Well worth the wait

Mindful of the importance of today’s stage, I was up and out at the crack of dawn. It was lovely and quiet, still a little fresh, with only the road cleaners and the odd car heading for the nearest bakery for me to worry about. I sped to Menton, easily my fastest ride there ever. My traffic light karma was in overdrive, I didn’t have to halt once: not even on the Promenade des Anglais. I stopped in Menton to top up my bottles and get a drink  to fuel my ascent. There’s a tap as the road splits (left over the Col and right to Ste Agnes), but the water’s of dubious quality.

The first kilometre of the climb is steepish but fortified by my recent sugar hit, and taking advantage of every bit of shade, I forge on. Up towards Ste Agnes the terrain undulates . I just grind away enjoying the view back down to the sea. The view improves, the gradient rises steeply and I’m now in the lowest of low gears. I take the left turn. It’s taken me  50 minutes to get here and I’ve emptied my larger bidon. It rises again and I press on. As a distraction, I start giving some thought to today’s stage where, realistically, we might know more about the real, relative forms of the main contenders, or not. The next 5 kilometres pass remarkably quickly and I’m soon speeding downwards. I’ve seen hardly any cars, just a couple of goats.

As I swoop through La Turbie, stopping at the fountain to fill up my bottles, I’m making good time. I  head up over the Col d’Eze enjoying the warm sunshine, the scenic views and the prospect of a cracking afternoon’s Tour viewing. Riding this route has done wonders for Thor Hushovd’s climbing skills, who knows it might do something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, for me. My traffic light karma begins to desert me on the way back and I take refuge on the cycling track on the Promenade. It’s busy, but not as busy as the road. In no time at all, I’m grinding my way back up to the apartment. It’s taken me an hour less than I estimated but that’s largely due to the time at which I rode rather than any great feat on my part. I shower, slip into something comfortable and sink a couple of litres of water. I’d like to check the ride information on my Garmin but I’m still waiting for a response from them. I’ve been waiting for 6 days!

On today’s queen stage, 168.5km from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille a large group breaks away almost from the start, swiftly joined by another 4 riders, 24 in total. Only 4 teams are not represented: Saxobank, Radioshack, Omega Pharma-Lotto and Saur-Sojasun. There’s plenty of French riders, including 3 from FDJ, but no Jeremy Roy. Is that allowed? Despite having Charteau in the break, Europcar control the peloton until Leopard Trek take over intent on whittling down the numbers and delivering the Schlecks to the base of the final climb.

The French are desperate for a stage win and today’s excitement, and ultimate disappointment, were provided by French champion Sylvain Chavanel and, later on, FDJ’s Sandy Casar. However with Voeckler STILL in yellow, the French are now talking him up as a potential Tour winner. Stranger things have happened.

With just 10.5km of the final climb remaining, Andy Schleck puts in a dig. It’s countered. The favourites basically mark one another all the way to the finish. Tour rookie, Jelle Vanendert, still smarting from his 2nd place at Luz Ardiden, takes off in pursuit of the hapless Casar who’s soon overtaken. Jelle’s nemesis from Friday, Samu, pursues him and gains back a few precious seconds on the other favourites but can’t overhaul today’s victor. So Omega Pharma Lotto take their 3rd stage win of the Tour. With just 2kms to go Andy puts in a more serious dig which allows him to take back 2 seconds from the others. Most of the favourites finish together although a couple were distanced on the climb further shaking up GC which now looks like this:-

Rank Dossard Name Country Team Time Gap
1 181 Thomas VOECKLER FRA EUC 61h04’10” 00”
2 018 Frank SCHLECK LUX LEO 61h05’59” 1’49”
3 141 Cadel EVANS AUS BMC 61h06’16” 2’06”
4 011 Andy SCHLECK LUX LEO 61h06’25” 2’15”
5 091 Ivan BASSO ITA LIQ 61h07’26” 3’16”
6 021 Samuel SANCHEZ ESP EUS 61h07’54” 3’44”
7 001 Alberto CONTADOR ESP SBS 61h08’10” 4’00”
8 161 Damiano CUNEGO ITA LAM 61h08’11” 4’01”
9 052 Tom DANIELSON USA GRM 61h09’56” 5’46”
10 124 Kevin DE WEERT BEL QST 61h10’28” 6’18”

Two jersey’s changed hands: Vanendert now has the spotted jersey and Sky’s Rigoberto Uran is the latest, best young rider.

