Heavenly feeling

The weather the past few days has been gloriously sunny, albeit cold. I’ve been out every day, generally around lunchtime, diligently following the training plan. I’ll shortly  have been trained by my coach for twelve whole months. I’m going to continue as I feel it’s been money well spent. My technique has improved, I’m feeling more confident on the bike, I’m riding faster and further, climbing better and I’ve lost more weight. I’m definitely heading in the right direction.

Yesterday, I had another puncture. My second in four days but only my fourth in four year’s of cycling.  You may recall I had both the tyre and inner tube replaced on Saturday. I hit a pothole (unfortunately) while riding (fortunately) with some clubmates. I hit the hole heavily with my front tyre, but it was the rear one which rapidly deflated. Quick as a flash my team mates dismounted and within a couple of minutes, they had rectified the problem. Thanks boys!

I spent last week putting the final touches to the brochure for our annual cycling event, La Laurentine Andrei Kivilev, this week I’m translating it into a number of other languages, ready to disseminate far and wide. I’m also finalising plans for my 2011 Cycling Trips.

I may well be making an appearance at all three Grand Tours this year, although the trip to the Giro, because of its timing, just before the Kivilev, is always the one most likely to be cancelled. I booked our trip to watch the Tour in the Alps the same day ASO announced the route, but the others have been coming together more slowly.

For instance, as soon as I learned, a week or so ago, that the Vuelta would be visiting Bilbao, I immediately located and booked a  bijou hotel. Getting to Bilbao by plane involves a change in Barcelona, so I may well go either by car or train which will make taking the bike much easier.  It’ll also mean I can bring back plenty of Basque goodies: edibles, not riders clad in orange jerseys. There’s a thought. How many Euskatel riders could you cram into a Smart?

It was only when I received, somewhat belatedly, my Xmas card from Bert that I realised, if he could get to the next World Championships in Copenhagen from Auckland, I really needed to be there too. At his age, he’s unlikely to be around for too many more. He’s currently two short of seventy-five. I’m sure he’ll make it. Hotel and flight have now been booked. I have finally arranged the much-vaunted trip to go and watch Paris-Roubaix. I can easily get to Lille on the train and have found a delightful, quirky hotel in Roubaix. Not wishing to risk either of my beloved BMCs on the cobbles, I may travel “sans velo”.

There’s less urgency over planning and booking trips to watch either the Dauphine or the Tour of Switzerland. I’ve never had any problem sourcing last-minute accommodation for either of them. Of course, I’ll also be watching those races close to home such as Tour of the Med and Paris-Nice. Sadly, events beyond my control have interfered with me viewing the Tour of Haut Var (younger sister’s wedding) and Milan-San Remo (club sponsor’s daytime 60th birthday party). I’m also planning  to support our club’s junior and espoir teams when they start racing at the end of next month.

I shall of course be making my annual pilgrimage to Mont Ventoux, this time in early June. I plan to cycle around the Italian lakes in early April when attending the Grand Opening of my Swiss friend’s new bike shop. I foresee heavily discounted  bike bling heading my way.

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.

Jilted

Yesterday’s big news in the cycling world was the much heralded signing of Contador for two years to the Sungard-Saxo Bank team by Bjarne Riis. Rumours had circulated well before the Tour that the brothers Schleck were leaving to set up their own Luxembourg based team.  Riis must have felt this was a hammer blow to his attempts to find a replacement sponsor as Saxo Bank had previously indicated that they would cease their sponsorship at the end of this season. It’s much easier to secure sponsorship when you’ve proven race winners on your squad, thank heavens that Fabulous Fabian’s contract doesn’t expire for another year.

With Riis in a quandry, Specialized to the rescue. The US bike manufacturer has made no secret of its ambition to have the world’s, two, best bike riders, namely Contador and Cancellara, astride their frames. As their recent adverts testify: “Two Teams, One Bike”. Here was an opportunity for “One Team, One Bike”.  It may also have helped Saxo Bank to reverse their decision and continue their sponsorship for a further season.

Obviously, some of the money saved by Specialized’s sponsorship of only one team will end up in Contador’s pockets. You can’t blame him for going to the highest bidder. A rider’s career is relatively short-lived and he has  to make the most of it.

There are two other issues which will have factored into his decision making. Firstly, there’s a team time-trial relatively early on in next year’s Tour. Who wouldn’t want Cancellara on their team? Remember how last’s year’s TTT ended the Tour aspirations of a number of big names? Secondly, Andy’s performance this year signaled an improvement on last year’s. He matched Contador in the mountains. If Contador is to beat him again next year, who better to ride for than the man who knows him best?

