My sporting week end

My coach has a company which promotes the health benefits of participating in sport. You can either join for a year or buy tickets to participate in events. The first go is free. This Saturday he was encouraging people to either start cycling or get back on their bikes. His existing clients are also invited to participate. I went in anticipation that there just might be a few people slower than me. No such luck! We were a fairly select group, composed largely of his existing clients and just one guy who “hadn’t ridden much recently”. No need to spell out who was bringing up the rear on the ride. One of my coach’s assistants came with us and solicitously enquired as to whether I was finding the parcours too difficult. My coach kindly stepped in to explain that I was his official Lanterne Rouge, a role I perform beautifully and to the very  best of my ability. Frenchmen are such charmers! We only rode for about 90 minutes, ideal preparation for Sunday’s La Lazarides, one of the more testing brevets and one which I rode well at last year.

I spent Saturday afternoon on numerous household tasks while checking out the sporting action on our three televisions. WBA v Villa was shown live on Canal+ and I have to say the boys played well. But, and it’s a big but, they were mugged by the Baggies 2-1 who played with greater purpose, despite being down to 10 men. Meanwhile, in the lounge I was intent on watching the qualifying for Sunday’s Portuguese GP from Estoril. Typically, the favourites all ended up on pole position. Finally, I watched the time-trial in the Tour of Romandie where Messrs Evans (BMC) and Vinokourov (Astana) were poised to knock Pavel Brutt (Katusha) from the top step of the podium. It wasn’t an easy course, although the winner Dave Zabriskie made it look easy as he posted the fasted time. In the post-race interview, I feared for the interviewer’s life when he unwisely suggested that Dave Z (Garvelo) had only won because of more favourably climatic conditions. While that was true, that’s cycling, it’s sometimes the luck of the draw. Superb times were posted by Tony Martin (HTC-High Road) and Cadel Evans lifting them into second and first place respectively. Vinokourov clearly gave it his all but fared less well. He still managed to round out the podium, leaving the race poised for an interesting finish on Sunday. Would Vinokourov attack Evans and Martin?

Sunday dawned with perfect weather conditions for cycling. We rose early and drove to the start in Cannes. We set off with the group cycling 150km although we intended to ride only 100km. I do this largely out of concern for those manning the broom wagon, I don’t like to keep them waiting. Within a couple of kilometers I was distanced from the peloton which had sped off into the wide blue yonder – plus ca change! My beloved kindly kept me company as we wended our way through the positively lush countryside in the L’Esterel, around  Lake St Cassien and up into the surrounding walled villages. I was not riding well and was feeling positively fatigued. On the climb up to Mons I gratefully climbed off and into the waiting broom wagon. I positively hate giving up but sometimes you just know it’s the right thing to do. I had a pounding headache and felt really tired, even though I’d only ridden for 50km. I chose to forgo the end of ride sausages and wine, I didn’t feel I’d deserved them.

Once back home and installed on the sofa, ready for an afternoon’s sporting action, I promptly fell asleep. My beloved roused me from to time to time to observe some of the sporting action or, more correctly, replayed sporting action. In the Rund um den Finanzplatz Eschborn – Frankfurt,  Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) greatly enlivened the race by attacking at every opportunity but Leopard Trek were determined to deliver Fabian Wegmann, last year’s winner, to the line. However, it was another German who took it on the line. John Degenkolb, last year’s world championship runner-up in the U23 catergory, took his third win of the season for HTC-Columbia. The U23 champion, Michael Matthews was 3rd. The roadside was thronged with spectators enjoying the action in the warm sunshine. Cycling clearly isn’t dead in Germany despite the efforts of the German television stations to banish it from air.

On the run into Geneva, on the final stage of the Tour of Romandie, as anticipated, Vinokourov made one of his trademark attacks but was brought swiftly to heel by Sky who set up the win for Ben Swift, ahead of Oscar Freire. The podium remained unchanged. Evans was clearly delighted to bag his second Tour of Romandie title, after the disappointment of missing the Ardennes Classics, in the region where he lived when he came over to Europe as a mountain bike racer and, fittingly, not too far from BMC’s HQ. However, it’s been a good week for Astana with stage wins for Alexandre Vinokourov and Valentin Iglinsky, and podium finishes in the Tours of Romandie (3rd) and Turkey (Andrey Zeits 2nd).

