The Forgotten Races – Part 1

In this series, I’ll briefly recall few historical races which have disappeared from the pro cycling calendar due to lack of resources or interest.

Grand Prix du Midi Libre

As is well known, the race was first organized in 1949 by the regional newspaper Midi Libre. It was viewed as a preparation race for the Tour and was traditionally organized in May, before the bigger Critérium du Dauphiné. The relatively sunny climes of the southern France used to attract a strong field, unsurprisingly packed with French grimpeurs. It was a beautiful race which covered the coastal Languedoc-Roussillon region and gave the riders a perfect opportunity to put their legs to an early test.

The race was considered big by the French riders and they usually performed well in it. One of the old pros, Jean-Claude Theillière, recalls his 1966 win with great fondness in the short Rapha video on Massif Central.

Without the backing of a sponsor with deep pockets like ASO, the race gradually disappeared from the calendar because of lack funds. In Sept 2002, the race organizers cited economic difficulties and doping culture of cycling as the reasons to discontinue the race.

The race flickered one last time , when it made an apperance in 2004 as Tour du Languedoc-Roussillon. But when the local council decided to pull the plug on funding, the race was relegated to history books.

Race History Summary
Total editions: 54 (1 void)
Maximum wins: 4 (Jean-René Bernaudeau)
Last winner: Christophe Moreau (2004)
Winners by country: 30 (France), 9 (Italy), 6 (Spain), 4 (Belgium)

Associated book: Grand Prix du Midi Libre.

Start of a new season with Tour Down Under

Finally the pro-cycling season is upon us. After an enduring and very chilly winter of Northern Hemisphere, cycling makes it’s return in 2012 with Santos Tour Down Under. The race which started in 1999 holds an important place in the World Tour calendar, elite cycling blogger Cyclingtips has already emphasized the importance of the race for the spring classics. The week long event also helps the riders to get some good miles in the warm weather of Adelaide. I have special memories of following TDU. I started following pro-cycling in full-blown mode in 2011 and this race was my first of the calendar. As I was a noob at that time, my stream-hunting skills were not really impressive and I ended up following the whole race via audio commentary. It was like the good old days when people used to follow football, cricket and in fact cycling races on radio. I would yearn for Phil Liggett to chip in his mundane observations between the excellent running Aussie commentary. It was a surreal experience which endeared professional road racing to my romantic self.

This year I will miss the race altogether due to my work commitments but hope to find the daily highlights at the end of the day. TDU12 will be special to the Australian public because of GreendEdge’s participation. I hope Matty Goss can get the Aussie team their first World Tour points. With every team boasting an ace sprinter in their rank, each stage will be hard fought. The sight of Greipel, Pettachi, Renshaw, Goss battling out at the finish line will be intimidating. One person who will be hell bent on proving his sprint credentials is Mark Renshaw. In his new role at Rabobank, the previous star leadout man will be trying to show to the Australian public and his team that he could finish the job as well. There’s no doubt about Mark’s ability and it’s just a matter of time before he will start producing results but I reckon that TDU will not be the place. I’m putting down my money on Edwald Boassen Hagen to win the golden jersey and my outside bet is Matthew Harley Goss. TDU marks the beginning of a new season and let’s hope that it’s even better than the last.

State of Indian cycling

Cycling scene in India has been on the up for the last 2-3 years. Although bicycle is the biggest means of transport in India, racing a bike has never caught on with the cricket-mad nation. Bicycle has always been considered a poor man’s possession and cyclists are often looked down upon in the country which is infatuated with bigger and faster motor-driven vehicles. One couldn’t blame the people who are successfully lured and convinced by big motorbike and car companies to part with their new found wealth. But in an increasingly global world, the influence of bike racing is gradually permeating the culture. With the Indian economy recording decent economic growth, more and more number of Indians are finding their way back to the country from Eruope and USA. Along with many different experiences, they bring the Western (mainly European) enthusiasm and penchant for cycling. One of the outcome of the emerging scene is the success story of first Indian UCI Continental team KYNKYNY Wheelsport from Bangalore. The team was recently given an elaborate coverage on CyclingIQ.

Helped by it’s relatively cooler temperatures, undulating terrain and young populace, Bangalore has emerged as the cycling hub of India. The city boasts of a Decathlon store, specialized cycle stores like BumsOnTheSaddle, Wheelsports which has in return whipped the passion for cycling in the young working class. The city now also has a vibrant racing calendar Bangalore Bicycle Championship (BBCh) which consists of a bevy of races like downhill, cross and road challenges. Organizers of the championship, people behind the store BumsOnTheSaddle, are now even consulting an ex-Aussie racer to design the racing calendar for 2012. All in all it bodes well for the local cycling scene but you may ask questions about the state of cycling in other parts of the country.

Apart from the races in Bangalore, other premier events on the Indian calendar are Tour of Nilgiris, a paying tour, MTB Himachal, an international week long race across the rugged mountains of Himachal and Mumbai Cyclothon which is a UCI 1.2 event raced over two legs, Mumbai and Nashik. Given the tropical climate and typical Indian mindset, cycling hasn’t been able to grow as rapidly as other sports. Cycling Federation of India has been active in the last few years but the efforts have born minimal fruits. There’s now an official road cycling calendar for the CFI registered athletes and it comprises of only seven races over varied parcours but none more than 150K which makes it difficult for the national riders to step up to the professional level.

