Nothing nicer

The cycling season has been underway for a couple of weeks and we’ve profited from our proximity to that racing. Friday I watched the Trofeo Laigueglia, now moved to a Friday to avoid it clashing with Tour du Haut Var, and over the week-end we watched the latter. The race seems to have settled into a format where stage one finishes on a circuit around La Croix Valmer and stage two explores the glorious hinterland behind Draguigan with a three-circuit loop around some of the walled towns, affording plenty of viewing opportunities for the largely French public.

The sun shone all three days which made the racing, and the viewing, a whole nicer prospect. But the cherry atop the icing on the cake was that one of our friends won one of the stages, finished third on general classification and was awarded “most combative”. If you follow cycle racing, you’ll soon appreciate that not everyone wins races. It’s a team sport but only one member of the team can win, unless, of course, it’s a team time-trial.

Everyone wants a few words with the stage winner Amael Moinard (image: Nice Matin)
Everyone wants a few words with the stage winner Amael Moinard (image: Nice Matin)

At this early point in the season, teams are keen to get that all-important first win under their belt and, having succeeded, it tends to open the floodgates. More wins follow. It’s also one of the few occasions where a team leader, getting into his stride for his objectives later in the season – a grand tour or classics victory – will allow one of his key helpers to try to take victory. Or, maybe, one of the young, up and coming riders from one of the ProContinental or Continental teams will hope to catch the eye of a team manager at a ProTour team.

It’s not unusual to bump into friends and acquaintances at such races and a bit of banter helps to fill in the time until there’s television coverage on the big screen and/or the peloton hoves into view. On Sunday we were handily placed on the barriers about 10 metres before the finish line. As the peloton came past, on its first circuit of the finish town, it was hotly pursuing the Norwegian national champion Thor Hushovd (BMC) while a number of his team mates were well-placed in that pursuing pack. He was soon swept up and the peloton remained largely intact until the final run in when race leader Carlos Betancur (Ag2r) and Amael Moinard (BMC) leapt free. The two worked to maintain their small advantage with the former taking the overall and the latter the stage win.

It so happened that my beloved had Amael’s eldest son (5 years old) on his shoulders, so he had the perfect view of his father taking the stage win. He understood exactly what had just happened, he was so thrilled and much enjoyed being swept up in the post-race excitement and interviews. Both Amael’s sons accompanied him on stage for the prize-giving but, at only 21 months, it’s doubtful that the younger one appreciated what he was witnessing. The eldest boy took possession of the trophy and I’ve no doubt it has taken up residence in his bedroom. There was however a certain sense of deja vu as the last time Amael had won back in 2010, on the final stage of Paris-Nice, his elder son had accompanied him onto the podium but he was then too young to enjoy the experience.

For us, it capped off a marvellous week-end of racing. There’s really nothing better than seeing a friend win a stage. Made all the more memorable, as we shared the moment with his wife and children.

Hither and thither

Well here we are, it’s Thursday evening, my beloved is due back at midnight Friday afternoon – see how time flies – bringing to an end my three-day spell of peace and quiet. I’ve been very busy but I don’t feel as if I’ve achieved much. I still haven’t gotten around to writing about Sunday’s exciting finish to the Tour du Haut Var in Fayence.

After a well-deserved early night my beloved headed out early to ride with the club. I set off about an hour later, to avoid the early morning chill. I went straight to the pointage and rode back home again to prepare lunch for my beloved’s return. I wanted to leave early to watch the cycling  so I could bag, once again, a spot on the finish line.  A quick trip down the motorway and we arrived in Fayence, parking the car outside of the town, to facilitate a quick getaway.

The organisers had laid on entertainment: a Brazilian singer and scantily clad dancers much to the appreciation of the largely male, elderly audience. Again, the spectators were mainly local, apart from Mauro Santambrogio’s fan club who’d travelled from, I assume, his home town near Como, in Italy.

