And the winners are………………….

The UCI announced today (see list below) in effect the 18 teams which will make up next season’s premier division, the World Tour. While two are still pending, one assumes they’ll be ratified in due course. The French will have the bunting out as there are now two teams in the top-tier as FDJ joins AG2R. No room at the inn for Tommy Voeckler’s Europcar but one assumes they’ll be in the races which matter to them, including next year’s Tour de France, joined probably by Saur Sojasun, Cofidis and Bretagne Schuller.

I was delighted to see that despite the “carrots cash crisis”, Euskaltel-Euskadi remain in the first division. The other team which has “lost out” is Geox but given the sponsor walked away at the last minute, it was to be expected. Rumours have abounded of the management seeking sponsors as far afield as Venezuela. If they’re successful, the team will have to settle for a place, once again, in the second division.

2012 World Tour Teams

  • AG2R La Mondiale
  • Astana Pro Team
  • BMC Racing Team
  • FDJ
  • Euskaltel – Euskadi
  • Garmin – Cervélo
  • Katusha Team
  • Lampre – ISD
  • Liquigas – Cannondale
  • Lotto Cycling Project
  • Movistar Team
  • Omega Pharma – Quick-Step Cycling Team
  • Rabobank
  • Saxo Bank
  • Sky Procycling
  • Vacansoleil – DCM Pro Cycling Team

Pending:

  • GreenEdge Cycling
  • Team RadioShack – Nissan

Postscript: The pending have been ratified.

Reflections on the Tour

I’m still wallowing in post-Tour euphoria; and you thought it only applied to the riders. I’ll come crashing back to earth later this week when I start to miss my daily fix. Fortunately, help is at hand, as I’m heading to the Basque country this week end to watch a star-studded Clasica San Sebastian. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Firstly, I’d like to congratulate everyone who reached Paris: no mean feat.  Secondly, a huge thanks to all  the stage winners and the wearers of the various jerseys for making the last three weeks so entertaining, enthralling and absorbing. It’s much appreciated.

Now, let’s examine some of the firsts:

  • Cadel Evans, first Tour de France winner from Australia
  • Frank and Andy Schleck, first brothers on the podium
  • Mark Cavendish, first Brit (and Manx man) to win the green jersey
  • First time the Norwegians have taken 4 individual stages

I’m sure there were many more firsts but these were the ones which sprang to mind.

Not forgetting, of course, that there was plenty of cheer for the home nation:-

  • Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler’s 4th place was the first since 2000 (Christophe Moreau) having spent 10 days in the maillot jaune
  • Five Frenchmen (Voeckler, Peraud, Rolland, Coppel, Jeannesson) in the top 15 was the best result since 1991
  • First best young rider classification (Pierre Rolland) since 1999
  • First winner (Pierre Rolland) atop Alpe d’Huez since 1986 (Hinault)
  • FDJ’s Jeremy Roy voted most combative rider
  • Amael Moinard, the only Frenchman on the winner’s team (BMC)

The hopes and dreams of a number of notable riders were dashed largely due to crashes in the first week. Some struggled on to Paris, others departed the Tour in ambulances. A speedy recovery and return to two wheels to you all. Sadly, one of my favourite riders has decided to retire. It was on the cards and his fall in the Tour only accelerated matters. You’ll be sorely missed Alex but I’m sure you’ll lead your team to many more victories albeit from the team car.

Finally, congratulations to the winners of the various jerseys and classifications. I’m sure Dave Z was touched to see his full-sized cardboard cut out atop the podium as part of the winning team. I wonder, does Garmin Cervelo have one for each of the team?

It seems as if the entire world has proclaimed this the best Tour for the past 20 years. I can’t comment as I’ve only been addicted since 2004.

Finally and thankfully

Well worth the wait

Mindful of the importance of today’s stage, I was up and out at the crack of dawn. It was lovely and quiet, still a little fresh, with only the road cleaners and the odd car heading for the nearest bakery for me to worry about. I sped to Menton, easily my fastest ride there ever. My traffic light karma was in overdrive, I didn’t have to halt once: not even on the Promenade des Anglais. I stopped in Menton to top up my bottles and get a drink  to fuel my ascent. There’s a tap as the road splits (left over the Col and right to Ste Agnes), but the water’s of dubious quality.

