A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

Every year the football season ends, and every year the television and radio broadcasters roll out their trailers for the ‘summer of sport’, complete with soundtrack from Dodgy or Mungo Jerry.

You can forgive them for going a little overboard this year though, this year’s slightly different; in case you weren’t aware of it yet (although I’m not sure that’s possible), there’s the small matter of a summer Olympic Games in London to think about.

The games have become such a sporting behemoth that they have, and will, influence just about every other sporting event on the 2012 calendar.

London's Olympic Stadium

London’s Olympic stadium will be at the centre of the sporting world this summer. Photo: Phil Jones

With this in mind I’m going to add to the list of summer previews and give my take on the events in store for us in the next 3 months.

I won’t cover all the events, mainly because there are just too many to talk about, but I will give a brief overview of what I will be keeping an eye on, why it is worth your attention, and giving my prediction of how events might unfold (there’s no real insight involved in my predictions and any money lost from bets placed is not my responsibility).

Where to start then? Well we’re in the middle of the French Open tennis so that’s as good a place as any:

French Open Tennis (May 28 – June 10):

Why? – The potential for numerous pieces of history to be made. Rafael Nadal can set a record of seven titles in the Paris suburbs and join Bjorn Borg on 11 major titles. Novak Djokovic could become the eighth man to win the career grand slam, whilst simultaneously completing the ‘Djoko Slam’ of holding all four major trophies at once, and keeping alive his chances of completing the calendar Golden Slam. Federer could become only the third man to complete a second career grand slam were he to win, and Maria Sharapova could complete her first if the Russian gets her hands on the women’s title.

Who? – Nadal and Sharapova. I’d be stupid to bet against Nadal really. If Djokovic makes the final I’d still back Nadal, but he’d be less of a certainty to win. If he’s up against Federer though, then I can’t see the Swiss getting anywhere near the trophy. On the women’s side it just seems like everything has come together for Sharapova to triumph – the Williams sisters are both out, as is Francesca Schiavone and world number one Victoria Azarenka, Na Li hasn’t been too convincing either. I’d keep an eye out for Sam Stosur though.

UEFA European Championship Finals (June 8 – July 1):

Why? – It’s England in a football tournament, no matter how much we say we don’t expect anything, we can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. The Euros tend to provide more entertainment than the World Cup, less meaningless games and the football is generally of a higher quality. Any tournament with an Irish presence is better for it as well.

Who? – I’ll be very boring, play it safe, and say Netherlands v Spain in one semi, Germany v France in the other. That means the final could be a repeat of Euro 2008, but I’ve a sneaky feeling the Germans might just get their revenge and win their first tournament since Euro ’96.

Andy Murray at Queen's 2011

Andy Murray faces a potentially career defining summer in 2012. Photo: Carine06

Queen’s Club, Aegon Championships (11 – 17 June):

Why? – It marks the start of the British sporting summer, it means Wimbledon is just around the corner and there are few finer sights than watching a load of professional athletes slipping around at the back of a slick grass court.

Who? – If Murray’s fit then I’d take him to make it three titles in West London. He humiliated Roddick there last year and the American is worse now than he was then, suggesting that Murray’s only real competition will come from Big Willy himself, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Olympics Athletics trials (22 – 24 June):

Why? – The cream of British athletic talent all fighting for their place at a home Olympics. There’ll be some surprises, athletes who come from relative obscurity to book their place in the Olympic village, and there’ll no doubt be the odd high profile one who misses out too.

Who ? – I’m going to go for James Dasaolu to make headlines for all the right reasons. I interviewed him last summer during another period of rehab from injury, even at that stage his only focus was getting fit for the Olympics in his home city of London. The second fastest Brit over 100m last year, he’s already bagged an A standard qualifying time this season – all he’s got to do now is finish in the top two in the trials for his dream to become a reality. I also reckon a certain Mr. Chambers will fail to qualify for the individual event, his form this season doesn’t look good and I think the emotional roller coaster he’s been on over the past few years may have finally taken its toll.

Wimbledon Championships (June 25 – July 8):

Why? – Because it’s Wimbledon. Centre court has played host to some of the greatest finals of all time in the past five years and as is the way with any major tournament in this era, there are records to be broken. Federer could finally equal Pete Sampras’ record seven titles, or (depending on how events unfold in Paris) Novak Djokovic could march on to the third piece of the Golden Slam, Nadal could potentially win his twelfth major title or (whisper it) Andy Murray could win his first/second major title (OK 2nd is a little ambitious).

