(Finally) Postcard from Siena and Strade Bianche

We drove along the Autostrade dei Fiori enjoying the sunshine and glorious sea views until we turned off at Genoa and headed for Tuscany and Siena. It’s a six-hour drive from home and we stopped just the once to refuel the car and my beloved. We made good time and only had a small but heavy rain shower en route and not much wind. The Smart doesn’t like wind, a bit like me on the bike, unless it’s a tailwind.

We’d much enjoyed watching the racing in Strade Bianche last year and it’s now a fixture on our sporting calendar. I particular like that there’s a women’s and men’s race – both providing a cracking spectacle. We dropped the car and luggage at the hotel, on the edge of the old town and close by the race start, and walked to pick up our accreditations before reacquainting ourselves with the town. Specifically, I was looking for a restaurant for dinner. Once I’d found a couple of likely candidates I treated my beloved to a coffee and crostata (delicious Italian jam tart). While I had fruit tea with a local biscuit,  a cavaillucci, made without eggs or fat, studded with fennel seeds, walnuts and citrus peel. The town was buzzing in anticipation of tomorrow’s race, the local population significantly swelled by the thousands of amateur riders taking part in Sunday’s Gran Fondo. We even spotted a few of the pros drinking coffee after a leisurely reconnaissance.

My choice of restaurant was spot on. A family-run affair for several generations with the almost obligatory white linen tablecloths and napkins. We were the first couple to be seated but the restaurant subsequently filled up rapidly. We were greeted with a glass of Prosecco and a small serving of soup, one of the house specialities. I love a good home-made soup, just what you need to keep the cold and damp at bay. I ordered a vegetable soup to start and could happily have eaten the whole tureen but then I’d have had no room for my lobster spaghetti. Sated we happily strolled around the old town taking in the sites, marveling at the splendid architecture and trying to burn-off the calories consumed at dinner.

The forecast for Saturday was rain and riders in both races left warmly dressed with their rain jackets in their pockets. They knew the conditions were going to be difficult for them. It was going to be epic! While my beloved took photos, I popped to the buses to drop of some of my race-winning brownies for two lucky teams to enjoy post-race and chatted with a few acquaintances.

After the men’s race had departed, I headed to the food shops to stock up on some Italian goodies. Laden down with artisan cold meats, cheeses, tomatoes, artichokes, olive oil, pici (local pasta, a sort of thicker and rougher spaghetti) cavaillucci (see above), and ricciarelli (soft almond biscuits) we staggered back to the hotel and left it in the chilly car.

By now it was time for an early lunch in a small bar overlooking the main Piazza, more soup, this time ribollita, before heading to the finish line to cheer on the ladies. Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) won with an audacious attack to cross the finish line arms aloft. The girls all looked exhausted and were covered from head to foot in wet mud. They looked more like they’d taken part in a cyclo-cross rather than road race. Sadly, my photographer had left his camera in the hotel. Honestly, I sometimes wonder why I take him to races!

We then retired to a bar near the final climb to watch the television coverage of the men’s race before taking our positions to see the finish.The light was such it was hard to see the riders as they emerged from the gloom on that final climb. It was evident that Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski had victory in the bag from the sizeable time gap between himself and his pursuers, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens.

The riders streamed up the hill in ones and twos to raucous applause and cries of encouragement, they were grimed with dirt though not quite as much as on that famous 2010 Giro d’Italia stage. They all looked chilled to the bone and in need of some hot chocolate and my brownies. It’s the first time my race-winning brownies have occupied the top two spots on the podium even before being consumed. Obviously, they’re powerful incentives.

Both races had provided spectacle and, despite the conditions, it was clear from the riders’ comments, it’s a race they enjoy. In the post race press conference, you could sense Kwiatkowski’s pleasure at once more ascending to the top step of the podium. The Sky boys assured me they’d saved him a large brownie, surely a fitting reward for his efforts.

All this race watching is pretty exhausting and our minds soon turned to dinner. We opted for lighter fare – tagliolini with truffles and a mixed salad  – in one of our favourite restaurants before heading back to the hotel for an early night. We woke the next day to heavy skies and much more rain.

We watched the brave 5,000 amateurs stream out of Siena on the heels of some notable former pros including Fabian Cancellara, Ivan Basso and Paolo Bettini. Rather them than us, many were already cold and wet through from waiting in line for the depart. It was going to be a very long day in the saddle.

