Ducking and diving

It’s that time of year when caution needs to be exercised when descending  the Domaine on two wheels thanks to the birds and the bees or, more precisely, the ducks. Our feathered friends are in an amorous mood. There’s evidently a sexual imbalance as these sorties on webbed foot involve a lady duck being hotly pursued by a couple of drakes. Now, I’m not sure how this works. Do they strut their stuff and she picks which one she fancies, or is it less consensual? In any event, they freeze in the centre of the road as you approach on two wheels and then waddle back and forth making a duck for dinner the more likely outcome.

I have been trying to profit from the milder weather as the forecast for the week end and into next week is not favourable. That’s right, this year’s Race to the Sun will in fact be a race to the rain. Descending the Grande Corniche will be particularly treacherous. The drop out rate in this year’s race, despite the clement weather they’ve been enjoying, seems particularly high. If it’s not the effects of crashing, it’s raging temperatures or intestinal troubles.

Afternoons have been particularly busy with coverage of Paris-Nice being followed by that of Tirreno-Adriatico. Still, the wide screen television in the office (one of my beloved’s better ideas) means I can easily multi-task.

Wednesday morning’s L’Equipe was full of praise for French champion Tommy Voeckler (Europcar), venturing to suggest that more French riders should follow his example. Having been thwarted on Tuesday, Tommy returned to the fray and won Wednesday’s stage from a breakaway of largely French riders, who’d obviously decided to heed L’Equipe’s advice, helping Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil) to recover the yellow jersey.

Yesterday’s stage, another lumpy one, into Vernoux-en-Vivarais, was won from a late 8-man breakaway of contenders built up on the descent of the Cat 1 Col de la Mure, by 2000 Paris-Nice winner Andreas Kloden (Radioshack) just ahead of Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Andreas is now in yellow for today’s 27km time-trial from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence, with those in contention for the overall handily poised to pounce. This stage race is throwing up a few surprises and is all the better for it.

Proceedings got off the ground in Italy on Wednesday with a team time trial won by Rabobank, putting Lars Boom in the blue leader’s jersey for yesterday’s 202km stage from Carrara to Indicatore. Interestingly, man of the moment in yesterday’s L’Equipe was Garmin-Cervelo’s Tyler Farrar. So, guess who won yesterday’s stage? Yes, Tyler Farrar led out by his wing man, Thor Hushovd. Alessandro Pettachi (Lampre) was 2nd and JJ Haedo 3rd (SaxoBank-Sungard).

The bruises from my fall on the pavement a couple of weeks ago have started to fade so yesterday I added to them by falling off my bike. How did it happen? A momentary lapse of concentration and I was on the tarmac with skinned elbows, bruised knees and an imprint from my big chain ring etched on my right calf.

Week one review

What a fabulous first week! Take a bow ASO. We’ve had confusion and controversy, thrills and spills, cobble calamity, tears and tantrums, rain, heatwaves, picturesque countryside, beautiful châteaux, fervent fans, the favourites are all still in contention and we’ve only just reached the first really lumpy bits.

As anticipated, Spartacus (Saxo Bank) won the 8.9km Prologue course around Rotterdam where, despite the rain, thousands of fans lined the course.  Sadly, both Mathias Frank (BMC) and Manuel Cardoso (Footon Servetto) fell heavily – Tour over for both of them.

Wind didn’t play a part in Stage 1, 223.5km from Rotterdam to Brussels, but the peloton was very skittish. In the run in, the last sharp right turn took out Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), among others, while two further crashes saw a large number of riders hitting the deck. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) avoided the carnage and was first across the line.  Adam Hansen (HTC-Columbia)  bowed out.

Stage 2’s 201km stage from Brussels to Spa mirrored an Ardennes Classic but rain and diesel-slicked roads saw riders falling like nine pins, particularly on the descent from the Stockeu. Injuries to Michel Delage (Omega Pharma Lotto) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) put an early end to their participation. Meanwhile, Fabulous Fabian, still in yellow, cooled the tempo in the leading bunch to allow the contenders (particularly one Andy Schleck) to get back onto the peloton which then rode together to the neutralised finish. Up front, Sylvain Chavanel, having helped team mate Jerome Pineau to seize the spotty jersey, had pedaled away from the rest of the breakaway bunch for the stage win, snatching yellow from Fab’s broad shoulders. These two have  rescued Quick Step’s dismal season and are now well poised to negotiate contract extensions.

It was anticipated that some of the favourites might come a cropper on the cobbled sections on Stage 3’s 213km from Wanze to Arenburg. It was a truly spectacular stage, hot and dusty, reminiscent of when Stuart O’Grady won Paris-Roubaix in 2007. The first crash of the day took out David Le Lay (Ag2R – La Mondiale) while falls yesterday for Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) left both nursing hairline fractures of the wrist: pretty painful on the pave. Nikki Terpstra (Milram) was a non starter with the flu.

