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

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To tweet or not to tweet?

Twitter may only be five years old but it has already made enough headlines to last a lifetime. It has quickly become the go to place for breaking news and to gauge the subjects on the nation’s fingertips.

The social networking site has many uses in the sporting world; athletes use it as a tool to converse directly with fans, clubs use it as another way to inform and update their loyal supporters, journalists use it as a medium to rapidly break news and event organisers use it as an extra means of publicity. It isn’t always a tool for good though, an errant tweet can land the user in plenty of hot water – as the saying goes, ‘act in haste, repent in leisure’.

Twitter Over Capacity

Twitter use has grown rapidly and it often faced server problems as they struggled to cope. Photo: Sandip Bhattacharya

The site’s growth in the past few years has been mirrored within the sporting world. As more and more people sign-up it is inevitable that some will fall foul of the tool’s immediacy and lack of recourse. Once a message has been tweeted it is there for the world to see, you may try to delete it but you won’t catch it in time and if it is newsworthy then someone will retweet it and the situation will snowball. Kevin Pietersen is a prime example of this, in 2010 he inadvertently revealed the England selectors’ decision to drop him hours before it was set to be officially announced. He didn’t stop there though, he further angered the selectors by launching into a four letter tirade about them and the merit of their decision. Pietersen insists that the tweet was intended as a direct message to a specific user and therefore not to be seen by the rest of his followers. This may be the case but it is somewhat irrelevant after the event, it was a stark lesson to sports stars the world over that life on the internet can never be truly private.

This wasn’t the first time a team selection had been let out of the bag early on twitter though. The first time I can recall it happening was before the second test of the 2009 Ashes series. Out of form opening bastman Phillip Hughes revealed on his twitter account that he had been dropped, two hours before the official announcement was made prior to the toss. Reports suggested that his manager took responsibility for the slip-up, he was still in Australia and claimed to have mis-calculated the time difference and tweeted the message too early. That is little consolation to Cricket Australia though who were seen to have lost an element of control over their playing staff, this was before the true power and independent nature of twitter had been discovered though it must be said.

Pointless Twitter

Many people, Sir Alex Ferguson included, fail to see to point of Twitter.

Nothing can truly claim to be a part of British sport until it has infiltrated the world of football, and nothing can truly be a part of football until there has been a scandal about it. So as the headlines over the last year can testify, twitter has definitely arrived. Darren Bent, Carlton Cole, Danny Gabbidon, Ryan Babel, and Wayne Rooney have all made the news as a result of ill-advised tweets. Offences ranged from retweeting a lighthearted photoshopped image (Babel), to a rage-fuelled sign-off from the site (Gabbidon), to offering a follower out for a fight (yep you guessed it, Rooney). One of twitter’s greatest selling points has proven time and again to be many of its users downfalls. The medium is so immediate, so direct, and the lack of censorship acts as a perfect illustration of why agents and managers started giving athletes media training in the first place.

I shouldn’t just focus on the pitfalls of twitter though. Sportsmen and women have used it as a force for good and this should be noted. Yes there are many sportspeople who have got into trouble because of their tweets but there are far more who use it as a tool to reconnect with their fans and become human again. Not just in this country but around the world as well, we revere our sports stars and put them on a pedestal that is impossible for us to ever reach. Managers and agents then build a wall around that pedestal to further distance us from our heroes, only allowing us to hear from them in sanctioned press conferences and interviews where they give calculated answers to keep their sponsors happy and their noses clean. If twitter can humanise our sports stars then its use should be encouraged.

A recent example of this is Judd Trump, the 21 year old snooker player who made a name for himself by tweeting in the mid-session intervals during his run to the final of this years world championships. Mid-game tweets are not always desirable though, the NBA have banned its players from using twitter and other social media sites from 45 minutes before the game until after all official post-match press obligations have been completed. This is likely to be due to the loss of impact that its own coverage will attain if news and opinions have already been broken by players on their personal twitter feeds.

The majority of the England cricket team are regular tweeters and used it as a tool to keep in touch with supporters on their recent tour of Australia and the Asian sub-continent. The camaraderie between the group is clear to see as they regularly engaged in gentle ribbing and mocking of one another in their spare time, a tactic which ingratiated themselves to their fans as it shows they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Twitter on mobile phone

The rise of smartphones has made tweeting on the move more accessible. Photo: stevegarfield

Twitter can be a fantastic way to connect with fans and display your personality away from the sporting environment in which athletes are normally seen. Graeme Swann is a prime example of this, a sample tweet from his timeline will see that he is just a normal person like you and I, with a good sense of humour: “I saw on the news that today is supposed to be judgement day? Do I have time for a cheese n pickle sandwich before the machines rise?”. There are others as well, many believe that Mark Cavendish, the bolshy yet prodigiously talented cyclist, is made for twitter. His  sponsors may disagree as he has hardly cultivated a squeaky clean reputation in his short professional career so far, but twitter gives him an uncensored voice to air his views and convince some people that there is more to him than the arrogant, surly character people perceive. A recent tweet of his shows his dedication to his team and his gratitude for the efforts they make for his ultimate glory: “Haters will hate. But a group of people who support me like my incredible teammates did today will always mean more. So proud of you guys.”

Of course for twitter to work you need to have the personality to show off in the first place. Andy Murray is persistently labelled as boring and monotonous, I personally don’t think this should matter too much but it has to be said that he doesn’t help himself. His description of himself on twitter simply reads “I play tennis”. However dig a little deeper and you will see a sense of humour in there that many people miss. This was tweeted on 1st April: “Ross hutchins (doubles player and training partner) will be my new coach alongside dani starting in barcelona! Can’t wait to get startedd, full statement on personal website”, followed by “Felt like I needed another yes man”. All of which was a thinly veiled jab at the critics questioning his decision to surround himself with a team of friends rather than a single coach who would question the Scots views.

All of this pales into insignificance when viewed against the impact twitter can really make on a global scale though. As a tool for breaking news it is now unsurpassed, the first I heard about Wouter Weylandt’s recent death in the Giro d’Italia was via twitter. Of course some tweets must be read with caution, due to the speed with which news is now disseminated there are bound to be some errors, but on the whole you get enough of the story to go on before you can read a full report.

Not only can twitter break news, but it can also break governments as well, as the recent uprising in Tunisia demonstrated.

So twitter really is a powerful tool, one that the world is only just discovering the full potential of. Sports stars were some of the first to realise its strengths, and some of the first to experience its pitfalls. With the world-changing around us at such a pace it is impossible to say with much certainty whether twitter is here to stay, but you can rest assured that it hasn’t finished writing its headlines yet (just ask Ryan Giggs!). Be those headlines good or bad is up to the user, just remember one thing for the future – tweet if you want to, but tweet with caution.

Photo credits: Twitter over capacity – Sandip Bhattacharya, Pointless little messages – jmilles, Mobile twitter stevegarfield

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