Back from the Basque country

I’m back from a number of days of unintended blog silence. Although the hotel we stayed in San  Sebastián had free WiFi, I decided not to take my notepad with me. On these short trips, I really want my beloved to have a break. If I start using my notepad he’ll get out his laptop and start working. I do allow him to remain in contact via his Blackberry but somehow that seems less intrusive.

I had so enjoyed my trip last year to the Basque country that I was looking for any excuse for another visit. The Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian was happy to oblige. It also gave me an opportunity to meet up with my friends Susi and Dom whose excellent photographs of the event you can find on www.cyclingnews.com. It was originally planned as a solo trip, while my beloved was in the Far East, but, when his trip was delayed for a couple of weeks, he decided to join me.

I flew from Nice to Bordeaux, took the bus to Bordeaux station and then a train to San Sebastian. The hotel was a 15 minute walk from the station and within sight of the start and finish line of the race. I could have waited for my beloved, who was going to fly into Bordeaux later that day, but experience has taught me never to wait for him unless there’s absolutely no alternative. In any event his flight was late and, still suffering from jet lag, he decided to stay overnight in an airport hotel and drive up the next morning. Meanwhile, I spent many hours happily wandering around San Sebastian enjoying it’s architecture, sights, sounds and smells. This place is foodie heaven.

On our trip last year we had made the pilgrimage to Arzak, a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars and rated 8th best restaurant in the world.  About three months before our trip it took me endless emails to finally secure a table one lunch time. This year it took just one. I always say when you can easily get a table in a city’s top restaurant, you know it’s enjoying tough times. Initially, unsure whether I would be able to secure a booking at Arzak, I also tried to book tables at two of the city’s other 3 starred restaurants. Again, there was absolutely no problem in obtaining a table. Yes, I know three x 3 starred restaurants is way over the top. I agree. I cancelled one of them.

Not only were there gastronomic delights in store but I found out  Bon Jovi were in town Friday evening for the penultimate date of their 2010/11 World Tour. There was no problem in buying tickets which ranged in price from Euros 20 (standing) to Euros 275 (Diamond VIP Circle). Now I’m not sure exactly what you got for your money for the top priced ticket but, at the very least, I’d want a night with Jon Bon Jovi himself. I plumped for tickets costing Euros 60, allocated seats. It’s official, I’m old. This is the first concert I’ve ever attended, and I’ve attended plenty, where I’ve deliberately opted for a seat.

Despite, or because of, his Garmin, my beloved arrived in San Sebastián, minus his jacket, which he’d left in the airport hotel bedroom, and with barely enough time to make our lunch date at Arzak. It was just as good as we remembered. It’s not a restaurant that you could eat at regularly because there’s a real sense of drama and theatre when you eat there which would be lost with regular visits. We had a mind-bogglingly fantastic meal (again) and left feeling truly sated. We’d work off those calories at that evening’s Bon Jovi concert.

After a long walk along one of San Sebastian’s beaches, cooling our feet off in the warm water lapping the sand, we drove over to the football stadium to see Bon Jovi. The boys didn’t disappoint, despite it being the end of a very lengthy tour, belting out 27 songs from their repertoire with gusto. I did however think that in the big screen close ups they looked tired, too many nights with the Diamond VIP circle perhaps?

Saturday heralded the main event and we were handily poised to soak up the pre-race atmosphere which is very relaxed and familiar, not at all like the Tour de France. The event is obviously well supported by the Basque riders who earned the loud, vocal support of the crowd. Equally well received were such luminaries as Sylvain Chavanel, Frank Schleck and Philippe Gilbert. This is an event typically won by an in form rider off the back of the Tour and merry go round of criteriums. Indeed, Phil Gil had flown in on a private jet in the early hours. Nonetheless, he looked as fresh as a daisy and once the orange led peloton had reeled in the early escapees, Sammy Sanchez launched his offensive to escape from the Belgian flag clad Walloon.

Check out those gloves!

A flurry of attacks, the leading contenders constantly splitting and re-grouping, but there was a certain inevitability as PhilGil soloed away on the Alto Miracruz, just a couple of kilometres from the finishing line. He gained enough time to sit up in the finishing straight and enjoy his win. Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo was the Spanish sausage in the Belgian sarnie, he’d attacked on the run in to the finish from the leading group and was book ended by BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, who won the sprint to the line. Spanish races give out prizes for pretty much anything and everything: winner, mountains, most courageous, most elegant, best-placed Basque, youngest rider, most aggressive. PhilGil bemusedly picked up 4 awards. My beloved suggested that one of which was for best hairstyle. Methinks he was joking, but maybe not.

Sunday heralded a visit to another 3 starred establishment, Arkelarre, situated beyond Monte Igueldo, with a panoramic view of the sea. This was pure Basque cuisine ratched up several notches. The only slightly jarring note was the ameuse geule: a clever idea but one at odds with the leitmotif of the restaurant. Again, it was a highly enjoyable meal in very relaxing surroundings. However, for me, the highlight was a guided tour of the kitchen by the chef and restaurant owner.