It’s not just the men’s draw that entices though, Sharapova will most likely be the favourite on the women’s side but those Williams sisters always save their best for the grass of South West London. Petra Kvitova won’t give up her title without a fight and Victoria Azarenka will be determined to reassert her authority on the women’s game. Throw into that the unpredictability of the women’s game at present and you may as well pick the quarter finalists out of a hat.

Who? – I’m going to stick with my Roland-Garros predictions and go for Sharapova and Nadal. Djokovic just isn’t quite on the high that he was last year, and if he’s not right on the top of his game then I think Nadal has the edge over him – as shown by the two clay court finals they’ve contested thus far this spring. You can never completely write off Roger either but his recent record at Wimbledon (only QF’s in the past two years) is worse than Murray’s, so you’d have to give Murray more chance than the Swiss magician.

On the women’s side, Sharapova has been pretty consistent in 2012, generally only losing to Azarenka, and should she make the final in Paris she’ll be coming to London with the number one ranking, a more consistent serve than she’s had for a couple of years, and potentially the confidence that comes with just having won a major title.

Dwain Chambers doing interview.

Will Dwain Chambers have be forced to run at in Helsinki to confirm a place at the Olympics? Photo: maxzix74

European Athletics Championships (June 26 – July 1):

Why? – Taking place the week after the trials, it’s surely the final opportunity for British athletes to grab the third discretionary place on offer at the Olympics if they didn’t perform at the trials. There may well be a lack of big names as the already qualified athletes will take a week’s rest in preparation for the games, but the competition is sure to be intense with so much at stake for those who do make the trip to Helsinki.

Who? – Who knows? It all depends what happens in Birmingham the previous weekend, who will have guaranteed their place and who will still be desperate to impress the selectors?

Tour de France (30 June – 22 July):

Why? – A sporting highlight every year for me. I can understand why people may find it boring and I can understand why some may be disillusioned with the regularity with which drugs cheats are highlighted in cycling. But I’ve been watching it since I was young, when I didn’t know what EPO was and when channel 4 gave me coverage in bite sized chunks at 6:30pm every evening. I remember Tom Steels blinding past me in 1998 to sprint to another stage victory, and I remember sitting having dinner in Lausanne, watching Marco Pantani ride past on his way to winning a post Tour criterium. Much has changed in the world of professional cycling since those days but much is reassuringly the same, Gary Imlach’s hair and the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are synonymous with the Tour de France, bringing an air of class to proceedings come those three weeks in July.

Who? – Without wishing to sound too myopically patriotic, Britain’s riders genuinely have the potential to make history at this year’s Tour. Bradley Wiggins has what will probably be his best chance ever to grab himself the yellow jersey in Paris, and Mark Cavendish doesn’t look to have much serious competition in defending his green jersey. Doubt comes in the form of Wiggins’ main rivals for yellow, whom we should know more about after this week’s Dauphiné, in which Brad is looking to defend his title from last year. There will also be doubt over Team Sky’s ability to support both Wiggins and Cavendish in their separate goals, the squad as a whole is looking good though and if any squad is capable of winning two jerseys, then I’d suggest Sky are the team to do it. With that in mind I’ll go for Wiggins in yellow, Cavendish in green and Cadel Evans and Pierre Rolland rounding off the podium places.

Test Series v South Africa (July 19 – 20 August):

Why? – The top two ranked test nations in the world going head to head. England desperate to hang on to top spot and Graeme Smith’s South African side desperate to wrestle it away from them. Eight of the world’s top twenty batsmen will be on show (four each), seven of the world’s top twenty bowlers (4-3 to England), the world’s best all-rounder, this series has it all.

Who? – Take your pick really. Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world, Vernon Philander is chasing him for that moniker and James Anderson would like to have a say in the matter too. Andrew Strauss could become England’s most prolific century maker of all time, Kevin Pietersen always likes to put on a show against his former compatriots, Ian Bell loves batting in the English summer and Jacques Kallis is a match winner with bat or ball. Were it any other year this would be the most anticipated sporting contest of the summer.

Olympic Games (July 27 – August 12):

Why? – The biggest sporting occasion in history, in London. Do I really need to add anything more?

Who? – Too many to mention and that’s why I love the Olympics – wherever you look there are stars being born. The obvious star is a certain Jamaican sprinter, Yohan Blake will push Bolt all the way for the sprint double but I think Bolt will still win both and add the relay title to cement his place in sporting legend.

