Postcards from the Basque Country – Part II

View from my bedroom window!
View from my bedroom window!

Pretty much like the riders, when you’re following a race, your days follow a very similar format. Turn up at the start 90 minutes before the off which, weather permitting, enables you to catch up with the riders and take photographs. It’s always easier if the team buses are parked close to the sign-on which isn’t always possible in some of the smaller towns. However, once the weather deteriorated, this became a bit of a logistical nightmare with the riders, understandably, not wanting to spend a moment longer than necessary in the freezing, wet conditions. Luckily, the weather doesn’t dampen the appetite of the fervent Basque fans who line the ascents in their hundreds and thousands.

The peloton departs and we race to our car or, in this case, our rented Renault Kangoo, to drive to the finish. We head first to the press room to bag our places, set up our laptops, enjoy the plentiful buffet and chat with a few of the photographers and reporters. Then it’s time to check our email and start writing up the summary of the day’s racing as it starts to unfold on the tv screen.

When the peloton’s 10km from home, the press room empties, everyone races to the finish line and listens to the two-handed Basque-Spanish commentary team, awaiting the arrival of the riders. Race over, we drift to the podium to congratulate and photograph the winners, then it’s back to the press room to finish the day’s report, download and edit the day’s photographs.

Job done, our thoughts drift inevitably towards dinner. We were staying in a charming family-run hotel close to a national park, in a town with a couple of restaurants and bars, one of which was excellent and where we ate most evenings. We didn’t manage to work our way through the menu as we often opted for the day’s specials. A relaxing glass of Rioja and we were both tucked up in bed, fast asleep, well before most of the riders.

Towards the end of our break, we popped in to see the owners of the hotel where we stayed last year. We couldn’t stay there this year as it was fully booked! I knew I shouldn’t have written them such a glowing review. We were greeted like long-lost family members and the welcome and cooking was as warm and as good as we remembered. Given the dreadful weather conditions, my beloved is suggesting we opt for the Tour of Turkey next year. I’m not so sure. I really enjoy our sojourns in the Basque country and am already looking forward to our next trip at the end of July.

Postcards from the Basque Country – Part I

Early morning chat
Early morning chat

I know, I’m back home and I’ve not sent my postcards! We’ve all done it, haven’t we? But, to be honest, it’s the first time I’ve had any real opportunity to write about the trip and not the race which you can read about over on VeloVoices. Well apart from the shenanigans with the Russian visa application.

First up the weather was initially much better than anticipated meaning my beloved was able to ride for the first few days and I even accompanied him despite his unerring ability to find every steep climb in the neighbourhood. Admittedly that’s not difficult in the Basque country although this time he succeeded in finding one or two of the longer, more taxing climbs.

Of course, when I say I rode with him, I meant I trailed behind him. My beloved, despite our lengthy marriage, constantly fails to appreciate that if he runs, skis or cycles with me I’ll make an effort to keep up. Disappear 500m or more up the road, leaving me to my own devices, and I’ll amble along admiring the countryside or get into conversation with other cyclists. As a result, we rarely cycle together.

The first Saturday morning dawned bright, albeit overcast, after Friday’s torrential downpour,and my beloved wasted no time in hustling me out the door though, half-way into our ride, the heavens opened again and we turned tail and fled back to the warmth of our small family-run hotel.  In the afternoon we drove into Navarre to watch the GP Miguel Indurain where conversely the weather was dry with a chilly wind. The race weaves loops around the pretty old town of Estella where, after a truly magnificent lunch, we exhorted the peloton, surprisingly split into a multitude of small groups up the final climb.

Sunday morning we opted to further explore the countryside on two wheels. The sun shone although there was still an early morning nip in the air. The scent of word-burning fires, the bright lime-green shoots on the trees, the blossoming hedgerows, the sound of dogs barking and the tinkle of bells around the necks of goats and sheep gave everything a distinctly alpine feel but then we were riding at around 600-900m and some of the hills still had traces of snow.

