Breakaway

Breaking away

Today
This sunny Sunday lane
Is our own private
Tour parcours
Complete with mimicked Phil-and-Paul
To lend us greater speed:

“And now
The leader
In the Best Young Rider competition
Makes the move
On the inside –

The gap’s opening up –

And the champion
Must respond to this:

He’s digging deep

Let’s not forget
He’s the oldest man
In the race,
So you’ve got to ask;
Has he got the legs
To counter the attack
And close it down
Or are we about to see
A new era ushered in?”

Of course
If I chose
I could go
Straight over the top of her;

But, smiling, I permit
Her cheeky breakaway to succeed
And sit on her wheel;
Training for the big attacks
And moves I cannot answer
In the stages still to come,
Knowing that one day I’ll have to watch her
Head up the road alone.

Written after yesterday’s ride with my 10-year-old daughter, who seems to have inherited my competitive streak on the bike…my fault for encouraging her to watch Le Tour, I guess. For those who haven’t been glued to ITV4 or SKY for the past three weeks, ‘Phil-and-Paul’ are the dynamic commentary duo of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, who have been the ‘voices’ of cycling to British fans for over 30 years.

Tour fever

Same old cycle

Every year
Right about now
I’m laid low
With an acute attack
Of Tour Fever.
A curious ailment
Rare now in these isles
Where most are inoculated
Against the bike in childhood.

The peloton bug
Bit hard long years back
When Big Mig’s five-straight run
Was sputtering to a stop
And challengers flocked from other lands
Like knights desperate to draw
The sword from the stone.

My affliction flowered
Prostrating me on the sofa
For hours and days;
Delirious with dreams
Or falling into darkness
As another god proved false.
And with each new wound
I assumed
My immunity would grow.

But the cure’s proved incomplete.
And now, as summer waxes,
My pulse sets up its hammer beat
My thoughts slip south
And my heart prepares
To be filled to overflowing
And broken
Yet again.

The next generation…

Written for me this morning by my nine-year-old daughter. She explained she wanted to cheer me up. Mission accomplished, I’d say.

THE CYCLIST

He pedals hard,
He pedals fast.
Trees and hedges
He whizzes past.

He’s a very good rider,
Training for the Tour.
He’ll win this one
I’m very, very sure.

Then suddenly, he finds a hill.
A big one, 4000ft tall.
If he rides this one
He’ll outride them all.

He starts to sprint,
He wants to win!
“He’s done it!”
His team-mates start to sing.

How do I follow that?

Tour 2010: Stage 20

The final kilometres of this year’s Tour were played out in traditional fashion in Paris. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) won his fifth stage, and also became the first rider ever to win on the Champs-Elysées two years running. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini) was second, which gave him overall victory in the green jersey competition.
Alberto Contador (Astana) won the Tour without winning a stage and having been pushed every inch of the way by Andy Schleck. Could we see a change at the top of the sport next season? One man who’s definitely heading for the exit, this time for good, is Lance Armstrong, who finished an anonymous 23rd – not the glorious last hurrah we’d have liked to have seen from the seven-time winner.
It’s been a great Tour, and for the first time in years, I’ve enjoyed it from start to finish. So, inspired by my blog-pal Chloe, my closing entry in this three-week poetry marathon is a retrospective of the entire event in haiku; one for each of the 20 stages.
Thanks for joining me on the road to Paris.

PROLOGUE

Twenty-two times nine
Slaves to the clock. One stands; cries
‘I am Spartacus!”

STAGE 1.

Stage, one; countries, two.
On the run into Brussels
Petacchi sprouts wings.

STAGE 2

Spa cure for the blues:
Chavanel is in yellow;
France is feeling good.

STAGE 3

On a day in Hell,
Cobbles claim men’s bones and souls.
But Thor’s in heaven.

STAGE 4

As the Champagne flows
For Petacchi once again,
Has Cav’s bubble burst?

STAGE 5

So the lead-out train
Gets it right. And suddenly
Cav is back on track.

STAGE 6

First Cav couldn’t win
Now it seems he cannot stop.
Two down, three to go.

STAGE 7

Second time around
Taking yellow the hard way.
Chapeau, Chavanel.

STAGE 8

As the road heads up
Schleck breaks free of gravity.
Shades of Charly Gaul.

STAGE 9

On the Madeleine
Sandy’s out there on his own.
Still is at the line.

STAGE 10

Where Beloki fell
Paulinho makes no mistake
Keeps his winning Gap.

STAGE 11

Cav makes it thirteen
Beats Robbie, Cipo, Zabel
Along with the rest.

