2015 Highlights

In a year of so many highs, which ones really stood out in yet another busy and thoroughly enjoyable year?

1. Richmond 2015 UCI Road World Championships

If I had to pick only one, this would be it for a myriad of reasons. Firstly a big shout out to the organisers and the people of Richmond for putting on a well-organised, well-supported fantastic World Championships. None will ever surpass my first in Salzburg  – a girl never forgets her first – but this one came pretty close.

Next, I (finally) got to meet Greig Leach as we began to collaborate on our second book together. On so many levels, it’s odd for him have an editor who’s not American, editing American prose. But I know that I bring my knowledge of the cycling world and obsessive eye for detail which is the perfect counter-point for Greig’s broad brush perspective. Our second book will be published in early February but you can order a copy now.

The World Championships are a great opportunity to meet up with friends old and new, including VeloVoices’ very own Panache. I’ve been working with these guys since 2012 and have still to meet everyone in person! I not only met Panache aka Chris but his lovely wife Audrey, who was nursing a broken foot, his best cycling buddy Chad and his equally lovely wife Belva. I helped Chris, Chad and another of their friends Scott have a memorable cycling holiday at the Tour a couple of years back. I think the next trip might well be in the Dolomites with their better halves! I am poised to lend a helping hand.

Sagan wins Worlds (image: Greig Leach)
Sagan wins Worlds (image: Greig Leach)

I love it when someone I know wins a race. Admittedly, Peter Sagan was one of the bookies’  favourites for the men’s road race title but, with only two team-mates and a season which had not perhaps gone the way everyone expected, the pressure was on. Peter delivered in spades with a swashbuckling attack, a risk-all descent and a hanging on for grim death finish. He was warmly congratulated by his peers and the fans after winning in style – something he does only too well.

2. Three Grand Departs

More by accident than design, this year I was fortunate to attend the start of all three of the grand tours. Impossible to pick a favourite as they were all special for many reasons. The Tour is always fantastically well-organised and I take my hat off to anyone who can organise the equivalent of 21 Royal Weddings with barely a hitch. It runs like a well-oiled machine but its sheer size mitigates against rider and fan intimacy which is much more easily achieved at both the Giro and Vuelta which are both rather more laid back affairs.

3. My Beloved Aston Villa

My late father (far left) holding 1957 FA Cup won by AVFC
My late father (far left) holding 1957 FA Cup won by AVFC

The boys managed to reach the FA Cup final where they were roundly beaten by a vastly superior Arsenal but, more importantly, they managed to (again) stave off relegation. Unfortunately, key players wanted out and were sold to be replaced with a bunch of very promising youngsters, including a player from my French team OGCN. A change of managers has not managed to lift the boys off the bottom of the Premiership where they languish easily in last place. I fear for them, I really do. Let’s hope they get their act together under Remi Gard (who is a disciple of OGCN Manager Claude Puel) and play (much) better in the first half of 2016. I’m hoping Gus will lend us Loic Remy, another ex-OGCN and OC Lyon player, who can score goals.

Sodden Sheree’s sporting snippets

We may only have had 4 days of rain but Noah and his Ark could have been pressed into service to rescue the aquatic life in Marineland and a whole host of villagers whose houses have been flooded thanks to a number of local rivers bursting their banks. Despite having rain water cascading down the common parts of our apartment block yesterday morning, I’m so very glad we live in a flat, on a hill. Apart from the leaks, our only casualty appears to be one of the trees which upended itself in the gale force winds on Saturday evening. Fortunately, nothing and no one was damaged and the gardeners have had the chain saws out this morning chopping it into bite size pieces.

As we weren’t able to ride outside over the week end, or indeed go anywhere much, we increased our exposure to television sport and lapped up a number of events.

MotoGP

At the season’s curtain closer, GP Valencia, homage was fittingly paid to the late Marco Simoncelli by the competitors, the officials, the teams and the fans. There were tears too for the retiring Loris Caporossi who aged thirty-eight has spent twenty-two seasons  in GP.

