More young guns

Monday’s generally a rest day and one where I apply myself to administrative matters for both the club and our company. However, having missed my Sunday ride, thanks to the subsequently cancelled La Ronde, I felt the road was calling me. According to the weather forecast, yesterday was scheduled to reach normal August temperatures of around 30C instead of languishing, as it has been, at around 23-25C. It was overcast and humid to start with but a very warm southerly wind blew away the clouds to leave an azure sky and a scorching temperature. I chose a well shaded route, hoping to postpone as long as possible the inevitable numbing and cramping in my feet. After only 40 minutes, my left foot started throbbing but I rode on trying hard to ignore the pain. After an hour, the right foot joined in.  After two hours, the pain was so bad I stopped for a short rest and a drink.

This generally does the trick and I rode for a further hour before again succumbing to another break. Yesterday was particularly bad because I had spent most of Sunday on my feet. I’m trying to rest them as much as possible but it’s really difficult to stay off them. By the time I reached home, I’d been out for about 4 hours. I had a 30 minute refreshing thrash about in the pool before settling down on the sofa, with my feet up, to watch the prologue in the Eneco Tour: a 5.7km technical course around Amersfoot in Holland.  Last year’s overall winner HTC’s Tony Martin was absent, but there was plenty of other strong time-trialling talent taking part. The course was smoked by BMC’s rookie, Taylor Phinney, a man with cycling in his DNA, to land his first [of many] ProTour win. He was the only rider to go under 7 minutes and finished 7 seconds ahead of Sky’s Edvald Boassen Hagen, the Norwegian time-trialling champ. Garvelo’s David Millar was 3rd. Lurking ominously in 8th place, and only 13 seconds back, was PhilGil, on the hunt for more points so as to finish the year as the UCI’s main man.

Rather than wait for the start of the Vuelta, I then decided to attack the post Tour ironing mountain. It’s awfully hard to iron while seated, there was nothing else for it. I was back on my feet. Numerous shirts and t-shirts later (all my beloved’s), I rewarded myself with a further rest on the sofa. Today was going to be my rest day but the weather was so glorious, I couldn’t resist going for a quick ride early this morning. I had a brief trip to the club this evening and, while watching today’s stage of the Eneco Tour, tackled the club’s accounts. While I’m not the Treasurer, and despite me spending many hours showing her how to reconcile the accounts and prepare the monthly analysis, she’s taken to having a half-hearted attempt and then handing it over to me.  As I’m going to be at my parents next week, I really needed to complete the task today so that I could hand her back the club’s records.

Today, the GC leader, Taylor Phinney, punctured with 20km to go and was paced up back to the front of the peloton by none other than Omega Pharma Lotto’s Belgian Classics King, Phil Gil. Phinney led out the sprint but faded to 7th. However, he hung on to his 7 second lead and his leader’s white jersey. Phil Gil’s team mate, Andrei Greipel took the win ahead of Katusha’s Denis Galimzyanov and Garvelo’s Tyler Farrar. Strong winds and narrow urban roads littered with street furniture had rendered today’s 192.1km stage, from Oosterhout to Sint Willebrord, crash prone. Numerous riders hit the deck, a number under the red kite, and five unfortunate souls were DNFs.

They weren’t the only DNFs today. I had last prepared the club accounts at the end of May only to discover the books were a complete dog’s breakfast. There were loads of cheques which had been encashed but were not in the manual cash book because the Treasurer hadn’t got the supporting documentation from M le President. This situation has not been addressed and, while I could make a pretty good guess, I’m not going to. They have to sort it out. So I reconciled the bank for the past two months and handed back the books this afternoon. They both became very animated when I explained the problem again, each blaming the other for misplacing the relevant paperwork. It’s quite possible that it’s a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other. The upshot is that I’m to become the Treasurer, while still retaining the bulk of my existing responsibilities.  Didn’t see that one coming but actually it will make the task much simpler as I’ll automate everything. M Le President is going to hand over his cheque book and the club credit card which should resolve the problem. They can sort out the mess they’ve made while I’m away and I’ll take over and do the accounts on my return.

