Sunday, 30 June 2013

Jan Bakelants (who?) Takes the Stage

30 June 2013

Although we are still not much closer to seeing the Tour unfold, we did have several incidents today with plenty of “Tour” flavour, even if we know virtually nothing about the nature of the main competitions. After all, it is simply not normal for 93 riders to be within one second of the leader after two stages. I am beginning to think this Corsica lark is a kind of prologue to the Tour, not the Tour itself. Team Time Trials (first stage after Corsica) are never really the Tour itself either, so we are going to have to wait for the Pyrenees, as usual, to see what is really going on. The stage tomorrow might not even be a proper sprint, and the TTT will have nothing to do with the green jersey. We might even have to wait until Montpellier to see a proper bunch sprint, although I suppose that Marseille could give us one too. Who is doing well in the green jersey competition ... who knows? In any case, while the Tour is the Tour, even if it is starting a bit oddly. Don't you just love unexpected events?

What can I say about today? Countryside lovely. Rolland not too bright really. FDJ has a strange strategy deficit, but then Madiot is the boss. French commentators have an anti-Sky bias, but then nearly everyone except Brits shares that bias. Nice wee hill to throw in at the end. Chavanel had his birthday today and did try hard. People who let dogs loose, by not having them on a lead, should be kneecapped. It was hot. A bold “nobody well-known”, in a last minute break, just held off the peloton (yippee). That's about it really.

The big question today was whether the Category 2 hill would get rid of the ALL the pure sprinters, or whether they would get back on the descent. Answer, it got rid of ALL the pure sprinters. All that were left as “obvious” winners were “puncheurs” like EBH, Sagan and Gilbert, although that Daveed Millar seems to be popping up all over the place at the end of stages. Proper Sprinters, like Cavendish, Kittel, Greipel, Bouhanni, Degenkolb and others seem to have a category three limit on hills. Anything tougher and they get dropped. Fair enough, they have the wrong kind of muscles, that is why they are sprinters. Guys like EBH, Gilbert, Kwiatkowski and Sagan and more all terrain fastmen. But it was a fairly interesting slow process watching them drop off on the biggest climb. A sort of prefiguration of what happens on mountaintop finishes with climbers, slowly they drop off.

Every now and again, I observe a piece of quite conscious strategy that I don't really get, nor does my man Cedric Vasseur on TV. Climbing the last big hill, while some of the FDJ team were trying to keep Nacer Bouhanni in touch with the lead group (he got dropped), the other bit of the team was riding seriously fast in front, for kilometres, and was “responsible” for dropping all the pure sprinters. For the benefit of which other FDJ rider? No idea. On TV, the DS for FDJ said it was to “protect Pinot”, their single GC hope, from any dangers. But seriously, why does he need such protection when he can keep up with anyone on a climb like that. Very bizarre, and I will pass on explanations I read. I should also add that the attack of Pierre Roland, which would have used up a lot of energy, was almost certainly a failure from the beginning. I have no idea why he did it. He is learning way too much from Voeckler. Every time I hear Rolland being interviewed, I realise he is just not that bright, not a man with a strategic brain, even if he is a very good climber.

By the way, Tony Martin did ride today and he did NOT have a broken collarbone, just lots of bruises in all sorts of places. If he finishes the Tour it will be a miracle of recuperation and suffering.

Nice choice of a steep little hill at the end. Put the cat amongst the pigeons as all the riders had to figure out what to do, attack, follow the attack, wait for someone else to pull it back, and all the indecisions and uncertainty leant a rather exciting air to the last fifteen k or so. At the very least, we should always have the last bit of a stage that is full of racing, and we got it today It would have been nice to have Chavanel winning on his birthday. Had I known I would have picked him. But I picked Sagan, so am relatively happy.

