A fond farewell to Tom Boonen

Yesterday was Tom Boonen‘s last professional cycling race. For me, it’s the end of an era. Tom won the first race I ever watched and I’m going to have to come clean that my first thought was “Now there’s a guy that looks good in lycra!” My beloved blames him for my obsession with cycling but it’s not entirely Tom’s fault as, even though he’s now retired, the obsession continues.

So let’s have a dawdle down memory lane and look at some of the many highlights of his career, starting with a video including that  win on stage 6 in 2004’s Tour de France.

The following year, 2005 was Tom’s annus mirabilis, when he won Flemish hearts and minds with victories in the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the UCI Road World Championships in Madrid, among others. Tom had arrived, he was the biggest thing in cycling and most certainly the biggest star in Belgium.

After this magical season, many in Belgium worried that Tom would go the way of former Belgian cycling colossi such as Freddie Maertens or Frank Vandenbroucke. Tom did have career lows on and off the road, but let’s not dwell on those. They’re well-documented and safely in the past. Instead lets focus on the affection he engendered among the fans, the press, the peloton and especially his team-mates. He’s been a one-team rider his entire career, after an early, ill-fated flirtation with Lance Armstrong’s United Postal Service, where he’s been cannily managed by General Manager Patrick Lefevere who here talks about Tom’s career.

Now we turn to those who have had the pleasure of riding with Tom, as current and former team-mates talk fondly about him in these series of videos.

One of the riders who probably knows Tom best is Kevin Hulsmans. They rode together for over 10 years. Here’s what Kevin had to say.

But Tom doesn’t just inspire respect among his team-mates, he’s also held in high regard by his peers. As reported by Velonews, less than 48 hours before the start of the “Hell of the North,” there was universal agreement in the peloton. If they couldn’t win Roubaix, they wouldn’t mind seeing Boonen take the history-making fifth cobble. Two-time world champion Peter Sagan told Het Niewwsblad he would like to see Boonen win his final race if he’s not in winning position himself because:

Boonen was my role model and idol. When I first raced Roubaix, I had no idea how to race the pave. I watched him and learned. If I cannot win, I will be very happy if he could. It would be a great end to his career.

Specialized made Tom a special bike with a fitting tribute for his final race, but sadly he didn’t get his fairytale ending. Someone else won.

In a pre-race interview Tom said he was sure to be sad today largely as a result of a hangover! But whatever the future brings, I wish him health, happiness and more successes.

Now where did I put that box of paper tissues?

Header image: Trophy from the friends of Arenberg from Nord Eclair

Place your bets please

The sun burnt through yesterday’s early fog leaving  perfect conditions for riding. My beloved and I decided to head up to La Turbie and lunch at one of our favourite restaurants. The chef used to work in a Michelin-starred establishment but left to run the perfect neighbourhood restaurant. The menu is chalked up daily on the blackboard: 5 starters, 5 mains and 5 desserts. When a dish is sold out, it’s scrubbed from the board. It’s a modest establishment which punches well above its weight.

We rode the short cut to La Turbie from Cap d’Ail to avoid the numerous traffic lights in Monaco. Skip one and you’re sure to incur a fine. This route includes a particularly steep bit 11-12% near Monaco football club’s training ground. I was struggling with the 39 x 27 but, nevertheless, managed it. Lunch was a fitting reward.

After lunch we climbed up Col d’Eze. Down on our left-hand side,  Eze village was shrouded in mist and looked like something out of a fairy tale. I have fond memories of my very first ascension of Col d’Eze for my one-woman protest against Astana’s exclusion from the 2008 Tour de France during Paris-Nice. It wasn’t supposed to be a solo effort, but my teammates never made it to the summit after falling victim to a couple of punctures. I am constantly amazed at how many punctures they suffer and can only assume they keep patching their inner tubes. Ours get sent to Burkina Faso.

After arriving home I started on the serious business  of  studying the form for today’s race. My middle sister, renowned for enjoying a flutter on the horses might have been able to impart some of her wisdom. She wins far more than she loses. But, unlike a horse race, one has to take account not only of the form of the team’s leader but also the strength of his support. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Fabian Cancellara who has to be odds on favourite whatever the state of his support. Setting him aside, there are a number of other riders one has to consider, although, I appreciate that they might only be fighting it out for the minor places.