While we’re heading back to the Basque country in early September to watch the stages of the Vuelta near Bilbao, I am already plotting my return to San Sebastian next year. I am hoping to combine the Tour of the Basque Country (early April) with a cookery course in Basque cuisine. As a consequence, I have been trying my hand at a few words in Basque. I just need the Basque made simple or Basque for idiots course, then I’ll be all set.

(Photo of Sammy [any excuse] courtesy of my friend Susi. My beloved has taken some great photos too but I’m still waiting for them.)

Postcards from the Alps IV, V and VI

According to L’Equipe, spectators wait an average of six hours to watch the peloton pass. At one end of the spectrum are those who watch it at home on television nipping out just before the riders zoom past their front garden. At the other end are those who, generally with their motorhomes, bag a spot on a key climb 3-4 days before the riders arrive. L’Equipe fails to take account of the time it takes to get in situ. This is where the bike trumps all other forms of transport. When key routes are closed to traffic, you can generally still ascend and descend by bike on the day of the stage. Watching the Tour on key stages makes for very long, but highly enjoyable, days hence the absence of any reports for the past few days.

The last three stages have been absorbing, fascinating and have made this year’s Tour truly memorable. Consequently, it seems inappropriate  to lump them together when each is deserving of it’s own fulsome report. Nonetheless, that’s what I’m going to do. Sadly, we sacrified the space normally dedicated to my beloved’s camera in the backpack for more clothes. I’ve spent many holidays in the Alps and while it’s often been wet I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold as this summer. I wasn’t one of those idiots risking hypothermia to grab my 15 seconds of fame in a skimpy outfit. No, we were the mummified couple huddled together sharing a little body heat.

When Andy Schleck rode off on the slopes of the Col d’Izoard on Thursday’s stage from Pinerolo to the top of the Galibier with 60km still remaining, you could hear the collective holding of breath. Was this a suicide mission or Andy’s response to the incessant sniping of the Press? In a move reminiscent of days of yore in the Tour and, fittingly on the 100th birthday of the Tour’s first visit  to the Galibier, Andy’s escape proved Merckxesque.  But that wasn’t all, to the delight of the French public, a last gasp effort from Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler ensured he would spend yet another day in yellow. Evans responded and singlehandedly dragged everyone else up the Galibier. After their exertions of the previous two day’s, sadly Bertie and Sammy weren’t able to remain with the contenders and they both slipped back in the final kilometers and down on GC. Tour over for some and just igniting for others. Only the white jersey changed shoulders, passing from Sky’s Rigoberto Uran to Cofidis’s Rein Taaramae. The eighty-nine riders who finished outside of the day’s time limit were reinstated but, with the loss of 20 points, the margin between Mark Cavendish and Jose Joaquin Rojas, in the fight for the green jersey, was reduced to 15 points.

Another day another fight, you write Bertie off at your peril. If he was going to lose his Tour crown, he was going to go down fighting. Anything Andy could do, he could do too. On Friday’s stage, which finished atop the iconic Alpe’d’Huez, Alberto attacked 15km into the stage. Initially the others responded  but Voeckler and Evans dropped back into the bunch before the summit of the first climb while Andy rode with Bertie, clearly hoping to put time into Evans who tried to organise the chasing group. Cadel had both the brothers for company when Contador soloed off on the Alpe and while they encouraged him to continue the pursuit he desisted. After all, who was the better time triallist? Who needed to put time into who? Exactly.

While Contador was leading the charge up the Alpe to what many assumed would be a Tour stage win, Sammy Sanchez, second on this stage in 2008 to Carlos Sastre, was in hot pursuit tailed by Pierre Rolland who’d been let off the leash by his leader, Thomas Voeckler. With 5km to go, Bertie was visibly fading. 3km later he was overtaken by Rolland who became the only French stage winner of the Tour, the first Frenchman to win here since Bernard Hinault in 1986 and he also took the white jersey of best young rider. Sammy was 2nd again, his 2nd 2nd place of the Tour but, as consolation, he landed the spotted jersey. Alberto was a gallant third and was adjudged the most aggressive rider which was to be his only podium appearance of this Tour. The maillot jaune slipped from the shoulders of Thomas Voeckler onto those of Andy Schleck. Cavendish remained in green, while both he and Rojas lost a further 20 points apiece for again finishing outside the time limit.

Most commentators felt that while the actions of the freres Schleck had been heroic, their time-trialling skills were much inferior to those of Cadel, who had the added advantage of having ridden the same course in the Dauphine. The stage was set and, while those going earlier in the order had to cope with damp conditions, the roads had dried by the time the top riders set off. HTC’s Tony Martin, heir apparent to Spartacus, set a blistering and ultimately winning pace. The body language of Cadel and Andy in the start gate was interesting to observe: the first focused and intent, the latter nervous. The brothers posted similar times to remain on the podium, a first for the Tour. Cadel Evans posted the second best time to leapfrog over Andy and take the treasured yellow jersey: the first winner from Down Under. The realisation of a long held dream and just reward for a very intelligently ridden Tour. Thomas Voeckler rode the time-trial of his life to remain in 4th place, the best finish for a Frenchman for a very long time. Pierre Rolland resisted the challenge of Rein Taaramae, a superior time triallist, to retain the white jersey. Bertie and Sammy both turned in very respectable times in the time trial to finish in 5th and 6th places respectively ahead of the Italian duo of Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego.

