Independence Day

Yes, it’s the day that Americans hold so dear. It was therefore only fitting that Tyler Farrar, led out by the maillot jaune, won today’s stage which he dedicated to his late-best-buddy, Wouter Weylandt. Garmin Cervelo rack up two wins in a row proving that nice guys do win, just not all the time. Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil) was 2nd while Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) took 3rd place and the points jersey. None of the other jerseys changed hands leaving Thor in yellow, Geraint Thomas (Sky) in white and  PhilGil with the spots.  However, Thor’s battle for the points jersey, as well as Cavendish’s, has taken a bit of a knock. They’ve lost the points gained in the intermediate sprint for a bit of playful pushing and shoving.

Today’s parade from the Vendee into cycling mad Brittany, showcased France’s beautiful coastline, countryside and wealth of historical buildings. Yes, it’s a race but it’s also touristic propaganda for the Hexagon as the race is beamed to 190 other countries. The globe’s fleet of camper vans were drawn up alongside the roads which were lined with spectators rendering it more and more difficult for the riders to find a quiet place for a comfort break.  The day’s breakaway of 5 riders earned plenty of tv time for their sponsors but, despite working well together, were, as anticipated, reeled in with 9km to go by those teams with aspirations in today’s sprint fest.

With under 8km to go, the boys were bowling along at 65km/hr. HTC seemed to have their train in place, albeit a little precipitously. Petacchi and Boonen were lying in wait on Cavendish’s wheel. A couple of riders took flyers off the front, with 600 metres to go the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin fell at the final bend which disturbed the train’s rhythm and played directly  into the hands of Garmin who guided Tyler to victory.

The GC contenders were kept well to the fore by their team mates today and out the way of any potential problems. The wind was not a factor although it was clearly a little stronger over the St Nazaire bridge, re-classified as a Cat 4 climb, a magnificent piece of French civic engineering which unites the two sides of the Loire estuary, as the peloton momentarily broke into several groups. On a lighter note, Antony Charteau was let off the leash for a quick greet and meet with his family in Chauve before remounting to join the peloton as they whizzed past.

Phil Gil has his eye on tomorrow’s stage from Lorient to Mur-de-Bretagne, but I’m sure he’s not the only one. If he gains more than 1 second on Thor tomorrow, Cadel will take over the maillot jaune. My beloved is in Australia and he texted me saying that the Aussies, particularly the press, are in 7th heaven over Cadel’s progress. He certainly would be a popular winner but there’s still a few more days and kilometers to go.

Don’t look

My beloved has departed for the US and I finally have some free time. When I say “free”, I mean free from looking after him. To illustrate my point, this morning I found, on the laundry floor, the shirt he’d worn yesterday for a 2 hour  business meeting. Obviously, this wasn’t all he wore yesterday. Now you understand why I’m constantly battling a mountain of ironing

Sunday’s pointage at Aspremont was run under similar climatic conditions to the last two Sundays: damp and overcast. Which is a bit of a shame as you can’t enjoy the spectacular views over Nice that this route normally affords. Although it did allow me to check on the progress of a couple of newly built, rather magnificent properties.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Aspremont as it was the location of my first ever pointage with the club. This is the second one of the season which we ascend by way of Pessicart. Obviously, we’re the only club to chose this route. I say that because no one overtook me, once I’d been dropped by my clubmates. The other clubs had chosen to ascend either via Falicon or Castagniers.

By the time I arrived at the pointage, just before 10 o’clock, my team mates had already supped and left. I have to say, it was pretty poor fare at the pointage: remnants of a madeira cake, slices of salami and very wrinkly prunes. Definitely a case of “could do better.” No toques to be awarded here. I left promptly and descended via Castagniers passing Christophe Le Mevel coming in the other direction. Obviously, no lasting effects from his fall last week which caused him to abandon the Tour of the Med.

My hasty retreat enabled me to get back home and prepare a quick pasta lunch for my beloved so we could drive to Toulon and atop Mont Faron before the riders arrived on the ultimate stage of the Tour of the Med. Sadly our GPS system tried in vain to get us to the top of Mont Faron by a non-existent route. We eventually found the correct road, but not before it was closed to traffic. Cue park car and walk.

This was my maiden ascension of Mont Faron. Given the narrowness of the road and the lack of barriers along its sheer drops, I was grateful for the grey mist which obscured the view, although I could see the outline of Toulon spread out before me. It looks like a French version of Portsmouth. As we walked I handed out the flyers for the Kivilev: never one to waste any opportunity.

