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.

Big boys go bump

On a windy, shortish, stage alongside the English Channel, I lost count of the number who hit the deck, largely in multiple pile-ups, in the hour from 15:10 – 16:10h. Many remounted and made their way back to the peloton via the doctor’s car for some TLC on their bumps and abrasions. While others trailed in ahead of the cut-off. One, Janez Brajkovic, having been patched up on the side of the road, departed in an ambulance.  The second retiree from the Tour. Europcar’s Christophe Kern, the French time-trial champion, who’d been suffering since the start with tendonitis, also climbed off his bike.

Given that teams often ride together protecting their leader, if one of them goes down it’s rarely a solitary fall. In the Radioshack Team, apart from the afore-mentioned Brajkovic, Horner, Leipheimer and Popovych also kissed the tarmac. Wiggins went down from Team Sky. Quickstep’s bad luck from the cobbled Classics reappeared taking out 5 riders: most notably Boonen, Ciolek, Steegmans and Chavanel. I also saw a number of Rabo boys on the roadside, including GC threat Robert Gesink. Contador lost his chain (possibly a case of what goes around comes around) and found himself flat on his back. While his team mate Nikki Sorenson had his bike swept from under him by one of the motobikes. One minute he was riding along on his bike and the next he had gatecrashed a picnic on the side of the road but sans velo!

After the podium ceremonies the overly zealous commissioners were studying the video highlights of today’s intermediate sprint and decided to declassify Boonen (cut the guy some slack) and Rojas. As a result, the latter loses the green jersey to PhilGil who finished ahead of him on today’s finish line, but behind Cavendish. None of the other jersey’s changed hands.

Cavendish won today’s stage, taking his Tour total to 16, and got to meet one of his biggest fans. I lost count of the number of times the lady Mayoress kissed Cavendish. Indeed, I was tempted to cry “For goodness sake, put him down”.  But then I remembered that, like me, she’s probably keen to seize any opportunity to kiss a few fit, young guys. Oh yes, I’m shortly going to be reprising my role as the world’s oldest podium girl.

Back to the riding wounded. I speak from experience when I say that, if at all possible, having fallen, one should get back on one’s bike and continue pedalling. Pain tends to kick in once you’re off the bike and relaxing. There’s going to be a fair number in the peloton nursing some sizeable portions of road rash, particularly on their buttocks, which will probably make for an uncomfortable night. To add to their discomfort, tomorrow’s 226.5km stage from Dinan to Lisieux is the longest of this year’s Tour.

This wasn’t the only bad news today in France where at 17:20 this afternoon, they learnt that the 2018 winter Olympics had been awarded to Pyeongchang, in S Korea. France’s candidate, Annency, polled a miserly 7 votes. Obviously, France is another country not prepared to pay the going rate for Olympic votes.

No room at the Vuelta

Fans will be denied the chance to see a repeat of Johnny Hoogerland’s daily daring escapes during this year’s Vuelta a España. Yes, that’s right Vacansoleil weren’t invited to yet another grand tour and neither were Skil Shimano.  However, to give Unipublic their due they have invited two smaller Spanish outfits,  Xacobeo-Galicia and Andalucia Caja-sur, whose very existence probably depends on their annual appearance in the Vuelta.

The organisers have however made the (brave?) decision not to invite either BMC or The Shack as neither Cadel nor Lance respectively were scheduled to ride. I understand BMC didn’t seek an invite but The Shack had proposed a pretty strong  line up which included recent Criterium Dauphine winner Janez Brajkovic, Andreas Kloeden, Chris Horner, Haimer Zubeldia and  Levi Leipheimer – not too shabby. Instead rsvps have been sent to those 16 teams covered by the September 2008 agreement with UCI (which expires at the end of this season) and Team Sky, Garmin-Transitions, Katusha and Cervelo Test Team.

It’s started

I’d been finding it hard to work up any enthusiasm for the World Cup but once it kicked off on Friday I found myself naturally taking an interest. I watched France v Uruguay, a  tense match with few opportunities for either side. The French played some very attractive football but the tournament will not be decided on artistic impression and technical merit. The French press have castigated the manager and the players for their unimaginative play. In particular, Yoann Gourcuff, who even I admit did not have a good game,  was singled out for some harsh criticism.

This was not the only opener decided by a draw. USA v England, where two of my beloved boys in claret & blue were on England duty, resulted in a 1-1 draw. Emile Heskey played a blinder (technical term), easily his best appearance in an England shirt. While James Milner (being heavily courted by Man City), still suffering from the after-effects of an illness, was off the pace and substituted in the first half. Again, the England boys came in for some criticism from the press.  Take no notice boys, what do they know?

I managed to get tickets for the previous World Cup. My beloved and I saw one of the opening games, Brazil v Croatia, in Berlin. It was a mediocre match, played in a magnificent stadium, with the spectators providing a fantastic atmosphere. Indeed, we spent a long weekend  in Berlin watching matches on the big screen, just soaking up the atmosphere. Everything was brilliantly and efficiently organised by the Germans. The weather was warm and sunny and there was a real sense of carnival and occasion to the proceedings. I’m sure the same can be said of proceedings in South Africa.

The final of that World Cup was played the night before my beloved’s first attempt at l’Etape du Tour. We watched the match in a bar in Briancon, not far from where we were staying. After the match, I was approached by a young French boy in floods of tears. Well, they had just lost to the Italians. However, that wasn’t why he was crying. He’d become detached from his father and sister in the crowds. So I sat with him, calmed him down and tried to contact his father on my mobile. This proved fruitless as he was obviously ringing anyone and everyone to see if they’d seen his son. Fortunately, before too long he was reunited with his elder sister who had retraced her steps to try and find him.

This week I’ve been watching Alberto Contador and the Astana team in the Criterium du Dauphine. Bert said he’d come to test his condition, many thought he was sandbagging. He wasn’t. He won two stages, including the queen stage, which finished on L’Alpe d’Huez, the points jersey and was 2nd on GC. The race was won by Janez Brajkovic who having been let off the leash by Bruyneel, confirmed his earlier promise. However, don’t read too much into this. Come 3 July, Contador will be at the top of his game and primed to retain his Tour crown, ably assisted by his Astana team mates led by Alexandre Vinokourov. While only death and taxes are certainties, Bert to win the Tour isn’t too far off.