Gripping stuff

My beloved left for yesterday’s pointage in the early morning fog. I rolled over for another hour’s sleep. Eschewing the ride up Ste Agnes to see one of my favourite one day races, the Tour of Flanders, where Belgian television coverage was starting at midday. I settled for a run along the sea front, followed by a quick coffee and collected the Sunday newspapers. Back home I prepared lunch before settling in for a marathon viewing session.

No where and no one is more passionate about cycling than Belgium and the Belgians. And this is their race,  their day in the sun. They line every kilometer of the course, standing over 10 deep on the bergs, quaffing beer and consuming their beloved frites with mayo. The sun was indeed shining, it wasn’t overly windy, near perfect riding conditions.

Rabid fans (picture courtesy of Getty Images)

The parcours starts in the beautiful city of Bruges and zigzags 258km to Meerbeke over 18 steep, sharp climbs and 26 sections of cobbles. The climbs come thick and fast after 70km of flat. If one can refer to cobbles as flat. The cobbles are smaller and more regular than those in Paris-Roubaix but, as the riders traverse them, their upper arms judder as if they’re undergoing some form of electric shock therapy.

The race is largely held on dirty, narrow farm roads which wind through the villages en route. To be in contention you need to remain vigilant and towards the front of the peloton. The slightly-built Spaniards from Euskaltel-Euskadi and Moviestar who would, no doubt, prefer to be riding in the Basque country, but they got the short straw, cling to the back of the peloton, grateful for assistance on the climbs from the beefier Belgian spectators, wondering when they’ll be able to climb off their bikes.

One innovation this year was cameras in four of the team cars (Quickstep, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Garmin Cervelo and SaxoBank Sungard). From time to time, you  could hear the instructions being barked to the riders, although you might not have understood what was being said in every instance, unless you understood Flemish.

Given the opportunity, I could happily watch every minute of this race from start to finish.  As television coverage commenced, there was a group of 5 riders out in front who were being gradually hauled back in. The second group of 18 riders on the road contained a lot of team leaders’ wingmen sparing their teams the effort of chasing them down. Although the pace was pretty frenetic with teams trying to keep their protected riders at the front of the pack, and out of harm’s way.

The main peloton splintered with a number of riders losing contact and there were plenty of spills but, thankfully, none looked to be serious. The group of 18 was hauled back in and the chasing pack now consisted entirely of favourites with their key riders. With 86km to go Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) takes off on the Ould Kwaremont, hotly pursued by Simon Clarke of Astana. With 79km remaining they bridge up to the lead group, initially giving it fresh impetus, but ultimately leaving it behind.

Meanwhile, behind them on the Taaienberg, Boonen (Quickstep), Flecha (Sky) and Van Avermaert (BMC) are forcing the pace. Others, such as Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) and Lars Boom (Rabobank) have pinged off the front, followed by Van Avermaert, Guesdon (FDJ), Hayman (Sky) and Leezer (Rabobank). Among the favourites, everyone seems to be waiting for Cancellara to make his move.

Up front on the Molenberg, Chavanel is now on his lonesome at the head of affairs with 44km to the finish, the gap back to the peloton is 55 seconds. Finally, unable to wait any longer Thor Hushovd (Garmin Cervelo), resplendent in his rainbow jersey, heads to the front of the bunch quickly followed and then overtaken by Tom Boonen (Quickstep) and his  shadow aka Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and  Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek).

Fabian goes into TT mode and rides away, the others start looking at one another waiting to see who’ll chase. Too late, he’s gone and swiftly heading for Chavanel. Wilfred Peeters tells Chavanel to stick on Fabian’s wheel as he goes past and to do no work. He does as he’s told. The bunch don’t seem to be making much of an inroad into the gap back to Chavanel and Cancellara, they need to get themselves organised. Back to the team cars, Peeters is telling Leopard Trek’s DS that Chavanel is unfortunately too tired to contribute.  Over at Garmin Cervelo, Jonathan Vaughters is telling his troops to do no work at all, just sit in and sprint for 3rd.

Finally, the bunch gets themselves organised and they catch  Chavanel and Cancellara on the iconic Muur, just 15km to the finish and the favourites are all back together again.  Phil Gil (Omega Pharma-Lotto) makes his trade mark attack on the last climb, the Bosberg, but is soon caught by Cancellara, Ballan (BMC), Leukemans (Vacansoleil), Chavanel and Schierlinckx (Veranda Willems).  Flecha (Sky), Nuyens (Saxobank Sungard), Hincapie (BMC), Boonen, Langeveld (Rabobank) and Thomas (Sky) join them. Ballan puts in a dig, Phil Gil follows. The attacks are coming thick and fast as riders chase one another down. With 4km left, Langeveld attacks,  a 3-man group of Cancellara, Chavanel and Nuyens follows and stays clear to contest the sprint finish which is won by the fresher man. The Belgians have a Belgian winner, Nick Nuyens, who rode a very intelligent race. Cancellara didn’t get back-to-back victories, but Bjarne Riis did.

