Postcard from Mugello

I love lying in bed listening to birdsong. I find it really uplifting. So I was delighted to discover our chosen hotel lay slap bang in the middle of a Tuscan forest full of trilling birds. Yes, we were back in Italy again. This time for the Oakley Italian MotoGP at Mugello which is not far from Florence.

My beloved chose our hotel but with my blessing. It’s a small family run affair, sympathetically restored with a modern interior, small bar and great restaurant. Our drive over in glorious sunshine passed smoothly with a couple of stops for lunch and refreshments. We exited the motorway at Florence skirted round the town and headed cross-country to our destination through typical Tuscan countryside, lush and green with those distinctive trees and ochre clad properties.

I’ve wanted to attend another live MotoGP race since we last went to Catalunya in 2012. While the television coverage of all 18 events is excellent you can’t beat live sport for its atmosphere and noise. With MotoGP, I love the mix of Free Practice, Qualifying and Sunday Race Days. Lots of short, sharp, action packed sessions, none of which extend beyond 45 minutes. In between it’s good to stretch one’s legs and wander round the circuit and merchandise stalls. No rider sells more merchandise than Valentino Rossi and, with this being his home GP, pretty much everyone is decked out in blue and yellow.

We picked up our tickets at the accreditation centre where we bumped into a German guy who was staying in our hotel and was looking for a lift to Mugello. He works for Oakley, principal sponsor of the event, and had been parachuted in at the last moment to help. We happily obliged.

Quite by chance we parked near the entrance closest to the stand where I’d booked our tickets, which was under cover, in the shade, on the home straight, opposite the boxes. We were a tiny spot of red and black in a sea of blue and yellow, right opposite the Yamaha box. The stand was well served by refreshment stalls and facilities with proper toilets, unlike those scattered around the circuit which offered hole in the ground amenities which I (thankfully) haven’t seen in donkey’s years.

My hopes had been raised by a sign advertising vegetarian panini but they were dashed when the vendor revealed they were tomato and mozzarella. Ah well, I won’t pass away if I miss lunch though I was regretting not bringing some fruit and snacks from home.

Mugello Teaser

This weekend, a third of the way into the championship, Michelin (the sole tyre provider) changed its front tyre for the remaining 13 races to one which features a stiffer casing, which I’m reliably informed deforms less during braking. You might be thinking, so what? But in MotoGP nothing is more important than the front tyre. Everything comes from the front tyre: the all-important rider feel, corner-entry speed, mid-corner speed and therefore corner-exit speed. So, would the tyre change be a game-changer?

Preliminaries

Crowds were sparse on Friday, largely those who were staying under canvas or in their camper vans at the circuit. The main grandstand was about 30% full while the others were pretty much empty though there was a goodly number on the grassy hill overlooking the circuit which sits in a bowl surrounded by the Tuscan hills, thickly clad with forest and basking in the sunshine. Had it rained, it would have been Dantesque with mud and water everywhere.

The crowds increased by a factor of twenty over the week-end and, despite arriving in time for the start of the day’s action, we were some way back in the car park. This meant it was much easier to exit the circuit. As anticipated, many of the race favourites had shone in both free practice and qualifying. While to the delight of the partisan crowd, Italian riders were well placed though championship leader, Maverick Vinales – surely the best name in MotoGP – was on pole for the blue riband event despite not favouring the tyre change. His team-mate Rossi was second on the front row.  Obviously, the crowd was hoping for nothing less than a Rossi victory in the blue riband event and for Italian riders to shine

Throughout the week-end, the press were always at least 10 deep at the Yamaha garage, though largely only over at Rossi’s box. He only had to appear on the many screens around the track for a massive cheer to erupt from the crowd. Barely anyone, not even the other Italians, got a look in. Makes you wonder what’ll happen to the sport when Rossi (now aged 38) finally retires.

My beloved likens MotoGP to chariot racing of old and there’s something very gladiatorial about the whole spectacle, including when, and in what order, riders emerge from their boxes and the pit lanes.