I love riding in the Basque country where cyclists always seem to outnumber the motorists who keep a respectable distance and toot in a friendly and encouraging fashion as you labour up yet another of those steep, sharp inclines. Sunday was no exception and we saw many groups from the local cycling clubs, I even cycled and chatted with a few of them after being abandoned by my beloved. Ride over, we settled down to a plate of tapas, a glass of red wine and, on the big screen, the rigours of racing over the cobbles in Belgium.

Monday dawned bright and fair, again contrary to expectations, as we headed over to Elgoibar and the start of one of my favourite races of the year: the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Accreditation secured, we headed to the team presentation and sign-on where I was able to catch up with a number of friends who were riding in the race. There’s nothing nicer than watching and encouraging someone you know. Our early start also gave us an opportunity to catch up with friends old and new in the press corps.

This race is extremely well attended by the bike loving Basques. The biggest cheers, not unnaturally, are reserved for the “home” team of Euskaltel-Euskadi and their lead rider and defending champion Samu Sanchez who obligingly had his photograph taken with hordes of dark-haired, dark-eyed moppets: inspiring the next generation. It’s also very evident that former winner Alberto Contador is popular with the on-lookers.

The appreciative and knowledgable crowd also welcomes “old friends” such as Jens Voigt who was awarded a plaque in recognition of his support of this race. Conversely, Sky turning up with only six riders, and failing to attend the team presentation, was seen as disrespectful. As the race progressed, they made a point of arriving more punctually for the sign-on except for their gregarious bearded Basque Xabier Zandio who was an early starter most mornings. By the time they started winning stages, they were forgiven.

I love watching the pre-start interaction with everyone milling around the team buses in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of their heroes, a souvenir or two or just checking out the bike bling. Likewise those five minutes or so before the race starts where some riders wait patiently, composing their thoughts before the day’s challenges while others chat with their compatriots on other teams, no doubt comparing their experiences of the previous day’s racing.

The Vuelta al Pais Vasco follows a similar pattern most years, with the first and last days of racing centred on one town and the four stages in between setting off from the previous day’s finish town. It all takes place within a relatively confined geographic area allowing the teams to spend most of the race based in one hotel, close to the action, thereby avoiding long transfers and early morning starts. I think this is recompense for the fact that several stages take place in the freezing cold rain. This year’s been no exception, the rain started in earnest on Thursday with the Eibar summit finish shrouded in freezing fog. Friday morning we awoke to find a blizzard blowing. Why did no one tell me the locals’ nickname for Vitoria-Gasteiz is Siberia?? (to be continued)

Recapping and recalling

I had thought with my beloved away yesterday that I’d find the time to put finger tips to keyboard, but no! All too soon he was back, gone barely 24 hours and back until the week-end. However, I’m going to snatch a quick hour or so to record my thoughts on the week end’s live racing at Paris-Nice. There’s simply nothing better than going to watch live racing and getting an opportunity to ride some of the course too.

We headed over to Sisteron on Friday morning, leaving rather later than I’d planned but I’d had to wait for my beloved. Story of my life! We finally set off and were a bit disconcerted to have rain en route but by the time we reached Sisteron, the sun was shining. We left the car at the hotel, mounted out trusty steeds and headed into town. I’d ridden around here three years ago when I’d ridden “La Sisteronne” but my beloved’s not familiar with the area. We decided to ride the final circuit of the day’s stage, finishing with a sprint for the line. Well, as close to the line as we could get, which I won.  We then popped over the barricades to watch the live action.

As anticipated, it was a largely local crowd, though I had stopped to exchange greetings with some Belgian fans in the camper vans on the outskirts of town: all fully paid-up members of the Tom Boonen fan club. Though today’s stage wouldn’t be one for Tom, too undulating. In any event, the leaders on GC had been happy to let a small group off the leash which were whittled down to Luis Leon Sanchez and Jens Voigt. Now while Fauso Coppi said “age and treachery will overcome youth and skill” this wasn’t the case and former Paris-Nice winner Sanchez pipped Voigt to the post.

