(Finally) Postcard from Siena and Strade Bianche

We drove along the Autostrade dei Fiori enjoying the sunshine and glorious sea views until we turned off at Genoa and headed for Tuscany and Siena. It’s a six-hour drive from home and we stopped just the once to refuel the car and my beloved. We made good time and only had a small but heavy rain shower en route and not much wind. The Smart doesn’t like wind, a bit like me on the bike, unless it’s a tailwind.

We’d much enjoyed watching the racing in Strade Bianche last year and it’s now a fixture on our sporting calendar. I particular like that there’s a women’s and men’s race – both providing a cracking spectacle. We dropped the car and luggage at the hotel, on the edge of the old town and close by the race start, and walked to pick up our accreditations before reacquainting ourselves with the town. Specifically, I was looking for a restaurant for dinner. Once I’d found a couple of likely candidates I treated my beloved to a coffee and crostata (delicious Italian jam tart). While I had fruit tea with a local biscuit,  a cavaillucci, made without eggs or fat, studded with fennel seeds, walnuts and citrus peel. The town was buzzing in anticipation of tomorrow’s race, the local population significantly swelled by the thousands of amateur riders taking part in Sunday’s Gran Fondo. We even spotted a few of the pros drinking coffee after a leisurely reconnaissance.

My choice of restaurant was spot on. A family-run affair for several generations with the almost obligatory white linen tablecloths and napkins. We were the first couple to be seated but the restaurant subsequently filled up rapidly. We were greeted with a glass of Prosecco and a small serving of soup, one of the house specialities. I love a good home-made soup, just what you need to keep the cold and damp at bay. I ordered a vegetable soup to start and could happily have eaten the whole tureen but then I’d have had no room for my lobster spaghetti. Sated we happily strolled around the old town taking in the sites, marveling at the splendid architecture and trying to burn-off the calories consumed at dinner.

The forecast for Saturday was rain and riders in both races left warmly dressed with their rain jackets in their pockets. They knew the conditions were going to be difficult for them. It was going to be epic! While my beloved took photos, I popped to the buses to drop of some of my race-winning brownies for two lucky teams to enjoy post-race and chatted with a few acquaintances.

After the men’s race had departed, I headed to the food shops to stock up on some Italian goodies. Laden down with artisan cold meats, cheeses, tomatoes, artichokes, olive oil, pici (local pasta, a sort of thicker and rougher spaghetti) cavaillucci (see above), and ricciarelli (soft almond biscuits) we staggered back to the hotel and left it in the chilly car.

By now it was time for an early lunch in a small bar overlooking the main Piazza, more soup, this time ribollita, before heading to the finish line to cheer on the ladies. Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) won with an audacious attack to cross the finish line arms aloft. The girls all looked exhausted and were covered from head to foot in wet mud. They looked more like they’d taken part in a cyclo-cross rather than road race. Sadly, my photographer had left his camera in the hotel. Honestly, I sometimes wonder why I take him to races!

We then retired to a bar near the final climb to watch the television coverage of the men’s race before taking our positions to see the finish.The light was such it was hard to see the riders as they emerged from the gloom on that final climb. It was evident that Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski had victory in the bag from the sizeable time gap between himself and his pursuers, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens.

The riders streamed up the hill in ones and twos to raucous applause and cries of encouragement, they were grimed with dirt though not quite as much as on that famous 2010 Giro d’Italia stage. They all looked chilled to the bone and in need of some hot chocolate and my brownies. It’s the first time my race-winning brownies have occupied the top two spots on the podium even before being consumed. Obviously, they’re powerful incentives.

Both races had provided spectacle and, despite the conditions, it was clear from the riders’ comments, it’s a race they enjoy. In the post race press conference, you could sense Kwiatkowski’s pleasure at once more ascending to the top step of the podium. The Sky boys assured me they’d saved him a large brownie, surely a fitting reward for his efforts.

All this race watching is pretty exhausting and our minds soon turned to dinner. We opted for lighter fare – tagliolini with truffles and a mixed salad  – in one of our favourite restaurants before heading back to the hotel for an early night. We woke the next day to heavy skies and much more rain.

We watched the brave 5,000 amateurs stream out of Siena on the heels of some notable former pros including Fabian Cancellara, Ivan Basso and Paolo Bettini. Rather them than us, many were already cold and wet through from waiting in line for the depart. It was going to be a very long day in the saddle.

