Tour de France – Final Roundup

When we look back at the 2014 Tour de France and debate the outcome a couple of things should be kept well to the front of the mind: Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali extended his lead over his rivals on every single significant stage. On the cobbles, in the Vosges on Bastille Day, in the Alps & Pyrenees and in the time trial. That fact alone should mark him out as a champion of some distinction. His win also completes his set of all three Grand Tours and allows him to join a select group of some of the greatest names in cycling. He won more road stages than any champion since Eddy Merckx, elevating the achievement further. The side-note that he did it in his national champions jersey will have pleased his home fans and cycling history aficionados in equal measure. He focused his season entirely on these two weeks and utterly dominated the race – appearing serene even when coolly dispatching the podium pretenders with stage winning attacks. The words ‘worthy champion’ should not even be being debated.

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And yet there will be questions. No Quintana, Froome or Contador. Would they have brought a better fight had they been in the race until the end? Would they have challenged in a way that the selected and the survivors could not. Who knows? Nibali looked suitably imperious way before the high mountains and the ‘real’ challenger’s exits. I had predicted he would finish fourth behind Contador, Froome and Valverde. I had expected a Nibali-esque ride from the rested Movistar man and I didn’t think even that would be enough to challenge the two pre-tour favourites. I was guilty on basing my assessment of Nibali on his Vuelta performance of last year – when he couldn’t stave off the challenge of a 41 year old. How on earth could he compete against the likes of Froome and Contador?

Does that mean I still think that Alberto and Chris would have beaten Nibali had they stayed upright? Perhaps. His Nibs’ mastery on the cobbles gave him a two minute cushion as early as stage 5 so we would have been guaranteed attacking racing when we reached the mountains but, at the end of the day, they fell and he didn’t so it’s a moot point. We wouldn’t be having a conversation like this about the Paris-Roubaix would we? There was talk early in the race that the Tour’s losses would be the Vuelta’s gain but I think that the Tour’s losses were also the Tour’s gains.

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I’m overjoyed that two Frenchmen stood on the podium alongside the Italian rider. In this country we lamented “Thirty Years of Hurt” about a competition that we’ve only won once and which occurs every four years. France have endured their own 29 years of hurt every summer since 1985 – none more painful than 1989 – and seen their sport ripped apart by scandal after scandal in the meantime. They will go into the thirtieth anniversary of Bernard Hinault’s last win with renewed hope about the potential of their riders and the credibility of the peloton. Pinault & Peraud rose (and descended) to the challenges very well whilst Bardet’s youth maybe counted against him at the end of an exhausting three week Tour.

Change is coming – in a sport relying on the constant revolution of wheels you’d ask for nothing less – but this time it’s change we think we can both see and applaud. Kevin Reza has flown the flag for black riders with great visibility whilst the inaugural La Course race on the Champs Elysees on the final day (with equal prize money!) can only have served to open more eyes to women’s cycling. Sky’s recent dominance is being tested like never before with the super strong Astana and Tinkoff squads taking up the baton of being the teams to mimic for either their solidity or their adaptability. Sky will be back at their bases already, licking their wounds and dusting down their drawing boards. It makes me think of the line from ‘The War Of The Worlds’ so wonderfully narrated by Richard Burton:  “Minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against [them].”

Tinkoff Saxo’s overnight transformation from Contador’s support platoon into stage-raiders and KOM assailants was quite remarkable – but only in the context that Sky couldn’t do the same. Oleg Tinkoff’s rash offer of an Aston Martin to Rafal Majka if he won a second stage shows how little further expectation there was on the Pole after that maiden win. His second win, the KOM jersey and Mick Roger’s clever attack out of the breakaway into Bagneres-du-Luchon almost made up (in my eyes) for that truly appaling day-glo kit. Sky’s loss of two leaders was a double blow to a team known for it’s adherence to “the plan” but Sky’s ‘strongest team’ never looked anything like living up to their billing.  Say what you like about Bjarne Riis but that man is able to get the best from the riders he has and ‘on the hoof’ too.

