For want of a spoke, the race was lost

Sign-on at GP Miguel Indurain
Sign-on at GP Miguel Indurain

Sadly my plans to ride some of the Tour of the Basque country course have gone awry. We arrived in Estella on Friday evening, dined well and enjoyed a good night’s sleep to awake to yet more glorious sunshine. We decided to ride a couple of the loops of the GP Miguel Indurain, catching the race both en route and as it passed through the town. I also rode up to the summit finish twice, please note the peloton only had to do it once!

Sunday, also dawned fair but soon turned grey and overcast. We were now in the heart of the Basque country, ideally placed to view each of the start and finishes of the six stages in the Tour of the Basque country. Undaunted, we muffled up and rode out, heading due north. I hadn’t been riding for long when my bike went “kerrching”. Never good news. I stopped to discover I had broken a spoke on my rear wheel. Initially, I wasn’t too concerned. Every small town here has a bike shop. Surely, someone would be able to fix it?

A quick search on the internet revealed a large bike shop on the outskirts of Bilbao which we could visit en route to the following day’s stage, finishing and starting in Guenes, 20km south-west of Bilbao. The shop took the wheel and suggested I call back later. My beloved elected to ride some of the day’s course while I spent an enjoyable day bombing around the Basque countryside, in the warm sunshine, in the company of my friends, Dom and Susi,who were taking photos for Cycling News. At the stage’s conclusion, we headed back to the bike shop. They hadn’t managed to find the requisite parts but suggested I leave it in their tender care for another day. I was happy to do so though rather chafing at the bit to get back into the saddle.

Chris Horner before stage 1 start
Chris Horner before stage 1 start

managed to find the requisite parts but suggested I leave it in their tender care for another day. I was happy to do so though rather chafing at the bit to get back into the saddle.

I rang the shop the following morning and they confirmed it would be ready for collection that evening after stage two’s conclusion in Vitoria-Gasteiz. This is a place I’d seriously underrated on my last visit there during the Vuelta. The stage had finished on the town’s outskirts, today we saw its delightfully charming old town.  When we returned to the bike shop, it was to bad news. They’d been unable to source replacement spokes for my Campagnolo wheel.

Undeterred, I decided I would have a chat with the men from Mavic the following morning. It just so happened that I’d previously met one of the Mavic guys at Paris-Nice. I turned to him for some words of wisdom before the start of stage three. He basically told me that the wheels were a bugger to fix and he couldn’t help me. I’m assuming that’s a technical term. He advised I carried spares in future – noted.

I then turned to see which of the ProTour teams were sporting similar wheels. A couple of the guys at Movistar had the same model but in view of the fact they were fiddly to fit, and knowing how hard the mechanics have to work, I decided not to ask. Though I did keep looking longingly at anyone who had a bike the same frame size as mine and my beloved had to keep admonishing me to step away.

In any event, it’s rained pretty much solidly for the last four days. So it’s doubtful I would have actually ridden even had I been able to fix the wheel. My beloved has been out most days, only to come back as mud-spattered as a cyclo-cross rider – thank heavens I bought plenty of kit with us. The washing machine will be going into overdrive on our return!

For my previews and reviews of both races head on over to VeloVoices.

Review of 2011 season

Spending more time than I might wish on my home trainer the past week has given me ample opportunity to reflect on the 2011 road racing season. As you know, I often find it difficult to restrict myself to just one favourite moment, rider, team, race or indeed anything. Indecisive or greedy – you decide.  Given my preference for live sport, my recollections tend to be coloured by the races I’ve watched in person. So here goes.

Rider of the Year

It’s hard to argue against the collective wisdom of the Velo d’Or jury, so I won’t. With his 18 wins, it just has to be Phil Gil. Though it just wasn’t the quantity, it was also the quality of those wins, his majestic presence and aggressive, attacking style of riding which thrilled us all.

Although in my mind, Phil Gil was head and shoulders above all the other contenders, making it onto the podium in second place is Britain’s own Manx missile: Mark Cavendish. The Grand Tour wins, the green jersey (finally) and that magnificent win in the World Championships. Says it all really.

I was in a quandary about third place, should it be Thor Hushovd who so magnificently honoured the rainbow jersey, particularly during the Tour de France or should it be Tony Martin for his emphatic dethronement of Fabian Cancellara, a man who last year looked unbeatable. It’s a tricky one isn’t it? So, I’m going to squash them both on the podium in joint third place.  Honourable mentions should go to Edvald Boassen Hagen and France’s chouchou, Tommy Voeckler, both largely for their Tour de France performances.

