Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Vuelta 2011: Thoughts After The Rest Day

Ten stages in and the 2011 has been a cracker so far. We’ve had incidents and action on a course that has shaken up the riders' expectations of a grand tour by hitting them with a summit finish after only four days, and shaken up viewer expectations of a Vuelta by swapping the usual motorways and cement factories for broad, arid vistas, cosmopolitan towns and heaving beachfronts. And motorways.

All that has added up to a win for the fans, and the winners and losers within the race are equally clear.

The Losers
Igor Anton’s unexpectedly poor performance the moment the route first went uphill saw him drop out of contention even before a poor time trial left him nearly nine minutes back. Michele Scarponi’s collapse hasn’t been as clear to the eye as Anton’s, but his failure to be right at the sharp end of the race put him in a position where Wiggins’ great day on La Covatilla and Scarponi’s own underperformance in the following day’s TT sees him at 4:22.

Joaquin Rodriguez was expected to lose big time in the TT, and he did. He wasn’t really expected to blow quite as much on La Covatilla, but his cushion in the red jersey was such that his status as a loser at 3:23 doesn’t look quite as serious as that of Denis Menchov and Janez Brajkovic in thirteenth and ninth place respectively. Those aren’t bad standings, but very little of the remaining route suits either man, so it looks likely that they’ll start a rankings slide from here.

The Winners
The big winners so far are Wiggins and Nibali. In any grand tour you can put together a list of ten or fifteen riders that should be contenders for the overall, but of that list you know that deep down there are really only four or five that actually are genuine contenders. Of the group that benefit from more than just polite inclusion, only Wiggins and Nibali remain in the top ten, at 20 and 31 seconds back, respectively. Thus far, Wiggins has looked the stronger by a whisker - with one ill-fated exception on La Covatilla, Nibali has defended or even briefly faded on the climbs, while Wiggins has taken charge, riding sensibly at the front and occasionally setting the pace. That balance will undoubtedly shift as the race continues through seven more mountain stages - despite Bradley’s massive improvement on the steep bits, they’re still Nibali’s natural arena.

Of the other top tenners, the most notable is Chris Froome, who has shown incredible strength in the service of Wiggins in the mountains, and unexpected power in the TT to take the red jersey. He leads Fuglsang by 12 seconds and Wiggins by 20, but he’s young and his experience of leading a stage race is limited to winning the 2006 Tour of Mauritius. He’ll fade down the standings over the next 11 stages, but his name will stick in the mind and we’ll all be watching out for him next year.

Bauke Mollema, or “The Great Bauke Mollema” as some parts of the internet know him, is in the position Froome will find himself in next year: in the past, he's been the star of the future, in the present, he's fulfilling that potential. He looks robust and ready to grind away at the race until a top 5 or (whisper it) podium place is his.

Fuglsang is the surprise, at least to me. Leopard Trek have been touting his stage racing potential, but the scarf-modelling true racers have always talked a better fight than they’ve actually fought. To me, Fuglsang’s previous good placings have always spoken of an ability to get good placings, rather than potential to get great ones. I’d always put him in the Oscar Perreiro bracket: a rock-solid, respectable rider, but one who’d need both a lucky breakaway and a lucky break to make any further progress. Yet there he is, in second and looking comfortable, if not exactly powerful.

Ten stages down, eleven to go. Seven of which are mountains. Seven. Including the Angliru. When you look at it that way, anything could happen. Hell, even Anton could make a comeback! In all likelihood, however, I think we’ll see Nibali grinding skyward, never having good days, but never having bad ones either, until he finishes in red by a narrow margin.

While the likes of Scarponi, Anton and Rodriguez have fallen backwards, the remaining territory suits them all sufficiently that I expect them to regain positions in the top ten at the expense of Brajkovic, Monfort and Zubeldia. Rodriguez in particular will do well on Pena Cabarga, and might fancy his chances today as well-it’s not really a steep enough climb for him, but it is at least a short one.

ITV4 have done a cracking job of pulling together Vuelta coverage at the last minute, overcoming dodgy Spanish feeds and acoustically iffy surroundings to bring us enjoyable and occasionally rather moving coverage: Cervantes and Cavendish was the sort of cultured combination that makes me love cycling. Nevertheless, the last minute addition of the Vuelta to the schedules means that they have a pre-existing commitment to motor racing that they have to honour this Sunday. Worse still, Eurosport are dropping their Vuelta coverage on the same day in favour of tennis. That’s Sunday. The day the race goes up the Angliru. The queen stage of the race. Moop. All is not lost, however, as ITV will be streaming the race live online, so you’ll be able to watch it here: Phew.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Instant Gratification.

When I said this morning that Chris Froome's riding had marked him out as a future leader, I meant further in the future than this. Well done Chris.
Of the two Sky men, I'm still backing Bradley. He's got more experience of being at the sharp end of a grand tour, and that's vital if you want to hold your position rather than fade down the stretch. Nevertheless, two consecutive days of powerful riding in two different disciplines, finishing the TT above Fabian Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins and second only to Tony Martin, bodes very well for Froome.

Now I’m A Believer...

I had a mini-La Plagne moment yesterday, except instead of yelling “It looks like Stephen Roche. It is! It is Stephen Roche!”, I opted instead for something cruder but more concise: “F*cking hell, it’s Wiggo.” TeamSky’s marketing department can have that for a slogan, if they like.

It was one of those lovely moments in cycling when both the action and the camera placement were perfect: Nibali has surged ahead, overtaken the fading Nico Roche and is grinding towards the summit with Dan Martin for company, Moto 1 has pulled ahead so the camera can look into the faces of this select pairing of riders, and there, in the background, is Wiggins leading the charge, steadily and calmly closing the gap on the defending champion, neither asking for nor needing the help of the GC men who’d stayed with him. The chase pace he’d sustained had already seen off race leader Rodriguez and hot contender Michele Scarponi, and strong climbers like Mikel Nieve.

Not content with merely catching the defending champion, Wiggins took to the front of the group, put his head down and did his utmost to keep the pace high. It wasn’t so much an attack as a softening-up process, one that would put enough pain in the legs to see that the group would splinter when Dan Martin made his final dash for the line.

Martin won the stage, Bauke Mollema took the race lead and Chris Froome’s robust chasing marked him out as a future team leader, but the day really belonged to Wiggins.

