Counting down the clock

As part of my preparations for The Tour, yesterday afternoon I watched the Tour de France team presentation held in the theatrical, Gallo-Roman, Parc du Puy-du-Fou. The spectacle was much enjoyed by the 6,000 capacity crowd. The riders were made to feel like gladiators when we all know they’re Christians about to be fed to the lions. The world champion entered into the spirit of things by reprising his role as Thor, God of Thunder, with a plundered wig and props. One sour note was the booing of Alberto Contador. While one appreciates the frustration of the fans, under the current regulations, Alberto has every right to take part in this year’s Tour. If you don’t like it, please boo the rule makers, not those subject to said regulations.

Everything is ready to maximise my viewing experience. I have this month’s copy of Velo magazine with a run down on all the riders, updated with today’s 8-page special from L’Equipe. I have last month’s Velo magazine with a detailed explanation of each and every stage. I have my Tour de France reference books. These are all piled on the coffee table in front of the television ready for tomorrow’s first stage. For those of you who aren’t so well organised, can I suggest you check out two websites which contain all the pertinent information in a readily digestible format: www.thearmchairsportsfans.com and www.inrng.com.

Obviously, I’ve had a few musing myself and have been checking out the stats. Forty-six riders (23%) weigh more than me. Of course, there are some teams where none of the riders weigh more than me, that is individually rather than as a team! We’re talking Euskaltel (quelle surprise), Radioshack, AG2R, Cofidis and Europcar.

Eight riders celebrate (or not) their birthdays during the Tour:-

  • 2 July Juergen Roelandts
  • 3 July Nico Roche
  • 4 July Vladimir Gusev
  • 5 July Philippe Gilbert
  • 8 July Paolo Tiralongo
  • 15 July Alan Perez
  • 16 July Andrei Greipel
  • 22 July Dries Devenyns

It remains to be seen whether any of these can garner an additional birthday present from the Tour. The most likely is PhilGil who narrowly missed out on his birthday in 2008 on the 1st stage finish into Plumelec when he was beaten to the line by Alejandro Valverde. No chance of the same happening this year. He will however have his eye on the 1st, 4th and 6th stages. He’s the most likely of the birthday boys to spend a couple of days gracing the maillot jaune.

There are 16 Tour de France virgins, not all of whom will go all the way [to Paris].   It’s important, particularly with the younger ones, to take each day as it comes. At the other end of the scale, Big George Hincapie’s taking part in his 16th Tour, equalling the record held by Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk. On a more sobering note, there are only 33 (16.67%) riders who are too old to be my son.

The youngest rider in this year’s peloton is Saur-Sojasun’s Anthony Delaplace who was born in November 1989 while the oldest is (no prizes for guessing)  39 year old Jens Voigt, who could have fathered the youngest! The team with the highest average age (again, no prizes for guessing) is Radioshack (33). It’s a place they would have occupied last year as well when Lance was still riding in their midst.

Riders from 30 different nations are taking part though, not unreasonably, 45 (22.7%) of these are French. Four teams are only fielding riders from their home nation: Katusha, Eukaltel-Euskadi, Europcar and Saur-Sojasun.

Looking at the photos that have been used by both Velo and L’Equipe, I have to ask, where did you get them from? They all look as if they were taken in one of those photo booths which is incapable of taking a decent photo of anyone, even a Supermodel.

Everyone has made their prognostications, including me, but that was before I knew Alberto would be riding. The opinions of the editorial team of Velo magazine make interesting reading, along with their picks for the stage wins. Here’s their consensus for the jerseys:-

  • Maillot jaune – Alberto Contador (8/11)
  • Maillot a pois – David Moncoutie (4/11)
  • Maillot vert – Thor Hushovd (4/11)
  • Meilleur jeune –  Robert Gesink (11/11)

The white jersey (meilleur jeune) was the only one to enjoy unanimity. Two journalists picked Schleck Jr and one picked Schleck Sr for the win. There was less agreement among the journalists for the two other jerseys, largely I suspect because changes this year to the way in which the points are calculated make it  more difficult to predict. Gilbert, Farrar, Boassen Hagen, Cavendish and Goss were in the mix for the green jersey while Cunego, Gesink, Chavanel and Charteau figured in the picks for the spotted one.

