Recapping and recalling

I had thought with my beloved away yesterday that I’d find the time to put finger tips to keyboard, but no! All too soon he was back, gone barely 24 hours and back until the week-end. However, I’m going to snatch a quick hour or so to record my thoughts on the week end’s live racing at Paris-Nice. There’s simply nothing better than going to watch live racing and getting an opportunity to ride some of the course too.

We headed over to Sisteron on Friday morning, leaving rather later than I’d planned but I’d had to wait for my beloved. Story of my life! We finally set off and were a bit disconcerted to have rain en route but by the time we reached Sisteron, the sun was shining. We left the car at the hotel, mounted out trusty steeds and headed into town. I’d ridden around here three years ago when I’d ridden “La Sisteronne” but my beloved’s not familiar with the area. We decided to ride the final circuit of the day’s stage, finishing with a sprint for the line. Well, as close to the line as we could get, which I won.  We then popped over the barricades to watch the live action.

As anticipated, it was a largely local crowd, though I had stopped to exchange greetings with some Belgian fans in the camper vans on the outskirts of town: all fully paid-up members of the Tom Boonen fan club. Though today’s stage wouldn’t be one for Tom, too undulating. In any event, the leaders on GC had been happy to let a small group off the leash which were whittled down to Luis Leon Sanchez and Jens Voigt. Now while Fauso Coppi said “age and treachery will overcome youth and skill” this wasn’t the case and former Paris-Nice winner Sanchez pipped Voigt to the post.

We discovered that we were staying overnight in the same hotel as BMC, Saur-Sojasun and Euskaltel. Actually, that’s not strictly true. The Basques had gotten the short straw, they were sleeping next door in the L’Etap but were allowed into the Ibis to eat! Anyhow, as far as I’m concerned, riders are off-limits after a hard day on the bike. They need their rest and relaxation. I finally managed to drag my beloved away from a conference call and we headed into to town to find a good restaurant. I’m like a truffle hound, year’s of experience honed to perfection. We ate a truly magnificent meal, including a good bottle of wine, for Euros 60 in a lovely family-run establishment. She ran front of house, he cooked: my favourite type of restaurant.   Replete we headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. All the teams were already tucked up in bed.

We nearly had an unfortunate incident at breakfast when my beloved swiveled sharply at the buffet almost sending two Euskaltel riders flying. Happily, they seemed oblivious to their near miss. However, I did note that they all dined on coffee and cake. Maybe, I should send the manager my resume and offer to keep them supplied during the Tour de France? Saur-Sojasun’s breakfast table was groaning with one of their sponsor’s soya based products – possibly obligatory. While over on the BMC table, many were suffering either from colds or tummy troubles. Even poor Thor looked diminished by his illness.  My husband had forbidden me to get within 30 metres of the mechanics’ van fearing I might be tempted to acquire a new BMC bike. But I already know that only Mauro Santambrogio rides the same frame size as me and he wasn’t at Paris-Nice.

Before the start on Saturday, we rode around the neighbouring villages, soaking up the sunshine and just enjoying the beautiful countryside. We returned to the town centre to catch the sign-on. An elderly Spanish couple, who kindly made space for us at the barricades, seemed to know all the Spanish riders who duly dropped by to exchange greetings. I was still trying to work out who they might be, and was going to ask them but they nipped off while I was taking Bradley Wiggins’ photo. As the race started, we followed the peloton out of town and back to our car for the journey back to Nice.

We had thought about catching the race on Col de Vence but some of our racers were taking part in a criterium on the Promenade and I wanted to lend our support. This of course ensured a packed house for the arrival of the professional peloton. Thomas De Gendt soloing in to take the stage some way ahead of his fellow breakaway companion, and local resident, Rein Taaramae. Neither posed a threat to the GC who ambled in later. Riding back I spotted Tom Boonen, and gave chase, but he evaded my clutches.

Sunday, I abandoned the bike in return for a ride behind one of the competitors. Since the cars have to make a loop, not all the riders would be followed by team cars instead it might be a Mavic neutral service vehicle, as was the case for the rider we followed, Elia Viviani.  It was more interesting than anticipated as you could clearly see both the effort expended and the speed the ride was travelling. As Elia was only going at twice my speed, I suspect he wasn’t giving it his all!