Bangalore has been a success story for cycling in India, a nation where people hardly follow any sport other than cricket. But in spite of all the odds, there have been success stories like KYNKYNY Wheelsport cycling team and people like Kailas Patil who finished Paris-Brest-Paris this year. Cycling is a sport where Indians have no history of excellence and as a result public support and sponsorship is hard to come by. But with the burgeoning economy and increasingly Western outlook, the attitudes are changing. If the sport has to become a hit in the country, cycling enthusiasts will have to draw inspiration and enthusiasm from Bangalore to develop the local scene which will ultimately be a stepping stone for launching bigger things in cycling.

Looking forward – Part 3

(continued from Looking forward – Part 2)

The unabated sewer of bad news flushes in it’s full might as new misery is piled on pro cycling every month. This season has already seen the demise of world number one cycling team HTC-Highroad and the untimely passage of Leopard-Trek after completing only one year as an individual brand. If that wasn’t enough, in the last few days professional cycling has been punched in the guts by the news of suiqshy-squashy Geox pulling out of their commitment with Team Geox managed by Mauro Gianetti. Barely few days after sealing the deal with 2011 Vuelta a Espana winner Juan Jose Cobo, Gianetti was let known of the fact that he’s utterly disliked by Geox management. The transfer market officially closed on October 20 and this only means that more unemployed riders have been pushed on the street to search for a new team.

There are already many high profile controversies and scandals which are awaiting justice and this new development throws another spanner in the ill-maintained machinery of professional cycling. November 20 will hopefully put an end to the well done Clenbutador saga. In the wake of recent CAS rulings of Clenbutarol cases arising in Mexico, it appears that Contador has been thrown a lifeline. People could argue that both cases are nowhere correlated but Bertie’s star-studded legal team is more than capable of inventing the similarities. But before that we will know more about the curious case of Alex Rasmussen, the most unorganized rider in the history of professional cycling (Jeannie Longo, anyone?) He has already been helped by the incompetence of UCI and should be back by April of the next season.

Without taking anything away in terms of seriousness of these decisions, the most important issue is the debate surrounding the role of UCI in sustaining the sport. After launching it’s entrepreneurial effort under the most obvious name of Global Cycling Promotions, UCI officially dived into the business of organizing cycle races in the nooks and crannies of the world. But credit where it’s due, I applaud UCI for their vision to tap into the nouveau riches of the Far East in these troubled economic times. The money earned from these races has been promised to put back into the development of cycling but how it will be done has not been made clear by the UCI. Some of the accounting involved in the operations of GCP will put even a mom and pop store in good light which is the reason people are not ready to believe uncle McQuaid.

Another equally relevant and connected issue is the assessment of the current model of team organization. After the painful examples of HTC-Highroad, Team Leopard and now Geox, UCI should seriously rethink the model if they’re interested in the sustainability of the sport. More accomplished bloggers have expressed their concerns on the matter more eloquently. Jonathan Vaughters has been championing the overhauling of the current system and the recent events will strengthen his case. Although I don’t have much confidence in AIGCP after when they pussyfooted the issue of Tour of Beijing. But when it comes to his own existence, man can be a hard nut. Apart from all the races and checking out how new team lineups workout in 2012, we will be forced to keep a close look at the sustainability of professional cycling which will hang in balance until either UCI or AIGCP commit themselves to the cause.

Looking forward – Part 2

(continued from Looking forward – Part 1)

3. Tour de France: There were many stand out individual performances in this year’s edition of the Grande Boucle, no less than the final TT performance by Cadel “Cuddles” Evans. His magnificent ride on Stage 18 of Col du Galibier to limit his losses was a testament to his determination this year. When Andy attacked, Cadel appeared  to be on the ropes but impressively managed to plough his way back to finish third on the stage. Again on Stage 19 when Contador went for the glory, Cadel had a mechanical at the beginning of a climb but once again he managed to get back into the mix. Everyone knows that Cadel is a far better time trialist than Andy but still he had to go out there and deliver on Stage 20. He did exactly what was asked of him and almost ended up winning the stage. His doggedness and the full support of his team delivered the maillot jaune for the man.

The fight for the Green jersey was no less this time. Last year, despite winning 5 stages Mark Cavendish was pipped in the race for Green jersey by the wily campaigner Alessandro Pettachi. But this year with only one intermediate sprint available on each stage, the points system was modified to suit the best sprinter in the race to win the classification. Cavendish was provided a stiff competition by cunning tactician JJ Rojas and tenacious Philippe Gilbert. But Cav started the Tour with the goal of winning the Green jersey and put all his energy in it. He did it in some fashion by winning third consecutive time on the Champs-Elysses along with 5 stages wins. He deserved the “sprinters/points” jersey and delivered under some pressure cooker situations which is the mark of a true champion.

