Postcards from the Alps III

I derive an enormous amount of pleasure from riding part of a Tour stage ahead of the peloton. Today dawned bright with that omnipresent bitingly cold wind. As we rode into Briançon you could see the fresh snow on the surrounding mountains. With a fair tailwind, it didn’t take too long, despite the presence of an enormous amount of traffic, to reach the town in full-on Tour party mode.

 We followed today’s route taking La Chaussée (1.7km @ 8.3%), which had me perspiring heavily beneath my jacket, gilet,  shirt, vest and bib,  followed by the climb up Montgenèvre (7.9km @ 6.1%) and then we rode back: a 40km round trip.

It was like one big international pointage with riders from all over the globe riding up and down the road which was wide but with a significant amount of traffic. I was almost sideswiped by a Polish caravan. As one of only a handful of women , as usual, I received plenty of encouragement from those on the side of the road. Again, there was barely room left to park a moped, let alone a camper van. And, it’s official, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg are deserted. They’re all watching the Tour. 

Tommy sitting pretty

Given the weather forecast, we had planned to watch the race at the finish in Pinerolo but it wasn’t necessary as the outlook was warm and sunny here, provided you stayed out of the wind. We returned to Briançon and watched the race unfold on the large screen. We saw the riders ascend the Chaussée at a positively pedestrian pace. They must have been saving themselves for the forthcoming mountain stages.

French aspirations for a home stage winner were  raised by Quickstep’s Sylvain Chavanel, one of today’s breakaways, only to have them cruelly dashed by today’s stage winner, Sky’s Edvald Boassen Hagen. Two Norwegians in the Tour and two individual wins apiece: Norse Gods rock.

Meanwhile, on the descent into Pinerolo, the yellow-jersey wearer, Europcar’s irrepressible Tommy Voeckler was struck by the curse of the commentator. Just as he was being complimented on his strong descending skills, he veered off the side of the road. He remounted, having lost touch with the leading riders, only to replicate Jonathon Hivert’s mistake of overshooting a corner into someone’s drive.

Bertie and Sammy, that well-known Spanish double act, again tried to put time into the competition on the descent into Pinerolo but the other contenders caught them on the line. Today’s only casualty was Tommy who lost 27 precious seconds. He may rue that come Paris. None of the jerseys changed hands.

Big boys go bump

On a windy, shortish, stage alongside the English Channel, I lost count of the number who hit the deck, largely in multiple pile-ups, in the hour from 15:10 – 16:10h. Many remounted and made their way back to the peloton via the doctor’s car for some TLC on their bumps and abrasions. While others trailed in ahead of the cut-off. One, Janez Brajkovic, having been patched up on the side of the road, departed in an ambulance.  The second retiree from the Tour. Europcar’s Christophe Kern, the French time-trial champion, who’d been suffering since the start with tendonitis, also climbed off his bike.

Given that teams often ride together protecting their leader, if one of them goes down it’s rarely a solitary fall. In the Radioshack Team, apart from the afore-mentioned Brajkovic, Horner, Leipheimer and Popovych also kissed the tarmac. Wiggins went down from Team Sky. Quickstep’s bad luck from the cobbled Classics reappeared taking out 5 riders: most notably Boonen, Ciolek, Steegmans and Chavanel. I also saw a number of Rabo boys on the roadside, including GC threat Robert Gesink. Contador lost his chain (possibly a case of what goes around comes around) and found himself flat on his back. While his team mate Nikki Sorenson had his bike swept from under him by one of the motobikes. One minute he was riding along on his bike and the next he had gatecrashed a picnic on the side of the road but sans velo!

After the podium ceremonies the overly zealous commissioners were studying the video highlights of today’s intermediate sprint and decided to declassify Boonen (cut the guy some slack) and Rojas. As a result, the latter loses the green jersey to PhilGil who finished ahead of him on today’s finish line, but behind Cavendish. None of the other jersey’s changed hands.

Cavendish won today’s stage, taking his Tour total to 16, and got to meet one of his biggest fans. I lost count of the number of times the lady Mayoress kissed Cavendish. Indeed, I was tempted to cry “For goodness sake, put him down”.  But then I remembered that, like me, she’s probably keen to seize any opportunity to kiss a few fit, young guys. Oh yes, I’m shortly going to be reprising my role as the world’s oldest podium girl.

