Stage 8: One man’s mission to throw cold water on the Tour

He was at one point water boy, the next a shower attendant, and at all times permanently on call. He was also arguably the unsung hero of Stage 8.

I’m not sure what a typical morning looks like for the water boy. For sure he climbs into leathers and overalls while cyclists climb into Lycra. He may well spend the morning checking over his Kawasaki to ensure it’s in working order. All before loading up bidons onto the, err… things attached to the back of his bike. These are the courtesy bottles, provided by a race sponsor, and available to any rider up the road, away from his team car, and in danger of turning to dust in the July heat.

That made him the hardest working rider in the race on stage 8, as he darted back and forth between breakaways and his mother ship, on terrain that would put his horsepower, if not his legs exactly, to the test.

He also had a knack for interpreting exactly when and where he was needed.

Michael Valgren needed only to waggle his hand like a telephone to summon refreshments

There was Astana rider Michael Valgren for example, who as he closed the gap on the lead group, having chasing, tongue out, for some time. He made a gesture with his hand – rather like hinting to someone that the phone was ringing – which brought an acceleration from the water boy, who twigged he was needed and, dodging official cars arrived to hand him a bottle.

Then there was the lead group itself, half way up the Montee de la Combe de Laisia Les Molunes. Here he turned Turkish Bath attendant, as riders such as Warren Barguil, Robert Gesink, and Lilian Calmejane helped themselves to bottles and poured the contents over their heads as the mountain slapped them around.

Bath time for Robert Gesink, and others

In hindsight Calmejane might have done well to pour more down his throat than down his back. It was to be his day but the cramp he suffered 5km from the finish nearly made it a less than perfect one as his legs ground to a halt on a 9 per cent gradient. But he got there for what was a memorable win.

Lilian Calmejane, with skin hydrated, finds his legs aren’t with 5km to go

I’m not sure what a typical evening looks like for the water boy. But on this occasion it might have been a raised glass of something to a job well done. Perhaps a raised water bottle, if he happens to be a romantic.

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Stage 6: Learning to love this lawyering-up revolution

Peter Sagan won Stage 3 in style earlier this week. Today he started Stage 6 with a little less panache, forced to swap his usual swagger for the hope that his team might be successful in overturning the decision the race jury took the night before, to boot him from the race.

The reason was that crash, which left Mark Cavendish with a broken shoulder, and both he and Sagan, the alleged perpetrator of the pile up, out of the race, along with various million dollar obligations, and all before the end of the first week.

The team had him ready to race, presumably locked up in a hotel somewhere, ready at a moment’s notice, to wheelie his way through the lobby, paying his bill with a smile, before making his way to the start line.

But having spent the night pleading his case, but the ruling stood. And so, motivated by a mixture of contracts, and a cooking revolution now on hold, Bora lawyered up. Their plan: a legal revolution that Sagan might also love, one that would get him re-instated even if that meant turning the greatest bike race in the world into a farce.

It was a glorious punt, and had it worked it would have taken most people’s breath away, better even than one of those rather nice extractor fans Bora shows off in their advertisement. But it had the potential to leave more questions than answers, not to mention a sporting legal nightmare.

It was enough to make you long for less complicated times, unshackled from the demands of controversy. In fact what we needed was a predictable, slightly boring procession through the French countryside.

That made Stage 6 everything we could have hoped for!

It was one of those commuter stages, designed, it seemed, to move the Tour forward a day through glorious countryside, with nothing more than a beginning, a middle (a three man breakaway), and an end (a sprint finish won by Marcel Kittel).

Highlights included a parasol flying into the road, General De Gaulle’s resting place, and the discovery that Thomas Voeckler’s surname is pronounced Vok-Klerr, not Voke-Ler, which given I’d been saying it wrong for 15 years means it’s probably for the best he bows out of the sport at the end of the race.

Otherwise the kilometers, all 216 of them, ticked down, as did time on Sagan’s hopes of a renaissance.

How exactly things would worked if he were brought back were unclear. Would he have been permitted to skip a stage? Or would there have been another option that required him to ride the Stage 6 parcour alone, hours after everyone else had packed up at the finish line, armed only with a flashlight and a road map.

None of which came to pass, or at least it hasn’t yet. As much as you can sympathise with Sagan’s case — and who doesn’t want to see the World Champion in the sport’s biggest race — allowing him back would somehow be an even crazier decision than disqualifying him in the first place.

I don’t think we would have loved the reinstatement revolution, and all the baggage that came with it. Even if, with 5km, word hadn’t come through that the Court of Arbitration in Sport, hadn’t upheld the decision.

