Double rations

We left for this morning’s ride under a cloudy sky which, thankfully, soon cleared. The club’s ranks had been depleted by a number of riders racing elsewhere today. Nonetheless, those remaining set a cracking pace and, once let off the leash, weren’t seen again; at least, not by me. I rode along at my own pace enjoying the warm sunshine, the fresh air and the arrival of Spring.

I shortened the prescribed club ride to get back home in time to finish preparing lunch. French television coverage of Paris-Nice was scheduled for 13:30 and I wanted lunch to be long over by then so that I could lounge on the sofa and enjoy the race.

With 70km to go, the peloton, under sunny skies, were reeling back in the two breakaway artists, Euskaltel’s Gorka Izagirre and Europcar’s Damien Gaudin. It took them another 30km to accomplish that feat. Two kms later Jeremy Roy (FDJ) set off, pursued by Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil). They never got more than 50 seconds ahead but worked well together, took advantage of the confusion in the chasing peloton, particularly through the urban streets, and a strong tail-wind in the final 6kms.

Belgian Thomas De Gendt prevailed in the sprint to land the biggest win of his career ahead of Roy. Voigt was swallowed by the advancing herd, Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) took 3rd. Most riders came home in the bunch but the wind had provoked a number of breaks in the peloton and those lingering down the back had been tailed off, most notably David Moncoutie (Cofidis). He was keeping Rigoberto Uran (Team Sky), who had crashed, company 8 minutes back.

When the race finished we decided to take a walk along the seafront in the sunshine. Everyone else had the same idea. The promenade was packed with people strolling, dog-walking, cycling, in-line skating, scooting or just sitting and watching. Business was booming at most of the cafes and restaurants.

We came back to discover Eurosport had delayed its transmission, so I watched the race again. If I were Jeremy Roy, I would have offered thanks to the gods when I saw that Jens Voigt, eminence grise of the peloton, had joined the breakaway, along with Thomas De Gendt. They worked well together, no one shirked their turn on the front and all three gave it their all. Wondering whether or not the peloton would catch them in the new radio-free environment made for an exciting race. Interestingly, commentators on both channels felt that, if the breakway managed to stay away,  De Gendt would win. I recall him hoovering up the KOM and points jersey in the 2009 Tour of Britain when he was riding for Topsport Vlaaderen.

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.

Sporting round up

The continued downpour which has confined me indoors has allowed me to catch up with a number of sporting events. Yesterday, I watched the fourth and final competition of the “Four Hills” Ski Jumping Tournament from  Bischofshofen, Austria.

In years past, I have watched the first two legs of this competition live while on vacation. There’s nothing better than watching them launch themselves off the in-run, soaring  like big birds of prey into the darkening sky, snow swirling, the cheers of the supporters while you’re warmly wrapped up against the cold with a glass of  gluehwein in hand. Like most sports, it’s a much better spectacle live. Nonetheless, I’ve enjoyed watching all four hills (Obersdorf, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Innsbruck and Bischofshofen) on the television. The overall was won by Austrian, Thomas Morgenstern, current World Cup leader and a man in obvious good form.

Sadly, my beloved boys in claret and blue went down 1-0 at home to the Black Cats leaving them wallowing in the relegation zone. The fans are outraged but fortunately it looks as if sanity has prevailed in the boardroom. We cannot expect to repeat last year’s position having sold one of the lynchpins of that team (James Milner) and not having strengthened the squad in the same fashion as our nearest competitors. Not forgetting that a number of senior players were injured in the first part of the season. Houllier is re-building the squad and must be given time to do this. I admit I am hoping that this week end we’ll beat our FA Cup opponents and, next week end, emerge victorious in the local derby.

On the cycling front, Team Leopard-Trek was presented to the cycling world yesterday. I’m rather disappointed with the mundane kit. I had hoped with a name like Leopard we might see something a bit more imaginative. But no, it’s black, white and blue, like half the peloton.

I see that Stephane Auge, after 10 years as a Pro, has decided to hang up his cleats and climb into the Cofidis team car as a DS. Echapees just won’t seem the same without him.

It’s been reported that the Spanish Cycling Federation won’t be opining on the Contador case until February, as there’s loads of paperwork to digest. Given that whichever side “loses” will appeal to TAS, it’s unlikely that Contador will be riding this year’s Tour. I’ve passed little comment on the case largely because when I first heard that he’d tested positive for Clenbuterol, which aids weight reduction and helps you breathe more easily, I did wonder where I might be able to purchase it. Both of my cycling related problems resolved in one fell swoop. But here’s the rub. While it would undoubtedly aid my cause, it’s most unlikely to have aided Alberto’s.

Shock horror, Jeannie Longo, having just been awarded the highest civilian “Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur” has admitted to thinking about retirement. Please, don’t do it Jeannie, I’m not yet ready for the competition.