Velo Magazine Predicted Stage winners:-

  • Stage 1 Passage du Gois – Mont des Alouettes: Thor Hushovd
  • Stage 2 Les Essarts – Les Essarts (TTT): Radioshack
  • Stage 3 Olonne-sur-Mer – Redon: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 4 Lorient – Mur-de-Bretagne: Philippe Gilbert
  • Stage 5 Carhaix – Cap Frehel: Fabian Cancellara
  • Stage 6 Dinan – Lisieux: Matthew Goss
  • Stage 7 Le Mans – Chateauroux: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 8 Aigurande – Super Besse: Sylvain Chavanel
  • Stage 9 Issoire – Saint-Flour: Alexandre Vinokourov
  • Stage 10 Aurillac – Carmaux: Thomas de Gendt
  • Stage 11 Blaye-lesMines – Lavaur: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 12 Cignaux – Luz Ardiden: Frank Schleck
  • Stage 13 Pau – Lourdes: Luis Leon Sanchez
  • Stage 14 Saint Gaudens – Plateau de Beille: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 15 Limoux – Montpelier: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 16 Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux – Gap: Vasil Kiryienka
  • Stage 17 Gap – Pinerolo: Christophe Kern
  • Stage 18 Pinerolo – Galibier Serre Chevalier: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 19 Modane – Alpe d’Huez: Andy Schleck
  • Stage 20 Grenoble – Grenoble (ITT): Tony Martin
  • Stage 21 Creteil – Paris: Mark Cavendish

You would have to say that these are not unreasonable, however, I would hope that Euskaltel, specifically Sammy Sanchez, manages to bag a stage. Additionally, I’m not wholly convinced that Cavendish will be so dominant in the sprints. We’ll just have to wait and see. Bring it on.

12 July Postscript: Velo magazine not faring too well in the prognostications. Indeed,  a number of riders nominated for wins are either down and out or merely limping along. Stage 7 has been their only good call which kinda shows just how unpredictable it’s been.

25 July Postscript: None of the experts have fared too well in the predictions game which just goes to show that cycling’s unpredictable and exciting.

2010 Highlights

We’ve reached the time of year when it’s difficult to fill newspaper and cycling magazine columns without taking a retrospective look at the season. This seemed like a suitable discussion topic for my English class on Wednesday evening. We were surprisingly of similar minds:-

Rider of the Year

One day races:- There were only two candidates: Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert. Both were competitive throughout the season and both wore Grand Tour leader’s jerseys but, after much debate, we settled on Spartacus: the 4th ITT rainbow jersey tipping the balance in his favour.

Stage races:- As winner of the Tour de France, the most difficult Grand Tour to win, Alberto should have been a shoe in but, sensitive to post-Tour issues such as that itsy, bitsy trace of Clenbuterol, our gong went to Vicenzo Nibali: 3rd in the Giro and winner of the Vuelta.

Memorable Performance of the Year

Actually, there were so many this year that it was hard to whittle it down to just one. Among others, we considered: Fabian’s wins in Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, PhilGil’s wins at Amstel and Lombardy, Cadel Evans at Fleche Wallonne, Bobbie Traskel at K-B-K, Thor at the World Championships, Vino at L-B-L. Finally, we settled on Thor’s performance at the World Championship’s in Geelong. Given that the Norwegian team numbered only three riders, his win demonstrated perfectly his ability to be in the right place at exactly the right time to power to the line.

Best One-day Race of the Year

Here too we had plenty of contenders, but we finally plumped for PhilGil’s win in the Tour of Lombardy, his second consecutive win in the race. It was not just the manner of his win but that he gave no quarter despite the appalling weather conditions.

Best Stage Race of the Year

While we all agreed that the Tour is the most difficult Grand Tour to win, largely because of the depth of competition and the psychological pressures, it can be predictable. Both the Giro and Vuelta raised their games this year to produce thrilling and, at times, unpredictable racing. Finally, we agreed on the Giro d’Italia.

Team of the Year

Hands down, no contest. Liquigas were the best stage racing team and HTC-Columbia the team that racked up the most wins.

Best Kit

No argument: Cervelo Test Team.

