Tour 2010: Stage 14

And so we reached the Pyrenees, and the stages that will decide the Tour. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador were so caught up in their own private battle that they seemed to forget the race going on around them. At one point on the final climb they slowed until they were almost doing track-stands, oblivious to third- and fourth-placed Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank), unable to believe their luck, dashing for the summit and gaining 15 precious seconds each.
The undisputed hero of the day was Christophe Riblon (AG2R). A virtual unknown before today, he was first over the 6,500ft hors categorie Port de Pailhères, then held on to his slender advantage to cross the line at Ax 3 Domaines alone after a breakaway of more than 100 miles. There can surely be no better way to land your first-ever Tour stage win.

HIGH ACHIEVER

Two thousand metres up,
Twenty miles to go,
He has
Two minutes.
Below
The heads of state
Watch each other,
Too intent on their own affairs
To pay attention
To a man
Twenty-four minutes down
With four wins
And no chance.
But though all their feints
And mind games
He goes on,
Shoulders rolling,
Through the madness
Of Basque flags
Campervans
Evian showers
And fat men running
To the line
That marks
The end
And the beginning.

Revel-Ax 3 Domaines
Won by Christophe Riblon (AG2R)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 13

Thirteen stages and no drug scandals. The Tour organisers must have been holding their breath, wondering how long their charmed life could last. And then, the result they’ve surely been dreading: a stage win for Alexandre Vinokourov. In 2007, the Astana rider was nailed for blood doping and banned for a year – a sanction many felt was too lenient. He never confessed and has certainly never shown any contrition. Since his return to racing last season he’s won a number of races, including this year’s Liège-Bastgone-Liège. Let’s be absolutely clear: the Kazakh rider hasn’t tested positive for anything since 2007 and we have to assume he’s riding clean now. But it still leaves a nasty taste.

BAD BLOOD

One name
I didn’t want to read
At the top of the table:
One man
I hoped I wouldn’t have to watch
Zipping up his jersey,
Arms held high in celebration.
The same arms that felt
The needles’ sting
And welcomed the blood
Rich with poisoned promise.
No confession, no remorse:
Ride out the ban
And come back
Like it never happened.
A red sock left
In the machine;
Clean
But discolouring everything –
A stain it seems
We still can’t quite remove.

Rodez-Revel, 196km
Won by Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 12

Despite being technically a ‘transitional’ stage, there wasn’t much respite for the peloton today, with three third- and two second-category climbs on the 210.5km slog from Bourg de Péage to Mende. The final climb of the Montée Laurent Jalabert – named after one of France’s most beloved riders, who won here in 1995 – saw Albert Contador (Astana) go on the attack at last: in the end he gained just 10 seconds on Andy Schleck, but the Tour has been won and lost by less than that before. Just as the organisers doubtless hoped and intended, it’s all going to be decided on the great cols of the Pyrenees next week. Expect fireworks.

OPENING SALVO

Two to go,
And the men
Who would be king
Are shoulder to shoulder:
An intimate skirmish
In the wider war
Against gravity, altitude
And lactic acid.

One kicks
With intent
To hurt.
The other
Stays down,
Unable to rise
To this sudden challenge
And everywhere, alarm-bells sound.

This is not
The killer blow
That ends it all:
But to lose
Even a little
From not enough
Is sure to sting
Somewhere.

Bourg de Péage-Mende, 210.5km
Won by Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 11

From the summit of the third-category climb of the Col de Cabre, 56km from the start in Sisteron, it was downhill or flat pretty much all the way to the finish in Bourg lès Valence, another 128km away. It was a profile that made a bunch sprint all but inevitable, and HTC-Columbia duly buried themselves again to reel in the equally predictable breakaway, and set up a third victory for their man, Mark Cavendish.
Cavendish has now won 13 Tour stages, putting him ahead of true greats Mario Cipollini, Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen (riding the Tour again this year at age 38 with Katusha) in the list of the Tour’s most prolific sprinters. That got me thinking…

GREAT STUFF?

Back in ’99
Mario arrived to sign
The start sheet
Dressed
As Caesar:
Laughed at the fine.
A real crowd-pleaser.

Six years in a row
Erik took the green maillot;
Every day
Chased
The small scores:
Hard way to go
And win the sprint wars.

Fastest of his day
Robbie rides the Tour his way.
Three times he’s
Taken
Green, and won
The Champs-Elysées
(And that’s the big one)

So, what does it mean
Now Cavendish has got 13?
He’s truly
Greater
Than these past
Heroes of the scene;
Or just he rides fast?