One cannot exclude the usual suspects: Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Alessandro Ballan, Juan Antonio Flecha,  Heinrich Haussler, Stijn Devolder, Thor Hushovd, Filippo Pozzato and rookie, Peter Sagan. The papers have been suggesting that a coalition against Cancellara might be the only way to defeat him. It’s true that teams who have two or even three strong candidates should seek to tire out Spartacus’s troops by having them chase down constant attacks. My advice: just don’t take your eyes off Fabulous Fabian, not even for a second.

L’Equipe, who have Cancellara as their 5 starred favourite, have added a few more names into the mix: Sylvain Chavanel, Greg Van Avermaet, Juergen Roelandts and Nick Nuyens. Their advice is however pretty much the same as mine. They too suggest a coalition of interests, staying with Fabian and beating him in a sprint finish, or praying for a mechanical a la 2009.

Yesterday saw the traditional start of cycling in the Basque country with the GP Miguel Indurain won by none other than Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Olympic Champion, Sammy Sanchez. His first win since last August and his team’s first of the season. I note from the results that a Columbian called Robinson Eduardo Chalapud Gomez was 6th. Is this the longest name in cycling? The Tour of the Basque country starts tomorrow and I’ll be tuning into Basque tv to watch proceedings. The commentary will be incomprehensible but the pictures tell their own story.

This week end also sees the second MotoGP race in Jerez, Spain. Pole positions have been seized for today’s races by Messrs Stoner (MotoGP), Bradl (Moto2) and Cortese (125cc). Since the races run concurrent with the Tour of Flanders, I’ll settle for watching the highlights on Eurosport.

Just what was ordered

Having waved farewell to my beloved on Tuesday afternoon, I have spent the last few days enjoying the warm, sunny weather which I hope is here to stay. I’m trying to rebuild my form with some longer rides.  At the same time, I’ve a whole host of paperwork to deal with as it’s the end of the first quarter, plus  deadlines for filing accounts and tax returns are fast approaching. Additionally,  the club is keeping me busy as we attract ever more members.

I have found time, thanks to the tv in the office, to keep abreast of proceedings in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. This is generally a race for those whose ambitions have to be put aside on Sunday while they support their team leaders, although Ballan did win both this and the Tour of Flanders in 2007. It’s raced around the Belgian coastline which is prone to fierce, peloton splintering, cross-winds.

Riders who have showed promise elsewhere this year largely prevailed. The first stage on Tuesday, 194km from Middelkerke to Zottegem, was won by Andrei Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), the lone sprinter in a 4-man break. He assumed the leader’s jersey only to lose it on the following day’s lumpy  219km to Koksijde. It was gratefully assumed by Liewe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) although the stage winner was  Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha) who managed to hold off John Degenkolb (HTC-High Road).

This morning’s 111km sprint stage around De Panne was held in the rain, consequently a number of riders opted not to start : most notably, Alessandro Ballan (BMC), Peter Sagan (Liquigas), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) and Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil-DCM). The sprint for the line from the leading bunch of around 50 riders was won by Jacopo Guarini (Liquigas) who managed to stay just ahead of Galimzyanov. Over 70 riders finished outside the time limit,  so there were only 56 competing in the afternoon’s individual time-trial.

Last man off was Bert De Backer (Skil-Shimano) who had taken the leader’s jersey with a sprint bonus that morning. But there were 27 riders within 10 seconds of him, including some notable chrono men. The sky was overcast and there was some rain on part of the course towards the back end. The biggest factor was once again the wind on what looked to be quite a technical course.

Sebastien Rosseler (RadioShack) comfortably won the time-trial and the overall. Westra was runner-up, once again, despite the frenzied and manical urgings of his DS from the team car. Although, for consolation, he had the climber’s and most combative jerseys.  De Backer won the sprints jersey and Galymzyanov the points one. Third-placed man on the podium was Rosseler’s team mate, 20 year-old Michal Kwiatkowski who had turned in a very fine performance in the time-trial. A Belgian winner on Belgian soil, just what the organisers and spectators wanted.

