After Stage 1 of the Tour de France, a saunter across the flat lands of the Vendee, Team Fortuneo Samsic’s Kevin Ledanois leads the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Competition (not sponsored by Chateau D’Ax furniture – more free advertising, if you want to send me a sofa). Local lad Ledanois will not start today’s stage in his team jersey, but it will be the polka dots of the King of the Mountains leader that will be on his back, rather than the (non-existent) Chateau D’Ax Sprints jersey, after he also led over the day’s sole category 4 climb. Ledanois, together with Yoann Offredo (Wanty- Groupe Goubert) and Paris-Nice stage winner Jerome Cousin (Direct Energie) had gone clear of the peloton in the opening kilometres and rolled through the seaside town of Les Sables d’Olonne without contesting the imaginary sprint, ensuring an all-French “podium”. They stayed clear until captured with 10km to go, though Ledanois, having secured the lead in two competitions, had dropped back to the peloton before that.
Kevin Ledanois is the son of Yvon Ledanois, whose career highlight was a stage win in the 1997 Vuelta for Gan. His son is already no stranger to being awarded jerseys, having won the U23 World Road Race Championship in Richmond in 2015. His best results in Europe (before yesterday) had been a win in the 2014 Tour of Jura and a 4th in the 2015 Paris-Camembert and he was 9th in last week’s French National RR.
To be fair to Ledanois and his 2 compatriots, it was hard to see where the sprint line was. The boys from Cycle Sport, who inspired this idea, had it easy with their chalk line across the road – trying to judge the race from my armchair was a much more difficult task. I was pleased to see that it was a break of 3 who were clear (this decided me to award 3,2 and 1 points to the first 3 across the line) but, as the race approached Les Sables, ITV4 decided to go to a lengthy commercial break; when they returned to the action, the leaders were already in the town. I don’t know if they went past the Shell Museum – there was a building that looked a bit like it, near a junction with a mini-roundabout – but the cameras then went briefly back to the peloton, so I had to award the points when their attentions returned to the break.
Strangely, ITV’s evening highlights programme didn’t feature my sprint, focusing instead on the hopefully finally resolved Chris Froome Salbutamol affair and then the messy closing kilometres where Froome (who went off-road and nearly crashed into a bollard), Adam Yates, Richie Porte and Nairo Quintana all lost around a minute (they say you can’t win the Tour on the first stage but you can lose it) before Fernando Gaviria easily won the sprint at the end of his first Tour stage (note to the Colombian footballers – Gaviria and Quintana show that you can win cleanly or suffer misfortune without complaining to the officials).
So to today’s stage, another mostly flat run across the interior of the Vendee. The sprint point will be somewhere in the intriguingly-named St. Andre Treize Voies.
So, it’s the sporting highlight of the year tomorrow…not England v Sweden, but the Grand Depart of Le Tour de France. Will ‘Froomy’ join the select group of 5-time winners (thereby leaving the even more select club of 4 time winners, of which he is the only member)? Will Mark Cavendish add a stage win to his tally before he crashes? Who will lead Movistar? All these questions, and more, have filled hundreds of magazine pages and the minds of cycling fans (Nature abhors a vacuum) for months, but such idle speculation is beyond the remit of this blog.
My attention will instead be directed towards Armchairtifosi’s very own intermediate sprints competition. Many years ago, the much-lamented “Cycle Sport” magazine featured a similar concept, but they sent two junior reporters to France to find the exact halfway point of each stage (memorably, this was once on a mini-roundabout) where they chalked a line across the road, stuck a cardboard sign onto the grass verge and awaited the peloton, who were blissfully unaware of the competition’s existence. I imagine the 2 reporters had a great time, sampling the wines and cheeses of France and the attentions of stoned Dutch girls on Alpe d’Huez. Unfortunately, I can’t take 3 weeks holiday to bum around France in a camper van, but, as every stage will be shown in its entirety on Eurosport, I’ll award the points at somewhere near halfway: hopefully somewhere with a castle or a writer’s house that will be interesting to mention en passant.
I realise that I have missed out on an ideal sponsorship opportunity – who better to back Armchairtifosi’s competition than Chateau D’Ax, manufacturers of luxury furniture and, of course, sponsors of a cycling team in the late 80s that featured Francesco Moser, Gianni Bugno and Tony Rominger on its roster, and also bequeathed us one of the most iconic Team jerseys of the era. So we’ll pretend that it’s the Chateau D’Ax Sprints Jersey (if anyone in their marketing department feels the urge to send me a few Euros for the free advertising…..)