As we drove home, the sky brightened and the sun shone, particularly once we were back on the coast. It’s lovely to travel but sometimes even nicer to return home.

Tour style stakes

Sometimes weeks just don’t pan out the way you’d hoped or planned. This has been one such week. Obligations have circumvented my desire to dip into my recent delivery of books and watch the live presentations of next year’s Giro and Tour routes. Instead, I have found myself reading everyone else’s views. So there’s not much left for me to add as others  have pondered at length the suitability of the routes for various riders and highlighted key stages which might influence the outcome of both races. However, while reading the summaries, a comment caught my attention where references were made to “red carpets” and “stylish attire”. Were we talking award ceremonies and lycra clad lovelies or was this about the parcours of a race? Possibly both. I decided to check out the photographic evidence.

First up, the Giro and, yes, the Italians are pretty snappy dressers. I was going to criticize Michele Scarponi for his rather 50s style casual outfit until I realised that Damiano Cunego was similarly clad. Obviously a team mandated outfit with both riders wishing they were wearing anything but. Clearly Jakob Fuglsang and Mark Cavendish, who both look to be squirming in their seats, appear woefully underdressed. And they’re not the only ones. There were a number of jean and sweatshirt clad riders. Unlike Alberto Contador, who it has to be said looks every inch a winner.

In mitigation, the boys don’t work in offices and spend their days either in lycra or their team’s idea of casual sporting wear. They probably have little call for formal wear apart from award ceremonies, weddings and the odd formal invitation. I think this is what probably explains the plethora of shiny and dark outfits. They’ve been bought to be worn at weddings where typically in Europe everyone wears, for want of  better words, evening or cocktail attire.

IMHO  occasions such as these presentations warrant at least a suit, or jacket and trousers. I appreciate the fashion for wearing suits with dress shirts and no ties, but dress shirts are meant to be worn with ties, so button downs, t-shirts or more casual shirts look rather better if you’re going tieless.  No, that’s not a nod towards Dan Martin’s v-necked t-shirt and trendy too small jacket. With their very slim physiques, the boys also probably find it difficult to buy well fitting, off the peg, outfits. Looking at a few of them in shots where they were standing, I was itching to whip out my box of pins and take up a few of the overlong trouser legs. Me, a woman who has been known to take buttons to the repairers to be put back on to garments.

Plenty of miles left on the clock

Things don’t necessarily improve when they retire. Here’s  some blasts from the past with Hushovd and Ballan. To be fair, on the few occasions I’ve encountered Super Mario, he’s been impeccably turned out but here he looks to be wearing a jacket from his foray into the Italian version of “Strictly Come Dancing”. Still he and Gianni Bugno are both wearing ties while Paolo Bettini, at clearly a little over his fighting weight, is wearing an incredibly shiny suit.

Next, our attention turns to the Tour Presentation where Yannick Noah, former darling of the French clay courts, was roped in to assist because, I asssume, of his connection to Le Coq Sportif who henceforth will be providing the yellow jersey. Yannick looking suitably laid back next to an (what else) impeccably attired Badger.

Most of the boys seemed to sharpen their act for the Tour, although Cav remained resolutely casually dressed. A number of the boys had problems knotting their ties but, as they were probably travelling without their wives (and wardrobe moderators) this can be overlooked. Current and former Tour champions easily won the best turned out competition with the Olympic champion running them close.

Tour Presentation 2012

One of my girlfriends wisely advises “dress for the job you want, not the job you’ve got!” She’s a Harvard alumni who lectures widely on leadership and has a high profile career in property development. As I looked at this photo, her phrase sprang to mind. What do those boys want to do next?

Countdown to Copenhagen

World Championships Copenhagen 2011

As the World Road Race Championships kick off today in Copenhagen, I find myself in the unusual position of still being at home. Pressure of work and flight schedules mean that I’ll be watching only the Road Races and not the Individual Time Trials. Of course, the latter are often much easier races to predict than the former. However, I cannot pretend to know enough about the juniors, ladies or even the U23s to even think about making any sort of prediction. Of course, this won’t hold me back in the Men’s Races. However, before turning our attention to this year’s races, let’s have a quick look at a few historical facts and figures, some of which feature this year’s location:-

History:

  • The first Cycling Championships took place in 1927 at the Nuerburgring in Germany  and was won by Alfredo Binda, of Italy.
  • Belgium has the most wins per country with 25 victories from 17 different riders followed by Italy (19 wins), France (8 wins),
    Netherlands (7 wins) and Spain (5 wins).
  • Only five cyclists have successfully defended their title (three Belgians and two Italians): Georges Ronsse (Belgium, 1928–29); Rik Van
    Steenbergen (Belgium, 1956–57); Rik van Looy (Belgium, 1960–61); Gianni Bugno (Italy, 1991–92); Paolo Bettini (Italy, 2006–07).

