For want of a spoke, the race was lost

Sign-on at GP Miguel Indurain
Sign-on at GP Miguel Indurain

Sadly my plans to ride some of the Tour of the Basque country course have gone awry. We arrived in Estella on Friday evening, dined well and enjoyed a good night’s sleep to awake to yet more glorious sunshine. We decided to ride a couple of the loops of the GP Miguel Indurain, catching the race both en route and as it passed through the town. I also rode up to the summit finish twice, please note the peloton only had to do it once!

Sunday, also dawned fair but soon turned grey and overcast. We were now in the heart of the Basque country, ideally placed to view each of the start and finishes of the six stages in the Tour of the Basque country. Undaunted, we muffled up and rode out, heading due north. I hadn’t been riding for long when my bike went “kerrching”. Never good news. I stopped to discover I had broken a spoke on my rear wheel. Initially, I wasn’t too concerned. Every small town here has a bike shop. Surely, someone would be able to fix it?

A quick search on the internet revealed a large bike shop on the outskirts of Bilbao which we could visit en route to the following day’s stage, finishing and starting in Guenes, 20km south-west of Bilbao. The shop took the wheel and suggested I call back later. My beloved elected to ride some of the day’s course while I spent an enjoyable day bombing around the Basque countryside, in the warm sunshine, in the company of my friends, Dom and Susi,who were taking photos for Cycling News. At the stage’s conclusion, we headed back to the bike shop. They hadn’t managed to find the requisite parts but suggested I leave it in their tender care for another day. I was happy to do so though rather chafing at the bit to get back into the saddle.

Chris Horner before stage 1 start
Chris Horner before stage 1 start

managed to find the requisite parts but suggested I leave it in their tender care for another day. I was happy to do so though rather chafing at the bit to get back into the saddle.

I rang the shop the following morning and they confirmed it would be ready for collection that evening after stage two’s conclusion in Vitoria-Gasteiz. This is a place I’d seriously underrated on my last visit there during the Vuelta. The stage had finished on the town’s outskirts, today we saw its delightfully charming old town.  When we returned to the bike shop, it was to bad news. They’d been unable to source replacement spokes for my Campagnolo wheel.

Undeterred, I decided I would have a chat with the men from Mavic the following morning. It just so happened that I’d previously met one of the Mavic guys at Paris-Nice. I turned to him for some words of wisdom before the start of stage three. He basically told me that the wheels were a bugger to fix and he couldn’t help me. I’m assuming that’s a technical term. He advised I carried spares in future – noted.

I then turned to see which of the ProTour teams were sporting similar wheels. A couple of the guys at Movistar had the same model but in view of the fact they were fiddly to fit, and knowing how hard the mechanics have to work, I decided not to ask. Though I did keep looking longingly at anyone who had a bike the same frame size as mine and my beloved had to keep admonishing me to step away.

In any event, it’s rained pretty much solidly for the last four days. So it’s doubtful I would have actually ridden even had I been able to fix the wheel. My beloved has been out most days, only to come back as mud-spattered as a cyclo-cross rider – thank heavens I bought plenty of kit with us. The washing machine will be going into overdrive on our return!

For my previews and reviews of both races head on over to VeloVoices.

Helping hands

Volunteers

Sport in general, particularly at the grass roots level, and many sporting events, rely upon the generosity of a few. The running of our cycling club and the events we organise would not be possible without the assistance of volunteers. For the most part, they are long serving, retired members who simply enjoy lending a helping hand.  So how might one define a volunteer?  Most agree it’s someone who willingly gives their time freely, without thought of any gain, monetary or otherwise, to assist others.

My first experience of volunteering was while I still worked in the City. With the support and encouragement of our Chairman, I set up a scheme whereby we adopted a primary school in one of the more-deprived areas of London. We worked with a group of children on their literacy, numeracy, IT and musical skills, mentored the head teacher and helped raise much-needed funds. We also organised school trips and involved the children in a number of out-of-school activities. Everyone was surprised at how much personal enjoyment they got out of their involvement.

Since moving to France, I have worked as a volunteer at a number of major sporting events. Each time I’ve been fortunate to work with a great crowd of people, some of whom have become good friends, and learnt more about what makes events of this type successful. My day-to-day volunteering revolves around my work for the cycle club. Most clubs are run by those who are retired. However, all our team work either full or part-time, we are therefore hugely reliant on the assistance of many club members. Inevitably this tends to be those who have time on their hands ie the retirees.

