Hanging up their helmets

A number of riders have announced their intention to retire. For some it’s recognition that it’s time to step down and for others it’s the realisation that injuries have called time on their careers. So in 2011 we’re bidding a fond farewell to a number of luminaries, most notably 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre, Ag2r’s Cyril Dessel who graced the yellow jersey in 2007 and long serving domestiques Inigo Cuesta, Kurt Asle Arvesen, Charlie Wegelius, Sylvain Calzati and, one of my faves, Jose Vincente Garcia Acosta.

On Tuesday evening this week, at the Hotel Castillo de Gorraiz, in Pamplona, 39-year old “Txente” called time on a career that had spanned 17 seasons in the pro-peloton after starting as a stagiare in 1994. The Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana are not going to be quite the same without him setting tempo on the front of the peloton for a large part of the race. At 186cm and 76kg, he’s a member of that very select sub-set of riders who weigh more than me. However, with a resting heart beat of 50, he’s obviously in better shape. He’s one of the few current riders (along with Frederic Guesdon, Pablo Lastras and David Moncoutie) to have spent his entire professional career with the same team throughout it’s various guises and has ridden in support of some notable riders such as Miguel Indurain, Abraham Olano (with whom he won GP Eddy Merckx in 1998), Alex Zuelle, Jose Marie Jiminez, Oscar Pereiro and (the soon to return) Alejandro Valverde under the guidance of first Jose Miguel Echavarri and, since 2008, Eusebio Unzue.

He has a modest, but nonetheless impressive, palmares which includes a stage win in the Tour de France. He won from a breakaway on Bastille Day 2000, on 185km Stage 13 from Avignon to Draguignan, ahead of a Frenchman. He also won two stages in the Vuelta (1997 Stage 14 and 2002 Stage 19), a stage win and the overall in the 1996 Tour of Navarra, 2nd stage of the 2003 Vuelta a Burgos, 3rd stage in 2006 Vuelta a Castilla y Leon and been part of 4 team time trial victories. He’s taken part in 27 Grand Tours (12 Tours, 14 Vueltas), finishing 26. He failed to finish this year’s Vuelta after a fall on stage 5, on the Alto de Valdepenas de Jaen, where he fractured his arm, ribs and vertebrae, forcing the temporary postponement of his retirement announcement which he’d planned to make in Madrid. With 14 completed Vuelta’s under his belt only Inigo Cuesta and Federico Echave have completed more. Txente claims his favourite race is the Tour de France, not the Vuelta.

A Basque by birth (Pasaia, Guipuzcoa), he now resides in nearby Tafalla in Navarra where he’s going to be spending the next couple of months enjoying his retirement and pondering his next move. Whatever it is I wish him, and all the other retirees, the best of luck in their new careers.

A good read

This month’s Cycle Sport magazine opines on “the best 50 cycling books of all time [in the English language]”. Lists are always interesting, open to debate and, ultimately, very subjective despite their authors proclaiming their objectivity. Given that I have quite (typical British understatement) a large collection of books on cycling, I was keen to see where we agreed, where we differed and which books were in their list which I had yet to acquire and read.

I guard my books and only a favoured few are allowed to borrow them. I say this from bitter experience as a number of books have been borrowed and never returned and, as they are now out of print, are proving difficult to replace. For example, my beloved, one of the worst culprits, may borrow any book but cannot remove it from the premises. I don’t keep lists of who has what book at any point in time, I don’t need to, I know by heart where they all are at any given time.

You will note that I qualified the list as, not unnaturally, Cycle Sport has only included books either written in English or those subsequently translated into English. So, for example, “Tomorrow We Ride” written by Jean Bobet, “A Century of Paris-Roubaix” by Pascal Sergent and “We Were Young and Carefree” by Laurent Fignon make the list as they’ve been translated from the original French into English.

For similar reasons, the biographies feature largely English speaking riders notably Tommy Simpson, Barry Hoban, Robert Millar, Graeme Obree, Allan Peiper, Greg LeMond, Stephen Roche, Sean Kelly, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and many tomes about that man Lance. However, a couple of my favourite books feature cyclists who are not so well known and they’re both on the list. “A Significant Other” by Matt Rendell covers a former domestique of Lance’s from Columbia, Victor Hugo Pena. While, “Kings of the Mountains” looks at the role of cycling within Columbia’s most recent history and the Columbian riders who’ve ridden in Europe.

Stories about a few foreign riders make the cut, again solely because they’re written in English: Paul Howard’s revealing “Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape” about Jacques Anquetil, Matt Rendell’s excellent “The Death of Marco Pantani” and William Fotheringham’s “Fallen Angel – The Passion of Fausto Coppi”.

I have read a number of books about Pantani and I would say that while Rendell’s is undoubtedly an excellent read, and certainly a measured account, it falls short of Philippe Brunel’s tale “Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani” simply because Brunel had greater access to Pantani while he was alive.

