Reflections on the Tour

I’m still wallowing in post-Tour euphoria; and you thought it only applied to the riders. I’ll come crashing back to earth later this week when I start to miss my daily fix. Fortunately, help is at hand, as I’m heading to the Basque country this week end to watch a star-studded Clasica San Sebastian. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Firstly, I’d like to congratulate everyone who reached Paris: no mean feat.  Secondly, a huge thanks to all  the stage winners and the wearers of the various jerseys for making the last three weeks so entertaining, enthralling and absorbing. It’s much appreciated.

Now, let’s examine some of the firsts:

  • Cadel Evans, first Tour de France winner from Australia
  • Frank and Andy Schleck, first brothers on the podium
  • Mark Cavendish, first Brit (and Manx man) to win the green jersey
  • First time the Norwegians have taken 4 individual stages

I’m sure there were many more firsts but these were the ones which sprang to mind.

Not forgetting, of course, that there was plenty of cheer for the home nation:-

  • Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler’s 4th place was the first since 2000 (Christophe Moreau) having spent 10 days in the maillot jaune
  • Five Frenchmen (Voeckler, Peraud, Rolland, Coppel, Jeannesson) in the top 15 was the best result since 1991
  • First best young rider classification (Pierre Rolland) since 1999
  • First winner (Pierre Rolland) atop Alpe d’Huez since 1986 (Hinault)
  • FDJ’s Jeremy Roy voted most combative rider
  • Amael Moinard, the only Frenchman on the winner’s team (BMC)

The hopes and dreams of a number of notable riders were dashed largely due to crashes in the first week. Some struggled on to Paris, others departed the Tour in ambulances. A speedy recovery and return to two wheels to you all. Sadly, one of my favourite riders has decided to retire. It was on the cards and his fall in the Tour only accelerated matters. You’ll be sorely missed Alex but I’m sure you’ll lead your team to many more victories albeit from the team car.

Finally, congratulations to the winners of the various jerseys and classifications. I’m sure Dave Z was touched to see his full-sized cardboard cut out atop the podium as part of the winning team. I wonder, does Garmin Cervelo have one for each of the team?

It seems as if the entire world has proclaimed this the best Tour for the past 20 years. I can’t comment as I’ve only been addicted since 2004.

Finally and thankfully

Well worth the wait

Mindful of the importance of today’s stage, I was up and out at the crack of dawn. It was lovely and quiet, still a little fresh, with only the road cleaners and the odd car heading for the nearest bakery for me to worry about. I sped to Menton, easily my fastest ride there ever. My traffic light karma was in overdrive, I didn’t have to halt once: not even on the Promenade des Anglais. I stopped in Menton to top up my bottles and get a drink  to fuel my ascent. There’s a tap as the road splits (left over the Col and right to Ste Agnes), but the water’s of dubious quality.

The first kilometre of the climb is steepish but fortified by my recent sugar hit, and taking advantage of every bit of shade, I forge on. Up towards Ste Agnes the terrain undulates . I just grind away enjoying the view back down to the sea. The view improves, the gradient rises steeply and I’m now in the lowest of low gears. I take the left turn. It’s taken me  50 minutes to get here and I’ve emptied my larger bidon. It rises again and I press on. As a distraction, I start giving some thought to today’s stage where, realistically, we might know more about the real, relative forms of the main contenders, or not. The next 5 kilometres pass remarkably quickly and I’m soon speeding downwards. I’ve seen hardly any cars, just a couple of goats.

As I swoop through La Turbie, stopping at the fountain to fill up my bottles, I’m making good time. I  head up over the Col d’Eze enjoying the warm sunshine, the scenic views and the prospect of a cracking afternoon’s Tour viewing. Riding this route has done wonders for Thor Hushovd’s climbing skills, who knows it might do something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, for me. My traffic light karma begins to desert me on the way back and I take refuge on the cycling track on the Promenade. It’s busy, but not as busy as the road. In no time at all, I’m grinding my way back up to the apartment. It’s taken me an hour less than I estimated but that’s largely due to the time at which I rode rather than any great feat on my part. I shower, slip into something comfortable and sink a couple of litres of water. I’d like to check the ride information on my Garmin but I’m still waiting for a response from them. I’ve been waiting for 6 days!