Okay, the Tour’s not yet over but today is largely a procession around the suburbs of Paris followed by a criterium around the capital. Etiquette dictates that the yellow jersey is not attacked on the final day. There still remains the question of the green jersey but I would be very surprised to see anyone other than Cavendish win today, his 5th win of the Tour and his 3rd consecutive win on the Champs Elysees. As an aside, I love the fact that all of BMC are wearing yellow Oakley’s today – nice touch.

Postcards from the Alps III

I derive an enormous amount of pleasure from riding part of a Tour stage ahead of the peloton. Today dawned bright with that omnipresent bitingly cold wind. As we rode into Briançon you could see the fresh snow on the surrounding mountains. With a fair tailwind, it didn’t take too long, despite the presence of an enormous amount of traffic, to reach the town in full-on Tour party mode.

 We followed today’s route taking La Chaussée (1.7km @ 8.3%), which had me perspiring heavily beneath my jacket, gilet,  shirt, vest and bib,  followed by the climb up Montgenèvre (7.9km @ 6.1%) and then we rode back: a 40km round trip.

It was like one big international pointage with riders from all over the globe riding up and down the road which was wide but with a significant amount of traffic. I was almost sideswiped by a Polish caravan. As one of only a handful of women , as usual, I received plenty of encouragement from those on the side of the road. Again, there was barely room left to park a moped, let alone a camper van. And, it’s official, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg are deserted. They’re all watching the Tour. 

Tommy sitting pretty

Given the weather forecast, we had planned to watch the race at the finish in Pinerolo but it wasn’t necessary as the outlook was warm and sunny here, provided you stayed out of the wind. We returned to Briançon and watched the race unfold on the large screen. We saw the riders ascend the Chaussée at a positively pedestrian pace. They must have been saving themselves for the forthcoming mountain stages.

French aspirations for a home stage winner were  raised by Quickstep’s Sylvain Chavanel, one of today’s breakaways, only to have them cruelly dashed by today’s stage winner, Sky’s Edvald Boassen Hagen. Two Norwegians in the Tour and two individual wins apiece: Norse Gods rock.

Meanwhile, on the descent into Pinerolo, the yellow-jersey wearer, Europcar’s irrepressible Tommy Voeckler was struck by the curse of the commentator. Just as he was being complimented on his strong descending skills, he veered off the side of the road. He remounted, having lost touch with the leading riders, only to replicate Jonathon Hivert’s mistake of overshooting a corner into someone’s drive.

Bertie and Sammy, that well-known Spanish double act, again tried to put time into the competition on the descent into Pinerolo but the other contenders caught them on the line. Today’s only casualty was Tommy who lost 27 precious seconds. He may rue that come Paris. None of the jerseys changed hands.

Postcards from the Alps II

It had started raining heavily before we set out for Gap muffled like members of Michelin Man’s army. It was also cold, another day at 9°. We passed many a sodden cyclist en route happy, for once, to be in the warm and dry of the car. We found the Village d’Arrivee almost by chance on the road into Gap some 2km from the finish line. Happily our names were on the guest list, we were given our bracelets, our goodie bags and ushered in.

I generally prefer to watch a stage as close as possible to the big screen and the finish line. With today’s weather I was more than happy to have shelter, warm food, toilets, plenty to drink and a large screen. Not forgetting a clear view of the run in. The show starts early with reminiscences from French former stage winners, a tour of the hospitality tents of the Tour’s principal sponsors chatting to their celebrity guests, a magician, a trick cyclist…………………Stop, I don’t want to appear ungrateful, just bring on the cycling. There was also a quiz and I was much amused to see that Lance had been franconified (is that a real word?) into Lens Armstrong!

No need to scrap for freebies from the caravan as they deliver bags of goodies at the Village which are distributed by the hostesses. I now have a huge bag for the kids down the club. I was much amused to see cars exhorting us to visit Luxembourg. Why, they’re all here! 

As the day’s transmission started, the break ,which produced the stage winner, had been established only after 100km thanks to a very strong tailwind. On the 163km stage from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Gap, the escapees included none other than Jeremy Roy and Thor Hushovd. The latter going on to re-enact the Norwegian National Championships in the run in for the line with Edvald Boassen Hagen to record his 2nd stage win of the Tour.

The action was kicking off in the bunch as it approached the final bump of the day, 15km from the finish. It took Alberto three attacks but he finally shook free the Schlecks and shot off with Cadel Evans (looking very good) and Sammy Sanchez in tow. The three descended into Gap where Evans time-trialled to the finish. Thanks to the Spanish boys sticking together Cadel gained only 3 seconds on Bertie and Sammy, but more importantly he leapfrogged Frank.

