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

Stage 4: Norwood to Uraidla (128.2km)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We got the winner we needed too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please share, and follow us on Twitter: @OffTheBackBlog

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?

Leave your comments on this post below. You can also follow Off The Back on Twitter: @OffTheBackBlog or on Facebook. Alternatively use the sign up box above to ensure you never miss a post.

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.

Leave your thoughts about this post in the comments below. You can also follow Off The Back on Twitter: @OffTheBackBlog or fill in your email address in the sign up box above to ensure you never miss a post. 

Sagan and Naesen hit the high road

Tour of Flanders

Sagan and Naesen on the cobbles

Perhaps it was just me that had unanswered questions after the Tour of Flanders today.

For instance…

What was Philippe Gilbert saying in those last 15 km?

What was Peter Sagan thinking as he stood at the side of the road?

And what was Boonen shouting as he stood on the verge wondering if his team would ever appear?

Actually, while we’re at it, what was going through the mind of Bora rider Maciej Bodnar, charged with the herculean task of pacing Sagan and his rainbow hoops back to the chase group with only 16 km of road left?

We might never know, which is probably for the best, but arguably the moment of the race was the fall – Sagan hitting a barrier, bringing himself, Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen down with him onto the cobbles.

Naesen in particular landed hard, sliding into an unfortunate “those aren’t pillows” spooning position behind Sagan, who was too busy wondering if his head had exploded to notice.

The moment was made even more intimate by the jacket, first thought to be the cause of the crash, and assumed to have been ripped off it’s owner’s back in the melee. It covered Sagan and Naesen, draped over their legs like a blanket as they cuddled up – albeit against their will – on the ground, like a pair of campers waking up to find their tent had been blown away in a storm.

The bravest photographer in the world captures Sagan’s disappointment

That storm certainly gave Gilbert a tailwind, and as Avermaet rejoined the race and others flew past, it left Naesen and Sagan standing awkwardly at the side of the road, waiting for team cars to appear.

Naesen’s arrived first, his DS excusing himself as he stepped past Sagan who was waiting with hands on hips for any sign of a Bora car. As he did Sagan turned to see the bravest photographer in the world pointing a lens in his face, quickly disappearing behind the AG2R team car when Sagan’s glare got a bit too real.

But frustration aside Sagan, whose race was rapidly disappearing up the Paterberg, remained admirably calm. Like a man waiting at the side of the road, having just missed the bus he’d run for – he figured he could get angry, or just wait for the next one. Because there will be a next one for Sagan. There’s no question about that.

Bodnar set off up the cobbles, looking back to his bruised teammate wondering who exactly was pacing who back to the group. But Bodnar could relax. Sagan’s race was over. For now.

Get the full result from the Tour of Flanders at ProCyclingStats.com.

Leave your thoughts about this post in the comments below. You can also follow Off The Back on Twitter: @OffTheBackBlog or fill in your email address in the sign up box above to never miss a post. 

Milan-Sanremo: Hang on. This is real, isn’t it?

Sagan reaches out to congratulate Kwiatkowski after crossing the line

Two moments stood out in the minutes after Michal Kwiatkowski won Milan-Sanremo. First there was Peter Sagan, beaten by a spoke length, extending his hand to Kwiatkowski in congratulations. Then came Sagan’s comment to Italian TV, that “it wasn’t the result that mattered, the important thing was to put on a show”.

Sagan is one of a kind; I think we’re all agreed on that. But this was so good you couldn’t help wondering if you’d missed the small print somewhere that explained bike racing was in fact choreographed, and rehearsed, like wrestling. Because in almost every race Sagan is somehow there, and equally, somehow, you find yourself jumping up and down on your sofa at the end willing him to cross the line first.

Gouged during his heroic bid to join the break

Who knows, maybe it’s not just Sagan. Maybe this is how every team, and every cyclist see’s their job, with a meeting in the bus ahead of each stage where they discuss who would be putting on the day’s show, before stepping out to sign autographs and tell the media they have high hopes for the day.

Maybe that’s what Alexis Gougeard of AG2R La Mondiale was doing when he tried to break free of the peloton with 45km to go, and join the break that everyone except the he figured was doomed.

Tom Dumoulin putting on a show up the Poggio

It certainly raised questions, most of which went unanswered, as he pounded his way up the road. Had he been trying to reach the breakaway to deliver the news in person that their day was over, it might have been more believable. But whatever his motivation, it was a heck of a show.

Then there was Tom Dumoulin, or more specifically his chin, leading the group up the Poggio in what were heroic scenes. It was almost cruel to past him to the Team Sky riders, almost taking in the scenery, while the Dutchman heaved them towards the summit before breaking off. Another great show.

Sagan heads for the line, chased by Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphillipe

And finally Sagan, the PT Barnum of the peloton, who unveiled his showstopper some 5km out, and demonstrated his willingness to be the lead out man for whoever dare go with him.

Which kind of makes him everyone’s teammate, including Kwiatkowski who, as stunned as anyone that he’d beaten the World Champion in a Classic sprint, gratefully accepted Sagan’s hand. Quite the show.

Leave your thoughts about this post in the comments below. You can also follow Off The Back on Twitter: @OffTheBackBlog.

Tirreno-Adriatico: Peter Sagan’s dog day afternoon

Stage 7: (ITT) San Benedetto del Tronto to San Benedetto del Tronto

It was a beautiful day in San Benedetto del Tronto today. The sun was shining, the skies were clear and blue, and the barometer pointed to about 14 degrees Celsius. It was the type of weather that invited a stroll along the beach, with the dog, especially given that the traffic seemed so quiet.

Sagan closes his eyes and hopes for the best

So thought one resident, who while making their way to the beach over a zebra crossing, looked left to see a high speed scarlet haze coming directly for her, stopping them in their tracks, and passing by inches from her face. Both she and the dog then watching what they didn’t realise at the time was a Peter Sagan shaped blur swing left onto the cycle path – where the woman had, to be fair, probably expected to see a bike – weave past spectators, before swinging right, back onto the road, and looking back to say something that was most likely derogatory.

Sagan looks back to check that what just happened actually just happened

You’ll find Sagan’s UCI-cycle-path-ban-defying maneuver played again and again on the Tirreno-Adriatico highlight reel.

There, in slow motion, you’ll see the woman halting mid-crossing, trying to second-guess which direction Sagan, by now wobbling hard on the brakes, would turn. Thankfully he’d already made the decision, lunging left towards a gap in the curb, leaving the lady, and the fluffy dog (which bore a passing resemblance to Peter Sagan), convinced crossing roads was no longer for them.

It was safe to say the walk was ruined. So was Sagan’s time trial. Not that he had cause to worry, having secured enough points to keep the red jersey. The same red jersey the woman will be seeing in her sleep for days.

Go to ProCyclingStats.com for the full result.

Leave your thoughts about this post in the comments below. You can also follow Off The Back on Twitter: @OffTheBackBlog.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: The Sagan Lectures

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Saturday 25 February 2017

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

Sagan looks back at the competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave your thoughts about this post in the comments below. You can also follow Off The Back on Twitter: @OffTheBackBlog.