Tour 2010: Stage 7 (2)

Chapeau to Sylvain Chavanel (again) and his team-mate Jerome Pineau, maillot jaune and King of the Mountains respectively at the end of Stage 7. That they’ll hold on to their jerseys after Stage 8 is unlikely, but these French riders have saved the Tour for their Belgian team, Quick Step, which was robbed of its star sprinter, Tom Boonen, through injury just before the event. Le jour de gloire has well and truly arrivé for these two.

IN A NUTSHELL…

Sylvain
Is the man
In yellow:
Clever fellow.
Jerome
Made it home
KoM.
Good for them.

Tour 2010: Stage 7

A brilliant ride by Sylvain Chavanel gave him a second stage win, and his second yellow jersey, as the Tour hit the mountains. Spare a thought for Fabian Cancellara, though: the big Swiss rider they call Spartacus lost 14 minutes, and the maillot jaune he’d taken from Chavanel on Stage 3. He’ll be a domestique for Andy Schleck from now on. How the mighty are fallen.

GAME OVER

Farewell
To yellow
And hello
To white and black
Anonymity, a domestique
Lost in the pack,
And long days of pain
For greater gain.

Now another
Must rise:
Take the prize
You knew was lent,
Not yours to keep.
So your will is bent
To helping The Man
To win. If he can.

Tournus-Station des Rousses, 165.5km
Won by Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)
Maillot jaune: Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)

Tour 2010: Stage 6

Mark Cavendish scored his second win in two days, claiming the longest stage of this year’s Tour with another ferocious sprint. As ever, he paid generous tribute to his HTC-Columbia team, who chased down the breakaway and got him in a perfect winning position. Today’s poem goes out to the domestiques: true professionals and brilliant riders in their own right, who sacrifice themselves daily in support of their team leaders.

SERVICE AGREEMENT

Five hours
They’ve watched, waited,
Matched their pace to the ones
Who got away
And, patient as fishermen,
Reeled them in.
Now, under 10 K to go,
They get organised:
The strong men and hard men
Move to the front
Taking the wind
Giving their charges an armchair ride
To the finish.
One swings off
His big turn over,
Slipping back, utterly spent
To find his way home as best he can:
Reinforcements arrive
To keep the pace high
Foiling the fugitives
And anyone tempted
To go for a long one.
No jerseys or podium girls await:
They spend their speed
In the service of the stars,
They will be last
For those who would be first.
Now you see them,
Now you don’t:
The men behind
The man in front.

Montargis-Gueugnon, 227.5km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Maillot jaune: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 5

Whatever your opinion of Mark Cavendish, you have to admire the guy’s tenacity. After his dismal 12th place yesterday, and his lead-out ‘train’ in apparent disarray, the knives were out for the self-styled ‘Fastest Man in the World’. Today, he got his revenge in the grand style, pouring all his frustration into a perfectly timed sprint that no one had a hope of answering. Personally, I’m not a great Cav fan, but it was a superb ride and a well-deserved victory. Chapeau.

RETURN TICKET

That face
That fist:
No words
Required.
A man
Possessed;
A team
Inspired.

The hex
Was broken,
The sprint
Sublime.
Today
The train
Was right
On time.

Epernay-Montargis, 187.5km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Maillot jaune: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)

Goodbye, again

My regular readers will know that last week I attended my grandmother’s funeral. Today, the family assembled again to scatter the ashes of my mother’s parents. Grandpa died in August 2007, aged 97; Granny followed him almost exactly a year later, aged 99. They were married for 75 years.
I had a much closer relationship with them than I did with my paternal grandmother. Granny was a true matriarch, ruling the family as a benevolent tyrant: Grandpa was a quiet, self-effacing man, with a sharp mind and keen sense of humour. To my great regret, I missed their funerals, being out of the country on both occasions: today was my chance to make my farewells and remember two people who have influenced me profoundly.
I read this poem (a rondeau, of which the best-known example is probably John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields) as we stood on the South Downs, looking out over the sea.

Dear Granny and Grandpa. God bless you both.

RONDEAU

You are not gone; you’re always here with me
In phrases, photographs, philosophy –
The million tiny details that comprise
A life lived long and well: I close my eyes,
                                                    You are not gone.

An ordered world of quiet and constancy
Created, nurtured, guarded jealously;
On Test Match afternoons beneath blue skies
                                                     You are not gone.

And now it is my childhood you I see
At home, together, as you used to be;
Unchanging, loving, generous and wise.
So though I bid you, now, my last goodbyes
                                                     You are not gone.

Tour 2010: Stage 4 (2)

Mark Cavendish won six stages at last year’s Tour. With four stages complete, he’s still waiting for his first victory in 2010. Everyone, including Cav himself, expected it to come today. But it was not to be.

SO NEAR…

Passing under
The red kite
He has just
One thousand metres
And one team-mate
Ahead of him.

Too far
And too few
For the man
Who thought it was his.

