Stages 6, 7 and 8 – Team Sky take the Yellow

Friday (Stage 6): The final sprint stage of the week, and one of the last of the tour, should have been a formality, with no real time gaps expected. But after the experience of the last week, who are we kidding? Three main crashes on the stage saw multiple riders brought down, and the biggest of the three (at around 70kph, on a straight flat road) put paid to the GC ambitions of several riders. Big losers included Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), Ryder Hejedal (Garmin-Sharp, abandoned), Michaeli Scarponi (Lampre), Janez Brajkovic (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Robert Gessink (Rabobank), all of whom lost 2 minutes or more on the leaders. Garmin-Sharp’s tour ambitions now look to be over. In the end, the sprint was won by Liquigas-Cannondale‘s Peter Sagan, who came around Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol). Notably, Griepel had dislocated his shoulder and damaged his wrist in a crash earlier in the stage, and it took team mate Greg Henderson 30km of badgering to convince him to sprint at the end. Legend.

Saturday (Stage 7): The peloton breathed a collective sigh of relief as the race hit the hills for the first time. The profile of the stage was relatively hilly, a good one for the break, but as they hit the slope of the final, uphill finish to La Planche des Belles Filles, the race was almost together with Team Sky setting a brutal tempo on the front. Much as they did in the Dauphine Libre earlier this year, the workhorses of Sky destroyed the main field with searing pace, shelling riders out of the back of the bunch and forcing an elite selection. By the end of the climb, the leading group was whittled down to Bradley Wiggins, Chris Frome (both Team Sky), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis). It was clear that the Yellow Jersey would come from this group, and they saved the best for last, with Evans digging deep to try and take the handful of seconds he needed to get the Jersey. It was his kind of finish, but he hadn’t counted on Chris Froome (Sky) who, despite having been Wiggin’s workhorse, had enough in the legs to sprint clear and take the stage victory. With Wiggins coming home in third, he not only took the yellow jersey, but more importantly cemented the team’s position at the top of our consistency table. Ride of the day was however Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), who not only hung with the big boys but rode himself into the White Jersey for best young rider.

Sunday (Stage 8): A very up and down hilly stage, and extremely aggressive riding all day. After Saturday’s efforts, Team Sky had to dig deep to control the race and hold the Yellow Jersey, and as a consequence lost out in the team classification, which has been taken by RadioShack-Nissan. With 2 weeks to go, Sky are going to have to work really hard if they want to take the Yellow all the way to Paris. The day was dominated by breaks, with multiple efforts going off the front before being brought back. By the last climb, Astana’s Frederik Kessiakoff was desperately trying to hold on to a lead of around 1 minute over the bunch, but with a few hundred metres to the top he was caught by FDJ-BigMatt‘s Thibaut Pinot, a local boy and the youngest rider in the race. With a descent and long flat section after the climb, the scenes as Pinot drove for the line were classic, with his manager leaning out of the team car window screaming at him “Allez”. He held on for the win, a victory that will be very well received by him home country – I bet the sports paper Equipe has dedicated half of today’s issue to him. A selection was formed on the final run-in again, but no real changes to any of the classifications. Bad luck of the day was reserved for current Olympic Road Race champion and team leader Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel) who crashed out in a nothing situation and was taken to hospital with a suspected broken collarbone. He won’t be in London for the games.

Today’s stage is the first proper time trial, with 41.5km against the clock. Expect the usual suspects, Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan), Tony Martin (Omega Pharma Quickstep), and of course Wiggins and Froome (both Team Sky) to be up there. Difficult to predict what will happen in the Team Classification, but we could see a change again.

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Stage 5 – The Gorilla Eats Again

Sorry for the late update, I had real work to do!!

Another Sprint finish, wide and straight with a slight uphill, and another crash in the last 3kms. After yesterday’s drama, Sky decided to work a lead-out train, as much to protect their GC contender Bradley Wiggins as to give Mark Cavendish a platform to sprint from. This dual purpose cost them focus, with Cavendish hitting the front far too early and unable to hold on. Taking full advantage was Lotto-Belisol, who dropped Andre Greipel off in the perfect position to take the win. The man they call the Gorilla absolutely mullered it. Also getting involved in the points for the first time were Saxo Bank, with Juan Jose Haedo taking a good third place, and Samuel Dumoulin of (Cofidis) taking 4th.

