Good save

It’s always enjoyable watching the professional peloton suffer on the same routes and roads that one regularly rides. This week end was no exception other than to say none of us would willingly ride in this sort of weather. Not even if someone were paying us. For the first time in many years, riders in Paris-Nice were welcomed to the Cote d’Azur with snow, gail-force winds, rain and cold temperatures. It’s at times like these you have to admire their fortitude and perseverance in the face of so many climatic obstacles.

As forecast, it started raining heavily just as the peloton hit the descent from Gourdon, a broad, sinuous and steep road which dangerously narrows at Chateauneuf. Roads are always at their most dangerous with a little rain: they’re greasy and very slippy. Many were cautious, indeed one could say over cautious. But with good reason, no one wants their season compromised.

Yesterday, it was a case of right team wrong rider, Alexandre Vinokourov had said that they were going to put an Astana rider on the podium. I assumed he would be that rider. I was wrong. It was instead, Remy di Gregorio who, after a couple of years in the FDJ wilderness, showed that he’s been revitalised by the Astana lifeline.

Right on Remy

Remy set off with around 13km to the finish with no one quite believing that he would manage to stay away, particularly given the narrow margin of his advantage.  His team had controlled the peloton for the first 80km or so and by the time we had television coverage, Garmin-Cervelo were on the front picking up points to preserve the green jersey of Heinrich Haussler. In the final stretch, Movistar took over, one assumes, to catapult Xavier Tondo up the GC. Instead, he slid off his bike just before the finish line.

The favourites all looked to be in preservation mode, not willing to gamble in the perilous conditions. Haussler fell over three times, the last time sliding into a wall. Robbert Kiserlovski (Astana) ended up under a parked van. Those two weren’t the only riders to fall. With 2km to go, Remy’s back wheel slid and  his right leg shot out of the pedal, allowing him to steady himself. Miraculously, he remained upright and continued to press his slim advantage.

Sammy Sanchez decided to use the work done by Movistar to move up on GC, finishing behind di Gregorio to record his 33rd runners-up position. Does this make him a Spanish Poulidor? There was no change to any of the jersey holders, nor the podium.

Today’s stage was much shorter and took in the usual sights of Nice which, one has to say, still looked magnificent on the television coverage despite the constant falling rain and huge waves crashing onto the beach. Sheltering under our brollies, warmly wrapped up, we watched the riders depart and them promptly retired to a bar to warm ourselves and watch the tv coverage. We were joined by many of the walking wounded: riders who have retired thanks to niggling injuries, colds and stomach upsets.

Only 134km to go!

Seizing the opportunity of last year’s last stage winner’s absence (Amael Moinard has retired with a heavy cold), Thomas Voeckler rode away from his breakaway companions to record his 2nd win (3rd French stage win) of this edition of Paris-Nice. You would be hard pressed to find a more popular winner. Sammy set off again, this time with a team mate from the breakaway,  to pull back a few seconds which moved him up another place on GC into 5th. That aside, there were no changes on the podium nor with the jerseys. Tony Martin rode a well judged race to record his first stage-race GC win and provide HTC with another Grand Tour card to play. Andreas Kloeden was 2nd and Bradley Wiggins 3rd. Jean-Christoph Peraud was the best placed Frenchman in 6th place. Rein Taaramae (4th on GC) was the best young rider, Henrich Haussler won the green point’s jersey and Remi Pauriol the spotted mountain one.

(all photographs courtesy of my beloved)

All shook up

We set off yesterday lunchtime for Aix-en-Provence. I let my beloved drive Tom III, largely because I was feeling lousy with my head cold. We arrived, easily parked and went to stand at the finish, within sight of the big tv screen. The team cars and buses were parked behind us and I realised I should have liberated “the shirt for signature” from my LBS, as I’d have had no trouble collecting further signatures – damn. I’ll do that today and see if I can collect a few over the week end.

Sky's Geraint Thomas cooling down
Sky’s Geraint Thomas set the earliest best time only to be superceded by Vacansoleil’s Liewe Westra. Obviously, if you’re riding for a team with GC ambitions,  you’re probably advised to ride within yourself, saving something in the legs for this week end’s stages. As a result, riders come and go without unduly disturbing the results. However, I enjoy time trials as it’s one of the very few occasions you get to see individual riders. On the big screen, you can also appreciate the differences between the time-triallers and the others. The former keep rock solid still on the bike with the legs working like pistons. However, with 25 riders within 90 seconds of the leader, this time-trial was going to finish with a flourish.
Serious bike bling

Richie Porte (SaxoBank-Sungard),  or as he’s called by the French Ritchee Poorty, set the next best time. He ultimately finished 3rd, 29 seconds behind the eventual winner. Yes, this was one stage that went according to expectations. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) wearing his GB champion’s kit blasted around 9 seconds faster than Richie Porte to finish 2nd on the day. The winner, as widely anticipated, was Tony Martin whose fluid pedalling style is a joy to behold. He rode at an average speed of 48.5km/hr and finished 20 seconds ahead of Wiggo.

