Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Chateauroux 9 July

Chateauroux – 9 July

Had a lovely ride with the lads today, ten of us, average age about 63. A 73k rolling route, with 850 metres climbing in total. We went over to the motorway from Bédarieux, via Octon, and then back past Lac de Salagou and Salasc (for those who have maps and care). I am finally getting a bit of fitness. It is a pattern: I get a bit fit, then something like bad weather, a trip, being ill or whatever puts me back to “not very fit”. I often find a bit of form during the Tour, maybe to compensate for sitting in front of the TV and computer screens so much. Anyway it is good to feel slightly fit, even though I have not done any serious climbs for months, and my kilometrage is not wildly impressive.

One thing that I like about days like today, when there is a mass sprint for the stage win, is that you don’t have to study the results very much to write about it. Things are simple. Yellow jersey the same, nearly all the time gaps the same. Nothing much happens in those terms. Although I was particularly sad to see Mauricio Soler give up the struggle today.

Nevertheless, the sprint finish was a very good one. Edge of the seat for the last few minutes. I was emotionally there. The last breakaway guy got caught maybe 30 metres from the end, and it was the French champion! Sometimes you could not write a better scenario if you made it up. The green jersey favourite (for many people) finally got to put it on. A victory for an extremely young, but totally fast ENGLISH sprinter, although I don’t know yet if Manx people like to be NOT called English. The top ten looks like a proper sprint finish for the first time in the Tour. You don’t have to explain why certain riders are where they are. In fact, the first 20 riders are all fast men, although I admit that I don’t know anything about number 18 and 20. Countryside a bit boring, although since I knew that, I stayed away until the last 50k. The “Centre” of France does not really interest me much, not least because it is full of British people seeking a “good deal” on housing, and then getting bored silly because nothing goes on there. Having said that, I did see a fantastic chateau, with a moat and pointy towers. Probably I missed many others.

Details. I was delighted that Mark Cavendish won his first Tour stage, even though it surprised no one. In the interview afterwards, he seemed a “very nice young man”. In addition, he claimed that he was going to try and go all the way to Paris (although many think he will drop out in the mountains to prepare for the Olympic track races) out of respect for his teammates, his employer and the Tour de France. As a kid he had always dreamed of winning a stage in the Tour and his dream had come true. Frankly, it sounded totally and utterly sincere. I have taken an immediate liking to the guy. However, it must be said that the most important thing is that he is fast, terrifically fast. He beat them all in a straight fair sprint on a flat wide road. It appears that he has a pack of the finest lead-out guys you could imagine. Imagine yourself four kilometres from the line. I have no idea how the team works this out, but you begin with Lovkvist, a superb time trialist. Then you have Hincapie, also a superb time trialist, and former top notch sprinter with oodles of experience. Then you go over to maybe Bernard Eisel, who used to be the “best sprinter” on some team or other. Somewhere in there Cavendish follows Kim Kirchen for a bit, and then tops it off with Gerald Ciolek, winner of numerous sprints, tipped to be the German inheritor of the Zabel mantle. I mean even if two of those guys are tired already, what a lead-out train. Absolutely brilliant, probably the best on earth. Not just speed but experience as well. Then you have the guy to finish it off, proof, today. I must try to find the order they use the guys in Team Columbia.

Just found this. “Cavendish has often been referred to as the new Robbie McEwen, but with his dedicated lead-out train is quite something else. The Columbia team - formerly named Team High Road - took control of the stage with Marcus Burghardt and Thomas Lövkvist while the speed work was done by Adam Hansen, George Hincapie, Bernhard Eisel and Kim Kirchen in the final 10 kilometres. Hincapie led from 1600 metres, Kirchen took over into the final kilometre while Eisel eased off the gas to gap his captain's rivals. The US-sponsored team held off challenges from both Liquigas and Quick Step, who were trying to lead out for Francesco Chicchi and Gert Steegmans. "It was a little hectic at the end," described Cavendish. "I lost Gerald [Ciolek]'s wheel and then he picked me up at 1200 metres to go and then Gerald went at 600 metres to go." I don’t quite get the role of Ciolek, but hey.

Thor Hushovd got well beaten, but finished second to take the green jersey from Kim Kirchen. He said he was beginning to get a bit worried about Kirchen as a competitor. I doubt he worried about Cavendish yet, as no one knows if he is sticking it out or even if he can handle the mountains. I also note that if Robbie McEwen does not win VERY soon, he is going to have NO HOPE at all of winning the green jersey. Certainly Geert Steegmans, a favourite for some people, is completely out it now. Otherwise the race is open, and is almost certain to be open until after the Pyrenées, maybe even after the Alps. It begins to look already as if it might be decided on the Champs Elysées. Although I always dream that will happen.

The pre-Tour show that I watched before I took my nap had a short feature on the feeding zone, the “ravitaillement”. They had Gerard Holz there with the camera waiting for the peloton to roll by. Only one of the escapees took the musette, the small cloth bag that contains food and drink. The other escapees would have taken nourishment from their cars, as the cars can ride near them when they are way ahead of the peloton. The other riders have to watch for the team helpers, who wear distinctive team garb, and stand in roughly the same place in each feeding zone. The feeding zones have a start and end, no one can pick up musettes anywhere else without small fines. As they ride by at maybe 40k per hour (everyone slows down a bit) they grab the long straps of the musette (little cloth bag) which is hanging from the outstretched arm of the helper. They then stuff the food into their pockets as fast as they can, and throw away the musette and any old water bottles. The best place to collect the discarded musettes is less five hundred metres from the end of the feeding zone. They are really fast getting rid of them. The zone is quite long, several hundred meters, but inside the zone there is lots of competition and a bit of what might be called organised chaos. The one time I tried to pick up the discarded stuff, I stood too far away from the end, not realising they were so quick in stuffing the food and drink into their pockets, and the water bottles into the cages. But I did, thanks to Naurika, manage to pick up a genuine Tour de France Coco-Cola water bottle, which could possibly be Greg Lemond’s. I have photos to prove it could be true. I still have the bottle. The TV guys also went into some detail about the kinds of energy bars, fruit bars, tarts, little cans of Coke, and other bits that they hand to the riders. It was a nice feature. It is also dangerous and riders crash while picking up musettes and stuffing the goods in their pockets.