STAGE 12

Alberto goes clear;
Andy loses by a hair.
Shape of things to come?

STAGE 13

Vino’s comeback win,
But his past means this is not
One to Revel in.

STAGE 14

Riblon wins alone:
After three lean, unseen years
The Ax man cometh.

STAGE 15

Centenary day
In the Pyrenees. Vockler
Leaves them on a high.

STAGE 16

Peyresourde, Aspin,
Tourmalet, Aubisque. Such names
Don’t scare Fédrigo.

STAGE 17

And then there were two.
On the highest, hardest road
They are on their own.

STAGE 18

Sprinters call it home.
Cav blazes into Bordeaux,
Claims a vintage win.

STAGE 19

Schleck is cast to fail.
Doesn’t read the script. Almost
Forces a rewrite.

STAGE 20

Number five for Cav,
Three for Contador. For Lance
It’s seven and out.

Longjumeau-Paris Champs-Elysées, 102.5km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)

Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)
Maillot vert: Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini)
Maillot au pois: Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot blanc: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Team classification: Radio Shack
Lanterne rouge: Adriano Malori (Lampre-Farnese Vini) @ 4h 27m 03s

Tour 2010: Stage 19

The form-book suggested Andy Schleck could lose minutes to Alberto Contador in the only individual time trial of this year’s Tour. As things turned out, it was a lot closer than any of us – including the protagonists themselves – ever imagined. At the first time check, Schleck was actually slightly ahead of the maillot jaune; on the line, he’d lost just 31 seconds, giving Contador a winning margin of 39 seconds – the second-closest finish in Tour history.

A CLOSE-RUN THING

Thirty-nine
On the line.
First check:
Schleck
In front by a nose;
Too close
To call;
Left it all
To Alberto
To do
Or die.
But a guy
With four Grand
Tour wins in hand
Doesn’t crack
So easily
And finally
The man came back
But he was spent
And what it meant
Was clear
From his tears.

Bordeaux-Paulliac, 52km ITT
Won by Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 18

Stages into Bordeaux almost always end in a bunch sprint, so a fourth win for Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Cav duly delivered, but only after a high-speed chase to bring back a four-man breakaway. Daniel Oss (Liquigas) resisted until the 4km-to-go point, but against a headwind and the combined powers of Sky, Lampre and HTC-Columbia, he had no chance whatsoever.
While part of me wants the escapees to succeed, there’s something compelling about the way the peloton gradually raises the tempo, closes the gap and makes the catch to set up the sprinters for the final dash to the line. It’s tightly controlled, immaculately timed and ruthlessly executed – the same order of professionalism we saw from Contador and Schleck on the Tourmalet yesterday, but at 70km/h. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to have been off the front all day, then to look back and see the bunch bearing down on you…

DON’T LOOK BACK

This seemed a good idea
Three hours ago:
Flat roads ahead
A truce behind
And nothing at all to lose.
But now
The blackboard
Is a death warrant,
Ticking off the seconds
Until the hue-and-cry
Must overwhelm us.
A glance
Under the shoulder:
Across the road, so long
Empty,
A roaring breaker
Of speed and colour
Driven on by lust for glory,
Grows, and any moment
It will break upon us.
Panic. One last desperate drive,
But all the forces concentrated
So few seconds from our wheels
Sap our strength, pull us backwards
Drag us down.
And in our loss and vanishing
The natural order
Is restored.

Salies de Béarn-Bordeaux, 198km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 17

Well, we got our showdown between Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Alberto Contador (Astana) on the final climb to the summit of the Col du Tourmalet. Apart from a couple of accelerations by Schleck, and one sharp attack by Contador, it wasn’t the knock-down-drag-out fight many had predicted: rather, it was an exhibition of nerve and professionalism in dreadful conditions by the two greatest climbers in the sport. Schleck took the win, Contador kept his yellow jersey, and barring catastrophe, the top two places in Paris look to have been settled. Perhaps best of all, relations between the two men, so strained in the aftermath of Stage 15, seem to be fully restored. And chapeau, too, to Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions), who thoroughly deserves his eighth place on the GC after a brilliant Tour so far. Let’s hope he hangs on for the last three days.

HIGH DRAMA

Out of the mist
They come:
The ruler
And the one
Who would take his crown.
Their war,
Fought along
A front a mile high
And ten miles long
Ends here,
Half-lost among
The grey rocks and rainbow crowd.

Matched in strength and will
They watch and wait
Sticking close as brothers
As they tear themselves apart.

And at the line,
Their forces spent,
They lay their arms
Across each other’s shoulders,
Each knowing he has conquered,
Content to share the spoils.

