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.

Garibaldi’s Giro I

Here’s the route

Next up it’s the Giro which starts on Saturday. Last year’s version was an absorbing contest played out in dreadful climatic conditions. This year, Italy’s grand tour, with its 40 major climbs and 8 summit finishes, will celebrate the 150 years since Italy’s unification. The route has been described as a climber’s nirvana, so expect the winner to weigh substantially less than me. A mountainous parcours is bound to favour riders such as Alberto Contador. With Basso absent, the weight of Italian expectation will fall on Nibali’s young shoulders. Michele Scarponi, who triumphed in the Giro de Trentino, will also be among the fancied home-grown starters along with Italian champ Giovanni Visconti and former winner Stefano Garzelli. Also riding are former Grand Tour winners Menchov and Sastre, and riders with Tour pretensions such as Joaquim Rodriguez, Igor Anton and David Arroyo. One thing for sure, it’s going to be a fiercely contested and thrilling battle.

Leaving aside the favoured riders and teams which have been beautifully summarised in www.thearmchairsportsfan.com,  let’s look instead at the magnificent route and the challenges strewn along the way. The Giro starts in Turin with a 19.3km team time-trial which will favour well-drilled teams such as HTC-High Road, Liquigas, SaxoBank Sungard, Sky and Garmin-Cervelo. It’s likely that one of the sprinters will pull on the pink jersey for Sunday’s 242km ride from Alba to Parma which is one of the few flat stages this year. Sadly, there’ll be no time for truffle hunting or, indeed, any other gastronomic delights.

The next four days I would classify as moderately mountainous during which the GC contenders will be vigilant but discrete.

  • Stage 3’s 178km from Reggio Emilia to Rapallo goes gently up the Passo del Bocco and the Madonna del Grazie, the latter 8km from the finish line.
  • Stage 4’s 208km along the coast from Quarto dei Mille to Livorno goes back over the Passo del Bracco early on and then it’s flat until the Poggio-like bump 10km before the San-Remo like finish.
  • Depending on the weather, the 23km of strade bianchi towards the end of  Stage 5’s lumpy 201km from Piombino to Orvieto could provoke some time gaps. The favourites will all be marking one another.
  • Stage 6’s 195km to Fiuggi Terme along the Apennines is again very lumpy with an uncategorised climb before the descent to the finish.

There’s the first summit finish on Stage 7, 100km from Maddoloni to Montevergine di Mercogliano,  the climb up Monte Taburno will tire the rider’s legs before the final 17km climb which could ensure a bit of a shake out among the favourites. Stage 8’s 214km to Tropea hugs the Tyrrhenian coastline and is perfect for a face off among the sprinters. In honour of the 1908 earthquake victims, Stage 9 is on Nibali’s home territory of Sicily and features two ascents of Mount Etna which the organisers are hoping will provide more than a few sparks. One would anticipate that Nibali will target this stage which might also land him the pink jersey.

After a well-earned rest day, the route heads back up north on Stage 10, 156km from Termoli to Teramo. In theory, it’s another day for the sprinters’ teams. The coastline can be windy, so the favourites will need to ensure that they’re not distanced by breaks in the peloton. Stage 11 features what many feel will be a key battleground with its many peaks providing scope for attacks, particularly among the GC contenders. The 160km stage from Tortoreto Lido inland to Castelfidardo never goes over more than 600m but it’s a day of tiring, leg sapping, constant ups and downs. On the following day, Stage 12’s pan flat 171kms from Castelfidardo to Ravenna hugs the coastline and has sprint finish written all over it.

Stage 13’s 159km, which finishes at 1,908m atop Austria’s Grossglockner, is pretty much uphill, all day, all the way. First up is the Passo di Monte Croce Carnico at 1,336m, followed by  two further climbs, before the final grind up to the finish. But this is just a taster of what’s to come the following day: Stage 14’s 210km from Lienz to the top of Monte Zoncolan features five tough climbs, by way of 1,982m Monte Crostis, which averages 9% for 15km.  Finally, the main dish of the day on Stage 15, 230km from Conegliano to Val di Fassa, again features five climbs including the Passo Giau at 2,236m but it’s the final 15km on gravel roads to the finish which could prove decisive. Could the overall winner be decided here?

