Week one review

What a fabulous first week! Take a bow ASO. We’ve had confusion and controversy, thrills and spills, cobble calamity, tears and tantrums, rain, heatwaves, picturesque countryside, beautiful châteaux, fervent fans, the favourites are all still in contention and we’ve only just reached the first really lumpy bits.

As anticipated, Spartacus (Saxo Bank) won the 8.9km Prologue course around Rotterdam where, despite the rain, thousands of fans lined the course.  Sadly, both Mathias Frank (BMC) and Manuel Cardoso (Footon Servetto) fell heavily – Tour over for both of them.

Wind didn’t play a part in Stage 1, 223.5km from Rotterdam to Brussels, but the peloton was very skittish. In the run in, the last sharp right turn took out Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), among others, while two further crashes saw a large number of riders hitting the deck. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) avoided the carnage and was first across the line.  Adam Hansen (HTC-Columbia)  bowed out.

Stage 2’s 201km stage from Brussels to Spa mirrored an Ardennes Classic but rain and diesel-slicked roads saw riders falling like nine pins, particularly on the descent from the Stockeu. Injuries to Michel Delage (Omega Pharma Lotto) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) put an early end to their participation. Meanwhile, Fabulous Fabian, still in yellow, cooled the tempo in the leading bunch to allow the contenders (particularly one Andy Schleck) to get back onto the peloton which then rode together to the neutralised finish. Up front, Sylvain Chavanel, having helped team mate Jerome Pineau to seize the spotty jersey, had pedaled away from the rest of the breakaway bunch for the stage win, snatching yellow from Fab’s broad shoulders. These two have  rescued Quick Step’s dismal season and are now well poised to negotiate contract extensions.

It was anticipated that some of the favourites might come a cropper on the cobbled sections on Stage 3’s 213km from Wanze to Arenburg. It was a truly spectacular stage, hot and dusty, reminiscent of when Stuart O’Grady won Paris-Roubaix in 2007. The first crash of the day took out David Le Lay (Ag2R – La Mondiale) while falls yesterday for Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) left both nursing hairline fractures of the wrist: pretty painful on the pave. Nikki Terpstra (Milram) was a non starter with the flu.

Frank Schleck’s fall (collar bone broken in three places) precipitated splits in the peloton. The smart guys were on Fabian’s wheel and got a tow to the finish. The stage was won by Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team), fitting given that he’d forfeited sprint points the previous day at the behest of one Fabian Cancellara. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) worked with the guys from Sky to bridge up to the group behind Cancellara and minimise the time lost by Alberto Contador (Astana) and Bradley Wiggins Team Sky). Lance (Radioshack) had been in this second group but an untimely puncture saw him surrender time to a number of the other contenders. End result, Cancellara was back in yellow and the World Champion, Cadel Evans (BMC) was now up in third place, 1min and 1 second ahead of Alberto Contador.   

The contenders must have breathed a sigh of relief, the first obstacles had been conquered and they could keep their powder dry for the next few sprinter friendly days. Stage 4’s 153kms from Cambrai to champagne producing Reims, saw Alessandro Petacchi record his 2nd stage win of this Tour. Next up, 187.5km from Epernay to Montargis saw Mark Cavendish win  by a mile. Queue floods of tears as the monkey was now off his back. A bit like buses, stage win no 2 followed on the morrow, on the longest stage, 227.5km from Montargis to Gueugnon. Meanwhile an altercation with a musette saw Amets Txurruka (Euskatel-Euskadi) bid farewell to the peloton. A couple of small girl’s blouses traded blows and bike wheels. The judges awarded a points decision to Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) over Rui Costa (Caisse d’Epargne). Both were fined. 

Let’s just pause and put in context my own endeavours: 550km and 27hours in the saddle. Spartacus, still in yellow, has taken 93minutes longer to complete 1,215km. The conclusion: I’d have missed the cut-off on Stage 1 and joined the non-walking wounded!  Today the boys hit the Jura and a rejuvenated Chavanel, who I feel has usurped Michael Boogerd and Mikel Astarloza to become “The Teeth of the Tour”, recorded his second stage win and again seized yellow. This is going to cost Patrick Lefevre dear.

