Tour of Utah-ah-ah: Carpenter uses head to protect head when things come to a head

Robin Carpenter had a problem, and not just that he was laying flat on the concrete.

The race was getting away from him, that much was true, but he’d banged his head and torn off half his jersey. That meant dazed, and partially naked, he had to be checked over before he could rejoin the race. But worse than that, he had no helmet.

So while the medic asked him how many fingers he was holding up and whether he could spell his first name, all Carpenter could think about was solving his cabeza problem.

And so, faced with an ever increasing deficit to make up, and no team car in sight, Carpenter did what any self-respecting pro cyclist would do. He stole one.

Looking good: Carpenter with his borrowed bonnet

Stole might be a bit harsh. “Borrowed” is more accurate.

Either way the fan at the side of the road was left lid-less, as Carpenter rode on, putting in a mighty effort to make the eight minutes he’d lost, to regain the group, albeit in an oversized black, retro-Lemond bicycle helmet, a big black thing, that made his head look big, even if he had been cleared of concussion.

Carpenter borrowed a helmet from a fan when his was smashed to smithereens. The result: a retro Lemond look

The image of him grinning as the camera caught up served duel purposes.

On the one hand, while the fact that Carpenter thought he looked good must have left the concussion doctor wondering whether he might want to call in a second opinion, he could only have been reassured by the ingenuity that made him so pleased with himself in the first place.

It did make you wonder how differently things could have gone.

What would have happened had there been no spectator to cadge a favour from? What if their head had been much smaller than his?

Or maybe worse.

What if, having been sent skidding across the asphalt, it was not Carpenter’s helmet that was torn apart, but his shorts, and maybe his bike? This, combined with a limited choice of spectators, could have painted a different picture.

Carpenter could have faced the prospect of being paced back to the group wearing an oversized helmet and a skirt, while testing the aerodynamics of a nine-year-old’s Raleigh Chopper.

Carpenter competed the stage in good shape, in his own clothes, on his own bike, and with a more familiar team helmet on his head after his team got their own heads in gear. What became of the purloined bonnet, we don’t know. Returned perhaps with a few more miles on the clock, and with a story to tell.

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Race reports

Tour of Utah-ah-ah: The toughest stage race in America

The organisers of the Tour of Utah had made their intentions clear. Their race would not be ordinary, nor would it pander to convention. Instead it would suit crazy people, specifically those with maps, crayons, and an authority bestowed upon them to create what looked to be the parcour from hell. By the end of it a State known for its winter downhills would begin to celebrate its summer ups.

The result on day one was a race profile that looked like a hollowed out volcano, with super-hero-climbing not seen since Adam West donned his Batman cape and scaled walls using nothing more than a rope from his utility belt, with a little help from a dramatic camera angle.

As if adding to the lunacy, the helicopter pilot performs a perfect handbrake turn above the riders.

But a race billed as “The toughest stage race in America”, had a name to live up to. Which might have explained why the race the profile looked like the result of some prison art therapy. The patient was likely a former rider, with the demented intention of denying anyone a race win ever again. And so, recalling a selection of razor sharp murder weapons, and presented with some blunt crayons, set about using each to design stage outlines.

The result must have been quite startling. The rest of the race features silhouettes of a bike spanner, a meat cleaver, a smashed beer bottle, a pipe wrench, a hook sword, and a set of brass knuckles.

Thankfully first impressions suggests riders could handle it, and in some style. That is if Ty Magner is anything to go by, or Brent Bookwalter who won stage 2, not to mention all that murderous scenery.

It might well look lunatic, but luckily some of us like lunatic. It’s one of the best races of the year.

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Was this the most entertaining crash of the season so far?

Tour of Slovenia: Stage 2 – Ljubljana to Ljubljana

We missed extended highlights of the Tour of Slovenia’s second stage as live footage cut out, presumably for reasons relating to the same weather that it such a thrilling climax. But what we missed out in bike racing on we made up for in the closing kilometers, as conditions turned the finishing loop into an ice rink.

