Reflections on the Tour de France 2017

There’s always a sense of loss the week after the Tour finishes. You have months of anticipation and speculation, three weeks of enthralling racing – yes, even the snooze fests – and then it finishes in a blaze of glory on the Champs Elysees. It doesn’t really hit you until the Wednesday, given Monday and Tuesday as extended rest days, plus the tv channels running various highlight programmes and everyone doing their lists of “Things we learnt from the Tour.”

Mind you after watching 21 stages from start to finish, I’m feeling catatonic. However, it was great to see the podium suspense maintained into the last week-end. As always, I loved the stages where riders enjoyed their “first ever…..” victory/grand tour win, seeing the winners’ emotions, watching the spectacular scenery, fabulous property porn and so on. I did not enjoy the many crashes and rider withdrawals, nor Peter Sagan‘s wholly unfair (IMHO) disqualification.

Five things are now patently obvious to me:-

  1. You cannot do well in both Giro and Tour
  2. You’re unlikely to end up on the podium unless you have the support of your entire team
  3. Money talks, though teams on limited budgets  – I’m looking at Ag2r, Sunweb and Cannondale – can still do well
  4. It’s not about winning big, it’s about losing small or not at all
  5. Unless you can time-trial well, you’re highly unlikely to win a grand tour

Each race always throws up some surprises, that’s one of the allures of cycling, its unpredictability. Before the event started I poo-poohed another blogger’s suggestion that Sagan wouldn’t win a sixth consecutive jersey. He said he felt his luck would run out. He was right, it did. Few cycling commentators would’ve accurately predicted the podium, a few may’ve picked Chris Froome and Romain Bardet – two out of three’s not bad. But I bet no one, other than his team, wife and family, backed Rigoberto Uran.

I did enjoy watching the stages from start to finish, though I may have been MIA or working during bits of them. I felt it was instructive to see how, where and when the break formed and appreciate the work some riders do on the front of the peloton for hundreds of kilometres. Riders like that are worth their weight in gold, cherish them. I was impressed with Froome’s closely fought victory. I thought his focus, coolness under fire, failure to panic and knowledge that he had the best team (mates and support staff) were the deciding factors.

Sunday, we also (knowingly) waived goodbye to Haimar Zubeldia and Thomas Voeckler, who completed their last ever Tours. I wish them well in their future careers. I said knowingly because there were probably others who have also ridden their last Tour de France but have yet to acknowledge it. It’s always exciting watching the peloton hurtle round Paris. I speak from personal experience when I tell you that riding over those cobbles is painful. I only had to do it once and after riding a mere 500km. However, it was a very special moment and one I will always cherish.

For me it’s not so much a sense of loss this week but one of realisation. The season is fast winding to a conclusion, there’s only one more Grand Tour to enjoy. Of course, there’s the bonus of one of my favourite races, the Clasica in San Sebastian – a place I don’t need any excuse to visit – which is held on the Saturday after the Tour concludes. It’s typically won by a rider who’s just ridden the Tour and has come out of it in great form. Looking at the start list, there’s plenty of likely candidates.

This year’s Vuelta is handily starting not too far away from us in the ancient Roman city of Nimes, a place we’ve yet to visit. We normally only see its cathedral and concrete sprawl from the motorway. So that’s something to look forward to though I’m hoping (and praying) it won’t turn out to be another Carcassonne. We’ll be in Madrid in September for an international Dental Exhibition  – I know, I lead such an exciting life! – and thereafter we’re heading to Valencia for a complete break, so sadly our path won’t cross again with that of the Vuelta. Which just leaves our annual pilgrimage to Lake Como for Il Lombardia, our last race of the season, which has such an air of finality about it.

You maybe wondering why I’ve omitted the World championships being held in Norway in late September. Aside from last year’s in Qatar, I’ve attended 10 consecutive championships. You may regard this a heretical, but I’m not a fan of Scandinavia – been there, have no desire to go back. Hamburg is about as far north as I like to venture. However, I will be going to the one’s in Innsbruck next year.

 

Things my beloved says: I could do that!

We were watching the magnificent Classical Concert from the Eiffel Tour on Bastille Day,  Le Concert de Paris, featuring the great and the good from the world of classical music playing and singing a selection of Greatest Hits Arias. This is the world’s largest outdoor concert, held during the world’s largest annual sporting event, the Tour de France. During an early number, my beloved spotted the person playing the triangle. I suppose it was one of the many percussionists. Immediately my beloved said: “I could do that!”