Back to the riding wounded. I speak from experience when I say that, if at all possible, having fallen, one should get back on one’s bike and continue pedalling. Pain tends to kick in once you’re off the bike and relaxing. There’s going to be a fair number in the peloton nursing some sizeable portions of road rash, particularly on their buttocks, which will probably make for an uncomfortable night. To add to their discomfort, tomorrow’s 226.5km stage from Dinan to Lisieux is the longest of this year’s Tour.

This wasn’t the only bad news today in France where at 17:20 this afternoon, they learnt that the 2018 winter Olympics had been awarded to Pyeongchang, in S Korea. France’s candidate, Annency, polled a miserly 7 votes. Obviously, France is another country not prepared to pay the going rate for Olympic votes.

Unknown soldiers

I’m writing this on the train trip back from a marvellous week end in Roubaix with truly magnificent weather for the spectators of 109th
running of Paris-Roubaix, one of the oldest events on the cycling calendar. But allow me to rewind. We arrived on Friday evening and settled into our charming, bijou B&B, much lauded (and rightly so) on the internet. I had made the booking back in January and had elected to stay close to the race finish in anticipation of the usual adverse weather conditions.

Friday evening we strolled into Roubaix in search of dinner. The Town Hall, churches and numerous grand Art Deco houses told a tale of more
prosperous times. Indeed, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the axis of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing represented the world’s second most important place for wool production. Occupied twice by the Germans and blighted by the slump in the 1930s and competition from the Far East for cheaper textiles in the 1950s and 60s, Roubaix had fallen on hard times.

It’s now a town in transition. The Neptune inspired municipal baths have been reborn as an art gallery. Inward investment through far-sighted political partnership with local businesses has increased employment opportunities for the largely immigrant population in call centres and shopping outlets. Attracted by the grand housing stock, families have moved out of Lille and embarked on massive renovation projects. However, the terraced houses and semi-commercial properties leading to the Roubaix velodrome still speak of poverty, despair and decay.

Back to dinner, which we ate in a restaurant in the town square, where the food was surprisingly excellent. I wouldn’t call Roubaix a one-restaurant town but we weren’t exactly spoiled for choice. Saturday, we hopped onto the tram to Lille and renewed our acquaintance with that town. This had been a regular overnight stop on our many skiing trips to Switzerland and Austria. We would stay in the Hotel Carlton and eat in the restaurant opposite. Both were still there but Lille too has been the subject of significant renovation and pedestrianisation.

Sunday morning, dawned fair and unseasonably warm. After an excellent breakfast, we walked to the velodrome and found a spot within sight of the big screen, giving us a clear view of the track with easy access to toilets and refreshments: perfect. Television coverage started just before 13h, and, as expected, there was a group of escapees. The pace was high largely, one assumes, because of the fine weather. It was reminiscent of 2007, when Stuart O’Grady won, with clouds of dust billowing around the riders.

Our first taste of live racing was the arrival, just over an hour later, of junior Paris-Roubaix raced on a similar, albeit shorter, terrain. It was won by a local French boy (Florian Sénéchal) who, having attacked in the Carrefour de l’Arbre, arrived on his own into the velodrome to finish arms aloft across the line. A second French boy (Alexis Gougeard) won the sprint out of the chasing group to finish 2nd ahead of a Dutch boy. All the finishers were covered in dust and many bore the scars of skirmishes with the pave.

A collective groan echoed around the stadium as over on the big screen Tom Boonen (QuickStep) was seen stranded at the roadside with a puncture seemingly waiting forever for his team car to reach him. Finally, he got going again only to be felled moments later. He was down and out. Meanwhile, further up the road three of the favourites were making their move. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek), Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC) were within 25 secs of those still up the road: Manuel Quinziato (BMC), Baden Cooke (SaxoBank), Juergen Roelands Omega Pharma-Lotto), Lars Bak(HTC-High Road) and Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Cervelo). However, neither Ballan nor Hushovd, with team mates up the road, were willing to share the workload.

