Archive for July, 2011

Tour 2011 – Racing Old Style

July 29, 2011

By Graeme Fife

No Prologue. Cut to the chase and to business straight from the gun. Had the sprinters leafing through the route book, thinking ‘Where do we come in?’ No time, check out the opener: big lump at the end of stage one, the Flanders men smiling, at least, Gilbert with his hair dyed blonde. They don’t do superstition in cobble-land. No time to draw breath and… team time trial – they all hate that: nervy, exposed, let the rest down if you miss a turn, come out of the bend too quick, brain and body on a hot rivet. And it happened: Eisel down, HTC twiddling their pedals to wait, but they don’t need the seconds. Contador, however… Except that it got his dander up. Lost more time on what he’d lost earlier and so, here he was, only stage 4, scrapping with Evans for the win on Britanny’s Mûr.. (The locals insist on the circumflex – it turns a wall into ripe and mellow. Ha ha. Not this day. Evans showing some teeth. An encouraging sign.)

So now we have Cancellara bitching about Brittany. Narrow roads? To hell with narrow roads. Forgetting that other Hell he’s done, seems he’d rather have motorways, big roads for the big bike race. Perhaps Spartacus is thinking more Cacophonix. The man, maybe, being in decline against the clock (Martin his martel…hammer) hankering for the lone highway mindset, without all these other riders to bother about. Sure, it rained. So you adjust. The Bretons, for sure, wouldn’t be having any truck with whingeing Belgians. Imagine Hinault sympathising. But, the crashes came and too many good men hit the deck and stayed there. It’s the hazard of bike racing and nothing can eliminate the momentary lapse, the crass idiocy – the team car barging through to deliver bidons to their bloke and bustling another rider out of the way is the least culpable of the moronic incidents. The casualty list was dire. For them all, the men who went out on the tarmac, let Brakjovic, Van den Broeck, Vinokourov, Wiggins speak the wholesale calamity. It’s always rotten to witness, you feel the awful thud of frail bone on unforgiving metal. Vino? End of the 2011 road, end of the road, fullstop. Wretched way to finish. Wiggo, in the form of his life. I saw him at the Dauphiné. He said he’d learnt from the failure of last year – sure, failure, didn’t step up to the responsibilities of leadership. Mark it, responsibility. It takes more than talent on the bike, you need to be able to look away from the bike and adapt. This he was doing. Learnt some more trade-craft and looked a different man.

So, too, Cavendish. Allan Peiper had a word with him. Look after the others, mate, learn the métier. Okay, he needs the hostility to fire him up but no more petulance. (Hushovd asking to take all the deducted points for the fracas which had them both penalised? Speaks volumes. Think of the two of them at each other’s throats two years back.) So, the rules are changed, you adapt. Cav goes for the intermediates, now, shaping like a complete racer, because that’s the way to green. Never complain: ride the course they give you. Greipel beats you one day, you respond in kind.

A bitter symbolism in the television car carting Hoogerland into the barbed wire and shafting Flecha into Voeckler. TV dictates the times of the race and TV gets evicted from the race, good show. Prudhomme had just told all cars to give priority to the team vehicles and to stay away from the riders. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t mention the verge-side trees gave the TV cretin his licence to attempted murder.

Voeckler in yellow. (Beginning of the season the second-string Europcars weren’t even sure of a ride.) He’ll keep it to Luz-Ardiden was the safe money, Pyrenees is where the Schlecks start to tear it up. Except they didn’t, or couldn’t. It ought to be a simple job to dish Contador (possibly): harassing changes of rhythm, the old one-two, jab jab and paf with the uppercut. No. Didn’t come, and Evans lurks, imperturbable, an encouraging sign. And Rolland. I watched him, Rolland, riding this, his third Tour, never done much before, but the Europcar, or rather the Bernaudeau, collectivity really does seem to be more, a lot more, than psycho-babble. It bloody works. Observe. Rolland was leading his boss up the slopes looking as if he could ride all day. Well, he was riding all day, and Voeckler began to inhabit the jersey like a real champion, not a short-term tenant.

