A good read

This month’s Cycle Sport magazine opines on “the best 50 cycling books of all time [in the English language]”. Lists are always interesting, open to debate and, ultimately, very subjective despite their authors proclaiming their objectivity. Given that I have quite (typical British understatement) a large collection of books on cycling, I was keen to see where we agreed, where we differed and which books were in their list which I had yet to acquire and read.

I guard my books and only a favoured few are allowed to borrow them. I say this from bitter experience as a number of books have been borrowed and never returned and, as they are now out of print, are proving difficult to replace. For example, my beloved, one of the worst culprits, may borrow any book but cannot remove it from the premises. I don’t keep lists of who has what book at any point in time, I don’t need to, I know by heart where they all are at any given time.

You will note that I qualified the list as, not unnaturally, Cycle Sport has only included books either written in English or those subsequently translated into English. So, for example, “Tomorrow We Ride” written by Jean Bobet, “A Century of Paris-Roubaix” by Pascal Sergent and “We Were Young and Carefree” by Laurent Fignon make the list as they’ve been translated from the original French into English.

For similar reasons, the biographies feature largely English speaking riders notably Tommy Simpson, Barry Hoban, Robert Millar, Graeme Obree, Allan Peiper, Greg LeMond, Stephen Roche, Sean Kelly, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and many tomes about that man Lance. However, a couple of my favourite books feature cyclists who are not so well known and they’re both on the list. “A Significant Other” by Matt Rendell covers a former domestique of Lance’s from Columbia, Victor Hugo Pena. While, “Kings of the Mountains” looks at the role of cycling within Columbia’s most recent history and the Columbian riders who’ve ridden in Europe.

Stories about a few foreign riders make the cut, again solely because they’re written in English: Paul Howard’s revealing “Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape” about Jacques Anquetil, Matt Rendell’s excellent “The Death of Marco Pantani” and William Fotheringham’s “Fallen Angel – The Passion of Fausto Coppi”.

I have read a number of books about Pantani and I would say that while Rendell’s is undoubtedly an excellent read, and certainly a measured account, it falls short of Philippe Brunel’s tale “Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani” simply because Brunel had greater access to Pantani while he was alive.

My favourite book about Il Campionissimo was written by Jean-Paul Ollivier “Fausto Coppi La Gloire et Les Larmes”. As a historian, the author weaves his tale about Coppi against a backdrop of the social and economic history of Italy. As a consequence, he breathes more life and meaning into his subject and leaves  the reader with a greater understanding. I’ve also enjoyed the same author’s insights into Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor.

A book I’ve read recently, and whose words really resonated with me, is “Le Metier” by Michael Barry. The book is a seasonal account of the last year Barry rode for Columbia-HTC,  beautifully illustrated with photographs. In my opinion, Barry most accurately conveys to his readers what it’s like to be a professional bike rider. Even as a hobby cyclist I found I could empathise with his accounts of training on his own.

Doping looms large as one of the most frequently covered topics in books on Cycle Sport’s List: specifically, Will Voet’s “Breaking the Chain”, Jeremy Whittle’s “Bad Blood”, from “Lance to Landis” by David Walsh and Paul Kimmage’s “A Rough Ride”.  For me, the most illuminating book on this subject is  “Prisonnier du Dopage”  by Philippe Gaumont a former pro-cyclist who rode for Cofidis 1997-2003.

There are a few surprising omissions. To my knowledge there’s only one book in English about the Vuelta “Viva la Vuelta – the story of Spain’s great bike race” by Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell and for that reason alone it should be on the list. “The Giro d’Italia – Coppi versus Bartali at the 1949 Tour of Italy” is the only book on that race on Cycle Sport’s list. For some reason, neither the Vuelta nor the Giro have spawned the same number of books as the Tour, not even in their native languages.

There’s a few other books I would put on my list which are not on Cycle Sport’s. I rather enjoyed David (Talking Heads) Byrne’s “Bicycle Diaries”  which chronicles his thoughts and observations as he pedals through some of the major cities in the world. 1960’s Italy and Italian cycling culture in brought to life in Herbie Sykes “The Eagle of Canavese” about Franco Balmamion who won back to back Giro titles. I loved “Indurain: una pasion templada” by Javier Garcia Sanchez which showcases one of Spain’s sporting idols, the very modest and humble Miguel Indurain whom I have been fortunate to meet. For those of you whose better halves don’t share your passion for cycling, can I suggest a Xmas stocking filler: “Roadie: the Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer” by Jamie Smith.