None of the jerseys changed hands today, but we saw who’s in form and determined to fight for the podium in Paris.  Even before I knew that Alberto would be riding, I predicted a Schleck free podium. GC now looks like this:-

Position N° dossard Nom Pays Equipe Horaire Ecart
1 181 Thomas VOECKLER FRA EUC 69h00’56” 00”
2 141 Cadel EVANS AUS BMC 69h02’41” 1’45”
3 018 Frank SCHLECK LUX LEO 69h02’45” 1’49”
4 011 Andy SCHLECK LUX LEO 69h03’59” 3’03”
5 021 Samuel SANCHEZ ESP EUS 69h04’22” 3’26”
6 001 Alberto CONTADOR ESP SBS 69h04’38” 3’42”
7 091 Ivan BASSO ITA LIQ 69h04’45” 3’49”
8 161 Damiano CUNEGO ITA LAM 69h04’57” 4’01”
9 052 Tom DANIELSON USA GRM 69h07’00” 6’04”
10 118 Rigoberto URAN COL SKY 69h08’51” 7’55”

Three faves don’t fare well

An afternoon lazing on the sofa watching those cute boys in lycra has to be earned. We’ve now reached that time of year when Sunday club rides extend beyond 100kms, so that means a 07:30 start. I left home at 07:10 and reached the rdv point with just enough time to greet the 20-strong crowd before we headed off down the Var valley into a strong headwind. It was a little fresh first thing but I knew  it was going to heat up later. Almost immediately the group split into two, with the fast group disappearing off into the wide blue yonder. I stayed with the second group who nonetheless set a steady pace. We were heading for Marie sur Tinee which, as it’s name suggests, is an old walled town along the Tinee valley, which leads up and over the Col de la Bonette.

As we headed up the valley proper I waived the boys on and stopped for a comfort break at one of the few cafes en route. Freed from the restrictions of riding in a group, and taking advantage of the uphill gradient, I practiced some intervals as I spun along. Groups from other clubs passed, calling out greetings or clapping me on the back. I prefer to be one of the later arrivals at Marie which one ascends by way of a twisting 2km road which averages 7%. There’s hardly any traffic and if one descends, as I did, when everyone else has gone, you can really give it some gas. The ride back is pretty much downhill all the way back until Plan du Var. I caught up with a group from Nice containing none other than the Mayor with whom I rode until our paths diverged. I picked up the newspapers, headed for home and a soak in my spa bath. I really only get to enjoy this when my beloved is away.  He’s in Australia. Lunch was the remains of my dinner with friends the night before then I settled back on the sofa to watch the 23km TTT around Les Essarts.

Well drilled

Who can forget 2009’s TTT, particularly the sight of Bbox’s riders scattered all over the ground after a perilous left bend? I was sure 2011’s was going to be just as exciting but, unlike L’Equipe, I fancied Garmin for the win. I’d read they’d arrived in the Vendee several days ahead of the other teams to practise the TTT and, as a consequence, had substituted Paris-Roubaix winner Johann van Summeren with Ramunas Navardauskas. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely as, despite their relatively early start, they nailed the event and put Thor in yellow. However, the surprise of the day was BMC. Cadel is on fire. Not only had he scored a few extra seconds in Saturday’s stage but he drove his well-drilled team to finish second thereby gaining more precious  seconds on his main rivals. Sky finished third with Geraint Thomas narrowly missing out again on taking the yellow jersey; third time lucky maybe?

I had also read that Euskaltel had opted for some TTT practice. Sadly, they still finished last. As a result, Sammy is hosed. He’s 2:36secs off the lead and will have to attack if he’s to claw back time and get back into contention. He also lost time on Saturday when, like Contador, he was held up by Max Iglinsky’s unfortunate clash with a yellow-clad spectator. Yesterday, Alberto Contador’s SaxoBank were first off the ramp and set a not unreasonable time which leaves him 1:42secs off the lead and well behind his main rivals. Both Spanairds will need to remain vigilant, and at the head of the bunch, if they’re to avoid getting caught out by the wind on today’s likely sprint-fest.

HTC’s Bernie Eisel, normally Mr Dependable, hit the deck after a touch of wheels on the first corner and irreparably compromised his team’s efforts. HTC will be gunning for a win today but they face stiff opposition from the team with the yellow jersey, Garmin Cervelo who will be brimming with confidence. Who knows we may see the yellow jersey leading out Tyler Farrar for the win. Or, while everyone’s concentrating on those two contenders, someone else could pop out of the bunch and nick it on the line.

Having watched and enjoyed the cycling I turned over to catch the tennis only to discover I was too late. Novak Djokovic had beaten Rafael Nadal in four sets. He also takes over Rafa’s world number one ranking today. So that’s the three Spaniards who haven’t fared as well as I had hoped: Alberto, Sammy and Rafa.

Counting down the clock

As part of my preparations for The Tour, yesterday afternoon I watched the Tour de France team presentation held in the theatrical, Gallo-Roman, Parc du Puy-du-Fou. The spectacle was much enjoyed by the 6,000 capacity crowd. The riders were made to feel like gladiators when we all know they’re Christians about to be fed to the lions. The world champion entered into the spirit of things by reprising his role as Thor, God of Thunder, with a plundered wig and props. One sour note was the booing of Alberto Contador. While one appreciates the frustration of the fans, under the current regulations, Alberto has every right to take part in this year’s Tour. If you don’t like it, please boo the rule makers, not those subject to said regulations.

