Paris-Nice Reflections: Team Sky, Brothers and Cousin

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Five years after his last pro win Direct Energie’s JEROME COUSIN “mugs” Nils Pollitt to take stage 5 of the Paris-Nice in Sisteron on Thursday

 

A Funny Old Week for Team Sky

Imagine a remake of “Open All Hours” with Arkwright replaced by (Sir Dave) Brailsford. It’s the end of another long day and he stands on the threshold of his back-street bike-repair shop, one hand thrust into the pocket of his grubby smock coat and the other cradling a mug of tea, made by Froomy after completing his deliveries. As a trumpet plays mournfully in the background, he muses on the exorbitant prices of puncture repair kits and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. “Aye, it’s been a funny old week,” he says. “On Monday it were all that old stuff about Wiggo and his doctor’s notes. He never broke no rules. Now they’re sayin’ the rules were wrong and we should pay compensation. Compensay-say-say-tion? I don’t know what the world’s comin’ to.” The camera pans back, just as Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Freeman) pulls up in her Team Sky Morris Minor, handing Brailsford a jiffy bag and fending off his clumsy innuendos about her exempting him from his own therapeutic uses.

Mixed Fortunes on the Road

When this week’s racing got underway, things weren’t much better. The Paris- Nice had become something of a Sky benefit with 5 winners in the last 7 years. On his day Wout Poels can look like one of the classiest riders in the peloton. He won the Time Trial on stage 4 in terrific style and moved up to 2nd overall, but he crashed out of the race two days later, sustaining a broken collarbone in a 70kph smash and will face a race against time to be fit to defend his Liege-Bastogne-Liege title. David de la Cruz won the last stage into a rain-drenched Nice, repeating his win of last year (when he had outsprinted Alberto Contador, the time bonuses therefore depriving ‘Bertie’ of overall victory) and was Sky’s highest-placed rider in the final standings – 9th @ 2m 35s. Defending champion Sergio Henao, nominally team leader of a team that seemed to lack purpose after Poels’s departure, was always there or thereabouts but he lacked sparkle and finished 12th @ 4m 8s.

Kwiatkowski poised to land Tirreno-Adriatico; Froome playing the long game

There seems little doubt that Sky have sent their “A” team to Italy for the Tirreno – Adriatico, a race which has become favoured over the Paris-Nice for riders with Grand Tour ambitions.  Sky finished a good 3rd in the opening team time trial and after stage 3 had 3 riders in the top 5 overall, with Geraint Thomas donning the leader’s blue jersey.  But a day later a frustrated Thomas was standing at the side of the road, vainly trying to free a jammed chain – the incident occurred only 12km from the finish and he lost 34 seconds and the overall lead. To add insult to injury, the stage was won by Mikel Landa, who had always felt constrained when riding for Sky, but now has more freedom at Movistar (at least when Valverde and Quintana aren’t riding).

Today, Michal Kwiatkowski took overall lead, thanks to the time bonuses of finishing third – with tomorrow almost certainly a day for the break or the sprinters, he will have a good chance of defending that lead in the concluding short time trial on Tuesday. Last year the former World champion was in stellar early-season form, winning the Strade Bianche and the Milan – San Remo, and he is clearly in good shape again ahead of the spring classics.  Someone playing a much longer game is Chris Froome – he admitted this week that he is some way short of the form he will need for the Giro and Tour (always provided he is allowed to compete… more headaches for Sir Dave) but he has been under surprising pressure on the steep gradients of the Tirreno stages, the camera focusing on his jutting elbows and furiously spinning legs as he daily drops out of contention.