His transformation into potential Grand Tour winner supposedly occurred during the 2009 Tour De France, when he had his most credible performance ever in the mountains, but even then I had doubts. His newfound mountain goat reputation sprang from the fact that he wouldn’t lose contact with the big names until the final Ks of the climb. Admittedly, that’s a better performance than 90% of the peloton can manage, but while getting dropped late might not damage your time as much as getting burned off early, calling him a GC contender simply for losing time less dramatically than everyone else seemed a little premature. After all, this isn’t the nineties and we don’t get 80-90k of Individual Time Trialling in Grand Tours anymore. Wiggins is at his best against the clock, and the ability to limit your losses in the mountains is no help if you don’t have the TT kilometres available to inflict losses on your rivals.

Yesterday changed all that. Wiggins didn’t just limit his losses in the mountains, he inflicted losses on serious rivals. Furthermore, he chased and caught a grand tour winner and instantly assumed the leadership role in the group, taking the front and setting the pace with no deference to Nibali’s status.

There’s a lot of internet hand-wringing today which suggests that he may have gone too deep and burned reserves that would have been more efficiently used today in a TT which more naturally fits Wiggins’ skills, but I doubt that a rider as canny as Wiggo, riding in a team as scientific as Sky, would have made a blunder like that. More importantly, much of the early effort was made by Chris Froome, and even his later efforts didn’t leave Wiggins looking like he’d gone too deep. He looked like a man who’d ridden well within himself.

Today we have a flat Time Trial without any real tricky bits and it seems likely to be won by Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara. That’s pretty much a given - if Martin and Cancellara are there, the only question is whether the course has the technical sections that give Cancellara an even greater edge. Today doesn’t look too twisty, so I’m favouring Martin. The important thing, however, is what Wiggins will make of it. I’m expecting him to be the highest placed of the GC men, slightly ahead of Brajkovic and Kessiakof, significantly ahead of Nibali, and whole minutes ahead of Rodriguez, Scarponi and Anton.

With seven mountain stages to come, including the Alto del Angliru on stage 15, this is still a race that favours natural climbers rather than a converted track rider with a dedicated WeightWatchers plan like Wiggins. Even so, I’m now a believer. In my Vuelta preview, I suggested that top ten was the best Bradley could hope for. That prediction was based on a Bradley Wiggins who wouldn’t fall off the mountains until the final yards, but the Bradley Wiggins who might not fall off the mountains at all is a different prospect. He can take enough time today, and defend it effectively enough in upcoming days, that a podium place is a strong possibility. A mod like Wiggins would probably have misgivings about being the subject of a post named after a Monkees' song, so he’ll really hate a Bon Jovi reference. Nevertheless: keep the faith.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Mt Ventoux Photos: Why cyclists wear padded shorts...

The last of the Mt Ventoux pics, in which I continue a long tradition of never having my eyes open in a photo, and demonstrate why cyclists wear padded shorts...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Put not your trust in Euskaltel riders.

In 2003 Iban Mayo tore up Alpe D’Huez so fast on his way to a stage win and eventual sixth place overall that in the space of the 39 minutes and six seconds it took him to climb the alp he became the repository for all of Europe’s cycling hopes and, more importantly, all of mine.

At that time, all the riders who seemed capable of defeating Lance Armstrong were either busy having nose jobs, enjoying a heady cocktail of black forest gateaux, muesli and amphetamines or were riders yet to fully mature and sadly destined to smash themselves to bits or dope their pets rather than put up a fight. Consequently, Iban Mayo became our totem, our hope for ending the reign of that glowering, graceless Texan. And what did he do? He retired halfway through his next two Tours, suffered from 'the kissing disease', and eventually tested positive for EPO.

What does this waffle have to do with today’s Vuelta, I hear you ask? Technically nothing, but I am a blogger, and therefore have staked my paper-thin self-esteem on the idea that my wandering thoughts can be just as relevant as the cold hard facts supplied by proper journalists. My feeling in this case is that Euskaltel have let me down again.

After Mayo I went cold on the orange clad squad, who’d been a loose favourite of mine ever since the days when lowly second division teams like Benfica (the cycling team not the football club), Brescialat and the like were profiled in the pages of Cycle Sport magazine. After Mayo, I could never warm to the flaming carrots, and barely noticed the Olympic win and Tour performances of Sammy Sanchez.

Then along came Igor Anton. He looked strong in the 2010 Vuelta, winning two stages and having a forty odd second advantage in the red jersey until he was knocked down like fire damaged Nikes in a Croydon sports shop by a bit of two-by-four in the road. He came good again earlier this year at the Giro d’Italia, winning on the Mt Zoncolan, one of the most sadistic climbs in cycling. Given that he then began resting and preparing for the 2011 Vuelta, which also contains a fairly sadistic climb in the form of the Alto del Angliru, things looked good for him, and I embraced the Euskaltel boys once again and picked Anton to win the Vuelta. Perhaps I’m just a jinx?

He looked a little iffy on yesterday’s climbs, but I thought nothing of it. I assumed that their lack of importance in the overall scheme of things meant he probably wasn’t giving them his best.

Today, however, you couldn’t kid yourself. The early climbs were clearly as tough as yesterday’s as was obvious from Stijn Devolder’s wobbling and weaving that had me momentarily convinced I was watching the previous stage’s highlights. But Devolder is a squad rider for whom lightning has struck twice. Surely the serious climbers like Anton would be ok?

Then came Sierra Nevada. Not that steep, but really, really long. And there’s Igor Anton, sitting at the back of the bunch. Still at the back. Still. Those little gaps between riders that open and close naturally on the corners? They’re not closing naturally for Anton. He’s clawing them closed. He might as well be sinking his fingernails into the tarmac and scrabbling up the hill without the bike.

Eventually he dropped off entirely which was a shame, but not half as bad as what happened next. Three teammates came back to pace him up the rest of the climb, and for some time the foursome were seen working as a slow moving unit, occasionally wafting past the odd lone rider falling from the pack, but before long it became embarrassingly apparent that Anton couldn’t keep up with his teammates either, and they returned to the pack, leaving Igor to labour on alone, eventually coming in 1:38 down on the bunch and 2:44 down on the new red jersey, Sylvain Chavanel. More importantly, he’s 1:51 down on race favourite Vincenzo Nibali.

