Stage 11: No lollygagging… and other rules of the road

Domestiques know their fate even before the race begins. The deal is there’s no glory, little chance of a stage win, and no exceptions. The leader comes first.

That goes for when you’re lying wounded in the middle of the road too.

This just about summed up Michael Gogl’s day on Stage 11 today, another of those commuter stages that might have been better served by putting all the riders on a train to Pau, and allowing Marcel Kittel to disembark first.

Then with 21 km to race a lack of concentration somewhere brought down Gogl, and more importantly his team leader: Alberto Contador.

As Michael Gogl suffers on the floor, team leader Alberto Contador checks the damage

The pictures told the painful story. Gogl was on his back and who took some time to climb up off the concrete. And then there was Contador, seemingly ambivalent toward his teammate’s anguish, as he first checked his chain, found everything in order, remounted, and rode off, paced back to the peloton and safety by Jarlinson Pantano.

Contador rides off, to be paced back by teammate Jarlinson Pantano

Gogl meanwhile, who himself had been called on to pace Contador back to the peloton after a mechanical earlier in the day, had by this time just about got to his feet. Not that he was about to get any kind of reprieve.

Despite looking like he could use a moment to check the basics, things like his bones, skin, and vital organs, Gogl, still just 23, got a sharp reminder from his team boss what his job was again. In this case that was to stop lollygagging, and get back in the race.

Despite obvious injuries, Gogl’s boss says something to the effect that there are plenty of bandages at the finish line, and to get back on his bike

The team boss had appeared from the car and picked Gogl’s bike up off the road. What more did he want? A kiss? He then shoved the bike towards his rider and then pointed up the road.

When you’re 23, a domestique in your first Tour, and your boss tells you to stop hanging around, you don’t really have much choice, even if you are in pain, and two kindly women with first aid kits are insisting they bandage you up first.

Gogl got back on his way. Contador meanwhile crossed the line with the peloton. Do team leaders even notice when their teammates do the same more than four minutes later?

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Stage 10: Offredo winning hearts and minds

This was supposed to be a big day for Yoann Offredo. First away after the flag dropped, the Frenchman put distance between himself and the peloton just as he had done on Stage 2. After half a minute of sprinting he was in his rhythm. The only problem was that when he looked back nobody else was doing the same.

If being in the break is good, being the break is bad. There he was, alone, presumably now irritable, and cursing his luck. He’d essentially volunteered to race 178 km on his own, the plaything of an ambivalent peloton, members of which did well not to laugh out loud.

Yoann Offredo sprints away from the peloton, alone…

It’s the fate of these animated go-getters. They plan to cross the line first, while knowing all too well they’re more likely to roll in last, minutes behind everyone, exhausted and unnoticed as the winner gets a bunch of flowers and a stuffed lion.

But just as Offredo was counting in his head the number of people he hated right now, Elie Gesbert (Fortuneo-Oscaro) came along behind him, looking for redemption. It was a small piece of luck for Offredo, for if you’re looking for a man to help you set fire to a stage, who better than a man who set fire to his hotel the night before?

The story went that Gesbert had left some tissue paper on an electric heater in his room. Stumbling around in the middle of the night, he’d flicked what he’d assumed was the light switch, but had instead turned on the heater. Soon everyone was stumbling around in the middle of the night, the fire alarm forcing everyone out of the hotel.

Perhaps it was penance, perhaps it was that his teammates were not yet back on speaking terms – either way his team, their eyebrows a little singed, sent him off to hook up with Offredo and to think about what he’d done.

More importantly Offredo now had company. Together, they set off.

Offredo could have been forgiven for a degree of cynicism at this point. But even with the exasperation, cynicism doesn’t appear to be Offredo’s style.

Just a few months ago he was the victim of a drive-by mugging, complete with a hoodlum armed with a baseball bat. In reporting it he refused to get angry, expressing only remorse that people acted like this, and that the threat was more to kids, than to him.

A sentiment that might have explained why, as they rode through the Medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, festooned for the day with flags, bunting, and three deep crowds, Offredo picked out a little kid waving a French tricolor at the side of the road, and made sure his empty bottle landed at his feet.

Offredo delivers bottle to a kid watching the race in Sarlat

You wonder sometimes whether riders notice the size of the crowds of people who wait hours to watch them ride by, or the kids about to experience moments that will have them hooked on bike racing forever. Not to mention their parents, touched a little by moments like this, who before the close of business become lifelong Wanty-Group construction materials customers. If Offredo is anything to go by, they do.

Not bad from a man who was on a fools errand, on the flat terrain, and chased by Marcel Kittel and his friends.

But Offredo must have figured his chances were slim from the moment he set off on this break. He knew this again when 7 km from the line, he looked over his shoulder to see the peloton approaching, reaching out to shake hands with Gesbert and giving some recognition to the belief that there had been honour in this crazy plan.

Offredo and Gesbert, ahead of the peloton, shake hands before they’re swept up

Then he shook his head again, as exasperated by the circumstances as he had been 171 kilometers ago.

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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.

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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Brutt crashes the party

Giro D’Italia: Stage 10 – (ITT) Foligno to Montefalco (39.8 km) 

For a moment or two it looked as though Pavel Brutt had been caught short, or maybe punched in the stomach. He was behind a plastic orange fence, the type used to cordon off construction sites, and bent double. His was the familiar look of a man momentarily unconcerned about racing, just the structural integrity of his muscles and bones.