Double Triumph for the Yates

Call it sibling rivalry or anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better but there is no denying the talent of the Yates twins when the roads get steeper. In Italy Adam Yates won today’s stage, having finished 2nd to Primoz Roglic on stage 3 into Trevi. Today he blasted clear of the pack with 5km to go and held them all at bay to ride alone into the piazza of Filottrano, a town bedecked in the blue and yellow of Astana to commemorate local hero Michele Scarponi who was tragically killed on the roads a year ago.  Yesterday brother Simon had won a gruelling stage of the Paris- Nice on rain-lashed roads to the ski station of La Colmiane, attacking with more than 4 km to go and holding on to win by 8 seconds. With overall leader Luis Leon Sanchez fading out of contention, Yates wore the yellow jersey on today’s final stage but lost the race by 4 seconds to Movistar’s up and coming Marc Soler. Isolated without team support, Yates struggled to close the gaps on the Cote de Peille as Soler bridged to De la Cruz and Fraile but was helped when Jon and Gorka Izagirre, a duo of brothers whose talents match the Yates, ended up tangled together on the tarmac after a slippery left-hand bend on the descent. It was then a desperate chase into Nice but time ran out for Yates and Soler, who has long been touted in Spain as the next Contador, Indurain or Bahamontes, recorded his first big World Tour success.

A Win’s a Win for Cousin 

The Paris-Nice had seen half the stages won by French teams with two collected by riders from Direct Energie to show that there is life after Tommy Voeckler. Their 2nd win came from unheralded domestique Jerome Cousin who sports a beard that is as impressive (and un-aerodynamic) as Simon Geschke’s. The stage into Sisteron was only his 2nd win as a pro and came 1682 days after his first, in the 2013 Etoile de Besseges. Cousin’s win was not heroic, but it was canny. He had been the only rider in the 5 man break who had been able to  bridge the gap to Nils Pollitt after the giant German time-triallist had attacked and gone clear. Sensibly, he sat in behind the Katusha rider, who towed him to the finish, refusing his increasingly desperate pleas to do some arbeit and gambling that the peloton would not close them down before the finish. They didn’t and Cousin was able to scoot round the dejected Pollitt in the last 200 metres to score an easy victory. It’s results that count, some say, and it’s hard to begrudge a win for a man who must have ridden 100,000 miles, with or without a number pinned to his back, since his last success, but it was hardly a victory in the grand style. Ce n’est pas magnifique, mais c’est le guerre.

 

The Giant Toadstool of Tiegem…and other Famous Belgian Landmarks

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The Delights of Belgian Cycling

Recent Olympic golds in cycling, rowing and equestrianism would seem to confirm the theory that Britain does best in sports that are undertaken while sitting down. Or even lying down….Lizzy Yarnold retained her gold in the skeleton at Pyeong Chang, sliding face-first down the ice at over 80mph, a feat of nerves that makes the descending of VIncenzo Nibali look like a ride around the park on a bike with a shopping basket.

Standing up on the ice, or, at any rate, remaining upright while moving, again proved somewhat more troublesome for the luckless Elise “Bambi” Christie. I watched the short-track skating on the BBC – had I known that Eurosport’s commentator was none other than our very own Carlton Kirby I would have tuned in more diligently, though it was surreal to hear his unmistakable tones while not watching cycling; a bit like having John Arlott commentate on the British Grand Prix. The new massed start skating events on the big track were an enthralling innovation.  For years all we have had are pairs of skaters zooming around in lanes or the ridiculous short track stuff which always reminds me of one of those cosy British comedies of the 50s where a bunch of snotty kids are chased around the kitchen table by a fag-smoking woman wielding a broom. Perhaps this is a training regime which Elise Christie’s coach should consider before 2022.

Fresh from his stint at the Olympics, Kirby was back on more familiar ground for the final stage of the Tour of Abu Dhabi. Three inevitable sprint finishes (one nearly won by Marcel Kittel, who is slowly coming into form) had been followed by a 10km time trial around a building site – there were anxious moments when Tom Dumoulin was seen stopping at the roadside, rekindling unpleasant memories of his unscheduled pit stop in last year’s Giro, but it was thankfully only a mechanical problem. He suffered more problems in the final stage,  culminating in a long slog of a climb to Jebel Hafeet, but he had already been dropped when the resurgent Alejandro Valverde overhauled Miguel Lopez to take the stage and the overall.