Incidents with loose dogs, whose keepers should be severely fined (thousands of pounds), are part of the Tour. Every year. Without fail. Maybe this loose dog will be the only one. That little white dog escaped being run over by a fraction of a second. His keeper was nearly wiped out by the peloton too. And if a rider had hit the keeper or the dog, I cannot imagine what might have happened to the riders. I think at the very least, the keepers should be busted and fined bigtime for causing danger to others by negligence. Must be a crime like that.

It was hot. Finally. But hard on the riders. I am beginning to get reports that the ride to Montpellier and past our house will also be hot. Still, it is nearly July and it is about time it was hot. Did I ever mention what a complete dud of a summer it has been so far, not to mention the spring that never came, except a bit late and very stealthily? We are still eating cherries and they should have been over weeks ago.

Overall, I guess the best thing about this stage was that the ending, the winner, was completely unpredictable. No one could possibly have guessed that either the little last minute break would win, or that Jan Bakelants would be the only guy left at the end. He has not won a race as a pro, and nothing since 2008 Tour de l'Avenir. Although it does not have the glamour of the normal, big name winners, and not the sense that the stage has told us something about the eventual nature of the Tour, it had that “goodness gracious how did that happen” feel. Jan himself was just smiling and happy. I do like that. For several stages. But not for all of them.

Short note. Why has Froome acquired a penchant for useless attacks? Shouldn't he wait a bit? Is no one in charge of that guy?

In terms of jerseys, we already have two yellow jersey wearers. Bound to be a different one tomorrow, and also a new one after the TTT. The one who wins the jersey in Nice in the Stage Four TTT, will certainly not the be the eventual winner, so we will have a fifth wearer shortly, before we get to the Pyrenees. And after the first stage of the Pyrenees, we will have another winner. That makes six. The record is eight. Hmmm. You heard it here first. New Tour record for number of riders winning the yellow jersey.

Looks like my frequently picked sprinters, Cav and Bouhanni are having a rather poor Tour this far, worse than one might have imagined. I hope they pick themselves up a bit and score me some points.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Bus gets stuck, Crash and Kittel wins

29 July 2014

The first Corsican stage was one I missed almost entirely. Had a date for a biggish fete with potluck and classical live music at a pal's house. I did manage to get home for the last 18k, which apparently is where all the serious sporting and administrative action took place. I admit I would have liked to see a bit of the Corsican seacoast, which apparently was on display all day. Tomorrow I am going to take in as much as I can of the Island of Beauty. Here in France we get the entirety of each Corsican stage in full HD, and it would be nice to enjoy it.

Today we got a kind of “false result”, with crashes and misinformation, plus a wayward bus causing a result that was not a gross surprise, but not the final sprint we expected. Suddenly we had a shot of the Orica Green Edge bus, stopped exactly on the finish line, with only 12k left to ride. Apparently, the bus driver should have stopped in front of the finish line, asked the people there to raise the finish line assemblage so he could fit under the top bit that stretches across the road. Instead (who knows who writes the detailed instructions and who reads them), the bus touched the top of the assemblage and the photo finish devices fell off, and they didn't know what to do. The bus appeared to be stuck right there. Finally they deflated the tyres a bit and reversed the bus. No idea why a bus should ever be messing about at the finish line so late, but still.

Meanwhile, while the bus was stuck, race radio had informed “everyone” that the finish line would be 3k from the actual finish, where there are cameras as well. The details of exactly who sent out the message and who received it will no doubt be scrutinised. But between that decision and before the arrival at 3k, the bus got moved and the teams were told that the finish would be as previewed, at the normal spot, now cleared of a bus. So with all that modern communication and radios and earbuds and all, that should have been clear. Nope. Kittel, for example, the 25 year old German sprinter who won the stage, said afterwards he didn't know about either the “3k from the end” plan, nor the revised finish at the usual place plan. Earbuds off? Team didn't mention it? Radio malfunction? No idea how many other riders had no idea what was happening, but must have been a few. Kittel WAS one of the possible sprinters who might upset the Sagan/Cavendish/Greipel “certainty”.

