Back from the Basque country

I’m back from a number of days of unintended blog silence. Although the hotel we stayed in San  Sebastián had free WiFi, I decided not to take my notepad with me. On these short trips, I really want my beloved to have a break. If I start using my notepad he’ll get out his laptop and start working. I do allow him to remain in contact via his Blackberry but somehow that seems less intrusive.

I had so enjoyed my trip last year to the Basque country that I was looking for any excuse for another visit. The Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian was happy to oblige. It also gave me an opportunity to meet up with my friends Susi and Dom whose excellent photographs of the event you can find on www.cyclingnews.com. It was originally planned as a solo trip, while my beloved was in the Far East, but, when his trip was delayed for a couple of weeks, he decided to join me.

I flew from Nice to Bordeaux, took the bus to Bordeaux station and then a train to San Sebastian. The hotel was a 15 minute walk from the station and within sight of the start and finish line of the race. I could have waited for my beloved, who was going to fly into Bordeaux later that day, but experience has taught me never to wait for him unless there’s absolutely no alternative. In any event his flight was late and, still suffering from jet lag, he decided to stay overnight in an airport hotel and drive up the next morning. Meanwhile, I spent many hours happily wandering around San Sebastian enjoying it’s architecture, sights, sounds and smells. This place is foodie heaven.

On our trip last year we had made the pilgrimage to Arzak, a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars and rated 8th best restaurant in the world.  About three months before our trip it took me endless emails to finally secure a table one lunch time. This year it took just one. I always say when you can easily get a table in a city’s top restaurant, you know it’s enjoying tough times. Initially, unsure whether I would be able to secure a booking at Arzak, I also tried to book tables at two of the city’s other 3 starred restaurants. Again, there was absolutely no problem in obtaining a table. Yes, I know three x 3 starred restaurants is way over the top. I agree. I cancelled one of them.

Not only were there gastronomic delights in store but I found out  Bon Jovi were in town Friday evening for the penultimate date of their 2010/11 World Tour. There was no problem in buying tickets which ranged in price from Euros 20 (standing) to Euros 275 (Diamond VIP Circle). Now I’m not sure exactly what you got for your money for the top priced ticket but, at the very least, I’d want a night with Jon Bon Jovi himself. I plumped for tickets costing Euros 60, allocated seats. It’s official, I’m old. This is the first concert I’ve ever attended, and I’ve attended plenty, where I’ve deliberately opted for a seat.

Despite, or because of, his Garmin, my beloved arrived in San Sebastián, minus his jacket, which he’d left in the airport hotel bedroom, and with barely enough time to make our lunch date at Arzak. It was just as good as we remembered. It’s not a restaurant that you could eat at regularly because there’s a real sense of drama and theatre when you eat there which would be lost with regular visits. We had a mind-bogglingly fantastic meal (again) and left feeling truly sated. We’d work off those calories at that evening’s Bon Jovi concert.

After a long walk along one of San Sebastian’s beaches, cooling our feet off in the warm water lapping the sand, we drove over to the football stadium to see Bon Jovi. The boys didn’t disappoint, despite it being the end of a very lengthy tour, belting out 27 songs from their repertoire with gusto. I did however think that in the big screen close ups they looked tired, too many nights with the Diamond VIP circle perhaps?

Saturday heralded the main event and we were handily poised to soak up the pre-race atmosphere which is very relaxed and familiar, not at all like the Tour de France. The event is obviously well supported by the Basque riders who earned the loud, vocal support of the crowd. Equally well received were such luminaries as Sylvain Chavanel, Frank Schleck and Philippe Gilbert. This is an event typically won by an in form rider off the back of the Tour and merry go round of criteriums. Indeed, Phil Gil had flown in on a private jet in the early hours. Nonetheless, he looked as fresh as a daisy and once the orange led peloton had reeled in the early escapees, Sammy Sanchez launched his offensive to escape from the Belgian flag clad Walloon.

Check out those gloves!