While the Tours of Dubai, Oman and Abu Dhabi provide some interesting moments, it is still hard to get away from the view that the season proper doesn’t start until the last weekend of February, with the first Belgian races, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Enough boring Middle-Eastern sunshine; bring on the mud, the bergs, and the cobbles. We want to see suffering. We want to see the best riders in the world grovelling their way up the Kwaremont and the Mur, their faces unrecognisable under layers of “Belgian toothpaste”.  Except it didn’t work out that way.  The sun shone all weekend. There was no mud. Give it time.

Some of cycling’s great races take place in spectacular surroundings – the iconic finishing circuit of the Tour in Paris, the epic grandeur of Mont Ventoux, the finish of next week’s Strade Bianche in Siena’s Piazza del Campo (or any race in Italy) – but the appeal of Belgian racing is different. It is the races that make the places famous. Most of southern Belgium is not an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  There are squat farmhouses, boring little towns and large steel barns which are probably facilities for turning the local farm animals into a variety of sausages. It is a bit like East Anglia, only hillier and with better beer and road surfaces (even allowing for the cobbles) and the Flemish speakers are probably easier to understand.  Apart from the Paris-Nice, the Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-San Remo, Belgium is the focus of cycling’s attention for the next month (it is even possible to argue that the Paris-Roubaix is a Belgian race run in France) and many of the races include the same cobbled climbs and loop around the same towns. The name of the towns and  the bergs – Geraardsbergen, Oudenaarde, Kwaremont, Koppenburg, Molenberg – summon up memories of great races and great riders, but, with modern television coverage, the whole landscape becomes almost as well known as the villages I pass through on my cycle rides here. It has been said that Dublin was so well-described by James Joyce that it would have been possible to recreate it from a reading of Ulysses and I am sure that I could find my way around Belgium, even though I have never been there, simply through having watched the races on TV for the past 20 years.

One landmark that I greeted like an old friend today was the Giant Toadstool of Tiegem, an otherwise nondescript village at the foot of the unexceptional Tiegemberg. For years one of the locals has had a giant toadstool in his garden. It’s huge, red with white spots. I don’t know what it’s made from, I don’t know what on earth possessed the man to have it in his front garden, and I haven’t got the slightest idea what his neighbours must think of it, but it will feature several more times this spring as other races wend their meandering way around the landscape. Welcome to Belgium.

 

 

Sevilla keeps pedalling in South America

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Oscar Sevilla in the young riders’ jersey at the 2001 Tour de France

Like all sports, cycling needs its new blood (and I don’t mean the stuff that comes in bags from dodgy Spanish doctors). Every year there is an influx of new young stars into the peloton, even though expectations will usually exceed performance – how many youngsters have the French hyped as “the next Hinault” in their quest for another Tour winner? In ten years’ time many of them will have faded into obscurity but it seems to be that the older you get, the more affinity you have with the older riders who keep going, year after year. There was something gratifying about Chris Horner’s success in the 2013 Vuelta, just a month before his 42nd birthday; maybe it was because he looked like the sort of MAMIL you see scoffing cakes at your local cafe on a Saturday morning.

In 2018 we have already seen the Volta Valenciana won in convincing style by a resurgent Alejandro Valverde, who will be 38 by the time he tackles this year’s Grand Tours. Valverde has never been out of the news (sometimes for the wrong reasons) but a forgotten name was just below the headlines in Argentina’s Vuelta a San Juan at the end of last month. The race was won by their national champion Gonzalo Najar, who launched a bold attack on the queen stage, winning by nearly two minutes to seal overall victory but the runner-up on the day, and in the final standings, was Oscar Sevilla, who in September had celebrated his 41st birthday.