Jon Tiernan Locke winner Tour du Haut Var 2012 (image courtesy of my beloved)

All the usual suspects were there: Daniel Mangeas, Stephen Roche and Raymond Poulidor but the talk wasn’t about Voeckler or Rolland, no the name on everyone’s lips was that of Brit, Jon Tiernan-Locke (Endura Racing). Who, as anticipated, ignited the final few kilometres of the race up the (in)famous Mur de Fayence, to take the stage and the overall. It was a very pleasant afternoon in the sun and we headed back home happy as dusk fell.

Monday passed in a blur and I dropped my beloved off at the airport on Tuesday morning anticipating a few undisturbed night’s sleep and days to be spent as I pleased. Of course, things never quite go the way they’re planned. He’s back and apart from tidying the flat, dealing with masses of club and company administration, logging a few kilometres on the bike and penning a few articles for my other blog VeloVoices, the time has passed all too quickly. I still haven’t made any inroads into the ironing mountain, or should that now be range of mountains and the “to do” list is growing at an alarming rate.

I’ve guests coming for dinner this evening and I have been foraging in my freezer for a sticky, wine-rich daube which I’m going to serve with oven roasted onions and carrots and a white bean puree. Dessert is a help yourself affair. Cold creamy rice pudding and/or crumble either of which can be enjoyed with caramel apples and/or stewed strawberries. Helping them slide down a treat is plenty of my vanilla flecked [real] custard.  I generally don’t serve a starter during the week, instead my guests can nibble on  home-made foccacia and slivers of salami.

Spring is almost sprung

I enjoy nothing more than watching live sport, particularly live cycling taking place on roads I too have ridden and know well. So, on Saturday, after despatching my beloved with friends to go cross-country skiing, finished my chores, had a quick ride, leapt into Tom III and headed off down the motorway in the direction of La Croix Valmer, around the headland from St Tropez. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the birds were singing, lambs were gamboling, the Mimosa was in bloom – surely, Spring was just around the corner?

It’s a lovely drive but, as I neared the centre of town, there was a huge traffic jam caused by the team buses trying to reverse into their allocated parking spaces. I noted there were plenty of parking spots on the opposite side of the road and asked one of the many policemen on traffic duty if I could park there. He confirmed I could and gallantly stopped the on-coming traffic so I could do a u-turn and park.

I left the car and headed in the general direction of the finish, first to have a close look at the run in and secondly to bag myself a spot on the finishing line. A couple of hours from the riders’ anticipated arrival time, there were few people milling around, mainly the organisers and press. I bumped into one of the journalists from the Nice Matin who often writes pieces about the club and our events. I reminded him that it wasn’t too many months until the Kivilev.

We chatted generally about cycling and who we thought might make an impact on this week end’s racing. As we walked the final stretch we eliminated a number of riders from the frame. The organisers were correct, this was one of the more testing parcours. My purpose today was two-fold, watch the racing and report via tweets wearing my VeloVoice’s hat. I was hoping to add some colour to the event by chatting to other fans  but the French are very guarded about the internet and what they see as an invasion of their privacy. They were happy to talk but didn’t want me to mention them on the net, as if it were some work of the devil. Luckily I did find a few who didn’t mind a mention but the crowd, which swelled considerably as time wore on, was largely local and retired.

Things started to crank up when Mr Cycling arrived: Daniel Mangeas. I have only to hear his mellifluous tones rattling off some obscure rider’s palmares to feel at peace. The race’s patron, and event’s first winner, Raymond Poulidor, was also there looking extremely spritely and a glowing advert for the health benefits of cycling. Even Tricky, Dicky Virenque showed up and lent Daniel a hand.

Luckily for the riders, the weather is much improved on the last couple of weeks. Indeed, it was positively balmy. As the peloton approached the final five-loop circuit, the seven man breakaway had splintered into a 2-3-2 formation with the front two looking as if they might just manage to hang on, and they did. I just love it when a breakaway succeeds. Kinda restores one’s belief in the philosophy of having a go.

Not having a camera with me, or indeed my cameraman, I skipped the podium to head for home. As I approached my car, the same policemen advised me the road was still closed but that he’d let me know as soon as it was open. Not only did he let me know, he stood in the road and stopped the traffic, before ushering me out in front of two Astana vehicles who followed me back as far as the turn off to Draguignan.