Of course he’s got three flat days to recover before the next mountains. There’s even the chance he might be riding himself into form for the nastier climbs ahead, but these aren’t the bad old days when massive deficits could be overturned by pulling a few ‘cold ones’ from the fridge. You’d have to say Anton’s chances for the overall are gone.

When it comes to humiliating days in the mountains I’m reminded of poor Ivan Basso’s long and televised diarrhoea attack in the snowy Gavia pass in 2005, where he lost over forty minutes and the Maglia Rosa. He did at least manage to secure a face-saving stage win a few days later, and that’s now what I’m hoping Anton will do.

In the parts of the race that still mattered both Vincenzo Nibali and Bradley Wiggins looked extremely comfortable, almost nonchalant, as they occupied the vital spots at the front of the group and led up the Sierra Nevada. While attacks from Chris Anker Sorenson and Daniel Moreno were able to sweep past the breakaway remnants, they never managed to get their gap beyond 14 seconds. That Moreno was far and away the quicker man was obvious from the start, and it must have been all he could manage not to start his victory celebrations around 3K out when it became obvious that Sorenson couldn’t grind him off his back wheel.

Finally, there’s Cav. I’ve always thought that three Grand Tours in a year is a big ask even if you are only hunting stage wins. Add to that the temperature of nearly 34 degrees in the shade and it’s no wonder Cav climbed off. Given that he was sharing a room with Matt Goss, who retired with stomach troubles yesterday, no one would be particularly surprised if it turns out that the Manx Missile has got a touch of Basso Belly. The question now is, how does he prepare for the Worlds? The GP Ouest France is one possibility, as is the Tour of Britain, but having been booked onto La Vuelta, he’ll need to ask the organiser’s permission to start a different race for fear of a fine and fifteen day ban. This is widely considered nothing more than a polite formality, so we should see Cavendish in action somewhere cooler and flatter before too long.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Those old familiar feelings...

Is anyone else starting this Vuelta with a slight feeling of deja vu? TTT on stage one, followed by a flat stage that everyone assumes will end in a bunch gallop. The sprinters teams keep the breaks under control, make the catch in the last 30k and wind up the pace ready for a sprint, only for the ‘slight rise’ mentioned in the roadbook to wipe the pace off so suddenly it looked like the entire bunch suffered simultaneous chain-suck and the race for the line degenerates into half a dozen brave, individual dashes. Didn’t see that coming.

On a side note, the winner of those individual dashes for the line was Sky’s C J Sutton, on the same day that his team-mate Edvald Boassen-Hagen won the Vattenfall Cyclassic. All this not 24 hours after I said hoped Sky’s luck would change for the better. Just in case lady luck is still on the line can I also say that I hope Ivan Basso finds the fountain of youth, that Bjarne Riis will announce that he in fact rode the 1996 Tour on nothing more than M&Ms and Top Deck Shandy, and that Bradley Wiggins can take three times as much time on stage 10 as I suspect he’ll lose on stage 15.

Anyway, on to stage 3...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Vuelta a Espana 2011: Stage 1

Did the Vuelta’s team presentation start with the launch of a hundred black cats into a mirror factory? Three riders slipped their chains coming off the start ramp, Nick Nuyens crashed into a ditch, Geox were utterly unable to hide their age, and Sky combined a crash with poor communication to put in an utterly awful TTT performance.

Before the start my prediction was for an HTC, Sky, Garmin one-two-three. The presence of Grabsch and Martin in a well drilled team explained HTC’s predicted top spot, while the generally practiced TTT performances of the other two had me thinking that even with their squads packed out with climbers they’d function cohesively and efficiently. Just so we’re clear, my other outstanding prediction at the moment is that Butlin’s will be opening a Kabul camp by summer 2012.

While not all the teams might think so, it hasn’t been a bad start to the Vuelta. A stain on Marco Pantani’s memory has been wiped away now that we’ve finally got a Grand Tour theme tune worse than the one il Pirata 'sang' for the Giro in 96. Better yet, the painful need to choose between Eurosport and ITV4 has been settled by ITV’s decision not to bother with anything resembling a commentary and instead just have the race pictures provide a pretty backdrop to Ned and Matt’s polite chatting, which may be knowledgeable but is also completely lacking in any sort of urgency. Even if you like that sort of thing, the terrible acoustics of the studio would have ruined it for you. I’m taking donations now, if I can raise the £5 ITV apparently lacks, I’ll buy them some egg-boxes.

ITV’s sound was perfectly complemented by the Spanish cameras, which at one point rendered Quickstep’s kit a fetching shade of green. I was hoping the same thing had happened when Andalucia Caja Granada rolled off the ramp, but no, they actually are riding in a kit that’s indistinguishable from Liquigas at any distance greater than three feet. That’s not likely to be as problematic as it sounds, because after stage four no one from Andalucia will be within three feet of anyone from Liquigas anyway.

The racing itself was exciting and had the odd unexpected twist. No one is surprised by bad luck striking Radioshack anymore, but when Brajkovic’s slipped chain was copied by Saxobank and Lampre riders as well, I started to wonder if there was a lump or bump on the start ramp jarring them loose. A more technically minded friend suggested that the riders anticipatory back-pedalling before the start might be misaligning their chains.

In any case, a few dropped chains were nothing compared to the bad luck Sky appear to be having. They went from being “treated like dogs” at the team presentation to crashing off screen at one of the early roundabouts and losing four riders shortly before Xabier Zandio finished his turn at the front and dropped off, apparently unaware that he was now the all-important fifth man. Can I recommend the Rosetta Stone Conversational Spanish kit?

Sky eventually rolled in 42 seconds behind Leopard Trek, with the creaking knees of Menchov and Sastre bringing Geox in a second behind at 43. Now if the other challenging teams such as Igor Anton’s Euskaltel or Joaquim Rodriguez’s Katusha had come in with those 40+ deficit seconds I’d have said no problem: there’s a lot of climbing and only one time trial to come. For Menchov and Wiggins though...there’s a lot of climbing and only one time trial to come.

Fingers crossed they can come back from this, as they really do deserve better luck.

