Viva La Vuelta I

The Vuelta a Espana, the 3rd and last of the Grand Tours, starts tomorrow. It’s the 17th running of the race since it was moved from its original springtime slot to the autumn. As a consequence of its place in the cycling calendar, many of the top riders give it a miss. It tends to be targeted more by domestic riders, as a number in the peloton will have effectively hung up their cleats for the season, while other participants will use it to fine tune their preparation for the World Championships, at the end of September, and therefore may not finish the race. Not so this year, as a number, whose ambitions in the Tour de France were dashed by injury, are riding the Vuelta. So this edition promises to be way more exciting but the lack of time-trialling kilometers and numerous steep summit finishes favour the 60kg when wet brigade, all largely Spanish.

This typically perceived lack of depth tends to give the Vuelta less credence than its sibling Tours and, as a consequence, the owners of the Vuelta (Unipublic and now ASO) have tried to inject some excitement into the race, such as last year’s night time TTT in Seville. This year’s novelty sees the Vuelta’s first visit to the Basque country in 33 years and I’ll be there to watch those two stages (19 and 20) before the final leg in Madrid on Sunday 11 September. For a concise and articulate rundown on the Vuelta and it’s likely protagonists, can I suggest you pop over to http://thearmchairsportsfan.com.

This year’s race starts in Benidorm which brings back fond memories of a family holiday there when I was 14, many, many moons ago, and my pink fringed bikini. I thought I looked the bee’s knees, and the local male population seemed to concur. My father never let down his guard once, which was probably just as well.

Benidorm

Anyway, back to the Vuelta’s 3rd visit to Benidorm, one of Spain’s most popular tourist resorts lying on the eastern Mediterranean coastline between Valencia and Alicante, in the province of Valencia, in a region better known as the Costa Blanca. It’s split into four areas: The Old Town, Levante, Poniente, and Rincon de Loix.

Benidorm’s Old Town is a maze of cobbled streets populated with bars, restaurants and shops situated on the promontory that separates the 2 main beaches. This was the original fishing village which mutated into a tourist mecca thanks to those long, lovely beaches.

The Levante beach area, with over 2kms of golden sand, awash with hotels, theme parks and night clubs, is for the young at heart. It merges into Rincon de Loix, the newer part of Benidorm, which with its mixture of hotels and apartments is popular with the British. The refurbished and recently revitalised Poniente beach lies west of Benidorm’s old Town.

Stage 1 parcours

Tomorrow’s team time trail actually starts from a ramp on the beach before dipping and then heading back to the coast. With the Spanish still on holiday, and at the b each, expect massive crowds the length of the parcours. It’s short, just 13.5km, so any time differences are sure to be small and not decisive. Nonetheless, riders with GC ambitions, such as Igor Anton from Euskaltel, will start stage 2 on the back foot as his team will most probably finish among the slowest. Tipped for tomorrow’s win will be teams such as HTC High Road, Garmin Cervelo and Radioshack.

My interest in the Vuelta has increased because two professional riders I know really well are taking part. While it would be fantastic to see them take a stage, they’ll be riding selflessly in support of their respective leaders, even if one of them is his country’s road race champion. They’re the type of rider that every team leader would like to have in their team and I hope this’ll be recognised when it comes to both of them getting new contracts for next season.

Trifling pleasures

My beloved returned on Friday evening feeling a bit fatigued from an exhausting schedule of meetings. Yesterday, given he hadn’t ridden for a week, we had a pleasurable 65km meander around the area. Week ends I’m happy to follow his lead as I’ve plenty of opportunity to practise my prescribed exercises during the week. We’ll probably do a ride of a similar length today in the company of our friend who’s recovering from a collision with a car a few month’s back. Then it’ll be back up the Col de Vence on Monday morning before my afternoon departure to the UK.

We had dinner with a group of friends yesterday evening on the beach. It was a fun evening. With all three girls contributing to the veritable feast, no one was overburdened with work. I had prepared guacamole to stave off their hunger pangs while I cooked the burgers in our friend’s nearby apartment. She provided the accompanying chips and ice cream dessert while our other friend made a trio of delicious salads. The boys enjoyed being waited on hand and foot and worked off any excess calories with a swim and games of waterpolo, football and volleyball. This is my second trip to the beach in recent weeks, and something of a record for me, however the silly cycling sun tan lines persist.  I was in good company yesterday with five out of eight of us bearing similarly distinguishing marks.

