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.

Dead cert, no really

A bit of a mix up with my cycling coach this morning. Last week, he asked me if I could ride with him on Thursday. I said Tuesday would be fine and wrote the date in my diary. My coach is not particularly punctual so I didn’t start to worry until I’d been waiting for 15 minutes with no word from him. I generally receive a text saying he’s going to be a few minutes late. It then occurred to me that perhaps he was waiting on the other side of the bridge from where I was waiting. I sent him a text and left a message on his mobile. It wasn’t looking good. I finally made contact and he said he was sure he’d suggested Thursday. I said it was no problem, I’d see him on Thursday and headed toward Carros village. Thereafter, I followed one of my regular summer rides to Bouyon, Coursegoules and back by way of the Col de Vence. I had a great ride there was hardly any traffic, the humidity was much less following yesterday evening’s downpour and the sun was shining.  I arrived home in time to watch Stage 4 which everyone believed was going to be won by the birthday boy, Phil Gil.

Again, there was a breakaway of 5 riders, including two Frenchmen and two Spaniards. The fifth rider was Johnny Hoogerland. Well it was only matter of time before he appeared in a breakaway. Omega Pharma Lotto were controlling the peloton, leaving the breakaways with a manageable time gap. Sadly, their team mate Jurgen Van De Valle, who had been felled by a sleeping policeman on the first stage, was the first retiree from this year’s Tour.

It was raining for most of today’s lumpy stage and many riders will not have appreciated the sudden 15 degree dip in temperature. When it’s raining it doesn’t really matter what you wear, you’re going to get wet. I find that wet feet are the worst but if my legs get both wet and cold, it’s game over. Most, but not all, of the peloton were wearing rain jackets. It’s at times like these that AG2R’s brown shorts come into their own while those teams wearing white ones rue the day. I’ve oft pondered what the teams use to eliminate the road grease stains from the kit. I’ve since found out that they don’t. Most of the dirty shirts, bib shorts and socks are thrown out. However, the climatic conditions didn’t quell the enthusiasm of the cycling-mad spectators lining the roadside and the countryside still looked magnificent, even viewed through a misty veil.

Most of the work on the front today was done by PhilGil’s team. In the latter part of the stage, BMC gave them a significant helping hand and, with about 30km to go, Garmin crashed the birthday party. Well as Phil was to find out the professional peloton doesn’t give anyone birthday presents. With the rain having let up, the Group of 5 were taken back, the GC faves were massing near the front, handily poised to respond to any attacks, as the road headed up the Cote de Mur-de-Bretagne. With 1.4km remaining, Alberto attacked, provoking a response from a number of other riders, including Cadel Evans, Alexandre Vinokourov, Rigoberto Uran and Phil Gil who, led out by Jurgen Van Den Broeck, surged with 500m to go. It was countered and it was to be Cadel’s day, again, as he pipped Alberto on the line to win the stage, but not the yellow jersey. Thor had amazingly managed to hang on in with the leading contenders. Alex finished an honourable 3rd. Andy, along with Basso and Wiggins finished in the second group, losing a handful of seconds.

Stage races are won as much in the head as they are with the legs and lungs. A few important psychological blows were struck today, but there’s still a long way to go. However, the armchairsportsfan’s bet on a podium placing for Cadel is beginning to  look like money well spent.

Double rations

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

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

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

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

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

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