Thursday, 29 September 2011

Giro d'Italia 2012: First News

Check that out! That's a stage of next year's Giro. It features the Passo Di Tonale and Aprica as a warm-up for an assault on the preposterously steep Mortirolo, followed by a summit finish and Cima Coppi prize atop the Stelvio.

I thought Angelo Zomegnan was supposed to put an end to these sort of stunt-parcours?

Not that I really mind. I think it looks like a cracking stage, and thanks to the densely-packed Dolomites appearing in most years, we already expect the Giro to pile steep climb after steep climb after steep climb onto some stages.

Having said that, this here stage is going to be the penultimate stage of the 2012 Giro d'Italia. So we'll either see three weeks of politely non-aggressive riding as everyone decides to settle a three week race on one day, a la the 2009 Tour De France or, as this is the Giro, everyone will throw common sense out the window and ride hell for leather to settle things beyond reversal before the penultimate stage starts, which reduces the route above to a sort of torture-for-torture's sake.

Either way, I'm glad to see that getting rid of Zomegnan hasn't robbed the Giro of its ability to keep us all so beautifully bewildered.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Tour of Britain Photos

I wonder if Mark Cavendish screams his way through all Time Trials?.

Ah-Layhoh-pard Trek-uh! Nope, you can't actually make that pronunciation any dafter.

Decent of them to make the catch right where we were watching, eh?

Not every Rabobank rider had a good day.

Mark Cavendish. Screaming.

Still screaming.

Lars Boom riding to second on the stage and first overall.

Lars Boom at the head of the chase.

Corners nicely, doesn't he?

Geraint Thomas, pondering Welshcake recipes.

Kristian House and Ronan McLaughlin led the race for nine laps, but never looked likely to stay away.

I'd have an outside bet on Thor Hushovd to still be wearing that World Champs jersey this time next week, you know. Still reckon my cousin might have had him today, though.

I bet they weren't cornering like that on their TT bikes.

Orange. G. Boom.

I stick my tongue out when I'm concentrating too.

Geraint Thomas and Mark Cavendish coming into the final lap together. Won't be long until that's a regular occurrence.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Screw Twitter: Thoughts on Wiggins and Froome

When it comes to supporting cyclists or cycling teams, I’ve never been particularly motivated by patriotism. Exciting riding styles, strong teams or the ability to dethrone a rider I dislike have always been the major factors in choosing who I support. Except it now turns out that my lack of patriotism has merely been down to the lack of a strong British/Kenyan-British contender.

Like every cycling fan, the performances of Wiggins and Froome over the last three weeks had me gripped. Froome’s attack on Pena Cabarga made me shout myself hoarse. As hope faded over the final week that either man could retake the jersey from JJ Cobo I engaged in ever more convoluted and far-fetched imaginings as I tried to figure out where the Sky pair could get another 13 seconds with fewer and fewer climbs available. In my head, Sky one-twos put Cobo under pressure even on the flat. I knew it would never happen, but my newfound need for a patriotic win saw the borders of sporting credibility stretched like an old sweater.

(Incidentally, I’d like to see “stretching the sweater of credibility” become a counterpoint to “unpacking the suitcase of courage”, as in: “Landis is really unpacking the suitcase of courage here, Phil.” “Actually Paul, I think he’s finished unpacking and started stretching the sweater of credibility.”)

Of course, I was far from the only one to become obsessed with the Sky duo, it seemed like every British cycling fan was paying close attention. Unfortunately it seemed like at least half of them were in the same camp as Twitter’s FestinaGirl, who said of Froome: “shame Sky didn’t appreciate his right to wear the Red Jersey when he had it” among many other pointed comments about Sky’s decision to throw all their weight behind Wiggins even when Froome was in 2nd position overall. The question occurred time and again on cycling related forums: where would Froome be if he didn’t have to work for Wiggins?

My answer to that is that he’d probably have been somewhere in the top twenty.

How Teamwork Works
Don’t get me wrong, over the whole three weeks Froome was the stronger of the two Sky men, and by the end of the race was riding in a delightfully aggressive fashion, but it was Wiggins who rode like a team leader, and Wiggins who rode like a race favourite. It was Wiggins riding in the front two and marking the favourites on Sierra Nevada. It was Wiggins deciding who to leave and who to chase. When the Sky pair chased down Dan Martin and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali on La Covatilla it was Wiggins who assumed leadership of the group, moving to the front and sustaining a pace that burned off Rodriguez, Scarponi and Nieve, and made sure that Nibali couldn’t escape a second time.

Did Chris Froome help his team leader do all this? Of course, but thats what mountain domestiques do. They drag their leader up to the front group on the mountains. Once they’re there, however, it’s the leader who rides with his head up, bossing the field, setting the pace and attacking the weak. That’s what Wiggins did.