Everything is ready to maximise my viewing experience. I have this month’s copy of Velo magazine with a run down on all the riders, updated with today’s 8-page special from L’Equipe. I have last month’s Velo magazine with a detailed explanation of each and every stage. I have my Tour de France reference books. These are all piled on the coffee table in front of the television ready for tomorrow’s first stage. For those of you who aren’t so well organised, can I suggest you check out two websites which contain all the pertinent information in a readily digestible format: www.thearmchairsportsfans.com and www.inrng.com.

Obviously, I’ve had a few musing myself and have been checking out the stats. Forty-six riders (23%) weigh more than me. Of course, there are some teams where none of the riders weigh more than me, that is individually rather than as a team! We’re talking Euskaltel (quelle surprise), Radioshack, AG2R, Cofidis and Europcar.

Eight riders celebrate (or not) their birthdays during the Tour:-

  • 2 July Juergen Roelandts
  • 3 July Nico Roche
  • 4 July Vladimir Gusev
  • 5 July Philippe Gilbert
  • 8 July Paolo Tiralongo
  • 15 July Alan Perez
  • 16 July Andrei Greipel
  • 22 July Dries Devenyns

It remains to be seen whether any of these can garner an additional birthday present from the Tour. The most likely is PhilGil who narrowly missed out on his birthday in 2008 on the 1st stage finish into Plumelec when he was beaten to the line by Alejandro Valverde. No chance of the same happening this year. He will however have his eye on the 1st, 4th and 6th stages. He’s the most likely of the birthday boys to spend a couple of days gracing the maillot jaune.

There are 16 Tour de France virgins, not all of whom will go all the way [to Paris].   It’s important, particularly with the younger ones, to take each day as it comes. At the other end of the scale, Big George Hincapie’s taking part in his 16th Tour, equalling the record held by Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk. On a more sobering note, there are only 33 (16.67%) riders who are too old to be my son.

The youngest rider in this year’s peloton is Saur-Sojasun’s Anthony Delaplace who was born in November 1989 while the oldest is (no prizes for guessing)  39 year old Jens Voigt, who could have fathered the youngest! The team with the highest average age (again, no prizes for guessing) is Radioshack (33). It’s a place they would have occupied last year as well when Lance was still riding in their midst.

Riders from 30 different nations are taking part though, not unreasonably, 45 (22.7%) of these are French. Four teams are only fielding riders from their home nation: Katusha, Eukaltel-Euskadi, Europcar and Saur-Sojasun.

Looking at the photos that have been used by both Velo and L’Equipe, I have to ask, where did you get them from? They all look as if they were taken in one of those photo booths which is incapable of taking a decent photo of anyone, even a Supermodel.

Everyone has made their prognostications, including me, but that was before I knew Alberto would be riding. The opinions of the editorial team of Velo magazine make interesting reading, along with their picks for the stage wins. Here’s their consensus for the jerseys:-

  • Maillot jaune – Alberto Contador (8/11)
  • Maillot a pois – David Moncoutie (4/11)
  • Maillot vert – Thor Hushovd (4/11)
  • Meilleur jeune –  Robert Gesink (11/11)

The white jersey (meilleur jeune) was the only one to enjoy unanimity. Two journalists picked Schleck Jr and one picked Schleck Sr for the win. There was less agreement among the journalists for the two other jerseys, largely I suspect because changes this year to the way in which the points are calculated make it  more difficult to predict. Gilbert, Farrar, Boassen Hagen, Cavendish and Goss were in the mix for the green jersey while Cunego, Gesink, Chavanel and Charteau figured in the picks for the spotted one.

Velo Magazine Predicted Stage winners:-

  • Stage 1 Passage du Gois – Mont des Alouettes: Thor Hushovd
  • Stage 2 Les Essarts – Les Essarts (TTT): Radioshack
  • Stage 3 Olonne-sur-Mer – Redon: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 4 Lorient – Mur-de-Bretagne: Philippe Gilbert
  • Stage 5 Carhaix – Cap Frehel: Fabian Cancellara
  • Stage 6 Dinan – Lisieux: Matthew Goss
  • Stage 7 Le Mans – Chateauroux: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 8 Aigurande – Super Besse: Sylvain Chavanel
  • Stage 9 Issoire – Saint-Flour: Alexandre Vinokourov
  • Stage 10 Aurillac – Carmaux: Thomas de Gendt
  • Stage 11 Blaye-lesMines – Lavaur: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 12 Cignaux – Luz Ardiden: Frank Schleck
  • Stage 13 Pau – Lourdes: Luis Leon Sanchez
  • Stage 14 Saint Gaudens – Plateau de Beille: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 15 Limoux – Montpelier: Mark Cavendish
  • Stage 16 Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux – Gap: Vasil Kiryienka
  • Stage 17 Gap – Pinerolo: Christophe Kern
  • Stage 18 Pinerolo – Galibier Serre Chevalier: Alberto Contador
  • Stage 19 Modane – Alpe d’Huez: Andy Schleck
  • Stage 20 Grenoble – Grenoble (ITT): Tony Martin
  • Stage 21 Creteil – Paris: Mark Cavendish

You would have to say that these are not unreasonable, however, I would hope that Euskaltel, specifically Sammy Sanchez, manages to bag a stage. Additionally, I’m not wholly convinced that Cavendish will be so dominant in the sprints. We’ll just have to wait and see. Bring it on.

