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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With Ruffoni and Pirazzi disqualified, that settles it…

“That settles it then: Nicola Ruffoni and Stefano Pirazzi have won the #Giro100 quickest descent competition…”

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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