Froome’s reputation before this Vuelta was that of a strong climber with limited tactical nous, a penchant for crazy attacks, and a bad habit of positioning himself at the back of the bunch. If he’d ridden his own race, as half the internet seemed to have wished, he’d have flared brightly and then been left to slip down the rankings long before the race reached the Angliru.

Riding Wiggins into the lead is what taught Froome to ride at the front. Sticking with his savvy leader in the mountains is what taught him self-control. He added his own tremendously exciting attacking style to that, tear-arseing out of the bunch in pursuit of bonus seconds or gaps, but the Froome who finished the Vuelta in second place was not a podium rider who’d been held back all race, he was a domestique who’d been remade over the course of it.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what he does next, but for those of you who’d rather he’d bucked the team hierarchy, ridden selfishly and battled his own teammates, may I suggest you watch the Italian team at the Worlds next week?

Friday, 9 September 2011

A tale of two Tours.

Not much doing in the Vuelta today. The Tour de Bushy was fun though. 

In Spain we had a breakaway survive to the finish and a much need win for Lampre courtesy of Francesco Gavazzi.  No one wants to see one of cycling’s faithful old teams go through a grand tour without a win, so it was nice to see the breakaway succeed, even it was more due to the peloton not bothering to chase than the riders ability to stop squabbling and work together. The bunch rolled in over seven minutes later with no real change made to the important end of the GC.

On the other side of Europe I continued my stuttering transition from  armchair cycling fan to cyclist with my third attempt at a ‘training ride’, by which I mean an attempt to ride for a serious distance at a serious speed, rather than just pottering about. 

My first attempt was an enjoyable twenty miles, but a loose saddle meant that I couldn’t ride at speed. Attempt number two did briefly see some decent speed attained and maintained, but the loose saddle struck again, this time accompanied by some newly slipping gears and a return home after a paltry six miles.

Yesterday’s attempt felt closer to what I was after. At twelve miles, it wasn’t a particularly long ride, but I spent pretty much the whole time pedalling hard, fighting for breath. It felt like exercise. It felt like it was making me fit. It felt like a stepping stone on the way to doing twenty miles hard riding, which is the marker I want to achieve before venturing out on group rides with experienced cyclists and getting really serious.

I set off before nine, so the roads to Bushy Park were still hectic with school run, but the park itself was not yet full of little’ns. This played a vital part in allowing me to ride hard the whole time: normally each circuit of the park has a looong slow bit by the play area, where the toddlers enact a sort of Brownian motion between the swings on one side and the ice-cream van on the other, while I weave through them at low speed. Yesterday, I simply rocketed along the path, which was empty but for two people doing some of the strangest, least helpful looking stretches I’ve ever seen: spasmodic, hip-hampered high kicks that looked more likely to strain something than warm it up. Bizarrely, they were still there an hour later, still stretching. Perhaps they’d done some running or Tai Chi inbetween, but it looked to me like they’d merely stopped for a natter in gymwear.

I, meanwhile, had managed to hit a top speed of 21.2 MPH while being chased by a small, excitable Highland Terrier, whose owner yelled at me. I don't know if the yelling was "Stop exceeding the park speed limit", "Stop exciting my Highland Terrier" or "Well done you, you look like you'll have built a reasonable level of cardio-vascular fitness in no time." I'm hoping it was the latter, but just in case it wasn’t, I peeled off onto a short grass track when my second lap approached the same Terrier. This successfully avoided a second chase, but the short grass track turned out to be a long, muddy and bumpy rut that brought my average speed right down and put a fierce ache into my legs.

In any case, I managed a middling distance, a good average speed and neither my fitness nor my lycra embarrassed me, so I’m calling it a successful ride. The plan now is to have another, and another, and another, until it’s a habit. Once I’m habitually riding I’ll start looking into proper nutrition and setting targets.

Meanwhile, today’s Vuelta stage to Bilbao might, might just provide crosswinds, and those crosswinds might just carry the straws fans of Chris Froome and Brad Wiggins are clutching for. Yesterday, my ride was more interesting than the Vuelta. Today, however, might be very different...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Lots of straws to clutch at.

Is Poels still feeling frisky?
I spent the first 13 days of the Vuelta convincing myself that Bradley Wiggins couldn’t be expected to mount a genuine challenge for the red jersey in such a mountainous tour just weeks after breaking his collarbone. Then, after numerous robust performances where he rode comfortably over mountains I’d expected to ruin him, dropped riders I expected to drop him, and most importantly of all, lead from the front, setting the pace and bossing the group, I changed my mind. Nibali may have been the bookies favourite, but it was Wiggins who looked like a leader.

