In the bag

While I spend a lot of time cycling on my own, I am equally at home riding with my clubmates. Even so there are certain wheels I would prefer not to follow as their owners either have a propensity to kiss the tarmac with alarming frequency or tend not to keep their line, particularly when  descending. Of course, given my (still) superior bodyweight, I  descend faster and therefore prefer to be at the head of the peloton.

Such riders are not the sole preserve of the amateur peloton. Should I ever find myself riding with the pros, there are a number whose wheels I would prefer to avoid. Most notably, Frank Schleck who found himself on the ground (again) today. He wasn’t the only one. Heinrich Haussler, lost concentration, and slipped off the road into a ditch. Both got back into the peloton after some mechanical assistance delivered from the team car window.

Coverage of today’s 199km sprinter’s stage from Monfort l’Amaury to Amilly started with around 47km remaining and most of the peloton 50 seconds behind breakaways Maxime Bouet (AG2R) and Tony Gallopin (Cofidis). A few kilometers later the entire procession was halted by a level crossing and, after the barriers re-opened, officials were hard pressed to maintain the leaders’ advantage as riders tried to slip around the cars. A lot seized the opportunity to indulge in one of my practices whereby, whenever the club peloton stops, I ghost to the front of the bunch (again).

The breakaways were re-absorbed with about 30km to go. The bunch appeared quite nervous today as the sprinters’ teams were determined not to forgo one of the remaining opportunities for a stage win. To be fair most of the better-known sprinters have elected to take part in Tirreno-Adriatico as the more undulating terrain better suits their preparation for the Spring classics.

In the run into the finish, the helm was assumed in turn by a number of different teams: Astana, Movistar, HTC-HighRoad. But it was Sky who got their act together in the final stretch with Geraint Thomas leading out Kiwi Greg Henderson for the win. He finished ahead of Matt Goss (HTC) and Denis Galimzyanov (Katusha). Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil), who set off on his own with 1.5km to go, was taken back after 300km but  retained the yellow jersey making his recent sausage and salami sacrifice worthwhile.

As well as dealing with the week’s inevitable administrative burden, I have whipped up a delicious dinner for my beloved. I’m very fond of Indian cuisine but rarely make it just for myself. This evening we’re having tandoori spiced lamb with pilau rice and cauliflower curry.

Out the loop

I was only in London for a few days but, away from all that is dear and familiar, I felt really out of the loop on my return. Races had finished without me knowing who had won and, even worse, races had started and finished without me knowing the victor. Of course, I could have checked on the internet but I was trapped in the wedding bubble and couldn’t break free of the programme. There’s little if nothing in the UK newspapers on cycling, although, as the wedding coincided with the World Cup races in Manchester, there was some mention of Britain’s track superstars.

I’ve been so busy catching up that I’ve had little time to reflect on the past few days of racing. However, one thing is clear, the promising young guns of the past few years are starting to emerge more strongly. Witness Gesinks’s (Rabobank) win in the Tour of Oman, a hilly parcours than last year, intended as a counterpoint to the earlier sprinters’ fest in Qatar.  Joining him on the podium were Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) and Giovanni Visconti (Farnese Vini – Neri Sottoli).

Over the weekend the Tour Cycliste International du Haut Var, with a title almost as long as the race itself, was won by perennial French housewives favourite Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), second was Julien Antomarchi of VC-La Pomme Marseille and, another former yellow jersey wearer, Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R) was third.

Further south in the Volta ao Algave, Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) took the final day’s time-trial and the GC ahead of Tejay Van Garderen (HTC) and Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil). The defending champion Alberto Contador (SaxoBank Sungard), in his first race back since his suspension,  faded into fourth place on the final day.

This week it’s the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol which kicked off with a 6.8km prologue around Benahavis won by Jimmy Engoulvent of Saur-Sojasun. Jonathon Hivert (Saur) won Stage 2’s 161.8km print into Adra while Francisco Ventoso (Movistar) won Stage 3’s sprint into Jaen. Markel Irizar (RadioShack) leads on GC from Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharam-Lotto) and Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack).