I replied that he’d probably get distracted, miss his cue and fail to strike the triangle when necessary. I said an ear for music and an ability to concentrate for long periods of time were probably two of the minimum requirements. Plus, you probably needed to play other instruments. Frankly, it’s doubtful my beloved would cut the mustard. I sensed he was about to argue but thought better of it and decided to agree with me. Yep, he’s definitely getting wiser in his old age!

His comment got me thinking. Why is it we always assume we can do things which look easy on the television! Making something look easy usually takes that oft quoted 10,000 hours of practice, the right attitude and plenty of application. We are after all talking about a man whose mother forced him to endure hours of piano lessons – delusions of grandeur on her part – and who can now only remember how to play Chopsticks, a tune I too can play without having received any piano lessons, let alone passing a couple of piano exams.

The truth is that I can read music and still play the descant recorder but that’s where any musical ability starts and finishes. Neither of us can hold a note which is why whenever we’re obliged to sing, out of consideration, I mime. Not so my beloved who’ll attempt (and fail) to belt out a tune.

Anyway, back to the concert, the audience estimated at around 400,000 was no doubt enjoying the world’s largest picnic on the grass as the sun gradually set. Before darkness fell, we were treated to magnificent views of the City of Light which always looks fabulous from the sky as you can clearly see its urban master plan. The concert was followed by a truly wonderful fireworks’ display, a fitting end to a special day and (thankfully) so very different from last year.

Of course, cycling fans would probably argue that with Warren Barguil winning stage 13 on Bastille Day, we’d already had plenty of fireworks. This was the fourth French victory after those of Romain Bardet, Arnaud Demare and Liliane Calmejane with the exciting  prospect of maybe more to come.

Postcard from Maastricht

Maastricht is one of the oldest cities in Holland which is evident as soon as you stroll through its historic inner city. Churches, city walls, monumental merchant houses and big squares merge seamlessly with a comprehensive and varied range of shops, bars and restaurants. Not for nothing is it known as the most ‘bon vivant’ city in Holland. We’ve been fortunate to visit it on numerous occasions, often in connection with bike races or business trips.

This time we were staying in a hotel which overlooked the Maas/Meuse river with a view over to the historic Old Town. We’d decided not to go to the finish in Liege, again because of the wet weather. On arrival, the hotel was showing the German MotoGP  in the bar which made lunch an easy decision. We watched Marc Marquez destroy the field and head up the MotoGP world championship over lobster salad before seeing Marcel Kittel win the bunch sprint on stage two of the Tour de France in Liege.

Sunday evening we had a very pleasant stroll around the town, on the other side of the river, which was choc full of people enjoying the weekend’s last gasp. We settled for a tapas style sea food meal before heading back to the hotel where we watched with some astonishment a programme on the Tour de France on the Dutch channel, RTL7, which I assumed was deliberately tongue in cheek. Not so according to my Dutch friends on Twitter.

Monday dawned sunny and we drove to the Liege suburb of Verviers which, if I’m honest, had little to recommend it other than a fantastic chocolate and cake shop where we stopped for breakfast. After catching up with our few remaining contacts, we again took respite on the Tissot stand, where my beloved received yet another gift, and we enjoyed a great view of the signing on ceremony.

Once the peloton had departed, we drove back to Maastricht for lunch in a coffee shop opposite the hotel which had plenty of vegan options. My beloved had work to do so I decided to walk off lunch around town. I may have also done a spot of shopping at one of my favourite shops. I bought something from the sale and something from the new autumn collection. It felt odd to be buying winter wear in July but this was such a marvellous piece I’m sure it’ll sell out fast.

While I was out and about, I took the opportunity to walk all around the town and work up an appetite for dnner in a restaurant round the corner from the hotel which has an excellent selection of vegan options. Back at the hotel, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

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I can heartily recommend Maastricht for a very pleasant break though I would suggest you avoid some of their busier periods, such as the Maastricht Art Fair, when hotel prices go stratospheric.

Pre-Tour chat with Trek-Segafredo’s Haimar Zubeldia

Typically I’ll make a point of talking to riders participating in their first ever grand tour, or their first Tour de France, because their slightly nervous excitement and sense of adventure is intoxicating.