Elsewhere I think Jess Ennis might just falter, but I reckon Phillips Idowu, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford could all have a golden summer.

In the hockey I think the GB women could go all the way to the final. They beat the world number 1s Argentina twice recently, however the Argentinians were missing their star player in Luciana Aymar, so I’ll hold fire on predicting a definite gold. The GB girls are more than capable of delivering it though. For the men I think the best they can do is fifth, since winning the European Championships in 2009 and a silver in the 2010 Champions trophy, they seem to have been on somewhat of a downwards spiral of results – I’ll go for a German victory over Australia in the final.

Laura Trott riding for GB

Will Laura Trott ride away with omnium gold? Photo: Rob Duin

We won’t be as all-conquering in the velodrome as we were in Beijing. I still think we’ll come away with five golds though; both pursuit teams, the women’s omnium and one each from Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton – not a bad return really!

On the road (providing safe passages through the Tour) I think it’ll be win or bust for Mark Cavendish, IF he makes it over Box Hill 9 times and is still on the front then the gold is his for the taking – if not then someone like Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd is more than capable of riding away with gold. In the time trial I think Wiggins can get a medal, probably not gold but I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the podium.

For the women I’m not so au fait with the opposition, although in Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead we have two of the best road racers in the world, and Emma Pooley has previous in the time trial as well.

In the triathlon I’d be hugely shocked if there wasn’t a Brownlee on the top step of the rostrum. Don’t ask me to say which one but Jonny’s early season form and Alistair’s pedigree suggest that if they’re both fit they’ll be fighting between themselves for gold and silver. For the women then Helen Jenkins looks to be in top form so far this season, she’s not as far above the rest of the pack as her male teammates but anything less than a podium place would be a big shock.

I could keep going and going but my knowledge starts getting a bit patchy for other sports now, so I’ll let you make up your own minds as to who’ll take home the medals in the greco-roman wrestling.

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

Will Djokovic have had a record-breaking summer when he gets to New York? Photo: Carine06

US Open Tennis (Aug 27 – Sep 9):

Why? – For every reason I’ve mentioned previously. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are a joy to behold, throw in Murray’s penchant for the hard courts and crowds of New York and we’ve got the recipe for another cracker on our hands. On the women’s side, Serena would dearly love to put last year’s meltdown in the final behind her, Sharapova could well be coming to New York with two major titles and an Olympic gold medal round her neck, and Azarenka could have bounced back on the hard courts she loves to be a favourite again.

Who? – We’re still three months away from the action kicking off at Flushing Meadows with an awful lot of tennis to be played in between so it’s too early to say really. All the usual suspects will be there, but I’d throw the names of Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki into the mix as well.

That’s me done for now, no doubt I’ll go into more detail for specific events as the summer progresses. I’d be interested to see how many of my predictions you agree with though, and if anyone fancies calculating how much I’d win if I put an accumulator on all my predictions then you can have a cut of the proceeds when they all come good!

What have I missed?:

Three golf majors, England vs. Australia ODI series, a summer of Formula 1, a summer of Moto GP, Royal Ascot, Eastbourne tennis, domestic T20, Paralympics, Vuelta a España, World T20.

Enjoy your summer.

Voeckler Comes of Age

Voeckler on the podium in the French National Champion's Jersey

Former French champion Voeckler is getting used to standing on the podium. Photo: Petit Brun

I mentioned in my preview to the Tour de France that the French had been searching for a real GC contender since Laurent Jalabert won the Vuelta a Espana back in 1995. Well it seems they had simply been looking in the wrong place for the last seven years since a 25yr old Thomas Voeckler surprised everyone by hanging on to the Maillot jaune for ten days in the 2004 Tour before relinquishing it to eventual winner Lance Armstrong.

Voeckler (or Voikla if your name’s Phil Liggett) has climbed with the best in the world to get through three gruelling Pyrenean mountain stages, not to mention safely negotiating three tricky flat stages to keep hold of the yellow jersey he took from Thor Hushovd going into the first rest day last week. Most ‘experts’ were predicting that ‘little Tommy’ would surrender the jersey on the first high mountain stage but that wasn’t to be and he further confounded those so called experts by holding on to the jersey with aggressive riding, not just sucking wheels to drag him up the mountains whilst limiting his losses.