Cadel Evans has moved into second place  so we could see him in yellow as early as tomorrow. I’m sure it would suit Astana to have BMC working their butts off to defend the yellow jersey.

Back on two wheels

After four days of enforced rest, I was raring to go on Sunday morning. I would have liked to head off up the Col de Vence but it was windy and I still have to ensure that I don’t get the wind in my eye, or worse, any grit. We settled for a ride along the coast to Las Trayas and back, exactly 100km, which I completed at an average of 25km/hour. The exact average speed I have to maintain in the peloton on the London-Paris ride – a result.

Pretty much all my administration had been pushed to one side to accommodate the workload generated by the Kivilev and therefore it needed to be tackled first thing on Monday morning. My beloved went for a ride on his own, therefore I didn’t head out until much later, opting for one of my regular routes with some interval sprint training. In fact I was doing just this when I was passed by Amael Moinard and Rein Taamarae, going in the other direction. They were positively loitering, it must have been a recovery ride. Amael waived and looked impressed as I shot past them. Fortunately, I managed to sustain my effort for longer than the required 15 seconds.

Since my last brush with the tarmac, still a fairly frequent occurrence, the largest gears on my rear cassette had been slipping. I don’t have to tell you that these are the ones that I use most frequently. A trip to my LBS, on the way back, to get them sorted was in order. I arrived just before afternoon opening hours and found the owner enjoying a coffee in the cafe next door with Sean Yates, one of only a handful of  Englishmen to grace the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, and currently a DS with Team Sky.

Having been introduced, we briefly discussed the Giro. I sympathised with him over the difficulty of this year’s edition, particularly given the appalling weather conditions. I later mentioned that I was training for London-Paris at the end of the month. He said he’d heard that it was really difficult. Thanks Sean, I did not need to know this! Remember, ignorance is bliss.

Yesterday, I rode with my trainer: always very informative. As someone who’s not been riding long, I’m keen to improve my technique and this is the best way to do it. He proffers loads of very helpful advice while we ride along. Yesterday’s session involved more interval training which is always easier to accomplish with someone else watching the stopwatch.

The last three days I have been riding  strongly and feel really well, totally fired up for London-Paris. Which rather emphasises the importance of rest days and today’s another one. However, I have four days of riding in Varese to look forward to, starting tomorrow,  and plenty of odds and ends to complete today before we depart.

So, what do you think?

My better half was in Paris yesterday morning for a meeting at the Palais des congrès. No, he wasn’t at the 2010 Tour de France Presentation but, if he had been, I’m sure this is what he’d have said.

This is a Tour for climbers and, with no team time-trial, and only one individual time-trial, the main protagonists will be Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.  The lack of a team time-trial will also have been music to the ears of other podium contenders, such as Evans, Sastre and Menchov.  Given how the Pyrenees completely boss the last week of the Tour, Bert can be excused that big smile punctuating his face. Or was he grinning at the thought that Lance is going to find that last week really, really tough?

The 2009 Podium
The 2009 Podium

However, the skinny climbers will need to be on their guard in the first week when they’ll be well outside their comfort zone as cobbles and windy stretches abound. Classics specialists like Boonen, Cancellara and Hushovd will be hopeful of wearing yellow, or at least green, in those early days. Stages four (Reims), five (Montargis) and six (Gueugnon) look like sprint stages, but thereafter that race for the green jersey is probably going to favour Thor as there are fewer opportunities for the sprinters and they’ve got to get over all those hills.

Next year, the Alps are playing a supporting role to the Pyrenees which are the headline act, marking the 100th anniversary of their first Tour appearance. However, the four days in the northern Alps should not be under-estimated and they are succeeded by some  toughish transition stages which may, or may not, end in bunch sprints.