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Other memorable moments in the last week of racing were Jack Bauer being caught less than 20 metres from the line into Nimes after a 200km breakaway and Ramunas Navardauskus’ redemptive win for the Garmin team at Bergerac four days later. The agony of Bauer’s catch could be the defining image of the Tour – pain and suffering were a constant theme as always but was written particularly large this year – as Nibali’s many wins diffused his campaign across the entire three weeks and it lacked a final defining moment by dint of being so far ahead by the time the Time Trial (and victory) eventually came. A photo of him on the cobbles will almost certainly be used to headline the story in years to come.

Also remarkable was the relative lack of discussions about drugs which is perhaps strange in a team like Astana, whose management have a difficult history with performance enhancing products. It used to be that seeing French riders falling down the standings was a sign that the rest of the peloton was doped to the gills. Now that we have French riders on the podium again perhaps we really have turned a corner and are back to a peloton of ‘une vitesse’. Let’s hope so. 

We often say that every year has been a ‘vintage’ edition but I don’t use the expression lightly this time around. With the exception of the final parade into Paris I cannot think of a single ‘dull’ stage. The lop-sided route served the race extremely well and Christian Prudhomme and race director Thierry Govenou have a massive task on their hands to follow up with something of equal distinction next year. With a start in Utrecht and a counter-clockwise routing it will be tough to find as compelling a narrative that Yorkshire, the WWI battlefields and three sets of mountains served up. But, as ever, already we eagerly await the return of Le Tour.

Reinventing the Wheel – Loopwheels

On the face of it ‘Reinventing the Wheel’ is the paradigm of a redundant endeavour. Taking a three-thousand year old invention – arguably the most important invention in the entire history of mankind’s development – and making it anew  would be incredibly difficult to be novel or to be seen as worthwhile. But those particular facts haven’t deterred Sam Pearce from having a go, nor from using the famous saying in the marketing for his company Loopwheels. He acknowledges that the phrase is a bit of a joke but he is deadly serious about his new tangential suspension wheels and the benefits that they can bring.

Back in June, the company gave me a Loopwheeled Dahon to test for a week and to ride in the Nocturne Folding Bike Race. Commuting daily in and out of London and then subjecting the wheels to some real race action was a proper test of ride, handling and durability. Sam and his son Robbie acted as my pit crew for the race so I also got the chance to talk with him directly about the history and development of Loopwheels.

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Like all good things, it is a genuinely simple idea which has been elegantly engineered. A wheel with suspension that works in all directions. Sam, a mechanical engineer and industrial designer from Nottinghamshire, first considered the idea back in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2009 that he began to look into it seriously. The blurb on their website best covers this early period:

“In 2007 my idea of a wheel with tangential suspension was born when I was sitting at Eindhoven airport waiting for a flight.  I saw a mother pushing her child in a buggy. The front wheels hit a slight kerb and the child jolted forward because of the impact.  I asked myself why a wheel couldn’t have suspension inside it, so it would soften an impact from any direction.  I sketched the idea in my notebook, got on my flight, and didn’t think much more about it for a couple of years. In 2009 I was doing a lot of mountain biking. I remembered my idea of a wheel with suspension and thought it would be awesome to have that kind of cushioning in a bicycle wheel. One Sunday afternoon I made a small model. That proved the concept, so I made some prototypes. They worked OK, but those early prototypes didn’t really perform better than a spoked wheel. I knew that to be worth doing, this wheel has to be better than what’s already available.  It took many more attempts, and many more prototype wheels, to get to that point. I needed to make my springs from a material that was stiff yet flexible. Steel springs were no good.”

I met Sam, and his wife Gemma (who works as communications, business strategy, marketing, administration and general manager for the company that they set up to develop and sell the idea) at the Bespoked Bike show earlier this year and was intrigued by the idea that a small company was challenging the accepted thinking that the large global bike companies do not appear to be tackling. Along with their production manager Graeme Sharrocks, Sam and Gemma are enormously proud that their wheels are designed, manufactured and assembled here in England. In fact ‘local expertise’ has been an integral part of the Loopwheel revolution and is a little bit more local than you would normally expect, as Sam explains.