Over in Italy at the Trofeo Laigueglia, Daniele Pietropoli (Lampre-ISD) beat off Simone Ponzi (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Angel Vicioso (Androni Giocattoli) in a sprint for the line. The Giro di Sardegna got underway this week and in yesterday’s 138km first stage from Olbia to Porto Cervo, Peter Sagan proved too strong on the uphill finish for Allessandro Ballan (BMC) and his Liquigas teammate, Daniel Oss. Sadly, very little of this afore-mentioned action has been televised.

I haven’t even glanced at what’s been happening in the Tour of South Africa and Vuelta Independencia Nacional. A girl’s got to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Meanwhile, I will be looking forward to this week end’s Belgian semi-classics: Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

Don’t look

My beloved has departed for the US and I finally have some free time. When I say “free”, I mean free from looking after him. To illustrate my point, this morning I found, on the laundry floor, the shirt he’d worn yesterday for a 2 hour  business meeting. Obviously, this wasn’t all he wore yesterday. Now you understand why I’m constantly battling a mountain of ironing

Sunday’s pointage at Aspremont was run under similar climatic conditions to the last two Sundays: damp and overcast. Which is a bit of a shame as you can’t enjoy the spectacular views over Nice that this route normally affords. Although it did allow me to check on the progress of a couple of newly built, rather magnificent properties.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Aspremont as it was the location of my first ever pointage with the club. This is the second one of the season which we ascend by way of Pessicart. Obviously, we’re the only club to chose this route. I say that because no one overtook me, once I’d been dropped by my clubmates. The other clubs had chosen to ascend either via Falicon or Castagniers.

By the time I arrived at the pointage, just before 10 o’clock, my team mates had already supped and left. I have to say, it was pretty poor fare at the pointage: remnants of a madeira cake, slices of salami and very wrinkly prunes. Definitely a case of “could do better.” No toques to be awarded here. I left promptly and descended via Castagniers passing Christophe Le Mevel coming in the other direction. Obviously, no lasting effects from his fall last week which caused him to abandon the Tour of the Med.

My hasty retreat enabled me to get back home and prepare a quick pasta lunch for my beloved so we could drive to Toulon and atop Mont Faron before the riders arrived on the ultimate stage of the Tour of the Med. Sadly our GPS system tried in vain to get us to the top of Mont Faron by a non-existent route. We eventually found the correct road, but not before it was closed to traffic. Cue park car and walk.

This was my maiden ascension of Mont Faron. Given the narrowness of the road and the lack of barriers along its sheer drops, I was grateful for the grey mist which obscured the view, although I could see the outline of Toulon spread out before me. It looks like a French version of Portsmouth. As we walked I handed out the flyers for the Kivilev: never one to waste any opportunity.

We found a great spot to view the race’s progress and my beloved would have had some superb photos if he had remembered to replace his memory card! Nonetheless, it’s always interesting witnessing the riders’ pain at close quarters. The ascent is tricky. I’ve mentioned that it’s narrow. In addition, the surface is in poor condition and it winds round and round in rapidly undulating gradients, some of which are rather steep.

As Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R) passed, you could tell he was “on the rivet”. He was closely followed by David Moncoutie (Cofidis) who was looking much more at ease and in control. His experience of this particular hill showed. He knew when, how and where to measure his effort.

The peloton shattered about 4km from the top under the various attacks. Riders who were handily placed on GC behind Romain Feillu, and who you might have expected to finish well up the order, with the exception of Thomas Voeckler, were suffering. So the three who finished atop Mont Faron also finished atop the podium: Moncoutie, Peraud and Poels (Vacansoleil).  