I have another race scheduled  this week with the young lads who live on the Domaine. They reckon that having watched the Tour  they’ve worked out how to beat me. The race will be tomorrow morning as my outing with my coach has been postponed. I have no idea what their tactics will be but suspect they’re going to try and use their superior numbers to burn me off. However, given that the circuit is barely a kilometre long, I’m just going to sprint for it. I’ll be going for a good warm up beforehand, it generally takes me at least 25km to get into my stride, and then we’re rendezvousing at the entrance to the Domaine. I’m hoping there won’t be too much passing traffic. During August, as relatives arrive to spend time in the sun with their friends and loved ones, the Domaine resembles more a giant car park and obstacle course as people get ever more inventive as to where to leave their cars.

Panacea for post-Tour blues

While the Tour is over and many of it’s protagonists take part in a seemingly endless round of criteriums, the racing rolls on. This week I’ve been watching the Tour of Poland generally an opportunity for the young guns to shine, and shine they have. While fellow Brummie and defending champ Garvelo’s Dan Martin put up a spirited defence of his title and won the queen stage, it’s been pretty much one way traffic at the Pete and Marcel show.  After putting in a highly determined performance to win two stages and, more importantly, the overall, I’m looking forward to see what Liquigas’s Peter Sagan can do in his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta. I appreciate he’ll be riding in support of Vicenzo Nibali, but should the Shark falter…….. The other four stages were won in imperious fashion by Skil Shimano’s Marcel Kittel whom I last saw on the podium of the U23 ITT in Melbourne. He has a turn of speed to match Cavendish, but doesn’t seem to require a train, and he left names such as Tom Boonen, Romain Feillu and John Degenkolb trailing in his wake.

I’ve also been dipping into the Vuelta a Burgos where riders were fine tuning their performances ahead of the Vuelta which starts on 20 August in Benidorm. The first stage stage was won by defending champ, Euskaltel’s Samu, who won’t be riding the Vuelta, ahead of Katusha’s JRod, who will. JRod also took out the 2nd stage and the overall. Samu was undone (again) by the team time trial and tired legs on the final stage where the boys in orange were attempting to rip the field apart and put time into JRod. Sadly, Samu was unable to keep pace and the stage was won by his rookie team mate Mikel Landa, recording his maiden win. Purito is looking in great shape for the upcoming race which, with plenty of mountain top finishes and few time-trialling kms, clearly favours the climbers but Igor Anton and the orange-clad boys are looking equally strong.

Over in the Tour of Denmark, Sky’s Simon Gerrans took his first stage win since the Herald Sun Tour in 2006 and his first win this year thanks to some clever mopping up of intermediate sprint points (and seconds) to remain ahead of Leopard Trek’s Daniele Bennati.  Elsewhere, the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin won Paris-Correze.

The football season commenced this week end in France and Nice were served up a tough opener, home to Lyon, against whom we’ve enjoyed some great results in recent seasons largely thanks to OL’s Champion’s League commitments. No such worries this time for OL, we lost 3-1 and languish one from the bottom of the league. With such a high turnover of players, it’ll take the team a while to gel but there were some promising signs, though we’re still lacking firepower up front. Finally, work has commenced on OGCN’s new stadium which should be finished in time for the 2013/14 season and where we’ll be hosting some matches in Euro 2016. I’m hoping my beloved boys in claret and blue have a better start to their Premiership campaign this week end.

After a few days off the bike last week, I was keen to get back into my training plan. My coach has introduced some new home-trainer based exercises where I have to pedal while holding my breath. Not sure what that’s all about but I’ll get a chance to quiz him when we ride together on Wednesday. It’s only for a short period, but it’s more difficult than you might think. He’s also making me do a series of push ups. Probably trying to firm up the non-areodynamic batwings. He’s also persisting with the swimming to assist my legs to recuperate. But my legs rarely get tired and I never ever, suffer from a build up of lactic acid. My feet, on the other hand, are not faring so well. I spent much time on them while walking around San Sebastián and have been on my feet most of this week preparing for yesterday’s La Ronde and pointage where we usually cater for over 500 cyclists. It was a wash out. The race was cancelled as the course was too dangerous with water lying on the circuit’s corners. Still around 60 people turned up and enjoyed my home baked goodies. Of course, most of the provisions can go back into the club store cupboard to be brought out for the re-scheduled event while I can put my remaining cakes into the freezer, disaster averted.