12 July Postscript: Velo magazine not faring too well in the prognostications. Indeed,  a number of riders nominated for wins are either down and out or merely limping along. Stage 7 has been their only good call which kinda shows just how unpredictable it’s been.

25 July Postscript: None of the experts have fared too well in the predictions game which just goes to show that cycling’s unpredictable and exciting.

Place your bets please

There’s always a lively debate about whether it’s best to ride the Dauphine or the Tour of Switzerland and what one can read into the form of each of the participants.  Personally, I feel it’s unwise to draw too many conclusions. History is rarely an accurate predictor of the future, just ask any actuary. It’s entirely possible that the eventual winner of the Tour participated in neither race (Alberto Contador). It’s a question of which race best fits the ambitions of the respective teams and their riders.

Bradley Wiggins win in the Dauphine is to be applauded. Was that Sky’s ambition before the race? Who knows? Or, having seized the opportunity, and the yellow jersey, did Wiggo and Sky merely do what needed to be done to stay atop of the podium. I often feel that you’re in a much stronger position when you’re in the leader’s jersey. You get a huge confidence boost and someone then has to try and take the jersey away from you. You just have to defend it.  No doubt this win, the biggest of Wiggins’ career on the road, should not be taken lightly, nor should one assume that Wiggins is battling for no better than 3rd. Shorn of Riis’s strategic and tactical support, I feel the Schleck’s will be at more of a disadvantage. In addition, it looks as if Andy has kept faith with his mechanic – was this wise?

Of course, it’s not so much whether it’s easier to win a one week tour than it is a three week one, more that the pool of riders capable of doing the former is greater than the latter. Nor should one make assumptions about the form, or lack thereof, of those who finished further down the GC, such as Schleck Jr, Basso and Samu. There’s still a couple of weeks for riders to find their form. Some find it easier and quicker to find than others. Again, we don’t know what their ambitions were going into the respective races. Was it just a training ride, were they sand bagging, fine tuning their form or were they going for the win?

Generally, the two races give those on the teams’ reserve lists an opportunity to prove their worth. Riders want to be at the Tour, it’s the largest, global, annual sporting spectacle and an ideal opportunity to conclude a deal for the following year, particularly if you’re in the last year of your contract.  Again, speculation is already rife as to who’s going where. But as the UCI’s window is closed, neither side can officially confirm the rumour mongering.

This year will be the debut Tour for a number of riders, including some who have already invested a number of years in the professional ranks. Nice Matin today featured an interview with a rider who lives locally and rides for Cofidis, Tristan Valentin. After breaking his elbow in Paris-Roubaix in 2008, he’s had a torrid time of it over the past three years.  I’d like to wish him good luck for this year’s Tour and I’ll be rooting for him to at least get in a breakaway and snaffle some airtime.

Postscript: Get well soon Juan Mauricio Soler

Phil’s the man

Worth the pain!
I’m back from a 4-day trip to Varese and a 4-day enforced internet silence. Yes, we took my beloved’s laptop. Yes, we had WiFi on tap. My beloved forgot to take his charger. Yes, we bought a spare charger in MediaMarkt. No, it didn’t work, but the instructions said they’d sent us the correct Dell connector if we identified it on line. We didn’t bother. It did of course mean that my beloved had a real break from work (no bad thing) and was able to answer the most pressing emails and calls via his Blackberry.

The purpose of our trip was 2-fold: check out our Swiss friend’s new bike shop and afore-mentioned break.  We stayed in the same B&B I stayed in for the 2008 World Championships’s  in Varese. Indeed, we’re now quite regular visitors and the owners (and their cats) treat us like family. They’re very busy with their flower shop over Easter, so generally don’t accept guests during this period. We therefore had the run of the place which feels pretty much like home.

Our friend has opened his shop on a busy stretch of road between Lugano and Mendrisio along which absolutely every cyclist in the area travels. In the three weeks that he’s been open, he’s been exceedingly busy and has sold a complete bike and a set of carbon wheels each week, along with assorted repairs and sundries. More importantly, he’s enjoying himself. I’m sure he’s going to make a success of it.

The riding around Varese is different to the Core d’Azur: not better, just more undulating. On Tuesday, we rode along the lake from Como to Bellagio, up the Ghisallo and back. The route is constantly up and down and therefore it’s difficult to establish any kind of rhythm. Despite it being the run up to Easter, there was little traffic and the roads were peaceful. The weather was gorgeous. Warm enough to encourage me to wear my bib-shorts for the first time this year. The climb up to Ghisallo is brutal, it hits over 18% at one point. My cadence was so low, the legs were barely turning. The view was however worth it.