As we drove home, the sky brightened and the sun shone, particularly once we were back on the coast. It’s lovely to travel but sometimes even nicer to return home.

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”

Carnage

Returning from my Sunday morning ride, a bunch of kids, who live in the Domaine, challenged me to a bike race. I would guess that they’re aged between 12 and 14 years and they were riding a motley collection of bikes. I agreed to the challenge but pointed out that I didn’t expect to win as I was old enough to be their grandmother. I’m not above playing the age card if it suits me. They looked nonplussed. Of course, at their age, anyone over 20 is old. They said that they’d seen me riding and I wasn’t too bad [for a woman of my age], plus I had a better bike. That much was true. We established the start and finish lines and away we went. I rode the entire route sticking on their wheels. Their tactics were obviously copied from the Schlecks: no attempt to use their superior numbers to burn me off. It was everyone woman and teenager for themselves.

As we crested the final climb, it dips down ever so slightly to the finish line. As anticipated, they eased off on the crest. I didn’t and shot across the line, much to their astonishment, to record my first scratch race win. I could see that I’d caught them totally off guard. I explained that racing was all about doing just enough to win, and no more. Races are won with the heart, legs, lungs and head.  Just let me know when you want a rematch, I said as I left them gazing in what I think, and hope, was admiration. I’ve ridden over 500km this week. It was paying dividends.

The first nine days of this year’s Tour de France has also thrown up some surprises, not all of them as pleasurable as my win. Sadly, for variety of factors, a number of riders, including those whom we might have expected to figure on GC, are out of the Tour. It’s always distressing to see riders crash and we’ve been left wondering what riders such as Bradley Wiggins, Alexandre Vinokourov, Janez Brajkovic and Jurgen Van Den Broeck might have achieved this year at the Tour.

I think it’s fair to say no one expected Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) to keep such a firm hold on the yellow jersey for so many days, clearly relinquishing it only today on the verge of exhaustion, looking forward to tomorrow’s “rest day”. That term’s such a misnomer given the riders will ride for several hours and spend time talking to the press and their sponsors. Thor’s surely graced the jersey and his team which, with wins in the team time-trial and Stage 3 (Tyler Farrar), can already regard this year’s Tour as a success. Norway can also claim to have had a successful Tour if one takes account of Edvald Boassen Hagen’s (Sky) win on Stage 6.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) predictably won the first stage and has been ever-present, wearing all three jerseys (yellow, spotted and green) and is now making a serious run at holding onto the green jersey until Paris. Cavendish (HTC) has opened his account with two stage wins and I’m sure will give PhilGil a run for his money in the competition for the green jersey. The changes made this year to the competition for this jersey have certainly made it more competitive and much more interesting. Initially, the commissars seemed to be a little too job’s worthy over the comportment of certain riders in the intermediate sprints, but this seems to have satisfactorily settled down.

The French, particularly FDJ, have been animating each day’s breakaways in search of tv exposure for their sponsors and perhaps, perhaps, a stage win.  Surprisingly, escapees won both stages this week end. Yesterday was the turn of Rui Costa (Movistar) notable for his handbags at dawn clash last year with Manuel Garate and today it was Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank). But the BIG news, joy of joys for the French, it was the turn of perennial favourite Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and a rider who’s been very visible this week, to wear the precious maillot jaune.  Thomas took yellow, after the peloton, perturbed by the earlier crashes, finally gave up the ghost and stopped chasing. Thomas can now look forward to a number of days in yellow. He was positively bouncing on the podium and, from the size of the jersey, it was clear that the ASO had been anticipating another day in yellow for Thor.

Two of Thomas’s breakaway companions were taken out of contention for today’s win by a crazy manoeuvre from a France Television car which sent Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) flying and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) into some barbed wire fencing. Amazingly, they both remounted and went on to finish the stage. Hoogerland had regained the spotted jersey while both were awarded the day’s combativity prize. Hardman Hoogerland who seemed to have cornered the market in white bandages was reduced to tears on the podium.

A number of teams and riders have been totally anonymous. For example, the all Russian Katusha squad have barely merited a mention apart from today’s retirement of Russian champion Pavel Brut. On a more sinister note, there was much speculation and alleged video evidence that Contador’s fall today had been provoked by Karpets (surely not) shoving him off the bike.  Ivan Basso’s team have been similarly missing in action but one could argue they’ve just been doing their job keeping Ivan in a good position.

