You’re banned, or not

Scanning the pages of the press and web sites, it seems as if bans are the main news item: who’s getting them, who’s not and who might be. First up the on-going Contador clenbuterol saga which is being heard next week by CAS but they need 6-8 weeks for their deliberations. Don’t expect any outcome before next January. If it seems a tad long to digest all the evidence, don’t forget this includes the Xmas to Epiphany holiday held dear in Switzerland.

David Millar might just get to go to the ball after all. By “ball” I mean London 2012. WADA are challenging the British Olympic Association’s imposition of a lifetime ban for doping offenders. Again, this is likely to end up at CAS. Don’t expect a quick decision, probably not before July 2012.

UCI blocked Alejandro Valverde’s appearance at a Movistar press conference as his ban doesn’t end until after 31 December 2011. Plenty of people don’t seem too keen to see him back unless he does a David Millar and gets it all off his chest. I don’t understand, he’s served his time and he can come back, just not before the due date.

Ezequiel Mosquera, the 2010 Vuelta runner-up and 2011 Vacansoleil no-show, appears likely to get a 2 year ban for the presence of hydroxyethyl starch in one of his Vuelta samples. I seem to recall baby faced Oscar Sevilla got a 6 month ban though this is being challenged by the UCI. As Mosquera hasn’t ridden in 2011, when will his ban be deemed to have started? Either way it’s probably game over for Ezequiel.

Alex “super disorganised” Rasmussen will not be sanctioned by the Danish authorities for missing three doping tests due to a procedural error on the part of the UCI who should have informed him within 14 days of his 3rd missed test. They took 10 weeks. Nonetheless, Alex was prepared to take his ban like a man. Will he still ride for Garvelo next season? I have some advice for you Alex. Do what my beloved would do and delegate this all important task to someone way more reliable, the lady in your life. If you’ve not got one, find one fast.

The French Cycling Federation’s decision in the case of Jeannie Longo’s 3 missed doping tests is due next week. Jeannie claims she didn’t need to advise her whereabouts as technically she was no longer in the testing pool. Are the FFC about to throw the book at France’s favourite sporting idol? We’ll have to wait and see.

Michael “The Chicken” Rasmussen, no relative to Alex above, is apparently a love rat. It now emerges he didn’t want his wife to know he was still in Italy, so told her, and everyone else, he was in Mexico with her relatives whom he presumably thought wouldn’t rat him out. Is this further stretching the bounds of credibility or what?   Still, it must be difficult having an affair when your every waking moment needs to be accounted for but a number of cyclists seem to have managed it.

Former U23 World Road Race Champion and hot-French prospect, Romain Sicard may be cautionned after he was apprehended by police for borrowing some road signs and a traffic cone, orange I assume, after imbibing a wee too much alcohol. He’s apologised for his irresponsible and immature behaviour, let’s hope that suffices. Meanwhile, I really hope the doctors can finally figure out why he’s lost power in one of his legs.

Andy Schleck is facing a possible one month ban for speeding after driving his car at 101km/hr on the roads of southern Luxembourg. I loved the tweet from Simon MacMichael ” Andy Schleck faces one month driving ban for speeding? I’m guessing that it wasn’t on a downhill stretch of road…..”. I’m guessing you’re spot on with that one Simon.

Get well soon

Finally, nothing whatsoever to do with a ban, I’d like to wish a very speedy recovery to Sammy Sanchez who’s recently undergone surgery to remove some calcification from his hip bone.

Cards from Copenhagen I

As a cycling fan I’m fortunate to often venture where I’ve never been before or, as in the case of Copenhagen, renew my acquaintance with places I haven’t visited in a while. Though the trip didn’t get off to a propitious start. I took the low cost flight option, which doesn’t have on-line check in facilities, so that you do really need to get to the airport 2-hours ahead of departure. A coach load of octogenarian Danes had however beaten me to it and I was sandwiched between them and a coach load of spotty adolescents. I then circumnavigated the long queue through security with my [free] airport premier card and fled to the sanctuary of the lounge where I browsed through the day’s Press and enjoyed a few non-alcoholic beverages.

Once on board, it was soon evident that there was a problem. The staff wandered up and down the plane counting and re-counting heads. Eventually they came clean. They had issued 144 boarding passes but there were only 143 people on the plane. It took a further 20 minutes to identify our phantom passenger who had been erroneously checked in by the travel company but who, fortunately, had no luggage. We breathed a collective sigh of relief: too soon. Ground staff were unable to decouple the plane from the loading bridge. The captain made a few off the cuff jokes about using explosives to blow the bridge off. His humour was not appreciated by his largely elderly passengers who were queuing 20 deep for the toilet.