Garibaldi’s Giro IV

Celebrating Garibaldi's Giro

Five, four, three, two, one and they’re away. It’s Omega Pharma-Lotto who kick off this year’s Giro. The team descends the starting ramp, rides out the gate of the Castello della Venaria Reale, 9km north of Turin, and speeds away in line along a road thronged with enthusiastic spectators, enjoying  both the fine weather and the spectacle. The pan-flat route is more technical at the start, challenging the team’s ability to establish a  rhythm, followed by wide straight tree-lined avenues with some 90 degree bends around the old town before ending up on the cobbles.

Route for Stage 1 Team Time-Trial

The key to team time trialling is consistency. Invariably you’ll have riders of differing strengths however you need to maintain a speed which everyone can follow. The more able members of the team take longer pulls on the front. Some teams opt for finishing with as many of the original nine as possible, while others progressively spit out riders, crossing the line with the bare minimum (5). Liquigas employed one rider to ride at the back of the paceline to shepherd rotating team members back into line in front of him – neat trick.

Italian television showcased the delights of Turin, home to Fiat cars, and its beautiful, old town, which I found quite reminiscent of Nice. Well, they were both part of the House of Savoy. The centre of Turin is the large quadrangular area lying between Corso Vittoro Emanuele, Corso Galileo Ferraris (shouldn’t that be Fiat?), Corso Regina Margherita, Corso San Maurizio and the Po river. Roughly bisecting this area is the fashionable via Roma, lined with wide arcades, which connects the main railway station with Piazzo Castello. It’s skyline is dominated by extraordinarily shaped Mole Antonelliana designed by Piedmontese architect Alessandro Antonelli. It started life in 1863 as a synagogue and was completed in 1897 as a monument of Italian unity. As to be expected there’s a via Garibaldi, pedestrianised and lined with 18th century palaces. The via Po, to the east of the centre, is full of funky shops, including many bookshops where you would have expected me to pick up a few cycling books and enjoy an espresso in one of the many fashionable cafes.

Alas, I never made it to Turin and am beginning to feel that all my Giro trips are jinxed. It  started to go downhill on Thursday afternoon at our Commission Kivilev meeting where I raised a number of as yet unresolved issues. Accordingly, I was given the job of sorting these out. I set to with gusto on Thursday evening with a view to leaving early for Turin the following morning. Inevitably, there were people with whom I needed to speak that I couldn’t reach until the following day. By lunchtime, I was still working away. I made an executive decision, I would cancel my hotel room and drive to Turin early on Saturday morning. I’d missed the team presentation, and wouldn’t have so much time to look around Turin, but I would still see the team time-trial. However, without my parking spot in the hotel garage, handily placed for a quick getaway, it was unlikely I would be home in time to collect my beloved from the airport.

The weather was fabulous on Friday so I nipped out for a quick ride over lunch, my path crossing that of Amael Moinard. He was descending fast (ergo I was ascending, more slowly) so we only had time to exchange greetings. I returned home refreshed by my ride and continued with my work. In addition, I was trying to organise a celebratory lunch for our friend who’s just signed a contract with a Pro-tour cycling team. The limiting factor in all such arrangements is the availability of my beloved. I had circulated dates, basically a few Friday, Saturday or Sunday evenings over the coming weeks. I had qualified this by saying, he was also available Sunday lunchtime. Later that afternoon, I received a call to say that everyone could make this Sunday lunchtime.  A few rapid calculations and I realised that something would have to give and it was going to be my trip to Turin.

