Tour Down Under: Liggett takes us back to the good old days

Stage 4: Norwood to Uraidla (128.2km)

After a bad news winter, what with all the speculation and the let down, Stage 4 of the Santos Tour Down Under came prescribed to cycling fans like a tranquilizer. “Take this”, they should have said when introducing coverage on the FreeSport channel. “You’ll feel better.”

And we did. After an off-season that caused fans some tightness in the chest, and breathing difficulty, this was a bike race straight out of the good old days.

Suddenly, rather than dealing with asthma inhalers and doping scandals, we were transported back to a world before doping had been invented, or at least before it was acknowledged with more than a wink. And besides, we were eight in that world, and wouldn’t have understood anyway.

There was no need for salbutamol among our ranks though, for we had something far more powerful, and at the prescribed legal dose.

A high definition picture of standard definition broadcast, of a high speed finish… on TV

Three hours of Phil Liggett is all it takes to transport you back 30 years. Just when you think the voice of cycling had hung up his headphones, or been ushered out for younger voices who know how to pronounce “Tom-Jelte Slagter”, he was back, alongside the ever positive, and similarly ageless Paul Sherwen.

Of all bike-racing commentators, Phil Liggett remains the easiest to recognise in a noisy crowd, to anyone over about 35 anyway. The great grandfather of cycling commentary, Liggett must be on something to last so long, but he’s been clean for decades. Listening to his unshakable enthusiasm, he gets the job done on little more than bread, water, and with thanks to the official sponsorship partners of the Santos Tour.

I’m not sure Liggett ever went anywhere. He was surely on a TV network in some corner of the world. But those of us reliant on Eurosport got used to his absence. That was until he reappeared in glorious standard definition, on an obscure new channel FreeSport. The timing was perfect.

We got the winner we needed too.

Uncatchable by peers, unblemished in the press, Peter Sagan wears the World Champion stripes like super powers.

He rode hard up Norton Summit, and then out sprinted the pack to take his first win of the year, at speeds to make even non-interested family members, forced to watch cycling in January, exclaimed “look at him go!”

Even his rage at the crush afterwards felt right, as his body descended into dehydration, and his team fed him gummy bears while pouring water over his head. Like some of us, it’s a preference for the business of bike racing to be kept between the start and finish lines.

For Sagan the race ends at the finish line. All that other stuff, the interviews, the photos, the podium, doesn’t really fit into what his version of bike racing. Interviews are awkward, his temper flares on the ride back to doping control, and he eats gummy bears while his team pours down his neck. It’s all about that part of the job between the start and finish lines.

Which applies to a lot of cycling fans too for that matter.

So this was more like it. Not a classic as such, more a trip out with the grandparents, after a long running family argument, to buy us kids an ice cream. For a day at least we could all breathe easily.

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Tirreno-Adriatico: Stefan Küng and the Battle of Serrazzano

Tirreno-Adriatico Stage 2: Camaiore to Pomarance

So you’re riding along on your camera motorbike, getting some nice footage of the peloton as riders reach the small town of Serrazzano, beginning their climb up the narrow streets, when you suddenly get the feeling you’re in trouble.

Stefan Kung of BMC approached the camera bike. Sensing trouble, the driver speeded up…

At first it’s not obvious, but then you catch sight of Stefan Küng, the 23-year-old BMC rider, peeling off the front of the pack, his seven team mates including race leader Damiano Caruso a few feet away, and moving towards you.

An attack? God you hope so, however unlikely. But you realize this is an attack of a different kind. Küng looks annoyed, with you, and he wants a word. There’s only one thing for it. Nudge the driver in the ribs and tell him to speed up.

These were the scenes with 94km to ride on Stage 2 of the Tirreno-Adriatico, with the breakaway some three minutes up the road, and the group riding a non-threatening tempo as they passed through this sleepy town on a hill.

Küng noticed none of the scenery, and when he failed to catch the BMW’s wheel he called out instead, showing the confidence of a ten-year road captain who might know how to box, or something. But either through professional obligation, or self-preservation, the driver kept his distance.