Our friend is off on Wednesday to take part in the Vuelta during which he’ll be absent for his wife’s birthday, an occupational hazard. As a consequence, we’re all getting together again this evening for sushi at their place. This is something I have never attempted to make but his wife is a superb cook, so I know it’ll be fabulous. This time I’ve offered to make dessert. I had thought about something vaguely Japanese, such as green tea ice cream, which I adore. But it’s an acquired taste, so I’ll probably make more of a crowd pleaser and something which will appeal to their two hollow legged sons. I have some lemon scented sponge hangingabout in the cake tin which when drenched in my special liquer-enhanced raspberry sauce and then covered in layers of fresh raspberries, custard and cream will make a rather sinful ending to a virtuous dinner.

After this morning’s ride, my beloved and I will be checking out the final stage of the Eneco Tour which has turned into a rather more absorbing contest than anticipated. This race is generally won by a good time-triallist, another one of whom may win this year. Former race winner, Sky’s Edvald Boassen Hagen is currently leading while Garvelo’s David Millar and BMC rookie and prologue winner Taylor Phinney are respectively third and fourth on GC . Up there in the mix, and for whom today’s stage (22 bergs) might have been specifically planned, is Thursday’s stage winner, Classics King, PhilGil who is 12 seconds back. It’s going to be close but Belgium might be just about to get it’s first winner of this race.

Over in the Tour de L’Ain, Vuelta-bound David Moncoutie (Cofidis) in search of a 4th consecutive mountain’s jersey, took the GC from Wout Poels (Vacansoleil) on the final day’s stage which was won by his much younger compatriot, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ). The Vuelta’s looking a more interesting race this year with a number of riders who exited the Tour early thanks to injuries (Bradley Wiggins, Jurgen Van Den Broeck) deciding to contest the final three week stage race of the year. On the other side of the pond, ahead of tomorrow’s final stage, RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer seems to have a lock on the leader’s jersey. in the Tour of Utah.

When I’m going to fit in watching today’s MotoGP racing from Brno in the Czech Republic has yet to be determined. It would appear as if I’ve been ignoring my most recent sporting interest, I haven’t. It’s just that I’ve not had time to do it justice in my blog, but I will. I promise. I managed to catch a bit of the qualifying yesterday. Dani Pedrosa has seized his first pole start of the season in MotoGP, while Marc Marquez has his 3rd consecutive pole in Moto2 and Nico Terol, as usual, is on pole in 125cc class.

Well worth the wait

Mindful of the importance of today’s stage, I was up and out at the crack of dawn. It was lovely and quiet, still a little fresh, with only the road cleaners and the odd car heading for the nearest bakery for me to worry about. I sped to Menton, easily my fastest ride there ever. My traffic light karma was in overdrive, I didn’t have to halt once: not even on the Promenade des Anglais. I stopped in Menton to top up my bottles and get a drink  to fuel my ascent. There’s a tap as the road splits (left over the Col and right to Ste Agnes), but the water’s of dubious quality.

The first kilometre of the climb is steepish but fortified by my recent sugar hit, and taking advantage of every bit of shade, I forge on. Up towards Ste Agnes the terrain undulates . I just grind away enjoying the view back down to the sea. The view improves, the gradient rises steeply and I’m now in the lowest of low gears. I take the left turn. It’s taken me  50 minutes to get here and I’ve emptied my larger bidon. It rises again and I press on. As a distraction, I start giving some thought to today’s stage where, realistically, we might know more about the real, relative forms of the main contenders, or not. The next 5 kilometres pass remarkably quickly and I’m soon speeding downwards. I’ve seen hardly any cars, just a couple of goats.