The first kilometre of the climb is steepish but fortified by my recent sugar hit, and taking advantage of every bit of shade, I forge on. Up towards Ste Agnes the terrain undulates . I just grind away enjoying the view back down to the sea. The view improves, the gradient rises steeply and I’m now in the lowest of low gears. I take the left turn. It’s taken me  50 minutes to get here and I’ve emptied my larger bidon. It rises again and I press on. As a distraction, I start giving some thought to today’s stage where, realistically, we might know more about the real, relative forms of the main contenders, or not. The next 5 kilometres pass remarkably quickly and I’m soon speeding downwards. I’ve seen hardly any cars, just a couple of goats.

As I swoop through La Turbie, stopping at the fountain to fill up my bottles, I’m making good time. I  head up over the Col d’Eze enjoying the warm sunshine, the scenic views and the prospect of a cracking afternoon’s Tour viewing. Riding this route has done wonders for Thor Hushovd’s climbing skills, who knows it might do something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, for me. My traffic light karma begins to desert me on the way back and I take refuge on the cycling track on the Promenade. It’s busy, but not as busy as the road. In no time at all, I’m grinding my way back up to the apartment. It’s taken me an hour less than I estimated but that’s largely due to the time at which I rode rather than any great feat on my part. I shower, slip into something comfortable and sink a couple of litres of water. I’d like to check the ride information on my Garmin but I’m still waiting for a response from them. I’ve been waiting for 6 days!

On today’s queen stage, 168.5km from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille a large group breaks away almost from the start, swiftly joined by another 4 riders, 24 in total. Only 4 teams are not represented: Saxobank, Radioshack, Omega Pharma-Lotto and Saur-Sojasun. There’s plenty of French riders, including 3 from FDJ, but no Jeremy Roy. Is that allowed? Despite having Charteau in the break, Europcar control the peloton until Leopard Trek take over intent on whittling down the numbers and delivering the Schlecks to the base of the final climb.

The French are desperate for a stage win and today’s excitement, and ultimate disappointment, were provided by French champion Sylvain Chavanel and, later on, FDJ’s Sandy Casar. However with Voeckler STILL in yellow, the French are now talking him up as a potential Tour winner. Stranger things have happened.

With just 10.5km of the final climb remaining, Andy Schleck puts in a dig. It’s countered. The favourites basically mark one another all the way to the finish. Tour rookie, Jelle Vanendert, still smarting from his 2nd place at Luz Ardiden, takes off in pursuit of the hapless Casar who’s soon overtaken. Jelle’s nemesis from Friday, Samu, pursues him and gains back a few precious seconds on the other favourites but can’t overhaul today’s victor. So Omega Pharma Lotto take their 3rd stage win of the Tour. With just 2kms to go Andy puts in a more serious dig which allows him to take back 2 seconds from the others. Most of the favourites finish together although a couple were distanced on the climb further shaking up GC which now looks like this:-

Rank Dossard Name Country Team Time Gap
1 181 Thomas VOECKLER FRA EUC 61h04’10” 00”
2 018 Frank SCHLECK LUX LEO 61h05’59” 1’49”
3 141 Cadel EVANS AUS BMC 61h06’16” 2’06”
4 011 Andy SCHLECK LUX LEO 61h06’25” 2’15”
5 091 Ivan BASSO ITA LIQ 61h07’26” 3’16”
6 021 Samuel SANCHEZ ESP EUS 61h07’54” 3’44”
7 001 Alberto CONTADOR ESP SBS 61h08’10” 4’00”
8 161 Damiano CUNEGO ITA LAM 61h08’11” 4’01”
9 052 Tom DANIELSON USA GRM 61h09’56” 5’46”
10 124 Kevin DE WEERT BEL QST 61h10’28” 6’18”

Two jersey’s changed hands: Vanendert now has the spotted jersey and Sky’s Rigoberto Uran is the latest, best young rider.

Swimmingly

As part of my training programme I’ve been swimming on alternate days. I verified with my coach that he didn’t expect me to be steaming up and down the pool during my 30 minute session. Instead, the pressure from the water is intended to help my legs recover from the previous day’s exertions. I should add that operation “Elimination of silly tan lines” is going nowhere. I typically swim as soon as the pool opens, while the pool is still partly in the shade, and then beat a hasty retreat. On the other mornings, I’ve ridden for 3-4hours in the sunshine which has only exacerbated the situation. I feel it’s now reached irretrievable proportions.