Clearly the intention on the 2010 Tour is to showcase the Pyrenees, starting with the stage 14 summit finish at Ax-3-Domaines. This acts as an amuse bouche to a grand tasting menu. First course, three difficult cols en route to Luchon: Portet d’Aspet, Ares and Balès. Main course: they cross the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque to finish in Pau. Dessert, and final course in the Pyrenees, is a stage from Pau to the top of the Tourmalet, via the western approach over the Marie-Blanque and Soulor. Climbing the Tourmalet twice, once in each direction, will really celebrate the Tour’s most majestic mountain.

If the mountains don’t prove decisive then there’s the 51km time-trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac before the final day procession into Paris. I expect to see Contador, riding for Astana, in the yellow jersey.

Sadly, there was no mention of any festivities planned for the other Tour fixture also celebrating its centenary next year: the broom wagon!

Broom wagon
Broom wagon

A good return on investment

Last week Stéphane Goubert of AG2R – La Mondiale hung up his cleats after 16 years, and 400,000km, as a professional rider. Now a few of you may be trying to put a face to that name. So here’s his picture.

Stephane Goubert
Stephane Goubert

I only mention him because he typifies the hardworking riders in the peloton. To be honest, even I would be hard pressed to identify him out of cycling gear or even recall his palmares.

L’Equipe wrote a short piece,  on the eve of his last race, Paris-Bourges, calling him “l’homme sans victoire”. That’s right he’s never won a professional race apart from the team time-trial in the 2005 Tour of Castille-Leon. In fact, his last individual victory was in 1993 while still riding as an amateur. Incredible as this may sound, very few riders win races. It’s a team sport and the team is committed to helping its leader win, so if you’re not the team leader, then….

Naturally, riders like Goubert are  much prized by teams.  I do recall he worked tirelessly, in this year’s Tour de France, in defence of his team mate’s yellow jersey, earning for himself, in the process, his best ever finish in the Tour: 16th. He also finished 3rd in the Dauphine libéré stage into Briançon. So, he leaves the peloton on a high, having enjoyed one of his most successful years. I’ve no idea of his future plans, but I wish him well in his new endeavours. By the way, he finished 81st in Paris-Bourges.

 Ag2R’s performance in this year’s Tour de France probably hoisted them in the league table above the soon-to-be-relegated teams of Bbox and Cofidis. Coincidentally, Ag2R commissioned an independent report on the value of their sponsorship during the Tour and the response was Euros 60 million worth of advertising. Not bad for an investment of Euros 8 million. Money well spent.

Seeking a good home

Since the announcement that Lance and his acolytes would be Team Radio Shack in 2010, there has been copious speculation as to the fate of Alberto Contador, the winner of this year’s Tour de France. While rumours have abounded about a new Spanish Fernando Alonso-led squad, choc full of Spanish stars, and sponsored by Santander, this won’t come to fruition before 2011. So what’s going to happen in 2010?

According to today’s L’Equipe (as good a source as any), he wants to buy himself out of next year’s contract with Astana. Despite the Kazakhs, promising he’ll be their leader and throwing Euros 4 million (net) at him for each of the next four years, Alberto’s brother Fran, who’s his agent, says “it’s not about the money.”

Put yourself in Alberto’s shoes and you can understand why, despite his friendship with Vino. He was prevented from riding the Tour in 2008, because he was riding for Astana. The return of Vino and Kash to the Astana fold could give rise to similar issues with ASO for 2010 and Astana without those two would be a considerably weaker side. He’s endured a number of months of uncertainty due to the war between Bruyneel and the Kazakhs, culminating in the blatant preference of Bruyneel to put Lance, and not Bert, in yellow and the subsequent psychological stresses of being isolated from the team one’s supposed to be leading. Frankly, this must have been both confusing and wearing for Alberto.

