Truly, great voyages (tgv)

There’s something rather restful about travelling by train, particularly when your companion is in another part of the train. Actually, my beloved is on another train which, until we reach Lille, is attached to mine, thereafter it speeds to Brussels. However, there’s no easy way of moving between the two. This situation has arisen because we initially didn’t anticipate travelling together and would have started our journeys in different places. However, changes to travel plans were made at the last moment and my carriage was allegedly full.

I’m not, you understand, complaining. I’m in the quiet carriage, no mobile phones, which would be impossible for my beloved who I’m quite sure has already annoyed the hell out of his fellow travellers by loudly chatting, in several different languages, on his mobile. I have my picnic lunch, I’m next to the buffet car for my regular infusions of strong coffee, I have a pile of newspapers and magazines, my really difficult Sudoku book and, of course, my notepad. Really, what else does a girl need?

The first part of the journey is largely along the coast and affords great views of some of my favourite places to cycle. The sun is shining, the sky is bright azure blue, the grass is lush and the foliage is every shade of green from citrus bright lime through to British racing green interrupted very so often by splodges of pale pink, almond white or puce blossom. Even when we head inland, and the surroundings are less salubrious, the clear bright Mediterranean light gilds everything be it industrial estates or graffiti strewn, railway sidings and derelict farmhouses. As we journey further north, away from the urban sprawl, there’s a few fluffy clouds in the sky, herds of sheep gambolling on the gently rolling countryside, and the crops are just starting to sprout.

Of course, I’m excited to be heading to Roubaix to see the Hell of the North. I’ve noted that a number of people have gotten on the train with cycling bags, no doubt planning to ride tomorrow’s cyclosportif. I did entertain brief thoughts about aping them until one of the pros I know told me what riding over the cobbles was really like. I have heeded his words of wisdom.

Hard as it may be to believe but I have already started planning my trips for next year. I have so enjoyed watching this week’s Tour of the Basque Country that I simply have to go and watch it in person next year. The stages are all based around a small geographic area, meaning you can easily stay in the same place all week and ride to and from the start and finish of each day’s stage. Additionally, it’s a race which features some of my favourite riders. Two have already won stages (Alexandre Vinokourov and Sammy Sanchez) and another (Amael Moinard) is gracing the spotted jersey. For succinct summaries of each day’s stages, go and read www.thearmchairsportsfan.com.

According to my training programme, this is a rest week: just a couple of hours of gentle cycling, stretching and gym work. However, the weather’s been so fabulous that I’ve been out riding most days, mindful that during this 4-day trip I won’t be able to ride at all. I could tell from yesterday’s ride that my form is back to where it was before the cold. So, I’m now about a month behind in my preparation. The real tests will be my times in the forthcoming sportives. I’m going to be crushed if I don’t show an improvement on last year.

The journey takes a total of 7 hours with no change of trains. I used the train infrequently when I lived in the UK, really only out of necessity, and always first-class, for the trip to an occasional football match and work-related trips to Cheltenham. Travelling by train in Europe is enjoyable. It’s quick, timely, spotlessly clean, inexpensive, and comfortable, standing is not permitted and travelling first-class is a pleasure, not a necessity.

Heavenly feeling

The weather the past few days has been gloriously sunny, albeit cold. I’ve been out every day, generally around lunchtime, diligently following the training plan. I’ll shortly  have been trained by my coach for twelve whole months. I’m going to continue as I feel it’s been money well spent. My technique has improved, I’m feeling more confident on the bike, I’m riding faster and further, climbing better and I’ve lost more weight. I’m definitely heading in the right direction.

Yesterday, I had another puncture. My second in four days but only my fourth in four year’s of cycling.  You may recall I had both the tyre and inner tube replaced on Saturday. I hit a pothole (unfortunately) while riding (fortunately) with some clubmates. I hit the hole heavily with my front tyre, but it was the rear one which rapidly deflated. Quick as a flash my team mates dismounted and within a couple of minutes, they had rectified the problem. Thanks boys!