All too soon I was home and my beloved, his face glowing from a day spent in the sun, was demanding to be fed. There’s no peace for the wicked, or me!

Excellent conditioning

My beloved and I used to be keen cross-country skiers. But, apart from a trip down memory lane to Seefeld in Austria three year’s ago, we’ve not done much skiing in the past  ten or so years. Encouraged by friends, and emboldened by the weather, yesterday we headed to Greolieres-les-Neiges where they have a number of short, well-prepared tracks suitable for all levels. The snow was in great condition and, while it was initially overcast, by about 11 o’clock the sun was out and we were sweating profusely from our efforts.

The routes are surprisingly undulating and it took some time for me to refind my snow legs and rediscover my skating technique. But perseverance paid dividends and I was soon gliding along on the downhill stretches. It was much harder work going uphill. Our friends, more used to the Classic technique, found skating hard going and I suspect they regretted opting for skating skis, but were too polite to say anything.

However, we all managed to make it back in one piece to our pre-booked table in the restaurant for lunch. There’s nothing quite like a morning’s skiing to work up an appetite. One of the teenage boys was practically asleep on his feet, despite being boosted by some of my super duper cookies,  and I bet that, for once last night, he opted for an early night. Not even sausage and chips managed to revive his flagging energy levels.

After lunch the air had a distinct nip to it and we decided to head for home and an early hot bath: no apres-ski for us. We were tucked up in bed fast asleep by 10 o’clock. We woke late and it was decidedly chilly. We were both creaking a bit from yesterday’s exertions. I opted for a run, followed by a short ride, once the sun had decided to put in an appearance. I was hoping to watch the final day’s racing in the Tour of the Med on Mont Faron but the race has been afflicted by the vagaries of the recent weather, and today was no exception. The stage was again shortened and due to finish on the Col des Gardes.

I suspected those that have been riding in both the South of France and Mallorca were wishing they’d had an opportunity to ride in the balmier Middle East. But Philippe Gilbert is returning to ride in next week end’s Tour du Haut Var specifically to become more accustomed to the inclement weather he’s sure to find in the Cobbled Classics. So, maybe not!

Link: Cross country skiing in Greolieres les Neiges

Here one minute, gone the next

Yesterday’s big story was the (one assumes) accidental leaking of next year’s Tour de France route ahead of its official launch next week. ASO have neither confirmed nor denied that it’s the correct route but for those of you requiring confirmation, just try and book an Accor hotel at any of the start or finish towns. My beloved and I had already decided that next year, for the first time since 2006, we would not be watching any Tour stages live. Although it’s possible we might make it to Paris to watch the final stage.

Now, that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do a day trip to watch a stage. The closest one for me would be that allegedly on 14 July from St Paul Trois Chateaux to Le Cap d’Agde. However, there’s no way you’d find me willingly on the roads at the start of the French holiday season where traffic jams reach nightmare proportions, particularly on routes leading from Lyon. So 2012 well might be a Tour de France free year. Yes, that’s right, I’ll just watch it all on the television.

I am however hoping to make it to both the Giro (at long last) and the Vuelta. In fact my programme is shaping up quite nicely with the early season races such as Tour of Med and Tour of Haut Var, followed, of course, by Paris-Nice and Milan- San Remo. I’m then hoping to spend a week in the Basque Country watching the Tour of the same name, and the GP Miguel Indurain, while fitting in a cookery course. This clashes with the start of the cobbled Classics, but a girl can’t always have everything.

Details of the Giro’s course which starts next year in Denmark have also been leaked. The stage to watch is the penultimate one but, as it clashes with the Kivilev, you know where I’ll be and it won’t be up the Stelvio. I’ll have to make do with watching it on my laptop. However, the stage starting in Savona on 18 May is a real possibility.

After the Giro, I’ll either go and watch the Tour of Switzerland prologue in Lugano or maybe take in a couple of stages in the Dauphine, depending, of course, on its route: southern Alps Yes, northern Alps No. There’s still a huge question mark over whether I’m going to London to watch the Olympic road race and time-trials. Without tickets the former might be a logistical nightmare while the ticket-free latter very crowded. I will however be heading back to Spain for the Clasica San Sebastian and the Vuelta. I’ve already made my hotel booking for the World Championships in Limburg where my trusty steed and I will be riding around the area, and the course. Booking early ensures I get a 4* hotel, at a reasonable price, with free WiFi and parking in central Maastricht.