As predicted, the time-trial results shook up the GC. Martin is now in yellow 36 seconds ahead of Kloeden (RadioShack) and 39 seconds ahead of Wiggins. Locally based Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) is 70 seconds back in 4th, and holder of the best young jersey, with Jean Christophe Peraud (AG2R), the highest placed Frenchman, in 5th, a further 4 seconds down. Given the week end’s topography and forecast weather conditions, the top 12 placed riders can still challenge on GC, but Tony Martin looks pretty determined to hang onto yellow. Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) looks to have a stranglehold on the points jersey, as does Remi Pauriol (FDJ) on the spotted one.

Something left in the tank
It’s official, I have a cold which probably wasn’t helped by my standing in yesterday’s humid and chilly conditions watching the racing. But a girl’s gotta do, what a girl’s gotta do. My tip for today? Alexandre Vinokourov wasn’t totally blown when he finished yesterday. He’d like to win a stage to honour his late friend, Andrei Kivilev, and maybe today’s the day. We’ll see.

Ducking and diving

It’s that time of year when caution needs to be exercised when descending  the Domaine on two wheels thanks to the birds and the bees or, more precisely, the ducks. Our feathered friends are in an amorous mood. There’s evidently a sexual imbalance as these sorties on webbed foot involve a lady duck being hotly pursued by a couple of drakes. Now, I’m not sure how this works. Do they strut their stuff and she picks which one she fancies, or is it less consensual? In any event, they freeze in the centre of the road as you approach on two wheels and then waddle back and forth making a duck for dinner the more likely outcome.

I have been trying to profit from the milder weather as the forecast for the week end and into next week is not favourable. That’s right, this year’s Race to the Sun will in fact be a race to the rain. Descending the Grande Corniche will be particularly treacherous. The drop out rate in this year’s race, despite the clement weather they’ve been enjoying, seems particularly high. If it’s not the effects of crashing, it’s raging temperatures or intestinal troubles.

Afternoons have been particularly busy with coverage of Paris-Nice being followed by that of Tirreno-Adriatico. Still, the wide screen television in the office (one of my beloved’s better ideas) means I can easily multi-task.

Wednesday morning’s L’Equipe was full of praise for French champion Tommy Voeckler (Europcar), venturing to suggest that more French riders should follow his example. Having been thwarted on Tuesday, Tommy returned to the fray and won Wednesday’s stage from a breakaway of largely French riders, who’d obviously decided to heed L’Equipe’s advice, helping Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil) to recover the yellow jersey.

Yesterday’s stage, another lumpy one, into Vernoux-en-Vivarais, was won from a late 8-man breakaway of contenders built up on the descent of the Cat 1 Col de la Mure, by 2000 Paris-Nice winner Andreas Kloden (Radioshack) just ahead of Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Andreas is now in yellow for today’s 27km time-trial from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence, with those in contention for the overall handily poised to pounce. This stage race is throwing up a few surprises and is all the better for it.

Proceedings got off the ground in Italy on Wednesday with a team time trial won by Rabobank, putting Lars Boom in the blue leader’s jersey for yesterday’s 202km stage from Carrara to Indicatore. Interestingly, man of the moment in yesterday’s L’Equipe was Garmin-Cervelo’s Tyler Farrar. So, guess who won yesterday’s stage? Yes, Tyler Farrar led out by his wing man, Thor Hushovd. Alessandro Pettachi (Lampre) was 2nd and JJ Haedo 3rd (SaxoBank-Sungard).

The bruises from my fall on the pavement a couple of weeks ago have started to fade so yesterday I added to them by falling off my bike. How did it happen? A momentary lapse of concentration and I was on the tarmac with skinned elbows, bruised knees and an imprint from my big chain ring etched on my right calf.

Progress report

Yesterday was pretty hectic. Nonetheless, I managed to fit in a ride with my beloved. It was short, but tough, thanks to the gale force cross-winds. The afternoon and evening were spent down at the club. Firstly with our regular monthly rendezvous to ascertain progress on the Kivilev. Everything is going according to plan although we still need more volunteers.