I spent last week putting the final touches to the brochure for our annual cycling event, La Laurentine Andrei Kivilev, this week I’m translating it into a number of other languages, ready to disseminate far and wide. I’m also finalising plans for my 2011 Cycling Trips.

I may well be making an appearance at all three Grand Tours this year, although the trip to the Giro, because of its timing, just before the Kivilev, is always the one most likely to be cancelled. I booked our trip to watch the Tour in the Alps the same day ASO announced the route, but the others have been coming together more slowly.

For instance, as soon as I learned, a week or so ago, that the Vuelta would be visiting Bilbao, I immediately located and booked a  bijou hotel. Getting to Bilbao by plane involves a change in Barcelona, so I may well go either by car or train which will make taking the bike much easier.  It’ll also mean I can bring back plenty of Basque goodies: edibles, not riders clad in orange jerseys. There’s a thought. How many Euskatel riders could you cram into a Smart?

It was only when I received, somewhat belatedly, my Xmas card from Bert that I realised, if he could get to the next World Championships in Copenhagen from Auckland, I really needed to be there too. At his age, he’s unlikely to be around for too many more. He’s currently two short of seventy-five. I’m sure he’ll make it. Hotel and flight have now been booked. I have finally arranged the much-vaunted trip to go and watch Paris-Roubaix. I can easily get to Lille on the train and have found a delightful, quirky hotel in Roubaix. Not wishing to risk either of my beloved BMCs on the cobbles, I may travel “sans velo”.

There’s less urgency over planning and booking trips to watch either the Dauphine or the Tour of Switzerland. I’ve never had any problem sourcing last-minute accommodation for either of them. Of course, I’ll also be watching those races close to home such as Tour of the Med and Paris-Nice. Sadly, events beyond my control have interfered with me viewing the Tour of Haut Var (younger sister’s wedding) and Milan-San Remo (club sponsor’s daytime 60th birthday party). I’m also planning  to support our club’s junior and espoir teams when they start racing at the end of next month.

I shall of course be making my annual pilgrimage to Mont Ventoux, this time in early June. I plan to cycle around the Italian lakes in early April when attending the Grand Opening of my Swiss friend’s new bike shop. I foresee heavily discounted  bike bling heading my way.

Wrong place, wrong time

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues apace. The last two mornings we’ve been woken by the roar of saws. I think it’s fair to say that with the exception of our olive trees, which were pruned last year, everything on the Domaine is fair game. No bush or tree has emerged unscathed. Now, I have no doubt this was long overdue. Witness what happened to one of my neighbours just before Xmas: Buche de Noel indeed!

Park in the wrong spot at your peril

The temperature has dipped by at least 8 degrees and so I’m back to being muffled like Michelin man and am restricting my rides to the coast road. The outlook for the next ten days is similar but I can live with cold but dry and sunny. This weather is, of course, good news for skiers.

Most evenings I’ve been catching up on the Santos Tour Down Under. While, I, and probably everyone else, had been expecting a Cav v Greipel sprint-fest, nothing could have been further from reality. The stages have by and large been owned by the young guns, and all bar one of these has been Australian. Good news then for the crowds of home supporters.

ASO has announced the teams for this year’s Paris-Nice and Tour de France. As anticipated, they have handed wild cards to the home teams.  I would anticipate that the organisers of the Giro and Vuelta will follow suit and also award wild cards to the home sides. Carlos Sastre has expressed his disappointment at not riding the Tour and is to focus on the Giro. Given that they may not receive an invite to the Vuelta,  one has to assume that too will be the focus of Denis Menchov. Tirreno-Adriatico will not feature in either of their training plans as Geox hasn’t received one of the two wild cards on offer.

Members of the UCI have ill-advisedly been opining on the case of Contador, a man who is still innocent until his home Federation comes to a decision. This is unlikely to be anytime before 15 February. Should the outcome be appealed, Contador will not be able to defend his Tour title (assuming he still holds it).

