Sheree’s 2018 Sporting Highlights

It’s always tricky distilling a year’s viewing of a number of sports into a few high points, but I’m going to try. You might be surprised at the results but, then again, you might not!

1. Rudy Molard’s stage victory in Paris-Nice

There’s really nothing better than watching someone you know win, particularly when it’s their first big win. I was delighted for him – my race winning brownies worked their magic again!

Rudy’s move to FDJ is proving to be inspired and he’s really blossomed in his second year with them. His main role in the team is to ride in support of Thibaut Pinot and in this year’s Vuelta a Espana he spent four days (stages 6 – 9) in the leader’s jersey while undertaking that role after getting into a long range break on stage five. It was the first time in 13 years that an FDJ rider had worn a race leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour.

Sadly, the Vuelta was the one grand tour we didn’t see this year due to other commitments. However, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of opportunities to see Rudy race in the coming season.

2. #Level7 for Marc Marquez

This year we watched the MotoGP Catalunya live and every other round of the World Championship on the television. It was an exciting year’s racing with #MM93 being challenged by a number of other riders but he finally nailed the championship in Honda’s back yard (Motegi, Japan).

Marquez has had another blistering season after a controversial start that saw him get into a spot of bother with Valentino Rossi at the Argentine MotoGP but the young Spaniard turned things around in emphatic style as he performed another world title smash-and-grab.

On his way to claiming his seventh world championship crown – that’s now five in the premier class, one in Moto2 and one in Moto3 – Marquez has scored five pole positions, six fastest laps and seven race victories. No one was able to keep up with the Spaniard in 2018.
 

Interestingly, #MM93 also maintained his reputation of the King of Premier Class Crashers. Last season he racked up 27, and the reigning Champion began this season saying he wanted to make sure 2018 went a little smoother. It did, he had 23 crashes, with only two of them coming on Sunday afternoon as he crashed out at Mugello and Valencia. But that’s what happens when you’re always on the limit!

3. Super Mario stays at OGC Nice

It was touch and go at times but we retained Mario Balotelli’s services for the final year of his contract. However, after a will he stay or will he go tug of war with OM, Super Mario started the season with a three-match ban and was out of sorts when he returned to action. In truth, we’re still waiting for him to hit his stride.

However, I’m confident new manager Patrick Viera will soon have him firing on all cylinders, that’s if he doesn’t decide to jump ship in the January transfer window!

4. France win the World Cup

France became 2018 FIFA World Cup champions, besting Croatia 4-2. France had entered the tournament as one of the favourites thanks to stars such as Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, while Croatia was a longshot. After the game, manager Didier Deschamps said:

We are world champions and France are going to be on top of the world for the next four years.

The victory meant celebrations erupted all over France though nobody was more excited than French President Emmanuel Macron seen below celebrating at the stadium.

However, the scenes that will remain in my memory are those where the French public paid homage to the team on the Champs Elysee.

5. Return of Rafa Nadal

The 2018 Rafael Nadal tennis season officially began on 15 January 2018, with the start of the Australian Open and (sadly) ended on 8 September 2018, with a loss at the semifinals of the US Open and subsequent injury.

The season was largely shortened by the hip, knee, abdominal and ankle injuries Nadal suffered during the year. He played only nine tournaments, his lowest since 2002 (which was his first year on the ATP tour). However, the season still saw Nadal win five titles including a record extending 11th title at the French Open, reclaim the No 1 spot and have his highest winning percentage of a single season at 91.83%.

What were your sporting highlights in 2018? Let me know in the comments section below.

Vuelta pangs

When the route for this year’s Vuelta a Espana was published in January my heart sank, though not for the reasons you might imagine. This year’s race started in Andalucia – last visited in 2015  – and later visits northern Spain, Asturias and the Basque country, three of my favourite places in Spain. I had to go! Sadly, I knew I couldn’t since it clashed with a family (beloved’s not mine) wedding for which I was making the cake. Instead I’ve had to settle for watching it in its entirety on the television, a poor subsistute for being there in person.

This was brought home yesterday when one of our friends unexpectedly donned the race leader’s jersey. My beloved and I were beside ourselves with joy for him. So few riders ever don the leader’s jersey in a grand tour. Indeed, Rudy Molard is the first rider from his Groupama-FDJ team to wear the leader’s jersey in a grand tour in 13 years. The last being Australian Brad McGee, also in the Vuelta back in 2005. If I recall correctly, the previous French riders to don a leader’s jersey would’ve been Thomas Voeckler in Tour de France 2011 and Sylvain Chavanel in Vuelta a Espana 2011.

Competition to get in and stay in yesterday’s break was fast and furious, particularly since the day before’s stage winner had come from a long-range break. But once the break of 25 riders formed, the peloton seemed content to let them get away. Rudy was the best-placed rider on GC (28th and 3:46 back) to get into the break.

Once the break’s advantage reached over 4 minutes, Rudy became the “virtual race leader.” However, most assumed that Sky or, as on the previous stage, another team would up the tempo to reduce the advantage. But no one, not even Sky seemed to have the appetite for a chase.

