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.

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!

No response

As predicted, young Alan Gilbert made his second podium appearance yesterday afternoon in front of an adoring home crowd. Looking a bit blase, bored even, he tried to enliven proceedings by eating the RTBF microphone. Maybe he was feeling peckish, teething or just at that stage where everything goes in his mouth. With those cute chubby cheeks, he looks like a baby who enjoys his food. His Dad, to whom he bears a striking resemblance, had just completed the Ardennes treble. Strictly speaking, it was the Ardennes quadruple and no one else has ever done this, not even the mighty Eddy. This was the one race PhilGil really wanted to win as it finishes in his back garden.  This brings his total of Classics wins to 8, the same number as the Badger, Bernard Hinault. No doubt Phil’ll be back later in the year to hoover up more wins in the autumn Classics and overtake the Badger.

L’Equipe published some advice on how one might beat Gilbert in this race, but obviously no one read it, certainly not the Schlecks. The pair  went clear with Phil Gil in the final few kilometres of the race on the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons. The showdown that everyone wanted to see. However, it was more of a damp squib, as the Schlecks obligingly carried Phil to the line. They seemed powerless to resist. You might have expected a flurry of attacks to try and tire out PhilGil but, no, they meekly submitted: all hail to the Classics King.

Here endeth the Spring Classics season. It’s enjoyed unprecedented weather and some spectacular racing. The first half was graced by a load of unanticipated wins while the second half was dominated by Alan’s Dad, who will now surely be spending a couple of well earned weeks off the bike. He’ll probably need a couple of days to recover from yesterday’s celebrations with his fan club who had erected an enormous tent for the proceedings. Large though it was, I doubt that it could even begin to house all of PhilGil’s fans as he’s been equally, and deservedly, embraced by the Walloons and Flandrians.  One of the few things to truly unite Belgium.

Despite the forecast, the weather was fine here too. We set off just ahead of the club for the pointage in Biot where my beloved elected to wait for his team mates  while I decided to continue in anticipation of shortly being overtaken. Surprisingly, I managed to stay ahead of the club, riding instead with a number of other groups, before returning home via Valbonne and Sophia Antipolis. This gave me an opportunity to finish lunch and have a leisurely shower before my beloved returned. He had ridden his new bike and was enthusiastically describing the experience to me. I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say he’s very, very pleased with it.

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.

Unknown soldiers

I’m writing this on the train trip back from a marvellous week end in Roubaix with truly magnificent weather for the spectators of 109th
running of Paris-Roubaix, one of the oldest events on the cycling calendar. But allow me to rewind. We arrived on Friday evening and settled into our charming, bijou B&B, much lauded (and rightly so) on the internet. I had made the booking back in January and had elected to stay close to the race finish in anticipation of the usual adverse weather conditions.

Friday evening we strolled into Roubaix in search of dinner. The Town Hall, churches and numerous grand Art Deco houses told a tale of more
prosperous times. Indeed, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the axis of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing represented the world’s second most important place for wool production. Occupied twice by the Germans and blighted by the slump in the 1930s and competition from the Far East for cheaper textiles in the 1950s and 60s, Roubaix had fallen on hard times.

It’s now a town in transition. The Neptune inspired municipal baths have been reborn as an art gallery. Inward investment through far-sighted political partnership with local businesses has increased employment opportunities for the largely immigrant population in call centres and shopping outlets. Attracted by the grand housing stock, families have moved out of Lille and embarked on massive renovation projects. However, the terraced houses and semi-commercial properties leading to the Roubaix velodrome still speak of poverty, despair and decay.

Back to dinner, which we ate in a restaurant in the town square, where the food was surprisingly excellent. I wouldn’t call Roubaix a one-restaurant town but we weren’t exactly spoiled for choice. Saturday, we hopped onto the tram to Lille and renewed our acquaintance with that town. This had been a regular overnight stop on our many skiing trips to Switzerland and Austria. We would stay in the Hotel Carlton and eat in the restaurant opposite. Both were still there but Lille too has been the subject of significant renovation and pedestrianisation.

Sunday morning, dawned fair and unseasonably warm. After an excellent breakfast, we walked to the velodrome and found a spot within sight of the big screen, giving us a clear view of the track with easy access to toilets and refreshments: perfect. Television coverage started just before 13h, and, as expected, there was a group of escapees. The pace was high largely, one assumes, because of the fine weather. It was reminiscent of 2007, when Stuart O’Grady won, with clouds of dust billowing around the riders.

Our first taste of live racing was the arrival, just over an hour later, of junior Paris-Roubaix raced on a similar, albeit shorter, terrain. It was won by a local French boy (Florian Sénéchal) who, having attacked in the Carrefour de l’Arbre, arrived on his own into the velodrome to finish arms aloft across the line. A second French boy (Alexis Gougeard) won the sprint out of the chasing group to finish 2nd ahead of a Dutch boy. All the finishers were covered in dust and many bore the scars of skirmishes with the pave.