My beloved, having spent all day yesterday (a French Bank Holiday) meeting with potential clients in Nice,  is spending today with the same clients before heading off to a meeting in London on Saturday. We were supposed to be departing on vacation on Saturday morning. Our departure has been postponed by a day. However, strict rules on the use of Blackberries and the internet will be in-force while we’re away. I have to take this draconian approach otherwise my beloved will say “I’ve just got to tend to a couple of emails” and two hours later I’ll still be waiting. The only reason I drag him away on vacation is to get him away from the office and work. In this respect cycling is an excellent distraction. My beloved, like me, has not mastered the art of cycling while answering his mobile and once, in situ, near the big screen, at the arrival town, it’s almost impossible to hear oneself think let alone conduct a conversation on one’s mobile. So I’ll be encouraging him to post a holiday message on all his email accounts and mobile phone.

The French newspapers are full of Thomas Voeckler’s heroic defence of the yellow jersey and, to a lesser extent, the exploits of the other French riders on yesterday’s stage. The stage winner, Olympic Champion Sammy Sanchez recording his first ever Tour win, barely gets a look in. However, one would expect parochial and partisan reporting. I’ve no doubt that the pink pages of Gazzetta will have been evaluating the performances and chances of Messrs Cunego and Basso. The pages of La Marca have given more than adequate coverage to Sanchez, both his win and his on-going opportunities. Naturally enough, Contador’s form, or lack of, is examined in detail. So I thought if I really wanted to appreciate Sammy’s win I should head on over to check out the pages of Berria, the only newspaper written in Basque.  And sure enough:-

Super Samu

“Frantziako Tourra

Luz Ardiden Sanchezena izan da

Euskaltel-Euskadikoak “ametsa bete” du Tourreko Luz Ardidengo etapa irabazita. Samuel Sanchezek, arriskatuta eta urrutitik erasoa jota, gogor eutsi dio helmugaraino, eta azkenean Vanendert atzean uztea lortu eta 12. etapa irabazi du. Laranja izan zen atzoko kolore nagusia. Ehunka euskal zale izan ziren atzo, festa giroan, etapaz gozatzen. ”

While, I’m assuming none of my readers speak Basque , I think it’s pretty easy to work out what’s being said in the introductory paragraph. Needless to say Samu was awarded more than adequate coverage for his magnificent win.

Today’s Stage 13 has been billed as one of transition where it’s highly probable that a breakaway containing those riders way out of contention on GC might succeed. The slightly mitigating factor being the distance on the flat to the finish in Lourdes from the base of the Col du Soulor. I rode part of this last year. We cycled from Bagneres du Bigorre to the top of the Col d’Aubisque and then retreated to just below the summit of the  Col du Soulor to have lunch and watch the race unfold both on the road and on the television. You might remember  this was the day Lance got into a small breakaway.  After the race had finished, we rode back. The descent is fast but not technical. Maybe Alberto should light a few candles in Lourdes at the end of today’s 152.5km stage from Pau before climbing into the Saxobank team bus. It’s just a thought.

Stage Postscript: When they showed birds of prey feeding on a carcass during today’s stage I was relieved to see it was a lamb and not a rider. Everyman and his dog tried to get in this morning’s breakaway but it was only when FDJ’s Jeremy Roy, Mr Breakaway 2011, joined a group of 9 other riders that the break stuck. That break blew apart on the Col d’Aubisque but it was on the descent that Thor Hushovd (Garmin), one of the breakaways,  made what was to be the winning move to catch first David Moncoutie (Cofidis) and then the luckless Roy, within 2.3km of the finish, to register his 63rd win. Roy was in tears as he crossed the line in third place. He has taken the spotted jersey and the prize for the day’s most combative rider, but he knew these were scant consolation.  He’d narrowly missed the big one – a Tour stage win.

Endurance

In preparation for next week’s hills, I’ve been doing endurance intervals. Basically, riding in a higher gear than I would normally to replicate effort on a steeper ascent. I don’t mind these exercises as my natural inclination is to churn a higher gear, and lower cadence, as my legs are much stronger than my lungs. The weather was fabulous today with yesterday’s storm having eliminated the humidity of previous days. I enjoy riding during this time of year as the number of cyclists on the roads increases substantially, many of whom are tourists and unused to the terrain, allowing me to overtake many more riders. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to blast past a group of cyclists when riding uphill.

With television coverage of today’s important stage starting earlier than usual, I wanted to be in my optimal viewing position on a timely basis. Having completed my prescribed exercises, I had just enough time to collect the newspapers before heading home. My beloved having been fed, watered and packed off to a business meeting in Nice. I was hoping for some clarification of form after of days of speculation.