Best One-Day Race of the Year

I was there, so it has to be Paris-Roubaix. The race had everything. Fine weather, fantastic atmosphere, favourites desperate to win beaten by an unfancied rider who, to add to the drama, proposed to his long-term girlfriend on the podium. I just love it when a non-contender, albeit hardworking and long-deserving, takes a really big win in one of the Monuments. Congratulations to Mr (and Mrs) Johan Vansummeren and commiserations to the mighty Thor.

In second place, it’s the Men’s Road Race at the World Championships in Copenhagen. While the course was made for Cavendish, the planning and preparation to get him there allied to GB’s phenomenal display of teamwork on the day, controlling the race from start to finish, was truly impressive and hugely exciting.

Had I been there, I suspect that Milan San Remo might well have been my third choice on account of Matt Goss’s uber-intelligent ride. For similar reasons, I could also have plumped for Nick Nuyen’s win in the Tour of Flanders, but I haven’t. No, I’m going for Clasica San Sebastian, a delightfully fun race with a terrific party atmosphere thanks to the Basques enduring love of cycling. This race demonstrated Phil Gil’s dominance over the peloton in hilly Classics. You could almost see the collective drooping of shoulders and the “Well that’s it then” attitude as he raced to victory after some token Basque resistance.

Best Stage Race of the Year

When the touch paper was lit in the third week in the Alps I was there to see the old-style heroics, epic defence of the yellow jersey, stages full of suspense, a French stage winner and, most importantly, some great racing culminating in a worthy winner. The Tour had it all in spades. While, we might have deplored the loss to injury in the first week of a number of favourites, that’s bike racing.

In second place, the Vuelta, the wonderful Tour of Spain which this year I was fortunate to attend albeit only for a couple of days. Unlike the Tour the atmosphere is much more relaxed, for all concerned, and the race much more accessible. The result was also wildly unpredictable and was all the better for it. It also provided my “Best Moment” of the year when Basque rider Igor Anton won the first Vuelta stage to finish in the Basque country for 33 years. The fever pitch excitement and wall of sound as he approached the finish line had to be heard and seen to be believed.

In third place, the Criterium du Dauphine, won by one Bradley Wiggins, which left us all wondering what might have been when Brad crashed out of the Tour. While it probably wasn’t his avowed intention to win the race, once in the leader’s jersey, he and team Sky rode intelligently. Opinion seems to be divided on which race provides the best preparation for the Tour. But, if you wanted to win this year’s Tour, then this race won easily as it allowed you to ride the decisive Grenoble time-trial. To be honest it’s a bit of a no brainer. Which organisation owns both the Dauphine and the Tour de France? Exactly, nuff said.

What about the Giro, I hear you ask. Well, it was over almost before it started thanks to a master coup by Bert and Riis on Nibali’s home turf. In short, it was too hard and too predictable. Also way down the list for consideration, in fact in absolute bottom place, The Tour of Beijing. No need to explain why.

Team of the Year

Who won the most races (again)? Exactly, it was HTC-High Road who have promoted young talent (including both current road race and time-trial World Champions) and bestrode the peloton like a colossus for the past few years racking up around 500 wins. Their reward – disbandment due to lack of sponsorship. Hard to believe and very worrying for the sport.

Tactical Coup of the Year

It just has to be Bjarne Riis and Nick Nuyens in the Tour of Flanders. The latter didn’t figure as one of the favourites despite his credentials and recent win in Dwars Door Vlaanderen. He was invisible until the final break. Having lost touch with the favourites on the Kwaremount, he regained contact, kept out of trouble and popped up in the right place at the right time. First over the finish line to hand Riis back-to-back wins. Who’s LeOghing now?

Surprise of the Year

There’s a couple of contenders here. Should it be Thomas Voeckler’s fourth place in the Tour, team mate Pierre Roland’s win atop iconic L’Alpe d’Huez or Vuelta runner-up Chris Froome? To everyone’s total surprise, Kenyan borne adopted Brit Chris Froome finished the Vuelta ahead of Sky’s team leader Bradley Wiggins in third and might have won were it not for Cobo’s bonus seconds. Wisely he’d postponed contract negotiations with Sky until after the Vuelta so maybe it wasn’t an unexpected result for Chris who seized his opportunity with both hands while still playing the role of loyal team mate. He won’t be flying under the radar next year.