So no Sagan in the Tour. While I think of it… is it Sar-gun, or Sa-gann?

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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.


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.


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.


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Giro turns a corner (but just one)

Giro d’Italia: Stage 7 – Castrovillari to Alberobello (224km)

It was a stage that recreated an early summer motorway trip to see relatives as kids, hot and humid, stuck in the back of the car with no air conditioning. Tinfoil sandwiches for lunch, and no end in sight. This was a commuter stage.

Whoever came up with the route from Stage 7 was obviously obvious to the subtleties of bike racing. Tasked with getting riders from Castrovillari to Alberobello he picked up the map, found a ruler, and simply drew a straight line between the two. By weird coincidence, transport planners had done exactly the same decades earlier, building the perfect 100km straight road.

Riders’ minds must drift off on roads such as this.

Breakaway riders Dmitry Kozonchuk and Giuseppe Fonzi could rightfully claim credit for grabbing boredom by the throat and sticking it out for the day. Simone Ponzi of CCC had joined them earlier, but on seeing what lay ahead, dropped back again to where he knew his mental health would be better protected.

Viewers had a difficult job on their hands. More than once I found myself watching traffic on the other side of the road, for something more interesting.

I know I drifted off once or twice, bringing myself sharply back to life having dreamt about visiting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with strong hair, to spread the word to Israel of the coming cooking revolution.

All hell breaks loose when riders are required to make a turn…

Each time aerial shots brought me back to life, showing just how long and straight this road was, like a council-made promotional video from 1959 for the newly built M1 motorway.

Finally the riders reached a turn, leaving the motorway, only for the first corner to catch some rider out. So unaccustomed to anything but a straight line, this right-hander felt so unnatural that some simply rode on. We can only assume they were able to make the U-turn and rejoin the peloton.

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The fastest parking attendent in the world

Giro d’Italia: Stage 6 – Reggio Calabria to Terme Lugiane (217km)

The man in the hi-vis jacket leaps into action

After 217 km of riding Silvan Dillier and Jasper Stuyven were somehow about to slog it out with what energy they had left for a memorable stage win.

Behind them Lukas Postlberger was doing what he could to keep up, failing gallantly to spin his wheels quickly enough to contest a second stage win. Meanwhile Bardiani-CSF’s Simone Andreetta, tired for the last 50km, was out of contention, but rolling doggedly on towards the finish line a few seconds back.

Neither rider could be described after that kind of effort to be at their quickest by this point. The man in the hi-vis jacket meanwhile was moving at lightening speed.

Which was probably a good job.

The peloton moves into view behind the break, and a fleet of cars

With the break a minute ahead of the chasing peloton the moment for logistical nightmares was fast approaching, with bikes and cars gridlocking the ever-decreasing space between the last breakaway rider and the group.

Clearly it needed a man of exceptional speed and authority to get them out of the way in an orderly fashion. Or a man in a tabard and holding a stick, frantically waving cars out of the way.

In the nick of time

Which is what he did, possibly while yelling in the direction of Andreeta, telling him to get a move on. But he ushered cars out of the road with the dexterity of a jungle cat, shimmying to the left in the nick of time to give the chasing pack the room they needed, and averting a massive pile up of bikes, riders, TV cameras and hi-vis jackets in the process.

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The bell tolls for Pibernik and his phantom win

Giro d’Italia: Stage 5 – Pedara to Messina (159km)

Pibernik sets loose from the peloton

With just 300 meters to go on a lap of Messina, Luka Pibernik of Bahrain Merida looked up. Ahead of him there was nothing but open road, just the camera bike ready to capture the moment, and the finish line in the distance. He dared look behind him at the peloton, some 30 yards away and for some reason unable to catch him. It must have been an almighty burst of speed.

Such a scenario is why you can only really have great pity for Pibernik, who had victory snatched from him today in the most surreal, painful, and well, embarrassing way possible.

With what must have seemed a peculiar ringing in his ears, Pibernik looked back one last time. He knew he couldn’t be caught so he did what came naturally, raised his arms in triumph as he crossed the line.

It’s worth pausing for moment to wonder what exactly was going through Pibernik’s mind.

Having crossed the line Pibernik celebrates, perhaps wondering where the press are…

Had he really been so fast, powerful enough even to outwit the sprinters and their hell for leather teammates travelling at 60 kph? Had he really caught everyone by surprise, even the cameramen of the press who were nowhere to be seen, or the soigneurs for that matter, usually on hand to catch their riders?

Where were they? And what the hell was that blasted ringing noise all about?

