice Matin he was booed by some of the crowd. Why? Like Basso (and Millar), he’s done his time and is entitled to ride once again. He was the highest placed Astana man on GC and that’s where I expect him to remain. Don’t bet on him not getting on the podium.