Almost unnoticed amidst the crashes and mechanicals, Fabian Cancellara's pulling prowess gave Leopard-Trek the stage and Jacob Fuglsang the first Red Jersey of 2011 with a 16:30 that went largely unremarked upon until it became obvious that HTC and Liquigas weren't going to overhaul it after all. Well done Spartacus.

1. Leopard-Trek / 16:30
2. Liquigas-Cannondale / 16:34
3. HTC-HighRoad / 16:39
4. Astana / 16:40
5. Movistar Team / 16:44
6. Quick Step / 16:45
7. Skil-Shimano / 16:48
8. Omega Pharma-Lotto / 16:48
9. Garmin-Cervélo / 16:55
10. Katusha Team /16:55
11. BMC / 16:57
12. Euskaltel-Euskadi / 16:58
13. Saxo Bank-Sungard / 16:58

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Mt Ventoux Photos

A few photos from my Mt Ventoux ride, plus an awful lot more from my Ventoux walk, Ventoux drive and Ventoux sit-at-the-top-with-a-nice-cold-drink.

If I can find it, I might add the one of me discovering why cyclists favour padded shorts....

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Vuelta a Espana 2011 Preview: Route & Riders

In my admittedly unfashionable opinion, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the best of 2010’s grand tours. While it lacked the controversy of the Tour’s chaingate and the enormous breakaways and redemptive victory served up by the Giro, it more than compensated for it with on the road action.

While its bigger brothers left us debating the absence of Contador’s sportsmanship and Vinokourov’s tactical savvy, the 2010 Vuelta was all about Philip Gilbert blasting up a Malagan precipice, Igor Anton’s two stage wins and devastating crash, and the battles on Lagos De Covadonga and the newly discovered Bola Del Mundo.

Vincenzo Nibali pulled out an intelligent win in a hard fought race over an interesting course, a combination that made you wonder if the Vuelta had finally stepped out of the shadow of its French and Italian counterparts. Of course, the Vuelta has had false dawns before-wins by Jalabert in 1995, Zulle in 1996 and Ullrich in 1999 had you thinking that the race had become prized by the men who usually give it their all in July rather than September -but this time we reckon the sun is set to shine for a good long time. This year’s route is just as interesting as last years, there are some exciting contenders and hey, we get live daily coverage on ITV 4, so the riders have the added incentive to ride hard and avoid being the butt of Gary Imlach’s withering jabs.

The Route
As is traditional these days, there’s stacks of climbing, minimal time trialling and a few stages that look more like a Spring Classic than a GT stage. As is equally common these days, at least one of the mountain stages is somewhat blunted by disposing of all its climbs before it's half done, and another will probably be left to the chancers while the GC men keep their powder dry for the monster that follows it. Nevertheless, there are plenty of pivotal looking stages.

Stage 1: Benidorm Team Time Trial.
Like a holidaymaker in Pataya, the opening time trial is a bit twisted and likely to be exposed along the beaches, but for all its technicalities, the 13.5K opener is too short for anyone to lose really serious time. Except for Euskaltel, of course. They’ll somehow manage to lose a shedload.

Stage 4: Baza-Sierra Nevada.
A summit finish on an Hors Categorie climb on stage four means that that the sprinters will be fighting elimination before they’ve even finished tightening their cleats, while the GC men will have to show their cards early.

Stage 10: Salamanca TT.
47 kilometres against the clock with nothing that resembles a climb and very little in the way of twists and turns, there’s a chance here for strong time triallists like Menchov and Wiggins to wipe away losses and build a cushion. It will need to be a bloody big cushion though, given what’s still in store...

Stage 11: Verin-Montana Manzaneda.
Two 3rd Cats and a 2nd Cat will weaken the rider's legs before the new climb of Montana Manzaneda. It takes nearly 30K to climb just under 1800 metres-this isn’t brutally steep, but it's loooong and draggy and likely to live as long in the riders legs as their memory.

Stage 15: Aviles-Angliru.
For a comparatively new climb, the Angliru dominates the Vuelta. Since its first appearance in 1999, Alto Del Angliru is the first name people look for each year when the route is announced.

The opening 6k are merely tough, but the final 6 are evil. The average gradient never drops below 12%, wavers frequently between 13 and 17%, and peaks briefly at 23%! Even the best climbers can be reduced to a crawl on the Angliru, and it tends to be attritional rather than tactical. The pace will drop, even team cars will struggle, and if there’s rain there will be all sorts of wheel slipping, bike weaving agony. Igor Anton proved he can handle the most sadistic climbs back in May, and I reckon he’ll use the Angliru to stamp his name on this year’s Vuelta. If he hasn’t fallen off by then.

The Riders

Vincenzo Nibali
The defending champion oft-touted next-big-thing-in-stage-races, Nibali’s a good but not explosive climber, a middling but not disastrous Time Trialist, and an exhilarating descender. You can shake him off in the mountains but he doesn’t fall too far behind, and his refusal to lose more than a few seconds sees him in good stead when everyone else is taking a minute one day and losing 45 seconds the next. His steady pursuit of Ezequiel Mosquera up Bola Del Mundo last year was the same sort of gutsy defensive riding that we’re all praising Cadel Evans for, having marked his rivals for three weeks. The only trouble is, Evans has nearly a decade on Nibali. What looks canny on an older man looks a little dull on Nibali, and I doubt that conservative tactics will see him in red a second time. I reckon he’ll be one step down this year, in second.

Igor Anton
He can climb with the best of them, and his victory on the Mt Zoncolan in this year’s Giro proves that he can climb on the worst of them. With the rider’s facing up to an ascent of the preposterously vicious Alto De Angliru, Igor Anton’s experience of winning on cycling’s sado-climbs will see him in good stead. On the other hand, he falls off a lot. Really a lot. He’s already crashed out of two Vuelta’s, and spent most of one Tour repeatedly picking gravel out of his legs. I reckon he’ll finish the Vuelta in first, or in hospital.

Michele Scarponi
He’s had a great set of results in stage races this year, so it’s a little unfair that when I think of Michele Scarponi I don’t think of him standing on the second step of the Giro’s podium, I think of him giving away the farm by tearing after Contador’s very first attack on Mt Etna and being utterly unable to sustain the chase. In that, he’s no different from anyone else in cycling, but where everyone else rode conservatively and kept the mystery alive, Scarponi had made it clear that the top step was beyond him. Of course, there is no Contador at this Vuelta, but there’s not likely to be much fear of Scarponi either. I reckon he’s looking at third.