Will Contador’s absence make the outcome of this year’s Tour any less likely? Probably not as riders, in my opinion, tend to ride far too defensively and are unwilling to gamble a good placing on GC. However, the lack of individual time-trial kilometres should not unduly disadvantage the Schlecks and Basso by comparison with Evans and Vinokourov. Oh yes, I may not expect my favourite Kazakh to top the podium but I do anticipate he’ll be on one of the steps. In fact, I’m going to stick my neck out early on and say the podium will be 1. Basso 2. Evans 3.Vinokourov.  What no Schlecks you cry. Indeed not, the other three are all made of far sterner stuff and, baring injury, will prevail.

Post Tour postscript: Better not give up the day job. So much for my Tour prognostications.

Jilted

Yesterday’s big news in the cycling world was the much heralded signing of Contador for two years to the Sungard-Saxo Bank team by Bjarne Riis. Rumours had circulated well before the Tour that the brothers Schleck were leaving to set up their own Luxembourg based team.  Riis must have felt this was a hammer blow to his attempts to find a replacement sponsor as Saxo Bank had previously indicated that they would cease their sponsorship at the end of this season. It’s much easier to secure sponsorship when you’ve proven race winners on your squad, thank heavens that Fabulous Fabian’s contract doesn’t expire for another year.

With Riis in a quandry, Specialized to the rescue. The US bike manufacturer has made no secret of its ambition to have the world’s, two, best bike riders, namely Contador and Cancellara, astride their frames. As their recent adverts testify: “Two Teams, One Bike”. Here was an opportunity for “One Team, One Bike”.  It may also have helped Saxo Bank to reverse their decision and continue their sponsorship for a further season.

Obviously, some of the money saved by Specialized’s sponsorship of only one team will end up in Contador’s pockets. You can’t blame him for going to the highest bidder. A rider’s career is relatively short-lived and he has  to make the most of it.

There are two other issues which will have factored into his decision making. Firstly, there’s a team time-trial relatively early on in next year’s Tour. Who wouldn’t want Cancellara on their team? Remember how last’s year’s TTT ended the Tour aspirations of a number of big names? Secondly, Andy’s performance this year signaled an improvement on last year’s. He matched Contador in the mountains. If Contador is to beat him again next year, who better to ride for than the man who knows him best?

Astana seem pretty sanguine about losing Contador. He has after all won them the Giro, the Vuelta and two Tours – not a bad haul. He’s remained on good terms with Vino, even riding a criterium yesterday in France at his suggestion. There are a number of good riders still seeking a home for next year and I’m sure they won’t be short of suitors. They’ve already secured the signature of Robert Kiserlovski (Liquigas) who was 10th in this year’s Giro. Watch this space for further announcements……………………………

Pyrotechnics

On the eve of Bastille Day many towns, including mine, host a spectacular fireworks display. In fact, sitting on my balcony with a view of the coast from Cap Ferrat to Cap d’Antibes, I can witness two concurrent displays.

The hot and heavy weather is continuing and most days I seek out routes in the shade but even so when I arrived at Tourettes sur Loup this morning I could’ve happily dived right into the fountain. However, mindful of my position of Club Secretary, I decided against it.

Back home, I took a cold shower and slipped into something  light and flimsy to watch this afternoon’s stage: 204km from Morzine-Avoriaz to St-Jean-de Maurienne. I needed to wear something light because I was in the home straight of my hors categorie ironing mountain which had been hanging around since the start of the Giro. Luckily my beloved has an extensive wardrobe dating back to when we had three apartments.

I feel rather guilty about the amount of time I spend glued to the Tour which I partially alleviate by multi-tasking. I have ironed over 80 shirts and around 100 t-shirts. Tomorrow, I’ll start on the pile of mending: missing buttons, hems and the like. Usually, I manage to sort out and tidy all the cupboards and drawers in the lounge and re-organise my dressing room. Sadly, this year they’ll have to wait for the Vuelta.

Meanwhile, back to the action. With Lance’s hopes of adding to his Tour crowns crushed on Sunday, everyone else was still pretty much in contention as the peloton rolled out for today’s testing stage. 

Stage 9

An early breakaway including 5 French riders was established.  BMC was controlling the peloton but there were riders popping off the back from quite early on thanks to a flurry of attacks and the profile of today’s leg sapping stage.