We discovered that we were staying overnight in the same hotel as BMC, Saur-Sojasun and Euskaltel. Actually, that’s not strictly true. The Basques had gotten the short straw, they were sleeping next door in the L’Etap but were allowed into the Ibis to eat! Anyhow, as far as I’m concerned, riders are off-limits after a hard day on the bike. They need their rest and relaxation. I finally managed to drag my beloved away from a conference call and we headed into to town to find a good restaurant. I’m like a truffle hound, year’s of experience honed to perfection. We ate a truly magnificent meal, including a good bottle of wine, for Euros 60 in a lovely family-run establishment. She ran front of house, he cooked: my favourite type of restaurant.   Replete we headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. All the teams were already tucked up in bed.

We nearly had an unfortunate incident at breakfast when my beloved swiveled sharply at the buffet almost sending two Euskaltel riders flying. Happily, they seemed oblivious to their near miss. However, I did note that they all dined on coffee and cake. Maybe, I should send the manager my resume and offer to keep them supplied during the Tour de France? Saur-Sojasun’s breakfast table was groaning with one of their sponsor’s soya based products – possibly obligatory. While over on the BMC table, many were suffering either from colds or tummy troubles. Even poor Thor looked diminished by his illness.  My husband had forbidden me to get within 30 metres of the mechanics’ van fearing I might be tempted to acquire a new BMC bike. But I already know that only Mauro Santambrogio rides the same frame size as me and he wasn’t at Paris-Nice.

Before the start on Saturday, we rode around the neighbouring villages, soaking up the sunshine and just enjoying the beautiful countryside. We returned to the town centre to catch the sign-on. An elderly Spanish couple, who kindly made space for us at the barricades, seemed to know all the Spanish riders who duly dropped by to exchange greetings. I was still trying to work out who they might be, and was going to ask them but they nipped off while I was taking Bradley Wiggins’ photo. As the race started, we followed the peloton out of town and back to our car for the journey back to Nice.

We had thought about catching the race on Col de Vence but some of our racers were taking part in a criterium on the Promenade and I wanted to lend our support. This of course ensured a packed house for the arrival of the professional peloton. Thomas De Gendt soloing in to take the stage some way ahead of his fellow breakaway companion, and local resident, Rein Taaramae. Neither posed a threat to the GC who ambled in later. Riding back I spotted Tom Boonen, and gave chase, but he evaded my clutches.

Sunday, I abandoned the bike in return for a ride behind one of the competitors. Since the cars have to make a loop, not all the riders would be followed by team cars instead it might be a Mavic neutral service vehicle, as was the case for the rider we followed, Elia Viviani.  It was more interesting than anticipated as you could clearly see both the effort expended and the speed the ride was travelling. As Elia was only going at twice my speed, I suspect he wasn’t giving it his all!

Unfortunately, there was no big screen at the start but instead I amused myself by watching the riders warm up and catching up with people I knew, many of whom were milling about like me. I had earlier wished Bradley good luck and had marvelled at how a man with legs thinner than my arms could cycle quite so fast. But thanks for the win Bradley, I’m assured of bragging rights down at the cycle club for a couple of months.

Counting down the clock

As part of my preparations for The Tour, yesterday afternoon I watched the Tour de France team presentation held in the theatrical, Gallo-Roman, Parc du Puy-du-Fou. The spectacle was much enjoyed by the 6,000 capacity crowd. The riders were made to feel like gladiators when we all know they’re Christians about to be fed to the lions. The world champion entered into the spirit of things by reprising his role as Thor, God of Thunder, with a plundered wig and props. One sour note was the booing of Alberto Contador. While one appreciates the frustration of the fans, under the current regulations, Alberto has every right to take part in this year’s Tour. If you don’t like it, please boo the rule makers, not those subject to said regulations.

Everything is ready to maximise my viewing experience. I have this month’s copy of Velo magazine with a run down on all the riders, updated with today’s 8-page special from L’Equipe. I have last month’s Velo magazine with a detailed explanation of each and every stage. I have my Tour de France reference books. These are all piled on the coffee table in front of the television ready for tomorrow’s first stage. For those of you who aren’t so well organised, can I suggest you check out two websites which contain all the pertinent information in a readily digestible format: www.thearmchairsportsfans.com and www.inrng.com.