Frank Schleck’s fall (collar bone broken in three places) precipitated splits in the peloton. The smart guys were on Fabian’s wheel and got a tow to the finish. The stage was won by Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team), fitting given that he’d forfeited sprint points the previous day at the behest of one Fabian Cancellara. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) worked with the guys from Sky to bridge up to the group behind Cancellara and minimise the time lost by Alberto Contador (Astana) and Bradley Wiggins Team Sky). Lance (Radioshack) had been in this second group but an untimely puncture saw him surrender time to a number of the other contenders. End result, Cancellara was back in yellow and the World Champion, Cadel Evans (BMC) was now up in third place, 1min and 1 second ahead of Alberto Contador.   

The contenders must have breathed a sigh of relief, the first obstacles had been conquered and they could keep their powder dry for the next few sprinter friendly days. Stage 4’s 153kms from Cambrai to champagne producing Reims, saw Alessandro Petacchi record his 2nd stage win of this Tour. Next up, 187.5km from Epernay to Montargis saw Mark Cavendish win  by a mile. Queue floods of tears as the monkey was now off his back. A bit like buses, stage win no 2 followed on the morrow, on the longest stage, 227.5km from Montargis to Gueugnon. Meanwhile an altercation with a musette saw Amets Txurruka (Euskatel-Euskadi) bid farewell to the peloton. A couple of small girl’s blouses traded blows and bike wheels. The judges awarded a points decision to Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) over Rui Costa (Caisse d’Epargne). Both were fined. 

Let’s just pause and put in context my own endeavours: 550km and 27hours in the saddle. Spartacus, still in yellow, has taken 93minutes longer to complete 1,215km. The conclusion: I’d have missed the cut-off on Stage 1 and joined the non-walking wounded!  Today the boys hit the Jura and a rejuvenated Chavanel, who I feel has usurped Michael Boogerd and Mikel Astarloza to become “The Teeth of the Tour”, recorded his second stage win and again seized yellow. This is going to cost Patrick Lefevre dear.

Cadel Evans has moved into second place  so we could see him in yellow as early as tomorrow. I’m sure it would suit Astana to have BMC working their butts off to defend the yellow jersey.

Relegation woes

A week or so ago Pat McQuaid, UCI Head Honcho, talked about the bar being raised for acquisition/retention/renewal of a Pro-Tour licence. It now appears that this bar is results based with financial, ethical and political considerations. The two bottom ranked squads, Bbox and Cofidis, are being denied renewal of their licence based on their lowly UCI ranking (see table below). The lowest ranked Pro-Tour team Fuji Servetto is apparantly re-inventing itself as Footon Servetto, leaving the two formerly mentioned teams in the relegation zone, although, critically, their place is assured in next year’s Grand Tours. Unsurprisingly, their top riders are already talking about jumping ship while team managers are putting on brave faces and sponsors are standing firm.

Lampre’s licence has been (provisionally) renewed for the next 4 years and Milram’s (the only German Pro-Tour team) for next season. Astana’s is under review in the light of the financial issues earlier in the season.

On the other hand, Pro-Continental teams Cervelo, Diquigiovanni and Acqua & Sapone, on account of their league spots, will gain automatic entry into Pro-Tour events. This rather begs the question of why should one bother paying the additional costs inherent in a Pro-Tour licence.

Add in new teams Sky (licence confirmed) and The Shack (licence pending) and one is back to 20 top teams with automatic entry into Pro-Tour events, though not all those organised by ASO, Unipublic or RCS. This could leave slim pickings for Pro-Continental teams such as Vacansoleil, Skil Shimano and BMC who have all strengthened their squads in the hope and expectation of clearing the bar.

UCI Rankings

1 ASTANA 1100
2 CAISSE D’EPARGNE 1048
3 TEAM COLUMBIA – HTC 957
4 TEAM SAXO BANK 941
5 LIQUIGAS 923
6 CERVELO TEST TEAM 804
7 QUICK STEP 760
8 SILENCE-LOTTO 717
9 RABOBANK 667
10 TEAM KATUSHA 637
11 GARMIN – SLIPSTREAM 612
12 EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI 551
13 LAMPRE – N.G.C 465
14 SERRAMENTI PVC DIQUIGIOVANNI-ANDRONI GIOCATTOLI 379
15 FRANÇAISE DES JEUX 238
16 AG2R LA MONDIALE 206
17 ACQUA & SAPONE – CAFFE MOKAMBO 189
18 TEAM MILRAM 182
19 BBOX BOUYGUES TELECOM 170
20 COFIDIS, LE CREDIT EN LIGNE 166