Tomorrow’s opening stage looks like being a sprinters’ benefit – when the route has headed north-west along the Atlantic coast of the Vendee, it will pass through the town of Les Sables d’Olonne (twinned with Worthing), famous, amongst not many other things, for the Museum de Coquillage, whose website offers a “Tour of the World of Seashells in 80 minutes” – most of the Trip Advisor reviewers were of the opinion that it was a good way to spend a rainy day, one enthusiastically stating that “the admission [ 8 Euros] was worth it for the googly-eyed stuffed fish alone.” It seems a good place to have the first Chateau D’Ax sprint…. if the route passes it, which close inspection of Google Maps and my Tour stage maps in Procycling has been impossible to ascertain.
Pelotonitis is a physiological and/or psychiatric condition that is most prevalent in the summer months, its spread facilitated by warm weather and increased daylight, peaking for the duration of the Tour de France. The number of reported cases reached almost epidemic proportions in Yorkshire in 2014, to the extent that the Department of Health were prepared to implement strict isolation measures, last seen in the Foot and Mouth epidemic, although widespread slaughter of cyclists on humane or economic grounds was never considered.
Who is at risk?
Pelotonitis can affect cyclists of any age or gender but is most likely to occur in middle-aged males. It is important to remember that merely going for long bike rides is not the same as suffering from pelotonitis – the condition is distinguished by the way that sufferers are convinced that they are/ were/ will be members of the professional cycling peloton. Doctors are divided as to which manifestation is the worst – those who believe they may, at some stage, become pro-cyclists may suffer from the symptoms for years, often undiagnosed, but may be able to lead otherwise normal lives. The cyclists who believe that they are professionals will present more acute symptoms, sometimes to the extent where reality has become supplanted by the belief that they are competing in the Tour de France.
What are the symptoms of Pelotonitis?
Sufferers may exhibit any one or more of numerous symptoms. Physically, they will be trying to look like professional cyclists. The sun-tan gained on numerous long rides will not be allowed to spread to parts of the body that are normally covered by cycling kit; on holiday (though most sufferers will only go on cycling holidays) they will either sunbathe in socks, knee-length shorts and track mitts, to maintain those sharply-defined tanlines, or they will briefly expose the untanned areas and look like they are wearing white Victorian bathing costumes. Both approaches are equally ludicrous.
Some of those suffering from pelotonitis may develop an obsession with their weight that is normally only seen in jockeys and ballerinas. They will become convinced that an extra 250g will ruin their power to weight ratio and destroy their hill-climbing ability. Bizarrely, studies have indicated that this tendency becomes more pronounced in those areas of the country (E.Anglia) where there are no hills to climb. Others will be in denial; they will squeeze their seventeen-stone frames into the tightest of replica team kits or, in one personally witnessed case, a King of the Mountains jersey, the wearer of which was so overweight that the red polka dots had been stretched into torpedo-like ovals. They will convince themselves that they look like Chris Froome in the 3rd week of a Grand Tour. Such behaviour makes for an almost instantaneous diagnosis of pelotonitis, with or without the presentation of any other symptoms. If they have shaved their legs as well the long-term prognosis is not favourable.
The sufferer of pelotonitis will be convinced that while he is on a bike ride around the suburbs he is actually Coppi or Merckx, riding clear on the Tourmalet on a solo break of epic proportions (he will never believe that he is suffering, minutes adrift of the autobus and waiting to be collected by the broom wagon). Innocent bystanders may get drawn into this delusion. Pillion passengers on passing motorbikes have been shouted at for failing to hold up a whiteboard displaying the rider’s advantage over the chasing peloton. Riders who have suffered punctures have been known to stand by the roadside, attempting to flag down the first passing yellow car, in the mistaken belief that it is actually Mavic neutral services. Old ladies waiting at bus stops have had their handbags snatched by passing cyclists who believed that they were actually team helpers handing out musettes at the feed zone. The rider may risk death or serious injury by going the wrong, but quicker, way around a roundabout and he will spend a fortune on replacing the bidons, arm-warmers and waterproof jackets that he has thrown aside, to say nothing of the money wasted on bottles of champagne that he presents to himself on getting home, only to spray them around the garden
How can Pelotonitis be Treated?