Cofidis? Dumoulin? In a Sprint finish? Surely some mistake? Well no, as yesterday we were treated to “the break that almost stayed away”. Normally on a sprint finish stage the bunch likes to let a break of non-contenders go up the road, sit out there neutralising any potential upsets to the overall results, and then reel them in with 15km or so to go. Very occasionally, they miscalculate, or the break is just that little bit stronger than expected, and the breakaway riders survive to the end. By the time they get inside the final few kilometres, the breakaway of perhaps 3 or 4 riders has been out there for 180+ kms, and there’s no more exciting finish than the “ooo I think they might make it!!” tension as the 1 or 2 survivors of the break try to hold off the marauding pack. This was it yesterday, with a heroic final solo attack by Samuel Dumoulin netting him 4th place, and much Kudos.

But what of the crash? Turned out that Sky‘s plan to keep Wiggins out of trouble was the right idea, as it was very close to the front – Tyler Ferrar (Garmin Barracuda) was the man brought down, after a bit of shoulder barging with Tom Veelmans (Argos-Skil Shimano). Most high profile casualty was Peter Sagan (Liquigas Cannondale), who was left with nowhere to go as Farrar’s riderless bike flew across the road, but the most respect has to go to stage winner Greipel who, with Ferrar throwing himself at the floor on the left side just ahead of him, took the impact by unclipping his right foot from the pedal and balancing himself out, unclipping his left foot to step on Ferrar (who was on the floor) and stop himself going down), clipping back in and going on to win the stage. All at 50kph+… Wow.

For the record this was Ferrrar’s 4th crash of the Tour, and we were all treated to the somewhat surprising view of him trying to get on to the Argos-Skil Shimano team bus to confront Veelmans. Not what we want to see, and totally out of character.

As expected, no changes in the team competition. Greipel’s win leapfrongs them into second, 4 points behind Sky, and Orica Greenedge (whose Matt Goss finished 3rd) are in the top 5.

Today’s stage is 208km and pretty flat, and on a west to east track could have a fast tailwind. This is the last chance for a sprint before we head into the mountains for the first time tomorrow. Again, I don’t expect any changes in the team classification. Lotto team manager Marc Sergeant has said that Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) will not be contesting today’s sprint finish after injuring his hand in a crash earlier on today. As yesterday, Sky‘s Cavendish, Orica-Greenedge‘s Goss and Lampre’s Pettacchi will be vying for the win. Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) remain in yellow, and would expect to hold it again today.

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Stage 4 – Bang! And down they go…

“Heart rates across Great Britain shot through the roof as Olympic favourite Mark Cavendish (Sky) hit the deck in Wednesday’s sprint finish at the Tour de France.”

Sprint finish, bore-off. Well, unless you’re Mark Cavendish (Sky) and your wing-man Bernie Eisel causes a mass pile up with 2.5km to go, bringing you down. “Mark lost some skin, but he’s not too bad off,” said Sky principal David Brailsford. And, breathe… Still, at least everyone now knows how to beat Cav…

In Cav’s absence, Lotto-Belisol‘s “Lead-out Train” did their job, delivering Andre Greipel to the line for a perfectly executed victory. Lampre‘s Allesandro Pettachi tried to come off his wheel, but didn’t have the legs with Tom Veelers (Argos-Shimano) rounding out the top 3. Eisel received stitches to his eye, and put the blame for the crash on Orica-Greenedge‘s Matt Goss (who finished 4th). Almost unbelievably Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) finished 5th. Earlier on, the stage followed the tried and tested formula. The breakaway featured Japan’s Yukiya Arashiro (Europcar), who attacked as soon as the flag fell to signal the start of the stage. He was followed by Frenchmen David Montcoutie (Cofidis) and Anthony Deplace (Saur-Sojasun), but the bunch never let them endanger the sprint finish, and they were reeled in with 10km. Arashiro will wear the red race number today, the reward for “most aggressive rider”, although arguably that could go to Eisel…

As expected, no changes in the team competition, although Argos-Shimano are tightening their grip on the Lanterne Rouge. Despite Cav’s crash, Sky still have a healthy lead in the consistency competition.