I planned the menu and wrote out my shopping list. Our friend would be riding the Vuelta, so I went with a Spanish theme: tapas, paella, finishing with the ubiquitous orange-flavoured “flan” with strawberries. We would all be riding on Sunday morning, and our friend’s eldest son was racing, so I went for things which could either be  prepared in advance, or thrown together once everyone had arrived. I shopped early on Saturday morning, preparing in advance as many of the dishes as possible, before settling down to watch the time-trial on the television. I looked enviously at the crowds thronging the route in the sunshine and the hordes of Alpini in their jaunty feathered hats, I should have been there: one day.

Needless to say it was the well-drilled teams who held sway. HTC-High Road were fastest and contrived to put Marco Pinotti, the Italian time-trial champion and hugely popular rider, into the pink jersey. RadioShack, another disciplined team, were second, with Liquigas securing third place.  While the gaps were not, for the most part, significant, it’s still time that has to be won back at some stage. Of the leading contenders, Nibali is the best placed with Scarponi, hot on his heels, at just 2 seconds behind. Lampre arrived into Turin a day early specifically to practise the team time-trial. It paid off.  Contador is 8 secs off Nibali, with Menchov and Sastre at 31 secs and Joaquim Rodriguez at 42 seconds. Euskaltel-Euskadi were the team maglia nera, but team leader Igor Anton has revealed that he’s at the Giro just to hunt for stage wins and not the pink jersey.

Having garnered a large number of brownie points in Saturday’s time-trail, HTC-High Road might have hoped to cash these in on Sunday when Mark Cavendish was pipped on the line into Parma by an in-form Alessandro Petacchi whom they adjudged to have sprinted off his line, not once but thrice. In vain, two stages, two Italian wins: the Giro’s off to a great start.

We watched the action unfold on the screen television in the company of our friend who’s ridden the Giro himself and twice been on winning teams: with Marco Pantani (2002) and with Alberto Contador (2008). It was interesting to hear his observations on the riders, the parcours and the race. As is the case with television commentary, the most brilliantly observed remarks are those from past (or even current) riders who understand intimately the ways and language of the peloton. They add colour, insight and comprehension for the observer. Thus it was with us all gathered around the television after a relaxing and enjoyable lunch.

However, we’re going to have to do it all over again as one couple were missing from the celebration. The husband had been knocked off his bike early on Sunday morning and was under observation in the local hospital for facial and cranial injuries. It’s not serious, just painful, and we all wish him a speedy recovery.

If you’re seeking an excellent summation of the first two stages of the Giro d’Italia, please pop over to www.thearmchairsportsfan.com.

My sporting week end

My coach has a company which promotes the health benefits of participating in sport. You can either join for a year or buy tickets to participate in events. The first go is free. This Saturday he was encouraging people to either start cycling or get back on their bikes. His existing clients are also invited to participate. I went in anticipation that there just might be a few people slower than me. No such luck! We were a fairly select group, composed largely of his existing clients and just one guy who “hadn’t ridden much recently”. No need to spell out who was bringing up the rear on the ride. One of my coach’s assistants came with us and solicitously enquired as to whether I was finding the parcours too difficult. My coach kindly stepped in to explain that I was his official Lanterne Rouge, a role I perform beautifully and to the very  best of my ability. Frenchmen are such charmers! We only rode for about 90 minutes, ideal preparation for Sunday’s La Lazarides, one of the more testing brevets and one which I rode well at last year.

I spent Saturday afternoon on numerous household tasks while checking out the sporting action on our three televisions. WBA v Villa was shown live on Canal+ and I have to say the boys played well. But, and it’s a big but, they were mugged by the Baggies 2-1 who played with greater purpose, despite being down to 10 men. Meanwhile, in the lounge I was intent on watching the qualifying for Sunday’s Portuguese GP from Estoril. Typically, the favourites all ended up on pole position. Finally, I watched the time-trial in the Tour of Romandie where Messrs Evans (BMC) and Vinokourov (Astana) were poised to knock Pavel Brutt (Katusha) from the top step of the podium. It wasn’t an easy course, although the winner Dave Zabriskie made it look easy as he posted the fasted time. In the post-race interview, I feared for the interviewer’s life when he unwisely suggested that Dave Z (Garvelo) had only won because of more favourably climatic conditions. While that was true, that’s cycling, it’s sometimes the luck of the draw. Superb times were posted by Tony Martin (HTC-High Road) and Cadel Evans lifting them into second and first place respectively. Vinokourov clearly gave it his all but fared less well. He still managed to round out the podium, leaving the race poised for an interesting finish on Sunday. Would Vinokourov attack Evans and Martin?