Pelotonitis, although easy to diagnose, can be very difficult to treat. As with many psychological disorders, the sufferer must want to change and, as this will mean saying goodbye to his fantasy, jet-setting life, with the adulation of the crowds and the snogs from podium girls, to return to the more mundane world of a job in accounts or IT and weekends of DIY shop visits and lunch with the in-laws, skilled help may be required. Some sufferers have been cured by being persuaded to become interested in more boring sports such as snooker or golf, the hours spent watching these mindless pursuits being gradually increased until there is no time available to ride the bike. One sufferer was cured when his wife staged an “intervention” in the form of a raid by dummy WADA/UCI officials, claiming doping infringements, which resulted in a 2 year ban, by which time the cyclist had sold his bikes, bought a sports car and had a proper, non-Lycra related mid-life crisis that involved a young girl who worked on the checkout at his local B&Q, her versatility and voluptuousness matched only by her vacuity. Chapeau!
If you’re a masochist – which, if you take your cycling seriously, there’s every chance you are – you might have enjoyed watching Simon Yates fall to pieces on the slopes of the Colle della Finestre today while Chris Froome took flight.
But if you’re anything resembling a normal human being with a heart beating in your chest, that heart will have broken just a bit.
By the time the commentary team spotted the pink jersey number 118 hanging off the back of the peloton on the hairpins of the climb, Yates’ race was over.
Swaying on the bike, form in tatters, and ninety kilometres or so of mountainous terrain to ride.
A Grand Tour win gone, just like that.
He knew it, and we knew it.
Judging by the conspiratorial chat between Froome’s Sky henchman at the front, word had reached them too. Their punishing pace had…
A well-researched piece. The typical climber v tester battle that has come to be the feature of so many GTs. It’s an intriguing battle – Dumoulin is a battler who can never be ruled out of contention, but Yates seems to have moved up a level and can we calculate how many seconds per kilometre can be gained by wearing the maglia rosa?
Simon Yates heads into the second week of the Giro d’Italia with a 38-second lead over 2017 champion Tom Dumoulin. While Yates currently has the pleasure of wearing the Maglia Rosa of the race leader, if he wants to be crowned the overall winner in Rome on stage 21, he needs to race every mountain stage as if he had time to make up. The looming 34.2km individual time trial on stage 16 rips down the Adige valley in the Dolomites and will serve as an opportunity for Dumoulin to pull back significant time. We all know that Dumoulin will get time back on Yates, but the million dollar question is exactly how much time Yates will concede. If he can survive the barrage from the big time trial specialist, he will likely emerge victorious at the end of the three-weeks.
Triangulating an accurate estimate is difficult, because like two…
It wasn’t a bad weekend for Team B.M.C. On stage 3 of the Giro D’Italia (in Israel) Rohan Dennis sneaked the bonus seconds he needed at the intermediate sprints to turn over a one second G.C. deficit, wresting the maglia rosa from the back of Tom Dumoulin. Dennis thus became the latest rider to wear the race-leader’s jersey in all 3 Grand Tours and Dumoulin and his Sunweb team were spared the responsibility of trying to control the race 2 weeks before they need to. The Giro will resume in Sicily – there may be 2 more insignificant stages before the assault on Mt. Etna, but at least the TV cameras will be able to show us more than the camels, dusty dual carriageways, soulless settlements and barren landscapes that dominated the coverage of 2 frankly monotonous stages in the Israeli deserts. The frequent adverts were a welcome break, but even they were book-ended by pleas for potential tourists to visit Israel. No thank you.
Van Avermaet Regains the Winning Thread
If it’s scenery you want with your bike race, it’s hard to beat the Tour de Yorkshire. There might not be the hilltop towns of Tuscany or the lavender fields of Provence, but there is the rugged beauty of the Dales and the Moors, there is the passion of the huge crowds; initially a legacy of the 2014 TdF Grand Depart but now an annual phenomenon. And this year there were 4 days of uninterrupted warmth and sunshine…a freak of meteorology never before witnessed in Yorkshire and final proof of global warming and climate change. In Greg van Avermaet the race had its classiest winner yet. By his own standards, and in comparison to his stellar 2017, the Olympic R.R. champion had had a disappointing classics season. His only individual win had come in a stage of the Tour of Oman and he had been 3rd in E3 Harelbeke, 4th in Paris-Roubaix and 5th in the Tour of Flanders. In Yorkshire he finished 2nd on 2 of the 4 stages, enough to clinch the points competition as well as the overall classement, and GVA was quick to pay tribute to the efforts of his team, whose attacks on the final stage destroyed the chances of race leader Magnus Cort Neilsen.