Casey Stoner had already won the blue riband Championship but neither that nor the intermittent rain prevented him from winning his 10th race of the season, by the smallest of margins from Ben Spies. Andrea Dovizioso’s third place on the podium clinched his third place in the Championship, behind the absent Jorge Lorenzo who’s still recovering from an injury to his finger. Any thoughts Valentino Rossi might have had of rescuing his worst season ever disappeared on the first corner of the first lap as he and fellow Ducati riders, Nicky Hayden and Randy De Puniet, were taken out by Alavara Bautista’s Suzuki.

In the continued absence of Marc Marquez, Stefan Bradl won the Moto2 title despite falling on the 5th lap. Instead, three riders (Pirro, Kallio, Aergeter) made their maiden trips to the podium this season. Nico Terol won the 125cc Championship at a canter from Johann Zarco, who fell on the 3rd lap, despite finishing Sunday’s race behind the splendidly named Maverick Vignales. Hector Faubel was third. Roll on Qatar in April next year and 1000cc bikes.

Track Cycling

Sticking with two wheels, we watched the first round of the World Cup from Astana’s brand spanking new velodrome. There weren’t too many spectators but Alexandre Vinokourov was on hand, to lend a hand, with the presentation of the prizes, specifically the flowers. Is this the first time that Alex has been a podium boy? If so, he’s a natural.

Sir Chris picked up a silver in the keirin and sprint gold while Dani King won a silver in the omnium. Otherwise, it was slim pickings for the Brits. However a number of the favourites were either missing or missing in action. The next round’s in Columbia in early December.

Road Racing

Marcel Kittel beat a bunch of holidaying cyclists to take the Amstel Curacao race. As usual we were treated to the unedifying sight of topless cyclists, with scary tan lines and dodgy taste in swimming trunks,  frolicking on the beach. Absent from this year’s festivities, Alberto Contador who was instead racing down the aisle to wed his long term lady friend. I wish them both every happiness.

Football

Sir Alex’s 25-year tenure at the Theatre of Dreams was ackowledged with the naming of a stand in his honour. Those are going to be rather large shoes to fill when he finally steps down. No mention was made of their short-sighted attempt to get rid of him in 1994 before he started winning anything and everything with the Red Devils.

My beloved boys in claret and blue managed to preserve their lead and all 3 points by beating Norwich 3-2 at home. Goals were scored by the revitalised Gabby Agbonlahor and Darren Bent. AVFC are now 8th in the league one place above their week end opponents. OGC Nice were unable to keep a clean sheet in the local derby away at Marseille’s velodrome. Typically, one of goals was supplied by way of a penalty in 96th minute by OGCN old boy, Loic Remy.  We’re now occupying 17th spot in the Ligue and dicing with relegation danger.

Marathon

Kenyan Geoffroy Mutai (54kg) won yesterday’s New York marathon in an astonishing 2hrs 5′ 6″ without the assistance of a pace-setter, to add to his Boston title. Another Mutai, Emmanuel (no relative) was second, having previously scooped the honours in London. These two are part of a formidable Kenyan team of six who are competing for three marathon places in the London 2012 Olympics. Wonder what these boys would be like on bikes?

Twinkle, twinkle

Gratifyingly good performances from both England and France yesterday evening as they look to distance the disappointment of the World Cup in South Africa. For Capello it is business as usual, though injuries have prompted (forced) him to give opportunities to some promising players, notably Adam Johnson. Revelations about Wayne Rooney’s off field escapades have fortunately not affected his on-field form, quite the opposite. However, is it only me who thinks Capello might be better off leaving Lampard on the side-lines?  After two resounding wins, England top their Group.

Laurent Blanc has a much harder task with his “blanc piece of paper” but the signs are promising and, once many of his players return from injury and/or suspension, expect more score-lines like yesterday evening. Help may be at hand as I understand that Zinadine Zidane’s eldest is playing for Real Madrid’s youth squad. He’ll be 17 come the European Cup in 2012.

There may soon be a Gallic flavour at Villa Park. Rumour has it that Gerard Houllier is mulling over an offer to step into Martin O’Neill’s shoes. They have a potential banana skin away at Stoke this Sunday, after riding their luck to most recently scrape past Everton. They’ve been a bit of a curate’s egg and, with no additions to the squad following the sale of James Milner, will quickly need to bring on some of their promising youngsters.

