This is my mate Paul who I grew up with back in Ireland. Paul grew up playing the hardmen sports of Gaelic football and Hurling (not for the faint of heart). I took a fair amount of ribbing growing up for riding around in lycra with shaved legs, but I knew I was on to a good thing. Well I am happy to say Paul has joined the lycra pack and taken up the bike. He got himself a nice Felt and some Elcyclista kit and just finished his first Sportive in the Mourne Mountains last weekend with a very respectable time. Next up the Wicklow 200. That should be a descent test!
For 8 years I have had this copy of L’Equipe
I keep it in and around where my bike sits
For me it represents a “Golden Age” in sprinting
Zabel, Boonen, O’Grady, Hushovd, and McEwen
You were (are) all legends
But you were my favorite, still are
I loved how the French commentators shouted your name
Seeing you burst out of a pack was a scary and amazing sight
You just never knew what to expect
It made us feel a little uneasy
You were unpredictable, all power and no fear
You were an entertainer
From pulling a “Wheelie” crossing the line at Alpe D’Huez
To “Head-Butting” Stuey at about 45mph – that was a first
Then there was the greatest sprint ever
Stage 1 in the 2007 Tour
Just how exactly did you do that?
You were on the ground with 20Km to go
And back on the back 5km out
Somehow you picked your way through
And showed up at the front with 100m to go
And still had time to salute
I have the frame in the picture above
I always introduce it as “the bike Robbie rode in 2004″
I am going to miss you in and around the pack
Although I have a feeling this won’t be the last we see of you
Chapeau Robbie – thanks for the memories,
And making the hairs on my neck stand up.
Thanks to Leigh Holmes for buying full kit and then proceeding to get it in between some of my favorite riders, Russell and Dean Downing. Ever since I saw Russell kill a bunch of Pro Tour riders going up St Pats hill in Cork I have had nothing but respect. On one of the worst days I have seen to race in, and on a day when thousands turned out to see Lance Armstrong (who climbed off at the bottom of the hill), they got to see Russ survive a succession of attacks from HTC to take a massive result. Cheers Leigh – the socks are in the post.
… is my tip for winning the Giro (Scarponi the guy in pink, not the pooch). I watched him in person “testing his legs” at Liege-Bastogne-Liege going up La Redoute, and he was definitely holding something back. Or, he was just very dis-interested and a bit cold. He comes out better and better every year, and last years performance should have given him the confidence to go for the top step. Also, now supported by a bigger and better team as a true leader he will be fresher when he hits the very vertical last week. The Tifosi who love him will probably give him an extra few watts and a little push up the climbs as well. This is all what I am telling myself because he is leading my fantasy Giro team. This post may well of course have completely jinxed him.
Last week I went back to the races in the Ardennes as a fan. No passes and no privileges, just someone else trying to get a look at the pros, the bikes and to soak up the atmosphere. The ambient story around a race and how it changes from country-to-country is something I was hoping to capture. The more races you attend, a cadence and pattern emerges that seems to be present in all of them no matter where you are, although each will present its own unique personality. Amstel, the Dutch classic, was organized chaos from the start village to the finish. Flèche Wallonne is one of those races that make cycling such a unique sport; how we can get so much access to the stars stuns me. It is the working class race of the Ardennes, the start village sandwiched between a factory and a football stadium. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is ASO getting reading for the Tour. Planned, controlled and everyone kept at arm’s length, at least at the start village. This didn’t seem to stop the riders reaching out to fans, and the course—well that is a whole other story. I pulled a selection of the shots that I got here, but I have enough that I hope to do a book, so that is the plan. Not sure how long it will take, but it is now in the works. More to come on that; in the meantime I would love to hear what you think of the shots.