Pau-Col du Tourmalet, 174km
Won by Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Répos 2

A curious reversal of roles today: while the Tour riders are resting, I’m going racing. Tonight is the last in my local bike shop’s annual series of ‘have-a-go’ time trials, and marks the end of my (exceedingly modest) competitive riding for this year.
It’s a simple 10-mile dash against the clock, fastest time wins. As always, I have no illusions about winning, or even a high finish: my sole aim is to beat my mate Kevin. In three years, the only time he’s finished ahead of me was when I foolishly decided to ride The Guv’nor and the chain fell off after two miles.
OK, so it’s not Le Tour. But I still get a thrill every time I pin on a number and make the subtle change from bike-rider to racing cyclist. Three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond once said of being a pro, ‘It doesn’t get easier, you just go faster’. Even downhill with a following wind, I won’t match the speeds Fabian Cancellara sustains on the flat. But I’ll have some idea of what he goes through, and that’s good enough for me.

MY OWN RACE

There will be no crowds
Straining to see me start,

No cameras to capture
My grimaces and smooth pedal strokes,

No helicopters overhead
Shadowing me through the lonely miles,

No team car in my slipstream
Loaded with spares and moral support,

No fans along the barriers
Shouting, waving, urging me in,

No soigneur at the finish
With drinks, towels and strong arms waiting:

Just the pain, desire, isolation
And fear of falling short

In my own race.
With only myself to beat.

Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)
Green jersey: Thor Hushovd (Cervélo Test Team)
KoM: Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)

Tour 2010: Stage 16

Another French stage win, no change in the GC: the peloton aren’t making it easy for me, are they? So I make no apology for writing a second Armstrong poem. In 1999, I was in Pau when it hosted the finish of Stage 16 from Lannemezan. As we made our way back to the car after seeing Lance receive his eleventh maillot jaune, we passed the US Postal team car. Lance’s Trek bike was on the roof, so close I could read his name on the top-tube. Then and there, I vowed I’d get one some day. I had to wait five years, but it happened. I still have it: it’s a bit scuffed and tired-looking after more than 25,000 miles, but the magic is still there. Which made Lance’s rather desolate efforts in Pau today all the more poignant. Maybe the champion will finish his Tour career as he began it: as a hero.

FADED GLORY

Eleven years and
Several lives ago
I saw him
Pull on yellow here
And take the crowd’s applause;
Another day done
For the resurgent star
On the long road to Paris
And the first of seven.

Today
I watched him
Chase grimly into town
Among the hopeless hopefuls
Beg his body
To summon up the old fire
But fade
Fall back
And finish nowhere.

Would I sit now,
As I did then,
Five hours in the sun
To see him?
Or maybe I should simply look
At the carbon bike, just like his,
Now hanging on my garage wall
And remember where I saw it first
And why I had to have it.

Bagnères de Luchon-Pau, 199.5km
Won by Pierrick Fédrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 15

The French riders, it seems, can do no wrong. A day after Christophe Riblon’s epic solo victory at Ax 3 Domaines, Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) broke away to win alone in Bagnères de Luchon, on the day the Tour marked (celebrated is perhaps the wrong word) the centenary of its first Pyrenean stage. That he won while wearing the French road-race champion’s tricolore jersey made it all the sweeter for him and his legions of supporters: he’s officially been a National Treasure since he wore the maillot jaune for 10 days in 2004.
One rider who probably hasn’t added to his fan-base today is Alberto Contador (Astana). who continued to race after Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) unshipped his chain at the crucial moment on the final HC climb of Port de Balès. After a 20km chase at speeds touching 100km/hr, Schleck lost the yellow jersey to Contador by eight seconds – precisely the same margin by which Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in 1989.
Should Contador have waited? Like Campagnolo v Shimano, the compulsory wearing of helmets and whether it’s OK to jump red lights, this debate will probably run for ever without reaching a definitive conclusion. Deciding to wait would have shown sportsmanship of the highest order and would have been wonderful to see; at the same time, Schleck had attacked first, and they’re both here to win a bike race. I just hope it sets up a battle royal on the Tourmalet on Wednesday. Meanwhile, what odds on the French riders making it three in a row tomorrow?

LOSING IT

A sudden check:
And in the grinding
Of links and sprockets
He hears
His own death-rattle.

Triple-espresso trembling
Fingers, fat with fatigue,
Fumble:
Every moment
A thousand years.

Steadier hands rush in to push.
And then he is alone
On the mountain:
With everything to lose
But his chain.

Pamiers-Bagnères de Luchon
Won by Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)