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.

Omnipresent

A headline in last week end’s Nice Matin caught my eye “je ne suis pas prete pour le cyclotourisme”. This was said by Jeannie Longo in a recent, frank  interview on the occasion of her 52nd birthday. I, for one, am delighted. It’s bad enough having to compete with the one or two local riders who fall into my age group without adding Jeannie into the mix. 

Always a winner

I have an enormous amount of admiration for this lady who is head and shoulders “France’s greatest ever cyclist” of either sex. Just look at her impressive palmares: 4 Olympic medals in 7 participations, 13 World Championships, 57 French titles, 3 Tours de France  and those are just the highlights! On the two occasions I have encountered her this year she has been generous with her time, modest to a fault and very encouraging of younger cyclists.

She puts her longevity down to her ability to adapt. I would put it down  her mental fortitude, professionalism and will to win. She also gives a few tips on how she maintains her svelte frame at 43 kilos: plenty of “Bio” fruit and vegetables and only whole grain bread spread with unpasteurised butter. I’ve taken note.

Interestingly, she cites Cancellara as her favourite sports person. He’s not just Jeannie’s. This year, for the first time, he was awarded the prestigious Velo d’Or, although he has podiumed for the last four years. This trophy is presented by French magazine Velo to the outstanding cyclist of the season based on votes cast by an international jury of journalists. It’s an award that tends to favour Grand Tour winners. The last Classics riders to win it were Bettini in 2006 and Boonen in 2005, who also combined Classics wins with  rainbow jerseys.

Contador had won the Velo d’Or for the last three successive years but, this year, after recent revelations, finds himself in 2nd place, well down on Cancellara. In third place was Andy Schleck, who also picked up the award for best young rider.  Obviously, 2nd, or even maybe 1st, in the Tour tops Nibali’s 3rd in the Giro and 1st in the Vuelta. The award for the best French rider went to the ever-smiling Tommy Voeckler, just pipping French housewives’ favourite, Sylvain Chavanel. Velo do not have an equivalent award for the ladies. If they did, Jeannie would easily have won it the most number of times.

Due to some administrative oversight, Velo did not canvass my opinion in this year’s competition. However, I’m broadly in agreement with the results, save my top three would have been: 1. Fabulous Fabian, 2. Vicenzo Nibali, 3. Andy Schleck. This preference would be reflected in my podium for best young rider: 1. Vicenzo Nibali, 2. Andy Schleck, 3. Mark Cavendish. My favourite Frenchman would have been Davide Moncoutie (sorry Tommy!).

Many nations seem to have awards for their top cyclists of the season. Here’s my guess on who should get what, where:-

  • Belgium – Phil Gil
  • Holland – Gesink
  • Spain – Hot Rod
  • Italy – Nibali
  • Norway – Hushovd
  • Denmark – Breschel
  • Sweden – Larsson
  • Finland – Veikkonen
  • Britain – Cavendish
  • USA – Phinney
  • Canada – Hesjedal
  • Ireland – Martin D
  • Kazakhstan – Vino
  • Columbia – Duque
  • Portugal – Machado
  • Russia – Menchov
  • Australia – Evans
  • Luxembourg – Schleck Jr
  • Switzerland – Fabulous Fabian
  • Germany – No one, cycling has been banished from the public conscience, but it should be Greipel
  • Japan – Arashiro
  • Czech Republic – Kreuziger
  • Slovakia – Sagan
  • Estonia – Taaramae
  • Austria – Eisel
  • Poland – Niemiec
  • Ukraine – Grivko

Apologies, I was starting to get carried away there but this is only reflective of the sport’s globalisation. I’m aware that I’ve made no distinction between older and younger riders and I’ve omitted numerous countries, but c’est la vie.

13, not unlucky for everyone

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This could be Alexandre Vinokourov’s leitmotif. After the disappointment of yesterday’s 3rd place, Vino seized his chance again today and was deservedly rewarded.

Today’s 196km stage from Rodez to Revel was probably the last opportunity for a baroudeur to win ahead of the Pyrenees. While it wasn’t billed as a difficult stage, the final climb up Saint-Ferreol, close to the finish line, rather predicated against a mass sprint.

But nor was it an easy stage. A high pace and wind, made it more of a nervous one. Vigilance was the watchword. Alexandre Vinokourov kept protectively close to Contador for most of it.

After the peloton had caught the day’s escapees (Fedrigo, Flecha and Chavanel) with 10km to go, the sprinters’ teams, who had done most of the work on the front today, were getting themselves organised for the run in to the finish. At 8.5km to go,  Alessandro Ballan took a flyer off the front and established a small lead. Others followed, including Vino, who passed Ballan with 7.5km remaining  and set off towards the summit. He quickly established a lead of almost 20 seconds over the peloton.

Thomas Voeckler also tried his hand but, like Ballan, was soon reeled back in. Vino was still just ahead of the advancing riders, who were lining up their sprinters, as he approached the finish line. Fortunately, he had enough time in hand to enjoy the sensation of winning.

Brothers in arms

I had been shrieking at the top of my voice at the television, encouraging Vino, just willing him across the line. OK, I know he couldn’t hear me but it’s so exciting watching someone you know win. And what a well deserved win. I was so pleased for him, and so was Alberto Contador who was the first of his team mates to warmly congratulate him. Chapeau Vino!

Week one review

What a fabulous first week! Take a bow ASO. We’ve had confusion and controversy, thrills and spills, cobble calamity, tears and tantrums, rain, heatwaves, picturesque countryside, beautiful châteaux, fervent fans, the favourites are all still in contention and we’ve only just reached the first really lumpy bits.