Cav was clocking them up. One French wise-cracker asked (you know what they’re like): ‘Where was Cavendish born? The Isle of Man? Oh, no. Cavendish was born in Chateauroux in 2008 and reborn in 2011.’ The day, alas, of his ex-track partner Wiggins’ demise. The day after Sky’s first stage win. Boasson Hagen, the other Norwegian, who swept across the line in Normandy, named for the Norsemen who settled there. Sweet historical synchrono. And Chateauroux was once a fief of the English crown, so touché on that, too, another symbolic reclamation of territory.
Having moaned about the descent into Gap – ridiculous, dangerous, nasty nasty, pooh – Andy Schleck finally shrugged off the amiable come-what-may attitude and wrote a great page in Tour history, Merckx urging him on through Prudhomme’s sunroof. It was indeed superb, 60km out there and riding at some sublime level of power and concentration that forged the Tour’s Mr Nice Guy anew. Then, too, former shrinking violet Evans, cursing the others for not helping, into the headwind, up the valley to the highest stage finish ever in the Tour, Giant of the Alps, finally realised it was his to do, or not, his race to win, his, or not, and he dug in, the amazing Voeckler and Rolland still there, like the shadows of his old uncertainty. On the rooftop of the Tour, Evans tightening what looked like an unshakeable grip, therefore and Voeckler still in yellow, at the cost of being hardly able to breathe, talk, walk, function. A new level of racing? Hardly. The old level resurfacing clean.

Snapshot: top of the Galibier, Thomas arrives, shepherding Uran for the white jersey, gets to the line, glances back, seeing him in, almost tenderly. He’s got the works, Thomas, and he looks after the others, as well. Responsibility, it’s an essential, to the team, to yourself.
Next day, Contador, the podium slipping away from him, hitting the front on the Télégraphe, saving honour, at least, going for broke and broke is a place we have not seen for years. Contador is, I think, one of those men whose route to the earning of deepest respect lay in the fight back and he was delivering it. The stage was short, the climbers were being invited to attack early and it was happening – at the expense of the intermediate sprint…In Bourg, foot of the Alpe? Given the striking enterprise of the race route as a whole, this was daft. What was wrong with Valloire, outskirts of the Galibier? Hmm.

On the Alpe, another moment of Tour history. Voeckler to Rolland: ‘Go.’ And, as if charged with some force of the mystic tradition of the race, Rolland not only went but, riding in company with Contador and Sanchez towards the finish, knowing that his boss was slipping out of yellow, he turned in the saddle and scoped the Spaniards, once, twice, thrice and with magnificent disdain, haughty as a matador performing the Verónica, he soared off, victory, white jersey, both ears and the tail. (Okay, listen up: the Verónica is where the matador stands stockstill and looks away, into the crowd as the bull brushes past his cape, close as Veronica’s veil wiping the sweat from Christ’s brow on the way to Calvary.)

It was Evans’ win and taken with power – seven seconds off Martin in the time-trial, that showed the core of his all-out tenacity this year where, bad luck aside, he’d shied away before. But it was Voeckler’s Tour. A second division team, ten days in yellow, stage win, white jersey, 4th overall. Wow. And the Norwegians, only two of them there, but four stages and Hushovd trashing the curse of the rainbow jersey with the force of a Viking’s hawk on the stoop. And… oh, yes, Cav… Cavendish, of course, as they say in France.

Badge of Honour

July 21, 2011

Words and X-ray: Guy Andrews

A broken collarbone seems harmless enough when you’re watching the Tour on TV and it’s reported over the airwaves after the peloton has folded into a heap and the casualties have been fully assessed. It never sounds so bad, be back on your bike in no time… Well, that’s what I always thought.

The first I remember watching was during the Tour of 1987.