Then, as if looking at the subtitle that had just appeared on the screen, the horrible, wincing truth hit him hard enough for his arms to fall back onto his handlebars. “Last lap”, said the subtitle on screen.

What exactly do you do now?

It was as though Pibernik has seen the caption on TV

The only way he could really rectify the… crushing humiliation, would have been to somehow try and win again on the next lap, but he must have known his fate was sealed.

He slunk back into the pack, as the sound of the one-lap to go bell gradually faded. He knew now that he had a lap to think about how he would face his teammates, explain himself to his Director Sportive, let along the press, and all while getting back to his actual job of looking after Vincenzo Nibali at 60 kph. He knew one thing though. There isn’t enough chutzpah in the world to “style out” a mistake like this

The bell that will toll for Pibernik for some time yet

A lap later Fernando Gaviria did things properly, beating Jakub Mareczko by about a length and a half, in front of a bank of cameras, and welcomed into the arms of his smiling soigneur. If looking for some consolation, Gaviria’s winning distance was nothing like the 30 yards of Pibernik.

It was painful to watch, but not as painful as Pibernik’s evening right now. Were reports to come through that he had decided to swim the Straight of Messina to the Italian mainland, rather than face his teammates, the press, or distraught loved ones, we’d do well to believe it.

True or not, Pibernik will hear that bell in his sleep.

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Palanc comes out swinging

Giro d’Italia: Stage 4 – Cefalù to Etna (181km)

Amid the great pharmacopeia of athletic performance enhancement, few doses can claim the same power as that which powered Jan Polanc of UAE Team Emirates to a remarkable stage win at the top of Mount Etna.

What he was on was not injected, it did not require a trip to Switzerland, or a code name; it was not even on the forbidden list… well not exactly. But it was old as mankind itself. What was this magic elixir? It was pure adrenalin, in this case sourced from a good old-fashioned punch-up.

The eruption occurred some 90 km before they’d got anywhere near the volcanic landscape of Mount Etna. The break of four was approaching the summit of the first climb, a long winding ascent up Portella Feminina Morta. With a few hundred meters left to climb Jacques Janse Van Rensburg of Dimension Data jumped ahead towards the summit and the KOM points his team had made their own. Polanc followed.

But as they reached the line Van Rensburg (at least as far as Polanc saw it) lurched right, slamming the door closed and denying him a route past. It looked doubtful he would have got past anyway, but Polanc was furious.

Van Rensburg slams the door?

Cameras picked up what happened next. Polanc went to reach out to Van Rensburg with his left hand, although he seemed to deliberately stop short of direct contact. It was the biking equivalent of capoeira, the martial art designed to mimic a street brawl so as not to catch the attention of the police. At least that’s what the Brazilians call it. The duty officer back at the station would probably call it “handbags”.

There was pushing and shoving, or more accurately leaning and gesticulation, followed by a brief but animated chat. Van Rensburg argued back… a little, but looking at the rage in Polanc’s face figured his defense would be better off mounted from distance. So he backed off, and took the still raging Polanc’s back wheel for the descent.

The outcome of the scuffle was not fight or flight exactly; it was fight and flight, which eventually carried Polanc away from Van Rensburg and up Mount Etna alone, with a permanent look of aggravation on his face, albeit one with an added tongue hanging out for the last few kilometers. But it was a winning race face, which turned glorious 200 meters from the finish, as Polanc looked back to see an empty road behind him.

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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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You’re in the break… what’s the worst that can happen?

Giro d’Italia: Stage 3 – Tortoli to Cagliari (148km)

Being pulled out of a breakaway against your will is not the worst thing that can happen to a bike rider in a stage race. As Anton Vorobyev proved a few weeks ago, the worst thing is actually being hauled back to help pace a teammate forward to replace you (only in vary rare circumstances is a tantrum on live television understandable – this is one of them). But it still ranks up there as awkward.

But at least the news was delivered to Vorobyev in person. Kristian Sbaragli received these orders today over the radio: they regretted to inform him that his position in this break was no longer available, and they were calling him in.

By the looks of things Sbaragli didn’t mind his new instructions, but it did mean he’d have to explain things to the other riders in the break.

You can only imagine what Sbaragli was saying, perhaps passing on the blame to those “pen-pushing bastards upstairs”, or trying the old it’s not you, it’s me. But it seemed to come with his best wishes, and he spoke to each rider in turn, most likely reassuring them that no, it had been a good idea and that yes, they still had a chance. They smiled back, not stupid enough to dismiss the idea that Sbaragli would soon be part of the chase intent on ruining their day.