Obviously, I’ve had a few musing myself and have been checking out the stats. Forty-six riders (23%) weigh more than me. Of course, there are some teams where none of the riders weigh more than me, that is individually rather than as a team! We’re talking Euskaltel (quelle surprise), Radioshack, AG2R, Cofidis and Europcar.

Eight riders celebrate (or not) their birthdays during the Tour:-

  • 2 July Juergen Roelandts
  • 3 July Nico Roche
  • 4 July Vladimir Gusev
  • 5 July Philippe Gilbert
  • 8 July Paolo Tiralongo
  • 15 July Alan Perez
  • 16 July Andrei Greipel
  • 22 July Dries Devenyns

It remains to be seen whether any of these can garner an additional birthday present from the Tour. The most likely is PhilGil who narrowly missed out on his birthday in 2008 on the 1st stage finish into Plumelec when he was beaten to the line by Alejandro Valverde. No chance of the same happening this year. He will however have his eye on the 1st, 4th and 6th stages. He’s the most likely of the birthday boys to spend a couple of days gracing the maillot jaune.

There are 16 Tour de France virgins, not all of whom will go all the way [to Paris].   It’s important, particularly with the younger ones, to take each day as it comes. At the other end of the scale, Big George Hincapie’s taking part in his 16th Tour, equalling the record held by Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk. On a more sobering note, there are only 33 (16.67%) riders who are too old to be my son.

The youngest rider in this year’s peloton is Saur-Sojasun’s Anthony Delaplace who was born in November 1989 while the oldest is (no prizes for guessing)  39 year old Jens Voigt, who could have fathered the youngest! The team with the highest average age (again, no prizes for guessing) is Radioshack (33). It’s a place they would have occupied last year as well when Lance was still riding in their midst.

Riders from 30 different nations are taking part though, not unreasonably, 45 (22.7%) of these are French. Four teams are only fielding riders from their home nation: Katusha, Eukaltel-Euskadi, Europcar and Saur-Sojasun.

Looking at the photos that have been used by both Velo and L’Equipe, I have to ask, where did you get them from? They all look as if they were taken in one of those photo booths which is incapable of taking a decent photo of anyone, even a Supermodel.

Everyone has made their prognostications, including me, but that was before I knew Alberto would be riding. The opinions of the editorial team of Velo magazine make interesting reading, along with their picks for the stage wins. Here’s their consensus for the jerseys:-

  • Maillot jaune – Alberto Contador (8/11)
  • Maillot a pois – David Moncoutie (4/11)
  • Maillot vert – Thor Hushovd (4/11)
  • Meilleur jeune –  Robert Gesink (11/11)

The white jersey (meilleur jeune) was the only one to enjoy unanimity. Two journalists picked Schleck Jr and one picked Schleck Sr for the win. There was less agreement among the journalists for the two other jerseys, largely I suspect because changes this year to the way in which the points are calculated make it  more difficult to predict. Gilbert, Farrar, Boassen Hagen, Cavendish and Goss were in the mix for the green jersey while Cunego, Gesink, Chavanel and Charteau figured in the picks for the spotted one.

