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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Valgren puts on brave (and bloodied) face

Fleche Wallonne

The helicopter spotted him first, picking out a small ball of bright blue on the grass verge from a thousand feet, like some sort of giant magic mushroom.

On closer inspection it wasn’t a ball shape, it was a fetal one, and the sun was glistening on the spokes of a racing bike about ten feet away, halfway into a hedge, and on the other side of a crash barrier.

Astana rider Michael Valgren had somehow found his way into a storm drain and lost his balance, sliding on his face for about 15 yards before what can only have been the friction from his stubble finally brought him to a stop (his bike carried on for a bit). You can leave a lot of face on the road over that kind of distance, which no one knew more at this point than Valgren.

Valgren gets treatment

The doctor from the medical car arrived first, followed by a mechanic from the Astana car. The former carried a bag and raced to examine the still prone Valgren. The latter, hired it seems for his bulletproof optimism, appeared carrying a spare front wheel.

The doctor looked Valgren in the face, what was left of it, and then held up three fingers to a colleague, presumably relaying how many teeth Valgren had left.

Slowly, Valgren removed his helmet; the bright blond of his hair contrasting starkly with the bright red of his bruised and bloodied face. He should have been crying his eyes out, but at this stage it wasn’t clear whether his eyes were still in.

TV showed the crash again, between pictures of Valgren at the side of the road, looking spaced out and trying to remember his first name.

His race was over, not that he would know it for a while, or that he’d even started it, or indeed what a race was.

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A fairy tale ending in the Tro Bro Leon

Tro Bro Leon – Lannilis to Lannilis

Everything was in place to ward off the fainthearted. There were forests; there was gloominess, and long gravel roads. It was like the opening scenes of the film adaptation of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. We were short a troll or two, sure, but we had a gallant knight – a soldier anyway – who had a mission: to reach the finish line first. Only there would he find true happiness.

That man was Damien Gaudin of Armee du Terre, a cycling team made up entirely of soldiers, and each with jawlines to prove it.

It’s a fascinating concept for a team. Combining camouflage with flashes of bright orange, the riders are part warrior, part athlete – men in lycra and Action Man helmets that you might buy to encourage your four year old to try his stabilizers – and all trained to kill.

Gaudin had Frederik Backaert of Wanty – Groupe Gobert with him on his quest, his Sancho Panza, who would ride into a plucky second place while secretly wondering whether Gaudin could kill him with bare hands.

But this was the Tro Bro Leon, described by some as the biggest little race of the season. It would require a big man, a hero to write its story, and in Guadin they had their blueprint – a people’s champion, cheered on even by teammate Stéphane Poulhies while inadvertently pioneering the tactic of falling off the back to provide vocal encouragement when lapped on the final 4.7 km circuit. With true Esprit de Coeur, Poulhies delivered on this promise manfully, while Gaudin held off the chase.

Gaudin, who presumably wears a uniform for part of his working year, ditched any sign of decorum as he reached the finish. Risking a potential court martial, he crossed the line tongue out and waving his hands over his head with all the zeal of a four-year-old, in an Action Man helmet, racing along on his stabilizers. Somehow he made this endearing, as was the sight of his teammates coming to congratulate their emotional champ one after another.

Happiness then, and a fairy tale ending. Maybe a week’s leave too.

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Head in the clouds, looking for a silver lining

Tour of the Alps: Stage 2 – Vipiteno to Innervillgraten

It was the Tour of Taihu Lake all over again.

It was last November, during that part of the season reserved for those of us not prepared to accept the season proper was over, that a stage played out almost entirely inside a cloud. Which was ironic really as this had the effect of creating genuine drama, and a thrilling finale, in a race usually used by teams as a means of punishing their riders for something.

The clock ticked on we waited for the first glimpse of a bike to appear from out of the mist. When they did it was Australian Cameron Bayly, emerging alone from out of the gloop and sprinting around the final turn (dodging a policeman with a whistle) and taking the race lead.

The rest was like arriving at a crime scene. You simply took what you knew and worked backwards trying to piece together the circumstances of what had just happened, in this case using nothing more than about six seconds of murky CCTV footage.

All of which came to mind as bad weather across the Alps grounded aircraft that would otherwise take and then beam down the images we take for granted. That also meant the moto-cameras were useless, leaving only two static ones to cover 80 km of racing – one looking at the corner approaching to the finish line, and the other on the finish line itself.

And so we waited, watching the flags blowing in the wind and fog rolling down the mountains. There was also extended highlights of that morning’s signing on process, carried out 60 km into the shortened stage, riders passing a biro to each other, signing the sheet held down on an ad hoc plastic cafe table by men and women in heavy coats.

Then word came that something was happening — a five-man break on the final climb. It was tempting to sit up and pay attention, but those of us who had endured Taihu Lake knew not to get excited. And who knew what would appear next from around the corner. It might have been another of the endless stream of motorbikes, or a rider, aero suit in tatters, having survived for so long in the mountains only by eating a teammate.

When they finally appeared the speculation ended. The break, if that had been one, was no longer there. Instead Rohan Dennis was in front, on his way to a stage win, covered start to finish in glorious Technicolor, for about 13 seconds.

Double the fun of Taihu Lake.

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Brown, in Green, goes into red, caught by black

Tour of the Alps: Stage 1 – Kufstein to Innsbruck/Hungerburg

Team Sky look over at Nathan Brown as they sweep past

Nathan Brown looked good, probably felt good, and was going good, pedaling away to about a ten second lead over the group on stage one of the Tour of the Alps, a race for men who like arms warmers and mountains, not cobbles or crosswinds on their afternoon ride.