Descending was equally dangerous, as the riders sped back down to get to their buses. I didn’t fear the professionals, just the amateurs trying (in vain) to stay on their wheels. While I would like to ride up Mont Faron, descending on such narrow roads without the benefit of a barrier might be too much. I would probably have to take the cable car (hands over eyes) back down. The Mont is also crisscrossed with eye-wateringly steep mountain bike trails: again, only for the brave and skilful.

Divine intervention

I was saddened this week to learn of the untimely death of Aldo Sassi, one of the most reputable cycling trainers, based at the Mapei Centre in Varese. It was he who had worked with Cadel Evans to lift the rainbow jersey in 2009 and had assisted Ivan Basso in his quest for an untainted maglia rosa.

I had recently read an interesting article on his training methods which are markedly similar to those of my own trainer.  Sassi worked initially from the VO2 max and power output at the rider’s anaerobic threshold. From this he built a training programme based on a 3-day algorithm:

  • Day 1 – strength and resistance training on hills
  • Day 2 – anaerobic threshold work
  • Day 3 – long rides with climbs

Additionally, Sassi believed in a rider’s clear commitment to goals which needed to be shared with and understood by his team. Lastly, he believed that mental and inner strength were the all-important factors.    

He likened a cyclist to  Formula 1 saying that while a rider has certain physiological attributes, “if you only have the driver and no car you cannot win. You have to have the driver as well as the car. Some might try to show that if you have a good driver you could still win with a bad car. This is not true in cycling. You have to be able to produce 6 watts per kilogram on the climbs or you will eventually lose.”

Sassi’s was recently criticized for working with Riccardo Ricco. Frankly, I thought, given Sassi’s sterling reputation, it was a stroke of genius on Ricco’s part to commit to working with him. Sassi said ” I think I made a good choice in selecting Riccardo Ricco. I am sure of it. He has the motor, the car, but the driver is not completely there. I am going to help him build his mental strength and self-belief.” Sassi is to be lauded, Ricco has paid the price and, like everyone, deserves a second chance.

If  it was left to Pat McQuaid, UCI President, he wouldn’t, however, be getting a second chance. McQuaid was quoted in L’Equipe this week as saying if he were a team manager, he wouldn’t hire Ricco. I suspect that Vacansoleil have hired Ricco because he will garner them plenty of points in the all-new UCI ranking system and help them stay in the sport’s first division. Remember, Mr McQuaid “what gets measured is what gets done”.

I’ve already blogged on this very topic but frankly it’s hard to support a system that seems to drive rather than attract sponsors. It’s even hard to get sponsors to commit if you can’t guarantee inclusion at the world’s best races. Pegasus Cycling recently lost a sponsor but have fortunately been saved at the nth moment by another. Rumours abounded that Geox, both a new sponsor and a global brand, might pull out after being excluded from the first division, despite ranking ahead of teams that have been included.

This problem has been best articulated (IMHO) by Jonathan Vaughters in his blog on the cyclingnews.com website entitled “The Geox Paradox” where he highlights the current issues in sponsorship. This man knows what he’s talking about, you cannot say that of everyone involved in the sport.

My deepest sympathy goes to Aldo Sassi’s family, friends, clients  and colleagues: the world of cycling has suffered a grave loss.

No room at the Vuelta

Fans will be denied the chance to see a repeat of Johnny Hoogerland’s daily daring escapes during this year’s Vuelta a España. Yes, that’s right Vacansoleil weren’t invited to yet another grand tour and neither were Skil Shimano.  However, to give Unipublic their due they have invited two smaller Spanish outfits,  Xacobeo-Galicia and Andalucia Caja-sur, whose very existence probably depends on their annual appearance in the Vuelta.

The organisers have however made the (brave?) decision not to invite either BMC or The Shack as neither Cadel nor Lance respectively were scheduled to ride. I understand BMC didn’t seek an invite but The Shack had proposed a pretty strong  line up which included recent Criterium Dauphine winner Janez Brajkovic, Andreas Kloeden, Chris Horner, Haimer Zubeldia and  Levi Leipheimer – not too shabby. Instead rsvps have been sent to those 16 teams covered by the September 2008 agreement with UCI (which expires at the end of this season) and Team Sky, Garmin-Transitions, Katusha and Cervelo Test Team.