We found a great spot to view the race’s progress and my beloved would have had some superb photos if he had remembered to replace his memory card! Nonetheless, it’s always interesting witnessing the riders’ pain at close quarters. The ascent is tricky. I’ve mentioned that it’s narrow. In addition, the surface is in poor condition and it winds round and round in rapidly undulating gradients, some of which are rather steep.

As Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R) passed, you could tell he was “on the rivet”. He was closely followed by David Moncoutie (Cofidis) who was looking much more at ease and in control. His experience of this particular hill showed. He knew when, how and where to measure his effort.

The peloton shattered about 4km from the top under the various attacks. Riders who were handily placed on GC behind Romain Feillu, and who you might have expected to finish well up the order, with the exception of Thomas Voeckler, were suffering. So the three who finished atop Mont Faron also finished atop the podium: Moncoutie, Peraud and Poels (Vacansoleil).  

Descending was equally dangerous, as the riders sped back down to get to their buses. I didn’t fear the professionals, just the amateurs trying (in vain) to stay on their wheels. While I would like to ride up Mont Faron, descending on such narrow roads without the benefit of a barrier might be too much. I would probably have to take the cable car (hands over eyes) back down. The Mont is also crisscrossed with eye-wateringly steep mountain bike trails: again, only for the brave and skilful.

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)

Almost home

To kill a bit of time yesterday, and give my weary feet a bit of a rest, I watched “Eat Pray Love”. An undemanding film which will no doubt boost tourism to Rome, Indian Ashrams and Bali. If I was going to “find myself” none of these destinations would be on my list of must see/visit places.

I’m not an adventuresome traveller. When I was younger, my friends inter-railed around Europe, sleeping whenever and wherever. I, meanwhile, found gainful employment and then spent two weeks in a luxury hotel. To me “tent” has always been a 4-lettered word. I will only stay in places that have clean toilets, and hot and cold running water. Hence, certain continents are a definite”no go” as are many countries. Call me chicken, but I know what I like and what I don’t like.

I had to change flights at Doha. On the way out, there was a 2 hour wait, but on the way back it’s 19 hours. Not wishing to spend all that time cooped up in the admittedly swanky Qatar Airways lounge, I decided to venture into downtown Qatar. My only experience of the Middle East has been numerous, largely business, trips to Dubai and a plane change in Muscat. I have however seen bits of Qatar on the television during the Tour of Qatar. This is largely a sprint fest which provides some warm weather training for those not taking part in the Tour down Under, and is followed by the Tour of Oman.

Qatar looks like Dubai did 15 years ago and its oil and gas rich rulers have ambitious plans for the place with a significant amount of construction planned in the hopes of attracting the World Cup in 2022. However, from what I’ve seen, I couldn’t recommend it as a holiday destination.

I can’t wait to get home but while I’m hanging around in Doha I hope to be able to see the Commonwealth Men’s Road Race. I have been watching the Australians hoover up almost all of the track medals at the Commonwealth Games. I had thought that Pom bashing was a bit of a myth and certainly never encountered any of it while in Melbourne and Sydney. However, the press seemed to make a big deal out of Australia whupping Britain in the Commonwealth Games, as if we were the only other team in town. It’s clear that they take the Games far more seriously, having sent their A team in all disciplines: not so the English.

With any luck and a good internet connect, I may also be able to see Paris-Tours. Can PhilGil can make it three in a row ? He’s probably still feeling the effects of jetlag but then so will most of his main competitors: Freire, Pozzato, Breschel, Feillu. However, I think he’ll have a point to prove after the World’s. Tom Boonen who’s still recovering from the after effects of his knee surgery is unlikely to be in contention.

Postscript: That man Oscarito popped up to take it on the line from Angelo Furlan and Gert Steegmans, whose team mate Geoffroy Lequatre, having soloed from 8km out, was swamped 400m from the line.

Postpostscript: Australia make it 14 out of 15 golds on offer in the Commonwealth cycling with Allan Davis winning gold in the Men’s, ahead of Hayden Roulston and David Millar while Rachel Gilmore won the Ladies’.

Memories of Melbourne II

I know, I know, my second day in Sydney and I’m still reminiscing about Melbourne, or more specifically, Geelong. In Melbourne airport I met some of the Lithuanian squad on their way back to Marseille. Obviously, they had more modest ambitions than some teams but overall were pleased with their performances. So few have either the ability or opportunity to win that they have to set themselves more realistic goals.