Velo Magazine Predicted Stage winners:-

  • Stage 1 Passage du Gois – Mont des Alouettes: Thor Hushovd
  • Stage 2 Les Essarts – Les Essarts (TTT): Radioshack
  • Stage 3 Olonne-sur-Mer – Redon: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 4 Lorient – Mur-de-Bretagne: Philippe Gilbert
  • Stage 5 Carhaix – Cap Frehel: Fabian Cancellara
  • Stage 6 Dinan – Lisieux: Matthew Goss
  • Stage 7 Le Mans – Chateauroux: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 8 Aigurande – Super Besse: Sylvain Chavanel
  • Stage 9 Issoire – Saint-Flour: Alexandre Vinokourov
  • Stage 10 Aurillac – Carmaux: Thomas de Gendt
  • Stage 11 Blaye-lesMines – Lavaur: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 12 Cignaux – Luz Ardiden: Frank Schleck
  • Stage 13 Pau – Lourdes: Luis Leon Sanchez
  • Stage 14 Saint Gaudens – Plateau de Beille: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 15 Limoux – Montpelier: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 16 Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux – Gap: Vasil Kiryienka
  • Stage 17 Gap – Pinerolo: Christophe Kern
  • Stage 18 Pinerolo – Galibier Serre Chevalier: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 19 Modane – Alpe d’Huez: Andy Schleck
  • Stage 20 Grenoble – Grenoble (ITT): Tony Martin
  • Stage 21 Creteil – Paris: Mark Cavendish

You would have to say that these are not unreasonable, however, I would hope that Euskaltel, specifically Sammy Sanchez, manages to bag a stage. Additionally, I’m not wholly convinced that Cavendish will be so dominant in the sprints. We’ll just have to wait and see. Bring it on.

12 July Postscript: Velo magazine not faring too well in the prognostications. Indeed,  a number of riders nominated for wins are either down and out or merely limping along. Stage 7 has been their only good call which kinda shows just how unpredictable it’s been.

25 July Postscript: None of the experts have fared too well in the predictions game which just goes to show that cycling’s unpredictable and exciting.

7-year itch

Yesterday was pretty blissful. My beloved and I rose late, largely thanks to the clocks going forward and his tardy arrival back into Nice the night before. We breakfasted, dressed, mounted our bikes and headed for that morning’s pointage, just up the road in St Paul de Vence. The sky was overcast and it was obviously going to rain at some point, probably sooner rather than later.

We enjoyed our ride before collecting the newspapers and heading for home. Narrowly avoiding the rain, which fell all afternoon, evening and overnight. After lunch, I settled down on the sofa (suitably attired) to enjoy the newspapers and a veritable smorgasbord of cycling.

Up first was all three stages of the Criterium International, or Jens Voigt Invitational as it’s more commonly known. As if by magic, guess who was a sole breakaway on  stage 1? None other than Jens himself, putting the hurt on the other teams and paving the way for Frank Schleck’s (Leopard Trek) win atop L’Ospedale, ahead of Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis). My beloved and I know this area well having ridden around here on a trip with the cycling club. Stage 2’s 75km sprint stage was won by  Skil-Shimano’s Simon Geschke, his first pro-win, while Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack) won the 7km time-trial around Porto Vecchio. The results of those subsequent stages left the podium unchanged.

Next up was Gent-Wevelgem, shorn of Fabulous Fabian, but still choc full of talent vying for the win and those valuable UCI points. Allegedly, Tom Boonen (Quickstep) was left to watch yesterday’s win on the television so that he could better perform today and “justify his salary” so-said his manager, Patrick Lefevre. As the television coverage started, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) was leading a small group of escapees, validating beyond any shadow of a doubt his team’s invitation.

After Voeckler was re-absorbed into the peloton, various attacks were launched and brought back, the last one just a few hundred kilometers before the finish. The narrow, twisting, farm roads had snapped the peloton into several bunches, but the main contenders barr Goss, Cavendish, Hushovd and Pozzato were in the leading group which sprinted for the line. Boonen powered past everyone to snatch victory, 7 years after his last win here in 2004. Danieli Bennati (Leopard Trek) was 2nd and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) finished 3rd.

To win in the Classics, you need legs, luck and good positioning. Boonen had endured a long wait for the team car after a problem at the foot of the Monteberg, 74km from the finish, before expending not inconsiderable energy chasing back to the front of the peloton. While the manner of his victory was quite different from that of Cancellara’s, it will have boosted his confidence ahead of next week’s Tour of Flanders.

