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.

Place your bets please

The sun burnt through yesterday’s early fog leaving  perfect conditions for riding. My beloved and I decided to head up to La Turbie and lunch at one of our favourite restaurants. The chef used to work in a Michelin-starred establishment but left to run the perfect neighbourhood restaurant. The menu is chalked up daily on the blackboard: 5 starters, 5 mains and 5 desserts. When a dish is sold out, it’s scrubbed from the board. It’s a modest establishment which punches well above its weight.

We rode the short cut to La Turbie from Cap d’Ail to avoid the numerous traffic lights in Monaco. Skip one and you’re sure to incur a fine. This route includes a particularly steep bit 11-12% near Monaco football club’s training ground. I was struggling with the 39 x 27 but, nevertheless, managed it. Lunch was a fitting reward.

After lunch we climbed up Col d’Eze. Down on our left-hand side,  Eze village was shrouded in mist and looked like something out of a fairy tale. I have fond memories of my very first ascension of Col d’Eze for my one-woman protest against Astana’s exclusion from the 2008 Tour de France during Paris-Nice. It wasn’t supposed to be a solo effort, but my teammates never made it to the summit after falling victim to a couple of punctures. I am constantly amazed at how many punctures they suffer and can only assume they keep patching their inner tubes. Ours get sent to Burkina Faso.

After arriving home I started on the serious business  of  studying the form for today’s race. My middle sister, renowned for enjoying a flutter on the horses might have been able to impart some of her wisdom. She wins far more than she loses. But, unlike a horse race, one has to take account not only of the form of the team’s leader but also the strength of his support. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Fabian Cancellara who has to be odds on favourite whatever the state of his support. Setting him aside, there are a number of other riders one has to consider, although, I appreciate that they might only be fighting it out for the minor places.

One cannot exclude the usual suspects: Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Alessandro Ballan, Juan Antonio Flecha,  Heinrich Haussler, Stijn Devolder, Thor Hushovd, Filippo Pozzato and rookie, Peter Sagan. The papers have been suggesting that a coalition against Cancellara might be the only way to defeat him. It’s true that teams who have two or even three strong candidates should seek to tire out Spartacus’s troops by having them chase down constant attacks. My advice: just don’t take your eyes off Fabulous Fabian, not even for a second.

L’Equipe, who have Cancellara as their 5 starred favourite, have added a few more names into the mix: Sylvain Chavanel, Greg Van Avermaet, Juergen Roelandts and Nick Nuyens. Their advice is however pretty much the same as mine. They too suggest a coalition of interests, staying with Fabian and beating him in a sprint finish, or praying for a mechanical a la 2009.

Yesterday saw the traditional start of cycling in the Basque country with the GP Miguel Indurain won by none other than Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Olympic Champion, Sammy Sanchez. His first win since last August and his team’s first of the season. I note from the results that a Columbian called Robinson Eduardo Chalapud Gomez was 6th. Is this the longest name in cycling? The Tour of the Basque country starts tomorrow and I’ll be tuning into Basque tv to watch proceedings. The commentary will be incomprehensible but the pictures tell their own story.

This week end also sees the second MotoGP race in Jerez, Spain. Pole positions have been seized for today’s races by Messrs Stoner (MotoGP), Bradl (Moto2) and Cortese (125cc). Since the races run concurrent with the Tour of Flanders, I’ll settle for watching the highlights on Eurosport.

Just what was ordered

Having waved farewell to my beloved on Tuesday afternoon, I have spent the last few days enjoying the warm, sunny weather which I hope is here to stay. I’m trying to rebuild my form with some longer rides.  At the same time, I’ve a whole host of paperwork to deal with as it’s the end of the first quarter, plus  deadlines for filing accounts and tax returns are fast approaching. Additionally,  the club is keeping me busy as we attract ever more members.

I have found time, thanks to the tv in the office, to keep abreast of proceedings in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. This is generally a race for those whose ambitions have to be put aside on Sunday while they support their team leaders, although Ballan did win both this and the Tour of Flanders in 2007. It’s raced around the Belgian coastline which is prone to fierce, peloton splintering, cross-winds.