Joaquim Rodriguez
Joaquim Rodriguez is just about the only rider whose uphill accelerations are scarier than Alberto Contador’s. Sadly for Rodriguez, he doesn’t have Alberto’s ability to repeat the trick time and time again. I reckon he can get away from anyone else in this Vuelta, but when he does so he won’t build big enough time gaps to trouble the podium.

Bradley Wiggins
How long can you maintain your best form? Four weeks, maybe five? And that’s assuming you can keep busy - something that hasn’t been possible for Wiggins, despite being back on the bike within a week of his collarbone surgery. The Wiggins we saw in the Dauphine might have had a shot at the podium, but two months and one fracture later, we’re guessing that Top Ten is the best he can hope for, and if he manages that we’ll be proper proud of him.

Monday, 8 August 2011

What I Did On My Summer Holidays by Jamie Ewbank, Age 34 and 3/4s

I can’t honestly say I conquered Ventoux. I’d be lying if I even claimed to have aggravated Ventoux. In fact, I didn’t even manage to put Ventoux in a vaguely compromising position. Nonetheless, I feel like I had really good crack at it. Plenty of people had told me that you couldn’t get to the top unless you were a well-trained, well-fuelled club cyclist. That’s probably true, but I can tell you that enthusiasm and a Snickers bar will get you to the halfway mark even if you’ve never trained a day in your life.

Which is not to say the Giant of Provence is somehow less taxing than its reputation would suggest. What takes professionals around an hour and fit amateurs around two hours, took me nearly four, a couple of sizeable rests and the offer of a push from a truly heroic Frenchman whose kindness impressed me so greatly that our short chat on a stretch of 9% gradient was enough to make me think of him with the fondness usually reserved for an esteemed uncle.

I’ve said before that I’m not a cyclist; rather, I’m a fan of what Paul Sherwen would undoubtedly call “the sport of professional cycling.” I do own a bike, a 15 year old steel-framed Peugeot that gets semi-regular and very enjoyable spins round the pancake-flat perimeter of Bushy Park. But if you added up the hours I spent on a bike, it would take months’ worth of rides for me to put in the hours that a lazy club rider does in a day. More importantly, a survey of my local area would make it clear that I never even use my two biggest sprockets, let alone my two diddiest chainrings.

Despite all that, it seemed wasteful to spend a fortnight at the foot of Ventoux and not see what it felt like to ride on it. At kilometre zero, there’s a cycling shop and rental joint named La Route Du Ventoux where 30 Euros obtained a days rental of a Trek Alpha 15 and a stern but not unfriendly warning that “six means six. You bring it back at 6.15 and you pay another day.”

I was particularly excited at the prospect of riding a swanky bike. I’m often a little bit sad that the old Colnagos, Bianchis and Pinarellos have been swept aside by mundane sounding Treks and Giants, with their fat tubes and pig-ugly curves. The tubes on this aluminium Trek were only mildly porky, and dead straight, which was nice. What got me disproportionately excited was the Shimano Tiagra groupset. When I bought my Peugeot back in the mid-90s, the brake- and-gears combo was still comparatively new. Little Marco was still signalling his intention to dash up hills by pulling on a downtube shifter. The cheapest Shimano or Campagnolo STI groupset was still three times the cost of my whole bike. Not only was I about to set off up on Ventoux on a bike that weighed about a third of mine, but when I changed gears, I’d be changing them like a professional. It was a small point, but an exciting one.

Not that I got the gearing right, mind you. Like Americans and Daily Mail journalists, I reserve the right to have judgemental opinions about things of which I know nothing, and one of my pet peeves is cyclists using easy gears on non-existent slopes. When I see someone pedalling along on the flat at 200 rpm and moving about three inches for each turn of the pedals, I have to restrain the urge to tell them that I can smell their knee cartilage melting. It’s this prejudice that made me tackle the lower slopes of Ventoux, the long drags at 1 or 2%, on a middle sprocket. By eye I can barely tell there’s a slope there, I thought, so I’ll just ride it as if it were flat and push a bit harder if I need to.

Within minutes I was being breezily overtaken by seasoned lycra-clad chain gangs and casual cyclists alike. After the first few bends and corners I was panting, and by the time the road had begun to lift me above the vineyards I was gasping for air and my heartbeat seemed to be trying to bludgeon inwards through my eardrums from a starting point somewhere outside of my body.

I pulled over to a tree-shaded picnic table in a gravelled rest area and slipped my feet from the straps. Everything I looked at was bright and twinkling, the world was heaving and swaying like a slowed-down fairground ride, and if my stomach had been full I’d have been sick in a slow but definitive fashion. I’d been riding for twenty minutes.

Technically the ascent had begun several kilometres back, but I hadn’t even hit anything that you’d recognise as Mt Ventoux yet. The rental bike was mine until the end of the day, but it seemed likely that I was going to have to hide my weak-lunged shame by sitting in a litter-strewn rest area beside a barely tilted road for the next six hours. I hadn’t even brought a book.

Unpacking The Metaphorical Suitcase

Over the next half hour, I drank half of my first bottle of water and sent some humorous text messages back to Ventoux base camp: “This mountain is beautiful, but it respects nothing, least of all spirited optimism.” said the first, as if I had seen anything of the mountain. “My suitcase of courage may be insufficient to the task. I believe I need my suitcase of other people’s legs” said the second. “I’ve got twenty more gears to try, maybe one of them will be magic.” said the third, and having had a good half hour of rest, I decided that it might be true. I stood by the roadside for a while, eyeballing people’s gears as they rode past, clunked mine down to the middle chainring and set off again.

Gears really help you get up hills. Who’d have thought it, eh? Although still very early and very gentle, the slopes leading up to Ste Colombe and St Esteve were steeper than the foothills that had nearly finished me, yet I flew up them at a steady pace, at an effort I felt ready to maintain for hours.

Just beyond St Esteve, over a little bridge and past a French child’s excellent treehouse, comes the first bit of road that you’d genuinely describe as mountainous. A short, steep ramp topped with a tight hairpin leading into another brief but fierce straight and a second tight curve. Popping out of that first hairpin I felt like Charly Gaul. A Frenchman once said “European law? It is for the English.” At this point I felt like replying “The law of gravity? It’s for everyone else.”