Astana seem pretty sanguine about losing Contador. He has after all won them the Giro, the Vuelta and two Tours – not a bad haul. He’s remained on good terms with Vino, even riding a criterium yesterday in France at his suggestion. There are a number of good riders still seeking a home for next year and I’m sure they won’t be short of suitors. They’ve already secured the signature of Robert Kiserlovski (Liquigas) who was 10th in this year’s Giro. Watch this space for further announcements……………………………

Easy, easy, easy

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

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

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

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

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

Pyrotechnics

On the eve of Bastille Day many towns, including mine, host a spectacular fireworks display. In fact, sitting on my balcony with a view of the coast from Cap Ferrat to Cap d’Antibes, I can witness two concurrent displays.

The hot and heavy weather is continuing and most days I seek out routes in the shade but even so when I arrived at Tourettes sur Loup this morning I could’ve happily dived right into the fountain. However, mindful of my position of Club Secretary, I decided against it.

Back home, I took a cold shower and slipped into something  light and flimsy to watch this afternoon’s stage: 204km from Morzine-Avoriaz to St-Jean-de Maurienne. I needed to wear something light because I was in the home straight of my hors categorie ironing mountain which had been hanging around since the start of the Giro. Luckily my beloved has an extensive wardrobe dating back to when we had three apartments.

I feel rather guilty about the amount of time I spend glued to the Tour which I partially alleviate by multi-tasking. I have ironed over 80 shirts and around 100 t-shirts. Tomorrow, I’ll start on the pile of mending: missing buttons, hems and the like. Usually, I manage to sort out and tidy all the cupboards and drawers in the lounge and re-organise my dressing room. Sadly, this year they’ll have to wait for the Vuelta.

Meanwhile, back to the action. With Lance’s hopes of adding to his Tour crowns crushed on Sunday, everyone else was still pretty much in contention as the peloton rolled out for today’s testing stage. 

Stage 9

An early breakaway including 5 French riders was established.  BMC was controlling the peloton but there were riders popping off the back from quite early on thanks to a flurry of attacks and the profile of today’s leg sapping stage.

By the time they reached the foot of the Col de la Madelaine, the breakaway had been whittled down, the gruppetto was well established and the leading contenders were being shelled out the back like peas under pressure from first Saxo Bank, and then Astana. 

With 40km to go, Andy Schleck turned the screw but couldn’t distance Alberto Contador. Indeed the two rode together to the crest and then down the other side, Alberto looking the more comfortable, until they joined up with Christophe Moreau (one of the original escapees) with around 18km to go to the finish. Samu Sanchez had been trying to bridge up to them but, despite treating us to a master class in descending, never quite managed to close the gap. With 10km to go, he was out grimacing Nikki Sorensen. 

Schleck and Contador caught the remainder of the breakaway on the run in to the finish which was won by Sandy Casar (FDJ): yet another French win. Schleck the younger was now in yellow, Contador was sitting comfortably at 41 seconds behind with Samu in 3rd, 2:45 down. Barring a disaster, it’s now a two horse race.

And the winning tickets are………………

Ten days later than previously promised, Christian Prudhomme has opined. The 22 teams for the 2010 Tour de France are as expected: the sixteen teams covered by the September 2008 agreement, the four new Pro-Tour Teams (Katusha, Sky, Garmin, Radioshack), and the two most promising Continental Pro-Tour teams (Cervelo and BMC). So there’s no room at the Tour for Saur-Sojasun, Vacansoleil or Skil Shimano although they are on the substitutes bench.

One can only imagine the long faces over at Vacansoleil HQ. The Tour starts in their home town, they’re guaranteed to animate any race, they sponsored Paris-Nice and they bought the brothers Feillu. They’ve also been shut out of the Giro and a number of other ASO races.

Pat McQuaid had been openly critical of  the length of time ASO was taking to make a decision. However, three months before the start of the Tour is not unreasonable, nor is taking two months to assess the strengths of the contenders’ teams. It’s not been an easy decision. Teams are bound to be disappointed and sponsors may well question the benefits of sponsorship if they don’t get the global exposure afforded by the Tour.

However, those teams who were disappointed this year need to be patient. There is no agreement in place as to who is guaranteed a spot next year. There are a number of sponsors withdrawing from the sport (Milram, Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne) and some considering withdrawing (Bbox Bouygues Telecom). Teams, like last year, may be relegated from or promoted to the Pro-Tour ranks. And, assuredly,  there will be new sponsors. This changing landscape is what makes the sport so interesting for the fans but a wee bit nerve-racking for the riders.

Postscript: Prudhomme today defended his decision in L’Equipe. However, he might as well have said that it was a no-brainer.  The two Continental Pro Tour teams selected have a former Tour Winner (Sastre) and a former green jersey wearer (Hushovd) and the current World Champion, who’s twice been second (Evans). These outweigh any French riders on Dutch teams or, indeed, French riders on French teams.

La Sisteronne

I drove over to Sisteron early on Friday afternoon, deciding to forego watching what I was sure would be yet another Mark Cavendish sprint fest in the Giro. More importantly, I wanted to pick up my number that afternoon and check out the start of the course.

