Back from the Basque country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out those gloves!

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

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

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

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

Postcards from the Alps IV, V and VI

According to L’Equipe, spectators wait an average of six hours to watch the peloton pass. At one end of the spectrum are those who watch it at home on television nipping out just before the riders zoom past their front garden. At the other end are those who, generally with their motorhomes, bag a spot on a key climb 3-4 days before the riders arrive. L’Equipe fails to take account of the time it takes to get in situ. This is where the bike trumps all other forms of transport. When key routes are closed to traffic, you can generally still ascend and descend by bike on the day of the stage. Watching the Tour on key stages makes for very long, but highly enjoyable, days hence the absence of any reports for the past few days.

The last three stages have been absorbing, fascinating and have made this year’s Tour truly memorable. Consequently, it seems inappropriate  to lump them together when each is deserving of it’s own fulsome report. Nonetheless, that’s what I’m going to do. Sadly, we sacrified the space normally dedicated to my beloved’s camera in the backpack for more clothes. I’ve spent many holidays in the Alps and while it’s often been wet I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold as this summer. I wasn’t one of those idiots risking hypothermia to grab my 15 seconds of fame in a skimpy outfit. No, we were the mummified couple huddled together sharing a little body heat.

When Andy Schleck rode off on the slopes of the Col d’Izoard on Thursday’s stage from Pinerolo to the top of the Galibier with 60km still remaining, you could hear the collective holding of breath. Was this a suicide mission or Andy’s response to the incessant sniping of the Press? In a move reminiscent of days of yore in the Tour and, fittingly on the 100th birthday of the Tour’s first visit  to the Galibier, Andy’s escape proved Merckxesque.  But that wasn’t all, to the delight of the French public, a last gasp effort from Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler ensured he would spend yet another day in yellow. Evans responded and singlehandedly dragged everyone else up the Galibier. After their exertions of the previous two day’s, sadly Bertie and Sammy weren’t able to remain with the contenders and they both slipped back in the final kilometers and down on GC. Tour over for some and just igniting for others. Only the white jersey changed shoulders, passing from Sky’s Rigoberto Uran to Cofidis’s Rein Taaramae. The eighty-nine riders who finished outside of the day’s time limit were reinstated but, with the loss of 20 points, the margin between Mark Cavendish and Jose Joaquin Rojas, in the fight for the green jersey, was reduced to 15 points.

Another day another fight, you write Bertie off at your peril. If he was going to lose his Tour crown, he was going to go down fighting. Anything Andy could do, he could do too. On Friday’s stage, which finished atop the iconic Alpe’d’Huez, Alberto attacked 15km into the stage. Initially the others responded  but Voeckler and Evans dropped back into the bunch before the summit of the first climb while Andy rode with Bertie, clearly hoping to put time into Evans who tried to organise the chasing group. Cadel had both the brothers for company when Contador soloed off on the Alpe and while they encouraged him to continue the pursuit he desisted. After all, who was the better time triallist? Who needed to put time into who? Exactly.

While Contador was leading the charge up the Alpe to what many assumed would be a Tour stage win, Sammy Sanchez, second on this stage in 2008 to Carlos Sastre, was in hot pursuit tailed by Pierre Rolland who’d been let off the leash by his leader, Thomas Voeckler. With 5km to go, Bertie was visibly fading. 3km later he was overtaken by Rolland who became the only French stage winner of the Tour, the first Frenchman to win here since Bernard Hinault in 1986 and he also took the white jersey of best young rider. Sammy was 2nd again, his 2nd 2nd place of the Tour but, as consolation, he landed the spotted jersey. Alberto was a gallant third and was adjudged the most aggressive rider which was to be his only podium appearance of this Tour. The maillot jaune slipped from the shoulders of Thomas Voeckler onto those of Andy Schleck. Cavendish remained in green, while both he and Rojas lost a further 20 points apiece for again finishing outside the time limit.

Most commentators felt that while the actions of the freres Schleck had been heroic, their time-trialling skills were much inferior to those of Cadel, who had the added advantage of having ridden the same course in the Dauphine. The stage was set and, while those going earlier in the order had to cope with damp conditions, the roads had dried by the time the top riders set off. HTC’s Tony Martin, heir apparent to Spartacus, set a blistering and ultimately winning pace. The body language of Cadel and Andy in the start gate was interesting to observe: the first focused and intent, the latter nervous. The brothers posted similar times to remain on the podium, a first for the Tour. Cadel Evans posted the second best time to leapfrog over Andy and take the treasured yellow jersey: the first winner from Down Under. The realisation of a long held dream and just reward for a very intelligently ridden Tour. Thomas Voeckler rode the time-trial of his life to remain in 4th place, the best finish for a Frenchman for a very long time. Pierre Rolland resisted the challenge of Rein Taaramae, a superior time triallist, to retain the white jersey. Bertie and Sammy both turned in very respectable times in the time trial to finish in 5th and 6th places respectively ahead of the Italian duo of Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego.