Sisteron-Bourg lès Valence, 184.5km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 10

It’s every French rider’s dream to win a Tour stage on Bastille Day. The last man to achieve it was David Moncoutié – still riding for the Cofidis team but omitted from their Tour squad – back in 2005. No luck again this year: the French had to watch Portugal’s Sergio Paulinho (RadioShack) take the win on their national holiday in a two-up sprint against Vasili Kiryienka (Caisse d’Epargne) of Belarus.
Schleck, Contador et al were content to trundle along on a hot day, allowing the escapees to build up a lead of more than 14 minutes by the finish in Gap, in the knowledge it wouldn’t have the slightest impact on the overall standings. It was good to see a breakaway succeed for once, giving some of the peloton’s lesser luminaries their moment in the limelight. And what a finish it was.

CLOSE CALL

A big day
For the little guys;
The men who go years,
Or whole careers,
Without a kiss
From a podium girl.

A chance to see
What the race looks like
From the front;
Take great, greedy draughts
Of clear air
And open road.

And then, rewarding long labour
The luxury
Of a whole kilometre
To stalk, feint, shadow-box,
Hugging the barrier
Forcing the lead-out.

After five hours
It all comes down
To a heartbeat’s hesitation
And half a wheel.
So far
And yet so near.

Chambery-Gap, 179km
Won by Sergio Paulinho (RadioShack)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 9

French cycling fans haven’t had so much to cheer about in years. Another sensational stage for the home riders saw Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux) take the win, with Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) – riding his last Tour at the ripe old age of 39 – finishing fourth and Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) fifth. Charteau also took over the lead in the KoM classification from Jerome Pineau (Quick Step) while Moreau completed a French one-two-three at the head of the race for the polka-dot jersey.
Cadel Evans (BMC), riding with a cracked elbow sustained in a crash on Sunday, lost more than eight minutes and the maillot jaune he’d won on Stage 8. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) now leads the GC, 41 seconds ahead of Alberto Contador (Astana): the only two realistic contenders for overall victory finished together, just two seconds behind Casar.
Today’s poem is about none of them, however: my sympathies were all with Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel). By turning himself inside-out on the final climb of the Col de la Madeleine, and taking all kinds of insane risks going down the other side, he managed to get within 10 seconds of Contador, Schleck and Moreau on the final 5km run-in to the finish. But he just couldn’t make contact, and eventually finished 50 seconds behind them. I know what it’s liked to get shelled out the back of a group and watch, powerless to respond, as the gap slowly widens and they head off down the road. At least I didn’t have to see a possible Tour stage win go with them.

SNAPPED ELASTIC

Ten seconds.
That’s all.
Count them, out loud.

Not much to make up
You’d think
When you’ve had
20 k downhill
And Olympic gold hung round your neck.

Yet that
Achingly
Tiny

Gap

Might as well be
Another mountain
An ocean
A trip to the moon.

Power leaks
From legs
Already screaming
Teeth grind
Eyes screw shut
Hands haul on bars
As if to bend them back

And now you see
That wheel through
The wrong end of the telescope
And you know
You have
To let it go.

Morzine-Avoriaz-Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, 204.5km
Won by Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Return of The Guv'nor

In November 2008, I bought myself a Pashley Guv’nor as a birthday present. A replica of a 1930s ‘path racer’, it’s everything my Trek Madone isn’t: made from Reynolds steel, it weighs 35lb, has three-speed Sturmey-Archer hub gears and a Brooks leather saddle, and all the sprightly handling and acceleration of a fully laden furniture van. It’s a complete anachronism, a conscious rejection of all the advances in materials science and technology that make modern road bikes so efficient and exciting to ride.
But I absolutely loved it (sorry; him) and together we clocked up over 3,000 miles – including a couple of time-trials – during the 2009 season. All winter I looked forward to spring, when we could take to the road again. Then came the diagnosis on my knee. A heavy bike with three gears seemed precisely not what the doctor ordered for someone with osteoarthritis, and living in a hilly area. With infinite reluctance, I took The Guv’nor back to the excellent Future Cycles where I’d bought him, and asked them to get whatever they could for him.
That was three months ago. There were a couple of nibbles, but no takers. So on Sunday, I went to the shop and busted him out. The money would have been useful, but I feel altogether richer simply by having him back home.
This morning, we went out for a ride. Not far, not fast, but wonderful nonetheless. And despite all the miles we’d done together before, I felt that today, I finally ‘got’ him. My mistake had been to ride him head down, flat out, for as many miles as possible – in fact, as though he was just another road bike. But he’s not. My mistake has cost me dearly; I’m sure that, even if it didn’t cause it, riding The Guv’nor too hard probably hastened the onset of my OA. As William Blake observed: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom; for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.”
I have no choice but to go easier on him now; my knee simply won’t let me do otherwise. But if I’m careful, I can still ride The Guv’nor after all, which is a truly marvellous realisation. And if I have to put up with a few twinges in the hinges, I’ll consider it a small price to pay. Cue a sonnet.