As I swoop through La Turbie, stopping at the fountain to fill up my bottles, I’m making good time. I  head up over the Col d’Eze enjoying the warm sunshine, the scenic views and the prospect of a cracking afternoon’s Tour viewing. Riding this route has done wonders for Thor Hushovd’s climbing skills, who knows it might do something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, for me. My traffic light karma begins to desert me on the way back and I take refuge on the cycling track on the Promenade. It’s busy, but not as busy as the road. In no time at all, I’m grinding my way back up to the apartment. It’s taken me an hour less than I estimated but that’s largely due to the time at which I rode rather than any great feat on my part. I shower, slip into something comfortable and sink a couple of litres of water. I’d like to check the ride information on my Garmin but I’m still waiting for a response from them. I’ve been waiting for 6 days!

On today’s queen stage, 168.5km from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille a large group breaks away almost from the start, swiftly joined by another 4 riders, 24 in total. Only 4 teams are not represented: Saxobank, Radioshack, Omega Pharma-Lotto and Saur-Sojasun. There’s plenty of French riders, including 3 from FDJ, but no Jeremy Roy. Is that allowed? Despite having Charteau in the break, Europcar control the peloton until Leopard Trek take over intent on whittling down the numbers and delivering the Schlecks to the base of the final climb.

The French are desperate for a stage win and today’s excitement, and ultimate disappointment, were provided by French champion Sylvain Chavanel and, later on, FDJ’s Sandy Casar. However with Voeckler STILL in yellow, the French are now talking him up as a potential Tour winner. Stranger things have happened.

With just 10.5km of the final climb remaining, Andy Schleck puts in a dig. It’s countered. The favourites basically mark one another all the way to the finish. Tour rookie, Jelle Vanendert, still smarting from his 2nd place at Luz Ardiden, takes off in pursuit of the hapless Casar who’s soon overtaken. Jelle’s nemesis from Friday, Samu, pursues him and gains back a few precious seconds on the other favourites but can’t overhaul today’s victor. So Omega Pharma Lotto take their 3rd stage win of the Tour. With just 2kms to go Andy puts in a more serious dig which allows him to take back 2 seconds from the others. Most of the favourites finish together although a couple were distanced on the climb further shaking up GC which now looks like this:-

Rank Dossard Name Country Team Time Gap
1 181 Thomas VOECKLER FRA EUC 61h04’10” 00”
2 018 Frank SCHLECK LUX LEO 61h05’59” 1’49”
3 141 Cadel EVANS AUS BMC 61h06’16” 2’06”
4 011 Andy SCHLECK LUX LEO 61h06’25” 2’15”
5 091 Ivan BASSO ITA LIQ 61h07’26” 3’16”
6 021 Samuel SANCHEZ ESP EUS 61h07’54” 3’44”
7 001 Alberto CONTADOR ESP SBS 61h08’10” 4’00”
8 161 Damiano CUNEGO ITA LAM 61h08’11” 4’01”
9 052 Tom DANIELSON USA GRM 61h09’56” 5’46”
10 124 Kevin DE WEERT BEL QST 61h10’28” 6’18”

Two jersey’s changed hands: Vanendert now has the spotted jersey and Sky’s Rigoberto Uran is the latest, best young rider.

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.

Counting down the clock

As part of my preparations for The Tour, yesterday afternoon I watched the Tour de France team presentation held in the theatrical, Gallo-Roman, Parc du Puy-du-Fou. The spectacle was much enjoyed by the 6,000 capacity crowd. The riders were made to feel like gladiators when we all know they’re Christians about to be fed to the lions. The world champion entered into the spirit of things by reprising his role as Thor, God of Thunder, with a plundered wig and props. One sour note was the booing of Alberto Contador. While one appreciates the frustration of the fans, under the current regulations, Alberto has every right to take part in this year’s Tour. If you don’t like it, please boo the rule makers, not those subject to said regulations.

Everything is ready to maximise my viewing experience. I have this month’s copy of Velo magazine with a run down on all the riders, updated with today’s 8-page special from L’Equipe. I have last month’s Velo magazine with a detailed explanation of each and every stage. I have my Tour de France reference books. These are all piled on the coffee table in front of the television ready for tomorrow’s first stage. For those of you who aren’t so well organised, can I suggest you check out two websites which contain all the pertinent information in a readily digestible format: www.thearmchairsportsfans.com and www.inrng.com.