I mentioned the noise. It’s not as noisy as F1. But if Moto3 bikes sound like mosquitos, the bigger bikes throb like Concord and your whole body vibrates as they pass flat out on the home straight. It’s not quite loud enough for ear plugs, but almost.

On Saturday, at half- time, a few brave/foolhardy souls have the opportunity to ride pillion on a Ducati once round the circuit. I’d love to do this but I suspect once on the back of the bike I’d be holding on so tight I’d probably suffocate the pilot.

Race Day

On Sunday, the place was stuffed to the gills with over 160,000 spectators, many of whom were sitting on the hill overlooking the circuit.

After warm up for all three classes, a moving homage was paid to the late 2005 World Champion Nicky Hayden who recently died from injuries sustained from being hit by a vehicle while riding his bicycle. You could tell how well he was regarded by current riders and crew from the emotions of their face during the 69 seconds (Hayden’s MotoGP number was 69) of silence followed by applause.

The dynamics of each race are very different. In Moto3, all the bikes have the same engine (different chassis) and the front group is highly competitive with the race lead swapping frequently. The leading twosome only managed to break free from the pack on the final lap, with a spectacular duel on the home straight. Italian Andrea (a Rossi protegé) taking his maiden GP victory, and on home turf, with fellow Italian Fabio di Giannontonio coming in as runner-up. Needless to say the crowd were delighted.

Moto2 featured a stunning three-way fight with veteran racer Mattia Pasini – yes, another Italian – recording his first victory since 2009. Another veteran, Thomas Luthi was runner-up.  Another home win and already the Italian commentators were running out of superlatives.

Finally, the race everyone was waiting for. Would Rossi avenge his defeat last season at the hands of the current world champion, Marc Marquez, back in sixth place on the grid?

Yet another Italian, Andrea Dovizioso, took only his third GP victory with a significant margin and amazing turn of speed on the straight. Current championship leader, Vinales was second, with Italian, Danilo Petrucci, on another Ducati, was third. Rossi was fourth. Three Italian wins! We heard more  Mama Mia’s from the commentators than you’d find in an Abba song.

Time to go Home

With most of the crowd heading for the track, we raced back the car park and headed for the motorway. I would’ve stayed until Monday but my beloved had a business trip on Monday, despite it being a Bank Holiday in most of Europe. Our quick get away meant we avoided potential hold ups and arrived home at a reasonable time. We’d enjoyed our trip to the MotoGP in Mugello and vowed not to leave it so long again before visiting another circuit.

 

It doesn’t get better than this!

Sunday, after a delicious vegetable chilli for lunch (recipe to follow shortly), my beloved and I settled down for a feast of sporting action. First up, the conclusion of a thrilling Volta a Catalunya dominated by the evergreen Movistarlet Alejandro Valverde. Next up was a spot of action from Belgium, with an exciting conclusion to Gent-Wevelgem where the victor was the in-form Olympic Champion, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). But there’s more!

After entreaties from my beloved, I have caved in and signed up for CanalPlus Sport giving us access to plenty of cycling and, more importantly, MotoGP live. Since, it moved from Eurosport to BTSport in the UK , I have had to be content with watching races the following day which tends to take the edge off of things. Now we have the luxury of watching all three classes live. I started watching MotoGP largely because of cycling, as typically the MotoGP races preceded those of cycling on Eurosport.

Joan Mir

I started watching MotoGP stars Marc Marquez and Maverick Vinales when they were both in MotoGP3 and I’ll be looking hard at this class to spot the stars of the future. Most of the MotoGP3 riders look too young to be out on their own on a bicycle let alone a 125cc moto bike. Their fresh faced enthusiasm is infectious and I couldn’t believe the winners were allowed to celebrate with champagne, surely lemonade would have been more appropriate? However, having checked them out, I discovered, quite incredibly, they were all over 18 and had come up either through their national series or that of Red Bull. The race was won by a 19 year old Spanish rider, Joan Mir, sponsored by Leopard – yes, the same one that supported a WorldTour team – who was MotoGP3 rookie of the year in 2016. Runner-up was John McPhee a British racer a few years older who’s been knocking around the circuits for a while. He was in a Spanish sandwich as Jorge Martin, another 19 year old, who’s been in the same class since 2015, finished third.