Unfortunately, there was no big screen at the start but instead I amused myself by watching the riders warm up and catching up with people I knew, many of whom were milling about like me. I had earlier wished Bradley good luck and had marvelled at how a man with legs thinner than my arms could cycle quite so fast. But thanks for the win Bradley, I’m assured of bragging rights down at the cycle club for a couple of months.

Contenders

I had a good ride this morning with my beloved and, given the great weather, we decided to go out for a late lunch, followed by a long walk along the coast. As a consequence, I’ve only just had time to cast my eye over the start list for tomorrow’s 69th edition of Paris-Nice and think about who might win this year, in the absence of the defending champion, Alberto Contador, who won today’s 2nd stage in the Tour of Mucia ahead of Denis Menchov and Jerome Coppel (going from strength to strength at Saur-Sojasun).

L’Equipe devoted half a page today to last year’s revelation, Peter Sagan who, having shone in the recent Tour of Sardinia, is obviously on form and keen to seize his opportunities. He’s not the only young gun keen to cement his credentials. Over at HTC-High Road, there’s Tony Martin and Tejay van Garderen plus Ritchie Porte at SaxoBank-Sungard and Jurgen van den Broeck at Omega Pharma-Lotto. The latter’s team mate, Philippe Gilbert sparkled on the Strade Bianchi today finishing in Siena ahead of Allessandro Ballan, Damiano Cunego and Spartacus.

Let’s not forget the old guard,  those who have triumphed before in the race to the sun, such as Luis Leon Sanchez and Alexandre Vinokourov. The latter’s bought plenty of support with Tomas Viatkus, Robert Kisverlovski and Roman Kreuziger. Also in the reckoning for the overall, Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) and Levi Leipheimer (Team RadioShack).

If we’re looking for stage winners, we should look to the French who are always “en forme” in the early season: Voeckler, Fedrigo, Le Mevel, Moinard, Peraud, Moncoutie, Pauriol. Personally, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the boys in orange: Sammy Sanchez, Romain Sicard and Gorka Izagirre.

The 1,307km route kicks off tomorrow with 154.5km from Houdan to Houdan. Yes, they’re going round in circles. Monday’s one for the sprinters too. Look out for Grega Bola (Lampre-ISD) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). The rest of the sprinters, with an eye on the Classics, are doing Tirreno-Adriatico.

After two flattish stages, it gets progressively lumpy on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday. (I’ll be there), sees a 27km ITT from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence. This could be the decisive stage. Next up is 215km, and the longest stage, from Brignoles to Biot followed by 124km around Nice, including the Category 1 climbs up La Turbie and Col d’Eze. Never one to miss an opportunity to watch live racing in my backyard, I’ll be seeing both of these stages.

There are no testing climbs in the race and one wouldn’t expect them at this stage of the season. The winner will be a puncheur who can time-trial. I would suggest we should look no further than Alexandre Vinokourov who last won the race in 2003 (homage to Andrei Kivilev) and 2004. He’s made it one of his priorities this year and he’s a guy who can focus – go Alex go.

Memories of Melbourne II

I know, I know, my second day in Sydney and I’m still reminiscing about Melbourne, or more specifically, Geelong. In Melbourne airport I met some of the Lithuanian squad on their way back to Marseille. Obviously, they had more modest ambitions than some teams but overall were pleased with their performances. So few have either the ability or opportunity to win that they have to set themselves more realistic goals.

The Moroccan squad were no doubt delighted that their rider Mohammed Said was part of the original breakaway group and featured strongly in the television coverage. Likewise, Esad Hasanovic from Serbia, the rider stranded in no man’s land for a large part of Sunday’s race, was probably being cheered on by lots of Serbs around the world. Yukiya Arashiro was the first Japanese to ever finish in the top ten in the Men’s Race. The Japanese team were staying in our Geelong base camp and they were delighted with that result. I know road racing is becoming more popular in a country that already has a significant cycling culture, albeit in Keirin racing.

My beloved, who flew back to Milan via Doha, was on the same flight as Philippe Gilbert and the Evans’. He talked to both of them and said they were pleased with their respective performances. They tried their best and that’s all anyone can expect.  The Belgians came away empty handed, not so the Australians, who collected three medals: one of each.