I managed to remain awake long enough to catch all of the re-run action in the MotoGP from Estoril where the track had been made more difficult by patches of wet from the morning’s rain. Nicolas Terol posted his 3rd consecutive win in 125cc class ahead of Victor Faubel and Sandro Cortese. He easily heads the championship rankings. In the Moto2 class, Stefan Bradl won his consecutive Estoril title but not before a tussle with Andrea Iannone who, having zoomed from 17th place into first, slid out of contention to finish 13th, leaving Bradl to record another win ahead of Julian Simon and Yuki Takahashi. It was an emotional podium place for Takahashi who had recemtly lost his younger brother in a motor racing accident. Moto2 rookie, and last year’s 125cc champion, Marc Marquez slid off into the cat litter (again) and has yet to score any points.

In the main event, Dani Pedrosa showed that the recent surgery on his shoulder has worked. He marked Jorge Lorenzo closely before using the slipstream to overtake him 4 laps from home. Casey Stoner was a comfortable 3rd. It wasn’t a classic race as such although there were exciting jousts within the main race. Andrea Divisioso overtook Valentino Rossi on the line for 4th place. Marco Simoncelli crashed out (again). Now there’s a wheel you don’t want to follow.

Finally, OGCN were trounced 4-0 at home to Caen. This was a six pointer and they now find themselves one place, and one point, above the drop zone. There are four other teams on 39 points all of whom have superior goal differences. Come on guys, please don’t fall at the last hurdle!

Early bird

The alarm went off at 07:30 and I really didn’t want to know. I’d not slept well thanks to my beloved’s snoring. He’s now on a yellow card, one more and it’ll be the spare room for him. I’d left my kit handily placed so that not too much effort was required to get me ready to head down to the club’s rendezvous point. Usually I don’t bother, but there were a couple of licences I wanted to distribute so  we could register maximum points at today’s regional concentration.

I set off with the superfast group and soon realised the error of my ways but I wanted to get to the pointage relatively early so that if anyone had forgotten their licence, I could lend them one. Yes, I know it’s cheating but, trust me, this is a common practice. All’s fair in love, war and pointages. Unbelievably a couple of new members had forgotten their licences so I “lent” them ones from members who were missing from today’s ride.

Despite the brisk pace to Antibes, I was feeling chilled to the bone and, job done, decided to head for the relative warmth of one of my favourite watering holes to prevent hypothermia and/or the onset of frostbite in my feet. Nonetheless, I rode back along the coast road enjoying the clarity of the light, the pewter stillness of the sea and the thickly snow-dusted mountains on the horizon. It was one of those days where you could see for miles, or even kilometers. The temperature was rising slowly but it was still far too cold for me.

I grabbed the Sunday newspapers and a coffee before heading home to prepare lunch. Instead of collapsing on the sofa, we went for a long walk along the seafront and basked in the sun’s rays. The place was heaving with families, all with the same thought as us: enjoy it while you can.

Back home and I retreated to the sofa to watch the final stage of the Santos Tour Down Under, a 91km circuit race around Adelaide. I had deliberately not read anything which might give me a clue as today’s winner. Would Garmin-Cervelo manage to preserve Cam Meyer’s grip on the ochre jersey or would it be ripped from his grasp by the sprinters Matt Goss and Michael Matthews? Let battle commence.

Garmin’s strategy was obviously one of attrition and they largely succeeded, although both Goss and Matthews picked up bonus seconds at the first intermediate sprint, but not the second one. It went down to the wire with Goss and Matthews vying to win the sprint finish. In the event their respective parties were spoiled by Sky who set Ben Swift up for the stage win. The relentless pace since the off had probably taken the sting out of the legs of both HTC-High Road and Rabobank. Next up is the GP Marseillaise (30 January) and the Etoille de Besseges (2-7  February).

My sporting fun was not yet over, I still had the cup match, OGCN v OL, to watch.  It was a tightly contested game  with the goalkeepers, both of whom are Nicois, playing at the top of their games. Fittingly, OL were undone in extra time by the “curse of the returning player”. Shortly, thereafter, OL were reduced to 10-men and it was game over. I’m off to bed a happy bunny.