Franco Morbidelli

Incredibly there were no Spaniards on the podium in the MotoGP2 class. The winner, Italian Franco Morbidella, moved up to this class in 2013 and finished fourth last year. Runner-up was the evergreen Swiss Thomas Luthi who’s been racing this class for ten years and the podium was rounded out by the Japanese rider Takaani Nakagami who was the youngest ever winner of the Japanese GP series in 2006. First Spaniard was Alex Marquez, brother of Marc, in fifth place.

Maverick Vinales

This season with Jorge Lorenzo moving from Yamaha to Ducati, Maverick Vinales  – surely the best name in the sport – replaces him and really moves into contention after winning a race last season for Suzuki. Unfortunately, the blue-riband event was plagued by rain, uncertainty and was finally reduced to 20 dramatic laps. Vinales, who had dominated pre-season testing, was on pole and had a battle royal in the desert with Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati). Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) was third after coming back from way back on the grid.

Marc Marquez

Andrea Iannone (Suzuki Ecstar) got off to a great start but was soon overshadowed by French rookie Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) who zoomed into the lead in the early laps, putting daylight between himself and the rest, before dramatically sliding out. Iannone soon followed suit leaving defending champion Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) chasing the leading three: Vinales, Dovizioso and Rossi. The first two traded places before Vinales held off Dovi on the penultimate lap to record his second MotoGP win, his first in Yamaha colours. Marquez crossed the line in fourth and admitted post-race he’d made an ill-advised tyre change just before the race start. That said, looking at previous results, the circuit has favoured the Yamaha bikes. Next up is Argentina, a new location ,followed by Austin where the Hondas have reigned supreme. It looks as if the 2017 season is off to an exciting start and I’m hoping it’ll be a close run competition.

All photographs courtesy Getty Images 

 

Can’t get enough

Yesterday morphed into an almost perfect day of sporting pleasure. I dropped my beloved off at the airport and, as the sun was shining, decided an early ride was in order. It was a perfect weather for a ride. I wasn’t the only one to think that as the roads were crowded with cyclists. I’m suffering a bit at the moment with my tree pollen allergy which gives me pink scratchy eyes, a runny nose and a wheeze. It’s worse when it’s windy, like on Saturday. But yesterday the wind was relatively benign which probably accounted for the rain shower which began just as I reached home.

Freed from the restrictions of having to feed my beloved, I enjoyed a lazy soak in my spa bath and even used the spa facility – sheer bliss. Lunch was left-overs from Saturday evening which I enjoyed on a tray in front of the television, so as not to miss a second of Sunday’s jam-packed sporting action. Given conflicting schedules I’m ashamed to admit I had all three televisions tuned in to various channels and could, but didn’t, have resorted to my laptop.

First up the London Marathon. Watching this always brings back memories of my own participation in 1994 where I do believe I set a record for the slowest recorded finish, just seconds before the cut-off. That’s almost 20 years’ ago – scary thought. I keep saying I’ll do another one, but I haven’t. There’s still plenty of time! It was great to see that the shocking events in Boston had increased, rather than diminished, the support for the race.

Then I was transported to Turkey to watch the first stage of the Presidential Tour, won in fine style by German sprinter Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano). I was however on friend-watch, which always makes any event much more enjoyable, and I saw them all finish safely in the bunch. At the same time I was checking on progress over in Belgium at La Doyenne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Handily, the rain had delayed the start of the tennis final in Monte Carlo where Nadal was bidding for his ninth win. That man owns the clay courts there but unfortunately not this year. Novak Djokovic won in imperious fashion, no doubt hoping to do the same in Paris, at the French Open. Nadal showed flashes of his old self but the long injury lay-off inevitably took its toll. He wasn’t able to respond as one might have anticipated despite the urging of the crowd, hoping for a third set.