Finally, we were underway. I fell asleep, as I do on most flights, only to be woken on a regular basis as my travelling companions needed yet another comfort break. We arrived and there followed a 2km hike to retrieve our baggage. I’m sure airports do this to reduce waiting times for luggage. Our luggage soon arrived. Or should I say, everyone’s luggage soon arrived, apart from mine. Just as I was thinking that this was the cherry on the icing, my Tumi hove into view. I grabbed my bag and legged it but was too late for the complimentary shuttle to my hotel. I reluctantly got a taxi. On arrival at the hotel I was advised that I was being upgraded to an executive room – good news. Ten minutes later, my head hit the pillow and I was in the land of nod.

This morning I easily made my way on public transport to Rudersdaal for today’s races. It was cold, largely overcast, at times windy, sometimes sunny but ultimately dry. I easily found a good spot on the barriers, near the 50m to go marker, in sight of the large screen, not too far from facilities and refreshments and directly opposite the great and the good in the UCI’s hospitality facilities which had colonised the entire other side of the road.

The girls, who had to ride just 5 times round the 13.5km circuit, started nervously, with crashes marring the first three. Once the peloton settled, Germany’s Mieke Kroger and Italy’s Rossella Ratto escaped and built up a reasonable lead before being reeled in with only 600m to go. The winner, having kept her powder dry, launched her attack with just 150m remaining and easily showed the pack a clean pair of cleats. Britain’s 17-year old Lucy Garner had won Britain’s first gold of these championships. Belgium’s Jessy Druyts and home-girl Christine Siggaard completed the podium. Not an Aussie in sight, they’d been felled in the falls.

The Men’s U23 race sometimes, but not always throws up surprises. Freed from her duties in the Press Centre, I was joined by my friend Ute who was hoping for further medals for Germany. The race was relatively relaxed until the final couple of rounds with numerous breakaways, all of whom were absorbed before the final round. It was largely those teams without a recognized sprinter who animated the race, such as the Italians and Danes, and it was heartening to see riders from Eritrea holding their own. To become a truly global sport, cycling needs to embrace competitors from every continent.

Finally, the much fancied Aussies took control of the race with their gold medal TT winner, Luke Durbridge driving the peloton. But there was a sense that the Aussies had done too much, too soon. Their train fell apart as Durbridge swung off. GB’s Luke Rowe led out Andy Fenn for the sprint but, as he faded, he was overtaken by the French duo of Arnaud Demare and Adrien Petit who impeccably timed their sprints to take gold and silver respectively. Fenn, who took bronze, can take heart, last year in Geelong, 20 year-old Demare committed a similar error and faded to finish 5th, but not this year. He will turn professional next year with FDJ. Just reward for his impressive results (below) this year.

I first saw Demare race in Mendrisio which was won by fellow Frenchman, Romain Sicard who now rides for Euskaltel-Euskadi and whose most recent season has been blighted by injury. The French team bossed the race and one was left with the impression that any one of the team could have won. They worked similarly last year but lit the blue touch paper too early.

From my perspective today was extremely satisfying given that I support both GB and France. What else can I say, Sheree 4 – 0 Ute.

2011 Palmares Arnaud Demare  

  • 1st Boucles Catalanes
  • 1st Vienne Classic Espoirs
  • 4th on 4th and 5th stages of Tour of Normandy
  • 1st in La Cote Picardie, U23
  • 4th ZLM Tour
  • 2nd on 4th stage of Tour of Brittany
  • 4th in Paris-Roubaix Espoirs
  • 1st in 1st and 4th stages of Coupe de Nations, U23
  • 2nd on 3rd and 4th stages of Tour de L’Oise
  • 1st in GP de Pont a Marq
  • 2nd in GP Cristal Energy
  • 1st on 3rd stage and 4th on 4th of Tour Alsace
  • 3rd on 1st and 7th on 2nd stage of Tour du Poitou-Charentes et de la Vienne
  • 19th in GP Fourmies
  • 1st on 3rd stage of Tour de Moselle

Postscript: This is my 500th post!

Contenders

I had a good ride this morning with my beloved and, given the great weather, we decided to go out for a late lunch, followed by a long walk along the coast. As a consequence, I’ve only just had time to cast my eye over the start list for tomorrow’s 69th edition of Paris-Nice and think about who might win this year, in the absence of the defending champion, Alberto Contador, who won today’s 2nd stage in the Tour of Mucia ahead of Denis Menchov and Jerome Coppel (going from strength to strength at Saur-Sojasun).

L’Equipe devoted half a page today to last year’s revelation, Peter Sagan who, having shone in the recent Tour of Sardinia, is obviously on form and keen to seize his opportunities. He’s not the only young gun keen to cement his credentials. Over at HTC-High Road, there’s Tony Martin and Tejay van Garderen plus Ritchie Porte at SaxoBank-Sungard and Jurgen van den Broeck at Omega Pharma-Lotto. The latter’s team mate, Philippe Gilbert sparkled on the Strade Bianchi today finishing in Siena ahead of Allessandro Ballan, Damiano Cunego and Spartacus.