Worst Kit

Unanimously awarded to Footon-Servetto

Unsung Hero of the Year

Again, we found it difficult to whittle down the contenders as so many team mates sacrifice their own chances of glory for their leaders. In addition, the work of many riders is done and dusted before the television cameras hove into view. In the end, we decided that the unsung heroes were the hard working domestiques in every team without whom no leader would ever win races.

Best French Rider

Loyal, and ever-smiling, Tommy Voeckler of Bbox without whom his team manager might not have reeled in replacement sponsor Europcar.

Breakout Rider of the Year

Votes were split between the loquacious Peter Sagan of Liquigas and the cherubic faced Richie Porte of Saxobank.

Worst Pro-Tour Race of the Year

There aren’t any, we all love cycle racing wherever and whenever.

Story/Issue of the Year

Sadly, we all agreed these had to be the doping issues. Namely,

  • Pellizotti  being banned from racing due to (unfounded?) passport irregularities
  • Floyd Landis’s accusations against Lance, plus his own confessions
  • Contador and Clenbuterol

Disappointment of the Year

UCI’s unilateral changes to the way teams are evaluated which demonstrated a distinct lack of understanding of the evolution of the sport.

A good read

This month’s Cycle Sport magazine opines on “the best 50 cycling books of all time [in the English language]”. Lists are always interesting, open to debate and, ultimately, very subjective despite their authors proclaiming their objectivity. Given that I have quite (typical British understatement) a large collection of books on cycling, I was keen to see where we agreed, where we differed and which books were in their list which I had yet to acquire and read.

I guard my books and only a favoured few are allowed to borrow them. I say this from bitter experience as a number of books have been borrowed and never returned and, as they are now out of print, are proving difficult to replace. For example, my beloved, one of the worst culprits, may borrow any book but cannot remove it from the premises. I don’t keep lists of who has what book at any point in time, I don’t need to, I know by heart where they all are at any given time.

You will note that I qualified the list as, not unnaturally, Cycle Sport has only included books either written in English or those subsequently translated into English. So, for example, “Tomorrow We Ride” written by Jean Bobet, “A Century of Paris-Roubaix” by Pascal Sergent and “We Were Young and Carefree” by Laurent Fignon make the list as they’ve been translated from the original French into English.

For similar reasons, the biographies feature largely English speaking riders notably Tommy Simpson, Barry Hoban, Robert Millar, Graeme Obree, Allan Peiper, Greg LeMond, Stephen Roche, Sean Kelly, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and many tomes about that man Lance. However, a couple of my favourite books feature cyclists who are not so well known and they’re both on the list. “A Significant Other” by Matt Rendell covers a former domestique of Lance’s from Columbia, Victor Hugo Pena. While, “Kings of the Mountains” looks at the role of cycling within Columbia’s most recent history and the Columbian riders who’ve ridden in Europe.

Stories about a few foreign riders make the cut, again solely because they’re written in English: Paul Howard’s revealing “Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape” about Jacques Anquetil, Matt Rendell’s excellent “The Death of Marco Pantani” and William Fotheringham’s “Fallen Angel – The Passion of Fausto Coppi”.

I have read a number of books about Pantani and I would say that while Rendell’s is undoubtedly an excellent read, and certainly a measured account, it falls short of Philippe Brunel’s tale “Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani” simply because Brunel had greater access to Pantani while he was alive.

My favourite book about Il Campionissimo was written by Jean-Paul Ollivier “Fausto Coppi La Gloire et Les Larmes”. As a historian, the author weaves his tale about Coppi against a backdrop of the social and economic history of Italy. As a consequence, he breathes more life and meaning into his subject and leaves  the reader with a greater understanding. I’ve also enjoyed the same author’s insights into Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor.

A book I’ve read recently, and whose words really resonated with me, is “Le Metier” by Michael Barry. The book is a seasonal account of the last year Barry rode for Columbia-HTC,  beautifully illustrated with photographs. In my opinion, Barry most accurately conveys to his readers what it’s like to be a professional bike rider. Even as a hobby cyclist I found I could empathise with his accounts of training on his own.

