Good save

It’s always enjoyable watching the professional peloton suffer on the same routes and roads that one regularly rides. This week end was no exception other than to say none of us would willingly ride in this sort of weather. Not even if someone were paying us. For the first time in many years, riders in Paris-Nice were welcomed to the Cote d’Azur with snow, gail-force winds, rain and cold temperatures. It’s at times like these you have to admire their fortitude and perseverance in the face of so many climatic obstacles.

As forecast, it started raining heavily just as the peloton hit the descent from Gourdon, a broad, sinuous and steep road which dangerously narrows at Chateauneuf. Roads are always at their most dangerous with a little rain: they’re greasy and very slippy. Many were cautious, indeed one could say over cautious. But with good reason, no one wants their season compromised.

Yesterday, it was a case of right team wrong rider, Alexandre Vinokourov had said that they were going to put an Astana rider on the podium. I assumed he would be that rider. I was wrong. It was instead, Remy di Gregorio who, after a couple of years in the FDJ wilderness, showed that he’s been revitalised by the Astana lifeline.

Right on Remy

Remy set off with around 13km to the finish with no one quite believing that he would manage to stay away, particularly given the narrow margin of his advantage.  His team had controlled the peloton for the first 80km or so and by the time we had television coverage, Garmin-Cervelo were on the front picking up points to preserve the green jersey of Heinrich Haussler. In the final stretch, Movistar took over, one assumes, to catapult Xavier Tondo up the GC. Instead, he slid off his bike just before the finish line.

The favourites all looked to be in preservation mode, not willing to gamble in the perilous conditions. Haussler fell over three times, the last time sliding into a wall. Robbert Kiserlovski (Astana) ended up under a parked van. Those two weren’t the only riders to fall. With 2km to go, Remy’s back wheel slid and  his right leg shot out of the pedal, allowing him to steady himself. Miraculously, he remained upright and continued to press his slim advantage.

Sammy Sanchez decided to use the work done by Movistar to move up on GC, finishing behind di Gregorio to record his 33rd runners-up position. Does this make him a Spanish Poulidor? There was no change to any of the jersey holders, nor the podium.

Today’s stage was much shorter and took in the usual sights of Nice which, one has to say, still looked magnificent on the television coverage despite the constant falling rain and huge waves crashing onto the beach. Sheltering under our brollies, warmly wrapped up, we watched the riders depart and them promptly retired to a bar to warm ourselves and watch the tv coverage. We were joined by many of the walking wounded: riders who have retired thanks to niggling injuries, colds and stomach upsets.

Only 134km to go!

Seizing the opportunity of last year’s last stage winner’s absence (Amael Moinard has retired with a heavy cold), Thomas Voeckler rode away from his breakaway companions to record his 2nd win (3rd French stage win) of this edition of Paris-Nice. You would be hard pressed to find a more popular winner. Sammy set off again, this time with a team mate from the breakaway,  to pull back a few seconds which moved him up another place on GC into 5th. That aside, there were no changes on the podium nor with the jerseys. Tony Martin rode a well judged race to record his first stage-race GC win and provide HTC with another Grand Tour card to play. Andreas Kloeden was 2nd and Bradley Wiggins 3rd. Jean-Christoph Peraud was the best placed Frenchman in 6th place. Rein Taaramae (4th on GC) was the best young rider, Henrich Haussler won the green point’s jersey and Remi Pauriol the spotted mountain one.

(all photographs courtesy of my beloved)

All shook up

We set off yesterday lunchtime for Aix-en-Provence. I let my beloved drive Tom III, largely because I was feeling lousy with my head cold. We arrived, easily parked and went to stand at the finish, within sight of the big tv screen. The team cars and buses were parked behind us and I realised I should have liberated “the shirt for signature” from my LBS, as I’d have had no trouble collecting further signatures – damn. I’ll do that today and see if I can collect a few over the week end.

Sky's Geraint Thomas cooling down
Sky’s Geraint Thomas set the earliest best time only to be superceded by Vacansoleil’s Liewe Westra. Obviously, if you’re riding for a team with GC ambitions,  you’re probably advised to ride within yourself, saving something in the legs for this week end’s stages. As a result, riders come and go without unduly disturbing the results. However, I enjoy time trials as it’s one of the very few occasions you get to see individual riders. On the big screen, you can also appreciate the differences between the time-triallers and the others. The former keep rock solid still on the bike with the legs working like pistons. However, with 25 riders within 90 seconds of the leader, this time-trial was going to finish with a flourish.
Serious bike bling

Richie Porte (SaxoBank-Sungard),  or as he’s called by the French Ritchee Poorty, set the next best time. He ultimately finished 3rd, 29 seconds behind the eventual winner. Yes, this was one stage that went according to expectations. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) wearing his GB champion’s kit blasted around 9 seconds faster than Richie Porte to finish 2nd on the day. The winner, as widely anticipated, was Tony Martin whose fluid pedalling style is a joy to behold. He rode at an average speed of 48.5km/hr and finished 20 seconds ahead of Wiggo.