 Given that ASO will be courting Lance for next year’s Tour, we can assume that the course will be Lance-favourable, featuring not too many steep mountain top finishes, two ITTs and one TTT. Many of this year’s favourites found their GC chances laid to waste by the TTT. So Bert has to join a squad that can perform at TTTs. This doesn’t leave him with too many choices. You only have to look at the performance of the teams in this year’s to see how limited.

 STAGE TEAM STANDING

Standing Team                                        Time Gaps

1. ASTANA 46′ 29″

 2. GARMIN – SLIPSTREAM 46′ 47″ + 00′ 18″

3. TEAM SAXO BANK 47′ 09″ + 00′ 40″ 

4.LIQUIGAS 47′ 27″ + 00′ 58″ 5.

5.TEAM COLUMBIA – HTC 47′ 28″ + 00′ 59″

6. TEAM KATUSHA 47′ 52″ + 01′ 23″

7. CAISSE D’EPARGNE 47′ 58″ + 01′ 29″

8. CERVELO TEST TEAM 48′ 06″ + 01′ 37″

9. AG2R-LA MONDIALE 48′ 17″ + 01′ 48″

10. EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI 48′ 38″ + 02′ 09″

Merely mislead

According to the club website, last Sunday’s pointage was at Andon. However, every other club, at least according to the Nice Matin was going to Canaux. A quick check on the map before we left revealed that the two were not too far apart.

My husband and I set off very early while it was still quite fresh. To be honest, I would have worn arm warmers had I realised it was going to be that chilly through the Vallon Rouge and Gorges du Loup. The super fast group from the club over took us on the climb up to Greolières where they subsequently stopped to refill their bidons. We checked. The website was wrong. The pointage was at Canaux.

This week end, we’re off to Marie sur Tinée. A delightful perched village and the setting, IMHO, of the best ever pointage feast. If I was to award a cup, and I’m still toying with the idea for next season, this would win it hands down: definitely worthy of 3 toques.

Mindful of the fast approaching Rondes de la St Laurent, I have been working on my sprinting for the past week or so. I rather like the period post-Tour, when everyone is inspired to get out on their bikes. A bit like the UK post-Wimbledon, when, for two or three weeks, you can’t get on a tennis court for love nor money. Generally, of course, this means there are more riders I can overtake. For example, on Tuesday I overtook one yellow and two spotted jerseys. Immensely satisfying, particularly as they were all overhauled on a climb.

I’ve convinced my husband to take part in the Rondes though have advised him that I expect him to pace me back up to the peloton, à la Lance and Kloeden, should (or should that be when) I get dropped, as us girls get to race with Les Grands Sportifs.

At this point, I should add that my husband is not too good at pacing. If it’s really windy he will gallantly offer to ride in front of me. He then sets off at a pace I can’t sustain and is forced to slow to let me get back on his wheel and, as soon as I do, he sets back off again at an unsustainable pace. This is far more tiring for me than having to ride on the front into a headwind.

 Somehow, I suspect that neither Cav, nor anyone else, is quaking in their boots at the thought of my improved sprinting prowess. Though, to be fair, the finish is uphill, so it probably wouldn’t be to Cav’s taste. Perhaps he could lend me his lead out train.

Normal service resumes

The Tour’s now over and life can return to normal. However, I can’t let the opportunity pass without giving a few final thoughts on the past three weeks of unadulterated pleasure.  First, the Tour beautifully showcases the splendours of France and each day I find myself making notes on places I’d like to visit. No wonder it’s the most visited place on this earth. Frankly, I never, ever want to live anywhere else.

Chapeau to every rider who finished the Tour, you’re all winners in my book. My special commiserations go to all those who for various ills and injuries didn’t finish in Paris. In particular, Jens Voigt and Kenny van Hummel, two guys whose combative and courageous qualities would get them places on my cycling team any day, fantasy or otherwise.