In addition, about the time that the radios would have informed some riders the finish was in the predicted place, there was a crash. Soon we will know who “caused it”, but that is actually not too important. Crashes like that happen in the first week, every year. Tense riders, many within reach of the jerseys, teams protecting their GC contenders, and the odd narrow spot in the route. In any case, it looks like a member of Cavendish's team, Omega Pharma Quickstep, was the first to tumble (probably Tony Martin). He might have been touched by Kwiatowski, who was moving up. I am sure we will know tomorrow. Among others, Cav, Greipel and Sagan either crashed, were slowed down, or their equipment damaged by the crash. Nothing is certain, but they could have been the podium for the first stage. Sagan had some damage to his jersey, therefore to his body, but maybe not serious. Contador had body damage, but probably not serious. Tony Martin, the German time trial ace, on Omega team, broke his collarbone maybe, and probably is out. I rather liked him, and he was certainly important to Cavendish. He is the guy who kept Omega in front of the pack for the last ten k or so. First week misery. And probably not the end of it. Although neither of the next two stages is a certainty for a mass sprint, it is possible there will be more crashes.

So the story of the bus dominates the day, and of course, the crash. No doubt one or two others will be affected by the crash, but we won't know until tomorrow.

This year, rather exceptionally, the course did not have a prologue, instead it had road stage likely to end in a sprint. In the recent past, Tour routes began with a prologue, but there were time bonuses awarded for the usual flat stage finishes at the beginning of a Tour. The time bonuses meant that a sprinter could win the yellow jersey, even if they lost several seconds on the short, fast prologues. This year there is no prologue so the sprinter winner of the road stage gets the yellow jersey. In fact, Kittel gets the green jersey (best finisher in each stage, one stage, he won), yong jersey (he is 25), and the yellow jersey. The lad is very happy, and is a very good sprinter, it is not an accident. Those green and white jerseys will be worn by others tomorrow, as the yellow takes precedent over the others. So the yellow dreams of Cav and Sagan and Andre Greipel, much less Nacer Bouhanni, will be postponed to another year, when there is no prologue, just a proper stage. Oh! That will be next year in Yorkshire, where Cav will have another chance to ride in yellow in his own country. Even better.

That's it really, the mountains jersey is worn by some sprinter from Euskatel, the Basque team, who won the sprint to the top of a non-hill from a break of four. None of these jerseys are going to mean much until a few days pass. In fact, while the green jersey competition is a real one, until they get to the Pyrenees none of the others will mean much. Still, they mean something to the family, friends and club/tam members of the guy who wears it, even if in slightly odd circumstances.

Marc Madiot contributed his usual rant on the after race show. He seemed to think that while changing the start to 3k from the finish was a good decision, the decision to change it back to the predicted place was a bad decision. He was furious, utterly wild eyed. In fact, he even referred to the Spanishness of the chair of the race commissioners, whom he did not know. As he turned and left the interview he suggested that this Spanish judge should go back where he came from. He is gonna get in trouble for that remark. Never liked Madiot, ever.

Slow start to the racing, but tomorrow should have a proper break and someone will be keen to stop the sprinters from keeping the yellow jersey. We just don't now who.

Friday, 28 June 2013


27 July 2013

This year I have a strong feeling that I am not so likely to be writing so much or so often. Too many small activities are intruding that seem to be more important than The Tour on a given day. I know, for example, that I might not see much of the very first stage. And already short trips to see old pals, at particular times, might mean I don't even see it on TV on a given day. If plans happen, I will see the Tour live, at a Montpellier sprint finish, hang out a bit before the start of the next stage, then race home and change into my cycling gear to ride up the hill near me to see them pass. All this in 24 hours. Heavy duty experience for an old geezer. So for the three of you who are reading this, be patient, I might skip a few days as a writer.