By the time they reached the foot of the Col de la Madelaine, the breakaway had been whittled down, the gruppetto was well established and the leading contenders were being shelled out the back like peas under pressure from first Saxo Bank, and then Astana. 

With 40km to go, Andy Schleck turned the screw but couldn’t distance Alberto Contador. Indeed the two rode together to the crest and then down the other side, Alberto looking the more comfortable, until they joined up with Christophe Moreau (one of the original escapees) with around 18km to go to the finish. Samu Sanchez had been trying to bridge up to them but, despite treating us to a master class in descending, never quite managed to close the gap. With 10km to go, he was out grimacing Nikki Sorensen. 

Schleck and Contador caught the remainder of the breakaway on the run in to the finish which was won by Sandy Casar (FDJ): yet another French win. Schleck the younger was now in yellow, Contador was sitting comfortably at 41 seconds behind with Samu in 3rd, 2:45 down. Barring a disaster, it’s now a two horse race.

Good intentions

The weather over the festive period has been very mixed albeit largely cold and damp. This has not prevented us from cycling most days though we have tended to limit our exposure to a couple of hours max, generally circumnavigating Cap d’Antibes from both directions.

The additional hours at home have enabled us to make inroads into the “To Do” list. For example: the Vuelta ironing mountain is now a molehill, all of my paintings have been hung or re-hung, the cakes have been adorned with marzipan and icing and the bookcases have been re-organised. In addition, we have finalised our vacations for 2010, determined which races we’re going watch live and, more importantly, booked the hotels. 

As befits someone who’s not overly fond of Xmas, I’m not a big fan of New Year. My beloved and I generally prefer to celebrate together, over dinner, at a restaurant, not too far from home, which is renowned for its fine cuisine. Of course, there’s plenty of candidates around here. Yesterday evening we ate at one of our favourite local restaurants which affords us a splendid view of both the coast and St Paul de Vence. We had a delicious, well-balanced meal washed down with my favourite beverage and then watched the numerous firework displays before heading home.

This morning we discovered that rough seas had overnight deposited most of the beach onto the coastal roads so our daily cycle was cancelled. However, the clean up operation has already begun, it’s remained dry all day and the outlook for tomorrow is sunny.

Cabin fever

Following close on the “Big Chill”, we’re now experiencing the “Wash Out”. Leaving aside my cold, it’s not been possible to ride for the past 4 days and the outlook is little better. After spending a couple of days cooped up inside, I had a list of errands longer than my arm which occupied most of the morning.

This afternoon, a spot of ironing (yes, the Vuelta ironing mountain is slowly subsiding) and then off to the club for the weekly catch up with my fellow committee members. There’s more to running a cycling club than one might think. Initially, of course, there’s quite a steep learning curve for the new incumbents. One is taking over tasks that have been done well but in a particular fashion for a number of years. Next, one’s thinking  how to improve the processes but first one has to make sense of what’s already there.

When the then president-elect asked me if I’d like to become Club Secretary I had the sense that he had exhausted all other avenues but I was more than happy to agree to help out. He explained that he wished to delegate much more than the current incumbent; wholly necessary as he still works full-time.

The new president also wants the club to meet the requirements of all members, not just a select few. This is more difficult to achieve but, by splitting the club into sub-sets, each with their own budget, it should be  easier to achieve.

Some changes have been forced upon us. No one was willing to take responsibility for organising the annual club luncheon and dance. Attendances have been steadily declining over the past few years and feedback from the membership had indicated that the price per head was too high. A satisfactory compromise has been reached with a cold fork buffet after the AGM followed by a dance. The older members, of whom there are many, really enjoy the dancing.

We have increased the membership of the cycling school and the number of racers competing for the club, both of which are very encouraging and will garner plenty of positive press coverage for the club and its sponsors. We are now supporting increased participation in local sportifs and randonees. While my own section “Recreational Afternoons” will shortly have access to both the tv and internet to assist with teaching IT and English classes where numbers are growing slowly, but surely, thanks to my baked goodies.

Do you wanna be in my team?

