Very belated postcard from Limburg 2012

Yes, I know that despite my best intentions the number of blog entries is dwindling to a trickle, but I have been busy, honest. I’m just back from an action packed 10 day annual pilgrimage to the World Road Cycling Championships which was held in the delightful surroundings of Limburg, that bit of the Netherlands which protrudes into Germany and Belgium. As you might imagine, the area’s cycling mad and every time I saw a cyclist I wished I’d had my bike with me so that I could join in. Ah well, next year in Tuscany 2013!

I had intended hiring a bike, albeit it would probably have been one of those sit up and beg ones that you see all over the Netherlands, but I fell over and twisted my ankle. Clumsy or what? As usual I was talking and not watching where I was going. One minute I was on the pavement, the next minute I wasn’t. As falls go it was fairly spectacular but I quickly leapt to my feet, dusted myself off, retrieved my scattered belongings and continued walking as if everything were fine. It wasn’t, it was really painful.

That evening I gave my right ankle the alternate hot and cold water treatment which seemed to help. No need for an embarrassing recourse to the medical staff of the Spanish and Italian teams who were staying in my hotel. The next morning the ankle was too puffy for my comfortable shoes but I could wear my ballet flats. I also had an impressive collection of bruises on my left leg and my right arm. There are times when a good covering of body fat comes in useful, I just bounce and avoid serious injury. A sore ankle is not ideal when you’re proposing to spend all day standing at the barricades but I’m an endurance spectator, I just grinned and bore it without complaint. It was my own fault after all.

So, back to the cycling which kicked off with a revival of the trade team time-trial. It sits somewhat awkwardly with a shed load of national races and a ways back they used to have a national team time-trial but nowadays that’s probably a bit impractical. The event was nonetheless pretty fiercely contested and, largely thanks to an error by BMC, Belgium’s Omega Pharma-QuickStep triumphed. But it was a close run thing. Not so in the ladies event where Specialized-Lululemon dominated with their US/German/Dutch squad.


Belgian’s top dogs in trade team time-trial (image courtesy of OPQS)

The great thing about the Worlds is that you get  a week’s worth of racing all in the same spot. My mate Ute (we met at the world championships in Salzburg in 2006) and I occupied a place about 20m or so from the finish line and, based on the early bird theory, laid claim to it all week. Neither of us is particularly tall, while the Dutch are, and we did not want to be in the second row standing on tippy toe.

Most fans preferred to stay the other side of the Cauberg climb, closer to the plethora of bars and restaurants, either that or they weren’t willing to trek the extra kilometres to the finish. This meant we had a ringside view of all the racing,  could swivel around to watch the action on the screen behind and then later have another prime view of the podium presentation: a pretty much perfect situation. Although there was little in the way of refreshments, my accreditation gave me access to the press area and Ute came well stocked, so we were able to regularly take in sustenance and prevent a bonk.

Another great thing about the Worlds is that you get to see lots of racers whom you never or rarely get to see on the television, like the ladies, U23s and juniors. It’s always interesting to chart their progression into the senior ranks. It’s also great to see the grass shoots of globalisation of the sport with more and more countries fielding riders and teams. None from China although there were increased numbers of Japanese and more from African countries. However, Ute and I agreed while it was great to see riders such as Judith Arndt and Tony Martin retaining their crowns, our abiding memory will be of Marianne Vos’s domination. She last won the World’s in 2006 –  our first Worlds –  and has been a disappointed  runner-up ever since. But this year she’s done the double, Olympics and Worlds just like Nicole Cooke in 2008.

I mentioned that I was staying in the same hotel as two of the teams. Initially, it was Euskaltel, Movistar, Lotto-Belisol and Topsport Vlaanderen. The Lotto boys were on the same floor as me although I never saw any of them but the strong smell of embrocation in the hotel corridor was rather evocative. However I could have done without all the door slamming. Of course, they departed smartly after the trade-team time trial to be replaced by the national team riders. The hotel was under siege from fans, many of whom waited patiently for hours for a glimpse of their sporting heroes. Goodness knows what the busloads of Japanese tourists staying in the hotel made of it.

Now you might be thinking what a fantastic opportunity for interviews. It would be except the boys and girls were already under siege and I had no desire to add to that burden. Surely, everyone deserves a bit of down time. However, it was interesting to observe the contrasting approaches of the two different nationalities. The Italians are extroverts, the Spanish introverts.

There was no racing on Thursday which afforded me a welcome opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Maastricht, a delightful historic town with plenty of eye-catching architecture and some great coffee shops. Purely in the interests of research I tried some of the local baked goodies but I did find them a little heavy for my taste – delicious, but heavy.

As ever one of the fun parts of this event is catching up with friends and acquaintances plus just chatting to a wide range of fans from all over the world while we wait for the racers to hove into view. A few of the natives were overly familiar. A rather drunken Dutch chap said he thought I looked around 42, I smiled as if he might have hit the nail on the head but he was way off base. He’d asked the woman sitting opposite me if she was my mother. I was delighted as she was probably only four to five years older than me. However, having ascertained I was married but with no children, he asked me to go clubbing in Dusseldorf. I politely but firmly declined, after over 10 hours manning the barricades the last thing I needed was more hours on my feet, besides I had a hot date with my laptop!  For more about the event and the races, head over to www.velovoices.com.