Stephane Rossetto Claims an Epic Solo Victory
But, while the overall contenders were left to fight it out on the run into Leeds, or, more accurately, were prevented from fighting it out by the controlling tactics of B.M.C., the real hero of the day – if not the season – was crossing the line in total isolation. Stephane Rossetto has been on the roster of Team Cofidis Solutions for the past 4 seasons. The 31 year old Frenchman is a good, honest journeyman professional with a handful of wins in minor French races. He’s a decent climber and a time-trialist but he is never going to be a Grand Tour contender or a Classics winner. But he must like Yorkshire – he was 4th in the inaugural TdY in 2015 and Sunday’s efforts had been prefaced by his work on stage 2, orchestrating the day’s break and being the last of the quartet to be caught, only 18km from Ilkley, where Magnus Cort Neilsen’s power climb up Cow and Calf took him into the lead that he held until the final stage.
The Hardest Ever Bike Race in Britain?
Rossetto’s gritty solo stage win was like watching a long Test Match-savings innings by Geoffrey Boycott, and will probably see him elected as an honorary Yorkshireman. In its race preview (26th April) Cycling Weekly had billed the stage as the hardest ever laid out on British soil – 189.5 km with 6 categorised climbs and an elevation of 3,400M, it was like a One Day Classic (Note to World Tour: perhaps it should be??). Throw in temperatures in the mid 20s and a headwind for the last 80km, and it was never going to be an easy day.
Rossetto was one of 14 riders who got into the lead group but after 40km he had only Canyon-Eisberg’s Max Stedman for company. It looked like the archetypal doomed early break; the G.C. riders were content to let them stay clear, mopping up the KoM points, and ITV’s pundits Chris Boardman and David Millar were able to conduct a long debate as to whether there were more stones in the combined walls of Yorkshire than in the Great Wall of China. Then, on the hellishly steep slopes of the Cote de Park Rash, Rossetto left Stedman for dead. With well over 100km to go, and despite a 9 minute gap to the peloton, it still looked like the red climbers’ jersey was the best he could hope for. Races just aren’t won like this anymore. Watching Rossetto’s solo effort was like watching an image from the past; with a bit of imagination you could picture him in a woollen jersey with spare tubes wrapped around his shoulders.
King of the Mountains, Combativity….and Black Sheep Ale
But Rossetto wasn’t stopping. Picking up maximum points on the last 3 climbs he secured the KoM competition and then, with his advantage merely eroding, rather than rapidly diminishing, the stage win became first a possibility, then a probability. It became an inevitable outcome after the eclipse of Cort Neilsen on the final climb out of Otley; B.M.C. had 4 riders in the lead group and it became more crucial for them to control that group than chase down a leader who was out of the G.C. reckoning. Without that restraint Rossetto may well have been caught – he was visibly tiring in the closing, thankfully flatter, closing kilometres – but he held on to win by 34s, recording the biggest win of his career, and his first since 2014. The combativity award was an inevitable extra to add to the climbers’ prize and he also won his own height (1.80M) in crates of Black Sheep Ale for being the first rider to pass their brewery in Masham. Chapeau Monsieur Rossetto, or should that be Eh up, lad!
In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs of his early years in Paris, he describes how he started going to the velodrome when he became disenchanted with horse-racing (he said that anything from which you could only get a kick by having a bet wasn’t worth watching). He wanted to write a story about cycling but felt that he could never write one that was as good as the races themselves, and that it had to be written in French to be realistic. It’s a shame Hemingway never felt able to put pen to paper because cycling was right up his street – he was a man of action who wrote about men of action – matadors, soldiers, big-game hunters – men who looked danger between the eyes on a daily basis. He would have relished the thrilling finale of last week’s Milan- San Remo.
The Milan – San Remo ; the Sprinters’ Classic?
The enormity of Nibali’s achievement – providing the home crowd with their first winner since Filippo Pozzato in 2006 – can only be fully appreciated if you understand the unique character of the race itself. At 300 km the Milan- San Remo is the longest of the one-day classics, evoking the extreme distances of races in the early years of the sport. When Nibali crossed the finishing line on the Via Roma in the once-opulent resort of San Remo it was well over 7 hours since he had left the Piazza del Duomo in a rain-lashed Milan. The paradox of the MSR is that, despite its distance, it is known as the sprinters’ classic, but any sprinter who is going to have a chance in the finale is going to have to survive the war of attrition that is the first 295 km of the race – it’s a bit like expecting Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay to run the 100M having first completed a marathon.