Back to racing in Belgium, where fellow-Brummie Dan Martin surprised many with an emphatic victory, well-orchestrated by his Garmin-Sharp team. It also showed that Ryder Hesjedal, the defending Giro champion is on the money two-weeks before he gets to defend his pink jersey. Mechanicals proved the undoing of a couple of the Spanish riders while the Colombians again animated the race.

Cycling over, I stayed with two wheels and watched the MotoGP races from Austin, Texas. I made a mental note to try and visit my friends who live there next year!  I have tracked with interest the last few seasons the progress of Spanish prodigy Marc Marquez who had pole for the blue riband event – the youngest-ever rider to achieve that feat. However, first up were the Moto2 and Moto3 races, the former including the wonderfully named Maverick Vinales and, the latter, Marc’s younger brother Alex.

Now for reasons I won’t pretend to understand, but which have largely to do with the track and the brakes, Honda bikes were at a considerable advantage to the Yamaha ones. The reverse of the situation two weeks ago in Qatar. It was a thrilling race of cat and mouse with the two Honda riders, Marquez and Dani Pedrosa, well out in front and leaving us wondering who was going to win. Three laps from home we had our answer when Marquez built an unassailable lead to become the youngest-ever winner of a MotoGP race. He’s got an old head on very young shoulders and I’m sure I’m going to be using the description “youngest-ever” quite a lot.

Just enough time to check on OGCN’s progress at PSG – not good. We went down 3-0. Wherever the team ends up in the Ligue, it’s been a fantastic season. The team have punched well above their weight and budget for which credit has to be given to the manager. A few of you will be thinking what about the F1 from Bahrain. What about it? I’m not an F1 fan although I do know Vettel won. By which time I was more than ready for bed!

Happily back home again for a few days

Bereft of the internet and L’Equipe for a few days at my parents’, I feel seriously out of the loop. It’s as if the pillars of my daily existence have gone walk about, leaving me floundering. That, combined with the work involved pre-and- post Kivilev, means I’ve not had enough time to watch, let alone ponder or comment on, recent sporting events.

The third week of the Giro passed without me seeing too much of the action. It’s only now that I appreciate what a master coup Contador (and Riis) delivered atop Mount Etna, and on subsequent days, to bludgeon the competition into submission. At the start of the second week, there were enough riders still within sniffing distance of the pink jersey willing to chance their arms and those of their team mates, saving the arms and, more importantly, the legs of Alberto’s team mates. Having taken his maiden Giro stage, Alberto was happy to forge useful alliances by ceding wins to other Spanish speakers. It never pays to be too greedy. We’re now all waiting to see whether he will ride the Tour. Frankly, it won’t be the same without  him sublimely dancing away on the pedals.

The Premiership football season finished with my beloved boys in claret and blue in 9th place thanks to Mr Houllier who, due to ill health, will not be with us next season. Neither will Ashley Young who benefited greatly from Houllier’s guidance and is most probably going to be playing for Manchester United. OGCN diced with danger all season only avoiding the drop thanks to the misfortune of our closest neighbours, Monaco, who we’ll not be playing next season which is pity as I always enjoy a trip to their magnificent stadium. More importantly, funding has been secured for our new stadium, where we will be hosting games at Euro 2016. Additional funding has also been found to strengthen the squad.

In Paris, Li Na became the first Chinese tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament ensuring her immortality in Chinese sporting history. In the men’s finals, Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer to take his Borg-equalling 6th title. He was no doubt grateful that Roger had beaten  Novak Djokavic in the semis. So who’s going to lift the Wimbledon crown? I suspect the same four players in the French semis will also be contesting the ones at Wimbledon. Although I’m sure the great British public will be hoping for a different outcome. Don’t bet on it.