Stage 10

Cav loses! Yes the Manx missile is human, former teammate Andre Greipel beat the diminutive HTC rider into second by the slimmest of margins. It took what Cavendish admitted to be a ‘perfect sprint’ to beat him, Cav was not happy at losing having been set up so perfectly once again by his reliable team but conceded that Greipel was the better man on the day. Greipel’s teammate and Cavendish’s main rival for the green jersey, Philippe Gilbert, knowing that he can’t beat Cavendish in a bunch sprint, attacked off the front of the peloton in the closing kilometres. It was a suicide mission though and the peloton swallowed him up leaving the Belgian to come in 15th and lose a large chunk of points to Cavendish.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green –  Gilbert, KoM – Hoogerland

Stage 11

Revenge didn’t take long to be served up by Cavendish and his bunch of merry men, the pouring rain ensured it was definitely served cold as well. The stage into Carmaux was drenched by a torrential downpour but the gun-barrel straight approach to the finish line left Cav’s rivals surfing his bow-wave as he rode away from the field to bag his 18th Tour de France victory and 3rd of this year’s edition. Greipel was a distant 2nd and Gilbert a lowly 66th, so 45 points for the win added to the 4 he’d taken from the Belgian in the intermediate sprint gave Cavendish the green jersey in le Tour for the 1st time since 2009. On the podium he kissed the jersey and was still grinning when he walked off the podium to speak to ITV’s Ned Boulting, telling the reporter ‘Green suits me doesn’t it?’.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Hoogerland

Andre Greipel being interviewed.

Greipel has been receiving more of the limelight since his move away from HTC. Photo: kei-ai

Stage 12

The first high mountains of the Tour were tackled here and there were two brutes to contend with, after dealing with the 1st category Hourquette d’Ancizan the riders were faced with the Col du Tourmalet and then a race to the summit at Luz Ardiden. Without Wiggins it was feared that British interest would fade as the roads turned upwards but Geraint Thomas had other ideas as he got himself into the day’s breakaway and summited the Tourmalet in second place before being swallowed up and spat out by the GC contenders on the day’s final climb. Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez took the stage win ahead of Belgian new boy Jelle Vanendert, Frank Schleck looked the stronger of the brothers as he rode away from a group containing his brother, Evans and Basso in the final kilometres. The story of the day though was defending champion Alberto Contador being dropped by the lead group and losing further time to his rivals. The yellow jersey rolled in shortly after and maintained his time gap over second place with a defiant display of climbing that few had predicted.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Sanchez

Stage 13

A slightly easier stage the next day; only three categorised climbs, although one of them was the giant Col d’Aubisque, and a flat finish meant that the big boys were less likely to come out and play and a breakaway had a good chance at success. The breakaway was a large one, ten riders got clear after the first climb including world champion Thor Hushovd and the two Frenchmen Jeremy Roy and David Moncoutie. Roy attacked with 50km to go and built up an advantage over the splintered chasing pack but Hushovd wasn’t going to let the Frenchman away that easily. The Norwegian descended the Col d’Aubisque like a madman, hitting a top speed of 112kph, he eventually caught up with Moncoutie but the Cofidis rider was reluctant to help him chase down Roy and deprive the French public of a stage win. It was left for Hushovd to do all the chasing and he eventually caught Roy with just 2km remaining and rode straight by him to claim his most famous Tour stage win yet.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Roy

Stage 14

Voeckler had got this far in the yellow jersey but this really was the day he was expected to give it up to a real contender. A punishing day in the saddle saw the field climb over five mountain passes before facing the 15km long drag up to Plateau de Beille for a summit finish expected to provide some fireworks in the battle for yellow. The fireworks never really came though, the day’s breakaway was overtaken on the final climb and the main contenders seemed happy to mark each other as Sammy Sanchez and Jelle Vanendert rode away from them to the finish line again. It was Vanendert who emerged victorious this time but Sanchez pulled further time back on the rest of the field after his nightmare first week. The attacks in the yellow jersey group were all coming from Schleck the younger today with the odd spurt from Basso and Voeckler to test the legs of those surrounding them but no-one seemed to have the legs to put the hammer down and ride away from the group. The attacks were covered by Evans and eventually Contador but it was clear to see that Contador was simply trying to survive the Pyrenees in the hope that his ailments will have eased and he can attack hard in the Alps.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