I don’t have all the books on Cycle Sport’s list and that in itself raises some concerns as I’m now bound to try and obtain copies,  even though many are probably out of print,  because my collection just won’t be complete without them. Amazon and eBay, here I come………………………….

Ain’t no mountain high enough…………..

Last week I was thoroughly spoilt by my Swiss friend (and his mother). Not only did he give me his bedroom, complete with water-bed and boys toys including a gi-normous HD TV, but he also made me breakfast and bought me a book on the centenary Giro. That guy knows the way to this girl’s heart! Meanwhile, his mother whipped up some delicious evening meals and sent me home with a bag of her home made goodies. I’m definitely going to be visiting them again soon.

On my return home, I was looking forward to a couple of weeks of peace and quiet, tackling a few outstanding chores. Yes, that Vuelta ironing mountain is still there and my husband is nearing the bottom of his t-shirt box. We are now on seriously dangerous ground. My husband has in excess of 100 polo and t-shirts, if he’s nearing the bottom of the box then you understand how many I have to iron. Given that he wears formal shirts most days, I’m finding it difficult to work out how he’s managed to get through so many casual tops between the end of the Tour and the end of the Vuelta; it’s only just over two months. The pile of formal shirts seems similarly high although, having counted them, there are only 32 shirts. Let’s do the maths. In 67 days my husband has worn 32 formal shirts and 97 polo/t-shirts, that’s almost 2 garments a day! Excluded from this total are his cycling jerseys which, thank goodness, do not require ironing. Methinks I might be looking into getting some assistance on the domestic front.

Unfortunately, my husband has had a re-occurrence of his gout  so now he’s been grounded for a week and been told to stay off his feet. The phrase “What did your last slave die of?” has hovered on my lips on a number of occasions in the past few days. He’s also been researching the illness on the internet and has issued me with a long list of foods he can no longer eat. Thank goodness I can escape on the bike for some peace and quiet; meanwhile that ironing mountain is continuing to grow.

Seeking a good home

Since the announcement that Lance and his acolytes would be Team Radio Shack in 2010, there has been copious speculation as to the fate of Alberto Contador, the winner of this year’s Tour de France. While rumours have abounded about a new Spanish Fernando Alonso-led squad, choc full of Spanish stars, and sponsored by Santander, this won’t come to fruition before 2011. So what’s going to happen in 2010?

According to today’s L’Equipe (as good a source as any), he wants to buy himself out of next year’s contract with Astana. Despite the Kazakhs, promising he’ll be their leader and throwing Euros 4 million (net) at him for each of the next four years, Alberto’s brother Fran, who’s his agent, says “it’s not about the money.”

Put yourself in Alberto’s shoes and you can understand why, despite his friendship with Vino. He was prevented from riding the Tour in 2008, because he was riding for Astana. The return of Vino and Kash to the Astana fold could give rise to similar issues with ASO for 2010 and Astana without those two would be a considerably weaker side. He’s endured a number of months of uncertainty due to the war between Bruyneel and the Kazakhs, culminating in the blatant preference of Bruyneel to put Lance, and not Bert, in yellow and the subsequent psychological stresses of being isolated from the team one’s supposed to be leading. Frankly, this must have been both confusing and wearing for Alberto.

Given that ASO will be courting Lance for next year’s Tour, we can assume that the course will be Lance-favourable, featuring not too many steep mountain top finishes, two ITTs and one TTT. Many of this year’s favourites found their GC chances laid to waste by the TTT. So Bert has to join a squad that can perform at TTTs. This doesn’t leave him with too many choices. You only have to look at the performance of the teams in this year’s to see how limited.

STAGE TEAM STANDING

Standing Team                                        Time Gaps

1. ASTANA 46′ 29″

2. GARMIN – SLIPSTREAM 46′ 47″ + 00′ 18″

3. TEAM SAXO BANK 47′ 09″ + 00′ 40″

4.LIQUIGAS 47′ 27″ + 00′ 58″ 5.