Okay, the Tour’s not yet over but today is largely a procession around the suburbs of Paris followed by a criterium around the capital. Etiquette dictates that the yellow jersey is not attacked on the final day. There still remains the question of the green jersey but I would be very surprised to see anyone other than Cavendish win today, his 5th win of the Tour and his 3rd consecutive win on the Champs Elysees. As an aside, I love the fact that all of BMC are wearing yellow Oakley’s today – nice touch.

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”

Counting down the clock

As part of my preparations for The Tour, yesterday afternoon I watched the Tour de France team presentation held in the theatrical, Gallo-Roman, Parc du Puy-du-Fou. The spectacle was much enjoyed by the 6,000 capacity crowd. The riders were made to feel like gladiators when we all know they’re Christians about to be fed to the lions. The world champion entered into the spirit of things by reprising his role as Thor, God of Thunder, with a plundered wig and props. One sour note was the booing of Alberto Contador. While one appreciates the frustration of the fans, under the current regulations, Alberto has every right to take part in this year’s Tour. If you don’t like it, please boo the rule makers, not those subject to said regulations.

Everything is ready to maximise my viewing experience. I have this month’s copy of Velo magazine with a run down on all the riders, updated with today’s 8-page special from L’Equipe. I have last month’s Velo magazine with a detailed explanation of each and every stage. I have my Tour de France reference books. These are all piled on the coffee table in front of the television ready for tomorrow’s first stage. For those of you who aren’t so well organised, can I suggest you check out two websites which contain all the pertinent information in a readily digestible format: www.thearmchairsportsfans.com and www.inrng.com.

Obviously, I’ve had a few musing myself and have been checking out the stats. Forty-six riders (23%) weigh more than me. Of course, there are some teams where none of the riders weigh more than me, that is individually rather than as a team! We’re talking Euskaltel (quelle surprise), Radioshack, AG2R, Cofidis and Europcar.

Eight riders celebrate (or not) their birthdays during the Tour:-

  • 2 July Juergen Roelandts
  • 3 July Nico Roche
  • 4 July Vladimir Gusev
  • 5 July Philippe Gilbert
  • 8 July Paolo Tiralongo
  • 15 July Alan Perez
  • 16 July Andrei Greipel
  • 22 July Dries Devenyns

It remains to be seen whether any of these can garner an additional birthday present from the Tour. The most likely is PhilGil who narrowly missed out on his birthday in 2008 on the 1st stage finish into Plumelec when he was beaten to the line by Alejandro Valverde. No chance of the same happening this year. He will however have his eye on the 1st, 4th and 6th stages. He’s the most likely of the birthday boys to spend a couple of days gracing the maillot jaune.

There are 16 Tour de France virgins, not all of whom will go all the way [to Paris].   It’s important, particularly with the younger ones, to take each day as it comes. At the other end of the scale, Big George Hincapie’s taking part in his 16th Tour, equalling the record held by Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk. On a more sobering note, there are only 33 (16.67%) riders who are too old to be my son.

The youngest rider in this year’s peloton is Saur-Sojasun’s Anthony Delaplace who was born in November 1989 while the oldest is (no prizes for guessing)  39 year old Jens Voigt, who could have fathered the youngest! The team with the highest average age (again, no prizes for guessing) is Radioshack (33). It’s a place they would have occupied last year as well when Lance was still riding in their midst.

Riders from 30 different nations are taking part though, not unreasonably, 45 (22.7%) of these are French. Four teams are only fielding riders from their home nation: Katusha, Eukaltel-Euskadi, Europcar and Saur-Sojasun.

Looking at the photos that have been used by both Velo and L’Equipe, I have to ask, where did you get them from? They all look as if they were taken in one of those photo booths which is incapable of taking a decent photo of anyone, even a Supermodel.