It’s that time of year when sports people, including cyclists, are picking up awards, left, right and centre. So I thought I would join in by nominating my cycling team of the year. I should stress that there will, alas, be no glittering award ceremony, no trophies and no champagne.  Though if any of them cares to pop around in the off-season, I will be happy to crack open a bottle of my favourite beverage. The awards will, like all these awards, be totally subjective and will involve one, well-known judge – me.

The criteria for selection to Sheree’s Superteam of 15 riders are multitudinous; but being hardworking and having a cute smile will certainly put you in the mix. I had to apply a numerical limit otherwise I’d have found it hard to stop and, before you know it, everyone would be on my team. So in no particular order, here are the winners:-

Alberto ” Big Brown Eyes” Contador: What girl wouldn’t want this year’s Tour winner on her team. Bert makes the cut thanks to his stoicism in the face of relentless provocation. Yes, he let his legs do the talking.

Tom “Bad Boy” Boonen:

Tom and Susi
Tom with my friend Susi

Not his most glittering season – true – but as the winner of the first cycling race I ever saw (TdF Stage 6, 2004), Tom is guaranteed a place on my team whatever. I should add that Tom is very popular with the ladies, whether or not they’re cycling fans. It’s hard to explain his allure but suffice to say he’s a man who looks damm good in lycra.

Cadel “Cuddles” Evans: For attacking and  proving everyone wrong on his home turf (Mendrisio) and having the “guts” to leave the comfort zone of Silence-Lotto for a team (BMC) which may or may not ride in next year’s Tour.

“Fabulous” Fabian Cancellara: He showed everyone how to win a World Championship time-trial (again) with style, panache, power and with room to spare.

Sammy “Gold Medal” Sanchez: Yes, the Olympic Champion makes the cut too mainly because he’s a joy to watch going downhill and he’s nearly always got a great smile on his face.    

Philippe “Pants on Fire” Gilbert: I just couldn’t leave out the man who singlehandedly hoovered up four wins in a row at the end of the season. Plus, he’s another one with a cute smile.

Barbie Barbie
Barbie Barbie

Heinrich “Barbie Barbie” Haussler: Probably, the best smile in the peloton. That’s right, no other reason.

Alexandre “He’s Back, He’s Attacking” Vinokourov: He’s done his time, he’s back and he’s launching those trademark attacks which make him so popular with cycling fans.  

Johnny “Off the Front Again” Hoogerland: I appreciate that after the Vuelta and World Championships, Johnny’s fans are now legion. Almost single-handedly he justified Vacansoleil’s invitation to the Vuelta. Will this, plus the freres Feuillu, be enough to guarantee a Tour invite next year? We all hope so. 

Mark “Manx Missile” Cavendish: The fastest man on two bicycle wheels for giving me bragging rights down at the cycling club. Long may it continue.

Bradley “So-Skinny” Wiggins: For proving to me incontestably that if I lose weight I too will climb faster, though probably not as fast as Brad.  

Jens “Hardman” Voigt: A huge favourite among cycling fans for his unstinting team work. I still wince at the thought of his face plant in this year’s Tour. I also love the way the French announcers say his name “Jen-sa Voy-te”.

Kenny “Never Say Die” van Hummel: Another one who won over fans with his determination to pretty much daily beat the cut off in this year’s Tour; often after riding most of the parcours on his own. A sight we will probably be denied in next year’s Tour.

Jose Vicente “Really Long Name” Garcia Acosta: He’s finished 25 Grand Tours and he’s Valverde’s faithful and untiring domestique. This man can ride tempo all day and for that he gets on my team.

Bernard “Faithful” Eisel: The man charged with shepherding the Manx Missile to within sniffing distance of the finish line: yet another upstanding lieutenant for the team. 

David “Dodgy Bike Handler” Moncoutie: You’re probably wondering why he makes my team. It’s partly because of his climbing ability but largely because, like me, his bike handling skills leave a lot to be desired.

Now those of you who can count are possibly wondering why, when I said a team of 15, there are 16 names. Obviously, I have one reserve rider.

My team will be managed by Bob Stapleton, head of the most successful team of the last couple of years, Columbia-HTC, but they’re going to be wearing Cervelo kit;CERVELO easily the nicest and most flattering, even in white and, like me, riding BMC bikes. That’s, regrettably, where the similarities start and end.