5.TEAM COLUMBIA – HTC 47′ 28″ + 00′ 59″

6. TEAM KATUSHA 47′ 52″ + 01′ 23″

7. CAISSE D’EPARGNE 47′ 58″ + 01′ 29″

8. CERVELO TEST TEAM 48′ 06″ + 01′ 37″

9. AG2R-LA MONDIALE 48′ 17″ + 01′ 48″

10. EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI 48′ 38″ + 02′ 09″

Normal service resumes

The Tour’s now over and life can return to normal. However, I can’t let the opportunity pass without giving a few final thoughts on the past three weeks of unadulterated pleasure.  First, the Tour beautifully showcases the splendours of France and each day I find myself making notes on places I’d like to visit. No wonder it’s the most visited place on this earth. Frankly, I never, ever want to live anywhere else.

Chapeau to every rider who finished the Tour, you’re all winners in my book. My special commiserations go to all those who for various ills and injuries didn’t finish in Paris. In particular, Jens Voigt and Kenny van Hummel, two guys whose combative and courageous qualities would get them places on my cycling team any day, fantasy or otherwise.

Contador confounded no one by winning his 2nd Tour de France and 4th Grand Tour. His composure and comportment throughout were beyond reproach. While only one guy can adorn the top step sporting the yellow jersey, it’s generally thanks to the efforts of his team mates: well, possibly not this time, with the exception of the TTT. No, his team mates’ efforts, and indeed those of Contador himself on the penultimate stage, ensured that Lance made the bottom rung of the podium. Bruyneel didn’t achieve the 1-2-3 he was looking for and while he might blame Contador, I, and many others, feel the blame lies much, much closer to home.

The best British result ever: 6 stage wins for Cav, the fastest sprinter, bar none, and 4th place on GC for Wiggo. This surely confers bragging rights down at my cycling club. Though I admit the French too had a pretty cool Tour: 3 stage wins; a French team with the yellow jersey for a significant part of the Tour; promising, emerging French talent in their inaugural Tours; and 4 seasoned, French pros in the top 20 on GC. Of course, for some teams, things just didn’t work out the way they hoped, but that’s life.

I was much amused that for every day Franco Pellizotti spent in the spotted jersey, so the spots spread. Not just his shirt and shorts but shoes (surely a step too far), socks, glasses, gloves, bike, monitor but not his helmet. Why not? Liquigas, could you not have sprung for a helmet? I note that, on the final day, the spotted shoes were replaced with red ones (much better) to reflect he had also won the overall “most combative”.

How’s it going?

This blog was supposed to be about training and fundraising for my Livestrong Challenge in Austin, Texas, in late October and I’m aware that I often stray into other cycling (and non-cycling) related areas. But it’s my blog and I can write about whatever, whenever.

On the training front, my spell at altitude coupled with adherence for the past four months to “The Training Plan” is at last showing dividends. My average speed (and average cadence) has increased and, more importantly, I’m finishing rides without feeling totally exhausted – so, I could go even faster! This is indeed great news and, if we then factor in my declining (albeit slowly) weight, I would anticipate further improvements by October.

This time of year, the club trips take in some of my favourites cycles in the hills around the coast and tend to be in excess of 100km. I’ve found that it’s advisable to start early to avoid finishing at hottest part of the day and to ensure I reach the concentration point before the pointage closes. Yes, once bitten, twice shy.

Two Sunday’s ago, we rode to Cipières, via Col de Vence, setting off early, ahead of the club. I had anticipated that my fellow club mates would catch me up on the Col but they evidently, at the last moment, elected to take another route. It was a very warm day and I ran out of water by the top of the Col and had to ride the next 25km without. Not a good move and unfortunately there was no  point where I could refill my bottle. Once at the pointage, I gratefully drank two cups of lukewarm coke, ate some broken biscuits (not one of the better pointages, definitely a “could do better”) and refilled the water bottle. I stopped in Gourdon on the way back for a reviving cold coke. I never, ever used to drink coke but when you’re really thirsty and out of energy I’ve found there’s nothing quite so reviving as a cold coke.

 Last week end I rode along the valley of the Vesubié to Venanson. Again, I set off ahead of the club but, due to numerous pit stops thanks to what is euphemistically referred to in the peloton as “intestinal troubles”, managed to miss most of the groups both on the way there and on the way back. Thank goodness this is a route well populated by small villages with bars and restaurants. I lost count of the number of stops I made, well into double figures. I won’t be eating any more really spicy food ahead of any major rides, ever again. Let it not be said, that I don’t learn from my mistakes.