Wednesday, we opted for a gentler ride around the eastern side of Lake Maggiore which, while still undulating, is much kinder on the legs. Again, there was little traffic. We returned to base after lunch to watch La Fleche Wallone. La Gazzeta dello Sport favoured a Spanish win largely on account of the finish being on the brutal Mur de Huy. They speculated that this would suit either Contador (SaxoBank Sungard) or Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). But mostly, they bemoaned the lack of an Italian challenge.

The Italians were enjoying better luck in the Giro del Trentino which had started with a 13.4km time trail around Lake Garda the day before. This had been won by Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack), his 4th win of the season. He was a second ahead of Andrea Malori (Lampre-ISD) and a couple ahead of team mate Tiago Machado. Another man in fine early-season form, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), had taken Wednesday’s 184km stage ahead of Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) to record his 6th win of the season. The Italian moved into the lead on GC where he remains going into today’s final stage. Yesterday’s queen stage, which finished atop the cat 1 climb of Fai della Paganella, was won by the latest Columbian climbing sensation, Fabio Duarte (Geox-TMC), former 2008 Varese U23 world champion.

Meanwhile, back in Belgium, the peloton had reeled back in the early escapees and was steeling itself for the final ascent of the Mur. The favourites were pretty much all in contention but who would prove to have the best legs? It was Phil Gil, again. With 300 metres to go, he powered off the front of the peloton leaving himself ample time to celebrate, as he crossed the line ahead of Roaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), his third win in a week and his first in this particular classic. So, there you have it, two of my favourite smiles atop the podium. Who’s going to have the will to beat him this Sunday?

Truly, great voyages (tgv)

There’s something rather restful about travelling by train, particularly when your companion is in another part of the train. Actually, my beloved is on another train which, until we reach Lille, is attached to mine, thereafter it speeds to Brussels. However, there’s no easy way of moving between the two. This situation has arisen because we initially didn’t anticipate travelling together and would have started our journeys in different places. However, changes to travel plans were made at the last moment and my carriage was allegedly full.

I’m not, you understand, complaining. I’m in the quiet carriage, no mobile phones, which would be impossible for my beloved who I’m quite sure has already annoyed the hell out of his fellow travellers by loudly chatting, in several different languages, on his mobile. I have my picnic lunch, I’m next to the buffet car for my regular infusions of strong coffee, I have a pile of newspapers and magazines, my really difficult Sudoku book and, of course, my notepad. Really, what else does a girl need?

The first part of the journey is largely along the coast and affords great views of some of my favourite places to cycle. The sun is shining, the sky is bright azure blue, the grass is lush and the foliage is every shade of green from citrus bright lime through to British racing green interrupted very so often by splodges of pale pink, almond white or puce blossom. Even when we head inland, and the surroundings are less salubrious, the clear bright Mediterranean light gilds everything be it industrial estates or graffiti strewn, railway sidings and derelict farmhouses. As we journey further north, away from the urban sprawl, there’s a few fluffy clouds in the sky, herds of sheep gambolling on the gently rolling countryside, and the crops are just starting to sprout.

Of course, I’m excited to be heading to Roubaix to see the Hell of the North. I’ve noted that a number of people have gotten on the train with cycling bags, no doubt planning to ride tomorrow’s cyclosportif. I did entertain brief thoughts about aping them until one of the pros I know told me what riding over the cobbles was really like. I have heeded his words of wisdom.

Hard as it may be to believe but I have already started planning my trips for next year. I have so enjoyed watching this week’s Tour of the Basque Country that I simply have to go and watch it in person next year. The stages are all based around a small geographic area, meaning you can easily stay in the same place all week and ride to and from the start and finish of each day’s stage. Additionally, it’s a race which features some of my favourite riders. Two have already won stages (Alexandre Vinokourov and Sammy Sanchez) and another (Amael Moinard) is gracing the spotted jersey. For succinct summaries of each day’s stages, go and read www.thearmchairsportsfan.com.

According to my training programme, this is a rest week: just a couple of hours of gentle cycling, stretching and gym work. However, the weather’s been so fabulous that I’ve been out riding most days, mindful that during this 4-day trip I won’t be able to ride at all. I could tell from yesterday’s ride that my form is back to where it was before the cold. So, I’m now about a month behind in my preparation. The real tests will be my times in the forthcoming sportives. I’m going to be crushed if I don’t show an improvement on last year.

The journey takes a total of 7 hours with no change of trains. I used the train infrequently when I lived in the UK, really only out of necessity, and always first-class, for the trip to an occasional football match and work-related trips to Cheltenham. Travelling by train in Europe is enjoyable. It’s quick, timely, spotlessly clean, inexpensive, and comfortable, standing is not permitted and travelling first-class is a pleasure, not a necessity.

Gripping stuff

My beloved left for yesterday’s pointage in the early morning fog. I rolled over for another hour’s sleep. Eschewing the ride up Ste Agnes to see one of my favourite one day races, the Tour of Flanders, where Belgian television coverage was starting at midday. I settled for a run along the sea front, followed by a quick coffee and collected the Sunday newspapers. Back home I prepared lunch before settling in for a marathon viewing session.

