Triple honours

This morning’s ride allowed my beloved and I to check out the route for today’s 4th stage of 38th Tour Mediterraneen, 155km from La Londe les Maures to Biot by way of St Tropez. The same stage last year was neutralised thanks to adverse climatic conditions. Today the sun shone and Spring was very definitely in the air.

Stage 4

We parked Tom II and strolled to the finish past all the team buses which ranged from the deluxe Pro-Tour team ones to the man and a van Continental team transport.  We rolled up about an hour before the riders which gave me an opportunity to distribute copies of the brochure for the Kivilev to the assembled throng which, unsurprisingly, included a number of my clubmates. The Tour isn’t televised so we had just the dulcet tones of Mr Cycling (Daniel Mangeas) to spark our imagination, made easier by our own intimate knowledge of the route.

Finishing straight in Biot
Appolonio leading out Feillu

I had ridden up the finishing straight a few hours beforehand which features a shortish hill rising in places by 13%. You could tell by the grimaces on their faces that the leading trio were giving it their all as they shot up the hill at a similar speed to that which I might descend. David Appolonio (Sky Procycling) led the charge with the yellow jersey, Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil-DCM ProCycling Team) on his wheel, closely tracked by Team Garmin-Cervelo’s Dan Martin.

Feillu took his third consecutive stage, in front of his young family but, with the next 9 riders within 34 seconds, doesn’t expect to conserve the yellow jersey after tomorrow’s stage which finishes atop Mont Faron. Thomas Voekler (Europcar) is only 21secs back while by Dan Martin (nephew of Stephen Roche who’s on the organising committee) lies at 26 seconds. In any event, the management of Vacansoleil will have welcomed the positive news after Riccardo Ricco’s DIY fiasco.

The organising committee had amassed so many former luminaries of French cycling that the podium was in danger of collpasing under their (not inconsidserable) combined weights. 

A handful of heavyweights

While all this was taking place my beloved boys in claret and blue, reduced to 10 men, managed to salvage a point away at Blackpool. OGCN are playing away at Rennes tomorrow afternoon who are managed by a former OGCN manager and feature a number of former players. This has banana skin writ large all over it.

I’m now settling down to watch a local derby on the new big screen: St Etienne v Olympique Lyonnais, the latter featuring (ex-OGCN saviour) Hugo Lloris and my chouchou, Yoan Gourcuff.

(photographs courtesy of my beloved)

10 key questions

Today L’Equipe posed what it thinks are the 10 key questions in respect of the 2011 cycling season. The answers were supplied by its crack team of reporters.

1. Will Contador be at the start of the Tour de France? 

90% said No. What I want to know is which reporter said “Yes”? Either they misunderstood the question, or they can’t count. The Spanish Federation is not expected to render a ruling until 15 February. Such ruling will be challenged either by UCI or by Contador. TAS takes six months to opine, so Contador will remain suspended until 15 July, at the earliest. When does the Tour start? I rest my case. Of course, being numerate isn’t necessarily a requirement for a journalist.

 2. Has Andy Schleck already won the 2011 Tour?

80% said No. Again, which two journalists think all he has to do is turn up?  Andy’s going to find being the favourite a whole different proposition. He’s not going to have anyone to take the lead. Instead, other riders will be watching him, waiting and pouncing. There are a couple of things in his favour. It’s a course suited to climbers, with relatively little time-trialling. Andy, despite being on a new team, will be surrounded by those with whom he is familiar and whom he trusts, including his older brother.

3. Are we seeing the emergence of a better generation of French riders?

 60% said Yes. I think the French are right to be optimistic. They do have a large number of promising, younger riders who have shone at the junior and U23 level. But that promise has to be carefully nurtured and not snuffed out by the weight of expectations.

4. Will Philippe Gilbert be the King of the Classics?

80% said Yes. Again, it’s hard to disagree with this one. He’s only 28 and coming into his prime. He’s capable of winning races on the Cobbles and in the Ardennes and, indeed, throughout the season. But, please, don’t forget Spartacus!

5. Is Boonen in decline?

70% said Yes. A counter-point to the question above. His last three seasons have been disappointing in terms of the number of wins. He was clearly at the top of his game at the start of last season but lost out in the key races to Cancellara and Freire, before injuring his knee. At 30, he cannot expect to be as prolific as he once was but I’m sure we’ll see him picking up sprint wins in his favoured races, and at least another Cobbled Classic. 