That second bend brought me back down to earth. It was a right-hander, and the growling squadrons of motorcycles that had torn past me up the mountain had rattled my nerves until I was unwilling to swing wide into the middle of the road. Hugging the steepest, innermost part of the curve I found myself pushing harder and harder whilst going slower and slower, until I stalled.

It seemed pretty early in the climb to have been brought to a halt by anything other than my own choice, but my poor positioning was at fault, so I listened carefully for traffic, tacked out into the middle of the road and continued climbing. It was just a blip, clearly.

Pressing on, I started hitting long straights with perfect gradients: steep enough to make me feel proud to carry on, but not steep enough to scare me off. For the better part of the next forty minutes I rode a slow but rhythmic ascent through the forest and around gentle bends, my pedalling slow and smooth and indistinguishable from the other riders I occasionally saw around me. At one point, I even overtook someone. He had a puncture.

Six kms into the climb, things started to look daunting again, as I passed the first waystone to warn me of 9% gradients. I put my head down and persevered, sure that it would level off soon. A kilometre later, the next waystone also said 9%. As did the one after that. Everything hurt. Even my eyeballs hurt. It felt like someone was squeezing them in their fist. All of my (admittedly inconsiderable) muscles ached, and somewhere beneath them in my lower back, it felt a little like my internal organs were starting to ache as well. I had to stop. Again.

I was in a steep part of the forested section where the long straights are replaced by a series of sharp S-bends, tightly piled atop one another and cutting through the rock of the mountainside. There was nowhere to pull in, so I was forced to climb up onto a low rock shelf and pull the bike up with me for a rest.

Now, I am allergic to alcohol, but I have manfully refused to bow to my booze-related hayfever, and my skull is now riddled with polyps. I can rarely breathe through my nose, and it’s been four years since I last smelt anything (a lengthy course of steroids combined with a flower stall in Marylebone Station to give me a brief whiff of what I’d been missing.) This explains how I was able to spend fifteen minutes resting next to a rotting deer carcass so far past its best that I initially thought it had been dumped there in a bin bag, before I realised what all the black filmy stuff really was. At this point, I should probably make a joke about how the deer still looked like it was having a better time than me, but I’d be lying. Pained and exhausted I might have been, but I was riding up Mont Ventoux (albeit slowly and disjointedly) and it was still proving to be one of the biggest thrills of my life.

Snickers Really Satisfies

Although I resumed my climb, things were starting to become very difficult. I’d finished my first bottle of water and the only food I’d brought with me, a Snickers bar. Not being a professional, and with no real belief that I’d ever approach the summit of the mountain, it had seemed slightly silly to pack energy bars and gel sachets. I didn’t want to be that guy who turns up for a Sunday kick around in Nike Predators and insists on doing a fifteen minute warm up for his twenty minute game.

With hindsight, I doubt it would have made much difference, but as I passed yet another 9% stone even the psychological reassurance that I was burning proper energy to turn the pedals would have been comforting. As it was, I seemed to have no power in my muscles at all, and it was all I could do to keep going until I was out of sight of the Frenchwoman who was cheering and applauding my efforts. I didn’t want to take a breather right after she’d spurred me on. It felt ungrateful.

I stopped again at the next picnic area and quaffed yet more water. Frenchwoman pulled her car in alongside me and began unpacking a selection of bottles and treats for French hubby, who toiled up the hill a few seconds later, dressed in a Liquigas kit and looking like he’d taken inspiration from Ivan Basso. He couldn’t go uphill fast, but he could go uphill forever, long after everyone else had quit.

I waited till they’d moved on, and set off again. Every time I re-started the hill, I’d find that my legs felt fresh and fast, and I’d get a glorious forty-second grace period in which my computer would tell me I was climbing at a very reasonable 11kph. I’d wonder if I’d got through the worst of it. Perhaps the Snickers and the fruit water had somehow combined to make a high energy fuel source previously unsuspected by food scientists? 9Kph. 8Kph. 6Kph and holding. Just.

I was nowhere near the famous bare slopes that start at Chalet Reynard, but the road was starting to rise out of the trees, giving me a longer view of the climb, and more sun.

Labouring again, and starting to wilt during one of the brief sunny spells, I was overtaken by a female cyclist who made a concerned but inarticulate noise as she went past. At this point, I had slowed to barely more than a crawl, and was expending as much strength to keep the bike straight and upright as I was to keep it moving. The distraction of being overtaken was too much and I pulled my feet from the pedals again, lowered my sweaty face onto the stem and began heaving vast gasps of air onboard. The woman’s road buddy, a wiry Frenchman with iron-grey hair who must have been nearly twice my age, stopped beside me, looking very concerned, and said something in French.

Not wanting to waste newly-acquired oxygen by speaking, I smiled, nodded and gave him a limp thumbs up, whilst simultaneously doing the famous Gallic shrug and an exaggerated exhalation to make it clear that I wasn’t offering false bravado, that I knew what a tough time I was having. It must have looked like I was having a fit.

“You ok?” he asked, looking very worried and having worked out that I’m English. I must have got the Gallic shrug wrong. Dead giveaway, that. “You ok? You need me to push you for a while?”

Let me be absolutely clear here in case you missed it. We’re on a f*cking MOUNTAIN. We’re on the mountain that killed Tom Simpson, the mountain that reduced Jean Mallejac to pedalling deliriously at thin air whilst lying by the side of the road, long after they’d taken his bike away from him. French Superman is offering to push me up it. He’s also glancing at what little water I have left and is offering me his Bidon. I could weep. Seriously, the French can burn 50,000 British sheep per year at the roadsides of Calais if they like; after this I will forgive them anything.

I had to pull myself together. He was clearly capable of reaching the summit, and I wasn’t even trying to. The slim risk that I might scupper his chances by taking his water was too much to bear, so I took a deep breath and, with some gestures at my chest and thighs, said that my lungs were fine, it was just my legs that were tired.