Multiple winners:

  • 3 wins: Alfredo Binda (Ita), Rik Van Steenbergen (Bel), Eddy Merckx (Bel), Oscar Freire (Spa)
  • 2 wins: Georges Ronsse (Bel), Briek Schotte (Bel), Rik Van Looy (Bel), Freddy Maertens (Bel), Greg Lemond (USA), Gianni Bugno (Ita),
    Paolo Bettini (Ita)

Most medals:

  • Alfredo Binda (Ita): 1927(1),1929(3),1930(1),1932(1)
  • Rik Van Steenbergen (Bel): 1946(3),1949(1),1956(1),1957(1)
  • André Darrigade (Fra): 1957(3),1958(3),1959(1),1960(2)
  • Rik Van Looy (Bel): 1956(2),1960(1),1961(1),1963(2)
  • Raymond Poulidor (Fra): 1961(3),1964(3),1966(3),1974(2)
  • Greg Lemond (USA): 1982(2),1983(1),1985(2),1989(1)
  • Oscar Freire (Esp): 1999(1),2000(3),2001(1),2004(1)

Sundry points:

  • Twelve riders have won a world title in their home country so far, the last one was Alessandro Ballan (ITA) who won in gold in Varese, Italy in 2008.
  • Abraham Olano (Esp) is the only rider to have won gold in both the road race (Duitama, Colombia, 1995) and the time trial (Valkenburg,
    Netherlands, 1998).
  • Raymond Poulidor (Fra) has participated in 18 world championship road races.
  • Fastest edition: 46.538km/h (Zolder, Belgium, 2002)
  • Slowest edition: 27.545km/h (Nürburgring, Germany, 1927)
  • Longest edition: 297.5km (Copenhagen, Denmark, 1937)
  • Shortest edition: 172km (Copenhagen, Denmark, 1931)
  • Largest group to sprint for victory: 46 (Lisbon, Portugal, 2001)
  • Biggest margin between gold and silver: 19.43 seconds (Budapest, Hungary, 1928)

Medallists by nations:

  • 1. Belgium 25-11-11
  • 2. Italy 19-20-16
  • 3. France 8-11-15
  • 4. Netherlands 7-4-6
  • 5. Spain 5-5-9
  • 6. Switzerland 3-6-4
  • 7. USA 3-2-0
  • 8. Germany 2-7-5
  • 9. Ireland 1-1-3
  • 10. Australia 1-1-1
  • 14. Denmark 0-3-2

World Road Race Cycling Champions (last 10 years only):

  • 2001 Oscar Freire, Spain
  • 2002 Mario Cipollini, Italy
  • 2003 Igor Astarloa, Spain
  • 2004 Oscar Freire, Spain
  • 2005 Tom Boonen, Belgium
  • 2006 Paolo Bettini, Italy
  • 2007 Paolo Bettini, Italy
  • 2008 Alessandro Ballan, Italy
  • 2009 Cadel Evans, Australia
  • 2010 Thor Hushovd, Norway

Omnipresent

A headline in last week end’s Nice Matin caught my eye “je ne suis pas prete pour le cyclotourisme”. This was said by Jeannie Longo in a recent, frank  interview on the occasion of her 52nd birthday. I, for one, am delighted. It’s bad enough having to compete with the one or two local riders who fall into my age group without adding Jeannie into the mix. 

Always a winner

I have an enormous amount of admiration for this lady who is head and shoulders “France’s greatest ever cyclist” of either sex. Just look at her impressive palmares: 4 Olympic medals in 7 participations, 13 World Championships, 57 French titles, 3 Tours de France  and those are just the highlights! On the two occasions I have encountered her this year she has been generous with her time, modest to a fault and very encouraging of younger cyclists.

She puts her longevity down to her ability to adapt. I would put it down  her mental fortitude, professionalism and will to win. She also gives a few tips on how she maintains her svelte frame at 43 kilos: plenty of “Bio” fruit and vegetables and only whole grain bread spread with unpasteurised butter. I’ve taken note.

