Very belated postcard from Limburg 2012

Yes, I know that despite my best intentions the number of blog entries is dwindling to a trickle, but I have been busy, honest. I’m just back from an action packed 10 day annual pilgrimage to the World Road Cycling Championships which was held in the delightful surroundings of Limburg, that bit of the Netherlands which protrudes into Germany and Belgium. As you might imagine, the area’s cycling mad and every time I saw a cyclist I wished I’d had my bike with me so that I could join in. Ah well, next year in Tuscany 2013!

I had intended hiring a bike, albeit it would probably have been one of those sit up and beg ones that you see all over the Netherlands, but I fell over and twisted my ankle. Clumsy or what? As usual I was talking and not watching where I was going. One minute I was on the pavement, the next minute I wasn’t. As falls go it was fairly spectacular but I quickly leapt to my feet, dusted myself off, retrieved my scattered belongings and continued walking as if everything were fine. It wasn’t, it was really painful.

That evening I gave my right ankle the alternate hot and cold water treatment which seemed to help. No need for an embarrassing recourse to the medical staff of the Spanish and Italian teams who were staying in my hotel. The next morning the ankle was too puffy for my comfortable shoes but I could wear my ballet flats. I also had an impressive collection of bruises on my left leg and my right arm. There are times when a good covering of body fat comes in useful, I just bounce and avoid serious injury. A sore ankle is not ideal when you’re proposing to spend all day standing at the barricades but I’m an endurance spectator, I just grinned and bore it without complaint. It was my own fault after all.

So, back to the cycling which kicked off with a revival of the trade team time-trial. It sits somewhat awkwardly with a shed load of national races and a ways back they used to have a national team time-trial but nowadays that’s probably a bit impractical. The event was nonetheless pretty fiercely contested and, largely thanks to an error by BMC, Belgium’s Omega Pharma-QuickStep triumphed. But it was a close run thing. Not so in the ladies event where Specialized-Lululemon dominated with their US/German/Dutch squad.


Belgian’s top dogs in trade team time-trial (image courtesy of OPQS)

The great thing about the Worlds is that you get  a week’s worth of racing all in the same spot. My mate Ute (we met at the world championships in Salzburg in 2006) and I occupied a place about 20m or so from the finish line and, based on the early bird theory, laid claim to it all week. Neither of us is particularly tall, while the Dutch are, and we did not want to be in the second row standing on tippy toe.

Most fans preferred to stay the other side of the Cauberg climb, closer to the plethora of bars and restaurants, either that or they weren’t willing to trek the extra kilometres to the finish. This meant we had a ringside view of all the racing,  could swivel around to watch the action on the screen behind and then later have another prime view of the podium presentation: a pretty much perfect situation. Although there was little in the way of refreshments, my accreditation gave me access to the press area and Ute came well stocked, so we were able to regularly take in sustenance and prevent a bonk.

Another great thing about the Worlds is that you get to see lots of racers whom you never or rarely get to see on the television, like the ladies, U23s and juniors. It’s always interesting to chart their progression into the senior ranks. It’s also great to see the grass shoots of globalisation of the sport with more and more countries fielding riders and teams. None from China although there were increased numbers of Japanese and more from African countries. However, Ute and I agreed while it was great to see riders such as Judith Arndt and Tony Martin retaining their crowns, our abiding memory will be of Marianne Vos’s domination. She last won the World’s in 2006 –  our first Worlds –  and has been a disappointed  runner-up ever since. But this year she’s done the double, Olympics and Worlds just like Nicole Cooke in 2008.

I mentioned that I was staying in the same hotel as two of the teams. Initially, it was Euskaltel, Movistar, Lotto-Belisol and Topsport Vlaanderen. The Lotto boys were on the same floor as me although I never saw any of them but the strong smell of embrocation in the hotel corridor was rather evocative. However I could have done without all the door slamming. Of course, they departed smartly after the trade-team time trial to be replaced by the national team riders. The hotel was under siege from fans, many of whom waited patiently for hours for a glimpse of their sporting heroes. Goodness knows what the busloads of Japanese tourists staying in the hotel made of it.

Now you might be thinking what a fantastic opportunity for interviews. It would be except the boys and girls were already under siege and I had no desire to add to that burden. Surely, everyone deserves a bit of down time. However, it was interesting to observe the contrasting approaches of the two different nationalities. The Italians are extroverts, the Spanish introverts.

There was no racing on Thursday which afforded me a welcome opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Maastricht, a delightful historic town with plenty of eye-catching architecture and some great coffee shops. Purely in the interests of research I tried some of the local baked goodies but I did find them a little heavy for my taste – delicious, but heavy.