The winners (photo courtesy of Getty images)

Vuelta Ciclista al Pays Vasco Postscript: There is something enormously satisfying in watching the professional peloton suffer on roads on which you too have suffered. The finishing line for today’s 151.2km stage around Zumarraga was just 3km from the top of the rather brutal Alto de la Antigua. Some of those boys got off and walked up. I knew just how they felt. Purito held off Sammy’s (too?) late charge for the line to take the leader’s jersey.

It’s fleeting

Pressing matters down at the cycling club have meant I’ve been mostly catching the evening highlights of the Vuelta rather than live coverage. This also means that I’ve made no inroads into the “To do during the Vuelta” list.  Nonetheless, it’s proving to be a gripping contest and I’m hoping for more viewing time next week.

Tuesday’s stage 10, 175.7km from Tarrgona to Vilanovi la Geltu started without Schleck the younger and hard man Stuart O’Grady. The two had been sent home by SaxoBank Team boss Bjarne Riis for breach of team rules. They had allegedly returned to the hotel at 5:00am that morning after a few alcoholic beverages. Probably, bang went any chance that Frank might have (still) entertained of a podium placing. 

The stage was won by one of the day’s breakaways, Imanol Erviti (Caisse d’Epargne) who caught his fellow escapees napping on the descent of the Rat Penat. The red jersey changed hands after Purito, riding into his home region of Catalonia, had hoovered up a couple of bonus seconds earlier in the day.   

On Wednesday, Igor Anton sand-bagged his way to a second stage win (and back into the leader’s jersey)  into Andorra. He had timed his come-back to perfection after he looked to be distanced by the attack of Ezequiel Mosquera, who finished 2nd) and Vicenzo Nibali on the final ascent of the day. Despite going with the initial attack, Purito lost a minute on Anton but the biggest loser was Denis Menchov who finished 56th, over 5 minutes down. Clearly, the Tour took more out of him than we realised: bye-bye podium.

Stage 12 from Andorra la Vella to Lleida was one for the sprinters. The only other time the Vuelta had visited Lleida, the stage was won by Malcolm Elliot, still the only Brit to win a points jersey in a Grand Tour and, more amazingly,  who’s still racing, against men half his age, on the British Premier Circuit. So it was only fitting that the race was won at a canter by the Manx Missile whose team  had done their homework on the run in. His poisson pilote, Matt Goss and he read the final corner beautifully and they came out of it several bike length’s ahead of everyone else. He now joins that short list of 5 men who have won sprint stages in all three Grand Tours and he’s back in the points jersey.

Stage 13 to Burgos was more of the same, another win for Cavendish, who had enough time to bunny hop over the line. Again, he and Goss read the last corner better than the rest and finished well in front of the also rans. As Cav so eloquently put it in his post-race interview: it is indeed better to have a star team than a team of stars. It’s easy to see that Cav has a much lower trajectory on the bike than the other sprinters which makes him more aero-dynamic, not forgetting, of course, his 5th gear. My favourite moment of the day was a bunch of slightly overweight Basques decked out in orange (of course) and time trial helmets trotting in single file alongside the peloton, clearly enjoying their 15 seconds of fame.

Tuesday postscript: Oops forgot to post this last week

What next?

I’m meeting with my coach tomorrow to discuss the results of my most recent VO2max test and to formulate my objectives for the next 6 months. I really do feel I should concentrate on improving my technique and speed, plus losing weight. Sadly, post London-Paris, a few kilos have slipped back on, although the progression is still downwards. Thereafter, I can contemplate the forthcoming season of brevets, cyclosportifs and the odd race with a view to improving on this year’s performances.

The outlook for the next two days is wet, so I might well have to resort to the hometrainer. With this in mind, I rode this morning, in a fasted state, in lieu of a rest day. I didn’t ride yesterday as I was “on duty” with M le President, at the annual Sports Festival, trying to recruit members for the new cycling school. Gratifyingly large numbers of children (and their parents) expressed an interest. I also tried to encourage a few more lady members. 

Saturday, was a beautiful, warm, sunny day where you could see for miles, I rode with my beloved. We had opted for a fairly strenuous ride which combined my programmed hours and exercises for both Saturday and Sunday. He had returned home on Friday afternoon after a frustrating day spent in Basle’s airport lounge thanks to an initially delayed, and subsequently cancelled, flight. He departed again this afternoon, this time for Montreal: peace and quiet until midday on Friday.  