The boys take a well earned day’s break before the uphill time-trial. It’s only 12.7km  and starts with a 1.5km descent before ascending. The middle 4km averages 10% before ramping up to 14% as the road reaches the midway point at Tornante from whence it’s a steady grind to the top which flattens out for the last 2km. Stage 17 is this year’s longest at 246km from Feltre downhill to Sondrio taking in the Passo Tonale and Aprica. It’s unlikely that any of the GC contenders will venture out of the peloton on this stage. It’ll be perfect for a breakaway among those whose GC aspirations have long since evaporated.

Stage 18’s 147km from Morbbegna to San Pellegrino Terme crosses Italy’s cycling heartland which is home to many Italian and foreign riders. Again, it’s probably one for the breakaway artistes but the downhill finish could tempt one of the GC favourites. Stage 19 is yet another summit finish, this time the Macugnaga, 211kms from Bergamo by way of the Mottarone. There’s a fast descent before the final ascent which could be beguiling for those breakaway riders while the GC contenders keep their powder dry ahead of the penultimate stage: 242km from Verbania to Sestriere. Stage 20 is pretty flat for 200km before climbing up the Colle delle Finestre, dropping down 700km and then finishing at 2,035m in the ski station.  The ultimate stage is a 32.8km, simple out and back, flat individual time-trial around Milan.  It’s unlikely to be a decisive stage and will probably be won by someone other than a GC contender.

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.

Wrong place, wrong time

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues apace. The last two mornings we’ve been woken by the roar of saws. I think it’s fair to say that with the exception of our olive trees, which were pruned last year, everything on the Domaine is fair game. No bush or tree has emerged unscathed. Now, I have no doubt this was long overdue. Witness what happened to one of my neighbours just before Xmas: Buche de Noel indeed!

Park in the wrong spot at your peril

The temperature has dipped by at least 8 degrees and so I’m back to being muffled like Michelin man and am restricting my rides to the coast road. The outlook for the next ten days is similar but I can live with cold but dry and sunny. This weather is, of course, good news for skiers.

Most evenings I’ve been catching up on the Santos Tour Down Under. While, I, and probably everyone else, had been expecting a Cav v Greipel sprint-fest, nothing could have been further from reality. The stages have by and large been owned by the young guns, and all bar one of these has been Australian. Good news then for the crowds of home supporters.

ASO has announced the teams for this year’s Paris-Nice and Tour de France. As anticipated, they have handed wild cards to the home teams.  I would anticipate that the organisers of the Giro and Vuelta will follow suit and also award wild cards to the home sides. Carlos Sastre has expressed his disappointment at not riding the Tour and is to focus on the Giro. Given that they may not receive an invite to the Vuelta,  one has to assume that too will be the focus of Denis Menchov. Tirreno-Adriatico will not feature in either of their training plans as Geox hasn’t received one of the two wild cards on offer.

Members of the UCI have ill-advisedly been opining on the case of Contador, a man who is still innocent until his home Federation comes to a decision. This is unlikely to be anytime before 15 February. Should the outcome be appealed, Contador will not be able to defend his Tour title (assuming he still holds it).

Will Contador’s absence make the outcome of this year’s Tour any less likely? Probably not as riders, in my opinion, tend to ride far too defensively and are unwilling to gamble a good placing on GC. However, the lack of individual time-trial kilometres should not unduly disadvantage the Schlecks and Basso by comparison with Evans and Vinokourov. Oh yes, I may not expect my favourite Kazakh to top the podium but I do anticipate he’ll be on one of the steps. In fact, I’m going to stick my neck out early on and say the podium will be 1. Basso 2. Evans 3.Vinokourov.  What no Schlecks you cry. Indeed not, the other three are all made of far sterner stuff and, baring injury, will prevail.

Post Tour postscript: Better not give up the day job. So much for my Tour prognostications.

Vuelta wrap

What a fantastic Vuelta which maintained the suspense right up until the final summit on the pen-ultimate day. But the “Shark”, having gotten his teeth into the red jersey (again) wasn’t going to be shaken loose and he managed to claw (not that sharks have claws) his way back onto Mosquera’s wheel. As a consolation, Mosquera won his first Grand Tour stage while Nibali sealed the leader’s and combined jerseys. As predicted (by me and pretty much everyone else), Cavendish won the points and Moncoutie the mountain’s. Consolation for Joaquin Rodriguez as he has now climbed atop the UCI rankings.  