Küng switched to Plan B, returning to his teammates to discuss matters, and maybe get someone older to have a go. Watching this at home, from the perspective of the motorbike’s back seat, you couldn’t help but think “oh hell, what now?”

Quinziato brings his finger to bear. This time it worked.

Up the road came Manuel Quinziato, the schoolteacher ready to confiscate things and start calling parents. A 15-year pro, Quinziato didn’t see the need for diplomacy at a time like this. He pointed at the man he wished to speak with… You (me?) Yes you… his index finger, suddenly incredibly long, poking its way through TV screens and into living rooms across the land, and instructed the driver to listen and then submit to his demands.

This time the driver resisted the throttle, and any thoughts of a mad dash for horizon, and eased back. We didn’t see or hear what was said, which can only mean the camera man riding pillion decided his best chance for an easy life was to look the other way and pretend to be busy.

Whatever the message was (a reasonable request to get keep away on the descent, perhaps?) the driver got the message. Weirdly so did we.

For results from Stage 2 of the Tirreno-Adriatico go to the ProCyclingStats website.

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Tirreno-Adriatico: Team Sky run into metaphor problems

Tirreno-Adriatica
Stage 1 – Lido di Camaiore to Lido di Camaiore

Gianni Moscon in bits after the crash

I might not be the first to say it, but the wheels are falling off Team Sky. We saw proof today on live TV.

It had been a theme all day, starting hours before Gianni Moscon’s wheel snapped from under him, with a Cycling Tips interview with Paul Kimmage.

Kimmage, a former professional rider himself until the doping era turned him into an also-ran, could well be right in what he says, but his “innocence through guilt” orthodoxy makes it easier to back the targets of his vitriol, in this case Team Sky. Kimmage’s wish that Sky riders will one day soon write open confessions in national newspapers, felt more like fanaticism than holding cycling to account.

All of which has hung over Team Sky, tainting any achievement they’ve had, since last year. That burden has put the team under strain, including it’s boss Brailsford, it’s staff, it’s riders…. and now the front wheel of Moscon.

The moment Moscon’s wheel explodes

TV footage caught the moment when the wheels fell off Team Sky. Moscon pulled away from the others, his front wheel visibly wobbling before it suddenly shattered, sending rubber and carbon fiber flying across the road, and then Moscon flying across the road.

Moscon said later his three spoke front wheel had been weakened by hitting a hole in the road, which is presumably what Mikal Landa and Diego Rosa said when it was revealed their wheels were also effected. But there were questions to be asked, explanations needed, and none forthcoming. It was all too familiar for Team Sky who on top of all the other issues now had metaphor problems.

The team pressed on while Moscon, his aero-suit featuring slightly more raw flesh than it had before, got to his feet, then back on his bike, pressing on to the finish line. But the team’s GC hopes had effectively ended.

A bad start to the week for Team Sky, but a determination on display to carry on regardless. That might be all they can do for now.

Click here for the full results from Stage 1.

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Paris-Nice: Van Rensburg loses the “I’m fine” debate

Paris-Nice Stage 3 – Chablis to Chalon-sur-Saone

There was nothing of any note to report on Stage 3 of Paris-Nice. No storms, no sleet, no hypothermia. Instead a bog-standard normal day, complete with a breakaway, a chase, and a sprint finish (won by Irishman Sam Bennett). It was easy to miss all those cross winds, and all the misery.

Reinhardt Janse Van Rensburg failing the “what is your name” test on Stage 3 of Paris-Nice

Not that Reinhardt Janse Van Rensburg of Dimension Data was thinking that as he rolled out of Chablis. The South African champion might have appreciated weather he could at least recognise, or did until about 30 km to go when, missing the adversity of the days prior, he decided to crash.

All right, that last bit isn’t true. But after two days riding in horrendous conditions, it seemed unfitting that something as trivial as a touch of wheels or some other piece of bad luck (a discarded arm warmer?) would leave him laying on the road in the fetal position as riders and their team cars drove past him – exactly what you want to hear as your life flashes before your eyes.