In the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Vansummeren made the decisive move, leaving behind his companions, time-trialling to the finish and entering

The winner Paris-Roubaix 2011

the velodrome ahead of the pursuing pack which by now included Cancellara, who sprinted to finish 2nd. Martin Tjalingii (Rabobank), one of the original escapees, completed the podium. The winner celebrated by asking his long-term girlfriend to marry him. Over half the peloton finished, everyone was covered in a thick layer of dirt and, like the youngsters, many bore the scars of their encounters with the terrain.

So far the major Spring Classics have sprung a few surprises with the so-called favourites losing out to less fancied team mates but who have nonetheless clearly merited their wins on the basis of “he who dares”. Fabian has been undeniably the most consistent but his team needs to be reinforced; he cannot be expected to win on his own. Quickstep was beset with a whole season’s bad luck on Sunday with an excessive number of punctures, falls and broken bikes. Not exactly the best advertisement for Eddie’s bikes. Sun burned, but happy, we made our way back to the B&B to freshen up before heading into Lille for dinner.

Gripping stuff

My beloved left for yesterday’s pointage in the early morning fog. I rolled over for another hour’s sleep. Eschewing the ride up Ste Agnes to see one of my favourite one day races, the Tour of Flanders, where Belgian television coverage was starting at midday. I settled for a run along the sea front, followed by a quick coffee and collected the Sunday newspapers. Back home I prepared lunch before settling in for a marathon viewing session.

No where and no one is more passionate about cycling than Belgium and the Belgians. And this is their race,  their day in the sun. They line every kilometer of the course, standing over 10 deep on the bergs, quaffing beer and consuming their beloved frites with mayo. The sun was indeed shining, it wasn’t overly windy, near perfect riding conditions.

Rabid fans (picture courtesy of Getty Images)

The parcours starts in the beautiful city of Bruges and zigzags 258km to Meerbeke over 18 steep, sharp climbs and 26 sections of cobbles. The climbs come thick and fast after 70km of flat. If one can refer to cobbles as flat. The cobbles are smaller and more regular than those in Paris-Roubaix but, as the riders traverse them, their upper arms judder as if they’re undergoing some form of electric shock therapy.

The race is largely held on dirty, narrow farm roads which wind through the villages en route. To be in contention you need to remain vigilant and towards the front of the peloton. The slightly-built Spaniards from Euskaltel-Euskadi and Moviestar who would, no doubt, prefer to be riding in the Basque country, but they got the short straw, cling to the back of the peloton, grateful for assistance on the climbs from the beefier Belgian spectators, wondering when they’ll be able to climb off their bikes.

One innovation this year was cameras in four of the team cars (Quickstep, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Garmin Cervelo and SaxoBank Sungard). From time to time, you  could hear the instructions being barked to the riders, although you might not have understood what was being said in every instance, unless you understood Flemish.

Given the opportunity, I could happily watch every minute of this race from start to finish.  As television coverage commenced, there was a group of 5 riders out in front who were being gradually hauled back in. The second group of 18 riders on the road contained a lot of team leaders’ wingmen sparing their teams the effort of chasing them down. Although the pace was pretty frenetic with teams trying to keep their protected riders at the front of the pack, and out of harm’s way.

The main peloton splintered with a number of riders losing contact and there were plenty of spills but, thankfully, none looked to be serious. The group of 18 was hauled back in and the chasing pack now consisted entirely of favourites with their key riders. With 86km to go Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) takes off on the Ould Kwaremont, hotly pursued by Simon Clarke of Astana. With 79km remaining they bridge up to the lead group, initially giving it fresh impetus, but ultimately leaving it behind.

Meanwhile, behind them on the Taaienberg, Boonen (Quickstep), Flecha (Sky) and Van Avermaert (BMC) are forcing the pace. Others, such as Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) and Lars Boom (Rabobank) have pinged off the front, followed by Van Avermaert, Guesdon (FDJ), Hayman (Sky) and Leezer (Rabobank). Among the favourites, everyone seems to be waiting for Cancellara to make his move.

Up front on the Molenberg, Chavanel is now on his lonesome at the head of affairs with 44km to the finish, the gap back to the peloton is 55 seconds. Finally, unable to wait any longer Thor Hushovd (Garmin Cervelo), resplendent in his rainbow jersey, heads to the front of the bunch quickly followed and then overtaken by Tom Boonen (Quickstep) and his  shadow aka Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and  Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek).