And the winning tickets are………………

Ten days later than previously promised, Christian Prudhomme has opined. The 22 teams for the 2010 Tour de France are as expected: the sixteen teams covered by the September 2008 agreement, the four new Pro-Tour Teams (Katusha, Sky, Garmin, Radioshack), and the two most promising Continental Pro-Tour teams (Cervelo and BMC). So there’s no room at the Tour for Saur-Sojasun, Vacansoleil or Skil Shimano although they are on the substitutes bench.

One can only imagine the long faces over at Vacansoleil HQ. The Tour starts in their home town, they’re guaranteed to animate any race, they sponsored Paris-Nice and they bought the brothers Feillu. They’ve also been shut out of the Giro and a number of other ASO races.

Pat McQuaid had been openly critical of  the length of time ASO was taking to make a decision. However, three months before the start of the Tour is not unreasonable, nor is taking two months to assess the strengths of the contenders’ teams. It’s not been an easy decision. Teams are bound to be disappointed and sponsors may well question the benefits of sponsorship if they don’t get the global exposure afforded by the Tour.

However, those teams who were disappointed this year need to be patient. There is no agreement in place as to who is guaranteed a spot next year. There are a number of sponsors withdrawing from the sport (Milram, Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne) and some considering withdrawing (Bbox Bouygues Telecom). Teams, like last year, may be relegated from or promoted to the Pro-Tour ranks. And, assuredly,  there will be new sponsors. This changing landscape is what makes the sport so interesting for the fans but a wee bit nerve-racking for the riders.

Postscript: Prudhomme today defended his decision in L’Equipe. However, he might as well have said that it was a no-brainer.  The two Continental Pro Tour teams selected have a former Tour Winner (Sastre) and a former green jersey wearer (Hushovd) and the current World Champion, who’s twice been second (Evans). These outweigh any French riders on Dutch teams or, indeed, French riders on French teams.

Don’t call us

The teams for the Giro were announced today by RCS Sport and, as a result, there’s bound to be a few long-faced team managers and sponsors. Here’s the list of  successful applicants, 15 Pro-Tour teams and 7 wild cards:-

AG2R-La Mondiale
Astana
Caisse d’Epargne
Footon-Servetto
Garmin-Transitions
HTC-Columbia
Katusha
Lampre Farnese Vini
Liquigas-Doimo
Milram
Omega Pharma-Lotto
Quick Step
Rabobank
Saxo Bank
Team Sky

Wild Cards

Acqua & Sapone
Androni-Diquigiovanni
Bbox Bouygues Telecom
BMC Racing
Cervelo
Cofidis-Le Credit en Ligne
Colnago-CSF Inox

The selection is pretty self-explanatory. Either you’re a team covered by the September 2008 agreement, a new, too big to ignore, Pro-Tour team, or your recent (and past) results justify your inclusion.

Probably of more note are the obvious omissions from the Pro-Tour ranks such as Radioshack, FDJ and Euskatel Euskadi. The Shack have given, not unnaturally, precedence to the Tour of California, are not covered by the September agreement with the Pro-Tour teams and, apparently, eschewed an invite. While the other two are covered by the agreement, one has to assume they too didn’t seek  invitations. However, I’m surprised to see Footon-Servetto on the list given that they didn’t receive invites to either Milan-San Remo or Tirreno-Adriatico.

Let’s now look at those Continental-Pro teams which didn’t get an invite. First up, the two Dutch squads, Skil Shimano and Vacansoleil; after all the Giro is starting in Amsterdam on 8 May. Neither team has any Italians in their squad and, while Vacansoleil livened up last year’s Vuelta, Skil (apart from Kenny Van Hummel) were damp squibs at the Tour.