“At the end of my street is an archery shop – I live in the area that was once Sherwood Forest, the home of Robin Hood. One day I had the idea that carbon composite archery bows probably went through similar kinds of stresses as the springs in my wheels.” Working in tandem with master bow-maker Keith Gascoigne of KG Archery, Sam developed the carbon fibre springs he needed for his wheels and in 2013 launched a Kickstarter campaign to get production rolling.

“We had spent a long time talking to other people about investing,” Sam told me as we shared a pint in the wake of my less than thrilling assault on the Folding Bike race. ” We were taking the prototypes to show them, talking about applications etc. This is what I’ve done before with my ideas – like the folding stroller I designed. That went to Quinny. I’ve taken them so far and then sold the idea to a bigger concern. But this time, the more we thought about it, the more we realised that we wanted to do this one ourselves.. Kickstarter allowed that.”

My first impressions of the wheels was the same as many people – “Those look different, what are they?” The striking teal blue of some of the carbon-fibre springed wheelsets jump out and demand to be looked at. In fact you could almost see a viable market for different coloured versions even if they didn’t perform better than spoked wheels. But that would be to ignore the fundamental premise of Loopwheels and to designate them as a fashion accessory would be doing a serious disservice to the very noticable benefits that they do offer. Three curves strips of carbon fibre composite are secured around a special hub and fixed to a standard un-drilled rim. The material composition provides the required strength – not too stiff, not too soft. The elegant overlapping springs appear to form a continuous line within the wheel, rather like the trail of an aircraft looping the loop; hence the name.

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Looking good is great but as far as Sam is concerned it’s also all about the ride. The three open-coil springs can compress in any direction around the circumference of the wheel, evening out bumps and lumps in the road as well as giving a pleasingly comfortable ride. Locating the springs in the wheels also means that you can have a stiff frame and not have to put up with the lurching ‘dip and throw’ of suspension fork and rear ends. It’s a question of increments. The tangential suspension takes up and smoothes off the bumps in stages as the wheel rotates over them. Once you find the ‘sweet spot’ on the bike for your weight distribution – a touch further forward than usual – you can really hammer it and the wheels just feather away underneath you. It’s a lovely feeling. I tested them up and down hill and even across some urban pave, where the ride was still excellent, prompting a discussion between Sam and myself about a Loopwheeled entry to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen next year.

Loopwheels currently make 20″ wheels that fit folding bikes such as the Dahon Vitesse and Mu Uno. The tighter frames used by Brompton have so far proved too small to get a Loopwheel into but this is not for a lack of wanting to on Loopwheels part. “The smaller 16″ wheels on the Brompton is not an issue.” Gemma explains, “We have done that. But we need 3-5cm clearance between the wheel and the frame because of the suspension and Brompton frames are really tight. Without a re-design of the Brompton it’s not something we can look at in the foreseeable future, which is a shame because we would absolutely love to see Loopwheels on Bromptons. They fold brilliantly and are really great bikes.”

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For the moment Sam is concentrating on up-sizing the concept to work in his beloved mountain bike and also for wheelchairs – where he sees enormous potential for users. “Big wheels are the real prize.” confirms Gemma, “Getting the same or better suspension performance as in the smaller wheels would be a game-changer.” For Sam the issue goes back to a technical one. “I’m trialling a 26″ mountain bike wheel right now”, he says, showing me some photos on his phone. “The front wheel is the hardest one. If we can contain the deflection in the front, the rear wheel is no problem. It just follows along and isn’t subjected to such a wide range of forces. With the wheelchairs, it was something that people had come to Loopwheels asking for and so far testing has had ‘really good feedback. We are really excited about this because it will make a real difference to people’s lives.”

Paired with the Dahon, the wheels performed admirably and, as they use traditional rims, there is no affect on braking options or tyre changing ability and it’s easy to see the appeal of them to a large cross-section of people. Obviously Loopwheels see the main UK market as being people who are looking for a little more comfort in their commute. “We would love to see more people riding to work in the UK and just using their bikes more. But we also see a big market in the Far East where small wheeled bikes are much more normal. We are speaking with distributors in South Korea and Japan. It’s an exciting time for us.”