Interestingly, she cites Cancellara as her favourite sports person. He’s not just Jeannie’s. This year, for the first time, he was awarded the prestigious Velo d’Or, although he has podiumed for the last four years. This trophy is presented by French magazine Velo to the outstanding cyclist of the season based on votes cast by an international jury of journalists. It’s an award that tends to favour Grand Tour winners. The last Classics riders to win it were Bettini in 2006 and Boonen in 2005, who also combined Classics wins with  rainbow jerseys.

Contador had won the Velo d’Or for the last three successive years but, this year, after recent revelations, finds himself in 2nd place, well down on Cancellara. In third place was Andy Schleck, who also picked up the award for best young rider.  Obviously, 2nd, or even maybe 1st, in the Tour tops Nibali’s 3rd in the Giro and 1st in the Vuelta. The award for the best French rider went to the ever-smiling Tommy Voeckler, just pipping French housewives’ favourite, Sylvain Chavanel. Velo do not have an equivalent award for the ladies. If they did, Jeannie would easily have won it the most number of times.

Due to some administrative oversight, Velo did not canvass my opinion in this year’s competition. However, I’m broadly in agreement with the results, save my top three would have been: 1. Fabulous Fabian, 2. Vicenzo Nibali, 3. Andy Schleck. This preference would be reflected in my podium for best young rider: 1. Vicenzo Nibali, 2. Andy Schleck, 3. Mark Cavendish. My favourite Frenchman would have been Davide Moncoutie (sorry Tommy!).

Many nations seem to have awards for their top cyclists of the season. Here’s my guess on who should get what, where:-

  • Belgium – Phil Gil
  • Holland – Gesink
  • Spain – Hot Rod
  • Italy – Nibali
  • Norway – Hushovd
  • Denmark – Breschel
  • Sweden – Larsson
  • Finland – Veikkonen
  • Britain – Cavendish
  • USA – Phinney
  • Canada – Hesjedal
  • Ireland – Martin D
  • Kazakhstan – Vino
  • Columbia – Duque
  • Portugal – Machado
  • Russia – Menchov
  • Australia – Evans
  • Luxembourg – Schleck Jr
  • Switzerland – Fabulous Fabian
  • Germany – No one, cycling has been banished from the public conscience, but it should be Greipel
  • Japan – Arashiro
  • Czech Republic – Kreuziger
  • Slovakia – Sagan
  • Estonia – Taaramae
  • Austria – Eisel
  • Poland – Niemiec
  • Ukraine – Grivko

Apologies, I was starting to get carried away there but this is only reflective of the sport’s globalisation. I’m aware that I’ve made no distinction between older and younger riders and I’ve omitted numerous countries, but c’est la vie.

Unbowed and unbeaten

This morning M Le President, the Treasurer and I met with the club’s designated auditor. He’s a club member and is Treasurer of another club in the area. On behalf of the Town Hall, the supplier of most of our funds, he checks the club’s books on a regular basis. He spent 40 odd years working as an accounts clerk for a state industry and has decidedly archaic views on what constitutes good accounting practice.

In me, he has met his match. I don’t want him browbeating the Treasurer, she’s still on a steep learning curve and I don’t want her to be discouraged. So I have to take up cudgels on her behalf. This morning I took no prisoners and bludgeoned him. It was brutal but I didn’t want to waste the morning explaining the bleedin’ obvious.

As a consequence, I managed to spend a few pleasurable hours on the bike, riding one of my regular routes, exchanging greetings with other riders and generally enjoying the balmy weather. I got back just in time to watch the final 40km of the Tour of Lombardy. For me this is when the curtain falls on the cycling season and I turn my attention to football.

The race conditions were appalling: poor visibility and pouring rain. The peloton had already been whittled down to a handful as the leading group crested the  one  big climb of the day. On its descent, a combination of fallen leaves, poor road surface, narrow roads and plenty of surface water made the leaders cautious in the precarious conditions.  Although Nibali, usually an excellent descender, took a tumble on one of the corners.

Philippe Gilbert, everyone’s favourite for a back to back win after his mid-week triumph in the Tour of Piedmont,  built a lead on the descent which he consolidated once joined by Michele Scarponi. Even though  Euskaltel Euskadi and Caisse d’Epargne had two riders in the chasing group, it seemed as if the appalling weather conditions had robbed them of the will to organise the chase.

The two leaders increased their lead to over a minute with just 10kms remaining. They then rode shoulder to shoulder on the final ascent, eyeballing one another and occasionally brushing shoulders. Who was going to prove to be the stronger rider?

