Tour de France Time

The marquee event of the cycling season kicks off in about two weeks time, and as is typical of professional cycling, the run up has featured polemica, scandal and rumours. These issues, mostly centring around the inescapable presence of doping, reflect cycling’s raison d’ĂȘtre: to provide newspapers with something to fill their pages with; something people are willing to part with their money to read. The earliest professional races were staged by newspapers eager to create news of heroic adventures through countrysides which, in the.popular imaginary, seemed far further flung than they do now. Indeed, two of cycling’s most famous colours yellow and pink belong to the pages of the papers L’Equipe and La Gazzetta dello Sport, which were responsible for organising the first editions of Le Tour and Il Giro respectively. It seems now that this newspaper coverage has begun to be replaced by tourism agencies keen to publicise their neck of the woods and investigative detectives’ files on athletes and doctors associated with the sport.

First and foremostly there are the renewed allegations that Lance Armstrong and members of his team were involved in organised and systematic doping. These allegations have been made before and have even been heard in a court before, but Lance and his extensive legal team have so far not been found guilty. These renewed allegations, now being made by USADA, are not seen to be separate from the previous enquiry by the FDA by some, instead they are a continuation of this investigative process albeit now entering a slightly different legal space. My opinion is that Lance always seemed too infallible, too dogmatic to be taken at face value and the fact that these spectres of alleged doping keep haunting him reeks of guilt.

Beyond the simple question of did Lance dope or not, there is the question of whether cycling is now a cleaner sport than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. There are still a number of prominent riders who have been found to have violated doping controls and, of course, Alberto Contador is currently serving a ban. There is the school of thought that the cheaters will always be a few steps ahead of those trying to catch them so there’s always going to be undetected doping in the peloton. However, the renewed competitiveness in the racing I’ve watched over the past few years tells that there are more riders at the same level and fewer performances which seem to come from ‘another planet’. That said, controversial cycling doctors such as Dr Ferrari and Dr Fuentes still feature in the occasional story about riders that find themselves embroiled in a doping scandal.

Sometimes I think that cycling has a scripted storyline like WWE wrestling. I mean cycling’s biggest rivalry of recent years Contador-A.Schleck was seemingly put on the backburner this year until it was revealed that Contador would return from his suspension to race the Vuelta and Schleck would miss this year’s Tour due to a broken pelvis but is hoping to be back in time to race the Vuelta. Similarly, a discussion between Frank Schleck and Rui Costa during the Tour of Switzerland may have set in motion a storyline that will resurface during the Tour de France.

This was one of those little moments that, for me, embodies the mystery and intrigue of this sport. Who knows what they said, but in typical European style, it was animated and hand gestures were used. Movistar, for whom Rui Costa races, have been a team who have targeted stage wins previously but this year seem to have a stronger team and may be aiming for G.C. positioning. My theory that Frank Schleck gave up his chance of winning the race in order to ally with the Movistar team, given that his own team has been suffering all sorts of problems all season. Such a deal goes against principles of fair competition but when you have 190+ riders spending three weeks riding with (and sometimes against) each other, all sorts of informal alliances must be formed. Historically, there have been many instances where this shady hierarchical side of the peloton has shown its face, and now there still remain various national rivalries.

This year’s Tour de France promises to be closely fought across the various competitions. For the GC it seems like Bradley Wiggins will be in great form and his time-trialling ability should give him a distinct advantage that he’ll have to defend during the mountains. Cadel Evans, the defending champion, is also touted as a favourite but I think the desire he showed last year to win will have diminished having achieved his goal of winning, though I’d back him for some stage wins. Frank Schleck seems to be in good form and Nibali will be flying the Italian flag.

The green jersey will also be closely fought. Mark Cavendish will surely be a favourite but he seems to have other priorities this year than winning this jersey. He’s shown this year he can be beaten in a straight up sprint, but he’s also just shown by winning the Ster ZLM Tour that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. Andre Greipel has been a nearly man for a few years but this year he has been a prolific winner and could give Cav a run for his money. Peter Sagan has also been winning for fun but I feel he is still too young an not quite accomplished enough to cut it in the last 200m of a Tour de France stage.

TdF Stage 2: The TTT

Stage 2 was the much anticipated team timetrial where each team’s nine riders set off together and ride the 23km course in formation. Whilst every stage is a test of teamwork, none other exposes a team’s dynamic ability to ride together at warp speed like the TTT. For the weak there’s simply no where to hide.

The action on the day was never likely to be the most exciting of this year’s tour, but the narrow roads, heavily laden with spectators, added a certain je ne sais quoi to the proceedings that kept me watching. The reward was seeing a closely fought battle for the stage win. The top six teams all finished within 10″ of each other. Jonathan ‘great specs, shame about the sideburns’ Vaughter’s Team Garmin-Cervelo triumphed with an average speed just shy of 60kph and did enough to put Thor Hushovd in yellow, a jersey which he should be able to hold on to for a couple days, before reverting back to the equally coveted rainbow stripes. Second were Cadel Evans’ BMC who scraped out an incredible performance that left them just 4″ Garmin-Cervelo’s pace. Team Sky rounded off the top three with a time equal to BMC’s.

Mark Twain’s adage that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” can be applied to the situation that left Evans just 1″ behind Thor Hushovd in the yellow jersey competition. The last time the TTT featured in le Tour was in 2009, Lance Armstrong’s comeback year. Then, it was Stage 4 and Cancellara was in yellow having scorched the field in the prologue. Team Astana, led by Armstrong and Contador, won that stage edging out the Garmin team. The rhyme here is that in 2009 Armstrong missed out on yellow by 0.22″ whilst this year it was Evans who was kept out of yellow by a narrow margin. The other striking similarity between these two Tours is the fact that in the early stages of the race Contador lost time by being too far from the front at the run in to the finish.