Sunday dawned with perfect weather conditions for cycling. We rose early and drove to the start in Cannes. We set off with the group cycling 150km although we intended to ride only 100km. I do this largely out of concern for those manning the broom wagon, I don’t like to keep them waiting. Within a couple of kilometers I was distanced from the peloton which had sped off into the wide blue yonder – plus ca change! My beloved kindly kept me company as we wended our way through the positively lush countryside in the L’Esterel, around  Lake St Cassien and up into the surrounding walled villages. I was not riding well and was feeling positively fatigued. On the climb up to Mons I gratefully climbed off and into the waiting broom wagon. I positively hate giving up but sometimes you just know it’s the right thing to do. I had a pounding headache and felt really tired, even though I’d only ridden for 50km. I chose to forgo the end of ride sausages and wine, I didn’t feel I’d deserved them.

Once back home and installed on the sofa, ready for an afternoon’s sporting action, I promptly fell asleep. My beloved roused me from to time to time to observe some of the sporting action or, more correctly, replayed sporting action. In the Rund um den Finanzplatz Eschborn – Frankfurt,  Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) greatly enlivened the race by attacking at every opportunity but Leopard Trek were determined to deliver Fabian Wegmann, last year’s winner, to the line. However, it was another German who took it on the line. John Degenkolb, last year’s world championship runner-up in the U23 catergory, took his third win of the season for HTC-Columbia. The U23 champion, Michael Matthews was 3rd. The roadside was thronged with spectators enjoying the action in the warm sunshine. Cycling clearly isn’t dead in Germany despite the efforts of the German television stations to banish it from air.

On the run into Geneva, on the final stage of the Tour of Romandie, as anticipated, Vinokourov made one of his trademark attacks but was brought swiftly to heel by Sky who set up the win for Ben Swift, ahead of Oscar Freire. The podium remained unchanged. Evans was clearly delighted to bag his second Tour of Romandie title, after the disappointment of missing the Ardennes Classics, in the region where he lived when he came over to Europe as a mountain bike racer and, fittingly, not too far from BMC’s HQ. However, it’s been a good week for Astana with stage wins for Alexandre Vinokourov and Valentin Iglinsky, and podium finishes in the Tours of Romandie (3rd) and Turkey (Andrey Zeits 2nd).

I managed to remain awake long enough to catch all of the re-run action in the MotoGP from Estoril where the track had been made more difficult by patches of wet from the morning’s rain. Nicolas Terol posted his 3rd consecutive win in 125cc class ahead of Victor Faubel and Sandro Cortese. He easily heads the championship rankings. In the Moto2 class, Stefan Bradl won his consecutive Estoril title but not before a tussle with Andrea Iannone who, having zoomed from 17th place into first, slid out of contention to finish 13th, leaving Bradl to record another win ahead of Julian Simon and Yuki Takahashi. It was an emotional podium place for Takahashi who had recemtly lost his younger brother in a motor racing accident. Moto2 rookie, and last year’s 125cc champion, Marc Marquez slid off into the cat litter (again) and has yet to score any points.

In the main event, Dani Pedrosa showed that the recent surgery on his shoulder has worked. He marked Jorge Lorenzo closely before using the slipstream to overtake him 4 laps from home. Casey Stoner was a comfortable 3rd. It wasn’t a classic race as such although there were exciting jousts within the main race. Andrea Divisioso overtook Valentino Rossi on the line for 4th place. Marco Simoncelli crashed out (again). Now there’s a wheel you don’t want to follow.

Finally, OGCN were trounced 4-0 at home to Caen. This was a six pointer and they now find themselves one place, and one point, above the drop zone. There are four other teams on 39 points all of whom have superior goal differences. Come on guys, please don’t fall at the last hurdle!