4. Vuelta a Espana: This year’s Tour was particularly marred by numerous crashes taking out many a GC contenders. The biggest name to crash out was Bradley Wiggins who was touted as a sure podium finisher by his team manager Dave Brailsford. But due to a crash on Stage 7 of the Tour, Wiggo’s GC ambitions were nipped in the bud. He vowed to make a grand comeback in the Vuelta and promised to win the Red jersey. Although Team Sky started impressively but as the race progressed it became clear that instead of Wiggins, his super domestique Chris Froome was stronger than him on the climbs. May be it was the heat which got Wiggo but Froome was conspicuously better than him. Stage 15 of Angliru proved to be the Londoner’s undoing when he cracked on the 23% sections and it was Froome who literally towed him up the mountain. Next up Stage 17 was the best climbing duel I’ve seen since 2010 slugfest between Contador and Andy. Froome had race leader Juan Jose Cobo teetering on the edge to claim a fabulous victory but Cobo did enough to retain the GC lead. I think Team Sky would rue their strategy and the faith put in the climbing prowess of Wiggins because if they had provided full support to Chris Froome, he would have won them their first Grand Tour. Nevertheless, it was an outstanding performance by Froome and he is marked for great things in the near future.

5. World Championship: Well what can you say about the phenomenon that are Mark Cavendish and Tony Martin. Before coming to the UCI Road World Championship, Tony had won TT at the Tour, Vuelta, Critérium du Dauphiné and Paris-Nice. With six time trial victories and only one loss (2nd place in national TT championship), Tony Martin was the favorite to win the colored hoops. He annihilated the field to win the Road World Championship Elite Men’s Time Trial with more than a minute over second placed Bradley Wiggins. He then went on to win the inaugral Tour of Beijing and Chrono des Nations to cap a wonderful year. Equally magnificent and imposing were Mark Cavendish and his Team GB in their victory of the Men’s Road Race where they controlled the race from the start like a 6 hour TTT. Team GB delivered Cav perfectly towards the end and the Manx Missile completed the job. It was a superb victory for Cav who this year has won almost everything available for a great sprinter.

6. Tragedies: It has been an enduring season for the peloton. We lost Wouter Weylandt (Leopard-Trek) in a high speed crash during Giro d’Italia and Xavier Tondo (Movistar) was found dead after a freak accident before leaving for a training ride. Some time around these sad news, a promising young Aussie rider also succumbed to his wounds suffered during a high speed collision. As if it was not enough, Mauricio Soler suffered skull fracture when he collided with a fan during Tour de Suisse. Thankfully, he lives to see another day and is now on a slow path of rehabilitation towards full health. Every cycling fan has been deeply moved by these tragedies and I will never forget 2011 because it took away people who loved to ride their bikes.

(to be continued…)

Looking forward – Part 1

With the Giro di Lombardia (Il Lombardia) wrapped on Saturday, the curtains have fallen on the current road racing season. It’s now time to keep track of the ins and outs from the current peloton and anxiously wait for the verdict of the Contador’s case . But before we engross ourselves in the speculations let’s take a step back to reminisce the memorable moments of 2011 season. It was my first year of following professional cycling and the sleepless nights spent watching YouTube videos already had me hooked to the sport. I followed Tour Down Under on audio, watched Middle East Tours and changed my daily schedule to catch the finish of almost every race whose streaming was available online. There were many great moments to celebrate and people will differ in their choice of the high points of the season but for me the following achievements were outstanding.

1. Paris-Roubaix: Before heading home to watch the race, I had met a Belgian girl in a cafe and we ended up chatting up about cycling. We discussed the movie, A Sunday in Hell and the conversation whipped up a perfect appetite for the race. This year, the most nerve-jangling of all Classics, was won by Johan Vansummeren of Garmin-Cervelo. The team started out with an aim to put Thor in a good position for the win but given the very nature of the race, the situation didn’t turn out to be favorable for the World Champion. Vaughters then played his final card and asked Johan, who was ahead in the leading bunch, to go all out for the victory. With a hungry Spartacus on his trail, Johan rode out of his skin on a slowly leaking rear tyre to win the race in the Roubaix velodrome. For me the race was a perfect example of teamwork and astute strategy. The finish left an indelible impression on me and since then I’ve started to follow every single cycle race and spend numerous hours watching live streaming of the unknown races and analysing their highlights available on YouTube.

2. Ardennes Classics: Well what can you say about Philippe, the man likes to win and to win in style. PhilGil completed a grand sweep of all the Ardennes races in 2011. He fired up his engine with a win at Montepaschi Strade Bianche where I thought Cancellara will vanquish his ghosts. I was again proved wrong by Philippe when I thought he will take it easy at Brabantse Pijl instead he displayed his typical panache and grabbed the win. After that it all became a Philippe Gilbert show. Even with teams closely marking him, he won three big Classics in the span of a week to complete the slam. One could argue that Liege-Bastogne-Liege was gifted to him by some dodgy decision making from FrAndy but on close observation we can find that they were intimated by Philippe’s aura. It was a phenomenal performance from a single rider and every race was won in style.

(to be continued…)