Doping looms large as one of the most frequently covered topics in books on Cycle Sport’s List: specifically, Will Voet’s “Breaking the Chain”, Jeremy Whittle’s “Bad Blood”, from “Lance to Landis” by David Walsh and Paul Kimmage’s “A Rough Ride”.  For me, the most illuminating book on this subject is  “Prisonnier du Dopage”  by Philippe Gaumont a former pro-cyclist who rode for Cofidis 1997-2003.

There are a few surprising omissions. To my knowledge there’s only one book in English about the Vuelta “Viva la Vuelta – the story of Spain’s great bike race” by Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell and for that reason alone it should be on the list. “The Giro d’Italia – Coppi versus Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy” is the only book on that race on Cycle Sport’s list. For some reason, neither the Vuelta nor the Giro have spawned the same number of books as the Tour, not even in their native languages.

There’s a few other books I would put on my list which are not on Cycle Sport’s. I rather enjoyed David (Talking Heads) Byrne’s “Bicycle Diaries”  which chronicles his thoughts and observations as he pedals through some of the major cities in the world. 1960’s Italy and Italian cycling culture in brought to life in Herbie Sykes “The Eagle of Canavese” about Franco Balmamion who won back to back Giro titles. I loved “Indurain: una pasion templada” by Javier Garcia Sanchez which showcases one of Spain’s sporting idols, the very modest and humble Miguel Indurain whom I have been fortunate to meet. For those of you whose better halves don’t share your passion for cycling, can I suggest a Xmas stocking filler: “Roadie: the Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer” by Jamie Smith.

I don’t have all the books on Cycle Sport’s list and that in itself raises some concerns as I’m now bound to try and obtain copies,  even though many are probably out of print,  because my collection just won’t be complete without them. Amazon and eBay, here I come………………………….

Undeterred

It rained heavily overnight but, by the time we awoke on Sunday morning, the roads were starting to dry out. The sky looked menacing although rain wasn’t forecast until the afternoon. The club had a reasonable turnout  and, as we set off from our usual rdv point, I rode at the front, but still got dropped on the rise out of the Port of Nice.

The boys were riding at a goodly pace, presumably in the hope of outrunning the rain. It wasn’t looking good. I had lost sight of even the back markers before reaching Beaulieu su Mer. I usually manage to keep them in view until Cap d’Ail. I consoled myself by overtaking a bunch of riders from a neighbouring club. Clearly my form had declined, but not by that much. I got a second wind after Monaco and positively sprinted up Mont des Mules, overhauling more riders.

When I first started riding, I couldn’t overtake anyone. Slowly, I progressed. First, it was grannies on sit-up-and-beg bikes, motorised wheelchairs and the odd tourist on a mountain bike before I moved in on the octogenarians. Of course, I overtake far more on the flat, and particularly on the descents, than I ever do on ascents. So any scalp, when propelling myself heavenwards, is cherished.

The boys had only just departed when I arrived at the concentration. It looked as if the weather had ensured a limited turn out for both the pointage and the race. Having congratulated one of our members who’d won his age-group race that morning, I went to leave and the heavens opened. I decided to take the least line of resistance and head back home the way I had come.  

Everyone else must have elected to return via the Moyenne or Grande Corniches as I didn’t see another clubmate until I reached Nice. We rode along the Promenade des Anglais together until one by one they all turned off leaving me to ride into the headwind on my own. I caught up with my beloved at our usual watering hole, he’d been trying to warm himself up with a hot chocolate.

We rode home, stripped off our sodden kit and headed for the showers. After lunch, I donned my new Qatar Airways jimjams and curled up on the sofa with the Sunday newspapers  to watch the Moto GP from Phillip Island, Australia.

I’m not a motor racing fan though I could easily identify all the Formula 1 GP drivers and match them to their cars. However, I have become a fan of Moto GP. I initially starting watching it because it’s often on the television before the cycling. Now, I make a point of catching the races and, occasionally, even the qualifying. Mounted cameras on the bikes give you a taste of the action and make you really appreciate their fearless bike handling skills.

Like cyclists, they tend to be on the petite side and are similarly tough guys who readily hop back onto a bike after a spill at speeds of over 150km/hr or with their broken bones barely pinned back together. However, they earn a way lot more than cyclists. I seem to recall that Valentino Rossi ended up paying Euros 39 million in back taxes to the Italian authorities. No cyclists (Lance excepted) will earn even Euros 39 million anytime soon.