Inevitably, the breakmates attacked one another, shattering the group, and a trio of riders finally stayed clear with another threesome, one of whom was Rudy, in hot pursuit. At points Rudy seemed to be flagging as he led the second trio in hot pursuit and, once the leaders started playing cat and mouse, they were in sight. But it was a case of too little, too late. Rudy was riding for the jersey, not the stage win and he succeeded. My beloved and I had been screaming encouragement at the television screen for most of the afternoon, and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones.

The outpouring of love for Rudy on social media was lovely to witness. We also learned that his nickname in the team is Mr Gourmet! Watching him mount the podium, you could see how unaccustomed he was to all the attention and he wasn’t too sure how to react. Finally, you could see he was starting to appreciate just what he’d achieved. Remember, it was only back in the spring that he’d won his first WorldTour race, stage six of Paris-Nice, raced on his adopted-home turf.

Speaking post-race to Eurosport, Rudy said:

A leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour is both beautiful and emotional. It’s a high point in one’s career. I’ll try to make the most of it. I started thinking about it (of the leader’s jersey) only at the end of the stage. I thought about victory, but it was not easy to manage. We were 25 (in the breakaway), there were a lot of attacks, I buried myself for the win. In the end, I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try for the general and we’ll see how it goes.” Even when the peloton crossed the line with a sufficient time gap, I still didn’t really believe it.  Let’s see if I can defend the jersey until Sunday, that’ll be good enough.

https://twitter.com/GroupamaFDJ/status/1034863800942567429

His team chose yesterday evening to announce that he’d resigned for another two years. They must be delighted to have retained his services particularly as in the post-race interviews he reinterated that his role was still to ride for his team leader. Let’s hope he hangs onto that jersey until Sunday’s difficult, taxing ascent to La Covatilla.

Postscript: Some of Rudy’s advantage was eroded post-race by a 20 second penalty for late feeding!

Postcard from Paris-Nice 2018

One of these years I will endeavour to follow the entire route of Paris-Nice, just not this year.  This time I joined the race for the start of stage 5 in Salon-de-Provence. We’ve visited the town a number of times as my beloved has a client here. But, last year, during the Tour de France, was our maiden venture into its small but beautifully formed Old Town.

 

My overnight stop was chosen deliberately because of its prized location, with a parking place, most of which in the town had been suspended because of the race. The B&B is the family home of a doctor, who runs his practice from the front two rooms, and his designer wife who runs their home, the B&B and her design practice from the rest of the building which includes a delightful, enclosed courtyard garden and pool.

I was buffeted by the wind on the drive down but didn’t mind as the sun was shining. Everything looks so much better in the sunshine, doesn’t it? Spring was definitely in the air. The mimosa might be on its last legs but the bright lime green of new leaves and shoots was everywhere, along with what I assume is cherry, or maybe apple, blossom.

As anticipated the drive took me just over two hours. I easily located my lodgings and joined my hostess for a reviving cup of green tea while her tiny dog Lilli gazed at me in adoration and gave my shoes a quick clean and polish. The owner looked a tad put out at this open transfer of affection. I didn’t bother to enlighten her about my enduring and inexplicable attraction to dogs.

The house was charming and had been strikingly decorated. It certainly wasn’t to my taste but it made a pleasant change from a beige hotel chain bedroom, plus my bedroom and bathroom were very generously proportioned. Space is always a bonus. I was also their only guest and barely made a dent in the copious breakfast the following morning.

I had arrived suitably laden with baked goodies for a number of the teams. I noted with interest that my race winning brownies served up at Strade  Bianche had  wrought their magic in the team time-trial at Tirreno Adriatico. Maybe, they’d have a similar effect at Paris-Nice, I certainly hoped so.

 

Brownies handed out and gratefully received, the peloton departed and I tarried over lunch in the sunshine before heading back to the motorway to get to the race finish in Sisteron. This is a much used location by ASO and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited. I’ve also ridden extensively around here, so it’s always a pleasure to revisit. I typically stay at the same hotel, the Ibis. Definitely beige but usually in the company of a couple of cycling teams. This time it was to be Lotto Soudal and Astana.

As I joined the motorway I had an epiphany. I cancelled my room in Sisteron and drove home. I just had this feeling that I should watch the stage finish, not the stage start. This was to prove a wise decision.

Friday afternoon, I drove up to Vence to watch the final kilometres of a stage which covered roads I know, ride regularly and love. As ever I get a real kick from seeing the professional peloton ride on my roads. My instincts proved correct, the stage was won by a friend, Rudy Molard. I was so happy for him. And, yes, he’d been one of the recipients of my race-winning brownies!

Sadly this year’s Race to the Sun was no such thing. The week-end was a wash-out. I woke on Saturday morning to the sound of pouring rain, rolled over and went back to sleep. I had no intention of getting soaked like the previous week-end in Siena. Instead I watched an enthralling stage on the television before heading to the airport to collect my beloved where I discovered  – not for the first time – he’d misinformed me about his arrival time. I returned home, took his dinner out of the oven and returned once more much later.