The Germans topped the medal table. A country that’s fallen out of love with cycling and which, at the end of this season, will no longer have a Pro-Tour team. But that didn’t stop them picking up four medals: three silvers and a bronze.  Great Britain’s hardware was picked up in the time-trials. Silver for David Millar and gold for Emma Pooley who was also a formidable presence in the Road Race. Who knows what Alex Dowsett might have achieved if he’d had a mechanic as deft as Tony Martin’s. Next up USA, whose Taylor Phinney won both a gold and a bronze medal.

Scandinavia garnered a full-house with Hushovd, Breschel and Johansson. Italy and Switzerland each collected one gold. Vos won her 4th consecutive silver, after gold in Salzburg, and looked on the verge of tears, she’s not a lady who likes to lose. Canada and New Zealand each picked up a bronze, or should that be half a bronze in the case of Canada?

Spain’s performance was disappointing. Their highest placed rider in all the races was Freire, who finished 6th in the road race. However, I do know that the team was much affected by all the doping news, particular that relating to Alberto, who is close to both Luis  Leon and Samu Sanchez, fanned by McQuaid’s pointed comments about Spain. I seem to recall they rather faded into the background when Valverde faced similar approbation in Stuttgart in 2007.    

I didn’t get a chance to ask JaJa if he was pleased with the performance of the French, Jeannie aside, but the 5th place of Arnaud Demare in the U23 road race and they way they animated the Men’s Race, not forgetting Romain Feillu’s 10th place, must have shown the team’s heading in the right direction.  

McQuaid has declared the Championships a success and said over 156,000 watched from the roadside on Sunday. How to they know? Does someone go round and count them? Or is there some agreed formula which takes account of the length of the course and the depth of the crowds?

Rider in red

I have had a busy couple of days. Tuesday we held our second meeting on next year’s Brevet Kivilev which we’re hoping to run as both a cyclosportif (timed) and a randonnee. Offering both should attract a wider field of entrants but will involve much more work and expense, the feasibility of which we’re currently exploring. This was followed by the regular Tuesday meeting where the licence renewals are started to trickle in.

Of course, four hours down the club meant I had to watch the highlights of that day’s Vuelta. Tuesday’s stage 4 totalling 183.8km from Malaga to Valdepenas de Jaen, was another hot day which included 3 categorized and 1 uncategorized climb plus a very steep ascent to the finish line. The heat and intestinal troubles accounted for yet another rider, Mark Cavendish’s wing man Bernie “The Bolt” Eisel abandoned, putting in jeopardy his participation in Melbourne.

Omega-Pharma Lotto led the chase to pull back the 4-man breakaway to protect Phil’s red jersey. The peloton splintered on the last col of the day with Katusha trying to set up “Purito”  for the win. The main contenders, apart from Sastre, were in the first group over the hill and down the other side to the last leg sapping climb of the day which looked to be well over 20%. It was won by Igor Anton ahead of Vicenzo Nibali and Peter Velits. As a consequence, Igor Anton moved into 2nd place behind Phil, with Joaquin Rodriguez in 3rd. Both are 10 seconds behind the leader.

Wednesday’s 198.8km stage from Guardix to Lorca commenced with a minute’s silence to honour Laurent Fignon, who sadly passed away the previous day. The media has been full of tributes for a rider much admired for his panache on the bike and his humility off it. Sadly, I never saw the “Professor” ride but I much enjoyed his commentary on French tv. He wasn’t a man to mince his words.

1960 - 2010 RIP

Wednesday was slightly cooler and while there were no cols to speak of the terrain was pretty much up and down all afternoon. The 4-man breakaway was hauled back in 12km from the finish line thanks to the efforts of the sprinter teams. Cavendish started his sprint too soon and provided Tyler Farrar with the perfect launch pad. They finished, in order, Farrar, Koldo Fernandez, Cavendish. No change on GC.

I meanwhile had spent the morning riding over to Monaco for another VO2max test. There was good news. I have lost weight, lost fat and improved my endurance. I think I’m going to concentrate on improving further these three aspects over the autumn and winter months. This means that exclusive subset of riders who weigh more than me will become much more inclusive.