Sean Kelly is a tough guy, I trust you’ll agree. Jeff Connor’s description of the Irishman, in the excellent book Wide Eyed and Legless, had him down to a tee, especially when receiving short shrift when asking him for an interview. Connor wrote: “Kelly said nothing, climbed slowly off the car bonnet (where he had been sitting) and on to his bike, pulled his gloves on tighter and, without even looking at me, rode slowly away.”

Kelly was a mean rider too. The over-used expression ‘he let his legs do the talking’ perfectly described the taciturn man from Tipperary. Kelly was a class apart. One day, however, all this fell apart.

On stage 12 of the 1987 Tour de France he broke his collarbone, and although he tried to remount his bike and continue (at one stage riding off in the wrong direction), he eventually succumbed to the pain and collapsed into the arms of his DS in floods of tears. It can’t be the pain, I thought: Kelly’s too tough. I reasoned that perhaps he was just realising his chance for that year’s green jersey was over.

To say this was moving was an understatement. Kelly was stripped bare for all to see and he just wept. We stared at the TV with our mouths wide open. Kelly was crying. It was like seeing your dad upset when you were a kid, or watching Ring of Bright Water for the first time (it’s a film about otters… a really sad one… no? Just me then). We were all close to tears for him ourselves and it was a defining moment in the history of cycling. We all remember where we were the day Kelly cried…

Tyler Hamilton suffered the same bone break at the Tour a few decades on. Whatever he got up to behind the scenes, I can’t comprehend what Hamilton managed to put himself through to continue the 2003 Tour and even win a stage. For such a ‘nice looking boy’, it seems that he had a love of the pain. He loved it so much that when he had carried on riding in the previous year’s Giro (with a broken shoulder, eventually finishing second overall) he managed to grind his teeth so hard to mask the pain that he allegedly had to have 11 of them capped or replaced after the race. Ouch.

And then there was Fiorenzo Magni. I can’t imagine that Magni ever cried. He looked like he was made from granite or iron – Signor Magni’s made of different stuff to you or I. But he had his fair share of crashes and the 1956 Giro is still the stuff of legend. After crashing and breaking his left collarbone, not only did he climb out of the ambulance and refuse to go to hospital so he could finish the stage, but he also crashed again a few days later and fainted with the pain. Then his mechanic (incidentally, Faliero Masi, who Magni rated “the best bicycle mechanic ever”‚ and his bike brand is the subject of a feature in issue 25) tied an inner tube to his handlebars that he could pull on with his teeth when he climbed. Tough? We don’t know the meaning of the word.

“The day after the end of the Giro I went to an institute that specialised in bone injuries,” Magni explained later. “They said I had two fractures – I thought I had only one – and forced me to put a plaster cast on. The next day I went to my machine shop and asked my mechanic to cut the plaster cast away with the special scissors he used for sheet metal. This way I could start training again. Well, my shoulder is a little crooked now, but that’s that.”

Please don’t try this at home.

As for recent collarbones, Bradley Wiggins suffered the cyclist’s badge of honour in this year’s Tour and it was clear the minute the cameras revealed him from under a heap of riders what his injury was. Bradley put a brave face on it that’s for sure. I don’t know if he cried (I doubt it), but his teammates all stopped, threw their own races out of loyalty to the team leader and, however tactically stupid this may sound in retrospect, I can now fully appreciate their concern.

You see the reason why I’m wibbling on about busted clavicles is that I recently did mine too. Not in a race, not even falling off. I was car-doored, hardly a race situation, but the result was the same, and despite my earlier thinking that it’s ‘just a collar bone’, the classic cyclist’s injury seems to be perfectly fitting to a sport that hurts like hell. And yes I cried. Not for the fact that there was a peloton fast disappearing into the distance, or that the rest of my season was in doubt. I cried because it hurt like hell.

