Man in blue sees red, turns white

Driedaagse de Panne: Stage 1, De Panne to Zottegem

The man in blue, having jumped right, is pictured here (centre) about to jump left

There was the sunshine, warm temperatures, and a staggering view from the top of the Geraardsbergen, but it was a bad day to be a pedestrian on the Dreidaagse de Panne this afternoon. At least one man dressed in blue discovered this. He’ll sleep fitfully tonight, seeing images of Katusha’s Marco Haller riding straight for him each time he closes his eyes.

Haller, who I’m sure lives a life of peaceful and dignified philanthropy off the bike, is among those riders you’d least like to see coming at you. It’s not just his size, or his beard, or his general attack posture. It’s the sense that he’ll plow straight through you if your carcass happens to be faster to ride on.

It happened as they took the early stages of the climb towards the iconic Geraardsbergen, with Haller at the front, seeking out the shortest route to the summit regardless of what that meant for anyone who happened to be in the way.

Like the man in blue who, finding himself in a kind of total-immersion no-mans land with riders coming straight for him, suddenly had a decision to make.

With remarkable dexterity, the man in blue instinctively jumped to his right first to dodge Haller, and then left, leaping for his life to avoid Rob Ruijgh right behind him.

Marco Haller, an expert at finding the shortest route up the Geraardsbergen

Neither rider flinched, nor turned to look back at what we can only assume was a man in blue rolling down a hill. Instead they ploughed on, bunny hopping onto the pavement to ride in front of, and then behind, any spectators who still believed in the concept of personal space. Some quickstepped aside, but most stood frozen, being sure not to make eye contact, as if being charged by a bear, or a lion, or something.

All of which provided welcome drama on the day after cycling fans realised man cannot live on the Tour of Taiwan alone. While 19 minutes of Eurosport highlights at midnight provides some bike racing on the Monday after Catalunya and Gent-Wevelgem, what we really needed was another 200 kilometers of Belgian countryside, some cobbles, and a will-it-won’t-it breakaway.

All of which the opening stage of the Driedaagse De Panne, and eventual winner Philippe Gilbert, delivered.

They rode the Muur again on the final circuit, although this time stewards, acting fast in order to save the elderly, cordoned off the awkward bits. It was a race to provide welcome relief to cycling fans after a difficult 48-hour dry spell – for all but one man at least.

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Gilbert pushing all the buttons

Dwars Door Vlaanderen

The list of perilous things that can really ruin a professional cyclist’s day is a long one.

There’s crashing for a start, and all the chains, cogs and asphalt that come with that. Then there are those unseen things, like ditches, which as Trek’s Kiel Reijnen discovered today, you might drop into at any second. Finally there are those things you can predict, but might not want to think about. Like being shouted at by Philippe Gilbert.

Playing the lead role in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Belgian road champ Gilbert had decided this was going to be Classic win number something, even if that meant he had to drag everyone else to the finish line with him and subsequently let one of them win instead.

Gilbert, looking into the eyes of the other riders

As part of a front group of riders with 72km to race, Gilbert, wearing his national colours (and two odd shoes, presumably to appear slightly unhinged), demanded others move forward to take a turn. Lack of co-operation usually spells the end of breaks like this. Gilbert was having none of it.

If the others pretended not to understand, Gilbert removed any doubt with some hand gestures. Afraid perhaps of being singled out for personal abuse, the other riders began coming forward, with Gilbert waving them through, like a zealous firewarden, eager complete the office fire drill in record time.

Then, to be certain, Gilbert dropped to the back, adapting the rare strategy that states that if you can’t drag people towards the finish line, you may as well push them.

Meanwhile, 38 seconds behind, Trek rider Edward Thuens was having the same idea, waving forward the chase group like an ambitious new lieutenant on a rescue mission, who usually gets men killed.

Celebrating with Yves Lampaert

But what failed for Tuens seemed to work for Gilbert, who now sensing glory, demanded with equal vigor that Yves Lampaert keep up with him, so they could take on Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), the only riders left at the front, together. What’s more there was the sight of Zdenek Styber and Niki Terpstra, summoned from way behind to race up towards the chase group, like an escaped Madison team, linking up to spoil any efforts to ruin Gilbert’s day.

Durbridge and Lutsenko knew that Gilbert had the perfect lead out man in Lampaert, but missed that it made Gilbert the perfect decoy for Lampaert.

Without Gilberts help to chase Lutsenko and Durbridge found they hadn’t the legs to reel him back. To make matters worse Gilbert pulled away to take second, far enough ahead at least to spare them the jubilant shouts coming from his direction.

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Paris-Nice: It’ll all end in tears

Paris-Nice – Stage 2 – Rochefort-en-Yvelines to Amilly

Rain jackets, sleet, and ice-cold conditions – this wasn’t the kind of exposure team sponsors were looking for.

Philippe Gilbert in the breakaway on Stage 2 of Paris-Nice

Picking up the race with 37.7km left to race, it became clear we were watching the convalescence portion of a stage, or maybe the grieving period, of everything that had come before, and off camera.

After “code orange” Day 1, riders were pedaling through a code red day 2. Grey sky, grey roads, grey faces, and puddles of water reflecting all of it. Crosswinds and four-degree temperatures split the peloton again. A small group of riders went one way, while Richie Porte went in the other, presumably south, to somewhere warmer.

There had been a middle group too, this one containing Alberto Contador. While Porte’s GC chances were being consigned to the deep freeze, Contador and his Trek team figured they might as well keep warm by chasing the lead group, which they did, catching it not long before live coverage began.

Meanwhile even further up the road, the breakaway of five riders, who might have been looking for shelter rather than the finish line, were showing signs of weather fatigue.

Behind them the peloton rode on. Luca Pibernik, of Bahrain Merida, was at the front of it, dreaming of the desert, and riding like a man who’d been informed by race radio that there was hot soup waiting at the finish line. He wasn’t leading the group so much as riding as fast as he could to get indoors while he could still see through his eyes, past the tears flowing from them. A permanent grimace had also settled on his face, unlikely to thaw until next year’s Tour of Oman.

Others took to swinging their arms around, in conditions that could have made this a primitive breaststroke, to move blood, previously busy keeping vital organs beating, back into the hands.

Meanwhile even further up the road, the breakaway of five riders, who might have been looking for shelter rather than the finish line, were showing signs of weather fatigue.

Philippe Gilbert, riding his tenth Paris-Nice, had by now set out on his own, and showed no signs of being bothered by the cold, possibly because his hands, wrapped in fingerless gloves, had frozen a great many kilometers ago.

He’d managed to get half a minute on the pack, but with nine kilometers to go sat up, figuring there was no point killing himself alone out front in the cold – far better to kill himself with company back with the others in the cold, who were possibly too cold to notice he’d gone anywhere in the first place.

Tears of cold during the race, tears of a different kind at the finish line. Not just from those who’d survived to Day 3 (Nacer Bouhanni, Niccolo Bonifazio and Maxime Bouet were among those who didn’t), but from Sonny Colbrelli, who defied the sprint opposition, and what was by now a strong rip tide, to cross the line first.

Tears certainly, but of joy this time.

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