Otherwise everything is normal. I have entered my teams in three Fantasy Leagues, and am getting ready to do a daily stage winner prediction on one of my forums. Worldwide, there are maybe 16-20 of us on that forum, We make predictions for all the important races, throughout the year. Over the year, my predictions are very average. Sadly, I am uncomfortable with the betting system we use (although there are also others who guess more skilfully). There are three women on the forum. One of the women is another guy's partner. Or maybe the guy is writing as “his wife”. She does not guess, he does. Anyway, I really should write a blog on Fantasy Cycling Leagues. I must spend, throughout the year, an average of three hours a week (maybe more), reading, researching, choosing teams, looking at results … as one does when geeky about something. I do a little bit better on other leagues. There is one game where only six people are members. Quite exciting at this moment as I am, before the Tour, “almost” even with this eccentric guy from Newcastle who “always” wins in our little group contest. Let's leave it that I have spent the equivalent of a normal working week (or more), choosing and messing about with my teams during the year. Never do I come close to winning much. I might be, for example, third best in the Tour of California. Or even be the best of a small group on the Giro. Truth is, although it is pretty much “a waste of time” in some people's view (like mine), it is very absorbing. By the way there are no prizes and only about 30-40 people on earth will know the results. There are of course hundreds of other cycling mad individuals playing alongside the few from our forum. If you get it right, it is not an accident, respect for calling the right shots. You get the idea. One can really spend time one this project. Doing it for every Grand Tour, and all other big races. All year long.

In reality this year, the story is both that the Tour is quite open, and that on the other hand there are a few, agreed upon common assumptions about who will do well. If anyone other than Contador or Froome wins the Yellow Jersey, then nearly everyone will be wrong. However, there are a few who suggest that quite a number of others might win overall, and certainly should be part of the expected top ten. Names like Evans (is he too old, even if he did really well in the Giro?), Rodriguez (hard to imagine him being in the second ten), Tejay van Garderen (working for Cadel, but then maybe Cadel falters), Richie Porte (team-mate of Froome, who is meant to be second, as was Froome last year), the prodigious but uncertain Andy Schleck (is he fit or not?), and of course the French dream of young Thibaut Pinot doing better than last year. There are certainly others like Alejandro Valverde or his teammate, the young Colombian Nairo Quintana who might do well. So in the yellow jersey contest, two huge favourites, with Froome the heaviest favourite. And many others who are nearly as fast up a hill and on a time trial. Ready to pounce if someone makes a mistake. Or older guys who are out to make one last splash. Could be a cool Tour.

My summary of the situation for yellow is NOT two guys and the rest with scraps. I think it is two guys, with any one of eight or nine riders who should keep up with the the big two until some crucial moment(s). Then the get dropped or they drop one of the big two. In both cases, there is another support guy on each team, who would most likely be a single leader on most teams. Porte and Quintana are examples. Some people even say it is Team Sky vs the entire peloton for the final victory and there could be a lot of truth in that. I think there is going to to be at least one or two moments of “strategic choice”, and the bad choice will lose the Tour. Froome is on every single Fantasy team I have. If he makes a mess of it, I am not going to do very well. Although I have other riders as well. Like Cav or Sagan, but I NEVER have Contador. If he wins, I will not do badly overall, but I won't do well either. Oddly I think I would be quite happy if he wins, so I don't need to have him on my team. In fact, I really don't care who wins as long as there is a bit of racing. The race organiser claims the course is set up so there are many opportunities for attacking, so we wait to see if anyone does.

Just noticed you could get a bet on Bauke Mollema for 400-1 for the yellow jersey. I would be each way on him for 20 quid if I had anyone else to discuss it with. Let's see how he does. It is sometimes fun to look at odds. as well as for all the other jerseys.