Close run thing

I finally got around to taking my beloved BMC I down to my LBS (Local Bike Shop) to have the set up changed to that of my beloved BMC II. I also splashed out on a new saddle, as the old one was looking kinda sad after close on 30,000km. I had suffered a puncture while out riding this morning thanks to a tack which had left a large hole in my rear tyre and deflated the inner tube.

The hole was so big that there was absolutely no point in replacing the inner tube without first replacing the tyre. I would only have been setting myself up for multiple punctures.  Of course, I cannot possibly have mismatched tyres. So both back and front tyres had to be changed. However, nothing will go to waste. All the rejected bits and bobs went straight into the Burkina Faso box.

We rode back home and, after a shower, I slipped into my favourite lounge wear,the Qatari Airways freebie jimjams, and settled down to watch Stage 5 of the Santos Tour Down Under, 131km to Willunga. We only caught the last 5 kilometers which ended with a sprint finish among the small leading pack , won by Movistar’s Francisco Ventoso ahead of in-form Michael Matthews and Matt Goss. Cameron Meyer, a world champion on the track and Australian time-trial champion, remains in the leader’s ochre jersey and is poised to take his first stage race in Gamin-Cervelo’s colours.

Euskatel’s Gorka Izagirre, whom we’d last seen winning  in the Basque country, took a bit of a flier but was reeled in just before the line. He’s animated a number of stages and races in Australia and I’ll be keeping a look out for him this year.

Meanwhile my beloved football team were hosting Man “Money’s no Object” City at Villa Park. I was praying that we would not suffer the fickle finger of fate from the returning players (Gareth Barry and James Milner). Furthermore, I was hoping for some sign that £18m spent on Darren Bent had been a wise investment on the part of Houllier.

We won 1-0, after Bent had scored on his debut in the 18th minute. A spirited display, particularly by the back four and the first clean sheet for months. Let’s hope that this is a turning point in our season.

After last week’s 2-0 home defeat by Lille, OGCN are  hosting Olympique Lyonnais tomorrow evening in the French League Cup where, frankly, anything could happen.

We’ll be watching the match on the television after (I hope) having successfully defended our Regional Championship. Like the Departmental Championship, which we narrowly lost this season, competition will be fiercest from two clubs which, unlike us, are chock full of veterans (maximum point scorers). M Le President has rallied the troops and I’ll be there to chivy everyone as, unfortunately, he’ll be working.

Memories of Melbourne I

I’ve arrived in Sydney and have now had time to collect my thoughts. You’re probably thinking three races and three sprint finishes, not the outcome I predicted.  True, but let’s look at what took place. The U23 race and that of the women kicked off in similar fashion with a lone American on a mission of self-destruction. All the action took place in the last couple of laps with riders trying but ultimately being unable to escape the oncoming group.  A couple of factors came into play here. The second hill was just that too far from the finish.  Because of the long straight road, any escapee was in full view of the peloton and was further hindered by the strong headwind along the esplanade. Many teams employed negative tactics and riders were unwilling to work together.

The U23 race was won by Michael Matthews, more of an all-rounder, than a pure sprinter. The ladies race might have been won by either Judith Arndt or Nicole Cooke if they hadn’t been so concerned about leading one another to the finish line. Instead, the winner was a powerful sprinter, Italian Giorgia Bronzini. The remaining two spots on the podium were, again, all-rounders, rather than pure sprinters.

The crowds had swelled considerably for Sunday’s race and it was hard finding a good position on the 50m line which had been colonized by the most fervent supporters of the official Tom Boonen fan club, who had travelled to Australia despite the absence of their sporting hero.  Typically, Tom musters thousands of supporters at the World Championships. Having 40 turn up when you’re not even there speaks volumes. The Italians had adopted the 50m marker on the other side of the road but had only an Italian flag while the Flemish could muster t-shirts, flags, hats and balloons: round 1 to the Belgians.