He looked reassured by the fact that I’d formed a sentence and some coherent gestures, and asked me where I was heading. I didn’t have the French to say “Oh I’m just pootling on for as long as I can manage”, and I didn’t dare freak him out by saying that I was aiming for the summit, so I said I was aiming for Chalet Reynard. He told me it was another four or five kms, mimed a variety of gradients that all looked pretty unhealthy, then shot off up the road with me yelling “Merci, bravo” at him.

I got my feet back in the straps and made for the next waystone. Unsurprisingly, it said the gradients would continue at 9%.Of course, those gradients are averages for the kilometre, and there can be some pretty fierce variations making up those averages. Shortly after passing a strange building on the left that appeared to have been neatly painted a vibrant orange and then promptly abandoned, I swung around a 90 degree left hand bend, pedalled another ten yards and confronted a hairpin bend so preposterously steep that even as my tyre hit its entrance, its exit appeared to be nearly at head height. By now heedless of the infrequent traffic, I swung into the middle of the road. If I’d gone right to the outer edge and ridden up on the wrong side I’d have made it, but even in the middle of the road it was too much. I stopped again. I now felt like I’d reached the tipping point. I seemed to be spending as much time stationary on the climb as I was riding it.

Using that miraculous burst of strength that follows a pause, a burst which was now tending to last about ten seconds instead of forty, I pushed up through the bend and was lifted completely clear of the forest for the first time. I pulled in alongside a dirt track and pondered the mouthful of water left in my bottle. I was guessing that Chalet Reynard was perhaps 2k or 3k further upwards, but there was apparently something called Petit Moutet 1.4KM away along the side of the mountain. I texted home for a translation, hoping that Moutet meant something along the lines of “gorgeous shop which sells refreshing iced water that will reinvigorate you for further climbing and is well worth a 2.8K round trip.” Apparently not. The best we could come up with was that it might have something to do with sheep. Upwards it was.

At the next stone, another kindly Frenchman offered to take my picture, and told me that after Chalet Reynard it would only be windy, not steep. It was all very encouraging, but by now I was stopping every hundred yards, and spending longer on the resting than I was on the cycling.

I saw my reassuring photographer again at the next stone, and knew that the game was up. My own sense of time had become a little elastic, but I was suddenly aware of my ascent through his eyes, and how long it must have been since we’d spoken a kilometre before. There was no way I was even going to make it to Chalet Reynard at this rate. The next stone, a hundred yards away, would be the last.

I was relieved to see that the 9% gradients would continue - if it had suggested a sudden reduction in severity, I might have wavered. I’d done 11k of a 21k climb. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was really pleased with myself, and already wondering what I might manage if I actually did some training. Nonetheless, and with apologies to Robin the frog, halfway up the climb, is the stone where I quit.

Mont Ventoux still had some things to teach me.Barely a fortnight ago I was scathing about Andy Schleck’s timorous descending. I described his complaints about the descent on stage 16 as petulant whining. I’m not going to be one of those keyboard warriors who claims to be infallible whilst standing in front of a hundred deleted messages. I said it, and I was wrong. If climbing up Ventoux was difficult, riding back down it again was terrifying.

Physics tells us that falling objects accelerate at a speed of 20 feet per second per second until they reach terminal velocity. I don’t know if there’s also a terminal velocity for objects that are rolling, but if there is, I never seemed to come anywhere near it. On the rare occasions when I could uncurl my bloodless knuckles from the brakes I simply got faster, and faster, and faster, until the bike seemed to weigh nothing at all, until merely glancing sideways seemed enough to make the wheels float alarmingly across the road, and still I’d be accelerating.

Unwilling to discover where my speed would max out, I’d squeeze the brakes, only to discover that I’d reached speeds where they initially seemed to have no effect, and that even when I’d squeezed hard enough to drastically cut my speed, I’d still be going too fast to feel capable of controlling the bike. Wrist-crunching brake clenches were required to avoid overshooting the corners and taking the short, fast and painful route off Ventoux, and eventually I decided to just hit the brake and keep it hit the whole way down. Even then, I still lost control at that first hairpin, skidding the back wheel gracelessly round the corner that had made me feel like Charly Gaul several hours before.

Finally, I was back on the flat. Although flat was, by this point, a subjective term - I was still hitting speeds in the 50s without actually pedalling. It was at this point that the fatigue of the climb and the fear of the descent had abated and I finally noticed the pain of the arse. I’d just figured out why cyclists deem it necessary to wear lycra even when they aren’t actively competing. It’s not the aerodynamics, it’s the padding.

Ok, I only got halfway up. Maybe I should be ashamed of that, but I’m not. Not even a little bit. I’m proud of my 50% ascent of Ventoux, and looking forward to trying for the summit next time. Just in case you’re wondering why I’m so proud, have a look at this photo of Mont Ventoux. Up a bit. Up a bit. There it is, above the clouds.

In Memory of a Harworth Cyclist...

I’ve brought a couple of stones from the summit of Ventoux a couple of kms down to rest on the Tom Simpson memorial.

I’d have liked to have left him something more significant, something that dated back to when I first fell in love with cycling and heard his name. Sadly, time and repeated house moves have got rid of practically everything cycling-related I owned in that period. Even if it hadn’t, I’m not sure Tom Simpson was ever quite as tasteless as I was when I was a teenager, and probably wouldn’t have been impressed by a pair of metallic purple, crochet-backed riding gloves.

Still, bringing a bit of the summit down to meet him seems like such an obvious ploy that I expect everyone does it. I hope scientists don’t soon start reporting that Mont Ventoux is getting shorter and fatter. It might end up like Chesil Beach, where removing the stones is now an offence.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The unluckiest team of the Tour?

Still here on Ventoux, wondering when I'll get back to televised sports and musing on the last televised sport I actually saw.

Most British cycling fans will currently be remembering the way that Cadel Evans spent most of the Dauphine Libere’s mountain stages closing small gaps to Bradley Wiggins’ back wheel and thinking to themselves “oh, what might have been?” But before we get too self-pitying about Bradley’s crash ruining Sky’s Tour, maybe we should stop to think about poor old Radioshack. After all, to lose one leader may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose three looks like carelessness.