Obviously, I’ve had a few musing myself and have been checking out the stats. Forty-six riders (23%) weigh more than me. Of course, there are some teams where none of the riders weigh more than me, that is individually rather than as a team! We’re talking Euskaltel (quelle surprise), Radioshack, AG2R, Cofidis and Europcar.

Eight riders celebrate (or not) their birthdays during the Tour:-

  • 2 July Juergen Roelandts
  • 3 July Nico Roche
  • 4 July Vladimir Gusev
  • 5 July Philippe Gilbert
  • 8 July Paolo Tiralongo
  • 15 July Alan Perez
  • 16 July Andrei Greipel
  • 22 July Dries Devenyns

It remains to be seen whether any of these can garner an additional birthday present from the Tour. The most likely is PhilGil who narrowly missed out on his birthday in 2008 on the 1st stage finish into Plumelec when he was beaten to the line by Alejandro Valverde. No chance of the same happening this year. He will however have his eye on the 1st, 4th and 6th stages. He’s the most likely of the birthday boys to spend a couple of days gracing the maillot jaune.

There are 16 Tour de France virgins, not all of whom will go all the way [to Paris].   It’s important, particularly with the younger ones, to take each day as it comes. At the other end of the scale, Big George Hincapie’s taking part in his 16th Tour, equalling the record held by Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk. On a more sobering note, there are only 33 (16.67%) riders who are too old to be my son.

The youngest rider in this year’s peloton is Saur-Sojasun’s Anthony Delaplace who was born in November 1989 while the oldest is (no prizes for guessing)  39 year old Jens Voigt, who could have fathered the youngest! The team with the highest average age (again, no prizes for guessing) is Radioshack (33). It’s a place they would have occupied last year as well when Lance was still riding in their midst.

Riders from 30 different nations are taking part though, not unreasonably, 45 (22.7%) of these are French. Four teams are only fielding riders from their home nation: Katusha, Eukaltel-Euskadi, Europcar and Saur-Sojasun.

Looking at the photos that have been used by both Velo and L’Equipe, I have to ask, where did you get them from? They all look as if they were taken in one of those photo booths which is incapable of taking a decent photo of anyone, even a Supermodel.

Everyone has made their prognostications, including me, but that was before I knew Alberto would be riding. The opinions of the editorial team of Velo magazine make interesting reading, along with their picks for the stage wins. Here’s their consensus for the jerseys:-

  • Maillot jaune – Alberto Contador (8/11)
  • Maillot a pois – David Moncoutie (4/11)
  • Maillot vert – Thor Hushovd (4/11)
  • Meilleur jeune –  Robert Gesink (11/11)

The white jersey (meilleur jeune) was the only one to enjoy unanimity. Two journalists picked Schleck Jr and one picked Schleck Sr for the win. There was less agreement among the journalists for the two other jerseys, largely I suspect because changes this year to the way in which the points are calculated make it  more difficult to predict. Gilbert, Farrar, Boassen Hagen, Cavendish and Goss were in the mix for the green jersey while Cunego, Gesink, Chavanel and Charteau figured in the picks for the spotted one.

Velo Magazine Predicted Stage winners:-

  • Stage 1 Passage du Gois – Mont des Alouettes: Thor Hushovd
  • Stage 2 Les Essarts – Les Essarts (TTT): Radioshack
  • Stage 3 Olonne-sur-Mer – Redon: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 4 Lorient – Mur-de-Bretagne: Philippe Gilbert
  • Stage 5 Carhaix – Cap Frehel: Fabian Cancellara
  • Stage 6 Dinan – Lisieux: Matthew Goss
  • Stage 7 Le Mans – Chateauroux: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 8 Aigurande – Super Besse: Sylvain Chavanel
  • Stage 9 Issoire – Saint-Flour: Alexandre Vinokourov
  • Stage 10 Aurillac – Carmaux: Thomas de Gendt
  • Stage 11 Blaye-lesMines – Lavaur: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 12 Cignaux – Luz Ardiden: Frank Schleck
  • Stage 13 Pau – Lourdes: Luis Leon Sanchez
  • Stage 14 Saint Gaudens – Plateau de Beille: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 15 Limoux – Montpelier: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 16 Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux – Gap: Vasil Kiryienka
  • Stage 17 Gap – Pinerolo: Christophe Kern
  • Stage 18 Pinerolo – Galibier Serre Chevalier: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 19 Modane – Alpe d’Huez: Andy Schleck
  • Stage 20 Grenoble – Grenoble (ITT): Tony Martin
  • Stage 21 Creteil – Paris: Mark Cavendish