The Men’s Race, which took place in perfect weather conditions, was more of an enigma. The peloton took off from the centre of Melbourne at a positively pedestrian pace aided by a tail wind as far as Weribee. A group of five relatively unknown riders went off the front shortly after the start and built up a seemingly invincible lead of over 23 minutes. No doubt concern was being expressed by the UCI commissars as to what would happen if, having arrived in Geelong, the leading group of 5 lapped the field. In theory, the field would have to retire. Thankfully for the UCI this situation didn’t arise. The leading group, and the sole rider in no man’s land between the two groups, wore themselves out well before the finish line and, one by one, were absorbed back into the peloton, spit out the back and retired.

On reaching Geelong, the peloton had cranked up the pace with riders dropping out on each of the circuits, their work for the day done and dusted. Not unnaturally, the bigger teams (USA, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Australia) did the lion’s share of the work, all hoping to place their protected rider in a winning position. Cadel Evans put on a magnificent defence of his rainbow jersey but rather wore himself out in the process. Philippe Gilbert vied with Cadel for the role of most aggressive rider but his 3rd and final escape was doomed by that strong headwind.  I had erroneously assumed  Filippo Pozzato would work with Philippe Gilbert, on the basis that a medal is better than no medal. I was so wrong: round 2 to the Belgians.

Phil Gil and his shadow

Finally, it was the Russians who reunited the fractured peloton of around 30 riders in the last 1km enabling the mass sprint which was won by the ever popular God of Thunder, Thor Hushovd of Norway who was part of a team of three.  Dane, Matti Breschel moved up a place this year to claim 2nd, while Aussie Allan Davis was 3rd. I wouldn’t call either Hushovd or Breschel pure sprinters, they’re fast finishing rouleurs. Few figured on the final podium, but that’s what makes the racing exciting – it’s unpredictability.

Postcards from Melbourne V

Yesterday, I decided to explore Geelong on foot. I had been tasked by one of my club mates to obtain a signed photo of Cav. I don’t collect cycling memorabilia; any autographs or stuff I collect tends to be by chance and I always take it down to the club for whoever might be interested.  On my travels I exhorted the good citizens of Geelong to come and watch the cycling as many seemed disgruntled at the disruption to their driving/parking arrangements occasioned by the racing. It must have worked as there was a good crowd all around the race course and a great atmosphere for the U23 Road Race.

I had wished the French team good luck as they exited their hotel (our base camp in Geelong) and while waiting for the start of the race noted that Cav was being interviewed on the quayside. I set off at a trot but was too late, arriving only in time to see him ride off in the opposite direction. I retraced my steps to watch what proved to be an exciting race.

U23 races are much more difficult to call:  the best indicator of form being the recent Tour de l’Avenir.  Home town favourite was Michael “Bling” Matthews, while my friend Ute favoured German John Degenkolb. Taylor Phinney was the bookies favourite. Almost as soon as the race started, American Ben King soloed away. A tactic he had used recently to win the US Road Race Championship.

Stars of Tomorrow

The peloton seemed unconcerned but the Aussies sent a man in pursuit, Ben King. Yes, there are two of them, both riding for Trek-Livestrong. Groups of riders kept trying to get away but were constantly hauled back into the main bunch. Eventually, two riders succeeded (Hong Kong’s King Lok Cheung and Belarus’s Andrei Krasilnika) and then a further two (Italy’s Moreno Moser and Britain’s Alex Dowsett) making a bunch of 5 pursuing, the American Ben King. His gap on the peloton never exceeded 6 minutes and at approximately the half-way point, the peloton decided enough was enough and stepped up the pace.

Meanwhile, the front group had splintered leaving Alex Dowsett and Moreno Moser (Francesco’s nephew, so another name with provenance), to pursue the American Ben King.  Moser caught and overtook King at about 3/4s of the way round, managing to stay in front until the 9th lap when the major nations decided to take control of the peloton. This provoked a major split leaving most of the fancied riders in the front group. The French made multiple bids for freedom, but each attempt was reeled back in setting up a mass sprint for the line. With 300metres to go, Bling Matthews came off Phinney’s wheel and launched himself several bike lengths clear. Degenkolb (good call, Ute) was second while, for the first time ever, two riders tied for 3rd place: Guillaume Boivin of Canada and Taylor Phinney. Not so much as a pixel between them. There was however only one medal, so they’ll have to share!