Just a Flesh Wound…

July 13, 2011

Words Ian Cleverly Photos Gerard Brown

While the world’s cycling fans have spent the past week poring over galleries of gruesome post-crash photographs and watching endless re-runs of Johnny Hoogerland’s stomach-churning catapult into a barbed-wire fence, some of us have been hard at work in parts of Europe with decidedly dodgy wi-fi connections and were unable to join in the traditional Tour de France opening week carnage and its attendant rubbernecking.

Crashing is a part of bike racing, always has been, always will be. But when a TV commentator closes the week’s highlights programme by saying “Let’s hope for less crashes next week,” followed by a closing montage consisting almost exclusively of tangled bodies, bloodied limbs and smashed bikes, you have to wonder what the public is tuning in for – bike racing or blood and guts.

If the universal appeal of this sport is overcoming the insurmountable, whether that be climbing Mont Ventoux or finishing a stage with the arse hanging out of your shorts and lacerated buttocks, I suppose it make sense. It just makes me uncomfortable. Gore is displacing racing and turning the Tour into a freak show.

Having volunteered to be soigneur for a British team at the Tour de Feminin Krásná Lípa in the Czech Republic (don’t worry – the team also had a swanny who knew what he was doing), the Tour de France had to take a back seat. There is little time for TV watching when faced with an endless queue of legs to massage and bottles to prepare. Plus sitting under the stairs in the dorm seemed to be the only way of finding a half-decent wi-fi signal.

Thankfully, not one of our eight riders hit the deck during the five stages, and crashes were few and far between despite the 160-strong bunch. What tore the team apart was that other bête noire of bike racers on tour – food poisoning. This is not the same kind of food poisoning that afflicted the PDM Tour team of ’91, withdrawn en masse due to an ailment that curiously affected all nine riders, but none of the support staff or managers. Draw your own conclusions…

This was the kind that hit all and sundry, leaving those of us in support roles barely able to function, let alone ride bikes. Roxy Music’s Both Ends Burning played endlessly in my head, between 50 metre sprints to the toilet, praying to the god of Imodium for devine intervention. The riders, meanwhile, had a 20km time trial and 90km road stage to face…

And face them they did, in various levels of distress, which brings me back to Hoogerland and the rest of the patched-up, swaddled peloton, limping its way toward the Pyrenees. The determination to carry on in seemingly impossible circumstances marks out, not only cycling from other sports, but top cyclists from lesser mortals. To finish the Tour is a major achievement; anything else is a bonus. And Paris must be reached no matter what obstacles and pitfalls lay in the way. Monty Python’s Black Knight, reduced to a limbless torso – “It’s just a flesh wound” – was surely a bike racer at heart.

Krásná Lípa is a big race for the women’s peloton, so perhaps I should not be surprised to see my team’s riders – having been driven across Europe in the back of a van and ridden their hearts out, only to be sideswiped by dodgy fish from a health and safety nightmare of a kitchen – continue racing in between mewling and puking, shitting and sleeping.

I was speechless with admiration, as I am for Hoogerland – who apportioned no blame for his dreadful accident, despite a swerving French TV car having nearly ended his life hours earlier. And Brad Wiggins, talking to camera from the hospital within hours of breaking his collarbone – having seen a great chance of a podium position in Paris disappear 40km from Châteauroux, and having every right to be grouchy as hell – just shrug his one good shoulder and issue without a trace of bitterness the stock phrase that perfectly sums up the whole situation.

“That’s bike racing, isn’t it?”

It is, indeed, bike racing. But if we could have a little more racing over the next two weeks and a little less carnage, I for one will be grateful. I’m not sure my stomach is up to it.

Panache

July 7, 2011

Words: Guy Andrews

Where have all the heroes gone? I do wonder. In the over-calculated, controlled and predictable racing world, is there any room for panache?