As you would expect from a high quality, novel, British-made concept Loopwheels aren’t cheap. At around £659 for a 3 speed pair and £719 for a derailleur pair, they almost double the cost of a standard Dahon if bought as a full bike, and you’ll need to factor in a new, wider fork if you want to upgrade your existing bike with a new wheelset. Prices are sure to fall as the concept gains traction and production ramps up but for now it will be the savvy early adopters who want a technologically innovative, aesthetically individual solution to dealing with kerbs, potholes and speed-bumps that will be knocking on Loopwheels’ door.

Loopwheels can be bought individually or as pairs in 3-speed and derailleur options. Loopwheels also offer fully finished Dahons as complete bikes.

Tour de France – Rest Day Roundup 2

When I was a kid watching the Tour de France in the late Eighties, my rider allegiances often switched with whichever was my favourite jersey design. I would find myself supporting Renault one year, PDM the next, Z-Peugeot the year after that. As with football a few years earlier (and in the very same way as my young children today) I was something of a itinerant fan. I would pick a jersey, a haircut or a battle between two big stars and plump for one of them. The following year I could very well pick the other guy and have him as my favourite. This certainly happened in 1990 when my support switched from Laurent Fignon the year before to Lemond. Even though my football allegiance had very quickly solidified into one team over the others (mainly due to the fact I that I outgrew the Tottenham shirt – and the associated desire to be Steve Archibald – that I had been given and which caused much confusion in my Manchester-leaning mind) cycling remained ever thus. Unbiased. Unencumbered. Un-tribalised.

And so it went on. I would support Pantani in the mountains and the Abdu on the flats. I would look for Ullrich one year and Armstrong the next. I remember having a Rasmussen year – not ‘that’ year fortunately – and even an Andy Schleck year. I never took to Contador – though I hugely admired his riding style – but that didn’t really matter as all were fleeting fanships. It was whoever was riding hardest, racing bravest. It’s only now that I realise I wasn’t supporting any of  them at all. I was just enjoying the best cycling.

A part of the reason of course, is that I had no greater personal attachment to Ullrich than Pantani. No greater emotional investment with Fignon than Lemond. All were alien characters to a degree. They came once a year, did battle with each other and disappeared again. They didn’t bother the rest of my year. Lance changed things a bit by being so dominant and by spilling out beyond the sports pages with his charity work and rock star girlfriends but I still felt no ‘obligation’ to them.

And then Team Sky happened and things changed. “A British rider to win the Tour, clean, within 5 years.” Of course I got on board that bus. And what an amazing ride it was. Standing amongst the crowds on the Champs Elysees in 2012 with yellow-jersey Brad leading out Cav in the final run across the Place de la Concorde for his historic fourth win was as about as good a day as a British cycling fan could ever wish for. I’m not ashamed to say that I cheered along with every other British fan in Paris that day. But when you start getting disappointed with races because of the lack of a performance by a particular team, rather than being able to enjoy the spectacle that has gone on at the head of the of the race, it’s time to take the blinkers off.

I don’t remember a single moment when I stopped wanting to ‘support’ Sky and just start ‘watching’ them again. The Sky vs OGE video shorts earlier this year certainly awakened a seed in my mind that cycling was in danger of being tribalised like football but even during the 2012 race I was aware that I was more ‘worried’ about Brad losing than I was about ‘excited’ about the prospect of him winning. When I watch my football team play I bite my nails with nervous tension and often find it hard to enjoy. Cycling (and not just the Tour, mind) was becoming like that. An ordeal to get through rather than an event to relish in.

The most striking thing about this second week of racing in the 2014 Tour has been the absence of my own ‘nervous tension’. My nails are in quite reasonable condition and I have been jumping up and down in my seat celebrating endeavour, rather than sitting on the edge of it awaiting disaster. Chris Froome’s exit last week, and (despite protestations to the contrary) Sky’s lack of a Plan B has liberated my Tour experience. I feel like a kid again.

I don’t mind which of Romain Bardet (AG2R) or Thibault Pinot (FDJ) comes higher in the standings but by God I do care about enjoying the two of them go at it hammer and tongs to work it out. Their uphill finish line sprint at Risoul on Stage 14 was a magnificent spectacle. Similarly I wouldn’t be upset if Nibali (AST) either wins by 10 minutes or does a Rasmussen (him again) in the final time trial and chucks it all away – from this point right here both would be enormously exciting. I don’t even care if peloton pantomime villain Valverde (MOV) stays on the podium or not as long as he is made to robustly defend his position rather than be gifted it somehow. It’s a brilliant feeling of freedom that I had slowly lost over the past few years. I’m thrilled to be experiencing it again.