Fairy tales

Many of my French acquaintances were surprised to learn that I wouldn’t be watching today’s Royal Wedding. I certainly wish the couple every future happiness but, following my sister’s bash, have had my fill of weddings for this year. Instead, I spent a few pleasant hours mooching around Aix-en-Provence, while my beloved visited a client. It poured down en route but by the time we arrived the sun was shining on Aix’s cobbles. We breakfasted in a local hotel which serves the best breakfast I’ve ever had in France, outside my own kitchen. After my beloved had departed, I spent time discussing recipes with the lady who’s responsible for the afore-mentioned gastronomic delights.

Needing to walk off the calories, I strode around Aix, largely window shopping, though I did purchase dinner (asparagus and strawberries) in the local market. Architecturally, Aix is a beautiful town with plenty of honeyed stone buildings decorated with wrought iron balconies and impressive porticos over intricately carved wooden doors. The town’s been sensitively renovated and it’s a pleasure wandering along its narrow lanes, particularly in the old town, listening to the tinkling of falling water in one of  it’s many fountains.

I last visited Aix with my parents and it brought home to me how much they had both slowed up. Neither are particularly confident on foot, particularly on cobbles. I ended up leaving them to enjoy a coffee and newspaper in the famous Les Deux Garcons, so beloved of Cezanne and Hemingway, where we later enjoyed lunch.

Beloved of Cezanne

They say that old age is fine providing that you’re healthy, have a bit of money and your wits about you. However, to that I would add that you need your partner to be healthy and have their wits about them too.  Otherwise, like my Dad, your situation is totally compromised. He’s now reluctant to go many places or do many things for fear of what my mother might do. He’s very sensitive to the opinion of others and doesn’t want my mother to embarrass either herself or him. Her very unpredictability leaves him constantly on edge and unable to enjoy many of the simple things in life. Nonetheless, he’s unwilling to consign my mother to the care of others, unless they’re close friends or family. This is taking a toll on his own health and mental fortitude.  I’m popping back to the UK next month to spend a couple of days with them while my sister is on vacation. My father is very reliant on her and my brother-in-law which is not without its own stresses. However my own commitments, geographical location and lack of daily flights to Birmingham outside of the summer months make it difficult to be of much practical assistance.

Once back home from Aix, we were delighted to see Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), in true opportunistic fashion, nip off behind Tony Martin (HTC-High Road) in the home strait of today’s stage of the Tour of Romandie and win. He’s now just 38 seconds behind Pavel Brutt (Katusha)  and 10 seconds ahead of Cadel Evans (BMC). I’ve also been checking out the practice sessions at the MotoGP in Portugal.  There’s plenty of sporting action to enjoy this week end, as well as our own participation in Sunday’s La Lazarides.

Full of promise

We’ve profited from the fine weather these past few days to log plenty of kilometers on the bike. The weather forecast keeps indicating adverse weather but it’s generally been holding off during the day. The combination of rain and warm sunshine has ensured that the countryside looks particularly green and bountiful, long may it last. We needed all that additional mileage to counter the effects of yesterday’s blow out birthday luncheon: my beloved’s. I quaffed champagne and ate asparagus, morilles and  lobster. All my favourite foods, beautifully cooked and served, in the relaxing surroundings of one of our local restaurants, which has a fabulous view of the surrounding area. Feeling decidedly sated we returned home to watch the Presidential Tour of Turkey and the Tour of Romandie.

Both races have given some of the peloton’s newest pros a chance to shine, as well as providing opportunities for those who are more established.  For example, the Tour of Romandie’s 3.5km prologue had Taylor Phinney’s name all over it, particularly as he rides for the Swiss BMC team. No one had thought to tell Basque rider Jonathan Castroviejo who registered the ride of his life to take it, and the leader’s yellow jersey, by a nano second. In yesterday’s stage, Pavel Brutt (Katusha) one of the peloton’s perpetual breakaway artistes maintained his advantage, in the wet and windy conditions, to win the 172.6km stage into Leysin, by a healthy margin, to take possession of the yellow jersey. After what for him would have been a disappointing Classic’s campaign, today Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) prevailed, ahead of Cadel Evans (BMC) and Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana). I anticipate that the latter two will be fighting it out for GC come the end of the race.