OGCN are also playing on Sunday, when they’ll be home to Bordeaux now bereft of my favourite French player Yoann Gourcuff who’s hightailed it to Lyon. However, the first installment from the sale of Loic Remy has finally arrived into the OGCN coffers, allowing them to balance (cook?) the books. Nonetheless, OGCN have done their usual last minute shopping in football’s equivalent of Filene’s basement. Let’s hope they have unearthed some gems.

Heartsick

I awoke Friday morning to the sound of falling rain. Never mind, a quick go on the home trainer and I was off to the airport to collect my beloved. By the time he arrived, the roads were already starting to dry out in the warm sunshine. However he elected to go for a swim, rather than a ride, Friday evening.

Saturday morning we were up and out early for a ride in the hills but I was feeling unaccountably sluggish and was riding about 2km/hr slower than normal. Not wishing to hold my beloved back further, I allowed him to continue without me while I pottered along at a positively pedestrian speed.

After sorting out everything for my husband’s week long trip to the US, and clarifying arrangements for the next few weeks, we decided to brave the hordes along the sea front. Once a month, the sea front is closed to traffic to enable everyone to enjoy the space be it on foot, bike, scooter or skates. This is always hugely popular. 

This evening there were three DJs, equidistant from one another along the promenade, playing three totally different styles of music. This is one of many free events in the Alpes Maritimes during the summer months.  Aside from a number of small stalls selling food, all the restaurants and bars were doing a roaring trade. In addition, a number of families were enjoying picnics on the seashore.

After a fish dinner, we had a leisurely stroll and returned home for an early night. Today’s pointage is one of my favourites but my beloved had to be at the airport by midday. Given that  he’s been abandoned to taxis a few times recently, I decided to have a shorter ride with him this morning and then take him to the airport. I still wasn’t riding well. It’s unusual for me to have two consecutive off days.

3 toque pointage!

Having dropped him off the airport, I returned home to enjoy the Sunday newspapers and watch GP Ouest France – Plouay: a 13 lap circuit race held in Brittany, not far from Lorient. With the ladies race, a cyclosportif and the men’s race all being held on the same circuit over the week end in cycling mad Brittany, the crowds (and camper vans) were out in force. Emma Pooley won the ladies race while Matt Goss made it two in a row for the Aussies.

While this race was taking place, my beloved boys in claret & blue were playing the Toon army at St James’s Park, one of the most intimidating football stadia. However, I was not in any way anticipating the score line: they lost 6-0. I haven’t yet summoned up the energy to find out why.

Meanwhile Nice, at home yesterday to Nancy, conceded a goal in the last five minutes of the match to record yet another draw. Loic Remy has been signed by OM, rather than a premiership side. However, not all has gone well. His medical revealed cardiac irregularities. A fuller report is anticipated on Monday. I do hope for his sake that it is nothing serious.

Gone, not with a bang, not even a whimper

As I was idly flicking through my emails on my Blackberry, a headline caught my eye. It chilled my blood. “Eriksson and Bradley favourites to take over at Villa Park, ” it said. It could only mean one thing. Martin O’Neill, the best thing to happen to AVFC in many a year, has left the club.

Villa fans are shocked and trying to come to terms with the tragic news just days before the start of the new season. It appears O’Neill felt the introduction of the recent “sell before you can buy” policy was contrary to the terms of his original agreement with Randy Lerner. Failure to climb into the top four, who enjoy Champions League football and its associated financial rewards, leaves the club’s best players vulnerable to predators with deeper pockets: players such as Gareth Barry and, now, James Milner.

I sincerely hope that the Swedish gentleman named above will not replace (as if anyone could) O’Neill. There’s no way he could fill those shoes. One of the Villa fans on the Teamtalk website has suggested a direct swap with the England manager. I think England would benefit more than the Villa from such a trade.

Of course, I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that the football season is here again, though it feels as if it never went away. OGCN have started, where they left off, with a home draw against Valenciennes, which they should have won. Apam has gone ,while Loic Remy is still playing for the club. But I expect him to be Premiership bound before the month is over, to balance the books.