On today’s queen stage, 168.5km from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille a large group breaks away almost from the start, swiftly joined by another 4 riders, 24 in total. Only 4 teams are not represented: Saxobank, Radioshack, Omega Pharma-Lotto and Saur-Sojasun. There’s plenty of French riders, including 3 from FDJ, but no Jeremy Roy. Is that allowed? Despite having Charteau in the break, Europcar control the peloton until Leopard Trek take over intent on whittling down the numbers and delivering the Schlecks to the base of the final climb.

The French are desperate for a stage win and today’s excitement, and ultimate disappointment, were provided by French champion Sylvain Chavanel and, later on, FDJ’s Sandy Casar. However with Voeckler STILL in yellow, the French are now talking him up as a potential Tour winner. Stranger things have happened.

With just 10.5km of the final climb remaining, Andy Schleck puts in a dig. It’s countered. The favourites basically mark one another all the way to the finish. Tour rookie, Jelle Vanendert, still smarting from his 2nd place at Luz Ardiden, takes off in pursuit of the hapless Casar who’s soon overtaken. Jelle’s nemesis from Friday, Samu, pursues him and gains back a few precious seconds on the other favourites but can’t overhaul today’s victor. So Omega Pharma Lotto take their 3rd stage win of the Tour. With just 2kms to go Andy puts in a more serious dig which allows him to take back 2 seconds from the others. Most of the favourites finish together although a couple were distanced on the climb further shaking up GC which now looks like this:-

Rank Dossard Name Country Team Time Gap
1 181 Thomas VOECKLER FRA EUC 61h04’10” 00”
2 018 Frank SCHLECK LUX LEO 61h05’59” 1’49”
3 141 Cadel EVANS AUS BMC 61h06’16” 2’06”
4 011 Andy SCHLECK LUX LEO 61h06’25” 2’15”
5 091 Ivan BASSO ITA LIQ 61h07’26” 3’16”
6 021 Samuel SANCHEZ ESP EUS 61h07’54” 3’44”
7 001 Alberto CONTADOR ESP SBS 61h08’10” 4’00”
8 161 Damiano CUNEGO ITA LAM 61h08’11” 4’01”
9 052 Tom DANIELSON USA GRM 61h09’56” 5’46”
10 124 Kevin DE WEERT BEL QST 61h10’28” 6’18”

Two jersey’s changed hands: Vanendert now has the spotted jersey and Sky’s Rigoberto Uran is the latest, best young rider.

Swimmingly

As part of my training programme I’ve been swimming on alternate days. I verified with my coach that he didn’t expect me to be steaming up and down the pool during my 30 minute session. Instead, the pressure from the water is intended to help my legs recover from the previous day’s exertions. I should add that operation “Elimination of silly tan lines” is going nowhere. I typically swim as soon as the pool opens, while the pool is still partly in the shade, and then beat a hasty retreat. On the other mornings, I’ve ridden for 3-4hours in the sunshine which has only exacerbated the situation. I feel it’s now reached irretrievable proportions.

My beloved, having spent all day yesterday (a French Bank Holiday) meeting with potential clients in Nice,  is spending today with the same clients before heading off to a meeting in London on Saturday. We were supposed to be departing on vacation on Saturday morning. Our departure has been postponed by a day. However, strict rules on the use of Blackberries and the internet will be in-force while we’re away. I have to take this draconian approach otherwise my beloved will say “I’ve just got to tend to a couple of emails” and two hours later I’ll still be waiting. The only reason I drag him away on vacation is to get him away from the office and work. In this respect cycling is an excellent distraction. My beloved, like me, has not mastered the art of cycling while answering his mobile and once, in situ, near the big screen, at the arrival town, it’s almost impossible to hear oneself think let alone conduct a conversation on one’s mobile. So I’ll be encouraging him to post a holiday message on all his email accounts and mobile phone.

The French newspapers are full of Thomas Voeckler’s heroic defence of the yellow jersey and, to a lesser extent, the exploits of the other French riders on yesterday’s stage. The stage winner, Olympic Champion Sammy Sanchez recording his first ever Tour win, barely gets a look in. However, one would expect parochial and partisan reporting. I’ve no doubt that the pink pages of Gazzetta will have been evaluating the performances and chances of Messrs Cunego and Basso. The pages of La Marca have given more than adequate coverage to Sanchez, both his win and his on-going opportunities. Naturally enough, Contador’s form, or lack of, is examined in detail. So I thought if I really wanted to appreciate Sammy’s win I should head on over to check out the pages of Berria, the only newspaper written in Basque.  And sure enough:-