We then watched video highlights of the final day’s stage of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya won by the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin, his 2nd stage win. Collecting not only precious UCI points for his team Cofidis, but also justifying their invitation to the event. The overall was won by Contador who had assumed the lead after Wednesday’s queen stage. If anything, his popularity in Spain, where he’s perceived as being victimised, has grown as the doping case has progressed. If I were Pat McQuaid, I would eliminate Spain from my immediate travel plans.

Finally, we caught up with the last day’s action from the track World Championships where Australia have dominated and others have disappointed. Sated, we opted for an early night. All that cycling’s exhausting.

Double rations

We left for this morning’s ride under a cloudy sky which, thankfully, soon cleared. The club’s ranks had been depleted by a number of riders racing elsewhere today. Nonetheless, those remaining set a cracking pace and, once let off the leash, weren’t seen again; at least, not by me. I rode along at my own pace enjoying the warm sunshine, the fresh air and the arrival of Spring.

I shortened the prescribed club ride to get back home in time to finish preparing lunch. French television coverage of Paris-Nice was scheduled for 13:30 and I wanted lunch to be long over by then so that I could lounge on the sofa and enjoy the race.

With 70km to go, the peloton, under sunny skies, were reeling back in the two breakaway artists, Euskaltel’s Gorka Izagirre and Europcar’s Damien Gaudin. It took them another 30km to accomplish that feat. Two kms later Jeremy Roy (FDJ) set off, pursued by Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil). They never got more than 50 seconds ahead but worked well together, took advantage of the confusion in the chasing peloton, particularly through the urban streets, and a strong tail-wind in the final 6kms.

Belgian Thomas De Gendt prevailed in the sprint to land the biggest win of his career ahead of Roy. Voigt was swallowed by the advancing herd, Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) took 3rd. Most riders came home in the bunch but the wind had provoked a number of breaks in the peloton and those lingering down the back had been tailed off, most notably David Moncoutie (Cofidis). He was keeping Rigoberto Uran (Team Sky), who had crashed, company 8 minutes back.

When the race finished we decided to take a walk along the seafront in the sunshine. Everyone else had the same idea. The promenade was packed with people strolling, dog-walking, cycling, in-line skating, scooting or just sitting and watching. Business was booming at most of the cafes and restaurants.

We came back to discover Eurosport had delayed its transmission, so I watched the race again. If I were Jeremy Roy, I would have offered thanks to the gods when I saw that Jens Voigt, eminence grise of the peloton, had joined the breakaway, along with Thomas De Gendt. They worked well together, no one shirked their turn on the front and all three gave it their all. Wondering whether or not the peloton would catch them in the new radio-free environment made for an exciting race. Interestingly, commentators on both channels felt that, if the breakway managed to stay away,  De Gendt would win. I recall him hoovering up the KOM and points jersey in the 2009 Tour of Britain when he was riding for Topsport Vlaaderen.

Moral victory

Just look who turned up to take part in Sunday’s Gentleman and show us all exactly how it’s done. Afterwards, she kindly handed out the cups to the winners, signed autographs and posed for endless photographs. Despite the urging of my clubmates, I wisely declined to have my photograph taken with a woman who weights 43kg – maybe, next year.

Tough competition

My girlfriend and I were the fastest (and only) all female team. While, the organisers are quite happy to have all male single category teams, this generosity is not extended to the fairer sex. Discrimination? Absolutely! Accordingly, we were lumped in with the mixed pairs where we were a very respectable 2nd (not last) in the over 40s.

In hot pursuit

Not content with riding the short course with my girlfriend, I also decided to ride the longer course with my beloved. I had a pretty quick turn around; with just enough time to change my numbers between races. Sadly, I finished (like last year) with the wooden spoon. However, I had closed the gap quite considerably on my nearest rivals (a couple of very spritely over 65s) but was still some way down on Jeannie and her husband. After the inevitable apero, it was back home to relax on the sofa and watch some real racing.

This week end there’s been a veritable smorgasbord of cycling on the TV. Indeed, it’s been difficult choosing what to watch, such has been the choice. In the end I plumped for the “Clash of the Titans” (ie Bert v Lance) in the Criterium International (aka Jens Voigt Invitational) and the World Track Cycling Championships.