Let’s not forget the old guard,  those who have triumphed before in the race to the sun, such as Luis Leon Sanchez and Alexandre Vinokourov. The latter’s bought plenty of support with Tomas Viatkus, Robert Kisverlovski and Roman Kreuziger. Also in the reckoning for the overall, Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) and Levi Leipheimer (Team RadioShack).

If we’re looking for stage winners, we should look to the French who are always “en forme” in the early season: Voeckler, Fedrigo, Le Mevel, Moinard, Peraud, Moncoutie, Pauriol. Personally, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the boys in orange: Sammy Sanchez, Romain Sicard and Gorka Izagirre.

The 1,307km route kicks off tomorrow with 154.5km from Houdan to Houdan. Yes, they’re going round in circles. Monday’s one for the sprinters too. Look out for Grega Bola (Lampre-ISD) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). The rest of the sprinters, with an eye on the Classics, are doing Tirreno-Adriatico.

After two flattish stages, it gets progressively lumpy on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday. (I’ll be there), sees a 27km ITT from Rognes to Aix-en-Provence. This could be the decisive stage. Next up is 215km, and the longest stage, from Brignoles to Biot followed by 124km around Nice, including the Category 1 climbs up La Turbie and Col d’Eze. Never one to miss an opportunity to watch live racing in my backyard, I’ll be seeing both of these stages.

There are no testing climbs in the race and one wouldn’t expect them at this stage of the season. The winner will be a puncheur who can time-trial. I would suggest we should look no further than Alexandre Vinokourov who last won the race in 2003 (homage to Andrei Kivilev) and 2004. He’s made it one of his priorities this year and he’s a guy who can focus – go Alex go.

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.

Orange bliss

Regular readers will know that I have a particular fondness for the Basque squad of Euskaltel-Euskadi. While I’m not exactly sure why that is, I can proffer a number of possible reasons:-

  1. It’s home to my favourite Spanish rider Samu Sanchez
  2. I like the idea that the team supports cycling from grass-roots to elite, but only for Basques, or those, like Samu, raised in a Basque squad
  3. To a man, they all weigh less than me. In fact, when I met the squad during the third week of  Tour de France 2008 they resembled a bunch of little brown twigs 
  4. Most of them have names which challenge the powers of pronunciation of all cycling commentators alike (except those that speak Basque)
  5. They’ve all been tangoed
  6. They don’t travel well. Have  the  Basques ever won a race on the cobbles? No, I don’t think so
  7. They have the most ardent supporters
  8. They could do with some good luck, particularly Igor Anton who has crashed out of the Vuelta this year, and also in 2008, with broken bones 
  9. They have one of the smallest budgets in the Pro-Tour peloton
  10. Basques never do quite as well on other squads as they do on their own
  11. The most promising young French rider, Romain Sicard, rides for them
  12. The Basque country is a culinary blessed area
  13. My very first road bike was an Orbea

Let’s hope 13 isn’t an unlucky number in the Basque country

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.

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.

Postcards from Mendrisio III

I drove home from Mendrisio yesterday evening having had five very enjoyable days with my most hospitable Swiss friend and his mother. I had watched ALL of the races, ridden the parcours and met up with friends old and new.

Cadel crowned champion
Cadel crowned champion

Local Boy, Cadel Evans (he lives in Ticino), is the nearly man no more. Having ridden away from the other favourites, who were all marking one another,  in a solo attack a few kilometres from the line. He’s the first ever Australian world road race  champion. His team worked tirelessly for him and he’s probably wishing he could avail himself of their services for next year’s Tour de France.

It was a thrilling race, particularly in the final rounds when both Cancellara and Vino launched trademark attacks but failed to  maintain their momentum, probably thanks to their efforts in Thursday’s TT.

I had ridden into Mendrisio on Saturday to watch the Women’s Elite and U23 Road Races. Unfortunately, it had rained heavily in the early hours, giving the girls a few tricky rounds before the roads dried out. I should mention that the GB team were fortunate to even be on the starting line. The previous day, I had followed them down the one technically difficult descent. At a T-junction, our route was suddenly blocked by a policemen.  I yanked on my sometimes suspect Campy brakes and squealed to an abrupt halt, narrowly missing piling into several GB riders. That would have made for an interesting headline.

Saturday I rode to where I had previously enjoyed spectating only to discover an entire UCI Hospitality Village had sprung up overnight. So I retreated to the other side of the track, next to the platform for the handicapped spectators with a good view of the track and TV screen. The Italian ladies proved to be strong, sandwiching a Dutch former world champion, while the French boys more than lived up to their billing.

U23 road race podium
U23 road race podium

Romain Sicard, the recent winner of the Tour de l’Avenir, proved to be the strongest and no doubt will now be hailed by the French Press as a future Tour winner. Truthfully, the entire team were strong which bodes well for the future of French cycling.