I had toyed with the idea of spending this coming week end in Varese to watch the Tour of Lombardy, particularly as the weather’s so fine. But this year’s finish is in Lecco, some 41/2hrs from home, rather than Como, so again, I’ll be watching it on the television. Maybe, next year.

Here comes the bride

The days are rushing past and soon “The Wedding” will be upon us. I am referring not, as you might suppose, to the forthcoming Royal Wedding. No, it’s that of my youngest sister. Having taken an unconsciably long time to find her Mr Right, she’s, not unnaturally, determined to have her day in the sun. I have forgiven her for choosing a date that clashes with the Tour du Haut Var.

I have to hand it to her. She has meticulously planned absolutely everything, leaving no stone, not even a pebble, unturned. I, for one, am looking forward to it. It should be a truly splendid day. We don’t often get invitations to weddings these days, not like in our 20s and 30s. Still, I enjoy any opportunity for dressing up and wearing a hat. I have ordered a bespoke hat, and beaded hairband for after the service, from my favourite milliner (http://thehathouse.co.uk). The wedding and reception are being held in the same central London location negating the need for outer layers, usually so necessary at this time of year.

My sister, and future brother-in-law, have enjoyed their respective hen (Dubai) and stag (rugby in Edinburgh) dos and are just counting down the minutes until “The Big Day”. We’re all converging in London tomorrow  evening. Or at least that’s the plan. My beloved is due to fly back from the States tomorrow morning, it will be a miracle if he and his luggage are reunited in time. Yes, I have received word from him that, sadly, BA were not able to get him and his luggage onto the same outward flight. Knowing his luck it’ll arrive after his departure. When you log as many airmiles as he does, this is an all too common occurrence. He would have been travelling with hand luggage were it not for the need to take his wedding clothes with him. Or at least some of his wedding clothes, he left his shirts behind!

Weddings are also an opportunity, for me at least, to catch up with my ever dwindling circle of family and close family friends. It was rather sobering to glance at the wedding party photos from my and my other sister’s weddings. Most of the attendees are no longer with us.

It’s only a flying visit to London, leaving little opportunity to catch up with anyone else. I’m arriving in time for cocktails at The Savoy, followed by dinner at our hotel. The service is the following day at 14:00, giving me time to check out the hotel Spa. Carriages are programmed for way past my bedtime thus, like Cinderella, I shall be taking my leave before the witching hour. The following day, we’re heading back home.

Three bike-less days are more than enough for us, particularly since it’s been raining non-stop all this week. Still, it has given me an opportunity to practice the dreaded one-legged cycling on the home-trainer. This morning the rain abated so I was able to ride with my trainer: sprint intervals around the Cap.

Of course, as soon as we set off the heavens opened. We rode on bravely doing our best to ignore the cars splashing us from head to foot as they drove past. He was putting his new bike through its paces, a Specialized S-Works. While he’s pleased with the bike, he’s less thrilled with the Specialized tyres after almost slipping over a couple of times in the wet conditions. I had no such problems, secure on my Continentals.

I arrived back dripping wet, feeling chilled to the bone, and treated myself to a soak in a hot bath. I’m now feeling nice and warm in my Qatari Airways jimjams and dressing gown. No more outings for me today.

One down, plenty more to go

I’ve really enjoyed my first week’s training. It’s given me something to aim for every time I ride. I can’t say whether it’s been too hard or too easy, it’s really too soon to say.  The Polar however is a rather inadequate measure of effort and I can’t wait for the Garmin to arrive: hopefully, this week.

I’ve had to content myself with watching the Tour du Haut Var on the small screen, and not in person. Yesterday, we had a number of things to sort out in connection with my husband’s replacement passport. So, instead, we rode with some of the people with whom I’ll be riding L2P  at the end of June. They rode in “SHORTS”. I know, I don’t get into shorts until mid-May. I’m still in my winter tights and  have yet to transition into leg warmers and then into my 3/4 quarter bib-shorts.