Disappointment(s) of the Year

Where shall I start? Here’s my list, in no particular order:-

  • UCI’s lack of comprehension about the importance of segregation of duties
  • Continued postponement of Alberto Contador’s CAS hearing
  • HTC-Highroad being unable to find a sponsor
  • Geox pulling out at the last moment
  • Crowd booing Bert at Tour de France team presentation
  • Paris-Nice not being a race to the sun this year
  • Andy Schleck happy to be second again and again
  • Leopard Trek, style over substance
  • Budget polarisation of the Pro-tour teams
  • More and more Pro-tour  teams sponsored by “Sugar Daddies”
  • UCI’s system of attribution of points to races and riders

It would be wholly inappropriate to call this event a disappointment. Instead it was for me the real low point of the cycling year. I am, of course, talking about Wouter Weylandt’s death from a high speed fall during the Giro. It reminded us in the strongest possible terms that cycling is a very dangerous sport. If I close my eyes I can still see that short cameo shot of the medics trying to revive his lifeless body.

The point was further underlined with Juan Mauricio Soler’s fall in the Tour of Switzerland for which he is still undergoing rehabilitation. Many more of us watched with horror during this year’s Tour de France as 1) a motorbike deprived  Nicki Sorenson of his bike, depositing him at a roadside picnic and 2) an official car from France TV, driven with scant regard for rider safety, sent Messrs Flecha and Hoogerland flying, the latter into barbed wire.

Unsung Hero(s) of the Year

These are legion in the peloton and the UCI pays them little regard. Many have that Eurovision chilling score of “nul points” and therefore little negotiable value in the transfer market. There’s not enough space (or time) to list them all but let’s have a round of applause for all the teams’ hard working, selfless domestiques. Also, hats off to those team leaders who always recognise the invaluable contribution of their team mates.

My Best Bits of the Year

Again, these are in no particular order:-

  • Watching Astana get their best stage result at this year’s Vuelta fuelled by my home made cake
  • Getting Mark Cavendish’s autograph for a friend as promised
  • Seeing Sammy win atop Luz Ardiden to record (unbelievably) his maiden Tour win. How good was that?
  • Riding around Antibes with Phil Gil
  • Cadel Evans finally winning Tour de France
  • Amael Moinard, Geoffroy Lequatre, Alex Vinokourov, Max Iglinsky, Andrey Grivko (and everyone else)  for turning out to support La Kivilev
  • Lots of young, exciting, emerging talent such as Marcel Kittel, Michael Matthews, John Degenkolb,  Elia Viviani, Tony Gallopin, Andrea Guardini, Thibaud Pinot, Jesse Sergent and Steven Kruiswijk to name but a few
  • Golden oldies such as Jens Voigt and Robbie McEwan for proving there’s no such thing as “too old”

You see, too much thinking time results in my longest blog ever!

Viva La Vuelta III

I rode with my coach yesterday morning; always a pleasure never a chore. Despite choosing a route with plenty of shade, it was extremely warm, particularly towards midday. These are the (only) times when you actively seek out a head wind but, as soon as it’s a tail wind, you can really feel the temperature. Yesterday’s exercises included bruising 20 seconds sprint intervals followed by an all too brief 20 seconds respite. The idea is to start at a reasonable pace, then build the speed and intensity until the few final sprints, where you’re aiming for close to maximum heart rate. I achieved this with ease. I wasn’t quite seeing stars, just almost.

On reaching Pont sur Loup, the choice was either to head up to Bar sur Loup before returning by way of Vallon Rouge or to return via Tourettes sur Loup. I chose the former, fearing I might be tempted to leap into the water trough if I took the latter route. My coach, who never normally sheds a bead of sweat when riding with me, opted for a cooling dip in the sea before heading on home. To be fair, he had been training with some of his marathon runners for an hour or two before riding on over to meet me.

I slipped out early for today’s recovery ride and had a quick dip in the pool on my way back before checking on the progress of the club’s walking/hobbling and wheel-chair bound wounded. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve not been having a good season with respect to injuries, on and off the bike. However, we’ve fared better than one local club who’ve had two recent fatalities.

Neither a dip in the sea or a cool fountain have been on offer to the riders in the Vuelta where the temperatures are, on average, 10 degrees higher than here. The landscape through which they’ve been riding is dry and parched, dotted here and there with with cool turquoise jewels aka swimming pools. I’m surprised no one has slipped off for a quick swim or maybe they have, hence the large time differences. While almost everyone, except maybe burly Belgians, prefers to ride in the warm sunshine, these very high temperatures are taking their toll on some of the riders.