A number of Italian Pro-Continental teams haven’t received an invite. Riccardo Ricco’s presence on team Ceramica Flaminia  presumably scuppered their chances; Carminooro-NGC have only just upgraded from Continental; while, ISD Neri and De Rosa-Stac Plastic haven’t posted much in the way of results. Maybe, next year…………………………….

Home advantage

That'll do nicely!

I’ve just watched a re-run on television of yesterday’s final stage of Paris-Nice. Given that I saw the stage “live”, you might think it odd. Not so, there’s always something that one misses first time around. In any event, it was great to watch once more one of the riders who both lives locally and is a friend of our cycling club win big. Indeed, he enjoyed the best win to date of his career, also scooping the spotted jersey. I, for one, am looking forward to him gracing the podium on many, many more occasions. 

I’m delighted that it was finally a race to the sun and the broadcasts on both Saturday and Sunday beautifully showcased the wonderful area in which I’ve chosen to live. Sunday, M le President and I, in the company of our better halves, enjoyed the corporate hospitality of our club sponsors, Skoda, while savouring the final stage. Indeed, given that the Spaniards were likely to dominate the podium we expressed the desire for a French winner on the final day. It was therefore fitting that a rider who lives locally, one we know and who regularly trains on these roads won. Sometimes home advantage helps.   

Also worthy of note were the 9th and 10th places on GC for Jean-Christophe Peraud and Jerome Coppel respectively. The first is a former mountain biker (and current French time-trial champion) who, fed up with playing second fiddle to the incomparable Julian Absalon, turned to the road this year with Omega Pharma Lotto. The latter is a former U23 time trial silver medallist who floundered, rather than flourished, for a couple of years at FDJ and now seems to have found his feet (or should that be legs?) again at Saur-Sojasun.  

Talking of former mountain bikers, I cannot ignore double stage and points jersey winner, Peter Sagan (a former junior world mountain biking champion) who has exploded onto the road racing scene this season and delivered on the promise he showed in the Tour Down Under. His teammate Roman Kreuziger won best young rider and was 4th on GC. Liquigas are surely a team loaded with talent.

Another young, talented rider who lives locally much animated the race and finished 8th on GC. He’s Rein Taamarae, the Estonian national champion and a team mate of the stage winner, Amael Moinard.  Cofidis team management must be feeling very pleased with their overall performance. 

Vacansoleil, Skil Shimano and Saur Sojasun were obviously hoping to sufficiently impress ASO to gain that oh-so-coveted invitation to The Tour this summer. Vacansoleil heavily sponsored Paris-Nice while Saur Sojasun, along with Etap Hotels, made up the Paris-Nice caravan. It all helps boys but I can’t help feeling that money talks loudest, so mine’s on Vacansoleil. 

Who's he shooting?

Last, but not least, Bert let his legs do the talking. Yes, like any rider who weighs only 61kg, he’s always going to suffer in the wind. However, let’s not forget, the one rider who did get blown off his bike in the Prologue weighs more than me – Gert Steegmans. I saw him sitting on the steps of the RadioShack bus on Sunday looking well on the road to recovery. But, back to Bert. He raced intelligently and was well shepherded by his Astana team mates who, from their performances here and in Tirreno-Adriatico, are showing they’re nowhere near as lacking in talent as some would have us believe. My money’s on Bert for a consecutive Tour win.   

Both photographs courtesy of my very good friend Susi Goertze

If only

I headed down to the rendezvous point for today’s club ride under a heavily overcast sky. It wasn’t particularly cold, but it was damp. There was a good turn out of members, most of whom I had to kiss on the cheeks. Once we had set off, I took the opportunity during the first few kms of the ride to update M le President on events of the past week.  The road turned up to Gattieres and, as is my wont, I slid from the front to the back of the peloton in nano-seconds. However, it was some time before they disappeared totally from view and, as our paths crossed later that morning, I realised I wasn’t too far behind the medium slow group.