The Vuelta threw up some surprises, not all of them pleasant:

1) Denis Menchov, 2nd in the time-trial, who finished 41st on GC. Clearly, despite nicking 3rd spot in the Tour thanks to his performance in the time-trial from my beloved Samu Sanchez, it took more out of Denis than anyone realised. He woz rubbish!

2) Peter Velits on the podium – no one saw that one coming. HTC-Columbia’s first GT podium. The Velits twins and Peter Sagan: don’t mess with Slovakia.

3) Some consolation for my beloved boys in orange: 3 stage wins and Mikel Nieve’s 12 place on GC. All good omens for 2011.

4) David Moncoutie’s mountains jersey (3rd consecutive) and his re-signing for another (final?) year with Cofidis.

5) He’s on his way back from the wilderness: Andrey Kashechkin’s 18th place on GC in his first real ride in 3 years.

6) Christophe Le Mevel’s 15th place on GC: some consolation late in the season.

7) Nico Roche 7th on GC: clearly a chip off the “old block”.

8) Jan Bakelandts 19th on GC: keep an eye on him.

9) Will he, won’t he? Fabulous Fabian jumps ship, leaving both SaxoBank and the Vuelta in the lurch. He may not even go to the World’s after being beaten by both Velits and Menchov in the Vuelta ITT. The SaxoBank cupboard is starting to look rather bare.

10) Using the Vuelta as a predictor of form for the World Championships, you have to say watch out for Philippe Gilbert in Geelong.

 What more can I say? A brilliant 3 weeks of racing, much appreciated by the viewing public, whether on the roadside or in front on the screen. In fact the lack of some of the bigger names may have made the outcome, and the racing, less predictable. It also helped that the Vuelta finished 2 weeks before the Men’s Road Race at the World Championship’s in Melbourne. Full credit must go to the organisers, Unipublic, for staging what most people feel is the best Vuelta in a long time. Long may it continue.

Vuelta Espana 2010 Final Overall Classification

1 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo 87hrs 18’ 33”
2 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia + 41”
3 Peter Velits (Svk) Team HTC-Columbia + 3’ 02”
4 Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha + 4’ 20”
5 Frank Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank + 4’ 43”
6 Xavier Tondo (Spa) Cervélo Test Team + 4’ 52”
7 Nicolas Roche (Irl) Ag2R-La Mondiale + 5’ 03”
8 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervélo Test Team + 6’ 06”
9 Tom Danielson (USA) Garmin-Transitions + 6’ 09”
10 Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne + 7’ 35”

Mountain Classification
1 David Moncoutie (Fra) Cofidis 51pts
2 Serafin Martinez (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia 43
3 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia 36

Points Classification
1 Mark Cavendish (GB) Team HTC-Columbia 156pts
2 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Transitions 149
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo 119

Team Classification
1 Team Katusha 261hrs 48’ 04”
2 Caisse d’Epargne + 35”
3 Xacobeo Galicia + 12′ 33”

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

Bring it on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climber’s Jersey: Moncoutie

Point’s Jersey: Cavendish

Combined Jersey: Mosquera

Postcards from Pays Basque IV

Saturday morning we rode down to the start of the Classica San Sebastian and secured a position as close as possible to the sign-on and team

Crowd pleaser

presentation. This is a race which attracts a great field and almost all the big names who rode the Tour were here, save Contador, Menchov and Evans. Not unnaturally, the mainly partisan crowd’s loudest cheers were reserved for the Spanish and particularly the Basque riders. However, it was clear that Andy Schleck and Alexandre Vinokourov are held in high regard.

Andy Schleck

This is also a race which is generally won by a rider who’s just completed the Tour as they’re in fine racing form. Having seen the peloton set off, we headed out of town to watch them ride the final loop around the Altos de Jaizkibel and de Arklare. Our vantage point allowed us to watch the peloton advancing through the village of Oiartzun and up the Arklare twice before we sped back to San Sebastian, over the same finishing straight as the peloton, to watch the finish. We were not alone. A large number of riders, whose day was done, headed back into town with us.