A collective groan echoed around the stadium as over on the big screen Tom Boonen (QuickStep) was seen stranded at the roadside with a puncture seemingly waiting forever for his team car to reach him. Finally, he got going again only to be felled moments later. He was down and out. Meanwhile, further up the road three of the favourites were making their move. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek), Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC) were within 25 secs of those still up the road: Manuel Quinziato (BMC), Baden Cooke (SaxoBank), Juergen Roelands Omega Pharma-Lotto), Lars Bak(HTC-High Road) and Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Cervelo). However, neither Ballan nor Hushovd, with team mates up the road, were willing to share the workload.

In the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Vansummeren made the decisive move, leaving behind his companions, time-trialling to the finish and entering

The winner Paris-Roubaix 2011

the velodrome ahead of the pursuing pack which by now included Cancellara, who sprinted to finish 2nd. Martin Tjalingii (Rabobank), one of the original escapees, completed the podium. The winner celebrated by asking his long-term girlfriend to marry him. Over half the peloton finished, everyone was covered in a thick layer of dirt and, like the youngsters, many bore the scars of their encounters with the terrain.

So far the major Spring Classics have sprung a few surprises with the so-called favourites losing out to less fancied team mates but who have nonetheless clearly merited their wins on the basis of “he who dares”. Fabian has been undeniably the most consistent but his team needs to be reinforced; he cannot be expected to win on his own. Quickstep was beset with a whole season’s bad luck on Sunday with an excessive number of punctures, falls and broken bikes. Not exactly the best advertisement for Eddie’s bikes. Sun burned, but happy, we made our way back to the B&B to freshen up before heading into Lille for dinner.

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.

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.

Stunning victory

Be afraid, be very afraid. If anything, Spartacus (Leopard Trek) is in even better form than last year. How is this possible? I don’t know, he just is. He was 2nd last week end in Milan-San Remo. Today, after a couple of punctures and a bike change, he literally rode from the back of the peloton to win the race.

With a couple of groups up the road, at 33km to the finish, Fabulous Fabian left the peloton behind on the Oude Kwaremont climb. He quickly caught and passed the 2nd group. Realising this was their bus to the next group, they lined out behind him, clinging grimly to his wheel as he powered up to the first group, containing team mate Stuart O’Grady. There’s now only 25km to go. O’Grady took a few turns on the front before dropping back, only to regain the group a bit later.

With 17Km to the finish, Bram Tankink (Rabobank) put in a dig, Cancellara went with him and past him. Tankink cramped and was unable to follow. A moment’s hesitation, who was going to give chase? Too late, he’s gone. Legs pumping like pistons, Fabian disappeared from view. It was all over. In truth, it had been over for some time, they just didn’t realize it. It was now only about the minor places.

Cancellara finished a whole minute ahead of his pursuers (Jurgen Roelands, Omega Pharma-Lotto 2nd, Vladimir Goussev, Katusha 3rd) to emphatically retain the crown he won last year.  He’s not racing Gent-Wevelgem tomorrow, he doesn’t need to race again before next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. You wouldn’t bet against him doubling up there too.

I enjoyed watching the race on the big screen in the office, my feet resting on the corner of the desk after my exertions this morning. I put the alarm on for 05:30 but never heard it go off. I woke at 07:00 and after a light breakfast decided to venture back up the Col de Vence.

It was a warm and sunny, with a light breeze which strengthened as the morning wore on. I rode up to Vence via l’Ara and began my ascent with purpose. I felt so much better than on Thursday and covered the first few kilometers in a much better time. I had my customary stop at Chateau St Martin to blow my nose and have a good drink. Riders kept whizzing past me, in both directions, proffering words of encouragement which were gratefully received.

With 6km to go, I met a group of mountain bikers descending including my playmate of last autumn. His mum had obviously followed my advice. He was looking pleased as punch in his club kit as he swooped past calling out my name. I waved  and returned his greeting.

For some reason I have yet to fathom, the two kilometers between 6km and 4km to the finish I find the most difficult. However, once there’s only 4km to go, I manage to pick up my pace. I even sprinted out of the saddle for the last 200 meters. A result, only 70 minutes today. An improvement on Thursday, but still nothing to write home about. I’m hoping the rain stays away long enough tomorrow morning for me to have another go. Thrice in a week will be something of a record for me.

My beloved’s back this evening at midnight. He’s just rung to say he’s had a very successful but tiring exhibition. He’ll be looking forward to his ride tomorrow, I do hope he’s not going to be disappointed.