The youngest (and coolest) rider in the race, Elie Gesbert (Fortuneo), handling French television with aplomb

This time though I thought I’d head for the opposite end of the spectrum and talk to the oldest, most experienced rider in the race, one taking part in his 16th Tour and who had been literally called off the substitutes’ bench at the last moment.

In previous additions of the Tour, Haimar Zubeldia (Trek-Segafredo) has managed five top-10 finishes almost without anyone noticing. The Basque cuts a tall, elegant figure in his all black casual clothing and he’s long been one of my favourite riders. I always enjoy watching him race in the Basque country where family and friends turn out in droves to support him and when, inevitably, he wins the prize for Best Placed Basque Rider, his two daughters, whom he refers to as his angels, love getting up on the podium with him and holding his bouquet and cup.

Pre-stage planning in the Village Tour de France (l to r Alberto Contador, Carlos Betancur, Haimar, Jarlinson Pantano)

It was clear that he was bitterly disappointed not to have been first-choice to race in what will be his final Tour de France, particularly as he’d ridden the recent Dauphine as road captain for Alberto Contador, with whom he’d participated in the Tour much earlier in both their careers (Astana in 2009 and RadioShack in 2010), and was keen to repeat the experience. However, he told me he’d suffered some dark moments before the telephone call summoning him to Duesseldorf.

My family like cycling a lot but last week was not easy for me when I was not selected in the first moments and my wife she really showed me something more.

I complimented him on the length of his career and asked whether it was due to anything in particular. He said not and, of course, at the start of his career he’d never dreamt he’d still be riding at this age. But he’d stayed fit and competitive and still loved riding his bike. He said:

I don’t know how I stay here this long but always I say I’m here now. Obviously, I do something well and I now can teach the younger riders, giving them advices like I received 20 years’ ago. For example, now I’ll say to them to try and sleep an extra hour each day because by the end they’ll appreciate the 21 hours’ extra sleep.

I asked whether he’d given any thought to what he might do after he’d retired from racing competitively. It was clear that whatever it is, cycling will still feature. He reiterated:

Fortunately, in my career, I have a lot of help around me and my idea is to have time to ride but at another level. I have a lot of experience and I would like to continue in cycling. I don’t know now in which side but maybe help in clothing?

I don’t know exactly when I’ll finish my career but afterwards I’ll need to organise my life, spend time with my family specially because in the last few years with the days spent racing and at camps, I miss a lot.

We also discussed neo pro Ruben Guerreiro, newly crowned road race champion of Portugal, who I’ve been following over on VeloVoices. He’s spoken appreciatively of the advice and guidance he’s received from Haimar with whom he roomed in the recent Amgen Tour of California. Haimar remarked that he enjoyed this aspect of his role and was one of the reasons he’d resigned for 2017 with the team. He spoke fondly of Ruben whom he said reminded him a bit of himself when he was younger. I can see the similarity neither talks for the sake of talking but when the floodgates open, stand back and listen.

I can’t help feeling that, given the nature of this year’s parcours, the team and Contador in particular, will be better served by Haimar’s presence on the squad.

(Header image: Haimar Zubeldia, stage 1 Tour de France 2017 ©Kristof Ramon)

 

 

Postcard from Duesseldorf

We were packed and ready to walk out the door, Christophe our friendly taxi driver was waiting downstairs, when my beloved suddenly remembered that he hadn’t checked in for his evening flight to Bradford. Like last year, when we drove to Le Grand Depart in Normandy, my husband had to attend a client’s sales meeting in Bradford. So he was flying to Düsseldorf with me, checking in to the hotel, which was at the airport, then flying off to Bradford. He leads a jet-setter’s life!

I had to unlock the office so he could print off his boarding card which took longer than anticipated because he hadn’t even completed his passport information for the booking. Luckily, I had decided to get to the airport early so we could have lunch in the La Plage restaurant. Of course, this was predicated on an early arrival. I wouldn’t mind but absolutely everything else had been done for him. Despite the last-minute hitch, we made it to the airport with enough time for lunch. However, our tardy arrival outside the flat had poor Christophe questioning whether he’d arrived on the correct day. Typically we’re waiting outside for him when he arrives to pick us up. I hate keeping anyone waiting, not so my beloved!

Checked in and ready to go, we went to the airport restaurant which is decorated as if it were at the beach. There’s even a winding slide for kids to descend from it, so much more fun than the stairs. I admit I was so tempted to have a go but it did look rather narrow. Imagine of I’d gotten stuck and they’d had to call the fire brigade to get me out? Maybe next time.