Meanwhile, over in Turkey, some of the world’s best sprinters have been losing out to a number of opportunists. Andrea Guardini (Farnese-Vini-Neri-Sottoli) – remember him from the Tour of Qatar – beat Tyler Farrar (Garvelo), among others, on the Tour’s first stage into Instanbul. Stage 2’s sprint finish into Turgutreis was won by  non-sprinter (or so the others thought), Valentin Iglinsky (Astana), Max’s younger brother and clearly not a man to be underestimated, certainly not by Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD). On stage 3, Manuel Belletti (Colnago-CSF Inox) notched up his 3rd win of the season. Yesterday, Petacchi, feeling he had a point to prove, surprisingly prevailed on the Tour’s queen stage, at the end of a wet and hilly day. While today’s stage, 218km  into Fethiye, was won by Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Neri-Sottoli), his first ever podium. Thomas Peterson (Garvelo) now leads the pack ahead of Cameron Wurf (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Alexander Efimkin (Team Type 1 – Sanofi Aventis).

A number of riders are using these races to hone their form ahead of the Giro d’Italia. Others, like Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard) are using the time to reconnoitre the more difficult stages, of which there are plenty, ahead of the race’s start in Turin on 7 May. I will be there.

Pretty much perfect week end

Yesterday morning the sun was shining as we set off for a gentle ride prior to today’s l’Antiboise. We basically rode the last circuit of Saturday’s stage of Paris-Nice 2011. On our way back, my beloved tried to lure me up the steep ascent to Chateauneuf. I tried but frankly 13%, even in bottom bottom, on the 53 x 39 was just too much for me. As we climbed the Col de Testanier today, I felt that effort in my legs. Back home we toyed with the idea of a trip to Stade du Ray to watch the local derby, OGCN v Monaco, but felt far too lethargic to watch what we were sure would be yet another bore draw. Well, how wrong were we? Five goals, with OGCN running out the winners. Five goals at Stade du Ray, when did that happen last? My beloved boys in claret and blue also won 2-1 away to West Ham, moving them sharply up the table.

I did however find time in my busy day to check on the individual time trial in the Vuelta Ciclista Castille y Leon. Alberto Contador, the 3-time defending champion, had been taken out of the running by a couple of mechanicals on Friday’s queen stage. Not wishing to leave the race empty handed, he was a shoe in for a win in the 11km time trial which he took in imperious fashion ahead of team mate Ritchee Portee (French announcer’s pronunciation). We might have been treated to more of the racing had it not been for a 3-setter ladies Fed Cup match.

When the alarm went off this morning at 6am, I did not want to get up. Largely because I had spent most of the night listening to my beloved snore. It’s a family trait and due to yet another genetic default (can I get a refund?). He’s recently started snoring while he’s still awake although he denies it vehemently as he can’t hear himself. Add selective hearing loss to his list of defects. After an extra precious 15 minutes, we got up dressed, breakfasted and set off for the start in Antibes.

I told my beloved he could ride at his own pace, no need to wait for me. He was gone in a trice. I set off with a bunch of riders from a neighbouring club, but following wheels that wander all over the place is not my idea of fun. I left them behind. I know the route well and although the forthcoming Easter vacation has heralded an influx of holidaymakers, and additional traffic, the roads weren’t too busy. I sailed along enjoying the peace and quiet, taking in the glorious  surroundings. From time to time, small groups of riders would zoom past me, calling out greetings as they did so. It was the perfect day for a longish ride. In view of the early hour, I had donned my arm warmers and gilet which were much appreciated on the final descent. I’ve yet to discard my 3/4 bib shorts.