As predicted, the time-trial results shook up the GC. Martin is now in yellow 36 seconds ahead of Kloeden (RadioShack) and 39 seconds ahead of Wiggins. Locally based Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) is 70 seconds back in 4th, and holder of the best young jersey, with Jean Christophe Peraud (AG2R), the highest placed Frenchman, in 5th, a further 4 seconds down. Given the week end’s topography and forecast weather conditions, the top 12 placed riders can still challenge on GC, but Tony Martin looks pretty determined to hang onto yellow. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) looks to have a stranglehold on the points jersey, as does Remi Pauriol (FDJ) on the spotted one.

Something left in the tank
It’s official, I have a cold which probably wasn’t helped by my standing in yesterday’s humid and chilly conditions watching the racing. But a girl’s gotta do, what a girl’s gotta do. My tip for today? Alexandre Vinokourov wasn’t totally blown when he finished yesterday. He’d like to win a stage to honour his late friend, Andrei Kivilev, and maybe today’s the day. We’ll see.

Contenders

I had a good ride this morning with my beloved and, given the great weather, we decided to go out for a late lunch, followed by a long walk along the coast. As a consequence, I’ve only just had time to cast my eye over the start list for tomorrow’s 69th edition of Paris-Nice and think about who might win this year, in the absence of the defending champion, Alberto Contador, who won today’s 2nd stage in the Tour of Mucia ahead of Denis Menchov and Jerome Coppel (going from strength to strength at Saur-Sojasun).

L’Equipe devoted half a page today to last year’s revelation, Peter Sagan who, having shone in the recent Tour of Sardinia, is obviously on form and keen to seize his opportunities. He’s not the only young gun keen to cement his credentials. Over at HTC-High Road, there’s Tony Martin and Tejay van Garderen plus Ritchie Porte at SaxoBank-Sungard and Jurgen van den Broeck at Omega Pharma-Lotto. The latter’s team mate, Philippe Gilbert sparkled on the Strade Bianchi today finishing in Siena ahead of Allessandro Ballan, Damiano Cunego and Spartacus.

Let’s not forget the old guard,  those who have triumphed before in the race to the sun, such as Luis Leon Sanchez and Alexandre Vinokourov. The latter’s bought plenty of support with Tomas Viatkus, Robert Kisverlovski and Roman Kreuziger. Also in the reckoning for the overall, Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) and Levi Leipheimer (Team RadioShack).

If we’re looking for stage winners, we should look to the French who are always “en forme” in the early season: Voeckler, Fedrigo, Le Mevel, Moinard, Peraud, Moncoutie, Pauriol. Personally, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the boys in orange: Sammy Sanchez, Romain Sicard and Gorka Izagirre.

The 1,307km route kicks off tomorrow with 154.5km from Houdan to Houdan. Yes, they’re going round in circles. Monday’s one for the sprinters too. Look out for Grega Bola (Lampre-ISD) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). The rest of the sprinters, with an eye on the Classics, are doing Tirreno-Adriatico.

After two flattish stages, it gets progressively lumpy on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday. (I’ll be there), sees a 27km ITT from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence. This could be the decisive stage. Next up is 215km, and the longest stage, from Brignoles to Biot followed by 124km around Nice, including the Category 1 climbs up La Turbie and Col d’Eze. Never one to miss an opportunity to watch live racing in my backyard, I’ll be seeing both of these stages.

There are no testing climbs in the race and one wouldn’t expect them at this stage of the season. The winner will be a puncheur who can time-trial. I would suggest we should look no further than Alexandre Vinokourov who last won the race in 2003 (homage to Andrei Kivilev) and 2004. He’s made it one of his priorities this year and he’s a guy who can focus – go Alex go.

Don’t look

My beloved has departed for the US and I finally have some free time. When I say “free”, I mean free from looking after him. To illustrate my point, this morning I found, on the laundry floor, the shirt he’d worn yesterday for a 2 hour  business meeting. Obviously, this wasn’t all he wore yesterday. Now you understand why I’m constantly battling a mountain of ironing

Sunday’s pointage at Aspremont was run under similar climatic conditions to the last two Sundays: damp and overcast. Which is a bit of a shame as you can’t enjoy the spectacular views over Nice that this route normally affords. Although it did allow me to check on the progress of a couple of newly built, rather magnificent properties.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Aspremont as it was the location of my first ever pointage with the club. This is the second one of the season which we ascend by way of Pessicart. Obviously, we’re the only club to chose this route. I say that because no one overtook me, once I’d been dropped by my clubmates. The other clubs had chosen to ascend either via Falicon or Castagniers.

By the time I arrived at the pointage, just before 10 o’clock, my team mates had already supped and left. I have to say, it was pretty poor fare at the pointage: remnants of a madeira cake, slices of salami and very wrinkly prunes. Definitely a case of “could do better.” No toques to be awarded here. I left promptly and descended via Castagniers passing Christophe Le Mevel coming in the other direction. Obviously, no lasting effects from his fall last week which caused him to abandon the Tour of the Med.