Stage 15

The final flat stage before Paris offered the sprinters one last shot at glory before facing up to the high Alps next week. It also presented the last real chance for Cavendish to build up a buffer of points over Gilbert and Rojas to take into the final sprint on the Champs-Elysees. Never one to miss an opportunity that’s exactly what Cav did, finishing ahead of both his rivals in the intermediate sprint and beating Farrar by a wheel on the finish line with Rojas back in 5th and Gilbert nowhere to be seen. The win boosted Cavendish’s advantage to 37 and 71 points over the Spaniard and Belgian respectively. Gilbert had once again attacked with 3km to go but with men from Sky, Garmin and HTC all working on the front of the peloton the attack was doomed and Mark Renshaw once again gave the perfect lead-out for Cavendish to do his thing and claim his 19th win in the Tour de France in 4 years.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

Stars of the Week

Hushovd in the Rainbow Jersey

Thor Hushovd is racing like a true champion in the Rainbow Jersey. Photo: richardmasoner

Thomas Voeckler – Held on to the yellow jersey against all odds, repeating his heroics of 2004 on the Plateau de Beille to finish the week with the same lead as he started it with. It’s not only the French who are now considering him to be a real contender, he leads both Schlecks and Evans by around two minutes, Basso by three and Contador by four. No his time-trialling isn’t brilliant but should he survive the Alps and still be in yellow then the chasing group aren’t necessarily the best time-triallers in the field either and the yellow jersey on a Frenchman’s back can make him do strange things.

Mark Cavendish – Won another two stages and should he make it over the Alps has more than a good chance of reaching Paris with his beloved green jersey on his back. A Brit has never won the points jersey in the Tour before so should he do it next weekend he would cement his place as a true great of British sport.

Thor Hushovd – Did the rainbow jersey of the world champion proud with a stunning stage victory, the former sprinter and two-time green jersey winner seems to have transformed himself into somewhat of a climber as he won in the Pyrenees.

Jeremy Roy – Present in most of the breakaways of the week, held the polka dot jersey for a day and was within touching distance of a stage win only for that big Norwegian to steal it at the last-minute.

Jelle Vanendert & Samuel Sanchez – When all around them seemed content with marking each others accelerations these two threw down the gauntlet and rode away from the pack to occupy the top two positions on both of the summit finishes in the Pyrenees.

Philippe Gilbert – May not have replicated the heroics of his early season and first week of the Tour but his aggressive riding style is entertaining to watch and it’s been a long time since a green jersey contender has flirted with the top 50 overall (he’s currently 28th).

Coming Up

The big boys can’t hide for much longer and if they want to take the yellow jersey off Voeckler’s shoulders then they’ll have to start riding like they mean business. Two more summit finishes are in store for the riders in the Alps as they climb above 2000m for the first time this year. The Galibier and Alpe d’Huez will give the opportunity for plenty of attacking riding and for those that have less confidence in their time-trialling ability will be the launch pad for their attack on the yellow jersey.

Cavendish seemingly just has to make it through the Alps (not an easy task by any means) to win Green, Gilbert will have to attack on both stages 16 and 17 if he is to stand any chance of clawing back those lost points and overtaking Cav before Paris.

The KoM competition seems to be between Sanchez and Vanendert now and they are only separated by two points. Both will fancy their chances of taking the prize but maybe Vanendert is the slight favourite as he is further back in the GC standings so will be let go more readily by the field than Sanchez.

Finally it was nice to see a week pass with fewer major crashes and less abandonments, and Kolobnev’s positive test is still the only one so far so that bodes well for the future reputation of the race.

One last thing, the Tour always provides some of the most photogenic sporting action of the year and this gallery illustrates just that: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2011/07/2011_tour_de_france_part_1.html

Photos: Voeckler – Petit Brun, Greipel – Kei-ai, Hushovd – richardmasoner

Breakaways and Breakages

The first week of the tour is over for everyone, and for many their tour is over for good. There have been 18 withdrawals so far and there’s a high chance that number will rise come tomorrow morning with Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha sure to be feeling the effects of their run-in with French television’s finest on Sunday. There are other high-profile walking wounded as well who will be making the most of today’s rest-day before it all kicks off again tomorrow; pre-race favourite Alberto Contador has crashed twice on the same knee in the opening week giving the Spaniard some concerns, default Radioshack leader Andreas Kloeden hit the ground hard in the pile-up that brought an abrupt end to so many riders’ races on Sunday resulting in a troublesome back problem and Robert Gesink is doing his best to cope with a nasty case of road rash having been caught up in the incident that ended Janez Brajkovic’s hopes this year.