It was widely accepted that Thomas Voeckler would lose the yellow jersey. He didn’t. The occasion combined with the support of his team mates and, of course, the magical yellow jersey allowed Monsieur Panache, Monsieur Chouchou to remain in contention to the delight of the French viewing public, despite a spill on the descent of the 1st Cat. Horquette d’Anzican 80km from the finish. They weren’t the only ones to be pleased with today’s events. The Basque fans lining the route also had cause to celebrate as one of my favourites Olympic Champion Sammy Sanchez recorded his maiden Tour win atop Stage 12’s fabled Luz-Ardiden. Sammy looked mightily relieved and close to tears on the podium. To be fair, everyone expected him to use the occasion to gain back some time. He also takes over the spotted jersey from Johnny Hoogerland. Cavendish remains in green.

Who’s a happy boy? (Photo courtesy of AFP)

There’s more good news for the French. The most aggressive rider in the Tour thus far, Jeremy Roy (FDJ), who I recall getting hell last year From Marc Madiot (not a man to mince his words) for contending the lanterne rouge, won the Goddet prize for being first over the Tourmalet. Sylvain Chavanel showed off the tricolour jersey with an attack on the first climb in the company of Johnny Hoogerland. In addition, another of FDJ’s promising young riders, tour rookie Arnold Jeannesson is now in possession of the white, best young rider, jersey. Geraint Thomas, one of the day’s breakaways, was adjudged to be the most combative. Fitting given that he was pipped by Roy over the Tourmalet and worried us with some kamikaze descending off the opening climb.

The BIG news is that Alberto hasn’t been sandbagging. He lost further time today after enduring successive attacks from the brothers Schleck. Of course, it’s too soon to write him off.  Cadel Evans, the Schlecks and Ivan Basso all looked very comfortable. Also looks like Tom Danielson is finally fulfilling his promise as Garmin’s annual surprise Tour rider.

Not unnaturally a large number of riders slid out of contention and the GC now looks like this:-

Rank Dossard Name Country Team Time Gap
1 181 Thomas Voeckler FRA EUC 51h54’44” 00”
2 018 Frank Schleck LUX LEO 51h56’33” 1’49”
3 141 Cadel Evans AUS BMC 51h56’50” 2’06”
4 011 Andy Schleck LUX LEO 51h57’01” 2’17”
5 091 Ivan Basso ITA LIQ 51h58’00” 3’16”
6 161 Damiano Cunego ITA LAM 51h58’06” 3’22”
7 001 Alberto Contador ESP SBS 51h58’44” 4’00”
8 021 Samuel Sanchez ESP EUS 51h58’55” 4’11”
9 052 Tom Danielson USA GRM 51h59’19” 4’35”
10 101 Nicolas Roche IRL ALM 51h59’41” 4’57”

Bit of a roundup

After four days off the bike, it was a pleasure to resume my training programme. I’ve been riding really strongly this week, particularly on the climbs, and feel on track for this week end’s brevet, the l’Antiboise, organised by a neighbouring club. Last year, I unwisely and unsuccessfully rode the 150km parcours, bonking spectacularly after 103km. This year, I’m riding the 100km course which, with the ride to and from the start, will be a 120km round trip. We’ll be setting off relatively early so as to be back in time to watch the Amstel Gold Race. I understand from an article on Cyclingnews that some, as yet unidentified, locals have been sabotaging the course with tacks!

We have friends who live in Valkenberg, just a stone’s throw from the Cauberg, and were fortunate to be in the area on business a few year’s ago and watched the race from a good spot (near the big screen) on that hill which is decidedly leg sapping. I was riding my friend’s “sit up and beg bike” which I would have been hard pushed to indeed push it up the hill, let alone ride. On race day, the hill is thronged with spectators, particularly on the lower sections which are bordered by bars and restaurants, and it has a fantastic atmosphere.

While we’re all awaiting the next monument in the Classics season, those cute boys in lycra have still been racing. PhilGil, last year’s Amstel winner, won Wednesday’s Fleche Brabanconne, so he’s on form for his objectives of next Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne and next weekend’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Meanwhile, Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard), Igor Anton (Euskatel-Euskadi), Carlos Sastre (Geox) and Xavier Tondo (Movistar) are the main protagonists in the 5-day Vuelta Ciclista Castilla y Leon, which is chock full of 2nd and 3rd division teams. This isn’t an overly bumpy parcours, indeed, the first two stages have featured the sprinters and have both been won by Francisco Ventoso (Movistar), clocking up his 6th stage win in this race. The French teams have been racing in the Coupe de France whose leader is young Tony Gallopin (Cofidis). In the 4th round, Sandy Casar (FDJ) emerged as the big cheese in Paris-Camembert while Jimmy Casper won his 4th GP de Denain Porte du Hainault.