Over the years more hills have been added to the later stages as the race follows the stunning Ligurian coast SW towards France – none of them are daunting mountains but their effect is to weaken the sprinters; some will get dropped, some will have their finishing speed blunted but sometimes, like John Degenkolb in 2015, they will have been so protected by a strong team that they can sprint up the Via Roma after 300 km of hidden anonymity, as if they’ve just joined the race after hiding in a back alley on the outskirts of San Remo. There are the Tre Capi, three small hills near Imperia, before the Cipressa, which comes 20km from home, but these are not hard enough, or are too far from the finish, to prove the launch pad of a successful attack.
The Poggio di San Remo
First included in 1960, the Poggio is a 4km ascent with an altitude gain of 150m, so the average gradient is a mere 3.7%, but what makes it so hard is that it is taken at full speed at the end of such a long race. The road is narrow, ascending in a series of hairpin bends, so it’s vital to be near the front. Then there is the descent – a true black run, twisting around on itself like a strand of spaghetti and technical in the extreme. It is not for the faint-hearted and it’s from where Hemingway would have watched the race, slugging back the grappa at one of the local bars and contemplating Death in the Afternoon; not an impossibility – when Philippe Gilbert crashed he was convinced that it was only his crash helmet that saved his life and Sean Kelly won the 1992 edition, catching Moreno Argentin after launching a reckless descent that should not have been contemplated by any man with a young wife and dependent children.
Nibali’s decisive attack
The Poggio has become the place where the MSR is won or lost. The sprinters know that if they can crest the climb in contention they will have a chance on the Via Roma, and the non-sprinters know that it is their last chance of launching a successful attack. This year there was one such defining moment – with the attack of Latvian champion Krists Neilands not being seen as a threat by most of the favourites, Nibali was able to jump clear of the peloton and latch onto his wheel. Suddenly a gap opened and Nibali could not believe his luck. He dropped Neilands with a second attack and crossed the summit with a ten second lead. Nibali had tried the same thing in 2012; back then he’d had Simon Gerrans and Fabian Cancellara glued to his wheel, but this year he was alone, and ten seconds proved to be enough for a descender of his ability. Just. What followed was five minutes of the most nerve-wracking, uncomfortable viewing as the sprinters regrouped for the final flat run-in. The on-screen graphics showed a wildly fluctuating time-gap and the static cameras foreshortened the distance, so it was only in the closing metres that we knew that Nibali would hold on to his rapidly diminishing advantage, raising his arms aloft just before the line, as much in relief as triumph.
Nibali’s Claim to Greatness
Vincenzo Nibali is one of 6 riders to have won all 3 Grand Tours. Of the others, all except Alberto Contador won at least one “Monument” (the 5 most prestigious one-day classics). Jacques Anquetil sole win was the Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Felice Gimondi won the MSR, Il Lombardia (2x) and the Paris-Roubaix and Bernard Hinault won Lombardia and LBL twice apiece, and added a famous win in the Paris-Roubaix that was just a V-sign to the organisers of what he saw as a stupid race. Oh, and Eddy Merckx won all 5…at least twice, and holds the record of 7 wins in the MSR. Enough said.
Nibali’s score now stands at 3, having won Il Lombardia in 2015/17 – his build and style of racing is suited to the Liege-Bastogne-Liege (he launched a solo attack in 2012 but was caught on the final drag by Maxim Iglinsky) but he has not ruled out an attempt to bag all 5 before he retires, and, while it is hard to see him winning a Tour of Flanders, he showed in the 2014 Tour de France that the pave of the Paris-Roubaix held no fears, while his rivals crashed out of contention or rode conservatively and lost time. That is not the way Nibali races and, of the Grand Tour winners who are currently active, Alejandro Valverde, with 4 wins (and counting) in the LBL is the only other Monument winner. It is possible that Fabio Aru and Nairo Quintana could one day win Il Lombardia or LBL and Tom Dumoulin is the sort of rider who could win any of them… but probably never will. It is hard to see Chris Froome ever riding in a Monument.
Nibali’s has rightfully earned a high place in cycling history through his solo wins in the Italian Classics, to say nothing of his win in the 2014 Tour de France when he took the fight to his rivals as early as stage 2 with that unforgettable win in Sheffield. But the defining moments of his career (so far) have to be his 2 wins in the Giro d’Italia – in 2013 he was completely dominant but the 2016 win only came after he was seemingly out of contention but managed to clamber off the ropes to knock out Steven Kruijswijk and Estaban Chaves in a crazy last weekend in the Dolomites. In many ways Vincenzo Nibali is an old-fashioned racer, relying more on tactics and racing instinct than the power meter on his handlebars and the team radio in his ear. Ernest Hemingway would have been a big fan.