In between the end of that meeting and the start of the next one, I managed to check on the progress of Stage 3 of Paris Nice. In short, escapees brought back before final climb, Thomas Voeckler went on ultimately unsuccessful attack, bunch sprint finish, one of the favourites fell in final straight taking out a few others (no harm done), yellow jersey changed hands, Matt Goss, winner of sprint,  now GC leader.

Our next meeting was a weekly catch up for members of the club’s management team followed  by the club’s monthly meeting of its members. We finished with a BBQ and crepes. Well, it was Pancake Day. This ensured a greater than usual turn out. The wives, on International Women’s Day, had made 100s of pancakes. My 50 were the first to be devoured. I make them rather thicker than is the practice in France, all the better for soaking up the Grand Marnier. I also sweeten them, so there’s no need to add sugar and, quite frankly, they’re as delicious cold as they are hot.  Luckily I had held a few back for my beloved, otherwise he would have missed out.

The Treasurer, whose partner’s surprise birthday party a number of us are attending next Saturday (clashing with Milan-San Remo), has asked me to make a cake. I think she’s hoping for something rather more glamorous than my pain d’epice and I shan’t disappoint. After my training ride this morning, I  spent a couple of hours combing the recipe books for something suitably celebratory and I think I’ve found it in Eric Lanlard’s “Master Cakes”.  It’s going to be quite challenging finding enough time to make this and the cakes for the Gentleman.  I may have to make more cakes this week end and then pop them into the freezer down at the club (mine’s full) until next week end.  

Unusually, I’ve got my training plan for the next couple of months which I will be following steadily. This month I have the 8km, two-man, time-trial with my beloved next week end and then an 150km Audax (av. speed of 22km/hr) the following one. In the subsequent three months there are sportifs most week ends. My aim is, as always, to improve on my times of the previous year. Having had my Garmin now for just over 12 months, I can more readily appreciate the progress I’ve made. Of course, it’s less easy to understand what has brought about the improvement: weight loss, training, improved technique, or a combination of all of them?  Frankly, who cares? I’m getting quicker and that’s what really matters.

In the bag

While I spend a lot of time cycling on my own, I am equally at home riding with my clubmates. Even so there are certain wheels I would prefer not to follow as their owners either have a propensity to kiss the tarmac with alarming frequency or tend not to keep their line, particularly when  descending. Of course, given my (still) superior bodyweight, I  descend faster and therefore prefer to be at the head of the peloton.

Such riders are not the sole preserve of the amateur peloton. Should I ever find myself riding with the pros, there are a number whose wheels I would prefer to avoid. Most notably, Frank Schleck who found himself on the ground (again) today. He wasn’t the only one. Heinrich Haussler, lost concentration, and slipped off the road into a ditch. Both got back into the peloton after some mechanical assistance delivered from the team car window.

Coverage of today’s 199km sprinter’s stage from Monfort l’Amaury to Amilly started with around 47km remaining and most of the peloton 50 seconds behind breakaways Maxime Bouet (AG2R) and Tony Gallopin (Cofidis). A few kilometers later the entire procession was halted by a level crossing and, after the barriers re-opened, officials were hard pressed to maintain the leaders’ advantage as riders tried to slip around the cars. A lot seized the opportunity to indulge in one of my practices whereby, whenever the club peloton stops, I ghost to the front of the bunch (again).

The breakaways were re-absorbed with about 30km to go. The bunch appeared quite nervous today as the sprinters’ teams were determined not to forgo one of the remaining opportunities for a stage win. To be fair most of the better-known sprinters have elected to take part in Tirreno-Adriatico as the more undulating terrain better suits their preparation for the Spring classics.

In the run into the finish, the helm was assumed in turn by a number of different teams: Astana, Movistar, HTC-HighRoad. But it was Sky who got their act together in the final stretch with Geraint Thomas leading out Kiwi Greg Henderson for the win. He finished ahead of Matt Goss (HTC) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil), who set off on his own with 1.5km to go, was taken back after 300km but  retained the yellow jersey making his recent sausage and salami sacrifice worthwhile.

As well as dealing with the week’s inevitable administrative burden, I have whipped up a delicious dinner for my beloved. I’m very fond of Indian cuisine but rarely make it just for myself. This evening we’re having tandoori spiced lamb with pilau rice and cauliflower curry.

Double rations

We left for this morning’s ride under a cloudy sky which, thankfully, soon cleared. The club’s ranks had been depleted by a number of riders racing elsewhere today. Nonetheless, those remaining set a cracking pace and, once let off the leash, weren’t seen again; at least, not by me. I rode along at my own pace enjoying the warm sunshine, the fresh air and the arrival of Spring.