With M le President on a training course for the next two months, I’m going to be busy ahead of my departure for Australia, when the entire burden of the club will rest on the tiny shoulders of the Treasurer. I’m very keen that she should not feel overburdened. I am documenting everything (for the first time) so that she can specifically look after the licence renewals and the club website in my absence. 

Unsurprisingly, I have found time to dip in and out of the Vuelta which is proving to be engrossing. Nine stages where 9 different teams, and riders, have triumphed over the largely lumpy stages in soaring temperatures. Three riders on GC are divided by 2 seconds  while the next two are within a minute of those leaders. Other fancied riders have fallen further behind but the podium’s still within grasp given the profiles of the remaining stages. Team Sky, whose team members were suffering from a virus, have withdrawn following the tragic death of one of their staff members from septicaemia.

Mark Cavendish, despite not yet winning a stage, is gracing the points jersey. Yesterday, David Moncoutie, having won a stage on Saturday, was  in again in the breakaway seizing more KOM points to snatch the blue spotted jersey from Serafin Martinez’s shoulders. Philippe Gilbert, having done the red jersey proud for a few days,  surrendered it on Saturday to Igor Anton who, having crossed the line behind Joaquin Rodriguez, thought the latter would be wearing it. Not so, they were both given the same time and Anton has it on account of his better placings. On today’s rest day, this is how they stand on GC:-

General classification after stage 9
1 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 37:56:42  
2 Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha    
3 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo 0:00:02  
4 Xavier Tondo (Spa) Cervélo Test Team 0:00:42  
5 Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:00:52  
6 Ruben Plaza (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne 0:01:15  
7 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia 0:01:18  
8 Nicolas Roche (Irl) Ag2R-La Mondiale 0:01:19  
9 Marzio Bruseghin (Ita) Caisse d’Epargne 0:01:22  
10 Peter Velits (Svk) Team HTC-Columbia 0:01:26  
11 Tejay Van Garderen (USA) Team HTC-Columbia

Scant consolation

On today’s stage, another hot one, 157.3km from Marbella to Malaga, I was willing one of the original 7-man breakaway to the finish line. But sometimes even our combined wills just aren’t enough.

Serafin Martinez (Xacobeo Galicia) having accelerated away from his breakaway companions on the big climb of the day, the Puerto del Leon, looked to have enough in hand over the peloton to win the stage, the leader’s jersey and the mountain’s classification. A holy trinity which would surely have ignited his career. Unfortunately, the peloton had other ideas and he was caught just under the flamme rouge.

The final ascent was reminiscent of the Cauberg and sure enough here was the winner of this year’s Amstel Gold, Philippe Gilbert, accelerating away from Vicenzo Nibali and Joaquin Rodriguez to cross the line in an imperious fashion. The stage and the leader’s jersey for Philippe and precious GC seconds for Rodriguez who finished ahead of Igor Anton. Serafin hung onto the mountain’s classification jersey.

Philippe looked mighty powerful today. He will be one to watch in Geelong where he now won’t have to share leadership of the Belgian team with Tom Boonen who, thanks to slower than anticipated recovery from knee surgery, will be watching events unfold from his armchair in Monaco. 

So how did my “men to watch” do today? Sadly, Ben Swift, and team mate John-Lee Augustyn, have gone down and out with a stomach bug. However Arthur Vichot, a viral superstar with a huge fan base in Australia, finished 10th on the stage.

Hot and steamy

The current weather is putting me very much in mind of an old film noire by Laurence Kasdan. Called Body Heat, it was set in  a sultry Miami and  featured Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. I distinctly recall one scene where, thanks to ever-soaring mercury, they both got into an ice cube filled bath to cool down.

Sadly, my beloved and I will not be able to similarly indulge. I have only a small jacuzzi in my bathroom which is (deliberately) far too small for him, lest he ever be tempted to use it. While he has only an all singing, all dancing shower in his bathroom.  The bath in the guest bathroom is also too small for two. Yes, separate bathrooms lead to everlasting marital bliss.

However, after a  hot and sticky ride there’s nothing better than a soak in cold water. I’ve refrained from adding ice cubes. I’ve seen pictures of the Tour riders chilling out after a stage in what at first appears to be children’s paddling pools. In addition, during recent stages, they’ve resorted to ice on their helmets and pouring loads of water over themselves to cool down.

With the peloton looking for a little rest and recuperation after the Alps, and before the Pyrenees, Wednesday was the perfect opportunity for a rider, sitting well back on GC, to get in a breakaway, stay away and win the stage. As it was Bastille Day it should by rights have been a French rider but, with three stage wins, two days in yellow and the spotty jersey, the French aren’t faring too badly.