Contador confounded no one by winning his 2nd Tour de France and 4th Grand Tour. His composure and comportment throughout were beyond reproach. While only one guy can adorn the top step sporting the yellow jersey, it’s generally thanks to the efforts of his team mates: well, possibly not this time, with the exception of the TTT. No, his team mates’ efforts, and indeed those of Contador himself on the penultimate stage, ensured that Lance made the bottom rung of the podium. Bruyneel didn’t achieve the 1-2-3 he was looking for and while he might blame Contador, I, and many others, feel the blame lies much, much closer to home.  

The best British result ever: 6 stage wins for Cav, the fastest sprinter, bar none, and 4th place on GC for Wiggo. This surely confers bragging rights down at my cycling club. Though I admit the French too had a pretty cool Tour: 3 stage wins; a French team with the yellow jersey for a significant part of the Tour; promising, emerging French talent in their inaugural Tours; and 4 seasoned, French pros in the top 20 on GC. Of course, for some teams, things just didn’t work out the way they hoped, but that’s life.

I was much amused that for every day Franco Pellizotti spent in the spotted

Spots galore
Spots galore

 jersey, so the spots spread. Not just his shirt and shorts but shoes (surely a step too far), socks, glasses, gloves, bike, monitor but not his helmet. Why not? Liquigas, could you not have sprung for a helmet? I note that, on the final day, the spotted shoes were replaced with red ones (much better) to reflect he had also won the overall “most combative”.

Birthday Bbox for boss

Normal service was resumed today at the Tour when shortly after the start, France’s “chou chou” (sweetheart) Thomas Voeckler took off with a few companions to form what was ultimately a successful break. 2009 is turning out to be a very good year for one of France’s favourite sons. Ever since he graced the yellow jersey for 10 days in the 2004 Tour, while riding for Brioches la Boulangère, smiling Tommy Voeckler, has been a firm favourite with the crowds.

This obviously went some way towards erasing the memories of yesterday’s team performance in the TTT, where most of Bbox Bouygues Telecom’s riders went off-road for a spell. Even though the team endured a couple of punctures, Skil Shimano saved them from the ignominy that is last place. 

The TTT effectively ended the hopes of a number of contenders, most notably Menchov and Evans. Andy Schleck remains in contention, thanks only to the heroic efforts of Cancellara to hang on to the yellow jersey, denying Lance by 22 hundredths of a second.

One of Lance’s Hollywood pals, Ben Stiller, handed out the prizes. I’m still wondering why Lance was presented with the TTT trophy when Alberto’s the Astana team leader.

Questions now answered

A number of questions,  posed a few days ago, have now been answered. Valverde’s a “no show”. Tom had a last minute reprieve, however, as he’s been missing in action so far, it’s hard to justify his sponsor’s calculations of Euros 25 million in lost “advertising” if he’d not been allowed to participate. The Tour is still young but he’s most unlikely to dislodge Cav from the firm grip he has on the green jersey. He’s 91 points ahead of Tom after only 3 sprint stages.

At the team presentation last Thursday, Lance said,  as a 7-times Tour winner, he had nothing to prove and was just looking forward to taking part. Methinks he doth protest too much. I, for one, didn’t believe a word of it and neither should Alberto, who’s wearing the Astana leader’s jersey, something which has obviously riled Lance.

By chance, I spent yesterday evening in the same hotel as Astana who have twice as many motorised vehicles as the other teams, giving credence to the two clans, one team theory propounded by journalists, and confirmed by Benjamin Noval. I’m now wondering, after Lance showed his hand on Monday by putting time into all his rivals, including Contador, whether we’re going to see scenes reminiscent of 2005 where Vino was chased down by his T-Mobile team mates.

Prudhomme assured us that the Tour course would prolong the suspense until the penultimate stage. However, the only outstanding question is which Astana riders, and in what order, will they top the podium. Everyone else seems down and out. Does this mean that the Spaniards will be helping out Bert or has Lance already bought them off, after all his pockets are deeper? Though it couldn’t buy him 22 hundredths of a second yesterday to snatch yellow from Spartacus.