The temperature rose steadily as I drove inland and the air was hot, heavy and humid. Indeed, there were several small downpours which I hoped were not indicative of the forecast for the following day, but indeed they were.  Having checked into my hotel on the outskirts of town, I drove into Sisteron to collect my number and check out the course in more detail.

I was undecided which course to ride but given that the route was common to both up until the first feed zone, felt there was no need to make a decision just yet. On the longer orange route, the climb up the Mont de Lure looked worryingly steep and, although I had checked it out on the map, could discern neither its length nor its gradient.

A local told me it was around 7% average. In itself not a problem, the issue was that it came after about 100km. This is generally the point in any ride where I am looking forward to descending rather than further ascending.

The following morning, the hotel was full of riders enjoying a hearty breakfast. Everyone else was in groups of twos, three or fours. I was the only “Billy-no-clubmates”. I rode to the start, arriving in plenty of time to greet fellow riders from a number of clubs local to me and see Lucien Aimar and Stephen Roche who, having instigated the event and designed the routes, were also taking part. That was of course the last I saw them. Still, I can legitimately claim to have ridden with two ex-Tour de France winners.

The cyclosportif riders were due to set off ten minutes ahead of the randonneurs: an excellent arrangement. I was in no hurry, I already knew that the course quickly wound up from the Town Hall, went round the back of the town and up a narrow, steep hill before bursting into the surrounding countryside. Consequently, most of the randonneurs had to walk up the hill, in a scene reminiscent of some of the cobbled Classics, much to the bemusement of a number of horses who were eyeing the ungainly procession from an adjoining field.

I was soon dodging support vehicles, no drafting necessary, and making my way up the back of the field. The roads were quiet, the marshalling impressive, the crowds appreciative and the countryside was lush and verdant, bejewelled with wild flowers, after all the recent rainfall.

I took stock, and a decision, at the first feed zone electing to ride the shorter course: with hindsight, a wise decision. Freed from the necessity to hold something back for the monster climb, I could now throw caution to the wind and give it my all.

I finished in a respectable time, behind Messrs Aimar and Roche, 10th in my class and far from last. Eschewing the post-race feed zone, I dropped off my timing device, rode back to the hotel, sunk a couple of cokes and drove home.

Postscript Tuesday: I went onto the La Sisteronne web site today to print off my certificate (very hi-tech) and discovered that there were no fewer than 18 photographs of me! Given that the camera adds 10lbs (5kgs), looking at the photos, I have to ask just how many cameras did they have trained on my person? Answer, far too many. The photographs were taken by a German company called Sportograf for whom I have a heartfelt message: Wenn Sie mich eine Fotographie kaufen wünschen, benutzen Sie bitte das Kamera das mir dünner, nicht fetter zu sein macht!

Just another

Today is yet another French May Bank holiday. I had planned to drive to Sestri Levante to watch the monster Giro ITT. However, six hours (there and back) in the car and another eight hours standing in the sunshine, getting dehydrated, is most definitely not ideal preparation for Saturday’s 150km La Sisteronne. In my experience, I’ve found it’s generally better to attend such events in pairs, that way there’s someone to keep your place should you need a comfort break, food, refreshments etc. In addition, you need to arrive way before the start to bag a decent spot so it’s good to have someone to chat with so as to mitigate the boredom before things get rolling.

There was also an official club ride today: official, in that it counted towards the Club “Championat du Regularite”. I’m leading the “Categorie Feminine” thanks solely to lack of competition. I arrived at the bus stop this morning, our usual rendez vous point, to find it deserted. Had I missed the email advising that the club ride start time had moved to 07:30am? Just as I was contemplating heading out, a couple of the boys put in an appearance. Clearly, they were all having a bit of a lie-in this morning and by 08:00am there was over 20 of us. I set off at the head of the peloton but the boys were really fired up and we’d probably gone only 5kms before I was off the back.

Not  needing a full-bore 100km ride this morning, and knowing that they wouldn’t miss me, I took a left turn up to Gattieres and rode along to La Gaude where I met another club member who’d just punctured. He lives in La Gaude and so I rode back home with him where he swopped his set of wheels and was soon on his way. Meanwhile, I decided to have a cup of tea in the sunshine with his wife, who kindly first encouraged me to cycle with the club over 18 months’ ago. She’s only just getting back on the bike after a 3 month lay-off following operations on both wrists. She’s also been incredibly helpful with my fund raising. She’s put lots of the La Ligue contre Cancer collection boxes in her local shops. As a cancer survivor, she understands.

Heading back home I passed Maxime Monfort, who shares my birthday, going in the other direction. You know that Columbia kit is growing on me. I should add that seeing pro-tour riders out training is pretty much a daily occurrence round here. They’re easy to spot. The give away isn’t their matching kits and bikes; rather it’s the ease with which they handle their bikes: seeming at one with them. Something which I am unlikely ever to achieve but that doesn’t mean I should give up trying.