Contador wins the Giro d'Italia

Contador's season has gone downhill since winning the Giro in May. Photo: Petit Brun

Let’s go back to the start then and have a look at how the story of the first nine days has unfolded:

Stage 1

Man of the season so far Philippe Gilbert raced away from the pack up the Mont des Alouettes to secure his first stage win in Le Tour. Cadel Evans went after him but couldn’t bridge the gap and finished 3 seconds back with Thor Hushovd leading in the bunch a further 3 seconds behind. The real action on the stage came with 9km to go though as Alberto Contador got punished for riding in the back of the peloton and was held up by a crash and ended up losing over a minute to his main GC rivals.

Yellow – Gilbert, Green – Gilbert, KoM – Gilbert

Stage 2

The team time trial was eagerly anticipated by many as it gave teams a chance to shine and a realistic stab at getting one of their boys in yellow for the first week. Team Sky made no attempt to hide their desire for the win and with Geraint Thomas’ high stage 1 placing he would be in yellow if they could manage a 6 second winning margin over the field. It wasn’t to be though as Garmin-Cervelo stole the show with a consummate display of teamwork to put Thor Hushovd in yellow. Sky finished the day in third as BMC surprised everybody with a stunning ride to take second and keep their man Cadel Evans high up in the GC. Contador’s Saxo-Bank squad came in 28 seconds behind the winners resulting in more dropped seconds for the Spaniard.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Gilbert, KoM, Gilbert

Stage 3

The obligatory breakaway was reeled in and the stage was set for Cavendish and his HTC train to lead him to the line for the first of his numerous stage wins this year. Except it never seems that simple in the early stages of a Grand Tour for Cav and so it was again as he was forced wide in the final bend by the ‘kamikaze Romain Feillu‘. The fun and games didn’t end there though, both Cav and Hushovd were disqualified from the day’s intermediate sprint for an inconsequential brush of arms in the approach. Tyler Farrar took the stage win and made a ‘W’ sign with his fingers after crossing the line, dedicating his first Tour win to his great friend Wouter Weylandt who died after a crash in May’s Giro d’Italia.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Rojas, KoM – Gilbert

Stage 4

Cadel Evans made his intentions for the race clear as he sprinted up the Mur de Bretagne to pip Contador on the line. The vicious kick up to the finish line was expected to produce a nervous finish as Contador vied to claw some time back on his rivals, and it was El Pistolero who made the first attack but it wasn’t enough to shake off the attentions of his Aussie sparring partner and Evans won it by the depth of a wheel rim. The rest of the field rolled in a handful of seconds behind as no significant time was either lost or gained.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green –  Rojas, KoM – Evans

Stage 5

Cavendish got his first taste of victory as he showed he’s more than just a one train pony, fighting his way to his 16th career Tour de France stage win without the famed HTC train to help him finish it off. It was a nervy day in the peloton as plenty of riders got well acquainted with the tarmac, Janez Brajkovic came off worst as he was forced to abandon at the side of the road. Bradley Wiggins and Robert Gesink were caught up in the same crash but both were soon up and on their bikes again, Gesink was still feeling the after effects as the stage wore on though, dropping back to the medical car to get his elbow and wrist bandaged up. Contador hit the deck as well, taking a blow on the knee but grabbed a new bike from his mechanic and was off and riding with his team pacing him back into the pack. The strangest event of the day came as Danish champion Nicki Sorensen was thrown from his bike after his handlebars got caught up with a photographers motorbike as it tried to pass on the outside. Sorensen was dragged along for fifty yards before falling onto the roadside, narrowly missing a family picnic.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green –  Gilbert, KoM – Evans

Stage 6

Team Sky working well in the Dauphine Libere

Boasson Hagen and Wiggins brought their fine form from the Dauphine into le Tour. Photo: Petit Brun

Team Sky finally got their wish as Edvald Boasson Hagen was led out perfectly by Geraint Thomas to claim Sky’s first stage win at Le Tour. On a soaking wet day the finish was made for the strong men and the top 10 illustrated that with Hushovd, Gilbert, Matt Goss, and Ciolek all picking up good points in the Green Jersey competition. Contador was again made to work harder than planned as mechanical problems forced two bike changes with 30 km to go, he was safely back in the bunch by the end though and the GC remained unchaged.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Gilbert, KoM – Hoogerland