Allegedly season tickets sales are down 40% at the Stade du Ray. But it’s understandable really: a small, decrepit, stadium and an increasingly disenchanted fan-base.  The best players are sold at the beginning of every season to cover costs. 

Good luck Martin and thank you for everything. I wish you well in your next role. You don’t fancy a spell in the South of France do you?

Week end musings

My beloved returned from Germany suffering from a cold and feeling very sorry for himself. A ride on Saturday morning soon restored his good humour which was further boosted by our boys in claret and blue who struck two goals to win away from home at Fulham. The chase for the 4th spot in the Premiership is heating up with Liverpool, Man City, Spurs and AVFC all in hot and heavy pursuit.

Sadly, OGCN lost 3-2 away at Monaco. After a couple of contentious refereeing decisions, which arguably cost the Aiglons the match, their fans, despite a heavy police presence, angrily stormed onto the pitch. The penalty is likely to be either a heavy fine or a match played behind closed doors, just what a cash-strapped club needs. Nice haven’t won for two months and are slipping ominously into the relegation zone. While we await the return of most of the first team from the African Cup, rumours abound that our one good striker could be leaving before the transfer window closes.

This morning we set out for a ride with the club. It was very cold, the sky looked ominous all along the coast but back in the hills the sun was sparkling off the snowy hill tops. On the outskirts of Antibes, the sleet started to fall and two-thirds of the peloton turned tail and headed home into a fierce headwind. Why get wet when you can always ride tomorrow?

After a warming coffee at our local watering hole, pouring over the Sunday newspapers, we headed back home. Perversely, by mid-day the sun was out in full-force and the weather was truly glorious. I was sorely tempted to get back on the bike and go out again however I was having the windows and terrace cleaned this afternoon. With friends coming for dinner on Monday evening, and guests arriving next week end, this was a task I couldn’t postpone.

Instead, I checked out what had happened overnight. Was Andy Murray going to be the first Brit for many a long year to lift a Grand Slam singles title? No, razor sharp Roger Federer disposed of him in 3 straight sets to win his 16th Grand Slam title. Later I checked on the results of French cycling season opener, GP La Marseillaise. This was won by Jonathon Hivert of newly-promoted Pro-Continental team Saur Sojasun, Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil was 2nd and the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin of Cofidis was 3rd. 

On a final note, I’d like to wish Christophe Le Mevel a speedy recovery. The other day he attempted to make running repairs to his TT bike while in the saddle but merely succeeded in almost severing his little finger. Christophe, if your bike needs fixing, please take it to your’s and my LBS: Stars’n’Bikes.

Postscript: Loic Remy is (thankfully) remaining at OGCN.

Two days to go

Today’s sports headlines are dominated by the forthcoming Eire v France football match this Saturday. There are, understandably, high levels of anxiety in France that they may not qualify for the World Cup next year in South Africa. Finishing second in one of the less strong groups has already been a savage blow to French pride, I’m not sure they can take being dumped out of the World Cup by the Irish.

L’Equipe has devoted four pages to this very topic, including a run-down on the Irish team by former or current French team mates. Aston Villa’s very own Richard Dunne has been singled out for a special mention on account of his aerial capabilities, particularly from set-pieces. French-speaking Irish pundits such as Tony Cascarino and Liam Brady have been interviewed at length and their views sought on the likely outcome. Everyone seems united in their view that Domenech is the weak link, being much less tactically savvy than Trapattoni.

One current (Loic Remy) and two ex-Nicois players (Rod Fanni and Hugo Lloris) feature in France’s squad along with a whole host of French players currently lighting up the English Premiership and Spain’s La Liga. Leaving aside the one notable absentee from the squad, Frank Ribery, man for man the French are either equal or superior to the Irish in every position. But football is a team game, the Irish have great team spirit and will not be a pushover. Just ask the Italians, who drew 2-2 at Croke Park last month.

Postscript: Friday and L’Equipe has extended it’s coverage to 41/2 pages. No doubt it’ll be going into overdrive this week end with further pre-match coverage tomorrow and the, all important, post match analysis on Sunday. Any bets on 6 pages?

Saturday Postscript: It’s 7 whole pages!