You would have to say that these are not unreasonable, however, I would hope that Euskaltel, specifically Sammy Sanchez, manages to bag a stage. Additionally, I’m not wholly convinced that Cavendish will be so dominant in the sprints. We’ll just have to wait and see. Bring it on.

12 July Postscript: Velo magazine not faring too well in the prognostications. Indeed,  a number of riders nominated for wins are either down and out or merely limping along. Stage 7 has been their only good call which kinda shows just how unpredictable it’s been.

25 July Postscript: None of the experts have fared too well in the predictions game which just goes to show that cycling’s unpredictable and exciting.

Garibaldi’s Giro IV

Celebrating Garibaldi's Giro

Five, four, three, two, one and they’re away. It’s Omega Pharma-Lotto who kick off this year’s Giro. The team descends the starting ramp, rides out the gate of the Castello della Venaria Reale, 9km north of Turin, and speeds away in line along a road thronged with enthusiastic spectators, enjoying  both the fine weather and the spectacle. The pan-flat route is more technical at the start, challenging the team’s ability to establish a  rhythm, followed by wide straight tree-lined avenues with some 90 degree bends around the old town before ending up on the cobbles.

Route for Stage 1 Team Time-Trial

The key to team time trialling is consistency. Invariably you’ll have riders of differing strengths however you need to maintain a speed which everyone can follow. The more able members of the team take longer pulls on the front. Some teams opt for finishing with as many of the original nine as possible, while others progressively spit out riders, crossing the line with the bare minimum (5). Liquigas employed one rider to ride at the back of the paceline to shepherd rotating team members back into line in front of him – neat trick.

Italian television showcased the delights of Turin, home to Fiat cars, and its beautiful, old town, which I found quite reminiscent of Nice. Well, they were both part of the House of Savoy. The centre of Turin is the large quadrangular area lying between Corso Vittoro Emanuele, Corso Galileo Ferraris (shouldn’t that be Fiat?), Corso Regina Margherita, Corso San Maurizio and the Po river. Roughly bisecting this area is the fashionable via Roma, lined with wide arcades, which connects the main railway station with Piazzo Castello. It’s skyline is dominated by extraordinarily shaped Mole Antonelliana designed by Piedmontese architect Alessandro Antonelli. It started life in 1863 as a synagogue and was completed in 1897 as a monument of Italian unity. As to be expected there’s a via Garibaldi, pedestrianised and lined with 18th century palaces. The via Po, to the east of the centre, is full of funky shops, including many bookshops where you would have expected me to pick up a few cycling books and enjoy an espresso in one of the many fashionable cafes.

Alas, I never made it to Turin and am beginning to feel that all my Giro trips are jinxed. It  started to go downhill on Thursday afternoon at our Commission Kivilev meeting where I raised a number of as yet unresolved issues. Accordingly, I was given the job of sorting these out. I set to with gusto on Thursday evening with a view to leaving early for Turin the following morning. Inevitably, there were people with whom I needed to speak that I couldn’t reach until the following day. By lunchtime, I was still working away. I made an executive decision, I would cancel my hotel room and drive to Turin early on Saturday morning. I’d missed the team presentation, and wouldn’t have so much time to look around Turin, but I would still see the team time-trial. However, without my parking spot in the hotel garage, handily placed for a quick getaway, it was unlikely I would be home in time to collect my beloved from the airport.