7-year itch

Yesterday was pretty blissful. My beloved and I rose late, largely thanks to the clocks going forward and his tardy arrival back into Nice the night before. We breakfasted, dressed, mounted our bikes and headed for that morning’s pointage, just up the road in St Paul de Vence. The sky was overcast and it was obviously going to rain at some point, probably sooner rather than later.

We enjoyed our ride before collecting the newspapers and heading for home. Narrowly avoiding the rain, which fell all afternoon, evening and overnight. After lunch, I settled down on the sofa (suitably attired) to enjoy the newspapers and a veritable smorgasbord of cycling.

Up first was all three stages of the Criterium International, or Jens Voigt Invitational as it’s more commonly known. As if by magic, guess who was a sole breakaway on  stage 1? None other than Jens himself, putting the hurt on the other teams and paving the way for Frank Schleck’s (Leopard Trek) win atop L’Ospedale, ahead of Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis). My beloved and I know this area well having ridden around here on a trip with the cycling club. Stage 2’s 75km sprint stage was won by  Skil-Shimano’s Simon Geschke, his first pro-win, while Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack) won the 7km time-trial around Porto Vecchio. The results of those subsequent stages left the podium unchanged.

Next up was Gent-Wevelgem, shorn of Fabulous Fabian, but still choc full of talent vying for the win and those valuable UCI points. Allegedly, Tom Boonen (Quickstep) was left to watch yesterday’s win on the television so that he could better perform today and “justify his salary” so-said his manager, Patrick Lefevre. As the television coverage started, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) was leading a small group of escapees, validating beyond any shadow of a doubt his team’s invitation.

After Voeckler was re-absorbed into the peloton, various attacks were launched and brought back, the last one just a few hundred kilometers before the finish. The narrow, twisting, farm roads had snapped the peloton into several bunches, but the main contenders barr Goss, Cavendish, Hushovd and Pozzato were in the leading group which sprinted for the line. Boonen powered past everyone to snatch victory, 7 years after his last win here in 2004. Danieli Bennati (Leopard Trek) was 2nd and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) finished 3rd.

To win in the Classics, you need legs, luck and good positioning. Boonen had endured a long wait for the team car after a problem at the foot of the Monteberg, 74km from the finish, before expending not inconsiderable energy chasing back to the front of the peloton. While the manner of his victory was quite different from that of Cancellara’s, it will have boosted his confidence ahead of next week’s Tour of Flanders.

We then watched video highlights of the final day’s stage of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya won by the diminutive Samuel Dumoulin, his 2nd stage win. Collecting not only precious UCI points for his team Cofidis, but also justifying their invitation to the event. The overall was won by Contador who had assumed the lead after Wednesday’s queen stage. If anything, his popularity in Spain, where he’s perceived as being victimised, has grown as the doping case has progressed. If I were Pat McQuaid, I would eliminate Spain from my immediate travel plans.

Finally, we caught up with the last day’s action from the track World Championships where Australia have dominated and others have disappointed. Sated, we opted for an early night. All that cycling’s exhausting.

Stunning victory

Be afraid, be very afraid. If anything, Spartacus (Leopard Trek) is in even better form than last year. How is this possible? I don’t know, he just is. He was 2nd last week end in Milan-San Remo. Today, after a couple of punctures and a bike change, he literally rode from the back of the peloton to win the race.

With a couple of groups up the road, at 33km to the finish, Fabulous Fabian left the peloton behind on the Oude Kwaremont climb. He quickly caught and passed the 2nd group. Realising this was their bus to the next group, they lined out behind him, clinging grimly to his wheel as he powered up to the first group, containing team mate Stuart O’Grady. There’s now only 25km to go. O’Grady took a few turns on the front before dropping back, only to regain the group a bit later.

With 17Km to the finish, Bram Tankink (Rabobank) put in a dig, Cancellara went with him and past him. Tankink cramped and was unable to follow. A moment’s hesitation, who was going to give chase? Too late, he’s gone. Legs pumping like pistons, Fabian disappeared from view. It was all over. In truth, it had been over for some time, they just didn’t realize it. It was now only about the minor places.