The Moroccan squad were no doubt delighted that their rider Mohammed Said was part of the original breakaway group and featured strongly in the television coverage. Likewise, Esad Hasanovic from Serbia, the rider stranded in no man’s land for a large part of Sunday’s race, was probably being cheered on by lots of Serbs around the world. Yukiya Arashiro was the first Japanese to ever finish in the top ten in the Men’s Race. The Japanese team were staying in our Geelong base camp and they were delighted with that result. I know road racing is becoming more popular in a country that already has a significant cycling culture, albeit in Keirin racing.

My beloved, who flew back to Milan via Doha, was on the same flight as Philippe Gilbert and the Evans’. He talked to both of them and said they were pleased with their respective performances. They tried their best and that’s all anyone can expect.  The Belgians came away empty handed, not so the Australians, who collected three medals: one of each.

The Germans topped the medal table. A country that’s fallen out of love with cycling and which, at the end of this season, will no longer have a Pro-Tour team. But that didn’t stop them picking up four medals: three silvers and a bronze.  Great Britain’s hardware was picked up in the time-trials. Silver for David Millar and gold for Emma Pooley who was also a formidable presence in the Road Race. Who knows what Alex Dowsett might have achieved if he’d had a mechanic as deft as Tony Martin’s. Next up USA, whose Taylor Phinney won both a gold and a bronze medal.

Scandinavia garnered a full-house with Hushovd, Breschel and Johansson. Italy and Switzerland each collected one gold. Vos won her 4th consecutive silver, after gold in Salzburg, and looked on the verge of tears, she’s not a lady who likes to lose. Canada and New Zealand each picked up a bronze, or should that be half a bronze in the case of Canada?

Spain’s performance was disappointing. Their highest placed rider in all the races was Freire, who finished 6th in the road race. However, I do know that the team was much affected by all the doping news, particular that relating to Alberto, who is close to both Luis  Leon and Samu Sanchez, fanned by McQuaid’s pointed comments about Spain. I seem to recall they rather faded into the background when Valverde faced similar approbation in Stuttgart in 2007.    

I didn’t get a chance to ask JaJa if he was pleased with the performance of the French, Jeannie aside, but the 5th place of Arnaud Demare in the U23 road race and they way they animated the Men’s Race, not forgetting Romain Feillu’s 10th place, must have shown the team’s heading in the right direction.  

McQuaid has declared the Championships a success and said over 156,000 watched from the roadside on Sunday. How to they know? Does someone go round and count them? Or is there some agreed formula which takes account of the length of the course and the depth of the crowds?

It’s all too much

My abiding memory of this Vuelta (yes, I know it’s not yet finished) will be Igor Anton’s bloodied, brave, little soldier face, waving good bye to us all, with his left hand, from the passenger seat of his DS’s car, as he’s driven away from what might have been his first Grand Tour win. Having hit a pot-hole at high speed, he broke his right elbow, took out a team mate (Egoi Martinez – dislocated shoulder), shredded the red leader’s jersey and large parts of his own skin. He was mightily handily placed and who knows what might have been, but you need luck to win a Grand Tour.

This past week end was a veritable cycling fest with GPs in Quebec (Voeckler) and Montreal (Gesink), Paris-Brussels (Ventoso), GP des Fourmies (Feillu), the end of the Tour de l’Avenir (Quintana) and the start of the Tour of Great Britain. A trip to Italy over the week end meant that I’ve seen very little of any of this cycling, but a girl can have too much of a good thing.

OGCN continue to defy the odds with a home  win against a lacklustre Bordeaux; not the team they were last season with Blanc at the helm and Gourcuff up front. AVFC meanwhile continued to confound by conceeding a goal in the final minute of their away game at Stoke to lose 2-1. Their best player tellingly was the goalkeeper, Brad Friedel.

What of my own training I hear you ask. Well, mindful of my forthcoming trip to Australia, my cycling coach has introduced running and gym work into the weekly mix along with some interval sprint training on the bike. We rode together last week and he had me sprinting in the drops, not something I’ve ever done before. Initially, I felt as if I’d lost control of the handlebars but soon got the hang of it. It certainly gives you a more dynamic position on the bike and, looking at the stats afterwards, I did ride faster.

Friday was my first “running” session. I use the term guardedly as I’m not sure the speed at which I travel qualifies as running. I had surprisingly sore shins the following day which have fortunately now abated and which didn’t recur after my run on Tuesday.

I rode with my beloved on both Saturday and Sunday. The weather is still glorious, although a little fresh first thing, and you’re starting to need to put on a light jacket when descending from the higher hills, like Col de Vence. It’s slowly cooling down but the wild life it still active, particularly the mosquitos and horseflies, whose desire to taste me is undiminished.