Super Samu

“Frantziako Tourra

Luz Ardiden Sanchezena izan da

Euskaltel-Euskadikoak “ametsa bete” du Tourreko Luz Ardidengo etapa irabazita. Samuel Sanchezek, arriskatuta eta urrutitik erasoa jota, gogor eutsi dio helmugaraino, eta azkenean Vanendert atzean uztea lortu eta 12. etapa irabazi du. Laranja izan zen atzoko kolore nagusia. Ehunka euskal zale izan ziren atzo, festa giroan, etapaz gozatzen. ”

While, I’m assuming none of my readers speak Basque , I think it’s pretty easy to work out what’s being said in the introductory paragraph. Needless to say Samu was awarded more than adequate coverage for his magnificent win.

Today’s Stage 13 has been billed as one of transition where it’s highly probable that a breakaway containing those riders way out of contention on GC might succeed. The slightly mitigating factor being the distance on the flat to the finish in Lourdes from the base of the Col du Soulor. I rode part of this last year. We cycled from Bagneres du Bigorre to the top of the Col d’Aubisque and then retreated to just below the summit of the  Col du Soulor to have lunch and watch the race unfold both on the road and on the television. You might remember  this was the day Lance got into a small breakaway.  After the race had finished, we rode back. The descent is fast but not technical. Maybe Alberto should light a few candles in Lourdes at the end of today’s 152.5km stage from Pau before climbing into the Saxobank team bus. It’s just a thought.

Stage Postscript: When they showed birds of prey feeding on a carcass during today’s stage I was relieved to see it was a lamb and not a rider. Everyman and his dog tried to get in this morning’s breakaway but it was only when FDJ’s Jeremy Roy, Mr Breakaway 2011, joined a group of 9 other riders that the break stuck. That break blew apart on the Col d’Aubisque but it was on the descent that Thor Hushovd (Garmin), one of the breakaways,  made what was to be the winning move to catch first David Moncoutie (Cofidis) and then the luckless Roy, within 2.3km of the finish, to register his 63rd win. Roy was in tears as he crossed the line in third place. He has taken the spotted jersey and the prize for the day’s most combative rider, but he knew these were scant consolation.  He’d narrowly missed the big one – a Tour stage win.

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”

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.

Someone to watch over me

I went on a training ride with my cycling coach today and, fortunately, our paths didn’t cross with any of my team mates. So my secret’s still safe for now.  Of course, it’s very disconcerting to ride with someone whose legs are only a little larger, but less flabby (bat wings) than my arms. However, it’s much easier doing intervals when he’s looking at the stop watch and telling me when to start and, more importantly, when to stop. This was a repeat of a loop and exercise I did last week. Today, I was 2.5km an hour faster. Yes, I try that much harder when there’s someone breathing down my neck. Don’t we all?

On my return journey I popped into my usual watering hole for the newspapers and a coffee only to meet up with my sister, who was returning to the  UK later today, and her friends, who have just arrived. This gave us an opportunity to briefly catch up. I sensed she would’ve preferred to stay and work on her tan.

I had totally forgotten that the water was going to be switched off today for maintenance/essential repairs. That’s right, no shower for me after my sweat inducing ride. I therefore felt compelled to stay home. Any excuse to slob about in my favourite fleecy tracksuit and watch some cycling on the internet. This also allowed me to tackle numerous items on my all important “to do” list. Including completing my lesson plans for tomorrow’s English lesson.

My beloved is back tomorrow afternoon. This meant, for once, he was away on his birthday (yesterday). However, he put his trip to the UK to good use, earning brownie points by taking his mother (aka the outlaw) out to dinner and giving her the recently taken photo of him riding in La Louis Caput. I confess it was a really good photo of him and while I was tempted to hang on to it, I do after all have the real thing. Sadly, the same cannot be said of my photo, taken by the same photographer. It seems to focus on my left shin, not one of my finer bits, and I appear to be grimacing quite badly. So much for smiling for the camera.  The wind was obviously making my gilet billow so  I look like an elderly Bessie Bunter on wheels. Haven’t these photographers ever heard of airbrushing?

Back to the cycling: Peter Sagan, the revelation of Paris-Nice, took over the leader’s jersey in the Tour of Romandie. He’s being hotly pursued by Marco Pinotti, who was wearing it after yesterday’s prologue, and Frenchman, Jeremy Roy. On the football front, it’ll be a  Bayern v Inter final and I wouldn’t bet against “the Special One” picking up his second Champion’s League title. That man is a master strategist and tactician.