My hasty retreat enabled me to get back home and prepare a quick pasta lunch for my beloved so we could drive to Toulon and atop Mont Faron before the riders arrived on the ultimate stage of the Tour of the Med. Sadly our GPS system tried in vain to get us to the top of Mont Faron by a non-existent route. We eventually found the correct road, but not before it was closed to traffic. Cue park car and walk.

This was my maiden ascension of Mont Faron. Given the narrowness of the road and the lack of barriers along its sheer drops, I was grateful for the grey mist which obscured the view, although I could see the outline of Toulon spread out before me. It looks like a French version of Portsmouth. As we walked I handed out the flyers for the Kivilev: never one to waste any opportunity.

We found a great spot to view the race’s progress and my beloved would have had some superb photos if he had remembered to replace his memory card! Nonetheless, it’s always interesting witnessing the riders’ pain at close quarters. The ascent is tricky. I’ve mentioned that it’s narrow. In addition, the surface is in poor condition and it winds round and round in rapidly undulating gradients, some of which are rather steep.

As Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R) passed, you could tell he was “on the rivet”. He was closely followed by David Moncoutie (Cofidis) who was looking much more at ease and in control. His experience of this particular hill showed. He knew when, how and where to measure his effort.

The peloton shattered about 4km from the top under the various attacks. Riders who were handily placed on GC behind Romain Feillu, and who you might have expected to finish well up the order, with the exception of Thomas Voeckler, were suffering. So the three who finished atop Mont Faron also finished atop the podium: Moncoutie, Peraud and Poels (Vacansoleil).  

Descending was equally dangerous, as the riders sped back down to get to their buses. I didn’t fear the professionals, just the amateurs trying (in vain) to stay on their wheels. While I would like to ride up Mont Faron, descending on such narrow roads without the benefit of a barrier might be too much. I would probably have to take the cable car (hands over eyes) back down. The Mont is also crisscrossed with eye-wateringly steep mountain bike trails: again, only for the brave and skilful.

Home advantage

I’ve just watched a re-run on television of yesterday’s final stage of Paris-Nice. Given that I saw the stage “live”, you might think it odd. Not so, there’s always something that one misses first time around. In any event, it was great to watch once more one of the riders who both lives locally and is a friend of our cycling club win big. Indeed, he enjoyed the best win to date of his career, also scooping the spotted jersey. I, for one, am looking forward to him gracing the podium on many, many more occasions. 

I’m delighted that it was finally a race to the sun and the broadcasts on both Saturday and Sunday beautifully showcased the wonderful area in which I’ve chosen to live. Sunday, M le President and I, in the company of our better halves, enjoyed the corporate hospitality of our club sponsors, Skoda, while savouring the final stage. Indeed, given that the Spaniards were likely to dominate the podium, we expressed the desire for a French winner on the final day. It was therefore fitting that a rider who lives locally, one we know, and who regularly trains on these roads won. Sometimes home advantage helps.   

Also worthy of note were the 9th and 10th places on GC for Jean-Christophe Peraud and Jerome Coppel respectively. The first is a former mountain biker (and current French time-trial champion) who, fed up with playing second fiddle to the incomparable Julian Absalon, turned to the road this year with Omega Pharma Lotto. The latter is a former U23 time trial silver medallist who floundered, rather than flourished, for a couple of years at FDJ and now seems to have found his feet (or should that be legs?) again at Saur-Sojasun.  

Talking of former mountain bikers, I cannot ignore double stage and points jersey winner, Peter Sagan (a former junior world mountain biking champion) who has exploded onto the road racing scene this season and delivered on the promise he showed in the Tour Down Under. His teammate Roman Kreuziger won best young rider and was 4th on GC. Liquigas are surely a team loaded with talent.

Another young, talented rider who lives locally much animated the race and finished 8th on GC. He’s Rein Taamarae, the Estonian national champion and a team mate of the stage winner, Amael Moinard.  Cofidis team management must be feeling very pleased with their overall performance. 

Vacansoleil, Skil Shimano and Saur Sojasun were obviously hoping to sufficiently impress ASO to gain that oh-so-coveted invitation to The Tour this summer. Vacansoleil heavily sponsored Paris-Nice while Saur Sojasun, along with Etap Hotels, made up the Paris-Nice caravan. It all helps boys but I can’t help feeling that money talks loudest, so mine’s on Vacansoleil. 

Alberto Contador Paris-Nice 2010Last, but not least, Bert let his legs do the talking. Yes, like any rider who weighs only 61kg, he’s always going to suffer in the wind. However, let’s not forget, the one rider who did get blown off his bike in the Prologue weighs more than me – Gert Steegmans. I saw him sitting on the steps of the RadioShack bus on Sunday looking well on the road to recovery. But, back to Bert. He raced intelligently and was well shepherded by his Astana team mates who, from their performances here and in Tirreno-Adriatico, are showing they’re nowhere near as lacking in talent as some would have us believe. My money’s on Bert for a consecutive Tour win.   

Both photographs courtesy of my very good friend Susi Goertze