The future’s bright, the future’s green-edged

We had a marathon meeting down at the club yesterday which enabled us to make our positions clear, particularly with respect to the coming (and our last) season. Interestingly, it soon became apparent that the Old Guard hope to persuade me to stand for President at the end of the present incumbent’s current term. They can think again. I’m more than happy to remain involved with the Kivilev and to continue the supply of baked goodies, but that’s as far as it goes. Everyone’s agreed to retain the cyclsportif and brevet for the coming year but we’re going to amend the 175km parcours making it around 20kms shorter.

All this meant I was unable to watch the individual time-trials on the television and had, instead, to settle for the edited highlights. For me one of the charms of the World Championships is the ability to watch great races every day and, in  particular, see those who you can’t generally watch on the the television, such as the ladies and U23 races. This year, they’ve added the juniors into the mix. The Australians have made a very strong start to the Championships with 18 year-old Jessica Allen winning the 13.9km time-trial in 19:18, ahead of Britain’s Elinor Barker and Germany’s Mieke Kroge.  Jessica thought her mastery of the technical sections of the course just gave her the edge.

The men’s U23 individual time-trial was won by Australia’s 20 year-old Luke Durbridge, a member of their gold winning track team, who hails from the same town as Jessica. He finished 2nd last year to Taylor Phinney, but was in a class of his own this year, blitzing the two-lap, 32.5km course in 42:47. He was the only rider to break 43 minutes and was fastest at all of the splits. Rasmus Quaade gave the home crowd something to cheer about as he finished second while in third place was another Australian, Micheal Hepburn, who might have fared better if he hadn’t fallen. Another Australian finished in ninth place. Watch out for these boys in the forthcoming road race.

Under grey skies and in windy conditions, baby faced, 17 year-old, home boy Mads Wurtz Schmidt lifted the spirits of the considerable crowd to win the junior world title on the 27.8km course in 35:07:06. Looking as if he’d maybe started too quickly, Mads maintained momentum to record the fastest split times. His more fancied team mate finished sixth. Not to be outdone, the podium was completed by Kiwi, James Oram, and Aussi, David Edwards.

The skies were still overcast when the ladies elite individual time-trial got underway this afternoon. First off the ramp was  Kathryn Bertine who rides for St Kitts & Nevis. I met her in Stuttgart 2007, she’s a former US triathlete who changed allegiances and now runs the islands’ cycling development programme. The weather deteriorated as the event progressed making the conditions treacherous for the more fancied riders. Germany’s Judith Arndt turned in a masterful and powerful performance to win her first gold medal in this event. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride – not anymore. In second place was Dane turned Kiwi Linda Villumsen and, in  third, the defending champion Britain’s Emma Pooley who did well on a course unsuited to her attributes. The future is indeed green-edged, with maybe flashes of red.

For tomorrow’s elite men’s race, it’s hard to look beyond either Fabulous Fabian Cancellara or Tenacious Tony Martin. The latter has had a more impressive season than the former whom, I feel, you write off at your peril on a course which favours the stronger rider. Bring it on.

Memories of Melbourne I

I’ve arrived in Sydney and have now had time to collect my thoughts. You’re probably thinking three races and three sprint finishes, not the outcome I predicted.  True, but let’s look at what took place. The U23 race and that of the women kicked off in similar fashion with a lone American on a mission of self-destruction. All the action took place in the last couple of laps with riders trying but ultimately being unable to escape the oncoming group.  A couple of factors came into play here. The second hill was just that too far from the finish.  Because of the long straight road, any escapee was in full view of the peloton and was further hindered by the strong headwind along the esplanade. Many teams employed negative tactics and riders were unwilling to work together.

The U23 race was won by Michael Matthews, more of an all-rounder, than a pure sprinter. The ladies race might have been won by either Judith Arndt or Nicole Cooke if they hadn’t been so concerned about leading one another to the finish line. Instead, the winner was a powerful sprinter, Italian Giorgia Bronzini. The remaining two spots on the podium were, again, all-rounders, rather than pure sprinters.

The crowds had swelled considerably for Sunday’s race and it was hard finding a good position on the 50m line which had been colonized by the most fervent supporters of the official Tom Boonen fan club, who had travelled to Australia despite the absence of their sporting hero.  Typically, Tom musters thousands of supporters at the World Championships. Having 40 turn up when you’re not even there speaks volumes. The Italians had adopted the 50m marker on the other side of the road but had only an Italian flag while the Flemish could muster t-shirts, flags, hats and balloons: round 1 to the Belgians.

The Men’s Race, which took place in perfect weather conditions, was more of an enigma. The peloton took off from the centre of Melbourne at a positively pedestrian pace aided by a tail wind as far as Weribee. A group of five relatively unknown riders went off the front shortly after the start and built up a seemingly invincible lead of over 23 minutes. No doubt concern was being expressed by the UCI commissars as to what would happen if, having arrived in Geelong, the leading group of 5 lapped the field. In theory, the field would have to retire. Thankfully for the UCI this situation didn’t arise. The leading group, and the sole rider in no man’s land between the two groups, wore themselves out well before the finish line and, one by one, were absorbed back into the peloton, spit out the back and retired.