6.  Will Team Leopard crush everyone this season?

80% said Yes. I suspect this is based on the assumption that Team Leopard will morph back into the winningest team a la CSC. However, the peloton has not stood still: witness the coming together of Garmin and Cervelo, the maturing of Sky, the continuing strength of Liquigas. I’m not sure I agree with this one. Moreover, I’m beginning to think I’ve identified at least one of the two journalists who are Schleck fans.

7. Is Mark Cavendish more than a great sprinter?

80% said No. Yes, I know he’s a bit of a chippy bugger but he has won Milan-San Remo and, while he’ll never win any of the Grand Tours, he might well win other Classics. It’s true that he is the finest proponent of pure sprinting in the peloton and has to be considered among the favourites for the Championship course in Copenhagen this year.

8. Will cycling regret Armstrong’s retirement?

60% said No. I sense a  few fence-sitters here. Whatever you think about Armstrong, he’s a larger than life personality who polarises opinion. He’s probably the only person in the sport capable of getting 10,000 people to turn up to ride with him on the basis of a message on Twitter. All sports need personalities, cycling has too few.

9. Romain Sicard, will he come good in 2011?

60% said Yes. What did I say about the weight of expectation? Luckily, Sicard has a mature head on young shoulders and he’s being properly developed within the Basque, Euskatel-Euskadi squad.

10. Will Ricco generate more interest in cycling?

100% said Yes. Spot on, again he’s a very talented a chap who divides opinion. But like Basso and Vinokourov, he’s served his time and has returned to the peloton with a point to prove.  A bit like Armstrong, I’m not sure I’d want to find myself sitting next to him at dinner, but he certainly provides plenty of fodder for the journalists.

Whether or not you agree with the august views of L’Equipe, 2011 is sure to be a great season. While there’s plenty of emerging talent, there’s also plenty of mature riders, unwilling to hang up their cleats, who are still capable of mixing it with the best of them.

Like many fans I have grave concerns over the current  business model employed by many of the teams. While cycling is becoming more professional in its approach, it still has a long way to go to enjoy maximum credibility and commerciality. Cycling is a great medium for building product awareness on a global scale, at a reasonable price, but you must have exposure at the world’s biggest race, The Tour.

Divine intervention

I was saddened this week to learn of the untimely death of Aldo Sassi, one of the most reputable cycling trainers, based at the Mapei Centre in Varese. It was he who had worked with Cadel Evans to lift the rainbow jersey in 2009 and had assisted Ivan Basso in his quest for an untainted maglia rosa.

I had recently read an interesting article on his training methods which are markedly similar to those of my own trainer.  Sassi worked initially from the VO2 max and power output at the rider’s anaerobic threshold. From this he built a training programme based on a 3-day algorithm:

  • Day 1 – strength and resistance training on hills
  • Day 2 – anaerobic threshold work
  • Day 3 – long rides with climbs

Additionally, Sassi believed in a rider’s clear commitment to goals which needed to be shared with and understood by his team. Lastly, he believed that mental and inner strength were the all-important factors.

He likened a cyclist to  Formula 1 saying that while a rider has certain physiological attributes, “if you only have the driver and no car you cannot win. You have to have the driver as well as the car. Some might try to show that if you have a good driver you could still win with a bad car. This is not true in cycling. You have to be able to produce 6 watts per kilogram on the climbs or you will eventually lose.”

Sassi was recently criticized for working with Riccardo Ricco. Frankly, I thought, given Sassi’s sterling reputation, it was a stroke of genius on Ricco’s part to commit to working with him. Sassi said ” I think I made a good choice in selecting Riccardo Ricco. I am sure of it. He has the motor, the car, but the driver is not completely there. I am going to help him build his mental strength and self-belief.” Sassi is to be lauded, Ricco has paid the price and, like everyone, deserves a second chance.

If  it was left to Pat McQuaid, UCI President, he wouldn’t, however, be getting a second chance. McQuaid was quoted in L’Equipe this week as saying if he were a team manager, he wouldn’t hire Ricco. I suspect that Vacansoleil have hired Ricco because he will garner them plenty of points in the all-new UCI ranking system and help them stay in the sport’s first division. Remember, Mr McQuaid “what gets measured is what gets done”.