Cancellara finished a whole minute ahead of his pursuers (Jurgen Roelands, Omega Pharma-Lotto 2nd, Vladimir Goussev, Katusha 3rd) to emphatically retain the crown he won last year.  He’s not racing Gent-Wevelgem tomorrow, he doesn’t need to race again before next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. You wouldn’t bet against him doubling up there too.

I enjoyed watching the race on the big screen in the office, my feet resting on the corner of the desk after my exertions this morning. I put the alarm on for 05:30 but never heard it go off. I woke at 07:00 and after a light breakfast decided to venture back up the Col de Vence.

It was a warm and sunny, with a light breeze which strengthened as the morning wore on. I rode up to Vence via l’Ara and began my ascent with purpose. I felt so much better than on Thursday and covered the first few kilometers in a much better time. I had my customary stop at Chateau St Martin to blow my nose and have a good drink. Riders kept whizzing past me, in both directions, proffering words of encouragement which were gratefully received.

With 6km to go, I met a group of mountain bikers descending including my playmate of last autumn. His mum had obviously followed my advice. He was looking pleased as punch in his club kit as he swooped past calling out my name. I waved  and returned his greeting.

For some reason I have yet to fathom, the two kilometers between 6km and 4km to the finish I find the most difficult. However, once there’s only 4km to go, I manage to pick up my pace. I even sprinted out of the saddle for the last 200 meters. A result, only 70 minutes today. An improvement on Thursday, but still nothing to write home about. I’m hoping the rain stays away long enough tomorrow morning for me to have another go. Thrice in a week will be something of a record for me.

My beloved’s back this evening at midnight. He’s just rung to say he’s had a very successful but tiring exhibition. He’ll be looking forward to his ride tomorrow, I do hope he’s not going to be disappointed.

2010 Highlights

We’ve reached the time of year when it’s difficult to fill newspaper and cycling magazine columns without taking a retrospective look at the season. This seemed like a suitable discussion topic for my English class on Wednesday evening. We were surprisingly of similar minds:-

Rider of the Year

One day races:- There were only two candidates: Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert. Both were competitive throughout the season and both wore Grand Tour leader’s jerseys but, after much debate, we settled on Spartacus: the 4th ITT rainbow jersey tipping the balance in his favour.

Stage races:- As winner of the Tour de France, the most difficult Grand Tour to win, Alberto should have been a shoe in but, sensitive to post-Tour issues such as that itsy, bitsy trace of Clenbuterol, our gong went to Vicenzo Nibali: 3rd in the Giro and winner of the Vuelta.

Memorable Performance of the Year

Actually, there were so many this year that it was hard to whittle it down to just one. Among others, we considered: Fabian’s wins in Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, PhilGil’s wins at Amstel and Lombardy, Cadel Evans at Fleche Wallonne, Bobbie Traskel at K-B-K, Thor at the World Championships, Vino at L-B-L. Finally, we settled on Thor’s performance at the World Championship’s in Geelong. Given that the Norwegian team numbered only three riders, his win demonstrated perfectly his ability to be in the right place at exactly the right time to power to the line.

Best One-day Race of the Year

Here too we had plenty of contenders, but we finally plumped for PhilGil’s win in the Tour of Lombardy, his second consecutive win in the race. It was not just the manner of his win but that he gave no quarter despite the appalling weather conditions.

Best Stage Race of the Year

While we all agreed that the Tour is the most difficult Grand Tour to win, largely because of the depth of competition and the psychological pressures, it can be predictable. Both the Giro and Vuelta raised their games this year to produce thrilling and, at times, unpredictable racing. Finally, we agreed on the Giro d’Italia.

Team of the Year

Hands down, no contest. Liquigas were the best stage racing team and HTC-Columbia the team that racked up the most wins.

Best Kit

No argument: Cervelo Test Team.

Worst Kit

Unanimously awarded to Footon-Servetto

Unsung Hero of the Year

Again, we found it difficult to whittle down the contenders as so many team mates sacrifice their own chances of glory for their leaders. In addition, the work of many riders is done and dusted before the television cameras hove into view. In the end, we decided that the unsung heroes were the hard working domestiques in every team without whom no leader would ever win races.