A flurry of attacks, the leading contenders constantly splitting and re-grouping, but there was a certain inevitability as PhilGil soloed away on the Alto Miracruz, just a couple of kilometres from the finishing line. He gained enough time to sit up in the finishing straight and enjoy his win. Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo was the Spanish sausage in the Belgian sarnie, he’d attacked on the run in to the finish from the leading group and was book ended by BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, who won the sprint to the line. Spanish races give out prizes for pretty much anything and everything: winner, mountains, most courageous, most elegant, best-placed Basque, youngest rider, most aggressive. PhilGil bemusedly picked up 4 awards. My beloved suggested that one of which was for best hairstyle. Methinks he was joking, but maybe not.

Sunday heralded a visit to another 3 starred establishment, Arkelarre, situated beyond Monte Igueldo, with a panoramic view of the sea. This was pure Basque cuisine ratched up several notches. The only slightly jarring note was the ameuse geule: a clever idea but one at odds with the leitmotif of the restaurant. Again, it was a highly enjoyable meal in very relaxing surroundings. However, for me, the highlight was a guided tour of the kitchen by the chef and restaurant owner.

While we’re heading back to the Basque country in early September to watch the stages of the Vuelta near Bilbao, I am already plotting my return to San Sebastian next year. I am hoping to combine the Tour of the Basque Country (early April) with a cookery course in Basque cuisine. As a consequence, I have been trying my hand at a few words in Basque. I just need the Basque made simple or Basque for idiots course, then I’ll be all set.

(Photo of Sammy [any excuse] courtesy of my friend Susi. My beloved has taken some great photos too but I’m still waiting for them.)

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.

Mundane

The past few days have followed a similar pattern. I have risen early, done my household chores and then gone for a short ride to turn the legs over. Afternoons have been spent watching the Giro,  baking, ironing and completing tasks on my Kivilev “to do” list. Not for nothing am I the mistress of multi-tasking. As ever, I find it easier to achieve more in my beloved’s absence. He’s due back this evening from an exhibition in Montpelier. Weather permitting, tomorrow we’ll ride the shorter course of La Vencoise.

I thought Tuesday’s annulled stage, and the demeanor of both the fans and riders, was a fitting tribute to the late Wouter Weylandt. I’m sure I wasn’t the only fan with a lump in her throat as his team mates with his best mate, Tyler Farrar, crossed the finishing line. More importantly, the Giro organisers are treating seriously the riders’ concerns and re-checking the descent of the Monte Crosis.

Wednesday’s stretches of strade bianchi were not well received by some riders. Others, like Vincenzo Nibali, seemed to revel in it. The Shark treated us to a master class in descending although, if he was hoping to rattle Alberto, he was sorely disappointed. Indeed, the favourites have been eyeing one another all week while remaining close to the head of the peloton, uber-protected by their team. This has given a number of riders an opportunity to shine, particularly in the breakaways. Rabobank’s Peter Weening, launching a late attack,  time-trialled into the maillot rose on Wednesday, taking it from the shoulders of Scotland’s David Millar. Yesterday, Lampre’s Ale-jet’s rocket blasters died just before the line, allowing Movistar’s Ventoso to cross the line first. Today neo-pro, and tour virgin, Omega’s Bart de Clercq launched an audacious attack on the final climb and just managed to hang on to bag his first big win. Tomorrow’s one for the sprinters before the action erupts on Etna on Sunday.

This week end sees the Monster Energy French Moto GP from Le Mans. I have been keeping tabs on the practice and qualifying sessions. Casey Stoner has broken Valentino Rossi’s circuit record, twice. Second fastest to date is Marco Simoncelli with Dani Pedrosa in third spot. Moto2’s top threesome are Bradl, Luthi and Corsi while in 125cc class Nico Terol is leading (yet again), from Efren Vasquez and Sandro Cortese. But it could all change tomorrow.

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!

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.

Stunning victory

Be afraid, be very afraid. If anything, Spartacus (Leopard Trek) is in even better form than last year. How is this possible? I don’t know, he just is. He was 2nd last week end in Milan-San Remo. Today, after a couple of punctures and a bike change, he literally rode from the back of the peloton to win the race.

With a couple of groups up the road, at 33km to the finish, Fabulous Fabian left the peloton behind on the Oude Kwaremont climb. He quickly caught and passed the 2nd group. Realising this was their bus to the next group, they lined out behind him, clinging grimly to his wheel as he powered up to the first group, containing team mate Stuart O’Grady. There’s now only 25km to go. O’Grady took a few turns on the front before dropping back, only to regain the group a bit later.