He looks down
Then sits up
Sees the Italian’s two-arm salute

And the little splinter of doubt
Digs in
Deeper.

Tour 2010: Stage 4 (1)

After yesterday’s dramas and traumas, today’s flat run from Cambrai to Reims was bound to be a bit of a comedown. It certainly was for Mark Cavendish, who trailed in 12th on a near-perfect day for the sprinters. The main contenders called a truce as expected, so there was no change in the overall Tour standings.
While I wouldn’t have changed places with any of the riders yesterday, I couldn’t help envying them today, as they bowled through the rolling fields of Champagne. Professional cyclists lead a hard and dangerous life, but it looked pretty good to me this afternoon. And I think they knew it, too.

PERFECT DAY

Warm sun, light winds,
Wide views over endless fields
Bristling with windmills.

Hard tyres, smooth tarmac,
Deep carbon rims
Slicing the summer air.

High speed, low effort,
Hands on the hoods,
Chatting with the boys.

Unladen bike, empty pockets,
Food, drink and spares
Following in the car.

Short stage, quick finish,
With massage, dinner, bed
Waiting at the end.

Easy day, simple task,
Three hours on the road.
Knowing how lucky they are.

Cambrai-Reims, 153.3km
Won by Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini)
Maillot jaune: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 3

Yesterday, La Doyenne: today, l’Enfer du Nord. Probably the most famous of the one-day spring Classics, Paris-Roubaix is also among the hardest, with its 259km taking in 28 stretches of cobbles – the notorious pavé.
In 1919, a party of journalists came to see how the route had withstood the previous four years of shelling and trench warfare. They described what they saw as l’enfer du Nord – ‘the hell of the North’ – which has been the race’s nickname ever since.
Today’s stage included ‘only’ seven secteurs of cobbles, totalling 20km, but they put the fear of God into the peloton and produced a fabulous day’s racing. So on a day when the Tour descended into cycling’s own version of Hell, my poem has a suitably diabolical theme.

THE DEVIL’S OWN

Your pleas and prayers are all in vain:
Today, you enter my domain.
Infernal miles of cobblestones
To blister hands and shatter bones,
Thick swirling dust to sting your eyes
And choke your lungs. I will devise
Fit punishments for every man
Who enters here in hope. You can
Convince yourself this is your day,
Have tasted victory at Roubaix,
But I’m the one who will decide
How far you go, how long you ride.
The maillot jaune is not immune:
Today, he dances to my tune,
Which you may think is undeserved,
But special torments I’ve reserved
For him: he’ll change his bike three times
And lose his jersey. Others’ crimes
Will earn them punctures, buckled rims,
Cuts and bruises, broken limbs.
The seven pavé sectors wait,
To purge your soul, decide your fate.
The Tour will not be won today,
But all your dreams may fall away.

Gentlemen:
Welcome to Hell.

Wanze-Arenburg, 213 km
Won by Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team)
Maillot jaune: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)

Chapeau…

…to Sylvain Chavanel, who claimed the first yellow jersey of his long career today after a breakaway of 184 km (115 miles)

LONG TIME COMING

Alone
He crossed the line
In a race
Against cold, rain, heat
Altitude, injury,
Age, ill luck
And his own mind
Ten years
And two hundred thousand miles long;
Receiving at the finish
A scrap of yellow fabric
That does not even
Bear his name
But repays every inch and hour.
So –
How was your day?

Tour 2010: Stage 2

Today’s stage through the Ardennes included roads that many of the riders would know from the one-day Classic, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Known as La Doyenne (‘The Oldest’), it’s one of the hardest races in professional cycling: over 250km long, it includes numerous climbs (some at more than 10% gradient) and is held in April, when the weather in northern Europe can be truly diabolical.
The riders could have been forgiven for thinking they actually were riding L-B-L today as, true to form, the rain teemed down. Sylvain Chavanel – a Frenchman riding for a Belgian team – claimed a doubly popular and well-deserved solo win from an epic breakaway of 180 km. However, after a series of crashes involving many of the big names, the peloton decided it was too dangerous to race for second place and rolled over the line as a group in protest. While I largely sympathise – the roads were certainly treacherous and the Tour still has a long way to go – I also feel slightly cheated. I don’t want to see anyone get hurt, but these guys are pros and were well aware of the route, conditions and potential risks. It’ll be interesting to see what happens on tomorrow’s, even more daunting, stage.

Incidentally, I’m indebted to Paul Fournel for the first line of this poem. Merci, monsieur.

CHAIN REACTION

Who’s gonna fall today?
Maybe the question
Grew too large
In the minds of men
Who, back in April,
Roared over these same hills
Like Flanders lions.
For when the rain came
Turning roads to glass
They forgot where
And what they were.

No sprint for second:
The leader spoke
And they rode to rule,
Killing the race
To save themselves.

Small consolation to the crowds
Who stood in rain six hours
To see them.
While the one who dared
And proved his courage
Is all in yellow.

Brussels-Spa, 201 km
Won by Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)
Maillot jaune: Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)