My favourite book about Il Campionissimo was written by Jean-Paul Ollivier “Fausto Coppi La Gloire et Les Larmes”. As a historian, the author weaves his tale about Coppi against a backdrop of the social and economic history of Italy. As a consequence, he breathes more life and meaning into his subject and leaves  the reader with a greater understanding. I’ve also enjoyed the same author’s insights into Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor.

A book I’ve read recently, and whose words really resonated with me, is “Le Metier” by Michael Barry. The book is a seasonal account of the last year Barry rode for Columbia-HTC,  beautifully illustrated with photographs. In my opinion, Barry most accurately conveys to his readers what it’s like to be a professional bike rider. Even as a hobby cyclist I found I could empathise with his accounts of training on his own.

Doping looms large as one of the most frequently covered topics in books on Cycle Sport’s List: specifically, Will Voet’s “Breaking the Chain”, Jeremy Whittle’s “Bad Blood”, from “Lance to Landis” by David Walsh and Paul Kimmage’s “A Rough Ride”.  For me, the most illuminating book on this subject is  “Prisonnier du Dopage”  by Philippe Gaumont a former pro-cyclist who rode for Cofidis 1997-2003.

There are a few surprising omissions. To my knowledge there’s only one book in English about the Vuelta “Viva la Vuelta – the story of Spain’s great bike race” by Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell and for that reason alone it should be on the list. “The Giro d’Italia – Coppi versus Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy” is the only book on that race on Cycle Sport’s list. For some reason, neither the Vuelta nor the Giro have spawned the same number of books as the Tour, not even in their native languages.

There’s a few other books I would put on my list which are not on Cycle Sport’s. I rather enjoyed David (Talking Heads) Byrne’s “Bicycle Diaries”  which chronicles his thoughts and observations as he pedals through some of the major cities in the world. 1960’s Italy and Italian cycling culture in brought to life in Herbie Sykes “The Eagle of Canavese” about Franco Balmamion who won back to back Giro titles. I loved “Indurain: una pasion templada” by Javier Garcia Sanchez which showcases one of Spain’s sporting idols, the very modest and humble Miguel Indurain whom I have been fortunate to meet. For those of you whose better halves don’t share your passion for cycling, can I suggest a Xmas stocking filler: “Roadie: the Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer” by Jamie Smith.

I don’t have all the books on Cycle Sport’s list and that in itself raises some concerns as I’m now bound to try and obtain copies,  even though many are probably out of print,  because my collection just won’t be complete without them. Amazon and eBay, here I come………………………….

Conflicted

When I worked as a volunteer at the World Road Cycling Championships in Stuttgart 2007, manning the UCI’s VIP Welcome Desk, I met the guys responsible for Melbourne 2010. My friend Valeria and I had a bit of a running joke with them on account of our accommodation problems. Let me explain.

Initially, Stuttgart had asked if we could work for two weeks, the week before and the week of the Championships. We both consented and I found us a handily placed, inexpensive, small family-run hotel. The month before, Stuttgart decided they only needed our services for 10 days. So I changed my flights and the hotel booking.

I arrived at the hotel before Valeria, checked in and the owner asked me if I’d like to pay for the night’s accommodation in advance. A strange question I thought, given we were staying for 10 days. But no, it appears she had totally mis-read my email, painstakingly written in German, and thought we were now only staying for one night. When Valeria arrived, I had to break the bad news to her: the WiFi wasn’t working. Then, the really bad news, we only had one night’s accommodation.

Fortunately, the hotel-owner could also accommodate us on Sunday but thereafter, we were on our own. Not a problem, or so you would think in a large town like Stuttgart – wrong! Not only were the World Championships in town, being held at the old Exhibition Centre, but there was also an exhibition being held at the brand, spanking new Exhibition Centre. No room at any of the inns, hotels, pensions, hostels or doss houses according to the Tourist Office. Suddenly, those two sofas in the reception of the Hotel Meridien, where we were working (also fully booked), were beginning to look tempting. We starting scanning the UCI guest list to see who had single occupancy of a double room: one, Miguel Indurain. Dream on, Valeria.

Thanks to my beloved’s Accor loyalty card, we managed to find rooms in some of their hotels. It became a bit of a joke, each morning the Australians would stop by and enquire whether we’d got beds for that evening. In the event that we hadn’t, they offered to share so that we could have one of their rooms.    

So, having pre-registered my interest in volunteering for Melbourne 2010 back in July 2009, an email inviting me to complete the relevant documentation recently popped into my in-box. Trouble is I’d had such a good time at Mendrisio 2009 not being a volunteer, that I was now conflicted. What should I do?

In the end I volunteered. But in completing the documentation was advised that it was obligatory for all volunteers to attend a training session being held the month before the Championships. Cunning move on the part of the organisers to validly eliminate any overseas volunteers. However, my conscience was clear. I had promised to volunteer, and I had.