As ever one of the fun parts of this event is catching up with friends and acquaintances plus just chatting to a wide range of fans from all over the world while we wait for the racers to hove into view. A few of the natives were overly familiar. A rather drunken Dutch chap said he thought I looked around 42, I smiled as if he might have hit the nail on the head but he was way off base. He’d asked the woman sitting opposite me if she was my mother. I was delighted as she was probably only four to five years older than me. However, having ascertained I was married but with no children, he asked me to go clubbing in Dusseldorf. I politely but firmly declined, after over 10 hours manning the barricades the last thing I needed was more hours on my feet, besides I had a hot date with my laptop!  For more about the event and the races, head over to www.velovoices.com.

Cards from Copenhagen II

For the last two years I’ve been able to ride the World Championship circuit. Not this year, this year I walked it during this morning’s Junior Boys race. It’s only 13.5kms and I’m a very brisk walker. It’s not quite as good as cycling it, but it did give me a better perspective of the course, the profile of which is shown below. The important scale here is the vertical one. Hardly any real elevation at all. It’s undulating, but the inclines are really neither long nor steep enough to trouble anyone in the professional peloton. There’s all too few places to launch a successful attack. It’s not technical, despite a number of the younger riders coming to grief on some of the corners. There’s a lot of road furniture but it’s very visible, well padded and the riders will all know where it is from their reconnaissance rides. In yesterday’s U23 race, the feed-zone proved pivotal in launching some of the breakaways but this was made easier by the less than aggressive pace set by the bunch.

This morning’s race demonstrated that it is possible to win from a breakaway but it was won by the team with the greatest number of riders who had been omnipresent throughout the race. The racing was aggressive from the start and dominated by a flurry of attacks with the successful break getting free only in the final laps of the race and managing to maintain it’s slender margin despite the advancing peloton. The winner, 18-year old Pierre Henri Lecuisinier, who raced clear in the final 150m, completed the 126km race at an average speed of 44km/hr and finished ahead of two of his breakaway companions, Belgium’s Martijn Degreve and Holland’s Steven Lammertink. France’s Florian Senechal, winner of this year’s junior Paris-Roubaix, finished 4th and 5th was Germany’s Rick Zabel, son of the great Erik Zabel who was supporting enthusiastically, along with Frau Zabel, from the sidelines.

The sunny but chilly weather persisted for the 140km ladies Elite race where I resumed my place on the 50m line. Again, the winner came from the largest team. Clearly, size matters. ln women’s races there tends to be far fewer escapees instead it’s just pretty hectic racing. Like the race this morning, there was a bit of a pile up on the final lap ,where the peloton took back lone escapee Canada’s Clara Hughes (or Huge as she was called by the Danish commentator) on the run in to the line. The Dutch took charge, hoping to lead out Marianne Vos. But Italy’s Georgia Bronzini, the defending champion, powered her way past Vos in the final (yes, you’ve guessed it) 150m to win by a tyre width. It’s Groundhog Day. Cue lots of squealing Italians and glum faces for the Dutch as Vos recorded her 5th consecutive silver medal, after gold in 2006.  Germany’s Ina Teutenberg was 3rd. Today’s score, all square Ute 1 – 1 Sheree.

This led us to contemplate tomorrow’s race. Would Thor repeat his feat of last year or would his younger compatriot Edvald Boassen Hagen prevail? PhilGil has tried to play down his chances on this course, but can his team, and the other teams without sprinters, make it a hard enough race to dispose of the out and out sprinters? Not forgetting that PhilGil has a number of sprinters on his team.  Of course, there are plenty of teams whose sprinters could be in contention tomorrow, most notably:-

  • Spain’s Oscar Freire and Jose Joaquin Rojas
  • Italy’s Daniele Bennati, Daniel Oss and Sacha Modolo
  • Australia’s Matt Goss and Heinrich Haussler
  • Germany’s trio of John Degenkolb, Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel
  • USA’s Tyler Farrar
  • France’s Romain Feillu and the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin
  • Columbia’s Leonardo Duque
  • Slovenia’s Grega Bole
  • Russia’s Denis Galimzyanov
  • Slovakia’s powerhouse, Peter Sagan

However, in a bunch sprint finish, it’s hard to look beyond Mark Cavandish who has a dream support crew. If, against the odds, it’s not a sprint finish then Phil Gil might find himself being challenged by Fabulous Fabian who has to be smarting after Wednesday’s loss. Yes, I know he won a bronze but, get real, it’s gold that counts!

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?