On the face it, it could be argued that there is little to be expectant about in the final week of the Tour. Nibali has been so imperious in all terrains and weathers that barring disaster – not unknown in this Tour – or external intervention – again not a stranger to his Astana team – that it is hard to predict anything other than the top step of the podium. Likewise for the green jersey competition, which Sagan has bossed so comprehensively that he has actually taken to chastising other riders for thinking that they might have a go too. But neither statement is to say that watching the denouements of those competition will be any other than thrilling. Nibali is enlightening the race with a masterclass in Grand Tour stage riding and Sagan will continue to shine in his quest for a stage win.

The King of the Mountains and Best Young Rider competitions will to and fro a few more times before the end I think. Both are finely poised and being fiercely contested. The fact that the Young rider contest is so deeply linked to the final podium standing is unique in my memory. It’s pretty gripping and a rare ‘viewing tunnel’ into what the race might look like five years from now. In the KOM competition Joaquim Rodriguez (KAT) and Rafal Majka (TCS) are now tied on points and will be looking to get into the breaks for the early climb points during the brutal Pyrenean stages this week. Majka has given an awful lot in the past two days though and the Spanish rider – known for getting stronger as Grand Tours go on – may have the advantage over his younger rival.

And then there are just the unforgettable moments of winning or losing a stage. Tony Gallopin’s ecstasy in Oyannax has been more than mirrored by Jack Bauer’s (GRS) agony at missing out by just a few metres in Nimes. After being in the a two man break for around 200km he was caught at the very last breath by the pack and robbed of the stage win. Likewise Tony Martin’s (OPQS) show of strength at Mulhouse contrasted Riche Porte’s wilting in the sun up to Chamrousse. I can’t say it enough; every day has been utterly riveting – and without any of the ‘biggest’ names in the sport in the race.

With all the talk of British interest in the opening part of this piece, we should that note that, with Simon Yates’ (OGE) withdrawal today, that Geraint Thomas is now the sole British survivor of the race. Yates is being withdrawn by his team to protect him rather than a result of injury. He has been to the fore in a number of stages and was called up late lacking the usual preparation. I suspect he will be back for the Vuelta, along with a host of other British names.

As a kid, the Tour was otherworldly, and even the British riders who rode it those days like Robert Millar and Sean Yates were otherworldly. Boardman, Cav, Wiggins and most latterly Sky  & Froome have brought cycling home – and I’m massively grateful for the extended interest and coverage which that has also brought along – but ‘cheering on the home team’ shouldn’t be the limit of our connection with this most open of sports. Like the folks who said they would turn their back son the Tour as it passed just because Wiggins had been omitted, we are all in danger of missing the bigger picture if we only focus on one set of results.. Open your eyes and take a look:  it’s a bloody magnificent view.

Oh, and, despite devoting the last 32 years to Man Utd, I still think that that early Eighties Tottenham kit, the one with the dark blue V-neck & sleeve hems, the simple club crest and the shiny and matt all white pin-striping that I had a seven year old, is the classiest club kit ever produced..

‘We Were Fought By Men Very Fast’ & Massif Central Exhibitions

Two small (but perfectly formed) exhibitions are on in East London until the end of the month. Both are worth a visit. If I may be so bold as to suggest an itinerary you might chose to visit the first one, Emily Maye‘s photographic exhibition ‘We were Fought by Men Very Fast’, earlier in the day than the display of Massif Central’s incredibly beautiful cycling data posters. A lunchtime visit to Beach London on Cheshire Street would allow a quick stop-off for a salt beef Brick Lane beigel whilst an after-work detour to The Things We Love on Hoxton Street will allow a drink at the small bar at the back of the space.