Igor Anton, a man more used to the temperate climes of the Basque country, is quietly suffering at the back of the main bunch, conceding time here and there. Is it the weather? He certainly isn’t in the same form as he was last year, but why not? Frankly, we don’t know and can only conjecture. Meanwhile, both Joaquim Rodriguez and defending champion Vincenzi Nibali look in great shape and are riding with  purpose and confidence. As is Bradley Wiggins whom I have on very good authority is in the form of his life and weighs the same as when he was 16! I’m going to be keeping a close eye on him. The same source said that Frandy are going to be training on the Cote d’Azur this winter. Never mind the hills boys, practise your downhill skills and time-trialling.

Yesterday we saw Joaquin Rodriguez charging up that final 27% ramp, followed by Vacansoleil’s Grand Tour rookie Wout Poels trailed by  Katusha team mate Daniel Moreno, at the same speed I tackle 7% (yes, really).  JRod had been overhauled on the same finish last year by firstly Igor Anton and then Vicenzo Nibali. This year he showed he’d learnt his lesson well and impeccably timed his effort and used Moreno to good effect. Having bombed with their 100% Russian squad in the Tour, Katusha are looking the business with the inclusion of their Spanish riders for the Vuelta.

I was willing on David Moncoutie but his downhilling skills let him down. The Vuelta handily advises us from time to time of the riders’ speeds and the gradient. He was descending on a wide, non-technical, road with a great surface at between 60-75kph. Even I would have taken him on that descent, let alone the professional peloton who easily gobbled him up on the final ascent. As this might be his last year as a professional, I hope he manages to bag the King of the Mountains for a 4th successive time. He collected more points in that quest today.

Despite suffering in the heat, and helping Chavanel to defend the red leader’s jersey, Quickstep’s Boonen was looking to win today’s stage into Cordoba. I don’t think so Tom, I fancy a somewhat punchier rider for the finish. Today the final descent proved decisive, with the Liquigas boys in lime-green swooping down at 89kph: that’s more like it. Veteran Pablo Lastras threatened to spoil the party and steal the 20 seconds bonus so Vuelta babe Peter Sagan crossed the line (much to Nibali’s chagrin) to take his first (of many) Grand Tour win ahead of Lastras and team mate Agnoli, leaving Nibali sans bonus seconds. Chavanel clings onto the jersey for another day.

GC now looks like this:-

General classification after stage 6
# Rider Name (Country) Team Result
1 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quickstep Cycling Team 22:41:13
2 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:00:15
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:16
4 Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 0:00:23
5 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek 0:00:25
6 Fredrik Kessiakoff (Swe) Pro Team Astana 0:00:41
7 Maxime Monfort (Bel) Leopard Trek 0:00:44
8 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:00:49
9 Sergio Pardilla Belllón (Spa) Movistar Team
10 Marzio Bruseghin (Ita) Movistar Team 0:00:52
11 Kevin Seeldraeyers (Bel) Quickstep Cycling Team 0:00:53
12 Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:00:57
13 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Lampre – ISD
14 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) Team RadioShack 0:01:00
15 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:01:01
16 Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (Spa) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:01:05
17 Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Team RadioShack 0:01:13
18 Juan Jose Cobo Acebo (Spa) Geox-TMC 0:01:21
19 Eros Capecchi (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:01:25
20 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:01:26
21 Tiago Machado (Por) Team RadioShack 0:01:43
22 Daniel Martin (Irl) Team Garmin-Cervelo 0:01:50
23 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:01:53
24 Carlos Sastre Candil (Spa) Geox-TMC 0:01:58
25 Jan Bakelants (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:02:13
26 Chris Anker Sörensen (Den) Saxo Bank Sungard 0:02:15
27 David Moncoutie (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne 0:02:22
28 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:02:34
29 Denis Menchov (Rus) Geox-TMC 0:02:41
30 Wout Poels (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team 0:02:44

Viva La Vuelta II

I’m currently enjoying a heat wave. Probably not ideal climatic conditions for cycling, just ask Mark Cavendish if you don’t believe me. To be fair, Spain is even hotter than here. When I say here, I don’t actually mean just here, I mean the whole of Southern France. Typically, temperatures reach low 30sC during August and start to tail off toward the end of the month. Instead, it’s gotten hotter. I’ve spent the past few days in Aix-en-Provence but as it’s inland it was even hotter than here. Now I do mean just here. Very pleasant it was too.

The combination of the trip and the heat does not account for my recent lack of blogging, no that was occasioned by my beloved demanding my translation services. I had to translate his most recent presentation into French. It was somewhat technical and not even my large Petit Robert could cope. I dropped him off at Marseille airport late this afternoon on my way home, he’s not due back until Friday evening. This will give me enough time to cook the club’s books, I mean prepare the latest accounts.