One odd thing about Gerolsteiner, Schumacher and the yellow jersey. These days most teams have a special all yellow uniform, a bike, a helmet, gloves or something that is flashy, ready for riders that might win the jersey. Schumacher simply has the jersey and nothing else. I guess they really didn’t think he would win it. You can make a new jersey in no time, and send it to the team really quickly. Maybe tomorrow he will have something a bit flashier.

Saw another example of folk art today, even though I didn’t watch much. It was in Indre, which apparently has four regions. The outline was of a heart, pretty big, with individuals on the border of the heart, waving various umbrellas. The inside had four divisions with symbols in each for the regions. One had cheese and wine, but I really didn’t recognise the others, nor did the announcer. Day after day, the people of France put on their own show to accompany the Tour. If it good enough, the helicopter circles around the display and they all get their minute of fame.

Once again I enjoyed watching the changing shape of the peloton as they “decided”, or not, to chase the breakaway. They never want to catch the escapees too far away, otherwise some rider will try to breakaway again, and they will have to work harder at the end. Today it was mostly Credit Agricole (Hushovd), Gerolsteiner (Forster, Haussler) and Columbia (Cavendish) who did the work. Toward the end, Quick Step (Steegmans, who is leaving the team) did a bit too. At one point, Chavanel moved up the front and tried to slightly disrupt the rhythm to help his guy stay away in the break. He was given a wee push and told to piss off, although he is perfectly entitled to do that. Anyway the wonderful opportunity to see the helicopter shot is something that we should all take advantage of for the race. It’s only the big budget international races that give you this perspective. Fignon is particularly good at spotting changes in the shape of the peloton and guessing what it means. He is really a very smart buy and is a superb commentator.

Toward the end, about 10k out, Hincapie got a puncture. Watching him ride from the back to the front of the peloton, as he has responsibilities for Cavendish, was a wonder. Even though I only saw a few seconds. For young riders just maintaining their place is hard enough. One false move and suddenly you drop back forty positions, at the end of the race. And you have to be a bit strong too, as you have to ride faster than guys who are already riding fast. He just drifted through the cars to the tail end of the peloton, slid off to one side, and suddenly he was a third of the way up the peloton. I would love to watch a feature on how he (and the other experienced riders) do it. How can you glide up a huge group of elbow to elbow riders going at maybe 60kph? Experience, strength and a bit of respect gained over a few years of riding!

In case you were concerned about Valverde’s crash, it appears he is all right. Crashes always leave their trace, but there was a long interview with a team director that claimed he was fine. They had shots of his scrapes on elbow, calf and somewhere else, but they really did not look deep. Of course he claimed he was fine and smiled at the TV camera, thumbs up. But then he would. We shall see in the next day or two. I would be extremely disappointed if he drops out or is seriously handicapped. He already dropped out once, or is it twice, on account of a crash/injury. As Jalabert pointed out, neither Armstrong nor Indurain had a crash on the Tour. You can’t win if you crash. He was a bit wrong about Armstrong, as he did crash once, but in general, if a rider crashes more than once or twice, it is NOT an accident, even though it is called an accident.

By the way, I might have been hard on Ricco the other day, claiming he did a terrible time trial, same time as Thor Hushovd, a sprinter. On reflection, maybe he is a clever guy. You will recall I said that anyone wanting to be let loose in the mountains to either win a stage with a long attack, or to notch up loads of points for the mountain jersey, will have to do a terrible time trial. Then they are no threat to anyone in the General Classification for yellow. Well, maybe that is just what he did. Maybe he really has NO HOPES AT ALL for the yellow jersey this year, and merely wants to make a huge splash, do something dramatic in the mountains. The proof will be if he attacks in the mountains, while still four or ten minutes behind the big guns.

Samuel Dumoulin is married to the daughter of his old team director. She smothered him in kisses when he won.

Four of the top five young riders are likely to stay there until the end. We just have to figure out what the order will be. Although the French guy Montfort (the fifth one) might be better than I think. Ricco might move up if he attacks, which he will. He will be the fifth before long.

The mayor of the village Feillu is from said he would give him a hectare of land opposite his parents if he won the yellow jersey. Apparently the mayor is keeping his word and Romain is really happy. Not everyone I know would want to build their new house opposite their parents. It has building permission, not unrelated to the mayor owning it, as he gives permission. You must all have heard about Romain Feillu overcoming a leg being shorter, a long recovery from the corrective operation and toxoplasmosis to win the jersey. If not, look it up, as it’s a good story.

This stage was the longest of the Tour. Naurika worked out that it was the distance, as a crow flies, from Bédarieux to Clermont Ferrand. Awesome. In the middle of the afternoon! Even if it was flat.

I am feeling a bit poorly today. I woke up with a dry throat and it has not gone away. I get colds often that start this way, so I might be a bit out of it for a few days.