Carnage

Returning from my Sunday morning ride, a bunch of kids, who live in the Domaine, challenged me to a bike race. I would guess that they’re aged between 12 and 14 years and they were riding a motley collection of bikes. I agreed to the challenge but pointed out that I didn’t expect to win as I was old enough to be their grandmother. I’m not above playing the age card if it suits me. They looked nonplussed. Of course, at their age, anyone over 20 is old. They said that they’d seen me riding and I wasn’t too bad [for a woman of my age], plus I had a better bike. That much was true. We established the start and finish lines and away we went. I rode the entire route sticking on their wheels. Their tactics were obviously copied from the Schlecks: no attempt to use their superior numbers to burn me off. It was everyone woman and teenager for themselves.

As we crested the final climb, it dips down ever so slightly to the finish line. As anticipated, they eased off on the crest. I didn’t and shot across the line, much to their astonishment, to record my first scratch race win. I could see that I’d caught them totally off guard. I explained that racing was all about doing just enough to win, and no more. Races are won with the heart, legs, lungs and head.  Just let me know when you want a rematch, I said as I left them gazing in what I think, and hope, was admiration. I’ve ridden over 500km this week. It was paying dividends.

The first nine days of this year’s Tour de France has also thrown up some surprises, not all of them as pleasurable as my win. Sadly, for variety of factors, a number of riders, including those whom we might have expected to figure on GC, are out of the Tour. It’s always distressing to see riders crash and we’ve been left wondering what riders such as Bradley Wiggins, Alexandre Vinokourov, Janez Brajkovic and Jurgen Van Den Broeck might have achieved this year at the Tour.

I think it’s fair to say no one expected Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) to keep such a firm hold on the yellow jersey for so many days, clearly relinquishing it only today on the verge of exhaustion, looking forward to tomorrow’s “rest day”. That term’s such a misnomer given the riders will ride for several hours and spend time talking to the press and their sponsors. Thor’s surely graced the jersey and his team which, with wins in the team time-trial and Stage 3 (Tyler Farrar), can already regard this year’s Tour as a success. Norway can also claim to have had a successful Tour if one takes account of Edvald Boassen Hagen’s (Sky) win on Stage 6.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) predictably won the first stage and has been ever-present, wearing all three jerseys (yellow, spotted and green) and is now making a serious run at holding onto the green jersey until Paris. Cavendish (HTC) has opened his account with two stage wins and I’m sure will give PhilGil a run for his money in the competition for the green jersey. The changes made this year to the competition for this jersey have certainly made it more competitive and much more interesting. Initially, the commissars seemed to be a little too job’s worthy over the comportment of certain riders in the intermediate sprints, but this seems to have satisfactorily settled down.

The French, particularly FDJ, have been animating each day’s breakaways in search of tv exposure for their sponsors and perhaps, perhaps, a stage win.  Surprisingly, escapees won both stages this week end. Yesterday was the turn of Rui Costa (Movistar) notable for his handbags at dawn clash last year with Manuel Garate and today it was Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank). But the BIG news, joy of joys for the French, it was the turn of perennial favourite Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and a rider who’s been very visible this week, to wear the precious maillot jaune.  Thomas took yellow, after the peloton, perturbed by the earlier crashes, finally gave up the ghost and stopped chasing. Thomas can now look forward to a number of days in yellow. He was positively bouncing on the podium and, from the size of the jersey, it was clear that the ASO had been anticipating another day in yellow for Thor.

Two of Thomas’s breakaway companions were taken out of contention for today’s win by a crazy manoeuvre from a France Television car which sent Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) flying and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) into some barbed wire fencing. Amazingly, they both remounted and went on to finish the stage. Hoogerland had regained the spotted jersey while both were awarded the day’s combativity prize. Hardman Hoogerland who seemed to have cornered the market in white bandages was reduced to tears on the podium.

A number of teams and riders have been totally anonymous. For example, the all Russian Katusha squad have barely merited a mention apart from today’s retirement of Russian champion Pavel Brut. On a more sinister note, there was much speculation and alleged video evidence that Contador’s fall today had been provoked by Karpets (surely not) shoving him off the bike.  Ivan Basso’s team have been similarly missing in action but one could argue they’ve just been doing their job keeping Ivan in a good position.

The remaining GC favourites have yet to really show their hands. While every move they make is endlessly analysed, we still know very little about their respective forms. While Cadel Evans has wasted no opportunity to build up a lead on the others, most notably Alberto Contador, it’s still all to play for the in the coming days in the mountains.

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.

Place your bets please

The sun burnt through yesterday’s early fog leaving  perfect conditions for riding. My beloved and I decided to head up to La Turbie and lunch at one of our favourite restaurants. The chef used to work in a Michelin-starred establishment but left to run the perfect neighbourhood restaurant. The menu is chalked up daily on the blackboard: 5 starters, 5 mains and 5 desserts. When a dish is sold out, it’s scrubbed from the board. It’s a modest establishment which punches well above its weight.