I like cycling when it’s warm but, when the temperature soars, I have problems with my feet overheating and managing my hydration. I’m sitting here now thinking about a cold shower before bed while admiring the firework display in Cannes from the office window. It’s also giving me an opportunity to reflect on the first few days of the Vuelta. Oh yes, I may have been away but I would never book a hotel that didn’t give me access to televised cycling. At home I watch it on the Spanish channel but ,while I’ve been away, I’ve had to make do with German Eurosport where the commentary is rather more prosaic and far less excitable.

It’s been a rather curious start. The team time trial in Benidorm threw up some unexpected results largely due to mechanicals, falls and the technical nature of the course. Teams which one might have expected to feature in the top 5, such as Garmin-Cervelo, Team Sky and Radioshack didn’t and Euskaltel-Euskadi fared way better than anyone could have hoped for: 12th. All those team practice sessions paid dividends for the boys in orange. The red leader’s jersey passed from defending champion, Liquigas’s Vicenzo Nibali to Leopard Trek’s Jakob Fuglsang.

Sunday’s stage from La Nucia to Playas de Orihuela, with it’s uphill sprint for the line, was a face saver for Team Sky: 20th Saturday, on the podium Sunday with Chris Sutton. Great performance in front of the only audience that counts: his Mum.  Fuglsang passed the red leader’s jersey to team mate, Daniele Bennati. Yesterday, the veteran Pablo Lastras (Movistar), one of the day’s breakaways,  gave  the most extravagent finishing line salutes in Totana I’ve ever seen to dedicate his win to the late Messrs Tondo and Weylandt and, still recovering, team mate Soler. He topped the podium and took over the leader’s red jersey.

Another day, another stage this time atop the Sierra Nevada today after a 23km slog uphill. Nothing too taxing but in this heat a number were starting to wilt. Cavendish abandonned. Lastras and Euskaltel’s Igor Anton found it hard to keep pace with the leading pack. Today’s chancer was Katusha’s Daniel Moreno, who was let off the leash by team leader, Joaquim Rodriguez, while most of the leading contenders were watching and waiting. The red jersey ended up on the shoulders of Quickstep’s Sylvain Chavanel who finished 2nd yesterday and heroically almost kept pace with the leading contenders today. Will anyone manage to hang onto the jersey for more than a day? Given that the action is largely in the first two weeks, maybe “not yet” is the answer to that question.

We’ve only just started and already a number of fancied (but not by me) riders are out of the running: Tony Martin +32:55, Andreas Kloden +31:28, Peter Sagan +24:54 and Rein Taaramae +17:56. Here’s the current top 30, the winner’s in here:-

General classification after stage 4
1 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Quickstep Cycling Team 13:19:09
2 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha Team 0:00:43
3 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek 0:00:49
4 Maxime Monfort (Bel) Leopard Trek
5 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:53
6 Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Blr) HTC-Highroad 0:00:58
7 Fredrik Kessiakoff (Swe) Pro Team Astana 0:00:59
8 Sergio Pardilla Belllón (Spa) Movistar Team 0:01:03
9 Marzio Bruseghin (Ita) Movistar Team
10 Kevin Seeldraeyers (Bel) Quickstep Cycling Team 0:01:04
11 Daniel Martin (Irl) Team Garmin-Cervelo 0:01:06
12 Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:01:07
13 Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha Team 0:01:14
14 Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:01:17
15 Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Team RadioShack 0:01:18
16 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) Team RadioShack
17 Bauke Mollema (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:01:19
18 Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (Spa) Rabobank Cycling Team
19 Michele Scarponi (Ita) Lampre – ISD 0:01:21
20 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:01:31
21 Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling
22 Juan Jose Cobo Acebo (Spa) Geox-TMC 0:01:32
23 Eros Capecchi (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:01:39
24 Tiago Machado (Por) Team RadioShack
25 Carlos Sastre Candil (Spa) Geox-TMC 0:01:52
26 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:02:11
27 Chris Anker Sörensen (Den) Saxo Bank Sungard 0:02:20
28 David Moncoutie (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne 0:02:22
29 Ruslan Pydgornyy (Ukr) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team
30 Davide Malacarne (Ita) Quickstep Cycling Team 0:02:24

Viva La Vuelta I

The Vuelta a Espana, the 3rd and last of the Grand Tours, starts tomorrow. It’s the 17th running of the race since it was moved from its original springtime slot to the autumn. As a consequence of its place in the cycling calendar, many of the top riders give it a miss. It tends to be targeted more by domestic riders, as a number in the peloton will have effectively hung up their cleats for the season, while other participants will use it to fine tune their preparation for the World Championships, at the end of September, and therefore may not finish the race. Not so this year, as a number, whose ambitions in the Tour de France were dashed by injury, are riding the Vuelta. So this edition promises to be way more exciting but the lack of time-trialling kilometers and numerous steep summit finishes favour the 60kg when wet brigade, all largely Spanish.