As anticipated, Spartacus (Saxo Bank) won the 8.9km Prologue course around Rotterdam where, despite the rain, thousands of fans lined the course.  Sadly, both Mathias Frank (BMC) and Manuel Cardoso (Footon Servetto) fell heavily – Tour over for both of them.

Wind didn’t play a part in Stage 1, 223.5km from Rotterdam to Brussels, but the peloton was very skittish. In the run in, the last sharp right turn took out Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), among others, while two further crashes saw a large number of riders hitting the deck. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) avoided the carnage and was first across the line.  Adam Hansen (HTC-Columbia)  bowed out.

Stage 2’s 201km stage from Brussels to Spa mirrored an Ardennes Classic but rain and diesel-slicked roads saw riders falling like nine pins, particularly on the descent from the Stockeu. Injuries to Michel Delage (Omega Pharma Lotto) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) put an early end to their participation. Meanwhile, Fabulous Fabian, still in yellow, cooled the tempo in the leading bunch to allow the contenders (particularly one Andy Schleck) to get back onto the peloton which then rode together to the neutralised finish. Up front, Sylvain Chavanel, having helped team mate Jerome Pineau to seize the spotty jersey, had pedaled away from the rest of the breakaway bunch for the stage win, snatching yellow from Fab’s broad shoulders. These two have  rescued Quick Step’s dismal season and are now well poised to negotiate contract extensions.

It was anticipated that some of the favourites might come a cropper on the cobbled sections on Stage 3’s 213km from Wanze to Arenburg. It was a truly spectacular stage, hot and dusty, reminiscent of when Stuart O’Grady won Paris-Roubaix in 2007. The first crash of the day took out David Le Lay (Ag2R – La Mondiale) while falls yesterday for Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) left both nursing hairline fractures of the wrist: pretty painful on the pave. Nikki Terpstra (Milram) was a non starter with the flu.

Frank Schleck’s fall (collar bone broken in three places) precipitated splits in the peloton. The smart guys were on Fabian’s wheel and got a tow to the finish. The stage was won by Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team), fitting given that he’d forfeited sprint points the previous day at the behest of one Fabian Cancellara. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) worked with the guys from Sky to bridge up to the group behind Cancellara and minimise the time lost by Alberto Contador (Astana) and Bradley Wiggins Team Sky). Lance (Radioshack) had been in this second group but an untimely puncture saw him surrender time to a number of the other contenders. End result, Cancellara was back in yellow and the World Champion, Cadel Evans (BMC) was now up in third place, 1min and 1 second ahead of Alberto Contador.   

The contenders must have breathed a sigh of relief, the first obstacles had been conquered and they could keep their powder dry for the next few sprinter friendly days. Stage 4’s 153kms from Cambrai to champagne producing Reims, saw Alessandro Petacchi record his 2nd stage win of this Tour. Next up, 187.5km from Epernay to Montargis saw Mark Cavendish win  by a mile. Queue floods of tears as the monkey was now off his back. A bit like buses, stage win no 2 followed on the morrow, on the longest stage, 227.5km from Montargis to Gueugnon. Meanwhile an altercation with a musette saw Amets Txurruka (Euskatel-Euskadi) bid farewell to the peloton. A couple of small girl’s blouses traded blows and bike wheels. The judges awarded a points decision to Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) over Rui Costa (Caisse d’Epargne). Both were fined. 

Let’s just pause and put in context my own endeavours: 550km and 27hours in the saddle. Spartacus, still in yellow, has taken 93minutes longer to complete 1,215km. The conclusion: I’d have missed the cut-off on Stage 1 and joined the non-walking wounded!  Today the boys hit the Jura and a rejuvenated Chavanel, who I feel has usurped Michael Boogerd and Mikel Astarloza to become “The Teeth of the Tour”, recorded his second stage win and again seized yellow. This is going to cost Patrick Lefevre dear.

Cadel Evans has moved into second place  so we could see him in yellow as early as tomorrow. I’m sure it would suit Astana to have BMC working their butts off to defend the yellow jersey.

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.

My 2009 highlights

Cyclingnews has asked a number of industry insiders for their highlights of the 2009 cycling season. Incredible as it may seem, they failed to ask me! I know, maybe their email is sitting in my spam.

Best Performance: A number of worthy candidates, but for me it has to be Fabulous Fabian’s victory in the ITT in Mendrisio. He was just so dominant, so majestic and had so much time on everyone else that he was celebrating 100 metres from the finish line. This man is in a class of his own.

Honourable mentions:- 1) The Manx Missile for his win in Milan-San Remo and his 6 wins in the Tour. 2) Philippe Gilbert for his season ending flourish.

Best Team: In anyone’s book, best team = most wins = Columbia HTC.

Biggest Disappointment(s): Rebellin, Astaloza and Colom. Need I say more.

Rider to watch in 2010: Generally I find it’s riders who have changed teams to be given a greater role on a new one. Some will deliver and some won’t. As a consequence, I suspect all eyes will be on Sky and riders such as Edvald Boassen Hagen, Simon Gerrans, Serge Pauwels, Bradley Wiggins et al. However, my tips for 2010: Alexandre Vinokourov, back to prove the UCI and critics that they were wrong; and, this man, the indefatigable Johnny Hoogerland.

Most Memorable Race: Cadel Evans attacking to win the rainbow jersey in Mendrisio and confounding all of his critics.

 

Biggest Surprise: Bert bonking in Paris-Nice but he redeemed himself the following day by continuously attacking thereby winning over the French. Though whether they’d have been as charitable if he’d knocked housewives’ favourite Sylvain Chavanel off the podium is debatable.