The remaining GC favourites have yet to really show their hands. While every move they make is endlessly analysed, we still know very little about their respective forms. While Cadel Evans has wasted no opportunity to build up a lead on the others, most notably Alberto Contador, it’s still all to play for the in the coming days in the mountains.

Dead cert, no really

A bit of a mix up with my cycling coach this morning. Last week, he asked me if I could ride with him on Thursday. I said Tuesday would be fine and wrote the date in my diary. My coach is not particularly punctual so I didn’t start to worry until I’d been waiting for 15 minutes with no word from him. I generally receive a text saying he’s going to be a few minutes late. It then occurred to me that perhaps he was waiting on the other side of the bridge from where I was waiting. I sent him a text and left a message on his mobile. It wasn’t looking good. I finally made contact and he said he was sure he’d suggested Thursday. I said it was no problem, I’d see him on Thursday and headed toward Carros village. Thereafter, I followed one of my regular summer rides to Bouyon, Coursegoules and back by way of the Col de Vence. I had a great ride there was hardly any traffic, the humidity was much less following yesterday evening’s downpour and the sun was shining.  I arrived home in time to watch Stage 4 which everyone believed was going to be won by the birthday boy, Phil Gil.

Again, there was a breakaway of 5 riders, including two Frenchmen and two Spaniards. The fifth rider was Johnny Hoogerland. Well it was only matter of time before he appeared in a breakaway. Omega Pharma Lotto were controlling the peloton, leaving the breakaways with a manageable time gap. Sadly, their team mate Jurgen Van De Valle, who had been felled by a sleeping policeman on the first stage, was the first retiree from this year’s Tour.

It was raining for most of today’s lumpy stage and many riders will not have appreciated the sudden 15 degree dip in temperature. When it’s raining it doesn’t really matter what you wear, you’re going to get wet. I find that wet feet are the worst but if my legs get both wet and cold, it’s game over. Most, but not all, of the peloton were wearing rain jackets. It’s at times like these that AG2R’s brown shorts come into their own while those teams wearing white ones rue the day. I’ve oft pondered what the teams use to eliminate the road grease stains from the kit. I’ve since found out that they don’t. Most of the dirty shirts, bib shorts and socks are thrown out. However, the climatic conditions didn’t quell the enthusiasm of the cycling-mad spectators lining the roadside and the countryside still looked magnificent, even viewed through a misty veil.

Most of the work on the front today was done by PhilGil’s team. In the latter part of the stage, BMC gave them a significant helping hand and, with about 30km to go, Garmin crashed the birthday party. Well as Phil was to find out the professional peloton doesn’t give anyone birthday presents. With the rain having let up, the Group of 5 were taken back, the GC faves were massing near the front, handily poised to respond to any attacks, as the road headed up the Cote de Mur-de-Bretagne. With 1.4km remaining, Alberto attacked, provoking a response from a number of other riders, including Cadel Evans, Alexandre Vinokourov, Rigoberto Uran and Phil Gil who, led out by Jurgen Van Den Broeck, surged with 500m to go. It was countered and it was to be Cadel’s day, again, as he pipped Alberto on the line to win the stage, but not the yellow jersey. Thor had amazingly managed to hang on in with the leading contenders. Alex finished an honourable 3rd. Andy, along with Basso and Wiggins finished in the second group, losing a handful of seconds.

Stage races are won as much in the head as they are with the legs and lungs. A few important psychological blows were struck today, but there’s still a long way to go. However, the armchairsportsfan’s bet on a podium placing for Cadel is beginning to  look like money well spent.

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

Underdogs on top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Divine intervention

I was saddened this week to learn of the untimely death of Aldo Sassi, one of the most reputable cycling trainers, based at the Mapei Centre in Varese. It was he who had worked with Cadel Evans to lift the rainbow jersey in 2009 and had assisted Ivan Basso in his quest for an untainted maglia rosa.

