Sunday, 5 July 2009

Stage 2 - 5 July

Stage Two. 5 July 2009

You could be one of those people a little impatient for some real action to begin. I am a bit like that. After all, I predicted both today's and yesterday's winners, and am tied with about six guys in our small forum “Tour de France prediction game”. But most of me is not like that. I am loving the Tour. I always do at the beginning. I get a scholar's joy from all the little facts I learn, because I spend more time than usually possible, reading about and watching the Tour. I look forward to “getting into the ambiance”: did you see the utterly sumptuous countryside, châteaus, the Med, little houses, quirky residents welcoming the Tour, everyone showing their gimmick to get on TV, the first breakaway, the first sprint finish. You can just slowly slide into it so when the real action starts (for the yellow jersey) you are ready: the attacks, the escapes, the tragedies that lose or gain minutes, the feats of heroism (and medical feats too).

So nearly everyone thought Cavendish would win. Shame he can't wear yellow on account of time bonuses for winning or placing in a stage, but there are none this year in the Tour. Besides he loafed through the ITT in Monaco, so he has no chance to take yellow. Unlike many previous Tours, the sprinters do not get a crack at wearing the yellow jersey temporarily, until the first climb or time trial comes along. Well, no one in our forum predicted Boonen would win, but Haussler, Farrar, Freire, O'Grady, Bennati and Napolitano all got bets. I have not yet figured out the crash at the end, which deprived us of a proper grand finish. Guys who design courses like that should have a month's salary deducted. The French coverage focussed on Koldo Fernandez who crashed first, but that does not mean he caused it. Must examine minutely.

Grand Motte tomorrow could be better, as the route is totally and utterly flat, nearly. No sharp bends near the end. There are several level crossings and probably an on ramp. Good to see “the first escape”. As it happened I had almost no personal interest in the escape, no one I liked and wanted to win the stage was in it. So I only had that slightly abstract support for ALL escapes. This one, well, I preferred to see if Cavendish would win. The break was eaten up in a not very dramatic way. As a spectacle, I prefer catching the break about a hundred metres before the finish, the gulp rather than the dainty morsel chewed up out in the country, kilometres from the finish. It was also good to see the various lead-out trains in this race. Looks like it will be quite fun watching them race. Too bad they can't beam up the very few sprinters who are missing, and have them drop in for the finish without counting as being in the Tour. We never have EVERY good sprinter in any race. But I have to say that the Columbia team is as good a lead-out team as any I have seen. I am totally sure they could hold their own with any of the recent “trains”. But the Cervelo team, the Quick Step team, Garmin team, the Milram team and to really surprise us, the Bouygue team, working for their sprinters. They seem to have Said Haddou, William Bonnet listed as sprinters, but clearly Arashiro has a serious turn of speed too, even if he is described as a puncheur. Apparently this is the best Tour finish of any Japanese rider in human history. We gradually see the field of sprinters defining itself, but if Boonen, Bennati and Freire were not in the mix today, we will have a better one to come tomorrow.

Nothing much happened today, unless you are the Finnish nation. In which case, if they show the Tour or mention it on TV, the entire nation will be drinking late into the night celebrating the very first Finnsh rider in human history to wear a distinctive jersey in the Tour (yellow, green, spotted etc). In Jussi Veikkanen's (globalisation means you have to look carefully before spelling the names of riders) case, tomorrow he will wear the jersey of the best climber. He was in the break all day, and nipped off on the hills to pick up the points he needed. I have heard of this guy, this is not a totally freak accident, he is good. So he could keep the jersey until after the finish in Perpignan, maybe Barcelona. Maybe. There are maybe ten hills between here and Barcelona that count as categorised climbs. Anyone escaping for the day can get enough points to move up a bit, but I think Jussi could still be in spots as the Tour leaves France. All the other jerseys are the same, nothing to report. Poor Finnish guy! At the victory ceremony, he had to give air kisses to the podium girls who gave him the prize and the flowers. It varies in France how many you give. Normally I would expect three all along the coast, including Brignoles. But in contrast to Hérault, where three kisses gets the majority vote, two is majority for Bouches du Rhône, where the stage ended. But nevertheless, it does vary within regions, and I think that they should teach this variation to the podium girls, so foreign riders don't look silly. Jussu gave her two, and then made the move for three, at which point she turned away. Poor young lad ended up looking a fool for one second on global TV. Funny thing is that Marc Madiot (his team boss) said he was a “local” of that region. So he knew very well how many kisses. It was the podium girl that messed up, she is from a two kiss area. Bad training from the TDF crew. Loved it when the commentator said Jew-sue as the guys name and Madiot, who no doubt mangles names like a Frenchman, corrected him and said you-sue.