Best French Rider

Loyal, and ever-smiling, Tommy Voeckler of Bbox without whom his team manager might not have reeled in replacement sponsor Europcar.

Breakout Rider of the Year

Votes were split between the loquacious Peter Sagan of Liquigas and the cherubic faced Richie Porte of Saxobank.

Worst Pro-Tour Race of the Year

There aren’t any, we all love cycle racing wherever and whenever.

Story/Issue of the Year

Sadly, we all agreed these had to be the doping issues. Namely,

  • Pellizotti  being banned from racing due to (unfounded?) passport irregularities
  • Floyd Landis’s accusations against Lance, plus his own confessions
  • Contador and Clenbuterol

Disappointment of the Year

UCI’s unilateral changes to the way teams are evaluated which demonstrated a distinct lack of understanding of the evolution of the sport.

Piling on the pressure

Left behind.............

Patrick Lefevre, boss of the Quick Step Team, is clearly not a happy bunny. How do we know this? Well, he’s been lambasting the team in the press for their lack of results. Yes, thus far in the cobbled classics and semi-classics, Quick Step have pulled an Omega Pharma Lotto – no wins. To be fair, Lefevre has not mentioned names, thereby giving the press plenty of scope to speculate as to which riders his ire is directed.

Frankly, I’m not sure of the wisdom of this strategy. In my view if you’re annoyed with someone. Talk to them one-on-one and try to get to the bottom of the issue. Be firm, fair and supportive. Cycling’s a team sport and everyone needs to understand what’s expected of them and what they need to do to achieve success for themselves, and the team. Never forget, riders are individuals and need to be treated as such. What motivates one, may have the opposite effect on another. Good managers can indeed turn what we think are sows’ ears into silk purses. But generally, they’re only sows’ ears because former managers haven’t determined how to get the best out of them.

Recognise that management has both responsibility and accountability for the team’s results. Take a holistic approach. Try and identify what isn’t working and why. Keep trying to find those areas where you can make marginal gains, or limit marginal losses. At the same time, don’t forget to reassure both sponsors and supporters that you’re doing everything you can. At the end of the day, all you can ask is that someone gives of their best. If they’ve done that, but still haven’t won, you can’t criticise them, especially not in the press.

Furthermore, when talking to the press put a positive spin on things. Say the team’s focus has shifted to performing throughout the season, not just for a couple of weeks of the year. I appreciate that winning is what counts but draw comfort from the overall results. Boonen’s riding well but he’s been up against a rider on fire at the moment, Fabian Cancellara. Maybe that fire’s been extinguished by his win in Flanders. Even if it has, there are plenty of others vying for a win this Sunday.

Tom’s going to be up against it and heaping further pressure on him may not help you, him or the team. But it might just help his opponents. As Tom himself said, he is the most consistent rider at the moment; with three 2nd places in as many weeks. Well, if things do go in “three’s”, let’s hope he makes it three in a row this Sunday.

Truly fabulous

44km to go and Cancellara launches a dig on the Limburg, Tommeke goes too and they distance the leading pack. Millar tries to bridge, but doesn’t, and is joined by Gilbert and Leukemans, who subsequently drop Millar. Cancellara looks to be riding more smoothly and more easily than Tom and is definitely doing longer turns on the front.

As correctly (for once) predicted by the commentators, Fabulous Fabian pedals away from Tom on the Muur – better gear selection, better legs. In next to no time, he’s 300 metres ahead and time-trialling to victory. Tom’s gritting his teeth but he knows, it’s game over. He’s going to be second again, not a place he enjoys but today there is no shame is losing to Spartacus. Maybe, he’ll get his revenge next week end at Paris-Roubaix. Gilbert, completes the podium. What a thrilling race!

Flanders podium

The weather in Belgium was better than anticipated. Here too the forecast storm never materialised. However, having already completed my week’s programmed road miles, and having overslept this morning, I settled for some one-legged intervals on the home trainer. My legs are tired, not exactly a build up of lactic acid, more generally muscle fatigue. But I’ll be raring to go tomorrow.