Today’s programme featured a 31/2hr ride at my speed. Actually I felt much better than I had yesterday and enjoyed the ride up to Tourrettes via Vence. Where, having worked up a bit of a sweat, I was now feeling chilled so decided to descend via Vence and La Gaude to collect the Sunday papers and warm myself up with a quick cup of coffee before hurrying home for my simultaneous sporting action.

For Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the weather in Belgium was truly atrocious, not that it seemed to deter the die-hard fans. A large number of riders, having lost all hope of a decent finish, either hopped into the broom wagon or one of their team cars. In fact, there were only 26 finishers!

The light was so poor that it was difficult to distinguish the riders who were strewn all over the parcours largely thanks to the high winds. For safety reasons, the course was reduced in length (by 10km) and the winner crossed the line half-way through the first half of the League Cup final. It was Bobbie Traksel (Vacansoleil) who amply demonstrated Jens Voigt’s mantra that if you don’t try you’ll never win: he was one of the original breakaways. Rick Flens (Rabobank) was 2nd and Ian Stannard (Sky) who was 3rd had bridged up to Traksel from one of the splintered groups. Although a number of riders had tried to catch the trio, most notably Hushovd (Cervelo) and Roulston (HTC-Columbia), no one had gotten within 40 seconds of them.

Over on the other screen, Villa had gone ahead with a penalty (James Milner) after Vidic had brought down Gabby Agbonlahor. The pundits, to a man, agreed that the referee should have shown Vidic a red card (last defender) but he didn’t even get a yellow. Who knows how the game might have panned out with the Red Devils down to 10 men. Michael Owen scored in the 13th minute and shortly thereafter pulled his hamstring. This meant Rooney was going to have to come off the bench and play.

While my beloved boys in claret and blue played well in the first-half they were overrun by Manchester United, the cup holders, in the second half. That man Rooney popped his head onto a wonderful pass from Valencia and it was game over with less than 15 minutes to play. While Villa threw everything at their opponents, they held firm to retain their title.  

Last night, predictably, OGCN lost 2-0 away at Olympique Lyonnais and remain one place above the drop zone.

Let’s start at the very beginning………..

It’s week 1 of my 6-month long cycling training programme. It started well on Monday, but then nothing spurs you on quite like a man with a clipboard and stop watch standing over you. He also took me through the results of my VO2 max test demonstrating how much improvement I will gain from some weight loss. It’s okay, I get the picture. I’m off wheat and sugar, reduced my dairy intake and upped my intake of protein – this usually works a treat.

I managed to fit in yesterday’s ride before it started raining. My path crossed with that of Amael Moinard who waved enthusiastically from the other side of the road. He was in the company of a Vacansoleil rider I’ve seen a few times over the past month or so. The brothers Feillu live up the road in Frejus, but it wasn’t either of them. A quick look at the team’s website reveals that they’ve another Frenchman riding for them, a neo-pro called Stephane Rossetto. So I’m assuming that’s who it is. 

I’ve only got the first two weeks of the programme so that we can assess whether it’s too easy or too hard, and amend accordingly. The programme includes a twice weekly regime of exercises and stretching. There are no rest days and each week there are 3 days of interval training: two on the home trainer, one on the bike. In addition, I have to undertake two of my rides in a fasted state: all the better to burn that excess fat!

Unfortunately, today’s 2:30hr ride has had to be switched with tomorrow’s interval training thanks to the weather. This is one-legged training to improve my pedalling technique. Clearly, I need it as I can’t seem to pedal smoothly through the top of the stroke, the so-called “dead-zone”. Would  elliptical cranks help?  After completing the 20 minute warm up my Polar decided to pack up, leaving me to estimate the timing of the intervals, the cadence and the wattage. I don’t think I did it too badly.

I can just about do an hour or so on the home trainer after that I get exceeding bored. However, if the weather doesn’t improve I’ll have to do my 2:30hr ride on the home trainer tomorrow. On the bright side, I’ll be able to watch the round up of the previous day’s action at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver so it won’t be too bad.