Then as the camera panned back, and someone wheeled Brutt’s bike back into view, the extent of the crash became apparent. Brutt had torn through the fence and landed in the front garden of a house. More than that. He’d crashed what looked like a children’s party, or at least a Giro party.

It came a few kilometers into the day’s Individual Time Trail. Brutt overcooked a series of tight turns and wound up cartwheeling over the plastic fence. But while it looked bad it could have been worse. The fencing had hidden a series of metal spikes; the preliminaries of a reinforced concrete wall, meaning Brutt had avoided medieval torture by a matter of inches.

It’s the kind of thing that can play on your mind as you sit in someone’s front garden, still dazed. One minute you’re setting a good pace, and the next you’re on the ground surrounded by kids in party hats, looking at your skin suit and space helmet wondering if you just landed from another planet.

Brutt crashed through the bunting

Brutt pre-occupied himself with making sure he was in one piece, and ruled out demanding answers from the kids about the metal death trap. That would come later. Now he had to get back on his bike.

First word came that he was out of the race. Then, having been delayed by a medical check, jelly and ice cream, Brutt was back in. He emerged in a party hat*, having been given a new bike by his mechanic, and was back in the race, reaching the finish line in 183rd place.

That was eleven minutes down on the winner, but he was in one piece.

* This is not true.

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Quintana on to a Winner

Giro d’Italia: Stage 9 – Montenero di Basaccia to Blockhaus (152km)

I’m trying to warm to Nairo Quintana. It’s not him… it’s me. Actually maybe it is him, or at least his immeasurable talent. When he bursts away from the front of a group of knackered, struggling challengers, the race is over. He brings the fun to an end too soon. We saw it in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and the Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this year. We saw it today in the Giro.

Weirdly though, I can’t help liking the riders that help him with that success, riders like Winner Anacona.

It could be the name. As magnificent as it is, it’s a typo. The story is that his cycling-mad father planned on naming him Winnen Andrew, after Peter Winnen and Andrew Hampsten. But not speaking English well, this somehow became Winner, which I suppose counts as a happy accident.

It could also be the unconventional appearance, with long hair, a hint of Orlando Bloom, and a crucifix that doesn’t seem to bother him as he rattles up a climb. He’s also thin, young and fast, which makes him the cyclist the rest of us like to think we look like when stomping up a 4 per cent drag, right up to that point when we get home and catch sight of ourselves in the bathroom mirror.

And while Anacona (come to think of it, I like his last name too) didn’t win today, he showed the job of domestique at it’s most captivating – riding low over his handlebars and into the wind. He rode his countryman up the Blockhaus at maximum effort for 15 minutes, a selfless and sweaty display of teamwork, passing the 7km to go marker before Quintana took off, showing just how good he is at ruining all the fun.

That left the long hair Anacona to make his own way to the top, albeit at a more human pace. A Winner, for sure. Just not that winner.

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Boem goes bust

Giro d’Italia: Stage 8 – Molfetta to Peschici (189km)

Your half way up a punishing climb, racing hard to stay ahead of the chasing peloton. The sun is scorching your skin, and the salt from all your sweat means your aero suit has started to disintegrate. Your Director Sportive pulls alongside, and from behind the wheel of the air-conditioned team car, hands you a bottle.

What is it exactly that makes you throw that bottle away even before taking a sip?

This was the question Nicolas Boem of Bardiani left us with yesterday, who, at the foot of the Coppa del Fomaro, was transformed into a thirsty and belligerent litterbug.

He wasn’t the only rider to lose his bottle on Stage 8 of the Giro between Molfetta and Peschici. When the break found themselves cut off from their team cars they went waterless for about 15 kilometers before the race re-organised, and race organisers were spared the embarrassing scene of a dozen or so breakaway riders turning to dust.

But while the drought eventually eased for some, evidently it became too much of a good thing for others.

You can understand why the Bardiani team might have been under pressure these past ten days, and prone to losing their temper a little bit. Two of their riders were thrown out before racing had begun for positive dope tests, and while they’d been in plenty of breaks, they’d had nothing to show for it except cramp and sharper tan-lines.

Boem had been among the super-break for much of the day, only dropped after a long hard slog. He needed something or someone on which to take out his frustration. Bottles were perhaps one choice.

It’s not a new phenomenon. Back in the Brabantse-Pijl, Tiesj Benoot had grabbed a bottle from a soigneur only to throw it away immediately. Here though Boem had plenty of time to consider its contents.

The DS handed it to him. Boem looked at it, and with the same disgust as Benoot, sent it flying towards the undergrowth, lobbing it away like it might go off, rather than simply handing it back.

The DS, by now wondering if he might have lost some of his authority on this team, handed him another. Boem reacted in the same way, this one following the one before into a ditch almost immediately. The third bottle found seemed more pleasing to Boem, who slotted it into his bottle cage.

What is it about these bottles, passed out at crucial moments, in blistering heat, on vertical gradients, that make riders so picky? Perhaps it’s heat exhaustion, or the only act of protest about the crippling conditions.

Or maybe these bottles were empty, and just very, very sticky?

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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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