 All my fundraising to date has been via collection boxes for coins, so I’ve no real idea how it’s going. Whenever I pop into somewhere that is kindly hosting one of my collection boxes, I do give it a bit of a shake to see how it’s faring. One or two are definitely nearing emptying point. It’s amazing how quickly all that small change adds up.

 With the Tour nearing its climax, three month’s from my Livestrong Challenge, I’m launching my intensive email bombardment – you have been warned!

Don’t call me, I’ll call you

While careful planning and preparation is one of the cornerstones of winning a Grand Tour, it’s also key to watching each stage. I don’t like to miss a moment’s action, so my planning and preparation also start well in advance of Le Grand Depart.

No trips, meetings or holidays, unless they involve going to watch a stage. In which case, hotels are booked as soon as the Tour route is formally announced. No visitors, unless they’re cycling fans. No one else understands. Work commitments are rescheduled. All records, returns and invoices for the second quarter of the year are completed as soon as possible and delivered to the accountant.

Most mornings, I rise early to ride my bike, eating breakfast and collecting my newspapers (L’Equipe and Nice Matin) on the way back. Once home, I shower, throw my kit in the washing machine and clean my bike. I prepare a quick lunch, usually a salad, and eat it while dealing with that morning’s email. Next, I tackle a few things on my prioritised “To Do” List. That way I’m ready to enjoy the afternoon’s transmission on TF2.

I will have saved a few chores to do while watching the Tour unfold: tackling the ironing mountain, darning and sewing on buttons, cleaning shoes, cleaning silver, sorting out my recipes etc etc You get my drift, I like to multi-task. With the whole three weeks mapped out, I can easily tackle any unforeseen emergency without it intruding on my viewing time.

My husband knows not to expect collecting from or being taken to the airport while a stage is in progress. Close family and friends do not call me during a stage. My sisters, who are currently staying just down the road, know not to call round until after the stage ends. At a minimum, I am out of commission from 14:20 until 17:30 each day.

Thank goodness for rest days, which allow me to take a longer ride, shop for food and do anything else that needs to be done.

Yellow fever

My excitement is rising as the Tour de France is fast approaching. Having enjoyed its warm-up act, the Critérium du Dauphiné libéré, I’m now looking forward to the real thing. And I’m not the only one. Journalists seem to be taking a totally over-the-top approach to a couple of topics.

The key one, not unnaturally, features Lance. Will he be riding the Tour de France in Astana’s colours? If not, will he be riding for another sponsor? If so, which one? Will the Kazakh government agree to the UCI’s demands and pay up? Will Astana still have a UCI licence at the start of the Tour? Can Contador and Lance peacefully co-exist on the same team: will each be prepared to ride in service of the stronger rider.

When you look at the proposed list of starters, there are more chiefs than Indians: never a recipe for success. Will there indeed be any Kazakhs riding the Tour for the Kazakh sponsored team? The fevered speculation is filling endless column inches in the press and on the internet. Although, at least one thorny question has been answered in recent days: Vino won’t be able to resume his professional career until 24 July, 2009.

Then there are the riders who have suspicious values in their UCI biological passports. How many are there? Are there any big fish on the list? What action is the UCI going to take against them?

Another, equally interesting discussion involves another “will he, won’t he” situation. Namely, will Messrs Boonen and Valverde be riding the Tour this year? The UCI have given Boonen the green light (for the moment) while they have yet to opine on the case of Valverde. If they say yes, might he be arrested by the Italians when the Tour ventures onto foreign soil? If he does ride, will Contador be collecting his dues for support during the Dauphiné libéré? If he doesn’t ride, will the whole team be riding for Bert? The next hurdle for both of them is the ASO who will be more interested in serving its own commercial interests by ensuring that Lance rides than perhaps unduly worrying about these two.

All these issues will be coming to a head in the next 10 days or so. Of course, this fevered speculation allows the other genuine contenders to go about their Tour build ups outside of the cauldron.

My Tour, like that of the riders, kicks off on Wednesday 1 July, when I’ll be working as a volunteer. I have been much impressed with the professionalism of the Monaco organising committee which, in all aspects, is second to none and who will ensure that this is a truly memorable Grand Depart for everyone, particularly the spectators. I’m going to be deployed in the port area. Great gig as this is where the prologue starts and finishes and is the site of the team paddocks, a device “borrowed” from F1. I can hardly wait, but we’re all going to have to!