Everyone has made their prognostications, including me, but that was before I knew Alberto would be riding. The opinions of the editorial team of Velo magazine make interesting reading, along with their picks for the stage wins. Here’s their consensus for the jerseys:-

  • Maillot jaune – Alberto Contador (8/11)
  • Maillot a pois – David Moncoutie (4/11)
  • Maillot vert – Thor Hushovd (4/11)
  • Meilleur jeune –  Robert Gesink (11/11)

The white jersey (meilleur jeune) was the only one to enjoy unanimity. Two journalists picked Schleck Jr and one picked Schleck Sr for the win. There was less agreement among the journalists for the two other jerseys, largely I suspect because changes this year to the way in which the points are calculated make it  more difficult to predict. Gilbert, Farrar, Boassen Hagen, Cavendish and Goss were in the mix for the green jersey while Cunego, Gesink, Chavanel and Charteau figured in the picks for the spotted one.

Velo Magazine Predicted Stage winners:-

  • Stage 1 Passage du Gois – Mont des Alouettes: Thor Hushovd
  • Stage 2 Les Essarts – Les Essarts (TTT): Radioshack
  • Stage 3 Olonne-sur-Mer – Redon: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 4 Lorient – Mur-de-Bretagne: Philippe Gilbert
  • Stage 5 Carhaix – Cap Frehel: Fabian Cancellara
  • Stage 6 Dinan – Lisieux: Matthew Goss
  • Stage 7 Le Mans – Chateauroux: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 8 Aigurande – Super Besse: Sylvain Chavanel
  • Stage 9 Issoire – Saint-Flour: Alexandre Vinokourov
  • Stage 10 Aurillac – Carmaux: Thomas de Gendt
  • Stage 11 Blaye-lesMines – Lavaur: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 12 Cignaux – Luz Ardiden: Frank Schleck
  • Stage 13 Pau – Lourdes: Luis Leon Sanchez
  • Stage 14 Saint Gaudens – Plateau de Beille: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 15 Limoux – Montpelier: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 16 Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux – Gap: Vasil Kiryienka
  • Stage 17 Gap – Pinerolo: Christophe Kern
  • Stage 18 Pinerolo – Galibier Serre Chevalier: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 19 Modane – Alpe d’Huez: Andy Schleck
  • Stage 20 Grenoble – Grenoble (ITT): Tony Martin
  • Stage 21 Creteil – Paris: Mark Cavendish

You would have to say that these are not unreasonable, however, I would hope that Euskaltel, specifically Sammy Sanchez, manages to bag a stage. Additionally, I’m not wholly convinced that Cavendish will be so dominant in the sprints. We’ll just have to wait and see. Bring it on.

12 July Postscript: Velo magazine not faring too well in the prognostications. Indeed,  a number of riders nominated for wins are either down and out or merely limping along. Stage 7 has been their only good call which kinda shows just how unpredictable it’s been.

25 July Postscript: None of the experts have fared too well in the predictions game which just goes to show that cycling’s unpredictable and exciting.

Place your bets please

There’s always a lively debate about whether it’s best to ride the Dauphine or the Tour of Switzerland and what one can read into the form of each of the participants.  Personally, I feel it’s unwise to draw too many conclusions. History is rarely an accurate predictor of the future, just ask any actuary. It’s entirely possible that the eventual winner of the Tour participated in neither race (Alberto Contador). It’s a question of which race best fits the ambitions of the respective teams and their riders.

Bradley Wiggins win in the Dauphine is to be applauded. Was that Sky’s ambition before the race? Who knows? Or, having seized the opportunity, and the yellow jersey, did Wiggo and Sky merely do what needed to be done to stay atop of the podium. I often feel that you’re in a much stronger position when you’re in the leader’s jersey. You get a huge confidence boost and someone then has to try and take the jersey away from you. You just have to defend it.  No doubt this win, the biggest of Wiggins’ career on the road, should not be taken lightly, nor should one assume that Wiggins is battling for no better than 3rd. Shorn of Riis’s strategic and tactical support, I feel the Schleck’s will be at more of a disadvantage. In addition, it looks as if Andy has kept faith with his mechanic – was this wise?

Of course, it’s not so much whether it’s easier to win a one week tour than it is a three week one, more that the pool of riders capable of doing the former is greater than the latter. Nor should one make assumptions about the form, or lack thereof, of those who finished further down the GC, such as Schleck Jr, Basso and Samu. There’s still a couple of weeks for riders to find their form. Some find it easier and quicker to find than others. Again, we don’t know what their ambitions were going into the respective races. Was it just a training ride, were they sand bagging, fine tuning their form or were they going for the win?

Generally, the two races give those on the teams’ reserve lists an opportunity to prove their worth. Riders want to be at the Tour, it’s the largest, global, annual sporting spectacle and an ideal opportunity to conclude a deal for the following year, particularly if you’re in the last year of your contract.  Again, speculation is already rife as to who’s going where. But as the UCI’s window is closed, neither side can officially confirm the rumour mongering.