Although his margin in red was slender, his performance was strong enough that I’d started wondering if the real question was not “Can he survive the Angliru?” and more “Will the tabloids christen a Sky one-two Friggins, Woome or Bris?” Presumptious of me, no? The 22% slopes eventually saw Wiggins swaying like an evangelist at a tent revival, while JJ Cobo overcame his unsightly, knock-kneed climbing style to power his way to the top of a mountain that, from a spectator’s point of view, looks even nastier than the mighty Zoncolan.

So where does that leave things? Realistically, only Froome and Wiggins are in a position to attack Cobo, and only Bauke Mollema is in a position to attack Wiggins. Today’s stage was notable only for the confusion at the finish, with sprinters turning hither and thither on a badly signposted run in. But tomorrow won’t need signposts-the finish is on Pena Cabarga, which will loom over the riders. At 6k it isn’t a long climb, but the majority of it is over 9%, with the final K at 14%.

A climb that short and steep would have Joaquim Rodriguez written all over it (figuratively and literally) had his crash today not put a question mark over his back and wrist. More importantly, however, Pena Cabarga is the last summit finish of the Vuelta and the last clear cut chance to shake up the GC. No less a luminary than John Wilcockson is refusing to count Wiggins and Froome out thanks to the time bonuses still available. Until the confusion at the finish today, the 20 second bonus for the winner would have brought Froome level with Cobo if he could take first and the Spaniard not make it into the top three. Even after Cobo’s unexpected tenth in the sprint, the gap between first and second is still only a slender 22 seconds, a gap that could be closed if Froome outperforms him today.

That’s not as unrealistic as it sounds-Cobo’s two time-gaining attacks have both seen him spend a long time off the front grinding away for precious seconds. Even then his most sizeable time gain came when 20% + gradients brought Wiggins almost to a standstill. Cobo isn’t a Rodriguez or Contador who opens a ten or fifteen second gap almost as soon as he turns the pedals, and Pena Cabarga is too short for him to eke out much time if he does get away. Froome and Wiggins aren’t explosive either, but their pretend-its-a-mountain-time-trial approach to climbing has only failed them on the most absurd gradients the race has dished up. In all honesty, I favour Froome and Wiggins to be better placed at the summit of Pena Cabarga than Cobo, on a climb that practically demands that gaps appear between the riders.

Sadly, for all that optimism about the placings, I don’t see the gaps being large enough to overcome the existing deficit, nor do I see Bauke Mollema and Rabobank sitting back and settling for fourth when Wiggins is still within reach. Quite aside from the likelihood that non-GC men like Moncoutie, Montaguti, Moreno and Rodriguez will be contesting the finish, it seems probable that Mollema will also be trying to get in on the action. The chances of the time bonuses falling where they’ll do Sky’s pair any good seems pretty slim with so many riders vying for the summit.

I think today will see the gap between the top four narrow, but the GC remain unchanged. With Rodriguez nursing poor arm, picking a stage winner is harder, but Moncoutie’s 4th place on the same climb last year makes him look good, as does Wout Poels incessant friskiness. 

Saturday, 3 September 2011

How steep?!?

So, we said that the mountains would be too much for him. No, the really long mountains. No, sorry, the really long mountains with lots of changes in gradient. Not only have they not been too much for Bradley Wiggins, but his head-up, commanding riding at the front, marshalled by Chris Froome has been too much for many of his rivals.

Seriously, look at the list of riders that Wiggins has dropped at one point or another in this race: Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim Rodriguez, Michele Scarponi, Mikel Nieve. Not bad for a chap we thought would defend in the mountains.

Of course, tomorrow we’ve got a really long mountain with lots of changes in gradient and some horrifically steep sections. By rights, that should be too much for Wiggins, but by this point he’s confounded expectations often enough that it wouldn’t be a terrible surprise if he holds it together on the Angliru.
Even after the Angliru there’s still stage 17's summit finish on Pena Cabarga, a climb too short for massive time losses, but steep enough for gaps to be created easily - a good day tomorrow could lay the foundations for a deciding attack on Wednesday. Nevertheless, Wiggins is in the strongest spot now.

Of his expected challengers tomorrow, any attempt by Mollema to get away would lead to an Anglo-Dutch replay of last year's slo-mo Mosquera/Nibali chase. TGBM has the strength to maintain a gap, but not the acceleration to make the gap especially dangerous.

Cobo could have something left in the tank, but it would be almost the reverse of the Mollema situation - he could easily open a sizeable gap, but potentially not maintain it - much like today, where he was chopped back to 15 seconds by the finish.

I can't bring myself to count Nibali out entirely either. 1:25 is a big deficit for a guy with so little acceleration, but he's finished second and third on the Mt Zoncolan in the last two years. When it comes to really long climbs with batshit gradients, Nibali has proven that he can hang in there even as the faster guys fade. The Angliru might yet play to his consistency.