The weather was fabulous on Friday so I nipped out for a quick ride over lunch, my path crossing that of Amael Moinard. He was descending fast (ergo I was ascending, more slowly) so we only had time to exchange greetings. I returned home refreshed by my ride and continued with my work. In addition, I was trying to organise a celebratory lunch for our friend who’s just signed a contract with a Pro-tour cycling team. The limiting factor in all such arrangements is the availability of my beloved. I had circulated dates, basically a few Friday, Saturday or Sunday evenings over the coming weeks. I had qualified this by saying, he was also available Sunday lunchtime. Later that afternoon, I received a call to say that everyone could make this Sunday lunchtime.  A few rapid calculations and I realised that something would have to give and it was going to be my trip to Turin.

I planned the menu and wrote out my shopping list. Our friend would be riding the Vuelta, so I went with a Spanish theme: tapas, paella, finishing with the ubiquitous orange-flavoured “flan” with strawberries. We would all be riding on Sunday morning, and our friend’s eldest son was racing, so I went for things which could either be  prepared in advance, or thrown together once everyone had arrived. I shopped early on Saturday morning, preparing in advance as many of the dishes as possible, before settling down to watch the time-trial on the television. I looked enviously at the crowds thronging the route in the sunshine and the hordes of Alpini in their jaunty feathered hats, I should have been there: one day.

Needless to say it was the well-drilled teams who held sway. HTC-High Road were fastest and contrived to put Marco Pinotti, the Italian time-trial champion and hugely popular rider, into the pink jersey. RadioShack, another disciplined team, were second, with Liquigas securing third place.  While the gaps were not, for the most part, significant, it’s still time that has to be won back at some stage. Of the leading contenders, Nibali is the best placed with Scarponi, hot on his heels, at just 2 seconds behind. Lampre arrived into Turin a day early specifically to practise the team time-trial. It paid off.  Contador is 8 secs off Nibali, with Menchov and Sastre at 31 secs and Joaquim Rodriguez at 42 seconds. Euskaltel-Euskadi were the team maglia nera, but team leader Igor Anton has revealed that he’s at the Giro just to hunt for stage wins and not the pink jersey.

Having garnered a large number of brownie points in Saturday’s time-trail, HTC-High Road might have hoped to cash these in on Sunday when Mark Cavendish was pipped on the line into Parma by an in-form Alessandro Petacchi whom they adjudged to have sprinted off his line, not once but thrice. In vain, two stages, two Italian wins: the Giro’s off to a great start.

We watched the action unfold on the screen television in the company of our friend who’s ridden the Giro himself and twice been on winning teams: with Marco Pantani (2002) and with Alberto Contador (2008). It was interesting to hear his observations on the riders, the parcours and the race. As is the case with television commentary, the most brilliantly observed remarks are those from past (or even current) riders who understand intimately the ways and language of the peloton. They add colour, insight and comprehension for the observer. Thus it was with us all gathered around the television after a relaxing and enjoyable lunch.

However, we’re going to have to do it all over again as one couple were missing from the celebration. The husband had been knocked off his bike early on Sunday morning and was under observation in the local hospital for facial and cranial injuries. It’s not serious, just painful, and we all wish him a speedy recovery.

If you’re seeking an excellent summation of the first two stages of the Giro d’Italia, please pop over to www.thearmchairsportsfan.com.

Just what was ordered

Having waved farewell to my beloved on Tuesday afternoon, I have spent the last few days enjoying the warm, sunny weather which I hope is here to stay. I’m trying to rebuild my form with some longer rides.  At the same time, I’ve a whole host of paperwork to deal with as it’s the end of the first quarter, plus  deadlines for filing accounts and tax returns are fast approaching. Additionally,  the club is keeping me busy as we attract ever more members.

I have found time, thanks to the tv in the office, to keep abreast of proceedings in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. This is generally a race for those whose ambitions have to be put aside on Sunday while they support their team leaders, although Ballan did win both this and the Tour of Flanders in 2007. It’s raced around the Belgian coastline which is prone to fierce, peloton splintering, cross-winds.

Riders who have showed promise elsewhere this year largely prevailed. The first stage on Tuesday, 194km from Middelkerke to Zottegem, was won by Andrei Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), the lone sprinter in a 4-man break. He assumed the leader’s jersey only to lose it on the following day’s lumpy  219km to Koksijde. It was gratefully assumed by Liewe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) although the stage winner was  Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha) who managed to hold off John Degenkolb (HTC-High Road).

