The Long Road To Paris

Have you ever ridden a bike for 180 km in a single day? Ever woken up the next day and, with your legs screaming in agony thought ‘that was fun, let’s do it again’? Ever done this for three weeks straight over some of the toughest mountain passes in Europe? Didn’t think so, but this is the challenge facing the world’s elite road cyclists in the coming weeks.

Champs Elysees empty for Le Tour

The Champs Elysees shuts down every Summer for the climax of Le Tour. Photo: sacratomato_hr

Yes it’s Tour de France time, the biggest bike race in the world is commonly referred to as simply ‘The Tour’. There are numerous other stage races called a tour of somewhere; Tour de Suisse, Tour of Britain, Tour Down Under, Tour of California to name just a few, but there is only one Tour. It captures the attention of the world like no other cycling event, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana may pose equally daunting physical challenges over their three-week durations but the intensity and desire to succeed of every rider taking part makes the Tour something special. For team sponsors it’s time to reap the rewards of the investment they make to fund their team all season long. The riders themselves are aware of this and have been known to launch solo attacks and get into breakaways purely to get their team sponsor some more airtime, such is the focus of attention on this race. It is easy to spot a first-time stage winner in a major race as, providing time permits, an experienced pro will do up their jersey after a long day in the saddle several hundred metres before the finish line just to make sure the sponsors logo is fully visible as they cross the line, arms aloft with a thousand camera lenses trained on them. Those first-time winners are often naive and so caught up in the momentous, life-changing occasion that they can forget their professional duties and cross the line with their jersey half unzipped and all the photographers capture is the rider’s sweat soaked vest clinging to their emaciated rib-cage.

It is a mark of how much the Tour means to every rider that just finishing the grueling ordeal is enough for many. Getting to the finish line on the Champs-Elysees is the personal goal for all but the chosen few at the start of the race. Some will target a stage win, some will have their eyes on taking home a jersey come Paris but most are there to work for their team leader, set a pace, fetch water and protect them from the inevitable bumps and scrapes of racing in such a large peloton. There will be the odd breakaway that will be successful though, and a formerly unheralded domestique can write their name into the record books. Mark Cavendish, the 15-time Tour stage winner, repeatedly states that he would be happy with one stage win every year as a single stage win in the Tour can make a cyclist’s career. Magnus Backstedt, the Swedish giant of a man tells a story of how, having just signed a single year contract with Chris Boardman’s Credit Agricole team he won the 19th stage of the 1998 Tour. That evening he was sitting down with the team’s sporting director who ripped up Backstedt’s current contract and handed him a new two-year deal with an improved salary – that is what the Tour means to teams and riders alike.

This year’s edition, the 98th running of the event, gets started on Saturday on France’s Atlantic coast in the Vendee region, so clear skies and energy sapping sun are almost guaranteed to wave the riders off as they embark on their 3000+ km anti-clockwise journey around the roads of France. The anti-clockwise nature sees the riders tackle the Pyrenees first and with two of the three high mountain stages ending with summit finishes they will give an early opportunity for the general classification (GC) contenders to separate themselves from the rest of the peloton. The Alps then follow in the final week and with the Col du Galibier being climbed twice in 24hrs to mark 100 yrs since it was first climbed in the Tour, it really is a climber’s route this year. Summit finishes on the top of the Galibier and the iconic Alpe-d’Huez will no doubt be fought out by race favourites Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, but can anyone get near the top two from the past two Tours?

Mark Renshaw suffers early in last years Tour.

For many the attraction to the Tour de France is watching others suffer, Mark Renshaw knows all about suffering on a bike. Photo: GeS

My guess would be no, the battle for the final podium spot has been one of the most intriguing stories of the last two Tours though with Lance Armstrong edging out Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins in his breakout Tour of 2009 and Russian Denis Menchov managed to stay on his bike for long enough in 2010 to beat Sammy Sanchez on to the podium. Sanchez will be targeting the podium again along with a host of others, and with only 65.5 km of time-trialling to deal with this year and 23 of those being the team time-trial, it’s not unlikely that you’ll see a bunch of pure climbers fighting it out for that third step in Paris. That unfortunately would seem to eliminate Wiggins, who whilst appearing to be in spectacular form as his win in the Dauphine last month suggests, will always rely on his time-trialling prowess to build an advantage over the ‘mountain goats’ and then limit his losses when the roads start to point skywards.

Where else to look for action this year:

Team Time-Trial – many a team will be eyeing up the 23 km second stage as a chance to get themselves some glory, and a good shot at the yellow jersey to boot. Team Sky have made no secret of their desire to attack every stage this year and will see it as an ideal opportunity for their first yellow jersey in their sophomore year. They’ll face stiff competition though from HTC-High Road, Garmin-Cervelo, the Schleck’s newly formed Leopard-Trek outfit and the Contador-led Saxo Bank. The Schleck’s and Contador will be less worried about being in yellow during the first week as they’ll see it as more of a burden on the team than anything, but they won’t want the likes of Wiggins or HTC’s Tony Martin gaining too much of an advantage too early.