On reaching Geelong, the peloton had cranked up the pace with riders dropping out on each of the circuits, their work for the day done and dusted. Not unnaturally, the bigger teams (USA, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Australia) did the lion’s share of the work, all hoping to place their protected rider in a winning position. Cadel Evans put on a magnificent defence of his rainbow jersey but rather wore himself out in the process. Philippe Gilbert vied with Cadel for the role of most aggressive rider but his 3rd and final escape was doomed by that strong headwind.  I had erroneously assumed  Filippo Pozzato would work with Philippe Gilbert, on the basis that a medal is better than no medal. I was so wrong: round 2 to the Belgians.

Phil Gil and his shadow

Finally, it was the Russians who reunited the fractured peloton of around 30 riders in the last 1km enabling the mass sprint which was won by the ever popular God of Thunder, Thor Hushovd of Norway who was part of a team of three.  Dane, Matti Breschel moved up a place this year to claim 2nd, while Aussie Allan Davis was 3rd. I wouldn’t call either Hushovd or Breschel pure sprinters, they’re fast finishing rouleurs. Few figured on the final podium, but that’s what makes the racing exciting – it’s unpredictability.

Postcards from Melbourne III

It’s still far colder than I anticipated for this time of year and I’m regretting not bringing my down vest but the forecast is for warmer weather at the week end. As well as checking out the course in Geelong, we’ve been exploring the Melbourne shoreline on our rental bikes.  The scenery has been quite spectacular and, as we’ve ridden further south, the properties have grown in size and there are some splendid examples of both colonial and modern architecture. The former are generally clapboard with wrap around verandas decorated with filigree ironwork while the latter are seemingly built largely from glass affording the owners panoramic views of the sea.

When questioned as to the difference between Sydney and Melbourne, the natives have advised that Sydney was founded by convicts while Melbourne was founded by immigrants from mainly Scotland and Italy. Do I sense some rivalry?

We again set off for Geelong at a reasonable hour to watch the U23 individual time-trial where Taylor Phinney was odds on favourite to win. He does have an impeccable pedigree and the results this year, most recently in the Tour de l’Avenir, to back up those claims. However, he faced stiff completion from the locals, last year’s silver medalist and GB’s Alex Dowsett.

We easily positioned ourselves near the start/ finish line with a clear view of the big screen, close to refreshments and cover from the promised rain squalls. This is my 5th Worlds and easily the best so far from an organizational perspective. Everything has been done for the viewing public. Instead of the usual banks of seating, there’s one small one for the press after and a small one before the finish line for local dignitaries. The UCI and sponsors’ lounges are at the foot of the final climb.

Many local shopkeepers have a cycling-related focus in their windows while the bars, cafes and restaurants are competing hard for business with lots of themed events.  There are screens all over the course, particularly in key areas such as the climbs and in the family-friendly parks.  They’ve even established hubs for the supporters of the major foreign teams all handily located near purveyors of alcoholic beverages. No stone has been left unturned. There’s even screens in the centre of Melbourne for those that can’t make the journey to Geelong. But then Australians really love their sport, don’t they?

Sadly, the cycling is being overshadowed by this Saturday’s replay of the AFL finals. You only have to look at the local press or watch the TV to have this amply confirmed. Residents of Geelong were asked if they’d be watching the cycling, most seemed to be annoyed at the inconvenience of road closures while others were aghast at having seen professional riders jump red lights. The inclement weather and that apathy accounted for the poor showing at today’s races. You could literally count the numbers of spectators, many of whom had arrived by bike.

The first rider off, Frayre Moctezuma Eder from Mexico, was visibly shivering in the chill wind and took some time to attain rhythm and speed.  No sooner had he set off than the heavens opened, making the course treacherous for those in Groups 1 and 2. Subsequently, the sun and gentle breeze combined to quickly dry out the course for those in the subsequent two groups. The few fans gathered mostly in the finishing straight did their best to loudly cheer and encourage the future of the sport. This was great to see and heart-warming for the riders as generally the U23’s and women’s events unfairly attract less coverage and support. This is a race with a great pedigree. Just look at a few of the winners of recent years;  Lars Boom,  Jose Ivan Guttierez and Thor Hushovd.

To win a rainbow jersey, you need luck. This was Phinney’s fifth. He was lucky that Luke Durbridge endured wet roads, while he didn’t. Alex Dowsett was unlucky to have a problem with his tyre which ended his potential challenge.  Phinney won by 1.90secs ahead of 19-year old Durbridge, while German Marcel Kittel was a further 20 secs back in 3rd. The future of cycling looks rosy.

Next up, the ladies. Pre-race favourite, German, Judith Arndt finished 2nd, some 15secs behind the diminutive, feisty Emma Pooley from GREAT BRITAIN. Linda Villumse was 3rd on her maiden outing for NZ. The evergreen Jeannie Longo was 5th.   A great day’s racing; I can’t wait for the men’s TT tomorrow.