Today I finally watched the highlights of last week end’s GP Aperol de Catalunya held at Europe’s most modern race track in Montmelo, 20km north of Barcelona. I’m determined to go and watch some live MotoGP action next year and this is the closest racetrack to us. Yes, it’s a mere 5 hours away by car. Second closest is Mugello in Tuscany but that’s held during The Tour, so it’s a no no.

The usual suspects featured in all three classes where there were plenty of spills but, more importantly, no injuries, except to their pride. In 125cc, Nico Terol took his 4th win in 5 races and 14th consecutive podium appearance. However, if Johann Zarco had not been adjudged to have illegally overtaken him in the home straight, and gotten a 20 second penalty, the result would have been oh, so different. Not unnaturally the French were up in arms, but it was the right decision. Le Mans winner Maverick Vinales, the Paris Hilton sponsored rider, led briefly only to finish 2nd with Jonas Folger completing the podium. Terol is romping away with the championship.

In Moto2, Stefan Bradl used his 5th consecutive pole to register his 3rd win of the season ahead of Le Mans winner Marc Marquez and, local boy, Aleix Espargaro, making his maiden podium appearance. Bradl leads the championship ahead of Simone Corsi and Andrea Iannone.

Despite his pole position, Marco Simoncelli finished back in 6th place while Casey Stoner cruised into first place on the first lap and stayed there. The two boys from Yamaha took 2nd (Jorge Lorenzo) and 3rd (Ben Spies). This was Spies’s first podium of the season and the Texan’s just extended his contract with Yamaha. The Air Asia British GP from Silverstone starts tomorrow but with our trip to Lugano, I might well have to settle for the highlights again.

The Criterium du Dauphine is one of my favourite races, more intimate and immediate than the Tour. In previous years, I’ve gone to watch the final week end’s stages but not this year. Sadly, I missed Alex seizing yellow though today I did see the highlights of him losing it to Bradley Wiggins. However, it’s the Germans who are the talking point at this year’s race with Tony Martin winning yesterday’s time-trial and John Degenkolb winning on Tuesday and again today.  Admittedly most of the sprinters, but not all, are going to ride the Tour de Suisse. The Tour favourites, with the exception of Basso, look to be in fine form ahead of the Tour and, not unnaturally, were unwilling to risk all in yesterday’s rain soaked stage when they’ve bigger fish to fry in July.  I’ll probably have to settle for watching the concluding highlights of this race.

My beloved is due back on this evening’s late, late flight from Frankfurt which is inevitably delayed. Happily, I don’t have to either collect him or wait up. He’s got his own wheels and his keys. I’m planning on profiting from the good weather with a ride tomorrow morning ahead of our departure for Lugano. However, the weather forecast there is not looking at all good while we’re forecast to have plenty of sunshine here. We may have to make yet another executive decision tomorrow morning. That way, I’ll at least get to watch all the action live on the television.

Super Sunday

I seem to have spent the week end unsuccessfully dodging cloud bursts. Having decided to skip yesterday’s La Vencoise we enjoyed a lengthy ride along the coast, arriving home just after the rain started. Meanwhile, the 400 riders who started La Vencoise enjoyed mixed fortunes. If you were a fast rider, the weather didn’t trouble you too much. If you weren’t so fast, you experienced fog, hail and chilly conditions. We all know what would have happened to me, don’t we?

Today started brightly enough. I decided to ride with the club to the pointage in Menton but ended up dropping back to keep a potential new member company. He was clearly struggling and, after a short chat with him, I reached the conclusion that we weren’t the club for him. No, if you want companionable rides at a leisurely pace, club mates who wait for you and with whom you can enjoy a cup of coffee, you need to join a neighbouring club. He thanked me for my advice and, since he was finding it difficult to hold my wheel (yes, really), decided to turn around. I rode on alone, enjoying the sunshine and the silence. I passed Phil Gil at Cap d’Ail, clearly awaiting his riding companions. He gave me a cheery wave. He’s such a nice bloke.