Remember Oscar Sevilla? He turned pro back in 1998, riding in the famous Kelme stripes and, after showing promise with a stage win in the 1999 Tour of Romandie and 2nd place in the 2000 Vuelta a Catalunya, he burst into the limelight at the 2001 Tour De France, finishing 7th and claiming the white jersey for the best young rider. Although he was only just eligible for competition (Sevilla would turn 25 that September) he looked so young that it was possible to believe that he was riding the Tour in his school holidays. Sevilla finished 5th on l’Alpe d’Huez on the first mountain stage (won by Lance Armstrong) to propel himself up the GC and gained further top 6 placings in the Pyrenees.

Two months later Sevilla’s climbing prowess paid dividends at the Vuelta. He took the leader’s gold jersey (as it was then) after a bold 2nd place on the climb to Lagos de Covadonga, then regained it after Joseba Beloki spectacularly blew on the Envalira climb on stage 11, and held it until the final time trial in Madrid – a broken arm-rest on his tri-bars didn’t help his cause, but he never had enough lead to hold off the TT specialist Angel Casero who took overall victory by 47 seconds. Casero never challenged for major honours again but Sevilla was seen as the future of Spanish cycling.

What happened? In 2002 Sevilla finished 4th in the Vuelta after internal team rivalries meant he was forced to ride for Aitor Gonzalez. In 2003 he suffered a bad crash in the World Championships and struggled to regain his form. In a December 2005 interview with cyclingnews.com Sevilla said , “My dream is to get on the podium at the Tour and to win the Vuelta. But also to win a mythical stage in the Tour or the Vuelta. I hope I can achieve that before my retirement and I hope I can do it soon”. His decisions to ride for Phonak in 2004 and T Mobile from 2005 – with hindsight these could hardly be seen as career moves destined to fulfil that lofty ambition, neither was the news that Sevilla was named in the investigations of Operacion Puerto. He had won the Tour of Asturias and was lined up as a super domestique for Jan Ullrich at the Tour de France, only for the team to be banned. Sevilla was never charged but the riders implicated in the investigations were like unexploded hand grenades that no team managers wanted to handle. He rode on for a couple of years in lower grade teams, winning the 2007 Route du Sud for Relax-GAM, but after another season at the infamous Rock Racing, which was little more than a Rehab facility for dopers, he faded from the view of European cycling fans.

So how did Sevilla end up in South America? The answer, it appears, is love. Riding in the 2008 Vuelta a Colombia, Oscar was so smitten with one of the ‘podium girls’ that he was encouraged to go all out for a stage win and the chance to meet her, which he did. That girl, Ivonne, became his wife and they now have two daughters.  In an October 2017 interview on cyclingnews.com Sevilla reflected that Operacion Puerto was actually the best thing had happened to him and that he was happier riding in South America. He has kept getting the results – three wins in the Vuelta a Colombia, two in the Tour do Rio, the Vuelta Mexico and the RCN Clasico (Colombia), plus a win in the Vuelta a la Comunidad de Madrid on a rare return to Europe last year.  There was also a year’s ban after a positive test in 2010 for H.E.S., a plasma volume expander said to act as a masking agent for blood doping. Sevilla claimed it had been administered to him in hospital after a crash but the ban was upheld on appeal.  It is tempting to say that maybe he never outran his past, but it could be that he is simply a man who is able to keep doing what he loves, away from the intensity of Europe. He will never fulfil the ambitions of that 2005 interview but he may keep riding his bike for several more years.

 

 

Armchairtifosi crosses the starting line

This is the post excerpt.

The tifosi are those crazy Italian fans who run alongside the riders on the steep climbs of the Giro, waving flags, screaming encouragement and (if they can get away with it) giving their heroes a sneaky push. The armchair is from where, thanks to Eurosport, I watch most of my cycling – too much, some would say – from the Tour Down Under through to the Gent 6.

This isn’t a site for up to the minute news and results or detailed statistical analysis. It’s more of a sideways look behind the headlines. Cycling is perhaps the prime example of a sport where it is not so much about the win, but how it is achieved –  and the rider who spends all day in a doomed lone break, only to be caught in the last few kilometres, may be remembered long after the winner has been forgotten.