This typically perceived lack of depth tends to give the Vuelta less credence than its sibling Tours and, as a consequence, the owners of the Vuelta (Unipublic and now ASO) have tried to inject some excitement into the race, such as last year’s night time TTT in Seville. This year’s novelty sees the Vuelta’s first visit to the Basque country in 33 years and I’ll be there to watch those two stages (19 and 20) before the final leg in Madrid on Sunday 11 September. For a concise and articulate rundown on the Vuelta and it’s likely protagonists, can I suggest you pop over to http://thearmchairsportsfan.com.

This year’s race starts in Benidorm which brings back fond memories of a family holiday there when I was 14, many, many moons ago, and my pink fringed bikini. I thought I looked the bee’s knees, and the local male population seemed to concur. My father never let down his guard once, which was probably just as well.

Benidorm

Anyway, back to the Vuelta’s 3rd visit to Benidorm, one of Spain’s most popular tourist resorts lying on the eastern Mediterranean coastline between Valencia and Alicante, in the province of Valencia, in a region better known as the Costa Blanca. It’s split into four areas: The Old Town, Levante, Poniente, and Rincon de Loix.

Benidorm’s Old Town is a maze of cobbled streets populated with bars, restaurants and shops situated on the promontory that separates the 2 main beaches. This was the original fishing village which mutated into a tourist mecca thanks to those long, lovely beaches.

The Levante beach area, with over 2kms of golden sand, awash with hotels, theme parks and night clubs, is for the young at heart. It merges into Rincon de Loix, the newer part of Benidorm, which with its mixture of hotels and apartments is popular with the British. The refurbished and recently revitalised Poniente beach lies west of Benidorm’s old Town.

Stage 1 parcours

Tomorrow’s team time trail actually starts from a ramp on the beach before dipping and then heading back to the coast. With the Spanish still on holiday, and at the b each, expect massive crowds the length of the parcours. It’s short, just 13.5km, so any time differences are sure to be small and not decisive. Nonetheless, riders with GC ambitions, such as Igor Anton from Euskaltel, will start stage 2 on the back foot as his team will most probably finish among the slowest. Tipped for tomorrow’s win will be teams such as HTC High Road, Garmin Cervelo and Radioshack.

My interest in the Vuelta has increased because two professional riders I know really well are taking part. While it would be fantastic to see them take a stage, they’ll be riding selflessly in support of their respective leaders, even if one of them is his country’s road race champion. They’re the type of rider that every team leader would like to have in their team and I hope this’ll be recognised when it comes to both of them getting new contracts for next season.

Garibaldi’s Giro VII

It’s perhaps only fitting that on the Giro’s rest day I quickly reflect on the 3 day festival of pain and suffering the riders have just endured. Frankly, it was pretty exhausting just watching, let alone riding: long days in the saddle, lots and lots of tough climbs and dramatically different climatic conditions from start to finish. Despite some spirited opposition, Contador has a lock on the maglia rosa which only TAS can retrospectively wrest from his grasp. However, the other two podium places are still up for grabs and will be hotly contested in the coming days starting in tomorrow’s uphill time-trial.

Contador’s not the only Spaniard, or should that be Spanish speaker, with a smile on his face. Together for 17 years, 5 participations in the Giro and no wins summed up Euskaltel-Euskadi’s record before Anton’s ascent of the Zoncolan. Mind you, only a very small rider was going to be able to squeeze through those crowds. The place was positively heaving. Of course, it might easily have been Rujano, who is showing signs of a return to his 2005 form, but he was fatigued after his (gifted) win on stage 13. Fortunately, he had recovered sufficiently by Sunday to repay the favour and give Alberto a bit of a helping hand. Then, just like buses, along comes another win for Euskaltel with Mikel Nieve in the queen stage (15) atop Val di Fassa. Oh, weren’t they the team that shared the work load with Saxobank on Friday? What goes around, comes around.