I haven’t passed much comment on the football of late. There’s not a lot to say about either of my teams whose fortunes seem to mirror one another. OGCN, with one of the smallest budgets in the French first division, generally punch above their weight and are playing Lille in next week’s semi-final of the French Cup and should finish the season a couple of places above the relegation zone. My beloved boys in claret and blue are going through what I hope is a transition phase and, despite the inevitable end of season loss of one of their best players (again), should survive to rebound next season.

My beloved has been away for a couple of days which has enabled me to complete a number of tasks for the club before I leave for next week’s break in Varese. My beloved has decided to take a week’s holiday but if I don’t get him out of the office, he’ll just be working away on his emails. We’re staying in the same B&B I stayed in while volunteering at the 2008 Road Cycling World Championship’s in Varese. We’ve become good friends with the owners and stay a couple of times a year either visiting clients or friends nearby. It’s a lovely area to cycle around; witness the large number of professional riders who live and train in the area. I particularly enjoy cycling around the lakes and covering some of the route of the tour of Lombardy.

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.

All shook up

We set off yesterday lunchtime for Aix-en-Provence. I let my beloved drive Tom III, largely because I was feeling lousy with my head cold. We arrived, easily parked and went to stand at the finish, within sight of the big tv screen. The team cars and buses were parked behind us and I realised I should have liberated “the shirt for signature” from my LBS, as I’d have had no trouble collecting further signatures – damn. I’ll do that today and see if I can collect a few over the week end.

Sky's Geraint Thomas cooling down
Sky’s Geraint Thomas set the earliest best time only to be superceded by Vacansoleil’s Liewe Westra. Obviously, if you’re riding for a team with GC ambitions,  you’re probably advised to ride within yourself, saving something in the legs for this week end’s stages. As a result, riders come and go without unduly disturbing the results. However, I enjoy time trials as it’s one of the very few occasions you get to see individual riders. On the big screen, you can also appreciate the differences between the time-triallers and the others. The former keep rock solid still on the bike with the legs working like pistons. However, with 25 riders within 90 seconds of the leader, this time-trial was going to finish with a flourish.
Serious bike bling

Richie Porte (SaxoBank-Sungard),  or as he’s called by the French Ritchee Poorty, set the next best time. He ultimately finished 3rd, 29 seconds behind the eventual winner. Yes, this was one stage that went according to expectations. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) wearing his GB champion’s kit blasted around 9 seconds faster than Richie Porte to finish 2nd on the day. The winner, as widely anticipated, was Tony Martin whose fluid pedalling style is a joy to behold. He rode at an average speed of 48.5km/hr and finished 20 seconds ahead of Wiggo.

As predicted, the time-trial results shook up the GC. Martin is now in yellow 36 seconds ahead of Kloeden (RadioShack) and 39 seconds ahead of Wiggins. Locally based Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) is 70 seconds back in 4th, and holder of the best young jersey, with Jean Christophe Peraud (AG2R), the highest placed Frenchman, in 5th, a further 4 seconds down. Given the week end’s topography and forecast weather conditions, the top 12 placed riders can still challenge on GC, but Tony Martin looks pretty determined to hang onto yellow. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) looks to have a stranglehold on the points jersey, as does Remi Pauriol (FDJ) on the spotted one.

Something left in the tank
It’s official, I have a cold which probably wasn’t helped by my standing in yesterday’s humid and chilly conditions watching the racing. But a girl’s gotta do, what a girl’s gotta do. My tip for today? Alexandre Vinokourov wasn’t totally blown when he finished yesterday. He’d like to win a stage to honour his late friend, Andrei Kivilev, and maybe today’s the day. We’ll see.

Double rations

We left for this morning’s ride under a cloudy sky which, thankfully, soon cleared. The club’s ranks had been depleted by a number of riders racing elsewhere today. Nonetheless, those remaining set a cracking pace and, once let off the leash, weren’t seen again; at least, not by me. I rode along at my own pace enjoying the warm sunshine, the fresh air and the arrival of Spring.

I shortened the prescribed club ride to get back home in time to finish preparing lunch. French television coverage of Paris-Nice was scheduled for 13:30 and I wanted lunch to be long over by then so that I could lounge on the sofa and enjoy the race.