Stage 7

It was ecstasy to agony for Team Sky, and team leader Bradley Wiggins in particular as he fell in a big crash, breaking his collarbone and being forced to abandon what was looking like promising Tour for the Londoner. The crash forced Remi Pauriol to retire as well, and the days withdrawals were topped up to three when Belgian sprinter Tom Boonen stepped off the bike, unable to ride through the pain of a crash earlier in the week. British hopes were given a boost at the end of the stage as Cavendish’s HTC team executed their lead-out train to perfection, delivering Cav to the line ahead of Petacchi and Andre Greipel to win in the town of Chateauroux – the same street on which he grabbed his first Tour win back in 2008.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Rojas, KoM – Hoogerland

Stage 8

The roads started to look decidedly lumpy as the riders entered the Massif-Central during the second weekend of the tour. The stage saw the first successful breakaway of this years tour as Portuguese rider Rui Alberto Costa won the stage for Movistar, a small sliver of light for the team that has seen their leader die in a tragic accident at home, and star climber Juan Mauricio Soler Hernandez placed into a coma after a crash in the Tour of Switzerland already this year. Philippe Gilbert again made a dart for the line as the pack closed in during the final few kilometres but it was not enough to deny Costa the victory. Evans attacked up the final category 3 climb to Super-Besse Sancy but couldn’t do enough to create a gap over the bunch and so Hushovd continued in yellow for another day.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Gilbert, KoM – Van Garderen

Stage 9

France had to wait until the 9th stage for their first success of the 2011 tour but it was Mr reliable, Thomas Voeckler who delivered the yellow jersey for the French public following another successful breakaway as the race continued over the hills of central France. Spaniard Luis-Leon Sanchez took the stage win but Voeckler took the glory as he rode into yellow by nearly two minutes. However the day was marred by two big crashes; one in the peloton during a descent on slippery roads – it claimed the Tour hopes of Alexander Vinokourov, David Zabriskie, Jurgen van den Broeck, Frederick Willems, Amets Txurruka, Pavel Brutt and Wouter Poels. Injuries included a broken wrist, leg, shoulder-blade and collar-bone. The most disturbing incident of the day came in the breakaway though when a French television car was trying to overtake the leading group, it swerved to avoid a tree and side-swiped Juan Antonio Flecha, who in turn bundled into Johnny Hoogerland who was sent flying into a barbed-wire fence. The car and its drivers have been thrown off the tour, too late for the two riders involved though as they went from the head of the race to free-wheeling in fifteen minutes behind the main bunch and nursing injuries that could see them abandon before the start tomorrow.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Gilbert, KoM – Hoogerland

Stars Of The Week

Philippe Gilbert – won a stage and has placed in the top 10 in 6 of the 9 stages so far, built up a considerable lead in the Green Jersey race as a result.

Thor Hushovd – took yellow after stage two and held onto it until the end of stage 9 through several gutsy efforts to preserve his 1 second lead over Cadel Evans despite some gruelling uphill finishes.

Geraint Thomas – placed highly all week, wore the young riders’ White Jersey for 5 days and led out two sprints  – one eventually for rival Cav and then more successfully for Boasson Hagen. Sacrificed his White Jersey to hang back in case team leader Wiggins needed pacing back into the pack before his abandonment.

Cavendish and Thomas line up during last year's Tour

Cavendish and Thomas have both been prominent faces in the 1st week's action. Photo: kei-ai

Mark Cavendish – won two stages, just an average tour for the ‘Manx Missile’ but a remarkable return for anyone else. His two stage wins took him to 17 in total, into joint 8th place for all-time stage victories and ahead of legendary French rider Jacques Anquetil.

Cadel Evans – always showing at the front end of the peloton, attacking in the final kilometres of stages to throw off his ‘wheel-sucker’ tag and displaying great intent to go one better than his previous best of 2nd in the Tour.

So the first week is over and done with, facing the riders this week are two flat stages followed by three gruelling days in the Pyrenees, another flat stage and then the second rest day next Monday. The next week should see Contador on the attack if he wants to defend his crown, Cavendish could grab another stage or two and the Green Jersey competition should hot up if Gilbert can keep his stunning form going.

Finally, I unfortunately can’t go without mentioning the 1st positive drugs test of the Tour. Russian rider Alexandr Kolobnev from the Katusha Team has the dubious honour of the 1st positive test of the 2011 tour.

Photos: Contador and Wiggins – Petit Brun, Cavendish and Thomas – kei-ai

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.