Initially, those who were part of the club’s previous administration continued to assist us but most have now resigned as they were not wholly in sync with the way in which we run the club. While we have no problem with reimbursing members for expenses validly incurred on behalf of the club we do not support what I like to call “blanket reimbursement of expenses”. That’s to say reimbursing members for expenses which also have a personal element such as internet and telephone subscriptions. Put bluntly we don’t believe that donating your time to the club should be rewarded with additional perks above and beyond what is available to all the membership. Every committee member has to pay their own membership fees and we no longer hold  the annual dinner for the management team and their wives. It may not sound very much, but I estimate that with this approach we have saved over 3.ooo Euros per annum, just under a quarter of our subvention from the local authority, which equates to 19,50 Euros per member.

I appreciate that I’m beginning to sound like a killjoy but I do believe that everything should be above board when it comes to handling the club’s finances. Indeed, we have been much lauded by the Town Hall for our approach. Instead, I much prefer we hold events that everyone can attend: members, local dignitaries, sponsors and friends of the club.

Of course, running a club is not a popularity contest, nor should it ever be viewed as such. There are always members who think they could do it so much better. Typically, these are the members who never, ever give you a hand. Instead they are always on the receiving end. Sadly, every club has them. Similarly, there are members who are always willing to help and one should endeavour never to take them for granted. But often a simple “Thank you,” an all too often overlooked management tool, will suffice. Others require a bit of cajoling or inducement. A free t-shirt often does the trick.  I like to remind people that you get out of a club what you put into it. Put in nothing and………………………….

La Ronde is fast approaching. This is a race we organise in conjunction with a pointage every August. M le President sent out an email asking for volunteers, it fell on stony ground. Many of those who volunteer aren’t on the internet. Unbelievable, I know but there it is. In addition, a lot of members only check their mailboxes periodically, like once a week! I decided that a telephone call would probably work better. I’ve rung all those that volunteered last year, plus others, and we now have enough volunteers. Calls may take longer than an email but when you’re asking someone for essentially a favour, the personal approach is often better. Now, I’d better get stuck into replenishing my cake stocks.

Tour Postscript: Tom Boonen succumbs to his injuries and abandons the Tour. A crash takes out Bradley Wiggins and Remi Pauriol with collarbone/shoulder injuries. The subsequent pile up delays large numbers of riders including all those from Sky who drop out of Top 20 on GC. Thomas concedes the white jersey to Gesink. Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner lose more time. The road has decided, Radioshack’s GC rider is Andreas Kloden. Rojas snatches back the green jersey but, with his stage win, Cavendish inches ever closer to green. Thor hangs onto yellow for probably the last time, likewise Hoogerland who will probably concede the spotted jersey tomorrow.

Big boys go bump

On a windy, shortish, stage alongside the English Channel, I lost count of the number who hit the deck, largely in multiple pile-ups, in the hour from 15:10 – 16:10h. Many remounted and made their way back to the peloton via the doctor’s car for some TLC on their bumps and abrasions. While others trailed in ahead of the cut-off. One, Janez Brajkovic, having been patched up on the side of the road, departed in an ambulance.  The second retiree from the Tour. Europcar’s Christophe Kern, the French time-trial champion, who’d been suffering since the start with tendonitis, also climbed off his bike.

Given that teams often ride together protecting their leader, if one of them goes down it’s rarely a solitary fall. In the Radioshack Team, apart from the afore-mentioned Brajkovic, Horner, Leipheimer and Popovych also kissed the tarmac. Wiggins went down from Team Sky. Quickstep’s bad luck from the cobbled Classics reappeared taking out 5 riders: most notably Boonen, Ciolek, Steegmans and Chavanel. I also saw a number of Rabo boys on the roadside, including GC threat Robert Gesink. Contador lost his chain (possibly a case of what goes around comes around) and found himself flat on his back. While his team mate Nikki Sorenson had his bike swept from under him by one of the motobikes. One minute he was riding along on his bike and the next he had gatecrashed a picnic on the side of the road but sans velo!

After the podium ceremonies the overly zealous commissioners were studying the video highlights of today’s intermediate sprint and decided to declassify Boonen (cut the guy some slack) and Rojas. As a result, the latter loses the green jersey to PhilGil who finished ahead of him on today’s finish line, but behind Cavendish. None of the other jersey’s changed hands.