You couldn’t blame riders for easing up a bit going into the corners, thinking perhaps that it wasn’t worth being spread over the Slovenian asphalt like margarine with the Tour looming. But any let up was short lived. By the last lap the speed was up to break-neck again, and the peloton turned, ready to break neck.

Riding diagonally through a zebra crossing, it was a Dimension Data rider (Jacques Janse Van Rensburg?), charging along for Mark Cavendish, who went down first, losing his bike but none of his momentum, and finding himself with enough time to write his will as he slid along the road, over the curb, and straight into a wall. He came to a halt in front of some open-mouthed spectators getting their first look of professional bike racing.

Having had enough time to write his will, the Dimension Data rider (Janse Van Rensburg?) finally comes to a stop

The rider behind, possibly unidentifiable but for a white jersey, managed to dodge him, and survived the turn by steering wide onto the sidewalk.

But just as he was about to look behind him and laugh maniacally, he clattered into what looked from the helicopter like a teenaged boy, all arms and legs, whose distress was peeked not just by the collision, but by the sudden disappearance of his kagool.

Another rider dodges the first crash but collides with a spectator, stealing his raincoat in the process

One moment it had been tucked under his arm, the next it had vanished. He looked aghast, in a silent movie kind of way, before his coat re-emerged 30 feet away, wrapped around the rider. The transformation of Stage 2 into an episode of Wacky Races was now complete.

The rider in white got to his feet. He seemed less interested in what had just happened, than how he’d come to be wrapped in a teenager’s kagool, which television footage showed him producing from out of nowhere, like a bunch of flowers in a magic trick.

Amid the carnage, the “collision” rider produces a rain coat out of thin air

The novice public swept into action, performing those little tasks that are neither appreciated nor really necessary in times like this – fetching lost bidons, propping bikes up, and mothering grown men in Lycra. They weren’t to know that compassion doesn’t count inside the 1km to go marker and to the fallen at least, the race was already lost.

With the crash riders on their feet and relatively unharmed, Orica rider Luka Mezgec crossed the line first, gripping his top tube with his knees and checking his balance before finally risking raising his arms in triumph. Or was it survival?

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Three cheers for the bidon man

Route du Sud: Stage 3 – Saint-Gaudens to Gavarnie-Gedre

He looked like an ordinary spectator, one of those diehard tifosi who parks up at the side of the road and waits hours for the riders to pass by in a matter of seconds.

But to those who knew what to look out for this man was quite clearly a super hero. Plain clothed to be sure, but his cape and red underpants were presumably hidden under the outfit of a schlub, albeit one about to perform an act of dexterity that would dazzle, and hydrate, a soon-to-be captive audience.

What’s more he’d do all of this in about three seconds.

It’s a tricky business handing out bottles at the side of the road. The feedzone is usually a mixture of relief, litter, and peril for riders, as they first seek out their bottle and then try to grab it at about 40kmh without crashing.

It’s difficult getting one bottle into the hand of a rider, let along three. Some get dropped, some are missed altogether, while others fail to meet the high standards of those expected to drink it.

So handing out three in as many seconds would appear impossible. To suggest otherwise would merely alert the skeptics. Oswald couldn’t get off three shots in six they’d say, so nobody could dish out three bidons in three.

But our guy in a t-shirt and cap was ready to try.

It must be difficult for riders, working out who among the spectators lining the road are the type trying to help, and which are the utter lunatics, ready to run alongside you, before getting too close and requiring a colleague, with Swiss francs to spare, to risk a UCI rebuke and elbow the man-sized banana in the face.

But this man didn’t have on a banana outfit, or a chicken costume. Neither did he appear to wear the colours of a team. No costume, no polo, just three bottles of water ready to hand out, and a moment in which to do so which took even him by surprise.