With 5km remaining, Phil Gil rode away from a tired Scarponi to solo to the third consecutive back-to-back win in this race (2005/6 Bettini, 2007/8 Cunego). Scarponi was 2nd and Pablo Lastras 3rd. My beloved had enjoyed a meaningful conversation with Gilbert in Melbourne Airport. He expressed his disappointment with the World Championships but said he was now focussed on winning the Tour of Lombardy and, while he would like a repeat win at Paris-Tours, felt that jet lag would mitigate against it. Omniscient or what?

It’s Day 3 of my new regime and far too early for boredom to have set in. It’s proving quite a culinary challenge but I’m falling back on a lot of Asian herbs and spices to counteract the blandness. I’m eating either oat or millet porridge flavoured with cinnamon for breakfast, steamed meat or fish for lunch with heaps of steamed or raw vegetables. My one piece of fruit per day forms my mid-afternoon snack and for dinner I’ve been enjoying mixed vegetable soup thickened with “pasta” made from protein rather than flour and water. No substitute for the real thing but in soup, it’s difficult to tell the difference. Fortunately, I’ve been too tired to dream about what I’m forgoing.

It will, however, be more of a challenge next week when my parents arrive. I’ll have to cook completely different meals for them. My father will be looking forward to something other than his own cooking, which is coming along in leaps and bounds. While, my mother will have to be tempted with things I know she enjoys eating, otherwise she won’t eat. When we eat out, I’ll either have oysters or fish and salad (no dressing) followed by an espresso. I will resist leaping on the scales until the end of the week

Postcards from Melbourne II

Today my beloved had a business meeting in Geelong (fortuitous or what!) which gave me an opportunity to check out the course. The ride from Melbourne to Geelong was open and very windy although the forecast for later in the week is for less wind. The circuit around Geelong is on wide, well-maintained roads and the drag up to the finish could well mitigate against a true sprinter, like Cavendish. The two climbs are short and steep but riders like Gilbert and Cancellara will just power up them. Short steep ascents also mean fast ascents which could play into the hands of someone like Fabulous Fabian, enabling him to solo away. On the circuit, the wind may play a part either as a strong head or tailwind. The latter will make it difficult for someone to take a flyer, the latter will assist.

So who are the favourites in the Men’s road race? You cannot discount anyone from those  teams fielding 9 riders. I think Bettini, wily fox that he is, has done his planning and preparation well and chosen a strong squad to support Pozzato who’s obviously in form after the Vuelta and his win in Sunday’s Sun Herald Classic in Ballarat.

I had a chance meeting with the Spanish squad today, who are throwing their weight behind Oscarito, and he certainly fancies that uphill 150m drag to the finish. The boys were wrapped up against the biting cold wind and delayed the start of their practice ride until the squally rain showers had passed. The boys were obviously concerned about the weather and spent sometime checking out the weather forecast for the coming days. Luckily for them (and me) the mercury is set to rise at the week end.

I would categorize it as an Ardennes Classic type of course, although the climbing is concentrated in the latter 2/3rds of the race, so should suit my tip for the top, Gilbert, as well as others who have fared well in these types of races, such as Frank Schleck. That’s why I think it’s a shame that my favourite Kazakh has passed on this race. It would have suited his attacking style and one can always rely on him to enliven any race he enters.

One cannot discount Kolobnev who has performed well in the past (Stuttgart and Mendrisio). Nor can one ignore the home team, the Aussies, who will be keen to not only defend the rainbow jersey but also win on their turf. They should know the course better than anyone.

So am I saying it’s all to play for? No, even assuming that the weather is not a major factor, the stronger, larger teams will seek to put the pure sprinters under pressure and whittle down the peloton to ensure they are not duking it out in the final stretch. It’ll be a fast race and my pick is as follows: Gilbert (1), Pozzatto (2), Oscarito (3).

It’s hard to look beyond Cancellara and Tony Martin for the time trial. This tends to be a much more predictable race. I favour Fabulous Fabian over Tony and I’m going for Lars Boom to place 3rd rather than Edvald Boassen Hagen or Ritchie Porte.

Both women’s races look to be very open with no clear favourites. Though again, I expect riders from the larger teams to hold sway likewise, in the U23 races. In these races I shall be cheering for the French and, in particular, Jeanni Longo who’s old enough to have a grandson riding in the U23 race. That woman is my inspiration.