Honourable mentions, IMHO, should also go to:-

  • Stefano Garzelli who won the Cima Coppi (first over highest point) and a shed load of mountain points.
  • Johnny Hoogerland for another of his seemingly fruitless, but nonetheless entertaining, solo escapes.
  • Robert Kiserlovski for grinning and baring broken teeth to follow Martinelli’s orders, to the letter.
  • John Gadret, the best placed Frenchman, in 4th place.
  • Michele Scarponi for daring to attack.
  • Vicenzo Nibali for his virtuoso, dare-devil descending.

Finally, I was saddened to learn of Xavier Tondo’s demise in what’s been reported as a bizarre accident with his garage door. My condolences to his family, friends and team mates.

Garibaldi’s Giro IV

Celebrating Garibaldi's Giro

Five, four, three, two, one and they’re away. It’s Omega Pharma-Lotto who kick off this year’s Giro. The team descends the starting ramp, rides out the gate of the Castello della Venaria Reale, 9km north of Turin, and speeds away in line along a road thronged with enthusiastic spectators, enjoying  both the fine weather and the spectacle. The pan-flat route is more technical at the start, challenging the team’s ability to establish a  rhythm, followed by wide straight tree-lined avenues with some 90 degree bends around the old town before ending up on the cobbles.

Route for Stage 1 Team Time-Trial

The key to team time trialling is consistency. Invariably you’ll have riders of differing strengths however you need to maintain a speed which everyone can follow. The more able members of the team take longer pulls on the front. Some teams opt for finishing with as many of the original nine as possible, while others progressively spit out riders, crossing the line with the bare minimum (5). Liquigas employed one rider to ride at the back of the paceline to shepherd rotating team members back into line in front of him – neat trick.

Italian television showcased the delights of Turin, home to Fiat cars, and its beautiful, old town, which I found quite reminiscent of Nice. Well, they were both part of the House of Savoy. The centre of Turin is the large quadrangular area lying between Corso Vittoro Emanuele, Corso Galileo Ferraris (shouldn’t that be Fiat?), Corso Regina Margherita, Corso San Maurizio and the Po river. Roughly bisecting this area is the fashionable via Roma, lined with wide arcades, which connects the main railway station with Piazzo Castello. It’s skyline is dominated by extraordinarily shaped Mole Antonelliana designed by Piedmontese architect Alessandro Antonelli. It started life in 1863 as a synagogue and was completed in 1897 as a monument of Italian unity. As to be expected there’s a via Garibaldi, pedestrianised and lined with 18th century palaces. The via Po, to the east of the centre, is full of funky shops, including many bookshops where you would have expected me to pick up a few cycling books and enjoy an espresso in one of the many fashionable cafes.

Alas, I never made it to Turin and am beginning to feel that all my Giro trips are jinxed. It  started to go downhill on Thursday afternoon at our Commission Kivilev meeting where I raised a number of as yet unresolved issues. Accordingly, I was given the job of sorting these out. I set to with gusto on Thursday evening with a view to leaving early for Turin the following morning. Inevitably, there were people with whom I needed to speak that I couldn’t reach until the following day. By lunchtime, I was still working away. I made an executive decision, I would cancel my hotel room and drive to Turin early on Saturday morning. I’d missed the team presentation, and wouldn’t have so much time to look around Turin, but I would still see the team time-trial. However, without my parking spot in the hotel garage, handily placed for a quick getaway, it was unlikely I would be home in time to collect my beloved from the airport.

The weather was fabulous on Friday so I nipped out for a quick ride over lunch, my path crossing that of Amael Moinard. He was descending fast (ergo I was ascending, more slowly) so we only had time to exchange greetings. I returned home refreshed by my ride and continued with my work. In addition, I was trying to organise a celebratory lunch for our friend who’s just signed a contract with a Pro-tour cycling team. The limiting factor in all such arrangements is the availability of my beloved. I had circulated dates, basically a few Friday, Saturday or Sunday evenings over the coming weeks. I had qualified this by saying, he was also available Sunday lunchtime. Later that afternoon, I received a call to say that everyone could make this Sunday lunchtime.  A few rapid calculations and I realised that something would have to give and it was going to be my trip to Turin.

I planned the menu and wrote out my shopping list. Our friend would be riding the Vuelta, so I went with a Spanish theme: tapas, paella, finishing with the ubiquitous orange-flavoured “flan” with strawberries. We would all be riding on Sunday morning, and our friend’s eldest son was racing, so I went for things which could either be  prepared in advance, or thrown together once everyone had arrived. I shopped early on Saturday morning, preparing in advance as many of the dishes as possible, before settling down to watch the time-trial on the television. I looked enviously at the crowds thronging the route in the sunshine and the hordes of Alpini in their jaunty feathered hats, I should have been there: one day.