Riders who have showed promise elsewhere this year largely prevailed. The first stage on Tuesday, 194km from Middelkerke to Zottegem, was won by Andrei Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), the lone sprinter in a 4-man break. He assumed the leader’s jersey only to lose it on the following day’s lumpy  219km to Koksijde. It was gratefully assumed by Liewe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) although the stage winner was  Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha) who managed to hold off John Degenkolb (HTC-High Road).

This morning’s 111km sprint stage around De Panne was held in the rain, consequently a number of riders opted not to start : most notably, Alessandro Ballan (BMC), Peter Sagan (Liquigas), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM). The sprint for the line from the leading bunch of around 50 riders was won by Jacopo Guarini (Liquigas) who managed to stay just ahead of Galimzyanov. Over 70 riders finished outside the time limit,  so there were only 56 competing in the afternoon’s individual time-trial.

Last man off was Bert De Backer (Skil-Shimano) who had taken the leader’s jersey with a sprint bonus that morning. But there were 27 riders within 10 seconds of him, including some notable chrono men. The sky was overcast and there was some rain on part of the course towards the back end. The biggest factor was once again the wind on what looked to be quite a technical course.

Sebastien Rosseler (RadioShack) comfortably won the time-trial and the overall. Westra was runner-up, once again, despite the frenzied and manical urgings of his DS from the team car. Although, for consolation, he had the climber’s and most combative jerseys.  De Backer won the sprints jersey and Galymzyanov the points one. Third-placed man on the podium was Rosseler’s team mate, 20 year-old Michal Kwiatkowski who had turned in a very fine performance in the time-trial. A Belgian winner on Belgian soil, just what the organisers and spectators wanted.

7-year itch

Yesterday was pretty blissful. My beloved and I rose late, largely thanks to the clocks going forward and his tardy arrival back into Nice the night before. We breakfasted, dressed, mounted our bikes and headed for that morning’s pointage, just up the road in St Paul de Vence. The sky was overcast and it was obviously going to rain at some point, probably sooner rather than later.

We enjoyed our ride before collecting the newspapers and heading for home. Narrowly avoiding the rain, which fell all afternoon, evening and overnight. After lunch, I settled down on the sofa (suitably attired) to enjoy the newspapers and a veritable smorgasbord of cycling.

Up first was all three stages of the Criterium International, or Jens Voigt Invitational as it’s more commonly known. As if by magic, guess who was a sole breakaway on  stage 1? None other than Jens himself, putting the hurt on the other teams and paving the way for Frank Schleck’s (Leopard Trek) win atop L’Ospedale, ahead of Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis). My beloved and I know this area well having ridden around here on a trip with the cycling club. Stage 2’s 75km sprint stage was won by  Skil-Shimano’s Simon Geschke, his first pro-win, while Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack) won the 7km time-trial around Porto Vecchio. The results of those subsequent stages left the podium unchanged.

Next up was Gent-Wevelgem, shorn of Fabulous Fabian, but still choc full of talent vying for the win and those valuable UCI points. Allegedly, Tom Boonen (Quickstep) was left to watch yesterday’s win on the television so that he could better perform today and “justify his salary” so-said his manager, Patrick Lefevre. As the television coverage started, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) was leading a small group of escapees, validating beyond any shadow of a doubt his team’s invitation.

After Voeckler was re-absorbed into the peloton, various attacks were launched and brought back, the last one just a few hundred kilometers before the finish. The narrow, twisting, farm roads had snapped the peloton into several bunches, but the main contenders barr Goss, Cavendish, Hushovd and Pozzato were in the leading group which sprinted for the line. Boonen powered past everyone to snatch victory, 7 years after his last win here in 2004. Danieli Bennati (Leopard Trek) was 2nd and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) finished 3rd.

To win in the Classics, you need legs, luck and good positioning. Boonen had endured a long wait for the team car after a problem at the foot of the Monteberg, 74km from the finish, before expending not inconsiderable energy chasing back to the front of the peloton. While the manner of his victory was quite different from that of Cancellara’s, it will have boosted his confidence ahead of next week’s Tour of Flanders.