Today’s pointage was at Le Rouret. Having started a little ahead of the club, I was overhauled by the super-fast boys at the entrance to Roquefort les Pins. There were smoking at an average speed of 28km while I was positively plodding along at 12km. I was overtaken by most, but not all, of my clubmates before the pointage where I hooked up with one of my cycling buddies. I rode with her up the next rise to Pre du Lac and then left her to wait for her clubmates. Yes, most clubs have regular regroupments where they wait for their clubmates.

I descended via Bar sur Loup to Pont du Loup and decided to practice my sprinting on the rise up to Tourrettes sur Loup. Helpfully, there were a number of riders up the road giving me a target.  I continued on the downhill stretch home and shot past a number of groups of riders. Men do not like being overtaken by a woman but they seem to mind most if it happens on the downhill. Sorry guys, but superior body weight, a fast bike and a love of speed are going to carry the day.

Back to the Tour du Hat Var, which was won today by Christophe Le Mevel who attacked on the insanely steep climb up to Montauroux. FDJ are having a cracking start to the season.  I get a real kick from seeing the pro-peloton race on roads I’ve ridden on. It seems to increase my pleasure in the viewing knowing we’ve both suffered there.

I’ve also been keeping an eye on the Volta ao Algave where Bert (Astana) has been claiming that he’s 2kg over his ideal weight and not in such good shape as at the same time as last year – sandbagging?  He won the mountain stage and  was 2nd to Luis Leon Sanchez  (Caisse d’Epargne) in today’s TT, having had the bike he originally planned to ride banned by the UCI. He, nonetheless, scooped the overall: early season mind games.

There were wins this week end for both my football teams. Luckily for the manager of OGCN, a penalty early in the 2nd half saved his bacon. While the boys in claret and blue downed another team, who also wear claret and blue, though obviously not in the same match, 5-2 at home.

Excitement in the UK as Britain won a gold medal in the ladies skeleton. This is where you hurtle, head first, on a metal tray, down an ice chute at insane speeds. One of the few sports I’ve yet to try!

So much for global warming

A quick glance at the long-range weather forecast reveals a dismal outlook for the next two weeks: rain, rain and more rain. This will be particularly frustrating for those doing London-Paris who have signed up for either the one or two-week stage based at Stephen Roche’s hotel, just up the road in Villeneuve Loubet. It’s being organised by ex-pro and Eurosport commentator Emma Davies whom I’ll be meeting later this afternoon.

I had volunteered to lend Emma a helping hand but I generally don’t ride in the rain. There’s no need. But if it does rain solidly for two whole weeks, even I will be tempted to brave the elements. I have almost 15 hours of training scheduled in next week’s programme. I really can’t see me doing all that on the home trainer.

While this morning’s downpour has now desisted and there was even a few rays of sunshine around lunchtime, the sky has once more clouded over. Tomorrow the forecast is favourable and I may well go over to St Tropez to see the start of the Tour du Haut Var. No, I won’t ride all the way there. I’ll probably take the train to St Raphael, but may well ride all the way back.

I caught a glimpse of the Volta ao Algave yesterday where the peloton endured 6 hours in the driving rain. Good training maybe for the Belgian Classics but more will be wishing they were enjoying the temperate climes of  Oman, the Tour of which finishes with today’s decisive time-trial.  Tom Boonen (Quick Step) seems well placed at only 2 seconds back from current race leader, Daniele Bennati (Liquigas).

Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) had a wee (no pun intended) bit of a dilemma the other day while wearing the race leader’s jersey which seems to have divided both fans and the peloton. Namely, should other teams have attacked the race leader while he was taking a comfort break? Normally not, but this was within 50km of the finish and hence he was fair game. My advice: Edvald you should have gone earlier.

Postscript: EBH won the ITT in Oman finishing 2nd on GC behind Fabulous Fabian, who was 2nd on the stage. Tommeke dropped to 11th overall. He’s going to have to do much better if he wants to enter Belgium on 4 July in yellow.