Hayden and the Doctor (Rossi, no 46)

This season’s Championship has already been won by Rossi’s Yamaha team mate, the Spaniard, Jorge Lorenzo. Yesterday, Casey Stoner won at a canter for the fourth consecutive time on home soil. If I recall correctly, he won the championship in 2007 and, despite the facial hair, still looks about 15 (he was 25 on Saturday). Yesterday, the real race interest centered around the tussle for third spot between Nicky Hayden (Champion in 2006) and 7-times  champion Valentino Rossi. The two will be team mates next year at Ducati. In case you’re interested, the Doctor prevailed and is lying 4th overall in the Championship, gunning for 3rd spot.

Postcards from the Pyrenees

We left home just after 09:00 on Monday morning in our Renault hire car and headed for Bagneres de Bigorre. Just past Carcassone, the car emitted a small cough and lost power. My beloved guided it onto the hard shoulder, we leapt out of the car and vaulted the security barrier. I rang Renault Assistance who were unable to assist and advised us to ring the police. I did and they gave me the number for the local constabulary who kindly sent someone to tow us to the nearest Renault garage. All well and good, but the garage advised they would not be able to fix the car that day, possibly the following one. I rang my Renault contact who advised that they were obliged to find us a replacement car and I should ring Renault Assistance. So I did.

Finally, after much toing and froing, they found us a Hertz hire car for 4 days. We would however have to return to Carcassone to collect the Renault. This solution did not find favour as we were heading in totally the opposite direction. The Renault garage staff, fearing an imminent and irrevocable schism in the entente cordiale, decided to put us out of our misery and fixed the car in 15 minutes flat.

We had planned to go and watch the peloton’s arrival into Bagneres de Luchon. Instead we had to settle for watching it on my beloved’s new mobile. Yet another French win, Tommy Voeckler looking radiant in his tricolour jersey as he crossed the line. Sadly his endeavours were overshadowed by polemics. Should Contador have attacked the yellow jersey when he lost his chain? Andy Schleck’s Dad admitted he’d have taken the same action as Contador: he’d have attacked. No matter, the two have now kissed and made up. Contador leads Schleck  by 8 seconds.

Tuesday morning, we were up bright and early for our ride up Col d’Aubisque. The roads were literally alive with cyclists in kit of all hues and hailing from the four corners of the earth. We rode companiably, side by side, enjoying the freshness of the air and the magnificent green countryside. It was starting to heat up as we reached the Col du Soulor whose incline starts to quickly ramp up to 12% before settling back down to a comfortable 5-7%.

Chasing leading group up Soulor

One of the many things I love about the Tour is the ability of anyone and everyone to attend the world’s biggest, best and longest street party. The roads were lined with enthusiastic spectators proclaiming their allegiances and what was surely the world’s biggest concentration of camper vans. While waiting for the real show to put in an appearance, they’re willing to encourage all of us amateurs toiling away up the inclines. I was high fiving small kids as I wend my way upwards. No mean feat given my lack of bike handling skills.

Towards the top of the Col, I made an executive decision to stop at the last outpost,  before the descent, providing refreshments, toilets and a TV. From here, in the company of a large number of Uruguayans, Americans, Aussies and Danes we watched the slow approach of the peloton. There was much excitement as Lance, having lost so much time on GC, had been allowed to escape and, with his fellow escapees, had over 3 minutes on the yellow jersey.

It looked as if the peloton had settled in for a quiet day  and was more than happy for Messrs Fedrigo, Casar, Armstrong, Barredo, Cunego, Plaza, Horner, Moreau and Van de Walle to duke it out. Barredo took a flyer off the front but was caught with 1km to go. The two sprinters fought for the line and the win went to Fedrigo, by a nose. The sixth French win and the 2nd consecutive one for Bbox!

The yellow jersey group came in over 6 minutes behind, led by Hushovd who gained enough points to regain the green jersey.  Otherwise, it was stalemate at the top, leaving Schleck one fewer opportunity to make  up lost ground. Thursday should therefore be decisive. Sadly, the weather has changed. It rained heavily overnight and it’s continued to drizzle on and off all day. The Tourmalet is shrouded in mist. Tomorrow, further rain is forecast. But whatever the weather, we’ll be there to see all the action.