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Emily Maye is well known for her cycling photography and has worked with Rapha (who are supporting her solo show at Beach) and is currently embedded with Trek Factory Racing for the 2014 season. The curious title of the exhibition of prints from the cobbled classics season is taken from a poem by  Charles Pelkey, AKA “Live Update Guy”, who himself found it amongst a variety similarly enigmatic statements in the press-releases from non-English speaking teams in the 2010 Tour de France. It sums up the timelessness and otherworldly atmosphere that the Cobbled Classics cast over the otherwise straightforward act of bike-racing.

Maye’s photographs encompass the riders, routes and fans of the pavé in equal measure but all are stolen moments which really catch the eye. An unknown Team Sky rider takes off his vivid blue gloves; a man glances at the camera smoking a cigarette whilst a TV helicopter passes far behind; the top of an almost unrecognisble Thor Hushovd’s head slumps in the Roubaix showers, his hidden eyes contemplating on the enormous blisters on his hands. Strangely , it is the silence of the photographs on display that I found most powerful. The absence of the noise that comes at the Classics is more apparent in these shots than any others I can bring to mind. You can almost hear it.. but not quite. I think it’s a testament to the atmosphere that Emily has captured that this élément manquant becomes noticable.

The prints are very well priced at around £60 (£100 framed) and won’t be in Beach’s online shop for awhile so best to head down there if you can.

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Over in Hoxton Massif Central are taking a different approach to documenting epic rides. Self-confessed ‘data geeks’, they are taking the vital statistics of Grand Tours and other cycle journeys and applying an ‘Information Is Beautiful’ treatment which turning that raw data into graphically stark but stunningly detailed artworks. They work wonderfully well on both the macro and micro level: across a room they have a bold simplicity that works at distance but which inevitably draws you in to discover the treasures hidden in the delicate, microscopically detailed ‘layers’ that surround the central motif – itself an extrapolated profile of the ride in question. Massif Central founder James Mason explained some of the thinking to me at the opening of this exhibition earlier this week.

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“It started with a ride that four friends and I did in 2011. We did 1764 km over 15 days from Innsbruck in Austria to Tropea down  in the ‘toe’ of Italy. I wanted to create a graphic document of the ride so we took all the ‘data’ – maps, journals, photos, memories, everything – and looked for ways to distil it into one thing. It’s really just a question of layers. They radiate out from the centre and each maps a different aspect of the ride.” In the “A Ride to Remember” piece that he’s referring to, the pure information of mileage, time and altitude is married with references to an accompanying photo booklet, subjective marks out out ten for how one rider was feeling and ‘memorable moments’ which include being ‘chased by a mad woman’. It’s this extra level that could really mark Massif Central out as a purveyor of sophisticated, elegant, personal ride mementoes.

I was intrigued about how they would look to extract the level of personal experience detail that is required to produce such a richness and was impressed with the straightforward answer. “We are looking at producing a Massif Central journal, which would help prompt riders record this extra moments that become important after the fact but basically we’ll just talk to people if necessary. We can work with GPX data and the like but we can also sit and talk and then research back from maps and memories if needed.” And what sort of rides work best? “Getting the scale of the central profile right is quite tricky,” says James, “It’s funny but too many mountains and it doesn’t look quite so good. A longer journey – a week or more – and more varied terrain works best.”

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And if you’ve not yet managed a mega cycle-tour but just fancy a seriously cool, seriously clever piece of cycling art? Massif have thought of that too and have been refining their processes by doing record prints of the 2013 Tour and a fetchingly pale pink backgrounded interpretation of the 2014 Giro. Limited editions of the Tour print are available online at £195, with the Giro to follow shortly. Get ‘em whilst they are still there…

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Emily Maye  |  Massif Central 

Beach London – 20 Cheshire St. London. E2 6EH. 10-6 Tue-Sun    |  The Things We Love – 245 Hoxton St. London. N1 5LG 10-5 Tue-Sun

In Memoriam – Fabio Casartelli

Francisco Fabio Casatelli – b. 16.08.1970 – d. 18.07.1995

Died – Stage 15 1995 Tour de France

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Casartelli’s death on the Col de Portet d’Aspet in 1995 was a defining moment for the question of rider safety within the professional sport. The Olympic road-race champion from 1992, who was riding for the Motorola team, fell descending at speed and hit one of the large concrete blocks that line the edge of the road . Shockingly graphic pictures of the blood from his fatal head injury was seen (and recently re-used in the film documentary Lance Armstrong “The Armstrong Lie”) prompting a rethink about the use of helmets. Motorola’s crossing of the finish line of the neutralised stage the following day and Armstrong’s emotional dedication of his victory at Limoges 3 days after the crash have etched the moment into the wider fabric of the race and the beautiful monument on the Portet d’Aspet is regularly stopped at by riders and officials during races nowadays.