Green Jersey – Last year’s winner Alessandro Petacchi is present again, as are controversial Belgian Tom Boonen, 2005 and 2009 winner Thor Hushovd and Manxman Mark Cavendish. The four of them will all slug it out for the points jersey. Adjustments have been made to the intermediate sprints this year with only one per stage, but with more points on offer Cavendish has already said he will have to divert from his previously unsuccessful game-plan of focussing solely on stage victories to win green. Cavendish has had another slow start to the season but two stage victories in May’s Giro gave him a boost and plenty of training miles were got into the legs during the Tour de Suisse so he should be able to pick up more than his prerequisite one victory again this year. There aren’t many flat sprints this year though so it does seem tailor-made for a big man such as Hushovd to emerge victorious again, but with four sprinters of such pedigree in the field it won’t be a walk in the park for any of them.

Individual Time Trial – It’s hard to look past the usual suspects of Fabian Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins, Alberto Contador, Tony Martin and David Millar for the penultimate stage. Millar and Wiggins have both got the better of four-time World time trial champion Cancellara this year but the man they call Spartacus always seems to perform on the big occasion so shouldn’t be written off.

King of the Mountains (KoM) – With two of the last three winners having had their title stripped due to doping irregularities it seems rather difficult to predict a winner this year, and for how long they will manage to keep hold of their title. Anthony Charteau was wearing the polka dot jersey in Paris last year after fighting all the way with compatriot Jerome Pineau, but it seems unlikely he’ll be able to repeat the trick for a second successive year. Gone are the days it seems of a KoM winner placing high in the GC as well, the tactics nowadays seem to be to breakaway early on in a stage, hoover up the points on the early climbs and then let the big boys pass you by on the final slope. With this in mind I wouldn’t like to put too much money on anyone this year but the French seem to have been targeting this jersey somewhat in the past couple of years as they try to bring back some pride to French cycling in the lack of a real GC contender.

Philippe Gilbert – Swept up in the Spring classics and with a tough first week not looking tailor-made for the usual sprint-fest then the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider could well be in with a chance of a stage to add to his three other Grand Tour victories in Italy and Spain.

My predictions:

Yellow Jersey – Contador to take it by around a minute from Schleck the younger, only to have this year’s and last year’s victories taken away from him when the Court of Arbitration for Sport hear the appeal for his drugs ban in August.

Mark Cavendish in Green

Mark Cavendish is fond of the colour green but has yet to make it to Paris with anything other than green sunglasses. Photo: RoxanneMK

Green Jersey – Yes I said it wasn’t built for Cavendish this year but I’m still going to go for him anyway, he’s acknowledged that he’ll have to change his approach this year and seems more determined than ever finally grab the green jersey to match his green sunglasses.

KoM Jersey – Not much more than a guess for this one but I’ll go for a Spaniard and David Arroyo in particular, not sure why just had to pick someone.

3rd Spot – With Andy Schleck pencilled in for second I’ll go for the returning Vinokourov to steal third, he finished 16th in support of Contador last year so with the full backing of his Kazakh team behind him he’ll be going all out this year.

Aside from all the inevitable talk around Contador’s ongoing doping saga I also think this will be a very clean Tour, and hopefully accident free given the couple of horrible incidents cycling has had to bear recently. Whatever happens though it is sure to be three weeks of pure theatre, set against the stunning backdrop of France’s imposing mountains and numerous châteaux.

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It’s Only Sport

When mulling over the potential subject matter for my next post and leafing (well, electronically leafing anyway) through pages of online sports news in search of a story worth commenting on I stumbled upon Mark Cavendish’s latest indiscretion. Competing in the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), the second biggest bike race in the World behind the Tour de France and one of the three Grand Tours, Cavendish took umbrage with rival Alessandro Petacchi’s tactics in the sprint finish to Sunday’s second stage and made no attempt to hide his displeasure. This isn’t the first conflict Cavendish has had with a race’s commissaires and will no doubt not be the last, however today’s news from the Giro overshadows any petty spat.

Wouter Weylandt (1984 - 2011) wins stage 3 of the 2010 Giro d'Italia. Photo: taimages.

Belgian rider Wouter Weylandt died today following a crash on a descent approximately 20km from the end of the third stage to Rapallo. Early reports suggest that Weylandt’s left pedal jammed and as a result he could not prevent the fall of 20m off the side of the road, Weylandt was only 26. He had two victories in Grand Tours, winning the 17th stage of the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) in 2008 and stage 3 of last year’s Giro. He made the move to the newly formed Leopard Trek team for the 2011 season and sufficiently impressed his Sporting Director to be selected for the team’s debut Grand Tour. He is survived by his girlfriend who is expecting their first child in September.