Today’s stage is 196.5km and flat, and on a west to east track could have a fast tailwind. Another sprint is on the cards, and again I don’t expect any changes in the team classification. As yesterday, Sky’s Cavendish, Orica-Greenedge‘s Goss, Lotto-Belisol‘s Greipel and Lampre’s Pettacchi will be vying for the win. Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) remain in yellow, and would expect to hold it again today.

Again, if you’re watching the highlights on TV (ITV4 7pm-8pm), probably only worth tuning in for the last 20 minutes

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Stage 3 – Run, Sagan, Run!

Another uphill finish, another win for Sagan (Liquigas), the kid has so much talent. The rain held off yesterday, but the combination of hills, wind and crashes split the peloton into a number of smaller groups, with perhaps 40 riders in the final “selection”. With those chasing the General Classification (Yellow Jersey) having to stay in at the front to avoid losing any time to their rivals, they and their “helpers” were squeezed up at the front of the race with those chasing the stage victory. Added to that everyone still suffering from 1st week nerviness, and crashes are part and parcel of the first week. There was even one in the last 3km, as a Vacansoleil rider brought down a handful of riders, including Sky’s Chris Froome (2nd in the Tour of Spain (3rd biggest race on the calendar) last year). However, Controversy #1, rather than wait for those affected to get back on their bikes, team Movistar drove the pace on, splitting the race but losing friends and influence in the process. Controversy #2 (at least in the twittersphere) was Sagan’s victory celebration, reminiscent of Forrest Gump’s “run Forest run”, a joke with his friends “they told me to win, so I won… ‘Win Sagan Win'”. Didn’t go down too well with a bunch of armchair fans, but then what do they know (ahem).

Karma struck however, when Jose Joachim Rojas (Movistar, 2nd in last years Points Competition (Green Jersey)) was caught in a crash and forced to retire. Bit of a blow for Movistar‘s “consistency” challenge, they’ll now be focusing on the mountains. The other abandonment of the day was Sky‘s Kanstantsin Siutsou, who fractured his left tibia in a crash and was forced to have surgery last night – these guys aren’t playing about. Despite this Sky still managed to place Edvald Boasson-Hagen in 2nd place, extending the teams lead in the “consistency” competition.

Today’s stage is not too lumpy, so another sprint is on the cards, and if they hold it together there shouldn’t be any change in the team classification. However, with long sections of coastline cross winds could split it up again, and the peloton is still twitchy… Orica-Greenedge‘s Matt Goss and Lotto-Belisol‘s André Greipel will be Cavendish’s main rivals for the win, but if things don’t go to plan, don’t rule out Rabobank‘s Mark Renshaw or Lampre‘s Alessandro Pettacchi. Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) is now looking unlikely to lose the Yellow Jersey before the first mountains in stage 7.

Stage 4 details are here. If you’re watching the highlights on TV (ITV4 7pm-8pm), probably only worth tuning in for the last 20 minutes, unless you like filler(?!)

Oh, and this is a bit of a giggle if you have the interest/time (Cav is a “Lycra-clad hobo”)

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The Tour de France – It’s a Lottery!

I’m running a Tour de France sweepstake at work. Each entrant has drawn a team, with three competitions at stake: the Team competition (following the format of the Tour team competition), a consistency prize (5 points for a win etc), and the Lanterne Rouge… To try an keep people engaged, I send out a daily update, and I thought I might as well share them on here as well – hope you like them!