Van Rensburg seemed in no hurry to move. Several men in jumpers came by to look at him, before moving on. Then two of them took an elbow each and tried to lift him.

This usually gives the first indication of what condition a crashed rider is in. Wincing and maybe reaching for the base of your back is one thing. Van Rensburg though wobbled.

If the next sign you’re looking for is the ability to walk unassisted, he failed this too. Instead, he was guided to the side of the road, leaning back as he was escorted there, as if being taken outside by sympathetic nightclub bouncers.

For his part Van Rensburg tried to politely excuse himself, intent on not only retrieving his bike from the middle of the road, but also getting on it and rejoining his teammates. He had a race to ride after all, and the peloton was getting away. Thanks for the kind words gentleman, but I’ll be on my way.

The doctors, and they carried bags so they must have been doctors, weren’t fooled. They prodded him a bit as he stood ready to remount his bike just as soon as there was a break in traffic. I’m not sure if “letting go of the patient and seeing if he falls over” is official medical procedure, but it was enough. Van Rensburg was in no fit state to ride on.

They appeared to ask Van Rensburg some simple questions… most likely his name, what team he rode for, what he thought he was doing laying on the road in the middle of France – checking he hadn’t lost his mind (although arguably the time to do that was when it started snowing on Stage 2).

In response Van Rensburg looked serious, as if trying to answer something philosophical. It’s all very well getting the answer to “what is your name?” but if it takes you two minutes it’s really a hollow win.

The man with the bag put two arms on the South African’s shoulders and thinking concussion, declared him out, as the Voiture Balai parked up ready to provide an unwelcome seat. Van Rensburg was dazed, confused, but not exactly beaten, heroically intent on carrying on. Those are no doubt the exact qualities you hope for in a teammate, and also in the riders it’s easy to like watching on TV.

Click here for all the results from Stage 3 of Paris-Nice.

Read more from Paris-Nice:

Stage 1: All the fun of an “orange alert” cross wind
Stage 2: It’ll all end in tears

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Paris-Nice: It’ll all end in tears

Paris-Nice – Stage 2 – Rochefort-en-Yvelines to Amilly

Rain jackets, sleet, and ice-cold conditions – this wasn’t the kind of exposure team sponsors were looking for.

Philippe Gilbert in the breakaway on Stage 2 of Paris-Nice

Picking up the race with 37.7km left to race, it became clear we were watching the convalescence portion of a stage, or maybe the grieving period, of everything that had come before, and off camera.

After “code orange” Day 1, riders were pedaling through a code red day 2. Grey sky, grey roads, grey faces, and puddles of water reflecting all of it. Crosswinds and four-degree temperatures split the peloton again. A small group of riders went one way, while Richie Porte went in the other, presumably south, to somewhere warmer.

There had been a middle group too, this one containing Alberto Contador. While Porte’s GC chances were being consigned to the deep freeze, Contador and his Trek team figured they might as well keep warm by chasing the lead group, which they did, catching it not long before live coverage began.

Meanwhile even further up the road, the breakaway of five riders, who might have been looking for shelter rather than the finish line, were showing signs of weather fatigue.

Behind them the peloton rode on. Luca Pibernik, of Bahrain Merida, was at the front of it, dreaming of the desert, and riding like a man who’d been informed by race radio that there was hot soup waiting at the finish line. He wasn’t leading the group so much as riding as fast as he could to get indoors while he could still see through his eyes, past the tears flowing from them. A permanent grimace had also settled on his face, unlikely to thaw until next year’s Tour of Oman.

Others took to swinging their arms around, in conditions that could have made this a primitive breaststroke, to move blood, previously busy keeping vital organs beating, back into the hands.

Meanwhile even further up the road, the breakaway of five riders, who might have been looking for shelter rather than the finish line, were showing signs of weather fatigue.

Philippe Gilbert, riding his tenth Paris-Nice, had by now set out on his own, and showed no signs of being bothered by the cold, possibly because his hands, wrapped in fingerless gloves, had frozen a great many kilometers ago.