Today’s race continued as Weylandt was treated on the road, and Angel Vicioso celebrated as he crossed the line to win his first stage in a grand tour at the age of 34. Shortly after crossing the line he was informed of the day’s tragic news and the personal significance of the day for him will now be lost. Scot David Millar should also have had reason to celebrate as he finished second on the day’s stage to take the overall lead in the race. The race organisers cancelled the presentation ceremonies for the day though and have yet to announce whether race will continue. Past evidence suggests the race will continue, the last occasion a rider died as a result of a crash during a Grand Tour, Fabio Casartelli in the 1995 Tour de France, the race continued and was won by Miguel Indurain for the fifth consecutive time.

Instant reaction from fellow riders came via Twitter, with a selection copied below:

Mark Cavendish – “Things like this shouldn’t happen. Absolutely sick to the stomach. My thoughts are with his family. RIP Wouter Weylandt.”

Bradley Wiggins – “Days like this put this great sport we love into perspective, Wouter rest in peace now mate, thoughts are now with the family and freinds!”

Russell Downing – “after seeing that i feel sick inside…Rip wouter…u will be sadly missed. lost for words.”

Lance Armstrong – “I’m shocked and saddened. May he rest in peace.”

David Millar spoke to the press after today’s stage about taking the overall race lead: “It means nothing. I can’t even imagine what his family are going through, it’s terrible.” He went on to say: “Our sport is very tragic at times, it has been throughout its history, but we get mixed up in a lot of stupid things in this sport. But the bottom line is that it’s a sport that has its risks every single day.”

This outpouring of emotion just goes to show that no matter how seriously people take their profession and no matter how dedicated they are to winning, some things take priority over all others.

Sadly this isn’t the only death to have overshadowed what should have been a moment of celebration in recent weeks. ‘Whispering’ Ted Lowe, whose voice is synonymous with the game of snooker, died at the age of 90 on May 1st. Many say the art of great of commentating is timing and Lowe got his timing spot on once again as his death coincided with the first day of the World Snooker Championship final. Columnists were already heralding 21-year-old Judd Trump’s run to the final as a changing of the guard, the death of snooker’s voice throughout its golden years on the same day as this just emphasised the feeling that this was the start of a new era for snooker. The crowd at the crucible theatre stood for a minutes applause in honour of Lowe before the final got under way. Rather than expressing regret at such a tragedy, this emotional display conveyed the warmth and love that all who love snooker felt for Lowe, it was about celebrating a life rather than mourning one taken too early.

Sir Henry Cooper Blur Plaque

Sir Henry Cooper (1934 - 2011), was already commemorated before his recent passing. Photo: secretlondon123

More sadness was to be felt that same evening as news broke that the great Sir Henry Cooper, the British Heavyweight champion who once knocked Cassius Clay to the canvas, had also passed away. There was no heavyweight bout taking place that night for a timely tribute but the football programme Match of the Day 2 still interrupted it’s running order to deliver the news and mark the passing of ‘our ‘Enery’.

Finally, ‘Seve’ Ballesteros succumbed to a brain tumour on Saturday 7th May. He had been facing a battle with his health since collapsing in Madrid airport in 2008, and finally lost that battle last weekend. News broke on Friday afternoon that his condition had deteriorated and we awoke on Saturday morning to the news many had feared. Seve was the first European to win the US Masters, he won five majors in all and formed a formidable and inspirational Ryder Cup partnership with his great friend and compatriot José Maria Olazabal. Tributes flooded in from all quarters for a man whose style around the golf course had captivated and inspired so many to take up the game. His appeal spread wider than the golfing world though, as illustrated by the minute’s silence observed at the Madrid Masters tennis before the semi-final match between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. After the match Nadal said: “I’m really happy for the victory but it’s a terrible day for Spain, and for the world, because we lost a great champion, probably the greatest in the history of Spain.”

Sport is many things to many people, in the case of today’s tragic news it is important to remember that a young man died in a bike race – just a bike race. Since starting to write this post it has been reported that the race will continue but tomorrow’s fourth stage will be neutralised, essentially the riders will ride the course but will not race, in memory of Weylandt. In this case sport is being put to one side to respect the more important things in life.

However it is also vital to honour those in sport who have given so much pleasure and entertainment to thousands, if not millions of people throughout their careers. Less tragic circumstances can lead to a celebration of peoples achievements and what they have meant to their fans. Sport can be such a release from the rigours of day-to-day life and the average punter can connect with an athlete and feel part of something that they wouldn’t have been able to were it not for the medium of sport.

So yes, it may only be sport, and on occasions such as today that must be remembered, but we must also remember all the joy it brings to people and save time to celebrate that as well.

Photo credits: Wouter Weylandt – taimages, Sir Henry Cooper – secretlondon123