Thursday, 21 March 2013

All In A Good Cause...

Check this lot out:

These guys are doing between 75 and 85 miles a day for a week with some hills thrown in, and they're a mix of day cyclists and beginners. Just short of a century every day for a week. That's tough for a serious club rider, inconceivable to a dedicated potterer like me, and insanely challenging for these guys. You've got to be pretty brave just to set out on something like that. When they finish, they're not going to be able to walk for a day or sit comfortably for a week. And they're doing it all for Leukaemia and Lymphoma research. That's worthy of a donation, surely?

The ride is being organised by Dan Exelby, who suffered from Leukaemia as teenager and is celebrating  25 years since being given the all clear. Every time I read about it, it's this line from his Mum (former Tomorrow's World presenter Judith Hann) that gets me:

"Despite all my contacts in science and medicine, at the time I could not find any families who had a success story to tell about a teenager with leukaemia."

I can't even imagine what it must feel like to be told that your child has Leukaemia,but to have to cope with that knowledge without being able to find anything to give you hope, not one surviving teenager to make you think that possibly everything would be ok, I don't know how you do that. Again, I think it probably just comes down to immense bravery.

So basically what I'm saying is that there's a bunch of guys who have gone tap-tap-curly-wurly and are doing something wacky-brave in memory of when a family had to be stoic-brave. Again, worth a donation, surely?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Hero of The Week: Ian Stannard

Seriously, he rode like a trooper in the atrocious weather at Milan-San Remo. When the finishing sprint comes, look at the state of Peter Sagan's legs, look at how slowly he winds up the power, he's got no strength left. That's from chasing Stannard's repeated attacks. Well, that and riding 300kM. Here we are, less than a week later, and who is it powering the breakaway at Dwaars door Vlandeeren? Ian Stannard again. Hard as nails and totally fucking relentless. It's like having Sean Yates back in the peloton, except without the earring, dodgy dye job and dubious acquaintances.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

When is a race too tough?

I'm very fortunate to work from home. Most cycling fans find a way to watch the Classics and the Grand Tours, but it's a rare office that will let you put Eurosport on the telly mid-afternoon, so many of the smaller races get missed. Back when I was in an office, I really only saw the Tour and a few of the Monuments most years. I much prefer being able to organize my working day in  order down tools mid afternoon and watch stuff like this:

That's a climb, signposted as 30%, widely quoted as 27%, which they went over three times. Some riders got off and walked. Team cars were held back at times so they could tackle the hill at speed rather than burning out their clutches trying to move at the pace of the peloton. It destroyed the breakaway, strung out the pack, and eventually allowed for a race changing break to develop featuring Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan and  Joaquim Rodriguez. It was probably the most dramatic day of racing so far this year. Funnily enough, race organiser Michele Acquarone pretty much instantly renounced it, saying, among other things:

"If you lose half your peloton, you just have to be honest and learn from mistake"

" If riders are not happy, fans are not happy and I'm not happy too. Sometimes it's not easy to find the right balance"

"I loved it too, but it's a matter of balance. Without balance you fall down. After Prati di Tivo and Chieti it was too much."

In fact, those quotes are from his Twitter feed and were addressed at fans and journalists while the race was still going on. Acquarone is a smart, likeable man who genuinely seems to have cycling's best interests at heart and has bravely wrenched the Giro d'Italia and it's sibling races away from the dead end pursuit of ever crueller climbs. If he wants to avoid stages like that, then it's fine by me.

Having said that, I do think that balance, as Acquarone says himself, is the key. Whenever there's a great big monster of a stage like this, fans go nuts for the spectacle of it all, riders complain that it's too much, and doomsayers announce that difficult stages are an incitement to doping.

I have to say, I look at Tirreno-Adriatico stage 6 and think of it as being akin to a Spring Classic. Three ascents of a hill that hits 27% is brutal, but think of the Tour of Flanders. Ok, the steepest hills in that top out at 22 to 24%, but there are a damn sight more than three of them. I seem to recall an edition not so long ago that had over 20 climbs in the last 50km, many of them breaking the 20% mark. No one says the Tour of Flanders is too much, or an incitement to doping. And why? Because it's not in the middle of a stage race.

Tirreno-Adriatico stage 6 wasn't a bad route, but it did come the day after the queen stage to Prato di Tivo. Had the route found a way to isolate the two stages from each other, they would have been acceptable. Ok, there would still have been some grumbling simply because Tirreno-Adriatico is stage race ridden by stage racers, who have a different skill set to you typical Flandrian hardman classics specialist who would normally specialise in terrain like we saw on stage 6. Bu the complaints wouldn't have been the angsty "we'll never do it again, we promise" display that we actually got. Of course, Tirreno will always struggle to separate stages like that from each other due to it's point-to-point nature. It's not like Tirreno can head East, East, East, then suddenly head West to create a break between mountains. It's got to go from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic coast, that's its raison d'etre. But the larger point, the point that applies to all races, still stands: tough days aren't the problem, it's lack of balance that causes trouble.