Plus ca change

I have slotted right back into my weekly routine following my return to France. The weather seems to have warmed up while I’ve been away and that Mistral chill has gone. I haven’t suffered unduly from jet lag, probably thanks to that good night’s sleep on the way back.

I’ve cycled twice this week and am looking forward to Sunday’s ride over to Menton. We tend to cycle over that way only on week ends, there being too much traffic during the week. It’s a lovely spot, albeit a bit bath-chairish: the Eastbourne of the Cote d’Azur. The ride over generally affords tantalising glimpses of the sea and coastline.

Menton
Menton

I’ve checked on the club website where, of course, there’s no mention of exactly where in Menton the pointage is taking place, I’ll just have to hope that I either chance upon it or it’s well sign-posted. I think it’s fair to say that after Friday night’s AGM, that’s one thing (among many) that’ll change in the future. Yes, I am now officially Madame La Secretaire du Club. I would like to tell you that I won by an overwhelming majority, but I stood unopposed, as did all the Committee. However, rest assured that I will not let this go to my head.

I have added yet another trophy to my growing collection and it’s the nicest yet; it doubles as a flower vase for all those winning bouquets! I suppose as there was no club championship this year I’m still the reigning ladies champion. In case you’re wondering, I am indeed wearing my Monaco volunteer trousers in the picture below. Unfortunately, none of my fellow winners weighs more than me, so I just had to grin and bear it!

Another one for the trophy cabinet
Another one for the trophy cabinet

Next week, the weather is looking a bit mixed. This will give me an opportunity to catch up with some of my more recent dental projects, the ironing mountain and my husband’s expenses. Plus, for the next 6 weeks or so, I’m going to be working out with a trainer – yes, those extra kilos are not going fast enough for my liking. She’s an ex-world class skier and sounds like she knows how to kick ass. I want a twice weekly routine to compliment the cycling and running, sorry that should be plodding given the speed at which I travel!

Random thoughts

This is the week when the football transfer season closes and it’s open season for the cyclists. Generally, it’s been the case that much speculated about transfers on various cycling websites and forums have been confirmed.  Sky, mindful of the soccer transfer deadline, has decided to keep everyone in suspense for a few days more over their new line-up for 2010.

For my mind, the most interesting aspect of the forthcoming season is how many teams want Pro-Tour licences. The UCI had always hoped that demand would exceed supply, we’ll have to wait and see whether that is indeed the case. Aside from the known new applicants, The Shack and Sky, there’s a number of teams hoping to extend their licences for another year. Will they succeed or will they be demoted to Pro- Conti status in favour of those wanting 3-year licences? Again, we’ll have to wait and see. Despite everyone’s prediction of the early demise of cycling (and its sponsors) the reverse would seem to be the case. Is it the Lance effect? Or has the global credit crunch switched more fans onto a sport that’s free to watch, either live or over the internet?

Meanwhile, the walking wounded ie most of those taking part in the Vuelta were no doubt happy to see the back of the rain soaked, diesel or dirt-slicked, crowded with traffic calming measures and liberally coverd in slide-inducing white paint  roads of Holland and Belgium for the much sunnier and warmer climes of Spain. I dare say that some of the riders on the Pro-Continental Spanish squads never want to venture that far north again. Their worst nightmare would be their DS saying ” great news we’ve got a wild card for some of the Belgian Classics.” Though, I noted some riders still had problems staying in the saddle yesterday. 

Much as I love riding my bike most days, I know that some of the most fruitful days are those that I spend off the bike, recuperating. Thanks to the return of the chest infection, I have had a quiet couple of weeks. Yesterday, I felt fully recovered and was positively flying along. I even overtook some riders (in club shirts) while going uphill: almost as rare an occurrence as hen’s teeth. 

A week or so ago I mentioned that my worse case scenario is being home sick with an incapable of dealing with the situation, healthy husband. I need to revise this. It’s actually, me being at home with tons of stuff to do while having to look after an unexpectedly, incapacitated, and even more demanding than normal husband.