He’d managed to get half a minute on the pack, but with nine kilometers to go sat up, figuring there was no point killing himself alone out front in the cold – far better to kill himself with company back with the others in the cold, who were possibly too cold to notice he’d gone anywhere in the first place.

Tears of cold during the race, tears of a different kind at the finish line. Not just from those who’d survived to Day 3 (Nacer Bouhanni, Niccolo Bonifazio and Maxime Bouet were among those who didn’t), but from Sonny Colbrelli, who defied the sprint opposition, and what was by now a strong rip tide, to cross the line first.

Tears certainly, but of joy this time.

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Paris-Nice: All the fun of an “orange alert” cross wind

Paris-Nice – Stage 1 – Bois-d’Arcy to Bois-d’Arcy

Paris-Nice coverage picked up almost where Strade Bianche left off the day before, with a rider shouting at a man on a motorbike.

Yesterday it was Michal Kwiatkowski, who had to point out, with the urgency of a man about to crash, that the moto-rider was about to cut him off as he took a crucial left-hander.

Flash forward to today and there was a BMC rider (Amaël Moinard?) making it quite clear to the two motorbikes capturing all the misery, that they should in no uncertain terms, f*** off.

English remains the official language of profanity
English remains the official language of profanity

Curiously English is the preferred language of the expletive, whether by Pole Kwiatkowski or Moinard (?), to who are presumably French moto-riders. Which might be why the point never really gets through.

Great pictures though, which allowed the rest of us to watch one of those courageous kinds of stages, blown open by an “orange alert” cross wind that divided the peloton in two. It would be a thrilling day for the Schadenfreude-cam.

The struggle was obvious. As well as sticky bottles helping along tired riders, there were sticky arm warmers, sticky rain capes, and sticky gloves. It was an ugly day that some might have preferred had played out behind closed doors.

Like Delko Marseille Provence’s Gatis Smukulis for instance.

Smukulis, the Latvian champion, had caught the first echelon, but then spent the day keeping up with it, leaving him no time or energy to remove his leg warmers. He’d got as far as rolling them down to below knee level for a brave “St Trinians” look, but no further.

Latvian champion Smukulis disappointed to drop back, but relieved to sort out his leggings.
Latvian champion Smukulis disappointed to drop back, but relieved to sort out his leggings.

Schadenfreude-cam was there to capture his eventual demise as he slipped off the group. He waved off the camera (this never works), trying to muster what dignity a man with his knees in the wind, could realistically manage.

Meanwhile others were watching their general classification hopes disappear up the road.

Alberto Contador and Richie Porte had been caught out when the peloton split, so too Simon Yates (whose brother Adam was having a better day in Italy). Then there was Romain Bardet, who had come ready to do battle, but who would leave bruised, and beaten up.

First he missed the split, and then he crashed with 40km to race. With grazed skin, cut knees and no (possibly sticky) gloves, he worked hard to regain his place the second group, and looked like he’d restored some hope after scrambling across the finish line. It was only then he heard the news that he’d been disqualified by the race jury who know a thing or two timing and when to deliver bad news.

Barred beaten and bruised at the finish, woulds inflicted mostly by the race jury
Bardet beaten and bruised at the finish, wounds largely inflicted by the race jury

Not that place in the front group was any guarantee of security, as one rider after another discovered.

Frenchman Bryan Coquard of Direct Energie was dropped with just 4.5 km to go. Then Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel of Direct Energie was dropped with just 4.4km to go. It wasn’t just the Frenchmen crumbling.

Mad Jack Bauer followed, then the sprinters Marcel Kittel and André Greipel, which ultimately gifted the stage to French sprinter Arnaud De Démare, who with suitable panache confessed he’d enjoyed himself.

A tough day in the saddle, which we got to see in all its vivid detail, thanks to those f***ing motorbike cameras. Yeah, they need to get out of the way sometimes, but roll on Stage 2.