With 70km to go, the peloton, under sunny skies, were reeling back in the two breakaway artists, Euskaltel’s Gorka Izagirre and Europcar’s Damien Gaudin. It took them another 30km to accomplish that feat. Two kms later Jeremy Roy (FDJ) set off, pursued by Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil). They never got more than 50 seconds ahead but worked well together, took advantage of the confusion in the chasing peloton, particularly through the urban streets, and a strong tail-wind in the final 6kms.

Belgian Thomas De Gendt prevailed in the sprint to land the biggest win of his career ahead of Roy. Voigt was swallowed by the advancing herd, Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) took 3rd. Most riders came home in the bunch but the wind had provoked a number of breaks in the peloton and those lingering down the back had been tailed off, most notably David Moncoutie (Cofidis). He was keeping Rigoberto Uran (Team Sky), who had crashed, company 8 minutes back.

When the race finished we decided to take a walk along the seafront in the sunshine. Everyone else had the same idea. The promenade was packed with people strolling, dog-walking, cycling, in-line skating, scooting or just sitting and watching. Business was booming at most of the cafes and restaurants.

We came back to discover Eurosport had delayed its transmission, so I watched the race again. If I were Jeremy Roy, I would have offered thanks to the gods when I saw that Jens Voigt, eminence grise of the peloton, had joined the breakaway, along with Thomas De Gendt. They worked well together, no one shirked their turn on the front and all three gave it their all. Wondering whether or not the peloton would catch them in the new radio-free environment made for an exciting race. Interestingly, commentators on both channels felt that, if the breakway managed to stay away,  De Gendt would win. I recall him hoovering up the KOM and points jersey in the 2009 Tour of Britain when he was riding for Topsport Vlaaderen.

Underdogs on top

Woke yesterday morning to find it was raining, rolled over and went back to sleep. When I finally woke, it had stopped raining but I was too late to set off for the pointage at Beausoleil. I decided to go for a run along the seafront before heading to collect the Sunday newspapers. A quick coffee (quelle surprise, OGCN had beaten St Etienne away from home) then it was off to the airport to collect my beloved on his return from Chicago.

After a light lunch, we both changed into our matching Qatari Airways jimjams and settled back for an afternoon of full-on sport. Firstly, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and then the League Cup Final: Arsenal v Birmingham City.

The sun was shining (weakly) in Belgium and most of the Dutch and Belgian riders were in shorts and short sleeves with a couple of notable exceptions. Tom Boonen (Quickstep) was no doubt feeling the chill after his trip to the Middle East and was wearing leg warmers, arm warmers and thick gloves. I was mesmerised by Stijn Devolder’s (Vacansoleil-DCM) thick fluorescent yellow gloves which clashed with his Belgian Champion’s outfit. Try black next time, Stijn.

There was the obligatory group of escapees who, having ignored the barrier at a railway crossing, were subsequently disqualified. The mild weather and lumpy parcours seemed to encourage breakaways but none stuck, the sprinters’ teams were too strong and too determined. In the end, Chris Sutton (Team Sky) had the best organised train and, with 200 metres to go, was launched across the line  to become the first Aussie winner. He finished ahead of Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ) and Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto). Interestingly, none of the leading trio had raced the day before.

Meanwhile over in Switzerland, Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) dedicated his win in the GP Lugano to his late trainer, Aldo Sassi. The French racked up yet another win in Les Boucles du Sud Ardeche. It was none other than last year’s viral star, Arthur Vichot (FDJ). Yesterday, according to Sport+, the French had won 24 stages to date while the Italians are in 2nd place with 19 wins. I’m not sure how this has been calculated, they didn’t explain.

After the excitement of the cycling, we settled down to what we were sure would be an Arsenal win. Frankly, as AVFC fans we were bound to support whoever played against the Blues, our arch-rivals. The Blues got a goal against the run of play, in the 28th minute. Arsenal equalised 11 minutes later with a terrific goal from Robin Van Persie who was later to retire with a knee injury.

During the second half, Arsenal had their chances but couldn’t convert any of  them. In 89th minute, a miscleared ball by the Arsenal defence gifted the winner to the Blues. Truly, it really was one of those balls from which even your granny would have scored.  Unbelievably, our bitterest rivals, who had knocked us out of the competition, had won and will be playing in Europa League next season. On the one hand, it’s good to see the underdog win but why couldn’t it have been us last season against Chelsea?