The Press had speculated that Bert had changed his programme to gain some sort of psychological advantage over Lance ahead of the Tour. However, I’m wondering whether it wasn’t a case of ASO flexing its muscles and demanding the presence of two riders guaranteed to generate sufficient revenues from the Criterium’s inaugural television coverage. Just call me a cynic.

While neither Contador nor Lance won, both of their teams demonstrated their respective strengths. Individual stages were won respectively by Pierrick Fedrigo of Bbox Bouygues Telecom (who held on to win overall), Russell Downing of Sky and David Millar of Garmin Transitions. However, the question I’m left pondering is this. Now that Vinokourov has ridden in an ASO event is it more likely that he’ll be allowed to ride the Tour in support of Contador? I for one certainly hope so.

Meanwhile, Australia bossed GB on the track. There were excellent performances by some of the younger riders: most notably, Cameron Meyer and Taylor Phinney. However, Sir Chris Hoy and Queen Victoria Pendleton still picked up gold medals.

Over in Belgium, Saxo Bank continued their recent good vein of form yesterday with Spartacus peddling away from Tommeke in the final kilometer of E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke. Today, in Gent Wevelgem, Bernard Eisel, Mark Cavendish’s fairy god-mother, won the sprint finish from a break away group. I can hardly wait for next week’s Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Finally, Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) justified his move away from Caisse d’Epargne by picking up the overall at Volta a Catalunya. He was joined on the podium by Xavier Tondo (Cervelo) and Rein Taaramae (local boy, local to me that is) of Cofidis. So that means HTC-Columbia and Cofidis are still on level pegging, with 12 wins apiece.

Brutal but honest

No 1 fan
My Swiss friend was a big CSC fan, largely because they rode Cervelo bikes. He had all the gear, as you can see in the photograph, and they’ve retained his interest, despite now riding Specialized, because of, fellow Swiss, Fabulous Fabian.  

 At the week end he brought me the DVD “Overcoming” . This is a, warts and all, behind the scenes documentary about Team CSC from their early season training camp through to the end of the 2004 Tour de France. This you may recall was my first Tour.   

While the film pays homage to the whole crew, its stars are Riis, Sastre and Basso. It focuses in particular on the relationships between the team’s two leaders and their relationship with Riis. Overcoming shows Riis not only to be a very skilful tactician but also a man enduring the psychological strains and stresses of the Tour. He clearly expects too much of his riders and questions everything. This environment of sparse praise and high expectations takes its toll on everyone which Riis recognises towards the end of the film.   

Sastre is shown to be an uncomplicated, laid-back guy on a high at the start of the Tour after the birth of his second child. The contrast in approach between Riis (logical) and Sastre (instinctive) is also clear in the early season training where Riis tries (and fails) to convince Sastre to use a power meter. Instead, he prefers to listen to his own body.  

By contrast, Basso comes across as very eager to please and, as the documentary progresses, it becomes clear that Basso is the star of Team CSC.  Sastre sacrifices himself to help Basso win at La Mongie where he dedicates the stage to his mother who, he’s just learnt, has cancer. Basso consults with Lance who, as the Tour continues, demonstrates his formidable mental fortitude in the face of any and all competition.  

Seeing Riis’ reaction in the team car to Basso’s win is priceless. Nonetheless, he doesn’t forget to thank Sastre for his selflessness. This is in stark contrast to Riis’s knee-jerk disappointment a few days later on the L’Alpe d’Huez time-trial where Basso is cruelly and easily overtaken by Lance and drops to 3rd place on the podium.  

All in all, it’s a grim but honest look at the life of a professional bike rider: only Jens Voight provided a few light-hearted moments. The documentary starkly reveals the fraility of riders bodies  and the work required each evening to get them back on their bikes the following day. The most notable take aways are: 1)  the team spirit among the riders and their willingness to do whatever it takes for one another and 2) Bjarne Riis’s recognition and admission that he was often too quick to criticise and didn’t dish out enough compliments.