No where and no one is more passionate about cycling than Belgium and the Belgians. And this is their race,  their day in the sun. They line every kilometer of the course, standing over 10 deep on the bergs, quaffing beer and consuming their beloved frites with mayo. The sun was indeed shining, it wasn’t overly windy, near perfect riding conditions.

Rabid fans (picture courtesy of Getty Images)

The parcours starts in the beautiful city of Bruges and zigzags 258km to Meerbeke over 18 steep, sharp climbs and 26 sections of cobbles. The climbs come thick and fast after 70km of flat. If one can refer to cobbles as flat. The cobbles are smaller and more regular than those in Paris-Roubaix but, as the riders traverse them, their upper arms judder as if they’re undergoing some form of electric shock therapy.

The race is largely held on dirty, narrow farm roads which wind through the villages en route. To be in contention you need to remain vigilant and towards the front of the peloton. The slightly-built Spaniards from Euskaltel-Euskadi and Moviestar who would, no doubt, prefer to be riding in the Basque country, but they got the short straw, cling to the back of the peloton, grateful for assistance on the climbs from the beefier Belgian spectators, wondering when they’ll be able to climb off their bikes.

One innovation this year was cameras in four of the team cars (Quickstep, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Garmin Cervelo and SaxoBank Sungard). From time to time, you  could hear the instructions being barked to the riders, although you might not have understood what was being said in every instance, unless you understood Flemish.

Given the opportunity, I could happily watch every minute of this race from start to finish.  As television coverage commenced, there was a group of 5 riders out in front who were being gradually hauled back in. The second group of 18 riders on the road contained a lot of team leaders’ wingmen sparing their teams the effort of chasing them down. Although the pace was pretty frenetic with teams trying to keep their protected riders at the front of the pack, and out of harm’s way.

The main peloton splintered with a number of riders losing contact and there were plenty of spills but, thankfully, none looked to be serious. The group of 18 was hauled back in and the chasing pack now consisted entirely of favourites with their key riders. With 86km to go Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) takes off on the Ould Kwaremont, hotly pursued by Simon Clarke of Astana. With 79km remaining they bridge up to the lead group, initially giving it fresh impetus, but ultimately leaving it behind.

Meanwhile, behind them on the Taaienberg, Boonen (Quickstep), Flecha (Sky) and Van Avermaert (BMC) are forcing the pace. Others, such as Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) and Lars Boom (Rabobank) have pinged off the front, followed by Van Avermaert, Guesdon (FDJ), Hayman (Sky) and Leezer (Rabobank). Among the favourites, everyone seems to be waiting for Cancellara to make his move.

Up front on the Molenberg, Chavanel is now on his lonesome at the head of affairs with 44km to the finish, the gap back to the peloton is 55 seconds. Finally, unable to wait any longer Thor Hushovd (Garmin Cervelo), resplendent in his rainbow jersey, heads to the front of the bunch quickly followed and then overtaken by Tom Boonen (Quickstep) and his  shadow aka Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and  Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek).

Fabian goes into TT mode and rides away, the others start looking at one another waiting to see who’ll chase. Too late, he’s gone and swiftly heading for Chavanel. Wilfred Peeters tells Chavanel to stick on Fabian’s wheel as he goes past and to do no work. He does as he’s told. The bunch don’t seem to be making much of an inroad into the gap back to Chavanel and Cancellara, they need to get themselves organised. Back to the team cars, Peeters is telling Leopard Trek’s DS that Chavanel is unfortunately too tired to contribute.  Over at Garmin Cervelo, Jonathan Vaughters is telling his troops to do no work at all, just sit in and sprint for 3rd.

Finally, the bunch gets themselves organised and they catch  Chavanel and Cancellara on the iconic Muur, just 15km to the finish and the favourites are all back together again.  Phil Gil (Omega Pharma-Lotto) makes his trade mark attack on the last climb, the Bosberg, but is soon caught by Cancellara, Ballan (BMC), Leukemans (Vacansoleil), Chavanel and Schierlinckx (Veranda Willems).  Flecha (Sky), Nuyens (Saxobank Sungard), Hincapie (BMC), Boonen, Langeveld (Rabobank) and Thomas (Sky) join them. Ballan puts in a dig, Phil Gil follows. The attacks are coming thick and fast as riders chase one another down. With 4km left, Langeveld attacks,  a 3-man group of Cancellara, Chavanel and Nuyens follows and stays clear to contest the sprint finish which is won by the fresher man. The Belgians have a Belgian winner, Nick Nuyens, who rode a very intelligent race. Cancellara didn’t get back-to-back victories, but Bjarne Riis did.

The winners (photo courtesy of Getty images)

Vuelta Ciclista al Pays Vasco Postscript: There is something enormously satisfying in watching the professional peloton suffer on roads on which you too have suffered. The finishing line for today’s 151.2km stage around Zumarraga was just 3km from the top of the rather brutal Alto de la Antigua. Some of those boys got off and walked up. I knew just how they felt. Purito held off Sammy’s (too?) late charge for the line to take the leader’s jersey.