One…

As the main group of about 15 riders approached three – Brice Feillu and Eduardo Sepulveda of Fortuneo-Vital Concept, and Richard Carapaz of Movistar — peeled off, drifting over with an eye on refreshments without the UCI fine (based on the no drinks inside 20km rule) that makes a bottle of citrus energy drink more expensive than a bottle of Johnny Walker blue.

Two…

But our man stepped up: first one bottle, then another, and then another. On the last he sort of spun around, pirouetting for the benefit of the judges. The riders rode on with their bottles while our man, shaken but not stirred, stepped out of the limelight, and back to the side of the road where I like to think he stripped to the waist so he could beat his chest.

Three…

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A four quid bottle of Tour of Azerbaijan

Tour of Azerbaijan: Stage 5 – Baku to Baku

The way I see it, we should be grateful for a rest day so soon on the Giro. How else would we catch up with highlights from the Tour of Azerbaijan?

Some of us have been convincing ourselves of this ever since the race packed up in Sardinia and set sail for Sicily, leaving bike race addicts alone, on a Monday night, with nothing to watch.

I’ll admit I’m not a purist when it comes to my drug of choice. I tend to treat some bike racing like I would four quid Shiraz from the newsagent: it’s not there to be enjoyed – it looks too weird for that — but it fills a gap just long enough until you can get back on the good stuff.

All of which makes the Tour of Azerbaijan my four quid bottle of Shiraz.

What with it’s own commercial and theme song, this was the racing equivalent of the two-for-one plonk we’ve all reduced ourselves to when looking to take the edge off. There’s nothing to sniff, taste or swill. You just get it down and hope you find a few surprises.

And there were a few, like the beautiful old town of Baku, which the final stage looped a few times on its way to the finish. It looked picturesque and appealing, even with the padding on all its sharp bits, and what appeared to be the complete evacuation of anyone living there to make room for a bike race.

It’s possible they were all at home watching the highlights of the Giro of course, leaving the official types to hold clipboards and stop watches at the intermediate sprints, like PE teachers at a district sports day.

They also had a winner of about that age in Krists Neilands, young and thin and leagues ahead of everyone else (like that kid in school), crossing the line for his first pro win for Israel Cycling Academy, aged just 22.

The Azerbaijan Tourist Board is guaranteed at least one lifelong fan in Neilands. And as long as it coincides with a rest day in the Giro (and maybe that bottle of Shiraz), I’ll make that two.

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The lady doth protest too much?

Tour de Yorkshire: Stage 2 – Tadcaster to Harrogate

There’s a time and place for politics, but I like to think for a lot of cycling fans that place is not in televised bike racing.

All of which, to British fans at least, makes the General Election on June 8 notable for one thing– it clashes with Stage 5 of the Criterium du Dauphine, which strikes me as terrible planning on the Government’s part. I have a lot of sympathy for whoever it was on Twitter who said the only “General” they wished to see on their time line was one followed by the word “Classification”.

One Lady decided she would breech this sentiment last weekend during the Tour de Yorkshire, standing alone in the middle of the politics/bike racing Venn Diagram (she and one wag flying what looked like a North Korea flag) in a bid to bring a protest tradition, only seen before at the business end of Bernard Hinault’s right fist, to the roads of Britain.

Holding aloft a banner at the side of the road, she’d intended for the TV cameras to pick up her cause, not once as the breakaway passed her, but twice, as the peloton sought to catch up.

Had the lady had more knowledge of road racing, and not merely the intention of flouting her cause, she might have considered camping out on the Cote du Lofthouse rather than a section of road where riders swept passed at something close to 50 kph. That made this blurry yellow hand-held sign visible only to those living in perpetual slow motion, or at least quick to hit pause on the nearby remote.

No political shoutiness then, which made the encouraging signs of civility all the more welcome — moto-riders, usually scorned by the peloton for aiding, abetting, and generally getting in the way, waving their thanks as the peloton moved aside to let them, and a police out rider, pass safely.

We can only assume on their way to pick up the lady with the sign.