Feliz Cumpleaños – Miguel Indurain

Happy Birthday Big Mig. – 16.07.1964

  • TdF Winner –  1991, ’92, ’93, ’94, ’95
  • Giro d’Italia Winner – 1992, ’93
  • World Time Trial Champion – 1995
  • Hour Record Holder – 1994
  • Olympic Gold Medallist – Time Trial – 1996

 

A monster of a man compared to most Grand Tour winners, Miguel ‘Big Mig’ Indurain won five Tours on the bounce, hardly pausing for a breather whilst also collecting 2 Giro d’Italia’s, an Hour Record and an Olympic gold medal in a career that utterly dominated the first half of the 1990’s. At 6’2″ (188cm) and 80+kg he was a freakish sight in the mountains where he would capably defend the positions his unsurpassable time-trialling ability had won him. Chastised for making the sport ‘boring’ and dodging the inevitable accusations of doping, Indurain remains a quixotic character within the sport. Not the clear-cut villain that many of his Tour-winning followers would become but never revered like so many of those who had gone before him. Dammed by his own success, his image nonetheless still has the power to stop you in your tracks and just marvel at the magnitude of man.

Tour de France – Rest Day Roundup 1

The former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson is supposed to have said that ‘A week is a long time in politics.’ The same might very well be said of pro-cycling and it has most certainly been a truism in this incredibly eventful opening phase of this years Tour de France. 