We then watched video highlights of the final day’s stage of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya won by the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin, his 2nd stage win. Collecting not only precious UCI points for his team Cofidis, but also justifying their invitation to the event. The overall was won by Contador who had assumed the lead after Wednesday’s queen stage. If anything, his popularity in Spain, where he’s perceived as being victimised, has grown as the doping case has progressed. If I were Pat McQuaid, I would eliminate Spain from my immediate travel plans.

Finally, we caught up with the last day’s action from the track World Championships where Australia have dominated and others have disappointed. Sated, we opted for an early night. All that cycling’s exhausting.

Memories of Melbourne I

I’ve arrived in Sydney and have now had time to collect my thoughts. You’re probably thinking three races and three sprint finishes, not the outcome I predicted.  True, but let’s look at what took place. The U23 race and that of the women kicked off in similar fashion with a lone American on a mission of self-destruction. All the action took place in the last couple of laps with riders trying but ultimately being unable to escape the oncoming group.  A couple of factors came into play here. The second hill was just that too far from the finish.  Because of the long straight road, any escapee was in full view of the peloton and was further hindered by the strong headwind along the esplanade. Many teams employed negative tactics and riders were unwilling to work together.

The U23 race was won by Michael Matthews, more of an all-rounder, than a pure sprinter. The ladies race might have been won by either Judith Arndt or Nicole Cooke if they hadn’t been so concerned about leading one another to the finish line. Instead, the winner was a powerful sprinter, Italian Giorgia Bronzini. The remaining two spots on the podium were, again, all-rounders, rather than pure sprinters.

The crowds had swelled considerably for Sunday’s race and it was hard finding a good position on the 50m line which had been colonized by the most fervent supporters of the official Tom Boonen fan club, who had travelled to Australia despite the absence of their sporting hero.  Typically, Tom musters thousands of supporters at the World Championships. Having 40 turn up when you’re not even there speaks volumes. The Italians had adopted the 50m marker on the other side of the road but had only an Italian flag while the Flemish could muster t-shirts, flags, hats and balloons: round 1 to the Belgians.

The Men’s Race, which took place in perfect weather conditions, was more of an enigma. The peloton took off from the centre of Melbourne at a positively pedestrian pace aided by a tail wind as far as Weribee. A group of five relatively unknown riders went off the front shortly after the start and built up a seemingly invincible lead of over 23 minutes. No doubt concern was being expressed by the UCI commissars as to what would happen if, having arrived in Geelong, the leading group of 5 lapped the field. In theory, the field would have to retire. Thankfully for the UCI this situation didn’t arise. The leading group, and the sole rider in no man’s land between the two groups, wore themselves out well before the finish line and, one by one, were absorbed back into the peloton, spit out the back and retired.

On reaching Geelong, the peloton had cranked up the pace with riders dropping out on each of the circuits, their work for the day done and dusted. Not unnaturally, the bigger teams (USA, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Australia) did the lion’s share of the work, all hoping to place their protected rider in a winning position. Cadel Evans put on a magnificent defence of his rainbow jersey but rather wore himself out in the process. Philippe Gilbert vied with Cadel for the role of most aggressive rider but his 3rd and final escape was doomed by that strong headwind.  I had erroneously assumed  Filippo Pozzato would work with Philippe Gilbert, on the basis that a medal is better than no medal. I was so wrong: round 2 to the Belgians.

Phil Gil and his shadow

Finally, it was the Russians who reunited the fractured peloton of around 30 riders in the last 1km enabling the mass sprint which was won by the ever popular God of Thunder, Thor Hushovd of Norway who was part of a team of three.  Dane, Matti Breschel moved up a place this year to claim 2nd, while Aussie Allan Davis was 3rd. I wouldn’t call either Hushovd or Breschel pure sprinters, they’re fast finishing rouleurs. Few figured on the final podium, but that’s what makes the racing exciting – it’s unpredictability.

Back to back victories

Yesterday, I set off ahead of the rest of my clubmates fearing that I would arrive only to find the lunchtime picnic had already been demolished but mainly so as not to keep anyone waiting for me. It was decidedly chilly as I left St Jeannet, having driven there in the car. I was well wrapped up in  my long sleeved jersey, gilet and leg warmers. Although it was much balmier later in the day, I stayed thus clad.