We rode the short cut to La Turbie from Cap d’Ail to avoid the numerous traffic lights in Monaco. Skip one and you’re sure to incur a fine. This route includes a particularly steep bit 11-12% near Monaco football club’s training ground. I was struggling with the 39 x 27 but, nevertheless, managed it. Lunch was a fitting reward.

After lunch we climbed up Col d’Eze. Down on our left-hand side,  Eze village was shrouded in mist and looked like something out of a fairy tale. I have fond memories of my very first ascension of Col d’Eze for my one-woman protest against Astana’s exclusion from the 2008 Tour de France during Paris-Nice. It wasn’t supposed to be a solo effort, but my teammates never made it to the summit after falling victim to a couple of punctures. I am constantly amazed at how many punctures they suffer and can only assume they keep patching their inner tubes. Ours get sent to Burkina Faso.

After arriving home I started on the serious business  of  studying the form for today’s race. My middle sister, renowned for enjoying a flutter on the horses might have been able to impart some of her wisdom. She wins far more than she loses. But, unlike a horse race, one has to take account not only of the form of the team’s leader but also the strength of his support. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Fabian Cancellara who has to be odds on favourite whatever the state of his support. Setting him aside, there are a number of other riders one has to consider, although, I appreciate that they might only be fighting it out for the minor places.

One cannot exclude the usual suspects: Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Alessandro Ballan, Juan Antonio Flecha,  Heinrich Haussler, Stijn Devolder, Thor Hushovd, Filippo Pozzato and rookie, Peter Sagan. The papers have been suggesting that a coalition against Cancellara might be the only way to defeat him. It’s true that teams who have two or even three strong candidates should seek to tire out Spartacus’s troops by having them chase down constant attacks. My advice: just don’t take your eyes off Fabulous Fabian, not even for a second.

L’Equipe, who have Cancellara as their 5 starred favourite, have added a few more names into the mix: Sylvain Chavanel, Greg Van Avermaet, Juergen Roelandts and Nick Nuyens. Their advice is however pretty much the same as mine. They too suggest a coalition of interests, staying with Fabian and beating him in a sprint finish, or praying for a mechanical a la 2009.

Yesterday saw the traditional start of cycling in the Basque country with the GP Miguel Indurain won by none other than Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Olympic Champion, Sammy Sanchez. His first win since last August and his team’s first of the season. I note from the results that a Columbian called Robinson Eduardo Chalapud Gomez was 6th. Is this the longest name in cycling? The Tour of the Basque country starts tomorrow and I’ll be tuning into Basque tv to watch proceedings. The commentary will be incomprehensible but the pictures tell their own story.

This week end also sees the second MotoGP race in Jerez, Spain. Pole positions have been seized for today’s races by Messrs Stoner (MotoGP), Bradl (Moto2) and Cortese (125cc). Since the races run concurrent with the Tour of Flanders, I’ll settle for watching the highlights on Eurosport.

Softly whipped

Much as I love spending time with my beloved, I also enjoy my own company when he’s away. Largely because when he’s home he tends to dictate my daily routine, more by accident than intent. Yesterday, having spent the balance of our Amazon gift vouchers, I had another big fat delivery which I shall be enjoying for some time to come.

I love reading books in bed, but I can’t do this if my beloved is home. He cannot sleep with the side light on. I, on the other hand, can sleep with all the lights on, no problem. Peversely, while he’s quite happy for me to go to bed before him, he hates me coming to bed later than him. He claims I disturb him. Generally, I find he’s snoring his head off and it’s me who’s disturbed.

So I snuggled down in bed late yesterday evening and read Bradley Wiggins account of last tear’s Tour, “On Tour”. It’s only a slim volume and I’m a quick reader. It was an enjoyable and interesting read but it  might have been more insightful had it been written by Michael Barry, his team mate. The book is nicely illustrated with plenty of untypical black and white shots of the race, the cast and on-lookers.

In the introduction, Brad  said his intention was to provide the reader with “a comprehensive snapshot of modern-day Grand Tour cycling.”   He gives us his perspective on the key days of the Tour, but it doesn’t resonate with me. I can’t get any real sense of what it’s like to ride the Tour, even though I rode over parts of some of those stages. He’s also included short pieces on Lance, Cav, Sean Yates, the Mechanics, Rooming Alone, his Tour Playlist, His Favourite and Least Favourite Tour Climbs, Chaingate, Best and Worst Days,the Tour Bus, Rest Days, Sir Paul Smith, Steve Cummings, Michael Barry, Unsung Heroes of the Peloton and the late Txema Gonzalez, his team soigner who tragically died during  last year’s Vuelta. All very interesting and I’m in total agreement with him on Chaingate and the Go-Slow,  but you get the sense that these are stocking fillers, necessary to pad out the book to the desired length. I would have liked much, much more about the Tour although my favourite piece is the one written by his wife.

I was up and out early this morning, disappointed to discover that clouds had hidden the sunshine and it was rather cold and damp. Nonetheless, I had an enjoyable ride stopping off at my usual watering hole to quaff a coffee and read the newspapers which, not unnaturally, were full of today’s game at Twickenham which ended in a home victory, leaving England gunning for the Six Nations.