Needless to say it was the well-drilled teams who held sway. HTC-High Road were fastest and contrived to put Marco Pinotti, the Italian time-trial champion and hugely popular rider, into the pink jersey. RadioShack, another disciplined team, were second, with Liquigas securing third place.  While the gaps were not, for the most part, significant, it’s still time that has to be won back at some stage. Of the leading contenders, Nibali is the best placed with Scarponi, hot on his heels, at just 2 seconds behind. Lampre arrived into Turin a day early specifically to practise the team time-trial. It paid off.  Contador is 8 secs off Nibali, with Menchov and Sastre at 31 secs and Joaquim Rodriguez at 42 seconds. Euskaltel-Euskadi were the team maglia nera, but team leader Igor Anton has revealed that he’s at the Giro just to hunt for stage wins and not the pink jersey.

Having garnered a large number of brownie points in Saturday’s time-trail, HTC-High Road might have hoped to cash these in on Sunday when Mark Cavendish was pipped on the line into Parma by an in-form Alessandro Petacchi whom they adjudged to have sprinted off his line, not once but thrice. In vain, two stages, two Italian wins: the Giro’s off to a great start.

We watched the action unfold on the screen television in the company of our friend who’s ridden the Giro himself and twice been on winning teams: with Marco Pantani (2002) and with Alberto Contador (2008). It was interesting to hear his observations on the riders, the parcours and the race. As is the case with television commentary, the most brilliantly observed remarks are those from past (or even current) riders who understand intimately the ways and language of the peloton. They add colour, insight and comprehension for the observer. Thus it was with us all gathered around the television after a relaxing and enjoyable lunch.

However, we’re going to have to do it all over again as one couple were missing from the celebration. The husband had been knocked off his bike early on Sunday morning and was under observation in the local hospital for facial and cranial injuries. It’s not serious, just painful, and we all wish him a speedy recovery.

If you’re seeking an excellent summation of the first two stages of the Giro d’Italia, please pop over to www.thearmchairsportsfan.com.

Garibaldi’s Giro I

Here’s the route

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

It’s all too much

My abiding memory of this Vuelta (yes, I know it’s not yet finished) will be Igor Anton’s bloodied, brave, little soldier face, waving good bye to us all, with his left hand, from the passenger seat of his DS’s car, as he’s driven away from what might have been his first Grand Tour win. Having hit a pot-hole at high speed, he broke his right elbow, took out a team mate (Egoi Martinez – dislocated shoulder), shredded the red leader’s jersey and large parts of his own skin. He was mightily handily placed and who knows what might have been, but you need luck to win a Grand Tour.

This past week end was a veritable cycling fest with GPs in Quebec (Voeckler) and Montreal (Gesink), Paris-Brussels (Ventoso), GP des Fourmies (Feillu), the end of the Tour de l’Avenir (Quintana) and the start of the Tour of Great Britain. A trip to Italy over the week end meant that I’ve seen very little of any of this cycling, but a girl can have too much of a good thing.

OGCN continue to defy the odds with a home  win against a lacklustre Bordeaux; not the team they were last season with Blanc at the helm and Gourcuff up front. AVFC meanwhile continued to confound by conceeding a goal in the final minute of their away game at Stoke to lose 2-1. Their best player tellingly was the goalkeeper, Brad Friedel.

What of my own training I hear you ask. Well, mindful of my forthcoming trip to Australia, my cycling coach has introduced running and gym work into the weekly mix along with some interval sprint training on the bike. We rode together last week and he had me sprinting in the drops, not something I’ve ever done before. Initially, I felt as if I’d lost control of the handlebars but soon got the hang of it. It certainly gives you a more dynamic position on the bike and, looking at the stats afterwards, I did ride faster.

Friday was my first “running” session. I use the term guardedly as I’m not sure the speed at which I travel qualifies as running. I had surprisingly sore shins the following day which have fortunately now abated and which didn’t recur after my run on Tuesday.

I rode with my beloved on both Saturday and Sunday. The weather is still glorious, although a little fresh first thing, and you’re starting to need to put on a light jacket when descending from the higher hills, like Col de Vence. It’s slowly cooling down but the wild life it still active, particularly the mosquitos and horseflies, whose desire to taste me is undiminished.

The run up to my departure for Melbourne is typically hectic. I’m juggling way too many things at the moment (huge “to do” list) and am praying I  manage to get them all done before I leave, otherwise I’ll still be dealing with them in Melbourne.