Despite the cold, I was going surprisingly well and was joined by another early starter on the road to Bouyon. We rode on together until Roquesteron where, concerned that this might be the last bastion, I took a comfort break in one of the cafes. You do not want to be caught short, or rather I don’t, on the plateau: it’s very exposed.

I then plodded into the unknown as I’ve never ridden this particular stretch of road. It was largely uphill through Sigale, Collongues, Brianconnet, St Auban and Malamaire then fairly flat across the plateau. At this time of year, it’s pretty deserted and we saw few cars and few other cyclists. The countryside, thanks to the recent combination of sunshine and showers, was looking truly magnificent and I rode to the lake at Thorenc where two of the wives had prepared a magnificent picnic for us. The boys had overtaken me on the long uphill stretch and had already feasted by the time I arrived. I only stopped long enough to down a couple of cokes and a ham sandwich before remounting and setting off towards home.

I was determined that they were not going to overtake me on the way back. I set off at a brisk pace and really pushed on the descents. After the climb up St Pons to Coursegoules, its pretty much downhill all the way. I made it back to the car without being caught though to be honest our paths would have diverged after Carros. When I checked with them today, it appears that I wasn’t caught thanks to time lost on two punctures. In any event, I broke 10 hours by 14 minutes. Job well done.

I got back home in time to witness Pippo Pozzato, resplendent in the Italian champion’s jersey, take Italy’s first stage win of the Giro from a breakaway. Not one that had been away all day, but one that had slipped away in the final kilometers and was composed largely of the recently dethroned favourites, minus Evans, who managed to pull back a few seconds on those better placed on GC.

Well wouldn’t you know it, victories are just like buses. You wait ages for one and then another one comes along soon after. Yes, homeboy Manuel Belletti (Colnago CSF-Inox) won the sprint for the line from a breakaway into Cesenatico, a stage devoted to another local, one Marco Pantani.

Karpets, the scariest looking rider in the peloton, who was in the breakaway, took back over two minutes to leapfrog from 19th to 12th on GC. Otherwise, the status quo was maintained. However, it all kicks off tomorrow with a very lumpy stage which finishes in Asolo, home to one of my dearest friends. I do hope she’ll be watching it live.

Bouleversement

I got caught in the rain this morning as I went out for a quick training ride ahead of tomorrow’s marathon: 175km and 2,713m of climbing.  I then rushed around, like the mad woman that I am, fulfilling my long list of must do chores for today. I arrived back home in time to watch today’s stage of the Giro, a fairy innocuous (or so I thought), long (262km) stage to L’Aquila.

I switched on the tv to discover one-third of the peloton (56 riders) were having a Perreiro moment. They’d gone away in the 20th kilometer and had built up an advantage of 17 minutes in the pouring rain. Yes, after yesterday’s sunshine, the weather gods are once more displeased.

Most of those occupying the top 15 spots on GC, including the maglia rosa, were in Group 2. Those who we were all (wrongly) figuring might be out of contention, were in Group 1. How they were allowed to build up such an advantage remains a mystery but, is bound to be a talking point at the dinner table this evening. By the time the favourites started taking their turn on the front of Group 2, having exhausted their troops, it was definitely a case of far too little, too late.

The stage was won by Evgeni Petrov (Katusha) ahead of Dario Cataldo (Quick Step) and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo); so, still no Italian stage win.  Ritchie Porte (Saxo Bank) now has both the pink and white jerseys.  David Arroyo (Casse d’Epargne) is in 2nd place while Robert Kiserlovski (Liquigas) is 3rd.

Group 2 containing Vinokourov, Basso, Nibali, Evans, Garzelli, Scarponi, Pozzato, Karpets, Cunego and Pinotti (among others) came in over 12 minutes and 46 seconds down and they are now way back on GC. This is turning into one hell of a Giro, I can hardly wait for tomorrow’s stage. What better incentive to finish tomorrow’s ride in a reasonable time so that I can watch the highlights. What, you thought I’d be back in time to watch it live?  Sadly, no way, but I’m hoping to break 10 hours.