This morning’s 111km sprint stage around De Panne was held in the rain, consequently a number of riders opted not to start : most notably, Alessandro Ballan (BMC), Peter Sagan (Liquigas), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM). The sprint for the line from the leading bunch of around 50 riders was won by Jacopo Guarini (Liquigas) who managed to stay just ahead of Galimzyanov. Over 70 riders finished outside the time limit,  so there were only 56 competing in the afternoon’s individual time-trial.

Last man off was Bert De Backer (Skil-Shimano) who had taken the leader’s jersey with a sprint bonus that morning. But there were 27 riders within 10 seconds of him, including some notable chrono men. The sky was overcast and there was some rain on part of the course towards the back end. The biggest factor was once again the wind on what looked to be quite a technical course.

Sebastien Rosseler (RadioShack) comfortably won the time-trial and the overall. Westra was runner-up, once again, despite the frenzied and manical urgings of his DS from the team car. Although, for consolation, he had the climber’s and most combative jerseys.  De Backer won the sprints jersey and Galymzyanov the points one. Third-placed man on the podium was Rosseler’s team mate, 20 year-old Michal Kwiatkowski who had turned in a very fine performance in the time-trial. A Belgian winner on Belgian soil, just what the organisers and spectators wanted.

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.

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.

Postcards from Pays Basque I

This morning we set off 50km south-west of where we’re staying in Oiartzun in order to watch the LXXXVII edition of the Ordiziako Klasika. A 165,7km circuit on the UCI Europe Tour, around the town of Ordizia, which takes  in 5 ascents of the Alto de Abaltzisketa and 2 of the Alto de Altzo.

The participants included teams from Euskaltel-Euskadi, Footon-Servetto and Caisse d’Epargne and well-known riders such as Igor Anton, Benat Intxausti, Romain Sicard, David Arroyo, Francisco Mancebo and Ezequiel Mosquera.

Thrashing out team tactics

There was a huge, local, crowd to welcome the riders which swelled considerably as the race progressed. Most proclaimed their support for the Basque riders by either wearing the Basque flag or the orange of Euskaltel-Euskadi. The spectators watched the peloton pass before retreating once again to their local bars, of which there were aplenty.

A  3-man break away was quickly established which was whittled down to just Romain Sicard and Egoitz Garcia (Caja Rural) but they never gained more than  3 minutes on the peloton which broke and then came back together again.  The break away was  finally absorbed but another Euskatel rider soloed to victory ahead of the mass sprint uphill to the line.

To the delight of the spectators, the winner was local boy, neo-pro, Gorka Izaguirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) who finished ahead of Manuel Ortega (Andalucia Cajasur) and Pablo Lastras (Caisse d’Epargne) to record his 2nd win of the season. His first was the last stage of the Tour of Luxembourg in June.

The winner

Burgos 2016 – Castilla Leon won the team prize, Sicard carried off best U23, most aggressive, the mountain’s classification and the longest escape while Garcia won the points. The winner, Izaguirre, also won the prize for the ¨Most Elegant Rider¨ (I kid you not). I hope Euskaltel bought a large van to carry off all the swag: 6 trophies, 6 bouquets, 6 cheeses, 6 Cava, 1 red beret and 1 framed certificate.

We then hopped  in the car to head back to the hotel to watch the last stage of this year’s Tour de France. While I appreciate that it’s largely a procession, there was still the points (green) jersey to be decided.

As I watched the peloton riding over the cobbles on the Champs Elysees heading, towards the l’Arc de Triomphe, I was reminded of my own recent ride in London-Paris. Those cobbles are painful; no wonder they try to ride in the gutter. To no one’s surprise, Cavendish won at a canter to make it 5 wins this Tour and 15 in total but Petacchi retained the green jersey and becomes one of only 4 men to have won the points jersey in all three Grand Tours.

Radioshack had started the stage wearing unsanctioned special black Livestrong shirts but were obliged by the UCI to revert to their usual authorised grey kit: cue quick roadside kit change. However, as winners of the Best Team, they reprised the Livestrong shirts for the presentation. These shenanigans garnered plenty of column inches which I’m sure was the intent.