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Flagman refuses to bottle it

Tour de Romandie: Stage 1 – Aigle to Champery

“It’s ball-breaking work, but somebody has to do it.”

So might read the motto hanging above the First Aid cabinet in the moto-riding flagman* canteen.

“Flag man,” is not exactly at the glamorous end of bike racing – it has none of the prestige that “man who gets to stand with his head out of the sunroof of a Skoda” has, or “driver of the Skoda in which the man stands with his head out of the sunroof,” but nonetheless it is essential work, buffering the riders from the dangers of road furniture and the risks that come with them. But nobody considers the risk to the flagman himself.

The opening stage of the Tour of Romandy seemed to take place in November, with driving sleet and rain, along with a headwind and standing water. It was not going to be pleasant for anybody – least of all the men with the flags.

Wearing romper suits, the flag men had their work cut out, not only to keep warm but in getting from each danger spot to the next, in time to wave their little flag in an orderly tempo above their head, and blow a whistle as loudly as possible.

Which one flagman did in good time, arriving in the next town on the list before the four-man break reached the bollard he had been sent to warn against. They might even have appreciated the flagman’s effort had they not been dealing with their own issues, like driving rain, the cold, and some awful racket coming from someone blowing a whistle.

It’s not clear whether Eritrean rider Mekseb Debesay knew where the noise was coming from, or whether he knew that by aiming a water bottle at a particular part of the flagman’s body might shut it up. But suddenly the flagman was using the flag to protect himself rather than anybody else.

The bottle came from out of nowhere. Visibility might have been poor but millions of year of evolution ensured the survival instinct kicked in like an early warning system. An object was coming at him at speed – he reacted without thinking.

It was a move familiar to any man – the knee rising off the ground and moving across the body, while a hand came down to double up the defenses of this most vital of organs. The bottle struck around the midriff before bouncing off the flagman and rolling harmlessly away. He’d tried to catch it, but self-preservation has its priories, and for a single second, he didn’t give a damn what the riders might crash into.

Then it was back on the bike and on to the next one. Had he caught the bottle, you wonder if he might have thrown it back.

*I’m assuming that’s what these guys are called. 

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When all else fails

Tour of Croatia: Stage 6 – Samobor to Zagreb

It had been a long break, and Evgeny Shalunov had been in the thick of it all day.

It was the final stage of the Tour of Croatia, a last chance to cross the line for glory. But while Shalunov had been there all day, with 6 km to race he was faced with an inconvenient truth too hard to ignore.

Looking at his fellow breakaway riders Shalunov figured he was out-gunned, out-sprinted, and outpaced on the first climb through Zagreb, left with little to show for his efforts than a desperate chase to rejoin the leaders at the summit to do it all again. Twice.

So as they approached the climb for the penultimate time Shalunov did the only rational thing he could do given the circumstances. Throwing away any sense of what was rational, he teamed up with his brain and tried to fool his legs that they were not about to fall off.

Then, with his common sense running after him shouting “you’re about to make a terrible mistake!” Shalunov did the unthinkable, and attacked.

Surely there was no chance he could maintain such a burst of speed up such a punishing climb? But sure enough, there he was, surging forward, chewing up a 10 per cent gradient while the others gritted their teeth trying keep up.

Well… for a few seconds anyway.

Then the same voice yelled: “I told you so!” Which came at the exact same moment his legs realised they’d been duped.

But it had been a glorious move while it lasted, however brief. The others soon caught him, and then left him, and his common sense, and his legs, to be swallowed up by the peloton. But all three had earned their pay.

Still, better to shine brightly and fail, than not at all. Not exactly a marketing slogan for Shalunov’s team Gazprom, but certainly good enough for him.

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Whether or not Plan B was Plan A, it turned Plan C into Plan D

Tour of Croatia: Stage 2 – Trogir to Biokovo

For Gazprom-RusVelo rider Anton Vorobyev things couldn’t be better. He’d been in the break all day and taken points at two intermediate sprints. He’d even nicked KOM points from a dumbfounded Jonathan Millan of Bicicletes Strongman. Vorobyev was on a roll – cooking on Gazprom — and planned on rolling all the way to the finish line.