Of course, losing four GC men and being able to say “It’s alright, we’ve still got Levi Leipheimer.” suggests a worrying lack of focus in the ‘shacks back room anyway. It probably stems from the days when Johann Bruyneel’s teams were built around a grumpy Texan and any rider who looked capable of spoiling Lance’s party would be signed up on fat wages as a super-domestique for Lance. Bruyneel is a man who’s used to fielding a lot of GC contenders at once; it’s just that this is the first time he’s done so without knowing who was really in charge on the road. With most of the squad approaching pensionable age and no sponsor lined up to take over from the departing Radioshack, Bruyneel’s super squad needed to perform. Unfortunately, having four leaders seemed to mean they had four times as many lightning rods for bad luck.

Levi Leipheimer fared best, finishing an hour and three minutes behind Evans after a series of crashes. At least he made it to Paris. Andreas Kloden once again proves to have far less desire than ability and quit on stage 13 after losing time to a sore elbow. Chris Horner and Janez Brajkovic offered rather more manly excuses for quitting: Horner rode to the finish of stage 7 with a concussion before supposedly asking if the race was still on, while Brajkovic also suffered a concussion on stage 5 but didn’t try to continue due to the fact that he’d broken his collarbone as well. There are probably a few Flandrian cycling fans out there who think such lack of gumption is shameful, but the rest of us are just glad that he’s young and will bounce back, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the squad. Finally there was Yaroslav Popovych, the former Tour and Giro top ten finisher whose Google search suggestions progress to ”Yaroslav Popovych Doping” with indecent haste. He failed to start stage 10 after suffering with a fever.

As if all that weren’t enough, Johan Bruyneel himself was pulled over during the race and breathalysed, something only marginally more embarrassing than his moonlight disappearance from this year’s Giro D’Italia when the hotel raids started. After years of triumph, the man has become a magnet for bad press.

With that in mind, the online wailing and gnashing of teeth over Bradley’s crash seems a little less justifiable. Sure, for British fans it’s hugely disappointing, but suggestions that Sky had the worst luck in the race are unfounded. They may have lost their leader, but they have two stage wins, Geraint Thomas has signed on for three more years, and they don’t face the sponsorship uncertainty of Bruyneel’s men. The next time we’re lamenting Sky’s misfortune let’s stop and remember that it could be worse - they could be Radioshack.

The Euro-Cycling Awards: Tour De France 2011

I'm lucky enough to be holidaying on Mt Ventoux, about which more later. It's quiet and relaxing and leaves me with plenty of time for thought, and what else would I be thinking about at the foot of Mt Ventoux?

Biggest Winner: Cadel Evans.
Sometime the biggest winner of the Tour isn’t necessarily the man who claims the Maillot Jaune. By the time Miguel Indurain claimed his fifth maillot jaune in 1995 his victory was seen as almost inevitable. Laurent Jalabert’s spirited attempt to claim it for himself on the road to Mende, on the other hand, established Jaja’s transformation from fat sprinter to top class GC rider as a fact. This year, however, the Tour winner and the Tour’s winner are one and the same. With some exciting attacks, gutsy defending and a strong time trial, Cadel Evans has erased from cycling’s collective memory his slappy hissy fit in 2009 or his unexpected inability to wrest control of the race from Carlos Sastre in the final TT of 08. No longer is he the grouchy nearly man, from now on he is Cadel Evans: Champion.

Biggest Loser: Andy Schleck.
It could all have been very different. The retrograde bravery of Schleck’s three-mountain dash through the Alps would have erased all memory of his stage 16 whingeing fit if only it had secured him overall victory. But it didn’t, which is why the lasting impression of Andy’s 2011 Tour will be his petulant whining that people don’t want to see dangerous downhills where fey Luxembourgeouis lose 70 odd seconds on their rivals. He claimed it shouldn’t have been allowed, but it didn’t seem to bother the 35 guys who finished ahead of him.

Jens Voigt Award for Conspicuous Toughness: Johnny Hoogerland
No surprise here. The injury itself isn’t in the same class as all those broken collarbones, wrists and vertebrae ridden through by the likes of Hamilton, Evans or Riis in previous GTs, but the psychological shock of being propelled off the road and into a barbed wire fence by a swerving car adds an extra layer of horror to those 33 stitches that Hoogerland rode to the finish with. His “Leeroy Jenkin’s” method of attacking has caused fans to question his sanity in the past, but no one will ever question his guts.

Johnny Hoogerland Award for Moves of Dubious Sanity: Jens Voigt
Ok, it’s his job to carry bottles and his nature to turn negatives into positives, but the sight of Jens Voigt falling off a mountain one minute, then body-checking France the next, before merrily going back to the team car to load up on bottles was crackers. Take a breath Jens, get the adrenaline twitches out of your system before messing with your weight distribution in front of a moving car on a steep mountain road.

Biggest Villain: France 2/3’s Hospitality Driver
I was tempted to give this to all the second tier sprinters who claim Cavendish is getting towed over the mountains whilst they’re busy being towed over the mountains. In any other Tour that would have clinched it, but this Tour had an obvious and embarrassing villain, and for once it wasn’t Ricardo Ricco. Worryingly, most Tour drivers are ex-riders themselves, so there’s a good chance that Johnny Hoogerland’s 33 stitches were dished out by someone who really should have known better.

Best Attack: Evans’ Downhill
He may have only grabbed a few seconds from Contador and Sanches, but Evans’ attack on stage 16 was about more than just time, it was about breaking from the norm and attack your rivals on a transition stage where everyone would normally be watching the breakaway. It was an unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable attack that made the Tour for me. Ruined it for Andy Schleck though.

Worst Defeat: Edvald Boasson Hagen
We can’t mock Edvald Boasson-Hagen with any real sincerity. After all, he had shingles a fortnight before the Tour yet still managed to turn up and bag two stages. Plenty of teams would have traded a years budget for that. Still, it so easily could have been three. On stage 16 Boasson-Hagen had a solid spot, behind Ryder Hesjedal for the launch but ahead of the brilliant but not-as-fast-as-he-used-to-be Hushovd. For a rider of Boassan-Hagen’s calibre it should have been a simple matter of spending more time looking backwards than forwards, making sure Hushovd couldn’t jump him until he was ready to jump Hesjedal. Sadly, you can pinpoint the single second when Boassan-Hagen’s concentration broke, the brief but pivotal lag between checking his front and turning back to cover his rear that was all Hushovd needed to get the drop in his compatriot.