I rode home, showered, changed and set off for my cookery class in the kitchen of a well-known local restaurant. It was great fun, just 5 participants, so we all had an opportunity to get stuck in and wield the spoon, the whisk and spatula. We made a genoise sponge decorated with cream chiboise, fresh cream and strawberries, mille feuilles filled with white chocolate cream and red berries, plus some little lemon and mixed fruit cakes. Better still, we got to eat the fruits of our labours. Sadly, we didn’t get to lick the bowls.

I think this’ll have to be this week’s “eat anything you like day” and I’d better skip dinner. It was amazing how many tips I picked up from the professional kitchen which I’ll be putting to good use in the coming weeks as I make (and freeze) cakes for the forthcoming “Gentlemen”.

Arrived home to watch the rain-soaked Omloop race which I’d recorded while out baking. Dutchman Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) just edged it over defending champion, Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) in a two-man sprint. The latter’s team mate, Matthew Hayman, was best of the rest. Langeveld went on a solo attack with 53km remaining while Flecha dropped an 11-man break at the 25km mark, catching up with Langeveld 10kms later. The two co-operated to keep the chasers at bay but ultimately, Langeveld prevailed, just. Let’s see what Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne serves up tomorrow.

I then checked the football scores to discover my boys had beaten Blackburn 4-1 at home – brilliant. Let’s hope OGCN can grab at least a point away at St Etienne this evening. If not, we might be looking for another manager come Monday.

13, not unlucky for everyone

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This could be Alexandre Vinokourov’s leitmotif. After the disappointment of yesterday’s 3rd place, Vino seized his chance again today and was deservedly rewarded.

Today’s 196km stage from Rodez to Revel was probably the last opportunity for a baroudeur to win ahead of the Pyrenees. While it wasn’t billed as a difficult stage, the final climb up Saint-Ferreol, close to the finish line, rather predicated against a mass sprint.

But nor was it an easy stage. A high pace and wind, made it more of a nervous one. Vigilance was the watchword. Alexandre Vinokourov kept protectively close to Contador for most of it.

After the peloton had caught the day’s escapees (Fedrigo, Flecha and Chavanel) with 10km to go, the sprinters’ teams, who had done most of the work on the front today, were getting themselves organised for the run in to the finish. At 8.5km to go,  Alessandro Ballan took a flyer off the front and established a small lead. Others followed, including Vino, who passed Ballan with 7.5km remaining  and set off towards the summit. He quickly established a lead of almost 20 seconds over the peloton.

Thomas Voeckler also tried his hand but, like Ballan, was soon reeled back in. Vino was still just ahead of the advancing riders, who were lining up their sprinters, as he approached the finish line. Fortunately, he had enough time in hand to enjoy the sensation of winning.

Brothers in arms

I had been shrieking at the top of my voice at the television, encouraging Vino, just willing him across the line. OK, I know he couldn’t hear me but it’s so exciting watching someone you know win. And what a well deserved win. I was so pleased for him, and so was Alberto Contador who was the first of his team mates to warmly congratulate him. Chapeau Vino!

Finally a bride

Another gorgeous day and I could hardly wait to get out on the bike for today’s 3hr training ride, with interval sprints. I decided to go through Sophia-Antipolis to Valbonne and then onto Pre du Lac, returning by way of Pont du Loup, Vallon Rouge and La Colle sur Loup. The countryside was looking really verdant interspersed with big yellow clouds of Mimosa. I adore this time of year, when the trees are starting to bud and the bulbs are in flower.

As you well know, my greatest fear is that I will be despatched to meet my Maker by a lippy/mobile/cigarette (perm any two from three) waving, middle-aged woman in an aging, small, French car. Today while descending a hill a small, red, clapped out Renault overtook me and then slammed on the brakes, coming to a complete standstill,  before turning right across my bows: no signal, nothing.  Fortunately, I was concentrating, rather than contemplating the scenery, and was able to take last-minute evasive action. The driver had his side window open so I was able to let him know, in no uncertain words, exactly what I thought of this manoeuvre. I think it’s fair to say, he wasn’t a cyclist.

I arrived home in one piece and time to refuel before the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad which I happily watched for over two hours in Flemish on the internet. Luckily, I can understand a fair amount of the language. I love watching races in Belgium where enthusiastic fans line every kilometer of the course. In fact, just about anything with a pulse in Belgium is a knowledgable fan of cycling. 

Obviously, I was hoping that Tom Boonen might add this race to his already impressive palmares. But Tom was undone by a puncture at an inopportune moment. Instead, it was Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky), who soloed away from another of the favourites (Philippe Gilbert) with 19km to go and stayed away, winning his first Belgian Classic and becoming the first Spaniard to win this race. Given that he’s graced the podium on a number of occasions, you have to say this was a popular and well-deserved win.

Sky almost grabbed 2nd place as well but Edvald Boassen Hagen launched his sprint too early and was overtaken by Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions). Expect Omega-Pharma Lotto and Quickstep to try and exact revenge tomorrow.

Light rain is forecast for tomorrow so I may find myself on the home trainer cycling along while simultaneously watching Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and the League Cup Final. Fortunately, us girls know how to multi-task.