RIGHT YOU ARE, GUV’NOR

They were hard men, the ones who used to race
The Tour de France on bikes like this. They gaze
From books and photographs: each stern, lean face
Is grimed and etched with suffering. The days
Of crossing mountain passes on one gear
Are gone; spare tubes wrapped round the shoulders, too,
With goggles and wool jerseys. Now I hear
The tales of their two-wheeled derring-do
And know a little of their world. And yet
This bike is also England, from a past
We’ve chucked aside but still can’t quite forget;
When we knew how to build a thing to last.
A grand machine inspired by history:
Reminding me how cycling ought to be.

Tour 2010: Rest day

No racing today, as the riders enjoy the first rest day of this year’s Tour, having covered 1,570km (980 miles) since the start in Rotterdam last Saturday. They’ll spend the day at the Alpine ski resort of Morzine-Avoriaz, where yesterday’s stage ended with victory for Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Cadel Evans (BMC) in the maillot jaune, and seven-time winner Lance Armstrong (Radio Shack) out of contention almost 12 minutes in arrears.
For pro cyclists, ‘rest’ is a relative term. They’ll still ride for three hours or so; although the pace will be well below race speed (they average 20-25mph even on the mountain stages) most of us mortals would still struggle to stay with them. It’s easy to forget that the guys who roll home in the autobus half an hour behind the winner are still better than 99.9999% of the rest of us will ever be. Even Dmitriy Muravyev of Kazakhstan, the current lanterne rouge who’s already lost almost 90 minutes to Evans, is a top professional – he wouldn’t be riding for Armstrong’s Radio Shack team if he wasn’t.
When they’re not at the dinner table replacing the 9,000-odd calories they burned on yesterday’s stage, the riders will be on the massage table, where the soigneurs (literally ‘carers’) ease the knots and kinks from tired legs.
Hostilities resume tomorrow, with another eight stages and 1,000 miles of racing before the next rest day in Pau. Many will be wondering if they’ll make it that far. And you can be sure that quite a few of them won’t.

RÉPOS

On the tenth day
They rested.

And it was good.

Nothing to do
But sleep late

Ride three hours
Pack in pasta, then

Let the soigneurs’ magic hands
Ease a thousand miles from leaden legs.

Revel in the chance to feel
Normal in the midst of madness:

Call home, play games, snooze,
Or lose themselves in movies.

Heal, refuel, recover
Get ready

To do it
All again.

Maillot jaune: Cadel Evans (BMC)
Green jersey: Thor Hushovd (Cervélo Test Team)
KoM: Jerome Pineau (Quick Step)

Tour 2010: Stage 8 (2)

During his run of seven straight Tour wins – a record that will probably stand for all time – Lance Armstrong was unassailable in the mountains. On today’s stage, which is by no means the hardest of this year’s race, he lost 12 minutes and any hope of winning his final Tour. Great champion though he is, the firepower to deal with young guns like Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador is no longer there. I think we’ve witnessed the end of an era. Le roi est mort. Vive le roi. 

NO WAY BACK

Camera cuts
To Lance:
On the front,
Jersey slashed open
Crucifix swinging
His face set, revealing nothing.
But this is not
Tête de la course:
Today
He leads
Groupe Armstrong
And the gap to his successors
Stretches out to minutes.
The seven-time winner
Who held the whole world
In his hands
Learns what it is
To lose
To fall
To fail
Feel his age.
And know there can be
No comeback.

Tour 2010: Stage 8

Le pauvre Chavanel: twice in a week he’s won a stage and claimed the maillot jaune; both times he’s lost it the next day. And there won’t be a third opportunity, now that the real contenders have declared war in earnest. All of France must have been hoping he could hold on and take the yellow jersey into tomorrow’s rest day, but the cycling gods were having none of it. Whether it’s passed to a worthier man remains to be seen.

UP AND OUT

They say yellow
Makes two men of you;

But the weight of fame
Woven into every fibre

Colluded with gravity
To drag him down

And leave him halved,
Broken like scree

On the slopes that
Just the day before

Had smiled on him
And now just laughed.

Station des Rousses-Morzine Avoriaz, 189km
Won by Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Maillot jaune: Cadel Evans (BMC)