Looking ahead to Stage 3, we’re likely to see a full-on sprint finish. I’m sticking my neck out and calling Cavendish to win with a mass crash to boot. Watch out for Tyler Farrar and Andre Greipel too, they may well round off the top three.

Tour de France Stage 1

The 2011 Tour de France started with that special blend of the predictable and the unpredictable that makes cycling such an enticing spectacle. The predictable first: some crashes, some inadequate commentry from ITV4 and a certain Belgium champion washing out the red and black from his national colours on the podium. Phillipe Gilbert capped his first ever Tour de France stage win with the yellow jersey. The margin of his victory, whilst not entirely predictable, wasn’t a surprise. He was able to kiss his jersey and throw up his arms whilst his nearest competitor remained a distanced blur behind him.

Top favourites Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez lost 1’20 after a crash between a spectator and Contador’s former teammate Maxim Iglinskiy with about 10km to go. Just like the 2010 Tour the early days can see champions’ chances of victory fall to the road like riders from their bicycles. Hopefully, for Contador, stage 1 poses only a risk to his margin of victory rather than to the crown itself.

A second crash under the 2km to go banner held up Bradley Wiggins and Andy Schleck who finished the stage in the same group as the Spanish armada of Contador and Sanchez. It wasn’t until the decision of the chief commissaire Jean-Francois Pescheux, which annulled the losses suffered by those caught in the second crash, that the exact shape of the general classification was clear. One of the few rules of cycling is that when there is a crash in the run in to the finish those affected do not lose time. So in this case, despite crossing the line together, Wiggins and Schleck were actually 1’14 ahead of Contador and Sanchez.

Given the new format for the sprinters’ classification the intermediate sprint 87km in was going to be unpredictable. The uphill finish was unlikely to allow the big sprinters to open their accounts so this was their chance. After the three breakaway riders rolled through there were 12 placings with a maximum of 13 points were left. Tyler Farrar took the bunch sprint having taken a good leadout from Julian Dean. The combination of Farrar, Dean and world champion Thor Hushovd make Garmin-Cervelo a team to reckon with in the sprint. Cavendish managed to take just 5 points starting this grand tour, as is customary for him, a little sluggish. His leadout looked fast though, albeit starting from a disadvantaged position and leaving him short of the line.

All in all, Stage 1 delivered Gilbert to superstardom, he was able to cap an incredible Classics hattrick with an ultimate win dressed in his country’s colours. Given the gladiatorial aesthetic increasingly associated with pro cycling, the teams presentation at the Puy du Fou theme park was appropriate. The race’s opening crossing of the Passage du Gois, where the riders seemed to be almost riding out of the sea, was fitting in this respect too. The finish of the stage was also worthy of a Grand Depart.

At the finish it was Fabian Cancellara, Swiss champion and timetrial extrodinare, that made the biggest move and perhaps the biggest mistake on the Mont des Alouettes. Not a rider that usually looks back, he sprung away from the group and isolated himself and Gilbert. He then sat up and swung over which allowed Gilbert to stick the nail in the coffin and mortify his combatants with his brilliance. I think that even despite the expectation of Gilbert’s victory, Cancellara should have taken him to the line and perhaps, settled for second place. Maybe Cancellara was playing a card for the Schlecks and when they couldn’t match him he settled down with thoughts of the team timetrial the next day.

Of the G.C. contenders Cadel Evans was the day’s winner. He finished strongly for second place, in the middle of the 6″ timegap that Gilbert gained over the field. It was Evans’ strength in punchy finishing climbs such as this one that took him to victory in Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this year. However, following a poor Paris-Nice it remains to be seen whether he can climb in the mountains well enough to stay an overall contender.

Blossom Lust

Spring-Sprung it’s begun;
let’s dance the Dance while we are young.

Clean out your brain, forget your pain
let’s live tonight to play the Game.

“La de da” the Song is sung,
unwind your body, unleash your fun.

I’ll break tonight from the truth
I’ll lie tomorrow to protect my youth.

I’ve given up what is right
to lie with you throughout the night.

Soundblog Sentences

Scissor Sistering silence,
Singing skintight semblances.
Splicing semiotic structures,
Seeing startled sentience.

Some sonic-searcher seeks
some solemn-sighted snare.
Some short, sharp shrill
Startles squiggled squares.

Somehow squinting stirs the stars
Sometimes shapes switch ‘n’ swap.
Something silhouetted spews some sparks,
Something shimmering spins a’stop.

Something stationary suddenly starts,
Something stunted sprouts and shoots.
Somewhere scoundrels shape to skive,
Somewhere salesmen shift sharp suits.

Someone somewhere starts to shout,
Someone sleeping stifles a scream.
Something somewhere shatters,
Someone seamlessly slides from the scene.

Silence solemnly seeps
outta sound’s
sure steady sleep.

Sunset 02/06/2010

I caught the sunset after getting home from work. It’s certainly BBQ time of year, my neighbours had theirs fired up while I was baking spuds.

The sky was a nice colour:

Rusty sky;

Billows of barbecue smoke,

plumed over, and between,

terraced garden fences,

chorused by the chirping of

carefree student’s laughter,

the buzz of mosquito fly-bys

and the bop of boisterous behaviour.

Sunken sun tints

this summer eve’s sky rusty.

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