Fabian goes into TT mode and rides away, the others start looking at one another waiting to see who’ll chase. Too late, he’s gone and swiftly heading for Chavanel. Wilfred Peeters tells Chavanel to stick on Fabian’s wheel as he goes past and to do no work. He does as he’s told. The bunch don’t seem to be making much of an inroad into the gap back to Chavanel and Cancellara, they need to get themselves organised. Back to the team cars, Peeters is telling Leopard Trek’s DS that Chavanel is unfortunately too tired to contribute.  Over at Garmin Cervelo, Jonathan Vaughters is telling his troops to do no work at all, just sit in and sprint for 3rd.

Finally, the bunch gets themselves organised and they catch  Chavanel and Cancellara on the iconic Muur, just 15km to the finish and the favourites are all back together again.  Phil Gil (Omega Pharma-Lotto) makes his trade mark attack on the last climb, the Bosberg, but is soon caught by Cancellara, Ballan (BMC), Leukemans (Vacansoleil), Chavanel and Schierlinckx (Veranda Willems).  Flecha (Sky), Nuyens (Saxobank Sungard), Hincapie (BMC), Boonen, Langeveld (Rabobank) and Thomas (Sky) join them. Ballan puts in a dig, Phil Gil follows. The attacks are coming thick and fast as riders chase one another down. With 4km left, Langeveld attacks,  a 3-man group of Cancellara, Chavanel and Nuyens follows and stays clear to contest the sprint finish which is won by the fresher man. The Belgians have a Belgian winner, Nick Nuyens, who rode a very intelligent race. Cancellara didn’t get back-to-back victories, but Bjarne Riis did.

The winners (photo courtesy of Getty images)

Vuelta Ciclista al Pays Vasco Postscript: There is something enormously satisfying in watching the professional peloton suffer on roads on which you too have suffered. The finishing line for today’s 151.2km stage around Zumarraga was just 3km from the top of the rather brutal Alto de la Antigua. Some of those boys got off and walked up. I knew just how they felt. Purito held off Sammy’s (too?) late charge for the line to take the leader’s jersey.

7-year itch

Yesterday was pretty blissful. My beloved and I rose late, largely thanks to the clocks going forward and his tardy arrival back into Nice the night before. We breakfasted, dressed, mounted our bikes and headed for that morning’s pointage, just up the road in St Paul de Vence. The sky was overcast and it was obviously going to rain at some point, probably sooner rather than later.

We enjoyed our ride before collecting the newspapers and heading for home. Narrowly avoiding the rain, which fell all afternoon, evening and overnight. After lunch, I settled down on the sofa (suitably attired) to enjoy the newspapers and a veritable smorgasbord of cycling.

Up first was all three stages of the Criterium International, or Jens Voigt Invitational as it’s more commonly known. As if by magic, guess who was a sole breakaway on  stage 1? None other than Jens himself, putting the hurt on the other teams and paving the way for Frank Schleck’s (Leopard Trek) win atop L’Ospedale, ahead of Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis). My beloved and I know this area well having ridden around here on a trip with the cycling club. Stage 2’s 75km sprint stage was won by  Skil-Shimano’s Simon Geschke, his first pro-win, while Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack) won the 7km time-trial around Porto Vecchio. The results of those subsequent stages left the podium unchanged.

Next up was Gent-Wevelgem, shorn of Fabulous Fabian, but still choc full of talent vying for the win and those valuable UCI points. Allegedly, Tom Boonen (Quickstep) was left to watch yesterday’s win on the television so that he could better perform today and “justify his salary” so-said his manager, Patrick Lefevre. As the television coverage started, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) was leading a small group of escapees, validating beyond any shadow of a doubt his team’s invitation.

After Voeckler was re-absorbed into the peloton, various attacks were launched and brought back, the last one just a few hundred kilometers before the finish. The narrow, twisting, farm roads had snapped the peloton into several bunches, but the main contenders barr Goss, Cavendish, Hushovd and Pozzato were in the leading group which sprinted for the line. Boonen powered past everyone to snatch victory, 7 years after his last win here in 2004. Danieli Bennati (Leopard Trek) was 2nd and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) finished 3rd.