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The beat goes on…

This lot had been dropped by the end…

The UK festival scene is a huge business, with bands from all over the world headlining Glastonbury, the Isle of Wight and many more. The ECCA Festival, with a history dating back to 1910, is perhaps less well known, but equally important to the Eastern Region calender. Played out over the three days of the May bank holiday, the Festival covers Time Trialling (of many and varied disciplines), Map Reading, 100km and 200km Audaxs and two road races – an E123 and a 3/4. Like last year I entered the 3/4, but unlike last year I had good legs going in to it.

The race gives priority to clubs who are a member of ECCA, and as such the field is somewhat weaker field even than a normal ERRL race, hence I had reason to be hopeful of a result. The first three laps were about as attacking as I’ve seen a 3/4. From the gun Trevor of Lea Valley slipped away, and as no-one wanted to chase, a rider from Hertfordshire Wheelers and I bridged across to him. We were soon joined by a rider from Chelmer (I believe) and started some through and off, but we were brought back after a few minutes. However this set the tone, and a group of about 10 riders set the pace at the front, attacking, forming small groups and being brought back. I really enjoyed this, it’s the kind of racing I get up early for. After about one and a half laps, into a long section of headwind, a Chelmer rider attacked and was sitting a couple of hundred metres off the front for a minute or so. Coming across to him, I could see he was suffering already, so I sat up and cleaned my ear, slowly accelerating past him. The tactic worked and the bunch let me slip away. I managed maybe a quarter of a lap away, all into the headwind, before I heard the clunk of someone changing gear behind me and knew that the game was up. As I sat up, a rider from Cambridge attacked, and for some reason the bunch let him go. He quickly gained over 30 seconds, and lead two dropped in to the gap. This galvanised the front of the bunch, and I saw something I’ve never seen in a 3/4 before – a chase organised irrespective of club affiliation, with perhaps 15 of us doing through and off on the front. Full credit goes to Damien of Eagle for getting this going, and it was great fun. Unfortunately the pace told on discipline, to my cost, and whilst following a wheel I was led into a pothole 2 foot long and six inches deep – and I’m not exaggerating. The result? Impact punctures to both wheels and a badly buckled front.

Pre-race I was discussing with my teammate whether, given the rain, it made sense to ride my carbon deep sections – Essex is renowned for sharp flints after rain – and after last weeks puncture, I plumped for shallow section clinchers. One thing is certain, hitting that hole would have cracked my deep sections, so the decision was justified – albeit for the wrong reason! Hopefully the rim isn’t damaged and I can get it repaired. Fortunately Nick made up for my misfortune by finishing 5th in the bunch, and has almost made second cat. I was also discussing punctures with Wayne, and he to suffered from two (separate) punctures during the race. He brought it up, so I’m blaming him for cursing me. I still gave him a lift home though – and hopefully cheered him up a bit.

Five weeks ago I was feeling optimistic. 3 weeks ago I was complaining about shipping my chain. Right now, I’d be happy just to finish a race, let alone have a chance to compete. The story does have a happier side though. Stuck on the back side of the course, with a double puncture, no repair kit, no-one around, and maybe 5 miles from the HQ, a passing cyclist stopped, gave me an inner tube for one wheel and repaired the other and cheered me up. The unexpected kindness of strangers is ofttimes humbling.

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Disappointment heaped on Disappointment

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good your legs are. Three races, three mechanicals, and what seemed like positive momentum has fizzled out. This won’t be a long update, because frankly there’s not much worth saying.

Milland Hill (CC Basingstoke, Surrey League)

Milland Hill is an “infamous” course in the Surrey League, with an annual race hosted by CC Basingstoke. The morning sees a 3rd Cat only race, with a 2/3 race in the afternoon. The main feature of the course is the hill, which drags up for about a mile, slowly steepening before kicking up to 20%+ for about 200-300 metres. Over the top there is a short straight section over the finish line on a slight downhill, before a hairpin corner. Sprint out of the corner, and the course drags up again for about 2 miles. By the end of that 2 miles, if you’re still in touch, you’re likely dying a thousand deaths.