I forgot to mention that LL Sanchez, one of the big young outsiders for the GC did an ITT (individual time trial) every bit as horrible as Menchov. Still, in the end it might not matter. L'Equipe gave “marks” out of ten for the ITT. Cancellara 10. Contador 9. Klöden and Kreuziger 8 Leipheimer 7. Armstrong and A Schleck 6. Sastre 5. And Menchov 2. In truth of fact, although I usually like that kind of thing, it is pretty useless, no? The paper also told me that Sastre was well pissed off that he could not wear yellow. They had yellow gloves, helmet and clothing ready to show the world. Some badly communicated “internal rule” (not the first we will come across) after the Landis year, to prevent the previous year's winner from entering and wearing the yellow. The previous winner can only start last, as Sastre did. Petty or what? Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) owner of the Tour and many other sporting events, as well as l'Equipe, strikes out again with bad communication and stupid rules.

The TV guys seem to say the roadside is packed out, more than ever before. I suppose they would say that, wouldn't they? They have a commodity to sell. But it does look like that. Drugs don't keep them away, and Lance (and the 179 others) bring them in. The people are loving it. Charlie Wegelius, the Finnish born English rider, apparently speaks seven languages. In addition he is a very good time trailler and climber. Might be fun to see how he does. He only got to ride on account of Thomas Dekker (maybe) being in trouble over drugs.

I was wondering: if the Columbia guys have to ride hard tomorrow to take back a break, will they be tired for the TTT (team time trial). I mean going like nutters for ten k or so is no big deal, but they were on the front for many k today. They succeeded in winning the stage, but at what cost in the TTT. Maybe they made a guess that they could win a couple of stages OR the TTT. Otherwise that would be three days in a row of not being able to hide at all, riding hard for many k.

I knew they would interview Cyril Dessel, him being one of two French riders in the escape. He is a good rider, keeps fit, tries his luck. Has actually got lucky and attacking has paid off for him. Stage win, also one of the 82 Frenchmen in human history to have worn the maillot jaune. I am sure he is a great neighbour. But when you turn him on, he just gushes nonsense and cycling platitudes for minutes. A bit like Moreau. But with no humour, and a huge portion of self importance. Massive immodesty. Makes Lance look withdrawn and shy.

So we are still warming up in a way. The gaps are not very great, the overall hierarchy is still not clear. How well the young riders can handle the race is not clear, although we certainly do have a number of young riders who are doing quite well. We don't know the dominant team, although everyone is saying Astana. Hard to argue that they will do less than superbly in the time trial,with four of their riders in the top ten on account of doing a great time trial. The other Astana guys were just resting anyway, they had no reason al all to pull hard. They can be the five last guys in the GC and still do their jobs.

Tomorrow, one person on my forum said Hushovd and another said Ciolek. I go with the huge majority and pick Cavendish. Something has to go wrong for him to be beaten, he and his team are that good. Picks vary for the TTT, but I am going for Columbia. And as it happens, if plans go right, I can jump in the pool ten steps away after the final result is known. South of France or what.

The paper does tell us some interesting things too. And right now, there is not a lot of analysis for me to do. I mean, nothing much has “happened”. Although I mentioned the Columbia cooling device, apparently the Rabobank had some kind of electric pump that pumped ice water into the jersey of the riders to cool them off until the start. Didn't work for Menchov. Hinault was interviewed and said he thought of the map of the stage as follows: the TTT in Montpellier, the Barcelona finish, the long stage ending in the climb up Arcalis, the two stages in the Pyrenées which might suit some non-climber, the transition stages across the centre of France to the Vosges where sprints might happen or might not, the stage to Colmar with the dreaded Col de Platzerwassel that is beginning to fall from lips, the uphill fish at Verbier, the Queen stage to Grand Bornand, the ITT in Annecy and the Ventoux. I can just about follow all that across the map of France.

The three oldest teams, averaging 31, are Cervelo, Astana and AG2R.

How is this for a prediction, Bradley Wiggins next in yellow? His team is a very high class time trialling outfit, Garmin, and he is only 19 seconds back. So if Garmin do well, the Brits amongst you can celebrate. Actually I will too. With Cavendish and Wiggins in those jerseys, it will be a great page one for Britain. Unheard of in human history maybe.

So another sprint stage tomorrow, getting us nicely ready for the trip into Montpellier for the day to suck up the atmosphere, and see some friends. Watch a bit of cycling on the big screen in the Big Square, and then a smaller screen in my buddy's house. We booked lunch in a brasserie which should be right next to where they park the buses,so we can oggle a bit while eating. Should be a good day.

Must get to bed, and I have not even looked over the standings. Looks like Bennati, Boonen, Fernandez, Napolitano, Freire, Hutarovich and O'Grady, at least, were involved in the crash. Hope they are all up and well and ready to blow away La Grand Motte. Along with all the other top ten or even fifteen from today. I do like the sprints. And there are a lot of other sprinters ready to pick up the pieces if Cav messes up. I suppose nearly all of you know that you can get a reply of the stages, certainly the last few k on You Tube every night. Like today

Good night.