This year will be the debut Tour for a number of riders, including some who have already invested a number of years in the professional ranks. Nice Matin today featured an interview with a rider who lives locally and rides for Cofidis, Tristan Valentin. After breaking his elbow in Paris-Roubaix in 2008, he’s had a torrid time of it over the past three years.  I’d like to wish him good luck for this year’s Tour and I’ll be rooting for him to at least get in a breakaway and snaffle some airtime.

Postscript: Get well soon Juan Mauricio Soler

No response

As predicted, young Alan Gilbert made his second podium appearance yesterday afternoon in front of an adoring home crowd. Looking a bit blase, bored even, he tried to enliven proceedings by eating the RTBF microphone. Maybe he was feeling peckish, teething or just at that stage where everything goes in his mouth. With those cute chubby cheeks, he looks like a baby who enjoys his food. His Dad, to whom he bears a striking resemblance, had just completed the Ardennes treble. Strictly speaking, it was the Ardennes quadruple and no one else has ever done this, not even the mighty Eddy. This was the one race PhilGil really wanted to win as it finishes in his back garden.  This brings his total of Classics wins to 8, the same number as the Badger, Bernard Hinault. No doubt Phil’ll be back later in the year to hoover up more wins in the autumn Classics and overtake the Badger.

L’Equipe published some advice on how one might beat Gilbert in this race, but obviously no one read it, certainly not the Schlecks. The pair  went clear with Phil Gil in the final few kilometres of the race on the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons. The showdown that everyone wanted to see. However, it was more of a damp squib, as the Schlecks obligingly carried Phil to the line. They seemed powerless to resist. You might have expected a flurry of attacks to try and tire out PhilGil but, no, they meekly submitted: all hail to the Classics King.

Here endeth the Spring Classics season. It’s enjoyed unprecedented weather and some spectacular racing. The first half was graced by a load of unanticipated wins while the second half was dominated by Alan’s Dad, who will now surely be spending a couple of well earned weeks off the bike. He’ll probably need a couple of days to recover from yesterday’s celebrations with his fan club who had erected an enormous tent for the proceedings. Large though it was, I doubt that it could even begin to house all of PhilGil’s fans as he’s been equally, and deservedly, embraced by the Walloons and Flandrians.  One of the few things to truly unite Belgium.

Despite the forecast, the weather was fine here too. We set off just ahead of the club for the pointage in Biot where my beloved elected to wait for his team mates  while I decided to continue in anticipation of shortly being overtaken. Surprisingly, I managed to stay ahead of the club, riding instead with a number of other groups, before returning home via Valbonne and Sophia Antipolis. This gave me an opportunity to finish lunch and have a leisurely shower before my beloved returned. He had ridden his new bike and was enthusiastically describing the experience to me. I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say he’s very, very pleased with it.

Pretty much perfect week end

Yesterday morning the sun was shining as we set off for a gentle ride prior to today’s l’Antiboise. We basically rode the last circuit of Saturday’s stage of Paris-Nice 2011. On our way back, my beloved tried to lure me up the steep ascent to Chateauneuf. I tried but frankly 13%, even in bottom bottom, on the 53 x 39 was just too much for me. As we climbed the Col de Testanier today, I felt that effort in my legs. Back home we toyed with the idea of a trip to Stade du Ray to watch the local derby, OGCN v Monaco, but felt far too lethargic to watch what we were sure would be yet another bore draw. Well, how wrong were we? Five goals, with OGCN running out the winners. Five goals at Stade du Ray, when did that happen last? My beloved boys in claret and blue also won 2-1 away to West Ham, moving them sharply up the table.

I did however find time in my busy day to check on the individual time trial in the Vuelta Ciclista Castille y Leon. Alberto Contador, the 3-time defending champion, had been taken out of the running by a couple of mechanicals on Friday’s queen stage. Not wishing to leave the race empty handed, he was a shoe in for a win in the 11km time trial which he took in imperious fashion ahead of team mate Ritchee Portee (French announcer’s pronunciation). We might have been treated to more of the racing had it not been for a 3-setter ladies Fed Cup match.

When the alarm went off this morning at 6am, I did not want to get up. Largely because I had spent most of the night listening to my beloved snore. It’s a family trait and due to yet another genetic default (can I get a refund?). He’s recently started snoring while he’s still awake although he denies it vehemently as he can’t hear himself. Add selective hearing loss to his list of defects. After an extra precious 15 minutes, we got up dressed, breakfasted and set off for the start in Antibes.