Nevertheless, Wiggins has to defend the time he’s already got, while everyone else has to overcome sizeable caveats (and sizeable mountains) to seize the time they need. I don’t want to tempt fate, but things have never looked this good before...

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Fun but inconclusive...

So my attempt to assess my fitness for a sizeable ride wasn’t entirely successful. The plan was to get to the park and slowly wind up the speed to a level that felt strenuous but sustainable, then see if it really was sustainable by going for as long as I could. Well, I could have kept going for hours, but I can’t honestly say I got up to a strenuous speed.

The postie arrived just before one o’clock, which rather cut down on my chances of getting several hours of riding in before getting home in time for the Vuelta coverage. Still, no sooner had he arrived than I'd installed my new pump and puncture gear and set off for Bushy Park. It was 24 degrees, bright and sunny, and the biggest, most impressively-antlered deer had come out to stand alongside the paths and cheer me on like hairy, flyblown spectators.

I like to think of Bushy Park’s cinder pathways as the strade bianche of south-west London. They make a really satisfying crunching noise beneath your tyres that more than compensates for the need to corner a little more carefully. Sadly, they also have a number of potholes, and the second I hit one, my saddle took a sudden skyward lurch.

I spent yesterday tightening brakes and oiling chains, but I hadn’t even looked at the saddle bolt. There’s no reason for it to be loose, it hasn’t been touched in months, but loose it was. Of course, I had a multi-spanner tucked away, but of the five cut-outs, not one of them fitted the bolt. Not to be dissuaded, I rode for the next two hours anyway, but every lump and bump rocked my saddle, and every smooth patch of tarmac was spent reaching backwards to wrench the saddle back into position. At times the paths were so lumpy that I ended up mountain biking over them, bum off the saddle, knees as shock absorbers, rather than risk having the saddle come completely off. In those circumstances, going hard was out of the question, so I ended up doing a sedately paced fifteen miles.

Oh well. Sagan’s just won his second stage of the Vuelta, and I’m heading out to see if I can find a spanner that fits. Watch this space, I’m going to try again tomorrow.

An Awfully Big Adventure...

I think he needs a name...

I’m waiting for the postman. With a bit of luck, he should be bringing me a few bits and pieces. A high-pressure mini-pump, some gel-padded gloves and, most importantly, some cycling trousers with a heavily padded arse.

Other recent purchases include a lock, new tyres, a wedge pack to carry my puncture repair kit, spanners and alan keys, a pair of lights and a cycling computer. My half-baked assault on Mt Ventoux has inspired me, and I’m going to make the move from a lap of the park once a week into proper cycling, in the hope of being able to go back to Mt Ventoux and do it properly: all the way to the top, all in one go.

Of course, I may already have bitten off more than I can chew.

When I abandoned my ride up the mountain, I had a very clear thought in my head - I’d come so far on no training or experience that it must be possible for me to reach the summit  if I went away and put the hours in. Almost as soon as I had this thought, I received a quick lesson in how much I needed to learn - the descent from 12k up Ventoux was terrifying, and I had absolutely no idea how to handle those speeds, those corners, those lumps in the road. Clearly, I needed to learn from those in the know.

With that in mind, I came home and contacted a friend in the CTC who immediately invited me to join her on one of their 2 Star rides which, she has assured me, will be well within the reach of a beginner. Which brings me to my recent acquisition of lights, tools and the like. I even have a dedicated support team in the shape of my wife, who has presented me with a selection of energy bars and a Liquigas jersey that she promises was “torn from the back of Ivan Basso”.

Which is all well and good, but I’m getting a little nervous. In preparation for Sunday’s ride, I cleaned several years' worth of gunge from my bike, tightened the brakes, oiled the chain, sprayed a little WD40 into the tubes and onto every bit of chipped enamel. The end result was a gleaming bike and a bad back. And a lightly-pulled thigh muscle. Seriously, basic bike maintenance has done me a mischief, so you can understand my newfound misgivings about taking on a 55-85k ride in three days time.

These misgivings deepened when the ride leader, who I’d contacted out of politeness, replied to suggest that he thinks I should start with a 1 Star ride.  Oh.

The thing is, I feel like I’m committed to this Sunday’s ride. I’ve made arrangements with a friend I haven’t seen for years. I’ve bought new kit. Hell, I’ve even lowered myself enough to add lights and locks to my previously smooth and uncluttered bike.

So here’s the plan. When the postman arrives I shall assemble the final bits of kit, put a few drops of embrocation on my sore thigh, and head out to the nearest park, where I shall endeavour to ride at a respectable speed for as long as I possibly can. Or until the live coverage of the Vuelta starts, whichever comes first. By the end of that, I should have the first inklings of what I can manage, and of what I’m in for on Sunday.

Here goes....