We found a tv screen in a local bar just 75 metres from the finish and watched the final and decisive attacks. One of the things I love about watching Vinokourov race is that he’s never there to make up the numbers, he always tries to win. The leading trio of Gutierrez, Garate, Verdugo and Florencio had been whittled down when Vino attacked and formed a leading group with Rodriguez, Roche and Sanchez. Richie Porte had tried to bridge but was eventually caught by a larger group who were leading the chase. As the two groups were about to merge on the second ascent of the Jaizkibel, Luis Leon Sanchez accelerated away. Only Vino and Sastre were able to stay with him. These three worked to establish a sensible lead on the last descent into San Sebastian. While the chasing group was larger, it was less organised, and despite the efforts of Gesink, it failed to make any impact on the leaders.

Vino attempted to time trial away from LL Sanchez where there’s a slight uphill drag on the run in, but couldn’t shake him off. As they rode the final few kilometers to the finish, the three re-grouped and Luis Leon just pipped

Almost there

Vino on the line. Later I learned that Vino had arrived in San Sebastian in the early hours of Saturday morning having competed the night before in a criterium in Belgium. He wasn’t the only one, but the others, including Andy Schleck, were DNFs.

We watched the podium celebrations before cycling back up that hill to the hotel. The assembled throng were delighted with the Spanish win. As ever, my beloved and I had enjoyed riding over the same terrain as the professional peloton, albeit at a more sedate pace.

Triumphant trio

(All photographs courtesy of my beloved)

Easy, easy, easy

I don’t know about the UCI checking out Cancellara’s bike for an engine,  they should check Cavendish’s for an extra gear. He won yesterday with ease, even having time to check behind him twice. He truly is the world’s fastest sprinter and has already exceeded the number of sprints won by that perennial green jersey winner, Erik Zabel. He could possibly accumulate as many wins in the Tour as Super Mario did in the Giro. Alessandro Petacchi is back in green but this is a jersey, unlike the others, that’s going to go to the wire.

Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise followed yesterday’s 198km from Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux and were presented with signed, yellow jerseys by Alberto Contador. I have seen a number of photos of the trio in the press and it’s interesting to note that where Cameron is standing next to Contador, it’s just a head shot, while the full-length photos show her keeping her distance. Do you think she’s been reading my blog and specifically the entry “Don’t stand so close to me”?

Today, like Alberto Contador, we were on the edge of our seats as, quelle surprise, Andy Schleck appeared to be putting time into Alberto in the final time trial: 52km from Bordeaux to Pauillac.  However, it was simply a question of difference in approach. Andy understandably gave everything from the start, while Alberto better measured his effort.

Sadly, and as anticipated, Denis Menchov put time into Sammy Sanchez and replaced him on the 3rd step of the podium.  Also, as anticipated, Fabulous Fabian, the Olympic and World Champion, won the time trial.

Alberto looked close to tears as he received the maillot jaune today perhaps realising that it had been a closer shave than he would have liked. Andy however was left to reflect on what might have been if only he’d had the support of his elder brother Frank for the length of the Tour.

Surprising result

The alarm went off at 06:00 this morning. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was not. My beloved turned off the alarm and went back to sleep. I, on the other hand, never even heard it. We awoke two hours later, too late to attempt the concentration at Venanson. Instead, we decided on one of our favourite summer rides which takes in the perched village of Gourdon, home to the baker of my favourite pain d’epice.

Today was just as hot as the previous one but there was a cool, rather than warm, breeze which was deliciously refreshing on the run in to home. We had picked up the newspapers on the way back and, once home, I had a cold shower and slipped into something cool and flimsy. I fed my beloved and settled down to watch stage 14: 184.5km from Revel to Ax-3 Domaines. The showdown in the Pyrenees was about to begin.

I was expecting things to kick off on the Port de Pailheres. Astana took control on the ascent and their pace shattered the peloton while leaving the contenders together. The remnants of the day’s breakaway were still up the road and a number of riders, including Carlos Sastre, had set off in hot pursuit.

A rider who lives locally, Amael Moinard, was one of two riders still up ahead from that morning’s breakaway but he’d been distanced by the other, Christophe Riblon, probably better known for his exploits on the track. Riblon hung on to give the French their 4th stage win. Meanwhile, Alberto and Andy were eyeballing one another, but neither was prepared to concede. Sensing a stalemate, both Sammy Sanchez and Denis Menchov decided to profit from the stalemate.  They gained 13 seconds. Roll on tomorrow.