The attack came about 25 km out. A burst of speed, a gap, and the start of a heroic bid not only to reach the two-man (doomed) break a minute or so up the road, but to maybe even end the losing streak (and bad luck) that had plagued the Argyle team for so long.

Well, maybe. As Brown powered away, you began to wonder what would scupper this latest bid to end the dry spell.

I mean, had the gruppo, looking awkwardly at each other, simply let Brown go, figuring that as a Cannondale rider, some sort of bad luck would strike, end this bid for glory, and save them all that effort spent chasing him down?

If they weren’t thinking that, it could have been that the TV moto-camera was.

Brown, with a gap, pedals on

You wondered if he was zooming in on Brown because he expected him to fall off at any moment. Or, given that Brown was doing a good job of remaining upright, that the close up on the pedals was in anticipation of the chain slipping, or on the wheels, expecting them to puncture.

Accident free, Brown reached Tirol Cycling’s Matthias Krizek soon enough, the third man of the breakaway, who having suffered a technical himself was mid-way through a slow descent back to the peloton. Brown rode past, still looking good.

Or so we thought.

Without the time-gap onscreen Brown was making progress. With the time gap on screen, the TV showed images of the bad luck Brown was about to encounter, or at least watch ride casually past.

Team Sky was on the front of the group, riding six astern, organized, and slowly pulling everyone back, including Brown, who they afforded a brief glance as they swept past, casually removing their jackets as they did so in readiness of the last 20 km, but which you can’t help thinking was a bit of a rub down.

Brown was done, the hopes of his team quashed for another day at least. Sky meanwhile delivered their man Geraint Thomas to the top of the climb, albeit in second place, behind Michele Scarponi, who ironically locked up Astana’s first win of 2017, and his own first win since 2013.

Lucky for some then.

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Bread and water? Benoot rides on just the bread

Brabantse-Pijl 

Benoot (centre, in red) takes the bottle

In the business of winning bike races, putting on an act to deceive the opposition is a well-thumbed page of the cycling playbook. Disguising the level of pain you’re experiencing is critical when keeping pace in a break, as is the opposite, showing weakness when trying to fool an opponent into a reckless move.

But Lotto Soudal rider Tiesj Benoot seemed to take the art of deception to ninja levels in the Brabantse Pijl today.

Think for a moment what goes through the mind of the man riding alongside someone so strong he can toss away a fresh bidon for reasons no greater than he doesn’t like the look of it?

Benoot looks at the bottle

You’re riding at full pace, with a gap of only a few precious seconds over the chasing peloton, trying to keep up and figuring you need all the refreshment and respite you can get. But there’s one man — who also happens to spend a lot of the time shouting at you to hurry up — who having picked up a bottle from a soigneur at the side of the road, looks at it with disgust and flings it to the side of the road, riding to the finish line 45 km away without it. Water is for sissies he’s saying, which makes you the sissy, regardless of what all those nutrition experts told you on day one.

Benoot discards the bottle

And yet this was Benoot in the Brabantse Pijl who did just that, and for reasons we may never know. But, along with an already powerful chin, what better way to project unbeatable strength?

There might be others reasons for Benoot’s actions, and the inner workings of the peloton will remain a mystery to most of us. Did he just not like the flavour? But even then, how badly to you have to hate “Zesty Tangerine” to get annoyed about it and ride on without?

Benoot finished the race in third place, which all things considered wasn’t bad for a man riding not on bread and water, but on just the bread. I like to think that was thanks to a genius decision designed to destroy the spirits of those trying to keep up. I bet he skipped dinner too.

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Code of the Soigneur gets Sagan moving

Paris-Roubaix

The Sunweb man leaps into action

Last week it was a jacket, and a race-ending tumble with Oliver Naesen on the cobbles of Flanders; this week a more routine rear wheel change on the cobbles of northern France. But it was the same familiar sight – Peter Sagan standing on a grass verge waiting for help to arrive, while the race, and his hopes of winning it, disappeared up the road.

That can make for miserable viewing when you’re watching highlights from home and counting on the explosive talents of riders like Sagan not to be disarmed unnecessarily.

Which made it curious to see signs of a similar “wuh?” reflex from unexpected places 30 km from the end of Paris-Roubaix. Seems it might affect soigneurs too. One minute they’re looking out for their man, the next they’re leaping out of the bushes to help a rival, defy the logical claims of a DS, that technically speaking you’re aiding and abetting the enemy.

Perhaps that explains why the Sunweb soigneur flinched a little as he appeared from nowhere to give Sagan a push, wondering for just a split second perhaps whether he should leave the job of pushing Bora riders to, well, members of the Bora team.

The Bora mechanic had got the rear wheel changed in good order, but then found he had precious few hands left over to give Sagan a shove.

Sagan would have coped just fine, but instinct, coupled with a dash of sporting fellowship had gripped the Sunweb man (and a Dimension Data one too for that matter, who was beaten to it), an unbending faith that the race was better with the World Champion in it rather than not.

These are the guys that cut unlikely sporting heroes, dotted along the side of the course, bulging slightly in team shirts usually only sold in aero sizes, but in this case available in XXL. But here at least one became a minor one as he ditched the wheels and bottles he had for his own man, and gave the rainbow jersey a push, for the sake of the viewers at home, and well… maybe himself.

And watching it, you’re kind of glad he did.

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