On the flight, we fortunately had three seats between us and I’d nodded off before the plane had even taxied down the runway, only waking on arrival in Düsseldorf. We’ve both visited the town a number of times, though always for either Dental or Medical exhibitions. So we’re very familiar with its large exhibition centre a short drive from the airport.

My beloved just had time for a reviving drink in the hotel bar before walking back to the airport, leaving me to attend the team presentation without my photographer or indeed any transport! Luckily friends on one of the teams staying in the same hotel were kind enough to give me a lift. I have to say it wasn’t one of the better Tour presentations though at least it was very spectator friendly and over fairly swiftly. I was back at the hotel in time for a nightcap and very welcome early night.

Friday morning I needed a taxi to get to the Exhibition Centre to collect my accreditation, and that of a friend, and once again managed to get a lift back to the hotel with one of the DSs I know. I’d already decided that with so few team press conferences being held in the Press Centre, I’d just attend that of Trek-Segafredo, largely because its hotel wasn’t far from ours.

Nice paint job!

As usual, Alberto Contador turned up on time to a packed audience, along with John Degenkolb who was rather surplus to requirements. The questions were all for Alberto though someone eventually felt sorry for Degs and posed a quick question. I took the opportunity to have a chat with Haimar Zubeldia, the oldest most experienced rider in the race who was called off the substitute’s bench at the last moment. Back at the hotel, I had tea in the hotel lounge surrounded by the Astana team. I have to say Fabio Aru was looking as chilled as Alberto and, after his performance in the Italian national championships, it would be worth considering him for your fantasy tour team.

Waiting for my beloved to return from Bradford, I watched the MotoGP practice from Sachsen Ring followed by the semi-finals from Eastbourne where Djokovic looked to be peaking at just the right time for Wimbledon.

Finally, sport-sated, I decided to wait for my beloved in the same restaurant where we had a drink the previous evening. The hotel has four restaurants so we’re spoilt for choice however we favoured the more casual one serving German specialities. That evening I was taunted by the delicious smells wafting from the meals of the couple on the next table who were tucking into truly magnificent Wiener Schnitzels, quite my favourite German/Austrian meal. While on my other side, the table was enjoying another of my favourites – cold, rare roast beef with saute potatoes and remoulade sauce. My mixed salad really didn’t cut it in the olfactory stakes. I was tempted to cut and run. This doesn’t bode well for our trip to Austria over Christmas. Fortunately my beloved arrived to distract me.

Mayor of Duesseldorf and ASO
One of many state buildings

The first stage’s time-trial started and finished at the Congress Centre but we decided it would be much more fun to watch the riders in the Old Town. Despite the weather, crowds were out in force, many taking the opportunity to watch cycling for the first time. We donned our wet weather gear, found ourselves a good spot on the parcours which was near a large screen, close to facilities and great refreshment possibilities. I love watching time-trials because you can see each rider individually though we were constantly holding our breaths as the riders slid around the course trying to avoid pools of water and thick white lines. After an exhausting afternoon, watching a thrilling time-trial event in a superb atmosphere, we returned to the hotel and dinner, followed by an early night. Watching bike racing is often almost as exhausting as taking part!

Park overlooking the Rhine

Sunday dawned grey and overcast but thankfully dry as we headed to the start of stage two alongside the Rhine. After a quick breakfast in the Village du Depart, where I once again bemoaned the loss of the fresh fruit stand, it started to rain. We took shelter in the Tissot stand where we picked up a couple of great caps and a water bottle. Replete we headed to the bus paddocks. I regard the Tour as a great opportunity to say hi to those riders and staff that I know and make arrangements to catch up with them at subsequent, less pressured races. Plus a number of ex-riders we know now work either for ASO or major sponsors of the Tour. I try not to get in the way of the hoards of journalists who earn their livings writing about the Tour.

Bleu, blanc, rouge – German-French entente cordiale
One of the many Museums

Having done the rounds, we strode quickly back to the car and headed to Maastricht where we’d be staying for the next two nights. It’s one of my favourite places in Holland and the venue for the start of Amstel Gold. We were staying in a hotel with a waterside view over to the Old Town which is a pleasant melange of building styles on cobbled streets. Sadly, due to the weather, my photos of Düsseldorf don’t do it justice nor did the week-end’s television coverage. However, it’s well worth a visit which can easily be combined with a trip to nearby Cologne.