Last year I was dropped on the 2 mile drag, and before the race I was determined to make it to the finish in the bunch. After my form of the previous few weeks, I was feeling confident coming in to this one, and rode forward all race, getting off the front for a while and generally staying in and around 3rd-10th wheel. On the last lap I had good position and was feeling good to compete for a top 10, when with half a lap to go disaster struck: I dropped my chain. The shock was all the greater, as it was a real nothing bit of road. Fortunately I was on a flat section, and the chain was thrown over the outside of the chainring, so I managed to catch it and get back on to the bunch. What I really needed to do at this point was keep pushing and get back to the front, but I was thrown by the “mechanical disaster”, and sat at the back recovering. By the time I had my head together, we were on to the final hill. I worked my way through the bunch, just as the leaders kicked away for the steep part. I jumped hard, and managed to get on to the back of the leaders, but half way up the steep section the effort told and I ground to a halt. Unfortunately, the effort I had to use to get through the bunch and jump on to the leaders was just too much for me to be able to stay with them. “Woulda, shoulda, coulda…”

One controversial side note, the race had two away from early on, who were eventually caught in the last mile. A massive contribution to the being caught was the efforts of a rider from London Dynamo who, having punctured and rejoined a lap down, buried himself to try and bring them back. To my mind that’s cheating, but the Commissaire didn’t feel it was worth acting on. I feel sorry for the two who were caught – in my opinion they should have been credited with the win.

Fareham Wheelers Spring Road Race

This 2/3 race was run on the course used by the early season Perfs Pedal race, a tough course near Portsmouth encompassing Portsdown Hill. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn the lessons of the week before, and dropped my chain no less than 5 times. I subsequently worked out that it was happening when I shifted into my biggest gear (53/12) and I’ve fixed it. Even more unfortunately, I dropped it at the start of the second ascent of the hill, dropped to the back of the bunch, which subsequently split. With 17 up the road and the remainder racing in typical negative 3rd Cat style, the points were gone and we never got within a minute of catching them. The finish line was a drag uphill after a sharp left corner, and I was undergeared. However, I sat down, shifted up a couple of gears and managed to take 6th for 23 overall.

Fleche Welwyn

There were quite a few out of region riders in the race, which made it tougher than your average ERRL event, but I was up the front and feeling ok. Oh, and I sorted my front derailleur out, so wasn’t expecting any more chain related issues. 3 laps to go, as my legs started to fire, the race started to get selective. Over the final hill and the bunch split – four in a lead group, I was in a group of six about 5 seconds behind, and the bunch behind us. I sat in on the six and as we caught the four to make a useful group I went to the front and drove on, hoping to drop some hangers-on and create a useful break. Unfortunately, my teammate Dave had missed the break, panicked, and buried himself to bring us back. He subsequently almost went out of the back. When I saw we were caught I sat up, and slipped in to forth wheel. Unfortunately, the guy in front of me had a “lapse of concentration” and put us both in the gutter – he got away with it, I punctured. 

Unfortunately, this was one of my season targets, and following on from the prior two races it took me about a week before I could deal with my anger about this race. The fact that my friend and teammate Will finished 5th in a ERRL race run the same day, from a break of seven that he initiated, actually just made me feel worse. 

Onwards and upwards…

Before I began this, I was resisting writing anything, wondering what interest there is in racing wrecked by forces “beyond my control”. However, as with everything in life, it’s not what happens but how you react to it that counts, and that is perhaps worth ruminating on. The lessons and experiences learnt, and the disappointments that came with them, will hopefully help me in the future. The main point was dealing with unexpected events in the race: at Milland Hill, I should have tried to get straight back towards the front, hence saving enough in my legs to compete at the end, at the Fareham Wheelers, I should have avoided the standard negative 3rd Cat racing to try a more focused attack / bridge to the leading group. As for Fleche Welwyn, well, it was the first time I’ve punctured in a race so I’m hoping the next time will just be easier to deal with.

And in other news…

Ok, it’s a cycling blog, but it’s relevant – my daughter was born 10 days ago! All is fine, and she’s a real cutie. Here endeth the season… (tbc)

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