So he probably ignored the message from the team radio, or assumed there was some sort of altitude-related interference, when he heard than his team leader, Artem Nych, was breaking free of the peloton a few minutes behind, and trying to join them. Don’t be ridiculous, he must have thought. That would be crazy.

But while he thought it, the cameras saw it. Nych, 22, was breaking free of the group and was setting off up the road. It was at this point that the cameras caught Vorobyev’s reaction, having realised the radio message was true, gesturing at the team car as it pulled up alongside to explain the situation.

Artem Nych, aka Plan A (wait, B maybe?) on his way to join Vorobyev

Apparently Artem Nych’s move had been pre-planned. That made it Team Gazprom’s Plan A. That meant Vorobyev was their Plan B, even though Plan B had come before Plan A. That made Vorobyev consider that, what with all the effort he’d already put in, perhaps he should be Plan A, and Nych, the team leader, should now be Plan B?

It was a reasonable point, to all but everyone on his team. But that was okay, because they were about to enact Plan C.

Plan C involved Vorobyev leaving the others in the breakaway to press on without him, while he dropped back to rendezvous with his team leader. Having made that connection he would pace his man back to the break, and on to a memorable victory, albeit one set to destroy Vorobyev’s self-esteem.

It was a bold plan, but it would soon be a doomed plan (Plan D?).

A few minutes later Nych had caught up with the now ambling Vorobyev who without saying anything, (not to Nych at least, he muttered plenty to himself), pressed, using spite to recover the distance he’d just concede. Meanwhile the peloton loomed.

But this was no ordinary plan. This was the rarely seen Plan D. It wasn’t Vorobyev pacing Nych to the break, but Nych pacing Vorobyev back to the peloton.

They were both swallowed up soon enough, which technically made Plan D a roaring success. Just not Plan A, or was it B? Or was it really A?

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Frankiny feeling the pinch

Tour of the Alps: Stage 4 Bolzano/Bozen to Cles

This is written after the tragic death of Michele Scarponi, which has added more sadness to the Tour of the Alps than fun.

How much do you really know about the rider next to you? Especially the man you’re in a breakaway with? I mean, how close do you get to the guy who shares the workload, the hardship, and the same ambition over the course of what can be some arduous terrain. Enough to work with him, yes. Enough to let him grab your ass, well maybe not.

Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani) and Kilian Frankiny (BMC) were descending amid breathtaking Alpine scenery on Stage 4, with a minute on the main group and 30 seconds on the plucky Frenchman Hubert Dupont of AG2R, trying to join them. Then, from out of nowhere, we saw what appeared to be Pirazzi pinching the backside of Frankiny.

Frankiny had been riding in the tuck position, saving a little energy for the final push, and resting his legs for a moment. Pirazzi was in his slipstream, but powered by his own momentum, and the gap in the wind Frankiny was providing, he began to drift closer to Frankiny. Then the hand reached out.

Frankiny seemed to notice this disturbance in the force, a slight acceleration and an uncomfortable “those aren’t pillows” sensation towards his derriere. There was a visible “huh?” before he came out of the tuck position look back to see just what the hell was going on.

What he saw was Pirazzi’s hand on his saddle, pushing him along. Whether Pirazzi was grinning, giving him a wink or blowing him a kiss, we’ll never know, but Frankiny had the sudden urge to pedal quicker, picking up the pace with a new incentive to keep his distance.

And what about the rules? I’m pretty sure assault is a no-no, but a slight push? And how about a pinch? Nobody mentioned it, and if the race jury spent any time thumbing the rulebook for “overfriendly pats on the backside”, they likely gave up pretty soon.

Regardless, Pirazzi and Frankiny rode on, albeit in awkward silence.

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