Sbaragli peels off to wait for the peloton

There was something quite charming and civilized about it, even if there was a degree of “meh” from all sides. Better this way than simply ramming on the breaks, or sitting on at the back without taking a turn.

With the farewells done Sbaragli peeled off, while the others rode on without him. It was job done, sort of, even though it meant the job he’d started would go unfinished, and his new job would involve catching up again, albeit with t he peloton still two minutes back down the road

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Redemption, drama, and the road up Genna Silana

Giro D’Italia: Stage 2 – Olbia to Tortoli (221km)

Today’s Bardiani “atonement” breakaway rider was Simone Andreetta.

The race would be between Daniel Teklehaimanot and Evgeny Shalanov. At least bit where they climbed the Genna Silana would be.

They were the last of the day’s initial breakaway, and were sparring on their way up the Category-2 climb. But with 3 km to go the peloton was closing in fast.

Teklehaimanot wanted the KOM points, and the jersey that came with it. He’d wanted the same a day earlier, but found himself repeatedly punished each time he tried to reach the line first, mainly by Cesare Benedetti, but also by whoever else had the legs to get past. Like Shalunov’s teammate Pavel Brutt, who had evidently dropped back to his team car to collect salt to rub on Teklehaimanot’s wounds as he edged him on the line.

Like the very best herculean efforts, it had come to nothing. Reached the summit Teklehaimanot’ legs seemed to stop temporarily in front of thousands of pink clad fans… he was almost knocked over by a balloon.

So Shalunov was more than happy to play the bogeyman.

But even as TV pictures caught glimpse of Teklehaimanot rubbing his thighs, and later flinging his arm about to get the blood working, the Eritrean looked the stronger. We knew this. Shalunov knew this. He would have to try every trick in the book.

Shalunov tries to Marty McFly technique of getting out of a tough spot

He attacked once, then attacked again. But each time Teklehaimanot managed to haul him back. Then Shalunov attempted the Marty McFly “what the hell is that!?” system, pointing over the shoulder of Teklehaimanot at an enormous make-believe threat with big teeth and claws. Teklehaimanot was unmoved.

After all he was in the breakaway for the second time, on course for the Fuga Pinarello prize awarded to the rider — or lunatic depending on your point of view — who spends the most time as part of the break. You don’t do that sort of thing without intent, which in Teklehaimanot’s case meant the KOM jersey, which he intended to win even if it meant his teammates would have to scoop him off the road at the finish and push him to the hotel in a shopping trolley.

Teklehaimanot uses the last of his energy to raise his thumb

As the peloton surged into view Teklehaimanot left Shalunov to be swallowed up, and powered through the last 200 meters to the summit alone, collecting the 15 points to finally put him in blue. It worked. Teklehaimanot would end the day as the first Eritrean to lead the KOM in the Giro – a point he probably realised as he hung his arms over his handlebars, exhausted, and gave the camera a thumbs up.

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Maestri does his bit to restore the faith

Giro d’Italia Stage 1: Alghero to Olbia (206km)

So what might have been going through the head of Mirco Maestri at the start of the Giro this morning?

There was the matter of his two teammates — the “idiots” Ruffoni and Pirazzi as your team boss described them –sent home in disgrace the previous night for positive dope tests. On top of that you’re viewed with suspicion by the world’s media, who naturally lean towards the “just the old days” interpretation of the sport. And all the while you’re left wondering if your team will be able to race, and exactly who will be next to set off the siren on the wee-wee machine.

After all, one teammate had won a stage at the Tour of Croatia a little over a week ago, and evidently couldn’t stop pedaling until he won a second stage a day later. Meanwhile another teammate had attacked on the climbs, breathing through his nose and foaming at the mouth.

That meant there was faith to restore, and only one realistic option as the flag waved signaling the start of the 100th Giro d’Italia. Get in the break. Show willing, a little effort, and make it clear to everyone you’re not one of the “idiots”.

In those circumstances you’d forgive a man for trying a little too hard, being a little too eager to make a good impression. Things like saying sorry a lot to other riders, taking longer turns at the front, and not complaining when the others darted off to pick up sprint or KOM points.

Maestri did all of this; getting the Bardiani colours on screen in a good way again, while hoping that his mussette bag didn’t contain rice cakes, half a bottle of scotch, and a loaded revolver.

Then, having worked with the break of six to the point where they reached the first climb, they promptly pulled away and left him, without even a by your leave, inadvertently proving his innocence along the way.

And with that the rebuilding of faith had begun. Although you suspect Bardiani will be doing more of this over the next three weeks, and beyond, to make sure.

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