The run up to my departure for Melbourne is typically hectic. I’m juggling way too many things at the moment (huge “to do” list) and am praying I  manage to get them all done before I leave, otherwise I’ll still be dealing with them in Melbourne.

Putting your foot in it

I got back from my trip to St Raphael feeling pleasurably fatigued and sank gratefully into my spa bath to soothe my aching parts. I really don’t use it often enough. Generally because, when I return from a ride, I’m endeavouring to produce sustenance for my beloved as soon as he emerges from his ablutions.

Given that a little R&R was in order, I donned my fleecy tracksuit, flopped onto the sofa and picked up this month’s copy of Velo Magazine which had been delivered  LAST WEEK and had remained unread. What can I say? Too much to do.

There’s a picture of Cav on the front, sporting a beard, endeavouring to look mean and moody and failing. This month’s a bit of a bumper issue as, among other things, it contains details of all the French cyclosportifs, a team guide, the season’s calendar, features on afore-mentioned Cav and Boassen Hagen plus a list of the 50 top cyclists most likely to be hitting the headlines this season. I thought I’d check out this list to see if we’re in accord.

Their top 3 are Bert, Cav and Lance. I think that’s wishful thinking. Whichever continent you’re on, Lance generates more news than all the other riders put together. This is obviously a French perspective and they’re assuming (and why wouldn’t you) that Bert is going to retain his Tour title while Cav is going to win loads of sprints.  The next three, in order, are Schleck the Younger, Fabulous Fabian and Cuddles Evans – hard to disagree there. They’ve ranked Philippe Gilbert (7th) ahead of Tom Boonen (11th). I’m not sure I agree with that one. Though, to be fair, Tom is probably hoping for more coverage of his cycling, rather than non-cycling, activities than last year.

Surprisingly, there’s a dearth of Frenchmen in the top 50. First up in 25th place is the U23 Road Race Champion, Romain Sicard who this season will be riding as a neo-pro for the boys in orange, Euskatel-Euskadi. Just behind him in 28th place is Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), the so-called French housewives’ favourite. Christophe Le Mevel (FDJ), 10th last year in the Dauphine and Tour, is only in 37th place. There are three further Frenchmen bringing up the rear: Brice Feillu (Vacansoleil), the younger of the brothers, is 42nd, 45th is Pierre Rolland (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) and Anthony Roux (FDJ) is 48th. No place for Amael Moinard, David Moncoutie, Tommy Voekler, Pierrick Fedrigo, Romain Feillu or, indeed, the Frenchman who’s garnered the most column inches to date, the viral celebrity, young Arthur Vichot (FDJ).

Turning next to the team guide, I check out the new teams and kit changes. By and large, I favour simple colour schemes which are easy to pick out in the peloton: such as, Cervelo, BMC, Sky and FDJ. Omega Pharma Lotto’s shirt is a big improvement on previous years.  I rather like the retro styling and black shorts for Quick Step, but the shorts are too short. Quel horreur, what were the folks at Footon-Servetto thinking? There’s an Italian team (Carminooro NGC) who wear a black kit edged in gold which looks quite classy. Though it would look even classier if  they dropped the outline round the crotch. 

Better in black

If only Footon-Servetto had gone for all black shorts. I really feel for those boys. You just know that those “gold” shorts are going to look “nude”  and turn see-through in the wet. You have been warned.

Whole lotta winners

 I love it when someone unexpected wins. Today it was the turn of Brice Feillu, a neo-pro with Agritubel, whose older brother Romain wore yellow for a day in last year’s Tour. He was part of today’s break away and seized his chance – chapeau.

It was lovely to see the brothers united after the podium ceremony. Brice, the taller of the two, in the polka dotted jersey (yes, he won that as well) embracing his sibling who was unashamedly overcome with joy at his kid brother’s success.

 Cancellara has graced the yellow jersey all week but he knew his time was up. Most reckoned that Astana would seize yellow. Not so, another rider taking part in his first Tour captured the prized jersey. Rinaldo Nocentini of AG2R, one more from the break away artists, became the first Italian in yellow for nine years. Christophe Riblon, also from AG2R, won the “most combative”. It was another good day for the French, and the French teams.

Contador wisely followed the advice of Bernard Hinault and attacked with under 2km to go. I met “The Badger” at the week end, a charming, slightly built, gentleman with a steely glint in his eye. I suspect you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Alberto shifted into a higher gear and soared away, as only he can, putting 21seconds into Lance. It’s far too early to say game over but Bert has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Lance on Monday.