On the way back, having already been soaked by a cloudburst in Monaco, I popped into to see how my friend, who was knocked off his bike last Sunday, was faring. He’s putting a brave face on things but clearly finding the inactivity testing. He’s got to wear a corset for 45 days to protect his broken vertebrae. I volunteered to take him to his hospital appointments this week. He was proposing to go on the bus. I was having none of it. As I left, the heavens opened once more. The rain abated as I approached Nice only to start falling again just before I reached home. My beloved had gone to a business meeting in Menton so I could enjoy a leisurely hot shower before slipping into something comfortable and reposing on the sofa to watch a packed afternoon of sporting action: Monster Energy Moto GP from Le Mans, the Giro d’Italia from the slopes of Mount Etna and Arsenal v Villa.

Nico Terol’s domination of this season’s 125cc ended on the final corner of the final lap of the Le Mans circuit after jousting with a 16-year old called Maverick Vinales (what a brilliant name) who didn’t look old enough to be out without his Mum, let alone ride a bike. In fact he was too young to be given a bottle of champers on the podium – very responsible of the organisers. Efren Vazquez rounded out the podium.  Reigning 125cc champion Marc Marquez finally managed to finish a Moto2 race, without crashing, to take his maiden win in this class. He worked his way through the field to take the lead from Thomas Luthi with 5 laps to go. Takahashi was 3rd with current championship leader Stefan Bradl in 3rd place. Bradl’s closest rival for the championship, Iannone crashed on the first lap.

In the blue-riband event, the fireworks started in the warm up lap. Pole position holder, Casey Stoner, had a dust up with Randy de Puniet which earned him a Euros 5,000 fine. Meanwhile, Jorge Lorenzo’s first bike went up in flames, literally. Initially, Stoner was overtaken by his front-row companions, Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso but he clawed his way back into the lead after 2 1/2 laps and stayed there to finish a massive 14 seconds ahead of everyone else and record his second win of the season. Watch out Jorge, he’s closing the gap. Meanwhile, all the action happened way behind his back. Pedrosa clashed with Marco Simoncelli on lap 17, who was pushing him for 2nd place. Dani crashed, breaking his right collarbone. He’s only just recovering from an operation to resolve issues with his broken left collarbone. Simoncelli was given a ride-through penalty leaving a 3-way fight  between Lorenzo, Dovizioso and Rossi for the remaining podium places. Lorenzo ran wide with 3 laps remaining and finished 4th. Rossi couldn’t get past Dovi who finished 2nd. This is Rossi’s first podium of the season, and his 175th in all classes,I’m sure it won’t be his last.

On yesterday’s stage, allegedly one for the sprinters, neither Alberto Contador (SaxoBank) nor Oscar Gatto (Farnese) had read the script. I couldn’t resist coming up with a red top headline “Contador catches competition catnapping”. Those among you who are linguistically gifted will know that “gatto” is Italian for cat. As a consequence of his second place, Alberto gained 17 seconds, setting the stage for today’s ride up Mount Etna on Nibali’s home turf. Fireworks were anticipated but it looked as if we were going to get just a damp squib. The diminutive Jose Rujano (Androni) who’s never, ever going to make into that hallowed group of riders who weigh more than me, however much I lose, had set off towards the summit. Everyone was seemingly happy to let him go. Not so Alberto, who rocketed up the slope with 7km to go. Scarponi tried to give chase but blew up. The others took turns in trying to chase him down but to little avail.  Having reached Rujano it took Bert three fierce attacks to dislodge him from his back wheel. Alberto took his maiden Giro stage, the pink jersey and the plaudits. Nibali is now 81 seconds down.

My beloved boys in claret and blue took advantage of Arsenal’s defensive frailties to win 2-1 at the Emirates. The money paid for Darren Bent, who scored both of Villa’s goals, is looking like money well spent. But I have to ask, boys why couldn’t you play like that for the entire season? Danger averted. Not so for OGCN who lost a 6-pointer 3-0 away at Nancy.