Highs and lows

My Premiership side, AVFC, started the season by losing 0-2 at home to Wigan! Wigan! Then lost  in the Europa Cup 0-1 away to Rapid Vienna. All in all not an auspicious start to the season. Last week end, they won 1-3 away at Anfield. We’ve not won there since 2001. Villa nearly always play Liverpool early on in the season and despite  good performances from the lads we would generally be undone by a goal of the month (if not the season).  Things were now looking a whole lot better.

Villa won 2-1 on Thursday in the home leg against Rapid Vienna. They could have, should have won by more. An aggregate score of 2-2, with away goals counting double, meant Villa were out for the count. Not even a case of falling at the first hurdle, more a failure to get out of the blocks. Yesterday they beat Fulham 2-0 at home. Never playing beyond themselves, just doing enough to snuff out Fulham. Nerves steadied once more.

My local French side, OGC Nice  started the season brightly with an away win (0-2) at St Etienne and a home draw against Rennes: so far, so good. Last week end they played away at Bordeaux: last season’s league winners and a team in impressive form. A team who are home to one of the best manager’s in the league and easily (IMHO) the best looking player, Yoan Gourcuff, pictured here.

Yoann Gourcuff
Yoann Gourcuff

OGCN suffered what every commentator agreed was a 4-0 crushing defeat. This Saturday, they were home to Montpelier, a recently promoted side. They lost 0-3! Commentators again concluded that it was a crushing defeat which could have been oh so much worse had it not been for our Columbian goalkeeper, Ospina. The only man to be awarded a score over 5 in the newspapers for his efforts. In fact some commentators went so far as to say that they had never, ever seen such a pathetic performance. The defence went missing. Literally in the case of Apam, usually our most reliable defender, who was sent off for two yellow cards. Remy tried hard, but as the lone striker ahead of a clueless midfield, his efforts were never going to amount to much. I wasn’t there (too busy watching the Vuelta Prologue) but I would guess that they were roundly booed off by the crowd.

First game

Yesterday evening I went to my first home match of the new season where OGC Nice were taking on Rennes and facing not only the curse of a returning

Nice v Rennes
Nice v Rennes

player in Rod Fanni but also a returning manager in Antonetti. Watching the players line up at the start, I had forgotten that Rennes are one of the biggest sides, in terms of the height of their players, in the 1st division while we’re one of the smaller sides.

The first half started in a lively enough fashion, and with the ground at almost capacity, the fans were very vocal. But it then descended, possibly thanks to the heat, into a bit of a boring kick-around. Incredibly, Nice scored just before half-time: a real screamer from Ben Saada. This was cancelled out two minutes later when Nice conceeded a penalty in a hand ball, goal mouth bundle.

The second half was much livelier, but neither team looked capable of scoring again and Nice were unable to profit from their numerical advantage once Rennes were reduced to 10 men. The draw was a fair result. To my mind more worrying was the number of scouts sitting behind us watching and taking notes on the players. I know the transfer window hasn’t closed but, please, hands off our players, particularly Remy and Apam.

There are two glaring differences between watching Premiership football and the French first division: alcohol and away fans. Yesterday’s match took place at 17:00. No one would have gone for a drink before the match though it’s entirely possible that fans may have stopped off on the way home to share a glass of wine and discuss the finer points of the match. This means I’m not leaping to my feet every five minutes during the match to let someone get past me to go to the toilet. Nor am I overcome by alcoholic fumes from those in the neighbouring seats.

There are away fans at the match. Generally, there’s so few that it’s possible to count them. They are segregated on their own in a corner of the ground and guarded by a couple of stewards. These will be the fans that have travelled to Nice on the Stade Rennais coaches. The biggest away crowds are generally Marseille and St Etienne. Equally, there will be a number of away fans sitting with the home fans. You would never be allowed through the home-side turnstiles of a Premiership game wearing a strip from the opposition. If you did, you would immediately be ejected by the stewards. Here there’s no problem, the French, largely family, crowd is very laid back.

In conclusion, while the standard of football in the Premiership is superior to that of the French, alas the behaviour of the fans is not. I much prefer the easy, non-threatening ambiance of French matches.