That bottom right-hand corner of Belgium has a very unique feel, very different to the rest of the country. Let me dispel any myths that Belgium is flat, bar a few bergs. The climbs of the Ardennes are hard enough to test the legs of any of the mountain goats, and the races are long and hard enough to make most race strategies go out the window. In these races, the strongest usually win—they basically wear you down. Their personality carved out of being sandwiched between France, Luxembourg and Belgium has created some not so subtle cycling rivalries. This was demonstrated best when the Nissan/Trek car containing Bruyneel got “bathed” in beer coming up La Redoute, and one drunk young fan removed a nice deep section Bontrager wheel from the roof of the car as a souvenir. Gilbert was born on La Redoute, so the local support is somewhat opinionated, especially about the two brothers from just over the border in Luxembourg.
The weather, not usually a cyclist’s friend in the Ardennes, adds a whole other dimension to riding there. Usually when the drive into a region is marked by a large number of wind turbines, it is a pretty good pointer as to what conditions to expect. This year the low temperatures added to the mix. Standing on La Redoute, the weather was changing so much I started to fear the race would get cut short. We ran into Chris Horner in Brussels airport, on his way back for the Tour of California, who described L-B-L as one of his most epic days on a bike. He abandoned with hands so frozen he couldn’t use his brakes and shifters. Chris Horner is no soft lad. Planning for the weather there is near to impossible. The starts were marked by riders signing on in the sun, then rushing back to the buses to get shells and layers before the neutral rollout. In the space of one 15-minute section at Flèche Wallonne we saw sun – rain – hail – sun. There were numerous stories of riders stranded in the hail too far from team cars on the narrow roads to get shells to cover up, leaving them wet, cold and hungry on some of the hardest parcours in Europe. The site of a cold and bonking Nibali seizing up in the last KMs of L-B-L was hard to watch.
No matter how many times I see Pro riders I am always amazed at how skinny they are. Standing in a cold and damp Markt Square in Maastricht at the start of Amstel Gold, it doesn’t take much to imagine how illness and chest infections can take hold. The young riders on the teams, this maybe their first “big” race, look scared and fiddle with their bikes much to the annoyance of their mechanics. Others (the workers) look resigned to the 265 km of pain that lies ahead. The favorites don’t reveal themselves to the last minute, and bustle their way up to sign-on with their game-faces on (apart from Chris Horner who was riding around smiling and saying hello to everyone, the gent that he is).
There were a few nice moments before the off. Seeing Thomas Dekker welcomed back amongst the Dutch fans, a young guy on a second chance and looking glad to have it. Seeing how Oscar Freire, after leaving Rabobank, is still held in the hearts of the Dutch fans. It is hard to stop cheering for a guy after he’s been doing it for 8 years, and this was before he launched himself off the front in the finale in what is probably his last time up the Cauberg. And lastly, how a shiny new bike never gets old. A Pro build with a slammed stem just looks good. Ten of them lined up against each other, looks even better.
It has been talked about before how accessible the stars of this sport are. Maybe more surprising is how accessible the tools of the trade are. Bikes are touched, lifted and left exposed until the riders throw their leg over. Yesterday we drove around a lot of the Flèche and Liege courses, my first time in this part of the racing world. The Ardennes are hilly, very hilly, and the wind blows a lot, and seems to always be in your face. One down, two to go. I am going to have a lot of photo editing to do….
It is 7 days and counting before we head to Belgium for the Ardennes week. Watching racing, photographing racing, and drinking beer while watching racing is how I plan on spending my days. As you can see despite the lack of bike, racing still features quite highly. In honor of returning to this corner of the world where cycling rules, I dusted off my “Fabulous Exploits Of Eddy Merckx” comic book. It basically chronicles Eddy’s palmares and career in wonderfully illustrated watercolors, along with some interesting commentary.
Luis Ocaña, a rider more famous for crashing out of yellow in the 1971 Tour, after he crashed into the back of Merckx and while lying trapped under his bike had a fast approaching Joop Zoetemelk ram into him. The incident was famous because it took him out of yellow and the race, giving it to Merckx, who refused to wear yellow the next day. The picture above shows just how unfair the Tour was to him. He had four abandons, but this one was probably the worst. He was so incapacitated from the crash and streaming in blood, that two team mates had to hold him up on his bike and push and pull him to the finish. All in the hope he could start the next day, which unfortunately he didn’t.