Cavendish won today’s stage, taking his Tour total to 16, and got to meet one of his biggest fans. I lost count of the number of times the lady Mayoress kissed Cavendish. Indeed, I was tempted to cry “For goodness sake, put him down”.  But then I remembered that, like me, she’s probably keen to seize any opportunity to kiss a few fit, young guys. Oh yes, I’m shortly going to be reprising my role as the world’s oldest podium girl.

Back to the riding wounded. I speak from experience when I say that, if at all possible, having fallen, one should get back on one’s bike and continue pedalling. Pain tends to kick in once you’re off the bike and relaxing. There’s going to be a fair number in the peloton nursing some sizeable portions of road rash, particularly on their buttocks, which will probably make for an uncomfortable night. To add to their discomfort, tomorrow’s 226.5km stage from Dinan to Lisieux is the longest of this year’s Tour.

This wasn’t the only bad news today in France where at 17:20 this afternoon, they learnt that the 2018 winter Olympics had been awarded to Pyeongchang, in S Korea. France’s candidate, Annency, polled a miserly 7 votes. Obviously, France is another country not prepared to pay the going rate for Olympic votes.

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.

No room at the Vuelta

Fans will be denied the chance to see a repeat of Johnny Hoogerland’s daily daring escapes during this year’s Vuelta a España. Yes, that’s right Vacansoleil weren’t invited to yet another grand tour and neither were Skil Shimano.  However, to give Unipublic their due they have invited two smaller Spanish outfits,  Xacobeo-Galicia and Andalucia Caja-sur, whose very existence probably depends on their annual appearance in the Vuelta.

The organisers have however made the (brave?) decision not to invite either BMC or The Shack as neither Cadel nor Lance respectively were scheduled to ride. I understand BMC didn’t seek an invite but The Shack had proposed a pretty strong  line up which included recent Criterium Dauphine winner Janez Brajkovic, Andreas Kloeden, Chris Horner, Haimer Zubeldia and  Levi Leipheimer – not too shabby. Instead rsvps have been sent to those 16 teams covered by the September 2008 agreement with UCI (which expires at the end of this season) and Team Sky, Garmin-Transitions, Katusha and Cervelo Test Team.

Basque bravado

Pretty as a picture

A couple of years ago my husband and I drove down to Barcelona on business by way of Girona. We both agreed it looked a good place to cycle and promised ourselves that one day we would return. This week I’ve been watching the Tour of the Basque Country and, again, I’ve found myself thinking, fabulous countryside, great place to cycle, must pay it a visit. 

So I’m wondering whether a cycling tour of northern Spain might be on the cards for next year. My one problem is logistics. I would love to cycle from one place to another but who’s going to carry my luggage? Please don’t suggest I get panniers. I’m not starving myself to loose 10kg only to replace that weight with panniers. There must be another way. 

A cycling club trip perhaps? Too far, the club likes to cycle to its holiday destination. I appreciate that there are holiday companies who organise such trips but I don’t want to cycle with a crowd, just my beloved. I can see further research is required. 

Who's a happy boy?

Meanwhile, one of my favourite Spaniards won yesterday. Sadly, having dropped from GC contention on Day 1, Sammy Sanchez needed a stage win to appease the fanatical Basque fans who line most of the climbs at least 10-deep. It was a marvellous display of both ascending and descending from the Olympic champion, almost  matched by Valverde, who finished second and snatched back the yellow jersey from Oscar Freire. 

Joaquin Rodriguez showed he’s on form for the forthcoming Ardennes classics by storming up some vertiginous climbs today to catapult himself onto the podium. Everything is finely poised for tomorrow’s hilly 22km time trial which retraces some of the steeper climbs of today. Horner is in 2nd place, just 1 second down on Valverde, Rodriguez is 3rd and lying in 4th place is former mountain-biker, Jean-Christophe Perraud, current French time-trial champion.

Of course, no mountainous stages would be complete without some dodgy descending. First up, Schleck the Elder, a man I would not wish to follow down any descent. I understand he flipped over a barrier yesterday and didn’t start this morning. Today, Amets Txurruka attempted a curve from the wrong apex and went down heavily. Fortunately, I understand neither are badly injured. Robert Gesink also fell today and has now slipped down the GC and out of contention. Il Falco (Paolo Savodelli) should give master classes in descending to those (and there’s plenty of them in the peloton) who struggle to ride as well downhill as they do either on the flat or uphill.

Photo of Samu Sanchez courtesy of my friend Susi Goertze