The mountains contest, which is a rather rule bound designation of “the best climber”. They use a formula which means that one really long attack, on a day when there are lots of mountains, can win you the jersey. The rest of the time the KOM (King of the Mountains) will usually get beaten on the last hill of the day, when the truly best climbers go for the big win. Still. Last year Thomas Voeckler won it. One huge attack. And, one should admit, a moderately good climbing ability. No one knows who will go for this polka dot jersey, it being much less competitive or prestigious than the overall standing, the GC (General Classification). Usually the guys who wear the jersey in the first week are just in it for a bit of publicity. Only after the Pyrenees are finished will we know who is a serious competitor. Any of the GC (Yellow Jersey) riders could win the mountains jersey simply because they are better climbers, almost by accident. Nairo Quintana, maybe the best climber of the new wave of Colombians, is, on his day, able to outclimb the lot of them. He has not raced for a couple of months, so no one knows how fit he is. However, he has to look after Alejandro Valverde, a strong contender for the yellow jersey. If Valverde falters, then Quintana will be cut loose to gain minutes on everyone. The young Frenchman Thibaut Pinot might realise he cannot make the top ten on GC, so might try for the mountains jersey. Daniel Martin of Ireland, in his best years now, is a guy who can climb for spots or who can go for GC. We just don't know. Usually we suspect some Euskatel rider could go for it, like Sanchez did a couple years ago. Maybe Mikel Nieve, maybe someone else. My outside favourite for KOM is Kessiakoff, second last year. This yeur, without a clear leader on the Astana team, he might be let loose to try for the spotted jersey. Of course, the one rider mentioned by everyone is Thomas Voeckler, the French hero. He won last year and there is no reason for him to give up this year, without a fight. Yet another French rider will have to choose, according to the breaks of the Tour, whether to go for a stage win only, the GC or the spotted jersey, Pierre Rolland. He has won a big stage and done well in the GC for the last two years and might not care about the KOM. The main thing is that this contest is usually over fairly soon, so my main hope is that in addition to the GC competition in the last week, there will be more than one rider trying to win the jersey. In recent years, the competition for this jersey has been pretty uneventful. No one really cares.

The sprinters competition (green jersey), on the other hand, is not so fluffy and uncertain as KOM. If the green jersey is not won by Peter Sagan (23) or Mark Cavendish (28), then some people, including me, will be slightly embarrassed. Or both of them will have had very bad luck. They are the two favourites, by far. Each has a team entirely built around protecting their sprinter and leading him out for the win. Cav, for example, by winning three stages, would become third in the “Tour stage wins” category (behind Merckx and Hinault). However, there are a few very good younger sprinters. Cav is almost one of the “older guys” now. Other “older” guys are Goss (Australlian, 26) and Andre Greipel (30), especially the massive German rider. Not only is Sagan only 23, but Nacer Bouhanni is 22, John Degenkolb (25), Marcel Kittel 25), Alexander Kristoff (25), John Degenkolb (24). Plus some sprinters who are good up wee hills at the end, like Philippe Gilbert and EBH (Edvald Boasson Hagen). EBH is one of my favourite nearly men. He has a very respectable palmares, and is known to be very fast, and also able to handle mountains.

The White Jersey is given to the best rider on GC who is less than 25 years old, therefore “young”. Best young guy could be Thibaut Pinot, could be Quintana, could be Tejay (as it was last year), could be Rolland, could be Andrew Talansky, the American climber. This is not a terribly interesting “competition” since anyone who wins it is really going for GC, that is top ten. As a by product that rider wins the white jersey.

That's about it really. I expect if the lads want to race, then we will have a good Tour, at the sporting level. In any case, there will be something interesting happening, maybe during the last week, which is very difficult and full of mountains and a time trial. It is fairly certain that the race will NOT be decided until the last few days. It would be kind of interesting if NONE of the jerseys were really decided when they get to the double climb of Alpe d'Huez. The last time trial will have happened. The climbers then have three stages of mountains, two with mountain top finishes, before they scoot off to Paris for the final show stage. The climbers have to attack to win. The points jersey could still be close, Cav and Sagan almost neck and neck. That green jersey contest will in abeyance until the Champs Elysée, which would be cool. Duel on the Champs. KOM cannot be fully decided, there are thee days of massive points. So KOM riders have to make moves, which might look a little like a yellow jersey move, which makes it interesting. In some ways, the climber who is worst off on GC when they climb Alpe d'Huez, has the best chance to be left alone to attack to win the KOM. It could be a really well designed Tour. If the riders do some moves, instead of playing for the money. As always.