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Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: The Sagan Lectures

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Saturday 25 February 2017

It was the first Classic of the Season, a chance to test winter training plans or at least get schooled as part of an exclusive offer open to all 198 other starters: learning to ride an Omloop like Peter Sagan.

Sagan looks back at the competition

In the end five riders took him up on it, the only requirement being that they keep up. Failure to do so meant free lessons in how to suffer slowly and over long distances several kilometers back.

The lessons were crammed into the last 70km of the race, the main one being how to race from the front, which is where Sagan remained for longer than he really wanted.

With 50km to race Sagan literally dragged his group of six up some cobbles, elbowing, then gesturing for them to take a turn up front, dammit. None could. Showing remarkable restraint, the gestures didn’t become obscene.

The second lesson was something in the order of “ride faster than anyone else”. It’s the essential law of winning bike races, which Sagan knows a bit about, and consists of speeding up when everyone else is ignoring your obscene gestures.

This also included taking corners at speeds faster than reasonably expected, which allowed Sagan to demonstrate how skilled he was at recovering from.

All of which took place with Sagan looking windswept with beard and ponytail. Fittingly, his Fizik saddle, with groove down the middle allowed the motorcycle headlights, when behind him, to shine through, flashing the notion, just for a second that the sun shone out of his testicles.

None of which earned Sagan the win. He may have been the strongest rider, but, as he admitted, he didn’t have the legs. Greg Avermaet had saved his, successfully defending his title. He’d had to race smart, he’d said, but also “It’s fun to race with him if you can keep up.”

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Mad Jack Down Under

Santos Tour Down Under
Stage 5 – McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill (151.5km)

Jack Bauer was already the most competitive rider of Stage 4 when he apparently decided it was worth doing all over again on Stage 5. Not only did that make him the most combative rider, but probably the craziest too. At least that was the general consensus, given that this was too heroic an attack to have any chance of succeeding. Mad Jack Bauer begged to differ, and you couldn’t help but take his side as he pedaled away to glory, joined by Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal, and William Clarke of Cannondale.

Still, three in the break, with 143km to ride, would be difficult. So when Bauer turned to see that Jeremy Maison, a first year pro from FDJ, was trying to reach them, he slowed, gave Maison a thumbs up, and let him join them. It was a nice moment, (one Maison will never likely see again in his career) and it improved their situation. Now they were four, which as Bauer knew, gave this heroic, if doomed attack, a fighting chance.

But this was less a hopeless breakaway than a boys own action story about four men with something to prove.

Thomas De Gendt, the Lotto Soudal rider, was on an all-or-nothing mission to lock up the KOM jersey on his back. He needed to reach the summit of Willunga Hill first, and he’d destroy anyone who tried to stop him.

A good enough motive, but what saved the others from the label lunatic?

The plucky Jeremy Maison wanted to prove something in the first race of the year. Notably smaller than the others, he looked to struggle at times, but this was his chance to put in a good show for his employer.

Then there was Mad Jack himself, chasing of his own mythical Green Place, away from the demons of last season, and chased by a bike gang of a different sort. He seemed to want De Gendt to get up his hill, to want to drag Maison along in his first breakaway. As for Clarke, he was happy to let him be the eyewitness. Sure success seemed unlikely, but Bauer, like Maison and indeed Clarke, knew simply that this is what bike riders do.

And so they took turns setting the pace, Bauer, at one point putting an arm on Maison’s back to encourage the new boy, De Gendt determined with that one mission in mind.

It was now a big adventure. De Gendt had his mission to complete; Bauer was the man holding everyone together. Maison the young kid who we worry might not make it. Clarke, well, there’s always someone in stories like this that has to die, taking the role of Shelley Winters, reminding the others of the danger they’re in. In keeping with the role Clarke faded and dropped off.

With Clarke gone the writing was on the wall.

With 33km to race their lead was down to 3min 05 seconds, teetering on that borderline between what amount of time can be closed within the distance remaining. But that included two climbs of Willunga Hill, and 3km later the gap had closed even more.