With 17Km to the finish, Bram Tankink (Rabobank) put in a dig, Cancellara went with him and past him. Tankink cramped and was unable to follow. A moment’s hesitation, who was going to give chase? Too late, he’s gone. Legs pumping like pistons, Fabian disappeared from view. It was all over. In truth, it had been over for some time, they just didn’t realize it. It was now only about the minor places.

Cancellara finished a whole minute ahead of his pursuers (Jurgen Roelands, Omega Pharma-Lotto 2nd, Vladimir Goussev, Katusha 3rd) to emphatically retain the crown he won last year.  He’s not racing Gent-Wevelgem tomorrow, he doesn’t need to race again before next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. You wouldn’t bet against him doubling up there too.

I enjoyed watching the race on the big screen in the office, my feet resting on the corner of the desk after my exertions this morning. I put the alarm on for 05:30 but never heard it go off. I woke at 07:00 and after a light breakfast decided to venture back up the Col de Vence.

It was a warm and sunny, with a light breeze which strengthened as the morning wore on. I rode up to Vence via l’Ara and began my ascent with purpose. I felt so much better than on Thursday and covered the first few kilometers in a much better time. I had my customary stop at Chateau St Martin to blow my nose and have a good drink. Riders kept whizzing past me, in both directions, proffering words of encouragement which were gratefully received.

With 6km to go, I met a group of mountain bikers descending including my playmate of last autumn. His mum had obviously followed my advice. He was looking pleased as punch in his club kit as he swooped past calling out my name. I waved  and returned his greeting.

For some reason I have yet to fathom, the two kilometers between 6km and 4km to the finish I find the most difficult. However, once there’s only 4km to go, I manage to pick up my pace. I even sprinted out of the saddle for the last 200 meters. A result, only 70 minutes today. An improvement on Thursday, but still nothing to write home about. I’m hoping the rain stays away long enough tomorrow morning for me to have another go. Thrice in a week will be something of a record for me.

My beloved’s back this evening at midnight. He’s just rung to say he’s had a very successful but tiring exhibition. He’ll be looking forward to his ride tomorrow, I do hope he’s not going to be disappointed.

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.

Softly whipped

Much as I love spending time with my beloved, I also enjoy my own company when he’s away. Largely because when he’s home he tends to dictate my daily routine, more by accident than intent. Yesterday, having spent the balance of our Amazon gift vouchers, I had another big fat delivery which I shall be enjoying for some time to come.

I love reading books in bed, but I can’t do this if my beloved is home. He cannot sleep with the side light on. I, on the other hand, can sleep with all the lights on, no problem. Peversely, while he’s quite happy for me to go to bed before him, he hates me coming to bed later than him. He claims I disturb him. Generally, I find he’s snoring his head off and it’s me who’s disturbed.

So I snuggled down in bed late yesterday evening and read Bradley Wiggins account of last tear’s Tour, “On Tour”. It’s only a slim volume and I’m a quick reader. It was an enjoyable and interesting read but it  might have been more insightful had it been written by Michael Barry, his team mate. The book is nicely illustrated with plenty of untypical black and white shots of the race, the cast and on-lookers.

In the introduction, Brad  said his intention was to provide the reader with “a comprehensive snapshot of modern-day Grand Tour cycling.”   He gives us his perspective on the key days of the Tour, but it doesn’t resonate with me. I can’t get any real sense of what it’s like to ride the Tour, even though I rode over parts of some of those stages. He’s also included short pieces on Lance, Cav, Sean Yates, the Mechanics, Rooming Alone, his Tour Playlist, His Favourite and Least Favourite Tour Climbs, Chaingate, Best and Worst Days,the Tour Bus, Rest Days, Sir Paul Smith, Steve Cummings, Michael Barry, Unsung Heroes of the Peloton and the late Txema Gonzalez, his team soigner who tragically died during  last year’s Vuelta. All very interesting and I’m in total agreement with him on Chaingate and the Go-Slow,  but you get the sense that these are stocking fillers, necessary to pad out the book to the desired length. I would have liked much, much more about the Tour although my favourite piece is the one written by his wife.