Whatever the case, they have also designed it to be especially showy about the great heritage sites of France. And the Mythic Cols. The “Promoting Tourism” angle of the Tour, on global HD-TV, is going to be especially strong this year. Beginning with Corsica, a hotbed of nastiness for the French State, also known by everyone as the Ile de Beauté. You get Mont St Michel for a time trial, shots of it ALL DAY. Plus The Chateaux. Plus Mt. Ventoux on the longest stage. The final day on the Champs is going to end under lights for the first time. It should be utterly wonderful for anyone who loves “seeing France”. Tt really is the prettiest place to have a cycling race on earth, in my view. With the possible exception of Italy. Let's say it is a five set win for France. I think Italians think Italy is better as a place to race, but globally speaking more people put their money down and spend it on a holiday in France than in Italy. Although China is supposed to pass France any year now, France is still the number one uncontested holiday destination country on earth. I vote for France. I agree it is not as good as riding, walking or even driving through that countryside, but it still is a minor pleasure in HD, biggish screen. I should say, they have made a special effort because this is the 100th Tour de France.

Where will I myself see the Tour this year? Who knows, I make plans and sometimes they don't happen. But I should go into Montpellier on the afternoon of the Fourth of July to meet some pals. We should walk about fifteen minutes to the actual finish. Wander around a bit, find a big screen and a view of the the last hundred or so metres. Better yet, maybe the second hundred metres after the finish. You see riders still and immobile. Plus lots of bustling about. You can watch re-runs of the finish. Just after the finish might be good. Then a quick meal, then off for an early bedtime, after writing a bit and checking out my photos. My hostess is actually having friends over for dinner, but said I could crash. Then in the morning, I (and she might too) drift about 12 minutes walk to the place where the peloton will start from. A rather splendid central square called the Comedie . The riders really won't be there, as they will most likely be eating breakfast, as the stage does not start until noon and they need to eat three hours before. I have to leave by 10h30 at the latest. It will take maybe 65 minutes, if I am lucky, to get home. I change into my cycling gear, grab a sandwich, and ride up the Col de Treize Vents. This is a 6.5k at 5.6%, category three climb (not too hard). They later go up a category two I know well, but neither of these climbs is Cat 1 or “Beyond Category (Hors Catégorie)”. I have been rather weak many times in the last five years or so. But if I can fearlessly enjoy climbing 13 Winds, then I feel fairly good. The last six or seven hundred metres are supposed to be 10%. I am curious if these guys go up the whole thing on the big ring, for example. Also I expect that if someone wants to make an escape, they could do it on this climb. There is a descent, about five k along the valley and then the second category climb (almost “hard”). After that it is flattish or downhill for the rest of the stage, so a break could get away. It could unfold before my eyes. I know that I can reach the top of the climb where I would like to be, it takes me an hour or so form my house. With all the others walking or riding up to the top, it might take longer. The fastest speed predicted has the lads on the top at 14h11. I imagine that during last half hour climbers are not that welcome. So I have to be out the door by 12h00, on my bike. I decided not to take a banner or flag or whatever. Although I was tempted. Just haul my ass up that hill and wait for an hour or so. When they go past, all the cars and so forth, just ride down that hill, with a few dozen others, and watch the finish on the box, after a nap. The road will still be closed for at least half an hour or 45 minutes after the last vehicle passes, so the entire descent should be a pleasure, no traffic.

Must get this posted. I am excited.