The early escapees, including a couple of Frenchmen,  built up a commanding lead but 14kms out they attacked one another leaving Sergio Paulinho (Radioshack) and Vasili Kiryienka (Caisse d’Epargne) to fight it out. Fortune, and a successful background in track sprinting, surely favoured the Belorussian, but the wily Portuguese won stage 11 by a whisker.

On the run in to Gap, Wednesday’s stage passed over the same roads where, in 2003, Joseba Beloki (ONCE) in hot pursuit of Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile) fell heavily, thanks to a melting road surface. Beloki was left screaming in agony from his injuries, while Armstrong (US Postal) avoided crashing  by riding across a field to regain the road. This remains one of the worst falls I have ever seen.

Thursday’s stage 11  was one for the sprinters and the escapees, including Stephan Auge, without whom surely no echapee is complete, were pulled back by the sprinters’ teams well before the finish. Riding into cross-winds,  Saxo Bank tried to force a split in the peloton and distance Bert who was riding in the middle of the bunch, seemingly on his lonesome. Cue one Alexandre Vinokourov to the rescue. He led Alberto back to safety near the head of the peloton.

Of course, yesterday’s big talking point was Mark Renshaw’s expulsion from the Tour following a head-butting incident with Julian Dean in the final dash for the line. A hat-trick for Cavendish, while Garmin-Transitions were initially left fuming at Renshaw’s treatment of both Julian Dean and Tyler Farrar. Having viewed the footage, I feel Renshaw was too harshly treated while Dean seems to have gotten off lightly.

A cast of thousands (ok, only 18)  finally escaped  on today’s stage 12 but never built up too commanding a lead. Indeed, most were taken back by the peloton before the final climb of the day, a wicked 3km at an average of 10%.  That man Vinokourov distanced  the other three remaining escapees and seemed to be heading for a stage win but was overhauled before the top of the climb by Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador. The latter seized an opportunity to put 10 seconds into Andy Schleck but, more importantly, struck a  psychological blow. The former took his maiden win, on his maiden Tour, outsprinting the latter.

Meanwhile, it’s been hard keeping track of the green jersey which has been hopping from the shoulders of Alessandro Petacchi to Thor Hushovd and back again. Thor got into today’s breakaway, grabbed the intermediate sprint points and put some daylight between himself and Ale-jet. Similarly, the spotted jersey has been swapping daily between Jerome Pineau and Antony Charteau. It’s now in the possession of the latter.

The heavens opened after today’s stage so temperatures may be cooler tomorrow, or not.

Basque bravado

Pretty as a picture

A couple of years ago my husband and I drove down to Barcelona on business by way of Girona. We both agreed it looked a good place to cycle and promised ourselves that one day we would return. This week I’ve been watching the Tour of the Basque Country and, again, I’ve found myself thinking, fabulous countryside, great place to cycle, must pay it a visit. 

So I’m wondering whether a cycling tour of northern Spain might be on the cards for next year. My one problem is logistics. I would love to cycle from one place to another but who’s going to carry my luggage? Please don’t suggest I get panniers. I’m not starving myself to loose 10kg only to replace that weight with panniers. There must be another way. 

A cycling club trip perhaps? Too far, the club likes to cycle to its holiday destination. I appreciate that there are holiday companies who organise such trips but I don’t want to cycle with a crowd, just my beloved. I can see further research is required. 

Who's a happy boy?

Meanwhile, one of my favourite Spaniards won yesterday. Sadly, having dropped from GC contention on Day 1, Sammy Sanchez needed a stage win to appease the fanatical Basque fans who line most of the climbs at least 10-deep. It was a marvellous display of both ascending and descending from the Olympic champion, almost  matched by Valverde, who finished second and snatched back the yellow jersey from Oscar Freire. 

Joaquin Rodriguez showed he’s on form for the forthcoming Ardennes classics by storming up some vertiginous climbs today to catapult himself onto the podium. Everything is finely poised for tomorrow’s hilly 22km time trial which retraces some of the steeper climbs of today. Horner is in 2nd place, just 1 second down on Valverde, Rodriguez is 3rd and lying in 4th place is former mountain-biker, Jean-Christophe Perraud, current French time-trial champion.

Of course, no mountainous stages would be complete without some dodgy descending. First up, Schleck the Elder, a man I would not wish to follow down any descent. I understand he flipped over a barrier yesterday and didn’t start this morning. Today, Amets Txurruka attempted a curve from the wrong apex and went down heavily. Fortunately, I understand neither are badly injured. Robert Gesink also fell today and has now slipped down the GC and out of contention. Il Falco (Paolo Savodelli) should give master classes in descending to those (and there’s plenty of them in the peloton) who struggle to ride as well downhill as they do either on the flat or uphill.

Photo of Samu Sanchez courtesy of my friend Susi Goertze

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.