I’d like to suggest that it’s something you ‘have’ rather than ‘show’? Some riders just look classy whatever they do. And sometimes panache is about throwing it all into the race and having a go, after all, is panache all about winning and good luck? I also wonder if it’s a cultural thing too; the Belgians are a class apart when it comes to style and Phillipe Gilbert has it in spades. On the other hand George Hincapie (and most US riders, to be frank) have a lot less. Those British riders that have it, probably without knowing; Robert Millar had it and his compatriot David Millar still does, when he can be bothered. Antipodeans like Stuart O’Grady and Julian Dean look like they really couldn’t care less whether they have it or not, but ironically both do. Time triallists never seem to show any – Bradley Wiggins doesn’t really show any signs of panache, nor did Miguel Indurain, Tony Rominger or Chris Boardman, as their talents lay in their legs alone. As for Eastern Europeans, they have a fair share of panached riders: Andrei Tchmil, Vladimir Karpets and, my current favourite, the frighteningly scary looking Sergueï Ivanov. Italian riders just all think they have it, but few do. And then there’s the French: panache is their word, after all, and they all want it, but perhaps a little too much…

As for panache in racing this year, it’s been thin on the ground. My examples are numerous, but this year’s Paris Roubaix was the most negative race I’ve seen in a long time: no one willing to attack Fabian Cancellara, so an unfancied rider gets the chance to sneak away and wins it. Such is racing sometimes. And more fool the stars of the race. You could suggest that this sort of thing would never have happened before race radios. But it did.

I stake a claim for young British rider Geraint Thomas. My case: Tour of Flanders. He chased everything for his team leader Juan Antonio Flecha (whom he beat in the end), could have won, and he will one day. He said afterwards: “I really enjoyed myself” – as humble as you like. And his rise into the professional ranks continues to raise eyebrows. So far in this year’s Tour he’s been up there most days. He’s got ‘it’ already in my book.

 Geraint – he’s got ‘it’

There are no risk takers at the moment, just wheel-suckers – GC contenders that never attack before the final 5kms when the risk of losing seems to be a greater motivator than the risk of possibly winning. Or at least trying to win. For the moment panache is dead. Or so we were starting to believe.

This Tour has started to show an interesting shift: perhaps it’s the lack of long time trials, perhaps the fact that the favourites are all in fine form, but to see Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and co fighting hard (really hard) for the line on stage 4, isn’t in the script. At this rate they’ll be knackered by the time they get to the mountains… But what I’d like one of them to do is attack, somewhere unexpected, take the race by the horns and have a go. That’s what panache is all about – a blend of daring, cunning and style. It’s all a matter of personal choice and opinion of course, but to illustrate the point, and if it must be about winning, here are a few off my list of winning with panache.

Joop Zoetemelk

Winning the World championships is never easy, but when your career is in it’s twilight and the sun has all but set, it’s even more incredible. Joop was a brilliant rider on his day but to win from this stellar group of younger hardmen was extraordinary. The commentary is way off the mark here, Joop didn’t ‘steal’ this race – watch how he chased and kept the group together, then perfectly picked his moment to strike for home. Awesome power from a 38-year old-man.

Mario Cipollini

Mario is hardly well known as an attacking baroudeur. Rarely could he show his skills in efforts any longer than 400 metres. The fact is that he won all his races in a bunch gallop, and mostly flat ones, at that. You see, you knew what to expect from Mario. As for his style in skinsuits, well that’s another story. This clip from Ghent Wevelgem is the exception, and a brilliant piece of tactical awareness and no small amount of panache from Super Mario. Can you imagine how the breakaway felt when the fastest finisher in the world nonchalantly slipped onto the back of their group?

Robert Millar

This clip only shows a very small part of the epic day that brought Millar his first win at the Tour in 1983. What’s different about Millar is he always looked like he was trying, although I’m sure he did ‘bluff’ in his time, but most of his victories were hard-fought and brutal. ‘Heart on the sleeve’ stuff from a climber who could really ride a bike, especially when you see how he approached the descent to the finish. Full gas.