Take this year's impending double-ascent of Alpe D'Huez. No sooner was it announced than doomsayers were crying all over the internet that going up Alpe D'Huez twice in a stage was too much, that it would force the riders to dope. I'm not sure where all those PED-predictors have been in previous years, when Alpe D'Huez has been preceded by a run over the Col du Galibier. Do they think that's a speed bump? Again, peppering a race with hard stages isn't an incitement to doping, it's just a challenge for certain specialists to exploit, while others try to survive in order to exploit other parts of the parcours. That's part of the joy of stage racing, that hitting someone on the terrain or day that best suits you doesn't mean they won't strike back later on. Three mountainous days in the Pyrenees separated by a week and two rest days from three more mountainous days in the Alps isn't an excessivley brutal incitement to doping, it's a selection of opportunities for riders to attack and defend.

Of course, if you want to see race route that's left balance far, far behind and would have pretty much anyone reaching for the bags in the 'special fridge', then look no further than this year's Vuelta. It will feature 41 climbs including the awe-inspiring 28% slopes of the Alto del Angliru, split over 13 mountain stages. Yep, 13 of the 21 stages will be mountain stages. That, I'll admit, might be an inducement to dope. On the other hand, it might also be an inducement to defensive riding, survival tactics and a general agreement to keep things tranquilo until the final few Kms of each stage. It might turn out like 2011's Giro, where everyone was so afraid of what was to come that the first decisive attack pretty much won the race on stage 9 and left us with a loooong procession to stage 21 in Milan. Oh, and a lengthy court case, garbled rulings, reversals and the eventual stripping of the title from Alberto Contador. But that all came later. The point is, just because a race route is hard doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get a Tour De France 95-style fizzing drug fuelled battle in which even porky sprinters contest the race lead over the mountains. You might. But equally, you might just kill the race stone dead. I think it will probably say good things for cycling if this year's Vuelta is ridden defensively, but even if it does turn out to be a suspicious battle of the supermen, it won't be because a given stage was too hard, it will be because the race itself is deeply unbalanced.

Anyway, that's my rant in praise of brutal stages and opposing brutal stage races. In the meantime, here's the full TV coverage of the stage that inspired it:

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Defending Richie Porte

I'll turn this into a proper post when I've got a keyboard to hand, but for now, typing on my phone, I'm just going for a quick placeholder, a grumpy statement of intent.

Twitter has kicked off on Richie Porte. Loads of "he's never ridden like that before" and one description of his ride yesterday as being "Pantani-esque." They obviously remember a different Pantani to me, as I don't recall him building his fanbase on 1.5 km grinds to the line like Porte's.

As for Porte having no previous, he's a fourth year pro, how much previous do they want him to have? He's had a top ten in the Giro, and the one other time he's been team leader in stage race, he won it. Seems to me he's got just the right amount of history, not so much that he seems suspiciously overdeveloped, and not so little that yesterday represents an unexpected rise in quality.

I'm starting to hate the "all winners must be cheats" mentality as much as the old head in the sand attitude.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Actual Chris Boardman

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk by Ned Boulting and cheekily headlined it "The Man, The Legend, The Chris Boardman Impersonator." Yesterday, I went to the Triathlon Show and the man himself was there, and I can report that the resemblance isn't just some trick of the TV. They really do look very similar. They also both have a similar demeanor: warm, self-deprecating and very easy to talk to.

In Boardman's case he pointed out that it was only his first time at the Tri Show, and that he'd never been invited to the London Bike Show. He speculated that he was too grumpy to get an invite.  I remember phoning him up 14 years ago from my student digs to ask for an interview. I didn't have anywhere lined up to publish it, and my dictaphone was in fact my flatmate Andy, who sat by the phone and diligently wrote down everything Boardman said as I repeated it. Despite the half-baked approach and parrot-like nature of the conversation, Boardman gave me two hours of his time, mid-season, and I still occasionally use clippings of the Procycling article that was the result.

He was equally forthcoming at the Tri Show. Everyone who queued up to speak to him got a decent chat and the chance for a photo. Like Ned, he also reckons that Wiggo's waging a psychological war against Chris Froome that Froome won't be able to cope with.

As far as the Tri Show is concerned, it was better than the London Bike Show though I feel slightly treacherous saying that. As a rule, I think Triathlon contains two sports too many, but despite its broader remit to cover swimming and running too, the Tri Show actually feels more focused than the London Bike Show's array of racing bikes, shopping bikes, folding bikes, porridge dealers, travel agents and charity recruiters. There's no such thing as a Triathlon Commuter, or a just-doing-a-Triathlon-to-the-shops, or a quick Triathlon round the park. Everyone at the Tri Show was an athlete of some sort or another, and everything at the show reflected that.