Extra time

I’m typing this during the action packed second-half of extra time at Stade de France where the score is one apiece. The Irish started the match strongly and Robbie Keane, deservedly,  fired one in from a Damian Duff pass on 32nd minute.  The match was still tied at the end of full-time.

Govou’s goal in 102 minute was ruled off-side then Gallas scored a minute later, from a double Henry hand ball, much to the disbelief of the Irish present. At the end of extra time cue huge sighs of French relief all-round accompanied by much gallic hugging and kissing. Yes, the French, along with the Slovenians, Greeks, Algerians and Portuguese are off to South Africa.

Obviously, L’Equipe has been building its coverage since Sunday and I’m thinking they’ll easily fill 6 pages tomorrow plus a couple of full-page adverts from grateful sponsors.

I was somewhat mystified to learn that Yoann Gourcuff had been voted (only) the 3rd best looking footballer in France until I learned that it was by the readers of a gay magazine – that explains it. Don’t worry Yoann, you’re still top dog with the girls.

I’ve finished reading Jens Voigt’s book “Man Muss Kaempfen!” (one must fight) and it’s pretty much what one would expect but I was left wanting more. Most of the narrative surrounds his Tour de France rides for firstly Credit Agricole and then CSC, where he’s equally complimentary about Roger Legeay, Bjarne Riis and his teammates. I’d have liked a bit more nitty, gritty. But in Germany, post-Puerto, I guess something anodyne was just what the doctor ordered. Jens comes across as a hardworking, reliable team mate and devoted family man who believes that if you don’t give it a go, you don’t stand a chance of winning – very true.

For a complete contrast, I’ve turned to “Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani” (Life and Death of Marco Pantani) written by L’Equipe’s own Philippe Brunel.

Il Pirato in pink

This’ll be the third book I’ve read on the topic and it appears to give more of an insider’s view than the other two: The Death of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell and, the compilation, Marco Pantani: The Legend of a Tragic Champion. Shame I never got to see him dance on those pedals.

Hotch potch

Yesterday, I had a very special, overnight visitor, my neighbour’s daughter. She is a truly delightful child, a credit to her parents and teachers. She came for dinner which we prepared and ate together, before settling down to watch the football match.

We’d already had a lively discussion over dinner about rugby. She’d seen her first match this summer, Toulouse v Brive. So she was more than happy to

Ireland v France
I rest my case

watch the Ireland v France match with me. After Anelka scored in the 72nd minute from a Gourcuff assist, she  promptly fell asleep on the sofa, secure in the knowledge that France were now much more likely to be South Africa bound.

It was a tight match which, frankly, could have gone either way. Tellingly, the man of the match was the French goalkeeper, and ex-OGCN player, Hugo Lloris. Though I should add that the  French scored more heavily in a couple of departments by comparison with the Irish: cooler kit (Adidas) and better looks (IMHO).

Earlier, I had watched an understrength England be dazzled by the Brazilians in Doha, Qatar. Ex-Villan, Gareth Barry was easily England’s best player in their 1-0 defeat.

My overnight guest was collected early this morning to allow me to leave for the pointage in Cannes. As I cycled past the hippodrome, I joined up with a group of cyclists, including a guy I rode with last week. To my surprise I managed to stay with them all the way to the pointage. I had anticipated that at some point I would be joined, and overtaken, by riders from my club. But they hadn’t arrived by the time I departed the pointage, returning home via Mouans Sartoux and Mougins.

I then had a quick turn around as I was meeting a friend for lunch. We were celebrating her new job in New York where, among  other things, she’s going to be looking after shipments of Chanel into the East Coast. I’m truly pleased for her. She’s worked really hard to build the up the company’s operation in Nice and needed another challenge. I will miss her, but have already signaled my intention to visit her next year in the Big Apple.

I’m now in my nightwear contemplating either an evening curled up on the sofa watching the TV or an early night with Jens Voigt’s biography. Reading in bed is another of my guilty pleasures and one which I can indulge only when my beloved is away, and he’s away until Thursday.