Today’s Stage 6, a lumpy, 155km from Caravaca to Murcia, the home region of Luis Leon Sanchez (and Alejandro Valverde) saw the inevitable break away taken back into the peloton on the last ascent of the day. A number of the sprinters had managed to stay with the lead group and duked it out on the line. Thor Hushovd, resplendent in his Norwegian jersey, beat Danieli Bennati and Grega Bole. Phil maintained his grip on the leader’s jersey but it’s still far too early to rule out any of the favourites.

Bring it on

Hours before the start of the 65th edition (and 75th anniversary) of the Vuelta a Espana, I’m all set and raring to go. Unusually, there’s no pile of laundry to keep me occupied when I’ll be whiling away my afternoons in front of the television. No, I’m going to be sorting out my dressing room, all the drawers and cupboards in the lounge and dining room and rearranging my collection of cookery books. If you’ve visited my apartment you’ll know that these are all mammoth tasks befitting a three-week Tour.

Many more gifted than me have previewed at length the fancied riders and the stages. I’m not going to add to this. Instead, you’ll get, as usual, my take on things: less objective, more subjective. A consensus seems to have built up around perm any three from Nibali/Menchov/Mosquera/the Schlecks/Arroyo/LL Sanchez/Sastre/Rodriguez.

The Vuelta organisers were hoping to tempt Contador to his home Tour and devised a  parcours which would suit him. As he’s shown, it’s possible to do the Giro/Vuelta double, but it’s much more difficult to double up with the Tour de France. It’s not so much the racing itself more the mental demands. In addition, he had concerns over the quality of his support. Valid concerns if you look at the Astana team sheet. My favourite Spanish rider, Samu Sanchez will also be missing, as will last year’s winner, Alejandro Valverde, who’s on an enforced sabbatical. As a consequence, Inigo Cuesta, of the soon to be defunct Cervelo Test Team, riding his 17th consecutive Vuelta, will be honoured with the No 1.

While it’s rare for there to be surprises on the podium of a Grand Tour, I am hoping that maybe either Igor Anton or Benat Intxausti, both from Euskaltel-Euskadi, will shine in their home tour. It’s also an opportunity to look out for talent of the future (Tony Gallopin and Arthur Vichot) and talent that’s shone over the past two seasons, to shine more brightly (Tejay van Garderen and Ben Swift). Of course, there will also be a whole host of riders, without contracts for next season, looking to catch the eye of a Directeur Sportif or two. And, let’s not forget, a whole slew of sprinters, in fact pretty much everyone bar every girl’s favourite bad boy, Tom Boonen, who’ll be battling for supremacy over a possible 8 sprint stages, ahead of the World Championships in Melbourne.

So, stand by your television sets for this evening’s 13km team time trial around Sevilla. Footon-Servetto are off first with teams going at four minute intervals. Local team, Andalucia-CajaSur, will go last. SaxoBank have the advantage of going after other potential winners HTC-Columbia, Garmin-Transitions and (remember the Giro), Liquigas. I do not anticipate any decisive time gaps.

While the first week is uncharacteristically hilly, the key stages are at the back end of the Vuelta: specifically, Stage 15 on 12 September to Lagos de Covadonga, Stage 16 to Cortobello, Stage 17’s 46km pancake flat ITT at Penafiel and, the penultimate test, Stage 20 to Bola del Mundo.

My pick for the podium: 1-Menchov, 2-Nibali, 3-(F) Schleck

Climber’s Jersey: Moncoutie

Point’s Jersey: Cavendish

Combined Jersey: Mosquera

Postcards from Pays Basque IV

Saturday morning we rode down to the start of the Classica San Sebastian and secured a position as close as possible to the sign-on and team

Crowd pleaser

presentation. This is a race which attracts a great field and almost all the big names who rode the Tour were here, save Contador, Menchov and Evans. Not unnaturally, the mainly partisan crowd’s loudest cheers were reserved for the Spanish and particularly the Basque riders. However, it was clear that Andy Schleck and Alexandre Vinokourov are held in high regard.

