10 key questions

Today L’Equipe posed what it thinks are the 10 key questions in respect of the 2011 cycling season. The answers were supplied by its crack team of reporters.

1. Will Contador be at the start of the Tour de France? 

90% said No. What I want to know is which reporter said “Yes”? Either they misunderstood the question, or they can’t count. The Spanish Federation is not expected to render a ruling until 15 February. Such ruling will be challenged either by UCI or by Contador. TAS takes six months to opine, so Contador will remain suspended until 15 July, at the earliest. When does the Tour start? I rest my case. Of course, being numerate isn’t necessarily a requirement for a journalist.

 2. Has Andy Schleck already won the 2011 Tour?

80% said No. Again, which two journalists think all he has to do is turn up?  Andy’s going to find being the favourite a whole different proposition. He’s not going to have anyone to take the lead. Instead, other riders will be watching him, waiting and pouncing. There are a couple of things in his favour. It’s a course suited to climbers, with relatively little time-trialling. Andy, despite being on a new team, will be surrounded by those with whom he is familiar and whom he trusts, including his older brother.

3. Are we seeing the emergence of a better generation of French riders?

 60% said Yes. I think the French are right to be optimistic. They do have a large number of promising, younger riders who have shone at the junior and U23 level. But that promise has to be carefully nurtured and not snuffed out by the weight of expectations.

4. Will Philippe Gilbert be the King of the Classics?

80% said Yes. Again, it’s hard to disagree with this one. He’s only 28 and coming into his prime. He’s capable of winning races on the Cobbles and in the Ardennes and, indeed, throughout the season. But, please, don’t forget Spartacus!

5. Is Boonen in decline?

70% said Yes. A counter-point to the question above. His last three seasons have been disappointing in terms of the number of wins. He was clearly at the top of his game at the start of last season but lost out in the key races to Cancellara and Freire, before injuring his knee. At 30, he cannot expect to be as prolific as he once was but I’m sure we’ll see him picking up sprint wins in his favoured races, and at least another Cobbled Classic. 

6.  Will Team Leopard crush everyone this season?

80% said Yes. I suspect this is based on the assumption that Team Leopard will morph back into the winningest team a la CSC. However, the peloton has not stood still: witness the coming together of Garmin and Cervelo, the maturing of Sky, the continuing strength of Liquigas. I’m not sure I agree with this one. Moreover, I’m beginning to think I’ve identified at least one of the two journalists who are Schleck fans.

7. Is Mark Cavendish more than a great sprinter?

80% said No. Yes, I know he’s a bit of a chippy bugger but he has won Milan-San Remo and, while he’ll never win any of the Grand Tours, he might well win other Classics. It’s true that he is the finest proponent of pure sprinting in the peloton and has to be considered among the favourites for the Championship course in Copenhagen this year.

8. Will cycling regret Armstrong’s retirement?

60% said No. I sense a  few fence-sitters here. Whatever you think about Armstrong, he’s a larger than life personality who polarises opinion. He’s probably the only person in the sport capable of getting 10,000 people to turn up to ride with him on the basis of a message on Twitter. All sports need personalities, cycling has too few.

9. Romain Sicard, will he come good in 2011?

60% said Yes. What did I say about the weight of expectation? Luckily, Sicard has a mature head on young shoulders and he’s being properly developed within the Basque, Euskatel-Euskadi squad.

10. Will Ricco generate more interest in cycling?

100% said Yes. Spot on, again he’s a very talented a chap who divides opinion. But like Basso and Vinokourov, he’s served his time and has returned to the peloton with a point to prove.  A bit like Armstrong, I’m not sure I’d want to find myself sitting next to him at dinner, but he certainly provides plenty of fodder for the journalists.

Whether or not you agree with the august views of L’Equipe, 2011 is sure to be a great season. While there’s plenty of emerging talent, there’s also plenty of mature riders, unwilling to hang up their cleats, who are still capable of mixing it with the best of them.

Like many fans I have grave concerns over the current  business model employed by many of the teams. While cycling is becoming more professional in its approach, it still has a long way to go to enjoy maximum credibility and commerciality. Cycling is a great medium for building product awareness on a global scale, at a reasonable price, but you must have exposure at the world’s biggest race, The Tour.

Only a week to go

Yes, in a week’s time I’ll be merrily pedalling my way across the North and South Downs on Stage 1 of my three stage adventure to Paris. Of course, I’m feeling a lot more confident about the whole trip since I’ve seen the parcours London-Paris Profiles – nothing I can’t handle. Yes, it’s lumpy but there’s no long climbs and nothing much above 150m. The challenging aspect will, of course, be maintaining an average speed of 25km/hr. That’s where an engine might have come in handy!

Scott Sutherland, latterly of CSC and Sky, who’s one of the Group 5 ride captains,  kindly shared some words of wisdom yesterday with all the participants as to what riding we should be doing in the run up to the event. He could have been describing my training plan, which is very reassuring.

As befits someone whose watchword is “planning and preparation is the key to success,” I’m slowly ticking off everything on my list and carefully packing everything I need to take with me. The long-range weather forecast for northern France doesn’t look promising, we may well have a very wet Day 2, so I’m taking all of my wet weather gear. My touring bike, the Orbea Diva, is undergoing it’s final checks down at my LBS: new inner tubes, tyres, brake pads, chain etc. One can never be too cautious or too well prepared.

Brutal but honest

No 1 fan
My Swiss friend was a big CSC fan, largely because they rode Cervelo bikes. He had all the gear, as you can see in the photograph, and they’ve retained his interest, despite now riding Specialized, because of, fellow Swiss, Fabulous Fabian.  

 At the week end he brought me the DVD “Overcoming” . This is a, warts and all, behind the scenes documentary about Team CSC from their early season training camp through to the end of the 2004 Tour de France. This you may recall was my first Tour.   

While the film pays homage to the whole crew, its stars are Riis, Sastre and Basso. It focuses in particular on the relationships between the team’s two leaders and their relationship with Riis. Overcoming shows Riis not only to be a very skilful tactician but also a man enduring the psychological strains and stresses of the Tour. He clearly expects too much of his riders and questions everything. This environment of sparse praise and high expectations takes its toll on everyone which Riis recognises towards the end of the film.   

Sastre is shown to be an uncomplicated, laid-back guy on a high at the start of the Tour after the birth of his second child. The contrast in approach between Riis (logical) and Sastre (instinctive) is also clear in the early season training where Riis tries (and fails) to convince Sastre to use a power meter. Instead, he prefers to listen to his own body.  

By contrast, Basso comes across as very eager to please and, as the documentary progresses, it becomes clear that Basso is the star of Team CSC.  Sastre sacrifices himself to help Basso win at La Mongie where he dedicates the stage to his mother who, he’s just learnt, has cancer. Basso consults with Lance who, as the Tour continues, demonstrates his formidable mental fortitude in the face of any and all competition.  

Seeing Riis’ reaction in the team car to Basso’s win is priceless. Nonetheless, he doesn’t forget to thank Sastre for his selflessness. This is in stark contrast to Riis’s knee-jerk disappointment a few days later on the L’Alpe d’Huez time-trial where Basso is cruelly and easily overtaken by Lance and drops to 3rd place on the podium.  

All in all, it’s a grim but honest look at the life of a professional bike rider: only Jens Voight provided a few light-hearted moments. The documentary starkly reveals the fraility of riders bodies  and the work required each evening to get them back on their bikes the following day. The most notable take aways are: 1)  the team spirit among the riders and their willingness to do whatever it takes for one another and 2) Bjarne Riis’s recognition and admission that he was often too quick to criticise and didn’t dish out enough compliments.