I’ve already blogged on this very topic but frankly it’s hard to support a system that seems to drive away rather than attract sponsors. It’s even hard to get sponsors to commit if you can’t guarantee inclusion at the world’s best races. Pegasus Cycling recently lost a sponsor but have fortunately been saved at the nth moment by another. Rumours abounded that Geox, both a new sponsor and a global brand, might pull out after being excluded from the first division, despite ranking ahead of teams that have been included.

This problem has been best articulated (IMHO) by Jonathan Vaughters in his blog on the cyclingnews.com website entitled “The Geox Paradox” where he highlights the current issues in sponsorship. This man knows what he’s talking about, you cannot say that of everyone involved in the sport.

My deepest sympathy goes to Aldo Sassi’s family, friends, clients  and colleagues: the world of cycling has suffered a grave loss.

Brits on top

Britons win atop Mur de Huy! Yes, that’s right, two British girls finished on the podium at the Fleche Wallonne feminine: Emma Pooley (Cervelo) was first and Nicole Cooke (GB) was second. Sadly, neither will probably get as much column space as, say Bradley Wiggins who was well down the order in the men’s race.

I got back from this morning’s training ride just in time to watch La Fleche Wallonne. The legs were feeling much better than yesterday though they didn’t take too kindly to the interval sprint training. However, I was somewhat mollified by watching the professional peloton ride up the Mur de Huy. Sometimes, it’s good to watch the pros suffer on an incline. It’s a timely reminder that cycling’s a really tough sport – whoever you are. I think it was Greg Lemond who said “it doesn’t get any easier, you just get faster”.

It was a finely judged win by Cadel Evans. Gracing the rainbow jersey, he overtook Alberto Contador, who had probably accelerated too soon past Igor Anton, just before the line and dragged Joachim Rodriguez to 2nd place. I think Alberto can be pleased with his 3rd place and this portends well for Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It is to be hoped that the strike at L’Equipe will soon be over as not only am I getting serious withdrawal symptoms but I’m also badly missing its incisive run down on the Ardennes Classics.

Meanwhile, over in the Giro del Trentino, Riccardo Ricco beat off Vino and Basso to claim the 2nd stage. Vino’s still leading on GC after yesterday’s impressive performance in the TT. Evans and Vino are gunning for victory in next month’s Giro and both are coming nicely into form.

Don’t call us

The teams for the Giro were announced today by RCS Sport and, as a result, there’s bound to be a few long-faced team managers and sponsors. Here’s the list of  successful applicants, 15 Pro-Tour teams and 7 wild cards:-

AG2R-La Mondiale
Astana
Caisse d’Epargne
Footon-Servetto
Garmin-Transitions
HTC-Columbia
Katusha
Lampre Farnese Vini
Liquigas-Doimo
Milram
Omega Pharma-Lotto
Quick Step
Rabobank
Saxo Bank
Team Sky

Wild Cards

Acqua & Sapone
Androni-Diquigiovanni
Bbox Bouygues Telecom
BMC Racing
Cervelo
Cofidis-Le Credit en Ligne
Colnago-CSF Inox

The selection is pretty self-explanatory. Either you’re a team covered by the September 2008 agreement, a new, too big to ignore, Pro-Tour team, or your recent (and past) results justify your inclusion.

Probably of more note are the obvious omissions from the Pro-Tour ranks such as Radioshack, FDJ and Euskatel Euskadi. The Shack have given, not unnaturally, precedence to the Tour of California, are not covered by the September agreement with the Pro-Tour teams and, apparently, eschewed an invite. While the other two are covered by the agreement, one has to assume they too didn’t seek  invitations. However, I’m surprised to see Footon-Servetto on the list given that they didn’t receive invites to either Milan-San Remo or Tirreno-Adriatico.

Let’s now look at those Continental-Pro teams which didn’t get an invite. First up, the two Dutch squads, Skil Shimano and Vacansoleil; after all the Giro is starting in Amsterdam on 8 May. Neither team has any Italians in their squad and, while Vacansoleil livened up last year’s Vuelta, Skil (apart from Kenny Van Hummel) were damp squibs at the Tour.

A number of Italian Pro-Continental teams haven’t received an invite. Riccardo Ricco’s presence on team Ceramica Flaminia  presumably scuppered their chances; Carminooro-NGC have only just upgraded from Continental; while, ISD Neri and De Rosa-Stac Plastic haven’t posted much in the way of results. Maybe, next year…………………………….