Andy Schleck

This is also a race which is generally won by a rider who’s just completed the Tour as they’re in fine racing form. Having seen the peloton set off, we headed out of town to watch them ride the final loop around the Altos de Jaizkibel and de Arklare. Our vantage point allowed us to watch the peloton advancing through the village of Oiartzun and up the Arklare twice before we sped back to San Sebastian, over the same finishing straight as the peloton, to watch the finish. We were not alone. A large number of riders, whose day was done, headed back into town with us.

We found a tv screen in a local bar just 75 metres from the finish and watched the final and decisive attacks. One of the things I love about watching Vinokourov race is that he’s never there to make up the numbers, he always tries to win. The leading trio of Gutierrez, Garate, Verdugo and Florencio had been whittled down when Vino attacked and formed a leading group with Rodriguez, Roche and Sanchez. Richie Porte had tried to bridge but was eventually caught by a larger group who were leading the chase. As the two groups were about to merge on the second ascent of the Jaizkibel, Luis Leon Sanchez accelerated away. Only Vino and Sastre were able to stay with him. These three worked to establish a sensible lead on the last descent into San Sebastian. While the chasing group was larger, it was less organised, and despite the efforts of Gesink, it failed to make any impact on the leaders.

Vino attempted to time trial away from LL Sanchez where there’s a slight uphill drag on the run in, but couldn’t shake him off. As they rode the final few kilometers to the finish, the three re-grouped and Luis Leon just pipped

Almost there

Vino on the line. Later I learned that Vino had arrived in San Sebastian in the early hours of Saturday morning having competed the night before in a criterium in Belgium. He wasn’t the only one, but the others, including Andy Schleck, were DNFs.

We watched the podium celebrations before cycling back up that hill to the hotel. The assembled throng were delighted with the Spanish win. As ever, my beloved and I had enjoyed riding over the same terrain as the professional peloton, albeit at a more sedate pace.

Triumphant trio

(All photographs courtesy of my beloved)

Home alone

Our guests and my beloved have departed leaving me to savour being on my own once more. I probably sound as if I’ve got a touch of the Howard Hughes but there’s something very liberating about not being at anyone’s beck and call. I can do what I want, when I want.

Having luxuriated in a day off the bike, I was eager to clamber back into lycra and profit from the continued warm weather. The silly tan lines are now clearly visible on the legs (sock line above ankle and shorts line across thighs). But,  because my legs don’t tan evenly, the backs of my legs and thighs tan well but sadly my shins don’t, the overall effect is somehow worse. I had already done in excess of today’s 3hr group ride on Monday, so I opted for yesterday’s ride, in a fasted state, followed by some core-strength exercises and stretching. 

This afternoon, having speedily cleaned up all traces of my beloved and guests, I treated myself to watching Circuit de la Sarthe, Scheldeprijs and Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco. I know, cycling in triplicate! By the way, do check out my friend Susi’s excellent pictures from that last race on the cyclingnews website.

Lest you think I’ve spent the afternoon loafing around, I should add that, at the same time as watching the cycling, I demolished a category 3 mountain of my husband’s ironing. It was in severe danger of developing into something larger and less manageable and I’m keep to avoid any further vuelta type situations developing.

In Belgium, with about 37km to go, Tom Boonen became entangled with a couple of riders from Euskatel. Guess who fared worse from that encounter? Yes, if I were a 60kg skinny Spaniard he’d be the last person I’d want to collide with. The Euskis were DNFs but Tom got in the slipstream of his team car and following a very lengthy shoe swop was soon back into the peloton. He launched the sprint, leading out team mate Wouter Weylandt and Tyler Farrar, who won ahead of Rockin’ Robbie McEwan.

They start 'em young in the Basque country

In the Basque country, Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre) beat Oscar Freire in another sprint finish, but the latter now assumes the yellow jersey ahead of tomorrow’s tough mountain stage. While in the Circuit de la Sarthe, Anthony Ravard (AG2R) won stage 2a and Tiago Machado, one of the few surviving Radioshackers,  won the 2b time-trial but Luis Leon Sanchez is still looking good in yellow. Actually, he looks pretty good in most things.

One down, plenty more to go

I’ve really enjoyed my first week’s training. It’s given me something to aim for every time I ride. I can’t say whether it’s been too hard or too easy, it’s really too soon to say.  The Polar however is a rather inadequate measure of effort and I can’t wait for the Garmin to arrive: hopefully, this week.