I told my beloved he could ride at his own pace, no need to wait for me. He was gone in a trice. I set off with a bunch of riders from a neighbouring club, but following wheels that wander all over the place is not my idea of fun. I left them behind. I know the route well and although the forthcoming Easter vacation has heralded an influx of holidaymakers, and additional traffic, the roads weren’t too busy. I sailed along enjoying the peace and quiet, taking in the glorious  surroundings. From time to time, small groups of riders would zoom past me, calling out greetings as they did so. It was the perfect day for a longish ride. In view of the early hour, I had donned my arm warmers and gilet which were much appreciated on the final descent. I’ve yet to discard my 3/4 bib shorts.

On the ascent of the Col, most unusually, I started overtaking riders and arrived at the mid-way point, and feed zone, with a number of others. I was gasping for a coke. Initially, I was advised they were out of coke, but someone found a bottle (thank goodness). I needed that sugar hit. The club which organises this ride is renowned for the paucity of their offerings. All that was left was some dried out cake and a piece of chocolate brioche. I quickly ate the latter. One of the other riders commented that the fare on offer simply didn’t bear comparison with my own cakes. The guy driving the broom wagon enquired whether I would be riding the longer course. I told him that I had learnt my lesson from last year and would be sticking to the shorter route. He looked immensely relieved.

It’s pretty much all downhill from hereon in on winding, wide roads in excellent condition. I wasn’t too tired and it wasn’t too windy for me to ape Sammy Sanchez. In no time at all I was back in Mandelieu and on the home stretch. I rang my beloved to advise him that I would be home soon. I had taken the precaution of leaving his lunch, which just needed re-heating, in the fridge. By the time I reached home, he’d showered, changed and eaten lunch. I could take a relaxing shower, slip into something slinky and settle on the sofa ready to view the  Amstel Gold Race. Unfortunately, I dropped off to sleep and missed most of the action, including Frank Schleck taking out fabulous Fabian, in a Leopard Trek pile up. Now there’s a wheel to avoid. My beloved woke me just as Schleck the younger soloed off on a suicide mission. Phil Gil was exhorting the chasing pack but, as we were to discover on the Cauberg, they didn’t have the legs to chase. Phil did. He crossed the line well ahead of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Simon Gerrans (Sky) for his second consecutive win. Someone, presumably his wife, handed him his baby son Alan, the spitting image of his Dad,  who was greatly enjoying proceedings. Get used to it Alan, it’s going to happen a lot.

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.

In the bag

While I spend a lot of time cycling on my own, I am equally at home riding with my clubmates. Even so there are certain wheels I would prefer not to follow as their owners either have a propensity to kiss the tarmac with alarming frequency or tend not to keep their line, particularly when  descending. Of course, given my (still) superior bodyweight, I  descend faster and therefore prefer to be at the head of the peloton.

Such riders are not the sole preserve of the amateur peloton. Should I ever find myself riding with the pros, there are a number whose wheels I would prefer to avoid. Most notably, Frank Schleck who found himself on the ground (again) today. He wasn’t the only one. Heinrich Haussler, lost concentration, and slipped off the road into a ditch. Both got back into the peloton after some mechanical assistance delivered from the team car window.

Coverage of today’s 199km sprinter’s stage from Monfort l’Amaury to Amilly started with around 47km remaining and most of the peloton 50 seconds behind breakaways Maxime Bouet (AG2R) and Tony Gallopin (Cofidis). A few kilometers later the entire procession was halted by a level crossing and, after the barriers re-opened, officials were hard pressed to maintain the leaders’ advantage as riders tried to slip around the cars. A lot seized the opportunity to indulge in one of my practices whereby, whenever the club peloton stops, I ghost to the front of the bunch (again).

The breakaways were re-absorbed with about 30km to go. The bunch appeared quite nervous today as the sprinters’ teams were determined not to forgo one of the remaining opportunities for a stage win. To be fair most of the better-known sprinters have elected to take part in Tirreno-Adriatico as the more undulating terrain better suits their preparation for the Spring classics.

In the run into the finish, the helm was assumed in turn by a number of different teams: Astana, Movistar, HTC-HighRoad. But it was Sky who got their act together in the final stretch with Geraint Thomas leading out Kiwi Greg Henderson for the win. He finished ahead of Matt Goss (HTC) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil), who set off on his own with 1.5km to go, was taken back after 300km but  retained the yellow jersey making his recent sausage and salami sacrifice worthwhile.

As well as dealing with the week’s inevitable administrative burden, I have whipped up a delicious dinner for my beloved. I’m very fond of Indian cuisine but rarely make it just for myself. This evening we’re having tandoori spiced lamb with pilau rice and cauliflower curry.

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.