I shortened the prescribed club ride to get back home in time to finish preparing lunch. French television coverage of Paris-Nice was scheduled for 13:30 and I wanted lunch to be long over by then so that I could lounge on the sofa and enjoy the race.

With 70km to go, the peloton, under sunny skies, were reeling back in the two breakaway artists, Euskaltel’s Gorka Izagirre and Europcar’s Damien Gaudin. It took them another 30km to accomplish that feat. Two kms later Jeremy Roy (FDJ) set off, pursued by Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil). They never got more than 50 seconds ahead but worked well together, took advantage of the confusion in the chasing peloton, particularly through the urban streets, and a strong tail-wind in the final 6kms.

Belgian Thomas De Gendt prevailed in the sprint to land the biggest win of his career ahead of Roy. Voigt was swallowed by the advancing herd, Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) took 3rd. Most riders came home in the bunch but the wind had provoked a number of breaks in the peloton and those lingering down the back had been tailed off, most notably David Moncoutie (Cofidis). He was keeping Rigoberto Uran (Team Sky), who had crashed, company 8 minutes back.

When the race finished we decided to take a walk along the seafront in the sunshine. Everyone else had the same idea. The promenade was packed with people strolling, dog-walking, cycling, in-line skating, scooting or just sitting and watching. Business was booming at most of the cafes and restaurants.

We came back to discover Eurosport had delayed its transmission, so I watched the race again. If I were Jeremy Roy, I would have offered thanks to the gods when I saw that Jens Voigt, eminence grise of the peloton, had joined the breakaway, along with Thomas De Gendt. They worked well together, no one shirked their turn on the front and all three gave it their all. Wondering whether or not the peloton would catch them in the new radio-free environment made for an exciting race. Interestingly, commentators on both channels felt that, if the breakway managed to stay away,  De Gendt would win. I recall him hoovering up the KOM and points jersey in the 2009 Tour of Britain when he was riding for Topsport Vlaaderen.

Contenders

I had a good ride this morning with my beloved and, given the great weather, we decided to go out for a late lunch, followed by a long walk along the coast. As a consequence, I’ve only just had time to cast my eye over the start list for tomorrow’s 69th edition of Paris-Nice and think about who might win this year, in the absence of the defending champion, Alberto Contador, who won today’s 2nd stage in the Tour of Mucia ahead of Denis Menchov and Jerome Coppel (going from strength to strength at Saur-Sojasun).

L’Equipe devoted half a page today to last year’s revelation, Peter Sagan who, having shone in the recent Tour of Sardinia, is obviously on form and keen to seize his opportunities. He’s not the only young gun keen to cement his credentials. Over at HTC-High Road, there’s Tony Martin and Tejay van Garderen plus Ritchie Porte at SaxoBank-Sungard and Jurgen van den Broeck at Omega Pharma-Lotto. The latter’s team mate, Philippe Gilbert sparkled on the Strade Bianchi today finishing in Siena ahead of Allessandro Ballan, Damiano Cunego and Spartacus.

Let’s not forget the old guard,  those who have triumphed before in the race to the sun, such as Luis Leon Sanchez and Alexandre Vinokourov. The latter’s bought plenty of support with Tomas Viatkus, Robert Kisverlovski and Roman Kreuziger. Also in the reckoning for the overall, Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) and Levi Leipheimer (Team RadioShack).

If we’re looking for stage winners, we should look to the French who are always “en forme” in the early season: Voeckler, Fedrigo, Le Mevel, Moinard, Peraud, Moncoutie, Pauriol. Personally, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the boys in orange: Sammy Sanchez, Romain Sicard and Gorka Izagirre.

The 1,307km route kicks off tomorrow with 154.5km from Houdan to Houdan. Yes, they’re going round in circles. Monday’s one for the sprinters too. Look out for Grega Bola (Lampre-ISD) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). The rest of the sprinters, with an eye on the Classics, are doing Tirreno-Adriatico.

After two flattish stages, it gets progressively lumpy on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday. (I’ll be there), sees a 27km ITT from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence. This could be the decisive stage. Next up is 215km, and the longest stage, from Brignoles to Biot followed by 124km around Nice, including the Category 1 climbs up La Turbie and Col d’Eze. Never one to miss an opportunity to watch live racing in my backyard, I’ll be seeing both of these stages.

There are no testing climbs in the race and one wouldn’t expect them at this stage of the season. The winner will be a puncheur who can time-trial. I would suggest we should look no further than Alexandre Vinokourov who last won the race in 2003 (homage to Andrei Kivilev) and 2004. He’s made it one of his priorities this year and he’s a guy who can focus – go Alex go.