I had recently read an interesting article on his training methods which are markedly similar to those of my own trainer.  Sassi worked initially from the VO2 max and power output at the rider’s anaerobic threshold. From this he built a training programme based on a 3-day algorithm:

  • Day 1 – strength and resistance training on hills
  • Day 2 – anaerobic threshold work
  • Day 3 – long rides with climbs

Additionally, Sassi believed in a rider’s clear commitment to goals which needed to be shared with and understood by his team. Lastly, he believed that mental and inner strength were the all-important factors.

He likened a cyclist to  Formula 1 saying that while a rider has certain physiological attributes, “if you only have the driver and no car you cannot win. You have to have the driver as well as the car. Some might try to show that if you have a good driver you could still win with a bad car. This is not true in cycling. You have to be able to produce 6 watts per kilogram on the climbs or you will eventually lose.”

Sassi was recently criticized for working with Riccardo Ricco. Frankly, I thought, given Sassi’s sterling reputation, it was a stroke of genius on Ricco’s part to commit to working with him. Sassi said ” I think I made a good choice in selecting Riccardo Ricco. I am sure of it. He has the motor, the car, but the driver is not completely there. I am going to help him build his mental strength and self-belief.” Sassi is to be lauded, Ricco has paid the price and, like everyone, deserves a second chance.

If  it was left to Pat McQuaid, UCI President, he wouldn’t, however, be getting a second chance. McQuaid was quoted in L’Equipe this week as saying if he were a team manager, he wouldn’t hire Ricco. I suspect that Vacansoleil have hired Ricco because he will garner them plenty of points in the all-new UCI ranking system and help them stay in the sport’s first division. Remember, Mr McQuaid “what gets measured is what gets done”.

I’ve already blogged on this very topic but frankly it’s hard to support a system that seems to drive away rather than attract sponsors. It’s even hard to get sponsors to commit if you can’t guarantee inclusion at the world’s best races. Pegasus Cycling recently lost a sponsor but have fortunately been saved at the nth moment by another. Rumours abounded that Geox, both a new sponsor and a global brand, might pull out after being excluded from the first division, despite ranking ahead of teams that have been included.

This problem has been best articulated (IMHO) by Jonathan Vaughters in his blog on the cyclingnews.com website entitled “The Geox Paradox” where he highlights the current issues in sponsorship. This man knows what he’s talking about, you cannot say that of everyone involved in the sport.

My deepest sympathy goes to Aldo Sassi’s family, friends, clients  and colleagues: the world of cycling has suffered a grave loss.

Une Edition Record

La Laurentine Andrei Kivilev

The day of the event was warm and sunny: just what we’d ordered. For once there were no professional riders at the start , as the event clashed with their professional commitments.  No matter, a good time was still had by all thanks to the hard work of our vast team (60) of volunteers which did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by the participants.

Andrei’s widow kindly assisted with the presentation of the prizes and her son  performed a splendid job selecting the winning numbers for the tombola. Yes, not only did the participants get a goodie bag with a T-shirt commemorating the event, a bidon, a discount voucher from one of the local sports shops but they stood to win cycling related prizes, including 2 sets of wheels and a Look bike frame, in the tombola.

The event  was graced, as usual, by the Mayor and other local and regional officials responsible for sporting and cultural events as well as a representative from the Kazakh Embassy in France and a reporter and cameraman from Kazakh TV. Our event will be featured in a short segment which will be regularly repeated in the coming weeks on the main TV channel in Kazakhstan. In the spirit of cementing Franco-Kazakh relations, I decided to wear the dreaded white trousers from Le Grand Depart 2009, teaming them with a turquoise t-shirt and yellow sweater, swung over the shoulders: voila, the colours of team Astana and the Kazakh flag.  

We’ll be holding a post-mortem meeting this week to review what went well and, more importantly, how and where we can make improvements for next year’s edition. Ideally, we would like to turn it into a cyclosportif. Easier said than done.

All this hyperactivity meant that I missed watching 3 stages of the Giro, although I did see the final TT. Liquigas must have been delighted: three men in the top ten with Basso taking the maglia rosa , Nibali 3rd  and  Kiserlovski 10th. Equally, Caisse d’Epargne must be pleased with Arroyo’s 2nd place while honourable mentions for Scarponi (4th), Evans (5th) and Vino (6th). The Australians made a clean sweep of the remaining jerseys: points (Evans), mountains (Lloyd) and best young rider (Porte). The organisers are to be congratulated for organising a thrilling Giro.