I was up and out early this morning, disappointed to discover that clouds had hidden the sunshine and it was rather cold and damp. Nonetheless, I had an enjoyable ride stopping off at my usual watering hole to quaff a coffee and read the newspapers which, not unnaturally, were full of today’s game at Twickenham which ended in a home victory, leaving England gunning for the Six Nations.

I rode home, showered, changed and set off for my cookery class in the kitchen of a well-known local restaurant. It was great fun, just 5 participants, so we all had an opportunity to get stuck in and wield the spoon, the whisk and spatula. We made a genoise sponge decorated with cream chiboise, fresh cream and strawberries, mille feuilles filled with white chocolate cream and red berries, plus some little lemon and mixed fruit cakes. Better still, we got to eat the fruits of our labours. Sadly, we didn’t get to lick the bowls.

I think this’ll have to be this week’s “eat anything you like day” and I’d better skip dinner. It was amazing how many tips I picked up from the professional kitchen which I’ll be putting to good use in the coming weeks as I make (and freeze) cakes for the forthcoming “Gentlemen”.

Arrived home to watch the rain-soaked Omloop race which I’d recorded while out baking. Dutchman Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) just edged it over defending champion, Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) in a two-man sprint. The latter’s team mate, Matthew Hayman, was best of the rest. Langeveld went on a solo attack with 53km remaining while Flecha dropped an 11-man break at the 25km mark, catching up with Langeveld 10kms later. The two co-operated to keep the chasers at bay but ultimately, Langeveld prevailed, just. Let’s see what Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne serves up tomorrow.

I then checked the football scores to discover my boys had beaten Blackburn 4-1 at home – brilliant. Let’s hope OGCN can grab at least a point away at St Etienne this evening. If not, we might be looking for another manager come Monday.

Out the loop

I was only in London for a few days but, away from all that is dear and familiar, I felt really out of the loop on my return. Races had finished without me knowing who had won and, even worse, races had started and finished without me knowing the victor. Of course, I could have checked on the internet but I was trapped in the wedding bubble and couldn’t break free of the programme. There’s little if nothing in the UK newspapers on cycling, although, as the wedding coincided with the World Cup races in Manchester, there was some mention of Britain’s track superstars.

I’ve been so busy catching up that I’ve had little time to reflect on the past few days of racing. However, one thing is clear, the promising young guns of the past few years are starting to emerge more strongly. Witness Gesinks’s (Rabobank) win in the Tour of Oman, a hilly parcours than last year, intended as a counterpoint to the earlier sprinters’ fest in Qatar.  Joining him on the podium were Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) and Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini – Neri Sottoli).

Over the weekend the Tour Cycliste International du Haut Var, with a title almost as long as the race itself, was won by perennial French housewives favourite Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), second was Julien Antomarchi of VC-La Pomme Marseille and, another former yellow jersey wearer, Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R) was third.

Further south in the Volta ao Algave, Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) took the final day’s time-trial and the GC ahead of Tejay Van Garderen (HTC) and Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil). The defending champion Alberto Contador (SaxoBank Sungard), in his first race back since his suspension,  faded into fourth place on the final day.

This week it’s the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol which kicked off with a 6.8km prologue around Benahavis won by Jimmy Engoulvent of Saur-Sojasun. Jonathon Hivert (Saur) won Stage 2’s 161.8km print into Adra while Francisco Ventoso (Movistar) won Stage 3’s sprint into Jaen. Markel Irizar (RadioShack) leads on GC from Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharam-Lotto) and Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack).

Over in Italy at the Trofeo Laigueglia, Daniele Pietropoli (Lampre-ISD) beat off Simone Ponzi (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Angel Vicioso (Androni Giocattoli) in a sprint for the line. The Giro di Sardegna got underway this week and in yesterday’s 138km first stage from Olbia to Porto Cervo, Peter Sagan proved too strong on the uphill finish for Allessandro Ballan (BMC) and his Liquigas teammate, Daniel Oss. Sadly, very little of this afore-mentioned action has been televised.

I haven’t even glanced at what’s been happening in the Tour of South Africa and Vuelta Independencia Nacional. A girl’s got to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Meanwhile, I will be looking forward to this week end’s Belgian semi-classics: Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

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.