On the ascent of the Col, most unusually, I started overtaking riders and arrived at the mid-way point, and feed zone, with a number of others. I was gasping for a coke. Initially, I was advised they were out of coke, but someone found a bottle (thank goodness). I needed that sugar hit. The club which organises this ride is renowned for the paucity of their offerings. All that was left was some dried out cake and a piece of chocolate brioche. I quickly ate the latter. One of the other riders commented that the fare on offer simply didn’t bear comparison with my own cakes. The guy driving the broom wagon enquired whether I would be riding the longer course. I told him that I had learnt my lesson from last year and would be sticking to the shorter route. He looked immensely relieved.

It’s pretty much all downhill from hereon in on winding, wide roads in excellent condition. I wasn’t too tired and it wasn’t too windy for me to ape Sammy Sanchez. In no time at all I was back in Mandelieu and on the home stretch. I rang my beloved to advise him that I would be home soon. I had taken the precaution of leaving his lunch, which just needed re-heating, in the fridge. By the time I reached home, he’d showered, changed and eaten lunch. I could take a relaxing shower, slip into something slinky and settle on the sofa ready to view the  Amstel Gold Race. Unfortunately, I dropped off to sleep and missed most of the action, including Frank Schleck taking out fabulous Fabian, in a Leopard Trek pile up. Now there’s a wheel to avoid. My beloved woke me just as Schleck the younger soloed off on a suicide mission. Phil Gil was exhorting the chasing pack but, as we were to discover on the Cauberg, they didn’t have the legs to chase. Phil did. He crossed the line well ahead of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Simon Gerrans (Sky) for his second consecutive win. Someone, presumably his wife, handed him his baby son Alan, the spitting image of his Dad,  who was greatly enjoying proceedings. Get used to it Alan, it’s going to happen a lot.

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.

Just what was ordered

Having waved farewell to my beloved on Tuesday afternoon, I have spent the last few days enjoying the warm, sunny weather which I hope is here to stay. I’m trying to rebuild my form with some longer rides.  At the same time, I’ve a whole host of paperwork to deal with as it’s the end of the first quarter, plus  deadlines for filing accounts and tax returns are fast approaching. Additionally,  the club is keeping me busy as we attract ever more members.

I have found time, thanks to the tv in the office, to keep abreast of proceedings in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. This is generally a race for those whose ambitions have to be put aside on Sunday while they support their team leaders, although Ballan did win both this and the Tour of Flanders in 2007. It’s raced around the Belgian coastline which is prone to fierce, peloton splintering, cross-winds.

Riders who have showed promise elsewhere this year largely prevailed. The first stage on Tuesday, 194km from Middelkerke to Zottegem, was won by Andrei Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), the lone sprinter in a 4-man break. He assumed the leader’s jersey only to lose it on the following day’s lumpy  219km to Koksijde. It was gratefully assumed by Liewe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) although the stage winner was  Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha) who managed to hold off John Degenkolb (HTC-High Road).

This morning’s 111km sprint stage around De Panne was held in the rain, consequently a number of riders opted not to start : most notably, Alessandro Ballan (BMC), Peter Sagan (Liquigas), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM). The sprint for the line from the leading bunch of around 50 riders was won by Jacopo Guarini (Liquigas) who managed to stay just ahead of Galimzyanov. Over 70 riders finished outside the time limit,  so there were only 56 competing in the afternoon’s individual time-trial.

Last man off was Bert De Backer (Skil-Shimano) who had taken the leader’s jersey with a sprint bonus that morning. But there were 27 riders within 10 seconds of him, including some notable chrono men. The sky was overcast and there was some rain on part of the course towards the back end. The biggest factor was once again the wind on what looked to be quite a technical course.

Sebastien Rosseler (RadioShack) comfortably won the time-trial and the overall. Westra was runner-up, once again, despite the frenzied and manical urgings of his DS from the team car. Although, for consolation, he had the climber’s and most combative jerseys.  De Backer won the sprints jersey and Galymzyanov the points one. Third-placed man on the podium was Rosseler’s team mate, 20 year-old Michal Kwiatkowski who had turned in a very fine performance in the time-trial. A Belgian winner on Belgian soil, just what the organisers and spectators wanted.

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.