I’ve had to content myself with watching the Tour du Haut Var on the small screen, and not in person. Yesterday, we had a number of things to sort out in connection with my husband’s replacement passport. So, instead, we rode with some of the people with whom I’ll be riding L2P  at the end of June. They rode in “SHORTS”. I know, I don’t get into shorts until mid-May. I’m still in my winter tights and  have yet to transition into leg warmers and then into my 3/4 quarter bib-shorts.

Today’s pointage was at Le Rouret. Having started a little ahead of the club, I was overhauled by the super-fast boys at the entrance to Roquefort les Pins. There were smoking at an average speed of 28km while I was positively plodding along at 12km. I was overtaken by most, but not all, of my clubmates before the pointage where I hooked up with one of my cycling buddies. I rode with her up the next rise to Pre du Lac and then left her to wait for her clubmates. Yes, most clubs have regular regroupments where they wait for their clubmates.

I descended via Bar sur Loup to Pont du Loup and decided to practice my sprinting on the rise up to Tourrettes sur Loup. Helpfully, there were a number of riders up the road giving me a target.  I continued on the downhill stretch home and shot past a number of groups of riders. Men do not like being overtaken by a woman but they seem to mind most if it happens on the downhill. Sorry guys, but superior body weight, a fast bike and a love of speed are going to carry the day.

Back to the Tour du Hat Var, which was won today by Christophe Le Mevel who attacked on the insanely steep climb up to Montauroux. FDJ are having a cracking start to the season.  I get a real kick from seeing the pro-peloton race on roads I’ve ridden on. It seems to increase my pleasure in the viewing knowing we’ve both suffered there.

I’ve also been keeping an eye on the Volta ao Algave where Bert (Astana) has been claiming that he’s 2kg over his ideal weight and not in such good shape as at the same time as last year – sandbagging?  He won the mountain stage and  was 2nd to Luis Leon Sanchez  (Caisse d’Epargne) in today’s TT, having had the bike he originally planned to ride banned by the UCI. He, nonetheless, scooped the overall: early season mind games.

There were wins this week end for both my football teams. Luckily for the manager of OGCN, a penalty early in the 2nd half saved his bacon. While the boys in claret and blue downed another team, who also wear claret and blue, though obviously not in the same match, 5-2 at home.

Excitement in the UK as Britain won a gold medal in the ladies skeleton. This is where you hurtle, head first, on a metal tray, down an ice chute at insane speeds. One of the few sports I’ve yet to try!

Watching and waiting

Spring has arrived and with it much balmier temperatures. I seem to have spent months muffled up like Michelin man but now I’m back into my ¾ bib tights with just a long sleeved shirt and gilet.

The last few week ends, thanks to the Tours of the Med and Haut Var, and Paris-Nice, I have been able to combine training with watching live cycling. Generally, I like to ride to watch the riders sign-on and depart, then catch them en-route, preferably on an incline that I have just laboured up. On Saturday, the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice passed twice through Fayence.  So, having cycled around the undulating countryside, we wound our way up to the centre of town, to enjoy lunch and the final kms of the race.

On its first pass, the peloton was pretty much together but it split up over the subsequent Col de Bourigaille. I did note that with 40kms to go Contador was without team mates but didn’t realise that he was also without fuel. He should have said something; I had a couple of gels and an energy bar in my pocket. He would have been welcome to them.

We drifted up towards the finish to listen to race radio and heard the attacks unfold. All too soon LL Sanchez was racing towards the finish at a speed I could only hope to emulate cycling hard in the opposite direction (ie downhill). While Contador, who had quite clearly bonked, ascended the gentle climb at more my pace, with riders passing him in disbelief.

I can still recall seeing Contador take off on the Col du Tanneron in Paris-Nice 2007, on the penultimate stage of a race he went on to win the following day. He had come to my notice at the previous Paris-Nice when, at the start of the final stage, he offered me his Liberty Seguros cap and I directed him towards the small boy on my right who was only too delighted to receive this “trophy”. I wonder if he’s still got it, the former cap of a now multiple Grand Tour winner.