Bit of a roundup

After four days off the bike, it was a pleasure to resume my training programme. I’ve been riding really strongly this week, particularly on the climbs, and feel on track for this week end’s brevet, the l’Antiboise, organised by a neighbouring club. Last year, I unwisely and unsuccessfully rode the 150km parcours, bonking spectacularly after 103km. This year, I’m riding the 100km course which, with the ride to and from the start, will be a 120km round trip. We’ll be setting off relatively early so as to be back in time to watch the Amstel Gold Race. I understand from an article on Cyclingnews that some, as yet unidentified, locals have been sabotaging the course with tacks!

We have friends who live in Valkenberg, just a stone’s throw from the Cauberg, and were fortunate to be in the area on business a few year’s ago and watched the race from a good spot (near the big screen) on that hill which is decidedly leg sapping. I was riding my friend’s “sit up and beg bike” which I would have been hard pushed to indeed push it up the hill, let alone ride. On race day, the hill is thronged with spectators, particularly on the lower sections which are bordered by bars and restaurants, and it has a fantastic atmosphere.

While we’re all awaiting the next monument in the Classics season, those cute boys in lycra have still been racing. PhilGil, last year’s Amstel winner, won Wednesday’s Fleche Brabanconne, so he’s on form for his objectives of next Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne and next weekend’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Meanwhile, Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard), Igor Anton (Euskatel-Euskadi), Carlos Sastre (Geox) and Xavier Tondo (Movistar) are the main protagonists in the 5-day Vuelta Ciclista Castilla y Leon, which is chock full of 2nd and 3rd division teams. This isn’t an overly bumpy parcours, indeed, the first two stages have featured the sprinters and have both been won by Francisco Ventoso (Movistar), clocking up his 6th stage win in this race. The French teams have been racing in the Coupe de France whose leader is young Tony Gallopin (Cofidis). In the 4th round, Sandy Casar (FDJ) emerged as the big cheese in Paris-Camembert while Jimmy Casper won his 4th GP de Denain Porte du Hainault.

I haven’t passed much comment on the football of late. There’s not a lot to say about either of my teams whose fortunes seem to mirror one another. OGCN, with one of the smallest budgets in the French first division, generally punch above their weight and are playing Lille in next week’s semi-final of the French Cup and should finish the season a couple of places above the relegation zone. My beloved boys in claret and blue are going through what I hope is a transition phase and, despite the inevitable end of season loss of one of their best players (again), should survive to rebound next season.

My beloved has been away for a couple of days which has enabled me to complete a number of tasks for the club before I leave for next week’s break in Varese. My beloved has decided to take a week’s holiday but if I don’t get him out of the office, he’ll just be working away on his emails. We’re staying in the same B&B I stayed in while volunteering at the 2008 Road Cycling World Championship’s in Varese. We’ve become good friends with the owners and stay a couple of times a year either visiting clients or friends nearby. It’s a lovely area to cycle around; witness the large number of professional riders who live and train in the area. I particularly enjoy cycling around the lakes and covering some of the route of the tour of Lombardy.

Mudbath

After this morning’s ride, I settled down on the sofa, in my jimjams (what else?) to watch the French Cyclo-Cross Championships in Lanavily, Brittany. I had more than a passing interest, as one of our youngsters was taking part. His younger brother, who has swept all before him in the region, is a better rider but, sadly for us, and him, they don’t have a championship for his age category (minimes). Anyway, his older brother, despite an upset stomach managed to finish. He wasn’t lapped, but his final position didn’t do him justice.