Sunday morning we awoke to the sound of heavy rain and wind. We took an executive decision to watch the final stage on the television. This too proved to be wise as, with the exception of the last few kilometres, it rained all day. It felt like a bit of a cop out not to watch both stages live but, to be honest, my flu symptoms had reared their ugly head again. Serves me right for kissing so many in the peloton who were subsequently DNF or DNS on account of the flu. However, when you get to my age, the opportunity to kiss so many fit young guys in lycra shouldn’t be ignored, despite the consequences.

In spite of the weather, or maybe because of it, this year’s Paris-Nice was a rip-roaring race which kept us on the edge of our seats throughout before a long-range, smash and grab by the Spaniards on the final stage causing a couple of wags to re-christen the Promenade des Anglais, Promenade des Espagnols!

That winning feeling

As a fan of cycling I appreciate that all too few riders win races, not because they’re incapable of winning but because most spend their careers in the service of others. So when a professional cyclist you know wins a race or a stage, you know how much it means to them, their family and friends. It’s the best feeling ever. Probably better than winning yourself.

Friday I witnessed a rider I know, admire and have interviewed win a stage of a WorldTour race. He’d targeted the stage because it finished not far from where he now lives and on roads on which he trains. However targeting a stage and winning it are two entirely different things. This is how it happened.

Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) got the jump on the leading group with just over a kilometre to go and pedaled as if his life depended on it. Momentary confusion in the group enabled him to hold them off and solo across the finish line, arms aloft.  Thereafter he collapsed, gulping in air, trying to take in what had just happened. He’d won his first WorldTour race, something he’d been threatening since his two podium places at the start of the season.

Like a lot of riders in the peloton, Rudy doesn’t live far from the finish and as he explained post-race:

I knew the course like the palm of my hand. Since the profile of this Paris-Nice was announced, I was delighted with such a finale which suited my qualities. I was on a good day and it’s fantastic to win a stage here. I really needed to attack before the sprint. I tried several times and it worked. It’s just great.

Indeed, it was great Rudy and I feel privileged to have been there to witness your victory which was popular with many of the riders. I feel sure it’s the first of many. Of course, my race winning brownies might also have played their part!

 

Postscript: After Saturday’s Dantesque stage, Rudy was last man standing on his team. Without support, and still feeling the effects of his endeavours on Friday, he slid down the GC.

My European cycling season starts now!

 

The previous week I was enjoying balmy temperatures among the sea, sand and skyscrapers of the Tour of Dubai, a six-day long sprint fest where those likely lads in lycra got to enjoy some of the trappings other sportsmen take for granted – club class airline travel and 5* hotels. This week-end the riders were back to earth with a bump and “enjoying” overcooked pasta and chicken at Ibis and Kyriad hotels, and riding in the pouring rain.

You might be wondering whether Arthur Vichot, back to back winner of the last two editions of Tour du Hau Var Matin, was going for a consecutive three-peat? He wasn’t, he didn’t take part. Instead it was the season opener for his FDJ team-mate and team leader Thibaut Pinot, last seen competing in the Transjurassienne, a cross-country ski race in which he finished a very creditable 50th.

It was the race’s 50th anniversary, as good an excuse as any for rolling out plenty of past winners and having Daniel Mageas – the voice of cycling – as MC. The winner of the first edition and the event’s god-father, Raymond Poulidor was in sparkling form. Three former winners were still racing: Sylvain Chavanel, Pippo Pozzato and Davide Revellin, the latter celebrating his 27th year in the professional peloton!

The race started, as is the custom for the past few years, in Le Cannet des Maures, a pretty village in the Var but, having gotten soaked at the start, unlike the peloton, we skipped the finish in Fayence and headed for home and watched the race on France 3.

Day two kicked off in Vidauban’s recently opened leisure park. As we entered the village du depart, we noted an unseemly scrum in the far corner. Was it one of the teams, no it was freebies! Wine, coffee, crepes, sandwiches and oysters – far too much to stomach at 10:00 in the morning but, as you can see from the crowds, I was in a minority of one.

After the race start, we headed for lunch and the finish in Flayosc, just 17 kilometres away. While the peloton went round in ever decreasing circles before thrice coming across the line ahead of the race finish. The result was an all French podium, guaranteed to delight the crowd. The race winner was double stage winner Jonathan Hivert. His small son was almost in tears standing in front of the podium. It’s so lovely for riders’ kids to share in the (all too infrequent) joy of victory.

TdHV7

Races such as these are often great for spotting emerging talent. The best young rider and fourth overall was 21 year old FDJ neo-pro Valentin Madouas who has had a great start to the season. Let’s see how he fares at his next race, Strade Bianche. Euskadi’s 22 year old neo pro Fernando Barcelo waltzed off with the mountains’ jersey while 21 year 0ld Miguel Angel Ballesteros from Alberto Contador’s Conti squad finished 17th overall. I wonder if he’s any good at golf?

TdHV5

The cherry on the icing of two days’ of exciting racing was Rudy Molard’s third place on the podium, replicating his recent result from the Tour of Provence. It’s always lovely seeing friends do well in races. Chapeau to another friend who’d been ill all last week but still managed to finish – Amael Moinard. These boys are tough.