To win in the Classics, you need legs, luck and good positioning. Boonen had endured a long wait for the team car after a problem at the foot of the Monteberg, 74km from the finish, before expending not inconsiderable energy chasing back to the front of the peloton. While the manner of his victory was quite different from that of Cancellara’s, it will have boosted his confidence ahead of next week’s Tour of Flanders.

We then watched video highlights of the final day’s stage of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya won by the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin, his 2nd stage win. Collecting not only precious UCI points for his team Cofidis, but also justifying their invitation to the event. The overall was won by Contador who had assumed the lead after Wednesday’s queen stage. If anything, his popularity in Spain, where he’s perceived as being victimised, has grown as the doping case has progressed. If I were Pat McQuaid, I would eliminate Spain from my immediate travel plans.

Finally, we caught up with the last day’s action from the track World Championships where Australia have dominated and others have disappointed. Sated, we opted for an early night. All that cycling’s exhausting.

Opacity obscures objectivity

A certain amount of disquiet is being expressed in the French sporting press about the UCI’s new ranking system for the 2011 cycling season. For the first time the UCI is using a deliberately “secret” system which takes the points earned in the two preceding seasons by each team’s top 15 riders plus some consideration of the team’s ranking in Grand Tour events. The end ranking guarantees entry for the top 15 teams to cycling’s 1st Division providing said teams meet the UCI commission’s ethical, financial and administrative criteria. These are rather more clear cut as they’re set out in the UCI’s Rules and Regulations. The remaining spots will go to 3 of the 5 teams ranked 16-20th: namely, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Geox-TMC, Quickstep, Cofidis and AG2R.

The French are concerned and I’ll explain why. If we look at the teams in turn. FDJ is 21st therefore, under the new system, it is automatically denied entry to the 1st Division. Bbox, along with Cofidis, were relegated last year and have decided to remain in the 2nd Division with their new sponsor Europcar. I assume they’re gambling that with the Tour starting next year in their backyard (Vendee), they’ll get a wild-card. Cofidis and AG2R are fighting it out for the remaining slots. It’s possible, though unlikely, that if neither Cofidis nor AG2R are successful that France (horror of horrors) will not have a team in the 1st Division.

The press are talking about parallels with football because French clubs, who have to balance their books, and have small budgets, constantly lose their best players to clubs in England, Spain, Italy and Germany which have greater wherewithal. By and large, those cycling teams with small budgets are unable to attract the better paid, big point’s scorers.

The UCI made a preliminary announcement on 3 November confirming the 1st Division status of Omega-Pharma Lotto, Garmin-Cervelo, Rabobank and Team Sky. The other 11 teams (in order) are:

  • Unnamed Schleck Luxembourg Team
  • HTC-Highroad
  • Lampre-ISD
  • Katusha
  • Liquigas-Cannondale
  • Saxo Bank SunGard
  • Radioshack
  • Vacansoleil – DCM
  • Astana
  • Moviestar
  • BMC

The definitive list will be published on 20 November.

You can understand the concerns of  management of the individual teams. When seeking sponsorship they cannot give potential sponsors certainty that the team will be present at the prestigious events. I was involved in a project last year with a group of potential sponsors. While they wanted to enter initially at the Continental-Pro level, their long-term aim was Pro-Tour status and “guaranteed” entry into the all important Tour de France. After significant ground work and due diligence, my advice to the potential sponsors was to co-sponsor an existing Pro-Tour team. While this doesn’t afford them the  same level of involvement and control, it does give them exposure at the desired level.

Postscript: UCI announced today, 22 November, that the two teams to lose out in the battle for a place in the 1st division are Geox (with Sastre and Menchov) and Cofidis. The French can heave a sigh of relief that they have one team (AG2R) in the 1st Division.

It’s probably safe to assume that when it comes Grand tour wild cards, preference will be given to domestic teams. So, if you’re a 2nd Division side, from a country other than France, Spain or Italy, it’s unlikely you’ll be riding any of the Grand Tours. Progression into the upper echelons won’t be easy without a big budget to buy in those stars who have earned plenty of points in the preceding seasons. However, I do worry that the increased pressure to win could have unfortunate side-effects.