French television kindly gave us a preview of the 2,500m course which to my untutored eyes looked tough.  It featured some very steep ascents and descents (18%), plenty of muddy, rutted tracks, wooded trails, obstacles and a wee bit of frosty road. As I understand it, the key to cyclo-cross is the start. You need to get out in front and stay there, avoiding any mechanicals. 

FDJ had the benefit of numbers in today’s race: Francis Mouray (defending champion), Steve Chainel, Arnold Jeannesson and Sandy Casar. Competition was likely to come from John Gadret of AG2R, a former champion and the best placed Frenchman in last year’s Tour and Giro. I spotted a couple of other French Pro-Tour riders in the mix, but they were unlikely to trouble the main protagonists.

It’s amazing just how quickly the better riders manage to distance the rest. Of course, the boys make riding through mud look easy. It isn’t. I once made the mistake of riding my road bike over some firmish turf, not boglike mud. I was off in a trice.

The competitors have to maintain concentration at all times as they traverse the different surfaces, dismounting and re-mounting after clearing the obstacles. You can see the intent focus on their mud-splattered faces. 

The cameras naturally rest with the leaders. You only see the other competitors as they’re lapped. Mouray quickly established a lead, while, his nearest competitors ganged up. Possibly,  the better to maintain motivation or to mark the non-FDJ competition.  Gadret rode with Jeannesson and Chainel with Blazin. All during the race, you could hear the dulcet tones of Mr Cycling (Daniel Mageas) in the background.

It’s interesting to watch how they approach the trickier sections. Riding is always preferable to running, even up some of the steeper ascents, although it can’t be avoided when overcoming the obstacles. On the steeper descents, the outside leg is often out of the cleat to help steady the rider.

As I was watching, two things occurred to me:-

  •  AG2R’s brown cycling shorts are ideal for cyclo-cross.
  • It must be difficult getting the mud stains out of the predominantly white kit of FDJ. I wonder what detergent they use?

Mouray high-fived his father in the finishing straight and took his 6th title. Gadret was some 68 seconds behind and Jeannesson was third, a further 15 seconds back. While it’s fun watching from the sofa, I’m sure it would be even better live.

Postcards from the Pyrenees

We left home just after 09:00 on Monday morning in our Renault hire car and headed for Bagneres de Bigorre. Just past Carcassone, the car emitted a small cough and lost power. My beloved guided it onto the hard shoulder, we leapt out of the car and vaulted the security barrier. I rang Renault Assistance who were unable to assist and advised us to ring the police. I did and they gave me the number for the local constabulary who kindly sent someone to tow us to the nearest Renault garage. All well and good, but the garage advised they would not be able to fix the car that day, possibly the following one. I rang my Renault contact who advised that they were obliged to find us a replacement car and I should ring Renault Assistance. So I did.

Finally, after much toing and froing, they found us a Hertz hire car for 4 days. We would however have to return to Carcassone to collect the Renault. This solution did not find favour as we were heading in totally the opposite direction. The Renault garage staff, fearing an imminent and irrevocable schism in the entente cordiale, decided to put us out of our misery and fixed the car in 15 minutes flat.

We had planned to go and watch the peloton’s arrival into Bagneres de Luchon. Instead we had to settle for watching it on my beloved’s new mobile. Yet another French win, Tommy Voeckler looking radiant in his tricolour jersey as he crossed the line. Sadly his endeavours were overshadowed by polemics. Should Contador have attacked the yellow jersey when he lost his chain? Andy Schleck’s Dad admitted he’d have taken the same action as Contador: he’d have attacked. No matter, the two have now kissed and made up. Contador leads Schleck  by 8 seconds.

Tuesday morning, we were up bright and early for our ride up Col d’Aubisque. The roads were literally alive with cyclists in kit of all hues and hailing from the four corners of the earth. We rode companiably, side by side, enjoying the freshness of the air and the magnificent green countryside. It was starting to heat up as we reached the Col du Soulor whose incline starts to quickly ramp up to 12% before settling back down to a comfortable 5-7%.