Bauer, riding alongside the young Maison, smaller in both experience and stature to himself, gave him a fist of encouragement. At this point Bauer was the virtual race leader. Was he really trying to hang on? Probably not. But the implication that he was seemed heroic enough.

They would get up Willunga Hill, and De Gendt would get his points. But by that time the gap had dropped to 1 minute 55 seconds, and with his mission accomplished De Gendt had no reason to chase the impossible.

With 15 km to go the gap hovered around 1 minute 20. Five kilometers later it was down to 45 seconds. Five kilometers after that it was all over.

It was inevitable that the peloton would swallow them up, and the real story of the day would finally begin. Now on the final climb, Richie Porte would climb best, taking the stage (fourth he fourth time), and the overall lead, although not quite De Gendt’s KOM jersey.

But not before Mad Jack Bauer, finding something left in his legs – pride, adrenaline, simple enjoyment – led his Quick-Step team to the base of the climb. Some would say with a grimace on his face. To others though, it could only have been a smile.

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The 50km lead-out man

The Dubai Tour
Is Bobby Jungels made of steel?

Some ride for GC, some ride to sprint or climb mountains, others are there to work. Then there’s Bobby Jungels, who is there to lead out his teammate Marcel Kittel from about 50km.

Watching Jungels is to watch a man at ease only when dragging the peloton along behind him. In stage one of the Dubai Tour he led the pack for almost the entire day. The five-man breakaway wasn’t caught by the peloton; they were caught by Jungels, who dragged everyone to them, and then beyond.

A rare shot of Bobby Jungels third wheel, and not leading the peloton
A rare shot of Bobby Jungels not leading the peloton

On Stage 2 he did the same, only separating from Kittel and the train of Quickstep teammates once they’d breached the 3km marker. Up until that point he’d been in charge, his mouth open, his arms flopped over his handlebars, like a wolfhound with its head and paws hanging over the front window of a convertible. He paid about the same attention as a dog would as he passed the break away, just part of towing Kittel to the line.

How do you describe a rider like that? The 24-year-old, in the colours of the Luxembourg champion, is no sprinter, he’s not exactly a climber, which puts him in the Puncheur category — non of which really describes the rider who, wearing a bodysuit, sets the pace for everyone for two days in a row.

Kittel went on to win the Dubai Tour, winning three of the four stages (with an elbow in the eye from Astana’s Andriy Grivko along the way). Jungels meanwhile had done his job, proving himself in that most uncomplainingly brilliant fashion that he is one of the most valuable teammates on the World Tour.

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Doesn’t everyone like watching Kenny Ellisonde?

Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race

I get excited when I see Kenny Ellisonde going uphill. It’s time you admitted this too.

The most recent example was in the Cadel Evens Ocean Race. The final loop of the Escher designer Geelong circuit – all right angles going up and up – climbed into the hills around the Bellarine Peninsula, past the driveways of middle-class Australia, which for one day were daubed in chalk with names of Porte and Evans, which will stay there until it next rains.

Ellisonde shone this day, albeit only for about 600 glorious meters.

Ellisonde burst away and led on the way up, powering forward with the size and grace of a bobble head doll, leaving the field behind and taking two camera bikes with him. It’s the kind of climb we weekend riders pretend we’re doing as we storm up a 30 yard steep bit, not far from home, and before a big lunch. Ellisonde though had a point to prove. Short in stature he might be, but he has pluck, and pluck surely counts for a lot in cycling.

The move came with 13kms to go, but alas it didn’t last long. Despite all the effort Ellisonde was reeled back in by the time he’d reached the summit. In moments like this most riders admit defeat and rejoin the pack, trying to style it out. But Ellisonde had other plans. He decided to ignore them, and lead the descent to the finish as if he hadn’t been caught at all. And so there he remained, at the front holding onto his bike for dear life, because it was moving so fast it seemed ready to go on without him, all the way into Geelong.

Ellisonde wouldn’t make it all the way, but who really cared. A show of class to his new team perhaps, but a demonstration of why Ellisonde is so fun to watch, for certain.

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