Just 10 short days ago we watched 198 riders roll out of Leeds and head North into the Yorkshire Dales with Mark Cavendish eyeing up a yellow jersey in Harrogate. It feels like a lifetime ago. So much has happened, there have been so many twists and turns, and so many retirements, that it seems as far away as the opening week of the Giro.
We had pre-race favourites aplenty, expected battles aplenty and expectation aplenty. Sure, we knew that there were some tricky stages in the opening week and we expected someone to lose the chance of a the win on the cobbles on Wednesday but, like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisiton, no-one expected the carnage we have witnessed.
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Cav down and out with a bang on Stage One. Andy Schleck retiring with a whimper on Stage 4. Chris Froome hitting the deck three times before bowing out with fractured wrists even before the reaching the infamous cobbled secteurs. And then yesterday, Alberto Contador’s sad exit; riding on for 20km with a broken tibia before putting an arm around a team mate and pushing him onwards, further along the road which he could no longer travel. It’s certainly been attritional.
And that is just the ‘big’ names. The list of retiree’s is long and could yet eclipse that caused by the ‘massacre of Metz’ in 2012 The racing has been hard, hard, hard with GC contenders to the fore as early as stage 2 when the one man who hasn’t yet put a foot wrong, Vincenzo Nibali, broke clear in Sheffield to take the win. Of the main contenders, he alone seems to have avoided incident, ridden perfectly and been least troubled by the parcours. His stage 5 run on the cobbles was magnificent and his two stage wins (stage 2 & stage 10 up the murderous slopes of the Planche des Belles Filles) have placed him in an enviable position at the head of the leaderboard.
nibali
But it is what is going on behind him that now intrigues. With no former winners left in the race we are guaranteed a new name by the time we reach Paris. With his full team still intact, and a 2 minute 23 second cushion to second place man Richie Porte, Nibali looks to hold the most cards. Valverde – my early pick for the podium alongside Froome and Contador – lies third but had been almost anonymous.
The way that the race has opened up because of the enforced exits of first Froome and then Contador offers a thrilling prospect of a continuance of the exciting racing we have seen so far. Numerous riders hovering in the top 10 will now believe that they have an opportunity that would not have existed had those two geants remained upright. The French in particular will be hugely excited, with four riders occupying positions in the top 8 and the prospect of a podium at least very much on the menu.
Whilst this years parcours has definitely lit up the race, as with the Giro, the weather has also played its part. Unlike the Giro though – where riding piano became a regular feature – poor weather has not seen a cessation of racing in Le Tour. Stage 5 was run in abysmal conditions – not even the Spring-held Paris-Roubaix has had a wet edition since 2002 – and shattering rainstorms have been a feature since the race entered the Vosges this weekend.
contador 2
How distant then, how remote does the sunshine and certainty of Yorkshire feel? By turning the meteorological formbook on its head and kicking the Tour off with two massively popular, massively exciting stages, Yorkshire set the tone for all that followed in the Tour’s first week but, as with the Cote du Jenkin’s Road, added in twists, turns and stings in the tail that have us left us all reeling just trying to keep up with the onslaught of action.
I’ll be writing separately about my time up in Yorkshire but it’s only fair to say that  the county delivered on it’s promise to give the Tour ‘the grandest Grand Depart ever’ in spades. Even the hammer-blow of losing Cav on Stage 1 did little to derail the joyous atmosphere or dampen the party spirit in the North or on the road from Cambridge to London. The Tour entourage – and the riders in particular – must have been glad to get back to the ‘quiet’ roads of France for a breather.
But there was no such respite for Froome. A clipped wheel on stage 4 brought him down and he looked half the man from then on. The challenging weather on Stage 5 and the peloton’s headlong rush to get the pave at the head of the pack sent nervous tension skittering through the pack and the tumbles started almost as soon as the racing did. Down once, down twice and then, as with Cav before him and Contador after him, it was clear that his race was over. The head dipped, the body went this way and that – not sure whether to go on or not – and then the realisation. Game Over.
froome
Contador – incredibly given what we learnt later – did go on after his high speed chute. For 20km, up a Cat 1 climb, overtaking a fair proportion of the peloton as he sought to try and catch up the 4 long minutes he had lost at the roadside after crashing on the descent of the Petit Ballon. But, in the vision-limiting mist at the summit, he also finally faced the truth and watched his team’s Tour dreams go on along the the road without him. He got into the team car in tears, his hopes as broken as his leg and as tattered as his jersey.
Quite rightly, much has been talked and written this week about war. About the losses, the impact and the senselessness of the conflict that scarred the land through which the Tour has travelled this week. Harold Wilson would have been alluding to the pace with which events happen in politics and how new events can quickly outpace things which were current only hours before. War – and the Great War in particular – moves slowly but a week in the trenches would have felt like a lifetime I am sure. For many millions it was a lifetime, in the sense that theirs ended there.
The rest day is normally reserved for the riders. Having pushed their bodies to the limits, they take stock, try and make sense of what has happened and prepare for what is to come. Such has been the excitement of what has happened since the start we too have to to take a breath, recompose ourselves and look ahead with fresh eyes. Much of what we expected 10 days ago is gone and a new start is needed. As we say in England when talking of our Kings, “Le Tour is dead. Long Live the Tour.”
– Lunchtime Update – With the mystery of the breaking frame now seemingly put to rest by Alberto Contador, who has confirmed that he hit a pothole whilst eating an energy bar on the Petit Ballon descent, we can look at little further at the winners & losers this week.
Winner One is German Cycling. Six of the opening ten stages have been won by German nationals with one day in yellow and two different wearers of the Maillot Pois of the King of the Mountains jersey. Whilst Marcel Kittel has reigned supreme in the sprinting stakes, Andre Greipel, Tony Martin and Jens Voigt have illuminated the races with the verve of their endeavours. How much longer can German TV continue to turn its back on the sport?
Winner Two is Peter Sagan. Despite now actually winning a stage outright he finished in the top 5 in the first six stages and had already almost wrapped up the Green jersey competition. That finish streak reads as follows: 2, 4, 2, 4, 4, 5, 2 and that last second place was less than an inch off the win. An incredible feat of consistency.
The big losers this week are Specialized who came under (misdirected) fire for the Contador crash. They appear to have been exonerated now but it shows that ill-feeling towards to the company is still an undercurrent following the Cafe Roubaix debacle in the run-up to Christmas last year.