Chasing leading group up Soulor

One of the many things I love about the Tour is the ability of anyone and everyone to attend the world’s biggest, best and longest street party. The roads were lined with enthusiastic spectators proclaiming their allegiances and what was surely the world’s biggest concentration of camper vans. While waiting for the real show to put in an appearance, they’re willing to encourage all of us amateurs toiling away up the inclines. I was high fiving small kids as I wend my way upwards. No mean feat given my lack of bike handling skills.

Towards the top of the Col, I made an executive decision to stop at the last outpost,  before the descent, providing refreshments, toilets and a TV. From here, in the company of a large number of Uruguayans, Americans, Aussies and Danes we watched the slow approach of the peloton. There was much excitement as Lance, having lost so much time on GC, had been allowed to escape and, with his fellow escapees, had over 3 minutes on the yellow jersey.

It looked as if the peloton had settled in for a quiet day  and was more than happy for Messrs Fedrigo, Casar, Armstrong, Barredo, Cunego, Plaza, Horner, Moreau and Van de Walle to duke it out. Barredo took a flyer off the front but was caught with 1km to go. The two sprinters fought for the line and the win went to Fedrigo, by a nose. The sixth French win and the 2nd consecutive one for Bbox!

The yellow jersey group came in over 6 minutes behind, led by Hushovd who gained enough points to regain the green jersey.  Otherwise, it was stalemate at the top, leaving Schleck one fewer opportunity to make  up lost ground. Thursday should therefore be decisive. Sadly, the weather has changed. It rained heavily overnight and it’s continued to drizzle on and off all day. The Tourmalet is shrouded in mist. Tomorrow, further rain is forecast. But whatever the weather, we’ll be there to see all the action.

Pyrotechnics

On the eve of Bastille Day many towns, including mine, host a spectacular fireworks display. In fact, sitting on my balcony with a view of the coast from Cap Ferrat to Cap d’Antibes, I can witness two concurrent displays.

The hot and heavy weather is continuing and most days I seek out routes in the shade but even so when I arrived at Tourettes sur Loup this morning I could’ve happily dived right into the fountain. However, mindful of my position of Club Secretary, I decided against it.

Back home, I took a cold shower and slipped into something  light and flimsy to watch this afternoon’s stage: 204km from Morzine-Avoriaz to St-Jean-de Maurienne. I needed to wear something light because I was in the home straight of my hors categorie ironing mountain which had been hanging around since the start of the Giro. Luckily my beloved has an extensive wardrobe dating back to when we had three apartments.

I feel rather guilty about the amount of time I spend glued to the Tour which I partially alleviate by multi-tasking. I have ironed over 80 shirts and around 100 t-shirts. Tomorrow, I’ll start on the pile of mending: missing buttons, hems and the like. Usually, I manage to sort out and tidy all the cupboards and drawers in the lounge and re-organise my dressing room. Sadly, this year they’ll have to wait for the Vuelta.

Meanwhile, back to the action. With Lance’s hopes of adding to his Tour crowns crushed on Sunday, everyone else was still pretty much in contention as the peloton rolled out for today’s testing stage. 

Stage 9

An early breakaway including 5 French riders was established.  BMC was controlling the peloton but there were riders popping off the back from quite early on thanks to a flurry of attacks and the profile of today’s leg sapping stage.

By the time they reached the foot of the Col de la Madelaine, the breakaway had been whittled down, the gruppetto was well established and the leading contenders were being shelled out the back like peas under pressure from first Saxo Bank, and then Astana. 

With 40km to go, Andy Schleck turned the screw but couldn’t distance Alberto Contador. Indeed the two rode together to the crest and then down the other side, Alberto looking the more comfortable, until they joined up with Christophe Moreau (one of the original escapees) with around 18km to go to the finish. Samu Sanchez had been trying to bridge up to them but, despite treating us to a master class in descending, never quite managed to close the gap. With 10km to go, he was out grimacing Nikki Sorensen. 

Schleck and Contador caught the remainder of the breakaway on the run in to the finish which was won by Sandy Casar (FDJ): yet another French win. Schleck the younger was now in yellow, Contador was sitting comfortably at 41 seconds behind with Samu in 3rd, 2:45 down. Barring a disaster, it’s now a two horse race.