Yellow peril

While Spring has arrived it’s been uncommonly windy and it’s blowing the pine tree pollen absolutely everywhere. Yesterday evening, I cleaned and polished everywhere, this afternoon everything was again covered in yellow pollen. It’s a bit of a losing battle at this time of year.

Like Contador, I’m allergic to tree pollen. It affects my breathing, I sound like someone with a serious nicotine habit. My eyes water and my nose streams constantly, making frequent snot stops a necessity.

I saw the opthalmic surgeon on Monday and he’s going for the minimally invasive approach and will laser only one eye: my most myopic one. He’s leaving the other well alone. This way I’ll have both good near and long-sightedness. To simulate the post-operative effect, I’m wearing one contact lense in my right eye. So far this is working well and I’ve (at long last) been able to get a pair of cycling sunglasses: Oakley Transitions, the same as my beloved’s but with black frames. Already, I look cooler and feel better on the bike.

Training’s going well this week and I’m looking forward to a long ride tomorrow with my beloved. The forecast for the week end is not optimistic, however I’m still hopeful of making it up the Col de la Madone on Sunday. Afterwards, I’ve a date with the fleecy tracksuit, the sofa and the Tour of Flanders.

Moral victory

Just look who turned up to take part in Sunday’s Gentleman and show us all exactly how it’s done. Afterwards, she kindly handed out the cups to the winners, signed autographs and posed for endless photographs. Despite the urging of my clubmates, I wisely declined to have my photograph taken with a woman who weights 43kg – maybe, next year.

Tough competition

My girlfriend and I were the fastest (and only) all female team. While, the organisers are quite happy to have all male single category teams, this generosity is not extended to the fairer sex. Discrimination? Absolutely! Accordingly, we were lumped in with the mixed pairs where we were a very respectable 2nd (not last) in the over 40s.

In hot pursuit

Not content with riding the short course with my girlfriend, I also decided to ride the longer course with my beloved. I had a pretty quick turn around; with just enough time to change my numbers between races. Sadly, I finished (like last year) with the wooden spoon. However, I had closed the gap quite considerably on my nearest rivals (a couple of very spritely over 65s) but was still some way down on Jeannie and her husband. After the inevitable apero, it was back home to relax on the sofa and watch some real racing.

This week end there’s been a veritable smorgasbord of cycling on the TV. Indeed, it’s been difficult choosing what to watch, such has been the choice. In the end I plumped for the “Clash of the Titans” (ie Bert v Lance) in the Criterium International (aka Jens Voigt Invitational) and the World Track Cycling Championships.

The Press had speculated that Bert had changed his programme to gain some sort of psychological advantage over Lance ahead of the Tour. However, I’m wondering whether it wasn’t a case of ASO flexing its muscles and demanding the presence of two riders guaranteed to generate sufficient revenues from the Criterium’s inaugural television coverage. Just call me a cynic.

While neither Contador nor Lance won, both of their teams demonstrated their respective strengths. Individual stages were won respectively by Pierrick Fedrigo of Bbox Bouygues Telecom (who held on to win overall), Russell Downing of Sky and David Millar of Garmin Transitions. However, the question I’m left pondering is this. Now that Vinokourov has ridden in an ASO event is it more likely that he’ll be allowed to ride the Tour in support of Contador? I for one certainly hope so.

Meanwhile, Australia bossed GB on the track. There were excellent performances by some of the younger riders: most notably, Cameron Meyer and Taylor Phinney. However, Sir Chris Hoy and Queen Victoria Pendleton still picked up gold medals.

Over in Belgium, Saxo Bank continued their recent good vein of form yesterday with Spartacus peddling away from Tommeke in the final kilometer of E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke. Today, in Gent Wevelgem, Bernard Eisel, Mark Cavendish’s fairy god-mother, won the sprint finish from a break away group. I can hardly wait for next week’s Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Finally, Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) justified his move away from Caisse d’Epargne by picking up the overall at Volta a Catalunya. He was joined on the podium by Xavier Tondo (Cervelo) and Rein Taaramae (local boy, local to me that is) of Cofidis. So that means HTC-Columbia and Cofidis are still on level pegging, with 12 wins apiece.